The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 46

 

Blackreach

 

The Falmer ambush was a close thing. But for a lucky hit on our part or a poorly aimed arrow on the Falmer’s, there might have been none to remember our expedition, and none to save the world from Alduin. But as it was, I rushed into the room at the foot of the stairs, an arrow narrowly missing my head, and shouted “Faas-Ru-Maar!” at half a dozen approaching Falmer. Four ran off, cowering, around a bend in the hallway, while two resisted the shout: a hardy warrior and a powerful crone with her silver hair bound up in knots like horns. But that was enough – I cast my atronach and left it for Lydia and the fire demon to deal with these two.

Back up the stairs, I found that a group of five Falmer had divided my college friends, yet one Falmer warrior lay dead at the top of the steps. I cast a spell of rout into the remaining four, sending three of them running past Brelyna and J’zargo. One of them fell to the Khajiit’s claws as he ran past, then we quickly dealt with the powerful gloomlurker who had resisted my spell.

In the end, we managed to capture four of the weaker Falmer, while we were forced to slay six. The last, the crone, turned and ran when she saw the four of us coming to Lydia’s aid, retreating into a circular room and pulling a lever in its center. The floor rose beneath her feet, a great shaft of Dwemer metal lifting the platform up to levels of the ruin somewhere above.

It took us some time to catch our breaths, heal one another’s wounds, and bind the four calmed Falmer, using the last of Lydia’s rope. Then we went after the crone, pulling a lever in the wall to retrieve the lift.

“Be ready to fight,” Lydia said as the platform descended from a wide hole in the ceiling. Yet it was empty when it reached us. We stepped in and followed the crone upward. We stood at the ready for an attack, but she was nowhere in sight when the lift came to a stop in a tumbled-down chamber. We rounded two corners and then found ourselves in the chamber where Sulla Trebattius’ expedition had been ambushed.

“So that explains how the Falmer were able to take them by surprise,” Brelyna said, “except, where is the crone?”

There was no sign of her.

“We can’t chase her through all of Alftand,” I said.

“Certainly not,” Brelyna replied. “But we can close this portcullis on her, and anyone else she brings this way.”

We stepped back through the doorway and Brelyna pulled a lever in the wall. We watched as the portcullis bars slid back into place with a satisfying clank, then descended in the lift to continue our journey through Alftand. The four bound Falmer trembled in fear as we approached and passed into the chamber beyond.

Lydia, in the lead once again, stopped short. We didn’t have to ask why, as the stench of blood and rotting flesh assailed our senses. The room had once been some sort of Dwemer work area, with four stone crafting benches arrayed around its perimeter. Now the Falmer had turned it to other, more gruesome purposes. A body lay on each of three of the benches, a female Altmer on one, a male Bosmer on another, and a Khajiit on the third. I will not describe the state they were in, for I cannot bear remembering it, even all this time later. I will say only that, by comparison, Lydia’s and my treatment by the Thalmor had been a holiday to the Imperial City.

“And you still say they deserve our mercy?” Lydia demanded, staring down at what was left of the Bosmer. J’zargo gave a growl of agreement as he looked at the remains of his countryman.

I turned away, shaking my head. “It only makes me sad that there is such malice in the world. Slaying these prisoners in our anger will not cure it, but only ensure that the malice continues.” I looked at the four Falmer sitting trussed together against the wall. They still trembled in fear, no doubt expecting the same treatment they had given the Alftand Expedition.

Then my eyes lit on the first workbench in the room. We had almost overlooked it, we were so preoccupied with the horror on the other tables. It was cluttered with objects – loot from the Falmers’ victims, I guessed. There were scrolls of paper, quills and inkwells, soul gems, dried flowers and other alchemical ingredients, jewelry – and a small metal ball. It bore an engraving of the same rune or sigil we had found on the mysterious box, and it emitted a faint, Aetherial music.

“Look, my friends!” I took up the ball and held it for them to see.

“The attunement sphere!” Brelyna said. “Now we are prepared to discover Blackreach.”

“Let’s get moving, then,” Lydia said. “We’d best leave this place before that crone comes back with reinforcements.” I knew she was thinking of the Falmer we had left bound on the levels above.

Passing through another doorway, we returned to the great vertical cavern. It was even more impressive from near the bottom, with the towers and ramps ascending upward into the blue light cast by the soul gem lamps. Now it was the top of the cavern that was lost to our sight, while we had just one level to descend to the cavern floor. We found the rest of the cavern empty, and a metal door leading out of it.

“Do you suppose that’s the door to Blackreach?” Onmund asked.

But he was too optimistic. Alftand had yet more to show us. We passed through more hallways and into another cavern, not so large as the last, yet even more impressive. We came into it through a stone-roofed space like a foyer. Beyond, the cavern was well-lit with soul gem chandeliers depending from pipe-work spanning the space between the cavern walls. A large stone- and metal-work structure filled the back half of the cavern, leading up in a series of terraces to an ornate tower, lit by another chandelier. Spinning cogs and wheels adorned its walls, serving some purpose we could not guess.

“Would you look at that?” Lydia exclaimed.

“It is impressive,” Brelyna agreed. “It equals anything we saw in Mzulft. I know the Dwemer were not a spiritual people, yet this chamber has the feel of a temple.”

“I think we’re nearing the end,” I said. “Surely this is the deepest level of Alftand.”

A portcullis blocked the only way into the temple, as Brelyna had called it, and at first we found no way to open it. Then we spotted a large lever protruding from the roof of the foyer by which we had entered. This balcony afforded an even better view of the stone structure, as if the Dwemer architects wanted to force visitors up to this vantage to enjoy their handiwork. Now we could see the intricate series of turrets that lined the back of the cavern, the farthest of which extended far up to the roof, illuminated by that Aetherial light of the soul gems. An apron of metalwork ran around the base of the turrets.

“It must be some sort of altar, or cathedral,” Brelyna said. “It certainly seems a holy place. But to what gods?”

We pulled the lever and the bars of the portcullis descended into the floor of the cavern.

“Let’s hurry,” I said. “We must be almost there.”

We ran back down the steps and through the gateway, then up one set of stairs to the first landing, where steps led up left and right. Above was a second landing with low turrets on either side. We chose the stairs on the left.

Lydia had just reached the second landing, with the rest of us right behind, when we noticed two things: first, over by the turret on the right, the wreckage of a large Dwemer contraption like the ones we had seen in Markarth, the ones they called dwarven centurions; and second, the sound of metal clasps releasing in the turret nearby on our left.

“That sounds like a live one!” Brelyna called. “Fan out, mages!”

We ran onto the landing just in time to see a second centurion coming to life. It was easily twelve feet tall, crafted from Dwemer metal in the shape of one of their warriors, with two mighty armored legs, a crossbow for its left arm and a huge hammer for its right. A red spinning ball in its chest began to glow brightly, and puffs of steam escaped from vents in its cuirass. Lydia didn’t wait for it to move before charging it with her axe. The centurion staggered under her blow.

“Watch out for its steam breath!” Brelyna called. Lydia stepped back, raising her shield just in time to block a jet of steam issuing from the centurion’s mouth.

Had it been any one of us, the centurion might have been victorious, but with five we made short work. The centurion toppled to the stone floor with a metallic crash.

“Well done, everyone,” Brelyna said. “Let’s see if its dynamo core is still functioning. That should be sufficient payment for Enthir.”

“Yes,” said J’zargo, “then we keep the rest of the valuables we have found.”

While Onmund and Brelyna began to extract the core from the centurion’s chest, Lydia examined her axe. “These contraptions are Oblivion on a blade. I’ll need a grindstone to take care of all these chips and nicks.” While she did what she could with a small whetstone, I examined the centurion more closely. Its face bore the most lifelike metalwork I had ever seen. I half expected the stern dwarven visage to begin an animated conversation, metallic though it was.

When Brelyna had the dynamo core stowed in her pack, despite J’zargo’s claims that he would rather help carry it in his, we continued up the next wide set of stairs. Now we saw that what had looked like an apron of metalwork from below was actually a half-circle of ornate metallic fencing guarding the inner stand of turrets. Yet formidable as it looked, the gate at its center opened without a key.

Within, we found ourselves in a chamber in the center of the line of turrets. Four columns supported the low ceiling, each featuring both intricately carved stone and metalwork. In the middle of the chamber stood a low dais, two steps high, with carved flagstones and a low altar or table in its center. A set of four concentric metal rings was set in the table, with blue gemstones in its center.

“What could that be?” Onmund asked.

“You were hoping we’d find the entrance to Blackreach, Onmund,” said Brelyna. “I’d say we’ve found it.”

We approached the square table, and then my pack began to emit an Aetherial music. The attunement sphere! I had stowed it in there when we left the torture chamber, and now its music grew louder. We gathered around the table and saw that one side featured a round receptacle.

“What are we waiting for?” said J’zargo. “Put the sphere into that mechanism!”

“Prepare yourselves, everyone,” Brelyna said as I pulled the sphere from my pack. “We have no idea what this thing does. If it opens a portal to Blackreach, who knows what might come out?”

“But where is this door?” Onmund asked.

“There’s only one way to find out,” I said, and put the sphere into the receptacle. The rings of metal lifted up and spun around, coming to rest with arrows on the four rings aligned. Then my companions gave cries of alarm as the flagstones surrounding the table gave way beneath them, and the solid floor transformed itself into a set of descending stairs. Fortunately, the steps moved slowly, or Onmund, standing on the lowest step, would have taken an injury.

“Onmund, what do you see?” I called, looking directly down on the top of his head some dozen feet below on my left.

“A beautiful set of doors,” he said. “The craftsmanship is amazing!”

“That must be the entrance to Blackreach,” Brelyna said. She had been on the other side of the table from me and I couldn’t see her where she stood, halfway down the stairs.

“Let us go then!’ J’zargo said.

The doors were indeed the most beautiful we had seen so far, with deeply etched geometrical shapes that must have been created by casting the molten metal.

“Are we ready?” I asked. The mages cast stoneflesh spells and other charms on themselves, and Lydia readied her axe, then they all nodded. I took a deep breath and pushed open the doors.

I needed all of that breath for the gasp I gave when the view beyond the doors was revealed. We all did – we couldn’t help ourselves. Brelyna was the first to find her voice. “Now that must be Blackreach.”

We could only nod in dumb agreement.

We stepped through a carved archway and out onto a balcony to get a better look. Beyond was not just another cavern, but another world. Were we still on Nirn, or was this a different plane entirely? We could make out the dark shapes of black bedrock vaulting far overhead and receding into the distance. There was no hope of seeing to the other side of this vast space, but we could see the dim outlines of towers in the far distance, and a smaller building closer to us.

But the size of this place was not the most amazing thing, for we had expected it. No, what had us all standing there gaping were the giant, glowing mushrooms that seemed to float in that vast space, supported by tall, slim stalks, illuminating the cavern in an eerie light. They were of different sizes, the largest as big as houses, and taller. Long tendrils of light hung down from the giant fungi and more of these tendrils protruded from the roof of the cavern far above.

And that was not all. The air itself seemed alive with Aetherial light emanating from tiny specks that glowed like the mushrooms. “Spores of the glow-mushrooms,” Brelyna guessed. From somewhere off to our right came the roar of water going over a fall. Whether the falling water stirred the air, or the place was large enough to have its own wind, the glowing mushrooms moved back and forth on their stalks as if shifting in a light breeze, and the motes of glowing light swirled about. The air currents brought the pungent odors of roots and damp earth and things that grew beneath the ground.

“Well, where is this Mzark?” J’zargo said after a few moments of gaping.

“J’zargo’s right,” said Lydia. “We should keep moving.”

I pulled the map out of my pocket and we tried to orient ourselves. “Here’s where we are, the mark for Alftand,” I said, pointing at the spot on the map. “And look, the building just across from us is marked as well: Sinderion’s Field Laboratory.”

“A field laboratory!” J’zargo said. “What might we find in there!”

“There’s no time for that, J’zargo,” Brelyna snapped. “If this place is as vast as it appears, we have to make straight for the tower of Mzark.”

“Yet that will be difficult, the roads are so winding,” I said. “Look, if we go past the laboratory then turn right, that road will lead us by a winding way, with no turnings, nearly to Mzark. We’ll have only to turn left and pass over a bridge once we see the tower.” I traced the route with my finger, and everyone agreed to the plan.

We descended from the balcony onto a wide cobbled road. Ursa had been right: an army could easily march ten abreast along it. But we had little time to ponder its construction because a sphere guardian rolled at us from the steps of the laboratory, unfurling itself as it came at us. When we had defeated the contraption we continued down the road, my friends using all the stealth they could muster while moving quickly, then turned right at a meeting of roads.

The road sloped downward and we could see towers and other structures in the distance, including a bright yellow glow straight ahead. We moved cautiously down the road, ready for anything that might attack. Yet we didn’t know what to expect. If the place had giant glowing mushrooms, who knew what else we might find?

Time passed and whoever were the denizens of this vast place, they left us in peace. Hours seemed to go by as we marched down that road, yet the towers in the distance seemed to grow no nearer. Then suddenly one was right in front of us, a set of twin towers with a walkway spanning the road as it passed beneath them. This was the way of Blackreach: time and space seemed bent out of shape somehow.

We passed underneath the towers, all of us looking at them forlornly, wondering what treasures they might contain. Even more so, the cluster of towers and other buildings that stood in the distance straight ahead: the Silent City. A wide set of steps led up to it, passing through the imposing walls that protected the rest of the city. Above it, a large, glowing orb explained the yellow light we had seen from afar. From the map, we knew that the road curved to the south of this city, bypassing it entirely. What wonders would we miss by not visiting it? Yet it couldn’t be helped: an archaeologist or a treasure hunter could spend a lifetime in here, it seemed, but we must make haste.

That was when doubt about my quest began to seep in. I had been so long on the way, traveling hither and yon to slay dragons, to retrieve one item or another, to increase my power, or to receive learning from those wiser than I. Yet it seemed I was still just as many steps away from confronting Alduin. When would all of this end? And if the journey was never-ending, why not take time out to explore this place, learn of its glories, and pocket some of its treasures? I looked over at Lydia. Chances were, I would perish in my confrontation with the World Eater. Why not postpone that day, spend as much time as I could exploring Skyrim with the one I loved?

I can excuse my selfishness only by saying that I was tired from weeks of travel, fighting, and imprisonment. Or possibly that the strange atmosphere of Blackreach was having some effect on me. Whatever the reason, my thoughts were anywhere but on our immediate surroundings when an arrow struck the cobbled road next to Onmund, its tail feathers pointing back toward the twin towers we had just passed beneath. At the same time, several Falmer attacked us from either side.

“I’ll take the one in the tower,” Lydia called, notching an arrow to her bow. “You handle these!”

I had been walking in the middle of the company and so had been protected from the onslaught, but Brelyna had taken a blast from an ice spike and was down on one knee, while Onmund was awkwardly deflecting blows from a Falmer’s war axe with his sword. I dared not cast my spell of Rout, for fear of what other allies or creatures the Falmer might alert in their flight. I calmed the Falmer attacking Onmund while J’zargo cast fire spells at those closest to Brelyna. I noticed he was bleeding from a wound to his forehead.

Remembering my role as healer, I pulled a scroll of close wounds from my robes. It took me only a moment to recite its incantation, then Brelyna was back on her feet and casting her frost atronach.

The battle seemed to be going our way, so I stepped back a step or two to see where I could help. Then I heard the sound of rushing, clicking feet coming from behind me, and everything seemed to move in slow motion. I turned just in time to see a great green gob of poisonous goo flying at me, hitting me square in the chest and flying up into my face. My vision blurred and I grew dizzy, as two chauruses charged at me. Before I could react, one had clamped its sharp pincers around me, the serrated edges cutting into my arms and back. Then with a great shake of its head it threw me back toward my companions.

I landed in a heap, with just enough presence of mind to roll over to face their next attack. But my limbs were numb, and I couldn’t find my Voice. The last things I remember were the second chaurus bearing down on me, and then the sound of Lydia’s voice coming from behind me: “You’ll regret that, you stinking bugs!” As my sight grew dim, I thought I saw her shape hurtling over me, battleaxe swinging above her head.

 

*~*~*

 

My body hurt everywhere. There was not one inch that did not throb, or sting, or ache. Yet along with that, I felt as if I were wrapped in some gauzy fabric so that I did not quite feel my surroundings. I thought I was lying on my back, but whether in a bed or on the ground, indoors or out, I could not tell.

From somewhere far off I heard a familiar voice saying, “I’ve done all I could. She is the healer among us, after all.”

Then I felt a hand slapping my face. “Come on, my thane … my Deirdre … my love … you must wake up.”

I opened my eyes. Everything was blurry, but gradually I could make out Lydia leaning over me. She had removed her helmet and her side braids had come undone, hanging down in her face. With an effort, I reached up and smoothed her hair back. As she came into sharper focus, I saw that her brow was knit with worry, and tears had tracked her begrimed cheeks. Then she smiled, and I felt a warmth spreading through me.

“You called me ‘my love’,” I said. “You’ve never said that before, without prompting.”

“No, but I’ll say it again as often as you like, if only you won’t die.”

“What, am I dying?”

“Not if you take this poison antidote, now that you’re awake,” said Brelyna, kneeling down beside Lydia. “I didn’t want to risk drowning you with it.”

Lydia propped my head up in her lap and helped me drink from the potion flask. The numbness in my limbs and the buzzing in my head went away somewhat, only to be replaced by a searing pain in my arms and back. “Do you have a healing potion?” I gasped. “I fear mine have all been smashed.”

“Right here.” Brelyna handed the potion bottle to Lydia, who tipped it up to my mouth.

The pain eased and I sat up. I looked down at my robes. They were torn around the arms and soaked in blood.

“I was able to cast the close wounds spell on you while Lydia fended off the chauruses and the others dealt with the Falmer,” Brelyna said. “Otherwise I fear you would have bled to death. But I’m no Adept in Restoration. You will probably want to cast your own healing spell as soon as you feel able.”

I looked around at the scene of battle. The two chauruses lay not far away on one side, their limbs hacked away and great rents in their chitinous shells. Three or four Falmer lay on the other side of the road, their bodies burnt by flame spells. Onmund and J’zargo stood nearby. Onmund looked as worried about me as did Lydia, but he turned away when he saw me looking at him.

I turned back to Brelyna. “Maybe just a moment or two more,” I said. “And a flask of water. I am parched.”

While she went to fetch the water from her pack, I leaned back in Lydia’s lap and looked up at her.

“Oh, my love,” she said, stroking the side of my face, “I thought I’d lost you.”

“You saved me,” I said. “I saw what you did. You protected me with your life, just as you always said you would.”

“It is my sworn duty.”

“Only your duty?”

“No, it is my deepest desire. I love you and nothing will take you away from me.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear.” I reached up and pulled her head down for a kiss.

“Ahem.” Brelyna had returned with the water, which I drank greedily. “We should probably keep moving. Who knows how much farther we have to go?”

“She’s right, my thane,” Lydia said, all business once more.

I looked from one to the other. “Where are we going?”

The two looked at me for a long moment. “Oh, gods!” Onmund exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“The poison has just left you temporarily befuddled,” Brelyna said. “Or perhaps it’s the blood loss. I’m sure your memory will return soon enough.”

“Remember the Elder Scroll, my thane?” Lydia asked. “It’s in the Tower of Mzark, somewhere farther ahead. You’ll need it to face Alduin.”

“The World Eater? I’m to face the World Eater?” I remembered something about that. Yet I must have dreamt it, it seemed so unlikely.

“Yes, my thane. You’re the Dragonborn, remember?”

I laughed at her. “You shouldn’t jest with me, not after what I’ve just been through.” Yet I seemed to remember something about using a shout on a dragon, and then feeling its power flowing into me.

Lydia looked over at Brelyna. “What are we to do?”

“I know not. We’ll just have to hope that she recovers herself as we keep moving. Deirdre, can you stand?”

I nodded and got shakily to my feet. I felt a bit dizzy, and my limbs felt a bit numb, but I thought I could walk. I looked around at my friends, all staring at me with such serious looks. Whatever our mission, it must be an important one if we had come to such a dangerous, foreboding place.

We began making our way down the road, with Onmund taking my knapsack along with his own. Lydia supported me with one arm tucked beneath mine, and then I remembered doing the same for her as we crossed the marshes of Hjaalmarch. Then I gasped, remembering our treatment by the Thalmor before that. I reached for Lydia’s left hand to see if my memory was accurate. Seeing the little finger of her glove, bound with a piece of string so it would be out of the way, I knew that it was.

Next I laughed, as I remembered that morning in the Blade and Dragon, and the way the barkeep turned beet red.

“What?” Lydia asked.

“Oh, nothing. I was just remembering the way you like to make young men blush.”

“So your memory’s returning?”

“In pieces.”

By the time we had drawn even with the south side of the Silent City and the great steps leading up into it, much had returned. Yet why I had to be the one to face the World Eater, and how an Elder Scroll would help – it was all still hazy.

“Can’t we just go explore that city?” I asked. “Why am I the one to face Alduin?”

“Because you are the Dragonborn, my thane,” Lydia said. “It is prophesied. If you don’t stop Alduin, no one will. And remember, you told Paarthurnax that you like this world and you don’t want it to end? But more than that, you must remember Huldi and Harry. You would avenge the deaths of their parents.”

“Yes, I do remember,” I said. But I remembered more. I remembered being inside Alduin, and how he made me watch as he slaughtered an innocent man and woman. Worse, he made me feel as if I had done it. That was the true reason I had to stop Alduin – to make sure that nothing like that happened ever again.

I looked up at Lydia, who still supported me along the road. I felt that old anger burning within me. “Yes, I will slay the World Eater if I must use my dying breath to do it.”

“That’s my thane. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. You will have me by your side.”

We traveled through Blackreach for an untold number of hours. Nothing further molested us as we journeyed down that wide, winding road. Time seemed to stretch on, and we knew not whether it was day or night. We were stumbling with fatigue, and we guessed we must have been awake for at least a day. Yet we could not pause for rest, not in such a dangerous place, and not when our goal seemed so near.

And then we arrived opposite the Tower of Mzark and had only to cross a wide bridge over a roaring fall to reach it. Across that bridge, we reached a door of bright Dwemer metal. It opened easily with a push. And thus we left Blackreach, having discovered it, then rushed through it, and finally having seen hardly anything at all of that wonder-filled place.

Inside the tower, we found a lift and rode it up many levels, finding ourselves at the entrance to a round chamber occupied mostly by a large, spherical structure. A ramp climbed upwards between the round chamber wall on the left and the wall of the metal sphere on the right. Brelyna led us up it. I was still too dazed to offer much initiative, and Lydia still needed to help me along.

Arriving at the top of the ramp, we came to a floor that encircled the top half of the sphere. The top portion of the ball was covered in concentric rings, similar to the ones in the table back in Alftand, save for their size, which covered most of the room. Above it, a contraption of many metal arms and mirrors hung from the ceiling.

Steps led up to a balcony at the back of the chamber overlooking the dais. Climbing them, we found ourselves faced with a series of pedestals topped with what looked like buttons. There were four of them, two on either side of what looked like a star map. To the right of these was another receptacle, but unlike the one in Alftand.

“Look,” Brelyna said, “that cube could fit in there.”

Lydia removed the cube from her pack and tried it, finding that it fit perfectly. As soon as it was in place, a shaft of light poured in from a pentagonal skylight, illuminating the metal structure. At the same time, shutters over the two buttons to the right slid back and the buttons glowed with a turquoise light.

“Which should we push?” J’zargo asked, all eagerness.

“Let’s see,” Brelyna said. She tried pushing the right-most button. Nothing happened. “Hmm.” She thought for a moment, then pressed the button next to it.

We shouldn’t have been surprised when the contraption moved, it was so similar to the smaller one in Alftand. Yet J’zargo gave a hiss and Onmund jumped back as the rings on the dais rotated wildly, lifting up and over each other as they settled into new positions.

“Well, that was productive,” Brelyna said. “Let’s try it again.” She pushed the same button and once more the rings shifted and spun. With two more presses, and more spinning and gyrating of the rings, the next button to the left lit up.

“Let’s try them in order,” Brelyna said. She pushed the newly lit button and the arms swung down from the ceiling and took positions above the dais, reflecting turquoise light from somewhere far above. “That worked well. Let’s try it again.” She pushed the same button and the arms moved to a slightly different position. Now the left-most button was lit. Brelyna pressed it.

An egg-shaped sphere of blue crystal descended from the contraption, flipped sideways and cracked open. Inside was a metal cylinder about two feet long, with ornate silver handles.

“The Elder Scroll!” we all exclaimed at once.

The mirrors now focused the beam of light at the Elder Scroll and then the crystal shell of the sphere reflected those beams directly at the cube in its receptacle. It began to vibrate and glow, and then was still once more. But changed: pinpoints of Aetherial light now glowed from its surface.

“Well, I don’t know what that cube is about,” Brelyna said, “but it seems the Elder Scroll is ours for the taking.”

“Yes, and what insights J’zargo will have with it!” the Khajiit said, bounding down the steps and up onto the dais. He removed the Elder Scroll from the sphere, then grasped the spine of silver that held the edge of the parchment. He pulled it out to its full length, then there was a flash of light and J’zargo dropped the scroll, clutching at his eyes. The parchment somehow wound itself back up into the metal housing, and the scroll clattered to the foot of the dais.

“Fool of a Khajiit!” Brelyna yelled, descending the stairs. I thought she would go to retrieve the Elder Scroll, but she went to check on J’zargo first. I followed and picked up the scroll.

“No, my thane,” said Lydia, right behind me. “Do not open it!”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said. The thing was quite heavy, so I handed it to her. “I believe I’ll wait until I’ve brought it to the Time Wound. That’s where I’m supposed to take it, am I right?”

“Your memory has returned!” Lydia said

J’zargo was squinting into the dim light of the room and wrinkling his nose. “Everything is blurry,” he complained.

“You’re lucky you can see at all,” Brelyna said, “and that you haven’t gone mad. Then again, how would we know if you had?” She cuffed the back of his head.

“Look,” said Onmund. “I believe I’ve found the way out.”

Lydia stuffed the Elder Scroll into her pack, and I saw that she had already retrieved the cube, although we had no idea what purpose it would serve now. Then we entered the passage Onmund indicated and passed through a door at its end, finding a lift beyond. Lydia pulled the handle in the center of the floor and we rose up and up for what seemed an eternity. I couldn’t tell which of us was more surprised when we emerged into a tower on the surface. Through its gate we could see a starry Skyrim night, and I shivered at the sudden cold.

Pulling the handle that opened the gate, we walked out of doors for the first time in what seemed like weeks. At the foot of the steps leading down from the low turret was the remains of some adventurers’ camp. How long they had waited here trying to get in, how long ago that had been, and where they had gone – these were questions we did not consider. We collapsed onto their bedrolls and slept like the dead.

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