A tiny drop of sweat coalesced somewhere under leather bindings and began to move, sliding in a halting zigzag along a pronounced collarbone. It shifted, collecting momentum, snowballing its way along the tendons of the throat, down over the chin, skirting the ear and tightly pulled wine coloured hair. It rested briefly at the inward curve of the temple, a shimmering stalactite reflecting ash grey skin and the cool blue glow of the ruin’s ancient mana soaked walls. Long, leather bound legs tensed around a fallen ornamental column of smooth white stone, and slim dark fingers flinched against the taunt bow string, running a wave of tension through the dangling inverted body.

The tiny drop shivered, trembled, fluxed, and dropped. Blood red eyes watched the drop fall, a tiny blue star, and followed it with the glinting head of a steel arrow. The drop hit the mark’s back, and the gray skinned ogre reared its head up to its source. It opened its razor toothed maw to release a terrible roar as it sighted its prey, his yellow eyes flashing ferociously. He let out a gurgling sound instead as the arrow pierced the soft flesh of his throat, and another as a second pierced the yellow glare of his left eye driving him to his knees and rending the soft tissue of his small brain.

Inanna nocked another arrow and waited. There had been three of these guar-brained monstrosities in the great hall, and if one had scented her, it was likely the others had too. She thought of all the curses she knew in every language she could think of to pass the time and draw her mind from the ache in her thighs and the blood slowly pooling at the top of her brain. Lucky for her she had a heart like a wild boar’s and it pounded away, fighting gravity to keep her legs from growing numb. When she finished her list, and there was still no sign or sound that even her hunter’s ears could pick up, she descended, dropping with a soft pat barely louder than her falling bead of sweat had made.

She salvaged what she could of her arrows, the one through the eye coming out easily. She managed to get a shallow one out of the shoulder as well. It was a lousy shot. She’d been aiming for the throat, but she consoled herself with the defense that she’d been running backwards over rubble at the time. She’d stupidly aimed the first two at the heart forgetting that the muscle there was so thick and hard even an Orc probably couldn’t get a sword all the way in there. These creatures were a minimum of eight feet tall and practically as thick as tree trunks, and those were the runts. Ogre’s were never armed, but they didn’t need to be. If one of those fists ever got a grip on you it would snap you in half like a piece of stale bread, and a solid blow would turn your insides to scrib-jelly.

She wasn’t even going to try to get the arrow out of his throat. She’d probably shred her wrist on his teeth getting it out. She cocked her head at the creature as she crouched over it, wiping her arrow heads off on its dirty loin cloth. The teeth would be worth something, she knew of alchemists who used them, but loosening them might take too much time.

She licked her lips and glanced at the entry to the grand hall. From somewhere inside came a long huffing howl. It was unsettling, but not worrisome. She’d hunted these things enough to know that it wasn’t a sound of agitation. It did remind her that she didn’t have leisure hours to sit around pulling teeth, and that it wasn’t beasts she was hunting today.

She patted her rucksack to make sure nothing had shifted unduly during her little acrobatic display. The nimbleness was a relatively new skill, she used to be a hunter among her people, strong and fast. Home to her was a brutal and barren waste that made the body hard and the mind sharp, that or it killed you. Living in the shadow of the red mountain was a trial of will, and her tribe endured it enthusiastically. Her new career wasn’t nearly so brutal or honourable.

Really, it wasn’t more than that of a glorified thief. The skills she’d learned as an Ashlander came in handy, but sometimes the situation, such as this one, called for slyness and a certain level of flexibility, both of which had been hard won skills born of necessity. She was Dunmer, the dark-skinned mer, and like most Dunmer was a skilled and natural death dealer, but when a thousand gold pieces are at issue, and you’re working on a deadline, ‘run away’ quickly becomes a valid and practical option. She had what she came for and after several hours of hard and dangerous labour in the labyrinth of the ruins, now she just needed to tuck tail and get out before anything else decided to waylay her.

She took one last look at the hulking nine foot mass and took off at a light sprint. She’d come in this way and killed anything that might stop her already, so no need to maintain the any semblance of stealth. She lept up the steps to the exit, three at a time. The blood rushed through her legs satisfactorily and she slowed only as she approached the door. Time for stealth again, one never knew what would decide to make camp in the surface ruins. She could only hope the minotaur carcass she’d left on the doorstep would be discouragement enough while she got through with her business. The door opened up into a spiralling staircase and she immediately heard a voice.

“Bloody murder” she whispered under her breathe, stepping over the minotaur, instinctively double checking that it was really and truly dead. This was the irritating part where she had to decide to stick her neck out or shoot first and ask questions later. Sometimes she preferred the ogres. There was no question about what they would do to her if she said good day. These folk could be friendlies, and she really didn’t like shooting friendlies, but they just as easily could be something else.

She couldn’t quite make out everything they were saying but she caught the words, “tracks,” “the beast…this way,” and “in the ruins,” and decided they were probably hunters. She held her bow up so the tip would be visible as she rounded the stairs, and be the first thing shot at if anyone had an itchy finger. No shots so far, that was a good thing. A couple second later she was pulling herself onto a crumbling pillar base and waving jauntily, bow still in hand. Somewhere far off to the left and out of sight a cry of alarm sounded.

That’s when the shots started. Luckily she’d seen the man off and ahead to the right reach for his arrow and was already making for higher ground when it sliced through the air where her chest would have been. Her arrow was already in flight before his landed and caught him in the right shoulder, a decent enough shot to put him out of commission as a bow man. She couldn’t see his face, but the names he was calling her told her it was a fellow Dunmer.

She grinned and swung her bow as she pulled another arrow and released it into the chest of a noisy Nord woman charging her from behind with a rather frightening looking battle axe swung over her head. Unfortunately she was wearing a plated chest piece and the arrow did little more than slow her charge. Which suited Inanna well enough because it gave her the extra second she needed to get a clear aim at her face, and get her bow pulled that much tighter for her second shot. She released just as the woman was close enough to split Inanna like a log and the pale fierce blue of her eyes was visible in the thumb thick gap in her visor.

A thumb’s width was wide enough and the Nord and her axe clattered backwards into the debris of the ruins before she got the chance. The noise was satisfying, but it also dulled her ears to a third assailant coming from her right who she caught out of the corner of her eye at the last possible second. She was able to avoid the blow of the sword, but it nicked her bow, sending it sliding out of her hand and skidding over a wall and onto a lower level of the ruins. It also knocked her off balance and put her on the ground.

“S’wit” she cursed with a growl, and rolled on her shoulder away from a second quick blow that contacted with the stone next to her head and sent a ringing into her sensitive ears. She got a look at the face under the leather armour and saw a grinning khajiit standing over her, already swinging again. The cat-people were fast, and this looked like one of the big strong ones too. She rolled again, only this time towards his legs and managed to push out one of his –or perhaps her –legs throwing the arc of the blade off enough to save Inanna once more. The quick kitty gained its balance and laughed throatily.

“Be still dark one. Ma’jira want to help you meet precious ancestors.” ‘Definitely a female’, Inanna thought as she redirected her foot from the groin to the knee, ‘good thing she spoke up, I would have wasted a move.’ This kick connected more soundly and the khajiit stumbled, opening herself up to a quick knife wound in the thigh which made her buckle even more. Inanna wanted to pull away, to gain her breathe, but then the cat could too, and if you had an opening on a khajiit you kept it open, that was rule number one. Number two was never let them get those claws into you, that’s some nasty business there. She rolled up onto her feet, flanking her opponent and went for the gap under her leather helm, only to find she was too slow and was knocked off her feet with a wild back hand. She went sliding, and used the momentum to roll herself over the edge, hanging a second before dropping and diving for her lost bow, ignoring the taste of blood in her mouth. She’d been lucky it had been a backhanded swipe.

Again she was too slow and the pissed off kitty came flying after her. Inanna’s instinctive reflexes saved her as she rolled on her back and delivered a two legged kick into the stomach of the pouncing female. It was a two in one. She knocked the air right out of her and sent her sword clattering to the ground and maybe even within Inanna’s reach.

She didn’t want to take the chance that it wasn’t and clawed her fingers instead, thrusting her palm up against the khajiit’s belly and let loose every ounce of destructive force she could muster on such short notice. She breathed hotly through her teeth as the wave of flame coursed out of her fingers and through the lithe feline body and blasted her away and off of her.

Dragging herself to her feet Innana snatched up the sword, and broke into a run. The Khajiit was still stumbling to her own feet. She was a tough one. The blast had injured her though, making her slow and disoriented. Inanna regrouped her energy in a single deep breath and charged with a feral shout, slamming into her adversary with every ounce of strength she had left, forcing the blade through the light leather armour and into soft flesh. The force of the blow sent the khajiit careening back, twitching and gurgling.

Inanna watched, panting a little from the exertion, before finally deciding to take pity on the writhing figure. She palmed another dagger and finished the job as quickly and painlessly as possible. She left the sword where it was, as it wasn’t worth the effort of wrenching it out of the body. She moved to collect her bow, still breathing hard, feeling a little worn all of a sudden. She hadn’t over stretched herself or anything, but if she didn’t reign it in a little with the brute force nonsense she would soon.

No sooner had she bent to pick up her neglected weapon than she felt the fine hair on the back of her neck lift and her skin twitch as if a cool breeze had run over it. The air, however, was heavy and still. She moved slowly, lifting her bow into position, curving her body so that she could snatch the arrow and twist in one movement. Whatever was watching her was behind her, was close, and was quiet enough to be incredibly deadly.

She whirled, her arm arching, arrow in hand, nocking and aiming, pulling in one long fluid motion, and she saw it, huge, and right in front of her, less than fifteen feet away. Her fingers moved on their own, her body trained by rote to act without thought, and she looked into its eyes almost too late. The eyes shocked her…they appeared to be looking back, really looking, like they were somehow aware, and they were the most incredible shade of green she’d ever seen, set in a broad and tawny head.

There were no bared teeth, no tensed muscle, no sign of fear or aggression. An absurd voice inside of her screamed at her to turn the shot, sounding too much like a death wish. But gut feelings were what kept her alive, and she was very much a creature of instinct. At the last quarter-second she twitched, tilting her bow and let out a loud sigh as the arrow whispered harmlessly into the woods, landing in some tree with a soft thunk. The adrenaline was still pumping through her and she tried to keep her hand steady as she lowered the bow. If it was going to attack, it would have already, she’d just given it an opening.

‘It’ looked like mountain lion, but it was much much bigger. The size of a big warrior Khajiit, but it was a quadruped. She’d heard of cat-people who walked on four legs, but this didn’t strike her as that. It was too much like an animal, not a beast-man, and they were too far north for that weren’t they? But its size was unusual, and those eyes. They were watching her in a way that was far too intelligent to be normal.

She’d hunted since she was a small child, and she’d never seen a look like that from anything she’d faced. Even the ‘sentient’ beasts like minotaurs and draugh didn’t look at you like that, hell most bandits could even muster up that much thoughtful appraisal, just angry snarls or dumb looks of shock as you ran them through. Cats could be smart, but not that smart.

“Hello.” She said softly, her voice still rough from the physical rush of the fight. Its head turned slightly to where her arrow had wizzed off to. “I didn’t have to miss.” She offered, both as an apology and a warning, if it could understand her, and she had the very disconcerting feeling that it could. It locked eyes with her again, and she thought she saw…what? amusement? A sort of gleam? Was she going crazy? Too much time spent alone wandering around in the dark?

Then out of nowhere the animal’s relaxed stance changed and its body tensed, she knew that stance, it was going to spring…but its head was facing the wrong way…toward her, but not at her, behind her. A millisecond later her fingers where once again wrapping around an arrow and her body twisting in that old familiar pattern. This time she let the bolt fly without a blink of hesitation and tensed with a gasp as a dagger flew past her shoulder. It was a rough shot, not enough tension, and the arrow hit low, the hip or the leg perhaps, but she couldn’t see where exactly because the former bowman was now a throat-less corpse under a great golden body. Leave it to a fellow Dunmer to get the drop on her.

Her guard was back up, and she dropped into a crouch, crawling to a ledge for cover as she scanned the ruins for more movement. She’d been an idiot to let it drop, but she’d forgive herself for being distracted by the lion. She held her breathe and listened. All she could see was the still forest and all she could hear was the light click of claws on stone. She turned back to the big cat and found him already on his way over, circling her at a respectable distance. This one was a male, she noted as he circled. I hope that wasn’t his girl I skewered she thought with a smirk. He licked his muzzle to clean the remaining blood and watched her, his body still tense and head lowered.

“That it you think?” She whispered as she turned away to scan the woods and the clearing below the ledge. She still had her throat, so clearly, as bizarre as it was, they were on the same side. She turned back and he looked out past a low wall and lifted his head. She crawled over to the wall he seemed to be pointing to and peeked over the side, grimacing at the sight that greeted her.

Nearby was another, bigger, Khajiit with its light armour in bloody shreds and farther away a pale skinned man of some kind, she couldn’t tell which, was slumped against a tree, his head attached in only the most technical sense of the word. There was a third body face down in the long grass. From this angle it was unrecognizable, but the awkward splay of the limbs was confirmation of its status as no longer among the living. She slid back down the wall and sat back against it, sizing up the odd beast.

“Well I guess it’s two to three then…I’m calling the bowman a draw.” She smirked, then winced as the adrenaline slowed and all the little aches and pains started rearing their ugly heads. Her face hurt the most. The Khajiit had really given her quite the knock. She felt her jaw gingerly for any damage worse than a few bruises. As she did the great beast edged closer with a lowered head and made her pause as she eyed him warily. He stopped when she stared back at him, no doubt having sensed her tense up with caution, and turned away instead, leaping up on a big stone block. He turned giving her one last long look, still thoughtful, before leaping off the other side.

“And then he was gone.” She muttered, pushing herself up and taking a peak in her bag. Thankfully nothing inside was damaged, thank the ancestors for Ayleid craftsmanship. She collected herself, the rest of her things, and whatever gold she could find on the bodies…not like they needed it anymore, and started her long journey back to civilization. Thankfully Cheydinhal was the nearest walled city, and it was the closest thing she could call home next to the dump of a shack where she currently laid her head in the waterfront district of the imperial city. She’d have to pay for her bed there, but the place was crawling with Dunmer, so she usually got a decent meal and a cheap room without too much effort and a minimum of dirty looks or smarmy comments.

She pulled into town in record time having miraculously encountered nothing hostile on her way, not even an irate mud crab. Once or twice she felt the hairs on her neck stand up and she found a nice high rock to survey from, or take pot shots from, which ever became necessary, but never saw anything. She half wondered if that big cat was tailing her, but figured in the end she was just jumpy from all the excitement, and the overwhelming strangeness of the afternoons events. And it was strange.

She wracked her brain trying to come up with an answer for that weird cat and came up with none. She even considered Daedra…but she could only think of one daedric prince who might randomly traipse around mundus as an animal, and the beast that had helped her didn’t look like a psychopathic poetry writing mad-god. Then again, what did that look like? She chuckled to herself. She’d had the honour of meeting the hero Nevarar, who had come to their tribe for guidance in the quest against the false gods of the tribune. And she’d –yes, she, and a Breton, who’d have thought it — had had some interesting stories about that particular god. One involving a fork, a bull netch, and an insane Argonian lizard man…but that was neither here nor there, and it didn’t involve smart green-eyed lions.