Claws in the Darkness
I counted nine men. They melted out of the shadows like demons. They were big—Nords, down to a man—but they had some sneak to them.
For the first time, it began to dawn on me that I had gotten myself into serious trouble.
“Keep those claws to yourself, cat,” one of the big Nords said, stepping forward. “Might be we don’t cripple you in the next two minutes.”
“Fair enough,” I muttered.
Then I kicked up a shovel on the ground next to me, grabbed it with my right hand, and slammed it into the big Nord’s face. It wasn’t enough to kill him, but a broken face was certainly going to slow him down. Then I dashed forward and speared the shovel into another oaf’s face so that the edge crushed his windpipe.
His eyes bulged to an almost unbelievable size, and then he fell to his knees.
I had planned on taking another four of five of them down with me. A shovel is a lot like a sword—I am capable of a stunning level of destruction with a weapon like that.
But there was a lot more to that old man than met the eye. I swung around—shovel cocked back and ready to explode someone’s kneecap—when a crippling forced collided into my chest and knocked me over. All of the air went out of my lungs, and nothing happened when I tried to move my hands and feet.
It was the old man who hit me. His fist was still outstretched in a fighter’s stance that I did not recognize.
“Take him down to the others,” he said, relaxing his body again. “That’s what he asked for, after all.”
“We ain’t gonna skin him, Lothar?” asked the Nord whose face I’d bashed in. “Fucker broke my nose.”
“You know exactly what we’re going to do to him.” The old man—Lothar Burel, apparently—said quietly. He spoke with a different voice now. Still sandy, but weathered and strong where it used to be flimsy. “Bind his hands. That one is quite dangerous.”
The Nord grumbled, and satisfied himself with a few hard punches to my stomach before tying my arms behind my back and dragging me down one of the narrow passages of the mine. That struck me as a lenient kind of revenge for his ruined face, but I soon realized my mistake.
As soon as we were out of sight, the Nord began to drag me so fast down the rocky passageway that my back and face bounced against different rocks and roots like an arrowhead being ground against a smithing wheel.
It did not take long for my hide to become tattered and bloody. For my eyes to fill with dirt and tears. I gnashed my teeth together and tried to think of Elsweyr. Tried to escape from the pain. It did not work.
Eventually, my skull hit a rock just right, and everything went black.
When I woke up, Renji was glaring at me. Yellow eyes narrowed.
“You are a fool, Kavaan,” she said.
I blinked a few times. Looked around. We were in a dark chamber shaped like a massive gourd. If I were a human, I am not sure I would have been able to see an inch in front of me. But my Khajiit eyes showed the shaggy gray outline of Renji’s crouched form. And behind her, at least two dozen other Khajiit.
All of them looking at me. All of them wary.
“That notion has some merit.” My hands were still bound behind my back, so I pressed my face gingerly against the rocky earth, testing the damage. I was torn up, but I would live. No broken bones, somehow. Just an army of bruises growing beneath my hide.
“Are you all right?” I asked Renji.
By way of answer, she spat on the ground in front of me. “I’d have preferred to die without having to see your cowardly face again.”
“I came to rescue you.”
“You came to try and wash the guilt from your heart. Instead you’ll just get to die in the darkness with the rest of us. I will not help you clean your conscience before our wretched end.”
Renji got up and walked to the far end of the cave, where she kept her back to me. I turned to the others.
“Why is Lothar keeping all of you down here?”
“Many reasons,” Na’vir—the youngest sister—answered. “None of them pleasant.”
“Sex?” I asked. It was not an uncommon desire.
But Na’vir shook her head.
“He does something with our claws. Something deep down in the mine. Something…evil.”
I noticed that almost all the Khajiit in the cave had makeshift, moss bandages plugged onto the tips of their fingers. The ones who didn’t carried scabs and scars from recent half-healed wounds.
A common housecat can be declawed once, and it is permanent. Khajiit are different. If you dig our claws from our hands, they will grow back within a few weeks—longer and more durable. It is a common practice among some more devout sects of the Whispering Fang Clan to declaw a pupil five or six times during adolescence, so that he may become more fearsome as an adult.
There are downsides, though. Infection is common. Dexterity and flexibility begin to suffer quite rapidly. The Whispering Fangs may be able to tear through steel armor, but some of them can barely hold a spoon for soup.
Plus I am told that there is nothing more painful than having your claws torn from your fingers.
“Lothar,” I said, “he hit me with a…force. I’ve never felt anything like it.”
Na’vir nodded gravely. “Lothar is most powerful. We are unable to stop him.” She swallowed, looked around at the others. “People have tried. Warriors, like you.”
I eyed the other Khajiit more carefully. I counted twenty seven, all told. Some were young and lean—they’d probably only been in the Mine for a few weeks. Others had gray fur and sagging eyebrows. Elders of some forgotten caravan.
“How long has he kept you down here?”
One of the older Khajiit looked over at me sadly. “Years,” he whispered. “Years and years. But there are rumors…hopes, maybe…that he is almost finished with us. We pray for a swift death. I cannot bear another visit from the milk skins….”
Rage boiled up inside of me, and I was about to head back up the dark passageway and kill the first person I met, but just then three big Nords slipped out of the darkness in unison, casting the shadow off their shoulders like it was a cloak. There was something strange about their creeping. Something unnatural.
Each of them had a long pair of iron pincers in one hand. One of them pointed at me with them.
“Boss says to take that one first.”
Two of them came around behind me and grabbed both of my arms. I tried to put up a fight, but found I had none left. They cut my bindings and held my wrists—squeezing expertly along the tendons that forced my claws to pop free.
Then the third Nord clamped down on my first claw with the iron pincers and pulled.