Tariq's feet left the ground and he flew back six feet to slam into the edge of an open coffin. Only the shield on his back and his armor saved his spine, ribs, and head from being shattered. The creature laughed, an ugly, bubbling, malignant sound. It charged towards him with ebony battleaxe raised. He was still too dazed to counter with his blades or to scramble out of the way so he turtled.
His shoulders hunched up, he bowed forward to the ground. The axe bounced off his shield. The shock of a second impact kicked base survival instincts to react and he swiped with his sword at the creature's nearest ankle, shattering it. It wasn't enough to cut the foot off, but it was enough that the creature staggered back and fell.
Seeing the monster falling set his mind to screaming, "Up! Get up now! Second defense!"
Multiple attack points. Magic impact attacks. He needed his shield. He got it off his back and on his arm in time to stagger left and body bash the second monster that ran up to him. He shield-bashed it again. His sword swung high, he twisted to clear his shield out of the way, and slashed down, all in one smooth motion. The curving edge of his scimitar caressed bone as it laid open flesh and muscle. Reverse twist and his shield smashed the body again, sending it spinning and spilling its ichor filled guts.
The first monster was on its knees now and drawing in breath for another shout. He roared back and shield charged. It shouted, and though it was like charging into the winds of a sandstorm, its strange power wasn't enough to stop his momentum. He crashed into it, followed down on top of it to pin it long enough to drag his sword across its neck to slice to the bones.
He hauled himself up and staggered over to a coffin to sit on its rim and study the bodies. Sep's fangs, were these creatures normal to Skyrim's tombs? He'd never come across the like in Hammerfell.
He studied the armor, mentally rehearsing the best ways to slips a blade through weak points and gaps in the armor. He took armor pieces off the corpse to study the thickness and shape of the iron plates. The scimitar should not be his primary weapon against this type of heavy armor. He had not expected it of bonewalkers. He would rather a longish push dagger or a heavier weight sword meant to chisel through armor. However, castigating himself for what he didn't have was a waste of energy and time. He did, however, have a flyssa, a knife long as his forearm and hand, single-edge, straight spine, no guard, narrow blade gliding to an acute point. It was not capable of taking direct impact as it was made for stabbing — a hummingbird's kiss to dart deep and drink blood. An exercise in precision then.
And this "shouting" the creatures did. He wondered if the "gust of wind" was their only form or were there variations? It was reasonable to assume there may be greater degrees of force. If there were stronger— He recalled seeing companions and animals flying off precipices when hit by fast-moving dust devils. He would have to be prepared to tuck and roll if hit with such power. But, by that one example, this Shout was not a true whirlwind of shape that could tear away his shield with sideways force. It was a straight strike, so his oversized, curving shield could block and deflect. He would have to use both hands to brace, which again made the flyssa the better blade because he could still keep it in hand while holding the shield's edge.
He rehearsed in his mind strategies then got up and went deeper into the tomb. There was active magic or active presence by the prelit torches and braziers. It was nice for sight. At least these undead still required light to see, and he didn't have to encumbrance himself with having to carry a torch and a shield with the same hand.
Most of these undead rose from their ledges hissing and grumbling like tired, aching soldiers roused from their bedrolls by a mustering horn. If he was close enough to catch them before they were fully upright, it was easy an easy kill to dart his blade under their chins and lay open their throats or thrust upward into the dry sponges of their brains.
The ones that shouted were usually the fully armored ones with horns on their helmets. One monster, he found, could cast a basic but strong elemental frost spell. He let it frost his shield while his blade darted around and stabbed through an eye socket. So, undead mages. As long as they could only cast frost spells, then they posed no problem, unless they showed real intelligence and iced the floors, which could cause him to slip and fall.
He finally reached what appeared to be a central room of the tomb. Two levels. He was on the level that opened to a broken walkway. So one of the paths in the room behind him must lead downward to the main floor. An archer could stay up here and shoot down on the monsters. However, one of the precepts of a practicing sword-singer is the blade to the exclusion of all other weapons. His skill with the bow was negligible and he didn't carry one in any case. There were ancient bow and arrows buried with the bonewalkers, but he easily dismissed that notion. The three monsters were the armored, shouting type, and he'd already proven he could handle those.
One wandered direction below. He whistled softly. It looked up and and he dropped a stoneware urn on its face. It staggered and fell down. He jumped down onto its body, slamming heels into ribcage and guts. He stumbled a bit on the uneven surface, but caught himself and stepped off, then took one step back to stomp on it's neck to make sure it stayed dead.
The other two were handled with a shield rush, bash, and a blade through the eye on one and up the throat on the other. These were not creative fighters. Powerful, yes, untiring, yes, but creative, no.
The connecting room seemed a dead end. Two upright stone coffins, some chests with the lure of treasure. A simple tomb raider who stumbled in and survived the undead would empty the chests and think the exploration done, but he knew there was a temple here and so there was a door here.
The likeliest was the closed coffin. The other was open and its occupant dead again in the other room. The coffin lid resisted his attempts to pry it open. He got a sword from one of the undead and tried using that to pry open the lid. The blade bent nearly to snapping. Finally, he rapped on the coffin with the hilt of the bent blade and bellowed, "You want me to clear the temple or not?"
The lid rattled. He stepped back. It fell open.
A short corridor to what was obviously the great feast hall and temple. He paused before stepping foot into the room. At the head of the table with its back to the altar of Namira, was the largest of these undead. He would wager it not only shouted but used magic. There were six other undead here. So, a captain and his best soldiers.
His shout didn't rouse them. Not even picking up a nearby cup and throwing it at the nearest seated corpse did nothing. He had nearly reached the nearest corpse to stab it when they began stirring. He retreated to the corridor. Some made to follow but a bellow from their leader halted them. They would not take the trick of being lured into the corridor which would negate their superior number by forcing them to come at him one at a time.
Tu'whacca curse it. Someone still retained its brain after all this time. He studied the group. Only half were fully armored, two were lightly so, and the last was an archer with practically none.
The flyssa went back into its sheath and he repositioned the weapon for a fast draw. He also repositioned a throwing knife. Then he drew his scimitar. The lightly armored ones were nearest the door. Those, his scimitar could cut down. The archer would likely retreat for advantage, and he would use his throwing knife to hinder it. And this was a feast hall so there were many things — chairs, stools, platters, bowls, candleholders — that he could kick or throw or knock over to break up a coordinated attack. There were columns and sturdy barrels about for hiding. If he could make it to the other end of the room, there was even that obscene statue of Namira, a giant maggot with a human face, rearing over the altar, that he could climb to get out immediate battle if need be.
That last he hoped would not be needed. Dwemer armor was built on the bulky side, allowing for airspace between armor and flesh for either extra padding or to let sweat evaporate. The bulk could sometimes make climbing difficult.
The battle went very much as he'd imagined it would. The only unpleasant surprise had been that the captain of the undead used a different shout, "zun" it sounded like. It almost made him lose grip on his scimitar. It would have also taken his shield out of his grip if it hadn't been strapped to his arm. So, there were variations to this Shout magic.
He explored the room and found there was a corridor that led directly out, opening through the side of a steep hill, near a fast-running stream that went over a nearby precipice. Below, he saw the road he'd traveled to get here. He went back inside to fetch Eola rather than walking all the way around to the front entrance. He might explore the area later, but going back through the tomb was faster, and on the way back in he grabbed the key that was hanging on a hook near the door.
She was already a third of way through the tomb. Likely, her affinity to the tomb and her goddess's feast hall alerted her that the way the clear and safe.
"You've done it! The shrine is our again," she squealed, flinging her arms around him and aggressively pulling him down for a kiss. If his tongue touched hers, it was only to block it from going any further. "Now we need to prepare a grand feast to welcome you to Namira's coven," she chattered happily. "You will have the honor of bringing a fresh kill for the main course. And I know the perfect person. A priest, filled with the taste of an easy life. Brother Verulus, from Markarth." She slapped a heavy purse against his chest. "Give him this gold. Tell him you need Arkay's help exploring an old cavern for treasure. And when he stands in Namira's presence, she will take care of the rest. Say hello to Verulus for me."
She rushed by him, eager to get to the feast hall and greet her goddess. Tariq spat a couple of times and went out of the mine. Cairo snorted at him, nostrils flaring at the stench of rotted meat on his armor. "Yes, I know. Sorry, my brave boy." He plucked up a water bag, took a mouthful, and flushed it around his mouth before spitting it out.
He got back to Markarth, traded a few gems he'd picked up from the cultists' treasure chests to the Khajiit and stabled his horse. He gave a few coins to Banning, the stablehand grooming Nimat. The man offered to groom Cairo, but Tariq refused, reminding him as he had told the stablemaster that his warhorse was trained to reject strangers. As Tariq groomed Cairo, he and Banning discussed animal training. Banning trained guard and attack dogs. He made a try at selling a guard dog to Tariq, " I can train it to protect your pack horse so that you know it's well guarded when you have to leave it behind," he offered. It was tempting, but Tariq decided he didn't need a third animal to keep track of.
It was evening now. Much as he'd like to have another meal at Bindi's, he needed information more, and since Faleen was unavailable until later, he went to the Silver-Blood Inn to find the resident bard whom, he hoped, actually knew what he was singing about versus putting on an act.
Ogmund, the Nord bard, was happy to boast about his many contributions to Skyrim's bardic college of songs and stories he composed during his traveling years.
They called their undead "draugr," an old Atmoran word for undead. There were many tombs around Skyrim that dated back to the eras where the Dragons and the dragoncult ruled over the Atmoran people. The strange power some of the draugr had was the thu'um or Shout. These were words in the Dragon tongue that held power. The Dragons taught such words to their worshipers. These words could strike enemies down with invisible force, or gouts of fire or ice. The creatures described to him were, as Tariq had suspected, high-ranked warlords. If he should ever delve into older dungeons, he had best beware of the dragonpriests. Their shouts, as one may expect, were far more powerful.
The Dragon's rule didn't spread much beyond Skyrim. Blessed Kyne, the wife of Shor, through her servant, Paarthurnax, taught Man the ability to Shout. If ever Tariq had the interest to visit High Hrothgar, there were small shrines along the path that told the story.
Those that could use the Dragon words were originally called Tongues — he'd composed a song called Tale of the Tongues that he'd sing later for Tariq — but nowadays, they were known as Graybeards. They were a peaceful order that lived in a monastery on the tallest mountain of the continent — High Hrothgar on the Throat-of-the-World. Now, the role of the Graybeards, aside from keeping alive the knowledge of the Dragon speech and its inherent power, was to teach the legendary Dragonborns, those chosen men born with the soul of a dragon and who not only had the ability to learn and use the power of the thu'um, but who also grew their power by absorbing the souls of the dragon, thus killing the dragon permanently. For without that, the Dragon would merely resurrect to take its vengeance upon its slayers. The Reman Emperors were Dragonborn. Emperor Tiber Septim, who ascended to become the great and holy Talos, was Dragonborn.
Indeed, in times of great need, a Dragonborn would arise to save the Nords. And one should be due soon, confided Ogmund. The elves and their vile Concordat that thinks it can deny Talos his godhood is an abomination deserving the wrath of a Dragonborn. Tariq quietly agreed the elves needed a knock-down, but not because of Talos, but because the elves overstepped themselves. They kept that shared opinion between themselves because there was no way of knowing who among the patrons in the bar would go running to the Thalmor Justiciar to nose and lick his hand hoping for a few coins to fall.
From the way the old bard told the story, Tariq could find parallels of the legend of the Dragonborn to his people's belief of the HoonDing, the Make-Way god, who manifested to save the Ra Gada from extinction, except that once the job was done, HoonDing faded back to the spirit realm and didn't get greedy and stick around trying to rule the world. But if the Nords believed their Dragonborn had the soul of a power-hungry beast, it was no wonder their greed for acquiring empires. No, he much preferred the way of the HoonDing — get in, get it done, and get out. And hope that those he fought for could find their way in relative peace once the way was made clear.
It was near midnight by the time he made it to Understone Keep. He hadn't planned on staying so long with Onmund, but the information he'd been getting had been more interesting than he'd expected. He hoped Faleen was still awake. He found her still awake, reading a book, and finishing a light snack of bread, olives, and a goblet of wine.
After pleasantries were exchanged, he confessed, "Faleen, I could use your help for a favor I am doing for your priest of Arkay."
"Brother Verulus? Yes, he has told the Jarl of how you offered to help with the problem in the crypt. But I thought that problem solved."
"I solved the immediate problem of stopping the fresh corpses being eaten in the crypts, yes," said Tariq, "but he was too hopeful that the underlying problem had been solved."
Faleen's expression twisted with revulsion. "Too bad. I suppose we should have known better. What have you found? What is the problem?"
"A nest of Namira worshipers in Markarth." He explained finding the cult priestess feeding in the crypts, agreeing to clear out the temple to find its location and get familiar with its layout, and then his latest task to bring back a sacrifice for their celebratory feast.
"I can have a unit ready by mid-morning tomorrow," Faleen said, "and we can eradicate this filth."
"No. They have spies in this Keep," said Tariq. "The only time my full name and honorary title was spoken in Markarth was said within this Keep, yet this woman knew it when I met her again at the tomb. No, I do not think a large force is needed to take these creatures down. I do not believe there will be a large number at this feast. Their numbers would be limited to those who are in the immediate area since it is to be held tomorrow evening. That is not enough time to send messengers to other followers, or those followers to travel the dangerous roads to come to the feast.
"Another reason to keep this between ourselves is the magic this Eola uses. I do not know if the magic comes from her or from the Daedroth, but I would prefer not to have also fight some bespelled guard."
"Very well, no other guards," said Faleen.
Tariq handed her his map and the Verulus's amulet of Arkay. "See that? That is where the back entrance is. You will need to leave ahead of me and sneak your way to that entrance." He handed over a key he'd founding hanging just inside the door. "Hide, but do not enter until after I've led Verulus into the tomb, but not immediately. Wait a bit. I don't want the Daedroth warning her priestess of your presence. Wear this amulet. There is magic in it that should provide some protection from her mind magic. If you trust that old elf, Calcelmo, perhaps he would be willing to give you an additional charms of protection."
She frowned and looked at the gold and ruby amulet. "Shouldn't you keep this? If there are mages among them, surely they would focus their vile magic upon you."
"I already have my own protective measures," he assured her. "And let them focus on me. Strike when and as often as you can, but I would prefer you to protect the priest so that I am not distracted by having to do that myself."
"Very well, commander," she said, falling back to their old, familiar positions. "I have much to do then before morning." She grabbed her half-empty bottle of wine and headed towards the old elf's workplace.
He was back at the Keep early the next morning waiting for the Arkay priest to rise. Faleen was missing from her post. The information he'd gotten from the guards was that the Jarl had sent her on some task.
He let the priest finish breakfast before approaching him.
"Brother! Well met again," Tariq said heartily.
"Tariq, good sir, well met. Thank you again for your assistance. The Jarl was greatly pleased when I reported your success to him. What brings you here? Is there something I can help you with?"
"I truly hope so, Brother. You see, I have taken a job to clear a mine that had the misfortune to break into an ancient crypt. You amulet proved a blessing. However, I came to a point where I had to turn back, my task incomplete."
"Ah, I see! You are looking for Arkay's protection while you delve further into this tomb, I take it?"
"So astute to see so quickly, Brother. I appreciate a quick mind. A man in my profession learns to value fellows who think quickly and respond boldly. Yes, I require one who can hold off the dead until I can send them again to their rest, and then you can free them of whatever unclean power that defiles their peace."
Brother Verulus flushed from the praise, but hesitated still. "I don't know if I can help you. My duties keep me busy in Markarth."
"Yes, I imagine. I see you are the sole priest here to attend the dead and clean repair the crumbling stonework I've seen in the crypt. I am not an avaricious man, Brother. Gladly would I donate the treasure to be found within that place. Is there not a saying, 'Better an empty pocket than a full grave?'"
"Yes, I know that saying. Very well, I suppose the Jarl won't mind if I'm gone for a little while. Let me collect some things." Once the priest had what he needed, they walked together through the city, the market place, and to the stables. He was the butcher leading the trusting sacrifice to the slaughter; let the followers of Namira see and bring word to the priestess to make final preparations.
Brother Verulus wasn't much of a horseman, but Tariq put him on top of Nimat and instructed him just to hold on and stay on the riding pad. He attached Nimat's lead to Cairo's saddle, mounted, and off they went.
They got to the tomb. The face of it looked as empty and as abandoned as he had left it. The dirt clearing before it untouched, not even swirl marks of the reeds or brooms that had swept away yesterday's hoofprints.
The draugr lay more or less where they had fallen. Brother Verulus was impressed at the number of dead. Progress through the tomb was slow as the priest insisted on performing rites over each body to prevent resurrection. They finally reached the seemingly dead-end room. "Is that all there is?" Brother Verulus asked.
"Not at all. There's a further passage behind this coffin," said Tariq. "Keeping it closed kept the others at rest until we could return."
"Oh, I see."
This time the coffin lid came off easily and Tariq leaned it against a wall. He led the way. They drew closer he could smell fresh bread, alcohol, and roasting meats and vegetables.
They entered the feast hall. Eola was immediately before them, smiling widely. Tariq looked over her head and saw that the room was quite full. Well, he had miscalculated slightly about how many could make it here in such a short time, but it didn't appear to be impossible numbers. He recognized the shopkeeper he'd bought his map from, the butcher from the market's open butcher stall and, sadly, Banning from the stables. That was a pity; he'd appreciated the man's skill with training dogs. There were a pair of guardsmen that looked vaguely familiar, and the quality of their uniform marked them as palace guards. A couple regular guards, an Altmer mage and a Bosmer mage, and a random assortment of mercs and regular citizens.
Brother Verulus, staring horrified at Eola, stammered, "Who … who are you? What's going on?"
"Priest of Arkay, I'm your friend," she purred, casting her allure spell.
"You're my … friend," Verulus repeated stupidly. His hand made a desperate grab at his amulet of Arkay. It wasn't as fancy as the one he'd rewarded Tariq with, and its enchantment was obviously not as strong. "Friend …" he repeated dazedly.
"Yes. I'm your friend and I've invited you to dinner."
"I've been invited to dinner …" He licked his lips. "I'm so hungry …"
Her smile shifted ever so slightly to a obscene grin of triumph. "Why don't you lay down and rest, while we get the meal ready?"
"I need to lay down. I'll just be a minute …"
"Come with me. Our feast is about to begin."
With a light touch upon his wrist she led him past the eager diners to the altar, which he climbed upon and promptly fell asleep.
Tariq followed closely so that he could stop her from using that evil knife that was on her belt. But once Verulus was asleep, she looked up at him and said, "The meal is on the table. Go ahead. Carve."
All eyes were on him now. He looked over their heads to the side hall of the back door and saw an arrowhead peeking out and aimed at one of the mages. Good woman. She'd already figured out her first targets. Eola hadn't seen him looking elsewhere; she was too busy eating Brother Verulus with her eyes.
He removed his shield from his back, leaning its face against the altar. He made a show of shrugging his shoulders and flexing his arms back as if the weight of the shield had been bothering him. Then he drew his dagger. A throwing knife really, but it would do. He grabbed Eola's hair, jerked her head back, and stabbed upward under her jaw to her brain. Before her body slid to the floor he jerked the knife out and threw it to strike the Bosmer mage while Faleen's arrow took the Altmer mage through the heart in a clean kill shot. He pivoted back to his shield and hefted it between himself and the outraged cultists. The fighters among them surged forward while other scattered out the exits.
"Come, thou filthy hyenas! Dogs rolling in offal!" He charge away from the altar, and towards the guardsmen. He glimpsed Faleen darting past him, her sword flashing at it slashed and flung crimson drops into the air. She went to the altar to protect Verulus as he had ordered her to. Banning and the butcher chased after her. He didn't worry about her; those two were toothless jackals for all that they were both bigger than her.
The guards made a half-hearted attempt at a coordinated attack, but it was easy to tell this was not a skill they'd practiced or even seemed familiar with. They came with a clumsy, free-for-all style that allowed Tariq to dance around them, lunge-ramming with his shield, and using his scimitar to slash at faces, limbs, and hands that tried to grab his shield and pull him off balance.
They fought a whirling sand devil. His blade lashed from behind a wall of force. A thousand cuts that sliced a head here, hands there, blood rupturing after a long, deep caress of steel.
Those that didn't die, fled. They'd come prepared for dinner, not a battle for their lives.
A fire atronach keened as it was summoned to this world. Damn, that Bosmer had survived his knife. Tariq's Dwemer armor, built by elves that worked closely with fire, was able to dissipate the heat of the fireballs the creature flung at him. Still, the deflected flames flared around his shield, and since he did not wear the matching Dwemer helmet, he was forced to hold the shield high, blocking his own sight. It would be a blind shield charge then if he wanted to get close enough to destroy it.
But then the atronach wailed as bolts of lighting tore it apart. The Bosmer likewise screamed as lightning roasted every nerve in her body. Tariq turned around to see Brother Verulus kneeling on the altar, hands up in a spellcast. The lightning had come from him. He also saw that Faleen had put that ruby and gold amulet of Arkay on him and that had probably revived him enough to break the unclean hold of the submission spell.
'What … what's happening?" asked Brother Verulus when Tariq came back to the altar.
Tariq nodded upward. The priest followed his gaze and blanched as he saw the almost human face stuck in the body of a giant, maggot-like creature. "Welcome to Namira's temple," said Tariq. He nodded to Eola's body. "That was what was food shopping in your Hall of the Dead. She was the chief priestess."
"Sweet Breath of Arkay," Brother Verulus moaned, covering his face. "And you brought me here?"
"You were supposed to be tonight's celebratory feast. I used you to lure out the cannibals of the city. As we suspected, many that you see here have positions as reputable citizens."
"The Jarl gave me leave to execute any who showed up," added Faleen. "No trial; no mercy. After this, we will have this place torn down. And those who fled, we will hunt down and wring from them the names of others who were not here."
"Yes … Whatever. I need to get back to Markarth," said Brother Verulus. He took off the amulet and handed it back to Tariq. "Thank you. But I think I'm done with adventuring."
They went out the front entrance even though the side entrance was closer. Tariq's horses were at the front after all. The horses were untouched, but cultists lay on the ground.
"Stop!" Calcelmo shouted, stepping out from behind a juniper tree and bushes. He held a staff and pointed it down towards the bodies. "Paralysis runes! Stay still for a moment." He came close and began dispelling the runes.
"Calcelmo! What are you doing here?" Faleen demanded.
The old elf flinched. He didn't answer her and instead lashed out at Tariq. "What kind of foolishness is this to take on this many at once? Bad enough doing this by yourself, but to drag Faleen into this?"
Tariq winced, not from any shame on his part, but more in sympathy for the lovesick fool who'd just unknowingly insulted Faleen in the worst possible way.
"Faleen!" he barked, "Go to the back antrance and see if he's spell-trapped any more cannibals there. Secure them!"
"Aye, commander," she barked. The elf finally looked at her face and cringed at the fury there.
After she'd left, Tariq looked at Calcelmo. "I appreciate your assistance, sir," Tariq said neutrally. "Here's some advice: learn poetry. Faleen has a weakness for words of romance, of hope, and of passion."
"I'm no good at that," Calcelmo moaned. "I can't think around her. My tongue ties in knots."
"Then write something or make a gift of a book of poetry. If you get her a book, be sure to read it first. Memorize some passages to quote back to her. She will appreciate that you shared something that has meaning to you.
"Now, you and Brother Verulus can start walking to Markarth, or you can stay the night here with us. Faleen and I will leash these dogs and march them back tomorrow morning, and I can load my horse with the treasures I promised you, priest."
"I can't stay," stated Brother Verulus. Calcelmo grumbled but, seeing Faleen's torch returning, he grabbed the priest's arm, and they began moving down the path to the road.