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Aug 13, 2020 3:43 AM
the dark brotherhood gets a contract on the last dragonborn
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"We should explore the side passages first," Maeghin says. "I don't want to risk drawing attention, they might have important clues, it's the most likely direction for a prior expedition to have gone - assuming they might've caused this - and some of them likely loop around."

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Lianda nods. "So, start with ones closer to this wall, then? If going around's your thought."

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"Yes, exactly." He huffs. "Though we'll also want to select for ones with fewer automatons. I don't want to get swarmed."

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"Reasonable," she says. "Are we going to be splitting up?"

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He hums. "Unfortunately, that's probably the best idea. Smaller groups will draw less attention, and we can cover more ground that way. For size… I think four groups of three - I realize you're technically not an officer, but the Markarth guards will be more comfortable under you. So each of us, me, you, the two officers, will have two guards with us. I'll try to get a balance of skills..."

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"That's fine. I've led groups before; call it a joint effort with the Dawnguard if you must." Her voice is a bit wry. Still, it's enough to get a snort out of him.

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"Let's go help the others, then consider approaches," Maeghin says then.

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She nods, then goes to help find and set up camp for the night - it's late enough they don't want to be exploring until they're rested, and Maeghin wants them to have a more established base somewhere out-of-the-way to regroup at.

They split up the next day. Lianda makes sure to get to know her two assigned guards a bit better - the woman, Rozenn, has worked with Calcemo before, and this isn't her first expedition into Nchuand-Zel. Though the last few times she didn't go nearly as far. The man, Gael, is rather blatantly relieved to be apart from the Forsworn, though he avoids outright saying as much. Gael is better with a bow, but can hold his own with spear or sword, and Rozenn prefers close work - though she knows a few spells, too.

They're focusing on right-hand paths first, after an evaluation that this area seems to be in better shape and have less active repair work ongoing. Reduces their chances of running into either automatons or rock-falls. Lianda's path is one of the lower ones, the second closest to the main gate after Maeghin's, and apparently a major avenue. The open space is convenient for her preferred fighting style, at least.

The plan is to go as far as they can in three hours, rest, then turn around - or to retreat before then, as soon as they run into anything they can't handle.

They make it an hour in with no issue - but no real luck, either. There's old pieces of pottery and metal, and complex stonework, but no actual clues. Just a dead city. Close to the end of the second hour, Lianda hears a clicking sound from up ahead. She trades glances with her guards, and they retreat a bit. It's decided that, actually, none of them are particularly good at stealth - but if there's trouble, Lianda's the best melee fighter.

She - doesn't really bother sneaking, but she doesn't go out of her way to make noise as she walks carefully down the hallway. It bends, to reveal a large room full of stone benches and tables, what might've once been storefronts lining the walls. There's a good amount of rubble - and two visible mechanical spiders working on clearing it, though she can hear the sounds of at least two more elsewhere.

Lianda starts to back up…

And her foot hits a piece of rubble.

The spiders still, then rush towards her, metallic legs clanging on the stone walkway. More swarm - and there's seven, not four. Lianda curses under her breath, then draws Dawnbreaker, flooding the room with light and leaping forwards to meet the first spider. She's able to slay it before it can damage her, and then it's fellows are throwing themselves into the fray.

Her backup arrives soon after, Gael and Rozenn's spears quite handy at taking care of spiders without putting themselves in slashing range. Fortunately, none of these spiders are the more dangerous kind that throw lightning. Lianda sustains a few wounds, but keeps the attention on herself until the spiders are all destroyed.

She heals herself while her companions search the room and the spiders, prying the soul gems out of their casings - a good precaution against the spiders being too easy to repair.

Fortunately, the noise of the fight doesn't seem to have drawn anything else. They don't find much in the room itself, just some inscriptions none of them can read (which Lianda does make a charcoal rubbing of), before pressing on after a short rest.

The third hour seems the same lack of excitement as the first. They find a side room to rest in - what was likely was a guard-house - for the fourth hour. But they haven't been resting long when there's a whistling of steam and a heavy thud-thud-thud from the hallway outside. All three freeze, scarcely dating to breath as the footfalls approach… And then pause outside the door to their little shelter.

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The metal door shrieks as it's ripped off its hinges, revealing an automaton like none Lianda's ever seen, with a face like a great helm - angled, with two horizontal slits for eyes - instead of the usual careful likeness of an elven face. The shoulder pads are elongated into spikes, and the pieces fit loosely together, sliding over one another and revealing an inner molten core.

It's blisteringly hot even standing across the room from it.

Lianda raises her sword, steps between it and her guards, and roars. Her thu'um doesn't send the automaton flying, but does stagger it, giving her a precious moment to whisper-shout, speed filling her limbs as she surges forwards, Dawnbreaker dancing. And the sword's heat is greater than the automaton's, sliding into armor gaps and cutting deep scores.

But her opponent is mighty, too, even as her guards join her in harrowing it. A powerful blow she only halfway dodges shatters her left shoulder, throwing her back and onto the floor. Lianda gasps, but rolls to her feet, and decides the injury's a problem for future-her to heal as she foils an attempt of the behemoth's to cream Gael - though she doesn't successfully wound it.

It keeps raining down heavy blows even as they wear it down, and Lianda's vision is being slowly overwhelmed by flashes of white and floating black specks by the time it stumbles, falls to one knee, begins to glow -

"Back!" she screams, grabbing Rozenn - the closest guard - around the waist and using her whirlwind sprint to surge into a side room. Gael drops, rolls behind a short wall, and the automaton explodes in a wash of fire and metal shrapnel.

It tears into Lianda's back, white-hot searing pain, and she blacks out.

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She wakes to glowing hands on her chest, one of the Forsworn men leaning over her, his brow furrowed as he channels energy into her. She gasps, but holds still as her flesh heals and knits back together.

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"You're lucky," Maeghin says from out of her line of sight. "Your guards got you back before your heart stopped."

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Lianda grunts, and doesn't deign to respond, though she does make a note to thank them. She makes a questioning noise.

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Maeghin must interpret it correctly, because he says, "They both took minimal injuries. Some burns, some cuts, a broken bone. It's already being taken care of."

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She settles, satisfied, and lets her eyes drift back closed.

-

When she wakes, her healer refuses to let her walk around, instead propping her up against one of the low stone walls so she can talk to the group. She looks around - and notes only ten. Eleven, including her. Someone's missing, the Forsworn woman who'd been on Maeghin's team. She meets his gaze, and he shakes his head, lips thin.

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"So. The defenses here are stronger than we're used to," Maeghin says. "All of our teams encountered major resistance, across five events I'd classify as potential disasters. Only one of us managed to make it uninjured. We lost one of our number, Neas. Her body was judged unrecoverable. We've identified two new types of automatons, both more deadly than the Colossus. But…"

He takes a deep breath. "We succeeded, too. Ailbhe's team had the best luck - they found a way to the other side of the gate, discovered signs of a prior and recent expedition beyond, and believe they've found a map. Mine identified several weak points in both new automatons, and found stores of weapons, though we're unsure how to use them. Berach's team found what they believe is an alternate route to the surface, though it'll be only ideal to use if we find ourselves unable to retreat to Markarth."

Maeghin looks around. "A major decision lies before us. This mission is more dangerous than we imagined - and perhaps time-sensitive. We can retreat. Inform the lady Aithne of the danger, and get more help. Or we can press on - it'll save at least four days of backtracking and returning, but it'll put us at risk of dying alone, where our bodies can no longer be returned to sky or good earth."

He spreads his hands. "I won't demand obedience of you all, not now. So I put it to a vote: I will serve only a tie-breaker. Do we return, or do we continue?"

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The consensus among the guards is immediate, and rather strong: it's risky. No one knew for sure how deadly it'd be. But their duty as guards overrides that. Risking themselves for the people of the Reach is what they do.

Of course, that doesn't mean abandon caution, and it doesn't mean Aithne doesn't need the information they have. They decide to send a runner - no, two runners, given the risk - back to Understone Keep. That way, if something goes catastrophically wrong, at least Aithne will have some information.

The two of the guards best at moving quietly - both Forsworn - are chosen. Maeghin sits down to write out a more formal report, so that not everything's left to their memories, and so that if they die the information won't necessarily die with them. They decide to send the two in the 'morning', after resting - they'd need to camp soon anyways, and it's safer to do that with the group.

Maeghin spends a good portion of his own watch writing more reports - one to leave in each of their camps, which were hopefully positioned in a way that would be an obvious place to look - to a human, at least.

And so the third day in the ruins ends.

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The next morning, after the runners depart, they follow the path laid out by Ailbhe - slowly, since her team had needed to dodge more automatons than the others, even if they'd gotten luckier in what they actually had to fight. Maeghin's keeping them together for now, under the rationale that while a bigger group increases the chances of a fight, it also increases the chances of them getting out of any fights unscathed.

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The passage Ailbhe found appears to be an unofficial one - it's hidden in the back of a probable store, behind a clever mechanism Lianda doubts she would've spotted, and the tunnel beyond is narrow and lacks the precision carving and decoration of most of the Dwemeri halls. A smuggler's path, most likely.

After some consideration, Ailbhe - being one of their stealthiest - is sent down first. Maeghin and Lianda are after her, being the ones who fight best with open spaces if there is something to fight, and Berach's last. The passageway is long and cramped, but soon enough they reach the end. It opens into another backroom, higher than where it entered, and the building beyond opens onto a broad walkway around the corner of a cavernous market. The enormous doors cast the same light in this direction, and opposite them is an equally enormous facade of what Lianda would call a palace or a temple had she seen it in Hammerfell. It's the most detailed - and pristinely preserved - work of Dwemeri architecture she's seen yet.

More strangely: there's no automatons visible here. None of the ports for the spiders or spheres that Lianda can see. There's a distant rumble, but it's quieter than elsewhere she's been.

"Well, that's not something you see everyday," one of the guards murmurs, staring up at the intricate spherical lamps cascading from the ceiling. The others seem more interested in looking for potential threats, but -

The most threatening thing about this area is how deserted it is, Lianda feels.

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Maeghin gestures them back into the shop - where hopefully their voices will echo less - and then leaves the bulk of the guards in the main room or the passage to keep watch. He pulls the officers and Lianda aside, and then says, "Whatever that building is, it seems the obvious place to go - but I'm not sure we want to pursue it immediately."

Ailbhe nods. "We might want to investigate the weapons you found, or try and follow the trail of the other team, first. It depends on what we believe will lend us the most speed in our endeavor."

Berach hums. "I'm not certain we shouldn't be trying to clear our retreat, either. And I'm not comfortable that we haven't found any Falmer - not even signs of their past here, before the automatons reactivated. Usually those bastards are clever enough about avoiding and getting around the automatons."

"A good point." Maeghin turns to Lianda then. "What do you think?"

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She shakes her head. "I think we need to press on. Directly, immediately. Minor side mysteries can be solved after we secure the main problem. Possibly even by a different team. This entire thing could take a dedicated research department years to ferret out even the more obvious secrets."

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"And we're more of a strike force," Maeghin acknowledges. "Still, which path we take now remains a question…"

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After extensive debate, they decide to investigate the weapons first. While using unfamiliar, ancient weapons is probably stupid, it might give them a better idea of what they'll be facing. They do also need to investigate what happened to the last expedition, and to press on - but after much more debate they decide to split into two teams. One, containing Maeghin, Lianda, and three others, to investigate the weapons, and the other containing the officers - Ailbhe and Berach - and the last two guards to briefly investigate the expedition.

Then, they'll regroup, and push on through the building.

Maeghin and Lianda's team has the two Markarth guards she took with her last time, Gael and Rozenn, and a Forsworn man, Oisin, who is, according to Maeghin, generally curious and has been in Dwemeri ruins before. Getting to the weapons requires some backtracking on their parts, but fortunately nothing goes wrong on the route.

The weapons themselves appear to be in an armory of sorts. The gate had clearly been locked - Lianda's vaguely curious which of their team was the lockpick - and it's larger than similar examples Lianda's seen. Most of the weapons are plain - spears and swords and shields - but beyond another series of gates are some interesting ones. Cylindrical weapons with odd inserts like too-smooth crystal on their barrels. Spears with four prongs arranged as the points on a circle around a fifth crystalline point. Arrows with what looks an awful lot like soul gems as their points. Odd spheres - not like the spherical automatons, but metal with crystal grooves decorating them. Fortunately, everything seems quiescent - none of it glows, none of it moves or hums or catches the eye unnaturally.

Lianda is immensely hesitant to go in that room, let alone poke anything.

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Maeghin strides to the middle, spins around, clearly examining everything closely, then gestures everyone else in. "Don't touch anything just yet. Visual inspection only, for now. I want an inventory of how much there is of which items, what variations can be identified, and potential purposes."

"Yessir," Oisin says, and Gael and Rozenn both nod as they fan out.

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Lianda goes to stand closer to Maeghin, trying to find - runes or something. "This is the opposite of my field," she mutters. "Give me a daedric artifact and I can tell you how terrible an idea touching it is, but - these aren't the sort of things I can intuit."

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He hums. "The Dwemer have codes for everything. Rules. It's all very laid out, very formal, very predictable - if you know the basis. We don't, so… The rules end up looking inexplicable." Maeghin makes a face. "I hate daedric stuff. It's organic. Decides if it likes you or not. Dwemer stuff, you hit the right buttons, it doesn't care what your personality is."

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