Well this took longer than I’d intended. Bleak Falls again, y’know. But if you think Cymbeline’s experience is anything like Rei Ginsei’s…gosh I guess you’d better read up on both then 😛 Do enjoy, and this really sparked something so probably another Cymbeline before Rei. Aria…maybe…mumblemumble
Anyway, Cymbeline and Anum-La have witnessed Helgen’s destruction, and are on their way to warn Whiterun!
Cymbeline had never ridden so hard in her life, although, she thought, she’d never really had the chance to; Suibhne was a horse meant to climb and haul. He didn’t disappoint this time, though, plowing full-tilt back down the road, kicking up snow, then mud, then bits of rock and dust from the paving stones. Anum-La was holding onto her waist so hard that she almost couldn’t breathe, and a scaly head was pressing against her lower back as she stood, bent low, in the stirrups.
“Move!” she shouted when the gates of Riverwood were in view. “Emergency! Please! Out of the Way!”
A guard moved to step between them and the village, thought better of it, and leaped back, joining Cymbeline’s warning cries with ones of his own. Villagers skittered out of the way, a small girl roughly pulled her playmate out of the street by the arm. A sigh of relief escaped Cymbeline’s lungs as they passed the opposite gate. The section of road that jackknifed down the hill was before them, now, meaning they had to slow, anyway, and it made her feel more than a little bad that she barrelled dangerously through the small village. The dragon was gone from view, as it was, and in the distance Whiterun still seemed whole. Still, she carefully guided her beast through the sharp turns, until there came a spot that sloped down towards the meadery and the farms that bordered the city.
“Come, on, boy,” she called to Suibhne. “Just like home!”
Indeed, as he had countless times before, he thoughtlessly and quickly maneuvered between rocks and climbed others. Cymbeline tried to lean back to help his weight distribution, but it was a challenge, since Anum-La was reluctant to leave what amounted to the confines of the saddle.
“Lean back, Anum, please!” Cymbeline said. “Too much weight forward’ll make him trip!”
“Easy for you to say! I don’t have anyone behind me to fall first.”
They didn’t stop at the stables, this time running right up to the gate before dismounting.
“You!” One of the gate guards said. “You can’t go in.”
“A villager came, said they spotted a dragon. I dunno why we should believe him, but our orders are no one gets in or out while there’s dragons out there.”
“But I saw him, too!” Cymbeline protested. “It destroyed that town, er, it was southeast of Riverwood.”
“It’s all gone! The dragon destroyed it all!”
“That’s bad,” the guard said. “Commander Caius would understand letting you in. Go tell the Jarl, he’s up in Dragonsreach, the castle on the highest point in the city!”
Cymbeline wiggled through the gate before it was completely open, pulling Anum-La through behind her by the wrist.
“Easy, easy!” she protested. “I appreciate the hurry, but if you pull my arm off, we’ll have more problems than dragons.”
“Sorry,” Cymbeline said. “I’ll be more careful. Come on!”
The little Breton pelted down the streets, dodging between people and taking every set of steps two at a time, heedless of the admonishments to watch what she was doing and to slow down. When she reached the great, heavy doors of the Jarl’s palace, Cymbeline looked around to see Anum-La jogging doggedly up the stairs after her.
“I didn’t mean to leave you behind,” Cymbeline said as her friend reached her, coughing as the cold air irritated her lungs.
“Sprinting’s never been on my list of favorite activities,” Anum-La wheezed, “and certainly not up all these stairs. Whiterun seems to be nothing but stairs.”
“Somehow I doubt this is all the sprinting we’ll wind up doing. But at least for a moment we can catch our breath.”
The two companions stepped through the great doors and into a long hall with lofty buttresses. Cymbeline felt a bit nervous as she walked the ornate rug down the center of the hall. The rooms which housed her family, the royal caste, weren’t ostentatious. They were just offshoots from the greater cavern as anyone else’s quarters, save a little extra space and mementos of chieftains past. This place was huge and open, decorated with rich banners and tapestries, kept warm by a huge fire pit in the very middle of the great hall.
“Halt!” a husky voice barked. Cymbeline jumped and looked slightly over to see a Dunmer woman approaching them, sword drawn. “You, there! What business do you have that’s so important you would barge in here, unannounced? Important business is at hand, and we don’t have time to-”
“We’re here about the dragon!” Cymbeline interrupted. Her heart immediately seized when she realized what she’d done in interrupting someone important, but it needed to be done.
“You what?” the woman asked, lowering her sword just a bit.
“We came from Helgen. We saw the dragon ruin the town and then fly off in this direction.”
“You’re the second person to report such a thing in the last hour. Come on, then. The Jarl needs to hear this.”
Cymbeline glanced over at Anum-La nervously, and the Argonian nodded once, encouragingly.
They followed the Dunmer to the very back of the room where a striking blonde man reclined in a throne. His head bore a simple crown of gold and sparkling stones the likes of which Cymbeline had never seen. Anum-La had said some of her stones were valuable, and she knew all about polishing them in streams. Could people make them even shinier like this, with flat facets that reflected the light? It was almost magical.
“So you have information about Helgen?” he asked, startling Cymbeline out of her trance.
“Oh. Yes! My friend – Anum-La – and I, we were riding south from here, and we followed the road to Helgen, but when we got there the town was on fire! Not long after we saw a dragon as black as night flying away. He burned the town, Jarl Balgruuf, and nobody survived that we could see, and the dragon flew this way. We rode as hard as we could to get back here and tell you what we saw.”
“Two reports, and one from a stranger,” the Jarl said, shifting in his seat. “Irileth, I want you to send what guards you can to Riverwood.”
“Yes, my Jarl,” the Dunmer woman answered with a sharp salute.
Cymbeline swallowed. Now what? She took a small step over to stand closer to Anum-La.
“As for you two,” the Jarl said, “you did the right thing coming to me, even though you have no ties to this city that I know of. …Do you?”
“No sir,” she answered, shaking her head quickly.
“Not I,” Anum-La said easily.
“I wonder, then, if you wouldn’t do me a favor?”
“What’s that, sir?”
“This isn’t the first dragon sighting in Skyrim, you know. There have been many rumors cropping up in the last few weeks, and I suppose it was only a matter of time for us to witness one of our own. My court wizard, Farengar, has been researching this phenomenon, and he’s been pestering me nonstop for an assistant.”
“I-I don’t know much about wizards,” Cymbeline said. She wanted to help, but she didn’t know how much use she could be to someone like that.
“Nonsense!” Balgruuf said, rising from his throne. “If there is something to his dallying, and I suppose now there is, it would be prudent to see where this can take us.”
As they stepped into a side room filled with maps and books and various magickal odds and ends (including what she thought was a black soul gem that was filled – an item that made her stomach lurch to think about), a very tall and lanky man looked up from the map he was looking at, bent over the table, and rose, his eyes locking on Cymbeline as he smiled. She didn’t like the look, but she did her best to turn her reflexive grimace into a smile, in kind.
“And who are these lovely ladies?” Farengar asked.
“Ladies who might be able to help you with your, er, dragon project.”
“Oh! Well, how fortuitous. What’s your name?”
“Anum-La. Pleased to meet you.”
“And yours?” he asked in a much more cloying voice, offering a hand to Cymbeline.
She found her voice had gone.
“That’s Cymbeline,” Anum-La said, carefully moving so that Cymbeline was a bit behind her shoulder. “Of the Grey Hawk tribe.”
Farengar withdrew his hand, his smile faltering only a little. “I figured you were a native,” he said, “although you certainly don’t look to be Forsworn. Do you even speak the common tongue?”
“Well of course I do!” she said, her pique bringing her voice back. “We come from the same Bretons as the Forsworn.”
“Many pardons, I-”
“Farengar, you’ve been asking for an assistant, and I’m offering you two,” Balgruuf said impatiently. “Do you have some task or were you just bothering me for your own amusement?”
“Oh. Um. Yes. Yes, I do actually have something that might befit a couple of the common folk. It’s not for the faint of heart, however.”
“Cymbeline and I could take down anything you throw our way!” Anum-La said.
“Spoken like a proper brute mercenary,” Farengar laughed. “Fine. You might have seen the big ruin to the south? That is Bleak Falls Barrow. In it, likely in the very innermost sanctum, is supposedly an artifact called the Dragon Stone. If you can, I would like for you to retrieve it. I’m sure the Jarl will compensate you.”
“What’s the Dragon Stone?” Cymbeline asked.
“Aha, I knew you would be the scholar of the two,” he answered, his lecherous smile returning.
Cymbeline looked sideways at her friend who made a small snorting noise as she tried not to laugh.
“The dragon sightings form a pattern, you see, and I’ve been plotting them as they’re reported to me. The Dragon Stone allegedly provides location information for all the dragon burial mounds in Skyrim, and it would be an invaluable tool to aid in my research.”
“…Burial mounds?” she repeated.
“Those mounds you see all over,” Anum-La explained. “The circular ones surrounded by stones.”
“What studious women,” Farengar smiled before clapping his hands together expectantly. “Off with you, now! If what I’m hearing is true, we may not have very much time.”
“Go on,” he insisted shooing them away with fluttering hands.
“I’ve knocked that smile off men more handsome than that,” Anum-La said as they left the castle.
“I dunno,” Cymbeline said, “I’d rather cope with a creepy smile than be treated the way you were.”
“Ah, that’s just how it is with humans, no scales off my nose.”
“But he was awful.”
“Could he have been any other way?” Anum-La laughed.
They walked quickly out of the city, and after some thought, Cymbeline decided to board Suibhne again. Her map said the barrow wasn’t too far away, and he needed to rest without his headdress for a while.
“How do we get there?” Cymbeline asked as she unfolded her map again. “The scale of this map is too small for there to be paths or anything.”
“If it helps, I’m pretty sure that’s our destination,” Anum-La said, pointing towards the mountains.
Cymbeline had no idea how she could miss something so massive. Above the foothills and small peaks, great stone arches soared towards the bright blue sky, dusted with snow and only just surrounded by a slight fog.
“Goodness,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
“They might be beautiful on the outside, but from what I understand, the inside doesn’t bear out.”
“What do you mean?”
“They say the dead walk!”
Anum-La didn’t sound at all frightened, but that didn’t stop Cymbeline’s blood from running cold. There were more profane things in her culture, but the undead – though she had never seen any, and nor did she think anyone else in her tribe had – were abominations unto Kyne and contact with them required cleansing.
“H-How am I going to be cleansed?” she asked.
“If I touch the undead I have to be cleansed by our shaman. If I’m not cleansed then I’ll be seen as ill in spirit, and if I die I’ll be-”
“You’ll be fine,” Anum-La said with an unmistakable air of finality. “I’m sure if Akatosh set you to this task, He took everything else into account.”
She supposed that was right. Taking a deep breath, she set off towards the barrow with her friend right beside her, bow around her chest, axe strapped to her back.
It wasn’t a very long trek upwards, although it was a deceptively steep climb. The clean nature of the slightly thinner air comforted Cymbeline, and she thought how nice it would be if she could just keep climbing and have her cave lay ahead. Instead what she found was a massive stone platform, the anchor to those arches that, up close, were too tall to see properly.
“Hey!” a voice came to them from the platform. The small form of a man stood at the top of the steps leading up, and Cymbeline saw him pull a greatsword from his back.
“We’re not here to hurt you!” she called.
“I appreciate your dedication to pacifism, Cymbeline,” Anum-la hissed, “but from my experience, when a bandit draws, backing down is not on the agenda.”
Cymbeline took a deep breath and braced against the shaking of her hands as she drew her axe. “Really!” she called. “We’re only looking for the Dragon Stone!”
“Maybe not the best choice of words…”
“They’re after our treasure!” the man’s voice floated back to them on the cold air. “Time to show what happens when brazen little girls try to muscle us!”
“Oh,” Cymbeline said as she saw three more ransackers move toward them.
“It was worth a try,” Anum-La grinned. “Come, on, Traveler, we’ll show them who’re the little girls!”
The adrenaline was desperately uncomfortable, and between her heart slamming against her breastbone and her fingers starting to tingle from her quickening breaths, she wasn’t sure if she could even hold onto her axe. Anum-La, though, barrelled headlong into the minuscule cadre of bandits, wielding sword and shield as if they were parts of her body. It was brilliant to watch, but Cymbeline knew it was unsustainable. The gods would understand. If they didn’t why did her people have guards?
A bright yelp escaped her throat as she sprinted in, dodging arrows that her target fired at her. As she drew close, she swung her axe in an arc from behind her, over her head, and into the skull of the archer. Her heart seized as her fingers grew more numb, but the feeling of air as the arrow from the other archer whizzed by her head brought her back into the present.
Real combat with a person was not like sparring at all. Her head was a mess, and for reasons she couldn’t articulate later, the only thing her brain told her to do was to dance around, dodging arrows while she continued to drag the corpse of the first archer while yanking on her weapon that had sunk far more deeply than she had expected.
“For goodness’ sake, Cymbeline,” she heard Anum-La call as she continued fighting with the man with the sword. “Use your damn bow!”
The bow! That’s right, she had a bow! Quickly she dropped her axe and its victim’s head and pulled her bow from her shoulder. An arrow was taken from her quiver, and, just as she had done many times during the hunt, she nocked the arrow, drew the string, and let fly. The arrow flew straight through the archer’s stomach, which Cymbeline knew wasn’t very humane. Still, as much as it made her gag a bit to fire another arrow, she did, and this time caught her properly between the eyes.
Anum-La and the man with the greatsword seemed evenly matched; Anum-La was quick on her feet as Cymbeline herself was, and it seemed she had a lot of stamina to have kept going. Both were flagging though, and without thinking, Cymbeline fired one more arrow through the man’s head.
“Phew,” the Argonian said, letting herself fall onto one of the stone steps. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a nice long fight! I’m glad you blew out the candle on him when you did, though.”
As the adrenaline began to wane, Cymbeline looked at the man, over at the archer with two arrows sticking up from her corpse, and the one with her greataxe buried in his brain. Almost instantly she began to cry as her breath started to speed and speed. Her vision was growing fuzzy with a dark vignette around the edges, and her hands flew to her mouth, her nails hooking onto her lower teeth.
“Hey, calm down,” Anum-La’s voice came from some far away place.
“I killed people!” she screeched. “I killed people I’m like Uncle Fionn I’m cursed now what do I do there’s no priestess, there’s no-”
A stinging sensation suddenly bloomed on her left cheek, and her head whipped to the right. Nothing was better, but Cymbeline had enough sense knocked back into her that she could see Anum-La standing in front of her.
“Cymbeline,” Anum-La said firmly, “you knew this would have to happen at some point, right?”
“I guess so…”
“Better sooner than later, right?”
“Akatosh is a form of your tribe’s major deity, right?”
“Would He make you do this if you didn’t have to? Would He condemn you for something He set you to?”
“I don’t guess so. But what about Kyne?”
“What would your priests say?”
Cymbeline swallowed as her heart started to slow back down. “Auri-El is giver of our meri blood and Kyne gives us man’s. Mummah and Gaithan both would say that if our Father were to tell us something against our normal beliefs, we’d only need to ask our Mother for guidance and forgiveness.”
“Akatosh will take care of you,” Anum-La said, as a matter of fact. “We will get through this barrow, you and I, and then you’ll be able to pray.”
“Thanks, Anum,” she said, mustering a small smile.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she answered, offering a hug that Cymbeline accepted gratefully. “Now let’s go! It won’t be daylight forever. Although I guess it won’t matter in there. Hah!”
It took some effort, but with both women’s strength together, the towering iron door was cracked open. The inside was in a state of decay, it seemed. Piles of rubble lay here and there, and a great hole in the ceiling let in the light and snow while a broken pillar sagged against it. In the very back of the room were people talking. Talking about treasure and someone named Arvel, a Dark Elf.
“Ohh,” Cymbeline moaned quietly.
“Just catch ’em by surprise,” Anum-La whispered.
She took a deep breath and drew her bow once more. As before, she drew once and pierced one of their necks. That caught the other one’s attention, and as she cautiously stepped around their fire and squinted into the darkness, Cymbeline sent one more arrow flying, catching that one through the eye.
“You’re a pretty good shot,” Anum-La said. “I doubt I’d be able to hit the broad side of a barn, let alone shoot someone’s eye out.”
“Please don’t,” Cymbeline sighed. “It’s practice, is all. Kill a beast humanely.”
“Sorry, I know I shouldn’t make light of things like that. Look, they’ve got torches. I don’t mind doing the carrying since you need both your hands.”
They walked down stairs and hallways, the air getting cooler, damper, and more and more saturated with the fug of dead things and musty old remnants of the people who once considered this place sacred. Cymbeline stayed close to Anum-La, looking with wonder at the intricate carvings in the stone walls and pillars. Eventually they reached a small flight of stairs that led into a proper room, where a light was bobbing and moving around.
Cymbeline grabbed Anum-La’s arm and pulled her back. A bandit was pacing back and forth, looking around inquisitively. In the shifting torch light, Cymbeline could just make out the shape of a lever on the floor.
“Time for another arrow?” the Argonian whispered.
Cymbeline shook her head. “I want to see what he’s looking for.”
“I think he might’ve found it.”
Cymbeline watched as he shrugged and pulled the lever. There was a pause. A clunk. The bandit moved, but not quickly enough; a volley of arrows coming from either side impaled him, killing him almost instantly.
“Kyne’s mercy,” Cymbeline said. “I didn’t know there’d be traps.”
“I guess it makes sense. I don’t suppose I’d want just anyone creeping around my family’s tomb.”
They descended the stairs, looking back and forth before properly setting foot into the room. Convinced there weren’t going to be any stray volleys to end their quest before it began, they moved to get a closer look at the lever. It made Cymbeline shudder, but she took the still-burning torch from where it fell when the bandit was shot. The room was small, with a gated doorway marking the only way forward.
“The lever must open the door,” Cymbeline said.
“So we only have to learn what not to do!” Anum-La cackled.
Cymbeline walked around, holding the torch aloft, until she found three pedestals. Each one had three sides, each side marked with a different animal: a whale, a snake, or a hawk. She put her free hand on the edge of one, and with a little effort, managed to turn it so that the whale icon was facing outward, in place of the snake that had been there before it.
“That must be what he was trying to do,” Anum-La said. “He was looking for a hint.”
“Look over there!” Cymbeline said, moving to a pile of rocks and dirt where a giant head of stone seemed to be eating an iron plaque bearing the same icon of the whale that was on the pedestals. “Surely that’s part of the hint, but are we just supposed to guess the other two?”
“Doesn’t seem very charitable. It’s also not a very good hint.”
Anum-La walked away, and Cymbeline watched the torch as she carried it back with her. “Looks like I was right, Traveler,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“It isn’t a very good hint. It broke off from the rest of the answer.”
Cymbeline stepped back and looked up, and indeed, two other stone heads hung from the wall, a glaring and ragged space between them – where the whale icon had been.
“That’s brilliant, Anum! How did you know?”
“It had to fall from somewhere,” she grinned.
Cymbeline went to work moving each pedestal so that the proper icons faced out. Once she did that, she took a deep breath and looked at the lever. When she saw Anum-La reaching for it, she leapt over and pushed her away.
“No need to push,” she said. “What’s gotten into you?”
“You get back. This is my journey, so if I’ve made a mistake, I should be the one to face the consequences.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
Cymbeline exhaled on a tired laugh. “I don’t want you to die because I did something wrong.”
“Well then let’s risk it together. I won’t let my friend get skewered all by herself!”
Cymbeline giggled. “Alright then. We pull it together, okay?”
She grabbed the silver handle first, and then a scaly clawed hand joined hers. They shared one confident glance, and pulled, both of them letting go and crouching with their arms over their heads before realizing the noise they heard was the gate raising up and allowing them passage.
“See? I knew nothing would happen,” Anum-La smiled.
A rickety wooden staircase lay before them, almost too narrow even for them. The heaviness of the air lifted a bit as they stepped into the next hallway, one Cymbeline suspected was part of a great hall, with offset arches cut into two stone walls to their left. The reason for the change in air quality was clear – part of the larger room beyond had collapsed and was letting in the outside light. But that was only a peek. The arches on the second wall were all covered in spider webs.
“Oh, I hate spiders,” Cymbeline said. “Little ones are okay but frostbite ones terrify me. And those look like frostbite webs, to me.”
“I’ll have your back, Cymbeline, don’t you worry.”
Any hope of simply bypassing the spider’s lair was dashed when they ran into a collapsed passage. The only hope of progressing was seeing what they could see on the other side. Her stomach tying itself in knots, Cymbeline walked slowly and quietly to one of the webbed-over archways and batted away the tough, sticky silk. She peered into the room, pressing her lips together against the rising bile brought on by the smell and sight of silk-wrapped skeevers and what looked unsettlingly like people.
Soon her eyes settled on the massive form of the biggest spider she had ever seen, and she shrieked so loudly the sound bounced off the stone walls, trailing an odd vibration behind them.
“It’s nothin,” Anum-La encouraged, placing her palm firmly between Cymbeline’s shoulder-blades. “If you can kill a cat, a spider’s nothing!”
“But this one…” she said, suddenly realizing that nothing was happening. She approached the archway again and looked with a more steady eye. “It’s dead.”
“I can understand your reaction now, though. I’d sooner fight a dozen wamasu…if that thing didn’t eat them first.”
Cymbeline laughed nervously. “There’s more bandits, I guess. This thing hasn’t been dead very long. There’s still venom on its fangs.”
“How could there be more bandits if that one back there didn’t make it past the gate?”
She shook her head. “I kind of hope it was a bandit. I’m terrified to think of what else could do this, although I guess you’re right.”
They continued on, and now Cymbeline saw shelves carved into the walls. The musty smell was getting worse, and as she held up her torch, she saw that the shelves were holding mummified bodies. She knew other cultures faced death in their own ways, but hers cremated the dead and offered the ashes to the sky so that they no longer belonged to the earth and instead could now live with Kyne. She’d never seen a body so old, and it struck her as something dirty, something plagued and profane. She knew she shouldn’t have thought something so awful about someone else’s way of life, but she couldn’t help it.
A weird, rasping noise followed by the sounds of clashing metal, a person’s cry, and then the piercing sound of metal squealing and slamming into something caused Cymbeline and her friend to freeze in their tracks. Everything went quiet after the metallic noise, and as soon as the shock wore off, they walked cautiously into the room ahead. She thought she heard the sound of ragged, dusty breathing, but surely it was only her imagination.
Three figures were silhouetted by a dropped torch which lay nearby them.
“Bandits?” she whispered hopefully.
“I think these might be the fabled walking dead,” Anum-La breathed.
Carefully Cymbeline laid her torch down and unsheathed her axe. She wasn’t about to just run in, though. Who knows what those things actually were?
“H-Hello?” she called. “Are you, um…people?”
The figures turned their heads to face her with flaming blue eyes. That was as much as she could see in the dim light, but she figured that was all she needed to. All three creatures had weapons of their own, and all three were only too happy to run to meet her as she ran towards them. She heard Anum-La behind her, and she prayed to her gods that they would make it through.
But these things weren’t exactly great warriors. Cymbeline thought they could have been in life, but whatever power gave them soulless form didn’t appear to have bothered with coordination. They were clumsy and slow, clearly signalling a move before actually executing it. Cymbeline never thought she could feel disappointed after a fight, but here she was, the three monsters dead by an axe and a sword. She felt dirty for having come so close to those abominations, but, for once during this journey, she felt righteous..
“What about the person who yelled?” she asked.
“Stuck on whatever that thing is, looks like.”
Cymbeline looked to where Anum-La was now pointing her torch. Indeed, there was some sort of wall, and hanging off of it was something that looked an awful lot like a corpse.
“But…What is that?” she asked.
“Whatever it is, I’m not getting closer,” Anum-La replied.
“We saw that other one get turned into a pincushion because of a trap. I’m betting that the loud bang is connected to the reason this poor fellow’s stuck to a wall.”
“I suppose so. Look, here!”
Cymbeline moved cautiously toward an object that was glinting dully in the flickering light. She reached out and swiftly snatched it from its place on the floor. It was heavy, and the shape was interesting, claw-like, with scales molded into the shape.
“Anum, quick, bring your torch over here!”
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Just get behind me. I think this might be important.”
As the light was raised over her shoulder, she saw that the sculpture was solid gold, and on the palm side of the claw were three medallions arranged in a vertical line.
“Look, these are like those pedestals,” she said. “Bear, moth, owl.”
“So this time we have the answer and need to find the puzzle,” Anum-La mused. “I wonder what other flights of fancy exist in other tombs.”
“Something tells me we’ll find out at some point. But right now we need to find a way around that thing.”
The women began looking all over the floor, a difficult task in such low light. What if there was no way to know?
She saw Anum-La move from the corner of her eye, and she looked over to see the Argonian pick up an old helmet that was perched on one of the shelves.
“Don’t touch that!” she found herself squeaking.
“Ah, he won’t miss it,” Anum-La assured her. “Watch this.”
Her friend positioned herself just so and gently tossed the helmet in front of her. It bounced once before landing and rolling…
As soon as the forgotten piece of armor rolled over a raised stone in the floor, the wall on which the corpse hung slammed forward on hinges, violently stopping when it reached the end of its arc and sending the corpse flying towards the wall.
“There’s spikes on it,” Cymbeline said. She shuddered at the sight of the impaled corpse.
“More importantly we know what to look for so we don’t end up like that. See?”
Anum-La was pointing at the stone the helmet had rolled over. A carving with faded paint in its grooves decorated the top.
“It’s not very big, is it?” Cymbeline said. “I guess it’s more important to look down at the floor than I thought.”
“Just so long as you look ahead, too!”
Onward they traveled, down steps, through rooms that seemed designed for more special people’s interment. All along the way were more of those undead things, even in the places where there were no shelves or embalming tables, such as in places of great beauty where the tomb was interrupted by natural caves that echoed with the sound of a spring. They were easy to take care of, just as the ones before, easier than the halls where sharp pendulums swung back and forth. Thankfully those halls had pull-chains on the exit so that when one of them made it through, they could disable it for the other.
Eventually they came upon a rather final-looking hall. Cymbeline looked all around, in awe of the intricate murals on the walls.
“Anum, look!” she said, moving quickly to one of them.
“What’s all the fuss about?” Anum-La asked, holding up her torch. “It’s pretty enough, but-”
“How do you know?”
She paused a moment. “I-I don’t guess I do, but I’m sure of it. Look, She’s there in the middle with feathers all around, and above Her is a hawk. Like us.”
She smiled, feeling the worn lines in the wall. “I like this depiction. In our tribe She’s represented by a hawk design. Not like this, though. She’s so pretty. I wish it wasn’t in such a place.”
“Don’t you pray to Her when you honor your dead?”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s a shame there’s so much corruption, is all.”
“Well you won’t hear me complaining if the dead stay dead,” her friend smiled, nudging her with an elbow.
Cymbeline laughed. “Come on. I have a feeling we’re about to find what Farengar was hoping for. What I’m hoping for, at this point.”
“You can say that again.”
“I think we found the puzzle that goes with our answer,” Cymbeline said as the torchlight fell on a great wall with thee concentric circles carved into it.
On each ring of the wheel was a medallion bearing the animal symbols they’d been seeing. All three rings looked like they might actually move, rotating around a hub that bore three holes and the faint outline of a draconic foot. Cymbeline pulled the golden claw from her satchel and looked back and forth from it to the wall.
“I think those circles move,” Anum-La said.
“I think you’re right.”
Cymbeline approached the mechanism. The circles were all half-hidden behind what she supposed was what protected the lock and the other moving parts. The part of the outermost ring that was at her height couldn’t be moved from that position; she hadn’t the leverage. She hopped up onto her tip-toes, then, reaching way above and scrabbling on the stone to find some sort of hold to pull on.
“I’m not tall enough,” she panted. “I can’t stand like that and pull at the same time.”
“We’re in the same boat then,” her friend said. “I think the Hist must have run out of whatever makes us grow when it came to me. Must’ve spilled it on all the other hatchlings.”
“Well, you’re taller than me. If i take my weapons off, maybe you could lift me up!”
“Worth a try!”
Weapons laid carefully on the ground, Cymbeline moved back to the door.
“On my shoulders, Cymbeline. Probably our best bet.”
The Argonian crouched down, and Cymbeline straddled her neck. Leather-clad arms were around her thighs, and soon her feet were leaving the ground. It wasn’t graceful. She thought for sure they’d both fall, and she’d break her neck – a rather ignominious end for the champion of Akatosh.
“How can you be so small and still be so heavy?” Anum-La grunted as he stumbled back and forth in a bid to catch her balance.
“Just try and move forward! If we get to the wall, I can lean on it. Maybe that’ll help.”
She clenched her teeth against a squeal of terror as she wobbled back and forth, eventually slamming against the wall and knocking the air from her lungs.
“It’s okay, just let me…”
Cymbeline reached over and managed to grab the edge of the top ring and pulled as best as she could. It moved, only the smallest bit, but she pulled and pulled on each new bit of stone as quickly as she could. Anum-La was protesting. She offered encouragement, working and working until finally the next medallion came into view. A few more good pulls, and the wheel slotted easily into its new position, displaying a carved bear.
“Oh thank Kyne,” Cymbeline breathed.
The other two stones weren’t as difficult, although they each had to be turned twice. Sure that the sequence was correct, Cymbeline took the sculpture and placed it up to the lock. The sculpture’s three claws slotted perfectly into the hub, and as soon as she pushed it in, the three rings realigned themselves and the door sank heavily and noisily into the floor.
“You’re the one picking me up next time,” Anum-La said as she rubbed her neck.
“Deal,” Cymbeline answered absently, her eyes widening at the cavern that was revealed. “Look at all this!”
The Argonian looked around and sniffed the air as she stepped over the threshold. “It’s a little cold. Nothing a good, old-fashioned bonfire wouldn’t fix, eh?”
The room reminded her a little of her people’s main room, even if this one was never used or prepared as a home. It was the hole in the ceiling that really did it. The hole in the ceiling from which late afternoon light filtered in and illuminated some form of holy spot, like the altar she’d only days ago been bathed by her mother and the acolytes. There was even a spring that ran around it and all throughout.
She swallowed and took a deep breath to try and unlink the similarities in her mind. Without the homesickness clouding her view, she could see that what the light was shining upon wasn’t really an altar, at all, but a box. A person-sized box made of the ebony that ran all throughout the ruined tomb.
“What’s that wall, do you think?” she asked Anum-La, as much to ignore the continuing reminders of mortality as to see if her friend was feeling the same sort of intrigue by the curved stone fixture behind the coffin.
“A wall, I suppose. There’s something carved into it. Probably just some epitaph.”
“Maybe. It’s important.”
Cymbeline ran over the rough ground, nimbly jumping over the remains of stone columns and crossing over the spring to leap up onto the platform and reach the wall, whose strange pull only strengthened the closer she drew. She narrowed her eyes at the etchings and reached out to feel them. They were letters, and they formed words – that much was clear – but it was in an alphabet she didn’t know. Or did she?
“Cymbeline!” she heard Anum-La call behind her.
She looked over her shoulder, but before she could ask what her friend was yelling about, the lid of the coffin burst open, causing her to jump and eliciting a frightened yelp. Through the cloud of dust that had been kicked up, she saw another of those undead creatures rising. Unlike the others, though, this one was clothed in what had once been much more ornate armor, and it didn’t seem quite as clumsy.
Quickly she unfastened her axe from its sheath and held it ready in front of her, but before she could take a step, a blast of air and a deafening shriek assaulted her. All of a sudden she realized her feet had left the floor, and in the next second, the air was knocked out of her as her back slammed against the wall she had, only moments before, been admiring.
Her ears were ringing, and it took a second for her eyes to regain focus, but as soon as they were clear, in spite of her lack of breath, she ran toward the creature who was getting ready to subject Anum-La to the same treatment. Her friend was thankfully a quick learner and was trying to scrabble beneath the bridge that crossed over the spring. The creature, also thankfully, was, if not very smart, persistent, leaving its back exposed to the little Breton who wasted no time picking her axe back up and burying it into the its spine.
It paused, and Cymbeline was ready for it to fall the way all of the others had so easily. It was probably just her axe that was keeping it from slumping forward, and so she planted her foot against its backside and braced herself against the sound of popping sinew and the sight and smell of the black ichor that spilled onto the ground.
It didn’t fall, though. Instead, it straightened itself back up, and turned around to once again face the girl it had shouted into a wall. Cymbeline reset her grip on her weapon and, for the first time, realized that the creature had its own weapon, a greatsword whose blade was engulfed in a thin, icy haze.
Without thinking, she raised her axe and sent it arcing toward its unholy target, only to experience the ever-unpleasant feeling of metal hitting metal. She felt it in her teeth and her bones, and a deep frustration was building, the way it tended to even in sparring matches when she could gain no advantage. Just like in those sparring matches, then, she yanked her axe back and slammed it back down. The creature blocked her again, laughing in an ugly, rasping voice.
As Cymbeline pulled her weapon back, the thing’s laughter turned into a gurgling cry of surprise. Anum-La’s blade had been thrust neatly through its solar plexus, but, as before, it did little more than stun it.
“Why isn’t it going down!?” Cymbeline cried.
“Your guess,” her friend grunted as the creature landed a blow on her shield, “is as good as mine!”
Cymbeline couldn’t very well use her axe with Anum-La so close, so she dropped it yet again and pulled her bow from around her chest while hopping off the platform to get a better and safer angle. The bows her people made were strong and designed for hunting rather than close combat. The draw was long, and the strength needed to pull back was more than what would be ideal for a situation involving an apparently invincible undead creature. Still, she drew as fast as she could, more quickly than she needed to outside, and let fly.
It didn’t care when the arrow caught it in the side, and barely even noticed.
She drew again as Anum-La continued to weather the assault, swiftly took aim, and shot. She was hoping to shoot its head, but its movement was vicious and quick in the face of its heavy weapon, and care had to be taken lest she injure her friend.
This time it caught the creature’s shoulder.
“Getting closer,” she breathed as she drew again, her muscles starting to burn with the unusual speed of shooting. “Kyne, help me…”
This time her aim was true, and the arrow pierced its skull. The creature grunted horribly, but it wasn’t finished. It was noticeably injured, though, and its movements grew clumsy. Unfortunately that meant Anum-La had to be more evasive, and her stamina was waning. Cymbeline once more traded one weapon for the other.
“Anum, run away!” she yelled.
Anum-La stumbled a bit as she tried to turn, her tail only just escaping the creature’s sword as it dropped the blade down. Despite her difficult start, though, the creature was impaired enough that it couldn’t pursue to any real degree. It was certainly trying, but all Cymbeline needed was for her friend to be clear.
As soon as she was sure, she once again ran at the creature from behind. When she was close, she lowered her head and slammed the entire weight of her body into its back, causing it to overbalance and fall face-first onto the stone floor. Regaining her own balance as quickly as she could, Cymbeline swung her axe behind her and up, sending it down hard on the back of the creature’s neck.
She looked at it, panting, heart pounding as much from nerves as from exertion. The severed head rolled onto its side, and after what seemed an eternity, the blue glow of its eyes faded, just as the others they had slain before.
With a shuddering breath, Cymbeline sank to her knees.
“Good thinking, Traveler,” Anum-La said as she kneeled beside her. “I guess even the undead have something between their ears. Some more than others, looks like.”
“Why was it like that?” Cymbeline asked, although she wasn’t sure what she expected in reply.
“Seems to me if you want something protected, you give it to the strongest brute ya got.”
“The Stone!” Cymbeline gasped. “Between that wall and…and whatever that was, it slipped my mind somehow.”
She stood up and helped her friend do the same, looking around for where the Dragon Stone might be hiding. Her eyes landed on a box situated on a table beside the coffin. It wasn’t ornate, not something she would expect something important to be stored in. Or maybe that was the point?
“Be careful,” Anum-La said as she approached it. “I don’t know if I can take another surprise.”
Cymbeline looked all around the box, looking for tripwires or holes from which spikes could shoot and impale and maybe poison her through the hand. As sure as she was going to get, she opened it, and the outside light revealed a plain stone tablet on which a crude map had been carved, along with an engraving in that same strange alphabet.
“This must be it,” she said, lifting it carefully from its resting place. “Let’s wrap it up in some cloth or something and get out of here.”
“You’ll hear no argument from me! Hopefully that wizard’ll be put off by sweat.”
Cymbeline giggled. She cast one more glance at the wall, wondering in particular on one particular word. A lot had happened, her mind was full, and her heart was growing heavy again as she was finally able to think about something other than what lay ahead. They would get back to the city, she could take a bath. She could pray.