The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 12


Bleak Falls Barrow


“Deirdre! It’s so good to see you,” Gerdur exclaimed, hugging me, then pulling me into her house. “Hod, look after Deirdre’s horse,” she called to her husband, then turned back to me. “What are you doing here? We heard you had gone to the college. I expected your studies would keep you there for months, through the winter at least.”

I had ridden straight to Riverwood after learning about the Dragonstone. Jarl Balgruuf gave me the use of the horse I had ridden from Winterhold, so I made good time.

“No, I came back to help with the dragon,” I said, setting my knapsack and weapons by the door.

She nearly gasped. “We heard about the attack in the western hold. Such a tragedy.”

When I told her my purpose, she did gasp. “No, Deirdre. You cannot go there, not alone. It’s filled with thieves. Not even the guards will go up there. You must be joking!”

“I assure you I’m serious,” I said. “I’m off at dawn. I was just hoping to spend the night.”

We spent the rest of the evening and far into the night trading stories of the last months. For her part, there wasn’t much to tell. Life went on in Riverwood much as before, but with more guards in the village. Ralof had set off for Windhelm shortly after I left for Whiterun. Gerdur had no news from him, but that was as expected. They both felt it was too dangerous to send letters back and forth, even between neutral and Stormcloak territories. The Thalmor could still be anywhere.

Her eyes grew wide when I told her about Saarthal. I tried not to boast but it was hard not to. Facing those draugr had been no easy task. Too, any Nord man would boast of defeating them, increasing his share of glory – why shouldn’t I?

“All those draugr!” she exclaimed. “I can hardly believe it. Just hearing old stories about them makes Ralof tremble. And you fought them, by yourself?”

“Only some of them,” I assured her. “Tolfdir was there to help with the others.”

It was late before I went to my rest. I still found sleep difficult, despite all these weeks sleeping in a bed.

The sun was just lighting the highest peaks and spreading a gray light through the valley as Gerdur and I crossed the bridge over the White River the next morning. She had come to see me off after feeding me a hearty breakfast. Now she pointed out the path on the left that led up into the mountains across the river.

“Are you sure you don’t want Hod to come with you, or one of the village lads?” she asked for the tenth time. Hod had looked a bit ill when she brought it up last night, although he had agreed to Gerdur volunteering his company. I had rejected the offer then, as I rejected it now. I was planning to use stealth as far as possible, and I didn’t need any hulking Nords lurching about.

“Gerdur, I’ve told you, I’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ll come back as soon as I have the tablet.” With that I turned and walked up the path.

It was a fine Frostfall morning in southern Skyrim, a welcome change from the permanent snows of Winterhold. The air was cool and crisp, but promised to grow warmer as the sun rose higher. The few beeches and maples that grew in this evergreen forest were a riot of reds and yellows, and the path was thick with fallen leaves. After all the riding I had been doing lately, it felt good to stretch my legs as I walked up the trail. It seemed a good morning for an adventure, and I tried to keep the brave face I had shown to Gerdur.

I had been walking for half an hour, climbing steeply as the path wound between boulders and around granite buttresses, when a stone tower came into view. It stood at a hairpin bend in the trail, and blended in to the gray rock of its surroundings. It was a simple matter to climb straight up the slope and meet the trail farther up, bypassing the tower and the two bandits outside it. They didn’t notice me.

A short distance farther, the trail emerged from the trees into a patch of old snow directly beneath the summit ridge. Bleak Falls Barrow straddled that ridge, with tall stone arches leading to the main entrance, stone dragon heads adorning the peak of each arch. It seemed a good place to find a dragonstone tablet. Stairs climbed up through the arches, with three bandits standing watch along them. One passed back and forth in front of the great iron doors set in the face of the mountain.

This would bear some study. The stairs were open, with no walls or other obstacles to hide behind. I doubted that even my skill in stealth would allow me to climb the open stairway right in front of the guards in the growing daylight. I dared not spend an invisibility potion before I had even entered the barrow. Then I noticed a series of ledges to the side of the entrance. If I could make my way up them, I could come around to the doors from that side.

The climbing was easy, and I soon found myself peering around a corner at the walkway in front of the entrance. Now I had only to wait for the guard to pace off in the other direction, creep over to the door, open it a crack ever so quietly, and slip through it. That done, I found myself in Bleak Falls Barrow, with my eyes adjusting to the dim torch light.

At first glance, this barrow was much the same as the Saarthal catacombs – the same combination of carven arches and buttresses and rough-hewn stone. Time had taken its toll here, even more so than in Saarthal, with great webs of stout roots covering the ceiling and snaking across the floor, making walking difficult. Some of the stone work had tumbled from the walls. One was a dragon head similar to those on the archways outside. Unlike the realistic image of a dragon head that loomed over Dragon Bridge, this one was stylized, almost bird-like, its open mouth like a curved beak. Maybe it was a bird and I had let dragons take over my imagination.

Whatever it was, it made a good hiding spot from which to eavesdrop on two bandits at the far end of the chamber. They were arguing, something about one of their colleagues named Arvel, who had disappeared into the barrow and never returned. Another bandit had just been sent to fetch him back. The woman was concerned about getting her share of “that claw.” Then I remembered the golden claw that had been stolen from Riverwood Traders, and how much Lucan the shop-keeper wanted it back. So much had happened since my first day in Riverwood that it had slipped my mind. Could this be the same one? At any rate, it would interfere with my plans for sneaking through Bleak Falls Barrow, for now I would have to contend with living bandits as well as sleeping draugr.

These two stood at a table near the only exit from the chamber, an archway leading to descending stairs. They were so rapt by their argument that I crept almost to the doorway before they had any hint of my presence. Then I heard one of them say “What was that?” and the unmistakable snicking sound of a sword being drawn from its leather scabbard.

I had been practicing tumbling silently, and now I put the skill to good use. I rolled head over heels down the stairs, away from the bandits. A torch burned in a wall sconce at the top of the stair, but the hall beyond was lost in shadow. To the thieves, I would appear as just a flicker of movement seen out of the corner of their eye – or so I hoped as I crept deeper into the shadows and around a corner. I heard them following me partway down the stairs.

“Huh,” said the man. “Must have been nothing.”

“Probably just a rat, or a skeever,” said the woman. Then they retreated to their entrance chamber.

If the rest of the thieves in this barrow were as dim as these two, I should have no trouble – as long as they didn’t awaken every draugr in the place.

A twisting passage led deeper into the barrow. Black coffins rested in alcoves here and there, but if the thieves hadn’t disturbed anything resting within, I doubted I would either. The dragon busts continued to adorn the walls here and there. Whoever had built this catacomb, dragons were constantly on their minds. Maybe they even worshipped them.

I soon came upon another bandit standing at a narrow bend in the passage. There was no way past without brushing against him. If it came to battle his shouts would attract the other two, and my prospects against three were slim. This one paced back and forth, a fearful look on his face. “Why’d they have to send me? Why did that Arvel have to run off with the claw?” Great – a cowardly thief was going to block me in my quest for the stone tablet. What did they want here, anyway? Surely not the Dragonstone? They must have heard of some valuable treasure buried here.

Finally, the thief pulled a flask from his pocket and took a long pull. A half smile spread across his face, and his eyes took on a faraway look. I guessed that was neither ale nor wine in the flask, not even brandy – but skooma, the banned concoction the Khajiits made in Elsweyr. I had heard that it brought on an instant state of bliss, but it would soon enslave its devotees in an endless quest for more and more of the drink.

Now the bandit walked off down the tunnel as if he hadn’t a care in the world. I followed silently, but kept my distance, soon coming to a second chamber. A portcullis barred an archway at the far end. A pedestal with a lever sticking out of it stood in the center, and more of the three-sided pedestals I’d seen in Saarthal. Two carven Nordic faces overlooked the portcullis. These had gaping mouths and within each was one of the three animal engravings found on the pedestals. A third face with a serpent in its mouth had fallen to the floor, near the portcullis,.

While I knew the method for getting past this gate trap, the bandit didn’t seem to, or had forgotten in his drug-addled state. He walked up to the lever and pulled it before I could even think to warn him, and then think better of that. The portcullis remained closed and a hail of darts converged on the thief from four directions. He fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Solving the puzzle was simple, and I passed through the archway into the chamber beyond. Only then did I pause to wonder how the first thief had passed through here, leaving the door trap in place for those who followed. I found the answer in the form of a lever on the wall just beyond the doorway. I pulled it and the portcullis slid back into place, while the sound of pillars turning on their bases came from the room beyond.

On the opposite side of the chamber I found a circular flight of wooden stairs descending to the level below. Now the passages became thick with cobwebs and the bodies of small dead things wrapped in spider silk. I had battled plenty of frostbite spiders in the open forest, and I knew they were difficult to sneak past. I would have to be doubly wary here, where one could be hiding in any alcove or turning of the passage.

Finally I came to an archway blocked by a densely woven web. I burned it away with a flame spell, and crept into the chamber beyond. It seemed empty at first, but then the ceiling began to move. It descended toward the chamber floor and I quickly realized it wasn’t the ceiling, but the largest frostbite spider I had ever seen. Gerdur and Hod would have had difficulty fitting it into their lumber wagon.

I had a moment to unsling my bow as it continued its descent. As soon as it hit the floor two things happened – I launched an arrow at it, and it spat a great green gob of poison toward me. I was the quicker, and ducked back through the doorway as the spot where I had been standing was splattered with toxic goo.

Now the spider’s monstrous size proved its undoing. It charged toward the doorway but couldn’t fit through. I stood off to one side where it couldn’t aim its jets of poison and took the precaution of quaffing a potion of poison resistance. I drew my sword and hacked at one of its forelegs protruding through the opening. The spider drew back and I heard it scuttling back into its chamber. Switching back to my bow, I peered around the archway into the room, only to see more green poison flying toward me. I drew back just in time. Then I stepped into the room and let fly an arrow in the direction from which the poison had come. The arrow landed a solid hit and I darted back into the corridor as the spider launched itself at the doorway once more.

In this way the battle went back and forth. The spider struck me once with its remaining foreleg when I was too slow to retreat, but it was a mere flesh wound. Finally, when I had spent my eighth or ninth arrow, the spider shuddered to the floor and breathed its last poison-spittled breath.

I was retrieving what arrows I could from it, when I heard a voice.

“That took you long enough! Now get me down from here!”

I looked around the room and saw a doorway on the far side, blocked by webs. This time something was moving within them. I stepped closer and saw that it was a man. Only his head and one hand were visible.

“You must be Arvel,” I said to him. “You appear to be in my way.”

Now that he could get a good look at me, he saw I wasn’t one of his band of thieves. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Never mind, just get me down from here. I have the claw, and I can show you how to use it.”

There was that claw again. What was it, and why should I want to know how it worked? Still, it didn’t seem like a bad idea to retrieve it for Lucan, and the thief was blocking the entrance. I drew my dagger and began hacking at the webbing, to many protests that the blade was coming too close.

Finally Arvel had the use of his arms and legs once more, and the passage was free of webs. But as soon as I sheathed my dagger, he turned and fled down the corridor. “You’ll have to catch me before you get the claw,” he called over his shoulder. “That treasure is mine!” There is honor among thieves, or so the old adage goes. For my part, I had found it to be mostly true, but perhaps Arvel had never heard it.

I nearly ran after him, but then stopped when I remembered what might be deeper within the barrow. The coffins had remained sealed so far, but who knew what lay ahead? It didn’t do to go running and yelling through Nord catacombs. Perhaps Lucan would have to get his own claw back. It had nothing to do with me. I crept silently after the deceitful thief.

I had not gone far when I heard screams from farther down the passage, accompanied by the clash of weapons. Then all was silent once more. Arvel had found someone, whether dead or living I could not be sure. I crept ahead, using every bit of stealth I knew. The spider webs gave way and I came to another coffin leaning up against a wall. It remained undisturbed, but I guessed that the foolish thief had awakened a draugr farther along.

Peering around a corner into a wider hall, I saw that I was right. The chamber was lined with numerous alcoves containing sleeping draugr and skeletons. Two of them were empty. Arvel lay in a pool of blood farther down the hall, his leather armor rent in too many places to count. The two awakened draugr stood in the hall facing each other, one at either end, as if guarding the thief’s body. Unfortunately, the one at the far end blocked the exit so completely I doubted even my invisibility potion would allow me to sneak past. And it seemed a shame to leave the dead thief in possession of the golden claw when Lucan wanted it back so badly.

If only Illusion worked on the undead! This would be a perfect spot in which to cast a fury spell and set the two draugr to fighting each other. Then I realized I could perhaps achieve the same result without magic. The draugr at the far end of the hall stood next to an open gate outfitted with vicious looking spikes. In the center of the floor was a pressure plate like the ones in Saarthal. Though it was an obvious trap, the draugr stood there, bow at the ready, oblivious to its peril. A plan began to form in my mind.

I crept into the room, ready to conjure an atronach should I be discovered. There was just enough space behind the draugr on my end of the hall for me to creep into place behind and just to one side of it. I thought the draugr archer at the opposite end might see me, but either my stealth was too good or the light was too dim. The two draugr kept staring at each other.

So I waved my arms at the one across the hall.

It was a risky move. My plan depended on the draugr just inches in front of me not detecting my presence. Fortunately, he ignored me, distracted by his partner raising his bow and firing an arrow that nearly hit him. I had rolled silently out of the way by this point, and the draugr nearest me gave an outraged bark, drew his sword, and charged the archer.

The archer stared, shocked, at his onrushing fellow, gesturing wildly in my direction. He appeared to have lost his power of speech in death. He looked as if he had something he desperately wanted to say, but just couldn’t get the words out. Then he dropped his bow and reached for his sword. But he was too late, and his compatriot was on him. The archer almost blocked one blow that sheared off his left arm, managed a thrust or two, but then the other draugr ran him through.

The survivor of the battle was so busy exulting in his victory that he didn’t hear me run across the room, all stealth abandoned. He turned only as I came down with all my weight on the pressure plate. I leapt quickly out of the way as the gate smashed shut with a great clang, catching the draugr full in the face and knocking him into the wall. He slumped to the floor, lifeless once again. The gate slowly swung back into place and the way forward was clear.

I relieved the draugr archer of his remaining arrows, then searched the thief. I found a journal and tucked it away for later reading, then discovered the golden claw. I was about to stuff it into my knapsack too when I noticed engravings on its palm. They were very like those on the stone pillars of the door puzzle, but the animals represented were a bear, a moth, and an owl. Could these also be the solutions to a puzzle? I could only wonder. I wondered too when I would reach the deepest level of this labyrinthine catacomb. It already seemed as if I had been laboring here for hours.

As it proved, Farengar was correct – I would need to go all the way through the catacombs before I came upon the Dragonstone. And little did I know it as I stood there pondering the golden claw, but I was only half way through this maze of tunnels. The journey was long and my tale must needs be quicker. It will be enough to say that the bulk of the Nord dead remained in their slumbers as I crept through that barrow, and I was able to sneak past any who did stir. There were few obstacles other than ones similar to those I had already encountered.

And so, after hours of creeping and slinking and avoiding all danger in Bleak Falls Barrow, I came to a door. Set within it were four concentric rings made of stone, arranged in such a way that only the top third of each of the outer three rings showed. At the top of each of these circles was engraved one of the three animals represented on the claw, aligned vertically. Only the disc at the center of the rings was fully revealed.

Pulling the claw from my pack, I saw that the proper order for the three images was bear, moth, owl. I quickly rotated the rings so that the animals appeared in the same order.

Nothing happened. I pushed the door, but it would not budge.

I remembered that Arvel seemed to think the claw itself was important. Why not just have the clues drawn on a piece of parchment instead of carrying around this heavy metal object? Then I noticed three holes in the center circle. They were arranged in a pattern about the same size as the talons on the claw. I held the claw up to the holes, and my hunch proved correct – the talons fit perfectly.

With the claw in place, I turned the central disc first to the right, then the left. The disc moved inward, leaving the claw in my hand. Now I heard heavy blocks tumbling deep within the door, and it slid down into a slot in the floor. With that, I stepped through the doorway into Bleak Falls Sanctum.

I found myself in a vast cavern that began with a dark, low-ceilinged antechamber, but soon opened out into a sunlit space like a cathedral. Shafts of light streamed down from openings in the ceiling far above, and three waterfalls poured into the room. With the light turning their spray to silver mist, and green ivy and hanging moss draping their sides, they were anything but bleak. More water-loving plants grew here and there next to a small stream that flowed across the end of the chamber nearest me. If there was any place the ancient Nords could imagine as safe from the prying eyes and greedy fingers of the outside world, this chamber deep within Nirn must have been it. It had certainly been difficult enough to reach. Too, everything about the place seemed sacred – though to what deity I knew not.

But there was something darker here as well. Across a stone bridge and up a short flight of stairs was a dais with an altar-like table, large urns, and a huge stone coffin. Beyond that was another of those curving walls like the one at the very bottom of Saarthal. I had almost forgotten about it until now. The top of the wall featured a graven image of a dragon’s face. Its eyes stared out at me with a malevolent gleam.

As I ascended the steps to the stone dais, I saw that a great chest stood on the other side, near the coffin. I stepped toward it but then was distracted by the chanting coming from the wall – or perhaps I was only hearing it inside my own head? The wall bore many strange runes, three of them at the center glowing with a shimmering light.

I hesitated there, wondering which to investigate first. I had seen one of these walls before, but I still didn’t know what it meant. It was so puzzling, and there had been so much to ponder about Saarthal, that I had neglected to mention the wall, or that word, Iiz, to anyone. On the other hand, I had been sent here to find the Dragonstone tablet, and I was sure it was in that chest. I crept slowly toward it lest I awaken a draugr sleeping in the nearby coffin.

The chest wasn’t even locked. Within, I found much treasure – enchanted leather armor, an iron shield, an enchanted battleaxe, gold, gems, a potion or two, and a magic staff – but no Dragonstone.

This was perplexing. I had delved to the deepest level of Bleak Falls Barrow. I had checked every chest and urn along the way, finding only gold pieces and a few potions. Did I need to search every draugr body as well? A stairway led up to a doorway beyond the curving wall. Surely that was an exit, not a passage to yet another chamber? No, if I was going to find the tablet, this sanctum was the room where it was hidden.

Resigned, I went over to investigate the wall. Again, the chanting grew louder as I approached. Streamers of light reached out toward me as the single illuminated rune grew brighter. When I came within a pace or two of it, the chanting reached a climax and a single word echoed through my mind – “Fus!” A word I’d never heard before, whose meaning I could not guess, but which I somehow knew I would never forget. Then the chanting subsided and the light faded and I was left standing in front of a wall with runes on it. The carven dragon’s face stared down at me, offering no answers.

Still perplexed, I turned from the wall and took a step toward the center of the room. And that was enough to rouse whatever was within the coffin. With a loud crack, the lid popped open and was pushed aside. Two hands grasped either side of the coffin, and the largest, most powerful draugr I had seen pushed itself up, then climbed out onto the dais. It wore chainmail beneath leather armor and bore a sturdy iron helm that covered most of its face. It turned toward me and brandished its sword and shield. Then it shouted. I had no time to be surprised that it could emit a sound other than the usual draugr bark. “Ro-Dah!” were the words I thought I heard. The force of the shout shook me, but I did not fall. I had felt that once before – when the dragon attacked Helgen.

I hadn’t the time to ponder the strangeness of these events or what they meant for me. The draugr charged straight at me, its blue eyes blazing. I was backed up against the curving wall. As it swung its sword I tumbled to one side, then ran past it across the dais and down the steps to the bridge.

Thus our battle began. We fought throughout that hall, and I was hard-pressed. This creature was quicker than the others I had faced. I barely stayed ahead of it as it pursued me over the bridge and along the stream. I knew I was no match for it with sword and shield, and my apprentice robes offered little protection against a slicing blade.

I was saved by the stream. I could leap across it at two points, while the draugr’s stiff, sinewy body forced him to cross by the little bridge. I leapt across the stream with the draugr hard on my heels, then turned and drew my bow. I was able to fire two shots at it before it crossed the bridge and came toward me.

I turned to leap back across the stream and heard the draugr shout once more: “Zun-Haal-Viik!” This time I didn’t stagger, but the force of the shout knocked the bow from my grasp, numbing my hand. I watched in horror as my best weapon fell into the stream and was quickly washed down into the hole through which the torrent left the chamber. Then the draugr was nearly upon me, and I leapt from a standstill across the stream. As I jumped, my arm flung backwards and the draugr’s sword caught it a glancing blow. Pain shot up my arm, but worse, cold spread through my body. By the time I landed on the other side, I was so frozen I could barely move.

I cast a healing spell on myself. It relieved the pain somewhat, but I remained stiff and slow. I knew there was no way I could jump back to the other bank. The draugr had crossed the bridge once more and was advancing along the stream toward me. If I could get up onto the dais, I might have a chance of escaping it. There were no stairs here, and my stiff limbs wouldn’t let me climb the smooth rocks.

In desperation, I conjured my flame atronach. It seemed silly now to have imagined I could fight this battle without her aid. With the fire demon occupying the draugr, I cast an oak flesh spell – I didn’t want to take another chance with its sword. Then I pulled a flask of frost resistance from my robes and drank it off. The numbness in my limbs eased somewhat and I was able to climb up the rocks onto the dais.

I felt better now that I had a bit more room to move around, but I still lacked a weapon. My magicka was nearly spent. The draugr was shouting once more. This time, its “Ro-Dah” was directed at the atronach, which disappeared in a shower of sparks. It would be at least a minute before my magicka was replenished enough to conjure it again. I needed a weapon before the draugr could climb the stairs to the dais.

Then I remembered the staff of Jyrik Gauldurson. I ran to the edge of the dais and looked down to where the draugr was just beginning to climb the stairs. He paused to brandish his sword at me. He must be feeling pretty confident, I thought.

I blasted him with the staff. A bolt of lightning arced from the staff to the draugr, but had little effect. A second blast produced an equally poor result. Still, the draugr was advancing more slowly up the stairs, more from the damage my atronach had dealt than anything I had done. Its leather armor was blackened and what remained of its skin was scorched in places.

I retreated across the dais and went to the chest. The axe was much too heavy for me to wield, but I picked it up anyway. It was my last resort.

I turned to see the draugr arrive at the top of the stairs. It shouted once more and the battle axe was knocked from my hands, falling on the other side of the chest. What could I do against one so powerful, who could use his voice to disarm me?

And then a thought struck me, a thought so mad I had not let myself think it in the three years since I had knocked Osmer into that tree. It wasn’t really a thought, more like a whirl of images and sounds running through my head in an instant – Osmer flying through the air; Mirabelle looking at me strangely as I told her how the power had come through my voice; the dragon at Helgen shouting Yol-Toor-Shul! as it breathed fire; General Tullius accusing Ulfric of using a shout to murder Torygg; the dragon’s questioning look as it stared at me through the hole in the tower at Helgen; the way its fire breath struck me but didn’t burn me; the feeling of flying on the dragon’s back, but already knowing how it felt to fly; the chanting voices growing louder as I approached the rune wall, “Fus!” echoing through my mind; the carven face of the dragon staring down at me from the wall even now…

Of course I knew the meaning of the Thu’um – the Power of the Voice – every Nord did. Someone like Ulfric could study that power and develop it, slowly, over years. Only one person in history – as far as I knew – had been born with the Thu’um as an innate talent. And he was … the hero exalted above all others in Skyrim and beyond, the one we could no longer worship as a god. How dare I even think that I was born with the same gift? This was the thought I dared not admit, even to myself. But now it seemed my only hope.

“Fus!” I yelled, from the pit of my stomach to the top of my lungs. Yet it was only my voice, and the draugr just stood there. Then he laughed, a hoarse, barking chortle, and shook his sword at me. Could a draugr shed a tear, he would have cried for merriment then. I had been right to keep that thought buried where it could not make me the laughing stock of my enemies. Now it looked as if my hubris would be my undoing. The draugr advanced on me, raising his sword for a death blow.

My mind might have been stunned by its grandiose imaginings and sudden disappointment, but my body was still interested in survival. I tumbled to my right, and the draugr’s sword smashed into the banded wood of the chest behind me. As I came up in a crouch, I realized my magicka reserves had restored themselves somewhat. I conjured my atronach once more and let her do her work.

I ran around behind the chest where the battle axe had fallen. It really was much too heavy for me, but I hefted it to my shoulder. Distracted by the atronach, the draugr hardly noticed as I approached it from the side. I could not raise the axe over my head. Instead, I turned my back on my foe, then began swinging the axe sideways in a wide arc. The blade struck none too hard, but the draugr instantly caught fire. The battle axe was enchanted with a fire spell! The draugr had already taken several fire bolts from my atronach and now went to one knee. I dropped the axe and drew my dagger. The draugr wasn’t laughing as I plunged my blade deep into its gleaming blue eye.

I dropped to the floor of the dais with my back resting against the chest. My atronach disappeared with a sizzling pop. Once more I was alone in the sanctum, but I needed a moment to collect myself. How many hours had I been in here? The light coming through the holes in the ceiling already seemed less bright. The dragon face above the rune wall grinned down at me as if it knew a secret.

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