IT LIVES!

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Chapter 24:
Faith, Friends, and Folgunthur

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29 Rain's Hand, 4E200
Whiterun, Whiterun Hold, Skyrim
Khepri the Beekeeper

With my latent ability to selectively perceive everything around me for a significant distance – which, with my piggybacking off the Chaurus Hive Mind, extended from Blackreach to within an Imperial mile of both myself and Skitter – the city of Whiterun was already somewhat familiar to me.

Its stone curtain walls showed signs of repairs both recent and old, but the current battlements looked strong and sharp… if unimaginatively grey, and roofed with timbers that hadn't been stripped of their bark. The barbican I was walking through, in the pleasant chill of a Skyrim spring morning, was, in contrast to the battlements, in very good condition, with guards walking the walls, flat cobbled spaces for market stalls on either side of the road, and the gold/white/green banners of Whiterun both hanging from towers and flying on toppers.

There were no market stalls, currently, most farmers, hunters and other tradespeople keeping their distance from the cities, mostly due to the conflict between the Empire and Stormcloaks being only in a very tense ceasefire rather than a full treaty. Relatedly, I dearly wished the High King hadn't asked me to remain undeclared for either side, but to aid Jarl Ulfric if things came to a head. I could see the reasoning, however; if I declared without provocation, that might spurn the Dominion and/or certain moronic members of the Imperial Council to action. That action most likely being assassins aimed unerringly at me for most of my life, and, therefore, having very little time for my gardens, my honey production, or Farkas. Regardless, I would abide the High King's wishes, even if it meant going to war – hopefully for the last time.

Why? Because, High King or no High King, I respected Ulfric more than I did General Tullius; both were good men, but Tullius was a good soldier before he was a good man.

That was neither here nor there, though, as I was visiting Whiterun on… mostly business, with some small 'pleasure' on the side.

I nodded and smiled my greetings to the Whiterun Guards as we passed one another, declining the offer for a breakfast sweetroll from one as I passed through the gatehouse.

They, the guards, had reason to be happy: the operation at Silent Moons didn't just go off without a hitch – something to do with Judas, Bentley and Sophia distracting the bandits, allowing for the three Houscarls to assault almost without resistance – but, in addition to the rather sizable amount of loot taken from the bandit camp, there was a more precious treasure hidden in the cells: children.

The Silent Moons Warband were revealed to be child traffickers. Irileth, after interrogating the bandit leader in the camp's smithy, found that buyers ranged from the Silver-Bloods in Markarth, to the Forsworn, and even the Thalmor.

Naturally, none of the bandits saw another sunrise, and for those who'd… sampled the merchandise… death and Oblivion was the sweetest kindness, once Judas and the Whiterun Guard were done with them.

Most of the children, having been orphaned in their kidnapping, were relocated to Honorhall Orphanage in Riften – which was under new and, from Mr. Brynjolf's last letter, better management – while some were brought to Whiterun for healing and, with luck, adoption by one of the city's families. As I passed through the open gates and smiled at the long avenue of the Plains District, leading past lovely houses to a market square and the Bannered Mare…

Only one of the orphans hadn't been adopted into one of the merchant or farming families that lived and worked in Whiterun.

The young girl, a brunette in a green blouse and beige skirt, I could see though some spiders in the rafter of Arcadia's Cauldron, the city Apothecary; the poor girl looked dirty, with bags under her eyes, and sniffled a little… but still carefully unwrapped a piece of canvas, setting up a small display of shimmering river stones to sell. She must've found them in the rivers outside the city.

I would address that matter in due course, but first, business called.

"Good morning, Mrs. Avenicci," I smiled at the city blacksmith, one Adrienne Avenicci, the daughter of the Hold Steward, Proventus.

She paused in hanging up her wares on nails outside her shop, Warmaiden's, to return my smile and greet me, "Oh! And to you as well, Thane Khepri; here to check on the bottles you ordered?"

With a smile and a nod, Mrs. Avenicci told her husband Ulfberth where she'd be, and I followed her to the warehouse behind her shop.

Ordinarily, I would've ordered my bottles from Frost-Glow Kiln in Dawnstar; not only was I quite close with that family, they were the ones who made the first bottles for my mead, and made all the pots for my honey – there was a fresh shipment of 200 pots at Weynon Glades' trading post, waiting for me to fill them from my apiaries.

However, while the Kiln was the best in Skyrim, it didn't have enough people to satisfy the demand for glass a dedicated brewery could produce. I'd already visited the former Honningbrew Meadery twice, once with the Jarl, and again with Proventus; it'd been sold to me with all the items I would need to run a small, if productive, mead business, with space for more should I wish it. But, there it was: my dreams for self-reliance exceeded what the Frost-Glows could produce.

So, while I would continue to buy artisan honey pots from them, my glass bottles would have to come from somewhere else; luckily, after the whole business with Hamelyn and his skeevers, Proventus introduced me to his daughter, Adrienne, who was both an accomplished smith – she was the one who made the Dwemer metal fittings for my bed – and a master glassworker.

The bottle order was for 150, so I was rather surprised to find it'd been completed so quickly. The reason became evident as I inspected the sky-blue frosted glass bottles.

"These are cast," I said, running a finger over the meridian line that marked where the mold would've divided into two.

Nodding, Adrienne crossed her arms and explained, "150 bottles that are just for mead would take far too long to spin and blow; if I did that, I'd still be working on the order as summer ended, and I have other projects."

I raised my eyebrows, "Oh… it does seem like I'm criticizing your work. Apologies; I was only surprised. Most of the other mead bottles I've seen have been spun glass."

She relaxed slightly, huffing with a little derision, "I understand, and didn't mean to be short with you, Th-"

"Khepri, please," I smiled, "I'm not here as a Thane, but as a citizen."

"…Khepri, then," arms uncrossed; victory. "But, the matter stands: most mead bottles in Skyrim come from Riften, meaning Black-Briar Meadery, who has their own team of glassworkers making quality bottles for each batch. Having tasted it in comparison to my husband's, and to the Bannered Mare's home brew, you're mostly paying for the glass."

I laughed lowly; indeed, Black-Briar's product was… subpar, compared even to my first proofs. "Well, these bottles are both beautiful, and will have my two latest runs of mead in them soon." I drew the bag of coin for the purchase and handed it to Adrienne, "Thank you most kindly; I'll be over with some Chaurus to move them tomorrow evening, if that's fine."

"Thank you, ma'am, and that'll be fine; you'll probably have to deal with my husband, though, as my father wants me over to Dragonsreach for dinner; politics," she sighed with a long-suffering if fond smile. "Try to go easy on the guy, will you?"

"You'll have your man back in one piece, not to worry," we laughed together, before I hummed and said. "Though, a question: do you take commissions for spun glass?"

"Certainly; I've done small sculpture work before, as well as a few more detailed pieces for the Temple and the Mare," she watched as I pulled a small scroll from a pocket, adding, "I'll warn you, though: spun or blown glass is more expensive than cast."

I nodded seriously, jingling one of the other pouches on my belt, "If necessary, I'm willing to pay with gemstones as well as Septims. What I'm looking for is a sturdy example of this diagram," I passed over the scroll, fighting down a blush as she took it and began to unfurl it, "with a smooth, water and acid-proof glaze over the finished product."

"I, ah… I see, um, Khepri," Adrienne, now blushing herself, blinked rapidly at the detailed diagram I'd given her, complete with precise measurements of the dimensions. "I've… done some work like this before, but never a direct, ah, commission for one." She looked me in the eyes with a grin most women usually reserved for each other, "It's also rather… detailed, both in shape and dimensions."

I bit my lip – checked my swarm; no one listening – and let out a small giggle, "It is, but, forgive me, I don't kiss and tell."

"With something like this, I don't blame you," she wolf-whistled before rolling the scroll back up and tucking into one of her apron's pockets. "I'll have it ready in at least two weeks' time."

I blinked, "Two weeks?" While… I could wait, my old bedroom aid wasn't cut out for giving me the… same sensations Farkas gave me during our night of passion. The lack of stress relief could start to show through in my dealings with other people, and I was honestly loath to allow myself to get snippy with Jordis, the ruin divers or the townsfolk of Weynon just because I hadn't orgasmed in-

"You want something solid, so spun, sculpted glass, yes?" I nodded, before sighing in realization, which made Adrienne smile knowingly, "Yeah, it'll take me more time to get things to your, ahem, exacting specifications, than if it was just a shaft or run-of-the-mill tool."

"Very well, then," I shrugged slightly before asking, "Will you need a down payment?"

"Mmm, not this time. I trust you're good for the money, though if you have any sapphires of exceptional quality, I won't say no to being paid in them."

With that, our business was more-or-less concluded, minus some parting pleasantries. I was then off to the market of Whiterun, a small circle of two shops – Belethor's General Goods and Arcadia's Cauldron – the rather famous inn The Bannered Mare, and a series of small vendors at covered stalls.

I paid them no mind as I approached the small brunette girl with her river stones, outside the Cauldron.

She looked up at me with such pitiful hope and desperation, my heart panged to see it, "Lady, would you like to buy a river rock? I… I collect the ones that look nicest-" she stopped as I knelt and picked up a black-gold stone, running a finger over it; a few glittering flakes fell off.

"How much?" I asked her with a smile.

She stuttered, "I, ah, um… twenty drakes?"

Oh, the poor thing, "Twenty drakes, for a stone I have never seen the like of before; it seems a little unfair." I took the gemstone pouch from my belt and had a praying mantis fly over; the girl gasped, but watched, wide-eyed as the mantis reached into the pouch with its forearms, "Now, what would be a good trade… ah."

It withdrew an emerald, tossed it into the air, and balanced the gemstone on its head; I set it on the ground and had the insect scuttle up to the girl.

She looked between me and the mantis for a moment before finally taking the stone; as it flew off and I pocketed my purchase, the girl whispered, "Are… you her?"

I tilted my head, "Her?"

"Khepri," she said, fast, like she couldn't hold the word in her mouth, "Th-The woman who got rid of the Falmer?"

I laughed lowly, and tried to deflect yet another oncoming praise, "I am Khepri, but I wasn't the only one fighting the Fal-"

The girl threw herself at me, flinging her arms around me and crying, "Thank you! Thank you! They k-killed my mama and papa! Divines b-bless you, miss!" and dissolved into a mess of babbling sobbing.

I slowly returned the hug, telling my Chaurus not to [worry] for me – as they'd all tensed when the girl leapt at me – and asked the little girl, "What is your name? Do you have anywhere to stay?" She shook her head, saying her name was 'Lucia', and made another pathetic sound of despair.

Pursing my lips, I met the eyeholes of the nearest guard and nodded at the blanket Lucia had been using as a market stall; then I stood, the girl still in my arms, and promised softly, "Then I'll bring you somewhere safe, where you can stay and learn about the world."

I walked from the market, the guard behind me, with most of the salespeople giving me thankful looks; I didn't pay most of them any heed, as they were all citizens in good standing within Whiterun, many of them with plenty of money and space in their houses. Why, then, was a child begging on the street?

Sister Danica didn't know either, as I brought Lucia into the Temple of Kynareth; but the good Sister didn't ask any questions as we gave Lucia to some of the other Temple clergy.

"You will be safe here," I told the girl. "Here, you can have a roof over your head, be with people who care about you, learn more about the world and how to heal others and, someday, will have the power to help others find their way."

"I can't come live with you?" she asked, voice quiet.

I smiled and patted her cheek gently, "While I'm sure you'd like living in Weynon Glades… if you came to live with me, others would notice, and I'm not without enemies. It would break my heart if you were hurt because of me."

And that was that. With one last hug and headpat, Lucia went away to get herself a bath and her first lessons in healing, with a promise from me that I'd come and visit – I needed to learn more about Restoration, and as I was technically a Priestess of Kyne, Sister Danica was more than eager to teach me.

Before I left – ostensibly to ask Balgruuf why an orphan was left out in the cold – I stopped at the Shrine to Kynareth, in the healing house; there, I prayed for good weather, for the health of the Chaurus, for the continued peace of Skyrim, and for Lucia to find her calling in life.

It said much of what I'd seen, since arriving in Skyrim, that, when my prayer was completed, I didn't flinch from the warm breeze out of nowhere that stroked my face, nor the feeling of a mother's approval that lifted my heart as I left the Temple for the Cloud District.

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North-North-east of Morthal
Imp

The Clever and Crafty and Intelligent She Who The Queen Named Imp was [delighted] by the destination chosen by her Queen's future King, Farkas.

Namely, marshes!

The landscape was one the Queen had told of to the Chaurus, first through the reading of books, then by reading those same books through the eyes of The Great and Noble She Who The Queen Named Skitter; misty, wet, humid, and full of trees and prey, it was an even better place than around broken Dwemer steam pipes! If Queen lived in such a place, there'd be no need for underground dens; the Chaurus would be able to live beneath the sky without fear!

"Imp, don't run too far ahead!"

Imp chittered [agreement] at Farkas and stopped near a pool of water, watching the water-bugs, dragonflies, and sneaky fish flitting over and under the misty pond. There were even interesting plants around – like the tangy blue flowers, though the white pods weren't very tasty – and the group she was with, Farkas, Friend Brelyna, and New Friend Fairsi, they had run into nothing that could challenge them yet.

First sabre cats and wolves in Whiterun, then mean people who didn't like Brelyna in the town of Morthal – but most were nice to them, like the little girl who gave Imp a Nirnroot – and then the big spiders that knew not the touch of the Queen.

But their destination, a lost and forgotten Barrow in the middle of the marshes, it was still a long ways away, and none of them knew exactly where it was.

A few hundred more yards of searching – which turned up nothing but an old, rotted cabin, and more of Brelyna's grumbling – Imp was just reveling in the fact that she was the first ever Chaurus adventurer, striking out on her own away from the comfort of the Hive Mind, when she felt something quite unexpected.

Thought-speech came to her antennae, making Imp seize up in surprise and hold up a claw to halt the party.

"Hm?" Farkas grunted behind her, clinking as he readied himself for a fight. "Be on your guard."

Imp ignored him, and listened.

The thought-speech came again, after a moment: it told of [intruders], a group of two-legged people who had appeared in the marshes and were trying to tear down one of the nicer hills. They'd even claimed one of the better mudcrab ponds for themselves!

Imp felt [compassion] for the other Chaurus, as she knew mudcrab was very delicious, but then she felt another, older thought-speech – likely an older Hunter, or a Praetorian like Big Sister Skitter – make itself known: [caution] [avoid].

The older Chaurus was bidding its brothers and sisters keep clear of the Intruders Who Weren't Imp's Party. But that was secondary to Imp's primary concern.

Chittering, she went over to Brelyna and poked at the girl's satchel; she needed the map, but couldn't use buzz-speech like Big Sister Skitter could.

"Uh, you need something from my pack?" Imp whistled and nodded her head to Friend Brelyna's question; once the pack was open, Imp pulled out the map and looked it over.

Before, maps didn't make much sense to her; the Chaurus usually mapped terrain and places through the Hive Mind, which meant that Imp's mental map didn't look like the map before her, but a spiderweb of tunnels snaking all across the land of Skyrim… or, most of it. There were some places that Blackreach's Great Herd and Queen Khepri's Light had yet to reach; whispers at the edge of their range, other Chaurus who hadn't been part of the rebellion.

One day, Imp would take some of her brothers and sisters and liberate their cousins, in the name of their Queen, but that day wasn't today.

Because the Chaurus she was thought-hearing didn't know of the tunnels under Skyrim's soil and stone; they only knew the marshes, and thus had a good idea of where everything in the marshes was.

Imp poked a claw at the spot where the Intruders Who Weren't Imp's Party were, and then traced it to the line Brelyna was using to track Imp's Party's progress.

"You found it?" Future King Farkas asked in his deep voice that made Queen [giddy]; Imp didn't much understand, but she still nodded and chirped [agreement] to her liege's chosen mate, who frowned. "How?"

Imp couldn't blink, but her mind did something that might be similar; how to explain, when the Future King couldn't hear the Hive Mind?

The answer came as soon as Imp formulated the question, a closer pulse of [intruders] coming to her antennae; looking past Fairsi, she saw the other Chaurus Hunter, watching through mist and shrubs.

They were a different coloration from Imp, who was a dark greenish black. This new Chaurus' chitin looked mossy, with browns blended into greens and grays, the odd red or blue appearing. The Hunter's eyes were also a dark blue, rather than a bright shade of greenish-blue like other Chaurus.

They were also surprised, tilting their head in [confusion] at seeing Imp among two-legged people.

Slowly, Imp moved a little closer, but waved a claw at her Party; she remembered that day, oh so long ago, when Queen first presented herself to a people who weren't Chaurus. Imp was now in the place of her Queen, greeting a group of Chaurus who weren't like those enslaved by the Falmer, possibly a group who'd escaped the snare of the Tyrant; that she was to be the representative of the Queen and the Herd…

Imp allowed herself to feel a private burst of [pride] in her thorax, before clicking her mandibles and taking a low stance, seemingly ready to pounce, yet with her wings relaxed; it was a common stance of [greeting] among most Chaurus herds.

For good measure, she also broadcast a polite and gentle [hello] to the other Chaurus.

[shock], [suspicion] and [wariness] broke against Imp's senses like the waves on Dawnstar's beach, the entire lost herd's private Hive Mind suddenly bent in her direction. Visibly, the other Hunter took on the same stance, but didn't approach, though her – for Imp could now tell that the She before her was indeed another She – wings also remained relaxed. An attack to establish territory wasn't immediately likely, but Imp would be careful.

[introduction] Imp continued, showing the other Hive Mind who she was: The Clever and Crafty and Intelligent She Who The Queen Named Imp, a Chaurus from below. She then indicated that her own kind, and these new Marsh Chaurus, were in fact [cousins] from a time long past, and had likely been separated in the days of the Tyrant's youth.

The other Hive Mind dissected Imp's thought-speech, with mixed feelings; on the one hand, they were most [curious] about other Chaurus, but couldn't remember meeting any that were like Imp – understandable; she was fairly unique – but on the other claw, they remained [suspicious] about some of Imp's claims, such as…

[Tyrant] the Hunter before Imp rattled her wings in [hatred], making Imp's Party tense at the sudden noise. The Marsh Chaurus had memories of their shared people's nemesis, the horror living far beneath soil and marsh and stone.

It, therefore, brought Imp much [joy] to broadcast [destroyed] back to her newfound cousin, who visibly reeled at the wealth of information contained in that thought-word.

"Something moved," Fairsi mumbled.

"Stay calm," Farkas replied quietly, observing correctly, "I think Imp might've found some other Chaurus, and is talking to them."

"Ooh! Where's my sketchbook?" Brelyna squeed under her breath, digging through her pack.

Imp paid them no mind, as she was waiting for her cousins' Hive Mind to accept what she'd told/shown them.

The cries of those beneath, enslaved by the hated Falmer… and the Light of Khepri touching them, soothing their hurts, taking the pain of the Falmer's cruelty upon herself, weaving their lives into the Hive Mind.

The Muster, the two-legged peoples gathering, with blade and spell and plate armor, and Queen Khepri walking in their midst.

The Battle of Mizenchaleft, and the [glory] of The Great and Noble She Who The Queen Named Skitter.

Blackreach, and the [sorrow] of the killing trenches… and the screaming, heart-wrenching, burning [rage] and [grief] of the Queen, who, though she wasn't a Chaurus, sought to exact [vengeance] at their side.

The Tyrant's fall, Future King Farkas spearing its head with his blade, and the explosion of [hope] and [freedom] that followed their hated nemesis' dying gasp.

Imp showed/told her Marsh Chaurus [cousins] all of this, but only one Chaurus, a small 'common' who was only a few weeks old, thought-spoke in reply.

[queen?]

They didn't remember, as Imp could remember; the deepest memories of the Hive Mind were unknown to them.

But Imp, though she was an adventurer and seeker of shinies at heart, could also be a [teacher].

So, she chirped, nodded, and thought-spoke back, [Queen Khepri].

The cold of Frostflow. The Reaper fighting Queen Khepri the Compassionate. The Queen gathering the Chaurus who survived, and bringing them somewhere new. Dawnstar, honey, warm water and flowers.

[Queen Khepri] Imp stood on her hind claws and touched the sash on her chest, the badge Queen Khepri gifted to all Hunters of her personal Herd, once they were given a name.

The spiders weaving, the wasps stinging, the bees buzzing, the crabs clicking, butterflies bringing laughter, and at the center was Queen Khepri the Magnificent, smiling and tending to each Chaurus, no matter how big or small, showing those below a life they'd never known.

[Queen Khepri] Imp's wings rattled, and she held her head high with pride; as if on cue, shafts of sunlight cut through the fog to illuminate green mosses and bright flowers.

The agonizing scream of Queen Khepri the Wrathful at the edge of the killing trenches, her sword unsheathed for the Chaurus, for them; the steel in her heart as she dueled the Tyrant in the Hive Mind, and came forth victorious; words spoken to a quivering assassin who sought to end the Queen, words full of promise and hard as stone.

"Do not mistake my kindness for pacifism."

And with those words, the words of the Bard:

Under metal, under stone. Blind eyes and horror in the cold beneath.
Swords drawn alongside claws. Victory in the dark of Blackreach.

Imp relaxed her body again, taking the greeting posture again, and thought-spoke one last time [Queen Khepri].

Blackreach, a home for the Chaurus; Weynon Glades, the nest of the Queen's Herd; Dawnstar, where the avatar of [KYNARETH] blessed the Queen and her works; and all the peoples of Skyrim, bending to the wisdom and might of Queen Khepri the Wise.

The Hunter in front of Imp broadcasted her thought-words to the rest of the Marsh Chaurus… who replied with [wonder] and [joy], [welcoming] Imp and her Party to their Marshes, but only so long as none of their Herd were harmed.

Imp happily [promised] nothing of the sort would come about, before lunging forward at the same time as the other Hunter; her fellow She looked quite different, beyond the odd coloration. A front-facing horn jutted from her cousin's forehead, and thorn-like growths jutted from her joints.

They circled each other, eyes taking in details and posturing a bit in a show of dominance, as well as thought-speaking [accomplishments] to each other; to Imp's [delight] her fellow Hunter was quite the She indeed! She currently had four egg sacs, each from a different male, and had collected glittering axes from many foolish two-leggers who thought to hunt the Marsh Herd.

Imp was the bigger Chaurus, though, nurtured at the hand of Queen Khepri the Maker of Delicious Treats herself, and the collection of shinies Imp had gathered for the Queen's hoard was without compare.

In the end, the Marsh Hunter ducked- and tried to tackle Imp in a [playful] lunge; but Imp was more practiced with fighting, having learned from Big Sister Skitter and Brother Judas, and quickly pinned her new friend and cousin.

"Found a friend, Imp?" Future King Farkas asked, walking up calmly with Fairsi pretending not to hide behind him; as for Friend Brelyna, she was grinning wide and excitedly sketching Imp's cousin, muttering about how thrilled the Queen would be.

After nodding to Farkas' question, Imp brought up the [intruders] to her cousin's Herd – who had one old Praetorian in their ranks – and suggested the possibility of an alliance. It was tough to communicate what was going on with Future King Farkas, but Imp also knew the basics of writing and the mud was soft, so while planning was slow, it wasn't as hard as it might otherwise have been.

One thing was for sure, though: once they returned, with riches and the Shiny of Shinies, Queen Khepri was going to be so proud of Imp!

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Folgunthur Exterior, Hjaalmarch
Dralom Dula

The sounds of grunts, pickaxes, dirt and rock coming loose, and the occasional curse of frustration drifted through the otherwise calm early afternoon air-

Dralom slapped his neck, killing another mosquito with a snarl, and continued to stare grumpily at the twisted trees and misty bog of Hjaalmarch, Skyrim.

Two weeks he'd been there, having been talked into bringing his mercenary band to Skyrim instead of their intended destination of mainland Morrowind. On the other hand, if everything went well – and the muttering Dunmer mage who hired them delivered on his promise – he'd be able to hand the reins of the band to Za'ir and finally retire.

For nearly 30 years, Dralom and his partner Maren Omoran, a Dunmer ranger who decided on adventure instead of exploring forests, had been delving one hole or another from one end of Tamriel to the other. Whether it was their first trials in the ash-choked Velothi strongholds of the Vvardenfell Ashlands, the eerie crypts of the Ayelid Slave-Lords, or the various necropolises of High Rock… they'd always had each other's back, Dralom with his ebony mace and Dwemer tower shield, and Maren with her glass bow and twin katanas, one silver – for undead and daedra – and one steel.

Other members of the band had come and gone over the years, either killed on the job or taking their money and running, but not Maren. They'd practically grown up together, had gone through hells, heavens and all else at each other's side; running with all speed from a mad Valenwood duke's estate as it was dragged into Coldharbour, holding her hair back as they both vomited from a bad batch of sujamma in Raven Rock, watching her talk down that jumper in Sentinel, walking bold-as-brass into that Cloudrest guardhouse full of corrupt bastards to rescue Thelonius and Saleia – Dralom and Maren had seen it all, done it all…

Dralom sighed, and looked around at his boys and girls; half were sleeping or dozing, some reading a book. Those were the night shift, only a small group of whom were dedicated to breaking down the hill behind Dralom; the rest were for keeping watch. No telling what was in the Morthal Marshes, and the stories of what liked to roam at night… best to not take chances.

The hill, on the other hand, was covered in half of his remaining band, using pickaxes to break the half the hill off; it was tough going, though, with large rocks having been piled up in front of their target barrow's entryway when the place was backfilled thousands of years ago. It would be more than a week yet before they could expose the door itself… but, of course, the damn Dunmer mage who was promising them a king's ransom in treasure wanted the whole face of the barrow exposed, along with the dolmens in front of it.

It looked like they were in for the long haul… which sucked, in Dralom's mind, because he'd been planning on finding a nice quiet corner of Cyrodiil and seeing if Maren wanted to settle down; they both liked Leyawiin, but Chorrol would probably be better. Fewer Argonians in Chorrol…

Za'ir was ready to lead the band – hell, most of the boys and girls already listened to the great hulking Cathay-Raht just as much as they did Dralom – and… well, it wasn't like they were getting any younger.

He was, damn his hesitance, fond of Maren, and he knew she felt the same way, but their business, being full-time professional adventurers, kept getting in the way-

Rocks cracked in his left blindspot, making him turn fast- it was Maren, holding two mugs of steaming stew and wearing that roguish smirk of hers, "Thought you might be hungry, having skipped lunch and all."

Dralom frowned- his stomach gave a small protest- and he took the mug with a thankful grunt, "Read my mind, Mare." Her smile widened to a real one, and she stood beside him, watching the mists creep over the tundra marshland.

-but even if they had to focus on keeping the band in line, there were a lot of little things they could do, to show how much they cared for each other.

Still… Dralom wanted to give her that happily ever after the legends talked about, the house in the country with fields and neighbors and… maybe even more.

Hells, the ring was in his pocket, he'd been planning to talk to her about it when they got to Blacklight, but then that newbie Reynald snooped in that asshole mage Daynas' stuff while they were on the boat, an apology led to a business opportunity, and…

"Funny how things go, eh?" Dralom sighed, feeling slightly grumpy about how their plans had been waylaid, for marshes.

"Right? All we had to do was make it to Blacklight, do one more Velothi run, and that'd be that." Maren huffed, glanced over her shoulder, and leaned closer to hiss under her breath, "A part of me wants to whack Reynald with your mace."

"Hey, you can handle my mace all you want," he teased her; it was an old joke between them, but she never failed to smile and blush, "but don't go beating other men with it; I might get jealous."

She grinned and shook her head briefly, but quickly became all business again, "I don't like this set-up, Drae. Something 'bout this place… it's not like the Ayelid tombs. At least with those you know what to expect. Tongues and ancient undead warriors…" she trailed off, looking a mite chilled by the thought, red eyes darting from one tree to another.

"I'll protect you; just worry about sticking arrows in their gobs, I'll worry about hammering them the rest of the way through," Dralom did his best to assure her; fair, he wasn't too keen on breaking open a thousand-year-old tomb that'd never been plundered, nevermind a Nord barrow, but if no one had plundered it, there would be plenty of gold and jewels to go around.

It was also the only reason he'd taken the job; most Nord barrows that were already exposed were still used as burial sites. Looting those would get the Companions after you, if you were lucky; word was the High Kings of the past weren't above sending the Proven of Boethiah after grave-robbers. Dralom was good, and so was Maren, but not that good.

On the other hand, barrows that hadn't been opened since the First Era were fair game, as long as whoever opened it reported the successful unsealing to the nearest Hold capital; as for loot, if you could survive the millennia-old draugr, you could take whatever you could lay hands on.

All the same, Dralom didn't much like how… twitchy, their employer was being-

He snapped his eyes onto an oddity in the mist: something blue, and coming closer.

Swallowing the last of his stew, Dralom smacked his lips and set the mug down, exchanging it for his tower shield while muttering, "Looks like we might have company."

Maren frowned at the sight – some hulking man, likely a big Nord – trudging through the marshes wearing heavy-looking bluestone armor; shrugging off her bow, she began to string it while shouting to the band, "Look alive, everyone!"

Dralom, for his part, stayed calm and outwardly relaxed, even though alarm bells were starting to ring in his head; a full suit of stalhrim plate was expensive, almost as much as ebony. And from the shine on the stranger's kit, plus the wolf-shape of the carved steel helm…

"What is it?" hissed Daynas, his employer, the Dunmer having abandoned his notes to see what the trouble was. The idiot mage scoffed, "Only one man. Kill him."

Dralom sighed under his breath, exchanging a quick glance with Maren before replying to Daynas, "Look, I'll dig up a sealed barrow for gold, but you've given me and mine none for killing anyone outright, or for givin' me orders."

"I made sure we'd have supplies for months!" the Dunmer objected.

"Food can't pay for repairs if we come under attack, and this guy's kit is a hell of a lot sturdier than my Dwemer plate." Fair, it was good Dwemer plate, but compared to stalhrim, which was close to Daedric ebony?

Regardless, it was Basil, one of the Redguards he'd picked up in Sentinel, who put an arrow on his bowstring and bade the stranger stop, "That's close enough, stranger."

To his credit, the big, stern Nord did as he was told, ice-blue eyes moving from one member of Dralom's band to the next before settling on the Orc himself, who hopped down a couple rocks to come more level with the man. Daynas was still muttering, but Maren just hissed for him to 'shut up and let Drae do the talking'.

Checking the mists behind the Nord, Dralom worked his jaw and waved the hand that wasn't under his tower shield, "And the lad, and your mage friend. Come on out."

The Nord smirked, and called over his shoulder gruffly, "You heard 'im, you two."

The mage was a Winterhold Dunmer, nothing special on the surface but looks could always be deceiving, but the Redguard boy was equipped with an ebony scarab shield, plus what looked like an ebony longsword that Dralom had only ever seen in museum exhibits about the ancient Nords. As for Mr. Stalhrim…

There was a Champion's Ribbon pinned to his right pauldron.

Those didn't just get passed out like bread on a holy day, and having rich parents couldn't win one; whoever was in front of him was highly experienced and dangerous, and even more likely an important person in Skyrim.

Kicking himself for not having one of the Khajiit in his group swipe a Black Horse Courier while they were at the Solitude docks, Dralom nodded to the Nord man. "Afternoon." The man grunted, but nodded back; fair enough, "What brings you out into these marshes?"

Stalhrim nodded at the hill behind them, "Lookin' for this barrow."

"And how do you know it's this barrow, Nord?" Daynas just couldn't keep his gob shut, could he? "Are you a rare seer of your race?"

"Za'ir!" Dralom barked, calling for his future replacement.

"Yes?" good, he was close by.

"If our employer speaks out of turn again, make sure he doesn't do it a third time," the dunmer mage's splutter was silenced as the sound of a glass machete being unsheathed overrode any objections; he might be an idiot, but Daynas had seen just how deadly Za'ir could be with that thing, when some feral Argonians tried assaulting them four nights ago.

Regardless… Dralom turned back to the Nord stranger and gave a rueful smirk, "Still, that's a good question. How ya know it's this barrow you're lookin' for?"

The Nord smirked back, "I have it on pretty good authority it's the right one, and if not, there's a few other places I could look."

Dralom hummed, scratching his chin as he considered; he might be a Nord, but Stalhrim clearly wasn't an idiot. Suggesting he look somewhere else might mean a fight; and, if he was honest, nobody – except maybe Daynas – wanted that. They hadn't even gotten a down payment yet, after all; just Dralom and Maren's word that sealed crypts were worth more than the usual dungeon or protection job.

Still, three more unknowns with a cut meant less for his boys and girls.

Therefore, "Well, as you can see, it's not open yet." Dralom jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the mostly-buried barrow for emphasis. "Maybe come back in a few months, after me and my lads are finished, and you can poke around at whatever's left."

Big man clicked his tongue, still at ease, "Fraid I can't do that. There's something in that barrow I need."

Dralom looked at the Nord flatly, one hand drifting to his mace's haft, "Need it enough to die?"

Ordinarily, he wouldn't make threats, but it was three against thirty-four; stalhrim or no, the strangers didn't stand a chance.

Nord seemed to think so to, as he hummed and thought before speaking, "How about a deal?"

Dralom jerked his head at Daynas, "Sorry, already got a deal regarding loot squared away."

"I'll give you a better one," Nord smirked. "Five minutes, and the door'll be cleared. You and yours get whatever treasure and gear you can carry off, I'm only here for one thing: an amulet fragment-"

"NO!" Daynas suddenly screamed, spells flaring to life in his hands, "YOU WON'T TAKE IT FR-!"

Shhk.

The Dunmer's head rolled down the short cliff and plopped into the shallow marsh; leaning a little more back, Dralom nodded at Za'ir, who nonchalantly wiped off his machete and nodded back.

Turning back to the Nord, Dralom winced, "Sorry about that. You were saying something about clearing the door to the barrow in five minutes?"

Nord grunted and nodded again, looking fairly confident; in the mage? Honestly, Dralom didn't think she was that powerful; powerful magic came with age and time, and the girl didn't look all that old even for a Dunmer.

As such, he asked, "Really? You and what army? No offense, but with how many boulders were put in front of the door when it was backfilled, it'll take months, maybe even a year, to unearth this barrow, and I only see the three of you."

Nord nodded, still smiling, and asked calmly, "Have you heard of Khepri the Beekeeper?"

It took him a moment, but he did remember, from reading the broadsheets back in High Rock, "The girl who called that Muster and… went into Blackreach…" realization started to dawn on him, and he looked at the Dunmer girl.

Who waved her hands, "Oh, I'm not her! But one of her Chaurus is here. Imp!"

Out from behind a tree came a Chaurus Hunter, wearing a fine silk sash and a pair of saddlebags! It made a whistling sound and buzzed over to land on a dry spot and… nod at Dralom.

"Imp," the big Nord said, tone that of an order, "think you and your friends can clear that barrow's door for us?"

Friends?

The Hunter whistled again, before chittering at the marshes…

Out of which came hundreds of Chaurus, ground bound ones, Hunters… and one massive insect, the size of a Skyrim Grizzly. All of them moving toward the barrow.

Dralom steeled his nerves and ordered Za'ir, "Have the lads back off." While they did that, Dralom approached the Nord man warily, saying, "You're gonna need help plumbing that barrow; old ones got stronger undead."

Nord nodded soberly, "I know. Saarthal taught us to keep our guard up."

Dralom's eyebrows went up, "Saarthal?" he got more nods, so, after exchanging an approving glance with Maren, he held out his hand, "Dralom Dula, leader of the Dragoons adventuring band."

"Farkas, of Ysgramor's Companions," the big man replied, revealing he was the one who felled the infamous Chaurus Reaper Tyrant in Blackreach as he shook Dralom's hand.

Welcoming him and his party to the camp, and introducing them to Maren, Dralom prepared for an exchange of knowledge regarding old Nordic tombs, all while a small army of large insects cleared the rubble and backfill from the barrow's entrance, though they left the back half of the hill intact.

It would likely still be a hell of a fight, before anyone got paid, but for once Dralom felt the mission would go off without a hitch.

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Boy, it's been awhile, hasn't it! Hopefully you'll all forgive me my lateness, real life has been rather brown and lumpy for me as of late. Even worse, my financial situation is so bad, I might soon become homeless – and, therefore, have much less time to write my stories.

To that end, I've started a p atr eon (FF wants to censor me, but YOU CAN'T STOP THE SIGNAL!). Just replace every DOT with a period and remove parentheses and spaces: "www DOT (p atr eon) DOT com slash bakedtheauthor". If you can afford it, every little bit helps keep the writing flowing and my kids not going hungry!

I'll try not to have updates take so long, but… wow, I have a lot of stories to update. Anyway, until next time!

~Baked