The Song of Deirdre – Chapter 9

 

Beneath Saarthal

 

The reality of an actual draugr was worse than even the darkest tale. The remains of a scraggly blonde beard hung from the creature’s skeletal cheek bones, and its desiccated lips were pulled back in a hideous sneer. Its ancient leather armor hung from it in tatters. A pestilential reek filled the chamber with the smell of rotting things.

The creature took a step toward me, then noticed Tolfdir to its right. It shouted, or tried to, as it closed on the old wizard. The sound was more like a cough or the bark of a dog. With one hand, the draugr grasped Tolfdir by the throat, shaking him as if he were a child’s doll, then threw him across the room. At the same time, I heard the coffins on either side of the room crack open. Now three draugr fixed me with their baleful stares. Instinctively, I backed toward the doorway so they couldn’t surround me.

Strangely, my fear had vanished and all I felt was anger. They wouldn’t kill me this day, nor would they harm Tolfdir. It was all I could do to keep from rushing headlong at them. I had felt this before, in the forest when thieves first accosted me, at Helgen when faced with my own beheading, in the Bannered Mare when I foolishly stood up to Avulstein. It was the anger that had been burning inside me since my parents’ deaths. Maybe it even explained what happened that day with Osmer.

I mastered the mad impulse to throw myself at the creatures, though grappling with draugr was the legendary way Nords dealt with the undead. Many were the stories of Nord heroes proving their strength and prowess by wrestling draugr to defeat, sometimes tearing them limb from limb. Yet that didn’t seem possible for someone of my stature, especially against three of the creatures. I still bore the Imperial sword I had acquired in Helgen, but that was more for show than anything. My bow was useless against three in these close quarters. My two spells of Destruction, sparks and flames, were probably too weak. I chided myself for refusing to learn the higher level Destruction spells. My vow to avoid killing now seemed foolish, especially when facing draugr. Why should I hesitate to kill what should already be dead?

Tolfdir struggled to his feet, distracting the one on the right, but the other two advanced on me. I could think of nothing better than to pull J’zargo’s flame cloak scroll from my pocket. He said the scroll contained a special surprise for undead, and I hoped he was right. Quickly I unrolled the parchment and read the words aloud. That’s the advantage of a scroll – no need to practice an incantation or train the mind on Aetherius. I didn’t even know what words I was reading, but their effect was immediate – and surprising.

The two draugr nearest me were just beginning to swing their weapons when they caught fire. So far so good. Then everything went bright orange as the draugr exploded and a fireball filled the room. I was blasted backwards and landed in the passageway, hair singed, robes smoldering, and skin blistered. I lost consciousness then, perhaps only for a few moments. Once I regained my senses I found it difficult to move. I looked at my scorched skin. It didn’t hurt much yet, but I knew that it soon would. Fortunately, using a scroll requires no magicka, so I had my full reserve left to cast a healing spell on myself. Immediately I felt better. Then I crept back toward the chamber, dreading what I might find.

Fortunately, Elders are tougher than they seem. Tolfdir was on his feet, looking nearly as burnt as I had been. He was using a ward to hold off the one remaining draugr. I notched an arrow to my bow and sent it between the draugr’s shoulder blades, felling it where it stood.

Tolfdir turned on me, looking as if he were ready to attack. “Why in Talos’ name did you do that, young lady? You nearly killed us both! It was a good thing I had cast stoneflesh on myself.”

I told him about the flame cloak scroll, and the surprise J’zargo had mentioned. Then I noticed how slowly the old wizard was moving. “Here, let me heal your wounds,” I said.

Tolfdir relaxed as the spell took its effect. “I forget you’re just a lass,” he said. “But there was no need to panic. Three restless draugr were nothing we couldn’t handle between us.”

There it was again – to the old wizard, I was a mere lass. And no wonder! Moments before, I had been filled with trepidation about the undead we might encounter and I had hesitated to put on the amulet. I had acted like a fearful young girl. But now the blood was rushing through my head and I was ready for anything.

“I beg your pardon, Master, but I didn’t panic,” I said. “I chose the best of my few weapons. Now, shall we get on with our exploration? We need to find this danger Nerien mentioned. And look, you were right about the coffins leading to further passageways.” I pointed at the coffin on the back wall. Its back was missing, and through it we could see another tunnel leading deeper into the catacombs.

“A moment ago you were all caution,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to enlist the aid of your fellow students?”

Between Brelyna’s difficulty with spell-casting, the near-disaster with J’zargo’s flame cloak, and Onmund’s concerns about exploring ancient crypts, I thought we might do better without them. “I’m ready to go. Are you with me?”

“Yes, by all means,” he said. “No one is more eager to explore Saarthal than I.” He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. “But in case we encounter more draugr, it would be wise for you to have a more effective offensive spell. Your vow to avoid Destruction magic is laudable, but I believe you need have no such concerns when it comes to undead.”

The old wizard taught me how to conjure a flame atronach. It was a simple incantation, and I was able to cast it successfully on my first attempt. First, there was a glowing ball of blue light, much like the one that had preceded Nerien’s appearance. Then within the blue light a bright orange flame took shape, growing and transforming into the form of a female demon of fire. The ball of blue light was gone, and the atronach floated a few inches above the floor, occasionally turning a back flip. It could cast its own fireball spells and provide a distraction for any enemies we might encounter in the tunnels ahead. It followed us as we stepped into the passage.

After a few twists and turns, the tunnel opened into the largest room we had yet seen. It was circular, with coffins lining the walls and a bridge spanning a wide, grate-covered hole in the middle of the floor.

It was a good thing the atronach was with us. As we stepped into the chamber, four coffins burst open, two on each side of the room, a draugr stepping from each.

Tolfdir was ready this time. “I’ll take the two on the right,” he said.

“And these two are mine,” I replied, notching an arrow to my bow. I felt remarkably calm considering these were only the second draugr I’d ever faced. My anger had now burned itself into an intense concentration and focus. It was as if the draugr moved in slow motion and I could see ahead through every step of the coming battle. All my movements were fluid and precise as I released my first arrow at the nearest draugr. At the same time, my flame atronach cast a firebolt at it, forcing it to stagger.

I turned my attention to the second draugr as it aimed an arrow at me. My arrow caught it first, knocking the bow from its grasp. It drew its battle axe and advanced on me. My second arrow hit it square in the chest, but it kept coming. The atronach, which by now had finished off the first draugr, cast its last firebolt, then vanished. Tolfdir had warned me that any conjured companion would remain for only a minute, and this one must have run its course. The draugr staggered and caught fire, then advanced again. I switched to a lowly flame spell, but it was enough to fell the creature just as it swung its axe at my head.

I turned to see how Tolfdir was faring. One draugr lay smoldering next to a wall, but the other had Tolfdir backed up against a coffin, hitting him with a spell of frostbite. The old wizard’s ward was protecting him so far, but who knew how long that would last?

The draugr’s back was to me. Without thinking, I crept up on it from behind, then leapt onto its back, dagger in hand. I drew the blade across its throat, expecting the creature to fall instantly. My plan would have worked, too, had the draugr been truly alive. But no blood flows through a draugr’s veins. There was no feeling of the blade cutting through sinew and muscle, as there had been with that torturer in Helgen. Instead, it felt as if the blade were grating across solid rock. And instead of a gush of blood, there was a mere puff of dust from the draugr’s throat as my blade came away.

Before I could react to this disappointing outcome, the draugr reached up and grabbed me by a shoulder, then quickly flipped me head over heels into the wall next to Tolfdir. I felt stunned, but there was no time to gather my wits. The draugr resumed its ice spell, which now sprayed across both of us. Tolfdir’s ward partially shielded me, but I could feel the energy draining from the exposed side of my body where the chilling blast hit it.

Maybe it was the anger still burning within me that kept me from freezing on the spot. With my unfrozen hand I cast a flame spell. It met the draugr’s ice spell, and for a moment the two spells met and blended between us, neither one able to reach its target. Then my spell began to win out, pushing closer to the draugr. When Tolfdir realized the ice spell was weakening, he dropped his ward and cast his own flame spell at the creature. The two spells together were too much, and the draugr dropped to the floor just as my magicka ran out. I was amazed that Tolfdir seemed still to have magicka in reserve, despite using spells throughout the battle.

“You acquitted yourself quite well there, young lady,” he said after we had brushed ourselves off and healed ourselves with potions and spells. I felt my magicka slowly returning. “You act as if you’ve been fighting undead your whole life. I’ve never seen anyone attack a draugr from behind like that! I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t distracted it.”

“Thank you, Master,” I said. It felt good to receive praise from such a respected wizard. “I was in a fight or two before I learned any magic.”

“Well, your magic skill is impressive as well. A few more months at the college and you will be a true Adept.”

He turned and surveyed the room. More unopened coffins lined the walls. On closer inspection, the grate at the center of the room covered not just a hole, but a deep chasm. A strange blue light glowed from deep within it. We avoided standing on it, lest the grate suddenly open and send us plunging to our deaths.

“This chamber is remarkable,” Tolfdir said. “Look at the stonework on these coffins! I’ve never seen anything like it. I feel I must spend more time studying this room. And someone needs to take care of all these corpses. It could take some time to burn their bodies to ash, which is the only sure way to keep draugr from coming back to life. It’s likely that we have some time before they stir themselves again, but it wouldn’t do to leave so many behind us as we advance.”

“What about the rest of these catacombs, and the danger Nerien mentioned?” I asked.

Tolfdir’s response caught me by surprise. “Push on ahead if you must,” he said. “I will follow when I can. And a word of advice: use your illusion and stealth abilities. You are a skilled young mage, but I wouldn’t want to see you confront a draugr death lord on your own.”

I didn’t stop to think about the old master’s sudden change from caution to recklessness. I pushed open the door and stepped into the next level of the catacombs.

 

*~*~*

 

Looking back, that decision to continue without Tolfdir seems like one of the more foolish of my life – up until then, at least. True, I had learned a bit of magic, and my stealth, agility, and skill with a bow stood me in good stead. But who knew exactly what lay in wait deeper in the ancient catacombs? Already we had encountered more than Tolfdir had foreseen. And the Psijics had warned of a danger ahead. Surely they meant something more dangerous than the draugr we had already encountered. If a powerful group of mages felt it was dangerous, how much more dangerous would it be for me? Yet I persisted. Why could I not have waited for Tolfdir? I can explain it only through the recklessness of my youth, and the anger that facing the draugr had yet to quench. I would master these catacombs, and prove to Tolfdir and the rest that I was no mere lass.

The door shut behind me, and I was alone – except for whatever draugr lay ahead. I took Tolfdir’s advice and cast the muffling spell on myself. Now I could move silently in addition to my natural stealth as I crept along the tunnels. The passage wound onward like the earlier ones. Here and there urns and pots lined the walls. Many contained a bit of gold or a potion. Yet somehow I began to think Onmund was right – maybe if I left the ancient Nords’ possessions undisturbed, they would do the same for me.

I came to a corridor with coffins tucked away in alcoves along its walls. If the corpses within were restless, would I be able to sneak past? There was only one way to find out. I crept cautiously into the room, but before I had gone far, I heard the crack of a coffin lid opening and a barking sound, similar to the one that first draugr made. I backed quickly into shadows as a draugr appeared ahead. It was looking in my direction, but I remained well hidden.

As it turned to search the other way, I released an arrow that caught it in the back, just beneath the shoulder blade. This is the advantage of a stealth attack – you have time to aim at the quarry’s weakest spots, thus dealing more damage. Whether draugr have weak spots I had yet to learn, but my shot stunned it for a moment before it turned on me. I got in another shot as it approached, then finished it with a burst of flame just as it spotted me. It didn’t even get in a swing of its axe. I looted its body. If the dead had no respect for the living, why should I have respect for the dead?

A little farther along the hall, I noticed a fire rune placed on the floor in a corner where the passage turned to the right. I peered around the corner, keeping clear of the rune, and saw two more draugr emerge from their crypts farther along the hall. My presence was enough to awaken them from their eons-long slumber, yet still they could not spot me. I backed around the corner and considered what to do.

I placed myself in one of the alcoves I had already passed, then loosed an arrow at the wall above the fire rune. My plan worked perfectly, the rune blasting both of the draugr as they went to investigate the sound, setting them alight. The ancient Nords had been cunning to place such magical wards, but not cunning enough to remember their location after years of undeath. It was an easy task to finish them with arrows and a further blast of fire.

Too easy, I began to think as I ascended a set of stairs to the second level of this chamber. Before I could get too carried away with confidence, I saw another draugr guarding a doorway beyond the top of the steps. He hadn’t noticed me yet, which was fortunate, since he looked more formidable than my previous foes. He wore a helm with tall, crown-like spikes and wielded a wicked-looking two-handed sword. He was standing right in front of the only exit from the chamber. Anything I did to distract him would draw his attention to me.

Suddenly, I did wish Tolfdir were with me, or one of my fellow students. It was unspeakably lonely in here with the draugr my only company. This seemed silly for a girl who had lived three years on her own. How could I be lonely now? Perhaps these weeks of companionship in Whiterun and the college had softened me. Now the anger that had fueled me through the earlier passages of these crypts seemed to lessen, and fear was taking its place. I shivered, beginning to feel how cold it was this deep underground. Could anger work like magicka, a power that I drew down until it was gone? If so, my reserves were nearly exhausted.

Then I remembered I could have a companion, albeit one I could never truly call friend. I conjured my flame atronach, aiming the spell so she would appear as far away from me as possible, out on a balcony that overlooked the passages through which I had just passed. Her glowing orange flame cheered me somewhat.

She caught the draugr’s attention as soon as she appeared, and he made his way toward her in that slow, awkward gait the draugr all seemed to have. Maybe being virtually ossified made them stiff. The atronach got in two firebolts as he approached. I remained hidden in the shadows at the top of the stair and began launching arrows at him as soon as he turned his back to me. Still, it was a tough fight, with the draugr dispelling my atronach then turning on me. He seemed in no hurry to die his second death.

I backed down the stairs, resorting to my flame spell. I kept blasting him while dodging blows from his sword as he descended after me. When I reached the first level, I nearly stumbled, and the point of his sword sliced my outstretched arm just below the shoulder. In the heat of battle I couldn’t feel much pain, but the sleeve of my robes quickly became wet with blood.

Still the draugr pressed forward, raising his sword with both hands for another swing. I tumbled to the side just in time, and came up ready to cast my flame spell again. The move put some distance between me and the undead creature, and he took a moment to gather himself for another charge. Maybe he was tiring after all. I blasted him yet again with a jet of flame, and he quickly went to one knee then fell backwards, dead once more.

My magicka was nearly gone, so I used a potion to heal myself. I could feel the wound on my arm closing, and the flow of blood slowing, then stopping completely. I felt a measure of energy returning too. I realized I had lost enough blood to begin to feel light-headed, though I hadn’t noticed it during the fight.

I considered waiting there for Tolfdir, but only for a moment. My foolish pride wouldn’t let me show weakness, though my enthusiasm for this project was waning. What was it the Psijic had said? That I was the only one who could prevent disaster. Then I had better get to the bottom of this mysterious danger, I told myself, even if I had to go to the deepest depths of Saarthal. I wouldn’t have Tolfdir accusing me of cowardice again.

Beyond the door the draugr had been guarding, the passages continued twisting and turning deeper underground, and my wonder increased at the size of this place, and at the skill required to delve it. And all of this to honor the dead! The ancients had taken many safeguards to protect the possessions of their departed as well. I began to find more of the magical traps as I went. One, a lightning rune by the look of it, was spread right across the middle of the floor, with no room to pass on either side. It was too large to jump as well. I didn’t want to try setting it off with a spell from distance, in case it awoke more draugr.  Instead, I tried sneaking over it, my healing spell at the ready in case it went off. But my stealth worked, and I was able to cross it unharmed.

Next I came to a spot where a portion of the flagstones in the floor seemed different than the rest, with a wider groove outlining it. I had heard about these pressure plate traps. Surely something terrible would happen if I stepped on it. I looked at the walls nearby and saw holes from which darts no doubt would shoot when the plate was depressed. I would never have seen it if I hadn’t been looking right at the floor as I crept forward. I crept carefully around it.

Now there were no coffins lining the walls, but sleeping draugr and skeletons lying in horizontal alcoves. It was like a dormitory for the dead. I muffled myself once again and hoped none of them would awaken. These must not have been quite so restless as the draugr in the earlier catacombs, because they slumbered on – or remained truly dead – as I passed.

Rounding a corner, I saw a portcullis blocking a doorway up ahead, and before it a series of pillars on each side of the room. Each pillar had three sides, each side bearing a skillfully carved engraving of a different beast: an eagle, a serpent, and a hwael, the great fish of the deep I recognized from childhood story books. A lever protruded from the floor directly in front of the door. I was ready to pull it when I noticed more dart holes in the walls on either side, pointing directly at me. Clearly the door was trapped, but how?

Guessing that the pillars had something to do with it, I examined them more closely. Each was set into an alcove, and the back wall of each alcove contained an image of one of the animals found on the pillars. I tested one of the pillars and found that it turned with just a slight push. The puzzle was too easy. I had only to turn the six pillars so that they matched the images on the walls behind them. That done, I pulled the lever and the portcullis rose from the doorway.

I was just beginning to hope that I had encountered my last restless draugr when I entered another large chamber. Two sets of stairs at the far end led up either side of a protruding balcony. A draugr, female this time, paced back and forth along it. Her yellow hair was braided in back, giving her a girlish look. Other than that, she looked formidable.

I was tired of fighting draugr, but I thought there was a way I could get around this one without a fight. When her back was turned, I fired an arrow into the far corner of the chamber. The steel arrowhead clattered against stone, and the draugr gave that distinctive bark as she advanced boldly down the left-hand stairs to face the threat. It seemed these ancient Nords were just as bright in death as modern Nords were in life. As she stared into the corner trying to puzzle out what could have made the noise, I crept up the other set of stairs and across the balcony, then through the door that led out of the chamber.

Down another set of stairs I found a chest. As I stooped to loot it, I heard footsteps behind me. I spun quickly, flame spell at the ready, to meet my attacker.

“I thought it was high time I caught up with you,” Tolfdir said, catching his breath. Then he noticed my startled expression. “What, did I scare you? Not a brave young lass such as yourself?”

“No, but I’ve been surprised by too many draugr so far to let myself relax,” I said. I didn’t want to admit how relieved I was to see him, even to myself.

“True – I saw the draugr corpses you left in your wake. I didn’t have time to deal with them properly. By the way, it wasn’t very polite of you to leave that last draugr wight.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” I said. “How did you get past it?”

“I have my ways,” he said, and winked.

“You seem as if you’ve faced draugr before,” I said, “even though you told us they were just legends.” Tired as I was, I was feeling a bit put-upon.

“Well spotted, young lady! I have faced many a draugr in my day. Skyrim is full of the creatures.”

“Then you lied to us.”

“A bit of a school-master’s trick, really,” the old wizard said sheepishly. “You see, I planned Saarthal as something of a test – one that you have passed with flying colors, by the way.”

“And what about the other students?” I couldn’t help wondering what they had been doing all this time. “Shouldn’t they have a chance to test their skill against the draugr as well?”

“Ah, you see, this is not just a test of skill, but also one of initiative. And you have shown more of both than I could have imagined. If your fellows had any initiative at all, they should have followed us by now. That was one reason I waited in that second chamber. I imagine they’re still in those storerooms, brewing a pot of masterwort tea. Now, shall we continue?”

I took the lead as we pressed ahead, still moving stealthily but more rapidly than I had when alone. I didn’t notice the pressure plate that I must have stepped on. I was too stealthy to set it off, but Tolfdir, following in my footsteps, received a barrage of darts. He had renewed his stoneflesh spell, or he might really have been hurt. I apologized for my oversight.

“Not to worry, young lady,” he said. “Your ability to creep over these traps is quite useful, no doubt. But maybe I should take the lead.”

Down another set of stairs we came out on a balcony overlooking the largest chamber yet. At its center was a dais encircled in a blue curtain of light. Within this wall, a large orb floated above the dais. It was taller than the tallest elf, and made of a lattice framework forming a perfect sphere. It was hard to see more detail with the blue shimmering light encircling it.

As I was taking all this in, Tolfdir spoke. “Amazing! What in the world is this thing? And why would the ancients seal it down here?”

While Tolfdir stared at the glowing ball, something else caught my attention, the thing we should have noticed first. Closer to the balcony where we stood, seated on an iron chair in front of a large stone table, was the largest and most fearsome draugr we had yet to see. He wore a viciously horned metal helm and elaborate armor. I couldn’t see his face because his head was down, as if asleep. I wondered forlornly if there was any chance he would remain asleep after hearing Tolfdir’s words.

I soon had my answer. While Tolfdir remained oblivious to the danger, the draugr raised its head and looked at him. Then with that familiar draugr bark, he rose from his chair and made for the stairs leading up to the balcony on the right. As he advanced, a swirling cloak of white frost enveloped him

“Master, look out!” I shouted, but there was no need. The draugr’s bark had roused Tolfdir from his reverie.

“Cast your atronach spell, Deirdre!” he called. “This fellow will have no chance against the three of us.”

I did as he asked, but our attacks seemed not to affect the creature. I hit it with several arrows, and the atronach got in three firebolts. Yet it still came at us up the stairs on the right, blasting Tolfdir with a frost spell as it advanced.

“It must take its energy from that orb,” Tolfdir said. “You keep him busy while I try to disable it.” The old wizard ran past me and down the other set of stairs, leaving us to do battle. Then the atronach disappeared in an explosion of flame, and the draugr and I had the balcony to ourselves. The creature advanced on me, preparing another frost spell.

I dashed down the stairs after Tolfdir. The draugr followed just as slowly as all the rest, and I knew I could evade it indefinitely. But I had to keep it away from Tolfdir without taking harm myself. I cast a new atronach at the top of the stairs, and we both kept it busy for a time, though our attacks had no effect.

“Now! Attack it now!” Tolfdir shouted. “The draugr should be vulnerable!”

Whatever the old wizard had done, it seemed to have worked, because the atronach’s next firebolt staggered our opponent. I launched another arrow as the creature remained stunned. Then the draugr’s defensive cloak changed from frost to fire, becoming a swirl of yellow flames whirling about its body. The atronach’s next bolt did nothing. The draugr closed on it and with a swing of its axe dispelled the fire demon back to Oblivion. Then it descended the stairs, intent on attacking me. I backed across the floor, but not too quickly. I didn’t want the draugr to attack Tolfdir. Whatever the old wizard was doing, he needed to keep doing it to sever the connection between the orb and the draugr. I narrowly avoided a blast of frost as I dodged around the table where the draugr had been sitting.

The draugr’s cloak shifted to the lightning element, enveloping it in sparks and wisps of dark cloud. I conjured my atronach once again, hoping that its firebolts would now do some damage. Then I began climbing the stairs, renewing my rain of arrows as I went. We could go around in circles up and down the stairs all day if necessary, or until I ran out of arrows. Finally, the undead Nord weakened and went to one knee. The atronach’s next firebolt blasted him into a corner beneath the stairs.

I went over to the draugr’s body and looked down on it, wondering who he had been in life. Surely a prince or a king, he was so powerful in death, and to be locked away here with this magical orb. I searched his body, and among the other loot found a broken amulet and a note. It was labeled “writ of sealing” and it contained these words:

Be bound here, Jyrik Gauldurson, murderer and betrayer,

Condemned by your crimes against realm and lord.

May your name and deeds be forgotten forever

And the charm which you bear be sealed by our ward.

Whoever Jyrik Gauldurson had been, that mystery would have to wait for another day. Another mystery was the powerful-looking staff the draugr had left on the table in front of him. Why hadn’t he picked it up and used it? I showed it to Tolfdir.

“That looks like it could be useful,” the old wizard said. “Why don’t you show it to Tergius to identify the enchantment for you? It seems a fitting reward for your efforts here today.”

“Thank you, Master,” I said, admiring the gem that crowned the staff.

“Now what about this orb?” said the old wizard. “It’s even more of a mystery.”

The curtain of light had disappeared now, and I could see the orb more clearly. It was covered in strange runes.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I have no idea! It’s powerful, whatever it is. I dare not leave it unattended, but we have to alert Savos Aren to its existence right away. Deirdre, I want you to make your way back to the college as quickly as possible and tell the arch-mage of our find.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and turned to head up the stairs. I was looking forward to finding the other students to see how they were faring and tell them of our adventure.

Tolfdir stopped me. “I believe you’ll find that the quickest way out of a Nord catacomb is to continue to its end. The ancients almost always included shortcuts back to the surface just where you think you’ve reached the farthest point of the labyrinth. That door beyond the orb should lead you to your goal.”

I took his suggestion and left through the doorway, thinking I would soon be back to the regular world of snow and trees and rocks. I had had enough of mystery and adventure for one day. But I had one more puzzle to encounter as I made my way into the next chamber. Down another flight of stairs stood a curved wall bearing more strange markings. As I approached I heard a distant chanting that grew louder and louder. Three of the runes on the wall began to shimmer, sending streamers of light toward me. Then I heard a word – or a single syllable – in a language I didn’t recognize, though it seemed somehow familiar: “Iiz.The shouted syllable echoed in my mind as I stared at the wall. Then the chanting and the light faded, and everything seemed as before.

“Iiz,” I thought. What could it mean? And what was this wall? Did it have the same effect on every passerby? How long had it been since any had come this way?

Standing there pondering these questions was getting me nowhere, so I continued along the passageway that ascended from the chamber. I soon found myself emerging through a door into the first room we had entered, the one with the stone faces. My friends were nowhere to be seen, and I guessed they must still be deeper within. As much as I wanted to see them, I had to get Tolfdir’s message to Savos Aren.

I emerged from Saarthal into the frozen world of Winterhold in late afternoon, glad to breathe fresh air once again. Even the cloud-covered sky cheered me after that dark underworld. The walk back to the college didn’t seem so daunting, tired though I was.

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