And just like that, I was descending into another cave full of divines know what dangers. I had little reason to doubt Hircine's advice, and it seemed like I could do some good investigating Crescius' mystery, but I proceeded with caution. I was reasonably confident that pitfalls and loose rocks weren't going to be the extent of the challenges in my path. Keeping my father's sword and the Dwemer arquebus close at hand - I had some doubts about my ability to swing an axe or draw a bow in these tight quarters - I started to descend the stairs down into the mine.
Still, at least the shallow levels of the mine seemed to be in good condition, The excavated rock was not only largely floored over with wooden slats, but handrails made it a little more difficult than otherwise to fall headlong into the dark, central pit of the mine. I peered down from one such landing, trying to judge how deep the mine extended, but the light of my lantern fell off before it could reveal the bottom. Resolved to watch my step just that much more carefully, I continued my descent.
That care quickly paid off as I discovered that I was not alone in the tunnels. Advancing with agitated chittering, a large spider rushed towards me. It snapped at me with dripping fangs, and I immediately knew that any hope my connection to The Teacher would protect me was just wishful thinking. I avoided its bite, but couldn't quite get clear of the gob of dripping, gelatinous venom it spat towards me. Sizzling as it touched my armor, I slapped at a spot that had landed on my forearm, trying to get it off before it could burn too badly. Once I knocked it free from my skin, I quickly drew my sword and skewered the monster.
It wasn't the last, either. The initial stillness and calm of the mine quickly faded and I could see that one consequence of the East Empire Company giving up on the mine was that new occupants had moved into to replace the miners. Fortunately, very much unlike the literally rock solid ash spawn, these spiders' chitin offered scant little resistance to my father's sharp blade, and I was able to fend them off with a degree of ease. Only their caustic spit worried me, and I silently thanked Shuftharz for giving my armor such a perfect fit. It clung to me almost like a second skin, and I was able to dodge the spat venom with relative ease.
Soon, another threat became evident to me, announcing itself to my nose. There was a strange smell on the air, and I suspected it might be volatile gas leaking from some hairline crack in the stone just barely disturbing a pocket. I was immediately glad I'd purchased an alchemical lantern rather than an ordinary oil lamp. Still, this meant I couldn't safely use my arquebus, limiting me to just my sword. And from the sounds coming around the corner, I wasn't alone here either.
I knew I couldn't sneak with any degree of success - not with my lantern illuminating my approach, so I took the aggressive approach and sprung forward, coming face to face with the smiling visage of an arachnodaedra. It was smaller than the one I'd fought in the Forgotten Vale, but I'm certain it was no less deadly... and this time I couldn't pick her off from a distance. With a shout, I stabbed at her, trying to pierce her unarmored chest before claws and fangs would sink into me.
I missed the heartstroke, but I buried my sword deep in her belly. Screeching, the arachnodaedra spat her venom at me, far too close for me to dodge. As it covered me with agony, I pulled at my sword only to find it stuck fast. In fact, I had not buried it in the monster's belly at all, but in a second, fang-studded maw... a maw that had clamped down tightly on the blade. The burn of the venom was starting to turn into a deep, numbing chill, and I knew I had only moments to prevail. I planted my foot then between the daedra's breasts and gave one final jerk with all my strength. The lower mouth yowled in pain as my sword pulled free and slit its tongue in the process. I, meanwhile, tumbled backwards and found myself sprawled against a boulder.
Before I could fully rise, the monster had leapt at me, both of her mouths snapping at me, and I pushed into a tight roll to get out the way. I narrowly avoided the charge, then used my momentum to roll to my feet. Spinning, I buried my blade in her back, and with a shriek the monster's two humanlike hands clasped to where the blade protruded out her front. The daedra shuddered, howled, and then staggered forward. The sudden motion wrenched my sword from my hands, but after a heartbeat more, her head lolled to the side and her legs fell still. Against I set to trying to get the venom off me before it could do more damage. I think I'd already suffered the worst of it, but I grabbed handfuls of dirt and scrubbed it hard against my skin, debriding the residual venom off my face and neck.
With that immediate problem attended to, I retrieved my sword and examined the monster. Clearly an arachnodaedra - that much was obvious - but she was nevertheless a different variety entirely. Smaller, and equipped with that horrific belly-mouth, she'd also seemed faster and much more quick to counterattack than her larger cousin. I knew then that I'd have to be very cautious, lest more of these monsters lurk within. I seriously considered dousing my lantern for the sake of stealth, but this far from the central shaft, there wasn't enough ambient light and I was sure I'd become lost almost immediately.
Not far beyond the abode of the arachnodaedra, I reached the bottom of the central shaft - this was where the long chain I'd seen higher up led to, a long-abandoned bucket attached to its last link. I wondered then if this had originally been a well or reservoir, subsequently drained by the miners. Looking around, I found a hastily boarded up doorframe on one side of the shaft. It took some effort, but I worked loose the wooden slats and found myself confronted with a locked iron door, similar in design to what I'd expect to see in a jail or a bank vault. Immediately, I tried the key Crescius had given me and, with only a little resistance, the lock clicked open.
Now, I'd truly left the mine proper and entered into the sealed wing. Likely I was the first person to set foot here in two centuries. With great care, I stepped within, keeping an eye out for the ruins that Crescius' note had spoken of. Somewhat to my surprise, I could see light in the distance. I covered my lantern and peered into the distance. I could see not just light, but signs of greenery. There must have been some narrow shaft to the surface above, or perhaps some less natural source of illumination. Either way, I put away the lantern for the moment and tried my best to sneak forward, lest I attract unwanted attention.
The change in the architecture game quickly and left little to doubt: the space I was entering bore all the hallmarks of ancient Nordic stonework, much like what I'd expect to find in a tomb or burial site back on the mainland. Indeed, the ruins at Dunpar Wall where I'd weathered over in my pursuit of answers about Forrien Hlaalu's 'toys' had the same distinct style. And as I'd discovered just after my arrival back in Skyrim - these tombs were seldom empty. I needed to immediately start watching for signs of Draugr or of priests of the Dragon Cult.
It didn't take long for my fears to be confirmed. As I entered the ruin, I could hear the distant grunts and groans of draugr as they patrolled their domain. The first two I was able to strike at from the shadows, but once revealed I had no choice but to fight. Fortunately, I'd learned a trick or two since my last encounter with the ancient undead, and I made short work of their first wave. Realizing that stealth wouldn't avail me much here, I largely gave up on sneaking and pushed deeper into the ruins with sword at the ready, banking on staying quick on my feet rather than striking from the shadows.
The next wave of draugr were tougher, but fortunately they came wielding heavy warhammers. I dodged their blows, each time sinking my sword into their flesh in retort. Each enemy fell after only a few such exchanges. Soon, however, I transitioned from single combat in narrow corridors to a large arena-like room. Across from me, thrones seated armored draugr who rose at my intrusion. As they closed the gap between us, I unsling my arquebus and struck down first one, then another, at a distance. Then I switched back to my sword and engaged the survivor. He fell in two blows, and I paused to survey the room. That glance left and right saved me from a grizzly fate as I had just time to sidestep a mace as it flashed towards my head. Two more draugr had appeared from some hidden space, and they were practically on top of me.
I parried an axe blow with my sword and then skewered the nearest of the pair. Unfortunately, this didn't stop her and I had to quickly withdraw my sword and strike again. This time, my blade slid through her neck and into her spine and she fell motionless. The second draugr, the one with the mace, growled at me, lazily pointing his weapon. We circled one another, looking for a weakness, and then he struck. Fortunately, I saw the attack coming and stepped back in time to avoid the mace. My riposte struck true, and soon the demonic light faded from his eyes.
Beyond the arena, I passed through a set of iron doors and found myself facing a lone draugr, bathed in blue light and suspended within an open sarcophagus. Closer examination revealed that the creature was not in fact floating, but instead was encased within a block of ice, clear as the purest spring water. All around, laid out as if prepared for some ritual, I saw all manner of alchemical ingredients. I passed through this room with great care, watchful for any trap or hidden foe that might spring on me. And yet, all was quiet and calm here, like a little sanctuary from the dark forces that pervaded the rest of the ruin.
And beyond that... I found a truly impressive sight. After traversing several more twisting passages, I came to stand on an overlook above an underground stream. Beyond that, surrounded by gibbets containing skeletal remains, I could make out an imposing stone door. An eerie eyeball motif surrounded it, glowing with a faint red light. Everything about what I saw here screamed that dark powers were at work. Perhaps, I thought, this was the secret that caused the East Empire Company to seal the mine. I considered turning back and telling Crescius what I'd found, but I still wasn't in possession of his great grandfather's journal. If that man had been able to penetrate deeper into the ruin, so could I.
Carefully climbing down the sheer rock face, I soon reached the bottom of the chamber - though I had real doubts about my ability to return that way. I'd have to find a different way out. The stream was only ankle deep, easily bypassed, and once I was past it, I could more clearly see the foot of the great door. Two skeletons, scattered and broken, lay near a bedroll... and next to the bedroll: a satchel. I rifled it quickly and soon extracted a journal. A quick read of the early pages confirmed this was indeed Gratian Caerellius' journal; I then paged to the last entries and took a moment to review them.
The journal laid bare much of the mystery. Gratian and his companion had entered the ruins as the note had suggested. At first, the draugr had all slumbered: at least until Gratian found a powerful magic sword. When he disturbed it, the draugr awakened and swarmed him from all sides. While he survived the battle, he was sorely wounded and unable to lift the sword. A tragedy, since in his final hours he solved the mystery of the door - it responded to contact with the sword - but lacked the strength to clear his way to freedom. And it seemed the draugr had not retrived their artifact. A cursory search of the bedroll revealed the weapon bundled within. It was impressive - clearly well made but done in an unfamiliar style. The balance was fantastic - for all its weight it was easy to heft and carry. Poor Gratian must have been badly wounded indeed if he couldn't swing this.
Following Gratian's instructions, I swung the sword left and right, up and down, releasing the puzzle-lock step by step until at last teh door opened... and revealed a gauntlet of swinging blades. With great care, I navigated the room, rushing forward each time a gap in the pattern presented itself. And after all that? A final chamber, housing a deep pool and what looked for all the world like a twin to the ancient wall I'd encountered in the barrow near Ivarstead. It was quiet. Peaceful. Too quiet. Unslinging my arquebus, I crept forward, mindful of any risk until, rising from the water, a wraithlike creature emerged. A dragon priest. And not like the one I'd met so long ago... that one was still more or less human. This dragon priest was a strange creature indeed. Dessicated, floating above the ground, and starting straight at me.
I didn't hesitate, letting loose with the finely made dwarven weapon. Just as he raised his hands to hurl deadly magic of some sort at me, the shot caught him in the throat and case him back into the water. Not trusting that the priest was dead, I cast aside my gun, leapt over a treasure chest, and brought down the Bloodskaal Blade on the priest in a high arc from above. It sunk deep into the monster, cleaving it almost in half, and after a shrieking, writhing death throe, I could viscerally feel the creature's dark power depart.
I knew what to expect from the word wall, and so I disrobed and set down my arms and armor in a neat pile before I approached. No sense in risking damage to my gear. I could feel my skin quivering in excitement as an almost electric tingle started to fill the air. Before, the power of the wall had seemed subtle, only growing when I made contact. Now, I could feel my heart starting to beat in synch with the pulse of the wall. And I was drawn bodily to the wall, my feel closing the distance of their own accord.
And yet, my encounter with the wall ended in anticlimax. The world did not spin on its axis. An iron rod did not emerge to penetrate me. No, like a spark between fingers after working with wool, the power simply leapt into me. I staggered for a moment at the impact, but then the wall grew silent. It was done.
I have to confess, I was a little disappointed. While I'm sure I was strengthened, I was expecting a more... carnal reaction to the wall's magic. Instead, it was over in a moment. But my work here had not gone unnoticed. Rumbling through me, Hircine's voice commanded.
CLAIM YOUR TROPHY
So the Dragon Priest was my prey, I realized. Evidently I've passed another one of Hircine's tests.
Not bothering yet to redress, I stepped into the water - cool, but not cold, quite comfortable actually - and padded out to where the dead priest's remains floated. Waist deep now, I examined his corpse. His sodden robes did not conceal anything of interest, but my eyes fell on the finely crafted mask that concealed his features. Levering it off his head, I pulled it free to reveal the Dragon Priest's deformed face.
A WORTHY PRIZE FOR THE TRICKSTER-FOX. NOW ACCEPT YOUR REWARD
A shiver ran down my spine then and I gasped as it felt like my spine and tailbone were straining, practically working free of my body. The pain swelled and grew, like a hot ember pressed against the very top of the cleft of my rear, and then with a final push everything shifted and I could feel bone and flesh rushing from my body, blood running down the back of my legs. I screamed in shock, falling to my knees and almost going over my head in the water. I splashed and floundered for a moment, and then the pain started to subside, replaced with a pulsing ache and an odd sense of... presence. A proprioception of something that hadn't been there before.
Standing, still clutching the mask, I emerged from the pool and examined myself. Reaching behind myself, my hands felt something soft and wet, and then motion. A swishing, flicking motion, casting off the water and quickly changing from sleek and moist to... fluffy. Catching the swinging appendage, I pulled it around to my front and sighed. Hircine, it seemed, had granted me a fox tail.
"Not exactly what I was hoping for," I grumbled. Still, by now it didn't surprise me. It seemed that the Lord of the Hunt was set on marking me with the characteristics of each of his aspects.
INDEED. ALL SHALL KNOW YOU ENJOY MY FAVOR
I glanced again at the tail, and in doing so I saw my own hair. It struck me that Hircine had gone a bit beyond just sprouting a tail from my rear - my hair color had darkened to a golden hue that matched my new appendage. It looked good, though it was just another example of the Huntsman demonstrating a complete lack of awareness that I might just like my body the way it is.
I tried to dress then, and quickly found that the tail was in no way going to fit into the form-fitting pants of my armor. With a silent apology to Shuftharz, I retrieved my knife from my pack and carefully worked a hole into the seat of the pants that I could thread the fluffy tail through and out the back. With an experimental swish, I found that I could indeed freely move the tail when so dressed. This was going to be a bit of a liability for acquiring new clothes and armor in the future, but I was pretty confident I could overcome it without too much frustration.
Now I just had to find my way out of this crypt. I wasn't going to make it back up that cliff face, and so I'd have to find some other way to the surface. I carefully explored the room, shining my lantern into darkened corners and shadowed nooks without success. And then, turned full around, I looked up and saw the answer right in front of me. I'd entered this chamber through a passage that opened on the right side of the chamber. There was a matching passage on the left, gently sloping upwards. Some debris blocked the way, but I vaulted over it with ease. In fact, I felt like my sense of balance had improved quite a bit - the tail must have been acting like a tightrope walker's pole, effectively lengthening my spine and giving me better control over the sway of my body.
Not far beyond, I caught sight of a spiral ramp curling to the ceiling and beyond... and before it, a plinth bearing a large book. Glancing side by side, I could see that the nook in this chamber had been filled with bones and then cemented into place, creating a worrying visage. I examined the plinth carefully, looking for any signs of a pressure plate or other trap trigger. When I was confident there was no danger there, I gently opened the cover of the book and looked within.
My world swam as shadows enveloped me with a whine of metal on metal, and then thick tentacles burst from the book, pulling me closer... closer... into the book...
"So... another seeker of knowledge enters My realm..." boomed a gravelly voice. It came from everywhere and nowhere.
Shaking my head to clear the lingering confusion of my sudden transportation, I looked around and found myself in a truly strange place. A sickly green sky cast its glow over oily seas and everywhere... everywhere there were books and paper. Scrolls fluttering in the wind like leaves, arches and columns of stacked books towered above me. And stranger things yet - fleshy poles suspending glowing orbs, thrashing tentacles, floating sconces held up only by air.
"I am Hermaeus Mora, and this is Apocrypha... where all knowledge is hoarded."
I had, it seemed, dove from the frying pan directly into the fire.
Edited by gregaaz