The Stalker at the Fringe
There is a rather special expression visible on the faces of those who have witnessed mortal adversity. All the more peculiar does it become if a man was himself closer to the all-consuming emptiness than is comfortable. Chiselled upon the likenesses of such individuals is a bottomless horror that little else could evoke. As is the case with a singular knight cleric who strayed too far off the path of the pantheon he worshipped so zealously.
It was a cloudy evening in the 4th Era on the streets of Markarth when the most terrified of screams echoed amongst the stone houses and metal roofs of the bustling city. A man in easily recognisable Dawnguard armour was kneeling on the ground, arms held up to cover his face. A moment prior, a guardsman blotted out the lustre of a nearby burning torch sconce, resulting in a rather large humanoid shadow that was, as would later become apparent to all but the most dim bystanders, the source of the man's seemingly over exaggerated reaction.
His tremulous hands would slowly lower towards the stone floor to reveal a harrowed and broken man with glassy eyes and deep crevices in his skin. He pushed himself up from the ground shortly thereafter and began to hurry through the crowd of curious citizens that had gathered in the small window of time that he knelt there.
The man lost no time, evading inquisitive looks and shaking heads as he made his way to his abode near the town's tavern. The closer he got to the door, the faster his feet scurried on and the more sweat perspired from his forehead. At last, he reached the door of Dwemeri metalwork, went inside and immediately shut it behind him.
Those whose gaze followed the man's trail looked on in bewilderment. Only a handful of the old timers around town remember his story.
That man's name was Ricard Eisenhaupt. A Breton with a more than questionable as well as convoluted heritage. His name would always be a reason for raised eyebrows and prying inquiries. But as much as he loathed to admit it - he didn't know. As far as his lineage was concerned, the family records end at around the second Era so no one could say with absolute certainty and conviction just where his bloodline had its roots.
Eisenhaupt was a renowned cleric during his heyday and the benevolent deeds as well as the miracles he performed would shape into a reputation that far preceded him wherever his travels led him. Today, however, he is but a hollow shell of his former self. And just as he closed the door, an old man nearby, who had witnessed the most recent commotion, spoke up.
"He wa'n't always like that ye know. Used'ta bring light to them dank places. Heal'd the injur'd and destroy'd folks who done did them evil, dark magicks. None o' that naow. 'tis said a shadow nigh kill'd 'im. He chang'd since den. Became afraid o' the dark. Nevar left the haouse when the moon was up. But what it was that shook 'im so he ne'er told. Just look at that crush'd, ruin'd spirit."
The talkative inhabitants of the city engaged in wild speculation as to what horror could have broken the iron will of a man such as Eisenhaupt. And yet, none could know just what evil brought his fears hither.
It was five years ago when Eisenhaupt's expertise was called upon to rid an abandoned fort of a most peculiar annoyance. A group of alchemists conceived of the undertaking to set up camp in Fort Greenwall near Shor's Stone to the north and Riften to the south. From either of the two places, the fort was easily accessible by the road. Having been recently cleared of bandits by an unknown force, these scholars intended to occupy the place in order to study the nearby Autumnshade Clearing to the southwest.
However, after they had set up their laboratory, coming back from an expedition to Autumnshade, they found all their tools broken and a good number of alchemical reagents gone.
Whether it was an unnamed assailant or an animal they could not say for whomever was to be held responsible did not leave any traces of themselves. No footprints or claw marks, no scraps of cloth or leftover bile or saliva. No ectoplasm either, which would have suggested the presence of ghosts. But on subsequent days after having rebuilt their laboratory time and time again, they always came back to a camp in chaos and disrepair.
Perhaps the most peculiar of all were the queer noises that traveled amidst the darkness at night.
The congregation of potion brewers speculated a wraith had taken up residence in the abandoned military structure and now terrorized them to keep them from staying.
As mentioned before, Ricard Eisenhaupt was a renowned cleric. Though, he was more than just a priest and missionary in service of the worldly gods. Ricard Eisenhaupt was what is known as a knight cleric. Pious, zealous warriors who pledged their souls to Aetherius and leal service to the Divine.
With unwavering faith and a set of deadly, holy abilities that need a lifetime of training to truly master, these warriors of the gods were the ideal weapon against even the most experienced of would-be evil doers, necromancers, vampires, hags, witches, undead in various states of decay, Daedra or rogue mages, wizards and sorcerers. For almost all of these relied on magic in some capacity - a prospect that the order of knight clerics was fiendishly proficient at countering. They cancel out the arcane as well as they banish Daedra or the unliving.
It is easy to draw comparisons to the Vigilants of Stendarr. However, the knight clerics set themselves apart by their very way of approaching "problems". While the Vigilants may be just as overachieving in their pursuits, a knight cleric is more skilled and far more relentless by several orders of magnitude.
But the main difference perhaps lies in that the latter group, as dangerous and as uncontrollable as they might appear, never forgets the higher values and virtues of the deities they serve. More often than not, they indeed come off as kind-hearted pilgrims who, in spite of their goodwill, are capable of murdering an evil creature in mere moments.
It is for these reasons why Ricard Eisenhaupt was the first choice when it came to solving the problem the alchemists struggled with.
The five potion brewers insisted on exploring the dark corners of Fort Greenwall with Eisenhaupt together. They were positive that they could only gain from the experience and traveled with excellent protection. Moreover were they convinced that their poison-coated daggers and throwable, alchemically unstable mixtures, were enough to ward off a possible threat should it come to that.
Reluctantly, Ricard agreed and granted the five permission to accompany him on his endeavor with the added requirement that they were to always keep behind him to avoid unnecessary injury. The band of researchers acquiesced and soon, the six of them were on their way to plumb the depths of the crumbling fort.
At length they found themselves within the deepest bowels of the former burg when at last, there happened a noise that arrested everyone's attention, heightening their curiosity and, seemingly, their senses and concern along with it.
As far as Eisenhaupt could tell, the sound that the group had just picked up on was magical in nature - a dead giveaway for a ghost or wraith. But perhaps, he thought, a Daedroth caused all of this mischief.
The echoing steps of boots on wet rock reverberated throughout the chamber as the source of the noise seemed to finally reveal itself.
Out from the shadows, a flame lit up and assumed the shape of the man who discovered it. In its fiery nature it mimicked Eisenhaupt's general appearance down to his weapons and armour. He himself could hardly believe his eyes. A shape shifting flame atronach? An elemental capable of mimicry? It didn't matter. After all, Ricard Eisenhaupt was supremely equipped to deal with arcane threats such as these.
He commanded his cautious companions to constitute care and stand back while the shining cleric engaged the scorching fiend in fierce combat. A glistening sword of silver and a light absorbing shield of ebony had hitherto formed his impenetrable bulwark of faith. There he stood, ready to face a true dæmon.
Immediately after the first strike, Eisenhaupt noticed something profoundly troubling happening to his body.
As the flames licked his skin and armour, a sharp pain crept through his veins. Even more concerning was that his attacks should have drained the apparition's magical power and weakened its substance but he found himself being weakened instead with each strike. All the while, the thing seemed to become stronger with each passing second.
Hot, searing, burning. That foul creature from Oblivion threatened to immolate Eisenhaupt, to charr him to ashes should he fail to extinguish it.
The pain in Eisenhaupt's body chipped away at his strength and resolve. The heat made him feel faint and it was as if his hand was barely able to hold on to the silver blade.
Ricard Eisenhaupt had underestimated this foe. Stalling no longer, he conjured up a spell with what little magicka remained in his blood. A bright, blue light filled the chamber as the fierce cleric regained some ground. He struck the fiery menace and felt his magickal power return as a pale radiance soothingly engulfed the hero.
And yet, the flaming shade did not waver, instead continuing its relentless assault even more furiously. But it was soon found to be no match for the experienced, holy warrior as a sanctified space around him made him shockingly resilient. It was due to this that he persevered.
Albeit his weakened strikes could but slowly erode his enemy's vitality, at length a ghastly roar was heard and Eisenhaupt witnessed the fire dissolve into cold smoke.
Sweat dripping from his forehead, he let go of the sword's hilt. The loud clank of metal striking a stone floor concealed his unbelieving gasp as Ricard Eisenhaupt triumphantly turned around to celebrate his victory. For the problem was solved. The Daedroth gone. But he only gazed into the dead, empty eyes of a band of alchemists he had sworn to protect.
Perhaps most unsettling of all were their horrified expressions and warped faces. What terror had been lurking there in the darkness all along? Slithered around him so eerily, to murder these innocent men and women? Eisenhaupt knew not if his failure to uphold his oath was worse than the humility of having been so cruelly tricked.
He realized that he hunted no mere animal. Something of more delicate intellect sought to play with him. And Eisenhaupt was sure he would put a stop to this insanity.
The following weeks, Eisenhaupt immersed himself in the research and study of local legend, banditry and the acquisition of curious volumes detailing fabled things of horror and discord. His high religious status permitted him to procure and peruse a copy of a hold's crime register in an effort to uncover similar iniquities. But it was all for naught.
No trail he pursued turned out to even be remotely fruitful and most unsolved cases ran cold fairly quickly. It was hopeless - and maddening.
Before long, Eisenhaupt began to ask himself what Fort Greenwall had that could make it interesting enough to someone to go as far as to commit murder.
Gradually, his great interest in the nature of the perpetrator turned into a fervent obsession. To find the key ingredient as to what made that ruin so special, Eisenhaupt set up camp inside its decaying halls, spending his days looking for the most minute of clues.
During his intense search for something he knew nothing about, a strange sense of being watched occurred to him from time to time. As if something observed him from unwitnessed corners as he scoured hither and thither seeking the slightest hints to further his venture.
At times, he felt as if unseen eyes pierced his soul to unravel his thoughts. Whenever he examined the old brickwork, he got the impression that the surrounding darkness breathed with unspeakable life - only to wave a torch in front of him to discover nothing at all.
His searches were utterly fruitless. This and the constant feeling of continuous surveillance invoked a mental fever that would trouble him more so than his other, bodily conditions of general fatigue and loss of concentration due to dehydration and slowly encroaching malnourishment.
After a prolonged stay in the ruinous structure, his half-starved mind concluded that there was no more knowledge to be gained and, defeated, he retreated from his post.
But for the months to come, Ricard Eisenhaupt would be plagued by terrible nightmares. And he would remember certain, nightly visits that slipped by him during his time in the fortress. Just whether or not any of it was reality or dream his encumbered brain could not fathom.
Ringing ears. Drenched skin. Eyes ablaze with salty water. Such were the nocturnal, adverse bodily reactions Ricard Eisenhaupt found himself to be tormented by whenever cruel reminiscences wriggled their way towards the surface from deep within his consciousness.
There is a very distinct difference betwixt dreams and memories. Whereas the aforementioned dreams are usually a byproduct of unconscious thought processes, memories hold much greater significance.
For the latter tells of things that have occurred. Memories can be altered, true. But the feel of a true memory is undeniable when it happens. And so it happened to Eisenhaupt night after night. At first he fancied them gruesome dreams as a result of his continued indulgence in the matter that had so utterly shaken his spirit. But as time wore on, he recognised theSshape he saw time and time again on a deeper level than he liked to admit.
Every night his eyes betrayed him to shew a figure of prehensile dark that loomed just out of reach. Waiting, watching contemptibly. Somehow, it would drain him of his willpower, of his life force. He felt so weak and squeamish. In time, the sleep he yearned for at the end of a tiresome day stopped giving him the desired rest. He was sick with an unnameable affliction and found himself paralyzed, yet awake. On some nights, a black thing would appear from the shadows and seemingly feed on him as he lay there, unable to move or fight back.
Something from Oblivion's tenebrous caverns tore him apart from the inside. He was sure of it.
Only by chance was it that Eisenhaupt caught wind of a conversation in Markarth's city streets one day. Two travelers of the adventurous sort had a chat about treasure hunting. Eisenhaupt, in his half-delirious head, didn't pay it any mind until one of them told of Fort Greenwall.
"Y'know o' dem old forts? Greenwall's one o' 'em. Din't go thar in years. E'en if I left that thing thar. I coul'n't tell ye what it does but the way it was a-sparklin'? Musta been sum mightey magicks at work I tell ye. Shame dem wolves drove me out or else I would 'ave sum coin 'ta go 'round eh. I should return thar sum time. 'chancey it still sits thar, waitin' to be claim'd."
All of a sudden, an epiphany struck the almost delusional Eisenhaupt square in the head.
An item of magnificent power.
He approached the adventurer and brashly inquired about the artifact.
"Ah! Ye likes to know 'bout dem shinies, eh? By Oblivion, I ain't returnin' to that playce anytime soon so I might as well tell ye. In the lower most chamber, thar sits perch'd on a pillar a tablet of stone. It does shine, however. It glows! I fancy it worth more 'an just a couple septims. Ye should look fer it. If it is still thar."
There it was. Clear as a crisp spring morning. Further investigations into the matter revealed that the stone tablet in question was of apparently unknown make with similarly unrecognisable inscriptions. An antediluvian thing of power hailing from a time that possibly predates the modern races of Tamriel. And Eisenhaupt figured it more than likely that whoever murdered the alchemists had been after that artifact and retrieved it.
That's what set Greenwall apart from other places of its ilk. Ricard Eisenhaupt knew one thing: It was time to locate an artifact of might.
Pinning down the location of old items steeped in strength that lie within abandoned places was no easy task. In fact, it should turn out to be most arduous and tiresome, even putting Eisenhaupt in life-threatening situations. He preferred to delve into age old Nordic crypts due to his proficiency in dispatching the undead hordes. It gave him a relatively easy time in those entombments.
The various traps and cruel machinations that were put in place to catch, gut or burn him excluded, however.
It required a considerable amount of luck on his part in order to stay alive and mostly unscathed forwhy the eyes of this cleric in particular appeared to be not so keen as to spot the hazards.
And yet, every cold grave he had searched turned into a disappointment. Every secret chamber seemed to have been unearthed already and its prize taken. It gnawed at the back of his mind and he believed he saw queer shapes in the shadows whenever he had failed in his attempt to lure the elusive perpetrator to exact justice upon them.
As the failures mounted, so saw he the darkness as it bent and twisted. At times, Eisenhaupt felt mocked and he found that firing off a few holy spells into the undulating mists made the shapes disappear for the moment.
It was only a momentary abatement. A fleeting respite amidst the crawling entropy and shuffling nightmares that invaded his brain and drove him to ever more risky attempts.
Eisenhaupt soon figured that trying his hand at the ruinous underground cities of the long lost Dwemer should provide him with the necessary odds to find what he sought. If not for his ingenious cogitation, then for the numerous traps and soulless automatons that inhabit these places. He knew, or believed, that this was a challenge too great even for his target. And so, the hunt took its course.
Such ruins were widely strewn about and dotted Skyrim's landscape. But it was in the Dwemer ruin of Raldbthar where Eisenhaupt should lose his bravery and foolhardiness. A ghoulish horror had long loomed above him, shadowed his every errand. But this time was different, for even horrors must face their foes in the end. However, not without proper preparation.
In the many days that led up to this event, Ricard Eisenhaupt had become much weaker to a troubling extent.
Was he a holy knight cleric adept at disposing of hordes of undead, the harrowing journey that he had made drained him of his physical and mental acuity until even a lonesome, limping wolf caused him trouble.
His waning concentration and lapse of mind constituted a peculiar madness that permitted no clear thought. The recurring night terrors made sleep nigh unbearable.
This self-proclaimed hero was too powerful for his own good. He couldn't just live and continue his work. But he was too mighty to openly confront him. So the shadow wore him out. Steadily, over a long period of time. Madness was never part of the initial scheme but it certainly helped.
And then, as a weakened, half-crazed Ricard Eisenhaupt entered Raldbthar, it was time to remove him from the face of Nirn.
The hopeless devout stumbled about as he noticed not the humanoid silhouette that watched his every step.
The clanking of destroyed metal parts echoed throughout the vacant halls of a grandiose palace that had most certainly seen earlier visitors who were quite skilled in combat against vile machinery. Not one metal guardian lived to assault the intruder. Had there been any, Ricard would have shambled to his death, weakened as he was. But the undeniable emptiness necessitated action on her part.
As Eisenhaupt went deeper into the ruins, he witnessed his half broken body be assaulted by foul magicks. From the dark, a light shot towards him. Moments later, a rune under his feet erupted in a flurry of colours and Eisenhaupt felt his weapon escape his grasp.
The pain forced him to curl up and lie on the floor. Like vermin he crawled on all fours to behold his very personal adversary.
A woman with a gleeful smirk on her face, dressed in a flowing, black coat, greedily towered over him. She pulled back her cowl to let her red hair flow in the gentle breeze until it covered most of her back.
The pale lady drew her sword and carefully placed it on Eisenhaupt's throat. Only a slight motion to either side would have sufficed to take this man's life.
In a fortunate turn of fate, a metal contraption attacked the pale lady from behind. A raucous noise in the back of the hall suggested reinforcements were on their way. One last look into her spiteful eyes that glared back at his bewildered orbs before the horror should finally reveal itself.
The eyelids widened, her skin cracked violently all over her body, her eyes ran black like tar. An opaque cloud consumed the female who had been standing there a second ago and a terrible dæmon took her place.
Empty, fuming sockets and a gaping maw with innumerable, serrated teeth of ebony constituted its otherworldly appearance. But the harder Eisenhaupt tried to make out more visual details, the more his eyes seemed to betray their purpose. His mind outright refused to fully recognise the thing that unravelled before him. The form was at the same time formless and blended into the surrounding bleakness to evoke the impression of phasing in and out of existence.
A ghastly howl announced the creature's presence to the machines that marched ever closer. Its claw took a hold of Eisenhaupt's armour, its empty sockets staring back at him with seeping, grey vapours wrapping themselves around his neck.
The oppressive air seemed to choke him and in the next moment, Eisenhaupt fell to the floor and fainted as the smoke fiend dissipated.
Reports of a man with shallow eyes and broken gait soon arrived in Markarth. A certain cleric had carried himself from Raldbthar to the town. The raggedness of his garb suggested either poverty or an adventure that must have failed quite spectacularly. He was unarmed and barely conscious. As he arrived at the city gates, he collapsed before the guards.
One of the few exceptions to the rule, Ricard Eisenhaupt's dire condition allowed him a temporary stay at the local temple of Dibella. He was a devout servant of the Nine, or Eight, and the priestesses were sure Dibella wouldn't mind if they aided a loyal cleric in need.
After a few days, he finally came to. As he did, so did his jumbled memories crawl back. A fit of panic and several, shocked sisters later, Ricard found himself sedated by a singular spell. He was not soothed however, for he was forced to experience his grief lacking the ability to fight back as the spell kept his body still but failed to reach his mind.
"The shadow, the shadow!', he mumbled to himself. Prying questions into his misfortune yielded naught and aside from such incoherent mutterings none were able to make sense of his broken state. He was soon released from the temple, free to return to his house.
Eisenhaupt's occasional fits would soon be viewed by the locals as a precious oddity. The citizens of Markarth pitied him and told each other stories about his cruel fate. The loquacious populace attracted a certain kind of attention with some of the tales they had woven. The stories would travel far and wide, ending up in taverns all over the icy province. And so it was that Eisenhaupt's past would eventually begin to manifest itself and chase him down.
On that very day Ricard Eisenhaupt hastily retreated into his home under maniacal wails as the town elders shook their heads at this once pious, strong hero.
There stood an outsider, off to the side, concealing their presence, quietly watching the bizarre spectacle unfold. She went unnoticed and patiently waited until the commotion had ceased to perform the duty she had come here for in the first place.
When the city of Markarth was still once more and the white, stone walls basked in Masser's lunar radiance, she began her terrible work. Starting with the forceful unlocking of Ricard's door to fulfill the deed that would grant her dissolution from the shackles he carried.
The next morning the town was abuzz after one of the workers from the Cidhna Mine let out a piercing shriek. A blood-encrusted metal door shone eerily in the first rays of sunlight. The crimson pool beneath it cast strange reflections onto the nearby structures. Tiny pieces of what appeared to be frayed flesh and shattered bone were buried within the fractals of the stone plates the town's floor was paved with.
A vile steam coated the immediate area with a malodorous putrescence that provoked a deep nausea in some and involuntary retching in others as the crowd gathered around the entrance door to the house.
In response to a first shock that swept over the people, the onlookers didn't realise at first whose residence this was. A cognizant guardsman ordered the men and women out of the way and gazed in knowing bewilderment at the besmeared walls and floor.
The guard lost no time and called for his peers. They flung open the heavy, Dwemeri portal and stormed the interior of the building. A sanguine trail led to the bed whereupon lay the beheaded corpse of a certain, well-known knight cleric.
The stone bed was overflowing with blood and the guards noted that, apart from his head, the hands and feet were missing as well.
The case would remain unsolved forever. This is a circumstance that I pride myself on. For in the end, nobody witnessed me as I left the city grounds with that bloodied, dripping linen sack as it dangled from the belt of my tunic.
Some passersby noted the stinging scent that spread in my wake as I carried the moist head of Ricard Eisenhaupt to my abode.
Soon, I mused, his crushed hands and feet would be wiped off his door and his chambers cleaned, the house once again vacant and for sale. And his name will fall to Oblivion. And I shall make sure that his soul would follow.