This one’s a bit long, but I think it’s okay. I think probably the issue with this volume is recounting things we’ve all done a million times. I’m just eagerly awaiting being able to talk about Rei and the Thalmor *happy claps*
But for now, Sabrael wants to try and keep Rei focused on promises and to figure out his rather odd code of ethics regarding looting!
“Shouldn’t we be finding the dragons?” Sabrael asked as he watched Rei unpack his bow and swords.
“I won’t pretend to know what’s going on, Sabrael,” he said as he ran a finger over the arrows in his quiver, roughly counting them. “What I can say is that hunting down dragons one by one is probably an exercise in futility. I wouldn’t even know where to look.”
“But this Dragonstone will help the others?”
Sabrael looked at his hands as he sat cross-legged on the bed. He wasn’t looking forward to another excursion with weapons, but as much as Rei told him he didn’t have to come along, he didn’t want his love to be alone, either. He said he would try harder this time, after all, and Sabrael believed him.
“What do you think we’ll run into that you’re carrying your weapons?” he asked.
“Bandits, probably,” Rei answered.
“And you won’t be mean to them? I mean, if you have to fight, you won’t be cruel?”
“I told you I would try not to.”
Sabrael offered him a smile. “Why would bandits be in a tomb like that?”
“Treasure,” Rei said simply. “Big burial sites like this one tend to be quite lucrative to an enterprising robber.”
“That seems wrong.”
“It is wrong, and it’s cowardly. If I didn’t think this was part of my atonement, I’d have said no. Grave robbing is grave robbing, no matter how useful the object.”
Sabrael studied his love, wondering, as he often did, on Rei’s code of ethics. “What about people you’ve just killed?”
“Are you calling me a thief?” he asked. There was a definite edge to his voice.
“Of course not, Rei, I’m just trying to figure you out, is all.”
“If I take something from a corpse it’s because I’m stealing it back for a client or it’s something I’ll die without.”
“Just seems like a weird line to draw, considering…”
“It’s probably best not to think about it. People are strange, and I suppose the argument could be made that I’m one of the stranger ones.”
Sabrael watched the knot in Rei’s throat as it bobbed. There was sadness in him, and conflict. Back out into the world, away from the protective walls of Tauryon’s luxurious townhome, he seemed almost terrified. Sabrael had felt it growing in him the closer it came time for them to leave. Soul or not, all he had known for the vast majority of his long life was dependence on a higher power that held him close, provided for all his needs, and protected him from conflict. He didn’t have that, now, and, from what Sabrael could feel, it seemed an awful lot like drowning.
“Rei?” he asked, opening his arms.
His love looked up and smiled softly as he stepped over to the bed and sat down to properly let Sabrael hold him.
“I…I know you’re scared,” he ventured timidly.
“I know you do,” Rei answered quietly. He laughed once before continuing: “I used to be so good at hiding things from people, but I can’t do that with you. It’s different when you’re trying to hide them on the inside, as well. Tauryon, I know, never thought I was anything but ready for this.”
“You know I don’t think any less of you, and I never have.”
Rei nodded, his forehead rubbing against Sabrael’s neck. “I miss Clavicus.”
“You miss his security.”
“That vestige was a crutch. I never thought I wouldn’t be able to say my own name with any conviction.”
“You will again,” Sabrael said as encouragingly as he could. “It might just be a reminder now, but maybe soon it’ll be proud again, but for better reasons. Maybe Rei Ginsei doesn’t have to make people afraid.”
He felt Rei’s lips brush against his neck as he smiled. Rei pushed himself up and leaned down. Sabrael smiled as his love’s forehead rested against his, surprised to see that his cheeks were wet.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay behind?” Rei asked.
“I want to be with you,” he said.
“You know I’m not just asking so that I can get a pass, right?”
“Of course I know. Remember, we both said this is a change that can’t happen overnight.”
Rei took a deep breath and nodded. “Come on, beauty. Daylight’s burning.”
Sabrael sighed as Rei stood back up, thinking of luck and fate. He was armed to the teeth – those mean-looking blades hanging from his belt, left free to the air due to their unusual shape, his bow fastened to his back via a clasp that was easy to defeat in the heat of the moment – but even so he was still the most beautiful thing Sabrael thought he’d ever seen. Celedaen always seemed so heroic from a distance in the way he held himself and the way his armor gleamed in the sunlight, so serene when he’d come visit the lagoon some evenings and just look out across the sea.
He’d never known how deeply disturbed the Silver Star was. His brother, Phanuel, was very vocally opposed to Sabrael’s infatuation and often tried to prevent him from poking his head above the water when he felt Celedaen nearby. Always he and his mate would warn Sabrael of the dangers of land walkers, and how this one would surely be his undoing, Celedaen’s handsomeness the bait in a deadly trap.
That didn’t turn out to be the case, though. It almost did, but Rei proved him wrong.
His stomach knotted suddenly.
“Sabrael?” Rei asked urgently. “Beautiful, what’s wrong?”
Sabrael looked at his love timidly. This was the culmination of nearly two weeks of trying to keep certain things in the back of his mind as he tried to keep Rei’s mind at ease. He seemed better at that sort of thing than Rei was, but it appeared to be not without its drawbacks.
“We can talk about it later,” he said quietly.
“Are you sure? Is there nothing I can do?”
Sabrael smiled and pushed himself up off the bed. “I’ll be okay. Just a passing thought is all.”
Rei nodded, and Sabrael slipped the big knapsack onto his back. One of the guards had told Rei that there was a quicker path up to the barrow, and that they wouldn’t need to ride all the way to Riverwood, so Rei had decided it would be wiser to let the horses rest while they made the trek themselves on foot.
Rei headed to the south towards the mountains, and Sabrael followed, enjoying the day while he could. The the air was warm, and the last wildflowers raised their heads hopefully towards the waning summer’s sun that cast its early yellow glow over everything in its path. It was enough that Sabrael nearly wanted to tell Rei he’d changed his mind, but it seemed a bit rude to do so just so that he could play outside. Still, he ran to catch up with his love, and wrapped his arms around Rei’s as they continued to walk.
He looked up as Rei looked down to smile at him. “We’ll be okay, beauty,” he said.
“You’ll do well,” Sabrael returned. “And I’ll help as best as I can.”
The meadery fell father and farther behind them while huge, crudely painted stones drew nearer. A string of bones was draped over one, and there was a foul smell that grew stronger as they approached.
“What is that?” Sabrael asked as he pulled his shirt up over his nose.
“Secunda’s Kiss I think is what that guard said. It’s a giant settlement. See?”
Sabrael looked properly and saw a few very large creatures communing about a bonfire.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing,” he said.
“This is my first time seeing one in person. It doesn’t seem like they’re very concerned with disposing of what remains of the dead things they eat.”
Sabrael suddenly felt ill, and, against all instincts not to, pushed Rei forward. A slight burst of annoyance exploded in his mind, but it subsided.
“It’s fine, you’re right,” Rei said as he reined his emotions in. “The guard said the path should be around here, right at the foot of the mountain…here! This must be it.”
They began their trek up the mountain path. It wasn’t terribly steep, but Whiterun Hold’s general elevation meant the snowline wasn’t very far off. The sun, though it caused the beautiful, pristine snow to be blindingly dazzling, was still warm enough. It was a phenomenon Sabrael wondered at. He’d never even seen snow until he left the Islands, but here in Skyrim it seemed the higher one climbed, the drier the air seemed to be, the less cold it needed to be for snow to stick. Whatever the cause, he was glad for it, even if the dryness fiercely irritated his nose, eyes, and throat. Rei was so miserable the other evening, he wished his love would never have to endure it again – or at least, not for a good, long while.
“Think I might be able to swim after this?” he asked as he casually reached out to pull some snowberries off a bush and pop them into his mouth. These ones were a bit too tart, but that was okay. “The air’s very dry, and I…well…you know how I’ll probably get.”
“Of course, beauty. We’ll figure it out.”
In a moment, they both stopped, looking in wonderment at the structure that had before been almost too big to notice. Sabrael moved his eyes over soaring, pointed stone arches perched atop a huge platform. In the clear air, against the perfectly blue sky, it seemed they were encouraging him to try and fly. But then urgency and caution invaded him.
“Get back,” Rei said holding out his hand and pushing him back as he lowered himself.
“What’s wrong?” Sabrael whispered.
“Bandits. They’re the aggressive sort.”
“How do you know?”
“See that speck up there? On that overlook?”
Sabrael squinted his eyes and made out the form of a person shielding their eyes from the sun. He could just make out the shape of a bow on their back.
“That’s an armed lookout. They’re after something in there, that’s certain, and they’re making sure nobody else can muscle in on their find.”
“So what do we do?”
Sabrael watched with no amount of surprise as Rei slowly unhooked his bow and pulled an arrow from his quiver. He licked his lips as he felt that particular brand of calm, trying not to let his nervousness affect Rei’s aim. There was that flicker, too, that eagerness, aggressive and sexual, and Sabrael tried to channel proper calm.
In response, before he nocked his arrow, Rei closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’ll do my best,” he said quietly.
It was a slow process. For a while the lookout disappeared, but just as soon as Rei spotted them walking back, he drew the bowstring. Sabrael watched as his love fixed both his broken eyes on his target, felt the strangely fragile web of deep concentration. It was a very far shot, and Sabrael could only imagine how poorly Rei could actually make out his target…probably even worse now.
Rei’s left eye was closed, and he was barely breathing by the time he loosed the arrow, and Sabrael watched, squinting his eyes again as he tried to track the skinny shaft of wood as it zoomed towards the tower. It made the distance, but the only reason Sabrael could tell was the way the lookout slumped and fell from his perch.
Sabrael felt the thrill, felt the pull. Rei’s lip was twitching as he quickly put his bow away and drew his swords, but at the same time, Sabrael could feel a very real struggle. He was actually trying.
“We’re still far away, why aren’t you using your bow?” he asked, getting ready to channel his magic.
“I doubt I can hit a quickly moving target anymore. The weight is too much, and my sight is too poor in this much light. Come on, they’re coming after us.”
Indeed, Sabrael could see one particular bandit sprinting down the stairs of the grand platform, wielding a heavy hammer in both hands.
Sabrael had wondered exactly how the vestige’s disappearance would have affected Rei, but it appeared that it had only been enhancing things rather than inventing them. Just as Rei reached him, the heavy-armed bandit swung. Without hesitation, he fell back and onto his knees, dodging the blow while at the same time turning his off-hand back and slashing, severing the tendon in one of the bandit’s ankles.
The blood lust was there, and it was strong. Sabrael once again found himself biting his lip against an unwanted arousal, and he watched as the bandit crumpled, howling in pain. Rei was still fighting himself, though, and as he picked himself up amidst the cries of the other bandits who’d been on guard, he swiftly ran both blades through his victim’s heart before running off to deal with the others.
Sabrael had been fully expecting Rei to just leave the crippled man where he lay as he took care of the other two, and then tides only knew what, but he tried, and gave him as swift a death as he thought he could in the moment.
It occurred suddenly that he’d just been waiting there while two archers were targeting his love, and he rose up and ran as quickly as he could, stopping only when he knew he had a good shot. While Rei engaged one of them – a nimble woman who wasn’t at all fazed when the bizarre creature sliced her bow in two and simply ducked his swords to get behind him with a blade of her own – Sabrael willed a spear of ice into being and sent it flying straight through the other archer’s neck. Even from the distance, he could see the blood spray, and he cringed.
Still, he tried not to let his emotions affect Rei’s, even if he could now feel the adrenaline that didn’t belong to him and could see the impossibly wide grin as he faced off against the woman. Rei was enjoying himself immensely, being able to take someone on like this, and Sabrael could see he was only playing with her the way a cat would play with a mouse. She would lunge, he’d deflect; she’d slash, he’d duck out of the way. It was easy for him, a trained swordsman going against a bandit who’d probably only learned how to wield her weapon herself.
But Sabrael thought better of putting her out of her impending misery like he had that one mage in Ilinalta’s Deep.
Finally, having apparently exhausted her patience – or maybe her knowledge – she backed up, pointed her sword in front of her, and simply ran at Rei, who swept his sword perpendicular to her path, slicing her in half. Sabrael watched in horror as momentum carried the top half forward, landing and skidding face-down on the stone floor, while her legs simply crumpled and fell.
Sabrael retched as he continued to watch Rei, who was painfully conflicted between what he wanted and what was best for everyone involved. Sabrael didn’t have to look to know the bandit was still alive, even if it wouldn’t be for long, but once again, Rei plunged one of his swords downwards. Where, Sabrael couldn’t really tell from his lower vantage point.
Sabrael ran through the dry, powdery snow and up the stairs where his love was still standing, looking at his kill, the tip of his sword lodged firmly below the base of her skull. Rei’s hands were shaking. The adrenaline was almost unbearable to Sabrael, and he could feel the accompanying frustration. When he looked up, Sabrael stepped back.
“I tried,” he said.
Sabrael blinked, noticing for the first time the hopefulness that was lurking just below everything else. He nodded. “You did good, Rei,” he said.
“I should’ve just killed that girl cleanly.”
“Well, maybe, but you did the right thing…was she still alive?”
“Probably not. It was just twitching.”
A chill ran down Sabrael’s spine at the use of the word “it”, but he had to fight his feelings of fear as best he could.
“You’re still afraid of me,” Rei said.
“I doubt I’ll ever get used to this, Rei. I’m always going to be a little afraid. But you did what you said you would do, and I’m proud of you.”
Rei visibly relaxed and a small smile crossed his face.
“Wanna keep going? You’re still pretty worked-up.”
“I can manage,” he said. “You’ll help me manage.”
“Always,” Sabrael smiled, returning the quick kiss.
Together they approached the towering iron doors. Sabrael reached out and ran his fingers over the intricate designs cast into them. “Are these supposed to be dragons?” he asked.
“Hm? Yes, I think that one is you’re looking at.”
“Dragons were very important here, weren’t they? I mean, not just as scary things.”
“The ancient men of Skyrim revered them as gods,” Rei answered. “In return, the dragons ruled over them, cruelly enough that men revolted. Supposedly they were all over Tamriel at one point, but I’d never given much thought to the veracity of anything I ever read. Beyond that, it all devolves into personal political opinions you were probably able to figure out in our time with Tauryon.”
Sabrael only nodded. He tended to let his mind wander when the two old friends spoke of dry things like politics. Part of him felt he should probably be glad for it.
“Alright,” Rei said, “there’s undoubtedly more of them in there. If we can slip in unnoticed, that would be ideal, but these doors are heavy, huge, and I’m sure will let in more light than is wise.”
“So what do we do?”
“We make ourselves as thin as possible and slip in through as small a crack we can make in the door. If we’re not noticed, great, but if not, well. Be prepared.”
Rei grabbed the huge ring on one of the doors and pulled, trying to be both ginger and forceful, until it was only just cracked.
“Rei, I can’t get through there!” Sabrael whispered.
“Look how dark it is inside; this light is like a knife…okay, here. Try.”
Sabrael sucked in his stomach as far as he could and wiggled through the narrow opening, wincing as the door’s edge scraped across his shoulder blades. It was some relief to see that even Rei had a little trouble, himself, but once he’d shimmied through, he easily and fluidly turned to grab the handle and carefully pull it closed, baring his fangs as he tensed up, trying hard not to make too much noise as it shut.
For a moment Sabrael wasn’t sure there was even anyone in here, but soon he heard voices belonging to a man and a woman. The entire room was nearly pitch-black save an orange glow in the very back, which seemed an impressively long way away. He felt Rei’s hand on his back, gently coaxing him down into a crouch.
“I can’t see,” he hissed.
“Just stay close. I’ll move slowly.”
Sabrael obeyed, stepping as softly as he could. He smelled death. Recent death, and as they passed a gigantic pillar, he could just make out the outline of a corpse. It made him jump and skitter closer to his love, who reached back and offered feelings of care and reassurance.
Eventually they stopped just far enough to away to still be protected by shadow, but so that the two bandits’ voices could be heard without the reverb of the gigantic room getting too much in the way.
“…was a stupid decision,” the man was saying. “It’s been far too long.”
“That’s why we sent Bjorn after him,” the woman said.
“Filthy grey-skin. You just know he’s looking to hoard the treasure himself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he kills Bjorn. Shoulda gone with him.”
“Well who else is supposed to guard the place? Everyone else got themselves killed by those bone-walkers.”
“Bone-walkers,” Sabrael repeated under his breath. He didn’t know what those were, but he didn’t think they were just skeletons if they’d managed to kill anyone.
Rei turned and put up a hand, and Sabrael nodded, backing up just a bit.
“I couldn’t help but notice you’re having a bit of a trust issue,” Rei said, rising up and stepping into the firelight.
The bandits both jumped at his sudden appearance. If there was a better way to seem more daedra than mortal, Sabrael thought, that was the way to do it.
“What’s it to you?” the man asked, drawing his sword. The woman picked up her bow, in kind.
“Well, nothing, I suppose. Just figured I could save you folks some time and heartache.”
“You’ve got an untrustworthy companion, the one you sent after him is alone in a dangerous place, and both of you are stuck here. As you can see, I’m no stranger to combat. I’d be more than happy to accompany your friend and retrieve the, er, grey-skin you’re so wary of.”
“Why are you so concerned?” the woman asked. “We don’t even know who you are, appearing out of nowhere like that. What Prince sent you?”
“I operate on my own,” Rei said. Sabrael could hear the smile. “All I can say is that I know an opportunity when I see it. You let us through unscathed, we’ll bring you back your miscreant, and you can have all the treasure you want. I’m only after one thing.”
Sabrael found himself smiling. He was bearing his brand of false amiability, but he saw an opportunity for non-violence and was taking it.
“What’s this about ‘us’ and ‘we’?” the man asked. “How many more of you are there?”
“Just one, but I’d prefer we struck a deal before you meet him.”
“A deal,” the woman scoffed. “We wouldn’t strike a deal with a strange man, let alone some daedric monstrosity.”
“Well, now, that was uncalled-for,” Rei said, drawing his swords, “though it does seem we’re at an impasse, doesn’t it? Shall we do this the easy way, or must we really go through with this nonsense?”
“I’ll go through with it just to stop hearing you talk,” the man said as he raised his sword.
Rei turned as the man swung and blocked the blade with his own, crossed in front of him. He raised one leg and kicked the man away.
Sabrael suddenly remembered the woman and her bow and looked over to see her nocking an arrow. Her weapon was lighter than Rei’s, and it was no trouble to draw the string. Panic gripped his heart, and, with racing thoughts, Sabrael raised his hands and conjured one of his ice spikes. Not a moment too soon, either; as the glassy thorn pierced her side, the bowstring – already fully drawn – was loosed on reflex, sending the arrow flying wide, only narrowly missing Rei’s neck.
If Rei noticed, though, he didn’t show it. The man he was up against was better than the woman he’d fought outside, but Sabrael sensed a stronger resolve to get the job over with. Soon enough, the man left himself exposed, and Rei was swift as he ran the bandit through the chest. For all Rei’s personal efforts, his swords were still very hideously shaped, and Sabrael looked away, trying to ignore the visceral sound of snapping tendon and ripping flesh, as the backwards-facing hooks took what they could with them.
“Moving on?” Rei said.
As Sabrael looked back, his eyes moved over an old ebony wood shelf, on top of which was a torch.
“How far does your anti-theft stance extend?” he asked.
Rei narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s a torch here. It’s been used recently, even. I know we should be as quiet and hard to see as we can, but I can’t see in the dark the way you can. It actually kind of hurts, and my moonlight spell is too bright.”
“A torch is alright. I’d prefer you not, just for security’s sake, but I suppose it would wind up being a bit of a detriment to have to slow our pace so you can properly follow.”
Sabrael smiled and ran over to the campfire to light his new find. “Perfect,” he said.
“Good. Now, if what those two were saying can be taken purely at face-value, there’s only two others left in here. If that’s the case, we shouldn’t need to be very sneaky at all, and everything ought to be smooth sailing from there on.”
Sabrael suddenly remembered what the woman had said. “Rei? What about…’bone-walkers’?”
“I suppose she meant draugr. I guess that’s one over there. Or was one.”
Sabrael moved forward and raised his torch to reveal a desiccated body lying face-down, mummified skin stretched taught over its bones.
“We’ll cross that bridge, I suppose. Come on.”
Sabrael swallowed and obeyed, walking slowly and softly behind his love. They traversed long hallways that still contained the furniture of the tomb’s builders. Tables with marble tops that had corners broken, more ebony shelves. There were pots and urns, and lots of rolls of rotting fabric.
To wrap the bone-walkers in, Sabrael thought, trying to stifle a squeal.
“It’s alright, beauty,” Rei said. “I’m here.”
Eventually they came to the end of the hall. The hallway branching off to the left had crumbled and was now impassable, but on the right, a short flight of stairs led down into a room where the third bandit – Bjorn, Sabrael guessed – was wandering about with a torch of his own, taking in his surroundings.
Rei put a hand on Sabrael’s chest, and he backed away so his own torchlight wouldn’t be obvious. He was curious, though, so he hid the torch around the corner and leaned around to try and see what was happening, although it all amounted to a moving ball of light with a silhouetted man making vague motions inside of it. He stopped, though, when his torchlight fell on something the glinted dully.
Sabrael squinted against the dim light and saw that it was a lever. Bjorn reached out to touch it, looking back and forth uncertainly. He’d grabbed it, but it seemed like he was working up some sort of nerve. Finally he pulled it, and the resulting high-pitched noise of swiftly-flying darts made Sabrael yelp.
He clapped a hand over his mouth and waited for Rei’s impatience to flare, but it never did. In fact, Rei was transfixed by what was happening. Looking back, Sabrael saw the bandit clutching at his throat and falling to the floor, scrabbling around like a panicked bug, trying to scream, but increasingly unable to as it appeared that his throat was swelling.
Sabrael couldn’t watch anymore. He ran down the stairs and put an icy dart of his own through the bandit’s skull. In a second, Rei was with him, studying the body. It was riddled with darts that had pierced his flesh deeply. It looked like his eyes were bulging, and his veins seemed unusually prominent.
“I suppose that’s one good thing to know,” Rei said.
“That these traps still work.”
“Well…how did that other one get through? That, um-“
“Dunmer? He figured out the puzzle, presumably, then reset it once he was through,” Rei explained, pointing to a dark alcove with bars that were barely visible.
“I assume so. I can’t think of any other reason a slew of poison darts would bombard a person for pulling the only lever in a room to open a gate.”
Rei walked around, looking up and down and side to side, until he came to something and stopped. In the dim light Sabrael watched him move his right foot from where it landed on uneven ground. Sabrael trotted over to where his love stood. As the torchlight highlighted the pile of rubble, he saw it was a metal plate, bearing the image of a snake and lodged into the carved stone mouth of a man’s face. It had seemingly fallen from the wall above them.
“What-” Sabrael began, but Rei held up a hand and strode over to one side of the room.
The light of the torch was too weak for Sabrael to have seen for sure, but it seemed that there was a set of stairs that Rei was now leaping up. He conjured a ball of light in his hand and sent it upwards, close enough that he could see what Rei was looking at, but behind his love so that he wouldn’t be blinded.
There were two more of the odd plates hanging on either side of the gaping hole where the one on the floor used to be. The one on the left bore another snake, and the one on the right looked like a fish or maybe a whale. While Rei studied them, concentrating on their meaning, Sabrael wandered back, looking for something that might correlate.
His torch light emphasized the shadows of three small alcoves, and when he moved closer, he saw that in each one there was a pedestal, all bearing the same symbols as the plates, and all with a different animal on each side of the pedestal. At the moment, they displayed: snake, hawk, whale.
“Rei?” Sabrael called. “I think I found out how to work it.”
He looked over to see his dark shadow hop nimbly from the ledge.
“See? I think you turn these. And that middle one? I don’t think the bandit saw the fallen plate and just guessed.”
“Excellent,” Rei said, pulling him close with one arm. “I think you’re right.”
Sabrael smiled happily, pleased to feel Rei’s pride inside him. He ventured to hand his torch over, and Rei took it, holding it closer to the middle pedestal. Sabrael gripped the side and pulled. It was heavy and a bit reticent on its pivot, but with some extra effort, he managed to get it to move, and with only the one turn (thankfully), the middle snake joined its two companions.
“There,” he said. “But…what if I’m wrong and there’s still darts in the walls?”
“That’s why I’m going to pull the lever and not you.”
“Oh, Rei, no!”
“Somebody has to. Here,” he said, rummaging in his medical bag. “This is to counteract poison. This stuff is clearly fast-acting, so I don’t know how successful you or anyone would be, but if I get shot, force this down my throat.”
Sabrael’s chest tightened as he took the bottle.
“Don’t worry, love,” Rei assured him, handing back his torch and planting a lingering kiss on Sabrael’s lips. “Just go stand over by the gate, out of the way.”
“I love you,” Sabrael said hurriedly.
Rei chuckled a bit, though Sabrael could feel that he was just as nervous. “I love you, too, beauty.”
His love walked over to the lever as Sabrael stood next to the gate. He watched as as two clawed hands wrapped around the grotty, ancient mechanism. As his breathing sped, he felt the hand holding the bottle shake while the knuckles of the one holding the torch turned white. One moment passed that seemed to dilate within time, and the next thing he knew, he squealed at the sound of the gate rattling up into the wall and nearly fell over as he tried to turn towards the sound and run away at the same time.
Rei was laughing as he held out his arms. Sabrael ran into them gratefully. “I’m sorry, Rei, I just-“
“I know how nervous you can get and were, right then. It’s alright. And I’m not laughing at you.”
“I know,” Sabrael sighed as his heart finally began to slow down. He let his head fall heavily against Rei’s chest.
“Do you need to rest?”
“No,” he said. “Let’s keep going. I’m not sure I want to be in here longer than I have to be.”
They stepped through the gate and climbed down a spiraling flight of rickety stairs, and for a while, all they saw were a couple of skeevers. Another long hall greeted them, this one widening up with a row of supportive pillars separating them from the other wall.
“Somebody help!” a voice cried.
“Did you hear that?” Sabrael gasped.
Rei nodded. “Take it with a grain of salt.”
As they walked further, the voice continued: “Is somebody coming? Harknir? Bjorn? Soling???”
They came to the end of the hall, ruined by cave-in like the other, and to the left was a door covered in spider webs. It looked like there was natural light coming into wherever it opened onto. Rei held out his hand again, his head down, listening.
“I know I ran ahead with the claw, and I shouldn’t have, but I’m really in trouble!”
Rei shook his head. “Put out your torch. My sight needs to adjust.”
Sabrael obliged, holding up his hand and sending a jet of water at the flame.
“Why did you do that?” Rei asked. Sabrael winced as he felt a a very sharply pointed barb of incredulity and annoyance.
“Do wha-” he began before realizing exactly what he’d done. “…oh.”
“Look, it’s fine. It’s light in there, so you’ll be able to see. I’m sure we’ll run into some more of that dry cloth. I think I still know a fire spell or two.”
Sabrael nodded and looked away as Rei stepped forward and put his hand against the webbing.It gave, but not very much.
“Giant spiders,” he muttered, sharing his shudder with Sabrael. “Stay as far away from them as you can.”
“I don’t hear any.”
“If they’re nesting you wouldn’t, and that’s really the problem.”
Sabrael watched him pull his knife from its sheath on the back of his belt and cut a neat line down the middle, allowing them access. The knife was away and the bow was drawn before Sabrael could blink, and Rei pushed his way through the unpleasant door.
He followed quickly, looking up to see this room’s ceiling was actually the mountain, and the light was coming from a shaft that ran all the way to the surface. On the far end of the room was the source of the voice: a Dunmer wrapped in a tight sort of cocoon, suspended inside another doorway. There were webs everywhere and odd shapes wrapped in silk that looked unpleasantly humanoid.
“Oh, thank the Three,” the mer said. “Get me down from here!”
“Who are-” Rei began, only to be interrupted by the biggest spider Sabrael had ever seen dropping head-first from the shaft on a line of its uncannily strong silk.
Sabrael shrieked as Rei hopped back, wasting no time in nocking an arrow. The projectile hit the spider in the middle of its face, causing it to stumble back a little, but it kept coming. Sabrael fired spike after spike, which helped to slow it down, but it seemed utterly unkillable. The mer trapped in the web started screaming, and Sabrael wished he could properly join him.
“Get over here!” Rei yelled, grabbing Sabrael by the arm and yanking him back inside the hallway they entered from. It was just in time; the spider lunged at the doorway just after Sabrael’s boot disappeared through it.
Sabrael felt himself shoved aside as Rei pulled out another arrow and fired it at the leg that was persistently reaching after them and scraping along the floor. The creature squealed and drew its limb back, and Rei shot yet another arrow into one of its eyes. Finally it seemed to be dazed, slumping a little. Rei dropped his bow and drew his off-hand sword, plunging it down into the top of the spider’s head. Almost instantly it simply fell to the floor, legs splayed.
Sabrael felt the sharp shudder that ran through Rei’s body as he pushed his way back into the spider’s former lair. Reluctantly he followed.
“About time,” the Dunmer spat. “Look, I’ve got a key to some amazing treasure. You cut me down, I’ll take you right to it.”
“What’s this key?” Rei asked. “How did you find it?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Seems strange for a common bandit to have something that, well, to a casual observer seems like a rather hard-to-come-by artifact.”
” ‘Common bandit’,” the Dunmer scoffed. “I do my research. I’m literate. It’s the claw, alright? A hunk of gold shaped like a dragon’s claw. I’ll happily show you how it works, but first you have to cut me down.”
“Just do it, Rei, if it’ll help,” Sabrael said. Rei’s patience was wearing thin, he knew, and he knew he started it by getting his torch wet.
As he’d expected far too late, Rei turned to him and very pointedly said, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
Sabrael swallowed and stepped back. “I didn’t mean it that way…”
Rei sniffed and lazily grabbed his off-hand again, carelessly running it down the center of the bandit’s cocoon while looking petulantly at Sabrael.
“Shit, watch it!” he protested as he fell the short distance to the ground.
Sabrael looked over in time to see a thin red line blooming down the front of his body, exposed by the particular hide armor he was wearing.
“Gullible freaks,” the bandit scoffed before running further into the tomb. “Like I’d share the treasure with anyone.”
“You’re not running after him?” Sabrael asked.
“Best case, he clears the way for us. Worst case, he gets himself killed, and we move on, anyway.”
“But what about this key?”
Rei didn’t answer, only walked quickly through the door in the direction the Dunmer ran. Sabrael didn’t want to, but he conjured a ball of light to follow them so that he could see well enough to keep up with Rei’s long, springing strides. The sound of a scream ahead of them made Sabrael jump, and the following sounds – strange, dry noises like someone choking on something – made his blood run cold. They quickly descended a flight of stairs into what looked to be the tomb, proper, lit mysteriously by torches that made Sabrael even more uneasy than the noises.
But then he saw them, the things Rei called “draugr”, three of them, shambling after the Dunmer bandit who, after a moment’s panicked hesitation, turned and ran for the hallway leading out. In an instant, there was a sudden, metallic ping. Sabrael put his hands to his mouth as he watched the bandit meet a grid of rusty spikes on a hinge that carried him to the end of their travel, throwing him off with the force of their sudden stop before slowly pulling back to their starting point.
“I wonder how dumb people get when they’re dead,” Rei said under his breath.
“What?” Sabrael hissed. “What are you doing?”
Rei dug in one of his satchels and pulled out a small spherical object. There were pillars in his line of sight, but with some adjustment, he side-armed the object so that it skipped across the floor and near to the trap. The three draugr, who were still on guard and still seemed to be aware that they weren’t alone, followed the sound, and, drawing their ancient weapons, shuffled after it, looking in every direction for the source until one of them stepped on a raised stone in the floor, loosing the grid of spikes once more and impaling two of them.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sabrael asked.
“We’d’ve had to have killed them, anyway. Besides, I’ve seen zombies, but never had a chance like this.”
The remaining draugr made another one of its choking sounds and turned in the direction of Rei’s voice. Without much thought, Rei drew his bow and put an arrow through its head before it had time to swing its weapon.
“These were people, Rei,” Sabrael said. “Can’t you treat them with a little more respect?”
“What is this, Sabrael?”
“Look, I know I annoyed you with the torch, and it was stupid, I know, but I feel like you’re just hanging onto it for no reason.”
“I know I shouldn’t,” he said. “It’s just hard not to without an outlet.”
“What’s an outlet?”
“Things you wouldn’t like. Things I would do, and you would get upset, like you are now, and then the cycle would start over. Like it is, now.”
Sabrael could feel what he was talking about. It was a pressure deep in his chest that felt like it would explode without some form of release. But that wasn’t all there was. “You’ve been doing so well, Rei,” he said. “You have been. And I did something dumb, I admit, but it wasn’t that big of a deal, was it? You can see fine in the dark, I have my spell if I need it, and for whatever reason it looks like all of that doesn’t matter anyway.”
Rei took a deep breath and nodded. The pressure eased up a little. “You’re right, Sabrael, I’m sorry.”
Sabrael took a step towards him, and was happy to feel himself pulled into an embrace, happy to feel that his love was once more very prominent and warm.
“Where are you going?” Sabrael asked when Rei pulled away.
“I want information on this key.”
Sabrael trotted over to where Rei was kneeling over the perforated Dunmer. To one side lay an object that glinted in the inexplicable torchlight. Rei picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It was indeed shaped like a dragon’s claw, and on the palm were three vertically-placed medallions.
“It’s more animals,” Sabrael said.
“I’ve seen locks,” Rei added, “that require you to select a sequence of things by rolling them into place. Maybe this is the same thing?”
“One way to find out. Will you be okay? Do you need a moment?”
“I’ll be fine, beauty. I think you know that this stuff takes a while to clear out, even if I’m not completely upset.”
Sabrael nodded and kissed him.
The rest of the tomb was interesting. The draugr, while still upsetting, were fairly easy to put back down, and there always seemed to be something new to look at. At one point they crossed a natural stone bridge through a snowy cave with large holes that opened to the outside, letting the sun spill in. It wasn’t so bad, Sabrael supposed, even if the musty and damp smell wasn’t his favorite thing.
They came into a room, finally, with murals carved into the walls on either side. Sabrael conjured a new ball of light to get a better look. The seemingly magic torches still burned here, but the carvings were worn and the light was still dim. He felt Rei come up behind him.
“What do you think this is?” Sabrael asked. It was a picture of a woman surrounded by luna moths.
“I don’t know,” Rei said. “Kyne, maybe.”
“And this one’s a funeral, I guess.”
Rei nodded. “I imagine these murals are depicting the burial of whomever’s interred beyond that door.”
The door which was exactly as Rei had speculated. Three medallions lined up vertically at the top, each on a stone ring of their own. Rei pulled the claw from Sabrael’s knapsack, and approached the huge mechanism.
“Bear, moth, owl,” he whispered to himself.
It took some work, even for Rei, to reach up and turn the outer ring with nothing to really grab onto, but slowly he managed to get all three animals aligned. He stepped back quickly.
“Nothing happened,” Sabrael said.
“I was half expecting to be run through by something,” Rei chuckled nervously. “I just overlooked the keyhole, here.”
In the center of the door was a circle bearing the faint outline of a key like the one they had, with three holes where the tips of the claws were supposed to fit into. Carefully, Rei shimmied it in, then pushed and turned.
The whole hallway began to shake, and Rei ran back to shelter Sabrael from potential debris. Sabrael held him back, closing his eyes against the dust as the sound of stone grinding on stone filled the room. Suddenly, all was quiet, and Sabrael opened his eyes to see the door had retracted, opening onto a huge cavern.
They stepped into the natural cathedral and looked all around. The smell was different here, one that Sabrael liked. He could hear and smell moving water, and shafts of sunlight dotted the cave from various surface holes. At the back was a stone platform upon which rested a single coffin, and behind it a stone wall with a strange face looking over the middle, and odd markings carved into it.
“That can’t be the Dragonstone, can it?” Sabrael asked.
“I should hope not,” Rei answered. Still, he cocked his head and walked slowly up the steps, right up to the wall, to put his hand very deliberately over a set of markings.
“What’s wrong?” Sabrael asked. The things he was feeling from his love were confusing. There was a swell of something he wasn’t sure of, but it wasn’t something he liked.
“Don’t you hear it?” Rei asked.
Rei didn’t answer, but he took his left hand and began using his claws to trace the runes etched into the stone.
A scraping sound startled Sabrael, and he turned back to the coffin. “Rei…”
“Ffff…” was his response.
The coffin’s lid began to strain upwards.
“Rei! Rei, I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing that!”
“Just hang on!”
With an odd, hollow POP! the coffin lid flew from its housing, and a bony leg swung over the side.
Rei turned at the sound, but he didn’t seem as upset. “It’s just another draugr, Sabrael, what’s the problem?”
The creature was standing upright by the time Rei drew his swords and began to approach it. This one was different from the others, though. It was heavily armored, and it carried a battleaxe. Before Rei could even lift his blades, the thing opened its rotting mouth and shrieked something so loudly Sabrael wasn’t entirely sure what it was as it echoed back and forth through the cave.
What he was sure of was that he’d suddenly lost his balance, and Rei was sent flying backwards into the wall he’d been so intent on studying, sliding limply down to the floor.
It was clear his love was out cold, and Sabrael had never had to fight on his own before. He was sure that he could, though. He knew that, like the more power vampires, ice was likely not going to do much in the way of damage to this particular creature, but what it could do was slow it down.
Spike after spike flew from his hands, as he leaped from platform, to river rock, to bridge, back to platform, staying just out of the creature’s reach and whittling down his stamina and life. When he was close enough, he ran to Rei’s side and grabbed one of his swords.
The draugr was on him again, but he paused to take a breath, and Sabrael used the opportunity to skitter away from the line of fire as it shrieked once more and to get behind it where he found a gap in the creature’s armor and plunged Rei’s sword as deeply as he could into its spine. It fell to the ground once Sabrael pulled the blade free, but it continued to claw its way around to try and face its prey.
Gathering all his strength of will, Sabrael took a deep breath, raised the sword above his head with both hands, and swung it straight down onto the back of the draugr’s neck. Sparks flew as metal hit stone, and the draugr’s head rolled to the side, cleanly separated from its body.
Sabrael’s stomach turned, and, as if on reflex, threw the sword away when he looked at it. He was proud of himself, though. His protector wasn’t able to protect him, and he protected himself and his protector. He’d mustered up the courage, and they were, at least for the moment, safe. He walked over to where Rei still sat unconscious, took off the knapsack he’d been carrying for what seemed like ages now, and sat down beside him, moving his head close to make sure he could hear his love breathing.
He cupped his hands and filled them with conjured water and gently dripped it onto Rei’s scalp so that it would fall down his forehead.
“C’mon, Rei,” he said. “Wake up, please.”
When his hands were empty, he bit his lip. He could conjure some more, of course, but it seemed the best way to get results would be to splash him, and splashing Rei Ginsei for any reason seemed like a bad idea.
His hands were full again, and after working up even more courage than it took to wield Rei’s sword, he pulled his arms back and flung the cold water directly into his love’s face.
Rei jerked awake and scrabbled to his feet, grabbing for his swords which weren’t there.”Where are my swords? Where’s the draugr, what did you do?”
“He shouted something at us. You were right in front of him, so you get knocked back into that wall and knocked out. I only caught it a little bit, so I only stumbled, but I killed him, Rei! I killed the draugr by myself. I did use your sword, though…I hope you don’t mind.”
“You did what you had to,” Rei breathed, opening his arms.
Sabrael ran into them and snuggled close. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
“Me too, beauty. I’m proud of how brave you are.”
“And I’m proud of all your efforts.”
“Even if I got a bit touchy?”
“We all do,” Sabrael sighed. “But what about the Dragonstone? Isn’t this the place it’d be?”
“I’d think so,” Rei answered, leaving the embrace and looking the platform up and down. He nudged the draugr with his foot, as if perhaps expecting the tablet to fall out of its pocket. “Wait a minute…”
Sabrael watched him trot over to the coffin and look inside.
“This is it! Finally, Sabrael, this is it!”
“Yes, come see.”
It was indeed a stone, and on it was carved an entire map of Skyrim with specific places marked. When Rei flipped it over, there was something carved into it using the same symbols as were on the wall.
“Rei, what was on the wall that you were so lost in?”
Rei looked over and blinked. “I don’t know if I can describe it. I can’t read that, but I know it, somehow. That word, that one word stands out from the others. ‘Fus’.”
“That sounds like the beginning of whatever the draugr did to knock you out.”
“Maybe. Either way, it’s in my head, now, and to be honest it’s a little creepy.”
“Let’s just get out of here,” Sabrael said. “Maybe…you could swim with me?”
Rei smiled, surprisingly, and laughed quietly. “Maybe. My face is already wet, anyway.”
Sabrael giggled and hugged his love tightly. He was exhausted, and his mouth, nose, and eyes were dry, but it had been a proper adventure, and he was glad he made it through with the man he loved.