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Saturday, February 23, 2013

XI - The Hunter's Game

Fen returned, exhausted, to her cabin, closing the door firmly on the freezing wind outside. Korst had spent the last hour explaining the Hunt to her, a game that seemed different ever time it happened. Men, sometimes entire tribes, sometimes single individuals, were taken to the Hunting Ground to be hunted by the Hounds. Korst explained that if they Prey could last through the Bloodmoon, the Hunter would leave the mortal plane and wait for a new era to play his game again.

“What can we do?” Fen had asked, glancing around at the Skaal that surrounded them, staring up at the sky with terror on their faces, faces painted red by the glow of the Bloodmoon.
“Nothing. At least, not until he makes his plan known to us,” Korst had replied, leaning heavily on his cane. “Certainly, it will not be long now. I fear for our people, Fen,” he had whispered, and his voice nearly cracked. “There is little I can do to protect them in these times. I can only pray to the All-Maker that he watches over us and keeps us from the Hunter’s grasp.”
“There has to be something,” Fen had pressed, remembering Engar’s son lying slaughtered in the snow. “There has to be some way we can help. Some way I can help.”
“Sleep, then, Blodskaal,” Korst replied, laying a heavy hand on her shoulder. “We must be ready for the worst always, and you must regain your strength. There are dark days ahead, and we must try to have faith.” But Fen could see clearly that there was not a shred of faith in his face.
She brought the embers in the grate back to life with a fire spell and hung her cloak before it to dry, then proceeded with the process of stripping off her damp, snow-soaked clothes, Korst’s words still echoing in her mind. The idea of the Hunt sounded familiar, though Fen could not place where she had heard it. The shaman was adamant that there was nothing to be done, but Fen was sure that she would be able to find something, anything that could help them.
She settled herself on the bed, keeping Trueflame nearby for precaution’s sake, and began going through the books she had brought with her, combing the pages for any mention of the Bloodmoon Prophecy or The Hunt. Fen was just thinking that she ought to teleport back to Mournhold to search the Royal Library as she began to doze, Blood of the Divines tumbling out of her hands and onto the floor.

“Wake up.” Fen turned, craning her neck to try to see where he was. She had heard his voice, so close. But where?
“Wake up!”
“Fen, you have to wake up. You have to get out of Solstheim.”
“I can’t see you.”
“Fen, WAKE UP!”
“Where are you?”

It happened suddenly. All at once she was awake and there was a searing pain on her forearm and she was crashing to the hard wooden floor, and her sight was filled with dark fur. Fen struggled to rise, feeling for Trueflame, as claws seized her arms, and all she could see was dark, dark fur and so many pairs of gleaming yellow eyes. Her fingers closed around the hilt of her blade as the cabin was engulfed in searing white light.
Silence pressed against her ears.
Then, slowly, everything came back. She could hear distant howls, cold air, water dripping steadily on stone, flames crackling. Her sight began to return, and she found herself face down on freezing stonework, one hand curled around Trueflame’s hilt. Fen slowly pushed herself up, staring around. Her vision was sill bleary, and all she could tell was that wherever she was was very cold. She touched her aching arm, and when she brought her hand back she saw that there was blood on her fingers.
Ah. You’ve arrived.” Her sight flooded back to her, and Fen looked up to see some sort of…being standing before her. He was twice the height of a normal man, built with a powerful body, his muscled chest and arms coated in hair. His middle was covered by a vibrant blue cloth, his feet by tall, dark boots. And his face was concealed behind a mask fashioned from what appeared to be the skull of an enormous stag, its antlers reaching far out to either side. He stood with his legs apart, a tall silver-topped spear planted before him. Fen knew him at once, had seen him countless times during her studies, had read his name in so many dusty tomes.
The Daedric Prince laughed.
Yes, clever one. The others have been here for days now, and you are the last. It is time for my Hunt, and you are to take part.” Fen slowly got to her feet, her hand tightening around Trueflame, never taking her eyes off the god before her. “I have chosen only the most worthy to take part in my Hunt. Carius of the Imperials, Heart-Fang of the Skaal, the frost giant Karstaag, and you. Nerevarine, Princess of Morrowind, banisher of Dagoth Ur and the Tribunal. Saviour, they call you, and hero. You will be a great quarry to hunt.
You and the others are to find your way to my Hunting Grounds. Take great care, as only one of you will earn the glory of facing the Hunter himself in battle while the Bloodmoon lights the sky. The others have gone ahead, so only you remain to begin. Beware, mortal, for my Hounds are about, and they hunger for blood.
“Is this your idea of a fair game?” Fen asked, opening her arms to gesture to herself. “I’ve one weapon, not a scrap of armour or a single potion.”
Does the rabbit wear armour? Does the bear wield swords? No. In this game, you are prey, and you are outfitted as prey. Now go, prey. Perhaps I will see you soon.” With this pronouncement, Hircine slammed the butt of his spear into the ground and vanished in a cloud of red flame.
Fen stared around. She was in some sort of ice cavern that appeared to have been formed over a Daedric ruin. Before her, on the platform where Hircine had stood, a tall, slanted door looked like the only way out. She peered over her shoulder at the wound on her arm. It hurt, but not unbearably, and the cut did not look deep enough to be a problem. She didn’t have a single potion and only Trueflame and her magicka to see her through this venture – she would have to live with the wound for now. Even so, letting it bleed freely would not have been wise. She lowered Trueflame carefully and tore a strip of fabric from the bottom of her robe, then tied it as tightly as she could one-handed around her forearm.
Hircine had said to expect his Hounds, and Fen took that to mean werewolves. She was not looking forward to facing them in a sleeping gown and hide slippers without a single potion. Holding Trueflame aloft, she slowly pushed open the crooked door and stepped through into the Hunter’s Game.
No! Stay back!” Startled, Fen faltered by the doorway. The path curved off in two different directions, and lying in the crossroads between them was an Imperial man in scuffed gold armour with blood pooled beneath him on the ice. Fen lowered Trueflame.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” The man looked up at her, and Fen saw his face was scarred and lined, his hair grey, the shadow of a beard appearing on his cheeks. There were dark hollows beneath his eyes, and he looked beyond terrified.
“Oh! Oh, did he bring you here as well?” Fen quickly sheathed Trueflame and knelt beside him. His arms and chest were caked with dried blood.
“Are you badly hurt?”
“No, not badly. Just…just frightened, more. I’d just about given up and came back here to hide.” Fen touched his arm and he flinched.
“Let me heal you,” she said, reaching for him again, and he pulled away.
“No. No, we must conserve our magicka. Who knows how long this fell game will last?” He go to his feet with a sigh and offered a hand to Fen. “I am Captain Falx Carius of Fort Frostmoth, Imperial Warden of the North.”
“I’m Fen.”
“Fen, eh? I, too, have been brought to play this nefarious game, Fen. Since the werewolves captured me at the fort, I have been held here by this demon Hircine. Soon, others joined me: one of the Nords, named Heart-Fang, along with a beast named Karstaag. I believe the only hope for escape is to find our way through this maze.”
“So it’s a maze?” Fen replied, glancing around.
“Aye, that’s what the demon told me. We are to fight or way through this maze, which is hunted by the werewolves the demon calls his Hounds.” Carius gave a heavy sigh. “I am weak, friend, and have been here too long. Perhaps together, we can find our way to safety. We must find the key to allow us through the gate in the centre of the maze.”
“I’m guessing you already had an encounter with these wolves, then?”
“Aye, and they are brutal monsters I would sooner forget. We ought to avoid them when we can.” Fen agreed, and she raised Trueflame again for light. It was very dim in the ice caverns, and the sword seemed to be the only way for them to see clearly. They took the right path, and it wasn’t long before Fen heard the familiar snarls and grunts of a werewolf around a corner. Carius drew his broadsword, and together they charged the beast.
The Imperial was right – Hircine’s Hounds were ten times deadlier than the werewolves Fen had fought so far. Fen felt very naked without her usual myriad of amulets and rings and charms and bag of potions by her side, and it was all she could do to try to keep blocking the werewolf’s blows with Trueflame’s blade. Between the two of them, they managed to cut the creature down after a few moments, though both of them were bloodied.
“Do you need me to heal you?” Fen asked quickly, but Carius shook his head.
“I’m fine. Save your energy. We’ll need it later, to be sure.” A short way on, they came to a small pedestal against the wall upon which sat a red enameled circle about the size of Fen’s palm, ornamented with strange black bindings and minute carvings in Daedric.
“The key, I presume,” Fen said, taking it from the pedestal. She slipped it into an inner pocket of her robe. “Now we just need to find a way out of here.”
“That will be easier said than done, I’m afraid,” Carius said, and he soon proved to be correct. They continued through the walls of ice and stone, fighting off as many as four werewolves at a time. Fen wore only thin bed slippers on her feet, and the cold had seeped through far too quickly. They had no potions, and were forced to periodically stop to try to treat their wounds as best they could without magic.
“That’s an unusual blade you’ve got,” Carius panted once as Fen put an end to a werewolf that had been attacking. The werewolf gave a strangled snarl and folded into the ground, blood spraying the front of Fen’s robe.
“I’m lucky I have got it,” she murmured in reply, sheathing the blade and glancing around. Trueflame was their brightest light source, but it attracted the werewolves like moths to a candle, and Fen was more in favour of avoiding the beasts when they could.
“Could I ask where –” Carius began, but Fen held out a hand to quiet him.
“Listen,” she muttered, peering around a corner with one hand on Trueflame’s hilt. A faint humming seemed to emanate from beyond the walls nearby. She had heard that same noise before – from Aesliip’s barrier, and before that, from Ghostgate. “We’ve got to be close,” she said softly. “Keep your blade up.” Quietly as she could, Fen turned the corner and tensed as she saw a werewolf rearing up before her.
But the beast was still. She moved closer, drawing Trueflame for light, and realized it was a statue, a perfect stone likeness of one of the Hunter’s hounds.
“Let’s keep looking,” Fen murmured, turning away from the statue. But the moment she did, she heard a snarl and turned to see the werewolf animating, readying itself to leap off its pedestal and tear out her throat.
Carius jumped forward before Fen had time to react, slicing sideways and sending the beast sprawling to the side. It rose again quickly, leaping back toward Carius, and Fen quickly moved in to strike at it. Trueflame made contact, cutting through muscle and bone on the wolf’s shoulder before it twisted away, its claws flashing out toward her. Fen moved back, just out of its reach, raising Trueflame to ward off its claws. She glanced back for Carius and saw that more of three more werewolves had joined the fight, every one clawing viciously at him. She turned again and hastily made short work of the statue-wolf, then spun to help Carius.
One of them had knocked the Imperial to the ground, its jaws snapping at his throat as he struggled to push it back, and Fen used a flamebolt to blast it away from him. Drops rained down from the icy ceiling and the werewolves backed away from Tueflame’s glow, snarling. Fen moved forward, slashing at them, the stench of burning hair permeating the air as Trueflame cut through their hides. She felt the blood soaking her robe and did not stop, but continued to move with the instinctive swordsmanship Trueflame lent her until the wolves lay dead around her, their fur thick with matted blood. She felt a stinging on her face where one of them had managed to slice her, and when she touched the wound her fingers came away bloody.
“Carius,” she said, sheathing her blade and leaning down beside him. The Imperial’s face was sticky with blood, and his gold-plated armour was drenched in red. “Where was it?” she asked hastily. “Let me heal you.”
“No,” he replied, wheezing. “No, go on. You’re young and strong, you still have a chance. Save your magicka. Get yourself out of this place.” Fen closed her eyes tightly. If she could replace the cold in the air with fire, she could be back in the Clockwork City, her hands on Julan’s bloody chest.
“I’m not leaving you to die here. If you won’t let me heal you, then let me help you to the gate. We’re very close, I know it. I can hear it.” Carius stared at her a moment. A werewolf’s distant howl broke the silence, and he nodded grudgingly. Fen stood, helping him stumble to his feet, and draped his arm around her shoulder. They continued around the corner, and Fen’s suspicions proved to be correct. There, at the centre of a tall dais, stood a magical gateway with a single waist-high pillar before it. As they started up the stairs to the gateway, another howl broke the air, soon joined by others, and she could hear the wolves nearing.
“Hurry,” she urged Carius, struggling to help pull him up the stairs.
“Leave me,” he gasped, struggling to push away from her. “I’ll only slow you down.”
“I won’t leave you here,” she tried again, but the Imperial broke away from her and drew his blade.
“Go on,” he said, falling to one knee on the stairs. “It would be kinder to let me die fighting.” Fen stared at him, guilt wrenching in her stomach. “I…” Another howl broke the air. “Go, friend, and tell the others at the Fort how I fell with a blade in hand.”
She was about to reply when at least twenty werewolves broke from the confines of the maze, their jaws frothing, their eyes yellow and murderous, riding on all four legs toward the stairs. Carius turned away, struggling to draw his sword to face the hounds. Hating herself, Fen turned and sprinted toward the gate, pulling the key from inside her robe. She slammed it into a star-shaped lock in the low pillar and watched as the magical forcefield became a gateway. Forcing herself not to look back, Fen leapt through the gateway, landing, hard, on the other side. She heard it seal behind her just as Carius’s screams rent the air.

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