The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 25

 

Labyrinthian

 

“Come on, we’re finally here,” said Savos Aren. “Let’s not waste any more time!” Only it couldn’t be Savos Aren. Yet it was – a much younger Savos Aren, in spectral form. We were approaching the great iron doors of Labyrinthian’s main temple when the ghost of our arch-mage appeared to us, followed by five more spectral figures, all in mages’ robes.

“Master Aren!” Brelyna exclaimed. The ghostly figure paid her no heed, but she was right – there was no mistaking that voice. I looked at him more closely. It was hard to tell with his nearly transparent features, but he did look like a youthful Savos Aren, with a shorter goatee rather than the long, knotted beard we had known him to wear.

Some of his companions were less enthusiastic about entering the temple. One, an Argonian, questioned whether it was a good idea at all. But another, a Redguard, was even more excited than the young Savos. “We’ll be back to the college before they even know we’re gone,” she said.

“You would care about that, Atmah,” said a Bosmer. “You always were the arch-mage’s favorite.”

“Now, Girduin,” Savos said, “Atmah is taking the same risks we all are. After all, this was her idea in the first place.”

A Nord spoke up, brash as the men of Skyrim usually are. “Let’s just get in there, see what’s inside.”

With that, the six mages disappeared. We all looked at each other.

“Who were they?” Onmund asked. “Ghosts?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Lydia said. It wasn’t like her to show hesitation or fear, especially before we had even entered the place.

“Ghosts – or reverberations from the past?” asked Brelyna. “Long past, judging by Savos Aren’s age. He hadn’t been named arch-mage yet, at any rate.”

“But why are we seeing this vision?” I asked.

“I have no idea. But remember, something happened here that affected Master Aren deeply. Maybe the psychic imprint of those events was so powerful that it can be triggered by our presence here – or by objects that once belonged to him.”

“What are we waiting for?” J’zargo asked. “Ghost of Savos Aren or no, we need to get in there and find the Staff of Magnus. And who knows what else we’ll find?”

“Yes, what else might we find?” said Onmund. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

I turned and looked out over the marshes of Hjaalmarch, lit here and there where light from Masser and Secunda showed through gaps in the clouds. It was a beautiful evening, and it was difficult to think that we were heading back underground. Tired as I was, the tale my three friends had told seemed like a dream, one from which I could not wake. Could Savos Aren really be dead? How could Ancano have foiled the combined power of Savos, Mirabelle, Tolfdir, Faralda, and the rest? Why had they trusted him in the first place? Maybe J’zargo was right – despite all their magical prowess, they couldn’t see what was right before them. I could believe it of the others, even Savos Aren, but not Mirabelle. She seemed to have such good sense about everything. It just didn’t seem possible, it had to be a dream. Any minute, I’ll wake up at home in Whiterun, I told myself.

Then I realized that my new house in Whiterun was not yet my home – the college was. Though I had spent only a month there, it was the only home I had known in the last three years. Mirabelle had even become something like a second mother to me, though she could never replace my own mother. I had lost one home; I would not lose another.

I turned back to my friends, trying to shake off my fatigue. “J’zargo is right,” I said. “Let’s get in there and get this over with. Our friends at the college are depending on us.”

We approached the massive iron door of the temple and gave it a push, but it wouldn’t budge. It had something like a handle in the form of an animal’s head at its center, but it would not turn. Then I noticed indentations on either side of it. “Here, see if the torc fits in there,” I said to Brelyna.

She took off her knapsack and withdrew the heavy iron torc. It formed an almost complete circle, with heavy knobs where the ends nearly met. Once she had it in place, the torc looked like what it was – a door knocker. With no assistance from us, it gave two loud knocks. Then the doors parted to allow us entrance.

Inside, we found a chamber much like those in Saarthal – only much larger, and lit by dim moonlight shining through skylights in the ceiling. The ancient Nords had shaped and carved the natural rock into elaborate columns and arches. Carvings of dragons adorned the columns and a great archway over the chamber’s far door. Grim Nordic faces peered eerily at us out of the gloom. The place grew brighter once I cast magelight, with emerald-green moss covering the columns. Then we saw the skeletons. More than a dozen lay scattered across the floor, all of them looking as if they had fallen while fleeing toward the entrance.

“What were they running from?” Onmund wondered.

I had been thinking the same thing. “Best to stay alert,” I said. I cast my stoneflesh spell, and Lydia drew her axe.

We were halfway across the chamber when the spectral mages reappeared, clustered around a door at the far end. Onmund jumped, he was so surprised.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” said the mage who hadn’t spoken before.

“But Elvali,” said the young Savos, “just think of the looks on their faces when we come back!” He sounded eager to prove himself, not at all like the old arch-mage we had known.

“You keep talking like you’re sure we’ll find something useful in here,” the Nord said.

“We’re bound to find something, Hafnar,” said the mage Savos had called Girduin. “Given the age of this place, it’s more than likely that some amount of power remains.”

Savos practically rubbed his hands together in glee. “Enchanted weapons, tomes of ancient knowledge, Shalidor’s secrets themselves – who knows what we could find!”

I looked at my fellow mages. Onmund and Brelyna seemed as troubled by this young, ambitious Savos Aren as I was. Only J’zargo’s eager face seemed to share Savos’ lust for knowledge and power.

“What if there are … things guarding this place?” the Argonian said. I wondered how the rest had convinced her to join the expedition, she seemed to have so little enthusiasm for it.

“Takes-in-Light,” Atmah said to her, “we are six college-trained mages. I think we’ll be fine.” Then the mages disappeared once more.

“They certainly sounded confident, didn’t they?” Brelyna said.

“Some of them, at least,” Onmund replied.

“The rest sound like what you call, milk-drinkers, no?” said J’zargo.

“Reckless bravery will get you killed in a place like this, J’zargo,” I said. “Now stay alert and let’s see what’s through this door.”

Beyond the wooden door, a wide cavern led to a narrow passageway blocked at the far end by a portcullis. A lever at the tunnel’s entrance seemed the obvious way to raise it. Beyond the barrier, we could see a much larger chamber.

I motioned for everyone to use stealth as best they could and then pulled the lever. The portcullis withdrew into the ceiling, and I led the way into the passage, Lydia and the others following behind. It was so narrow we were forced to go single file.

As Lydia and I entered the large chamber beyond, two things happened: nearly a dozen skeletal walkers emerged out of the gloom of the vast cavern, and the portcullis slid back into place, nearly impaling Onmund. He and the other two mages were trapped in the narrow passage. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that Lydia and I were trapped in the cavern with a dozen advancing undead. Many of them were archers, though none too skillful – arrows rained down around us, but none found their mark.

“Spread out and keep moving, or those archers will have us for sure!” Lydia yelled. She launched an arrow, felling one of the skeletons, then moved off to her right.

As I moved left and prepared to cast a firebolt, I called to my friends, “Quick, you three, pull that lever and get out here! We could use your help!” I hit one of the skeletons with a firebolt and kept moving.

Just then, a loud, cracking bang came from the center of the cavern. The place was so big that the middle of the room was lost in gloom, but we could still see a huge shape climbing upward out of its burial mound. It gave a distinctive roar that could be only one thing: a dragon. Unlike Sahloknir, this one remained in its skeletal form as it advanced toward the doorway. It turned in my direction, but I was sneaking so it couldn’t spot me. Then it turned toward Lydia, who was to its left now, and blasted her with frost. She had her shield up just in time, but now she couldn’t use her bow against the advancing skeletons.

The dragon charged toward the doorway just as the portcullis grated upward again and Onmund burst through. “Talos save us!” he exclaimed when he saw the dragon. He stopped in his tracks, blocking Brelyna in the narrow hall. The portcullis slid back into place before she could get past him.

“Stop praying and start fighting!” Lydia yelled.

The dragon was almost upon Onmund now. He stood there, frozen in fear.

“Fus-Ro-Dah!” I shouted, and the dragon staggered. Lydia went at it with her axe of embers.

Finally the gate was up again and Brelyna and J’zargo charged through it, pushing Onmund out of the way. Brelyna wasted no time, casting her flame atronach and then launching a lightning bolt of her own. J’zargo surrounded himself in his flame cloak and advanced on the skeletons, sword drawn.

 A cold blast hitting me from behind distracted me from the action at the gate. I turned – slowly due to the freezing effects of the spell – to see a skeleton approaching. I had been sneaking, but had revealed myself when I shouted. Now it drew its sword and readied to swing it. I began to cast a firebolt but it was as if I were moving through a large vat of honey.

The skeleton was almost upon me when a firebolt from behind me caught it squarely in the chest. It exploded in a shower of flying bones. I turned to see Onmund a short distance away. “You picked a good time to recover your nerve,” I told him.

“I’m sorry I faltered there,” he said, coming over to me. “It won’t happen again.”

“Thanks,” I said, “but we need to spread out. Let’s get that dragon first.”

I healed myself, then cast my own flame atronach, hoping it would deal with the remaining skeletons. Lydia, Brelyna, and J’zargo had dealt the dragon much damage already, but now three skeletons had cornered Lydia and the dragon was snapping at the mages.

“Krii-Lun!” I shouted. I hoped that even two words of the Marked for Death shout would weaken it to the point that we could finish it off. A firebolt from Onmund managed the job, and the dragon fell to the floor. This time there was no dragon soul for me to absorb. With the dragon vanquished, we quickly dealt with the remaining skeletons, then paused to heal our wounds.

“What was that thing?” Brelyna asked.

“An undead dragon, apparently,” I replied. “I hate to think what powerful dark magic could conjure such a thing.”

Now that we had a chance to look around, I realized how vast the place was. It was easily the largest cavern Lydia and I had encountered. It was mostly rough-hewn stone and native rock, with wide openings in the ceiling letting in just enough moons-light for us to see where we were going. The sky must be clearing, I thought, idly wishing I could be outside to enjoy it.

The dragon mound stood in the center of the chamber, but it was a long walk to reach it. Along the way, we encountered many more skeletons, some that we had just defeated, and others much older. Right at the edge of the mound we found a few bones sticking out of some old, rent clothing – a hand here, a foot there. A short distance away lay a femur and a skull. I examined the clothing more closely, lifting a hem carefully. Now we could all see that they were mage’s robes. Inside, I found crushed glass and a stopper like the ones used on potion flasks at the college. I held it up for my friends to see.

“Gods!” exclaimed Brelyna. “The dragon must have gotten one of them.”

“At least one,” Onmund said, and shivered again.

“It’s just like Mzulft,” Brelyna said, “only, we knew nothing about those mages before we found their bodies.”

“We didn’t really know these, either,” J’zargo said.

“Still, we just saw them talking to each other a moment ago,” she replied.

“I wonder which one this was?” I said.

“We don’t have time for this,” Lydia reminded us. “We need to keep moving. This place must be vast if it has a cavern this large.”

She was right. We continued to the other side of the cavern and through a door. There we found the spectral mages gathered around a pedestal. Now there were only five of them.

“We have to go back in after Girduin,” Elvali said. “We can’t leave him there.”

“We barely made it out alive, and you want to go back in?” said Hafnar. He didn’t sound so brash now.

“It’s too late,” Atmah said, her voice stricken. “There’s not enough left of him to go back in after.”

“Oh gods, what have we done?” exclaimed the Argonian they called Takes-in-Light.

“We can’t go back,” said Savos. “Might as well go forward. We can still do this!” Of all of them, he was the only one who still sounded eager to get on with their expedition.

“Savos is right,” Atmah said with resignation. “We can make it if we just stay alert!”

“Gods!” exclaimed Onmund when they vanished again. “They were six, and we are only five. How will we make it if they couldn’t?”

Lydia had heard enough of Onmund’s whinging. “You call yourself a Nord? Stop talking like a milk-drinker!”

“We overcame that dragon where they could not,” J’zargo pointed out. “This one thinks we will have no problems.”

“J’zargo, the cocky Khajiit,” Brelyna said. “Your hubris will be the end of you.”

“What about Master Aren?” I said. “How could he be so callous? And how could they leave their friend behind like that?” My friends shook their heads. The truth was, none of us knew Savos Aren well enough to know how he would respond in a situation like this, much less the Savos Aren of three decades ago.

“That’s not going to happen to us,” I said. “No matter what happens, we will stick together. No one gets left behind. Agreed?” They all nodded their heads, but Onmund still looked pale. “Onmund, can we count on you?”

“Of … of course you can, Deirdre,” he said.

“Here, this should help you.” I cast my courage spell on him and his color improved.

“Time is wasting,” Lydia reminded us. She gave me a look as we led the way down the next passage. She didn’t need to tell me what she thought of my three friends.

We were halfway across the next chamber when a blue, swirling light reached out toward us from a doorway. A voice spoke, echoing from the walls all around us. “Wo meyz wah dii vul junaar?” it asked. My Dovah was still weak but I thought it had asked something like “Who goes there?”

“Did you feel that?” asked Brelyna. “All my magicka has been drained away!”

I had felt it too. I tried casting the simplest spell of sparks at the wall – nothing happened. My fellow mages tried their own spells, with similar results. I was glad of my new robes, which improved my magic regeneration.

“Did you bring a good supply of magicka potion?” I asked my friends.

“Only a few,” Brelyna admitted.

“Here, have some of mine,” I said, and shared with them from my own stocks.

“Humph!” Lydia remarked. “I guess there are times when it’s better not to rely on magic!”

“You’ll change your tune next time I heal you,” I replied.

The exit at the end of the chamber was blocked not by a door but a wall of frost.

“Let’s see what happens if I hit it with a flame spell,” I said. My magicka had revived somewhat.

The frost and icicles disappeared, leaving the doorway open. I was about to step through when a spectral warrior appeared, charging toward me. He shimmered, as if he too were covered in frost.

I had no magicka left, so I quickly drew my sword. I was able to block his first blow, but the sword’s frost enchantment would do little good against this frost spirit. Before he could land another blow, Lydia hit him with her axe of embers, and Onmund got in a firebolt. Then J’zargo advanced on him, cloaked in fire, and the warrior exploded in a shower of ice pellets.

“Thank you, my friends,” I said. “We’ll get through this if we keep working together like this.”

Through the doorway we could see only darkness. From somewhere far below we heard the sound of running water. I risked casting magelight into it, the glowing ball travelling far across a large, deep cavern before striking the opposite wall and sticking there. In its light we could see stone ramps descending into the depths.

The voice spoke again as we stepped through the doorway and the blue light whirled toward us once more. Again, I felt my magicka draining away.

“Nivahriin muz fent siiv nid aaz het,” the voice said. Something about cowardly men and no mercy. But what about women, I wondered.

A draugr wight stood on the descending ramp just ahead. It had its back turned, staring quizzically at the glowing orb of magelight.

“All my magicka is gone again,” Brelyna whispered. “And I just wasted a potion restoring it. How are we to fight that draugr now?”

“Take cover and watch,” I said. I felt I was in my element now. I drew my bow and notched a dwarven arrow. Sneaking a bit farther into the room, I aimed the arrow carefully, catching the draugr in the throat. He couldn’t even bark as he turned to see where the arrow had come from. Lydia hit him with a second arrow that knocked him from the ramp. We heard a splash as he landed in water far below.

Then the magelight spell ran its course, plunging the chamber into darkness once more.

“Lydia,” I said, “you’d best light a torch. We’re low on magicka and we need to save what we have.”

“A torch!” she said. “How old-fashioned!” We heard the sound of Lydia rustling through her pack and then flint scraping steel, and soon we could see once more. But a torch wasn’t much good for sneaking, so I went ahead and peered around the next corner before waving to my companions to follow. Only in the darkest corridors would I risk casting a magelight spell.

In this manner, we crept through the caverns and halls of Labyrinthian, fighting draugr, skeletal archers, and the occasional troll, all without magic, save a ball of magelight that worked to distract our opponents as often as not. Lydia and I would attack them from a distance, since we were the best archers. Brelyna had a bow, but it was mostly for show, as were J’zargo’s sword and Onmund’s axe.

Whatever being was speaking to us from deeper within Labyrinthian, it kept draining our magicka, so we avoided using our magic as much as possible.

“You do not answer,” the voice said next, this time using the Common Tongue. “Must I use this guttural language of yours?”

“Wait!” I said as Onmund reached for yet another magicka potion. “We’ll run out quickly at this rate. Let’s wait for our magicka to restore itself before we forge ahead.” Lydia stood nearby while we waited, tapping her foot and trying none too hard to suppress a yawn.

A little farther, the voice spoke again. “Have you returned, Aren, my old friend?”

“Should we try to answer?” Onmund asked. “Maybe we can find out who – or what – it is?”

“Better not to,” I said. “The longer it thinks Master Aren is with us, the better. But I wonder why it called him a friend?”

Next the voice asked, “Do you seek to finish that which you could not?” Then, “You face only failure once more.” Each time, our magicka was drained away.

“This doesn’t sound good, if Savos failed here before,” Onmund said. “And no wonder, if that thing kept sapping their magicka!”

“We don’t know what it means,” Brelyna said. “We don’t even know what Savos was trying to do.”

“It’s strange though,” I said. “The voice keeps addressing Savos, and not Atmah, though she was the leader of their expedition.”

“I don’t want to think about that,” Onmund said, shivering again.

“You are not Aren are you?” the voice asked next. “Has he sent you in his place?”

Before our magicka could regenerate, the spectral mages appeared around us. Now there were only four, and Takes-in-Light looked in bad shape, sitting on the floor.

“Just another minute – please!” she said.

“Come on!” urged Savos Aren. “We can’t stop now, we have to keep moving.” He didn’t seem to have noticed that another of their group was missing, but Atmah had.

“Where’s Elvali? She was right behind me!”

“Dead,” said Hafnar, his voice heavy with fatigue and sadness. “Something grabbed her from behind, right after that thing drained our magicka. She was gone before I could do anything.”

“This is insanity,” Takes-in-Light said. “We never should have come here.”

“You’re right,” Atmah said, her voice racked with guilt. “This is all my fault. Should we turn back?”

“I don’t think going back is a good idea,” Hafnar said.

“Going back would be the end of all of us,” said Savos Aren. “We keep pushing forward and we’ll make it. We will!” He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself.

“Come on,” Atmah said to Takes-in-Light, helping her to her feet. “You can make it. Let’s go.”

The spectral mages disappeared. We stared at the space they had occupied, too stunned to speak. Before we could rouse ourselves, the voice that had hounded us through these caverns and halls spoke again.

“Did Aren warn you that your own power would be your undoing? That it would only serve to strengthen me?”

“Damn you to Oblivion!” Onmund shouted back. “Does this power grow stronger each time it saps our magicka?” He was nearly ready to quaff another potion before I stopped him.

“Don’t panic!” I said. “Nothing threatens us now. We’ll just wait here until our magicka restores itself naturally.”

“What for? Only so he can take more of our power to use against us? No, look what happened to Elvali and Girduin! Who knows if any of them made it? We should turn back before the same thing happens to us!”

If my magicka hadn’t just been drained, I would have cast another courage spell on him. “Onmund, we’re not here for mere treasure, or power, or knowledge, as they were. Perhaps Savos’ group should have turned back, but we cannot. The fate of the college and all our friends there rests with us.”

Onmund gathered himself for a moment. “You’re right. I feel better now that my magicka is returning. I just feel so weak whenever that thing drains it.”

I knew how he felt. A mage without magicka was like a naked person facing a pack of hungry wolves. I had my archery skill and my shouts, so I didn’t feel quite so exposed, but for my friends, magic was their only defense.

When our magicka was restored, we made ready to push on. “Keep a sharp eye out, and stay close together,” Lydia said. “If something grabs one of us, the rest will be right there.”

“Lydia is right,” I said. “I’ll take the lead, and Lydia, you bring up the rear.”

Beyond the circular chamber where we had seen the spectral mages, the passages became narrower, forcing us to walk in single file. Now, instead of being carved out of the living rock, the walls were of masonry – smooth-cut stones mortared together. The ceiling was ten feet high, made of timbers and more mason work. Soul gems glowed from sconces in the walls. They gave enough light that Lydia could put away her torch.

We came to a meeting of passages, with no way forward and identical halls branching left and right.

“Which way?” Onmund asked from behind me.

“There’s no telling,” I said. “Let’s try the right first. If it doesn’t lead anywhere, we’ll come back and try the left.”

I led the way down the right passageway. After ten paces or so, we came to another T-intersection, again with identical passages leading left and right. It looked exactly like the first intersection. The walls were of the same rough-cut stone and the sconces occupied the same spots on the walls.

“Which way now?” I asked.

“Right’s as good as any,” said Lydia from the rear.

After another ten paces we came to another identical junction. “Right feels right,” I said, and we turned that way a third time.

“Wait,” Brelyna said, when we had gone another ten paces and arrived at a fourth identical intersection. “We turned right three times, so we must have gone around in a square. We haven’t gone up or down, so we should be back where we started.”

“But clearly we’re not,” I said, “or we would see the corridor where we came into this place, and that circular chamber beyond.”

“Yes,” said Brelyna, “if we did go around in a square, always turning right, then we should be able to turn left now and see the entrance.”

We tried it and saw only another identical intersection.

“It must be some sort of maze,” Lydia said.

“Yes, Shalidor’s Maze, most like,” Brelyna said.

“Shalidor’s Maze?” Lydia asked.

“The ancient labyrinth built by Arch-Mage Shalidor in the First Era to test new mages. Legend holds that it was quite difficult and only the most astute mages could pass through it unscathed.”

“Great,” said Lydia, “which one of you is astute?”

We let the comment pass. “Going right hasn’t gotten us anywhere, let’s try left,” I said. We turned left three times, with similar results. We didn’t seem to be back at the beginning, but we weren’t getting anywhere either. Each junction was identical, with blank walls and the gem sconces always in the same spot.

“Well, if you wizards don’t have any better ideas,” Lydia said, “I’m going to start marking each junction.” She took a lump of coal from her pack and used it to mark an X at the intersection where we stood.

“Good idea, Lydia,” I said. “This time, let’s go right, then left.” That brought us to yet another identical junction.

“This has to be a new junction, doesn’t it?” Brelyna asked.

“Talos help us, we’re going to wander in here forever!” Onmund moaned.

“This one does not like these ancient Nordic mages, nor their mazes,” J’zargo put in.

“Let’s go left again,” I said, but after we turned the corner I could see another intersection like all the others directly ahead.

“Not left again,” Brelyna called from behind. “We don’t want to go around in circles again – or squares, I should say.”

“Okay, right it is,” I said, leading the way around the corner.

But it was no good. After another seven or eight paces, I could see another identical intersection ahead. I turned to my friends for suggestions, but saw only Onmund following me.

“What happened to the others?” I exclaimed.

He turned, and looked as surprised as I was to see no one following him. “They were right behind me a moment ago,” he said.

“Lydia!” I called. “Brelyna! J’zargo!”

“We hear you!” Lydia called back. Her voice seemed to come from ahead of us now, but muffled, as if it were on the other side of a wall. “Where are you?”

“We’re over here!” Onmund yelled.

“How did you get to the other side of that wall?” Brelyna shouted.

“This shouting back and forth will never do,” I said to Onmund. “Let’s go see if we can find them.”

Before we could move, that infernal voice spoke again, and I felt my magicka draining out of me. It must have sucked the power from the soul gems as well, because now the passages were plunged into darkness.

“Welcome to the Labyrinth,” the voice said. “There is no escape.”

I stood in the darkness, trying in vain to see through the inky blackness, and listening for any sound of our friends. Behind me, Onmund whimpered.

“Let’s just wait for our magicka to restore itself,” I said to him. “Then we can cast magelight and see what we’re doing.” We waited for a moment there in the dark, listening to the sound of our own breathing. I thought I could even hear Onmund’s heart beating; my own was certainly pounding hard enough.

Then Brelyna screamed.

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