The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 26

 

Morokei’s Lair

 

The echoes of Brelyna’s scream were just dying out when I heard a feline screech and the deep whumps of hand-to-hand combat. The sounds no longer came from directly ahead, but somewhere off to the right, and much farther away.

“Come on Onmund, this way!” I said. Groping my way in the dark, I took two steps forward, meaning to turn right at the intersection ahead.

Suddenly, the sounds of the fight were much closer, just to my right. Something was breathing heavily as well, and it was right next to me. I reached for my sword and spent the little magicka I had on a magelight spell. This was no time to be blundering about in the dark.

Brelyna stood two paces away, breathing hard and rubbing her throat. Beyond her, J’zargo stood over the body of a draugr with great rents in its armor.

“Thank you, J’zargo,” Brelyna said. “I don’t know where that thing came from.”

“The night vision of the Khajiits comes in handy, no?” J’zargo said. “This one had no time to think when that draugr jumped out at you.”

Brelyna and I looked at the torn figure of the draugr lying on the floor. “I forgot what you Khajiits can do with your claws,” I said.

A glowing light appeared from back the way I had come, and then Lydia was there, carrying a torch.

“What happened?” she asked, surveying the scene. Brelyna told her, and Lydia nodded at J’zargo. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” she said. “It took me a minute to get my torch lit after the lights went out. How did we get separated, anyway?”

“It must be some sort of magical hall of mirrors,” Brelyna said. “I could swear I saw Deirdre and Onmund go right, then when I turned the corner they weren’t there. You heard them, Lydia, on the other side of that wall. Then the same thing must have happened to us when we tried to get back to them. You must have wandered far.”

“I only took a couple of steps,” Lydia said. “I thought you were the ones who went off without me. And what happened to you, Deirdre?”

“I’ve taken only ten steps since last I saw you,” I said. “I was making sure to count.”

“Something more is at work here than simple mirrors, then,” Brelyna said.

And that’s when I realized. “Wait, where’s Onmund?” I exclaimed.

The three just looked at each other, then at me. “He was with you, last we saw him.”

“We have to go back and find him. And let’s hurry! Who knows how he’ll react to being alone in the dark?”

“Back?” Brelyna said. “Where’s back? We are thoroughly turned around.”

“Onmund!” I called.

Instead of Onmund, we heard the voice of the malevolent power that had been toying with us. “Shalidor was devious in designing this labyrinth,” it said. “Yet Aren was able to solve it, so I have improved on Shalidor’s work. Don’t waste your energy – sit down in the dark, relax, and wait for death.”

“Not bloody likely!” Lydia shouted at the voice, waving her torch.

“Maybe he’s this way.” I turned to go back the way I had come, but Brelyna caught my arm.

“We can’t go off wildly looking for him in this place,” she said.

“There has to be some way to find him!” Then it hit me – the detect life spell. I had just learned it from a tome in Dustman’s Cairn and hadn’t had a chance to use it. I quickly drank a magicka potion – there was no time to wait for my magicka stores to replenish themselves. Then I cast the spell and saw a blue ball of light back the way we had come, and off to the right. “There!” I said, “That has to be Onmund.”

I made to head in that direction, but now Lydia stopped me. “Wait! Let’s not take any chances this time.” She pulled a length of rope from her knapsack. “I thought I might find a use for this someday,” she said. She showed us how to tie in so that we were all attached to the rope in a line, then we made our way in the direction where I had seen the blue aura.

It turned out Onmund was not far away – a right and a left brought us to him. He was crouched in a meeting of hallways and appeared to be mumbling to himself. “First they say to stick together, then they leave me. This always happens! Just like the time Bjorn and his friends took me grouse hunting.”

“Onmund, we’re here!” I said.

He looked up in surprise, but he didn’t rise. “Was that some kind of joke, leaving me here in the dark?”

“No, we were all in the dark, you silly Nord,” Brelyna snapped at him. “I nearly had my throat ripped out by a draugr – would have too, if J’zargo hadn’t saved me. Why didn’t you answer us?”

“You heard the voice,” he said. “We’re not getting out of here. Might as well just sit here and wait for the end!”

“Don’t be a fool!” I said. “We just got separated, that’s all. This is some sort of hall of mirrors – or something worse.”

“Portals, I’m guessing,” said Brelyna. “It’s the only thing that makes sense, the more I think about it.”

“Whatever it is, we need to find our way out,” Lydia said.

“Here, Onmund,” I said, holding out my hand to him and helping him up. “Tie into this rope so we don’t lose you again. We’ll get out of here, I promise.”

“Which way now?” Brelyna asked.

“I think we backtracked to find Onmund,” I said, “so let’s turn around and keep pressing forward.”

“But that can’t be,” Lydia said, “since we haven’t seen any of the marks I’ve been leaving.”

“Then which way?”

“I think forward is that way,” she said, pointing to the right, past where Onmund had been sitting.

“Okay, we’ll try it,” I said, and took the lead once more. We took a left and then a right, and then I felt the rope go taught behind me. I turned to see Onmund looking just as surprised as I was. Beyond him, the rope disappeared into thin air, yet it was still taught. And beyond the rope, the draugr J’zargo had killed lay in the hall. I recognized the rents in its armor and the position in which it had fallen.

“No, this cannot be!” I exclaimed.

At the same time I heard Lydia calling from ahead of us, not behind us. “Where did you go?” she shouted.

“We’re here!” I called back. “Where are you?” Now I could see light from her torch up ahead and to the right. “Wait, I see your torch.” I tried to take a step in that direction.

“Quit pulling on the rope!” she called back.

“These portals must work in only one direction,” I heard Brelyna say. “We’ll have to cut it.” Then the rope went slack.

“Wait there, we’re coming to you!” I said, and Onmund and I made our way toward the light.

“These portals are cunningly designed,” Brelyna said when I told them about finding ourselves transported back to the hall with the draugr. “I’m guessing that Shalidor enchanted them merely to lead unwitting mages in circles, but whatever malevolent power is here has added a twist. Now the portals go to more than one location, splitting groups like ours apart.”

“This one thinks we’ll be wandering around in here forever,” said J’zargo. Things were bad if even J’zargo was losing his confidence.

“Don’t talk that way!” I said. “We just have to avoid the portals from now on. But how do we do that?”

“If only there were a way to detect whatever magic is powering them,” said Brelyna.

“You mean the detect enchantments spell?” Onmund said.

We mages turned to look at him in surprise, while Lydia looked at all of us in confusion. “I didn’t know there were Enchantment spells,” I said. “I thought you had to have an arcane enchanter.”

“What, you didn’t pay attention to Sergius’ lectures at the college?” We looked at each other and shook our heads. “Detect enchantments is more advanced magic, to be sure, but very useful. You can’t cart an enchanter around with you, after all.” Suddenly, Onmund sounded confident of himself, even smug. It wasn’t often that he could best the rest of us in magic.

“Well, let’s stop standing around gawking at Onmund and see if this spell works!” Lydia exclaimed.

It did. We made our way back the way we had come. Onmund took the lead this time, casting his detect enchantment spell at every intersection. At first, nearly every junction lit up in a red, shimmering glow, indicating it had been enchanted. Every time it happened, we would turn around and look for another way forward. Just when we seemed to be making some progress, we found ourselves passing the marks Lydia had made, so we turned around and retraced our steps once more. Finally we managed to point ourselves in the right direction, and by entering only those junctions with no portal enchantment, we made our way out of the labyrinth and into a rectangular chamber.

“Well, we’re through the maze at least,” I said, pausing so we could collect ourselves. “Together, we added up to one ‘stute, but it was enough.”

“Stute?” asked J’zargo. “This one does not know what you mean by stute. Is it some Breton word?”

Lydia groaned. “That would get you thrown out of the Bannered Mare, my thane,” she said.

“What?” asked Brelyna. “Did Deirdre make some sort of jest?”

“Remember, Brelyna?” Lydia said. “You said that only the most astute mages could solve the maze?” They still stared at her blankly. “And then I asked which one of you was astute?” There was a pause, then the rest of them groaned as well.

Feeble as my joke had been, our moods were a bit lighter as we made our way across the chamber. At the far end, we discovered the word wall I had come here to find. As the bright light swirled around me and I heard the word Klo echoing through my mind, my three college friends gasped in wonder.

“That was astounding!” Brelyna exclaimed.

“That, my friends, is how I learn a word of power. Then I need to take a dragon’s soul to understand its deepest meaning and be able to use it.”

“This one wishes he could gain knowledge and power so easily,” J’zargo said.

“Easily!” Onmund replied. “It can’t be easy to kill a live dragon!” He looked at me with increased wonder.

Lydia had seen it all before. Now she pretended to yawn. “Come on, let’s get going,” she said.

But before we could move, the voice spoke again.

“So, there is one among you worthy of meeting Morokei! But it makes no matter. Come, your end awaits.”

Then the spectral mages appeared around us. This time there were but three.

Atmah spoke first, her voice filled with reproach for her two remaining companions. “We shouldn’t have left her there to die!”

“What else could we do?” Savos Aren protested. “Stay there and die with her? She refused to go on, we didn’t have any choice!”

“There is always a choice, Savos,” Atmah replied.

While the spectral mages pondered this, Lydia nudged me. “This Savos Aren became the head of your college?” she asked. “He is no kind of leader!”

I wanted to tell her that Savos wasn’t like that when I knew him – but how well did any of us know him, really?

“This is it, you know?” said Hafnar, his voice heavy with fatigue, or perhaps despair. “Through this door … can you feel it?”

“We’re not going to make it, are we?” Atmah said, and she sounded even more dispirited than Hafnar.

“We stay together, no matter what, agreed?” said the Nord, trying to rally his own strength and that of his companions.

“I’ll be right with you,” Atmah replied.

“Agreed, we all stay together,” said Savos Aren. I thought I saw him looking back and forth at his colleagues, as if taking their measure. Then they disappeared.

“I think Hafnar was right,” Brelyna said. “Whatever we’re going to face, Morokei or whoever it is, it’s just on the other side of that door. I can feel its power.”

“Then we should prepare ourselves,” I said. We spent a moment sharing potions and casting enchantments that would help us in battle. I cast a courage spell on Onmund just for good measure.

“Mages,” I said, “have your weapons at the ready, as well as those magicka potions. I imagine this Morokei will drain our power before facing us. Are we ready?” My companions nodded.

“I’ll go first,” Lydia said, and pushed the wooden door open.

The room beyond was large, though not as huge as the dragon chamber. It contained two balconies facing each other on opposite sides of the room. Between them ran a narrow strip of ground with a pool of water at the end, fed by a waterfall pouring out of the wall high above.

But the thing that caught our attention first was a glowing dome of light covering much of the balcony to the right. Within it was a being much like the dragon priests Lydia and I had already faced. Like the lesser draugr, its body was of desiccated flesh, sinew and bone, but it was clothed in flowing robes over which it wore an elaborate metal armature protecting its torso and arms. It had a grim metallic mask for a face and it bore a dragon circlet on its brow. Its skeletal hand held a staff – the Staff of Magnus, no doubt.

“Just another dragon priest,” Lydia said. “And he can’t even get at us. It looks like he’s trapped in that glowing dome of light.”

Two beams of energy stretched from the dome to the two-leveled balcony opposite. Moving closer, we saw that two spectral mages were casting the beams, one from each level.

“No!” I exclaimed in shock.

We moved still closer, descending a short set of stairs, and now Brelyna gasped. “It’s them! It’s Atmah and Hafnar! It looks like they’re keeping Morokei imprisoned.”

“But how…” I began to ask when Morokei interrupted.

“Yes, diabolical isn’t it?” he said. “Aren enthralled the souls of those who called him friend, using their power to trap me here. And to think, there are those who call me evil!”

We all looked at each other in disbelief. “You don’t think Aren killed them so he could enslave their souls, do you?” I asked my friends.

“I’ll never believe that!” said Brelyna. “They must have died in the battle with Morokei before he would resort to such an extreme measure.”

“But what kind of magic could he use to enthrall them?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Brelyna replied. “Necromancy? Some sort of soul trap? Whatever it was, it must have been dark magic indeed.”

We all shuddered, looking up at the two ghostly mages, both of them kneeling, their arms outstretched, eternally casting the beams of energy that powered Morokei’s prison. I wondered if they were aware of their existence, aware of time passing as the decades crept onward, contemplating an eternity of nothing but this. Could the depths of Oblivion hold a fate more bleak?

“We have to release them somehow,” I said to my companions.

“Yes, release them,” said Morokei, “and you will release me. Then our battle will begin. Come, face me, the most powerful of all the dragon priests!”

“Maybe…” Onmund began, “maybe we should leave him imprisoned, figure a way to get the staff without releasing him. Who knows what evil he will do if he gets loose?”

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Onmund!” I said. “We can’t leave the souls of those mages trapped there. Can you imagine spending eternity doing that?”

“Besides,” said Lydia, “I don’t think we’ll get the staff without breaking through that barrier somehow. And I didn’t make my way through this labyrinth to come away empty-handed.” She began climbing the steps to the balcony where the first mage knelt, the rest of us following.

When we reached the top of the steps we decided that Lydia and J’zargo would try to release Hafnar, the spirit on that level, since they were the strongest in close combat. Onmund, Brelyna and I would release Atmah on the second level and attack Morokei from a distance once he was free.

“I just hope you have a way to release them,” Lydia said, then turned to J’zargo. “Are you with me?”

“Of course,” said the Khajiit. “J’zargo must try his flame cloak on more powerful undead.”

Both of the spectral mages knelt on platforms jutting over the space between the two balconies. As I came up next to Atmah and saw her face filled with the concentration of her eternal task, I felt as if I knew her, despite only getting glimpses of her in those impressions from the past. If she sensed me stepping up beside her, she gave no sign.

I tried reaching out to touch her shoulder. My hand passed through her spectral form, but she reacted as if she felt something, looking over in my direction.

“Atmah,” I said. “I am Deirdre. I have come to release you.”

The beam she was casting wavered. “I sense a presence,” she said, her voice sounding far away. “Something is calling me back … but I cannot return until the beam is broken.”

If only I carried a mirror, or a shield. But of the five of us, only Lydia had a shield, and she was on the level below. I took a deep breath, and then stepped between Atmah and the edge of the platform. The beam struck me square in the chest, but I felt only energy, magicka flowing through me and replenishing my stores. Perhaps it was my Breton heritage. It was said that Bretons could absorb spells and store their energy as magicka, but I had never experienced it until now.

The beam remained only for an instant, then faded away. Atmah got slowly to her feet, looking at me more closely. “You – you’re from the college! Did Savos send you? It’s been so long…” There was pain and deep sadness in her voice.

“I wish I could say he had,” I told her. “But Master Aren is dead. We have come to retrieve the Staff of Magnus so we can stop the one who killed him.”

“Ah, the staff, that was how Morokei defeated us. It’s very powerful. It sapped all our magicka and we were defenseless. Be careful! He conjures a storm atronach and he will turn your own conjurations against you.”

“We’ll be careful,” I promised, looking at Brelyna to make sure she had heard the warning about conjuring. We both relied perhaps too heavily on our flame atronachs.

“Thank you for freeing me, friend,” Atmah said. “Now I go to my rest on the Far Shores.” She turned and began walking toward the back of the chamber.

We moved along the balcony to where we could see Lydia, J’zargo, and Hafnar. The glowing dome seemed to have dimmed, but it still held Morokei imprisoned. “Touch him on the shoulder and call his name,” I called down to Lydia.

Even from this distance I could see that Lydia was skeptical about touching a ghost, but she tried it anyway. He turned and looked at her. The beam flickered. “Now use your shield to block the beam,” I called. “And be ready for Morokei to attack once he’s free.” Lydia cut the beam with her shield, then I could see that she was talking to Hafnar, though I could not hear their words.

The field of light around the dragon priest remained for another moment, though it flickered and grew yet dimmer. Then I had a thought. I cast a firebolt at Morokei still inside his glowing cage. It hit the shield and dissipated as it spread out around the glowing dome, leaving the dragon priest untouched.

As if in response, a blue ball of light shimmered toward us and I felt my magicka draining away. “Soft-hearted fools!” Morokei exclaimed as the shield surrounding him vanished. “Now I am free. Now you die.”

I may have been out of magicka, but I could still shout. “Krii-Lun!” The Marked for Death shout hit him square, and he staggered. At the same time, arrows from Brelyna and Lydia struck him.

“Ah, your Thu’um is strong, Dovahkiin,” Morokei said as he floated down off his balcony and toward the two below me. “Nearly as strong as the dragons we once worshipped. A pity you do not know all the words. For now the dragons return and the dragon priests will rule Skyrim once again!”

“No, Morokei,” I said, thinking that the longer we talked, the more time for our powers to be restored. “It is Alduin himself who has returned. This time he means to destroy the world and you with it. We might as well destroy you now.” I had just enough magicka for a firebolt and used it on him. It hardly seemed to bother him, though his robes caught fire.

Then the dragon priest used his own Thu’um. “Zun-Haal-Viik!” he shouted at the three of us on the upper balcony. The shout only shook me, but it sent Brelyna and Onmund sprawling, knocking the bow from Brelyna’s hand and a flask of magicka potion from Onmund’s. The flask shattered on the hard stone floor.

“Blast!” he cursed as he got to his feet and reached for another potion.

Meanwhile, Morokei cast his storm atronach in Lydia and J’zargo’s direction, then began floating up toward us. I drank my own potion to restore my magic power as Brelyna retrieved her bow and Onmund began shooting lightning bolts down at Morokei. I fired off another firebolt. If our spells were having any effect, it was difficult to tell.

The dragon priest had just reached the first-level balcony when we heard J’zargo shout from off to our left. “You can manage the atronach, J’zargo will take care of Morokei!” Lydia was going at the atronach with her axe of embers, while the conjured being hit her with lightning strikes. I hoped the potion of magic resistance I had given her was still working.

J’zargo ran toward Morokei, casting his flame cloak as he went. The dragon priest turned toward him and fired a bolt of lightning from his staff just as the two met. There was a fiery explosion, and Morokei was pushed backward. But the flaw in J’zargo’s spell must have resurfaced because the explosion sent the Khajiit off the balcony. He landed in a heap near the pool beneath the waterfall, his fur singed and smoking. At least he could still move as he crawled away from his attacker. The dragon priest turned back down the stairs, intent on finishing the Khajiit off.

“No more, I yield,” J’zargo moaned.

“Keep firing at Morokei, friends!” I shouted, and I leapt off the upper balcony, dropping to the floor below. I had to distract Morokei before he hit J’zargo with another blast from that staff.

“Zun-Haal!” I shouted, figuring to deal him a dose of his own magic. The Disarm shout gave him pause, but he did not drop the Staff of Magnus. Still, the shout distracted him. He turned and blasted me with the staff, intertwined branches of lightning arcing between us. Maybe my potion of magic resistance was still working, because I felt only a slight tingling at the end of my fingers. My magicka was draining away, yet not so fast as Morokei might have hoped.

“Your magic is strong as well, Dovahkiin. You should be groveling on the floor by now.”

Just then a well-placed shot from Brelyna’s bow caught the dragon priest in the arm that held the staff, breaking the arc of lightning.

I took advantage of Morokei’s momentary distraction to dash past him down the steps toward J’zargo, who lay curled in a semi-conscious heap near the wall of the opposite balcony. I had no thought of saving my remaining magicka for a spell of Destruction. I had to heal J’zargo before the dragon priest’s next attack finished him. My healing spell revived him enough that he could sit up and drink the potion I gave him.

I turned to see Morokei blasting Brelyna with his staff. Onmund was nowhere to be seen. Brelyna bravely fired a last shot, then fell back out of our sight, too weakened to continue fighting.

Morokei turned back toward me, but just then Lydia attacked him from behind. She must have finished the atronach, then crept up on him while his attention was on the two above. Her blow set him afire once more, but he responded with a shout. “Krii-Lun-Aus!” The full Marked for Death shout sent her to her knees.

I had notched an arrow to my bow by this time and the shot caught him beneath his outstretched arm. For any other being, it would have been a death blow, but Morokei merely grimaced. “Your bows barely touch me,” he boasted, then turned back to Lydia, who still hadn’t gotten to her feet.

For the first time in the battle, I felt my dragon’s rage rising within me. I had never before seen Lydia so injured. It was shocking. We had defeated dragon priests before – this one would not kill her! But I knew I had to master my temper. I drew breath for a shout, drawing on the energy of my rage, but not letting it overpower me. Morokei was about to hit Lydia with a blast from his staff.

Just then the ghosts of Atmah and Hafnar jumped down from above, landing on either side of the dragon priest. “For Winterhold!” Hafnar yelled, and they began pummeling the dragon priest with their fists. Their blows didn’t seem to do much, but they distracted him from Lydia, and she was able to creep behind a pillar.

“Fus-Ro-Dah!” I shouted with all the energy I could muster. That knocked Morokei back against the wall of the balcony above, where he lay still for a moment. J’zargo came past me and up the steps, hitting Morokei with a lightning bolt. Onmund and Brelyna had revived themselves by now and reappeared on the upper balcony. They hit him with both fire and lightning before he could get up.

Morokei lifted his grim mask toward me. “After a thousand years,” he said, “I have finally met my match.” Then with a burst of energy he was transformed into a pile of ash covered by his singed robes and metal armature. His mask and the Staff of Magnus lay nearby.

My first thought was for Lydia. I found her, still on one knee, behind the column. When my healing spell surrounded her in a glowing golden light, she looked up at me and smiled. “I’m glad your magicka returned, my thane,” she said.

“Remember when I said you would change your tune?” I said, and held out my hand to help her up. She seemed all right, if a bit shaky. Then we gathered around what was left of Morokei.

“Thank you, Atmah and Hafnar,” I said. “We might not have prevailed without you.”

“And thank you for freeing us,” said Hafnar. “Three decades of casting that shield spell were enough. If only I could get my hands on Savos! I can still feel his soul trap spell hitting me as we did battle with Morokei. I never imagined he was capable of such treachery.”

“Neither did we,” said Brelyna. “But Master Aren is dead and beyond any of our reach.”

“Then I go to be with my fathers in Sovngarde,” he said, and both ghost mages disappeared.

We stood there staring at the space they had left, momentarily at a loss. It must have been the wee hours of the morning by then. The battle had got my blood up, reviving me while it lasted, but now I felt the fatigue come rushing back. Yet we still had to find our way out of here, ride hard to the college, then face who knew what with Ancano and the Eye of Magnus.

“Come friends,” I said. “Our job is only half done. We have to get back to the college.”

I went over to the remains of Morokei and picked up the Staff of Magnus. Its top bore an orb, a sort of miniature Eye of Magnus, floating within a cage of curved spikes. We could only hope that this weapon would somehow break the Eye’s power. I strapped it to my back and we gathered the rest of our things, then found the chamber’s exit at the back of the upper balcony.

But the ghosts of Labyrinthian weren’t done with us yet. As we made our way toward the iron door, the specter of Savos Aren appeared once more. He was looking back toward the chamber where he had just left the souls of his two remaining companions.

“I’m sorry, friends,” he said, and he really did sound sorry. “I had no choice! It was the only way to make sure that monster never escaped! I promise you, I’ll never let this happen again! I’ll seal this whole place away…”

When he was gone we all looked at each other. “Pffft!” was all J’zargo had to say. The rest of us were too tired to speak.

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