"What can you tell me about these... "draugr" things we are about to face?" Hans paid little attention to the path ahead as he cleaned the inside of a pistol with a ramrod and a wad of cloth.
Sinfahran wrinkled his nose as he very casually shoved aside a snow-covered, low-hanging tree branch in his way. "You're seriously asking me? I thought the man supposed to lead us into battle should know all about his enemies before taking to the field."
Qa'ara sighed. She ducked under the branch Sinfahran pushed to the side before speaking, "Don't bother asking either of us. We're foreigners to this land, just like you. Neither of us had faced draugr in battle before, and all we know about them is that they are only a little smarter than your average walking corpse."
"Walking corpses, you say?" Hans stuffed the firearm back into his coat and set his orange-lensed glare back to the road ahead. "I'm trained against such things." He scoffed. "But be on your guard all the same."
For the next half hour, the three of them marched along the beaten path in silence as they embarked toward their destination — the ancient, draugr-infested ruins called the Arcwind Point. There, Hans was told by Vassa'dar that he should expect to be met by more of his mercenaries. "Expendable assets", as the portly caravan master had called them.
"Just where did you train to fight, anyway? I've never seen anyone else fight like you do, or carry those strange weapons you take to battle." Sinfahran spoke up again.
The stone-faced silence from Hans was oppressive, enough that Qa'ara also had to speak her mind to ease the tension.
"You're not from anywhere in Tamriel, aren't you, Hans?"
The hunter nodded, after a while. "No, certainly not. I come from the city of Nuln, in the war-torn lands of the Empire of Sigmar, at the heart of the continent known as the Old World. I was trained in a comprehensive arsenal of steel and blackpowder weaponry as a state-sanctioned witch-finder in service to the Sigmarite church, enlisted under the storied ranks of the Holy Order of the Templars of Sigmar. Does this answer your question?"
The two khajiit stared at him, unsure of what to say in response.
"So... you're some kind of religious warrior specialising in "finding" witches for your church, in service to another Empire on another corner of the world?" Sinfahran mused, a clawed, cat-like hand holding up his chin in thought.
"And what do you do to the witches you manage to find?"
"I execute them."
There was a long, uncomfortable beat.
"Sounds like a fun way to spend time." Sinfahran remarked, shrugging.
"...uh, if you don't mind this one asking, why were you being sent to kill witches?" It was Qa'ara's turn to ask. "What could they have possibly done to warrant being marked for death by this church of yours? And with the approval of your Empire, no less."
Hans looked behind his shoulder. "I do not know how magic works in Tamriel compared to how it does in the Old World, but over there, being a witch involves harnessing the ever-treacherous Winds of Magic, which always runs the risk of being corrupted by the dark gods of Chaos... or worse, being reduced to a daemon's plaything."
He turned back to the road ahead, but continued to speak. "In the Empire, Fährtenleserinkatze, the mere possibility that a magic user could have already been corrupted by the dark gods to do their foul bidding, or had been possessed by a daemon of any kind is enough reason for templars such as myself to seek out, and summarily execute those we suspect to be responsible, before they can do innocents harm. This is the only mercy we can give to heretics."
"Chaos corruption and daemonic possession? Heretics? I'm afraid I don't understand. And who are these dark gods that you speak of, human?" Qa'ara pressed, appearing genuinely interested and concerned.
Hans was surprised. He learned from Ashryn that knowledge about the four Chaos gods was alarmingly lacking in Tamriel, and to hear that a member of the khajiit — an outwardly beast-like race — seemingly had no clue as to what Chaos even was reinforced some of his lingering suspicions about just how wide the distance was between Tamriel and the Old World. It also reinforced his belief that the khajiit weren't mutants at all, which lessened his unease around them somewhat.
"You should know this, Fährtenleserinkatze." Hans said. "Everyone should know this. But unlike some sins, ignorance is something that can be forgiven. Allow me to educate you..."
For the next hour, Hans told his two catfolk comrades about daemons and heretics, along with the Archnemesis and the four near-omnipotent beings that constitute its heretical pantheon. He spoke of the blood god Khrone and his eternal thirst for the rush of battle and the bloody carnage that always followed after it. He spoke of Tzeentch and the infinite malignity of his endless scheming and manipulations, as well as his penchant for birds and bestowing seemingly-random mutations. He spoke of the hermaphroditic Slaanesh, who inspires his followers to commit the highest, most decadent forms of excess and debauchery in her name, all in the single-minded, completely arrogant pursuit of true perfection. Most of all, he spoke of the sickly-gleeful Nurgle, and how he devoted the majority of his templar career into purging the Rotfather's bloated, plague-bearing minions in wherever unfortunate corner of the Empire he found them spreading their festering, pustulent "gifts" in.
While Sinfahran seemed to only pay partial attention to him, mostly whenever his narration verged into the battles he had been in the wars he had participated in, Hans was pleased to see Qa'ara listening attentively, so much so, that she barely paid the path ahead any mind.
"Be careful, kitten." Sinfahran stopped Qa'ara before she could walk into another tree. "This is the second time this happened; keep your eyes ahead."
"Sorry." She rubbed the back of her head. "Hans, your story is... well, it's unique, that's for sure. But can we get back to it at a later time? We still have our own task to do."
"Aber selbstverständlich, Fährtenleserinkatze." The witch hunter nodded.
"What did you just say to her?" Sinfahran narrowed his eyes at the hunter.
"Nothing you should spend your precious time thinking about, Rattenfänger." Hans replied, waving him off. "Perhaps I will tell you some other time, if we live to fight another day, that is."
The journey to the Arcwind Point did not take too long to reach its end. Something did not feel quite right as they approached the meeting spot with the extra mercenaries, however, as they were nowhere to be found.
"This is the place, but this one does not understand. Where's Amtassar, Kharhad and Tsanaea?" Sinfahran paced around, trying to find any signs of his fellow khajiit.
"Maybe they're still making their way here?" Qa'ara suggested as she sat down on a snow-capped log and rested her legs.
"Unlikely. Vassa'dar mentioned before we departed the caravan that the other sellswords left for the Arcwind Point two hours in advance." Hans joined Sinfahran in surveying the area, trusting his senses to alert him of any danger. "Assuming our extra men did not run into trouble, they should be here at the time."
"So what do we do, then? Wait for them to show up? Vassa'dar will leave us behind if we take too long here," Qa'ara said, wrinkling her nose. "And take our pay with him, too."
"This one suggests that even without our reinforcements, we should forge on." Sinfahran drew his axe and hook. "We'll just have to fight extra hard, which shouldn't be too much of a problem, considering our enemies."
"Remember the last time you tried to fight "extra hard", Sinfahran?" His mate chided him. As he opened his mouth to whinge, she turned to Hans. "You are the one in charge here, masked one. What would you have us do?"
This time, Hans was of a similar mind to Sinfahran. He drew his gleaming flammenschwert from his back and let it rest over his shoulder. "This once, I say we do what der Rattenfänger just suggested. Perhaps speed and overwhelming force can tip the scales in our favour today."
Sinfahran's tail swayed behind him, its owner visibly pleased. "Naturally."
But Qa'ara was aghast. She pushed herself up to stand. "Have you gone daft? We can't just go charging into battle like witless nords! We must plan our approach first!"
Hans was already marching out into the open, however. "No plan survives contact with the enemy, Fährtenleserinkatze!" He called out behind him. "What matters is our ability to adapt, and our ability to stand fast in the face of danger. Onward! For Sigmar!"
"Time to earn our pay!" Sinfahran sprinted after the hunter, already swinging his hook over his head.
Instead of a battle-cry, Qa'ara loudly uttered a Ta'agran oath as she ran after the two careless idiots, bow and arrow in hand.
The draugr in the ruins, alerted by the noise coming from the perimeter of their decrepit temple, mobilised to deal with the intruders. Hans saw them coming — conspicuous, unsubtle, and tactically-inept zombies that they were — and sprinted forth to meet their charge head on.
The closest of the walking corpses rasped as it raised its mace to bash the charging hunter with it. Hans never let the blow come down, for he had slashed the sluggish corpse in half by the waist before it could, returning it to Morr's embrace.
"Bolog aaz, ma lir! Unslaad krosis!"
Another draugr stepped up to replace its fallen comrade, only to be just as easily dispatched as the first by a decapitating swing from the witch hunter. When more draugr appeared behind some of the ruins, Qa'ara's expert bowmanship ensured that they never managed to get close enough to use their axes and clubs, leaving the slower-moving Sinfahran with very little to sink his axe into.
By the end, it was a travesty... hardly even a battle. The combined might of the emaciated, severely-decayed draugr proved no match for a seasoned Imperial witch hunter supported by two Elsweyr trackers. The Arcwind Point was cleared in less than three minutes, leaving the valuables around the temple free to be seized by the victorious mercenaries.
"Damn it, leave some for me next time!" Sinfahran exclaimed, glaring daggers at Hans. "You just couldn't resist showing off, couldn't you?"
Hans paused from examining a dead draugr and looked up to Sinfahran from his corner of the temple. "I was just doing what my contract requires of me, Rattenfänger." He dismissed the khajiit with a disinterested shake of his head. "It's not my fault these zombies of yours crumble so easily."
Sinfahran snarled angrily as he looked around. "Where's the rest of the undead? Surely we did not kill them all? Kitten, do you see more of these walking corpses?"
"No, we got them all." On yet another corner, Qa'ara was already looting the slain draugr for arrows that could still be re-used. "I guess I was wrong about being cautious... our human just danced circles around them. Tell me why Vassa'dar wanted to give us extra support again?"
Hans ignored the khajiit as he made his way to the conspicuous-looking chest at the back of the exposed temple. He looked around for any traps before throwing caution to the wind and smashing it open with the warhammer he looted off the draugr that used to guard it, revealing a glimmering trove of gold, rare and ancient wines, as well as other relics that could prove valuable to collectors and antiquarians.
"Das sollte ausreichen, um den fette Schwein glücklich zu machen..." The templar muttered to himself as he tossed the cold warhammer aside.
Together, the three of them continued to comb the area for any more objects of interest, but besides the chest Hans looted, there seemed to be nothing more to be taken from the Arcwind Point.
"Ugh, might as well have a drink..." Sinfahran lifted one of the bottles he "liberated" from the draugr chest and examined the faded label by the light of the sun. Seemingly satisfied by what he read, he made short work of the seal around the neck of the bottle using his claws.
"Are you sure drinking that poison is wise?" Hans droned, already knowing that he was going to be ignored. "It could liquify your innards, for all we know."
"Fortune favours the bold, oviit." The khajiit tipped the bottle over his mouth. "Down the hatch!"
Hans prepared his pistol to mercy-kill this poor fool, only for both men to be interrupted by the sound of Qa'ara's voice.
"Hans! Sinfahran! Come here, there is something you both need to see!"
"Treasure, I'd bet. My woman has a good nose for interesting things." Sinfahran wiped his mouth and licked his lips... or whatever it was he had in the place of lips. "Hmm, that was good. Much better than most of the swill I drink."
Unexpectedly, he extended the bottle to the hunter. "Drink up. Maybe this will make you stop being so insufferable."
"Perhaps after we return to the caravan? I'd like to keep my senses intact while out in the field." Hans nonchalantly pushed the bottle back. "No time for dawdling. Let us see what your mate had been up to."
As it turned out, what Qa'ara found was not something they could sell, at least... not to any reputable merchant.
"This is a lot of blood." Sinfahran stated the obvious, looking at the red splatters decorating the snow before them. "And not just any blood, too." He added, a dangerous, predatory growl to his rasping voice.
"What's so extraordinary about this blood?" Hans dared to ask.
Qa'ara stood straight. "This... this is khajiit blood, Hans. At least one of us ran into trouble here, and not from the draugr. Think on that."
Hans took a brief while to come to a realisation. "Vassa'dar will not be pleased to hear this. Who could have done it?"
"The least we could do is find out who the culprits are. We owe Amtassar and the others that much." Qa'ara said, sounding deeply affected by the apparent fate of the sellswords.
"We can do more than that." Sinfahran turned to his mate, eyes burning in barely-restrained fury. "We'll find the bastards, and kill them. I already have their scent, and the tracks should lead us to our foes. Come on."
Hans did not object to having his command taken from under him as he followed after the two khajiit. To his own surprise, he found that he'd also like to see those responsible for this attack brought to justice, preferably by the sword.
It didn't take too long for Sinfahran to reach the end of the trail he was tracking. Unfortunately, there were no possible culprits in sight... only the dismembered corpses of the three khajiit sellswords they were out to seek vengeance for.
"Divines above..." Qa'ara shook her head as she knelt down and examined the bodies. "They were slaughtered... didn't even stood a chance." Out of the three, she seemed the most affected to the deaths of her colleagues.
"This looks like the work of bandits at first glance," Hans also bent down, noticing the tell-tale signs of injuries made by stabbing and hacking weapons on the blood-spattered bodies. But something about them did not add up. "But look closer; see how their possessions appear untouched from the moment of their deaths? This is not something brigands would do."
Sinfahran seemed too furious to comprehend what Hans had said. The khajiit looked like he was all but ready to tear his claws into someone.
After a while, Qa'ara regained her composure. "I agree. We should take a closer look on the bodies — strip them of their gear and look for clues we can use."
Hans nodded, and moved to do so. But first, he checked up on Sinfahran. "Rattenfänger... you need to calm down. Anger is good, but rage is unpredictable, and I cannot tolerate unpredictable elements in my retinue."
The cathay-raht snarled at Hans, audaciously baring his fangs at the hunter.
Unimpressed, Hans stood his ground. "You're only proving my point, khajiit. Control yourself, before I am forced to restrain you."
Before the situation could escalate, Qa'ara intervened. "Sinfahran, Hans is our leader. Please listen to him — we should be looking for the ones that did this, not quarrel amongst ourselves."
At his partner's soothing words, Sinfahran appeared to deflate a bit. He exhales harshly through his nose. "I just want to make the murdering scum pay for murdering our friends. They deserved better than this."
"Your friends will be avenged." Hans assured him, his tone grave. "I swear it to Morr. But picking a fight with me won't do you, or them, any favours. We still need to find out who did this first, and where have they gone. Now, if you'll excuse me a moment..."
Hans returned to work. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself to be assaulted with the memories of the khajiit as soon as his hands brushed their skin. When he reached out to remove a dead sellsword's cuirass, however, the corpse's hand suddenly lashed out, grasping his outstretched arm.
The witch hunter recoiled in shock, momentarily frozen on the spot.
"Not... bandits..." The mortally-wounded sellsword gasped out, drawing Qa'ara and Sinfahran's attention. "Fight... too organised... weapons... too sharp... new..."
"Kharhad!" Qa'ara immediately shifted herself beside Hans. "No, don't speak! We'll get help soon, just rest and conserve—"
"Too late... it's too late... for this one..." The sellsword spoke with obvious difficulty, due in no small part to his slit throat. "Need you... to find... who did this... need you... to kill them... make them pay..."
For a dying khajiit, Hans felt his arm sting from the strength of his grip. "Who did this, mercenary? And where did they go?"
"East... they headed somewhere... east of here..." The sellsword said. He closed his eyes. "Kill them, human... piss on their corpses... show them that... show them..."
The khajiit stilled, and his grip on the hunter's arm went slack.
"Ravens speed your soul to Morr's embrace." Hans gently let down the corpse's hand from his arm and stood up, giving his companions purposeful looks. "I believe we all know what must be done."
Qa'ara stared at her friend's corpse. After a while, she too stood up. But unlike before, her blue eyes blazed with cold, tranquil fury. "We will find whoever did this... and we will leave none alive."
"As we should, Qa'ara." Sinfahran nodded. "Time to move. Lead the way, oviit."
The hunter wasted no time as he began the journey east. It took the better part of an hour of footslogging through the untamed Skyrim hinterlands and a few close calls with the local wildlife before the three of them came across what appeared to be a camp, just recently set up.
"This is not something we can rush into, like we did with those draugr. We have to tread lightly if we are to return to the caravan in one piece." Hans said, under the cover of shadows. Below them, he could see the faint outlines of nords milling about by a campfire. "Might I suggest speaking to them as our first course of action? After all, there exists the possibility that these people have nothing to do with the deaths of your comrades."
"What makes you think these humans would be willing to talk to us?" Sinfahran huffed impatiently.
"He's right. If these nords turn out to be our killers, who's to say they won't just feather us with arrows as soon as they see us coming?" Said Qa'ara.
"We still have to try." Hans was adamant. "I've a plan, but I need you to stay here and wait for my signal. Can the two of you do that for me?"
Qa'ara nodded. "I can wait, but don't take too long. We still have to make it back to the caravan on time."
Sinfahran took a deep breath, calming himself. "Alright. Sinfahran will wait. How do we know you've made your signal, then?"
"You'll know it when you hear it." Hans spared one last reassuring glance at his comrades before leaving cover and making his way down, towards the nord camp. As he neared, he made sure to sheathe his weapon, remove his mask, and pull down his cowl.
"Hold there, kinsman!" One of the sentries standing guard hailed the witch hunter before he could come any closer. "You've business with one of us? Are you perhaps the message courier we were waiting for?"
"I'm just a simple traveller." The hunter adopted his best approximation of the generic Skyrim accent and held his empty hands up for the nords to see, to show them that he was no threat. "Can I warm myself on your fire? I can't feel my nose, or my hands."
"You'd be welcome to, stranger." A woman relaxing by the fire piped up, smiling gently. She pointed toward the piece of meat being roasted over it. "Help yourself to the venison, if you're hungry. We're always glad to help fellow nords in need."
For a while, Hans thought these people couldn't be the ones he and the khajiit were looking for, given how kind and hospitable they were. He considered politely retracting his request for warmth and just walking away... at least until he began to notice that these nords all seemed dressed for battle, with most being equipped with half-plate armour and steel weapons. Most damning of all, he soon noticed that one of the other sentries seemed to be in the middle of cleaning a bit of blood from his halberd before the hunter showed himself at their midst.
"Thank you so much, friends." Hans made his way to the camp, directly next to the fire.
"So, where are you headed, handsome? I like the outfit, by the way." The woman from before spoke up, shifting herself closer to the hunter.
Handsome? He hadn't been called that in years. "Thank you. I hope to make it to Winterhold. I've family there, you see." A pause. "What about you fellows? You look like you're marching off to war."
"You could say that, brother." One of the other nords at the other end of the camp replied, even as he drove his axe into a huge chunk of firewood. "We're all headed for Windhelm. Ulfric Stormcloak's assembling a militia to retake Markarth and the Reach from those damned bretons, the so-called Reachmen. You should think about signing up with us — it's a worthy cause for all nords."
Hans affected a chuckle. "Aye, perhaps I'd think about it. Thank you for the offer."
Silence reigned for a bit as Hans examined all potential exits around the small camp. Looking around, he could see that the nords outnumbered him nine-to-three, and they seemed much better equipped compared to his khajiit companions. He chose to follow his own advice and tread lightly.
"You know, before I passed by here, I happened to come across some dead khajiit by the woods to the west..." Hans began, and in an instant, all eyes were on him. Perfect. "I just thought I'd let you know. The things that killed them may still be prowling around these parts."
More silence as everyone slowly and awkwardly returned to what they were doing, save for the woman next to the witch hunter.
"If I may ask, friend, what is your opinion on the presence of the khajiit here, in Skyrim?" She inquired, as innocently as she could sound.
Hans already knew where this conversation was headed. Like any templar in his situation, he sought to control it before he was compromised.
"I... I really shouldn't tell." He tried to sound coy.
"Come on, kinsman, you're among friends here. We can keep a secret." The woman insisted.
Hans pretended to be persuaded. "Well, if you say so. To be honest, I think they're not good for Skyrim. Thieves and drug-dealers, the lot of them. It's probably for the best if they leave the province altogether and return to Elsweyr."
"Return to what?" One of the nords piped in, confused. "Never heard of that place."
"Andgruuf, you idiot, he means the khajiiti province, where the damned cats came from." Another exclaimed, delivering a slap to the back of his comrade's head for good measure.
The woman did not seem too displeased with Hans' answer. Quite the opposite, in fact. "Ah, so here we have another nord who can see clearly! You are wise to be suspicious of the khajiit, brother, for their kind cannot be trusted."
She spat into the fire, disgust plain in her melodic voice. "Fair and noble Skyrim has no place for their kind, or anyone else who isn't a nord. Any foreigners who refuses to return to whence they came should be killed where they stand. They are no longer welcome here."
"You can't possibly mean..." The hunter feigned surprise and injected some false cheer into his voice. "It was you. You are the ones who killed those khajiit!"
"Isn't it obvious, kinsman? Those skooma-swilling cats had it coming." The burly nord chopping down firewood casually replied.
"If only they listened to us when we told them to return to Elsweyr, then we might have let them walk away with their lives." The woman said, also as casually.
Hans smiled at her, making the woman smile back. In truth, the hunter was appreciating the irony of how he was about to kill his own kind in order to avenge some dead khajiit mercenaries he hardly cared about. Still, the witch hunter took comfort in the fact that he was still dealing with bandit scum. Heavily armed and armoured, prejudiced bandits with an agenda, but bandits nonetheless.
"May the ravens alight upon you, nord." He uttered, making the woman blink in confusion. Before anyone could react, the hunter whipped out a pistol, pressed it against the startled woman's unprotected forehead, and pulled the trigger.
All hell broke loose.
"Letting him go down there was a mistake," Sinfahran groused. "We should've just taken the camp by force — hit the bastards hard before they could mount a proper defence."
"And what if these nords turn out to be innocent travellers? Is your conscience willing to put up with the realisation that you've murdered people whom had nothing to do with our comrades' deaths?" Qa'ara frowned, finally tiring of her mate's bloodthirstiness. "The human is wise to suggest that he should speak with the nords first. I can see why Vassa'dar put him in charge, and not either of us."
"Ugh, why are you always so quick to defend him?" Sinfahran grumbled, scratching his jaw.
"Because he looks like he knows what he's doing." Qa'ara replied, annoyed. "And he saved our lives. Twice, in your case."
Sinfahran's eyes widened ever so slightly. "I suppose you have a point." He sighed. "This one admits, he might just be feeling... jealous."
"You will be as powerful as a warrior like Hans one day, my mate." She assured with genuine warmth, turning her gaze back to the nord camp below.
"...I wasn't talking about that." Sinfahran denied, shaking his head a little too forcefully to be sincere. "Well, I might be talking about that, but not entirely."
Qa'ara sighed. Ever since Hans arrived to work at the caravan, her mate had been restless. "What else about our human can you be so jealous about?"
Sinfahran opened his mouth and said something, but Qa'ara didn't hear it over the distinctive crack of a firearm she heard coming from down the camp, followed by alarmed shouting and screaming.
Before the smoke even cleared, Hans had thrown the pistol away, sending one of the startled nords scrambling back and cursing up a storm as the spent firearm's hardwood grip flattened his nose. With one swift motion, swifter than his foes could react, the hunter's other hand drew another loaded gun from his coat, took aim, and fired. His shot blasted a hole into a second nord's throat.
"What have you done?!"
A third nord scrambled over the writhing, gurgling body of his comrade to have at their attacker with a freshly-drawn longsword. Discarding his spent weapon, Hans dashed a step back and smoothly evaded the man's predictable initial swipe, then immediately reversed course and floored his opponent with a well-aimed punch to the abdomen, then to the jaw.
The rest of the nords, realising they were being attacked by an overconfident madman in their midst, immediately drew their weapons and advanced forth to cut off his exits.
"You made the last mistake of your life, blackguard milk-drinker!" One of them taunted as he circled the hunter with his mates, banging his warhammer into his shield as he did.
"What the hell are you hoping to accomplish here, you son-of-a-bitch!" Another exclaimed as he dragged his fallen comrade away, ignoring his slurred protests all the while. "Are you after our things? Do you work for the Thalmor? Oh, I fucking bet you do!"
Hans said nothing and merely adopted a combat stance after unsheathing his zweihänder, wordlessly imploring his foes to test themselves on Sigmar's finest.
"DEATH TO TRAITORS!" A nord finally lost his temper and broke ranks, charging the hunter with an axe in one hand an a shield in the other.
"SOVNGARDE!" Another followed, spear lifted high.
"FOR ULFRIC STORMCLOAK!" And another, holding a halberd.
Hans expected as such. Doubtless his opponents expected him to stand his ground, surrounded as he was. He relished the look on their faces when he subverted their expectations by meeting their charge.
Moving faster than any of his foes could anticipate, the hunter raised his greatsword above his head and surged up to the first nord. Before the man could properly shore up his defences, Hans batted his buckler aside before severing his sword-arm through the gap in his plates. The nord was quickly dispatched by a sword to the ribcage, long before he could even realise what was happening.
The second nord moved to intercept Hans, but he was ready for her. Unsheathing his reddened blade from his vanquished opponent's innards, Hans pivoted to the side, narrowly avoiding being skewered by a spear. Just before the spear-woman could retract her weapon, the witch hunter cleaved it in two by the haft, then used his momentum to cleave the startled nord's legs from under her, messily hewing both limbs completely.
Unnerved by his maimed comrade's agonised screams, the third nord couldn't muster the courage to face the advancing witch hunter. Face twisted in palpable fear, he made to return to his mates. Trying to outrun a veteran templar on the hunt soon proved futile for him, however.
The rest of the nords could only cringe in horror as Hans caught up to their fleeing comrade. Lowering his gleaming, Morr-blessed flammenschwert below his hip, the hunter mustered all his considerable strength as he cleaved upward with the blade, mercilessly splitting his foe's body into halves from crotch to head in a gruesome display of blood, bone, and viscera.
The hunter wiped the blood from his face. He barely had any time to raise his blade before he was set upon by all the remaining nords at once.
What followed next was a complete slaughter as Hans brought the full extent of his martial abilities, templar training, and battlefield experience to bear on his foes. Moving as fluidly as any master fencer, he expertly weaved away from and parried aside most of the blows meant for him, before retaliating in kind. When they struck true, his blows had enough force to sunder flesh and shatter bone, and his enchanted blade made cleaving through shoddy nord armour a trivial task.
By the time Sinfahran and Qa'ara made their way to the nord camp, it was already too late for them to help. Hans jammed his weapon's crossguard deep into the final nord's eye-socket, before pulling back and swiping her head from her shoulders.
It was done. The murdered khajiit sellswords had been avenged.
Qa'ara beheld the aftermath of the hunter's assault with wide and terrified eyes. "You... you killed them all."
Hans went down a knee on the blood-red snow and planted his sword into the ground, panting in exhaustion. "Fährtenleserinkatze... Rattenfänger... you're both late."
Sinfahran did not respond, he merely stared at the hunter as though he committed an unforgivable slight unto the khajiit.
"Are you alright?" Qa'ara warily approached, as though fearing the hunter would attack her next.
Sensing this, Hans held out a hand. "Peace, Fährtenleserinkatze. I mean you no harm."
The khajiit tracker eased her stance. "Are you wounded?" She asked, sounding worried.
"Flesh wounds here and there. I'll heal." The templar stood up, after catching his breath.
"How did you manage...?"
"These nords fought only a little better than bandits, and they were weighed down by armour."
"Luck favoured me today."
Qa'ara bit back another question. Hans figured she could recognise that he was dodging her.
The three of them stood in silence for a while, amidst the bodies.
"We should return to the caravan." The hunter said, putting his sword back in its sheath. "Loot the bodies. Take any valuables you see, but leave weapons and armour behind — they'll only make the return journey even more tedious. Come, time waits for no one."
Upon returning to Vassa'dar's encampment — located this time near the outskirts of a village named Ivarstead — the khajiiti caravan master was overjoyed to see his "employees" return from their expedition with several ancient nordic relics, a pile of golden coins looted from the draugr, and a modestly-sized chest full of assorted treasures. He was even more pleased to be presented extra loot in the form of a bag full of bloody septims, rare gemstones and other valuables, but his elation immediately soured upon being informed that these things were seized from the bodies of the nords who murdered three of his other mercenaries.
Still, Vassa'dar had been generous with sharing the loot. Hans was given a hefty fraction of the treasure for his performance — twenty percent of the gold, and some ancient nordic wine for his trouble. Qa'ara and Sinfahran made do with fifteen percent each, although Sinfahran didn't seem too pleased with his share.
"You robbed me of my share in blood, oviit." He said to Hans, upon leaving the caravan master's tent. "You may have avenged my friends' deaths, but you left me out of it. Mark my words — I'll make you regret ever taking my vengeance out of my hands."
Qa'ara gaped in shock as her mate stormed off and out of sight. She turned to the hunter, whose face and expressions were once again hidden from sight by the beaked mask and cowl he always wore.
"The ungrateful oaf! I don't know what the hell is he thinking, speaking to you like that. Forgive him, Hans, for he does not mean what he said!"
Hans shrugged. "It is no trouble. I am aware I am not the most social man in any given situation, and it seems I've driven your partner away. Please tell him I apologise if I caused him any offence. It's not my intention to cause a rift between us, you see."
She let out a breath. "I am glad to hear that you hold him no ill will, and yes, I will do that." She laughed, more out of nervousness than anything. "His temper can be... problematic... at times, but Sinfahran is a good man, and I don't want a friend of mine to come to blows with him."
Hans tilted his head to the side. "Friend? You consider me to be... your friend?" He sounded like he couldn't quite believe what he heard.
Qa'ara punched his arm, surprising the hunter. "Of course! After everything we've been through, why wouldn't I think of you as anything less?"
The hunter stood still, not quite certain of what to make of his situation. He was certain of one thing, though: his superiors would like to have an extended amount of time mounting him on a rack, supervised by a priest, a confessor, a hierophant, several templars-in-training, and if they were being uncharacteristically merciful... an executioner.
"Go and have some rest. This one will try to talk some sense into her mate." Qa'ara turned around and left, leaving the hunter to his own thoughts. "See you around, Hans."
Hans took a while to respond. "Bis nachher, Fräulein..."
Days passed by as Vassa'dar's caravan continued on its convoluted route to Windhelm. Over that time, Hans continued to lead more expeditions into other nordic ruins and barrows, and more often than not, he was accompanied by some of Vassa'dar's mercenaries, whom had been assigned to follow his commands.
While Hans often found Sha'aziri's constant prodding and chattering mildly irritating, he was pleased to find that the sellswords were mostly competent, and had little issues with taking orders from a human. Over time, the catfolk hirelings began to recognise the witch hunter's skills and the tactical value he presented into a battle, and soon, he began to build a reputation around the caravan for being a fearsome warrior, and a shrewd and reliable, albeit taciturn leader.
Indeed, there were some of the khajiit who disliked the hunter's abrupt, subtly condescending nature, his reluctance to partake in social matters outside his work, and his flat — some would say rude — refusal to purchase khajiiti goods from the stalls, Hans felt the catfolk respected or feared him enough to give him the space he required in between expeditions.
It wasn't very long until the travelling caravan reached the outskirts of the first major settlement in their route, and the entire province's central mercantile hub: the city of Whiterun. Hans was in the middle of examining the large buildings towering out from the horizon with a spyglass, when the call for the caravan to settle down and start setting up was sounded.
"Human! Come give us a hand — it's time to set up camp!" Dahan, one of the merchants and a tailor in Vassa'dar's employ, called the hunter from his perch atop a tree.
The templar slid the spyglass in itself, pinned it to his belt, and scaled down the tree. Knowing that he had nothing better to do, he decided he could pass the time by helping out with whatever he could.
"Are you sure you are not part khajiit? You climb up and down trees like a natural, outsider." Dahan flippantly remarked as soon as Hans arrived to help.
The hunter received a handful of metal stakes from Dahan's timid nephew. "I am more of a dog-person, myself, tailor." He promptly got to work as he planted them on the grass.
It was nice to walk over something that wasn't covered in snow, for once.
"Ah, dogs. Nasty little things. Always yapping and clamoring for food. This one never saw the appeal to having them as pets." Dahan's wife began connecting the tent poles together.
Hans assisted her. "Schneiderkatze, why is everyone setting down their goods outside the city?" He decided to address Dahan, changing the subject as he did. "Would it not be wiser to set up your stalls inside Whiterun's walls? You'll attract more attention that way."
Dahan, like most of the khajiit, soon recognised the nickname Hans had given him. "You don't know? While individual khajiit usually face no trouble entering Whiterun or any other city in Skyrim, even at a joyous day like this, khajiit caravans are forbidden from setting up shop inside a nordic settlement. Apparently, the humans of Skyrim whole-heartedly believe the stereotypes of our people being thieves and drug-smugglers."
Hans began to assemble the tent frames as soon as he was done with the poles. "Not to reinforce their point, but just yesterday, one of the mercenaries — Likes Fire, I believe she was called by the others — tried to take a bag of shot and gunpowder from me when she thought I was not looking."
Dahan paused working on his stall to give Hans' words some thought. "Well, Dahan supposes every stereotype has a grain of truth underneath all the untruths..." In the end, he waved it off. "Ah, but what is this one saying? This khajiit who tried to steal from you is a mercenary, yes? Every mercenary develops uncontrollable kleptomaniacal urges sooner or later in their careers. Once they see something they like, they cannot resist the impulse to take it, consequences be damned."
The tailor took a deep breath, then seamlessly transitioned back into working on his stall. "As for us budiit, know that you can trust us to make you the finest, most colourful set of clothes for a just and honourable price, no more and no less."
Hans shrugged, not at all interested in Dahan's unsubtle attempts to ply his trade. "So you say, Schneiderkatze."
Soon, Vassa'dar's merchant encampment was back in business. As the first batch of customers began to trickle in from Sha'aziri's checkpoint, Hans found himself loitering about with nothing meaningful to do. Vassa'dar hadn't summoned him to his tent to discuss another expedition he had in mind, which was strange. The portly business-cat always had a ruin or two he wanted scoured clean of anything his merchants could sell.
"Damn it, woman, stop playing games with me! I want my money's worth!"
Quirking a brow, the hunter looked to where he heard the commotion coming from. There, he saw a twitchy, rather ostentatiously-dressed nord arguing with Atahnna, the caravan's resident baker.
"Atahnna extends her apologies, human, but she cannot in good conscience bake more of the substance into your goods." Atahnna said, firmly shaking her head. "Any more of it, and it will be as lethal as any poison to your kind. While this one understands that the festivities today may—"
"I'll be the judge of that, khajiit! Just shut up and put more of the stuff in. I command it!" The man rudely interrupted as he continued to shout and rant.
The baker sighed. "This one's answer remains unchanged, which is still no, nord. And you've already overstayed your welcome. Leave now, before you scare away my other customers."
"Do you know who I am? Do you mistake me for common rabble? I'll have you killed for this!" The nord slammed his fist into the baker's counter and looked like he was about to escalate the situation with violence.
Acting quickly, Hans left his position and intercepted the nord. As soon as he was close enough, the hunter clamped down on the man's shoulder before shoving him away from the stall, almost toppling him over.
"The baker told you to leave, northlander, and leave you shall."
"Mind your own business, peasant!" The nord snarled, drawing his longsword from its sheathe by his hip. "Touch me again, and I'll take your hands!"
Unfazed, the hunter smoothly drew a pair of pistols from his coat and aimed them downrange. "Is this how you wanted to die? I can certainly oblige."
"You wouldn't dare!" The nord didn't seem too intimidated by the weapons. "What the hell are those things supposed to do to me, anyway?"
Hans groaned, annoyed. "This."
Customers and khajiit traders alike gaped at the scene as Hans fired a shot, hitting the belligerent nord's sword-hand, blasting the weapon out of his grasp and blowing off a couple of fingers. Another shot zipped past his head and blew off his left ear, leaving a bleeding ruin behind.
The nord screamed and dropped to his knees, pathetically clutching his maimed hand.
"Consider those warning shots." The hunter smoothly drew a second pair of guns after stowing away the first pair. "Leave now, or die here. The choice is yours."
Whimpering like a dog put in its place, the bleeding nord scrambled back to his feet and quickly made his way out of the encampment. With the situation dealt with, the hunter put his weapons back into their braces in his coat.
Atahnna clapped, deeply amused. "Did you see the look on that idiot's face? Hah! It was priceless!" She returned to work as the atmosphere slowly returned to business as usual. "Thank you for dealing with him, human. Atahnna is glad to have you around."
Hans slowly nodded. "Yes... but if I may ask, what was that "substance" you were talking about? What do you put into that man's bread?"
"Moon sugar!" The baker-cat cheerily exclaimed. "Moon sugar is the key ingredient to all khajiiti baked goods, but alas, Atahnna understands that it is highly addictive, and even lethal in large enough doses to those who are not fortunate enough to be born to the khajiit."
"Ah." The hunter decided he should stay as far away from Atahnna's stall as possible in the future. "Is that why that nord acted the way he did? Good to know."
"All things in excess can't be good for anyone." Atahnna said, trying to sound sagely. "But in moderation, khajiiti baked goods make for the best baked goods in all of Tamriel. Want to try?"
Horrifyingly, she reached out to Hans with a dumpling in hand. The hunter couldn't walk away any faster if he tried.
Once he was far enough from the baker's stall, Hans expelled a breath he was holding in. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised at what the locally-baked bread contained. He took the time to thank Sigmar that he had stuck to eating hardtack and game-meat thus far.
"There you are, human!"
The templar was broken out of his prayers as he was approached by his khajiit "friend".
"Atahnna said you ran off before you could take your "reward" for driving that pretentious nord away." Qa'ara approached the hunter. This time, she was dressed more casually in light shawls and winter robes, but she still carried her weapons and most of her travelling gear.
"I never liked sweets, at any rate." He waved her off.
"I know. That's why I took the liberty of eating it for you." She laughed at his flat expression. "Come, we have the entire day to ourselves before the caravan returns to the road."
The hunter sighed in relief. "Vassa'dar gave us another expedition? Good, I tire of waiting. In which direction are we headed?"
"No, silly, it's the first day of the new year!" Qa'ara replied. "There will be no expeditions today, my friend. Isn't that great?"
"What?" Hans' brows shot up, a little surprised and alarmed. He hadn't realised it was the 1st of Nachexen already. "Shouldn't we be indoors and out of the open? Come to think of it, why haven't we stockpiled any weapons or set up traps around the caravan's perimeter? The dead could be rising as early as the afternoon!"
Qa'ara's ears drooped in confusion. "I... don't think I follow. What are you talking about now, Hans?"
"It's Hexenstag!" Hans exclaimed. He found himself even more alarmed and even a little panicked when his proclamation was only met with more befuddlement from Qa'ara. "Sigmar's teeth, do you realise the danger we are all in? Morrslieb is—"
The hunter looked up to the sky. Shockingly, the heretical green moon was nowhere in sight, despite its penchant for dominating the skies above the Empire every Hexenstag, even as early as the morning hours of the day.
With growing trepidation, Hans realised now that the twin moons he had been seeing every night looked vaguely similar to Mannslieb and Morrslieb from a cursory, disinterested glance... but jogging through his memory revealed several key differences. For reasons that vexed the hunter, he could remember idly noting that "Mannslieb" seemed many times smaller than before, while the much larger "Morrslieb" seemed to have lost its sickly, faintly-glowing green hue, and was much more reddish instead.
The hunter's palms began to sweat at the implications of seeing completely different moons during the evening. Have my eyes been deceiving me every night? He pondered. Where in the world am I?
Qa'ara's hand on his shoulder jolted the hunter back into the land of reality. "You've been really quiet, human. Are you unwell?"
Hans shook his head, clearing his thoughts. "No, no, I'm fine. I was just... remembering something. Tell me, what happens every night during the first day of the year in Tamriel?"
The khajiit rolled her eyes as she retracted her hand, a smirk tugging at her mouth. "It's called the New Life Festival, and at night, when everyone has had their fill of celebrating the holiday, they eat as much as they can and drink to their heart's content. Best of all, the drinks are all free until the next day."
Hans was gobsmacked. He was glad for the mask that hid his expression. "By the gods... you can't... possibly m-mean..."
The hunter uneasily cleared his throat, steeling himself to say what needed to be said. "Fährtenleserinkatze, do you mean to say that in the coming evening, there would be no threats of random mutations, the spirits of those whom had gone before would not come to terrorise their descendants, and the restless dead will never rise from their graves to assault the living?"
Qa'ara laughed. "Is this what happens during the first night of the year in this Empire of yours? Gods, Hans, no wonder you're such a terror on the battlefield. Forget magic — even your holidays have a tendency of killing you!"
Hexenstag was no laughing matter. Other "holidays", such as the dreaded Geheimnisnacht, even more so. But for the life of him, Hans couldn't figure out why he suddenly burst into a bout of uncontrollable hysterics, clutching his head in his hands with his wild-eyed gaze fixed to the sky.
Actually, he did manage to figure it out, amidst his bout of demented laughter. It was because of the creeping realisation at the back of his mind about the maddening possibility that ever since he was banished from Sylvania, he was already cursed to wander these Sigmar-forsaken lands for the rest of his life, not knowing just how vast the distance was between Tamriel and the Old World... which may as well be in another plane of reality altogether.
Eventually, Hans forced himself to stop laughing. His resolve may have been seriously tested this day, but he will not break. Not today, where these people can see a proud son of Sigmar reduced to his knees, howling and wailing like a broken man.
"Let us begin with this festival of yours, Qa'ara." Hans said to his companion, his voice hoarse and his expression grim. It was as though he was about to charge into an entire coven of vampires by himself. "Damn the consequences, and damn those who will judge me for it. Today, I am drinking myself into a stupor."
The khajiit dropped her look of confusion and concern and replaced it with excited delight. "That's the spirit! Come on, let's try to make it inside before the crowds do. Follow me!"
The city of Whiterun was as grand as the books and stories suggested. In the so-called Plains District, rows upon rows of quaint nordic houses lined the city blocks, guard outposts dot every corner and seemed well-staffed, and businesses and taverns crowded with citizens and visitors of all shapes, colours, and sizes.
Today was different, however, in that the streets were decorated with lanterns, colourful banners and flags, balloons, wax candles, and empty tables soon to be filled with piles of food and trays of mead and ale. All the while, musicians played tunes around city corners, inebriated celebrants toasted their tankards and sang along, and fools plied their trade by entertaining passers-by with jokes and illusions. Even the local guards took to wearing colourful uniforms for the festivities.
"Sigmar, I hate this place already." Beside Qa'ara, Hans grumbled. His shoulders were slumped, and he sounded none-too-pleased.
The khajiit figured something was bothering her friend and making him much more brooding than usual, but she decided not to bring it up and agitate him further, especially at a joyous day like this.
"Oh, don't be such a child." She mock-chided. "We should take advantage of the drop in prices at the markets. Maybe we'll find something nice to take with us!"
"I doubt it." Qa'ara's human companion continued to grouse, but thankfully, he followed after her.
The markets were blessedly still manoeuvreable, but still crowded. The two of them were forced to move at a snail's pace as they made their way through the sea of people.
"Where has the Rattenfänger gone, if I may ask?" Hans shouted over the clamoring of the crowd around him. "Shouldn't you be doing this with him instead of me?"
There he was with his strange nicknames again. Qa'ara remembered to ask the human about them; she still wanted to find out what hers meant.
"Sinfahran would never be caught doing this with me! He'd rather be brawling with his hireling friends over at some back-alley tavern rather than endure an hour of browsing the market stalls with his woman!" She looked behind her shoulder and shouted back.
"That does indeed sound like what your other half would do!" Hans replied, casually brushing aside an irate breton woman whose eye he almost poked out with his beaked mask. "Would you like to find where he is, anyway? I still feel as though you should spending this day with your partner!"
"We'll catch up to him out here sooner or later!" Qa'ara weaved aside a stampeding herd of burly nords carrying heavy crates filled with goods for the holiday. "He has a habit of turning up at the last moment! He's such a sweetheart, isn't he?"
The witch-finder likewise moved out of the nords' way before he was trampled. "Better to turn up late rather than not turn up at all, I suppose!"
Qa'ara and Hans spent most of the morning browsing through the Whiterun markets. While the hunter seemed reluctant to spend his coin on anything the local shopkeepers had to offer, the khajiit had already stuffed several bags full of novelty food, souvenirs, bundles of steel-tipped arrows and other baubles and curiosities she found interesting. The only thing Hans had bought seemed to be extra rations for the road ahead.
"What a productive morning that was!" Qa'ara happily exclaimed as she set her bags down and sat down on a public bench.
"I can see why Sinfahran would try to avoid you during holidays." Hans also set more of Qa'ara's bags down, but chose to remain on his feet. "No offence intended, of course." He was quick to add.
"None taken," She nodded, smiling faintly. "It's not the manliest, or most exciting thing to do, I know."
The witch-finder pried his mask off, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, closing his eyes as he did. Qa'ara couldn't help but notice how troubled the human appeared — a far cry from his usual, coldly-assured self.
"Is there something you are not telling me, Hans?" She took the risk in asking. When she was met with silence, she thought dithering would only make things worse, and decided to press forth. "This one can tell when something has been bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?"
He pulled down his cowl and ran a hand through his curled, unkempt hair. "No, no. I'm fine. Thank you for your kind offer, but I feel like this is something I feel I must deal with myself."
The human turned to the khajiit, smiling wanly. "Besides, I don't want to burden you with my woes. I certainly hope you understand, Fährtenleserinkatze."
Qa'ara slowly nodded, a little disappointed. "Of course, it's no trouble at all."
An awkward moment of silence passed between the two.
"Is now a good time to drink?" Qa'ara could hear the hesitation in Hans' voice.
She chuckled. "Yes, I believe so."
It was quick. To the right-hand side of the market, a freshly-painted, nigh-untouched tavern called the Bannered Mare was conveniently located. Entering it was a relatively simple affair, but finding a place to sit was near impossible, what with all the drunks and celebrants and drunk celebrants loitering about.
"Hello, and welcome to the Bannered Mare!" A young barmaid was blessedly quick to arrive, all cheerful and smiling. She didn't seem to notice Qa'ara at first, but she was quick to address Hans. "You have the look of a warrior whom had more than his share of battles, kinsman. Is there... something I can help you with?"
"A table and some privacy would not be unwelcome, nord." When Hans said nothing, Qa'ara answered for him. She noticed the way the barmaid glanced at her suspiciously, but decided against bringing it up and drawing unwanted attention.
"Please wait your turn," The barmaid said, curtly. Before Qa'ara could protest, she returned to addressing the hunter. "Now, is there anything you want me to get for you, handsome? A drink, maybe?"
"I come with the khajiit, Fräulein. Find us a secluded table for two, if you don't mind." Hans finally replied, drawing a surprised, incredulous look from the woman.
"Are the two of you... you know," The barmaid dithered, making all sorts of gestures with her hands. "Um, on second thought... never mind. Follow me, let me see if I can get some of these louts to crowd up some other tavern."
The maid seemed to be quite proficient in yelling at drunkards and getting them to leave, if nothing else. Soon enough, an isolated table in the far corner of the tavern was cleared, allowing Qa'ara and her human companion a place to rest their legs and set their bags down.
"I'll get you two something to drink in a moment," The barmaid said before she departed. "Enjoy your stay, and do come back AFTER the festival. Divines know we need the coin..."
Qa'ara rolled her eyes at the maid as she left. "This tavern smells new, does it?"
"The paint is still fresh, and dust is nowhere in sight." Hans absently nodded, arms crossed and grey eyes vacantly staring into the void. "The proprietors are using the festivities to promote their establishment... that much is obvious."
Before the infuriatingly-elusive witch-finder could lapse into another bout of uncomfortable silence, Qa'ara took it upon herself to take the initiative. "You know, the three of us had been working together closely for a week now, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that neither Sinfahran nor I hardly knew anything more than a name..." She paused. "Err, about you, I mean."
Hans focused his eyes to her. "Is this an interrogation?"
The khajiit's eyes widened in shock. "What? No! Why would you think—"
"Calm yourself, Fräulein, I meant that in jest." The witch-finder put up his gloved hands in mock-surrender. He laughed a bit at Qa'ara's irritated glare before settling down.
"Heh, I haven't been the most sociable man in Vassa'dar's employ. I never talked this much before, back in Sigmar's Empire. I suppose I haven't truly felt the need to, since everything made sense, and I've little opportunities to make permanent allies."
"Why is that?"
"Because they all die. One way or another, they all die in the end."
Qa'ara flinched, regretting that question. "This Old World must be a dangerous place."
"More than you realise." The witch-finder solemnly nodded. "You are most fortunate to be born in Tamriel, Qa'ara. It may seem like dangers lurk at every corner and peace may seem scarce here, but to me, Skyrim had been downright tranquil. War and death had always been constants to me, ever since I cast down the trappings and hedonistic frivolities of my nobility."
It was then that the barmaid returned, holding a tray filled with overflowing tankards of watered-down ale. But who would turn down free alcohol?
Hans took a deep breath as he eyed the drinks the maid had left on the table. "But I digress. You are hoping to learn more about me, yes?"
Qa'ara nodded, gripping hee first tankard in her hand-paws. "I'm just curious. I don't mind if you don't want to share."
The witch-finder smiled warmly. Certainly a rare sight.
"Listen close, then, for I'll make this as brief as I can. My name is Johannes van Hal, and I am the second son of Kristoff van Hal, a member of one the Empire's ancient aristocratic lines, and Liliana von Kreutzhofen, a wealthy baroness. Being the spare heir to my father's titles, I spent most of my youth..."
For the next few hours or so, well until dusk, Qa'ara listened intently as her friend told her of his younger years growing up in a nobleman's court. As a child and later an adolescent, Hans apparently lived a very sheltered and pampered life, where anything he desired, he got. His extravagant lifestyle continued up to early adulthood, where his hedonistic impulses worsened until he finally embraced his family's ancestral duties and became a templar — a witch hunter, as he called it.
And as a witch hunter, Hans apparently was responsible for many atrocities that repulsed and took a toll on his mind, but were nonetheless necessary to uphold the greater security of his Empire. He told her of the many battles he had to face, all the wars he had to involve himself in, and the otherworldly creatures and empowered cultists he had no choice but to test his mettle against. Life in the Holy Order of the Templars of Sigmar was cruel, unforgiving, and fraught with danger... but the thought of seeing the fruits of his crusade and ultimately coming one step closer to redeeming his family name kept Hans moving forward, strengthening his resolve.
"My last endeavour was the purification of a fortress in Sylvania, the same one my blasphemous ancestor constructed using labour from the dead." Hans took an extended draught out of his beer. By then, the witch hunter had gone through more than half a dozen tankards and seemed no worse for wear.
"As it turned out, my ancestor still lingered on as a malevolent shade with delusions of grandeur, and he used his heretical sorceries to send me and his fortress to Skyrim, in the middle of Falkreath Hold. I nearly died of my wounds, but I was fortunate enough to come across the Nirdils on my way out of the fortress."
The hunter finished his drink and carefully wiped his mouth.
"And that, Fährtenleserinkatze, is how I found myself here. I've been trying to find a way to return to the Empire since then... but I haven't had any luck thus far." He sighed. "Hmm, perhaps one day..."
Qa'ara was struck silent as Hans finished his story. She took a swig out of her own tankard and blinked a few times.
"But... wouldn't you like to stay in Tamriel instead?" She asked, more than a little woozy from the alcohol. "This stupid Empire of yours is a... a shithole! Who the hell would want to live in an awful place like that, where taking a walk down the street can end with your soul being used as a lamp by random necromancers? Wait, wait, wait, I know!"
The khajiit leaned into the table. "Masochists! And, and, fools! Masochists and fools would live there! You wouldn't be either of those, would you?"
The hunter chuckled quietly. "Hm, I might as well be. I suppose duty has a way of making masochists and fools out of men." He sighed longingly, obviously still pining for his precious Empire. "But enough about poor, sad Hans van Hal, the wayward witch hunter. What about the inebriated khajiit sitting across the table from him, hmm? What's the story behind Fräulein Qa'ara von Elsweyr?"
"You... you'd like to know about me? Really?" Qa'ara grinned widely, cheeks flushed and eyes half-lidded.
"Knowledge is power, Qa'ara. And I just gave you more knowledge than I usually let others have. It's only fair that you do the same for me, no?"
The khajiit chortled. The human continued to surprise her.
Time continued to pass by as the khajiit spilled out everything she could think of about herself to the hunter, with all the slurring elegance of a suthay-raht who was rapidly approaching her alcoholic limit. She started with her childhood and adolescent years in Anequina, as a girl born to desert nomads. There, she was trained by her parents to track down prey through the dunes and badlands using nothing but her senses and the strength in her legs. Life was hard, but rewarding, and the future looked bright for Qa'ara and her family...
But then the Great War erupted between the Cyrodilic Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion.
In a matter of months, Elsweyr became a prime breeding ground for crime and brigandry with the war going on, and Qa'ara's parents were forced to become spies and manhunters for their altmer masters. After many missions behind Imperial territory, they were sent out to attach themselves into the main Dominion force in Cyrodiil, and it was a task that they never returned from.
Qa'ara would never forget the day her parents were presumed dead by their own handlers after the complete and utter annihilation of the army they were assigned to. With nowhere to go and nothing in Elsweyr left for her but bitter memories, she abandoned the province the first chance she got the moment she heard rumours about a merchant caravan planning on leaving Anequina for better opportunities elsewhere, preferably in places the Great War hadn't ravaged.
"And that's... that's how I met Sinfahran... he convinced Vassa'dar to take me on, and the rest... the rest is history." Qa'ara set her drained tankard down the table with an audible thump.
"Quite the story." The witch hunter said, setting aside his own drink. "When I eventually return home, I think I'll remember you, Fährtenleserinkatze."
"Awww, thanks. That's awfully kind of you, Hans." Qa'ara replied, her smile never leaving her face. "And I think I'll miss you, when you leave. Just... just promise me you won't die out there, okay?"
"Heh, I promise." She could tell he was holding back sardonic laughter. He raised a fresh tankard. "Let us dedicate a toast to insincere promises, then?"
"Here's to dying in battle!" She raised one of her empty tankards and toasted it with her friend. Surprisingly, the celebrating nords from the other tables raised their tankards too. "And to a fresh new year!"
"Zum Wohl." Hans said, quietly amidst the deafening cheers and slurred shouts of 'To Sovngarde!', and 'To a new year!'.
The arrival of the evening was heralded by a choir of singing Whiterun guardsmen in front of the Shrine of Talos. Qa'ara had to admit, it was a little comical seeing them creating melodies filtered through the steel helmets they always wore.
Actually, everything she looked at made her laugh. Even the clumsy redguard bumping into her and spilling his drink into her robes elicited a fit of giggling from the inebriated khajiit.
"I think you've had a little too much to drink, Fräulein." Suddenly, Hans was beside her, helping her steady her wobbly gait and posture. "I do not envy the state you are going to be in, come the morning."
The khajiit unconsciously leaned into the hunter. The scent wafting from him was a heady mix of aromatic odours, like lavender and mint. She tried to ask him why he smelled so fragrant instead of reeking of alcohol like her, but all that came out of her mouth was incomprehensible slurring.
The hunter snatched an empty tankard from a table they walked past, then emptied the contents of a flask from his belt into it. "Drink this, please. I'd rather not carry you to the caravan in addition to all our things."
Well, since he asked so politely.
As soon as Qa'ara tipped the cool, bitter-tasting fluid from the tankard down her mouth, almost instantly, she felt sharper, a little more alert. Her legs stopped being so hard to control, and soon, she was walking on her own again.
As soon as they walked out of the Whiterun gates, the freezing midnight winds were there to greet them. Qa'ara almost immediately started shivering, internally cursing herself for not wearing thicker clothes, the khajiit puffed up her fur and ambled on the beaten path to the caravan.
"You know, Fährtenleserinkatze, I feel as though I must confess something to you," Qa'ara could vaguely hear the hunter speaking up beside her. "I know you must be too intoxicated to hear me clearly, or even respond to what I say, but that is well. Actually, I must also be not in the right mind, considering I never would have admitted this, were I thinking clearly..."
Uncharacteristically, Hans spoke awkwardly, and used much more words than he usually did. His accent was much more pronounced as well, and the way his body tensed suggested he had to work up the courage to say his next words.
"I should start at the very beginning. I mentioned that I worked as a witch hunter, yes? In the Empire, us witch hunters are expected to face numerous foes of all shapes and sizes... and this includes creatures that vaguely resemble men fused with beasts. Your kind reminded me of them, in a way..."
Instantly, Qa'ara felt some of her sluggishness dissipate. She snapped her head to look at Hans, finding him unmoved, his expression hidden behind his armoured, beak-faced mask.
"These creatures used to be human, but are now nothing more than attack hounds employed by the dark gods to carry out their unholy wills. They exist only to slaughter, to destroy, and to defile, and I feel nothing but hatred when I see them, fury as I meet them in battle, and joy upon seeing them die by my hand..."
The hunter raised a gloved fist, clenching it tightly. Indeed, Qa'ara could swear she see the raw contempt blazing from the lenses of his mask.
Then, in an instant, it was gone. The hunter let his hand fall back to his side, his shoulders sagging in melancholy. "I would be lying if I said I didn't envision killing the entire caravan and putting your bodies to the torch. I would do it as soon as I realised you were no different than the beastmen back home. I would do it without any remorse or mercy, and with a smile on my face."
It was disconcerting how low the hunter's voice got. Qa'ara had no doubt he meant every word he said, and it chilled her to her core. If she was a little more clear-headed and a lot more sure-footed, she would consider putting some distance between her and the human as quickly as she could.
"So please," Unexpectedly, Hans' voice took a more pleading tone, even a little desperate. "Please do not betray the trust I am placing in you now. Each day I spend away from the Empire takes its toll on my mind, and I fear I may not be able to return to it again. I beg of you, Qa'ara, do not—"
Perhaps if she was not too drunk she would say something to reassure him, if only to keep him from turning against her next. Perhaps if she had more self-control, she would keep her distance, knowing just how much he enjoyed murdering beast-people in the name of his Empire and his god. Instead, spurred on by liquid courage and the desire to finally shut the human up, Qa'ara closed the distance between her and Hans and promptly enveloped the taller human in her arms by the waist.
Hans' reaction was immediate. He froze on the spot, his body was as stiff as a board.
Eventually, Qa'ara felt the hunter sigh and relax his muscles. "Sigmar preserve me. Disobeying orders, getting my entire retinue killed, associating with elves, and now befriending a beastwoman..." He let his head hang low. "I see now that my brother had always been right... I'd make for a poor templar."
Qa'ara simply held onto the human. Actually, she quite liked how warm he was compared to her environment. Perhaps risking a quick death by embracing the hunter wasn't such a bad idea? It was certainly better than freezing to death while letting him continue jabbering on about—
The loud, metallic impact noise startled the khajiit into opening her eyes. Before she could realise what was going on, she felt the fur around her arms become wet with a sticky red fluid...
"Get down!" Hans also wrapped his arms around Qa'ara, but only so he could push her into the ground before going down himself.
Eyes slowly growing wide with alarm, Qa'ara watched as Hans unbuttoned his coat and brushed a fold aside, revealing the bloodied quarrel penetrating the cuirass he wore underneath. Above them, she could hear more projectiles sailing past the wind, blanketing their position.
"You are in no state to fight, Fährtenleserinkatze." Hans' distinctive, businesslike monotone returned in full force despite the bolt impaling him clean through the chest. It was disturbing how a man who should be doubled over on the ground in pain seemed to pay little mind to his grievous injury. "You have to run. Get back to the caravan, I'll keep them off you."
Qa'ara tried to find her voice so she could argue, but Hans wasn't having any of it. With nothing but a nod to send her on her way, the hunter unsheathed his sword and bounded out of cover, where he immediately bolted to where the quarrels and arrows were coming from, heedless of the suicidal odds stacked against him.
Knowing that she could do nothing for the fearless fool, and that sticking around would only earn herself a pointless death in this ditch, Qa'ara resolved to alert the caravan of this attack. Moving out of cover and then running as quickly as she could in her intoxicated state, the khajiit prayed for any god who listened to whisk her out of danger, and if possible, keep Hans alive.
Qa'ara trusted her instincts to lead her back to her comrades, as she always had. The road leading to Whiterun was dark and deserted, and may also be hiding other dangers such as wolves and bears, but she did not let these facts deter her as she followed the scent-trail home.
By the time she sighted the smoke columns rising from Vassa'dar's encampent, Qa'ara slowed down her pace, her heart pounding in her chest and her legs beginning to lose their stiffness again. She was barely another step forward, when a great, hulking mass bumped into her from the side, knocking her to the ground in a whimpering, bruised heap.
The khajiit could barely believe her failing eyes as a mounted figure stomped past her before dismounting. By the light of Masser and Secunda, she could see that her assailant was a well-dressed, scowling nord. The left side of his head was bandaged up, along with the hand that held his longsword.
"After I'm done with you, your friend will pay for what he did to me." The nord strode toward the downed khajiit, his blade glinting in the moonlight. "You cats and your damned caravan... thieves and swindlers, the lot of you! All of you will pay!"
Qa'ara tried to pick herself up, but her battered and inebriated body refused to obey. She could only stare up at her killer, even as he lifted his sword to strike her down.
"Let this be a lesson to your kind! Whiterun belongs to my family! I am—"
The nord never got to finish his sentence as a shadowy blur smashed into him from the side. Cursing profusely, the blackguard tried to put some distance between him and his attacker, only to find himself seized by the collar and violently slammed into the tree behind him.
Gasping in pain and rage, the nord swiped his blade against his opponent. In response, the figure re-directed the strike by bouncing it off a vambrace, before rearing a fist and flattening the struggling nord's nose, dazing him.
With its victim pacified, the figure proceeded to rain down a series of crushing blows onto the trapped nord, fracturing bones and blowing out teeth with every wince-inducing strike. It was only until the nord's body was thoroughly battered and his face was a bloody, horribly-deformed ruin did his assailant stop to wrap a hand around his throat. The badly-beaten nord could only groan and gurgle as he was lifted from the ground and off his feet, moonlight washing over him from above.
Qa'ara supposed it was the copious amounts of alcohol in her blood making her see things that weren't possible, but what she witnessed next looked too graphic to be the intoxicated imaginings of her addled mind. The nord suddenly shrieked and began squirming violently against his attacker's unyielding grasp. While he struggled in vain, his flesh seemed to rapidly deteriorate, making him look more and more like a desiccated corpse with each passing second.
The khajiit watched in horror as it happened. The poor nord's screams continued to fill the air for a while, and it was only until his eyes had shrunk down into nothing and his flesh had all but rotted away did the shadowy figure release its victim, leaving his near-skeletal body crumpled in a heap under the tree.
The victorious assailant, appearing as though having just shaken itself out of a trance, took a few steps away from the body. "Sigmar..." He muttered, fear and uncertainty plain in his quivering voice.
Revealed by the pale glares of Masser and Secunda, Hans continued to edge away from the nord's body until his boot snagged itself on an exposed root, making him lose his balance and fall on his back.
Qa'ara stared at the hunter. His scuffed and bloodied longcoat remained unbuttoned, revealing more than a few new holes, dents, scratches and slash marks on the plate cuirass clasped over his torso underneath.
After a while, Hans steadied his shuddering breaths, pushed himself up to sit, and stared right back.
The khajiiti tracker could never forget those soulless lenses as they gleamed in the moonlight.