- Location: This is part of the Hero's Guides to The Elder Scrolls Online, a three-part collection of books to assist the player in The Elder Scrolls Online. This is part of the Kyne's Challenge: A Hunter's Companion Collection.
- Author: Grundvik Cold-Fist
Hidden Horrors in the Shifting Sands
Scorpions in the southern foothills of Skyrim are tiny fellows, poked by curious or repugnant children, played with by dogs, and eaten by grass snakes. But in the deserts of Hammerfell, and in particular the flat stone outcrops of southern Bangkorai, their cousins have grown to gigantic proportions: The hot weather and cool nights allow them to prey on man, mer, and beast—any creature venturing into their hunting grounds. Our example sat on a carapace of mottled red and black bone, a brown arced tail with a purple-tinged poison sac and a vicious-looking stinger in a permanent state of readiness. Two vertical fangs rubbing up and down under three pairs of tiny white eyes. Six thin legs and pincers as sharp as any forged sword at the front. Fenrig would earn his pay this evening.
A barking growl by Mauler and steady backward pacing coaxed the huge scuttler forwards, towards the jut Fenrig was staring down intently from. The dog tumbled back as a pincer the size of Mauler stabbed forwards, snapping the dog's shadow. Fang barked and showed her remaining teeth, and the scorpion launched forward and quickly whipped its tail over its head, striking Fang across her side. The dog let out a soft wail and dropped down passively, paralyzed by the precise and poisoned infliction. I motioned for our company to remain behind our vantage points as the scorpion clattered over to the prone dog. A serrated pincer cupped the dog's sagging form and was about to cut Fang in half, when Fenrig dropped by.
His grace was masterful. He landed precisely on the grooved opening between the thorax carapace and the tail, and plunged a dagger deep between the protective plates. An old trick the Ash'abah used to cripple, and avoid the thankless task of penetrating the hardened back of the beast. Leaping off with a sword unsheathed, Fenrig rolled forward, bringing his full might down on the pincer holding his war dog. It cut deeply, and Fang fell to the sand. The scorpion's six white eyes narrowed, its red dewlap opening and closing in alarm. Both claws punched forward, sending a puff of dirt up from Fenrig's previous position. But his new location was at the side of the scorpion, where a second vicious plunge severed the tail. Fluid spilled across the sands, the tortured creature quickly silenced with a skewering through its head.
Chitin and some venom were harvested, but our night camp was prepared with giant scorpion flesh in mind. Distressingly, the meat was so bitter, I initially pondered whether Footfalls-in-Snow had cooked the tail in an elaborate plan to poison us. But after some ample seasoning, and more than a little mead, it became much more palatable.
Strange stone structures among the foothills of the Alik'r Desert. But other oddities: creatures foreign to this realm. A pack of two-legged animals, sharing an odd lineage with the Argonian: a vaguely reptilian look, but coated in the filth of the Daedra. A primitive and feral kind, seemingly in the service of a higher-functioning leader, although we found no evidence of a summoner in these parts. Rows of sharp-finned back plates tapered off to a thick, sinewy tail of intermittent spines. Vicious hooks protruded from feet and claw, as the creature's markings became more mottled towards the head, which was a proud crest of bone; a crest of skin wrapped tight; pale, hollow eyes with a darting speck of black peering back at us. Rows of uneven teeth behind a beaked mouth, stained with blood.
Scuffing its feet against the rock below the sands for purchase, then bounding forward with protruding head lowered, the clannfear struck Fang with a butting charge, hoisting the dog over a rock, where it landed with a hard thud and a yelp. The other two beasts bayed with a strange half whinny, half cackle. This was enough to set Fenrig off: A hand axe disappeared into the clannfear's neck, and it writhed and gurgled as Fenrig retrieved his weapon, boot on the body, wrenching the axe back.
The Alik'r Desert offers the careless wanderer a place of delirium: miles of shifting sands, sweeping dunes and parched earth, and scattered stone monuments and soft-cornered rock formations. It was here that our heavy cloaks and snow boots were discarded, and our armpits breathed again (all but Bashnag, who refused to remove his armor plates, and is beginning to ripen like a skeever corpse in the sun).
Hard-shelled fins cut the surface of the sand: rapid undulations like waves, then an explosion of soil and small stones. "Sand crocodile!" Footfalls-in-Snow barked, readying a spear and a defensive stance. The Argonian was perceptive; this creature's size and hunting pattern were similar, but it featured more prominent and sharp-pointed chitinous scales, arranged in diminishing size across its back and along its thrashing tail.
"Duneripper," Kishra-do answered, with purring enthusiasm. As the mass of deep red and light yellow plates clambered from its sand hole, hooked mouth widening to display a gullet wide enough to swallow an ogre, the Khajiit offered to perform for us.
"It rips the dunes with its fin; hence the name, yes?" Kishra-do explained, sidestepping around the yawn of the beast's mouth, which snapped with a bite, then opened again. "Quick in short bursts, they smother you suddenly," she continued, and as if on command, the duneripper sank headfirst into the ground, shaking the soft earth below the Khajiit. "But this one is unclawed!" She turned as the duneripper rose behind her, leapt up and onto the beast's back, and plunged down one of her many daggers. She was off before the duneripper realized it had been pierced.
"Short, stumpy legs. More so than your Orc!" Kishra-do winked at Bashnag, whose grin widened, and he nudged the Argonian, who stumbled forward, dropping the carapace-cracking tools he was readying. Coaxing the duneripper into a thrashing sweep of its tail, Kishra-do easily evaded and sprang forward on all four padded paws. "By Sangiin's hidden knife!" She dropped behind the neck of the duneripper, plunging two more daggers into softer underside skin. "Ready, Argonian?" she asked, using the duneripper's momentum to flip it onto its side and gouge out a huge rift along its belly. It was alive as its entrails flopped out onto the sand.
We offered polite applause, and uncorked the mead that evening.
The desert lamia is a creature to be both feared and loathed. Superior in size to their aquatic relatives (a monster I'd hunted throughout High Rock in my youth), the orange-scaled miscegenations, a corrupted form of snake and woman, are known to use brute force and magic, lightning and song, to charm and disarm their victims. Their intelligence is no mere animal instinct; they speak in their own forked tongue, and sometimes gather numerous trinkets in their lairs. The female form is often misunderstood; it is a mirage to coax the lascivious males that make up most of their prey, as this creature reproduces as a base reptile, and is sexless. Their appetite is legendary; they feed on skin, flesh, innards, and finally the bone of their prey. Many whisper these are descended from the spawn of Lamae of our Nedic ancestors, violated by Molag Bal in ancient times past.
Ingjard expressed a particular worry regarding the Argonian, as we quietly stalked lamia tracks to her small cave in a cluster of sandstone rocks deep within the Alik'r plains. The sky had turned a deep red, and the rocks seemed to glow after the boiling of the hot day. "It will be difficult enough to keep Bashnag from being mesmerized." Ingjard spoke quietly, as we spotted the lamia swaying slightly on the cooling winds through the boulders. It sat on a thick and well-muscled tail counterbalancing the torso, always upright, even when idling. "Our prey and the lizard have a similar appearance." She was rightly concerned; the lamia did indeed share more than a passing resemblance to Footfalls-in-Snow. But where the ophidian features they shared ended, more primitive hooked crests, odious fangs, scaled hooks at the elbow, and a huge serpent's mass began. Then the lamia's singing approached on the wind, a sweet but strange, lilting tone to befuddle and trap.
"As mud is my mother, a sweeter sound even than leaves softly rustling in the breeze of the Tree!" Footfalls-in-Snow was upon our viewing point, and Ingjard's fears were forming. After instructing the Argonian to be wary of approach and carry his weapon unsheathed, he simply ignored our advice, which had previously been strictly adhered to. "By the Egg. A wondrous creature!" He took off, approaching the lamia as she slowly weaved back and forth and smiled through spellbinding song and dripping fangs. "Stretch your tail here in peace," Footfalls-in-Snow remarked. The lamia beckoned him forward. Still the fool ventured.
The smile turned quickly to a scream.
The Argonian was snapped from his stupor as the scream intensified until it manifested itself as a shrieking blow, flaying lizard skin. Clutching his ruptured ear slits, Footfalls-in-Snow faltered, on his knees in a daze, then was picked up by the throat, and was soon to be swallowed. Ingjard was upon the fiend with my arrows at her sides. This was enough to snap the lamia's concentration. "Spell weaver!" Ingjard confirmed, as her adversary's maw crackled with additional offense; a bolt of lightning spat forth, rattling Ingjard's shield. Before it took another gasp of air, Ingjard charged in, belting the creature with her shield, and widening an arrow hole below the beast's scaly breast. Claws flashed, but the wind was at least knocked out of the lamia. It sank into a soggy pile, neck sliced and gushing. A fitting end.
Footfalls-in-Snow was tasked with skinning and drying the lamia skin, and milking the venom. He went about his chores gladly, as we had promised not to mention his shortfalls to the Orc.
The necropolis we had endured the sweltering sands of the Alik'r Desert to find had finally given up its whereabouts. Ingjard sketched in our approximate bearings on our benefactor's map, and we made camp in the deep shadows of the red rocks a few hundred strides from the threshold. The Orc had finally agreed to unbuckle his armor and freshen his odor, but was, once again, consuming more than his fair share of water. Fortunately, our Argonian retainer exhibits a steadfast competence and sourced a nearby well, still occasionally used by the local Redguard nomads.
"Ah, more water! Now, if only this was a jug of Ungorth!" Bashnag reached for the pot, which was cooling after boiling, spilling some on the dirt, and more down his front.
"You thirst encroaches on us like a briar patch," Footfalls-in-Snow muttered, reaching for empty buckets and starting a return trip. The Orc hadn't heard him.
"Walk with Mauloch…" Mauloch waved the departing Argonian. "Wait, shall I call you Footfalls-in-Snow now, lizard?"
"Shall I call you 'Mindless-Who-Mangled-with-Mace'?" came the reply, through a painted smile.
"Trolls' teeth!” Fenrig seethed, glaring at the two of them. “Silence this bickering, or I'll beat the Orc to death with the Argonian's arm."
A period of tranquility descended on the camp. Until Footfalls-in-Snow returned with more than water.
"Bashnag, I've found your cousin!"
Footfalls-in-Snow was out of breath, one of his water buckets missing. "You aunt had a union with a bat, and Mauloch cursed the creations into stone, I think!"
Ingjard was up with her sword, stepping between the quarreling pair, and keeping a worried and watchful eye on Fenrig. I beckoned my Nord brother (but not his dogs) and we crept around the loose rubble, following lizard tracks. "We should have scouted the outskirts with the dedication of a mead-drinking competition." Fenrig spoke softly but critically, and almost to himself, as we saw the source of the Argonian's mirth. The remains of a once-grand entrance up to a derelict funerary temple. Stone steps still partly visible in the drifting sand. Fallen arches. Strange, ceremonial carvings. Guarding this outer avenue were two huge statues, easily three times our girths.
Each was a grotesque, crouched on haunches, one watching over us with a blank stare, while the elements had struck the other down; it had lost a head and an arm, the former of which looked up from the sands below its own pedestal. The actual carving of each statue seemed to echo the Argonian's description: a giant sandstone imp with the features of a primitive Orc, a toned form with loincloth, feet and hands of coiled claws, and oversized wings folded into the back. We slowly approached, passing a discarded Nord bucket, and Fenrig sniffed the air. "Statues don't smell…"
Fenrig's nose helped us realize our predicament one moment before a journey to Sovngarde was assured; he pushed me aside as a heavy stone fist fell where I had stood. It was attached to the statue, now animated and red eyed, cracking a scowl and unfurling wings as high as Dragonsreach. It had leapt from its perch, hoping to surprise and pulverize. I tumbled again, narrowly missing two more thudding slams that echoed around the valley. I readied the iron hammer Jorunn the Skald-King had awarded me after the recent defense of Windhelm. The weapon flickered with lightning. I struck with tremendous force, buckling one of its knees.
Gargoyle fists uncurled, and it hobbled towards me. I parried two mighty swipes, repelling almost certain laceration. This unnatural brute seemed to gain in strength and fury, as further strikes failed to weaken our bones. Both fists now clenched, it pounded the ground with such force that it shook and took our feet from under us. "It feeds from this! Like a vampire!" I shouted, seeing the gargoyle's kneecap grow over the fresh wound. My bones were old but not brittle; I bounded forwards and slammed the hammer down onto a stone foot. A pool of light writhed up the gargoyle's leg, and it shattered. The fiend fell onto its side, and gritted its teeth. These were soon scattered across the sands as the final hammering broke its cheek. Its head hung to the side, red eyes flickered to black, and it joined its broken brother in the dirt at the foot of the funereal ruins.
We returned, having drained our adversary of its humours. Fenrig tossed the bottles at Bashnag, who was furious at missing his chance to help, as he'd only just finished struggling into his rancid armor.
"Try not to drink these, pit bait," Fenrig remarked, before tending to his dogs.
SKELETON AND MUMMYEdit
Ancient and parched stone ruins stretched across a sweeping dune plateau. The vast necropolis surrounded us on all sides. The frozen gestures and stone stares of two large ceremonial statues (the stationary kind) warned us to stay away, but no guardians strode out to warn us against trespass. Instead, we were greeted by an eerie silence. We all spent time squinting against the setting sun, watching for an ambush, but even Fenrig's favored eyes couldn't pick out anything but the inky dots of the carved holes embedded in the parapets above. These were entrances leading to a labyrinth where hundreds of the Redguard's ancestors were said to be entombed.
Bashnag (loudly) wondered whether it was worth ransacking the place for valuables. I sternly reminded him we were here to test the quality of our weapons and our competency with them, and gather remains from those we hunted, not resort to thievery during a period of civil unrest. The Orc was about to utter something to anger Fenrig again (as was his innate ability), so it came almost as a relief when the obelisk torches burst into life before our eyes, illuminated by magic. A watcher from the battlements.
Favored armaments were now at the ready, as the necropolis began to breathe. "Up there, above the great door!" Fenrig saw a figure, a Redguard speck dressed in the garb of a Daedric priest. A staff seemingly ablaze with slow-moving blue fire. Our arrows clattered around him, but he was too far and stepped into an alcove. Instinctively, we spread out across the plateau, finding cover among the pillars and fallen stonework. A faint rumble from below the ground. Fine dust dislodged from the two huge entrance doors. The ground shook slightly. Now clattering and thudding footsteps as the fetid air rushed out to greet our nostrils.
We braced for a wave of bones.
Skeletons. More than a handful. Then well over a dozen, until our counting stopped, and our arrows began to fly. Some clad in armor: Redguard warriors from the time of Lord Frandar Hunding, the first warrior-prince. Brittle soldiers, but single minded in purpose, and wielding a variety of implements, from scimitars to bows. Slack jaws chattering, but dust of a thousand years still falling from their forms. Occasionally glimpsed within the ranks of this small army were bandaged corpses, animated priests pressed into service by the priest on the battlements. Their embalmed forms tattered, but their strength and spirit heightened by time away from this world. These were not draugr; a malignant light flickered within these husks and bones, guiding them into a frenzy of combat. Each one fought as they did in life, with the nimble dexterity of a proud Redguard soldier.
The Nords took to the sides, gaining height and distance. "If you can't be safe, be tough!" Bashnag yelled as he sped past me. "Taste Mauloch's mace, you Elf lovers!" Bashnag charged headlong to satisfy his blood lust, although on this occasion, there were few innards to spill. A wild swing, and a skeleton's head was shattered into dust. A second rotation: the oversized Orc mace crushing the rib cage and separating the spine of two more bony foes. But more took their place, and we lost sight of Bashnag as he swarmed. Periodically during the battle, I checked for his safety by listening for his swearing and spotting him in the throng as more bones and skulls went flying.
Footfalls-in-Snow was faring less well. Helpful arrows from the Nords had hindered the undead advancement on the right flank, where the Argonian had made a tactical blunder. Few climbing opportunities, and nowhere to flee to. He had fallen and was valiantly defending himself from his back. But the horde was almost upon him. I watched the great doors for a slowing of foes, but there was none. I glanced up, took careful aim, and released a true shot; it whistled through the air, striking the Daedric wizard in the shoulder. His trance broken, he fled from his viewing platform. I checked the doors again: The river of Redguards past had slowed to a trickle. The battle still raged, but our odds had improved.
The Argonian had scrambled to a dead end, and our arrows weren't dropping his adversaries fast enough. Realizing his predicament, he rummaged in a satchel and unrolled a scroll, beginning to babble in Jel, the ancient Argonian tongue. I made out a single name during the incantation: "Zymel Shar." Bandaged fingers were about to close around his neck as the spell ended, and a ferocious wind circled around the lizard. Thin forms were flung and tossed about as we glimpsed into Oblivion. Out from the damned world lumbered a hulking form, a core of white light oscillating beneath a floating series of stone appendages. A roughly fashioned head, broad shoulders, thick iron chains glowing with Daedric scripture. Towering over all. Footfalls-in-Snow had summoned a storm atronach.
A cluster of boulders in the rough shape of a fist slammed down hard, then swiped widely, as Zymel Shar guarded its master. Half a dozen skeletons fell with a single swat of this man-sized hand, bones broken and souls snuffed. The threat to the Argonian had lessened considerably, so we trained our bows on the fracas between Orc and mummy; I scolded Fenrig for accidentally striking the Orc with an arrow, as I knew his aim was better than that. Meanwhile, the wind was whipping up around the storm atronach, as it waded knee deep into a lake of bones and dust corpses (an accurate description, except for the atronach's lack of knees). Arcs of lightning danced around its form, binding the stronger mummies to an even slower plod, while the weaker skeletons simply detonated into plumes of bone powder.
The tide of dust was turning. But Bashnag's victory was tempered, as the remaining forces of the necropolis couldn't be cudgeled and simply sank to the ground, their will drowned and spirits recalled to the dark desert labyrinth. He was lucky, then, that Footfalls-in-Snow's attempts to control his summoned creation were becoming strained (at least, that is what he swore to us happened). "Bashnag! My Daedra becomes unruly, as the swamp seeks to swallow the mangrove tree. I fear it finds you an interesting distraction!" As expected, the Orc seemed positively jubilant at the prospect of an additional carnage, and the blood rage still flowed. What better way to expel his temper?
Immense stone feet pressed bone into powder as the storm atronach advanced on Bashnag. "By Mauloch!" A manic, spittle-filled grin, and the Orc revolved his mace around his head, readying for an opening. The atronach answered by conjuring a swift static charge about its floating body parts, which increased in intensity before it was released with a thunderous roar: a bolt of energy to shock and burn. Bashnag seemed to thrive on the pain it delivered, and brought down his mace with vengeance. The atronach's head section cracked. A grunt, a leap, and a second tremendous wallop. The head of stone split apart; a ball of light expanded and then retreated into nothingness. Daedric runes carved into iron bindings dimmed. Then the atronach collapsed, its spirit forced back in Oblivion.
We learned later that this necropolis was dedicated to the evil usurper king Ra Boshek, and the lich of the ruler had recently been awakened. So our plight could have been substantially more burdensome. The subsequent hours were spent picking through the bones, and gathering the considerable spoils Kyne had bestowed upon us. But our mead drinking commenced away from the necropolis threshold; it had been defiled enough.
This day has been long and troubled. Kyne's mischief? No; a previously trusted hunter raised my ire, kept hidden knowledge from me for too long, and now watches with her head in her hands as we burn the bodies of two of our group. A bitter root for all of us to taste. But Ingjard is not the reason the Argonian tends to a deep wound across his face (and narrowly avoided a blinding): She was caught between a barrow and a crypt, and her loyalties split down the middle. No, I am to blame for the bloodshed in Bergama market. I am accountable for the death of Bashnag gro-Gorzoth. Unknowingly, I was the one who brought that diseased worshipper of Hircine into our ranks.
Peering back into the past, the signs are as plain as the nose on an Imperial's face, but I was too blinded with the thrill of the hunt to notice: The wistful stares and frequent disappearances. His unusually edgy demeanor and reluctance in the hunting of wolves. The distaste for mead. By Ysmir's beard, I pride myself on my abilities to read such behavior! Instead, I was preoccupied by tracking, the burden of gathering ingredients, and distrusting Footfalls-in-Snow, instead of the skeever masquerading as my own kin. I'd have lain prostrate before Molag Bal before willingly letting a werewolf join the group. Yet here we are, binding our wounds while placating the locals for their troubles. Fenrig the Unsteady, I curse you to Sovngarde.
Our meeting with Kishra-do in the oasis of Bergama was uneventful. The afternoon was spent updating our ledger of ingredients, and taking in the sights of this bustling market town. Fine linens, impressive weavework, and potent, hypnotic odors. But one among us favored isolation. He had been more melancholy since Skyrim, and his condition had worsened. A lone wolf and his two cubs, refusing to speak to anyone but Ingjard. When a disheveled Fenrig finally joined us at the blacksmith's, his beard plait unknotted, Bashnag was the first to greet him, in his usual tactless manner:
"Gore and glory, Fenrig, you dungheap! Learning the ways of the hermit?"
Fenrig's response was immediate and unanticipated: He dived across the stall, arms splitting out of his armor, hands stretching into long, clawed talons. His undershirt ripped off, skin sprouting a thick mane of hair along the forearms and chest. A terrible transformation in the face: nose crackling and stretching to form a black snout, mouth ripped open and incisors growing to fangs in an instant. Eyeballs yellowing into a wild glint. A tail sprouting from the base of his hairy back. Saliva frothing from a dropped jaw, now snarling with malice. Before he had the chance to unbuckle his mace, Bashnag was pounced on and dragged to the ground in a display of immense strength, and Fenrig bit down.
Clods of quivering neck flesh and a fountain of Orc blood. Bashnag flashed a look of surprise as he grabbed his throat, but this bleeding could not be stemmed. His confused expression was hidden as Fenrig's frenzy intensified, flesh flying as his claws tore through green skin and bone. Bashnag's last act in this realm was almost a reflexive one: instinctively grabbing a belt dagger and thrusting it into Fenrig's side. The werewolf let out a howl and fell off the Orc. "Shor's bones!" Ingjard rushed to stem Bashnag's bleeding, wiping the blood from his face. But the Orc's eyes stared up blankly; his soul had already departed for the Battle Pit of Mauloch. Tellingly, Fenrig's despicable form shied away from tearing into Ingjard.
Orc blood dripped from Fenrig's maw and claws. His war dogs hunched down into a defensive spring, baring the same kind of teeth as their master. The werewolf gave three short howls, and the dogs leapt for Kishra-do and her Redguard companion. Footfalls-in-Snow pounced on Fang, slitting her stomach quickly (and with curious predilection), leaving Mauler for the Khajiit. I could not observe how the dog died, as Fenrig's powerful bounding and bared teeth were aimed in my direction. As I hastened backwards, I fell over a scattering of traders' wares, and I was set upon. Two rapid swipes to the face, and a fierce clawing to my belly, and my fine leather armor was cut deep. The next raking would gouge skin.
Then the leap of a lizard, as Footfalls-in-Snow pounced on the back of the werewolf. It rolled over, savaging the Argonian about the face. But this heroic act allowed me to stand, take my axe, and assail our erstwhile companion. A slice just below the ribs, and deep red blood gushed out. Wild eyes and a lolling tongue—Fenrig's ferocity only increased. He sprang to his haunches, now surrounded by the unafflicted. "Step aside, Grundvik." I turned and watched as Ingjard, tears streaming from her face, quickened her pace, readied the spear, and launched forth with a scream. There was no time for Fenrig to bound away; he was pierced through the gut, hoisted over Ingjard's head, and slammed into the dirt, freshly skewered. There he lay, images of his old face glimmering, contorted, and almost mournful, realizing what he had done as his last breaths drew shallow.
Fenrig the Unsteady. A fine hunter, but a cursed fellow: A blight from Hircine.
Although we mourned, our predicament was remarkably not precarious. Kishra-do offered reparations to the startled merchants and the wares we had destroyed. Ingjard offered the Argonian a tender hand of healing. And Kyne's challenge was not over yet. The wilds of Summerset Isles, Valenwood, Black Marsh, and Elsweyr must be tamed. We wait for Fenrig's twin, Roggvir the Ready (who Ingjard has sworn on her life is not afflicted by the same condition), to journey from Rorikstead to collect his brother's ashes and offer recompense. We are indebted to Namasur at-Hamisam of the Ash'abah for his diplomacy among the citizens of Bergama in the trail of Fenrig's violence. But Egvir Unslaad: We now begin our journey across southern Tamriel with heavy spears.
Kyne speed you, Bashnag gro-Gorzoth, and split some skulls for me. You have earned the right to sit by the right hand of Mauloch.
- "Egvir Unslaad" is actually Dragon Language, and means, literally "season unending." In this context, means "our journey is not yet over."