The Elder Scrolls: The Aurorian

When Erende was recruited to journey to the unknown land of Tamriel, he had no idea what he truly was getting into. Suddenly thrusted into the world in the aftermath of a terrible war, he discovered the treasure he was hired to find is actually a small child, destined to defeat a powerful sorcerer. Banded together with other mercenaries, he sets out to find the Aurorian, but no one has any idea what to expect in order to find them.

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8. Chapter Six

 

Erende was not impressed by the Nordic burial ruin.

 The corridor was desecrated with broken arches and fallen masonry. Overturned tables and smashed urns littered the floor. The blue torchlight shadowed over the tunnel. Their footsteps echoed against the slick, damp walls. At the very far end of the hallway sat a large iron door.

 “So, how are we exactly supposed to find whatever we are looking for?” Aerian asked.

 “Flames mentioned a dragon rock, er, stone or something,” Steffan said, “I suppose we continue looking for said stone.”

 “But what does the stone look like?” Oriaer inquired with a raised eyebrow, looking over her shoulder.

 “Maybe like a stone with markings on it?” Erende answered. “Or maybe it’s guarded by a dragon, we won’t know until we find it.”

 “If we ever find it,” Khir’schen muttered, “now come on, I’m already tired.”

 She pressed against the iron door, opening it with a loud creak. Cobwebs fluttered from the low hanging ceiling. A wooden platform was beyond it, with a spiraling staircase descending into the darkness below. Oriaer leaned above the staircase. She picked up a pebble and let it drop. Ten seconds went by before they heard the small clink of the stone hitting the bottom. They each exchanged a worried glance.

 “Ladies first?” Steffan joked. Aerian frowned, and pushed him forward on the steps. They creaked and shuddered, dust falling from the steps. Steffan looked to them with crinkled eyebrows but Erende just waved with his hand. Oriaer gave him the torch.

 “Ladies first,” she winked.

 Steffan rolled his eyes, his irises reflecting the blue light. He tiptoed down the stairs, each time the step creaking and dust falling from the wood. As he descended lower and lower, the others began following him. Erende was last. He moved carefully, his back pressed against the wall. His eyes followed the winding light of Steffan’s torch. For a few moments, they carefully walked down the stairs, all of them silent. Then, Steffan was the first to reach the bottom. His gasp bounced off the closeted walls and into their ears.

 “Steffan, you alright?” Aerian called.

 “I’m fine, but be careful when you get to the bottom – there’s a…a…” His voice trailed off.

 “What?” Erende replied.

 “Just come down here.”

 They slipped down the remainder of the stairs. Once Erende felt the stone under his boots, he breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t for long.

 At the end of the stairs was an archway leading into a hallway. On the right side of the hallway was an open sarcophagus, and on the floor laid a body. It was wearing black pieces of ancient-looking armor. Its skin was white and stretched across it’s thin bones. Two black, hollow sockets replaced where the eyes should have been. Erende stared at the body.

 “A dragur,” Bahadur murmured. Erende looked to him.

 “Dragur? What’s a dragur?”

 Toro sniffed at the body, and whined softly. Bahadur kicked the dragur out of the way, and stepped past it.

 “An ancient Nord warrior used to protect the burial grounds of Nords.” He explained.

 “Necromancy?” Oriaer asked. Bahadur nodded, and she said nothing else. With silence, they walked further down the hallway. This time, lit braziers were stationed in small hulls inside the walls. An empty cart is toppled on its side against the wall. They continue walking down the hallway before it opens up into a large dining chamber, similar to that of the one where they had entered. Stone benches alongside sarcophagi lined the sides of the chamber with torn red banners swaying gently on posts on the walls. A long table filled with food sat in the center of the chamber. On the far end was another wooden door. Erende made his way into the room first, his breath heavy. His foot stepped on a splatter of dried blood.

 “What is this?” He asked, his voice reverberating off the chamber walls. Bahadur followed him.

 “It looks…new. Almost as if someone had been living here.”

 They stood still for a moment. Then, as Erende lifted his foot and proceeded forward, Steffan screamed.

 “Wait, Erende!”

 Erende’s boot sank onto a metal pressure plate. Immediately two swinging axes fell from the ceiling and raced towards Erende. Khir’schen dived for him, tackling him to the ground just as the axe missed him. They swung backwards into their place in the ceiling. As Erende groaned, he heard the doors of the sarcophagi break open, then low, deep growling. He twisted his head to see four dragur, all alive and all brandishing weapons standing before him. The black sockets were now glowing with a blue fire. Khir’schen pushed herself off him and unsheathed her sword.

 “You idiot, you stepped on a pressure plate!” Oriaer cried as she drew arcane magick from her hands. Erende stumbled to his feet and yanked his own dagger from his belt.

 “You think I don’t know that?!”

 “Listen, we’ve got more important things than to yell at each other!” Steffan interrupted, “like fighting these zombies!”

 The dragur was the first to charge towards them. Khir’schen whipped her sword around, the blade digging into the neck of the dragur before she ripped it away. The dragur howled, raising its battle-axe above its head and hurling it towards Khir’schens head. She rolled out of the way, tucking her sword in between her body and the ground before standing up again and throwing the blade towards the dragurs stomach.

 On the other side of the room, Oriaer faced off against an arrow-faced female dragur. The monster swung its one-handed sword at Oriaer, while Aerian stood away near the door and nocked iron arrows, sending them straight into the dragurs face. It seemed to have no effect as Oriaer continued to dodge the dragurs strikes. Toro bit the heels of the dragur to no obvious avail.

 Steffan and Erende worked together, defending against the other two dragur. Unfortunately for Erende, his dagger did not inflict must damage, as the serrated edge bounced off the dragurs rubbery skin. He grunted as the dragur dove the axe to him, cutting his arm deeply as he tried to jump away.

 “I can’t kill this damned thing!” Oriaer cried, repeatedly ducking to dodge the dragurs strikes. She hurled a fireball at the dragur. The arrows embedded in its face caught fire, and to their surprise, the dragur screamed, scraping at its face. The fire melted the iron tip of the arrow, and slowly, the dragur fell to the floor, still scratching at its face. When the fire subsided, the face had turned black with ash. The monsters blue light in its eyes dimmed into black. It didn’t move again. Oriaer turned to the others. She shrugged.

 “Never mind, I killed it.”

 Steffan and Erende exchanged a nodding look, while Bahadur grinned to Oriaer. All at once, they began to attack with fire. Oriaer managed to set both Steffan’s and Bahadur’s swords aflame and attacked the dragur with gusto. Aerian lit her arrows before she shot them and Erende made incisions in the skin so the heat could melt into their body. Fireball after fireball exploded against the dragur. Bahadur managed to use his inflamed sword to decapitate the second dragur. Its head, still stuck in its helmet, rolled across the floor.

 The last two dragur seemed more capable of defending themselves against the Guild, as they easily dodged some of the oncoming arrows, and one had even thrown away its sword in exchange for arcane magicka, throwing ice shards at Oriaer in retaliation. Aerian managed an arrow into the eye of the third dragur, the flames boiling the skin. It collapsed to the ground with a shriek. Fire engulfed its writhing body.

 The last dragur, the magickal one, was the hardest Erende had encountered. It was skillfully dodging and twisting around, avoiding their attacks so expertly Erende was afraid it might kill one of them before they killed it. The Guild had gotten just the tiniest bit better at fighting – but not much improvement was noticeable. Their fighting styles were exactly that of when they fought the snake and when they had broken into his house.

 But this time, Khir’schen was aware of this rather than just Erende. She motioned to the others, either with a glance or a flick of her wrist, but their techniques were more woven together in a flowing pattern. Erende found himself understanding her notifications and attacked the dragur at only specific timings. First Aerian shot with a lit arrow, then Bahadur attacked, then Steffan and Erende defended, Oriaer attacked again, and Khir’schen opening up timings for all of them. They were in a rhythm, a dance in which the steps started to move faster and faster. The dragur was losing focus. When Bahadur attacked and Erende defended a shard of ice from hitting Oriaer, it lost its focal core and accidentally shot an arcane bolt towards Aerian, leaving it open for an attack from Khir’schen.

 With one swooping blow, Khir’schen raised her sword and brought it down on the neck of the dragur. It stopped. Then, it slowly fell to its knees, and the head slid off its neck. It bounced across the floor, landing at Erende’s feet. He curled his nose.

 “Ew,” he muttered before kicking it away with the toe of his boot. It rolled to the other side of the chamber.

 The Guild breathed heavily, sheathing their weapons. Aerian wiped sweat from her face, and Toro licked at her wet cheeks. She smiled, panting.

 “Well, that was exciting,” she said, petting Toro on the head. Erende puffed out his cheeks.

 “At least it’s almost like training for fighting.”

 “Yes, well, this is only the first rom,” Bahadur warned, the metallic ringing of his sword echoing as it slid into his metal sheath, “come. We mustn’t delay, there might be more ahead. I hope Hannah is alright.”

 Stepping over the decapitated body, he made his way towards the next door. Erende sighed. He was right, but already Erende was tired. He didn’t want to have to fight another undead dragur. They were exhausting and he didn’t know how much stamina he had left.

 Reluctantly, he followed last behind Steffan and into the next door. It creaked open, and Bahadur brushed away several thick cobwebs. They entered another hallway that held a large staircase. A lit brazier sat in the middle of the staircase. Ahead was again, another large wooden door.

 “Really?” Aerian groaned, “another door?”

 “Ancient Nords must have liked doors.” Steffan shrugged.

 “Well, I don’t like doors,” Oriaer said as she climbed the stairs. Bahadur chuckled.

 “No one cares what you like Oriaer. We just fought four dragur, a door is nice to see.”

 “So you say.”

 Bahadur opened the next door. This time, they peered into a chamber containing four upright sarcophagi in a square in the middle of the room. A doorway into what Erende assumed to be the burial ground was blocked by an iron gate. In each of the corners of the room were raised sections with plinths holding handles and symbols of one of four animals beneath them. In one of the walls adjacent from the gated doorway were a few carved lines of a riddle. Bahadur motioned for them to be still, and to keep their eyes open. He stepped forward on the ground, examining for any pressure plates.

 “Nothing,” he whispered, and they walked into the room on their toes with their hands on their sheaths. Sweat still dripped from their foreheads as they looked around the chamber.

 “Be cautious, we don’t want to wake the dragur,” Khir’schen warned.

 Erende heard her, but his focus was that on the writing on the wall. The letters made no sense to him, as they were written in a different language than what he understood. After a moment of squinting, he was joined by Aerian. She, too, narrowed her eyes at the writing.

 “Locked in this barrow, in the same room as we, are four animals we must open our eyes to see. The third is serpent of the earth, to hide it digs into the ground, listen with your ears, for it only makes one sound.”

 “The second is the clever one, it digs to find, but it fears from what it can’t hide.” Khir’schen read.

 “The first is the largest, the one only fears one, be quick, be fast, pull the right trigger and open the right one.”

 “The fourth but not last is the beast of man, as this creature can pretend to be one of us but is really one of them,” Aerian continued, “it will feast on the flesh of the unknowing and it fears none, break the handle of this riddle and you will be done.”

 Erende shudder. The words they had spoken sent a wave of anxiety unto him. He still didn’t understand quite what they meant, but he felt as if there was a deeper level in its meaning. He didn’t seem to be the only one, as when he turned, he saw Aerian, her face etched in a grave expression. She stared at the words. He followed her eyes.

 Beast of man.

 What did that mean?

 Erende waved his hand in front of her face. Khir’schen shook her shoulder gently.

 “Aerian? You alright?”

 Aerian snapped out of her trance, blinking rapidly.

 “Yes, sorry, thinking. A riddle. We need to pull levers,” she said, rubbing her face, “a bear, I believe is the first one. Or, at least, that’s what it says on the third line of the stanza.”

 The Guild split out to the pillars. Each of the symbols held one animal. Erende recognized the closest one to him as a snake.

 “Here is the bear.” Steffan said. He reached behind the pillar, finding a wooden lever, and pulled it out. It snapped back it, and they heard a rapid click-click-click. They looked to the gate. It lifted up a quarter of the way.

 Then, to their disappointment, the lever also opened one of the sarcophagi. They all froze. Nothing. The slumbering dragur inside stayed still, its eyes shut. They didn’t move for an entire minute, waiting to see if the zombie would leave its resting place. Relief swept through them. Khir’schen pointed to the riddle, then towards the pillar. Erende looked to the pillar she was pointing at. The snake. His snake. He slowly moved to the lever but when he pulled it, he heard the gate slam shut. The last sarcophagus popped open. He looked towards in annoyance.

 “Shit.”

 The blue orbs of each of the dragurs eyes flash open. It stepped out of the coffin and waved an axe in its hand.

 “Damn it, Erende!” Steffan yelled to him, unsheathing his sword and lunging towards the dragur.

 “Well, I’m sorry if I was given the wrong orders!” Erende shouted back. Khir’schen unsheathed her sword with a scowl to him.

 “Since Erende wants to be incompetent, you two keep getting the levers and get that gate open! We’ll handle the dragur!” She hollered. Aerian nodded, and ducked as the other sarcophagus opened and another dragur stepped out.

 “Fine! What does the stupid riddle say?!” Erende shouted, dodging an axe wielding dragur as he made his way towards the pillar of the bear again. He pulled the lever, and the gate opened once more. Aerian traced her finger over the words.

 “Um, uh, okay, it says the second one should be, I think, maybe a fox?”

 Erende looked around. One pillar had the symbol of what seemed to be a fox on the other side of the chamber. He ducked across the room, avoiding arcane shots from Oriaer and Bahadur’s war hammer before reaching the pillar. He grabbed the lever and yanked. The gate went up another quarter.

 “Great! That’s perfect! What’s the second one?”

 “Um, I think, uh-”

 “We don’t have time for doubting, Aerian!” Oriaer shouted, sending a dragur face first into a wall. Toro attacked with bared teeth, violently shaking the dragur by the arm and throwing it towards Oriaer again. Aerian grimaced.

 “This is difficult, give me a moment!”

 “We don’t have a moment!”

 “Shut up, let me think!”

 “Aerian, just tell me what it is!”
 “Fine! The snake! Go for the snake!”

 Erende groaned. The pillar was on the other side again. He raced through the battle once more, earning a quick cut on his arm when one of the dragur thrusted their sword towards him. Bahadur rescued him by slamming his hammer down on the dragurs head. Erende saluted Bahadur quickly before reaching the snake. The lever activated the gate. He grinned.

 “That’s it! What’s the last one?”

 No answer. Erende turned back to the riddle to find her gone. He scanned the room. She had ditched the wall to run over to the last pillar. A wolf symbol.

 “Get ready to run!” She screamed, and yanked the lever. The gate opened fully. Without hesitation, the Guild raced through the doorway. Aerian was last, and as soon as she made it through the door she turned and jerked a chain next to the gate. Before the dragur could follow them, the gate crashed back down, blocking them off from the doorway. Erende gasped for air as the dragur tried to reach through the metal bars.

 “Ha!” He yelled when he caught his breath, “that’s what you get, lousy ass wipers!”

 As he laughed, he noticed the others brushing themselves off again. Khir’schen took him by the scuff of his armor and lifted him up.

 “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, okay, okay, okay.” He said when he was one his feet. He rubbed his ear, and Khir’schen glared at him.

 “Two rooms down. Let’s keep going.”

 Erende grumbled, but followed her as they walked down the hallway. The doorway had been an entrance into one of the many burial chambers in the ruin. They passed by walls with many hallowed out shelves. Erende could see skeletons laying in the shelves. Some of them were buried next to pieces of armor. Others had coin pouches. Bahadur caught him when he swiped one pouch.

 “What?” He blinked, “they’re dead.”

 Bahadur’s angry glare forced Erende to put it back.

 They traveled through the chamber and out into another hallway that led up a staircase. At the top, they found the rest of the hallway had been caved in. Rubble blacked part of their path. On either side were two doorways. Both of them were not blocked.

 “Two ways?” Steffan questioned, “what, do we split up?”

 “Yes,” Khir’schen commanded, pointing to Erende, “go look at the right doorway, we’ll look to the left.”

 Erende didn’t argue but he did mimic her voice as he walked over to the doorway. He peeked inside. Darkness.

 “It’s just dark,” He called.

 “Then light a torch.”

 “I don’t have one.”

 He heard Khir’schen groan, and faint arguing. Then, Steffan appeared beside him, holding a torch. Erende took it with a grin.

 “Thanks man.”

 “Sure, whatever.”

 Erende held out the torch and entered the room. The flame lit up several broken urns in the room, but as he continued he found nothing of interest.

 “What do you see?” Steffan asked from the doorway.

 “Nothing. Just broken pots and moss.”

 “Wow. That’s quite a lot of treasure.”

 “Shut up.”

 He was about to turn back but when he glanced around one more time, he spied a book shelf laying in one of the corners. It wasn’t unique in the least, but Erende caught the small twinkle of something metallic. He grinned, and raced over to it. Setting down the torch on the ground he placed his hands under the shelf and attempted to move it. His strength wasn’t much, and he was only able to slid it to the left a few inches to uncover the rest of the shiny treasure. To his surprise, it was a treasure chest. His grin grew wider.

 “Erende? Erende? Did you find something?” Steffans voice bounced.

 “No!” Erende called, “be out in a moment!”

 He crouched low to the ground and squeezed his hand past the shelf. He felt the rusty metal of two branded locks. Using the tip of his finger, he carefully pried open the top of the chest. One lock snapped. Then, the other, Excitedly, he lifted it up. Suddenly, he saw the dirty edge of a rope. His eyes widened. Arrows shot from all different angles towards him. He recoiled, covering his head in his hands. Once the hissing of the arrows stopped, he looked up. The torch illuminated the many arrow heads stuck in the bookshelf. He breathed.

 “Well, then,” he said, “someone doesn’t like intruders.”

 He stood up once again and peered behind the shelf. The chest was empty, and he frowned. Picking the torch back up, he stepped out of the room and back out into the hallway, where Steffan was waiting for him. He didn’t say anything, except for motioning toward the other end of the room. Erende looked to where he was pointing. A hole in the wall had appeared. It was an entrance into a small tunnel led by several torches. Erende raised his eyebrows.

 “Well, how did that happened?” He asked. Steffan shrugged.

 “Probably something you did.” He smiled, placing a hand on his shoulder, “for once, being an idiot helped.”

 “Hey,” Khir’schen called, “this tunnel looks like it leads out!”

 The Guild made their way through the small tunnel. It was damp and dark, and it smelled of dust. The torches flickered against the walls, making shadows appear. Erende was at the far back, watching as the darkness that the cave created started to fade as what seemed like daylight began to appear. He crawled past pillars of wood holding up the cave ceiling until, one by one, the Guild dropped out of the hole. When Erende reached the end, he found himself looking out into a cavern.

 A waterfall rained down from an opening in the ceiling of the cavern and into a lake at the bottom. Sunlight peeked through the opening, shining off the water and creating a kaleidoscope of colors across the enormous walls, scaling hundreds of feet upwards. A path of stone led down to the lake. As they began to descend, Erende noticed towering trees surrounding the lake. The air was sweet with the scent of fresh grass.

 The end of the path reached into the wet dirt of the lake shore. Two wooden poles were stuck in the mud of the shore, holding together a rope bridge that tracked across the lake. From where he was standing, Erende saw the bridge lead to an island at the far end of the lake. On it, was an unusual, large rock formation.

 “That must be it.” Steffan said. His voice resonated through the giant cavern.

 “Well, that wasn’t so long,” Bahadur mentioned playfully, nudging Oriaer before walking towards the bridge. She rolled her eyes.

 “Don’t die,” Oriaer called to him, “the wood looks as if it is rotting.”

 Bahadur gripped one of the wooden poles, tugging slightly on the rope. The bridge creaked painfully. With a foot, Bahadur poked one of the wooden planks. When it didn’t break, he slowly placed his weight on the bridge. They held their breath as he let his body balance on the plank.

 Nothing.

 Slowly, he walked forward. The bridge moaned but it didn’t fall apart. Halfway across, Bahadur turned and waved for them.

 “Come, it’s alright. You won’t die.”

 Erende eyed the bridge.

 “It looks like we’re going to die.” He muttered. Steffen nudged him, and started across the bridge.

 Once Steffan was halfway across, Erende reluctantly followed him, and stepped onto one of the planks. His weight combined with the others made him worry as the bridge continued to moan with every step. Water droplets flying from the waterfall dotted his skin and clothing, and made the bridge slick with water. Toro, excited as ever, began racing up and down the bridge. Erende almost shrieked when the dog zoomed past him, knocking him off balance and almost tumbling into the water.

 “Aerian!” He yelled, “call off your hound!”

 “He’s just happy, the bridge won’t break!” She called from ahead of him. Erende glowered at Toro, who just barked and trotted back over to Aerian. It felt like a lifetime before Erende saw his boot sink into the grass of the island. He looked up, breathing a sigh of relief. The Guild hadn’t waited for him to cross – already they stood at the base of the stone formation. As Erende approached them, he could barely hear what they were saying over the roar of the waterfall

He stood between Bahadur and Khir’schen. They gazed at the wall. Erende didn’t understand what they were so infatuated with. The stone formation just looked to be a wall with odd words carved into it, like that of the riddle back in the chamber. This time, the words were not really words, but rather slashes and markings in the stone, as if someone had pulled their sword and swung it repeatedly into the wall in either anger or curiosity to see if their blade was strong enough to tamper with the rock. Whatever it might’ve been, it confused Erende, and he had no idea what any of it was.

 When he turned to his companions, he found that they were running their hands along the drenched formation. Bahadur traced one line with his finger, pulling it back to find his skin covered in wet dirt.

 “This must be the dragon stone Flames had wanted,” he said, rubbing the mud onto his leather armor. Oriaer scoffed.

 “No, it can’t be. This is too big, how are we supposed to bring it back to him?”

 “Wait, wait, wait,” Erende interrupted, “I thought a dragon stone was supposed to be something, like, y’know, a stone with a dragon on it, or maybe a gem of some sort.”

 Aerian rolled her eyes.

 “No, Erende, this is a dragon wall, a stone that has dragon words written on it. These are everywhere, and each of them are part of an ancient legend.”

 “The Dragonborn used these to learn the dragon language,” Khir’schen finished. Erende stared at the stone wall. The markings shined back at him.

 “Like what Haldric had mentioned?” Steffan asked. Khir’schen nodded, and he puffed out his cheeks.

 “Well, if that’s the case, then how are we really supposed to get this to Flames? It’s huge, we don’t have anything to-”

 “Well, what if it’s just one word?”

 They turned to Oriaer. She was facing the wall, her hand caressing one of the words written in the very middle of the stone. Her palm was aflame with an orange light. Erende wrinkled his nose.

 “What do you mean, ‘just one word’?” He asked. Oriaer slowly pressed her hand into the word.

 “I mean…”

 The orange light engulfed the word. When the light soaked into the rock, she pulled her hand back to her. The stone that held the one word came with her. It was about the size of a chicken, the width about half a foot. The light dimmed as she held it in her arms. The Guild looked at her in shock.

 “Well…” Bahadur cleared his throat, “Oriaer, if you suspected that it was only one word, how do you know that it might be that word?”

 “Because this,” she said, holding the stone up, “means prophecy. And Flames seemed to be the kind of lunatic that would want to be a part of a fabled prophecy of some sort.”

 “You’re not wrong,” Steffan smiled. Oriaer tucked the stone into her bag, and started back across the bridge.

 “Come on. If we’re wrong, we’ll just come back. Flames can’t be that picky.”

 They walked back across the bridge, reaching the other side doused in water. As they made their way back towards the small hole, Erende noticed a crack in the stone wall. It was in the shape of an arrow head, but the crack was deep and it didn’t seem natural. That’s when he noticed a chain, obscured by hanging mosses. He pulled it. The arrow-shaped crack opened up into a circular cave just like the one they had entered from. It extended upwards, lit by several torches.

 “Over here,” Erende called, motioning for the others to follow him. They made their way through the tunnel. It came out in the first hallway next to the spiraling staircase. When they reached the top, Erende saw the familiar walls of the hallway they had entered from. They all seemed to sigh in relief at the sight.

 “Finally,” Khir’schen grinned.

 Suddenly, the torch she held blew out. Darkness rushed and blinded them.

 “What is going on?” Oriaer said, bumping into Erende as she tried to navigate around.

 “The torch went out, but I don’t know why.” Khir’schen responded. Erende didn’t know what to do. He held his arms out as he tried to find one of the walls of the cavern. He had barely touched the metal torch holder before it was lit again. This time, the color of the flame was a deep purple. Its light was weak.

 But for Erende, it illuminated the silhouette in the middle of the hallway. 

Standing before them was a figure shrouded in a cloud of black fog. Skeletal hands wafted out from the fog, and Erende could just make out the outline of a skull. His breath hitched in his throat.

 “Look at all of you, all pretending to be powerful warriors, all pretending to be the best fighters,” the figure snarled, gliding across the floor towards them. They stepped back, but one skeletal hand lunged out from the dark mass and grasped Erende’s face, bringing him closer to it. He heard the schwing of an unsheathing sword.

 “Let him go,” Steffan growled, “or I swear I’ll rip your face off.”

 The figure cackled. Its bony fingertips sank into Erende’s cheeks.

 “How cute, he wants to protect you!” It cooed. Erende smelled death on its hot breath. He struggled to break away from the shadows grip.

 “Well, when you have people who care about you, then you tend to find out that they would fight for you,” he said. The figure tightened its grip, making him choke.

 “Who are you, and what do you want?” Bahadur said, waving his war hammer at the creature. The black fog grew denser around them, obscuring the dim light of the torches. The figure began to chuckle, its laughter growing louder and louder as it grew darker.

 “Who am I?” It said. The words echoed around them in the blackness.

 “Who am I? Well, what a surprise that you must ask that question!”

 The fog dissipated, revealing a translucent thing in black armor basking in red light. His skin was grey, the light jutting through him, his appearance similar to that of a bull and a reptile, his ugly grin revealing blackened teeth with coals for eyes. Black horns protruded from his forehead, winding around his head. A serpentine tail scraped the ground when it moved. His bony fingers had morphed into long, slick claws. Erende clutched his dagger, his body shaking. The creature roared, sending pieces of the ceiling falling onto their heads.

 “I am Molag Bal! I am the Prince of Destruction! Corruption! Domination! You shall bow before me!” He thundered, slamming his fist on the ground. It sent an earthquake across the corridor floor, cracking open the stone. The Guild fell to their knees. They watched as Molag Bal towered over them, fire erupting in each step that he took.

 “Why are you here?!” Aerian shouted to him, raising herself onto her feet. Molag Bal laughed.

 “Because I have found that you are so easily betrayed, so easily hurt by one another, and I find it…decadent.”

 “Are you just waiting to kill us?!” Steffan cried. Erende held tight to one of his sleeves.

 “No,” Molag Bal pronounced, “no, I do not have the strength to kill you all how I want to, and it is no fun if I can’t have my way,”

 Aerian panted, clutching Toro, “then what are you going to do?!”

 Molag Bal’s ugly grin grew wider at her question. His eyes gleamed with fire and he held out his hand. The wall that Flames had placed started to crack. Molag Bal closed his fist. The wall exploded into shrapnel, sending pieces of flaming rock everywhere. Erende covered his face, and saw that on the other side of the wall stood the dark elf. He held Hannah in his arms. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth and nose were covered in blood. He looked to Flames for something, something like a glimmer of helpfulness or friendliness, something that said that he was on their side.

 But it wasn’t there. When Flames caught Erende’s eyes, he only smiled. Fear and anger raced through Erende as he realized what had happened.

 “Hannah!” Bahadur screamed as Flames walked closer to them. He started to sprint for her, but Molag Bal swung his arm, hitting him in the face and sending him into one of the walls. He fell to the floor, groaning. Immediately Aerian came to his side. She helped him turn, brushing the ash off his face. Tears boiled in her eyes.

 “You traitor!” She shrieked to Flames. The dark elf entered the corridor, standing next to Molag Bal. He didn’t answer. Instead, Molag Bal placed a claw over Flames’ head. A sudden change began to appear. Flames’ skin turned from a dark grey to a sickly white. His hair turned black, his eyes forming into red snake-like pupils. His clothes transformed from leather armor to black metal armor. The armor had two long, layered pauldron set on the shoulders, resembling that of snake skin. When Flames smiled, they saw pointed teeth. Flames was no longer a dark elf, or even a man.

 It was a woman.

 “Behold!” Molag Bal boomed, “my Champion! My Destroyer! My Corruption!”

 The woman held her head high, staring into their trembling faces.

 “Askarath.”

 She smiled. Her black, serrated teeth shined against the flames of the torches. Erende seethed.

 “You lied to us!” He yelled, standing from his place beside Steffan, “you tricked us!”

 Askarath only laughed, dumping Hannah onto the floor. Erende heard her moan softly, and slowly move her arm. Bahadur scrambled over to her. He held her tightly in his arms. Erende felt another wave of anger wash over him at the sight.

 “You hurt Hannah! You hurt all of us! By the Gods, I’ll kill you!” Erende tightened his grip on his dagger, racing forward towards Askarath. She calmly held up her hand. Erende slammed into a magickal ward, falling onto his back. As he groaned, he felt blood trickle down from his nose.

 “You’re so stupid.” Askarath said, grinning, “you should just hand over the stone and I’ll let you go, without killing anyone! Doesn’t that sound nice?” She said, slinking over to him and cupping his face. He tore himself away from her.

 “And why should we do that?” He spat blood and saliva on the ground. Askarath smiled, her mouth growing wide over her cheeks.

 “Because you care for the lives of your friends, don’t you?” She looked up, gazing at the Guild, “you all care for one another, yes? It’s absolutely beautiful, wouldn’t you say, Molag?”

 Askarath moved away from Erende, stepping on his stomach to approach the other. Erende coughed, tiny blood droplets splattering on the stone. He saw Khir’schen hold her sword up against Askarath as she stepped towards them.

 “That’s close enough,” she sneered. Askarath chuckled.

 “Close enough? No, no, you see, Khir’schen, you are the one that is too close. You are the one that does not know the right amount of distance you should leave you and your…friend.”

 “What the hell do you mean?!” Steffan shouted.

 Askarath whipped to Aerian. She froze, the arrow nocked on her bow trembling ever so slightly.

 “Do you really know yourself? Do you really know the truth? Do any of you? Because I do.”

 Erende saw Aerian’s eyes fill with tears.

 “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re saying!” He shouted, struggling to stand.

 “Oh, but I do! You are new, but the others, the ones Aerian has made her life with, have none of you realized the true danger you are in?” Askarath said. Khir’schen glanced from the woman to Aerian.

 “We have no reason to believe you! Aerian has always been there for us! She is our best fighter! She is-“

  “Not who you think she is!” Askarath howled, “don’t you remember, Aerian, lies are always the ones to kill!”

 Laughing manically, Askarath opened her arms and let her head fall back. The apparition of Molag Bal turned into black smoke, entering Askaraths body. As an aura of red and black surrounded her, she threw out her arm, sending a missile of darkness hurling towards Aerian. It slammed into her chest as she screamed, sending her backwards into the wall. The Guild watched in horror as Aerian writhed on the ground, the aura beginning to engulf her.

 “Aerian!” Oriaer cried, running forward to her. Askarath used a whip of arcane magicka to tie around Oriaer’s waist and yanked her back. The stone flew from her jacket and onto the floor.

 “Uh, uh, uh,” Askarath tsked as she bent down to the stone, “watch out for the beast.”

 Aerian screamed in pain, slamming her hands on the ground. Erende watched as the elf began to morph into a dark figure. Her skin was growing black, thick hair. Her mouth snarled, turning into a large muzzle. Her face twisted, eyes turning red, hair growing across her cheeks. Her body engorged, her clothes ripping away as fur pushed against the armor.

 Aerian stood up on her hind legs. She panted as the last of the black magick soaked into her new wolfish body. The Guild stared in horror as she howled. Askarath laughter molded in.

 “Fear her! Fear her! You do not know everything about each other, and because of that, you will all die by the hands of your so-called friend!”

 The wolf growled, dropping back onto its four legs. Erende looked to find Askarath, rage boiling like fire under his skin, but found that she and the apparition of Molag Bal had disappeared. They had been left alone in the hallway with the wolf. For a moment, they stayed still, hands twitching as they gripped the handles of their weapons. Bahadur held Hannah in his arms, unmoving as he stared down the growling wolf. It moved in a circle, blocking them from exiting the hallway. Saliva dripped from its sharp teeth. Erende swallowed. His hand gripped his dagger handle.

 “Don’t.”

 Erende looked over to the Guild. They each had an expression of confusion on their face. They didn’t recognize the voice either. His knuckles turned white as he held the dagger close to his face. The wolf snarled, and suddenly lunged at them.

 “Scatter!” Oriaer screamed, and the Guild dived out of the way. Erende rolled to the side, watching the wolf use its long claws to scrape the ground when it landed. He saw the others grab onto their weapons and ready themselves. The wolf shook its head, whipping around and snarling. It howled then raced towards Khir’schen. She smacked it with the butt of her sword, ducking as its arm swung at her. Steffan and Erende attempted to stab it with their swords but were knocked out of the way by its large tail. As they collapsed on the ground, Toro appeared beside them. He growled deep in his throat.

 “Don’t attack her! She’s not herself!” Toro said, nudging Erende. Erende stared at the dog, shocked. Steffan gaped with his mouth open like a fish.

 “You…you can-”

 “Talk, yes, now you two shut up,” Toro said, tugging Steffans sleeve. They stood up, staring at the dog. Erende breathed in heavily.

 “But..but you’re a-”

 “DUCK!”

 Steffan knocked Erende to the side as the wolf tried to pounce on them. It hit the wall with a loud thud.

 “Erende! Steffan! What the hell are you two doing?!” Oriaer screamed from the other side of the hallway. She had retrieved Aerian’s bow and arrows that had be left on the ground, and was attempting to nock one. Erende scrambled out of reach from the wolf as it reached a long, sharp claw to him. He kicked it in the face with his boot.

 “Toro was saying something! I don’t know!”

 “Toro?!” Khir’schen said. She attempted to stab the wolf with her sword but failed and was now desperately dodging the wolfs snarling mouth.

 “He was talking!” Steffan backed up, “we can’t attack her!”

 “Her who?!”

 “The wolf!”
 “It’s not Aerian, it’s a beast!” Bahadur said from away, holding his warhammer, ready to defend an unconscious Hannah. Erende groaned, again dodging the wolfs attacks.

 “Inside the beast is Aerian!” Toro shouted, rushing around the wolf, practically herding it. The Guild stopped, surprised at Toro’s words.

 “Don’t just stand there, guide her to the wall!” Toro barked. The Guild snapped out of the trance, and then attempted to help Toro by herding Aerian against the wall. Once she was contained within a tight circle, she howled again, hurling herself at the circle wall. Khir’schen and Steffan managed to leap away. Erende was knocked to the ground, Aerian’s wolfish hand curling around his throat. He gasped as her weight began to set on his throat. His eyes stared into Aerian’s red irises, and her mouth loomed over his face. Panic began to set it.

 “Shoot!” Toro screamed.

 Then, he heard the whizz of an arrow. It lodged itself into the shoulder of Aerian. She roared, stumbling away from Erende. Air rushed back into his lungs, and he heaved as his throat throbbed hot with rushing blood. Aerian ripped off the arrow, but already the aura of black around her began to fade. She howled, the wolfish voice turning to her own as the hair retreated back into her body. Finally, her elfish body stood naked before them. She blinked. Then, she collapsed onto the floor. The arrow head clinked on the ground, settling before Erende. He picked it up as Toro and Oriaer ran to Aerian’s side. Toro sniffed her and Oriaer managed to lift her up into her arms.

 “Wait, is she alright, is she okay?” Erende said as he struggled to sit up. Steffan helped him stand.

 “I don’t know. I hope so.”

 “What did you do?” Khir’schen asked Oriaer. Oriaer didn’t say anything as she walked towards the first cavern. She slowly placed Aerian on one of the long dining tables, covering her body with a Red Vale cloak. As she smoothed it out, Erende noticed the Valenwood patch sewn crudely into the cloak. It was Aerian’s. Silence fell over them for a time. Both Hannah and Aerian continued to sleep, both were covered in blood. Erende sat on one of the dusty stools, waiting for one of them to wake. He watched as Oriaer gently took Aerian’s hand in hers, stroking her skin gently with her finger.

 He didn’t know how much time had passed, but fatigue had caught up with him. Without noticing he had even fallen asleep, he had woken up to the sound of coughing. He blinked rapidly. Bahadur was holding Hannah in his arms, shushing her and carefully wiping away blood that was expelled from her mouth. When the coughing fit subsided, she breathed in heavily.

 “What…what…” she started, her single clear eye looking around the Guild as they gathered around her. Bahadur smiled.

 “You’re okay, Hannah. It’s okay.”

  Hannah nodded. She struggled to sit up, but once she did she caught sight of Aerian. She pointed to her.

 “What happened?”

 “Askarath.” Erende replied. Hannah cocked an eyebrow.

 “Askarath?”

 “Flames McMaceHands, or whoever, was actually a sorceress in disguise.” Toro explained.

 Suddenly, Aerian woke. She sat up, coughing violently. Oriaer held her in her arms. In-between wheezing breaths, Aerian choked with sobs.

 “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She said. Oriaer stroked her hair.

 “Don’t worry, Aerian. It’s not your fault. It was never your fault.”

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