...sword to his chest, the look on the breton's face was priceless! His idiot bodyguards never did expect us coming down from...
...the lad's mine, Thomjolf! Look elsewhere, you flea-ridden sheep-fondler. I'll...
...is getting nervous with us prowling his lands. I heard the paranoid milk-drinker's offering a good amount of coin for bastard sellswords to root us out and...
...got a pretty little mouth on this one. Would be nice to see him put it to work on—
Hans opened his eyes.
The witch hunter gasped and stumbled a few steps back. He was shocked to find himself in his nightclothes while standing before an eroded statue of Frederick van Hal flanked by a pair of skeletal hounds. Looking around, he then came to the disturbing realisation that he had somehow made his way to Vanhaldenschlosse's courtyard at some point during his sleep.
It was then that he also realised how cold it was outside, and he promptly scrambled his way back indoors. Shivering, nauseous, and more than a little disoriented, the witch hunter slowly tried to find his way back to his quarters inside the Sylvanian fortress, which was easier said than done.
In addition to the silent, labyrinthine corridors he was forced to navigate, Hans also had to contend with how dark it was. Time seemed to shift in strange ways as he moved along, and the stairway he tried to ascend seemed to stretch up endlessly into oblivion.
It was a while until Hans seemed to find himself on the right floor. He was a few paces ahead, however, when he started hearing something distinctly unusual coming from the darkened hallway up ahead.
Hastily appropriating the decaying kriegsmesser blade from the nearby empty suit of armour, the witch hunter cautiously advanced forth, his seasoned gaze scanning the way ahead for threats.
Soon, Hans drew close enough to hear the noises much more clearly. He was, of course, perturbed to hear the sound of an untuned string instrument. The off-key strumming continued over and over, at speeds and frequencies that varied at seemingly random intervals.
Steeling himself for an ambush, Hans edged his way closer to the noise. Eventually, he reached a partially-closed door, one that seemingly led to Vanhaldenschlosse's theatre hall.
Muttering a quick prayer to Sigmar and Morr, Hans slowly pushed the door open, careful not to make too much noise. The witch hunter entered the theatre expecting to face restless spirits of those damned in these halls, or even leftover heretical sorceries from Frederick van Hal's ritual, but instead, he came upon Miraala Nirdil seated upon one of the ruined desks, cradling the instrument he kept hearing outside, with what appeared to be an annoyed look on her elven face.
"Worthless, bloody thing..." Frau Nirdil mumbled to herself as she kept strumming the instrument, which was clearly some kind of Estalian-made guitar. All around her, several dozen lit candles provided some measure of illumination. "...damned foreigners couldn't even make a proper lute..."
"Meine Frau," Hans chose to speak up, not quite hiding the suspicion in his tone. "What are you doing here?"
The dunmer woman jolted up at once, almost dropping the instrument she had in her hands. When she sighted Hans emerging from the shadows, she relaxed her stance. "Mr. van Hal. I'm... surprised to see you here."
A wave of anger suddenly overtook the witch hunter. He balled his hands tightly and bit his lip to prevent a furious outburst from leaving his mouth. Fortunately, his senses returned as quickly as they abandoned him.
"Please. I... insist, that you call me by Hans, milady." His voice was terse and clipped, seething with barely-restrained fury. Somewhat more forcefully than he intended, the witch hunter cast away the rusty blade he was holding, letting it clatter loudly against the cobblestone floor.
"Just... tell me why are you up here this late at night."
The ash-skinned elf looked to the guitar in her hands, the theatre hall around her, then back to Hans. "I couldn't sleep." She said, rather simply.
"You couldn't sleep." Hans repeated, disbelief plain in his voice.
"Yes," Miraala nodded, somewhat too enthusiastically so. "I kept dreaming about the life we had to leave behind in Cyrodiil. I got up from bed, put on my clothes and started walking along the corridors, when I came across this place in particular."
She sighed, longingly. "I used to be one of the most respected musicians back home, you know? For fifty years, I've worked to establish my reputation, and now it's all gone. Because of the Thalmor, we had to give up almost everything we've worked to earn..."
Hans frowned, not letting his sympathy for the elf's plight become too obvious. Instead, he reached out with his hands to her. "If I may...?"
"Hmm?" Miraala looked on in confusion. She quickly realised the witch hunter was referring to the guitar. "Ah, yes. Take it." She handed the instrument over without hesitation. "It's pretty, but the strings are very poorly-done. I'm a master with lutes, but I can't seem to get a decent tune out of that thing."
Upon receiving the guitar, Hans almost dropped it upon sensing the obscene amounts of magical warding imbued into the instrument. If he had to hazard a guess, these wards were the reason it managed to stay in pristine condition after many, many centuries spent rotting away in disuse.
"I am able to see why," Hans said, eyeing the guitar's gilded head. "The strings are untuned."
Miraala observed Hans as he adjusted the tuning pegs, taking experimental strums on the strings as he did so. Eventually, after a moment, he seemed to find a setting that suited him.
"This is not a lute, by the way." Hans said, displaying the instrument to Miraala, taking care to show her the masterful craftsmanship it took to fashion it, as well as the beautiful engravings carved into the body. "Lutes are dropping out of fashion in the Old World, and as far as I'm aware, you'll only see them commonly used in some backwater Bretonnian alehouse here and there."
"So, what do you call this, then?"
"Notice the amount of strings here, the different shape of the neck, and the body's curved profile? This work of Estalian art is called a "guitar", meine Frau."
Miraala slowly nodded. "I see. And how exactly is this guitar of yours any different to lutes?"
"Watch. Allow me to show you."
The witch hunter found himself a seat, then propped the guitar against his body. Positioning his fingers to their places, he began to play the first few notes of an old song of his teenage years — Das Mädchen von Wittenhausen. The old lessons he took as a part of his noble upbringing in his father's court came rushing back to his mind, and his fingers seemed to move on their own as he continued to play.
The dunmeri musician observed Hans' fingers flit along the guitar's strings with keen interest. "Not... bad. I mean, it's not as good as a proper lute, but it's certainly a start."
Hans half-smiled, bittersweet memories of his childhood lingering in his mind. Seamlessly, he shifted to a more complicated song — the Kreutzhofenlied, which was an old favourite of his late mother, as well as most old-fashioned Kreutzhofen natives. Midway through the piece, before Miraala could properly appreciate its melody, Hans shifted again, and this time, to the chorus of a classic Imperial patriotic song, Die Wacht am Reik.
"Lieb Sigmarreich, magst ruhig sein, lieb Sigmarreich, magst ruhig sein..." Hans sang along to the tune, as was proper for the piece. "Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Reik... fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Reik."
Miraala clapped a little as Hans finished and set the guitar down. "Good show, sir. I'll admit it — I'm delighted to see you perform."
Hans politely smiled at the praise. "Thank you."
"I've heard better performances, though." Miraala continued. "You certainly know what you're doing with that instrument, but I'd keep myself from singing next time, if I were you. No offence intended, human, but... to put it in simple terms, you're an atrocious singer."
At this, Hans chuckled. "Ah, you wound me terribly, Frau Nirdil."
"I only speak the truth," She teased. "Take heart — very few have the voice and the skill to meet my standards. I'm sure you'll do fine as a bard in one of those "backwater Bretonnian alehouses" here and there."
"Perhaps I'll take up your advice one day," The witch hunter stood up, his previous mirth quickly leaving his face. "If I somehow found a way to return to the Old World, that is. I bid you a good evening, meine Frau."
"I'll see you in the morning, then." Miraala nodded. She waited until he disappeared out the door. "...now, if I remember correctly..."
The dunmer musician wasted no time putting all she observed to work on the guitar. Indeed, she had very little sleep, that night.
In the morning, after breakfast and his early morning cup of tea, Endain Nirdil sat and listened intently to Hans and Ashryn as they recalled their visit to Falkreath. The dunmer scholar was pleased to hear that everything in their journey proceeded as planned, and was positively giddy upon being offered half of the substantial amount of septims Hans had procured as a reward for his brief foray into the realm of bounty hunting for his own family's use.
For his part, Hans "neglected" to mention what he saw upon scalping the corpses of the bandits he and his temporary companions made. He was quite sure he was hallucinating from being high off the rush of battle, but he couldn't quite shake the feeling that he had been seeing the memories of his dead victims in some way. It was either that, or he had somehow suppressed the memories of his previous life as a remorseless murderer, smuggler, and serial rapist and slaver.
Ashryn seemed to notice the templar's hollow, cold-eyed look, but wisely decided against bringing it up. Thanks to his harrowing line of work and the necessary viciousness he had to commit every now and then, Hans knew his grip on his own sanity was tenuous at best. If these dark-skinned elves valued their lives, it would be prudent not to test it even further.
A few weeks passed by as the templar and the Nirdils made themselves comfortable as much as they can in cold Vanhaldenschlosse. While the dunmer kept themselves busy by furnishing the ancestral halls of his lineage, foraging and hunting for food and other provisions in the wilderness, and entertaining themselves with music and friendly conversations by hearthfire, Hans used the uncommon, peaceful state of things to survey the area and keep his skills sharp when this respite from battle inevitably passes.
With rarely a moment to rest in between his self-imposed tasks, the witch hunter mapped the snow-covered woodlands around the fortress, memorising potential choke-points and escape routes in case of enemy attack. He trained his body for several hours on end, lifting whatever heavy objects he could find in the ruins and running countless laps around the darkened halls and the frosted woods outside. He even hunted down game separately from the Nirdils, using his talent for tracking Nurglite heretics to find potential prey on his way through heavy snow and dense undergrowths.
And finally, through the use of a few certain letters of correspondence he recovered from the bandit hideout he and his previous allies eradicated, along with some translation work from Ashryn and directions from Endain, Hans ventured out further into the untamed Skyrim wilderness. There, the witch hunter started seeking out even more bandit hideouts with the express purpose of clearing and burning them out, just to keep himself from being too used to the notion of peace.
It was during one of these "hunts" that Hans encountered something he hadn't seen before. It was nighttime, and he was in the middle of inspecting the freshly-made tracks he discovered on his way to a known bandit lair, when his ears picked up the sound of snow being crushed underfoot repeatedly. Knowing he was no longer alone, the masked templar slinked off into the shadows of the woods above him, away from the revealing moonlight.
So focused on removing himself from sight was Hans, that he failed to look where he set his foot down. By the time a snare trap cleverly hidden in the snow had wrapped around his leg, Hans knew he was in for a bad time.
To his credit, the witch hunter made no sound as he was swiftly pulled up a tree by a thick length of rope, leaving his hat on the snow. Annoyed at himself for getting so easily caught in a trap made for animals, the witch hunter reached up to draw one of the knives strapped to his boots.
"Oku kaaka ahzirr raba etofor..."
Hans' body stiffened at the strange voice speaking in an unknown, rasping tongue. Looking down, he saw a pair of shadowy figures standing on the ground below, looking up at him with darkened and obscured faces.
"Saj jer krozij jan vaba fa ahzirr vara oku dorr?"
"Jat, ahziss krozij opa, liter. Bajiitu hazura vaba eks."
"Vara jer zav? Ahziss rabeka krozijka tasmiit ba zegata ba ifozay rakiit jan disshkrib ko oh vaba traajir opa shifli ba jajo."
"Jajo fa ahzmiti... jan dozh oh oku na foha apu iitay pe etofa."
Hans considered pulling out a pair of pistols and ending these jabbering strangers then and there, saving him the headache of dealing with them and their ugly language later with either words or righteous, Morr-blessed steel. Before he could do so, however, one of them drew what appeared to be a bow from their back.
"I suppose we will see your worth soon enough, nord." To his surprise, the thing spoke in perfectly understandable, albeit accented Tamrielic.
Hans grit his teeth and braced his body for impact as the figure loosed an arrow through the rope clasped around his leg, leaving him at gravity's mercy. As soon as he hit the ground, the witch hunter wasted no time pushing himself up to his feet, and in one swift motion, unsheathed his enchanted flammenschwert from his back while advancing menacingly, hoping to intimidate or startle his foes into giving him space.
"Kssssh, iho Khenarthi!" The cloaked figure closest to Hans exclaimed, hissing in surprise and instinctively backing away as Hans had hoped. Up close, however, the hunter felt irritated to still see his "visitors" clothed mostly in weathered cloaks, scuffed gambesons and face-obscuring shawls, cowls, and veils, disguising their true natures.
"Calm yourself, nord. We aren't here to pick a fight with you." The second, visibly taller and broader figure said in Tamrielic, despite the fact that they were simultaneously pulling out their hand-axe. Hans took note of how this figure radiated strength and confidence as they tensed up for battle.
"Yes, masked one, we come in peace!" The first, more lithely-profiled, bow-wielding figure added after re-composing themselves, stashing away their weapon and putting their empty hands up for Hans to see, as though for emphasis.
Hans stopped advancing, but kept his zweihänder at the ready. "Is that so?"
"It is the truth, strong and honourable nord." The first one reaffirmed, adjusting their stance to look more at ease. "Your name is Hans, yes? Our employer wants to have a word with you."
The witch hunter kept calm despite the urge to lash out in fury. "How did you know me? Who is this employer of yours?" He demanded, and when they hesitated to speak, he shouted, "Speak! Or perish where you stand!"
The first one flinched, as though struck. Hans saw a flash of movement behind them, near their feet, which were hidden under the snow. It reminded him of snakes, or an animal's bushy tail, for some reason.
"We were paid to track you down by one of our own, a wealthy merchant by the name of Vassa'dar, suspicious one." The second figure answered, slowly and reluctantly putting away their axe. "He has heard of your resounding success in destroying the infamous smuggling ring inside Skald's Folly Barrow on the jarl's behalf, and is most impressed with your bravery and strength."
The first one nodded in agreement with the second. "Yes. Vassa'dar then decided that for his next business move, he requires the skills of a talented warrior such as yourself."
At this, some of Hans' anger abated. He relaxed his stance and lowered his blade a little. "My time is valuable, and I do not hire myself out to anyone who asks. Return to your master, and tell him I refuse to play the part of a mercenary for the time being."
"I urge you to reconsider, nord. Our employer will pay you handsomely — fifteen thousand septims, and more business opportunities in the future for a job well done." The first one said, sounding displeased at Hans' refusal, but also relieved that battle seemed unlikely now.
"Fifteen thousand..." Swallowing his templar pride, Hans considered his less-than-ideal circumstances, then the offer itself. The amount of septims he was being offered was significantly more than his previous, already hefty reward. Hans had little need for coin himself, but if he had that much money, it would contribute much to his planned journey to head for the College of Winterhold. "And who, might I ask, would I be sent to kill this time?"
"Our employer does not require the services of an assassin, no." The first one continued. It was also then that Hans noticed more of their unusual traits, their somewhat elongated faces and unusual postures most of all. "At least, not at the time. He merely requires you to guard him and his wares as he makes his way to the holds of Whiterun and Windhelm to ply his trade."
Hans did not expect to be offered a job as a bodyguard for an affluent Tamrielic merchant. And Whiterun and Windhelm? Where in Skyrim were these places? "I see. How long is this journey going to take?"
"A little longer than three weeks, if things go well." The second one replied, shrugging their broad, visibly muscular shoulders.
Hans needed no more convincing, but he kept wary. "Fifteen thousand septims is a significant sum, one that I cannot ignore. However, before I accept your master's offer, I must ask something..."
"Oh?" The first one crossed their arms.
For a brief while, the witch hunter saw glowing orbs in the shadows behind their head-cloths. "I need you to tell me what you are. Both of you."
The figures looked to each other, seemingly perplexed at the hunter's honest inquiry.
"We are trackers from the deserts of Elsweyr, masked one. Is it not obvious by now?" The first one, who seemed to speak most out of the two, said.
"I'm not from around here, and you still haven't answered me." Hans could see the discomfort he was causing among the two. He cared not. "The only obvious thing by now is your inhumanity. I ask again, what are you?"
The second one bristled, clearly insulted. "Of course we are not human! This one is not ashamed to admit he is of the khajiit!" In one swift movement, he tore away the cloths obscuring his face, revealing his strikingly feline features to the shocked witch hunter. "There! Happy now?"
Sigmar. Words failed the hunter, not quite comprehending what he was seeing. This... thing before him had the head and facial structure of the horrific result of an unholy fusion between a predatory felid and a human, with piercing, slit-pupiled eyes of a seafoam green hue, and yellowish-brown fur sprinkled liberally with circles of dark spots, much like a Lustrian man-eater jaguar's own hide.
Hans instinctively reached for a pistol in his coat, but stopped himself in time. While most other templars were unlikely to think about assessing their situation first before springing into action, Johannes van Hal was different from his peers. Is this strange creature a beastman, or merely a hideously-deformed mutant? Perhaps some combination of both, or even neither? The Order teaches that all mutants deserved nothing short of a swift and painful death at the hands of Sigmar's faithful, but were these things even altered humans in the first place?
Hans felt himself hesitate to act upon considering the possibility that these two were not mutants, and instead, were members of an undocumented, entirely seperate race of talking, bipedal cats. The witch hunter's judgement was tested even more when he realised his witch-sense was not detecting any signs of obvious Chaotic corruption festering within them, like he easily would in an ungor raider or a hapless peasant trying to hide his mutated bits.
"I cannot see your face, but you seem surprised, human. Have you truly never seen my kind before?" The first "khajiit" followed the other, removing the veil and shawl from her head.
This catfolk tracker possessed almost the same fur colouring as the other, only brindled and a shade darker. Her eyes were an unusual shade of light blue, however, almost like the colour of the morning sky. Not only that, but the smooth, feminine slenderness of her face, along with the curvy shape of her body and the pitch of her voice made Hans believe she was female.
"My name is Qa'ara, by the way. And as mentioned before, I work as a tracker and a huntress on occasion, whenever either of us begins craving after venison or wild pork." The khajiit Hans was examining said, matter-of-factly.
Before Hans could bluntly ask Qa'ara whether she hunted humans for their meat as well, she gestured to her fellow cat-person-mutant-thing and started speaking before he could. "And this is my mate, Sinfahran. We look forward to working with you."
The witch hunter did not immediately respond, as his mind still reeled at the absurdity of his situation. Were these creatures in Sigmar's Empire, his decision would come swiftly; within seconds, he'd have subdued and captured these two before turning them in to the nearest Order chapterhouse for study and summary dissection. But alas, Hans had learned from his encounter with the Nirdils that when dealing with the natives of Tamriel, diplomacy can be a useful tool.
The witch hunter silently prayed to Sigmar, imploring his god to strike him down now, lest his decision to consort with the khajiit instead of killing them both on the spot turn him away from the path of righteousness later on.
"Tell me where I am expected to appear, and I'll be there." He said, scooping his hat up from the ground and putting it back on. "I must warn the two of you, however... do not try to follow me as I leave. I will know if you do, and I will make sure there will be not enough of you to bury. Am I understood?"
Qa'ara nodded a little hesitantly as she put her cloths back over her head, but Sinfahran appeared less than pleased at being threatened.
"Very well. Come meet us outside the gates at Helgen. Vassa'dar's caravan should be there waiting for us, assuming we make it a priority to get there." Qa'ara said, causing Hans to wonder where exactly Helgen was. "Until we meet again, human. Be careful out he—"
Hans watched as Sinfahran tackled his partner to the snow, narrowly sparing her from being shafted by an assassin's arrow.
Eyes widening in alarm behind his beaked mask, the witch hunter backed into the shadows and hid himself from sight. His grip on his zweihänder tightened as he looked to where the arrow came from.
A mismatched band of scoundrels and highwaymen wearing scrap armour and wielding an array of rusty blades and wooden clubs appeared into view. At the fore of their disorganised advance, a grizzled, musclebound raider saddled atop a fierce-looking warhorse led the charge, screaming an inarticulate battle cry as he hefted the bearded great-axe he was holding.
Recognising these particular bandits as the ones he was looking for from the letters, Hans moved into position. Using the exposed khajiit trackers as bait to draw his prey in, the witch hunter prepared to intercept the mounted raider's charge.
"Get up, kitten, quickly!" Sinfahran frantically helped Qa'ara up to her feet. "There's too many of them. We have to get out of here before—"
Upon sensing the mounted raider thundering closer and closer, the feline trackers looked to their impending doom, knowing it was too late to move out of the way.
As his destrier crossed the point of no return, the mounted raider bellowed out a laugh as he lifted his great-axe to strike both khajiiti trackers down in one fell swing. It was then that Hans chose to reveal himself from behind a tree, his flammenschwert already poised to strike the bandit and use his momentum against him.
"By Talos, what—" The mounted raider reacted too late. Hans angled his blade upward and put all his considerable strength into his swing as he aimed for the raider's warhorse. When his attack struck true, his zweihänder's flame-bladed, magically-infused edge almost effortlessly carved through the animal's thick, trunk-like neck.
Warm equine blood splashed against Hans' uniform and mask as he messily beheaded his opponent's horse from under him, causing the shocked bandit to tumble and crash into the snow along with his steed's headless carcass.
Surprisingly, the bandit did not seem too injured upon managing to crawl his way back to his feet. He spared a single mournful glance at his dead mount, providing Hans with the exact opportunity he needed to take the initiative.
"MORR TAKE YOU!" The witch hunter shouted, as he descended upon the distracted raider.
Meanwhile, Qa'ara and Sinfahran had just managed to move away from being crushed by the headless destrier's tumbling corpse. Qa'ara, infuriated at the fact that she needed to be saved from harm by her lover twice in quick succession, sharply drew her bow, nocked an arrow by the string, and took aim where she last saw the mounted raider, fully intending on taking his life. Instead of seeing the savage helpless on the snow with his limbs twisted out of place, Qa'ara's slitted eyes grew wide at witnessing the brutal scene before her.
The dismounted bandit's massive axe lay uselessly on the snow in two pieces, cleaved neatly by the haft. The bandit himself was already on his knees on a pile of blood-soaked snow, his nose smashed into his face and right hand reduced to a severed, oozing stump.
His opponent was already far past defeated, but Hans never believed in leaving his grisly work unfinished. Showing typical Sigmarite templar "compassion" for the vanquished, he mercilessly drove the length of his blade into his kneeling opponent's abdomen, before twisting his grip and forcing it aside, gruesomely disembowelling the man. Morr's scythe claimed the dying bandit soon enough, when Hans seperated his head from his body.
The witch hunter barely had any time to take stock of his surroundings before he was set upon by his dead opponent's foot-slogging comrades. He parried an axe swing and sidestepped a dagger thrust, before whipping around and bisecting the offending raider from hip to shoulder. More arrived to test their mettle against the hunter, but he was quick to dispatch those that approached too close as they came, severing limbs and lopping off heads as he did.
Hans tried to keep calm, even as his defences were tested multiple times by the raiders circling around him. His guard was unfortunately, however ironclad, not without its faults.
After unsheathing his blade from a particularly troublesome swordsman's ribcage, Hans grunted as pain lanced repeatedly through his back. The flanking raider, a lad barely out of his teenage years, grinned in sadistic glee as he stabbed the witch hunter's back again and again with his dagger.
Hans was glad for the plate cuirass he wore under his coat. He made to turn around and deal with the pest behind him, only to watch as his attacker was yanked away by a barbed metal hook that came out of nowhere, piercing his shoulder multiple times. The lad yelped in pain as he was swept off his feet and dragged over the snow.
Sinfahran, the one holding the hook, heaved on the chains linking his weapon until he had dragged his screaming victim close enough, before abruptly silencing him with an axe to the throat.
"This one will not let the human have all the fun!" The khajiit exclaimed as he joined the battle, axe and hook in hand. After splitting a surprised bandit's skull in two, he swiftly and confidently waded into the fray, and in doing so, failed to notice the other bandit emerging from the frozen undergrowth, lining him up for a spear-throw.
"Look out!" Thankfully, Qa'ara was there to watch his back. Before the spear-man could hurl his weapon, he was feathered repeatedly by a hail of arrows that pinned him to the tree behind him. With her enemy dispatched, Qa'ara was quick to turn her bow against the others still standing.
Hans had no time to contemplate on the prospect of fighting side-by-side with a pair of feline beastmen, as more bandits came to surround the three of them. While he cannot pretend they were human, he Instead treated them like he would dwarfs or Loren elves — as allies of convenience.
"Close ranks!" The witch hunter rallied his temporary comrades-in-battle, even as he traded blows with three bandits at once. "Stand your ground! Maintain this position!"
With three skilled and experienced warriors fighting in close synchronisation with one another, the poorly-armed bandits stood next to no chance of victory. Around two dozen corpses lay scattered all around Hans and the trackers as those still alive and capable of running away did so, abandoning their comrades to their fate.
The witch hunter huffed out a breath, a little winded from the battle, but otherwise unharmed. He wasn't expecting to fight this many bandits when he set out into the wilderness, but he was still pleased at the amount of damage he delivered to the scum of Falkreath Hold.
Putting away his sword, Hans prepared to return to Vanhaldenschlosse, only to stop in his tracks upon seeing Sinfahran lying on the ground with Qa'ara on a knee beside him. The former wheezed and gasped as he bled out into the snow from several large gashes and lacerations, while the latter did what she could with bandages and a strange red bottle filled with an unknown liquid.
"Reckless! Always too reckless. As impulsive as an unblooded kit!" Qa'ara was clearly panicking, even as she tended to her lover's many wounds. As though to reinforce the point, her tail was trashing quite frantically behind her. "Stay awake, Sinfahran! Dying in Skyrim to a bunch of inbred nords is not a part of our plan!"
The witch hunter supposed he had no further business with the khajiiti trackers, and Sinfahran's fate is at the hands of whatever god he owes patronage to... but it was poor form to leave a wounded ally behind, even one who wasn't human.
"We need to get him out of the open," Hans said, kneeling down next to Qa'ara on the snow. "The ones we routed could return. It's not safe here."
Hans' presence seemed to restore some of Qa'ara's composure, although she still seemed quite rattled, from what little he read from her half-hidden, inhuman face. "The nearest settlement from here is too far. By the time we get there, my mate will be dead. No, we will have to stay here and do what we can... it's the only way we can save his life."
"I disagree." The witch hunter shook his head. "There is a fortress not far from here, and I know a path that will allow us to cut straight through these woods to get there quickly. I know people who may be able to nurse him back to health, should we make it there."
"Don't be stupid!" Qa'ara turned and snapped at him. "I know this place — it's deserted except for raiders and bears; there's no such fortress for miles around!"
"Once again, I disagree." Hans' face remained impassive behind his mask. "I leave the decision for you to make whether you should or should not trust me. I suggest you decide quickly... time runs short for your... partner, and the wolves will come for all of us soon."
Qa'ara looked torn at what to do, at least until Sinfahran reached out and clasped her hand on his bandaged chest.
"I... I don't want to bleed out here in the cold, kitten..." He moaned.
Qa'ara gripped her lover's hand for a while, looking down at him mournfully. The moment soon passed when she wrapped his arm over her shoulder and hoisted him up, letting him support his weight using her own body.
"Take us to this fortress of yours, human." She said to Hans, her shadowed eyes glinting in determination. "And be quick. This better not be a waste of our time."
Taking the ineffectual threat astride, Hans nodded. "Sehr gut. Stick close, and we'll make it to Vanhaldenschlosse shortly."
Halfway through the journey back to Vanhaldenschlosse, the witch hunter kept a close eye for threats as he navigated the familiar woods, with the catfolk trackers close behind. He took extra care not to accidentally run into any more traps — that would be embarrassing.
"Nord! We need to stop!"
Hans looked behind his shoulder, and sure enough, he found the trackers struggling to catch up. I am no nord...
"Sinfahran's bandages are coming loose! I need to set him down and tighten them!" Qa'ara shouted.
The witch hunter flinched. He turned around and moved over to them, signalling for Qa'ara to lower her voice as he did.
"This one apologises," She whispered as he ambled close. "But I was not being overly dramatic without reason. My mate is losing too much blood." She set down Sinfahran by a tree, with his back to it.
Indeed, the witch hunter could see how drenched Sinfahran's primitive bandages were, reminding him of the times he worked alongside state troopers in the frontline of the Empire's many wars against its countless foes. "Yes... it's a miracle in itself that he has not died of blood loss yet."
Qa'ara was unamused by the comment, but kept quiet as she worked to re-fasten the less drenched bandages on Sinfahran's body, replacing those that were along the way.
Hans stood watch over the trackers for a while, but not for long, as Qa'ara's nimble fingers sped her work considerably. The khajiit tracker hoisted her partner up to stand again, but visibly struggled this time around, having had exhausted herself.
"We are taking too much time," Against his better judgement, Hans took hold of Sinfahran's other arm and looped it over his own shoulder. "Let me help."
Qa'ara said nothing, but she seemed accepting of the extra hand, if her relieved stance and her gentle nod were to be taken into account.
"I had thought... you didn't want us to follow you..." Sinfahran mumbled, half-conscious.
"I changed my mind." Hans replied, simply. "Let's get moving."
Reaching Vanhaldenschlosse did not take too long, as Hans had promised. While Sinfahran drifted in and out of consciousness, Qa'ara was amazed to see that there indeed was an ancient "nordic" fortress hidden away in these woods, and even more surprised to see a dunmer casually tanning a wolf's hide on a rack near the edifice's entrance.
The witch hunter did not expect to spot Endain out in the open, but he was grateful that he did. "Herr Nirdil!" He called out to the dunmer, using his unoccupied arm to wave for his attention. "Prepare our medical stores! I have wounded!"
"Hans! Is that you?" Endain seemed aghast to see the witch hunter helping a grievously wounded khajiit walk by supporting his weight. "Well, what in the name of Meridia just happened to you out there? And who are these people?"
"Hunting accident." Hans deadpanned in true Wissenlander fashion as his company neared. "Perhaps we can get acquainted with our new friends later? If we tarry too long, I'm afraid one of them will not last the night."
"I will not lose my mate tonight, dark elf." Qa'ara bared her fangs at Endain, unsettling the bookish dunmer a little.
Hans glanced pointedly at Qa'ara. Dark elf?
"My apologies, honoured ja'khajiit," Endain meekly bowed his head. Upon straightening up, he looked to Hans, breaking him out of his reverie. "Just lead them to the solar, serjo. I'll get Miraala to take Osmund somewhere else in the fortress and have Ashryn prepared to receive our wounded guest. By now, she should know a thing or two about restoration magic. I hope."
"Danke." Hans doffed his hat at Endain before helping Qa'ara take Sinfahran into Vanhaldenschlosse proper.
It took them another moment to make their way to the lord's solar, already well-illuminated by the blazing sconces lining the walls. Wasting no time, Hans and Qa'ara set down Sinfahran by one of the beds and immediately began doing what they could for the wounded khajiit with what they have at hand.
"I ask for forgiveness in advance in the event that I accidentally make your partner's odds even worse. I am completely unfamiliar with your anatomy, you see." Hans mentioned. At least, not yet.
"It's fine. Just do as you would a wounded human." Qa'ara had discarded her face-cloths a moment before, showing the completely focused expression on her face. "Besides the other, more beast-like breeds, the khajiit are not too dissimilar to your kind, nord."
I beg to differ, Hans considered answering. Instead, he put away his hat, unclasped his mask and let it fall. "Perhaps. But I'm not a nord."
Qa'ara paused in her ministrations to look at Hans' exposed face for the first time. She looked like she was about to say something, only to be interrupted by Ashryn knocking on the door and entering the room.
"Right, so I came here as fast as I could." The young dunmer removed her cloak and hung it by a rack nearby. "Let's see what we have... oh, dear Azura. He's bleeding to death."
"This one expresses hope that you have more to contribute besides pointing out the obvious, elf." Qa'ara snarked, somewhat curtly. "What do you know about restoration?"
Instead of answering, Ashryn knelt down beside Hans and began pulling things out of the red satchel she brought with her. The witch hunter thought she must be looking for medical supplies, but was proven wrong when she fished out a book.
"Let me see..." Ashryn began hastily flipping through the tome's pages, her crimson eyes darting back and forth. "Uh, so I just have to... hmm, but will it inadvertently harm the— well, okay..."
The dunmer mage stood back up, and with a flash of her hands, conjured a pair of orbs made out of incandescent light from her palms. "I need a bit of room. Stand back, please."
Hans and Qa'ara did as they were told, though Hans hesitated a bit. Ever since he arrived in Skyrim, he found that his witch-sense was mostly ineffective. While he could sense familiar magic well enough, such as the enchantments inscribed into the Estalian guitar in the theatre hall a few floors down, it appeared that whatever passed for sorceries in Tamriel completely bypassed him.
The thought of potential magic-users concealing their natures right under his nose infuriated the proud witch-finder. It was as as though he did not spend ten years of specialised templar training to better attune his innate ability to detect where the Winds of Magic blew to begin with. Smoothing out the annoyed scowl on his face, Hans reminded himself to ask either Endain or his daughter about magic in Tamriel at some point, when he had the time.
"Here goes..." Contrary to what Hans expected to see from an elf, Ashryn didn't unleash a spectacular array of healing magic on Sinfahran. Rather, she merely placed her glowing hands over the khajiit's body and began pulsing subtle waves of restorative energy into his wounded form.
The process took a minute. By then, Ashryn's dark skin had paled somewhat, and she looked ready to stop and rest. On the other hand, Sinfahran had lapsed into unconsciousness, no longer visibly struggling to hold on for dear life.
"I need more practice..." Ashryn dropped her hands and stumbled back. She would have fallen if she hadn't backed into a table. "Mmmh, maybe after..." She put a hand over her mouth and yawned. "...after a quick nap..."
"Is my mate going to be fine?" Qa'ara pointedly asked, still wary.
"Yes, I see no reason he shouldn't be. Keep his bandages secured and give him a few hours of rest... he should be back on his feet by then." The dunmer groggily replied as she pulled up a chair and sank into it. "You two wouldn't mind if I... hrmmh, if I..."
And just like that, she was fast asleep.
Hans sighed, letting his shoulders sag. He did not anticipate his evening to proceed like this, but all the same, he couldn't say he was displeased with it. This night had been productive, if nothing else.
The witch hunter turned to the side, finding Qa'ara looking up at him steadily. "For roping you into our troubles, I mean. Without your help, we would never have left those woods alive."
She bowed deeply, a surprisingly civilised gesture from someone who appeared so savage and animalistic. "Qa'ara owes you a debt of gratitude, human. Ask anything of me, and I shall deliver."
Hans quirked a brow at her. Such peculiar creatures, these catfolk. "Do call me by Hans from now on, and know that I only did as a man of Sigmar should, for his comrades-in-arms. Your gratitude is unecessary, khajiit... but you're welcome, I suppose."
Instead of being relieved, strangely, Qa'ara seemed displeased at this. "...I do not like being beholden to someone indefinitely, Hans. Name your price for saving our lives, and I will consider us even."
Amused at the annoyed look on the khajiit's feline face, the witch hunter found himself smiling a bit, despite himself. "Fine. If you so insist on being indebted to me, then I'll play your little game."
His voice grew colder, less mirthful. "Just know that good things rarely come from owing something to a witch hunter. It would be wise to reconsider your offer, as what I might ask for could very well end up costing you much more than you can readily give, Fährtenleserinkatze."
Appropriately, some of Qa'ara's earlier nervousness returned, although she stubbornly refused to back down. "You are a strange one, human. Sinfahran and I will head for Falkreath at dawn, once he recovers. I just thought I'd let you know."
"I see." Hans nodded. "I'll make my preparations and say my farewells to the elves. I bid you a good night, we shall meet again in the morning."
As he turned and left, the witch hunter couldn't quite ignore the faint scowl on Qa'ara's mouth at his mention of "elves".
After a little rest, some food, a bit of early morning training, and after informing the Nirdils of his next job, Hans was ready to leave Vanhaldenschlosse again.
"Good luck out there." Endain offered his hand for the witch hunter to shake. "We'll be here when you get back. I mean, it's not like we have anywhere else to go, do we?"
"I never did get to properly thank you for looking after the fortress, Herr Nirdil." Hans reached out and took the dunmer's offered hand, shaking it firmly as he did. "So thanks. It means a lot to me."
"Say "tschüss" to Hans before he leaves, little one." Meanwhile, beside her husband, Miraala patted her young son's head.
"Tschüss." Osmund bowed, then, with some prompting from his mother, made the House Redoran salute. "Keep safe, Mr. Hans."
Hans smiled. He knelt down and put his hand over the child's shoulder. "Farewell, young Osmund Nirdil. Look after your parents while I'm gone, alright?"
Osmund nodded, eyes wide with the responsibility he was just given.
"I wish I can come with you." Ashryn said, glumly. She perked up almost immediately, however. "You know, I've always wanted to go on adventures and earn fame and gold, but I guess family comes first, right? Adventure is always out there, after all."
The witch hunter stood up and nodded, still smiling. "Perhaps another time, Fräulein. Until then, keep up with your training."
Ashryn laughed. "Oh, I will, Hans. Don't you worry."
"Are you ready to go, human?" The witch hunter heard Qa'ara's rasping voice calling for him outside.
"Yes, this is taking much too long." Sinfahran's own voice followed. "We should get moving soon. All this standing around is tiring this one's legs."
Hans rolled his eyes. "Patience, you two, I'm already on my way out!" He called back as he walked away, hoping that his decision to leave the comfort and safety of Vanhaldenschlosse for the hostile roads of Skyrim was not a mistake.
Not a moment too soon, Hans was once again out in the frozen Skyrim wilderness... and this time around, he was accompanied by a pair of giant cats who had the bright idea of walking upright and speaking Tamrielic.
"Sinfahran thinks it feels good to move around again." Sinfahran seemed no worse for wear after waking up. "Now, if only I can get my claws on the bastard that almost killed me, then this one would be a much happier khajiit." Unfortunately, his brazen attitude remained.
"Just be thankful you're still alive, you reckless idiot." Qa'ara nudged his arm with her elbow, with enough force to convey her annoyance. "And if you don't stop trying to solve everything through brute force instead of your wits, that can swiftly change in the next few days. Travelling through Skyrim is dangerous business, even for the most tenacious of our kind."
"Ah, you always try to suck the fun out of things, kitten." Sinfahran did not seem too bothered. "I was simply caught off-guard. Thanks to my brush with death, I've learned, and improved myself as a warrior. There will be no repeats of last evening's events, I assure you."
"And you'd be right, provided you stay away from sharp objects for the rest of your life." Hans remarked, off-handedly. "Make no mistake, Rattenfänger. You are strong, yes, but judging from your foolhardy performance the previous evening, you still have much to improve upon as a warrior."
Qa'ara made a sound that sounded like an amused chuckle, Hans mused. "This human can see through your bluster, Do'sinfahran. Consider this a bad sign, coming from someone clearly so used to battle."
Sinfahran wisely chose not to respond, and just like that, the rest of the journey to Helgen was spent in comfortable, relative silence.
"Helgen's gates are just ahead, come on." Qa'ara picked up the pace, her digitigrade legs and her gently-swaying tail reminding Hans of her race beneath those all-concealing veils and cloths.
"I can smell Atahnna's dumplings from here." Sinfahran said as he followed after his mate. "Good. We're just in time for lunch."
"How good are these dumplings?" Hans inquired, even as he tried to keep up with the swifter catfolk. "And how small and weatherproof are they? I grow tired of hardtack."
"Judge for yourself when you taste them, human." Qa'ara replied over her shoulder. Was that something approaching a devious, mischievous tone she used just then?
Upon reaching the khajiit merchant encampment near the nord town of Helgen, Hans was once again surprised to see members of such a savage-looking, animalistic race gathered together in a manner not unlike human nomads taking a brief respite from their never-ending travels. The idea that beastfolk could be anything but marauding bands of Chaos-worshipping murderers and heretics was contrary to what he was taught in the Order.
"Sha'aziri... oku krakil." One of the cat-people caravan guards clapped another guard by the shoulder, jolting her to full alertness. "Oviit kud, vakota jerno."
The other guard's hand was clasped around an arrow from the quiver by her hip as Qa'ara, Sinfahran, and Hans arrived. "Kssssh, stand away, outsiders." In one swift motion, she nocked the arrow on her bow, drew back, and took aim. "State your business to Sha'aziri, or begone."
"Dras'kay ali jer zath, Sha'aziri." Sinfahran removed his cowl, exposing his face.
The guard instantly lowered her weapon. "Sinfahran. Jer traajirka zath na kono." She couldn't have put her weapon away more quickly.
"Yosan huna ali za'yar." Sha'aziri's fellow guard beside her sniffled from the cold and wiped under his snout. "Ahzirr vabeka takarrka iho renrija zedro tenurr."
Qa'ara pushed past the hopelessly confused witch hunter and her partner. "Jer vabeka kaaka? Sajka iss sallidith? Rik na vabeka domjhahir?"
"Yesho jerno, roliter." The first guard raised his hands in a calming gesture. "Ruja di ahzirr rakiit vabeka domjhahir, bo dov fa vaber var darka."
"Excuse me," Hans announced his presence to the jabbering catfolk. Instantly, all eyes were on his masked face. "I need to know where I can find the one who calls himself Vassa'dar, please. I believe he and I have some "business" to discuss."
The two khajiit guards present only gave him baffled and wary looks, and Sinfahran seemed to take some amusement at the situation, but at least Qa'ara had the decency to look sheepish at forgetting about the witch hunter in their midst.
"Sha'aziri, Ja'zharim, you may know this human by the name of Hans. He is here to work for Vassa'dar for the time being." Qa'ara introduced the witch hunter as forthrightly as she could, deliberately leaving the reason why Vassa'dar deigned to hire him in the first place unmentioned.
While the guards pondered the implications of a human joining the caravan, Qa'ara turned to the witch hunter. "And Hans, you will be working closely with these two. Sha'aziri is the most senior of the mercenaries in charge of this caravan's security, so you will be answering to her for the rest of your stay here. Please try to—"
"Wait just a second!" Ja'zharim interrupted, taking a step forward. "Ja'zharim has heard of the name of "Hans" before. The sellswords in Falkreath couldn't stop talking about him — the drunken fools speak of how he led the small party that exterminated the bandits at Skald's Folly Barrow without taking any losses. They emerged from that barrow covered in blood, and richer for it."
Sha'aziri's eyes visibly widened. "This one is... most surprised. This one didn't think Vassa'dar would be desperate enough to hire him, of all people. Is this human truly...?"
"Yes... I am that which you speak of..." Hans droned, entirely uninterested in where the conversation headed, but eager to move along to doing what he was hired for. "Now can someone please direct me to Vassa'dar?"
"One moment, human," Sha'aziri said, further annoying Hans. "This one has heard that you carry with you these gripped tubes fashioned out of metal and wood, and that you use them to kill your foes from a distance. They say these weapons you hold could change the way wars are waged in Tamriel. Is this true?"
Qa'ara shook her head. "I'm afraid it isn't. Sinfahran and I witnessed him fight through a band of raiders, but not once did he—"
Hans pulled out a pistol from his coat, showing it to Sha'aziri and Ja'zharim. "Here, have a good look. I'm sure you have nothing better to do."
Both guards stared at the weapon, examining it with obvious wonder.
"Such a curious contraption. But how does it work, exactly?" Sha'aziri had the nerve to ask.
"Keep delaying me, and I'll gladly demonstrate it on you." Hans threatened, half-serious. He felt like he was dealing with slack-jawed Stirlander peasants whom had never seen anything more advanced than a farm plough.
Sha'aziri, seemingly not caring for the obvious threat, turned to her side. "I need everyone to wait here. This one will return as quickly as her legs can take her!" Faster than most could react, the khajiiti mercenary bolted off and promptly disappeared into the encampment.
With nothing to do but wait, Hans just stood there with a loaded pistol in his hand. He resolved to make Qa'ara and Sinfahran as uncomfortable as possible by staring holes into them.
"You must forgive my colleague — it is not rare for khajiit to become overly curious as they age, and Sha'aziri has seen more seasons than most in this caravan." Ja'zharim said, managing to look apologetic despite his panther-like face. "Your story, in particular, has drawn her fascination quite a bit. Sha'aziri likes weapons of all sorts, oh yes."
The witch hunter sighed. He may have just created the very first Tamrielic gun nut.
"I didn't think I had the opportunity to ask before, but Sha'aziri's questions made me think..." Qa'ara spoke up, her expression contemplative. "Where exactly are you from, human?"
Hans supposed this line of questioning was inevitable. He reasoned there was no harm in telling the khajiit where he was supposed to be. "I come from the lands of—"
"Here we are!" All of the sudden, Sha'aziri reappeared, and to the witch hunter's shock, she had been hauling a whimpering, badly-beaten, heavily-bound nord wearing scuffed leathers along the ground. What's worse, some sadist had placed a bloody sack over the poor nord's head, preventing him from seeing around him.
"This bastard will make a fine target, wouldn't you think?" Sha'aziri shoved the nord to the ground near Hans' feet, forcing him on his knees.
Sinfahran recoiled in surprise as his fur began to stand on their ends, making him look even larger at a glance. "What the— Sha'aziri, who the hell is this? And what have you done with him?"
"What is the meaning of this, sister? Why is this human bound like some kind of wild animal?" Qa'ara's voice was higher than usual, and eyes were narrowed into slits.
"I'm not paid enough to deal with this..." Ja'zharim slowly edged away from the scene, hoping he does so unnoticed.
Sha'aziri laughed. "And I thought the suthay-raht are more clever than most khajiit. Don't you see? This human is restrained like a beast because he is one!"
Hans subtly levelled his gun to point at the deranged khajiit's head. "I demand an explanation." He threatened, voice already dripping with lethal promise.
Before responding, Sha'aziri grasped the sack around the kneeling nord's head and tore it off, revealing a young, blonde-haired man with a heavily-tattooed face bulging from repeated beatings.
"This... boy... was a part of the bandit raiding party that attacked our caravan the previous night. He had the nerve to attack poor Ma'saad, but the clever child was quick on his feet — he led this idiot around the camp, then lured him to us. Needless to say, he went down quickly when faced with opponents who fought back."
At this, Hans felt some of his rage subside. Raiders deserved no mercy, but is this nord truly as Sha'aziri said he was?
"You — sellsword. Stop skulking around in the shadows and hear me," The witch hunter turned and addressed Ja'zharim, just before he could disappear into the shadows. "Your colleague said this unfortunate nord is, in fact, a bandit. Tell me, is she telling the truth, or not?"
Ja'zharim stood frozen in his tracks, clearly surprised at being noticed. He seemed to consider whether he should answer Hans' question instead of just making a run for it, only for the choice to be snatched from his hands by Sinfahran, who blindsided and restrained him in a chokehold.
"Yes, brother, do answer the question our human friend asked." The much larger khajiit said as he practically manhandled Ja'zharim and pushed him back into the light. "Is this nord a murdering bandit or not? Either way, someone's head will roll."
"Sha'aziri tells the truth! I swear it by the gods!" Ja'zharim was quick to answer.
"It doesn't matter if this nord is a bandit or not — nothing justifies torturing him like this." Qa'ara said. "We should release him from his bindings and let him on his way. After everything he endured, he should learn not to raid khajiit caravans again."
Hans shook his head. "How naïve of you, Fährtenleserinkatze. This man could very well have murdered innocents and stolen their belongings, but you would let him walk away with his heinous deeds unpunished? No, that will not do — we must first learn the truth before we could render judgement unto him."
Sha'aziri groaned, audibly frustrated at not being able to see what she wanted to happen. "What more is there to learn? Why can't you just kill this marauding scum? Everything I just said was the unblemished truth!"
"Calm yourself, Wächterinkatze. That is for me to decide." Hans approached the bound nord, intending on hauling him up on his feet.
As soon as the witch hunter touched his fellow human, however, he almost instantly regretted it.
The man struggles up to his feet despite the dirk sticking out from his throat. An axe to his back put him down for good. Your mates laugh alongside you, even as the others begin helping themselves to the man's substantial purse. More hapless peasants wander into your trap. You and your mates kill them all and make a good profit off their valuables. Today has been a productive day.
The woman groans in agony as she drags herself forth, her dismembered legs reddening the snow beneath her. She cries out for the Divines to save her, and pleads with you for mercy, but you have none to spare... not for the weakling milk-drinkers who used to look down on you like lower-class filth. You force her children to watch as you cleave her in half from the waist.
Through reports from survivors, you learn that many of your friends and comrades have been slaughtered by an unknown foe, their bodies hacked to pieces and then burnt to ashes. Your leader calls for retaliatory raids on those she thinks responsible, and you are only glad to avenge your fallen brothers and sate your bloodlust. A thriving hamlet southwest of Riverwood is to be your target, she says. You and your mates loot the place and leave no survivors.
Your next target is a travelling khajiit caravan that should be on the road to Helgen. Some of your mates wonder how the damn cats had anything to do with the deaths of your friends and fellow brigands, but you care not one whit whether they were truly involved or not. The khajiit are not to be trusted, being the savage, thieving, drug-dealing beasts that they all are. The sooner they were all killed and their wretched kind driven from Skyrim, the better, you thought.
The khajiit fought harder than you thought, and worse, a contingent of Helgen guards were co-incidentally patrolling the roads nearby. "STOP RIGHT THERE, CRIMINAL SCUM!", they each shout in a battle-cry as they join the cats in slaughtering your outnumbered company. You watch as your mates are hacked to pieces by the tenacious khajiit mercenaries. You and your leader fight side-by-side until she is shafted half a dozen times by a volley of arrows from the meddling guards. Out of spite, you resolve to murder the cat-child that wandered into your path before making your escape... but he is craftier than you think. He leads you straight into an ambush. Your vision descends into darkness as one of the warrior-cats emerges from the shadows and drives a cudgel into the back of your head.
You lost track of time. You know nothing but pain and darkness. Light enters your vision, and for a while, you feel hope that you are being freed from this hell you find yourself in. Your hopes were dashed when you feel a clawed, furry hand wrench your mouth open and force a sweet, sweet liquid down your throat. Even as they begin their tortures anew, for a while, you feel yourself at peace.
Once you regain your senses, the first thing you see is a freak wearing a demonic bird-mask over his face staring back at you, his orange lenses burning right into your soul. Fear washes over you as you pray for the Nine Divines to save you from this creature. Whatever tortures could he have in mind for you, even after everything you've already endured? You wish for more of the sweet fluid.
He reaches for you. As soon as his cold touch brushes your skin, you feel the most excruciating pain you've ever experienced in your life. Even in the throes of agony, a sinister force kept you from falling unconscious, sadistically feeding off of your exquisite suffering. You could feel it sustaining itself, gorging on the very fabric of your immortal soul... with growing horror, you realise it is slowly regaining its diminished powers bit by bit.
"Greetings, kinsman. How fares noble Vanhaldenschlosse?"
Gasping, Hans stumbled back and away from the nord, who was by now reduced to a howling, convulsing husk of his former self.
Qa'ara was beside the witch hunter in an instant, steadying him before he could lose his balance and fall. "Human? Human! What the hell just happened to you?"
Hans clutched his head through his mask with both hands, trying desperately to comprehend what manner of eldritch monstrosity he had just been forced to bear witness to. Only through sheer force of will did he avoid shattering his already fragile mentat state then and there, and find clarity among the unrelenting maelstrom of horrifying images overtaking his mind.
"I see now what must be done," The witch hunter abruptly dropped his arms and gently pushed Qa'ara aside. Before she could protest, he took aim on the captive nord with the pistol in his hand and noisily cocked the hammer. "Cover your ears."
Sha'aziri was just about to ask if the human had lost his marbles, until she was interrupted by a loud explosion from the tip of the metal tube he was holding, stunning her into doing as she was told. When the blackpowder smoke cleared, she grinned in delight to find the filthy bandit sprawled on the ground with a new, gushing hole blasted through his head.
"By the gods." Sinfahran looked at the corpse with wide, disbelieving eyes.
"I knew the stories were true!" Sha'aziri seemed tremendously pleased with herself. "Sha'aziri is pleased to be working with this human!"
Hans fixed her a cold look behind the mask as he wordlessly reloaded his pistol.
"You've done enough, sellsword. Just let us through to the camp." Even Qa'ara seemed exasperated with her fellow khajiit's antics.
"Yes, Sha'aziri, they really should see Vassa'dar." Ja'zharim agreed, nodding a bit too eagerly.
"Of course! Go on through as often as you'd like! You have a job to do, after all." Thankfully, Sha'aziri seemed to take the hint, and stood aside for Hans and his company to pass inside.
Sinfahran hazarded a look back before he put his cowl back on. "...getting crazier by the day..." He muttered under his breath as he ambled on.
Qa'ara reached out and put a hand over Hans' shoulder, making him flinch before realising who it belonged to. "If I knew how Sha'aziri would have acted to you, I'd have found another way for us to enter the camp. For what it's worth, this one apologises on her kind's behalf."
Hans sighed, not noticing the pointed glance Sinfahran threw his way. "The guard bothers me not, Fährtenleserinkatze. Let's just find Vassa'dar and do what we came here for."
The khajiit tracker slowly retracted her hand, making Sinfahran heave out an audible sigh. "Are you sure you're going to be fine?"
The witch hunter took a deep breath. His senses refocused, and his mind cleared. "Yes... for now."
Without further ado, the three of them made their way to the caravan master's lodgings, which was a voluminous, larger-than-usual tent of many colours, guarded at the entrance by a solitary khajiit mercenary holding a glaive in his hands.
"Greetings, Amtassar. We would like to speak with Vassa'dar, if you don't mind." Qa'ara hailed the guard.
"Oh?" Vassa'dar's guard seemed confused at something Qa'ara said. "Well, uh, sure." He said, shrugging. Before any of them could pass by him, he took the time to ask, "Why didn't you greet this one in Ta'agra? Amtassar had you confused for someone else for a second there."
"So as to not be rude to the new guy, brother." Sinfahran replied for his mate, whom had disappeared into the tent. He pat Amtassar behind his shoulder and promptly followed after Qa'ara.
Hans doffed his hat to the bewildered guard as he slipped past him. "Good morning."
Inside Vassa'dar's tent, Hans was met with the strong odour of incense and wine. Looking around, he began to remember the time he spent as a part of the late Viscount Leos von Liebwitz's inner circle of retainers, in that this tent seemed to contain all manner of items relating to courtly, almost Bretonnian-like martial pursuits, along with other worthless rubbish that pompous aristocrats would find fascinating, such as rows of gilded tomes, musical curiosities and contraptions, and artworks of debatable quality and dubious comprehensibility.
And let us not forget about the incense and wine.
"Dras'kay. Jer yuj vaba jihatt ahziss ahnurr bekka vaba kud."
Hans looked down to the source of the tiny voice. What he saw reminded him of a child, only this one resembled a talking, bipedal cat.
What a surprise.
"Ahziss kasash jer zedro suta elo vago iss jan hadi. Jer shay dushith, an dat ko vaba gaj ali aro jer vabeka var darka iho iit sallidad." The child spoke in the khajiit tongue.
Unsure of how to respond, Hans stared down at the cat-child, who stared right back.
"Ma'saad! Stop making our guests uncomfortable!"
The witch hunter watched the child scurry off as another khajiit approached from the other side of the tent. This one — judging from the fine silks and the gaudy amount of jewellery he wore, along with his considerable paunch — was Vassa'dar, the caravan master.
"My apologies for the little one. He can be quite a handful." The khajiit's voice was deep, but in a paternal, non-threatening way. "You must be the one they call Hans. It is this one's pleasure to finally meet you, formidable warrior, face-to-mask."
Hans was quick to remove his mask, so as to not be seen as rude. "The pleasure is mine, sir."
The caravan master grinned, then regarded the pair of trackers standing beside the witch hunter. "Ah, Vassa'dar knew he can count on you two to bring this human to our side. Talk to Ranhmirr at his stall, he will provide you with your reward, as Vassa'dar promised."
Qa'ara bowed. "Thank you, master." She turned to her mate. "Come, let us collect what is ours, Sinfahran."
"You don't need to ask me twice, kitten." Sinfahran seemed pleased to see his efforts bear fruit.
Hans watched them depart, leaving him alone with his new employer. Sinfahran nodded at him before he disappeared outside the tent, but Qa'ara went as far as to smile and wave goodbye.
"See you around, friend." The khajiit tracker said, just as she left.
Friends with a potential mutant? The witch hunter scoffed. Temporary comrades, perhaps, but friends? Preposterous. Heretical, even.
Yes. Absolutely heretical.
"We are most auspicious to have those two in our employ." Vassa'dar's rumbling, genial voice shook Hans from his reverie.
"Sinfahran is one of our strongest, most courageous warriors, and Qa'ara is quick of wit and foot, and dependable to boot! Together, they make for an impressive pair of trackers. Heh, it is no wonder they seek comfort in each other's arms."
Hans nodded, somewhat disinterestedly. "Yes, quite the pair, those two. Not many could have tracked a witch hunter."
"Witch hunter?" The caravan master's ears perked up. "Ah, but one must do what one must in order to pay for one's daily food and drink, yes? Vassa'dar is not in a position to judge, for he must also do unsavoury things to ensure his family lives in comfort and good health."
Hans did not like where the conversation headed. "And what, might I ask, do you need me to do, merchant?"
Vassa'dar uneasily shifted his bulk, no longer looking Hans in the eyes. "Vassa'dar does not require you to hunt witches, or whatever it is you do usually for a living. This one admits, he may have deceived you a little, in that he does not truly intend on making use of your considerable skills as a simple bodyguard, no. He has something far grander and far more profitable in mind..."
The witch hunter prepared himself to swing into action. "Elaborate, please."
"It is nothing illegal, this one assures you." Vassa'dar said. "But quite dangerous to most, even to seasoned warriors unused to fighting outside the typical battlefield, oh yes."
The caravan master swiped a rolled-up piece of parchment from a nearby table, then promptly handed it to the witch hunter. "So, with that in mind, my friend... how do you feel about leading more expeditions into dark and incredibly hostile places, where death is a certainty to those who are careless?"
Hans unfolded the parchment and examined it. It took him a while to realise that behind the unfamiliar scribbles and old tea stains, there was a map of the khajiit caravan's route from Helgen to Whiterun then Windhelm, with several locations in between highlighted with red circles and crosses.
The closest of these marked locations was an ancient nordic temple, apparently called by the locals as the Arcwind Point.