My torch has gone out, though the ancient nords have deigned to light our way with candles and torches that, curiously, are still lit. The next room is a more spacious affair and lit by large braziers. I jump out of my skin when the lid on a sarcophagus to my left explodes outwards and a draugr emerges. Two more charge down the wooden staircase on the opposite side of the room. There is a puddle of oil spilling into a drain on the floor between myself and the draugr on the stairs. Above the puddle are two burning lanterns suspended on thin ropes. I leave the draugr to the left to Jenassa and hurry to beat the other draugr to the lanterns.
I twist away from a draugr’s axe and begin to frantically slice at the rope a round clay lantern is suspended from. Now, this may seem like a foolish strategy. I am swiping at a thin rope holding up a lantern over a puddle of oil that I still stand in. My weapon is short, so I must be quite close to reach. And of course, there is the angry pair of draugr close enough to pull me into a big ol’ hug.
None of that matters. Why? If I can make the lantern drop into the oil, I can make fire. Draugr die when on fire. And of course, I was panicked out of my mind and not using sense.
I did realize that what I was doing was idiotic soon after completing my task, however. The lantern smashes on the ground and the floor is instantly alight.
“Fire! Fire!” I scream, the flames licking up my boots and the hand that had remained unburnt the last time I had set myself aflame. I flee from the pair of burning draugr, crash into a wall and fall onto the filthy floor. I roll around in the dirt and grime swatting at whatever part of my body is currently in burning agony. Due to the ataxia, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the stiffened muscles screaming in agony end and the fire begins.
It’s no use. I roll onto my back, shut my eyes and accept my fate. I feel something prodding me in the side. I open my eyes again and see Jenassa standing over me. “Get up. They’re dead.”
“But I’m on fire,” I explain in a tiny voice.
She doesn’t dignify that with a response, but she is kind enough to help me up onto my feet again. My furs are a bit blackened and I am as filthy as I have ever been, but I am not, in fact, on fire.
When we move on it becomes evident that we have put to rest the most violent and dangerous of the barrow’s…”inhabitants”, I’ll call them. We come to a dimly lit hallway thick with dust. Cobwebs partially conceal strange and ancient scenes carved into the walls by nords from an age long forgotten, or so says Jenassa. I have no interest whatsoever in how nords came to be the boorish dairy-averse apes they are today. On the other end of the hall is a massive stone slab. Just below the center is an indentation matching the shape of the golden claw in my possession.
I grab the claw out of my pack and sprint for the door until a sharp stab of pain in my leg forces me to slow to a walk. Jenassa passes me at a leisurely pace and stops before the slab to touch it with her fingertips. “There are more symbols depicting animals.”
“Are they a bear, a moth and a cocoon?”
She peers at the symbols and frowns. “A bear, a moth and an owl.”
I hold up the dragon claw and squint at the three symbols on the palm. “I suppose it is. An honest mistake.”
“You thought the whale was a narwhal as well. Is your eyesight failing with age, argonian?”
I hiss softly in annoyance. “Jenassa has jokes for us this evening.”
“It’s a door.” She takes her hand from the slab and looks at me while failing to suppress a smirk. “Do you know how to open it?”
“Yes, yes. It is another puzzle that is good only for keeping something contained within the chamber beyond.” I hold up the claw so that she can see the symbols on the palm.
“These panels look like wheels” I say, indicating the sections of the lock mechanism depicting the three animals. “Perhaps you can rotate them until the symbols on the door match the order of the symbols on the claw?”
She raises an eyebrow and takes a step back. “You certainly may.”
I rotate the discs in the door with minimal hissing and groaning over my fate then slip the claw into the indentation and turn it like a key in a lock. The door rumbles and disturbs a cloud of dust as it slides open for the first time since time immemorial. I step through and my breath is taken away by what lays beyond.
“Well, that’s something,” says Jenassa, casting her eyes about the cavern in wonder. An altar and massive stone monument had been erected inside a beautiful cave of glistening stone. Along the edges of the cavern a number of falls create an impressive natural ambiance to the scene. “This must be the sanctum.” She points to the monument. “If that is what I think it is, that wall bears a script written in the language of dragons.”
“Odd. The one I saw didn’t speak.”
Her eyes snap to me. “You saw a dragon?”
“Oh, yes.” I crane my neck and squint at the altar at the top of a flight of small stone steps ahead. “Is that a chest? Divines, look at the size of it! Could the dragonstone be inside?”
She narrows her eyes and gives a stiff nod. “It’s possible. We stand at the sacred heart of the barrow. The most valuable treasures are often found here.”
For the first time since before my capture at the border with Cyrodiil, I feel a joy that isn’t forced into being as an attempt to keep myself sane. “It’s over, then. We’ve finally made it. Come on!”
I hurry up the steps. Jenassa shouts after me, but I ignore her. I can finally be rid of her. I can finally escape this forsaken place and continue on with my life!
I hear an odd sound as I reach the top steps by the altar. It sounds like…a whisper? I stop and glance around for the speaker. The wall of dragon script catches my attention. I approach it, listening intently. I hear it again! It was a word of some sort. A chant?
“McGonian! Get away from there!” Jenassa is hurrying up the steps, drawing her bow and nocking an arrow in the same motion. I spin around to see that a stone sarcophagus by the massive chest has had its cover blown off. I take a few steps back as a heavily armored draugr emerges.
“Just one?” I instinctively reach for my torch, forgetting for the moment that it had burnt out and lay abandoned somewhere beyond the sanctum. “We can take just one, can’t we?”
Jenassa puts herself between myself and the draugr. Instead of charging for her, it opens its mouth wide, giving my dunmer friend the perfect opening to lodge an arrow in the back of its throat. The arrowhead impacts the back of its helm with a cloud clang and stops. The draugr stumbles backwards while Jenassa takes aim again.
It opens its mouth unnaturally wide and shouts a single word.
There follows an explosion of sound similar in intensity to a house in Helgen crumbling into a pile of smashed mortar and splintered wood.
I must fight to keep my feet against the wave of pure force crashing over me. Jenassa stumbles backwards down a short flight of steps and catches herself from falling with a palm on the ground. The draugr stares down at her and raises its blade to snuff out her life right then and there.
Against all sense I charge screaming and hissing into the ancient creature. It raises its shield before I collide with it and I bounce off of it and onto my arse. I stare up at it helplessly as it swings its blade in a wide arc toward Jenassa.
My intervention bought her the precious second she needed to regain balance and duck away. The sword scrapes across her shoulder and leaves a dash of crimson upon the ground. Her blades are out in a flash and she darts in close to slice at its exposed flesh. I leap to my feet and begin to stab madly at its shoulder from behind before it can take down Jenassa and then start on me. It hisses in anger and tries to twist away from me.
One vicious slash from my partner separates the draugr’s sword arm from its body, though that doesn’t halt its momentum. It bashes Jenassa with its shield then shifts its attention to focus on its less competent foe. It drops its shield, grabs me by the collar, lifts me off of the ground then throws me bodily over the side of the altar. The impact with the floor below rattles my bones and I nearly bite my tongue off, but as it is the third time this has happened to me tonight, I quickly get to my feet just in time to witness Jenassa slicing its head clean off with her longsword. It wobbles and for a moment. I’m afraid it’ll continue fighting in that state, but it finally crumples into a heap at the dunmer’s feet.
Jenassa sheathes her blades and wavers. She seats herself on the stone floor of the altar before she can collapse and holds a hand over the bloody stain on her shoulder. I use the last of my strength to mount the stairs and join her on the floor in front of the draugr’s body. “We did it,” I say, hardly believing my own words. She nods in agreement.
I pick myself up and stagger to the chest. My strength has been well and truly sapped and I cannot crack open the lid despite my best efforts. Jenassa gently moves me aside and pushes it open.
Inside is the stone tablet I had walked through nine hells to retrieve.
I hold the tablet up and take it all in. Whatever is carved onto it is a problem for someone else to agonize over. In order to retrieve this artifact I have been frozen, burned, bashed, thrown, betrayed, taken captive and, worst of all, deeply humiliated.
“I’m never doing this again.” I throw back my head and cackle, but stop with a cough and a sputter when my stiff muscles disagree with my actions. Jenassa shifts awkwardly and appears deeply troubled by my laugh.
“Oh. Sorry. I forgot my laugh is off-putting. I have earned it though, haven’t I?”
Her mouth twitches, and then she makes a wonderful sound I had never expected her to make. “Hissississississssssssssss.”
I break into a wide grin. “No, see, you turned that into an angry hiss at the end there. That could land you in hot water in Black Marsh. It’s more like-”
“Shut up. You have what you came for. Let’s leave this place.”
And back to business. “Gladly.”
Beyond the altar is a tunnel leading upwards. At the end of the tunnel I see hints of moonlight filtering in. As we approach I feel a chilly breeze. I don’t mind. It’s the sweetest I have felt in all my days.
I pass through the mouth of the cave and find myself back above ground on a clear and peaceful night. At last, fresh air. ‘Finally, everything is turning out quite alright for me,’ I think. It is then I hear the sound of a weapon leaving its scabbard from behind me. I turn to see Jenassa advancing on me, sword drawn. I should have known it was all too good to be true.