Monday, March 25, 2013

A Stranger in Skyrim 21

Chapter Twenty-One: Back to Business

In which magic cures all ills.

A tumble of nonsensical words rolled through her mind, the loudest voices actually Shouting at her.

Dovahkiin!” they seemed to say.

She groaned, opening eyes that refused to focus properly.

She tasted copper in her mouth. Reaching up to feel her face, her hand came away wet. She looked around to try and figure out where she'd ended up, but it was impossibly dark.

She started to panic.

Although she had excellent night vision, it did her no good if there wasn't any light. Trying to keep calm, she felt around her. She was in a tight space. Wall, door – there, cold porcelain. She identified it immediately as the bathroom. She was sitting on the floor next to the toilet, which explained the tight confines; her bathroom was ridiculously tiny. Feeling up the wall, she found the light switch and flipped it on.

Relief flooded her, even though her eyes complained at the sudden light and she had to close them.

Now all she had to do was clean up all the blood.

She deliberately did not think about exactly what would cause that kind of a reaction, because she had her suspicions and they were wrong.

She picked herself up, unlocked the door, and, taking a deep breath to prepare herself, opened it.

There was nothing there.

She laughed a bit at herself. She was being silly. Why would there be anything inside her house?

She walked to her bedroom, took her night meds, and crawled into bed. Nothing popped out at her, nothing was there but her own foolish imagination.

For the first time in months, she left the bedside lamp on when she went to sleep.

She was roused out of a vague nightmare by another: everything was pain. She felt her bones grinding against each other as they set themselves, and she cried out in agony as the nerves protested their treatment.

A woman stood above her, her hands glowing with white light. She wore brown robes with a yellow hood, and she spoke soft, soothing, nonsense words.

The pain slowly subsided as everything sank into its proper place. Mariah sagged with relief.

“You're awake then? Good. I was afraid … generally it's a bad idea to let someone with a cracked skull sleep, but nothing could rouse you.” The woman smiled. “You've had a lot of visitors. Mostly well-wishers, some of the guards who were with you when you killed that dragon. The Jarl himself even came down from Dragonsreach. You're a popular lady.”

She sat up slowly, with a groan. “What time is it … ?”

“Morning. You're hungry?”

Mariah nodded slowly.

“We'll get you something to eat.” Another smile. “Now, and this is important: don't do anything too strenuous for the next couple of days. I had to heal a lot of damage, and you're still on the mend.”

She rubbed the back of her head. “Define 'strenuous,' please.” She doubted she'd get a real chance to rest, after all. What had even happened to her possessions?

“No fighting. Period. No heavy lifting, no long journeys, no running, or jumping, or … whatever it is you hero types do, don't do it. Understand me, if you strain yourself too much, you won't heal properly. You're fragile right now.”

She nodded. “Understood. Can I at least make the trip up to Dragonsreach? If the Jarl came to see me, I'm sure it's important.”

“If you think you're up to it, I suppose. Just be careful. I don't want to see you back here because you broke something again.”

A smile. “I'll do my best. Now … what was this about food?”

She ate a hearty meal of meat, bread, and cheese, put together in a configuration she chose to call a “sandwich.” It was a medieval time period, so she was fairly sure she got to “invent” certain modern ideas like that.

“Thank you again. Do I owe you anything?”

The woman shook her head. “Your expenses were covered by the Jarl. He said that it was the least he could do for a dragonslayer.”

“I – see. Well, thank you anyway. I didn't expect to survive that fall.”

Another shake of the head. “You wouldn't have, except that Irileth managed to get an extremely powerful healing potion into you, and quickly.” The woman smiled. “I just finished the job. If you thank anyone today, it should be the housecarl.”

“I will, but you have my thanks anyway. Where are my things, please?”

The woman produced all of her gear, even the pieces Mariah hadn't noticed were missing. She had to get used to the idea of carrying a weapon with her everywhere.

She arranged her things in their normal places. Everything felt heavier than it had been before, but then, she was still worn out from the healing. If she'd been as battered as she still felt, it was a miracle she was up and walking. She remembered the first day after her surgery, and her inability to move.

Magic beat modern medicine, apparently.

Who knew?

The trip up to Dragonsreach, though exhausting, was largely uneventful. She sagged against the great doors of the place before she finally pushed them open.

Spying the Jarl, she noticed he had other people with him.

“Good,” the fancy-robed man said. “You're finally here. The Jarl's been waiting for you.”

The Jarl had another visitor, a man in leather armor that looked like it had been ripped off some ancient barbarian hero … wait, he probably was an ancient barbarian hero. He was big, muscular, and looked kind of mean.

“You heard the summons,” the Jarl was saying as she approached his throne. “What else could it mean? The Graybeards ….”

The barbarian shrugged slightly, turning to look at her. “We were just talking about you. My brother needs a word with you.”

“Aye-aye.” She said it tiredly, with a faint smile.

The Jarl regarded her calmly. “My guards have given their reports, but I'd like to hear your tale, please. Leave nothing out. Any details you remember might be important, if we should have to face another.”

She looked up at the ceiling, for a moment, folding her hands behind her back. “Yessir. The watchtower was destroyed; there was rubble everywhere, and everything was burning. Only one guard had survived the dragon's attack, and he was telling us to get away. The dragon swooped down – Irileth did most of the fighting.” She ducked her head, embarrassed. “I mostly just shot lightning at it.”

“I knew I could count on Irileth. But my guards tell me that you had your moment, no?”

She shook her head. “I grabbed the dragon, when it was about to take off, and nearly got killed for my efforts, sir. I guess I dealt the killing blow, but really, I would have died on my own.”

He nodded. “And then?”

The dragon – when it was dying, it … melted. I remember that. And then … there was a white light, coming from its corpse. I think – I think it was coming for me. I blacked out … I don't remember, I'm sorry.”

The Jarl closed his eyes, processing that. “So it's true – the Greybeards really were summoning you.”

“The … Greybeards, sir?”

He nodded once. “Masters of the Way of the Voice. They live in seclusion high on the slopes of the Throat of the World.” Oh goodie. She was going to get to go mountain climbing.

What … I'm sorry, what would they want with me?”

The Jarl regarded her oddly. “That light you saw … it was most likely the dragon's very soul. You absorbed it into your body … I'd wager that power is part of why you didn't die from your injuries. If that's true – if you are Dragonborn, then you should be able to Shout, like the dragons do. The Greybeards could teach you to use your gift, if you let them.”

“Didn't you hear that thundering sound as you returned to Whiterun?” The Jarl's brother asked. “That was the voice of the Greybeards, summoning you to High Hrothgar!”

She shook her head. “I don't think I was conscious for that.”

But she remembered. Dovahkiin, they'd called her, in her dream. Dragonborn.

“This hasn't happened in … centuries, at least. Not since Tiber Septim himself was summoned while he was still Talos of Atmora!” Talos … one of the Divines?

The fancy-pants man folded his arms. “Hrongar, calm yourself. What does any of this Nord nonsense have to do with our friend here?” He gestured to her. “Capable as she may be, I don't see any signs of her being this, what, 'Dragonborn.'”

“Nord nonsense?! Why you puffed up, ignorant …” He sputtered for a moment. “These are our sacred traditions that go back to the founding of the first Empire!”

“Hrongar,” The Jarl smiled, humor in his voice. “Don't be so hard on Avenicci.”

Fancy-pants – Avenicci – shook his head. “I meant no disrespect, of course. It's just that … what do these Greybeards want with her?”

She'd like to know that, herself.

“That's the Greybeards' business, not ours.” He looked away from his brother and his advisor, staring straight at her. “Whatever happened when you killed that dragon, it revealed something in you, and the Greybeards heard it. If they think you are Dragonborn, who are we to argue? You'd better get up to High Hrothgar immediately. There is no refusing the summons of the Greybeards. It's a tremendous honor.”

She shifted a little, uncertainly. “There might be a slight problem with the 'immediate' part of that. I'm not to do anything strenuous for the next few days ….”

He waved his hand, dismissively. “I envy you, you know. To climb the seven thousand steps again... I made the pilgrimage once, did you know that? It's a difficult journey … perhaps you should wait until you're well.”

“What can you tell me about this 'High Hrothgar?'”

He looked distant for a moment. “High Hrothgar is a very … peaceful place. Very disconnected from the troubles of this world. I wonder that the Greybeards even notice what's going on down here. They haven't seemed to care before.” He shook his head. “No matter. Go High Hrothgar. Learn what the Greybeards can teach you.”

A slight pause, as one of the servants came up with a few items.

You've done a great service for me and my city, Dragonborn,” Jarl Balgruuf announced. “By my right as Jarl, I name you Thane of Whiterun. It's the greatest honor that's within my power to grant. I assign you Lydia as your personal housecarl, and this weapon from my armory to serve as your badge of office.” He smiled. “I'll also notify my guards of your new status. Wouldn't want them to think you're part of the common rabble, now would we? We are honored to have you as Thane of our city, Dragonborn.”

My – my lord, I can't – ”

He took the axe from his own belt, holding it out to her with both hands. “You can, and you will. My servant will lead you to the armory to choose a small selection of items for your past deeds, as well.”

She shook her head, but obediently followed the servant when he beckoned. As she was walking away, she heard the Jarl speak again.

“Back to business, Proventus. We still have a city to defend.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Stranger in Skyrim 20

Chapter Twenty: Mirmulnir

In which bad decisions are made.

“Here he comes!” Irileth called. “Find cover, and make every arrow count!”

What the fuck was she supposed to do? She wasn't an archer, she wasn't even particularly good with the crossbow, she was just going to get roasted by a dragon and die.

Oh right. Magic.

She had magic. Maybe – maybe – that would help.

The dragon roared down from the mountains. There came the whoosh of air over his wings, and then he landed, with a roar.

He spoke words, but she didn't understand them, exactly. There was mirth in his tone, however, as he reached out and bit one of the guards in half.

Can't think, can't think –

She reached out with both hands, spewing lightning at her foe. He snapped those massive teeth at her, catching the front of her robe. It tore, loudly, but he used it to fling her to the side. She landed against a wall with a loud crunch and a groan.

Gotta get up –

She pushed herself up on hands and knees. There came the whoosh of air as the dragon took flight once more, circling around the tower. The other guardsmen shot arrows and crossbow bolts; Irileth seemed to be using lightning, to somewhat better effect than Mariah had.

She made it to standing, wobbily. The beast landed again, right in front of her. One eye was turned towards her, as though he was inspecting her.

She froze, lightning crackling ineffectually on her fingertips.

“Look at me, you great, overgrown lizard!” Irileth brought her sword down on the other side of the dragon's face. He roared, breathing fire in her direction, only it seemed to spray across some kind of half-invisible shield. “You'll have to do better than that!” the housecarl cried. Mariah regained her senses; she shot a continual stream of electricity at him, while Irileth bravely slashed at him with her sword. Arrows and bolts pelted the beast's armored scales, bouncing off to no effect.

She knew what she had to do, she just didn't relish the idea of doing it. Somehow, though, they had to pierce the creature's thick scales, maybe crack its skull open.

“What are you doing?!”

Mariah grabbed one of the beast's horns with one hand. It looked at her, speaking in draconic. “I can't understand you,” she said, grimly pulling the greatsword. He tried to snap at her, but she danced out of the way, keeping her handhold on his horn.

He bunched up, intending to take off again, and she had this wild, crazy idea. Right before he took off, she swung one leg over his neck. He rose into the air, and she clung for dear life. The crazy idea quickly became a bad one as she realized that it would be so, so easy for her to fall. The height became dizzying, raw terror lending her grip strength, the greatsword, forgotten on the ground. She hadn't planned far enough ahead for this.

“What do you plan, little mortal?” The dragon's words were serious. He glanced back at her, but it was obvious he wouldn't be able to bite her from this angle. She had a death grip on both of his horns, her legs wrapped tightly around his neck. “Think you to tame me, then? Bah!”

He rolled in midair, and the world rolled under her, and all she could think was that this was why roller coasters had such safety precautions, because she was going to die, she was so going to die, her hands were slipping –

He couldn't stay that way for very long; he righted himself and resumed circling over the tower below.

She had to do something.

She had a mission.

One of the guards' crossbow bolts punched through her leg, and she screamed in pain.

No time to think.

She drew one of her remaining swords with both hands, clinging to the dragon's back with her legs, and began to pry at the back of his neck with the weapon. It slipped between two scales, exactly as she had planned, and drew blood. He roared in wordless agony as she slid the sword through the back of his skull. This time, when he tumbled, it was not a controlled roll. She thought fire at the sword, desperate to finish her task before her task finished her.

The dragon's skull exploded.

And she realized with horrible clarity that there was no longer anyone piloting his body. The beast began to burn, an all-over sort of thing that somehow left her unscathed. White light streamed towards her, blinding her as her legs failed to keep their grip. She realized suddenly that she was falling free of the dragon's corpse.

She felt like she was floating in midair, her perception slowed down to the exact moment of her inevitable doom, before she went flying all on her own.

She felt like she was crash landing as she woke in her own bed, her body shoved downward into the soft memory foam. Fortunately, her bed was more forgiving than the hard ground she'd been headed for, and despite a slight protest in the form of squeaky springs underneath the foam topper, she was largely uninjured. Sunlight fought its way past the tall bookshelf to peek into the room.

So she'd died. That was it.

As demises went, hers was surprisingly less than final.

She'd never get to see Lucia again, and that made her unaccountably sad.

She sighed, rolling over and burying her face in the pillow. She wasn't ready to be conscious yet, so she made the decision she just wouldn't be. She fell back to sleep in short order.

…. the taste of something bittersweet on her tongue. “Don't you die on me.” The housecarl knelt over her broken body, pouring the potion into her mouth. Everything hurt.

A soft moan of pain escaped her, and she crawled back into the darkness of her mind.

Her dreams didn't make much sense, but then, they rarely did. She got the sense that she was fighting, struggling against something, but she didn't know who or what she was fighting against.

She woke a while later in the real world. Mondays were always the same. Breakfast first, then a visit to the chiropractor, then home, then video games. Simple, boring, Monday.

She locked her computers, pushing away from her desk. She went about turning off all the lights in the house, going about her nightly routine.

All the lights were out, and she was going to bed, and she looked out the dining room window idly.

There was a sense of fear, and then the world went dark.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Stranger in Skyrim 19

Chapter Nineteen: The Western Watchtower

In which her competence is over-estimated.

“A dragon! How exciting! Where was it seen? What was it doing?” Farengar was unreasonably excited.

Irileth was not impressed. “I'd take this a bit more seriously if I were you. If a dragon decides to attack Whiterun, I don't know if we can stop it.” Personally, Mariah agreed with Irileth. The idea of a dragon destroying Whiterun … she could picture Lucia burning to death in a dragon's flames. The very concept horrified her. The city destroyed, its people slaughtered in the streets … she could imagine it vividly.

Farengar's informant walked out past them. Despite her apparent interest in the dragons' return, she didn't seem to want to know about the dragon attack. Or maybe she just had somewhere important to be, somewhere that wasn't about to be attacked by a dragon.

Mariah shrugged, following Irileth and Farengar out of the room. One of the guards joined their group on the way up a set of stairs she hadn't actually noticed before.

“So,” the Jarl began. “Irileth tells me you came from the western watchtower?”

The guard nodded. “Yes, my lord.”

“Tell him what you told me,” Irileth said. “About the dragon.”

The guard looked slightly uncomfortable, under his face-concealing helmet. “Uh … that's right. We saw it coming from the south. It was fast … faster than anything I've ever seen.”

“What did it do?” The Jarl demanded. “Is it attacking the watchtower?”

The guard shook his head. “No, my lord. It was just circling overhead when I left. I never ran so fast in my life – I thought it would come after me for sure.”

“Good work, son. We'll take it from here.” The Jarl clapped the man on the shoulder with a confident smile. “Head down to the barracks for some food and rest. You've earned it.” He turned his attention to his housecarl. “Irileth, you'd better gather some guardsmen and get down there.”

The woman nodded. “I've already ordered my men to muster near the main gate.”

“Good. Don't fail me.” Then, the Jarl turned his attention to Mariah. “There's no time to stand on ceremony, my friend. I need your help again. I want you to go with Irileth and help her fight this dragon.”

A choked noise of disbelief escaped her. “Me?”

“You survived Helgen, so you have more experience with dragons than anyone else here,” he pointed out. Damn his logic, but he was right.

She shook her head. “My lord,” she said, figuring she'd use the more familiar term for his office, “I mostly just ran for my life. I don't know that I'm the best choice ….”

“Nonsense. You'll do fine.” He smiled, and she almost felt … competent. Like she could maybe handle what fate apparently had in store for her. “But,” he said, and this time he clapped her shoulder. “I haven't forgotten the service you did for me in retrieving the Dragonstone for Farengar. As a token of my esteem, I have instructed Avenicci that you are now permitted to purchase property within the city. Furthermore, I will have my servants choose another item for you from my personal armory.”

She gave a small bow. “Thank you, my lord.”

“I should come along,” Farengar spoke up. “I should very much like to see this dragon for myself.”

The Jarl shook his head. “No. I can't afford to risk both of you. I need you here working on ways to defend the city against these dragons.”

“As you command.”

Jarl Balgruuf looked towards his housecarl once more. “One last thing, Irileth. This isn't a death or glory mission. I need to know what we're dealing with.”

“Don't worry, my lord.” There was an odd glint to the elf's eyes. “I'm the very soul of caution.”

Somehow, Mariah didn't think that was true.

It was still raining as she followed Irileth out of Dragonsreach. Lightning lit up the sky. She tugged the hood up a little tighter around her head, moving as quickly as her legs would take her.

They met up with four guards at the main gate. Three of them wore horned helmets, rather than the standard face-concealing mask most guards wore. The fourth had apparently decided to stick to his normal uniform. A cynical part of her suspected that he'd be the one to die first.

“Here's the situation,” the housecarl announced. “A dragon is attacking the western watchtower!”

One guard gasped. “A dragon?”

“Now we're in for it ….” Number Three (he was third from her left) shook his head.

The housecarl continued as though she hadn't been interrupted. “You heard right! I said a dragon!” Irileth seemed to relish the chance to give a speech. She continued, with gusto. “I don't much care where it came from, or who sent it. What I do know is that it's made the mistake of attacking Whiterun!”

“But housecarl …” Guard Two began. “How can we fight a dragon?”

The elf paused. “That's a fair question. None of us has ever seen a dragon before, nor expected to face one in battle. But we are honorbound to fight it, even if we fail. This dragon is threatening our homes, our families!” Irileth paused, looking straight at Guard Two. “Could you call yourselves Nords if you ran from this monster? Are you going to let me face this thing alone?”

“No, housecarl!”

Guard number one whispered, so it was barely audible above the rain. “We're so dead.” Privately, Mariah agreed with him. She knew she, at least, was not making it out of an encounter with a dragon alive. Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup. That proverb was at the forefront of her mind.

But it's more than our honor at stake here,” the housecarl continued. “Think of it – the first dragon seen in Skyrim since the last age! The glory of killing it is ours, if you're with me! Now what do you say? Shall we go kill us a dragon?!”

The guards cheered.

It was a rousing speech.

Now if only the sinking feeling of impending doom would just go away.

Let's move out.”

She followed Irileth and the guardsmen at some distance, praying to no one in specific that maybe, just maybe, the dragon wouldn't even see her. She didn't normally think of herself as a coward, but she was terrified. And still she was heading toward her ultimate demise like an idiot.

What fun.

The rain passed shortly after they left the city. They followed the road west, until they came across a destroyed tower. Parts of it were still burning from dragonfire, and rubble was strewn everywhere.

No signs of any dragon right now, but it sure looks like he's been here.” Irileth looked over at the guardsmen. “I know it looks bad, but we've got to figure out what happened. And, if that dragon is still skulking around somewhere. Spread out, and look for survivors. We need to know what we're dealing with.” All of the warriors unsheathed their weapons. Mariah? Her mind was her greatest weapon.

Too bad she'd rotted it by playing video games all the time ….

The others spread out. She walked up to the tower itself, picking her way through the rubble carefully, so as not to have her robe catch on fire. A guardsman hesitantly edged out towards the door as she approached. “No! Get back!” He cried. “It's still here somewhere! Hroki and Tor just got grabbed when they tried to make a run for it!”

It's all right,” she said, trying to radiate confidence she didn't feel. “We brought more men.”

He shook his head. “Don't you understand? It'll just kill you all!” He looked up, and horror dawned on his face. “Kynareth save us – here he comes again!”

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Stranger in Skyrim 18

Chapter Eighteen: Argonian Ale

In which possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Her dreams were completely normal, which was a relief. No work, no prophetic visions, no horrible death, just random adventures in lands her mind had made up for her.

She promptly forgot everything about the dream as she woke up, a little disoriented, in her bed at home. She remembered, dully, that it was her day off, and Mom had woken her up a bit ago, announcing that she was heading out to Amtgard. Woo, freedom and solitude.

She spent most of it lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. She just couldn't persuade herself to get up.

When she finally did get up, she went out to the kitchen, burned a pan with eggs in it, and ate the edible remains. She wasn't really a great cook.

That done, she spent her day doing something slightly different; she sought out and downloaded various Minecraft mods, playing around with them until she got them to work together. She didn't actually get to play the game before she woke back up in Skyrim.

Tragic. Still, she woke well-rested, rolling out of bed.

“Hullo.” The girl's voice came from the doorway, and she looked up and over at Lucia, tilting her head to the side. “I'd say good morning, but it's actually night time.”

She reached up to rub the sleep out of her eyes, yawning hugely. “Uh huh. What are you doing in my room?” She honestly didn't mind, it was just an idle question. Lucia's face fell anyway. “I mean, it's okay, don't get me wrong. I'm just curious, is all.”

“Oh, well … Miss Hulda told me you were up here, and I have something for you, is all.” The girl walked over, holding out a vial with both hands. “Brenuin says it's a healing potion.”

Taking the vial, she smiled up at Lucia. “Now, what makes you think I'm going to need this?”

“Well,” the girl said, thoughtfully, “you kind of look like you've been getting into fights. Your robes are all cut up, and there's blood on them.”

Oh. That made sense. “Okay, how about this – where'd you get that, anyway? Aren't healing potions kind of expensive?” She assumed they would be; anything with magic in it had to be outside the price range of the average beggar child.

Brenuin gave it to me.”

She frowned. “And what did you have to do for Brenuin to give it to you?”

We-ell … ” The girl looked down and away, guiltily.

She smiled. “It's okay, you can tell me, I promise.” Inside, she was fuming, but she couldn't let that show on her face, or the girl wouldn't share. Whoever 'Brenuin' was, it looked like he'd been taking advantage of a child.

Okay … Brenuin said he was thirsty, and he wanted this special bottle of ale Miss Hulda keeps in the back room. So I got it for him, and he gave me the healing potion, and now I'm giving it to you.”

She shook her head. “So you stole something for him?”

Well … I guess so, but he said Miss Hulda wouldn't miss it anyway, and he's always so nice to me and … And …. ”

She sighed. “Look … I'm sure Brenuin is nice to you, but stealing like that can get you in trouble. You don't want Miss Hulda to kick you out of the inn, do you?”

Nobody saw me take it, I made sure!”

Not … precisely the lesson she was going for. Still …. “If you're going to do stuff like that, I can't stop you, I guess. Just try not to get caught, okay?” She stood up, reaching out to ruffle Lucia's hair. It was the thought that counted, anyway.

Sort of.

Now, I've got to go up to Dragonsreach. Did you need anything from me before I go?”

The girl gave her the saddest face. “I'm really hungry, ma'am.”

Let's get you something to eat.”

She picked up her gear, the Dragonstone, and her sack of gold, and they headed downstairs. She traded a handful of gold for a filling meal, which they shared at one of the tables.

You can use my bed for the night; I won't be, so someone might as well get some good out of it.” She smiled warmly at Lucia.

The girl beamed. “Thank you, ma'am.”

Don't call me that,” she said absently, smiling.

An impish grin. “Yes, ma'am.”

When the meal was finished, Lucia headed upstairs with a wave. She headed outside into the night.

Fantastic, it was raining again.

Foolish old woman! You know nothing! Nothing of our struggles, our suffering!” She couldn't see the speaker, nor did she care to. She leaned back against the door, hiding under the scant protection of the protruding roof of the inn. She didn't much care for the rain.

The old woman folded her arms. “And what of my son? Hm? What of Thorald? Is he nothing? So don't talk to me about suffering.”

Your son chose his side, and he chose poorly. And now he's gone.” These callous words came from a man in Imperial leathers, illuminated by a brazier outside the Bannered Mare. “Such is the way of war. The sooner you accept his loss, the better.”

The woman sounded defiant. “I will never accept his death. My son still lives, I feel it in my heart. So tell me, Battle-Borns, where is he? Where are you holding my Thorald?”

Do you believe this old hag?” The first man's voice was dripping with contempt. “'Holding him'? Why, I've got him in my cellar. He's my prisoner.” The man was obviously being sarcastic. “Face it, cow, your stupid son is dead. He died a Stormcloak traitor. And you – you best keep your mouth shut, before you suffer the same.”

Come on, Father. There's nothing more to be said here.” The two men began to walk off.

What could she possibly do? She sighed, hugely, letting the woman go, too, before she began her ascent to Dragonsreach.

She wasn't some kind of hero, she reminded herself. She'd been extremely lucky to survive as long as she had, and frankly, pretending to be a hero would get her – and the people she tried to help – killed.

No, best stay out of it.

By the time she'd made it up to Dragonsreach, she was already damp.


One of the guards was kind enough to open the door for her, and she stepped inside, heading up the stairs and to the right.

You see? The terminology is clearly First Era, or even earlier,” Farengar was saying. “I'm convinced this is a copy of a much older text, perhaps dating to just after the Dragon War.” If only she'd paid attention in history class … ah, who was she kidding, even if she had, her history would have been useless in this world. “If so, I could use this to cross-reference the names with other, later texts.”

Farengar had a shady-looking woman in tight-fitting, leather armor as his guest. “Good,” she said simply. “I'm glad you're making progress. My employers are anxious to have some tangible answers.”

Oh, have no fear!” Farengar smiled to the woman. “The Jarl himself has finally taken an interest, so I'm now able to devote most of my time to this research.”

Mariah leaned on the doorframe, watching the two talk.

The woman pushed off of the countertop, looking over at the mage. “Time is running, Farengar, don't forget. This isn't some theoretical question. The Dragons have come back.”

Yes, yes, don't worry.” He waved her off. “Although, the chance to see a living dragon up close would be tremendously valuable ….” He shook his head. “Now, let me show you something – ”

The woman looked straight at her. She tilted her head to the side. “You have a visitor.”

Hm? Ah, yes!” Farengar turned his attention to her. “The Jarl's protégé! Back from Bleak Falls Barrow? You didn't die, it seems.”

She felt one eyebrow lift. “Was I supposed to?”

Well – I mean, no ...” His eyes fell on the stone in her hands. “Ah, the Dragonstone of Bleak Falls Barrow! Seems you are a cut above the usual brutes the Jarl sends my way.”

She shifted the stone, then rested it on his desk. “So, I got you the Dragonstone. What happens next?”

That is where your job ends, and mine begins. The work of the mind, sadly undervalued here in Skyrim.” He glanced over at the woman. “My … associate … here will be most pleased as well. She located the Dragonstone, through means she has yet to divulge to me.”

The woman regarded her curiously. “You went into Bleak Falls Barrow and got that? Nice work.” She turned her attention to Farengar. “Just send me a copy of …. ”

Farengar!” Irileth called. “Farengar, you need to come at once! A dragon's been sighted nearby!”

The elf looked over at Mariah. “You should come, too.”

A Stranger in Skyrim 17

Chapter Seventeen: Turning In

In which Dragonstone juggling becomes an Olympic sport.

She made it back to Riverwood, still carrying the Dragonstone in both hands.

People looked at her a little strangely as she walked up to the Riverwood Trader, but no one stopped her to ask what she was doing, a fact for which she was infinitely grateful. She leaned the stone on the wall, then opened the door, then propped the door open with her foot, then collected the Dragonstone, then entered the building.

“That is not my claw,” Lucan announced.

She smiled. “No, it isn't. But, I do have your claw.”

You – you found it?” He sounded unbelievably eager.

She nodded, walking up to the counter and depositing the Dragonstone on it. That done, she swung her backpack around. The golden claw was resting on top of a pile of gold. She held it out for him with a flourish and a smile.

There it is!” He laughed, taking it in both hands. “Strange, it seems ... smaller than I remember. Funny thing, huh?”

She nodded.

I'm going to put this back where it belongs. I-I'll never forget this.” He smiled, looking down at the claw. He rested it on the countertop. “You've done a great thing for me and my sister.”

Another nod. “So about that coin … ?”

Yes, yes, here it is.” He produced a large sack of gold, setting it on the counter next to her backpack.

She continued to smile, opening it up and peeking inside. “Thanks.” Collecting her things, she headed for the door. She needed food and water, and then she'd head out again.

The next building over was the inn; she headed that way.

A part of her thought she might be able to beg for something from Alvor and Sigrid, but no. She'd imposed on them enough already.

You there – ” A blond man in a yellow vest stopped her on her way to the inn. “Were you – were you talking to Camilla Valerius, just now?”

She blinked, tilted her head to the side. “Uhm. Who?”

Camilla Valerius. Lucan's sister?”

She was supposed to know that? “Oh. Uh … no. I had business with Lucan.”

I see … ” He looked at her thoughtfully. “Well … could you deliver a message for me?”

Buh. She just looked at him. “Depends. Will I get paid to play courier?”

Oh, yes, of course. I've got some money I've saved up from working at the mill. It's yours – if you deliver one little letter for me.” He held up a note for her.

She eyed the note. “And what's the catch?”

The catch? There's no catch. Just tell her the letter's from Faendal. Come back, and tell me how it goes. All right?”

She nodded. “Just put it on top of the stone.”

All right. And – thank you.” He smiled, waved, and wandered off.

The fuck had that all been about, anyway?

She shrugged slightly, entering the inn. The fire was warm, the stone floor covered by large fur rugs. She smelled meat cooking on the spit, and her mouth instantly started to water. She set her burden down on the counter, looking up at the man behind it. “How much does it cost to get some meat?”

Say … twenty-six gold.”

She nodded, fishing in the sack until she collected the money needed and set it on the counter.

The man nodded to her, in return, and went to the spit. He cut a leg off the animal roasting there, walked back, and handed it to her.

She began to eat, hungrily devouring the meat off the bone. It was delicious, at any rate.

Where's the innkeeper?” she asked, idly.

The man shrugged. “Out. She owns the place, she does what she wants.”

So ... how would I rent a room?” She tore off a big chunk of meat with her teeth, chewed, swallowed.

Another shrug. “Inn's closed,” he said simply. “Bar's still open though. Feel free to sit and put your head down on the table for as long as you like. I won't bother ya.”

Sure. Maybe I'll take you up on that.” She smiled.

When she finally finished gorging herself on the animal-of-some-description, she left the bone on a plate and headed out of the inn. Back to the Riverwood Trader, she opened the door and stepped inside.

Hello, hello! Did you need something else, friend?”

She smiled at Lucan. “Actually, I need to talk to your sister.” She turned to look at Camilla, who'd been enjoying some tea by the fire.

Oh, all right.”

She shifted the stone around so she was holding it one-handed, its weight mostly resting on her hip. She held out the letter for Camilla. “Your friend – blond hair, blue eyes, kind of tallish – wanted you to have this. I think he said his name was Faendal?”

No … ” The woman frowned. “Faendal is a wood elf. He's got dark hair and eyes, like most of his people.”

Right, well then. Your friend wanted you to think Faendal wrote this.”

The woman shook her head, looking a bit confused. “Sven wanted me to … What's in that letter?” Camilla took the letter from her, reading it over. Whatever was in the letter made her eyes widen a little bit. “Oh – oh my. He wanted me to think Faendal wrote this? Thank you for telling me the truth. Could you talk to Faendal as well? I'm sure he'll want to thank you for standing up for him.”

Considering she'd apparently just blown her chance at yellow-shirt's life savings, she might as well. A slight shrug, and she resumed holding the Dragonstone in both hands. “Sure. Where is he, do you know?”

He'll be working at the mill. Tell him I asked him to come over when he's done, all right?”

Another shrug. “Why not?”

So she walked out of the Riverwood Trader again, headed across the wooden bridge to the lumbermill proper. She found the elf chopping wood. “Hey,” she called. “Faendal, right?”

Ye-es?” The elf paused for a moment. “Can I help you?”

She nodded, walking up behind him. “Camilla wants to see you tonight. Apparently, some guy named Sven was trying to make you look bad.”

Oh, really?” He looked confused. “And … how do you fit into all this, friend?”

She shifted the weight of the Dragonstone slightly. “Me? I'm just the messenger. Sven handed me the letter, tried to pass it off as your handwriting. So, I told her what was doing.”

You don't know what this means to me. If my heart didn't already belong to Camilla, I'd kiss you. Instead … how about some gold for your trouble?”

A bright smile. “Honestly, the gold will do me more good.”

I thought it might.” He responded with a smile of his own, adding a small coinpurse off his belt to her load.

The trip back to Whiterun was uneventful. She caught herself yawning – when had she even woken up?

Ah well. She'd make it to Whiterun, rest up in the Bannered Mare, and then take the Dragonstone to Farengar in the morning. She passed a small crowd of people in the market on her way to the inn. Ignoring them, she did the awkward Dragonstone-juggling act to open the door, edged inside. Only a small handful of people were hanging out in the inn. Most of them looked like tough warrior types. Serving as the entertainment was a blond man with a stringed instrument – a lute, maybe? – singing a song about killing Stormcloaks.

Good times. “I'd like to rent a room,” she managed around a large yawn. “Here's the fee.” She counted out a hundred gold pieces of Lucan's reward money, carefully stacking them on the counter beside the Dragonstone.

You know the way.” Hulda smiled, collecting the coin.

Mariah took her things up to the room she'd rented. She didn't remember setting anything down, exactly. She just collapsed on the bed, and that was that.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Stranger in Skyrim 16

Chapter Sixteen: The Dragonstone

In which things get heavy.

The staircase led up, into another cave-like area. Stone pillars held up an uneven stone ceiling, and as she passed through, the flutter of wings alerted her to look up. Bats flapped away into the main chamber, before disappearing from her line of sight. She didn't mind bats, as long as they weren't flying around inside her house, anyway.

A bridge led over a small chasm. She had to test her weight on it first; it was thin, and it didn't look particularly sturdy.

But it held, and she crossed, and did not get dumped into the water below. So that was good.

Another short staircase led up to a half-circle of stone that was inscribed with strange writing. It was foreign to her eyes; she couldn't begin to read it. One word stood out among the rest. She recognized it immediately, understood it without knowing how. Walking up to the stony wall, she ran her fingertips over the indents in the stone. “Fus,” she murmured quietly. Force.

The dragon had spoken Force, and the headsman had gone flying. She remembered.

Behind her, she heard stone grinding against stone. It crashed to the ground with a noise that echoed throughout the chamber.

She turned slowly, and came face-to-face with a much more intimidating zombie. It seemed … slightly bigger, than the others, and it wielded a greatsword that she would swear bore some kind of enchantment. It brought the weapon down, the tip grazing her cheek as she scrambled out of the way. The wound felt … cold. She would swear her blood froze as it oozed from the cut.

So, a frost enchantment. Otherwise useful for keeping mugs of beer cold, she was sure.

She dropped the torch, holding both hands out before her. Flames burst from her hands, engulfing the zombie. It caught fire, but that didn't even slow it down, not even a little bit.

“Fus … Ro Dah!” The zombie apparently spoke the dragon's tongue. He spoke Force, and she braced herself for the impact. It still knocked her to her knees. He brought his sword down again, and she barely scrambled out of the way. The robe developed a slit up the front where his weapon tore the cloth.

Another desperate burst of flames, and he staggered. A third, a fourth. He fell to his knees, then flat on his face, his dry flesh burning like so much kindling.

Mummies were supposed to be weak to fire, since they were just dried-out people.

Apparently that was true facts.

Good to know.

She traded the zombie's greatsword for her own, fastening it into place on her back.

That done, she looked around. There was a chest. Presumably, she'd find the Dragonstone in there. If not, she wasn't sure where she'd find it; this felt like the main chamber.

Hesitantly, she cracked open the lid.

Gold filled the bottom of the chest. On top of the gold rested an old, cracked stone that resembled nothing so much as the home plate in a baseball field. She was pretty sure it was even the same size. It bore an odd sigil toward the bottom point, and a large map with various points marked on it. This would be the Dragonstone, then, and those points would be dragon burial sites. It looked heavy. No one had bothered to inform her that she'd need a bigger backpack to become an adventurer … apparently she was supposed to have figured that one out on her own. Ah, well.

She lifted the heavy stone out of the box, setting it aside for a moment. Then, she looted the chest of all it was worth. The gold alone had started to weigh her down. That, she assumed, was how she'd know she had enough. Well … she probably didn't actually have enough for anything great, but she had, for certain, more than a single night's stay at the Bannered Mare.

After she'd finished looting, she picked up the stone again. It required both hands, because it was large and rather awkward. What would she do if something attacked her while she was carrying the damn thing? Oh right. Beat its head in with the massive rock. Duh.

That done, she looked around. The obvious exit was back through the entire temple. That didn't really appeal to her, however. She didn't want to face the pile of corpses she'd left behind, and not only because they'd probably started to reek. Not only that, but she was sure the vermin she'd scared off had begun to feast on them, and that was something she really didn't want to look at.

There was also a staircase that led up, though. She figured it was worth a shot, so she hefted the Dragonstone and began her ascent.

She came to a dead end quickly enough. Focusing on the idea of fire, she conjured flamelets around her body to light the area around her. That done, she spotted an odd sort of podium, with a circular device on top. Setting the Dragonstone down at its base, she lifted the handle inside the circular device. It seemed to twist, so she twisted it, then let go. It spun back to its starting position. The sound of stone grinding against stone greeted her, and the wall to the left sank into the ground.

Cool, a secret exit. She picked the Dragonstone back up and began feeling her way along a narrow tunnel. She made it quite a ways before the ground fell out from under her. She yelped as, for a moment, she hung in midair.

She landed poorly, and she was fairly certain she'd sprained an ankle or twisted something wrong. Her legs hurt. Fortunately, she knew healing magic, so after a moment or two of lying on the ground in pain, she conjured the minty green light to soothe away her aches, and she was good as new. That trick was becoming seriously useful. She sat up with a slight groan, inspecting the tablet. Nope, still good as … well, she couldn't say new, because it was still weathered and cracked, but good as when she found it, anyway.

The tunnel led outside, to a crisp, clear morning.

The tunnel also led to a sheer cliff face. She found herself falling again, skidding down the rocks awkwardly. Landing in a heap on a pile of bones, she once again had to summon the healing light because she'd acquired a bad case of road rash.

What fun this whole damn trip was turning out to be.

At least she was still alive. That had to say something for her.

She looked around, but she didn't really recognize where she was, not even in a general sense. She saw a large lake in front of her, and a forest beyond that. Some trees lined this side of the lake, but not enough to qualify as a forest.

She was lost. She was really, truly, lost.

She did the only thing she could do. Water generally meant people; she made her way down to the shore, carefully picking her way across the field of large boulders and smaller rocks. When she finally made it to the shore, she picked a direction. She chose left, and began walking that way.

Eventually, she spotted a campsite across the lake, and the Guardian Stones beyond that. She was so relieved she could have cried. She'd picked the right direction; she was practically back at Riverwood.

There was only one problem. She'd have to cross a large body of water to get there.

Well, whatever. She was sure she could find the bridge again.

She continued on. She was faced with the choice of climbing a hill or letting herself be swept away by the river; she climbed the hill.

Making her way back down the hill, she spotted Riverwood directly across the river.

A man's voice called out behind her. “All right, hand over your valuables, or I'll gut you like a fish.”


“Where did you come from?” She looked back at him, confused. Her confusion only increased as she realized he was not human, elven, or khajiit, but some kind of lizard person. “And … what are you?”

He looked at her like she was stupid. She was getting that a lot. “I'm the man who's about to kill you,” he explained, keeping his voice slow and even. “I've been following you for a while now.” Well, that explained where he came from anyway – how had she missed that she was being followed? Gah. Stupid.

No, really,” she said, keeping it conversational. “I've never seen anyone like you. Where are you from?” She sat the Dragonstone on the ground, brushing her hands off.

She hadn't come this far, nor had she killed all those zombies and bandits, just to die five minutes from her goal, thank you very much.

Does it really matter? I'm the man with the knife.”

She sighed loudly. “Look, you don't want to do this. I guarantee you won't like the outcome.”

Stranger, I'm about to kill you and take your things. You're the one who won't like where this is going.” He wasn't really expressive, but then, lizards didn't seem to have a wide range of expressions. His voice sounded a bit exasperated, though.

Your choice,” she said, smiling softly. “Either you walk away right now or …” She shrugged slightly.

He just looked at her. “Okay, I'll bite. What happens if I don't walk away.”


Lightning arced from her right hand. The lizard apparently had a nervous system just as fragile as any human's. When she found the exact right strength, he began twitching uncontrollably, unable to move past the first step he'd tried to take.

When she was sure he wasn't getting up – being a human Taser was awesome! – she collected the Dragonstone and ran for the bridge.

He was too busy lying on the ground and flopping like a fish to follow.

A Stranger in Skyrim 15

Chapter Fifteen: Flammable

In which I don't want to set the world on fire.

She backed slowly out of the room.

The spider advanced slowly on her.

She tripped on a root, landing flat on her ass. The torch rolled off to the side. She grabbed the scroll in both hands, reading it aloud. The words were foreign even to her ears, the meaning incomprehensible.

There was a twisting to the air around her. Fire engulfed the scroll, then shot forward, exploding on the spider's face. It screeched, a high, awful, terrible noise. It lunged at the doorway, its forelegs clawing the air where she'd just been as she scrambled just outside of its reach. The thing hissed at her, spittle flying from its mandibles and sizzling where it hit the ground.

If she managed to kill it? Totally bottling that venom. She was sure she'd find a use for something that seemed to be melting stone.

She held her hands out in front of her, eyes closed. She felt the heat build in her palms. Giving the magic just a tiny push, she felt it roar to life like a dragon in her hands. Flame spewed forth from her hands, a continuous stream of it engulfing the spider. It screamed its agony, an inhuman sound that chilled her to the bone.

She peeked at it. It was wobbling from side to side, its legs not quite moving together. She shot another quick blast of flame at it, the fizzy reservoir of power she recognized as magic almost running dry. Another shot of flame, and another.

The spider fell, crisped, to land on its belly.

She thought it was dead. She was pretty sure it was dead. She shifted her backpack around, fishing in it until she found a vial of blue liquid. She popped the cork on it, downing it in one gulp. It felt fizzy against her tongue, and she knew she had a winner. Magic, in liquid form. Delicious. Or at least, she assumed it was delicious; she didn't really taste it so much as feel it buzzing down her throat.

That done, she hesitantly inched forward on hands and knees, towards the spider. She put the vial to one of its massive teeth, and black venom dripped down into it.

Fun. Definitely not a potion she'd be drinking.

That done, she cautiously stood up. Walking back out of the room, she collected the torch, which had burnt out. She lit it again with a small burst of flame.

All right, so …

She kept her distance from the probably-dead, still-burning spider, edging into the room. Several unidentifiable, web-wrapped corpses lay around the spider's lair, culminating in a webbed-up exit on the far side of the room. A man's mummified corpse hung from the sticky webbing, something shiny glinting at his feet. She approached him, hesitantly, and there it was: the golden claw.

Well, that was easy. She picked it up, looking it over. It bore markings not unlike the carvings she'd seen earlier. A bear, a dragonfly, and an owl. Hnh.

She shrugged, then stuffed it into her backpack. One objective completed, one to go. Hopefully the Dragonstone wasn't too big. Between the books, the potions, and the claw, her backpack was already getting heavy.

She cut the man's corpse down with her sword, then proceeded quickly on into the next room. More golden urns lined some kind of a circular stone table. The only thing of any interest to her was another purplish-blue soul gem lying between two of the urns. She collected it, and pressed on.

She entered a mausoleum of some kind. It was eerie, the light of her torch barely illuminating desiccated corpses.

Much to her surprise, one of the corpses started to get up and move.

Okay. Zombies she could handle. In their idle moments, she and her mom would discuss how they'd totally survive the upcoming zombie apocalypse. Obviously, killing zombies was a huge part of that.

The zombie approached her. It was a lot faster than she had imagined zombies being.

She blasted it with fire magic.

The zombie was then on fire.

It continued to advance towards her.

This was not turning out as she'd anticipated.

She continued to blast it with short bursts of fire, backing up all the while, and it eventually fell to the ground in a pool of molten flesh and charred bone.

That was easy.

A line of pain rolled down her right arm as another zombie caught her with an axe. She bashed it in the face with a torch, recoiling in pain. She could still use the arm, but it hurt, clouding her mind. She beat the zombie with the torch until it fell to the ground.

She focused on healing magic, conjuring the minty green light and picturing her flesh knitting up.

Zombie number two continued to burn for a few moments.

A third zombie courteously waited for her to finish killing its compatriots before it tried its luck with her. She pointed, and lightning engulfed it. The lightning was not super-effective. In fact, the zombie seemed largely unphased.

“Fire it is,” she announced to zombie number three. She proceeded to roast his undead ass. By this time she was halfway up the ramp that led down into the mausoleum proper, and the corpse rolled downhill.

Whew. That had been closer than she wanted to think about. Also, her nice fur armor and the robe were both sporting a new blood-soaked cut. Damn zombies.

At least she knew healing magic.

She continued on, further into the tomb. She bypassed an utterly obvious – but no doubt quite deadly – spiked wall and its ornamented stone pressure plate trigger.

Well, if that was all the more devious the traps in this place were going to be, she was going to have a grand time of it.

She made a point of incinerating every corpse she came across, many of which decided that they should get up and move again. She didn't have much trouble with the zombies, especially since they seemed fairly vulnerable to being set on fire, and they had to crawl out of their little shelves before they could attack.

She did, however, run into a slight problem in the next hallway.

The traps had become more devious.

Swinging blade traps, the kind she recognized from all sorts of video games. Eternal Darkness had them, at least. These swinging blades were set as a particularly deadly pendulum.

Oh, hello. It was actually pretty simple. Long wooden shafts swung from the ceiling. The blade was suspended with rope. So, she set fire to the ropes. The blade hung at an angle, and it ground to a halt, the careful calibrations that let it swing back and forth completely ruined when its balance failed. She grabbed the pole leading down to the blade. It was still valiantly trying to swing back and forth. Grabbing the blade with her other hand, she spun it sideways. The whole thing screwed together, so she unscrewed it. The blade fell to the floor with a loud clang, the flat side of it landing on her foot. Ow.

She repeated the process with the next two blades, painstakingly dismantling the trap.

That was actually rather fun!

She continued down the winding hallway, incinerating every corpse she came across.

Finally, she came to a room with a small stream and a bridge. A large black coffin stood on the other side, the front of which fell off as its occupant pushed against the inside. This corpse, too, got roasted. That done, she looked around. At first, there were no obvious exits. A chest sat next to the coffin, and she looted it as was becoming her custom.

The stream started from the left side of the room – since she was facing the other way, now it was the right – on the ceiling, and continued down towards a grate with a pull chain beside it.

Well, there was her answer. She pulled the chain, and the grate lifted into the ceiling.

Onward, now with slightly wetter boots.

The nice, orderly tomb gave way to a more natural cave. It was lit by glowing mushrooms which, she was pretty sure, were poisonous. Bright colors meant poison, after all, right?


She spotted something unusual in the river, and she knelt to pick it up. It turned out to be a skull, though not of any beast she could identify. For one thing, it had three eyes.

Whatever. If she had a home to decorate, she'd definitely take it there. Since she didn't, there was no point in taking the skull with her; she dropped it and it fractured.

Another chest – why were there boxes just lying everywhere? – and then an open-aired section with a waterfall. Pretty, but cold. She pressed on after a moment of admiration for the scenery and to push a zombie off the cliff into the water below.


The cave eventually intersected with a tomb again, complete with a big set of double-doors, and another zombie flambé.

She pushed the doors open. The tomb continued on until she reached another swinging axe trap. She carefully picked her way past the first two axes, dismantling them just for the fun of it. With the right timing, the things were utterly trivial; she just didn't have a great sense of timing. Destroying the traps forever was safer.

Then, a zombie climbed out of the nearby coffin.

It took a swinging axe to the face. The axe embedded itself into the zombie's belly, so now, not only was the axe swinging from left to right, but it also had a zombie flopping from one end.

She edged past the zombie, and into the room proper.

It was lit by two jugs filled with some kind of substance that happened to be on fire. Two zombies – Draugr! That was what Hadvar had called them! – made their way down a wooden staircase towards her. The ground seemed to be covered in some kind of oil. She considered her options, then set fire to the rope holding up one of the jugs of flaming goop.

The Draugr-zombie immediately under it burst into flames and died instantly.

Its friend was somewhat smarter; not only was it using a bow, but it waited to approach until the flaming oil had evaporated. In the meantime, she had to narrowly dodge an arrow to the face. When Draugr-zombie the second was right under the other jug, she burned the second rope. The second jug fell on his head, and he, too, burned to death.

Somehow, killing zombies didn't pack the same punch as killing people did. Possibly because they really didn't look human anymore. That was probably a big part of it – dehumanization.

She climbed the staircase, then felt her way along to the next big set of double-doors. Pushing them open, she entered a room that felt … eerie. It was a long stretch of hallway with an arching ceiling, leading up to a massive door. She thought she saw carvings on the walls, but she couldn't really make them out in the dim light offered by her guttering torch.

At least, she thought it was a door. It looked like it was supposed to open, but it didn't have a door handle or any kind of keyhole – no, wait, there was a series of three indents in the center of the door. Around the middle circle of stone, three stone rings formed a bull's-eye. In each ring, she saw a carving. She was unsurprised to discover the carving matched those on the golden claw. In fact, she'd been kind of expecting it.

She inspected the claw, then inspected the door. Then back to the claw. Okay, she knew what she had to do. Bear, butterfly, bird. Setting the torch on the ground, she reached up with both hands to pull the first stone circle into position. It was old, and not particularly cooperative, but it eventually turned so that the bear was on the top. Next, the dragonfly, then the owl.

She frowned slightly.

Okay, everything was in place. Now what?

She considered the claw, then the three holes in the center circle. Pushing the claw against the 'keyhole,' she found that its talons fit perfectly.

There was a loud grinding as the wall sank into the floor.

Puzzle solved. Now for the main chamber.