Balen used his spare time in waiting for the air to clear out and the others to gather to do two things: to eat another smoked sardine, for the man he had bought them from had done a very good job in preparing them, and to reassess his previous observations on his colleagues, for first impressions could be deceiving. But, as it often were, it seemed to him that his first impressions weren't really wrong. They were all brought together by a need for money (although Balen liked to tell himself that his pursuit was borne out of a scholarly concern, and maybe, just maybe, a slight need for adrenaline), which meant that they were either banal or despicable. For a moment he evaluated whether the two were different or not, but realized that his snobbery and ego had not swollen enough for him to actually believe that banality was despicable. He found it relieving to see that he had not yet become a complete ass.
He looked over the bunch by the campfire. An Imperial, a Nord, a Bosmer, a Khajiit and a Breton sitting together; the sort of diversity you'd only see in an adventuring party, or a joke about stereotypes. Of course, the fact that the party indeed looked true to stereotype did in fact seem funny to Balen; the Nord had taken his lineage to heart by being coarse and oafish, the haute-couture Breton and the Imperial looked like they could cut themselves at any moment to prove that they bled blue, the Bosmer was not much more than a solitary predator and the Khajiit... Wait, where was she?
“You sure you don’t want me to take a quick look ahead, make sure there’s no hazards?”
“Isn't she a gem,” Balen thought to himself, staying out of the conversation. It was directed at the other Imperial, who was stereotypical in his own way, that being of the Legion. Not that he could criticize that; uniformity was key to organized armies, and the Legion was likely the finest example in recent memory. It would be foolish to expect a defective, unique product from an organization whose defining strength was hammering everything to strict shape and order.
The Khajiit was unique in that she actually used personal pronouns unlike most other Khajiit, but aside from that, she didn't strike him as much, aside from 'useful'. Balen dismissed her proposal to venture before everyone as either material or emotional greed; either she wanted to take a peek inside for any potential loot that would be just laying there, or she just wanted to look good in the eyes of the group so she could fulfill her desire for attention or have a good reason for asking for a bigger share. “Maybe she genuinely wants to help,” Balen thought for a moment, but then again, it was the Fourth Era, and he had plenty of good experience to be pessimistic. Plus, it was the crux of his world view that everything and everyone was terrible - it was almost heretical to actually expect someone to do something out of the kindness of their hearts, and not get punished for it. Then again, that could be the case. “Let's see what Hector says. Maybe I'm right and she's a bitch, or maybe I'm right and she dies.”
He pitied himself for having to rely on being right all the time (Balen pitied almost everything for a plethora of reasons, but he himself took the brunt of it, being the main object of attention in his life), or deluding himself with confirmation bias to make things right in his perspective. Being right, knowing the truth; these were almost the only comforts of his existence. The fact that his happiness and interests could be summed as such, that he could be devalued to such simplicity was truly insufferable.
“Such is life, Balen. Just go along and bear it.”
In the meanwhile, Hector had taken to evaluating this volunteer's capabilities through verbal questioning. The Khajiit claimed that she had experience in this sort of matter. Balen was at a win-win situation when it came to the possibilities; either she would help disarm any possible traps, and make the journey easier, or she would die and Balen would be once more proven right that good intentions got you killed (it'd require some wishful thinking that she was really a good person if that were to be the case, but it's not like Balen found her unique enough to try and learn about her after her death).
Then suddenly, another joined the conversation. As if there was a challenge on who was the most fleet-footed, the Bosmer had come to passively challenge the Khajiit's offer with concerns. Balen wasn't sure which he favored more; the Khajiit struck Balen as a person who talked the talk but could walk the walk, and she seemed to respond well to the Bosmer's questions. As they talked and the topics changed, Balen wondered if he should eat another sardine or not. He decided not to; he didn't feel very hungry and it would likely leave a bad impression.
It was decided that the Khajiit would go forward; Balen sensed enthusiasm, and within that enthusiasm a desire to impress, in the way she acted after Hector gave her the opportunity. A faint smile crept up on the edges of his mouth as he listened to the Legionnaire's politically correct and diplomatic answers to the Bosmer's statements. In a way it was like watching an acrobat's performance - picking the right footing, trying not to slip up. He found the inertia too strong as Hector went with the Bosmer, Sjara, to sit by the campfire. For a moment or two he stood still, but standing out like a sore thumb in the presence of others who sat and relaxed felt awkward and possibly challenging - an impression he did not want to leave. He sat down in the spot where he had been standing up, watching the Khajiit disappear deeper into the tomb.
He thought of the sardine again.
For some reason, being inside the tomb felt less tense than waiting to get inside the tomb; whereas they had been waiting on the edge of possible danger, now that they were within the tomb, the possibility had become a likelihood, and there was a certain serenity in knowing that, in accepting it as a workplace hazard. Of course, there was now the tension of misstepping, or the tension of stumbling onto some deadly trap or inhospitable occupants, and it was not much different, but Balen had prepared himself mentally, and it was not as if he was entirely inexperienced in this line of work. As he followed the party and the trail of leaves both, he realized that he'd been stuck amongst the 'snobs' of the party, as it were. “Am I a snob?” Balen thought to himself. “Do I look like a snob? Do I leave the impression of a snob?”
He found himself less troubled by the question now that the architecture of the room had changed to something more majestic and intimidating. He took a few steps forward to better see it, standing behind Hector, and momentarily raised a brow with an almost inaudible 'huh' upon seeing some unorthodox tiles hurt the uniformity of the floor. Before he could voice his concerns, however, the Imperial gave a preemptive answer; this made Balen retroactively realize that he wasn't going to voice his concerns anyway. He kept quiet as he followed the group, still thinking whether he was a snob or not, although a part of him hated himself for bothering his mind with such inane questions.
Thankfully, the Nord gave him a definitive answer for his lingering question; he politely reminded to Balen that this was not the place to think of such things and focus on the mission, because now something bad was going on, with pieces of masonry being thrown around loudly, accentuated by the bellows of the barrow's inhabitants. And all this, the man had managed to do with a simple step. Balen realized just how prejudiced he was about the man's intellectual capability, and thought to congratulate the man on how cripplingly effective and simple his rhetoric was, but feared that his sincere and heartfelt appreciation could be misjudged in the heat of the moment, and thus merely kept quiet and unsheathed his 'dagger'. The new sources of light in the room gleamed malevolently off the cheek of the wide blade. He could see his own reflection in it, and for a moment felt empowered by just how scary he looked in torchlight.
Balen composed himself. This was no time for contemplation - there were eight undead Nords and one big, ugly bastard of an undead Nord moving in to deal grievous harm, and he was amongst their potential targets. Balen let out a sigh of relief, now that the possibility of him fucking up was overridden by someone else, and the danger of death was no longer a potential but a certainty; he could die without fear or guilt, even though he did not plan to do so in the near future. A wise smile creeped up on his face as he gauged his admittedly slow and unnerving opponents, although the tension was suddenly broken by the Khajiit engaging the fight and absolutely wrecking one ancient Nord warrior. They were almost pitiful-
Narrowly dodging the blade of a slack-jawed Draugr, Balen found himself engaged in combat sooner than he had expected. Pissed off at the undead for trying to take his life, Balen sprung his sword arm back, almost stuffing the Breton mage's belly with a debilitating elbow of Dunmer muscle and bone in the process, and plunged the wide blade deep into the once-Nord's guts, piercing right through his ancient armor. The Draugr let out a rather disgusting bellow, and lurched back with Balen's Goliath of a dagger stuck in its stomach. “Sorry!” He exclaimed to the Breton right afterwards, not wanting to be the guy who almost knocked the wind out of a colleague and didn't even apologize, and quickly moved forward to take his blade back from the Draugr's stomach.
Unnaturally protective of a blade tearing its guts apart (then again, what wasn't unnatural about the undead?), the revenant tried to push Balen away, but the Dunmer would have none of it. Before the Draugr could retreat to amongst its comrades and leave him unarmed, Balen grabbed onto the hilt of his blade and began pulling, although it seemed that the blade was lodged in too deep and in a rather awkward angle, scraping against the laminar plates covering the Draugr's torso. After tugging back and forth for a moment, the Draugr slapped Balen with a backhand, which really set the Dunmer off.
Bringing his left arm back and swinging his meanest hook, Balen scowled as he came face to face with the baleful, and perhaps a tad dull, gaze of the long-undead Nord. His fist bashed strong against the Draugr's cheek - perhaps too strong, as with the impact came a cacophony of breaking bones, and the Draugr's neck jolted askew, its head hanging off nearly behind its shoulder, its spine shattered. It took some awkward steps forward, likely about as confused as the one who dealt the strike, and dumbfounded. Balen was unsure whether to feel approving or disgusted of the sight, and wanting for it to end, pulled his blade back with a stronger, uninterrupted effort, freeing his blade, and the Draugr's intestines, from the oppressive regime of the revenant's armor and stomach. Black, almost goo-like blood spilled forward from the Draugr's lower torso, and with that, its cut-up, rotten guts splashed onto the stone floor like some sacrificial offering. Completely disemboweled and with its spine shattered, the forces at work that kept the Nord's life bound to the desiccated body let their grasp, and the revenant first fell on its knees, and then collapsed face-first onto the floor over its spilled guts, its neck flailing forward with the forward momentum and hitting the floor a moment after the rest of the body.
Balen retreated and tucked himself back into formation in slight disbelief, his weapon's blade black with antediluvian blood.