The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 45

 

Alftand

 

Alftand was a wonder, an amazement, a miracle. Impossibly vast, filled with a beauty and craftsmanship we in this Fourth Era can only dream about, still alive with the mechanical creatures the Dwarves left behind. And everywhere, the clanking, spinning, and hissing of their machines, whose purposes remain a mystery. The Dwemer, known as a hard-headed, scientific people, would have scoffed at such descriptions, yet we cannot help but look upon them as gods, or next-to-gods, for they created new life – or something like life.

We had no trouble getting into the ruin, thanks to those who had come before. We found the Alftand Expedition camp abandoned at the edge of a yawning glacial crevasse. A small Dwemer tower stood nearby, inaccessible, like many similar structures that had tantalized and frustrated adventurers in Skyrim for centuries. Other turrets and towers poked out of the crevasse at odd angles, having been swallowed by the glacier long ago, revealed more recently by the splitting of the ice. A wooden catwalk, built by the recent explorers, led precipitously down the ice face into a vertical fissure within the crevasse. It was an easy thing for us to walk down it, and then into the ice itself, following the fissure that the expedition had widened, thus gaining access to the halls and chambers of Alftand.

It was in the first of these, a stone corridor into which the ice had partly intruded, that we found Septimus Signus.

“The crazy old mage didn’t make it very far, did he?” Lydia said as we gathered around the black-robed figure sprawled on the stone floor. Her torch illuminated Septimus’ body, shriveled, desiccated, his mage’s robes rent in a dozen places and covered in dark splotches of blood that had dried and frozen years ago.

“Yet how he made it even this far is a mystery,” Brelyna said. She pointed to the broken pieces of a Dwemer spider contraption lying not far away. “Clearly, one of those spiders killed him, but who killed the spider?”

“Yes, and who went through his pack?” J’zargo said. He held up an empty knapsack, and there was a scatter of books and other items at his feet.

“Probably the same people who tunneled through the ice to get here,” Onmund said.

I groaned, not wanting to think about what might have been taken from Septimus’ pack, but I guessed he was right.

“If the expedition had to do this much work to reach this passage, how did Septimus get here?” Brelyna asked.

“That mystery will have to remain unsolved for now,” I said. “Let’s see if he has that map of Blackreach, or those tools he mentioned. Maybe the expedition left them, not knowing what they were.”

But it was a vain hope. A thorough search of his robes’ pockets revealed nothing but some smashed potion bottles. And in the scatter of items spilled from his pack, there were copies of Calcelmo’s writings on dwarves, other books, and a journal. My hopes rose briefly when I saw Septimus’ handwriting, but fell again when I scanned the first two pages: nothing but gibberish. I nearly left it by his body, but decided to put it in my pack, thinking it might yield something useful when we had time to study it closely.

Brelyna saw that I was disappointed. “Those tools may not have been that important,” she said. “Or maybe we’ll find them up ahead.”

I had to agree, and we began moving down the hallway. The glacier had intruded into the passage, breaking the pipe-works that ran along the ceiling. Fresh water poured from the broken end, and I wondered where was the heat source that kept the pipes from freezing. Steam escaped from metal vents in the ceilings and walls, a further mystery, like much else in this Dwemer ruin.

Yet even here, where the eons had done so much to damage the ancient city, I had to marvel at Dwarven craftsmanship. The walls of the passage were of close-set square blocks requiring the most highly skilled mason-work. The columns supporting the ceiling featured ornate carvings of geometrical shapes. And the floor, built of close-set flagstones, was smoother and more level than anything a modern mason could create. Here and there, chandeliers lit by soul gems illuminated the space, and scraps of old carpet showed that it had not been without comfort, for all its stonework.

I was just beginning to think we were making good progress when we rounded a corner into a larger chamber. Brelyna had insisted on taking the lead since she and the other mages had more experience in Dwemer ruins than Lydia or I. Now she stopped and gasped. “By the Eight, what happened here?”

I stepped around Onmund and witnessed a scene of carnage unlike any I had seen since Helgen. The room was strewn with bodies: a man in Imperial armor lay across a stone table, an arrow embedded deep in his eye. A Redguard woman lay in a pool of congealed blood at the foot of the table, her steel plate armor dented and most of one arm missing. The bodies of two strange, eyeless creatures I guessed must be Falmer had fallen before her, their pallid bodies a welter of blood spots, as if they’d been made to bleed from every pore. At the far end of the room, next to a barred doorway, lay the body of a female Orsimer. She wore only hide armor, and it hadn’t done her much good.

“A Falmer ambush!” Onmund said.

“I believe you’re right, Onmund,” I said. “Let’s search these bodies and the rest of the room. Maybe we’ll find a clue about what happened to them. And be on the lookout for those items Septimus mentioned, especially the map of Blackreach.”

A search of the bodies yielded nothing of much value, the Falmer having already looted everything they wanted. But on the table we found two items of interest: a journal left by the expedition leader, Sulla Trebattius, and a strangely decorated metal box, square, and about ten inches on a side. It was hollow, judging by the weight and the empty sound it made when tapped, but there was no obvious way to open it. Each side was engraved with the same rune or sigil inside a circle, but the circles could not be pressed or rotated. It was just an inert metal cube.

“That must be the edged shape Septimus described,” Brelyna said. “I wonder what it does?”

“I haven’t a clue, but maybe this journal will tell us something.” The others gathered around, and I began to read aloud. The first pages were a manifest of the expedition, listing its seven members.

“What happened to the other four?” Onmund wondered.

I skimmed past the journal entries that described the first days of traveling to the site and setting up camp, then there was a gap of several weeks, and then the following entries:

20 Frostfall

Haven’t had much time to write, we’ve been so busy opening the way into the ruin. Thank Akatosh for Yag’s clumsy feet. If she hadn’t tripped over that pickaxe half-buried in the snow, we never would have found the rope dangling from it. And that rope led us to the fissure. Whoever rappelled down it must have been very brave – or very mad.

It took us a week to build a catwalk to get down to the opening, and another week to widen it, stabilize it, and bridge the crevasses. One thing’s certain: whoever put that rope down to the fissure couldn’t have made it very far inside.

28 Frostfall

Tidings both good and ill. The good: the fissure leads into the Dwemer ruin. We should have it widened enough to get to more open passages by tomorrow. The ill: a storm hit yesterday and shows no sign of letting up. I’ve ordered most of the supplies moved into the tunnel entrance.

30 Frostfall

We found the fellow who left that rope. How he got this far down here I can’t imagine. The fissure seemed too narrow to allow anyone through. And then there were the crevasses crossing the fissure.

But his efforts went for naught. One of the Dwemer spider contraptions must have gotten him, his robes were ripped to shreds. College mage by the looks of him, and he’s been down here for years. Good riddance. If he had survived, the glory for the exploration of Alftand would have gone to Winterhold.

We found a strange box in his pack. I’ve no idea what it does. He also had an odd sphere in his pocket. It emits a soft music. I wonder if it could be an attunement sphere? If so, then the mage certainly knew what he was doing. I’ve heard the Dwemer used them as keys to their most sophisticated locking mechanisms. If this ruin contains a door with that kind of lock, I’m sure we’ll find something amazing behind it!

Ach, I shouldn’t get my hopes up. The mage was clearly mad. His journal is filled with nothing but gibberish. I gave up after two pages, and left it with him.

2 Sun’s Dusk

We’ve set up camp in the first chamber we came to. It’s large enough for all of us to sleep, though not comfortably on these stone floors. There are two stone tables where we can lay out our finds. I’ve been studying that strange box, hoping it will reveal some clue. But no luck so far.

One exit from this chamber is barred off. Of course the bars are made of Dwemer metal, so there’s no getting through without the hottest forge known to modern smiths. The passage beyond looks like it’s been caved in anyway. The other way out of the chamber is blocked by a glacial intrusion. We’re busy tunneling through the glacier, hoping to reach the same hall farther along.

These Dwemer machines are astounding! They keep popping out of metal pipes and attacking anyone they see. Or perhaps “see” is not the right word – no one knows how they sense an enemy and go after it with their metal claws. If only Umana and Yag wouldn’t smash them before we’ve had a chance to examine them. Where they get their power is a mystery, as is their continued functioning after all these centuries. Soul gems are obviously part of it, but there must be something else. And an even bigger mystery: they behave as if they have the will of living creatures. How did the Dwemer accomplish that?

Addendum: I thought I heard the sound of some large machine from farther down the barred passage. And then right before I closed my eyes I thought I saw a human-shaped form in the same direction. Maybe a different type of contraption than the ones we’ve seen before? This is so exciting!

4 Sun’s Dusk

Valie has disappeared. I thought we could trust the mage since she had no affiliation with Winterhold, but maybe the college got its hooks into her anyway. Whether she ran back to tell them of our progress, or somehow pushed ahead on her own, I don’t know. Umana thinks maybe one of the contraptions got her. She’s talking about going back, but I convinced her we can keep pushing forward. We’re tunneling through the glacier, following the wall of the ruined hall.

7 Sun’s Dusk

No sooner did we break through into the Dwemer hall past the blockage than the Khajiit brothers disappeared. We found them the next day in a side passage, J’darr standing over his dead brother. He’d obviously just murdered the poor wretch and kept going on about a hidden stash of skooma. He wanted to fight but we finally subdued him and tied him up. Umana thinks we should abandon the expedition, but there’s no going back: we found the entrance to the fissure blocked by snow and ice. We cleared it away just enough to see that the storm is still raging and the catwalk is an icy death trap. I say let’s keep pushing ahead.

8 Sun’s Dusk

Endrast is gone too. We were on our way into the newly opened section of the ruin, hoping we’d finally come to Alftand’s central area, when we realized he wasn’t with us. There’s no sign of him, but Umana found some drops of blood over by the barred doorway. We spent the rest of the day arguing about what to do. Yag is game to go on but Umana wants to go back, even if it means climbing up that icy rope. I told her I’d sooner take my chances with the Dwemer machines. I sometimes wonder if she doesn’t want to convince us to give up, then come back on her own, steal all the glory.

Addendum: There’s that mechanical sound again, from somewhere deep down in this place.

“So now we know what happened to the rest of the expedition,” Onmund said. He didn’t shiver when he said it, the way he would have in the past.

“And they found the round shape Septimus mentioned,” Brelyna said. “Do you suppose he was right that it’s a key to something?”

“I would guess so,” I said. “Septimus said it was for tuning, and Sulla called it an attunement sphere. But damn these Falmer, they must have taken it. It could be anywhere by now.”

“We’ll find it if we have to slay every Falmer in the place,” Lydia said. She poked at one of the Falmer bodies with her boot. “They don’t look so tough.”

I had to disagree. I thought they looked malevolent, with red scar-tissue where their eyes should be, bony nostrils instead of noses, and lips pulled back in a sneer.

“I wouldn’t underestimate them,” Brelyna said. “They possess unusual strength, though they are small, and seem smaller moving around in a crouch the way they do. They may be blind, but they might as well have the night-vision of the Khajiits, their other senses guide them so well. Their mages have powerful magic, and they work together like packs of wolves, though usually in threes. And they’re even more dangerous when they work in tandem with the chauruses, which they have somehow managed to train.”

I shuddered, remembering a chaurus Lydia and I fought during our flight across Hjaalmarch. Onmund gave me a sidelong glance, and I tried to get a hold of myself.

“I’ll heed your warnings,” Lydia said, “but I think we’ll be fine. It looks like that Umana felled two of the creatures. And they were only three while we are five.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” I said. “Let’s keep moving. And let’s bring that box. Maybe we’ll learn what it’s good for farther along.”

And so began our exploration of Alftand. Would that I had the space to describe all that we saw there, the glories of its architecture and the wonders of its many different machines. But as it is, I must be brief. Of the guardian contraptions, we encountered three types. The first of these, a spider-like machine, set upon us in the hallway beyond the chamber where we found the expedition. Just as Sulla had described in his journal, it popped out of one of the many pipes that ran along the walls. It leapt straight at Lydia, who was passing nearest, its claws clanking rapidly against the steel of her armor.

We would have dispatched it with ease had Onmund not rushed in, cloaked in lightning and wielding a sword. He gave a high-pitched battle-cry, something like “Aiieeee!” Then it was cut short, his sword clanking off the metal dome of the spider’s body as one talon slashed his robes. He stepped back, stunned, a line of red blooming across his chest.

“Onmund, are you mad?” Brelyna yelled. I attended to Onmund while the rest took care of the spider. He was sitting down now, staring blankly at the action before him. My healing spell closed the gash in his chest, and a healing potion revived him further.

“Thanks,” he said, looking up at me and then quickly back to the others, who had just finished their fight. Two spells of lightning and fire from the mages and a blow from Lydia’s axe had smashed the contraption to pieces.

“Onmund, what were you doing?” Brelyna demanded. “And you have experience with these Dwemer contraptions – were you trying to get yourself killed?”

“No one’s going to think me a coward ever again,” Onmund said, his jaw set, staring at the floor in front of him.

“Pffft!” J’zargo hissed. “There’s a difference between bravery and foolhardiness, my friend.”

We all looked at J’zargo for a moment. “What happened to J’zargo the cocky Khajiit?” Brelyna wondered.

Lydia stepped over to Onmund and stretched out a hand, helping him to his feet. “That may have been brave,” she said, “but it’s not the best battle tactic. You mages have no defenses against these contraptions. It’s best for me to go in front, taking any attacks with my shield and armor. You mages attack from range, and for Talos’ sake, don’t miss with those spells. My thane, since you are the most highly skilled in Restoration magic, your task will be to heal the rest of us during battle.”

We all nodded, yet it felt strange to take on the role of healer. Wasn’t this what I had set out to do when I went to the College of Winterhold in the first place – to heal, not to kill? Now, after so many months of fighting on my own or with Lydia at my side, I wasn’t so sure. Still, it was a sound battle plan, so I didn’t object.

We found the second type of contraption, the Dwemer sphere guardian, in the chamber the expedition had opened just before meeting their ends. Here the air seemed warmer, heavy with steam, and the ice had not intruded this far into the city.

Lydia caught her breath as she entered the room. “I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”

Nor had I. The place was huge, three, maybe four stories high, with lofty, vaulted ceilings. Yet, large as it was, every inch of the walls, floor, and ceiling was of hewn, closely fitted stone. How many ages had it taken the Dwemer just to build this one chamber? And that was not all. Metal pipe-work ran along the ceiling, extending along the walls and down to the floor in places, exuding steam from numerous vents. Here and there on the walls and floors, great metal gears spun around.

“I wonder what those are for?” Onmund asked.

“I don’t know,” Brelyna said. “This place is a wonder, even after Mzulft.”

All of these mechanisms, their purposes long forgotten, yet still working after all these centuries – perhaps that was the greatest wonder of all.

We were so busy gawking at the room around us, we barely noticed the two metal ports in the walls on either side of us, nor the pool of oil on the floor, until Lydia stepped in it.

“Quickly, back away!” Brelyna called, but it was too late. The metal coverings over the ports slid back and out of each rolled a metal ball about the size of a prize pumpkin. Brelyna had the presence of mind to cast a flame spell on the oil pool the instant that Lydia stepped away from it. The metal balls, whatever they were, rolled toward us, undeterred by the flame.

I could hardly believe my senses when each ball seemed to bloom with the fire, cracking open into two halves that served as wheels. From within arose a human-like shape with arms and a long, narrow head. They were fast, rolling across the floor toward us at an unbelievable speed. In the seconds before they reached us, I noticed that the Dwemer had taken the time to cast each with the likeness of a Dwarven face, complete with beard, nose, and cheekbones – and blank, blank eyes.

Then they were upon us and I noticed one more ghastly detail: instead of hands at the ends of their arms, they bore weapons, a crossbow on the left and a sword on the right. But not just any sword. This one had pulleys and gears that thrust the blade forward as the arm extended, doubling its force and speed. Lydia was able to block the charge of the first guardian with her shield, but the second one got under her swinging axe. She grunted in pain as the sword struck her breastplate with more power than she had expected.

Still, while two sphere guardians were a sterner test than a single spider, we were five and they were only two, and Brelyna and I cast our atronachs for added measure. She had taken to conjuring a frost atronach, a tall, stout creature of ice that could take much damage and smash its opponents with an icy fist.

Yet we did have one close call. I tried to use Unrelenting Force on the contraptions when they had backed Lydia up to a wall, forcing her to one knee. The shout had little effect on them. One continued its attack on Lydia, while the other turned on me.

I rolled to my right just in time, narrowly missing a thrust of that mechanical blade. Yet the sphere stayed with me as I rolled back onto my feet, and it prepared to strike me again. Just then a firebolt spell blasted it backwards. From the corner of my eye I saw Onmund readying another spell, and I hit the machine with a blast of lightning from my staff. The combined effect of our spells burst the sphere guardian into pieces.

Lydia gave a battle cry. “This will teach you!” and with a mighty swing of her axe, she smashed the second into bits.

We stood for a moment gathering our breaths. “Your spell pushed that thing back, where my shout did nothing,” I said to Onmund when I could speak again.

“One of the advantages of specializing in Destruction magic,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to become powerful enough to achieve that pushback effect. It makes an offensive spell defensive as well.” He didn’t give me a chance to thank him, but wandered off to gather soul gems from the machines.

“At least you learned that lesson at little cost,” Brelyna said. “Perhaps your Fire Breath will work better next time.”

We found an exit from this large chamber and continued through several more halls and rooms, some of which looked like sleeping quarters with hard stone beds. Occasionally we would come across chests where my lockpicking skills came in handy. Inside we found potions, pieces of armor, and valuable jewelry, some of it enchanted. The Dwemer were not known for using magic, but they had taken to collecting magical objects for study.

The deeper we went, the more ornate became the halls and chambers through which we passed. One hall featured grim Dwarven faces carved into its supporting columns.

“Not a very cheerful people, by the look of it,” Brelyna observed.

“Too much living underground,” said Onmund. “How happy would you be?”

“Not very,” Brelyna said, “but the Dwemer must have enjoyed it, or why would they have chosen such a life?”

At last we came to a doorway barred by a portcullis. Fortunately, there was a lever nearby that opened it. Stepping onto the platform beyond, we all gasped. We had entered at the top of a vertical natural cavern, one so deep we couldn’t see to the bottom. Yet it was not entirely natural, but filled with Dwemer pipes and turrets set in its walls, and stone ramps descending down into the gloom. It must have taken the highest skill, magic even, to construct the ramps, which descended in steep curves with few apparent supports. The walkway curved down to the middle of one turret and appeared to enter it, but beyond that it was too difficult to see where it led.

“One of those Deep Venues mentioned in the Dwemer Inquiries, I’m guessing,” Brelyna said.

“You must be right,” I said. “A natural cavern large enough to hold towers. Could this be Blackreach?”

“That’s wishful thinking,” she replied. “It’s large, but not large enough to hold an entire city. I think we’re still in Alftand.”

“Whether we’re in Blackreach, or still in Alftand, we’ll have to stop here,” Lydia said. “I don’t know whether it’s day or night, but my body tells me we need rest. This cavern will take a day to explore at the least.”

We had to agree she was right and retreated to one of the sleeping quarters for our rest.

Yet after taking our refreshment from our supply of provisions, I didn’t feel ready for sleep. I took Septimus’ journal from my pack and began idly flipping through it. It was still just more of the usual gibberish. “To harness is to know. The fundament. The Dwemer lockbox hides it from me.” Frustrated, I fanned through the pages, the last of which were blank. Then a scrap of paper fell out of the last pages. I reached down to pick it up, thinking it would only be more ravings. Then I turned it over.

Like the scrap of paper we had seen before, this one was labeled FalZhardum Din. But it was no mere scribble. It was a detailed depiction of an underground city – no, more than a city, a province, a nation.

“Look!” I exclaimed and the others got up from their bedrolls, gathering around the stone table where I sat.

“What is it?” J’zargo said sleepily. “This one needs his rest.”

“That’s a map of Blackreach, or I’m no mage,” Brelyna said.

In the bottom corner we found a signature with this testament, “I, Ursa Uthrax, drew this map during my expedition to, and upon my return from, Blackreach, also known as FalZhardum Din in the Dwemer tongue. I can attest to its full and complete accuracy.”

It showed a place that was roughly square, though narrower in the south than in the north. Fittingly for a place named Blackreach, it was drawn in shades of black and gray, with the darkest color outlining its perimeter. That must be the bedrock of Tamriel, I thought, within which the vast cavern was depicted in lighter shades. A dark streak meandered across the map from northeast to southwest – an underground stream, judging by the streaks of white that crossed it, marking cascades.

Lighter lines depicted what must be roads criss-crossing the place. They connected the numerous circles, squares, and rectangles dotting the map: towers and other buildings. The largest collection of these stood just left of the map’s center, labeled The Silent City.

“Where Dwemer cities sleep,” Brelyna quoted by memory from a scrap of Septimus’ notes.

“And here are the Dwemer ruins named on the maps of Skyrim,” Lydia said, pointing at circles marked Alftand in the northeast, Raldbthar in the southeast, and Mzinchaleft in the northwest. “I still don’t believe it. Those spots are a half-day’s ride apart in the best of conditions. It could take us days to cross this place.”

“Then that’s what we’ll have to do,” I said. “Here’s our destination.” I pointed to a circle in the map’s southwest corner. It stood on an island of rock in the middle of the river, surrounded by cascades. “Mzark. It’s the farthest landmark from Alftand, and these roads make anything but a straight line to it. We must be ready for a long journey.”

“But we have to get in there first,” Brelyna said. “The more I think about it, the more I think we’ll need that attunement sphere to open the way to Blackreach.”

I groaned.

Onmund spoke up. “It does no good to think on such things. Let us to our beds, and hope we make good progress on the morrow. My guess is we’ll find the entrance to Blackreach at the very bottom of that cavern.”

With that we went to our beds. Lydia and I had placed our bedrolls close together, and she had no qualms about putting her arm around me. It wasn’t quite comfortable, since she couldn’t remove her armor when enemies might be about, but it was comforting nonetheless. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “Good night, my thane.”

“Good night, my love,” I replied.

The last thing I remember before falling asleep was Onmund giving a “Harumph!” and moving his bedroll as far from ours as he could get.

 

*~*~*

 

In the morning – or whatever time of day it was, as we had no way of knowing – we returned to the cavern and began its descent, hoping to find the entrance to Blackreach at its bottom. Yet it seemed to go on and on, with too many levels to count. The ramps snaked back and forth dizzily across empty space between the towers set in the walls. Sometimes a passage led within those towers, then reemerged at another point in the cavern, where a ramp would continue the descent.

Or at least that had been the plan of the Dwemer architects. Time had ravaged some of those passages within the cavern walls, and at one point we found ourselves faced with a twenty foot drop from one ramp’s end to a platform below.

“What do we do now?” Onmund said.

“I know a trick,” I said.

Lydia groaned. “Have I told you my thane is a show off?” she asked the other three.

“It’s simple,” I said. Then I shouted, “Feim!” and leapt from the broken ramp, plunging the twenty feet to the platform below. The landing jarred me, but I took no harm in my ethereal state.

“Ha!” J’zargo exclaimed. “That might be simple for the Dragonborn, but it is even easier for a Khajiit.” With a swish of his tail, he dropped casually from the ramp, landing lightly on all fours.

“Well done,” Brelyna called down, “but what about the rest of us?”

“That’s what ropes are for,” Lydia said. “And the handles on that door behind us will make a good anchor.”

In a few moments she had passed the rope through one of the handles, then tossed its doubled length down to the platform where we stood. Luckily, it reached the floor with a coil to spare, so we would be able to pull the rope through the door handle when everyone was down. Then she showed Onmund and Brelyna the proper technique for rappelling. “Lightest first,” she said to Brelyna.

Brelyna made it to the bottom with just a few curses in Dunmer, followed by Onmund, who seemed not at all frightened by the height and the awkwardness of letting his body go over the edge of the ramp. Then Lydia started down, showing little hesitation, though I knew she didn’t like the height.

She had nearly reached the platform when an arrow shot past her head.

“Falmer!” Brelyna exclaimed. “Everyone down.”

Lydia fell more than rappelled the final few feet, then drew her bow.

“Let’s get the bastard,” she said, leading us down the ramp that descended from the platform. It was not long before we saw the culprit. “Ha, got you!” Lydia called as her arrow hit the Falmer archer square in the chest, its force pushing him backward off the ramp. He gave out a piteous cry as he fell, a cry that went on and on until it ended abruptly far below.

My heart broke for him then. How could I blame him for defending his home from those he saw as invaders? No doubt any of us would do the same. And then to think of what had happened to his people – driven out of their homes by the Nords, forced into underground refuge with the Dwemer, only to be enslaved, deformed, and blinded by those same cousins. How could I blame them for their hatred of every living thing?

Deirdre, this is no time for compassion, I told myself. And it certainly was not. A second after the poor wretch’s screaming ended so abruptly, a cry went up from below – a cry of surprise and hatred. There was a banging of swords on shields and then all was quiet once more.

“Let’s move,” Lydia said. “It sounds like we’ve roused the lot of them. They could be on us at any moment, and I would not meet them in numbers on this ramp.”

We continued down the ramp as quickly and quietly as we could. I tried to get a grip on my emotions as we went, to still myself for the battle that was likely ahead. If we had to cut a path through the Falmer to get to the Elder Scroll, so be it, I told myself.

But it was no good. As we continued circling down the ramp, a Falmer mage came into view. Before I had time to think, I had cast a calming spell on him. He relaxed and stood up, turning his back on us.

Lydia groaned. “My thane, what are you doing? This is no time for mercy. We don’t know how many more we’ll have to face.” She cast aside her bow and drew her axe, pursuing the mage down the ramp.

“Wait, you cannot slay the defenseless creature!”

“He’s only defenseless because you calmed him!”

“I couldn’t help myself. You know their history as well as I. I cannot help but pity them.”

“My thane, this is madness,” she said, turning back to me. “Perhaps no one can blame them for their hostility, but neither can anyone reason with them. He’ll slit our throats the minute our backs are turned.”

As if to prove her point, the spell wore off. The Falmer turned on us and made to cast another spell, but I calmed him once more.

“Lydia is right,” Brelyna said. “Your spell will wear off and he’ll be after us again, possibly with others. Nor can we manage a large number of prisoners.”

“Let us bind him then. I will not have him killed. They are not our enemies, just obstacles on our way to the Elder Scroll.”

“A bloody waste of rope,” Lydia huffed, but turned back up the ramp to retrieve the rope we’d left dangling from the door handle.

When the Falmer mage was bound, we continued down the ramp, encountering two of his kinsmen and treating them the same way.

The ramps finally led down to another door and beyond it to a passage untouched by the cave-ins above. We found ourselves in a chamber much like those we had already encountered, save that its wide floor contained several crude huts made from bone and hide. We approached them carefully and found them empty.

“Probably made from the bones of the chaurus,” Brelyna said. “Look, those chests are made in the same fashion.”

J’zargo was headed for one of the chests when I waylaid him. “We don’t have time for that, J’zargo. The Falmer could be on us at any moment.”

“Where are they, then?” Onmund asked.

“Laying a trap to take us by numbers, is my guess,” Lydia said. “Be on your guard.”

Yet her warning did us little good. We had just descended a narrow stair and Lydia had set one foot into the chamber beyond when a bolt of lightning struck the wall just past her head. She drew back, but we heard the sounds of many creeping feet coming from around the corner, along with the clank of steel weapons and the creaking of a bow being drawn taught. At the same time, a high-pitched cry came from that direction, and was immediately answered from behind us. I heard the sound of rushing feet and a hiss from J’zargo, who was bringing up our rear.

The Falmer had surrounded us.

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