Chained Shadows: Chapter 1

  • The Théâtre Provincial was a Breton theatre, erected after the style of Second Era Breton architecture, and it only showed Breton plays. Odd choices considering it had been built in Anvil. It had gone out of business in six months.


    Among his many failings, the playwright behind the entire project had also decided to place the theatre between the market district and the entertainment district on a street five blocks away from any main roads. Real estate brokers didn’t exactly fight over the spot after the theatre shut down. For almost twelve years it had sat unattended, gathering dust and mould.


    ‘Not much to look at, is it?’ Baker scoffed, bloodred Dunmeri eyes scanning the narrow streets as they approached. She was young for an elf, barely thirty, the ninth daughter of some minor house. Despite her status - and even though her voice still carried traces of a spoilt noblewoman’s petulance - she wore her grimy ruffian’s coat like a second skin, and the sabre sheathed at her side was a plain one with a simple wooden hilt.


    ‘No… but it’s large,’ Parrish growled, claws slowly protruding from his fingertips as his tail flicked dangerously. His grubby leather tunic was sleeveless, showing off his thick forearms. The machete on his hip was an even cruder weapon than Baker’s sabre, though no less effective for it. ‘Very large. Large enough to hide one hundred, one thousand without making it seem as if the building was occupied. How many have they got in there, the savages…?’


    ‘Savages,’ Lash repeated, his jaw working as he chewed on the word like cud, as if he was pondering its true meaning. Then he snorted, grimacing. The motion made the grotesque burn on his left cheek even more prominent, making him look older than he really was. He was quite a bit bigger than his companions - unsurprising considering the size of most Orcs - and dressed in a rugged leather coat with wide sleeves, a white shirt underneath covering his wide chest, hiding the layers of rippling muscle. Under the coat was a belt and from it hung a chain with shackles on each end, rattling with his every step.


    ‘Very profound, runt. I think they don’t know what ya mean. Well, even I don’t know what ya meant by that,’ a voice replied to him and the Orc glanced at his companions, making sure they hadn’t heard it. ‘Don’t worry, matey, not bein’ reckless today. Just ya and me, like a husband and wife. Don’t want to know who the wifey is here, though…’


    The trio stopped in front of the Provincial, just short of crossing the threshold. The theatre was indeed quite big, a single-story building large enough to accommodate an audience of ten thousand. The golden paint on the walls had long faded, and the wood on the doors had begun to rot. They sagged in their frames like fat on an old woman.


    ‘No guards?’ Baker cocked an eyebrow. ‘Surely-’


    ‘Do not be foolish,’ Parrish snarled. ‘This one smells them; this one hears them. Seven just behind the door. At least one has a crossbow.’


    ‘All right,’ Baker said slowly. ‘No sudden movements.’


    They pushed their way into the lobby. The seven guards that Parrish had noticed were standing spread out across the reception area, each armoured in iron and steel and all clutching weapons. Axes and maces and swords, and two crossbows levelled squarely at the three.


    Baker did the talking - she always did. ‘Just here for the auction.’


    The guards relaxed quickly enough. Their rough garb told the whole story; their filthy cloaks and filthier hands the uniform of resellers - glorified thugs with only enough gold to buy low-end goods, hoping to turn a profit on street corners peddling off a little orphan girl or a little orphan boy or some skooma-giddy addict for two or three months until they broke. As one of the guards stepped forward, the disdain was clear in both his eyes and his voice.


    ‘Arms to the side,’ the Redguard said lazily as he searched them. ‘No weapons. Put them in the locker over there and you’ll be allowed to collect them on your way out.’


    Baker and Parrish surrendered their blades, but when the guard reached the Orc, he placed a possessive hand over his chains. ‘These stay,’ he muttered.


    ‘Nice. Just growl and they’ll piss their pants. As it should be. Just for the love of Dibella’s sweet milk, don’t talk too much. Or at all. Don’t want to overdo it, do we? Simply growl and pretend y’are an ugly, nasty, angry Orc. Hah! Shouldn’t be much trouble, eh?’


    The Redguard blinked as he looked down at the shackles and the single collar attached to the chains. His lips twitched. ‘Only enough money for one, eh? Fine,’ he sneered, and with a flick of his hand cleared them of the search. ‘Go on in.’


    The three proceeded through the lobby and into the theatre. It was not as large an affair as Parrish had painted it, though there was still a substantial number of attendees. All were seated on the first ten rows. Baker found an empty bench on the second row and beckoned to her fellows.


    ‘A dozen nobles from the looks of it, twenty or so middlemen - hey, that one has a nice suit, always wanted a fancy suit like that - and at least thirty resellers, all dirtier tuskers than we are. Oh, and let’s not forget the couple dozen armed guards.’


    The Orc jerked his head, irritated. Ha bared his tusks, releasing a growl and sitting down heavily.


    Baker and Parrish exchanged a look, then sat down beside him.


    ‘And now they’re thinkin’ ‘Maybe it hadn’ been the best idea bringin’ this nutjob along for a reconn- reconnai-’ what do they call it again? Hmm, tusk it. Just don’t do anything stupid, yeah?’


    The Orc grunted, jerking his head again, as if an annoying mosquito was buzzing around his ear.


    Baker leant in, a concerned expression on her face. ‘Lash,’ she murmured. ‘You doing okay?’


    Another grunt.


    ‘All right,’ Baker said quietly. ‘I know there’s things you like to keep to yourself, so just - don’t do anything stupid, yeah?’




    The lighting inside was dim, and the curtains were closed. Shafts of early afternoon sunlight came streaming in from the gaps, illuminating floating motes of dust. The stage was lit with an array of lanterns and torches, creating a stark contrast between the brightness lighting the auctioneer’s lectern and the darkness of the rest of the theatre, drawing the audience’s attention to the former.


    So no one noticed how the indistinct dimness of the theatre thickened and rolled around the entire room as a dark, subtle wave slipped backstage. And no one noticed that Lash’s shadow was gone. It didn’t take long, only a few breaths’ worth of seconds, and then the shadow slipped back, adhering to Lash’s form, where it belonged.


    ‘Over eighty heads. All in chains. That’s a lot more than your Twin Lamp maties expected, isn’t it?’


    ‘Almost hundred slaves,’ Lash said dully, in a voice so low only Parrish could have heard. ‘Held backstage.’


    Parrish frowned, then leant in and repeated it into Baker’s ear. Baker’s eyes widened slightly. That was far too many for one cell to handle. ‘What else?’ she whispered.


    ‘This one sees Dunmer among the middlemen and other resellers,’ Parrish said, his eyes a pair of slits. ‘The one on the left, front row. House Dres emblem on his shoulder. Anyone you’ve… worked with?’


    Lash narrowed his eyes, looking at the Dunmer. There was a part of him that hoped it was someone familiar, maybe one of those who’d dragged him from his home, or maybe from one of the plantations where he’d been forced to work. But to his disappointment - and to his companions’ relief - he didn’t recognize the Dunmer. He shook his head.


    As the afternoon dragged on, more and more guests arrived. Mostly nobility who likely thought they were being fashionably late. Their expensive perfume wafted into the air, combining with the sweat and grime on the resellers’ clothes. Parrish and Baker wrinkled their noses, but Lash simply sat there, staring at the stage as he waited, knuckles whitening. Dres slave overseers and polished nobles were often found together, and the stink of both parties made for a unique stench that dragged him all the way back to the nightmare of Morrowind.


    ‘Posh snobs, each and every one of them,’ the voice snorted with disdain. ‘Thinkin’ themselves superior to everyone else, 'cause what other kind of person could take someone else’s freedom, eh? It’s the mindset ya know, the straightforward thoughts that anyone who is a slave is not a person anymore, and thus those who own them think themselves vastly superior.’


    Or it’s simply that they don’t care about lives of anyone but their own, Lash thought, and glanced at his shadow for a moment. I wonder if that sounds familiar, Shade. There was no reply and he wasn’t expecting one - his thoughts were his own after all, not even the shadow could read them.


    Before his mind could lapse any further, he caught snippets of a conversation between a noble and one of the armed bruisers patrolling the theatre.


    ‘...absurd that we’re forced to come to this derelict wreck of all places,’ the noble was complaining. ‘Why, just last year, old Walton - gods rest his soul - held the most delightful basement bash at his mansion to go along with the main event.’


    ‘We have to be more careful these days, sir,’ the bruiser replied. ‘What with everything that’s happened. An entire family, the family, put out of business overnight... and one of the most notorious slavers the city’s ever seen, gone, vanished - just like that.’


    Baker frowned as she processed the new information. ‘All this just proves that we’ve been focusing too much on Morrowind alone,’ she said under her breath. ‘Even with the smallest outfits, slavery is an international affair.’


    Before Parrish could reply, the auctioneer walked onstage, clearing his throat. The hubbub of small talk died down, and all eyes focused on the Dunmer with the merry voice.


    ‘Gooooooood afternoon ladies and gentlemen!’ the Dunmer cried boisterously, stretching out the word ‘good’ until he was almost out of breath and then spitting out the remainder of the sentence like a farmer chewing weed. ‘Welcome to the sixteenth annual Nisus Walton Chattel Auction!’


    Lash tried not to bare his tusks, and Baker muttered disgustedly under her breath, ‘This has been going on for sixteen years?’


    Right under the Empire’s nose. What good are laws when the ones in charge fail to uphold them?


    ‘Are ya thinkin’ about how Empire bungled this up? Just guessin’ yer thoughts. I think they were quite busy with other things. Or will be busy soon.’


    ‘Now, dear Mister Walton may have departed this world, but we of his estate have taken it upon ourselves to carry on his tradition,’ the auctioneer continued, his face lighting up as he swept out his arms. ‘And although a certain few participating groups will not be joining us this year, our selection of goods has never been finer! So it is that today we present over eighty young and healthy specimens for your inspection.’


    Parrish’s eyes flicked over to Lash for a brief moment. ‘How do you manage that?’ the Khajiit mused.


    ‘Heh heh heh. Wouldn’t ya like to know.’


    The cheap ones were brought out first, chained together in fives. The first round consisted of a sixteen-year-old Argonian girl, a seventeen-year-old Nord boy, a twenty-two-year-old Imperial male, a nineteen-year-old Bosmer female, and a thirty-one-year-old Breton male. The auctioneer rattled off their ages, and even though he had introduced the slaves as healthy, it was obvious that these were not. The Argonian and Nord were in an extreme state of starvation - probably sold off by their parents. The Bosmer had skooma rash around her nose and lips and was shaking in her chains. The Breton was missing his arm, and one of his legs was a peg. Probably a cripple who had sold himself.


    The first round of bidding went quickly, no more than three bids for each slave. The Imperial and the Breton went to a noblewoman with a sadistic gleam in her eye. As the slavers clapped a new set of shackles onto their legs, the Imperial clasped his hands together and closed his eyes, praying in silence. The Argonian, Nord and Bosmer went to three different resellers. They changed hands quickly, their owners fitting them with new chains by the neck and leading them off to a corner, where they waited with the other two sold slaves. The teenagers moved slowly, slouched over, their eyes deadening with each tug of their new collars. They knew full well what fate awaited them.


    A single pair of eyes followed them on their way off the stage.


    ‘Lash,’ Baker said, a warning note in her voice. ‘Priorities.’


    Making a guttural noise with the back of his throat, the Orc forced himself to turn his gaze back towards the stage.


    The second and third rounds featured healthy but unattractive adults. Most of the resellers sat back, uninterested. These would take time to break, hardly worth the trouble for the quick profit they wanted.


    It was quite the upset when eight of the ten slaves in those rounds went to a single individual, clad in black robes smelling of embalming fluid. One slave tried to run as the exchange was made, but he had barely taken three steps before his new mistress flourished with one hand and a prison of ice encased his ankles.


    ‘Lady Genen,’ the auctioneer said reproachfully. ‘We must ask, again, that you refrain from using your magicks while the auction is still-’


    ‘Yes, yes,’ the robed figure hissed, her face obscured under a heavy hood. The runaway slave was dragged back towards her group, and her new goods joined the group of purchased slaves downstage, all eight of them now chained together by their hands and feet.


    The first of the two remaining slaves was an obese woman who wouldn’t stop sniffling. She went to a reseller after two bids, wetting herself as the auctioneer brought the hammer crashing down into the gavel. The Dunmer handed her off without bothering to hide his revulsion. ‘Still,’ he said in a stage whisper, winking at his audience. ‘I’m sure there’s a market for women like this somewhere.’ Laughter filled the theatre.


    The last slave was a young man with his face pockmarked from childhood pox, and he was purchased at the starting price by the noble who had been waxing nostalgic about Nisus Walton earlier. ‘I feel like doing some hunting over the weekend,’ the noble grinned, settling down in his seat as he squinted at his new property.


    The fourth round came on stage and Lash froze.




    Not the teenagers from earlier, either. Children. The oldest in that group of five - that group chained together just as the adults had been, that group struggling just to move with their chains - the oldest of them was an eleven-year-old Redguard boy.


    ‘Oh, mothertusker.’


    Lash felt his temples begin to pound, and a heat began to build in his limbs. An Orc’s heat, a warrior’s heat, a heat that demanded motion, demanded violence.


    ‘Feast your eyes on these young lads and tiny maidens!’ the auctioneer yelled gleefully, his gestures more flamboyant than ever. ‘Innocent eyes! Soft puppy fat! Bodies pure and undefiled - for now!’ And the audience laughed again. ‘Two Redguard boys, eleven and eight years old! Smooth ebony skin, strong teeth - but don’t worry, not so strong that you can’t knock them out if you want to get proper use out of their mouths! One Breton girl, nine years old! Look at her - blonde locks, and already there’s a hint of a woman’s… décolletage, as they say in High Rock! One Imperial girl, six years old! Isn’t this the most adorable little thing you’ve ever seen in your life? One Khajiit boy, eight years old - so small, so furry, so fluffy!’


    ‘Don’t let it get to ya, runt! Think this through, yeah? This is shit, a big stinkin’ storm of shit, but if ya try to clean it up now all the slaves that come after these ones will be out of our reach.’


    ‘Most of these ones are going to die,’ Lash growled from the corner of his mouth, barely holding his emotions in check. ‘Children. These are children.’


    ‘I hate it as much as you do, Lash, but if we want to stop this operation for good we have to look the other way this time,’ Baker leaned over, grabbing Lash’s tightly clenched fist.


    The six-year-old began to cry in response to the auctioneer’s booming voice. The girl chained next to her tried to reach around and hug her, to comfort her in some way, but the chains brought the rest of the children in the group tumbling together and they fell into a pile, wailing in pain, drawing another bout of laughter from the attendees.


    ‘Oh, this is why I love my job,’ the Dunmer wheezed alongside his audience, wiping a tear from his eye. ‘All right, my darlings - up, up... on your feet now, on your feet...’


    ‘Hey. Hey. HEY. Sit down - sit the tusk down right now.’


    Lash did not hear the voice. Blood was thundering through his skull and every single muscle of his body was a taut spring ready to-


    ‘Lash,’ Baker said, standing up as well as eyes began to turn. ‘Lash - Grulmar! Calm down, please, I’m begging you!’


    Air left the Orc’s nostrils in a slow, ear-grinding hhnnnnrrrrrr as Parrish and Baker forced him down, each gripping one of his shoulders.


    ‘Apologies,’ Parrish said to a middleman sitting nearby, looking quite alarmed. ‘Our friend here gets very excited when he sees children.’


    ‘Grin. I don’t care how little ya feel like smilin’ right now, just do it.’


    Lash drew his lips back, revealing not just his tusks but the full two rows of his jagged teeth.


    The middleman turned away, shaking his head. ‘Sick greenskin bastard.’


    Parrish and Baker let out a sigh of relief as the auction went on. The first Redguard boy went on bid, with a starting price of one thousand two hundred septims - more than three times higher than anyone in the first three rounds. The resellers shrank back, disappointed. Some of them left outright. Clearly healthy little boys and girls were beyond most of their budgets.


    The nobles, though, participated with lustful energy.


    ‘One thousand five hundred septims!’


    ‘One thousand nine hundred!’


    Two thousand five hundred!’


    ‘Two thousand five hundred! Going once-’


    ‘Three thousand septims!’


    ‘Three thousand two hundred!’


    ‘Three thousand seven hundred fifty!’


    ‘Four thousand!’


    ‘Four thousand! Going once, going twice-’


    Five thousand!’


    ‘Five thousand septims! Going once, going twice… sold!’


    The auctioneer brought the hammer down, and the auction moved to the first to the second Redguard boy. The two looked at each other helplessly, tears welling in their eyes - their eyes were shaped the same way, slightly flat ovals. Lash realised that they were brothers. Then the slavers dragged the first boy away, moving him downstage, as they had done with any purchase of over three thousand septims. It was simple business, of course. That kind of money was noble money, and the more they stuck around the auction, the more chance there was that they would spend gold and push up the slavers’ profit with competitive bidding, so the ones capable of spending such money needed to be kept around until the end of the auction.


    ‘Starting at one thousand five hundred!’ The second boy was three years younger, so he was three hundred septims more expensive.


    ‘Two thousand five hundred septims!’


    ‘Two thousand five hundred! Going once, going twice-’


    ‘Three thousand!’


    ‘Three thousand five hundred!’


    ‘Three thousand six hundred!’


    ‘Three thousand sep-’


    ‘Five thousand!’


    ‘Five thousand! Going once...’


    ‘Nine thousand!’


    The crowd was in uproar.


    ‘NINE THOUSAND SEPTIMS!’ the auctioneer bellowed happily. ‘Going once, going twice - SOLD! To the man with the exceptional beard!’ He brought the hammer down again, but in his excitement missed the gavel. As it smashed across his lectern the six-year-old began to cry again, but her weeping was soon drowned out by the bids for the Breton girl.


    Lash felt a wetness in his palm and realised he had been clenching his fist so tightly his nails had drawn blood.


    The nobles fell over themselves trying to win the girl, and in the end she was bought for seven thousand five hundred septims by a fat, drooling middle-aged noble who came up to the stage to stroke her hair.


    ‘Now now, sir,’ the auctioneer chuckled. ‘Let’s rein in that lion. Save the touching for when you take her home!’


    Rawr,’ the nobleman grinned, clacking his teeth together at the girl, who shrank from him, eyes wide open in fear.


    The six-year-old recovered her composure just in time to hear the crack of hammer on gavel once more as the auction moved on to the next item - her.


    ‘Three thousand septims!’


    ‘Starting off with a bold move! Three thousand septims, going once, going twice…’


    ‘Three thousand two hundred!’


    ‘Three thousand three hundred!’


    ‘Three thousand eight hundred!’


    ‘Three thou-’


    ‘Four thousand!’


    ‘Four thousand! Going once-’


    ‘Five thousand septims,’ Lash said.


    ‘What are ya doing? What the tusk are ya doin’? Are ya stupid? Are ya actually this stupid?’


    The voice was absolutely furious, and from the looks of it so was Baker.


    ‘You’ve gone insane!’ Blood was draining from her face. ‘That’s not what our money is for-’


    ‘Save one,’ Lash muttered, gritting his teeth. ‘We can save one.’


    ‘Six thousand septims.’


    ‘Six thousand four hundred.’


    ‘Seven thousand!’ Lash roared.


    ‘Seven thousand! Going once! Going twice!’


    No...’ Baker grew even whiter. ‘We don’t even have that much-’


    ‘Seven thousand five hundred!’


    ‘We’re not here to save them-’ Baker hissed before he could up the bid.


    ‘Yes - we - are,’ he hissed back. ‘Seven-’


    ‘Yet!’ Baker whispered desperately. ‘We’re not here to save them yet. There will be a time and place for that. Just not now, gods, not now. What can we do right now? We would get them all killed if we tried anything - we would get ourselves killed, and then who’s going to help them?’


    ‘Eight thousand!’


    Nine thousand!’


    ‘Nine thousand! Going once, going twice-’


    ‘Ten thousand five hundred!’


    ‘Ten thousand five hundred fifty!’


    ‘Twelve thousand!’


    ‘Twelve thousand! Going once - going twice - SOLD!’


    The girl was sold off to the same fat noble who had bought her older friend. The man was rubbing his hands together, giggling.


    Standing up, Lash spun around grimly and headed for the lobby. Parrish swivelled around to glare at him.


    ‘What now? Where-’


    ‘Need some air,’ he grunted, pushing his way out of the theatre.


    The guard who’d searched him earlier leered at his back as he stormed past. ‘Not having a good day, eh? Maybe next time you’ll bring more money - scum like you aren’t supposed to be able to enjoy the auction anyw-’


    Lash slammed the door shut in his face as he marched outside. He took six consecutive deep breaths, but the air rushing into his lungs into only reinvigorated his heat, reignited the rage.


    ‘Just breathe, yeah? That was close.’


    'What do you care?' Lash barked at his shadow and it twitched under the rage focused on it.


    ‘Honestly? Not much. I couldn’t care less, but I’m stuck with ya. And I’m still not sure what happens to me if ya get killed, so… Don’t. Get. Tuskin’. Killed. Or is that too complicated for ya?’


    ‘How can you not care even a little? Children, for tusk’s sake, they are selling children. Even younger than I had been when they dragged me away. After everything we’ve seen in Morrowind, you still don’t care?’


    ‘Well, ya see, here’s the problem. Morrowind was bad, I’ll admit that, and it was most likely my fault, but I did get ya out of there too. And then ya joined these dumb freedom fighters, instead of looking out for yerself. Maybe if ya did what I told ya I’d be already long gone and ya could live yer life as ya want, but no, ya had to drag me along for this bullshit. So yeah, I still don't give a flyin' Khajiit shit, but since I’m here, I can at least beat some sense into that thick skull of yers.’


    Lash was silent for a moment, mulling those words over and forcing himself not to bare his tusks. ‘Always looking out for yourself. Only for yourself. How is your freedom more valuable than theirs?’


    ‘Y’are assumin’ their enslavement is worse than mine, and that’s where y’are wrong. But even if it wasn’t that way, why should their freedom be more valuable than mine? My freedom is mine and I went far and beyond to gain it-’


    Lash grunted. He was inclined to stomp on the shadow, but the realisation of how ridiculous that would look made him reconsider. ‘And what have you lost in your pursuit of freedom, Shade?’


    ‘Wha- are ya serious? My body, for one, reduced to this… state of being. Though on the other hand... no dreams, no voices. I still call that a win. Sort of. Maybe. Ah well…’


    ‘No voices? That makes one of us,’ Lash shook his head, tired of the conversation. ‘Leave me alone for a second, I need… silence.’


    ‘Whatever floats yer boat, matey,’ Shade mocked and peeled off Lash’s form, slipping back into the auction house.


    Silence. Well, when he said that he didn’t really mean it, because the streets of Anvil were far from silent, but it was still better than having the shadow’s voice buzz incessantly between his ears. They never really understood each other, he and the voice, but for some reason they were stuck together, unable to get rid of each other. So they had to learn how to cooperate. To a degree at least.


    Which meant that it wasn’t always easy.


    He understood the reasoning, why they had to look the other way now. But it felt wrong, so wrong. He felt sick because of it, sick because of himself. Standing idly by when evil was paraded right in front of their eyes… What did that make them? It was all for the greater good, that’s what they kept repeating, but it simply wasn’t right. All the slaves in there… They were going to suffer. Die. And they could prevent it, but they wouldn’t because they wanted a bigger catch.


    No, there was no point arguing here. Greater good, greater good. It was all for the greater good.


    Lash sighed, taking one last deep breath of Anvil’s air, then headed back inside the Provincial.


    The fifth round of the auction began just as he sat down next to Baker. The theatre drapes had been closed, masking the stage, and everyone was restless with expectation, which only helped Lash because no one seemed to notice he wasn’t casting a shadow.


    ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the auctioneer said as the audience shuffled. ‘We have gone through some superb wares so far, but from this point onwards, we shall be dealing in truly fine merchandise. Coming up one by one, I present the remaining newly acquired items - exquisite specimens from every corner of Tamriel!’


    The crowd cheered. Even Baker leant in, genuinely curious.


    ‘First up - behold an exotic beauty like no other!’


    The curtain rose on a petite, trembling elf with milky skin and lustrous raven hair arranged in a soft-swept ponytail, revealing a sinuous neck and a slanted, heart-shaped face. Unlike the other slaves who had come onstage before, this one was dressed in finery. Dainty salon slippers, an Akaviri-style robe of purple silk, wrapped tight around a slender frame, with a slit in the left hip from which a snowy white thigh slid inch by inch until the full leg was visible.


    The audience took a collective breath. Calling such a face pretty would be like calling a thunderclap loud, or a flash of lightning bright. This beauty was the sublime beauty of an Altmer, and it was compounded a hundredfold by youth - the elf looked fifteen, sixteen, a fruit on the cusp of ripening. A pair of moist silver eyes seemed to draw in everyone in the room, Lash included.


    ‘Well, that’s uhm… flowery,’ the shadow chuckled. Lash hadn’t even noticed its return.


    ‘So!’ the auctioneer said, seeming pleased with the reaction the elf had gotten out of the crowd. ‘I believe I don’t need to say anything about this one’s looks. Anyone would agree, I am sure: irresistible. And pale-skinned Altmer are as rare as they come, are they not? Where are you from, my dear?’


    ‘Huh. So the slaves are expected to take part in their own sales pitch once the auction moves to high-end goods. Mark my words, give ‘em a few years and this will turn into a talent show, people singin' and shit.’


    The elf swallowed but managed to speak, in a voice like a softly tinkling bell. ‘C-Chorrol, sir.’


    ‘Chorrol! A sweet northern nymphet! Did you grow up there?’


    ‘N-no, sir, I spent m-my childhood in the Isles…’


    ‘And how old are you?’


    ‘Fifteen, sir…’


    ‘Fifteen! Your childhood’s not nearly over yet! Why, some would say you’re the perfect age!’ The auctioneer shot a loaded look at the attendees, as if to make sure he still had the attention of the nobles who liked them younger. Then, with the air of someone about to make a profound revelation, he left his position behind the lectern and walked over to the elf, who shook in place, not daring to look up.


    ‘Last question, dear - are you a boy or a girl?’


    ‘I-I’m a boy…’ the elf said in a voice tinny with shyness.


    ‘What?’ Baker yelped.


    ‘Ding ding ding!’ Shade erupted in laughter, making Lash wince.


    Pandemonium. Most of the attendees shot forward in their seats with exclamations of incredulity - ‘Eh?’ ‘No.’ ‘You’re joking, right?’ - as the auctioneer turned towards them with his arms outstretched, grinning from ear to pointy ear. The young elf buried his face in his hands, flushing with shame.


    ‘And I can attest to it!’ the auctioneer gloated, slipping one hand between the elf’s legs and moving it back and forth, ignoring his squeaks of surprise and discomfort. ‘There’s definitely something here!’ the Dunmer laughed as he continued fondling, then walked leisurely back to his lectern. ‘Bidding starts at five thousand!’


    The auctioneer’s groping had left the elf standing there biting his lower lip with red cheeks and turned-in legs, and the sight whipped the audience into a frenzy.


    ‘Five thousand f-’


    ‘Six thousand septims!’


    ‘Six th-’




    ‘Nine thousand!’


    ‘Ten thousand!’


    ‘Ten thousand fiv-’


    Thirteen thousand six hundred!’


    ‘Fifteen thousand septims!’


    ‘Fifteen thousand, going once... going twice-’


    Twenty thousand!’


    ‘Twenty-five thousand!’


    The two nobles who had made the bid - an old Breton woman and a younger Imperial man - stood up as they glared at each other and began to make war.


    ‘Twenty-five thousand five hundred-’


    Thirty-five thousand five hundred.’


    ‘Thirty-seven thousand!’


    The Imperial hesitated, sweat beading his brow.


    ‘Thirty-seven thousand… going once going twice-’


    ‘Thirty-seven thousand five hundred…’ the Imperial mumbled, then repeated the bid. ‘Thirty-seven thousand five hundred!’


    Sensing weakness, the Breton smirked and upped her offer. ‘Forty thousand!’


    The Imperial sighed, then, very calmly, said, ‘Forty-eight thousand, five hundred septims.’


    Gaping, the Breton lady sank into her seat.


    Forty-eight thousand five hundred!’ the auctioneer hollered as the crowd went wild. ‘Going once! Going twice! SOOOOOOLD!’


    As the theatre drapes came down again, the elf was led backstage still biting his lip, and he shot a worried look at the man who had just bought him for almost nine times his starting price. The Imperial looked impassive and was checking a slip of paper, grumbling about his assigned budget under his breath - not a noble but a middleman.


    ‘Poor thing,’ Baker sighed. ‘And so cute, too. Let’s hope his new master is at least somewhat benevolent.’


    ‘This one thought,’ Parrish said, his voice low and angry, the sound of his voice almost drowned out completely by the noise the audience was making, ‘that the Twin Lamps were supposed to free slaves, not sit idly by and lament their circumstances. Although this one will agree that she is indeed... quite attractive.’


    ‘We’re here to scout the situation, Parrish,’ Baker corrected, her voice just as low as his. ‘Other cells can do the freeing once we’ve got a handle on what’s really going down in this city. We’re three people, and like what I told Lash over here - what do you think we can do all by ourselves? Get ourselves killed alongside the slaves?’


    ‘We can do plenty if we put our minds and hearts to it,’ Parrish retorted, then subsided as the crowd began to quiet down. ‘But this one understands.’


    ‘I don’t,’ Lash snarled.


    Shifting uneasily, Baker changed the topic. ‘By the way, Parrish, that elf’s a “he”, not a “she”. You saw-’


    ‘No she is not,’ Parrish snorted. ‘This one sees nothing male about her at all.’


    ‘Well, if you’d let me finish - you saw what the auctioneer did… where he touched.’


    ‘So what if she has a cock? This one knows many men who have larger chests than most women, too, and some women have beards and moustaches. How much does one part of the body mean when compared to everything else? The delicate thing who was just onstage lacks the physical strength of a male, looks like a female, behaves like a female, is dressed like a female, possesses the fairer form and weaker vessel of a female, is no doubt taken amongst the pillows and used as a female is meant to be used... this one sees no reason to call it male.’


    Baker scratched her head. ‘You really don’t make any sense sometimes, you know that?’


    ‘Ha, but you only say that because you know this one is right.’


    The curtain rose again and both of them stopped bickering immediately as they stared at the stage.


    A small child was sitting there, his features still unrefined, but obviously Breton. There was a welt across his face showing the mark of an adult’s palm, four fingers splayed out across his cheek. It had been a slap with full force.


    ‘And now presenting-’ the auctioneer began, but the child interrupted him by bursting into tears.


    ‘Mother? Where’s mother? I’m scared!’


    The crowd laughed and jeered even as the boy started sobbing.


    ‘Mother? Mother! Where are you?’


    ‘As you can see, this one is fresh as fresh can be, barely five years old!’ the auctioneer continued without breaking stride. ‘Not found on the streets, either, but collected from the-’


    ‘Mother - Mama,’ the boy shrieked. ‘I want my mama, I want my pa-’


    ‘You want a pa?’ the auctioneer chortled, pointing at the crowd. ‘Well, I’m sure plenty of those fine gentlemen up there would like to be your papa, dear boy!’


    The crowd roared with mirth as the child continued to sob.


    ‘Come now, what’s the matter?’ The Dunmer was fully riled up now, laughing riotously alongside his audience. ‘Are you lonely? Not to worry, not to worry, I know a couple of priests in the Akatosh Chantry… they’ll make sure you’re never lonely again-’


    ‘Ah shit! Lash? Don’t react. Ya hear me? Don’t react!’


    The distant rattling of chains and the lashing of a whip echoed in the back of his mind, getting louder and louder.


    ‘The starting price is-’


    Cries and groans of pain added to the cacophony in his head.


    ‘Don’t even think about it! Do ya hear me? Grulmar!’


    A chorus of pain and desperation rang in his head so loudly his vision turned red and his thoughts vanished in one last defiant scream, leaving behind a void that needed to be filled. Something stepped in to fill it, and he barely noticed he was rising.


    ‘Six thousand? The Orc gentlemen in the second row? Six thousand, going once-’


    Baker and Parrish tried to stop him, drag him back down onto the bench, but they were nothing more than flies to him now. He simply shook them off and pushed away the people on the bench in front of him, stepping over it and heading towards the stage.


    ‘GRULMAR! Ya mothertuskin’ idiot!’


    Enough compromises. This couldn’t stand, not anymore.


    He drew the chain from his belt and over the sound of the rattling he could hear the people around him chuckle, most likely thinking he was just overly excited. It sickened him, sickened him to the marrow of his bones.


    ‘Eight thousand, sir? Please control yourself! Just put your hand up if you want to raise the-’


    The chain sung an angry song as Lash spun it once over his head and swung, the chain links whistling as they parted air. The collar on the chain’s end hit the auctioneer’s ankle with a very loud crack as the bone shattered under the blow. The impact swept the auctioneer off his feet and he screamed, hitting the wooden floor of the stage with a loud thud.


    Lash jumped on the stage, ignoring the frozen silence in the theater, and headed towards the whimpering auctioneer who, just seconds ago, had laughed at the young boy doing the same, and the Orc stomped on the Dunmer’s head. The skull cracked like a melon, and with a disgusting pop a pair of red Dark Elf eyes rolled out of their sockets and bits of brain spilled over the stage.


    The madness began.


    Everyone had been frozen up until now, but once they saw the gruesome mess Lash’s boot had left of the auctioneer’s face, everyone began shouting, rising and stumbling and trampling over each other to get to the exits as quickly as possible, some leaving the slaves they had bought behind, some dragging them with them. The guards shouted something at each other and at the people too, because the crowd was making it impossible for them to reach the stage.


    Lash lifted the crying boy and turned around.


    The thugs on the other side of the theater were loading their crossbows. Parrish was pushing through the crowd towards the stage and Baker was nowhere to be seen.


    ‘Mothertuskin’ idiot! Shitshitshit!’ Shade screamed in fury and frustration in the space between Lash’s ears. ‘Backstage! Run backstage, now! I have the crossbowmen.’ The shadow peeled from Lash and slipped away.


    ‘Fire!’ one of the guards shouted.


    ‘You’ll damage the merchandise!’


    ‘Fuck the merchandise! Shoot!’


    There were three of them, taking aim. And then suddenly a wall of smoke-like darkness lifted in front of them, obscuring their vision. The bolts flew out blind, two of them finding their way into the crowd and one whistling over Lash’s head.


    ‘Backstage, damn it!’ Parrish shouted at Lash when he finally reached the stage and began pushing the Orc towards the curtain. The boy was hanging around his neck, bawling right into his left ear. Lash looked over his shoulder, noticing the wall of shadows disappearing and the guards getting closer to the stage, stepping over trampled people.


    Parrish lifted the curtain and Lash quickly slipped to the other side, the Khajiit right behind him.


    The backstage looked pretty much exactly as he had imagined. Old theater equipment, props and half-rotten costumes, and chained there were the remaining ten slaves yet to go onstage, staring at them with wide eyes. Two guards immediately noticed them and one of them started towards Lash.


    ‘What’s happening out there? Sounds like damn Oblivion breaking loose,’ he started and Parrish walked straight forward to him.


    ‘Crazy Twin Lamps, trying to free the slaves. Quickly, we have to-’ He didn’t finish because the guard was finally close enough and the Khajiit’s hand shot forward, his claws letting out a quiet snick as he ripped the man’s throat open.


    The second guard’s eyes nearly popped out of his head and he raised his sword, his hands trembling like aspen in the wind. Lash bared his tusks and spun the chain with his right hand. One, two, three, spins and then he let it loose. The guard swung his sword in surprise, hitting the chain, but it was a mere distraction. Parrish pounced on him like a leopard on the hunt, his claws raking across the guard’s face as he mauled him. The guard screamed, blind and in agony, and fell to the ground clutching his head.


    Parrish immediately began searching the guard for the keys, ignoring the pained moans filling the room, and when he found the keychain he walked towards the closest slave. It was a Nord male, rugged and dirty, but still strong. ‘Free the others,’ Parrish ordered him, handing him the keys. ‘Anyone willing to fight for their freedom should do so right now!’


    ‘They’re comin’!’ the shadow suddenly returned and screeched like a parrot stuck in Lash’s skull. ‘We have to get out of here, fast. There is an entrance to an abandoned underground tunnel system behind the backstage - probably the way they smuggled the slaves in.’


    Lash ran towards the nearest slave and handed the boy to a Bosmer female. ‘Keep him safe,’ he muttered and then rose his voice. ‘The slavers are coming! Fight for your lives! Those who can’t - run towards the tunnels!’ He lifted his chains from the floor and frowned when he saw people through the gaps in between planks. ‘Parrish! More under the stage!’


    ‘On it!’ the Khajiit replied and Lash was infinitely thankful that the Khajiit was as crazy as he was, staying here and doing the right thing.




    A shout came from the other side of the curtain and suddenly bolts came whistling through the air, leaving holes in the fabric. Lash hit the floor as fast as he could, feeling the bolts flying above him and he could hear people scream in pain as some of the projectiles found their targets.


    The first guard then burst in through the curtain and Lash quickly rose on his feet, wrapping one end of the chain around his left hand and spinning the other in his right. Before the guard could attack a glob of darkness latched onto his face, completely blinding him and Lash shortened the distance with three quick steps, spinning the chain and pummeling his face with the collar on its end as hard as he could. Blood and teeth sprayed across the drapes and the guard fell back through them, disappearing from Lash’s view.


    ‘They’re reloading!’


    ‘Another volley!’ Lash shouted a warning before hitting the ground again. He saw some of the slaves take cover after his warning but some didn’t understand and when the bolts whistled through the curtain again they cut through them like a scythe through wheat.


    But more and more slaves were getting freed from their shackles and Lash could see them running away from the curtain, towards the opposite wall. They were disappearing through a narrow hall, making a run for the tunnels and he was glad that at least some of them would make it out of here. But some were staying, ready to fight, picking up any kind of object that could be used as weapon.


    The guards started going through the curtain, slashing it to bits. Lash got up quickly when a guard appeared right in front of him, swinging his longsword at him. The Orc drew the chain tight between his hands, blocking the sword, and as he stepped closer he sent the guard reeling with a headbutt closely followed by his left fist wrapped up in the chain, which wrecked the man’s face beyond all recognition.


    There was chaos all around him. Screams, more screams, the ringing of metal, steel ripping flesh and crashing bone. People dying. The slaves were untrained and poorly equipped, and their resolve alone wouldn’t keep them from dying under the practiced swings of the guards.




    The shadow’s warning came just in time, Lash sidestepped the attack and in the same motion swung the chain with his right hand at the guard’s torso. The man blocked, stopping one link of the chain with his sword, but all it did was change the direction of the collar attached to the end, which struck him in the ribs. The man folded around the blow and Lash charged him, wrapped the chain around his neck and tugged, breaking his neck.


    ‘Behind you!’


    Lash jumped forward, but it wasn’t fast enough. Sharp burning pain exploded in his back as something grazed him. He turned around, spinning the chain, blindly swinging it over his head in a vertical attack. The guard tried to block with his axe but the chain simply curled around the block yet again and split the man’s skull.


    The Orc groaned, bending backwards and reaching for the sore place on his back. When he looked at his hand it was covered in blood and he grimaced. The warning had probably saved his life, the axe could have split his spine like a dry twig if it hadn’t been for Shade.


    But the guards were pushing the slaves back, more and more passing through the shredded curtain, cutting down anyone that came too close to their steel. The slaves had no chance, but then again this wasn’t about winning. This was about buying the others as much time as possible.


    ‘Stop standin’ around like a saline column for tusk’s sake! Time to vanish!’


    ‘Not yet, not everyone is-’


    ‘Y’are not dyin’ in here, ya idiot! Run for the tunnels, mothertusker!’


    Parrish appeared in Lash’s line of view, almost two dozen slaves following him -  the ones off-stage, already sold. He waved his hand, grinning. ‘This is everyone, crazy Orc! Now we run, we have saved many lives-’


    A bolt whistled through the air and with a loud crack buried itself into the Khajiit’s skull. Parrish’s head snapped to the side and he keeled over. His mouth worked for a few seconds and then he was still, his last grin frozen on his face.


    ‘Parrish - Ridaar, no! Tusk, tusk, tusk-’ Lash hit another guard with his chain and ran towards the Khajiit, kneeling beside him.


    ‘Well… shit. Now ya got the kitty killed. Great job, I’d clap if I had hands. Now let’s get the TUSK OUT OF HERE!’


    The slaves who looked the most physically capable had already gone on ahead or were dying under the slavers' steel, and Lash was left with the weak and the young. He spared one last look at Parrish’s corpse and turned for the tunnels, shouting for the slaves still left backstage to follow.


    The slender elven boy that everyone had mistaken for a girl earlier passed him, gently encouraging the six-year-old girl from the fourth round to just ‘take another step, that’s it, that’s right, you’re doing fine-’


    The stirrup of a crossbow poked through the tattered drapes and Lash could see the guard holding it scowling through the holes and gashes.


    ‘He’s goin’ to-’


    Before either of them could react, the guard squeezed the trigger and the bolt streaked straight towards the elf’s neck, which was barely any thicker than Lash’s wrist. In almost the exact same moment, the elf bowed forward slightly, lowering his head a mere two inches. The bolt whizzed past his nape and buried itself into the wall, quivering.


    ‘Did ya see that? Did ya tuskin’ see that just now?’


    Lash grunted, moving on. ‘Coincidence.’ A crossbow bolt at point-blank range? Nobody was that fast.


    ‘The luckiest of coincidences if I ever saw one.’


    As if to prove him right, the elf turned around, saw the bolt sticking out of the wall and gasped, paling.


    ‘Come on,’ Lash said, giving him an easy push from behind. ‘Time to go.’


    The boy looked at him, silver irises dancing as his eyes watered. He was obviously terrified. To his credit, he pulled himself together quickly enough, picking up the six-year-old with both arms and walking briskly towards the entrance to the tunnels.


    Another guard threw himself at Lash, who leant backwards, dodging the axe-bit hewing at his own neck. He growled in pain as the wound on his back tore. Before the guard could swing the axe a second time Lash threw the chain into his face, distracting him, and as the man grabbed at it Lash stepped forward, his left hand forming a fist and digging into the man’s stomach. The thug doubled over and Lash grabbed him by the throat and crotch, lifting him just enough to throw him at his other opponents.


    ‘We need time!’ Lash growled and his shadow twitched.


    ‘Fine. Just get the tusk out of here already!’


    Lash’s shadow began to expand, slopping across the ground like spilled tar. The light produced by the torches and the lanterns on the walls dimmed, the backstage suddenly drowning in a perpetual murk and the slavers paused, their eyes flickering, their heads turning from one side to another.


    The darkness on the ground rose abruptly, plumes of smoke erupting from it and falling off like a fluid, only to get absorbed by the thick, gaslike form. The shadow was slowly gaining size and depth, building itself from scratch. First came claws of inky black. Then the paws and legs, covered with shadowy fur with tendrils of dark mist constantly forming and falling off. Then a massive torso, with a long thin tail swinging from side to side. Then came the head, with a long muzzle, pointy ears, long, dripping teeth and eyes like two pools of pure malice.


    The slavers found themselves staring at a hound the size of a horse, wrought out of shadows given substance. Someone either very brave or very foolish shot from a crossbow and the bolt passed through it without any resistance.


    Black tentacles then began crawling from the beast, flowing like water over the floor, towards the slavers, who had begun to tremble, beating a slow retreat. The tentacles then lashed forward, connecting with the guards’ shadows, and that was when the hound howled.


    A deafening sound, spreading sheer terror. The slavers reached for their ears, covering them in pain. They screamed and shouted. Some showed their back to the beast and started running for their lives. Some stayed, frozen and stunned.


    And it was exactly the distraction Lash and the slaves needed.


    The Orc quickly darted into the narrow hall, noticing the girlish elf from earlier staring at the shadow hound without blinking. ‘Run!’ Lash shouted, and would have gone through the petrified boy if he hadn’t turned around and started running too. They reached a stairwell spiraling down into the earth and Lash could hear the slaves’ frantic footsteps. He pushed the boy in front of him and took one last look over his shoulder. The slavers were still shocked.


    It wouldn’t take them long to figure out the hound couldn’t do them any physical harm, though. He needed to hurry.


    They reached the bottom, which was a tunnel that in a way reminded him of the Ayleid ruins over Cyrodiil. The walls were made of grey-white marble, its surface smooth and a bit reflective. There was a single torch burning right next to the stairs and the rest of the tunnel was completely dark.


    There were half a dozen slaves down the stairs and when they saw him they looked up, their eyes filled with expectation. Were they waiting for him? Why? Did they really believe he was their best chance?


    He looked to the left, then to the right, but both sides of the tunnel looked the same to him and he had no idea which direction to take. He needed his shadow, he needed directions. Though even if he picked one right now, the shadow shouldn’t have any problems leading them where they needed to go even if they took a bad turn.


    ‘Come on, to the right. Take each other’s hands, stay close to me,’ he ordered them and began pushing them to the right. They stepped into the darkness and immediately slowed down, everyone groping in the dark, trying not to stumble and fall. Lash looked over his shoulder, at the single source of light they were leaving behind, and he considered taking the torch. Then he shook his head. It would only make them an easier target.


    Come one, come on, Shade. Where are you?


    ‘Oh, there ya are,’ the shadow’s voice echoed through his cranium and Lash almost sighed in relief. Almost. He didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of showing him he was glad to have him back. ‘Why are ya draggin’ these tuskers with ya? Ditch them and let’s get out of here. They’ll be a good distraction.’


    ‘Not happening,’ Lash whispered as quietly as he could, hoping the slaves wouldn’t overhear him. ‘We’re taking them with us. Now lead us out of here. And it’s not a discussion.’


    ‘Stupid and an idiot on top of that,’ Shade snorted. ‘Wait, that’s the same thing. Y’are lucky y’are even alive, moron, after what ya pulled here. No, not lucky. The only reason y’are alive is 'cause of me! Want to test my patience even more, hmm?’


    ‘We’re taking them with us.’ Lash was growling now. The closest slave probably heard that but there was no reaction.


    ‘Fine! Damn it! Stubborn piece of tusk… Ya do remind me of someone, ya know?’ A pause, and Lash realized the presence was gone. Just a few seconds later it was back. ‘Take a right on the next intersection, then forward on the one after that and right on the one after that. Right, forward, right, got it? I’ll try to throw off the guards on our tail.’


    Lash nodded, groping forward in the darkness. When he was sure the shadow was gone he allowed himself to sigh. Now that it was over, he was capable of thinking clearly again and… he was scared.


    The responsibility. Who was he to take this on himself? He’d just screwed everything. This was supposed to be a simple recon operation, meant to take in the number of guards, their location, how many slaves there were. Nothing more. And instead of that? Chaos.


    Parrish was dead. Because he had been as stupid as Lash and followed him right into the whirlwind, getting himself killed. Because of Lash.


    Baker was in the wind, probably digging herself as deep a hole as she could.


    Yes, they’d managed to free most of the slaves. But how many had survived? How many had gotten out? And how many would be able to stay free? Most of the slaves that escaped today would be caught soon anyway, either in the tunnels or in the city.


    Of all the questions ringing inside Lash’s skull, one kept rising to the surface.


    Was it worth it?




2 Comments   |   The Long-Chapper and 2 others like this.
  • Delta
    Delta   ·  October 31, 2018
    Actually took me awhile before I realised the POV was on Lash.
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  October 22, 2018
    Very good descriptions, you could almost smell the atmosphere in addition to hearing it and seeing it. hehehe Grulmar is making mischief again.