The Turtle Hunt

Swamp Art

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I spent three naked days down in Vera’s cave, wrapped in that silk bed and rubbing up against the red-headed sorceress in pretty much every way there was to do it. Being inside of her was like a drug—some impossibly powerful form of Skooma from which I never wanted to part.

In those moments, it felt like my body had grown roots down into Nirn, and winglike tendrils that sprouted from my back to the black space beyond the sky.

But I’m just a man with a sword, not a poet. That’s the best I can explain it.

When we weren’t intertwined, we drank a dark, powerful kind of wine that tasted like oak and cherries and chocolate. When the drink got to her head, Vera would smile and cast magic spells against the walls—little wisps of blue hunters and animals stalking their way through the cave air.

If there was more peaceful time in my life, I do not remember it.

But like all the easy stretches of road, the rocky part is just a curve away. On the fourth day I woke up alone in the bed. Vera was sitting in a chair across the room, dressed in skin-tight leather armor and the same traveler’s cloak I’d given to her the night she materialized out of thin air.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

“We cannot stay down here forever.”

“Might be we could try.”

She smiled at that, even though I was only half joking.

“This has been an important time,” Vera continued. “I feel…replenished. Rooted down. I will be able to offer you more help for the next thing we must do. Help you’ll need.”

I sat up in the bed, felt awkward being naked when she was dressed for wilderness travel, and looked around for my clothes. I didn’t see them.

“And what’s this…thing?” I asked. “More mercenaries to kill? Or a necromancer, maybe?”

“A turtle.”

“What?”

“We have to hunt a turtle in the swamps of Blackmarsh.”

“That sounds…straightforward.”

Vera shook her head. “The reptile’s name is Toraton. A deadric fiend created the turtle out of rotting bones and fear essences scattered around Oblivion, then used Toraton as a sentry to his lair for two millennia. The beast’s shell is the size of a highway inn. His skin carries enough magic to incinerate a man on contact.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry,” Vera continued lightly, “Toraton’s elusive nature is far more problematic than his deranged power. If you can track him down, I can help you kill the turtle.”

I shrugged, and finally spotted my deerskin trousers that I’d cast into the corner of the room three days ago.

“Hunting is what I do best.”

***

Three weeks later, I was knee deep in the foul-smelling marshes the Argonians call home. My feet were covered in blisters the size of Septims, my arms were covered in leeches I’d need to burn away come nightfall, and I was seriously questioning the existence of this magical fucking turtle.

Even my bones felt wet.

Vera insisted that he was real, and roaming these rough and fertile lands—hiding from his former master with an obsessive and desperate kind of cautiousness.

“We will catch the beast, and take the power infused upon his heart,” Vera had told me. “That should be enough.”

As usual, she did not elaborate.

That was all well and good, except the blisters and the leeches and the wet didn’t seem to affect Vera. Gods, the pests barely touched her (in addition to the leeches, there were mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds and endless clouds of gnats).

Worst of all, she emerged from every bog and mud-pit immaculate and dry. I assumed this was through some stupendous process reserved only for sorceresses, and did not bother asking her to share the wealth.

I have hunted most everything that walks, crawls, or slithers across this treacherous globe. I’ve trapped skeevers, speared bears, shot cliffracers, and harpooned slaughterfish. I tracked and killed a sabercat once with nothing but a hunting knife and a sleeve of steel mail to deflect his claws.

But magical turtles elude me, apparently.

Mostly, I was just looking for massive prints along the riverbanks. Turtles favor muddy banks, and I figured if this Toraton bastard was as big as Vera said, I’d be able to spot evidence of his passage. Problem with that was, Blackmarsh is pretty much one endless series of riverbanks. So there was quite a bit of ground to search.

Each night I managed to find a small patch of firm land and get a fire going, but I was too tired to do anything besides stare at the flames, burn of the day’s leeches, chew on a few pieces of salted meat, and go to sleep.

Vera watched over me during the night. I did not have trouble sleeping.

But if I’m being honest, I thought about leaving her in the swamp to find her own damn turtle. Life was quite a bit simpler when the only real concerns I had were related to my next meal. Sorcery and blurry quests for vengeance are a little beyond simple killers like me.

My doubts never blossomed, though. Exactly thirty days after we left the warm, otherworldly comfort of Vera’s warren, I found a track.

Almost missed the damn thing because it was so big. Looked more like a dragon print than a turtle’s, but those toes and sharpened nails were pretty unmistakable.

Vera agreed. We had found Toraton.

We got lucky with the breeze, which blew lightly in our faces, masking our scent. So we were able to hurry along the riverbank all morning. Right around noon, I caught a glimpse of a shifting shell up ahead—lumbering in and out of sight between the swamp trees that were all festooned with green and yellow moss.

He wasn’t moving fast, so I climbed out of the riverbank and into a dry but deep depression that gave good cover. I unpacked my bow, sword, and spear—which I’d been keeping safe in an oilskin strapped to my back.

I cinched my sword-belt around my waist, strung my bow, and checked the point of my spear. It was a little wobbly, so I dug out some extra bear-spine sinew from the pouch on my belts and wound some extra lengths of strapping.

“Anything specific I should know about this deal?” I asked Vera without looking up from my work. Already, I was excited by the notion of getting out of this putrid and stinking bog.

“There is something I neglected to mention that seems to have a renewed kind of significance.”

I could tell from the sound of Vera’s voice that she wasn’t looking at me, but I was focusing on the sinew knot so I didn’t look up.

“And that is?”

“Some of the Argonian tribes have shared these lands with Toraton for years. They worship him like a god—protect him from his mad creator. And any other dangers…”

My fingers froze. There was a very distinct smell in the air.

A sour, reptilian smell.

I looked up and cursed. There were a dozen Argonians surrounding the lip of the depression. They had jet-black scales and white war paint strewn in wild patterns across their bodies. Crude spears filled their hands, and a feral kind of hate consumed their eyes.

“Great.”

I worked down into a fighter’s crouch and tightened my grip on the spear. Started taking deep breaths.

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