The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 44

 

The Mind of Septimus Signus

 

I was in the Arcanaeum the next morning before anyone else was awake. There was no sign of Urag. I whiled away the time waiting for him by reading The Ransom of Zarek, a breathless tale of a kidnapping and daring escape, told in an archaic and stilted dialect of Tamrielic. I still wasn’t sure why I should care about Zarek when Urag came shambling in, rubbing his eyes.

“Eager to get at it, I see. I can’t promise you much.” He went to a cabinet, unlocked it, and removed two tomes. “Here you are. I wish I could say happy reading, but I don’t want to get your hopes up.”

I took the two books to a reading table. One was titled Effects of the Elder Scrolls, written by a Justinius Poluhnias in the Second Era. I put it aside, thinking it couldn’t help me find an Elder Scroll so many centuries later. I turned to the second, Ruminations on the Elder Scrolls, by Septimus Signus himself. I hoped one of the ruminations would be about the current location of an Elder Scroll. My hopes dimmed when I saw the subtitle: “A philosophical view on the role of the Elder Scrolls.”

And inside, I found only madness. It began, “Imagine living beneath the waves with a strong-sighted blessing of most excellent fabric.” It continued from there, making less and less sense as it went, and nowhere did it mention a particular location on Nirn.

I was just considering banging my head against the pages when Lydia, Brelyna, and J’zargo entered, taking seats around the table.

“Have you found anything?” Lydia asked. Her eyes were still heavy from sleep, and she had left her armor behind in our quarters, wearing a cloak over her padded tunic. Brelyna and J’zargo didn’t look much more ready to face the task ahead.

“Only the ravings of a madman. Here, see what you can decipher from this.”

She took the tome, glanced at it, then passed it along to Brelyna. “If this is what reading an Elder Scroll does to you, I’m not sure I want you touching one.”

I took up Effects of the Elder Scrolls, hoping to understand how Septimus’ mind had become so unsettled. Instead, I found a catalog of the varying degrees of blindness readers of the Elder Scrolls experienced, depending on their preparation for reading. “Look,” I said to my friends. “I think it’s safe for me to use an Elder Scroll, if we ever find one. It says here that those who have had no training in the nature of Elder Scrolls will find only an inert object. The scroll won’t impart any information, ‘nor will it affect them in any adverse fashion’.”

“What good is it then?” Lydia asked.

“I don’t know. We don’t even know how the ancients used their Elder Scroll. But we can’t find out until we get one.”

Brelyna looked up from her reading of Septimus’ book. “I believe you’re too hasty in calling Septimus mad. Perhaps the Elder Scrolls themselves are irrational, contradictory objects, beyond mortal ken.”

“Yes, that’s how Paarthurnax described them.”

“Well then, perhaps Septimus’ writings are not madness, but apt metaphors for the nature of the scrolls themselves.”

Lydia frowned at Brelyna. “If you say so, but either way, these things are insane. I will not have my thane touching one.”

“Surely using an Elder Scroll can be no more dangerous than facing Alduin himself. But right now it seems there’s little chance you’ll have to worry about either.”

I went up to Urag’s desk, where he was munching on a sweetroll. “I told you not to hope for much out of those tomes,” he said. “The Elder Scrolls were scattered to the winds in the Great War, and no one knows what happened to them.”

“And you’re sure you have nothing else on them?”

“Are you questioning the organization of my catalog system, young lady? I can assure you, I can lay my hands on every single tome among the thousands housed in the Arcanaeum. And we have nothing else on the scrolls.”

“I’m sorry, Urag, I didn’t mean to offend you. But I’m nearly out of hope. Can you think of nothing else that could help me?”

He thought for a moment. “I would talk to Enthir, if you haven’t already.”

I sighed. The prospect of getting anything out of Enthir without paying a high price seemed slim.

 

*~*~*

 

“Enthir? What do you want with him?” growled Dagur, the innkeeper at the Frozen Hearth.

“College business,” I said.

“Ach! There’s been too much college business around here! Bringing that orb up from Saarthal. Releasing those air worms, or whatever they are. And I still say the college had something to do with the Great Cataclysm. Things have been mighty slow around here ever since.”

“Then I think you would appreciate additional custom.” I placed a dragon coin on the bar. I had taken the liberty of restocking my supply of gold when we stopped at the Blade and Dragon. “How about tea and sweetrolls for my friends and me, plus a round for Enthir. Now where is he?”

Dagur eyed the gold, then picked it up and bit it. “He’s down in the cellar, where he always is. Shady characters down there, too.”

We were descending the stairs to the cellar when the door at the bottom opened and two hooded figures emerged.

“You!” one of them said, looking at Lydia and me.

“You!” I replied. It was Etienne Rarnis.

In an instant Lydia had the thief pressed up against the wall, her dagger at his throat. “Twice you’ve betrayed us. There won’t be a third time. Now tell us, what are you doing here? Working with the Thalmor again?”

“No, no, believe me! I hate the damned Altmer as much as you!” Etienne’s eyes were wide, flicking back and forth among the four of us. His partner stood back, unsure whether to come to his aid. “We’re just here on a delivery. We were as glad to be shut of the Thalmor as you were. Bad for business and all. Too bad they broke out of Mistveil Dungeon.”

“Wait!” I put a hand on Lydia’s arm. She let the thief down off the wall but kept her weapon drawn. “What are you saying?”

“Just what I said. The elves broke out just a few hours after the Stormcloaks locked them up. No one could understand how they escaped so quick, figured they must have had inside help.”

“But who would do that? Riften is a Stormcloak city.”

“I’d … rather not say. Get in trouble with the boss. Let’s just say that nothing is what it seems in the Rift.”

I groaned. “All right, you can go.” I watched the thieves disappear up the stairs, thinking about Esbern and Delphine, and whether they knew that the Thalmor were on their trail. Then I wished I hadn’t sent that letter, or else that I had written it in a more coded fashion. The Thalmor had been known to waylay couriers and open the letters they carried.

We found Enthir in the cellar. The chamber had crude stone walls with two beds and a table – Dagur and Horan’s sparse living quarters, no doubt, which Enthir had taken over for his business. He was just stuffing something red, wet, and glistening back into a sack as we entered.

“Ah, the arch-mage has returned, I see, and with friends. What can I do for you? I usually like to keep college business separate from village business.”

“I want to hear anything you can tell me about Septimus Signus.”

“Septimus! Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in an age. I’d almost forgotten about him.”

“Urag said you were friendly with the mage.”

“Yes, and why shouldn’t I be, just because he was as mad as Sheogorath?”

“Befriending the mentally ill – I never knew you harbored such compassion in your heart, Enthir. Or did you hope to profit by it somehow?”

Just then, Haran brought in our tea and sweetrolls and set them on the table before us.

“Ah, very kind of you,” Enthir said, sipping at his tea. “But it’s going to take more than tea and a sweetroll to butter me up, if that’s what you’re hoping.”

He took a bite of his sweetroll and I waited for him to continue. Sometimes silence is better at prompting speech than pestering. The technique worked. Enthir swallowed with some difficulty, looking back and forth between us, especially Lydia who was still in a grim mood after our encounter with the thief.

“I will admit, the way Septimus kept going on about Dwemer ruins, I hoped he might come back with something valuable. Oh, not any of that Dwemer scrap metal, but maybe a working gyro or a dynamo core – they carry a high price from the right buyer. Or better yet, an exquisitely worked silver necklace or two. But it was all a waste of my time. Septimus disappeared without a trace.”

“Do you have any idea where he went, or what he was looking for? I’m desperate for any clues.”

Enthir’s eyes narrowed. “I may have something of use. But why should I help you?”

“For old times’ sake. I did get that staff back for you. And if we end up following Septimus into a Dwemer ruin, we’ll bring back as many valuable Dwemer artifacts as we can carry. Now, do you know where he went or not?”

Enthir waved his sweetroll vaguely to the west. “Off over the pass toward Saarthal is all I know. Skyrim has Dwemer ruins to spare, as you know – domes poking up here and there, inaccessible, locked from the inside, or with broken lifts that will get you nowhere. He mentioned many of them – Raldbthar, Mzulft, Mzinchaleft, Mzark, Irkngthand – but he never said which one he was headed for. That, and something about a deep venue and a tower of learning. That was all I could make of his ravings.”

“So any of half a dozen Dwemer ruins, and we don’t even know what he was looking for. It doesn’t seem much help.”

“Well, there was one other thing. He left me his notes. Said he was done with them because he’d copied everything he needed onto a map. Wouldn’t let me see the map, of course.”

“And you still have these notes?”

“Certainly! In a chest in my room at the college, gathering dust. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I gave them a quick glance – nothing but gibberish, if you ask me.”

“If they’re anything like his book, then they’re likely useless. Still, they’re our only hope. When can we see them?”

“Just let me finish my tea. I wouldn’t want to delay your great quest, whatever it is.”

“I’m seeking an Elder Scroll.” Then I thought of something. “Enthir, you’re known as an elf who can get his hands on rare items. Do you know where we can find one?”

“An Elder Scroll? Ha! Tell me another one! I never knew you had such a sense of humor.” He drained his tea, his eyes still crinkling with amusement.

 

*~*~*

 

Half an hour later, we were just sitting down around the Arcanaeum’s reading table, Enthir’s small wooden chest before us, when Onmund appeared at the library’s entrance. He stood there looking uncomfortable, staring at the floor, trying to clear his throat.

Brelyna rose to greet him first. “Onmund! You’ve left your cell! It’s so good to see you up and around.”

He approached our table, trying to look only at Brelyna and J’zargo, but his eyes kept darting over at Lydia and me, sitting close together. He stood before the table for a moment, his fingers idly tapping the back of an empty chair.

“I … I heard you talking last night, about what Deirdre and … Lydia … went through on their quest. And I realized, if they could go through such suffering to save the world, then I … it’s bigger than me and my feelings. It’s my duty to help in any way I can.”

“Well spoken, Onmund!” Brelyna said, squeezing his arm. “Of course you can help us. We were just about to go through these notes.”

“Onmund,” I said, “does this mean we can be friends again?”

He still wouldn’t look at me. “I didn’t say that. I’m here to help defeat Alduin, that is all.”

Lydia got my attention by kicking me under the table. I looked over to see her raising her eyebrows at me, as if to remind me what she thought of Onmund.

J’zargo gave a purring chuckle. “Well, this promises to be … awkward.”

“Let’s get to it, shall we?” Brelyna said briskly, opening the chest and pulling out scrolls and scraps of paper. “Now, what exactly are we looking for?”

“Any mention of an Elder Scroll and its location,” I said, though I hadn’t much hope.

Brelyna grew less hopeful as she pulled out more and more pieces of paper. “Disordered record-keeping – the sign of a disordered mind. No dates, no page numbers, no apparent order, just random scribblings.” She unrolled one scroll and read from it. “Dig, Dwemer, in the beyond, I’ll know your lost unknown and rise to your depths.”

“That’s nonsense!” Onmund said.

“Yes. However, we have no choice but to wade through this nonsense for whatever clues it contains.” She began passing out scrolls and sheaves of paper to each of us. “We’d best get started – this could take all day.”

And it did. It was an hour before we found anything – an hour filled with frustrated sighs and groans and many trips to a ewer of water Urag kept on a table well away from the books.

It was Onmund who found the first hint of a clue. “Here, what’s this mean? ‘Cast upon where Dwemer cities slept, the yearning spires hidden learnings kept’.”

“I don’t know,” I said, wondering why so much of Septimus’ writings were in verse. “But it sounds as if it refers to a location, vague though it is.”

“Here,” Brelyna said, taking the scrap of paper from Onmund. “Septimus may have been disorganized, but we don’t have to be. We’ll save anything that looks interesting in this pile.” She certainly seemed in her element, organizing our research.

An hour later, Lydia found something else. I was surprised – she usually didn’t have much patience for this kind of thing. “Damn this mage! Why can’t he speak plain? Listen to this:

West of the Nords’ saddest mourning,

East of the bright light of morning,

There ‘neath glaciers’ frozen shelving,

Delve deep in the Dwarves’ deepest delving.

“He certainly wasn’t a master of verse, but that must refer to a physical location,” Brelyna said. “Let’s add it to the pile and decipher it later.”

We were taking our noon meal of dried apples and hard cheese – it took all of my powers of persuasion to convince Urag to allow us food in the Arcanaeum – when Brelyna jumped up from the table. “He was onto an Elder Scroll. Listen! ‘The box is strong but the bones of creation are stronger. The scroll will break the box.’ And here, a short while later: ‘One escaped the Empire’s clutches. In the depths, one yet lies. But how to get in?’ “

“That’s the most rational thing he’s said so far,” I said, my hopes rising.

Brelyna added it to the pile. “Let’s keep going. We’re getting closer.”

A short while later, J’zargo gave a satisfied purr. ” ‘Dwemer Inquiries hold the key!’ this says. Pfft. Isn’t this all a Dwemer inquiry?”

“Perhaps that refers to a book,” Brelyna suggested. “If Septimus felt it held the key, it could be important.”

“Let’s ask Urag,” I said.

“Of course the Dwemer Inquiries are a book,” Urag huffed. “Three volumes, actually, by Thelwe Ghelein, undated. I’ll get them for you.” The lorekeeper shuffled off into the stacks.

The litter of discarded scrolls and paper scraps around our table grew deep, while the stack of useful ones remained short – just four items. The late afternoon sun was slanting through the Arcanaeum’s tall windows, my hopes sinking with it.

Then Brelyna leapt up once again. “A map!” She held up a scrap of paper. We gathered around her for a better look, Onmund pointedly walking around to stand on the side away from Lydia and me.

Yet it wasn’t much. Just a label at the top, “FalZhardum Din,” a familiar symbol, and then three dots, labeled “A,” “R,” and “M.” No landmarks, no sense of scale.

“How do you even know it’s a map?” I asked.

She pointed to the symbol. “This is surely the sigil of Dawnstar, crudely drawn though it is. Oh, and wait!” She took up the second scrap of paper in our stack. “‘East of the bright light of morning.’ That must refer to Dawnstar as well. Urag, pardon us once more, but do you have a map of Skyrim anywhere about?”

“Of course I do! Common as a septim. There’s one in that urn full of scrolls right behind you.”

Brelyna spread the map out on the table. “So, if it’s east of Dawnstar,” she said, her finger tracing the map’s lines and symbols, “and west of … what?”

Onmund took up the scrap with the verse. “‘The Nords’ saddest mourning.’ That has to be Saarthal.”

“Of course,” Brelyna said. “And between Dawnstar and Saarthal … here, Alftand. Although it’s neither directly east of Dawnstar nor west of Saarthal, but somewhat south.”

“You must remember Alftand from our travels over the Wayward Pass,” I said. “It rests upon and beneath a vast glacier, which fits the verse’s third line.”

“But how could an Elder Scroll be hidden there? It must have been explored many times by now. There were even signs of an expedition the last time we passed it.”

“I don’t know. But for now, let’s assume that the A on the map stands for Alftand. Yet there are other marks.”

“Yes, and with no discernible scale on such a crude map, those marks could refer to a number of locations. And yet the whole map seems to refer to another location entirely – FalZhardum Din. That’s surely the Dwemer language, but what can it mean?”

We stared at the map and the verse for a moment, but none of us could come up with anything else.

“Come on,” Lydia prompted. “We’re almost done with these notes, and suppertime draws near.”

We plowed ahead, and in a short while Onmund leaned back in his chair and sighed. “My mind is so foggy, I’m not sure if this means anything at all: ‘I’ve found the tools. Two shapes, one edged, one round. The round one for tuning. The edged, for scribing’.”

“More gibberish!” Lydia exclaimed.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Brelyna said. “Anything Septimus thought of as a tool could be important. And I don’t know about tuning, but scribing could have to do with the scroll. Add it to the pile.”

The light was gone from the windows and we were reading by candlelight when I came to the next to last scrap in my share of the notes. “Thank Akatosh, this one finally has a date. And he sounds almost lucid: ’12th of Last Seed, 4E 195. I have found Ursa’s map. A few more preparations and I will be ready’.”

“Ready for what?” Lydia demanded. “Ready to go where? Damn him!”

“Yes, and who’s Ursa?” Brelyna wondered.

“Could it refer to the map we have before us?” I asked.

“That hardly seems likely, it is so sketchy,” Brelyna said. “And he probably would have taken it with him.”

The last scroll in my pile contained nothing but gibberish. I sat back in my chair, pondering the scant information we had gleaned. It didn’t seem much. We at least knew Septimus was after an Elder Scroll, and that was encouraging. And perhaps he went to Alftand, though we couldn’t be sure. It seemed a slim hope.

When the others had finished their piles with no further success, we turned to the Dwemer Inquiries. These were a history of Dwemer building and tunneling practices, focusing on how the styles had changed as the Dwemer moved from Morrowind into Skyrim. As we read, I pondered Arngeir’s suspicion that the Tongues had lost the Elder Scroll at their battle with the Dwemer and the Chimer on Red Mountain. Had the Dwemer brought the scroll with them into Skyrim? Or had the Nords lost it as they fled back to their homeland, pursued by the Dwemer? It was all guesswork.

We were deep into the third volume, our stomachs growling to be fed, when we finally came across something of value. The tome spoke of Deep Venues sometimes found in the deepest Dwemer ruins – vast natural caverns large enough to contain free-standing structures and even paved roads wide enough for ten soldiers to march abreast. It was hard to believe such a cavern could exist without the land above collapsing in on it, but the book mentioned one that had been explored at Bthardamz.

Toward the end, the author grew less sure of himself, speaking of strange inscriptions found at the deepest levels of three ruins: Raldbthar, Mzinchaleft, and Alftand.

“Mzinchaleft and Raldbthar!” Brelyna exclaimed. “That completes our mysterious map.” She marked in the names next to the dots on Septimus’ map, then compared it to the map of Skyrim. “It’s crude, but roughly accurate. Mzinchaleft is west-by-northwest of Alftand, while Raldbthar is almost due south. But then, why is this map labeled FalZhardum Din?”

And on the next page, we had the answer, or a partial one: “The inscriptions in these three underground ruins reference a geological anomaly or place known as ‘FalZhardum Din’ … The words appear specifically on ornate metal frames in the ruins’ deepest reaches… The most reasonable translation of ‘FalZhardum Din’ I have been able to decipher is ‘Blackest Kingdom Reaches,’ but I cannot imagine what that means.” The tome concluded with a lament about the answer lying “just under my nose – or indeed, under my feet.”

“Well, that doesn’t make much sense,” Brelyna said. “At least we now have a translation for ‘FalZhardum Din,’ though it’s not much help.”

“Wait,” I said. “Something else is written here.” I could see writing showing through from the back of the last page. Turning it over, I read these words, written in Septimus Signus’ hand: “Under Deep, below the Dark. The hidden keep, Tower Mzark.”

Under deep, I thought. Below the dark. Just more insane ramblings. But the author of Dwemer Inquiries felt the answer was right beneath his feet. The blackest reaches. “That’s it!” I said.

“What?” Brelyna asked.

“What if FalZhardum Din, or these Blackest Kingdom Reaches, is a vast cavern that lies beneath all these other ruins, connecting them?” I took up the first scrap of paper Onmund had found. “A place ‘where Dwemer cities slept,’ a place to hide a whole tower – a place where an Elder Scroll could remain hidden for all these centuries.”

“But that would indeed be vast,” Lydia said. “Each of these ruins is half a day’s ride apart.”

“And if FalZhardum Din is that vast,” Brelyna said, “as impossible as that seems, how is this Tower of Mzark to be found?”

“We can only hope that it will stand out somehow, or that we’ll find Septimus and this map he spoke of. It seems clear that Septimus was concentrating his efforts on Alftand.” I stood up from the table. “That decides it. Lydia and I will leave for Alftand in the morning.”

Brelyna shook her head. “You’re not going anywhere without us. Am I right, J’zargo?”

“Grrrr, what?” The Khajiit roused himself from some reverie. Perhaps he’d been dreaming of the dinner we had yet to eat. “Oh, yes, J’zargo will be glad to go with you. One more chance for this one to prove he is the greatest of mages.”

“But it could be dangerous,” I said.

“Of course it will be dangerous,” Brelyna said. “And have you faced Dwemer automatons? Or the Falmer? No? Well then, our experience from Mzulft will prove invaluable. Onmund, are you with us?”

Onmund looked uncomfortable but finally stammered, “Yes, of course.”

“Good, then what time do we leave?” Brelyna asked.

“I had hoped to leave at dawn, but I see now I must convene a meeting of the college. Master Tolfdir will need a new assistant. We will leave as soon after as we can manage.”

 

*~*~*

 

It was a sleepy group of mages that answered my summons shortly after dawn the next morning. They stood around the Hall of the Elements, wondering what it was all about. Faralda and Nirya stood off to one side, whispering together and looking put-upon.

“Damnable time of the morning for a meeting!” Urag gro-Shub grumbled.

“Friends, my apologies for waking you so early,” I began, speaking from the steps of the magicka fountain at the center of the hall, “but I must make an early start. I am leaving the college once again, for how long I do not know. Brelyna will accompany us, along with Onmund and J’zargo. Yet I realize that Brelyna’s absence will have an impact on the college…”

“Hear, hear!” Nirya put in.

“It’s about time we saw some changes around here,” Faralda said.

“Yes, I must appoint a temporary replacement, so that Master Tolfdir does not go without assistance. But first, there are serious matters we must discuss.”

“What, before breakfast?” Arniel Gane grumbled.

“I’m afraid it cannot be helped. My friends, these are troubled times, as you know. I have traveled far since last we met. I have been imprisoned by the Imperials, I have even spoken with the emperor himself.” A murmur went through the hall at that revelation. “And Lydia and I have been the prisoners of the Thalmor.” A louder murmur. “These Aldmeri were remarkably open with me in discussing their plans, their goals, and their ultimate aims. And it is now clear to me that the Thalmor seek to enslave all other races, if not wipe us from the face of Nirn – and most especially their ancient foes, the humans of Skyrim.”

Shouts of “No!” and “They could not!” rang out through the hall. Nirya and Faralda were still quiet, whispering together.

“In such times, our college must stand united. And so I must ask a painful question of our Altmer colleagues. Faralda and Nirya, whom do you serve – the College of Winterhold or the powers that rule your homeland?”

The two Altmer looked at each other. Then Faralda stepped forward. “Arch-Mage, how can you ask such a question? I have devoted myself to the college for years. I am no Thalmor.”

“It’s true,” Nirya said. “The Thalmor are but one political faction in Summerset, albeit the ruling faction at the moment. But I for one have never had anything to do with them. In fact, one reason I came to the college was to escape such politics. If I ever said anything complimentary about the Thalmor, it was only because I thought Ancano might be eavesdropping. Things are that bad in my home, we dare not speak openly about our rulers.”

I looked back and forth between the two, gauging their sincerity. “Very well. Will you swear an oath to the College of Winterhold, that you will serve and protect it and all its residents, no matter what comes?”

“I swear it,” Faralda said.

“As do I,” Nirya agreed.

“Then I am prepared to trust you. What say the rest of you?” There was a bit of grumbling – neither of the Altmer had made many friends at the college – but in the end all of the mages nodded in assent.

“Good. Then I appoint Faralda temporary assistant to Master Tolfdir.” There was a bit of polite applause, but even more grumbling. Faralda beamed as if I had jumped her straight to arch-mage. “Now, with that settled, I implore all of you to put aside your differences and unite behind your leaders. I have the utmost confidence in Master Tolfdir, and know he will use his wisdom to shepherd the college through these perilous times. And even more, I urge you to work together, to continue your training and your studies, sharing your knowledge with one another, and reaching out to recruit new novices in any way you can.”

Sergius Turrianus spoke up. “Why, Arch-Mage? What is the urgency?”

“War is coming, Sergius. There may come a time when I will call upon the college to defend not only itself but all of Skyrim from the Thalmor. Or it may be that we must enter the Civil War to keep the Thalmor at bay – I do not know.”

“The college has always held itself apart from these wars and political affairs,” Sergius objected.

“Can you not see that war is already upon us? We have lost two of our leaders, two of our dearest colleagues and friends, in this war. Or have you forgotten the tragic events of a month ago? Ancano was not just seeking power for himself, but for the Aldmeri Dominion. Wielding the power of the Eye, the Aldmeri could have extended their domination to all of Tamriel.”

A tremor went through the hall, even a shout of “Down with the Thalmor!”

“You can see why we must put aside petty infighting and stand together. Who’s with me?” I thrust my fist into the air. “For the college!” I cried. Lydia took up the chant with me. “For Winterhold!”

Faralda and Nirya were the next to join us, then Tolfdir and Colette, then more and more, until finally the entire hall reverberated with our chanting.

When we were done and the crowd was breaking up, Enthir came up to the five of us, a tome in one hand and a sack slung over his shoulder.

“Off to some Dwemer ruin, I presume?” he asked.

“Alftand.”

“Ah, of course. I hope you’re prepared to face many Falmer. Nasty creatures, though in ancient times they were the mighty Snow Elves. Several of my friends have fallen to the devils. I believe that must be what happened to Septimus.”

J’zargo sniffed. “Some of us have faced Falmer before. They are but trifles.”

“Ah. Still, I thought this tome on the Falmer might be helpful. It’s been lying about the Frozen Hearth for years now. No, don’t thank me! Just protecting my investment.” He handed me the book and went off after Phinis Gestor.

I looked at the book in my hand. The Falmer: A Study was the title. Then I opened it to the title page and saw who had written it. “Ursa Uthrax!”

“The one who drew Septimus’ map?” Brelyna asked.

“It could be. Let’s see what she has to say.”

Much of the tome was familiar from the legends about the Falmer – that they were once Snow Elves who were driven underground after their defeat by the Nords. And literally underground, taking refuge with the Dwemer. Then this author named their retreat: Blackreach.

“That must be FalZhardum Din!” Brelyna said. “Blackreach – a shortening of Blackest Kingdom Reaches.”

“Yes, and she claims to have been there.” I pointed to the next lines: “Yes, Blackreach exists. I have been there, and unlike most of those who have witnessed its terrible glories, I have returned.”

“I wonder what she meant by ‘terrible glories’?” Onmund said.

“Probably just the vastness of the place,” Brelyna said. “Let’s just hope we find Septimus, and he has that map.”

Lydia had grown tired of all this standing around and talking. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get going then!” She opened the door to the courtyard and ushered us out into a frigid winter morning.

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