“How is it that you are able to kill a man without a second thought?” I ask.
“Why do you insist on speaking to me?” she answers.
She’s forcing me to take point, and the sound of my own voice is a comfort, even if it does echo off of the foul walls of the crypt. “Why not?” I say. “Whoever is down here knows of our presence due to my low tolerance threshold for pain. Did I mention I have a low tolerance threshold for pain?”
She answers from somewhere in the darkness behind me. “Keep walking, argonian.”
I ensure my pout is reflected by my tone. “I’m wounded. It hurts to walk. Why aren’t you taking the lead?”
“Because I value my life more than I value yours. Now, shut up.”
“And here I was, planning on doing something nice for you since you treated my wound. Perhaps I would have shared the secrets of the Hist, or told you the location of a priceless family heirloom? I may have even baked you a cake. A moist, delicious cake.” She has stopped responding. “Wouldn’t that have been nice?” Still nothing. I shut my mouth, defeated at last by her stubborn silence.
We walk a lonely passage. The air is stale and thick with dust. Any hesitation in my stride is corrected by a poke in the ribs by Jenassa. Odd patterns somewhat obscured by thick cobwebs line the walls and the floor is covered by a network of long, spindly roots. It takes special care not to trip and fall, especially with the fresh leg wound and the touch of hypothermic delirium still muddling my thoughts.
Before long we come across a blessedly well-lit room. In the center is a lever and a fresh bandit corpse riddled with poison darts. Our passage is blocked by an iron portcullis. For the moment, the largest part of my concern is focused upon the corpse. My captor has a slight difference of opinion.
“A gate,” she says. “How does it open?”
“Jenassa, there is a dead man here.”
She gives a furtive nod in the direction of the body. “I suppose that is of some concern,” she admits.
“The man had a family, you know. Not every child is abandoned upon the completion of their journey through the birth canal. I’m sure his mother loved him very much…and then became somewhat disappointed of him later in life, but that is besides the point.”
Jenassa grinds her teeth. “Do you have a point, argonian?”
“Of course,” I say, gesturing to the still form on the floor. “We have left eight corpses in our wake thus far, by my count. Would it kill you to bury one of them? Just pile some rocks on him, for Arkay’s sake!”
Jenassa seethes, then takes a deep breath to calm herself. “How does the gate open, McGonian?”
“I daresay we shall employ the method this fellow used,” I say, kicking the body’s arm away from the switch.
“How does it open?” she asks again in a tone suggesting it will be the last time she asks before she dashes my skull against the walls.
“Well, it’s quite simple. See, directly above the gate are two heads carved out of the rock, each bearing a symbol: A snake and a narwhal. A third bearing the symbol of a second snake lies upon the ground there, though you can clearly see where it has detached from the wall above. The statues there on the western wall bear three symbols each, two of which are the snake and the narwhal. And, so-”
“And so we rotate the statues against the wall to match the pattern above the gate,” she finishes.
I nod. “Yes, that is my thinking. However, it all seems too easy.”
She glances to me. “The purpose of mechanisms such as this in nordic ruins is not to keep graverobbers out. It’s to keep something else in.”
I smile nervously. “Keep what in?” The dunmer busies herself with rotating the heads. I ask again, but she ignores me until her task is finished.
“I believe that matches,” she says. “Pull the lever.”
I glance at the dead man at my feet. “Hmm.”
“I am losing my patience with you, argonian. Pull it.”
“I apologize, Jenassa. Even if I were to grasp the lever and command my body to pull it, it would believe it to be some sort of jape and not respond.”
She stares at me in bewilderment. “Where did you learn to speak in such a ridiculous manner?” she asks.
“Why, an adequate education!” I reply, pointedly stepping away from the lever. “My father, Billy McGonian the Fourth – or Maybe the Fifth – ensured-”
She’s crushing my windpipe before I am able to finish my sentence. Her fingers are like a mechanical vice and for a terrifying moment I fear they would not relax until she has strangled the life out of me. She has me pinned against the uncomfortably jagged collapsed rock behind me. I claw at her wrist weakly and stare into her red eyes. I can see the murder in them.
“You will pull the lever, or I will begin to remove fingers until you do,” she growls. I agree with a strangled hissing noise. She releases me and I fall to the floor gasping and massaging my throat.
“I can’t pull it without fingers,” I wheeze.
She grabs me by the collar and throws me bodily over the lever. “Pull it right now!”
I pull myself up and brush off the layer of dust and grime stuck to my furs. I take hold of the lever and without further ado pull with all of my might. The gate opens with a screech of protest. I’m alive, and somehow ungrateful for that.
I’m shaking again, but not from the cold. Jenassa prods me in the back with the point of her dagger. “Move.”
The reality of my plight has sunk in. No amount of running my mouth or flimsy appeals to her better nature shall save me. This dunmer is insane. She will kill me if I don’t do as she says, no matter how much I deny it. Pity. I had almost felt a sort of camaraderie with her for a time, though that had been dampened somewhat when she threatened to end me if I had the gall to evade her and regain my freedom.
Here I am once again, on my merry way to the bloody headsman’s block through no fault of my own.
Deeper and deeper into the ruin we go! Down darkened halls and spiral staircases of rotting wood. The cobwebs have grown more numerous and more pronounced. Eventually our progress is halted by a thick wall of webbing.
“I don’t think the intention here is to catch flies,” Jenassa observes dryly. “Cut through it, argonian.”
I unsheathe my dagger to indicate my intention to follow orders, though I give her one last look. I am done with petty defiance. I mouth a silent plea for mercy. She looks away.
She has none.
The web is almost too thick for me to cut with one short blade. It takes time, but I am making steady progress. I am considering burning it when I hear a skittering noise from above. My arm jerks in surprise and the blade catches on a particularly tangled corner of webbing. I remain perfectly motionless and stare at the ceiling. All is quiet.
“Go on,” Jenassa says softly. “I’m keeping an eye out for danger. You’re almost through.”
I tug the blade free and continue my work. My wrist is aching by the time I have cut through enough web for us to pass unhindered. I step through into the next room before Jenassa can bark at me to do so. The walls and floor are coated in thick, silky webbing. Massive egg sacs sprout from the walls like cysts. I brace myself against an unbearable stench as the skittering noise grows louder.
Someone’s calling to me. A male? Another dunmer is wrapped tightly in a web twice as thick as the one I had just cut through on the opposite end of the room. The skittering stops and a hulking form lands in the center of the room with a crash.
“Jennassadaggersticky!” I shriek, frantically scraping the webs off of my blade on the stone floor. It wasn’t the best idea, no. I should have known any attempt to retain my dignity is doomed to fail. The dunmer is again a blur of gray and brown as she sprints between myself and the giant arachnid and swipes at it with her blades.
It rears back, lifting its forelegs over my captor in preparation to strike. It occurs to me that if Jenassa dies, so do I.
That is all of the convincing I require. I raise my steel dagger and charge.
“Die die die die die die die!” I slip between two of its legs to drive my dagger into its left flank. Hardly more than the tip pierces its hairy exoskeleton. It hesitates and then swipes at me with a leg. The blow hits me square in the stomach and sends me flying backwards. I feel the impact with the wall through every inch of my body. I fall to the floor, unable to do more than roll onto my side clutching my stomach. Through the mist of pain and shock I see Jenassa use my distraction to slice off a foreleg. The creature hisses in rage and raises its dripping mandibles over her. She ducks under and stabs upward, penetrating the spider’s soft underbelly. As it comes crashing down to the floor she rolls to the side to get out of the way.
I struggle to get to my feet and limp over to join her at the carcass.
The dunmer in the web cackles harshly. “Well done, well done. If my hands were free, I would be applauding your prowess. Now, get me down from here.”
Jenassa wipes the sweat from her brow and takes a deep breath. “And why should I? Do you have the golden claw?”
“The golden-” The dunmer scowls. “Yes, I have it. Cut me down and it’s yours. More trouble than it’s worth, anyway.”
I keep one arm around my aching stomach and raise my dagger to him. “If you give us the…” I take a moment to swallow and gasp for air. “If you give us the claw, you’re free to go. I’m watching you. No tricks.”
Jenassa pushes past me and presses the tip of her blade to the dunmer’s chest. His eyes go as wide as saucers.
“What are you doing? No!”
Divines, he’s pleading for his life. I look away, but I still hear the sound of the sword slipping into the mer’s heart. When he ceases writhing, she pulls her weapon free, treating me to a grisly noise. “Cut him down and take the claw,” she orders.
I feel ill. “Is that it? Are we done? Had enough murder, yet?”
“No,” she says. My heart sinks into my bruised stomach. “We’re getting you your dragonstone. You are certain it is in these ruins?”
“I don’t want it anymore,” I whimper.
She turns away. “Cut him down. There’s a passage leading deeper into the crypt beyond this web.” I sigh and once again set about clearing webbing with the added pleasantness of doing so around a fresh corpse.