Silence's Voice

'Other' fanfiction. Category: AT, or Alternate Timeline. Same universe as canon, but a different point in that universe's history.
Just an assassin. Nothing more since fourteen, when the murder of a thieving Wood Elf who got what he deserved ended in recruitment into the shadowy cult of assassins at home in the deep deserts of Anequina. Until she decided to interfere. She decided to ruin everything!

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11. Snakebite

By the time the vessel we’d hired docked in Taneth, the sun was thoroughly battering us with its flaming swords. Hawk seemed content, sheltering beneath the dark leather of his hood, but I’d not been lucky enough to have a fabric shield to cover my face, and beads of sweat zinged every time they rolled down my hot skin. Everywhere I looked the sea glittered, reflecting the sunlight and making it dance around us as the boatman guided the craft up to the dock.

Taneth sure was a beautiful city. The buildings were all a dazzling white, clambering up the slope of a hill to the main mansion at the top. Rooftops here were bulbous and shimmered; the outside painted with gold mirroring the sun so high above. Over the sounds of the dock, misty flute music drifted, floating free from within the city gates to cascade over the waters. Yet despite Taneth’s original beauty, ugly scars had been cut into its porcelain surface. Black banners topped with a golden double-arrowhead symbol hung like corpses from a gallows either side of the gate, and as the boatman began tying the boat, we were approached by a familiar tall drink of piss, bottled in black.

“You two. I don’t recognise either of you. State your names and business here in Taneth!” The Thalmor guard barked, folding his arms as we clambered from the small boat onto the dock. He was glaring down his nose at us, sheltered within the hood of his long, black robes, and tapping his booted foot on the dock.

I’d planned to cook up another lie, letting the one stirring in my mind come through, when Hawk stepped in for me, serving up his own dish of lies to this Thalmor guard. “My name’s Corvaus Thanalor, and this is my wife. Dinasie Thanalor. We’re both from High Rock.” Hawk lied, as I felt my fingers twitch for Vixen.

I though my previous lie was daring, but this was flat-out reckless. For one he re-used a name I lied about before to the Thalmor, and for another, he was a pretty-boy Breton using a clearly Dunmer surname. Had Sheogorath invaded his mind? I could only stand slightly slack-jawed as he continued with his lie.

“We’re just looking for work. Job situation in High Rock isn’t the best for an independent swordsman and a Dunmer archer.” He added, as the guard arched one snooty eyebrow.

“Dinasie Thanalor? Tell me, do you bear any relation to Mitane Thanalor?” The guard asked.

Mitane Thanalor…that Thalmor in Markarth had asked about a Mitane Thanalor. “No, none at all.” I replied, as a slight smile appeared on the Thalmor’s lips.

“Very well, all seems to be in order. Just remember, Taneth belongs to the Aldmeri Dominion now. This city no longer belongs to the rest of Hammerfell. While you’re here you’ll be expected to abide by our laws. Any questions?”

I’d been planning to mend things then. A simple ‘no’ letting us slip away into Taneth where I could lead Hawk down an alley and backhand him for his idiocy, when he put his foot in it again.

“Do you have to interrogate all arrivals this way?” He asked, as I sent him a simple look. One that said ‘Shut the Oblivion UP right now!’ with all the cold wrath of the Dark Brotherhood behind it.

The guard glared at Hawk, one corner of his lip rising. “Curious, aren’t you? I have to. Not everyone has accepted the Thalmor’s rightful position here in Taneth. There are still those who would commit treason and murder any Thalmor they see. Fortunately the city has far more wise citizens here than those traitors. Was that all you wanted, or was there something else?”

Quick, before he can drop us in it even further! “That’ll be all, thank you.” I replied, brushing my hand by Hawk’s, dropping a little hint to him to keep that mouth of his shut.

“Good, but remember, the Dominion has eyes everywhere, and we’re watching you.”

We slipped away the second we could, heading into the city and down a small alley. Like in Hegathe, the streets were made of pink marble tiles, but the buildings were made of white marble instead of pinkish earth, and black Thalmor banners hung against every wall. Down this alley, shadows dominated, cast by the sagging lines dripping with washing that had been strung between the buildings. Down here, nobody was watching, and nobody could hear me slip out one of my shrouded gloves and backhand Hawk across the head with it, letting a satisfying ‘thwack!’ ring out.

“What in Oblivion were you thinking?” I yelled, stowing my glove away back down the bottom of Vixen’s quiver.

“Agh, what? What do you mean what was I thinking? I was thinking of keeping us protected from the Thalmor as – now what was it? – we’re both members of illegal guilds!” Hawk replied, holding the back of his head in his hand as he turned to face me.

“Protected? Don’t you remember me telling you the Thalmor are looking for a Dinasie Thanalor back in Skyrim? Yet what name do you use for me? That very same Dunmer name, which you also decided to call yourself by!”

I was fuming by this time, as Hawk didn’t seem to be taking this seriously. He just chuckled, rubbing the back of his head where I’d whacked him one. “Dear Silence,” he began, hiding a laugh, “if they’re looking for a Dinasie Thanalor in Skyrim, will they really pay any attention to one in Hammerfell. Name sharing is possible, you know, or are you unaware of that?”

I was aware I should have hit him harder. “Not in Dunmer culture. Especially not surnames. It’s part of the whole House system and keeps the purity of Dunmer families. There is only one Thanalor family in the entire Dunmer race for one, and that family would not allow another race into the bloodline! Soon every Thalmor in the city will be onto us once that one tells his superiors!”

Even in the shade, the heat was getting to me. First I needed to cover up, and then I could ditch the pillock that may have just sealed our fate. Leaping up, my hand closed around a long rectangle of cloth about the size of a flag, as Hawk’s hand closed around my wrist.

“Exactly my point, Silence. The Thalmor are not your kind, so do not know your ways fully. Elven arrogance is commonly known, so the Thanalor family not accepting my kind would be expected. However, dear Silence,”

Hawk leaned close then, still holding up my wrist as the cloth I’d grabbed fluttered down to the marble street, “they wouldn’t know there’s only one Thanalor family.” He whispered. “They’d think the Dinasie you pretended to be in Skyrim was completely different to the Dinasie I made you out to be here. You see now?”

I saw. “Oh,” I began, a hot blush growing within my cheeks as he lowered my arm. Now he’d explained it, it made perfect sense.

“Yeah, I’ve got you covered, killer. May not seem like it, but I do.”

His voice was ice, chilling me even through the sun’s heat, as he let go of me and let me scrabble for that cloth again. “Sorry,” I muttered, picking up the swiped cloth and clutching it in my hands, rubbing the fabric between my fingers.

He didn’t say anything. Just lead me through the alleys as I fumbled with the cloth. It was well woven, made of fine, soft thread in deep, wine red that brushed smooth against my hands, instead of fluffy and tickly like some other scarves did. Probably worth quite a bit, but in this heat I needed it far more than the original owner sure did.

Focusing on the stolen scarf could only go so far though. “Come on, let’s go find an inn. Might have a long search ahead of us. My treat.” I said, as I began tying the scarf around my head.

“Your treat, huh?” Hawk replied, as a faint smile emerged. “Alright then. Been quite a while since I was last in Taneth, but I think The Slaughtered Spriggan’s still here. They do a really nice pastry-wrapped venison roast with imported jazbay grapes and lavender. I think you’ll like it.”

I don’t know if it was the mention of the pastry-wrapped that got me hungry or not, but it sank in how long it had been since I’d had something. The Cyrodiilic brandy in Hegathe seemed days ago, and it had been even longer since I’d fully eaten. “Sounds good.”

“I’ll take you there, once you’ve finished…why do you do that anyway?”

“Do what?” I asked, tying the very end of the scarf so the front part of my hair and part of my forehead was covered. The rest of the material dangled down in one big loop; the other end swished down to my hips and then back up to be tied at the back of my neck under my hair.

“That covering thing.”

“You mean the head wrap? It’s a traditional Dunmer thing. Protection, and the head wrap shows your status.”

“You didn’t do it whilst down in the Guild, so why now?”

“Well down in your Thieves’ Guild I don’t need to protect myself from storms and getting caught. Out here it’s a completely different story.”

He was looking at me like I was a genius, but mad, as I folded one half of the fabric loop over into a kind of figure-of-eight shape with my free hand, before hooking the end of the loop and draping it over the back of my head. In this way, the gathered fabric could cascade down over my shoulders, yet still drape over my face enough to cast a shadow; if I needed to, I could take one of the side drapes and tuck it inside the other, hooking it on my ear to cover my face and make a cowl.

“Eh, if you say so. Come on, I can see the Slaughtered Spriggan from here. If you fancy a good story, ask the owner about the name.”

“He hunted the walking trees, right?” I asked, as we exited the alley and crossed a small, square plaza with a fountain in the middle, carved in ebony. Clear water trickled over the black sculpture, glittering in the midday sun like the septims at the bottom.

“Not exactly. Ask him yourself, I think you’ll be surprised.” Hawk replied, guiding me into this white marble building.

The inside was pretty nice, lit by shafts of buttery light filtering in through the narrow windows set high in the marble walls. Tapestries covered most available wall space, displaying woven scenes ranging from peaceful deserts to raging battles. Tables and chairs had been arranged accordingly, and at the far end, an ebony bar dominated one half of the back, with glistening goblets and tankards hung on racks above the back counter, where a fat oven crouched next to a cooking pot and two mammoth-sized wine casks. A deep green curtain made of some shiny material took up the other half, drifting quietly as if a breeze was playing with the fabric. Behind the bar, a grizzled old Redguard perched on a stool, washing up a set of steel tankards. His eyes seemed to light up as he noticed us come in, and a wide smile emerged amongst his dark wrinkles.

“Well, if it isn’t the Mallory boy. Brought a lady friend along too. What brings you back to Taneth, Hawk?” The barkeep chuckled, climbing off his stool with a creak and a quiet groan.

“Not much, Alona. Bit’a mercenary work really. How’s things going here at the Spriggan?” Hawk replied, as the barkeep gave a subtle nod, tapping his nose.

“I get you, the lady’s in charge. It’s going ok, nice and quiet. Not a lot of the riff raff in the Spriggan now Lielone Mile-Thigh’s opened up her House. Apparently my Lady Eveningblossom isn’t as entertaining as a bunch of tarts.”

“Your Lady’s still going?” Hawk exclaimed, as he beckoned me to sit on a bar stool next to him.

“Oh absolutely. Wouldn’t be The Slaughtered Spriggan without old Lady Eveningblossom around the place.” Alona chuckled, before turning to me. “Did Hawk here ever tell you anything about my Lady Eveningblossom and the inn?”

I’d barely shook my head when the old barkeep went over to the curtain, giving it a subtle twitch before poking his head in and throwing a bottle of some kind of wine into the space behind the curtain. He paused a second, before dragging back the curtain, and exposing a spriggan. A real, live spriggan covered in flowers of every imaginable colour, with butterflies fluttering around her as she knelt in a patch of springy grass, downing the bottle of wine so the red liquid trickled over the taproot nestled in her hollow abdomen.

It was like that little back alcove had been transformed into a nature glen for that spriggan. Thick ivy grew like fur on the marble walls, tumbling into the springy grass as a shaft of light shone into the alcove. A small pile of straw sat in the furthest corner, next to a small fountain made of a wide bowl set in the floor, a pot for the spout, and some of that Dwarven piping peeking out through the ivy, powering the tiny, artificial spring.

“This is Lady Eveningblossom. Got her a good thirty years ago now. She’s how the inn got its name. Wanna know the story?”

I just stared, transfixed, as Lady Eveningblossom finished off the bottle and cast it out of their nature glen, before uncoiling its vine-covered legs and stretching up, walking out into the rest of the inn.

“Taneth’s quite a big city, so has a lot to offer, including a Museum of Curiosities. Well ‘bout thirty years ago, we had a travelling merchant come in from Chorrol, and he stopped here for the night. Now, there was a sandstorm blowing that night, so the merchant asked if he could bring some of his wares in. I’d expected him to bring in a couple of crates and barrels that could be stowed away in the corner, so it scared the life half outta me when he brought in my Lady here.”

Lady Eveningblossom seemed to understand Alona was talking about her, as she tossed her cascade of braided vines over her bark-covered shoulders, giving a coy giggle behind her twig-cluster hands.

“Now, he had her covered in chains and shackles the whole time. Said it was to stop her attacking anyone or running off before he sold her to the Museum of Curiosities. He just dragged her into a corner and left her chained to a torch bracket. By the end of the night, he’d gotten so drunk he was staggering around the tables dancing to the bard, when he remembered my Lady. He staggered a bit, yelled out ‘Get this down ya!’ and chucked a bottle of wine at her. It smashed and she was covered in it, but it was like she absorbed some of the wine, and started swaying herself. Like what she’s doing right now.”

She’d been swaying the whole time he’d been talking, drifting over to us and fluttering her grass-blade eyelashes in Hawk’s direction.

“Anyway she was doing that, and the merchant thought she was dancing. Actually she was breaking out of her shackles, but he just threw more and more wine at her until she was lying there passed out. After that, I couldn’t have her caged up in no museum, rotting away. So I bought her, and named her Lady Eveningblossom, as her flowers bloom all the time but only have scent at night. Cost me ten thousand septims and I had to ignore the merchant’s tab, but she was mine. That little alcove is her place, and as long as she gets her two bottles of wine a day, she’s perfectly happy staying here with me.”

She seemed happy, twirling around and wandering about the inn, and giving her coy giggles whenever she caught Hawk looking. “She seems happy. Is she how this place got its name then?” I asked, as Lady Eveningblossom blew a kiss at Hawk, letting a tiny flower, like a small apple blossom, fly off her twig-like fingers and brush his cheek.

“It sure is. Alik’r’s Fringe is now The Slaughtered Spriggan, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now I suppose you two have heard enough of my ramblings. What can I get you both? We got half-cooked food, watery beer, and the barkeep’s a grumpy old git.” Alona chuckled, handing us both the menu.

* * *

It was sunset by the time we’d left there, sharing a rack of venison in pastry with alto wine, and guessing the reactions of the customers when they first notice Lady Eveningblossom wandering around the inn. I could see why Hawk had recommended the place now. Alona had even sold us a waterskin each, as we’d need it if we ventured too far into the desert. It felt weird, the weight of the water sloshing around on my hip as Hawk and I made our way through the city towards the chapel of Tava, but I’d better get used to it. If a contact’s had to hide out somewhere, then you can bet that whoever they want dead has either hidden themselves, or has allied themselves with a metaphorical army of people that would gladly kill you on sight. Neither option was preferable.

“So, you got any idea who you’re supposed to meet in this place?” Hawk asked, leading me into the main square. Wide and open, the pink marble tiles still held the day’s heat as we crossed the main square towards the chapel. It looked exactly the same as in Hegathe, but the outer wall shone a glittering pink, just like the sunset bleeding into the night sky, making the embedded jewels blink back their joyful tears.

“No idea. Some kind of…well the exact description was a blood-handed mercenary. What that means, I don’t know, but I guess I’ll have to learn on my feet.”

“Blood-handed mercenary?” Hawk began, pausing as a lone Thalmor guard marched past, cloak swishing like a horse’s tail swatting away us lower non-Altmer. “Any idea of race?”

“Nope.”

“Gender?”

“Nope.”

“Any clues at all, or would going in blindfolded make no difference? If you tear a strip off that scarf I can tie it on for you.”

I had a nagging feeling that he wasn’t joking there. “Look, this is an exceptional contract. Normally we get given the exact name and location instead of all this detective stuff.” I replied, heading into the chapel with him. Tava’s statue was identical here, only her eyes seemed different. They seemed to stare down accusingly at the pulpit where her shrine stood, a glare dancing on her stone brow and her stormy tattoos reflecting her displeasure.

“How do you even get this information anyway? Don’t you have some creepy ritual?” He hissed, following me as I made my way over.

“The Black Sacrament? Yeah, we do. Contact does that, Unholy Matron hears their prayer and tells the Listener, and they relay it to us. Sometimes their own Silencer, sometimes just us lowly ones, but that’s how it works.”

Hawk was staring at me as I stood behind the shrine on its seashell-adorned plinth, watching my every move like I might suddenly lash out at him. “I’m just gonna pretend I understand that and hope there’s not a test on this afterwards. We looking for anything in particular or what?”

Perhaps it’s best he doesn’t know the full ins and outs of it all. “Well they said under the chapel, and contacts tend to hide out in old, death filled places that nobody with a proper brain would ever go into. Only thing is how to get there.”

Tava’s stone eyes kept boring into me, glaring as I stood at the pulpit. The book resting there had a fine layer of dust upon it, seeming to sparkle as if hit by a beam of light. Yet the dust had been rubbed off the book stand, leaving it as pristine as when it had been first carved.

“Well perhaps you could try checking the catacombs? It’ll be old, hopefully filled with dead that don’t have trouble staying that way, and nobody with a proper brain would ever go in there in case of any dead that do have trouble staying that way. Fits all the categories.”

He did have a point. “Well, alright. Where are the catacombs for these places usually ke-”

I’d leaned on the book stand of the pulpit, and a quiet click had come from within. The dust-covered tome had tumbled to the floor, smacking down with a cloud of dust as the book stand had swung down like a lever. With a scrape, Tava’s eyes rolled back into looking straight ahead, and the seashell-covered shrine plinth began being drawn back along the floor with the guttural scrape of stone upon stone.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think they’re down there.” Hawk remarked, leaning over my shoulder and peering down the inky space, where the faint flickering of candlelight danced on the ghosts of marble steps descending into the pit. “Ladies first.”

Coward. “Chickens at the rear.” I replied, beginning to make my way down into the darkness.

The bottom of the steps was just about visible, as was the pull chain on the wall. Tapping Hawk, I gestured for him to join me in dropping into a crouch, and pulled the chain so Tava’s shrine plinth slid back into position above us. The last thing I wanted was for some intruder to wander down here and catch us. Slow, measuring every footstep in my fur shoes, I inched myself down the stairs, and fully into the catacombs.

The catacombs were a library of death. Row upon row of shelves where coffins had been stacked stretched back under the temple until the smooth marble was replaced by jagged, older rock carved eras ago with crude pickaxes. A few urns had been slotted in amongst the coffin stacks, engraved and painted with designs like snakes, scorpions, wolves, elephants, and tigers, matching the carvings on the walls and coffin shelves.

“At least this isn’t that bad. Some of our old burial mounds and tombs are full of the undead. Here, this place looks pretty safe.” Hawk whispered, his icy words making hairs at the back of my neck stand at attention.

“Did you have to mention the undead now?” I hissed, a scrap of white in one of the older coffin shelves catching my eye. Woodworm must have burrowed into the splinters of the coffin, letting it collapse under its own weight and expose the body within, wrapped in shrouds with bones poking through. Bones that I could easily see rattling to life with a hideous groaning, unholy lights shining within eye sockets as the ribcage moves with a hissing breath.

One blink and the image was gone from my mind, and the corpse was still again. Yet Hawk’s words had put the thought firmly in my head, and as I crept with him up the central passage, I half expected the lumbering remains of a Taneth citizen to come shuffling out from around the corner, dripping the liquid remains of their flesh and letting out an unholy groan, like a cow in terrible pain. My eyes flicked around, looking for any movement in the candlelight, as my vision seemed to tunnel in to nothing but a pinprick, and my hands began to quiver as I pulled out Vixen and held her primed in my hand as I continued creeping down the central passage.

“Silence?” Hawk whispered, as I turned my head to face him. In the shadows of the catacombs, he was barely visible. Nothing but a black space in the shape of him crouched down into a sneaking position.

“What?” I hissed.

“What are we even looking for?”

Well…I know that banned book, ‘A Kiss, Sweet Mother’, has been out for a while, and he deals in illegal items so it’s possible he’s read it. It couldn’t hurt to tell him though. “The Black Sacrament. Look for a ring of candles encircling a skeleton, a chunk of human flesh, a nightshade flower, a dagger, and a human heart. It’ll probably be somewhere completely tucked away, like an alcove or something, so it can be hidden and disposed of once a Dark Brotherhood assassin has accepted the contract.”

Hawk made a noise like he’d choked on something, a shudder rippling through his shadow. “You don’t mean like…actual human parts, do you?”

“Of course. I mean, what else would please the Night Mother but death?”

He made that choking noise again, almost straightening up from the crouch. “What do you even do with that stuff anyway?”

“We don’t do anything with the body parts. The flesh does nothing but rot. The heart however, well the contract has to rub the dagger with nightshade to poison it, and then stab the heart over and over again whilst praying. I recommend staying out of the splash zone if you walk in on someone doing that. Can get a bit…messy.”

“I think I’m gonna throw up.” Hawk spluttered, staggering back into the light of a candle. In the orange glow, he looked almost white, with one hand clutching his stomach, and the other clamped over his mouth.

“Can’t deal in death if you’re squeamish about flesh and blood, but if you find an empty urn or vase, I won’t say a thing.” I replied, stretching up out of sneak as he staggered into one of the side passages between the coffin shelves. If there were any undead in here, they’d have been alerted by now. Staying in a crouch would only leave my thigh muscles hunched against my bones, curled up and weeping, refusing to work when I needed them the most.

“Hey…Killer?” Hawk groaned. “As the Black Ritual or whatever needs to be surrounded by candles, it would give off a lot of light, right?”

“Black Sacrament, and yeah, you can see it from quite far away. Why?”

“Would it give off light a bit like this?”

I headed around to the side passage where Hawk knelt, hood pulled back and pale as Cyrodiilic porcelain, peering down a narrow passage carved into the rock. Sure enough, down at the very end where the passage turned off, the familiar candlelight dancers had painted themselves on the wall, twisting and playing with the wolves and snakes carved into the rock.

“Exactly like that. Think you’re good or wanna wait here?” I asked, taking a side drape of my head wrap and tucking it in to form a cowl.

“I…I’m good.” Hawk gasped, staggering up to his feet.

“Alright. By the way, cover your face. Don’t care how, just do it. Occasionally we can get a trapped contract. Our Orion Vautrelle died because of one, so you can’t be too careful.”

He nodded and tugged on his leather hood, twitching it down so the shadows flooded underneath, covering his face. “We good?”

“We good, come on. Just do as I do, and keep quiet.” I replied, leading him down the tight channel, and down the slope.

The passage opened up into a small sub-crypt, just big enough to take five strides in before winding up on top of one of the bandaged bodies nestling in the stone shelves wedged into the walls. The wolf carvings had gone, and now every carving was serpentine, with hooded snakes rising up to flank a narrow opening that lead further down, and writhing ones carved in a circle on the floor, around the familiar ring of candles. Bent over, a Redguard covered in soft, golden tattoos kneeled over the effigy, dagger in hand, plunging it into the heart with a juicy splatter as he looked up, and broke into a wide, blood-splattered grin.

I could feel Hawk swaying at my side. “I don’t mind.” I whispered to him, before he dashed back up the passage, whiter than a sheet. Perhaps it was best if he wasn’t around for the meeting, as these things can be tricky to get right. That and if he’s up there twisting his guts over a mangled heart, I doubt he’ll have the stomach for a few of the discussion topics.

“Ah, I’ve been hoping you’d come. I’ve been waiting for you down in this cesspit for almost a week now.” The Redguard stated, stretching up and folding his bloody arms, so the substance splattered over the brown leather of his armour.

A confident one. That always made things a lot easier. “You’ve opened a very dark door, you realise. Tell me, what shall you be known by?”

The Redguard chuckled, shifting his weight so the steel mace at his side clinked against his greaves. “So very formal. I am Cluvar, mercenary and sellsword for hire. Unfortunately I find myself in a bit of a predicament I was hoping you could help me out with. Damn Thalmor just don’t know when to give up.” He replied, a strange, haughty chuckle to his voice as he brushed dust off his leather helmet.

Thalmor contract, eh? This is either politically motivated, or just flat-out revenge. “Who do you want dispatching to the Void? Me and my companion serve to deliver the souls of the unworthy to our Dread Father.” I purred, unable to control my eye-roll as Hawk gave a particularly loud retch from back down the passage. Perhaps that lie was a bit too big.

Cluvar smirked. “A certain Thalmor Justiciar needs to be taught a permanent lesson about intruding on personal matters. Neriecalmo had a fair taste of Catastrophe here before he fled down that passage over there, but I know he’s still alive. I can hear him cursing at me sometimes, trying to bait me into coming down there and finishing him off. Been camping out in this cesspit to keep him trapped.”

Definitely one of the more interesting contracts. “And how does that involve the Dark Brotherhood?” I asked, as the faint shuffling of Hawk staggering back started to echo from above.

“Well you see, I need to make sure Justiciar Neriecalmo’s dead. Who better to make sure that someone’s dead, than the professionals? Simple logic really.”

I wouldn’t exactly call Hawk a professional. The queasy way in which he staggered back, pale as a ghost, to lean drunkenly on my shoulder.  “I see. Very well, you pay us half, we go down and kill that Thalmor, we come back with proof and you pay us the rest. Are we clear?” I replied, shooting Hawk a sideways glance as he leaned on me.

The fat purse of coins chucked at my feet was my answer. “You get the rest when he’s dead. Don’t know how far back the PissSkin’s gone though. You’ll have to find him. He’s a skilled spellcaster, favouring the force of storms. Filthy witch.”

Looks like this wasn’t going to be as easy as I first thought. I pocketed the coin purse and bade Cluvar farewell, practically dragging Hawk down the narrow passage with me and around a tight corner, and propping him up against a wall.

“Doing ok?” I whispered, letting Hawk draw his hood back.

“I am now…how do you deal with all that gore?” He replied, leaning back and kind of sliding down the wall a bit, scraping his armour on a snake carving.

I shrugged, pulling out my armour from where I’d stuffed it in my quiver. “Desensitised, I guess. Once you’ve heard a few stories from the rest of the family, you just get used to it. You alert enough to think and keep guard?”

He nodded, colour slowly beginning to creep back into his cheeks. “Why, what you doing?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going nowhere. Just putting my armour on. You’re making sure that the Justiciar doesn’t sneak up on us, and that the Redguard doesn’t get a peek. You can’t peek either.”

As the colour rushed back, he managed a weak grin. “Don’t I get a free show then?”

Ugh, Lady Azurah’s Nerevar, men! “No you don’t! No shows, free or otherwise. Just keep watch for me.”

He sighed, turning away to look down the path. With that sorted, I pulled off my head wrap and robes, tugging my armour on. He was pretty good, not slipping in a look, but as my shrouded boots were being buckled on, Hawk gave a shriek like Banshee, leaping up with a yelp and staring right at the wall and me next to him. “That just moved! I swear in the name of Nocturnal, that snake moved under my back, like shifting its coils!” He yelped.

What? “Hawk, you’re imagining things.” I replied, tugging on my hood and snapping the cowl over the bridge of my nose. The carved snake seemed dead still. Admittedly the carving of the scales and fangs looked dead sharp, with the sheen of fresh marble shimmering away on the markings, but it was still nothing but carved stone.

“Seriously, that thing moved. Like one of the coils rippled. I felt it and everything!” Hawk insisted, as I pulled my gloves on with an eye roll.

“It was probably just a spider in the walls, or a rat. You’re imagining things. Come on, let’s go, and keep your hood up.” I replied, hooking my arm in his and pulling him down the tight passage into a long, low hall sloping down further into blackness.

Here, it was much easier to believe the snake carvings were moving. Every space on the stone had something connected to snakes carved into it, painted in colours ranging from burning rust to sickly green. Hooded serpents seemed ready to lunge out from their nest of coils, fangs wet with venom as the faint trickles of water ran down from the ceiling onto the walls. The hallway seemed to stretch endlessly into blackness, with nothing but two torches on our end lighting the place.

“Think the old Taneth Redguards have some kind of connection to snakes? This place is full of them.” I asked, taking one of the torches from its bracket and giving it to Hawk.

“I don’t know, and frankly I don’t want to know. I don’t like the look of this place one bit.” Hawk replied as I took out Vixen.

“I’m not exactly crazy about it myself.” I muttered, taking his arm and making him clutch the waist belt of my armour. “Do not let go of that, you hear? Too easy to get lost in the dark down here.”

He heard, clutching onto the leather strip as I guided him to drop into a sneaks’ crouch, inching down the hall as it sank down further into the earth.

“How deep do you think this place goes? Could be proper ancient crypts right at the end.” Hawk whispered, his feet clunking against the stone as I whispered by alongside him.

“The Gods themselves know. I’m sure not finding out. Second that Justiciar’s dead I’m out of here. You joining me?”

“You’ll have to get in line. I bloody hate this pla- Killer, I swear that cursed snake moved!”

He was staring right at one of the carvings, painted in deepest green like a jungle. The hood of this one snake was unfurled, revealing a pattern of many eyes on the underside in brilliant white, and its fangs were bared, dripping venom. Though it looked realistic, I doubted it had actually moved.

“It’s just a trick of the light. You’re on alert because of this place, and interpreting every light as a snake moving. It’s nothing to worry about, Hawk.”

“It’s not! Look, look right there. Wait a few moments, you’ll see.” Hawk hissed, pointing at the next panel where a beige coloured snake with a black mouth hung from the carved branches of a tree.

“I fail to see what I’m looking for.” I replied, as the snake remained motionless. Nothing but a bas-relief in the stone.

“Just wait, you’ll see.”

I was beginning to lose my patience with him. He was just making up the whole moving-carvings thing, trying to get me in on it to creep me out, when it wasn’t real, and he wasn’t being funny. All he was doing was pissing me off and stalling down here when we really needed to get out- What the?

It moved! That snake moved! Its coils shifted, like it changed position!

“You see it now?” Hawk hissed as I stared, Vixen shaking in my hand. Now I’d seen it once, they were slithering everywhere, writhing over the stone and peering at us; black, marble tongues flicking in our direction.

“Yeah…I see it.” My voice trembled, slowly pacing backwards and glancing around; my eyes flicking about over every venom-dripping fang and beady black eye. Under Hawk’s footsteps, a low hissing slithered in every corner, watching us creep down the slope together and sounding a death rattle every time one of us came too close.

“This isn’t a normal encounter for your lot, is it?” He hissed again, his hand clutched around my belt tighter than any locked shackle.

“No…no, not at all.” I squeaked, approaching the black mouth of the exit. Two fang-shaped pillars flanked the hollow space, dripping venom as the open space of the next chamber loomed through. This was in no way normal, and in no way good.

I’m not ashamed to say I ran into that next chamber with Hawk, my breathing heavy and echoing off the high ceiling. Here, there were still snakes carved into the walls, but nowhere near as many, and these ones were definitely still. Here, the floor resembled a pool of water, like an oasis, with the stone rippling like the cast-off of a stone dropping in with a hollow plop. The ripples seemed to be stained with red splatters as I drew further and further away from the snake-filled hall, glistening in the light of Hawk’s torch as the splatters became pools.

“Well there’s your Justiciar. Wonder what got him?” Hawk asked, raising his torch so the light circle fell upon the broken Altmer’s body. Served in a pool of his own blood, the black and gold robes of the Thalmor had been ripped almost clean off him, exposing the deep wound going through the shattered remains of his ribs and into the broth of bloody flesh deep within his abdomen. The green, glass blade of his sword had been shattered, pieces laying sad and forgotten around his body, and deep within his tattered hood, Justiciar Neriecalmo still had a look of pure, primal fear glinting within the bloody remains of his eyes.

“I don’t think I wanna know.” I replied, jerking my head sideways as something moved in the shadows, like a fish through water. “Nor do I wanna stay here in case whatever got him comes back. You got any other ideas, Hawk?”

He’d gone quiet, staring directly at me. “Silence…” He squeaked, eyes wide and rolling like a terrified horse. “Silence…run!”

I bolted, grabbing his hand as whatever he’d spotted crashed into the stone behind me, slamming him into the wall as I turned back to look at the behemoth.

Twisting, its coils shimmered, fangs a toxic white against the black scales as the serpent reared up. At least as long and wide as the snake-filled hall, its tongue flickered, tasting the air before it spotted us again and hissed a low, long hiss.

It lunged at us, missing by inches as Hawk pulled me aside, dropping the torch and flooding the room in blackness as I arched atop him, shielding him from this serpent as it reared back and spat.

I was stupid, I shouldn’t have screamed. It dived at me like an arrow, thick scales covering Hawk and I as I gripped hold of him.

“Get your dagger, get it off!” I yelled, clutching him as I felt him fumbling for it.

“No…no, it’s trapped it to my thigh! Silence, don’t let go!”

I had no intention. This creature, this snake, had probably been what finished off Justiciar Neriecalmo in a single bite, and we were next. My eyes squeezed shut, I clung onto Hawk, holding him in my arms as the scaly coils began looping around us, smothering us in the pure muscle of the creature. Hawk was fumbling behind me, hand practically wedged at the back of my neck, when the creature gave a hoarse, almost strangled hiss, and the coils tumbled off us, exposing the arrow rammed between two scales, and the storm raging above.

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