The Campfire is a new column where we regale you with tales of our video game adventures. In ‘The Longest Climb,’ the Khajiit adventurer M’Rohk attempts to climb to the top of Skyrim’s tallest mountain, and finds himself wishing he’d chosen a different career.
The villagers of Ivarstead told me that I would have to climb 7,000 steps to get to the temple of High Hrothgar. Having become accustomed to the comforts of horseback, I wasn’t thrilled at the idea, but it had to be done: the Greybeards wouldn’t stop with the world-rocking shouting until I went up there and told them to put a lid on it. I hadn’t had an uninterrupted catnap in six days, and I was more than a little grumpy. Heck, maybe the climb would do me good: nothing but good exercise, clean mountain air, and meditative silence. There are worse jobs, like the skooma processing plant I worked in as a cub. But that’s another tale. Suffice it to say that despite getting a measly 12 hours of sleep the night before, I was going in with a good attitude, ridiculous stair count be damned. And while I’d heard tales of dangerous frost spirits, I figured it wasn’t anything that my bodyguard-cum-pack-mule Lydia and I couldn’t handle. So up we went.
At first my optimism seemed to be well placed; it was a pleasant trek with gorgeous vistas, and the monsters we encountered weren’t too much trouble, though I found myself wishing I had focused on martial pursuits instead of blacksmithing and the arts of acquisition.
It was around step 2000 that we heard the dragon cry.
At first I couldn’t spot it, but then I saw its blue outline over the forest past Iverstead. He seemed to be approaching the village, and my immediate reaction was to run down and save the town. But I realized that by the time I managed to retread my steps, I’d be too winded to put up a decent fight. Plus, I’m not even sure I could take it in peak condition. I’d only fought two dragons before; in the first battle I was supported by a small army, and the second encounter was with some sort of whelp who would have had trouble burning down a farmhouse. So I moved on. I kept an eye on the dragon, of course, but he seemed occupied with freezing villagers with his ice-breath, and eventually I put him out of my mind.
Until maybe step 2700 (rough guess – I’d long stopped counting by this point), when I was slowing to a stroll on a landing, admiring the view, when two tons of predator landed 20 feet in front of me and let out a roar.
Even with the slight opening of the path, there wasn’t much room to maneuver. The best I could do was to throw myself against an overhang that just barely broke my line of sight to the dragon. I was prepping a firebolt (my best defense at this point, particularly if – as I suspected – this was a frost dragon) when I saw Lydia run past me, sword at the ready, shouting some ridiculous threat as she charged into the fray. I wasn’t surprised. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a nice girl and a loyal companion, but she’s a few kwarma eggs short of a meal, if you know what I’m saying. It was useless to try and stop her.
I heard the sounds of a scuffle, and then silence; Lydia was down. The dragon took off, flew over me, turned, and hovered; I let off a charged firebolt and desperately looked for another piece of cover, but saw nothing but a thin pine grove. I was dead before I reached the nearest tree.
Now, for those who have never had the pleasure, let me tell you: dying is not fun. It is cruel, it is painful, and you never get used to it. Sure, if you make it to 60, you can maybe kick the bucket in your sleep. But at my age, in my profession, you tend to get disemboweled. And while the gods have granted me the seemingly unique ability to reappear moments before my death, it’s a curse as much as a blessing. You think being frozen to death once is bad? Try 20.
Incidentally, this is about how many times I died on that little chunk of mountain. The dragon was bigger than me, stronger than me, and could kill me with about three seconds of his (really quite awful) breath. If we’d been in a fort I might have been able to slowly pick it off with arrows, or hide out until it got bored and went in search of an easier meal. Here, on an icy ledge 8,000 feet above sea level, there was nowhere to go but down.
So I ran. Well, jogged, really; I had tweaked my ankle a bit on the way up and wasn’t capable of an out-and-out sprint. I felt bad leaving Lydia, but staying was suicide. So I moved along until I found a better piece of cover.
This gave me enough time to get off one arrow before the dragon managed to find a good angle of attack. I finally realized that I simply wasn’t going to be able to perform hit and run attacks like I wanted. Rather, “run-and-run” attacks seemed to be the order of the day, which consisted of me hobbling along as fast as I could, zigzagging between trees and behind rocks to prevent the dragon from just outright strafing me, occasionally flinging a poorly-aimed firebolt over my shoulder. This went on for a while; it ends up that, yes, 7000 steps is quite a lot, and it’s that much worse when you’re not going in anything resembling a straight line.
Finally, I got to a proper rest stop; it contained an inscribed pedestal, used to guide the Greybeard’s few pilgrims in some sort of meditative ritual. And, lo and behold, a pilgrim was there. I ran up to her, dragon hot on my heels, catching my breath to warn her of the coming danger. Before I could, she turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said “You ought to be careful. I hear there’re wolves in these parts.”
I didn’t need to point out her powers of understatement, as the dragon chose that moment to crest the horizon, and all either one of us could think about was getting the hell out of there. Fortunately, I realized the pedestal presented my first decent cover opportunity; if I placed myself between it and the surrounding trees, the dragon shouldn’t have an easy shot with his frost breath assault. Meanwhile, the pilgrim was demonstrating considerably more intelligence than Lydia (who was nowhere to be seen – probably dead) by running down the mountain as fast as her legs could carry her. Thankfully for my conscience (if not my body) the dragon ignored her.
Recognizing that it couldn’t get a clear shot at me it did the next best thing; it landed smack-dab in front of the pedestal. Before I knew what was happening, it leaned over stone structure (which now seemed almost comically small) and ate me in one gulp. But, small blessing, I passed out from his unbelievably foul breath before his teeth had ground my carcass into bones.
That was the last straw. I couldn’t take it anymore. My pride, my competitive streak, my desire to not have this dragon kill every living thing on this mountain; all of these were subsumed by my desire to get the hell away from its gaping maw. So I fled up the mountain, and this time, I didn’t look back. The steps started flying by. I was operating on auto-pilot now, weaving between trees, going eternally up and clockwise. Finally, I made it to some sort icy ravine. I started looking to see if there was a place I could properly hide out in, when I realized that I could no longer hear the beating of wings. I was free.
Relief washed over me, but it was quickly replaced with doubt. Was I doing the right thing? What if Lydia was still alive? What if Iverstead was still in danger? A part of me kept insisting that I had played the coward; that I could take that dragon down if I fully committed yourself. You know how it is; once the pain is made distant, all you can think about is the potential for glory.
As I stood there, looking down the mountain and imagining my chances if I were to reverse direction, I heard a snort. Before I could turn around, *something* whacked me so hard across the back that my vision reeled. I spun, now bleeding profusely…and found myself face to face with an ice troll.
Suddenly, I found the decision surprisingly easy to make. I fled down the mountain, ice troll in hot pursuit, hoping against hope that the dragon had cleared out. Inevitably, this was not to be; and before long I was leading a beast train, with the dragon spurting all the ice it could muster as the troll lumbering, slowly but steadily, after me.
The dragon landed again, preparing to finish me off. I realized that this was the place where I had first encountered him and, fatalistically, slouched back to the old overhang. I could buy a few seconds here; but either he was going to lumber over here and sit on me, or I’d be left exposed for the next – and last – aerial assault.
It never came. I heard the troll let out a roar; it had caught up with the dragon, and had apparently decided that the nearest meal must be the easiest. The dragon turned to face its new foe. The troll delivered a flurry of blows; and after all of a three-second assault, the dragon let out a final bellow and died.
It was as miraculous as it was anticlimactic. I’d been fighting this damn thing for hours, and then this upstart troll comes along and one-hit backhands him? He had just saved my life, of course, but all I could think about was that he stole my kill. I stepped out and let off all the fire I could muster. Unfortunately for the troll, I could move faster than him; and with nothing but his claws for defense, the battle was over before it started. As the troll fell, I felt a certain amount of pride restored. I had killed my killer’s killer. I’m not sure what that meant, but it felt good.
At that moment, Lydia came charging around the corner, sword at the ready. She seemed disappointed that she had missed the battle. I didn’t even bother to ask where she had been.
All I could think about was that I still had 5000 steps to go.