A job for the new moon

Something different today. Arena can be frustratingly light on narrative, but stories still get spun out of the randomized events in this open-world setting. Some of the little adventures I’ve had in the game triggered the idea for a more fully formed story. Below is my little attempt at Elder Scrolls fan fiction.


 

A Job For The New Moon

Azarien sat across from Sorer in the Devil’s Locker. Azarien was a Dunmer, with coal-black skin and blacker hair, cut to shoulder-length, and red eyes that glowed with an inner light. Like all Dark Elves, it would be apt to say that he appeared a volcano in human form. Sorer was a Nord, with frost-pale skin and paler hair, close-cut white-blond, and blue eyes that shimmered in the smoky light of the inn. Like all Nords, it would be apt to say that he appeared a glacier in human form. And the Devil’s Locker was a smoky, low-ceilinged inn with a great roaring fire and many drunk and disinterested customers. Like all inns in Corkarth Run, it would be apt to say that it appeared a bleak bear’s den in tavern form.

Azarien gripped a half-empty mug of ale in his right hand on the table before him. He absentmindedly stroked the side of the mug with his left hand as he talked. “You won’t believe the worthless jobs I’ve been asked to do around here. A man’s too lazy to grab his own gear from the smith’s, but he’ll toss coin my way to run the errand. How do you get to have so much money while doing so little? I do the jobs, but it’s never enough. Just last week, a creepy alchemist from the Guild came up to me over in the White Crow’s Nest and asked if I could pick up some balrog’s hide for him. It was just a walk across town, but the fellow couldn’t be away from his books and potions long enough to get it! Very important work, he said.”

Sorer nodded in sympathy, took a swig of his own drink, and plunked it back down on the table. Then he screwed his brow up into a creased frown and asked, “Wait, hold on–what’s a balrog?”

Azarien grinned. “Good question.” He dragged a finger along the rim of his mug. “I asked the guy who had it, and he said it was a sort of daedra. I asked, ‘Which prince does it serve, then?’ The guy didn’t have an answer to that. Said they were kind of rare. Said it was a miracle he had it at all for this alchemist fellow.” He dropped his left hand to the table and raised the mug to his lips. “I think it was just some old guar hide.” He grinned and sipped as Sorer tossed his head back for a howling laugh.

When the Nord had collected himself, he said, “I hear you, brother, and I agree. It’s just ruin or madness to keep trying at honest work in these parts. Must be half the city’s scrounging for jobs, and there’s nothing good to go around.”

Azarien shrugged. He studied his Nord companion for a long moment before leaning forward and asking, “So what have you got for me?”

The Nord smiled broadly. Every fleeting emotion was a dramatic production for the man. “New moon’s coming up. Good opportunities for a sneak-thief like you…” At this, Azarien raised his eyebrows wide, cocked his head, and jabbed at his chest with the straightened fingers of his right hand in a mock who-me gesture. Sorer ignored him, adding, “…and like me.”

At this, Azarien leaned back in his seat and waited. Sorer continued, “I have a guy, ex-Guild, who says the Mages keep some pretty valuable tomes in a secure room at the back of their Guild Hall. He’s willing to pay if we recover them.”

Azarien stared momentarily in shock. “You want us to rob the Mages Guild?”

Sorer glanced around nervously. “Could you keep your voice down, elf?”

Azarien shrugged, leaned forward yet again, and stage-whispered, “You want us to rob the Mages Guild?”

Sorer winced and looked over the bar yet again before nodding.

“Why doesn’t your contact do it himself?”

Sorer shook his head. “He ain’t no good at sneaking, I don’t know. Anyhow, we’re locals. Most people wouldn’t give either of us more than a glance.” Azarien cocked an eyebrow in disbelief. “Well, you’re the local, and I’ve been around long enough, anyway,” Sorer grunted. “It’s not like you’ve never seen a Nord before around here. More importantly, neither of us is known to the Guild. They won’t have eyes for us like they would this outlaw type who hired me.”

Azarien thought about it for a moment. “Who is your contact?”

Sorer snorted. “Won’t tell you. Fewer people who know, the better.”

Azarien crossed his arms and thought a moment more. “Okay. What’s the pay?”

Sorer flashed another broad, toothy grin. “Five hundred Septims. For each of us.”

Now Azarien grinned in turn. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was more gold than he’d ever had at once. He could do more than just survive. He could purchase some equipment and training, then head out to the nearby monster-infested mines and caves, harvest pelts and plants, collect odd trinkets, and then sell them to grow his initial investment. Or he could just say goodbye to Corkarth Run for good, hire on to a caravan to go just about anywhere. Five hundred gold coins might not be enough to open his own shop–not that he’d want something so dull as to be a shopkeeper–but he wouldn’t be scrabbling for the barest illusion of an opportunity anymore.

“Tell me more,” he said. And so Sorer did. The plan was simple. Sorer was strong, but he needed a guy with some aptitude at locks. He’d heard Azarien had that aptitude. And just as importantly, Azarien wasn’t with the Wharf Rats or the Thieves Guild, so no separate tribute would be demanded from higher-ups for his employment. Sorer would stand watch while Azarien got the door open, and Sorer would also take out any guards once they were inside. Then Sorer and Azarien would work together to find the secret room, break into it, get the scrolls, and get out. Since meeting the mystery employer was out of the question, Sorer offered to let Azarien keep half the scrolls until he could bring the Dark Elf’s share of the payment. Then Sorer could take the remaining half of the scrolls back to his contact for his own portion. And if, gods forbid, Sorer absconded with the gold, Azarien would at least have the scrolls to sell to a separate (presumably out-of-town) buyer. There were plenty of private collectors, after all.

Azarien agreed to the job, and they finished their drinks and shared another round in celebration that night, laughing and dreaming about their plans for their final payment. They eventually parted ways a little after one in the morning, agreeing that they would meet back at the Devil’s Locker in one week, when Masser would be a new moon and the night would be particularly well-suited for their secretive work.

The week passed uneventfully. Azarien ran a couple errands for the local merchants, when work of that sort was called for. He also practiced at lockpicking, when he could. It was true that he had some aptitude at the skill. He had even apprenticed as a locksmith for a while in Tear, before he’d gotten in some trouble with the law and had to leave town. He’d done a few jobs for the local gangs, mostly shop break-ins, but he’d also wanted more for himself than to be a criminal, and his time at the hands of a sadistic guard back in Tear had left him always a little fearful of being caught. The Mages Guild job would be a lot higher risk than basically any of the other shop burglaries. There would be more guard foot traffic in the area, and he’d heard stories about the conjured protectors lurking inside after-hours. But whenever he began to worry, he’d think of the promised gold and turn himself back to practice.

And so the night came that Azarien found himself standing outside in the deep dark and deep chill of the new moon with Sorer. Sorer, now wearing a long scabbard at his hip, had greeted him warmly, and they quickly and quietly marched over to the Mages Guild compound.

It was a three-story building, with each level terraced, the third and final one a flat and squat pinnacle of sorts. A line of brick masonry ringed the building just above the foundation, and each terraced level had another ring of brick. The walls were mostly a gray, chipped stone. There were windows on each level of the building, one or two per side, each shuttered with imported blackwood shutters. Also on each side of each level were flashy golden bas-reliefs of shooting stars and shining suns, bigger than the windows. These golden carvings seemed to glitter and glow even in the dark of the night, and Azarien suspected magic fueled that gleaming.

The Mages Guild was a literal representation of the insertion of Imperial pomp and glamour into the sleepy provincial life. Corkarth Run’s low stone and earthen buildings seemed almost bowed in reverence before this bloated testament to magic and majesty.

Sorer had been silent since they had met again. He now elbowed Azarien and pointed to the left. He muttered, “I’ll go around the other way. We’ll meet in front at the door. Whistle if you see trouble.” Even if Azarien had a response, there was no time, as Sorer was already slinking off into the night. Azarien dutifully headed off in the direction pointed out to him.

The courtyard around the compound was open and grass-covered. There were no hedges, not even a low wall or fence. There was nowhere to hide. But there was no one to hide from, apparently. Azarien joined Sorer before the dark wooden double doors, accented with bronzed handles, without incident.

Sorer grunted and nodded toward the door. “Get to work,” he said, before stepping a few paces away to face the main avenue running in front of the guild hall. Azarien pulled out a hook pick from the small bag of tools at his waist and set to work, feeling gently along. He was surprised to realize that this was a fairly standard pin tumbler lock, and he worked his way through it quickly enough. With a final click, the lock was released. He pulled the door ajar. The interior was even darker.

Azarien called to Sorer; the Nord quickly joined him at the open entrance. Sorer slapped Azarien on the back, grinning, and whispered proudly, “Excellent work, my friend. Now in you go!”

Azarien raised his eyebrows in concern. “Shouldn’t you lead, if you’re to handle any guards?”

Sorer shook his head no. “Sorry, I understand your concern,” he muttered, “but you should go first. Those elf eyes are better in the dark than my own, and if there are any guards, I’d rather not walk in with a big light to give them an easy target before we know they’re there.”

Azarien had to admit that this made sense, although he felt that it wasn’t quite to the spirit of their previous agreement, even if it technically fit the letter of it. He slipped inside, scanning rapidly. His eyes adjusted well enough.

The guild hall on the main level was a squat open room lined with bookshelves. Not all the bookshelves were flush against the wall; some were extended length-wise out into the room, forming aisles along the two side walls. A low half-wall wrapped around the center of the back half of the room, indicating a counter-space service area during the day.

Azarien crept forward, keeping close to the shelves on the right side of the room, weaving around bookshelves to go up and down aisles. Sorer proceeded slowly down the middle, letting Azarien keep some distance ahead.

Azarien turned down an aisle toward the middle to nearly bump into a hulking monstrosity. It was scaled, and jagged teeth protruded from its long snout. It stood on its hind-legs and wore a leather jerkin, with a battle-axe in its right hand and a shield in its left. It swung a spiked tail in agitation behind it. It had bulging eyes on either side of its narrow skull, and these now trained on Azarien. Azarien managed to curse as the lizard-man hissed in anger.

Azarien backpedaled into the center of the room. “Lizard folk,” he barked. Sorer dashed forward, pulling a longsword from his scabbard. He raised the blade to shove away the lizard-man’s first axe swing. As the Nord was preoccupied, Azarien heard a growl from behind and turned to see another lizard-man ambling out of another aisle to the left side of the room, morning star in hand. Hearing the clamor of battle behind him and knowing that Sorer had no time to react to this new threat, Azarien muttered a simple spell, raising his hands to form a diamond before him and shoving them forward in sync as though pushing outward. Fire burst from his fingertips, exploding against his opponent. The beast roared and staggered back a step or two.

Suddenly Sorer was beside Azarien. He charged, plunging his sword into the lizard-man’s throat while it was still off-balance. It almost immediately turned to crumbling ash, pooling in a small mound upon the floor. Its morning star clattered to the ground.

Sorer looked over his blade and returned it to the scabbard. “Argonian undead?” he asked.

“No,” Azarien said. “Lizard folk. Not quite sentient, as I understand it.”

“I didn’t think your people saw Argonians as sentient, either,” Sorer interrupted. Azarien ignored this.

“They must’ve turned to dust because they were conjured warriors. I don’t actually know where lizard folk come from. They’re associated with Argonians and Black Marsh out of laziness, but they’re rare and poorly understood.”

“You sound like a scholar,” Sorer replied–with what might have been disgust.

“I don’t get to read often, but I enjoy the opportunity when it’s available.”

Sorer grunted with humor at this. “Ah yes, the Temple’s literacy for all. I’ll never truly get used to living among you Dunmer.” He looked Azarien up and down. “Anyway, nice work with that fireball. You a mage, too?”

Azarien grinned, though he doubted Sorer would see the gesture. “Most of ‘my people’ know a little about fire magic,” he said.

Sorer shrugged. “Well, good work regardless. Let’s get back to looking for that secret-special room.”

The search did not take long. They worked their way through the aisles with no further trouble. In the back left aisle, a piece of paper pinned to a book said, “Keep closed.” Azarien pulled a probe from his toolkit and used it to fish the book out of place. There was a click. He then pulled at the shelf itself. The whole bookcase slid back effortlessly.

Sorer whistled. “I definitely hired the right guy. How’d you know to do that?”

Azarien grinned again and said, “Lucky guess.”

The opened bookshelf revealed a narrow, cramped chamber. Azarien quickly uncovered a trapdoor in the center and opened it. A wooden ladder led below. He climbed down the ladder, Sorer just behind, and then turned around to face the inner chamber. It was a short passageway that ended in a metal door. Runic script covered that door.

Azarien bent to the handle. There was no obvious locking mechanism. He pulled at the door. Nothing happened. “I was afraid of this,” he said.

“What?”

“Magically sealed. Even if I knew a good Open Lock spell–and I don’t–I think this would require acting on the runes. Solving a riddle, if you will. I’ve heard of these sort of magic locks, but they’re expensive to install. Never ran into them before.”

“Can you read the runes?”

Azarien shook his head but then said no to confirm it to his companion.

Sorer sighed. “Well. I’m going to head back up top, get some paper. We’ll take rubbings. If my scholar friend wants the scrolls so bad, he can translate these scribbles and solve the riddle, or else pay someone who can.”

Azarien faced his Nordic ally, wide-eyed. “Are you saying we’ll come back here?”

Sorer shrugged and said, “If we have to.”

Azarien gawked. “You have to be crazy. They’ll know. Their conjurations will have been interrupted. They’ll create new locks. They’ll hire new guards.”

“How quick before they could put in another of these magic-seal doors, or change out this one?”

Azarien thought about this a moment. “Well, they’re custom-built, I understand. I guess the local mages wouldn’t be able to build it. If the central guild hall at Mournhold could be contracted immediately…Well, I don’t know. I’m speaking in hypotheticals. These sorts of magic locks are beyond me. They’d need at least a week for transport though, eh? They could always just cast Lock spells everywhere, though.”

“No problem. So we have a week to work. My guy will have a deadline to work to. And if they use more spells to lock the place down…those can be cracked with spells in turn. My guy can surely supply some high-quality Open scrolls. Just be ready to handle any new mechanical locks. I’m sure they can get those in a day or so.”

Azarien thought about this a moment more. “Okay. Okay, this could all work. Hypothetically. But we’ll have more than conjured lizard-folk. I’ve heard of mages hiring on nightblades to protect compromised sites.”

“I’ll handle the fighting, as always. I may not look it, but I’ve handled worse than nightblades before.” In all honesty, Azarien thought, Sorer looked quite capable of handling nightblades or worse.

Without much of a counter-argument, Azarien helped Sorer find paper and charcoal above. Then they worked together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to get rubbings of the runes. While Azarien was sure the mages would quickly recognize the breach, they also swept up the ash and scattered it on the grass outside.

Azarien attempted to reset the lock and, hoping he’d done a good enough job, he and Sorer disappeared into the night.

Sorer parted, promising to track Azarien down at the Devil’s Locker when he had a solution to the sealed door. Azarien promised to stay around at least a week for Sorer to reach him, although he was beginning to think it might be best to leave town, at least for a while. He half-believed that Sorer’s patron would fail to solve the riddle in time.

Regardless, Azarien went to the tavern each evening to wait for Sorer. And every day he practiced his skill. But not lockpicking this time. Fire and steel. He developed his fire dart, improved his toning, honing his concentration, shaping his form. And it was cheap enough to buy a simple iron dagger, and to practice quick jabs. He practiced all this outside of town, in the woods, scorching and chipping away at trees. He practiced near a lake, with a frequently refilled bucket of water nearby, to put out any fire that threatened to spread.

The locks would be whatever locks he faced. If the magical locks could be overcome, he was sure he had enough skill to handle any mechanical ones. But he was becoming increasingly wary about this whole business.

Midway through the week, Sorer found Azarien at the tavern. “The old man’s not solved it just yet, but he swears he’ll be done in two days,” Sorer said, after they had stepped outside. “Meet me at this spot just after dark then.” And with that he was gone.

Everything felt real now. Azarien no longer doubted that the scholar would crack the locks in time. And he realized that he might face real combat, but he was no combatant. So he did the most foolish thing he probably could have done: he went to the Mages Guild. Things were surprisingly calm there during the day. No one even gave him so much as a suspicious glance. Mages, after all, tended to be insular by nature. With the last bit of gold he had saved, he bought two scrolls of Paralyze, all he could afford. On the way out, he noted that the door now bore two locks, though they were not much more complex than the original.

The two days passed by in anxious fits. Azarien found himself before the tavern once more at the set time on the set day, wearing a thick black cloak. Sorer showed soon after and announced, “The old man did it. We’ve got what we needed. Here you go.” And he handed over a scroll with the required words and gestures. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Azarien answered. They marched back to the Mages Guild. Azarien was able to quickly deal with the locks on the front door. He popped the door ajar and took a step forward. At that moment, lamplight glared from down the main avenue, as a guard rounded a corner.

“Shit,” Sorer breathed. “Go on in, I’ll distract this fool.” Before Azarien could object, Sorer shut the door between them. The Dark Elf sighed and began to creep toward the back corner.

Unsurprisingly, a guard stood before the door to the secret chamber. He was a tall, powerful Nord man, pale of skin and hair (though that hair was mostly obscured by a wolfshead helm), with blue eyes that shimmered in the low light of the waxing moon that seeped in through the shutters. This guard wore full fur armor–cuirass, boots, and greaves. A fur shield was strapped to his right arm, and in his left he gripped an elaborate Nordic mace.

Azarien realized with a start that the man was already quite aware of him, was in fact staring right at him. The guard appeared to be waiting, attempting to convey unawareness to draw Azarien in. Azarien halted, staring back. He hoped Sorer would return soon.

The guard seemed to realize that Azarien knew what the guard knew. He charged. Azarien cast a fire dart, but it impacted harmlessly against the man. There was a brief shimmer over his cuirass, and Azarien realized–as he dived out of the way of the swinging mace–that it was enchanted against fire spells!

Azarien rolled and hopped to his feet, running to the door. He tried to swing it open, preferring arrest to death, but it refused to budge. It was locked. It was locked. Azarien pivoted, ducked a side sweep of the mace, and rolled away from his moonlight-tinted adversary. Pale of skin, pale of hair, with glimmering blue eyes, a Nord startlingly similar to Azarien’s accomplice…Protected against fire spells, as though he knew in advance the little bit of magic that the would-be thief would know…And the door locked anew, perhaps magically trapped or perhaps deliberately locked with a spare key…With a growing sense of panic, it occurred to Azarien that Sorer might have betrayed him.

Azarien sprinted for the back counter. He hurtled over it, hearing a thunk as the mace briefly dug into the wooden countertop just behind him. The Nord laughed as Azarien turned to face him. The Dark Elf pulled at a scroll from his pocket, saying, “You work for Sorer?”

The guard grinned in the dark and laughed again. “Not bad,” he said. That was all the confirmation he provided; he paced purposefully toward the opening into the service space Azarien stood in. Azarien unrolled the scroll and began reading the enchanted words upon it. The Nord’s eyes bulged as he realized what was happening. He dashed forward, shield arm reaching out to tear the scroll away, mace raising for a death blow, and Azarien chanted furiously, finishing the words as the guardsman’s fingers touched the paper. Suddenly, guardsman froze in mid-motion. Fingers extended, mace raised, legs caught in a lunge, he had become a living sculpture. But his eyes could still move, and he glared furiously.

The words on the scroll faded away.

“Paralyze spell,” Azarien declared. “I’ve got about half a minute. I’m sorry.” He pulled his dagger and, with a moment’s hesitation, plunged it into the guard’s throat as he had seen Sorer do to the lizard-man. The guard’s eyes bulged in shock and pain, and then the glimmering blue eyes rolled up into his skull, and Azarien pulled the dagger free with a tremendous spray of blood and pushed the rigid man over.

Azarien waited for the spell to fade. When he was sure enough time had passed, and the man still lay quite motionless, Azarien moved to the secret passage. He climbed down the trap door, came before the magic lower door, and exercised the arcane words and gestures indicated on the parchment he was given. The door popped, and there was a hiss of escaping air. He pried it fully open.

There were rows and rows of scrolls and gems and strange vials. He had no idea what to grab, so he started grabbing everything he could. He focused on the scrolls. He could roll them up or flatten them and shove them into pockets, pants, boots. He also tossed some of the gems into his cloak pockets. Then he walked back out, sealed the door again, and magically burned the instructions.

Azarien was not sure what to do. Sorer would be waiting out there for him. And Sorer was probably a traitor. The guard had suggested as much, but Azarien still could not be sure. And it already upset him a great deal to have killed the human in cold blood. To kill another, without absolute certainty, seemed despicable. He had the means, though. He had one Paralyze scroll left. He pulled it from his pocket, digging it loose from where it was buried under gems and other scrolls, and unfurled it in his left hand. He would be ready to read it if necessary.

With that, he walked to the front door. It had been magically sealed, he quickly learned. Perhaps a trap he had not noticed, planted by the Mages Guild after they figured out the first break-in? He could not be so sure that Sorer betrayed him. Not sure enough to kill a man.

Azarien began to rummage through his pockets for an Open Lock scroll and realized that it made more sense to take a less valuable version from the front of the shop. He scanned the shelves and found an Open Lock scroll quickly enough, then unlocked the door, slowly pulled it open, and stepped out into the dark and cold.

Sorer was facing the road, but he swung around toward the Guild as soon as he heard the door creaking open. His eyes widened just a little, but he recovered quickly. Azarien could see even that subtle gesture in the moonlight.

Azarien sighed. “Sorer, I have what we came for. Did you handle the street guard?”

Sorer coughed before he replied. “Yes, he’s…gone for at least another ten minutes. I sent him off…” He hesitated. “Did you have much resistance in there?”

“No,” Azarien said.

Sorer squinted. “That’s good,” he said. “Did you get what we came for?”

“No,” Azarien said.

“Well, why not?” Sorer growled.

“Your guy’s notes didn’t work. I wasn’t leaving empty-handed this time, though. I did loot some of the shelves up top. I’d be happy to split them with you. Guess this job failed.”

Sorer stared in silence for a moment. Azarien refused to move. At last, Sorer said, “That’s okay.” With forced cheer, he added, “A job’s a job, eh? Not the end of the world. Though getting those scrolls could’ve opened up some valuable opportunities. We can divide up the share when we get back to the Locker.”

Azarien took a couple steps toward Sorer.

Sorer said, “Are you sure there was no guard? How strange.”

Azarien forced what he opened was a wicked grin and tried to infuse some levity into his tone. “Just a bastard whelp of a man. I killed him easily.”

Sorer’s hand went to his blade. That was enough for Azarien. He cast the spell even as Sorer pulled his weapon from its sheath. Sorer froze mid-gesture.

Now Azarien slowly paced around the Nord, but he spoke in rapid-fire sentences, words spilling out. “I don’t have much time. Was it a cousin of yours I killed? He looked rather like you. I suppose all you Nords look the same. Intended to kill me and take the treasure, eh? Full reward from your man, and I get left behind as a culprit? Were you working both sides the whole time–Mages and your outside guy? No–don’t bother answering. There’s not enough time.”

Knowing to expect the spray of blood this time, Azarien stepped to the side and drew the blade cleanly across Sorer’s neck. He walked away quickly then, knowing he had killed yet another. He hoped it would be for the last time.

He went immediately to the gate out of Corkarth Run. Guards cared little about people going out; it was in that was so restricted. He set off down the moonlit road, heading for wherever it took him, pockets full of valuables. Sorer may not have kept his word, but it seemed he’d bought Azarien a new life anyway.

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