Song of Deirdre Fiction

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 24


Dustman’s Cairn


The fire dragon slumped to the ground with a crash, Lydia’s axe buried in its neck. She stepped back, panting from the effort, and looked at me expectantly.

I walked toward the dragon, feeling my magicka and my Thu’um slowly returning. Then the dragon’s flesh began to dissolve and those familiar streamers of flame and smoke swirled toward me. I felt the power of the dragon’s soul enter my being, and along with it, a deep understanding of Toor, the second word of the Fire Breath shout.

Lydia grinned. “Another day, another dragon,” she said, then scooped up a gloveful of snow and began wiping the blood from her axe.

She was exaggerating, of course, but killing dragons was coming to seem a bit routine. This was the sixth we had slain in the fortnight since leaving High Hrothgar.

“Feeling cocky, are we?” I said. “Doesn’t it concern you that they keep surprising us as we emerge from these ancient crypts?” This one had attacked just as we came out of Dustman’s Cairn, where we had gone to get one of the words of Fire Breath.

“Ha! You sound like Arngeir,” she replied, now polishing her axe with a cloth. “Surprise us where they will, these dragons have become almost too easy, with those new shouts you use.”

“What, would you give them a more sporting chance?” I asked as I searched for spent arrows around the dragon’s skeleton.

“No, but I would enjoy more of a challenge. We’ll need sharper practice if we’re ever to face Alduin.” She paused then, distracted by something out over the Whiterun Vale. “Would you look at that!”

I turned to see where she was looking. It had been a gloomy, gray day when we entered the barrow, but now the sun broke through the clouds low in the west. Below us, the tundra was bathed in late afternoon light. The new-fallen snow and ice-covered pools sparkled like gems, while the rocky peaks across the valley basked in a warm alpenglow. It was good to be out in the fresh air after hours under­ground, and the spectacular sunset was a glad sight after days of dreary weather.

“I could just sit here for a minute and take it in,” Lydia said. She sat on the edge of the circular pit that formed the entrance to Dustman’s Cairn, giving a contented sigh as she continued burnishing the steel of her axe. The pillars around us cast long shadows.

I sat down next to her, trying to let the fatigue of the last two weeks’ travels drain from my body. The truth was, we needed more than just a short break. Our journey had taken us south and east from Ivarstead, through the lands of eternal autumn around Riften, and north into the volcanic country of Eastmarch. Then we were back into the lands of permanent snow in Winterhold, where Snow Veil Sanctum provided us our first test in a barrow. Next we crossed the high pass at Fort Kastav – Lydia insisted we clear out the vampires who occupied it – and then descended to a cluster of caverns and barrows west of Windhelm. The Nightgate Inn sat conveniently nearby, a fact we appreciated all the more as winter weather settled over the Pale. Hadring’s fish stew warmed us after many a frost-bitten journey. We finished with the elaborate ruin of Korvanjund, then made our way back home to Whiterun.

Along the way, we had managed to slay five dragons, but we had seen many more flying off in the distance, too far to contemplate giving chase. Sometimes they even flew directly overhead, as if taunting us. They seemed to be popping up north and south, east and west. Perhaps Alduin had chosen to avoid a predictable pattern after we discovered him at Kynesgrove. Everywhere we went, people told of seeing the dragons, of a farm burned to the ground, or livestock carried off in a dragon’s jaws. It was as Lydia feared – we could not keep pace with the resurrections by fighting the dragons singly.

The first dragon we faced on our own had been the most difficult. It guarded the word wall at Autumnwatch Tower, south of Ivarstead, blending in to the wall so well that we didn’t notice it until it unfurled its wings and soared over our heads with a savage roar. As we fought it, I had to spend as much time healing Lydia as I did attacking the beast. Fortunately, it was a frost dragon, and it finally succumbed to firebolts from my flame atronach and blows from Lydia’s axe of embers.

We were glad when Delphine joined us for our third dragon, at Bonestrewn Crest. She had discovered its lair after it swooped over Windhelm and marauded nearby farms. Afterward, she sought to embroil me in a scheme of sneaking into the Thalmor Embassy during a party Ambassador Elenwen planned to give for  Skyrim’s nobles. She thought I might uncover the Thalmor role in the dragons’ return while they were distracted. Delphine’s obsession with the Thalmor bordered on a mania, and I could not let myself be distracted from my purpose. She was none too happy when I refused, even claiming to have no further clues to the whereabouts of further dragons.

After Delphine left us, we worked on refining our battle tactics. Lydia insisted on moving in for the blade work while I stood back and shouted at the dragon, or launched Destruction spells at it and Restoration spells at her. “Those mage’s robes won’t do you any good if a dragon gets hold of you with its teeth,” she said. She was right, of course, but I still found my heart leaping into my mouth every time a dragon’s jaws snapped too near her or its breath enveloped her. I constantly had to restrain myself from running in with my own sword drawn.

Our early encounters with other opponents had their own mishaps. Once, when we surprised a group of bandits in a cave, Lydia charged in front of my calming spell. She could only stand aside, commenting archly as I faced five bandits on my own. They were smart enough not to attack her and break the spell.

“Gee, I wish I could help you,” she said as I ducked under a vicious slash at my head.

“Give ’em Oblivion – Talos knows I can’t,” she shouted as my fear spell sent their leader running.

Finally, I had to give up treating them gently and unleashed my newly acquired frost breath on the remaining four. One went down and the other three were so surprised that they took flight after their leader.

“Well, that was a nice rest,” Lydia said when they were gone. “Thanks for thinking of me. You wouldn’t want to wear out your housecarl, would you?” She shook herself as if trying to shed the magic’s effects. “How long does this spell last, anyway?”

I apologized over and over and promised that it would by the last time I made that mistake.

And it almost was – if not for the dragon priests, those most fearsome of all the draugr. If anything, they were more terrible opponents than the dragons themselves. They not only had powerful magic and a mighty Thu’um, they also flew. They would flit to and fro, making difficult targets for spells or arrows. We were battling our first dragon priest when it suddenly flew to the right. I tried to track its movement, an ice spike spell at the ready. Just as I released it, I saw Lydia out of the corner of my eye, moving into the path of the spell. Fortunately I was able to turn it aside just in time to avoid a direct hit, but the frost still caught her shoulder.

“Hey, watch it!” she yelled. We prevailed in the end and were able to laugh about it as I healed her. Still, I didn’t want to think what would happen if I hit her directly with a more powerful spell, or a shout. As my magical power grew, such mistakes would grow more costly.

Our battles went better after that, and I could feel my power growing over the weeks with each new word I learned and each dragon soul I absorbed. My wealth grew as well, as we had acquired an array of weapons, magical items, armor, and gold along the way. Occasionally we found filled soul gems with which I could recharge the Staff of Jyrik Gauldurson – at least these trapped souls would be released back to Aetherius, I told myself. We found armor and clothing as well. I found a better set of mages’ robes and Lydia found a good horned helmet of steel. From the same chest, she pulled a set of steel plate armor that made her laugh.

“What?” I asked, pocketing a healing potion I had just found. She held the armor up for me and I saw that the breastplate had been fashioned to fit a woman’s form. “So?” I said. I knew nothing of heavy armor.

“Well, this is cunning metalwork, and very becoming, no doubt. But I’d sooner go naked than wear it.”

“Why?” It looked to me as if it would fit Lydia well, and flatter her more than the padded leather and steel she now wore.

“Imagine if you were to take a fall in this, or a bash from a mace,” she said, pointing to the individually shaped breast pieces. “These cones of steel around each breast would drive into your chest, maybe even cracking your rib-cage open. And in a fight with blades, you want your opponent’s weapon to deflect away from the center of the body. The shape of this armor would do the opposite, directing thrusts straight to your heart and lungs. No, leave the cleavage to the tavern wenches. I want armor that will make me a better fighter.”

“Can you fix it?” I asked.

She looked the armor over again. “It will take a forge and some steel, but I think I can,” she said. A few days later, and a couple of hours spent at Balimund’s forge in Riften, and she had a new set of steel plate armor that offered much better protection than her old leather and steel. The chest piece was now a single smooth curve, with a hard ridge running down the middle to deflect blade thrusts outward.

The armor was the only loot Lydia would accept of all that we found – she insisted that her pay from Balgruuf’s treasury was enough, despite my attempts to share with her.

“But think of your family, Lydia,” I said. “Perhaps your father could use a new plow.” She only shook her head and turned away and would say no more.

By the time we returned to Whiterun at the end of the fortnight, I felt we deserved a break. With my newfound wealth, I took Balgruuf up on his leave to  buy a house in the city. It would serve as a base for our explorations to the west, but more than that, I wanted a place I could call home. It wasn’t much to look at, and it would take a lot of cleaning, decorating, and furnishing before it truly was a home, but it had a nice bedchamber for me, a smaller room for Lydia, and a cozy fireplace. I had handed the gold over to Avenicci just that morning, and we were both looking forward to spending the night in our new beds.

If only our welcome back to Whiterun had been a little warmer. Fresh from slaying five of the beasts, I had expected something of a hero’s welcome. Yet two more of the hold’s farms had been attacked by dragons while we were away, and several people killed. Jarl Balgruuf seemed distant when I met him, as if regretting his advice that I go to High Hrothgar and develop my Thu’um. And most of what I heard as we entered the Bannered Mare that evening was grumbling.

“What good is having the Dragonborn on our side if we still get attacked?” one man asked.

“Maybe she’s in league with the dragons,” another one grumbled.

No matter how I tried to explain that I was still developing my power, and that we had already killed many dragons, it didn’t do much good.

“Shouldn’t a Dragonborn be able to fly out and meet the dragons where they live?” a woman in the back called out. A good question, I couldn’t help thinking. If only I could face Alduin directly! But was I ready for that, even now? He was nowhere to be found, in any case. Gradually the grumbling died down and I had gone back to my stew, considerably chastened. At least Arngeir would be glad – Whiterun’s citizens were doing their best to keep me on the path of humility.




Now the sun was sinking lower into a bank of red-tinged clouds, and my fatigue persisted. As difficult as our reception in Whiterun had been, my new home would let us get away from the people’s grumbling and provide warm beds for the night. “Home is calling, Lydia,” I said. “Let’s see if we can get there before dark.”

Just then we heard shouts from the path leading up to the cairn. I turned to see three hooded figures on horseback, riding fast. As they galloped up the hill toward us, I recognized the distinctive cut of mages’ robes, and noticed that one of the riders had a tail. Another’s eyes glinted red in the waning light. The third proved to be a Nord by his accent when he shouted up to us, “Deirdre, I’m so glad we found you!”

I looked over at Lydia. She shrugged and said, “At least we’re dressed this time.”

“Greetings, friends,” I called to them as they dismounted a little way down the slope. “How is it that we keep running into you in the wilds?” As the three mages walked up the hill toward us I saw that each of their brows bore a shining jeweled circlet.

“The Psijics told us we would find you here if we hurried,” Onmund said. He was out of breath, even having been on horseback. “And I’m glad we did!”

“Why, what’s happened?” I asked, trying to keep any note of alarm out of my voice, but not entirely succeeding.

“The Eye…” Onmund said, but the short walk up the hill had winded him further. His eyes were wide and he seemed to be in a panic. “Ancano … Savos … We have to go to … to Labyrinthian!”

“Labyrinthian!” I exclaimed. The place had an evil reputation. It had been one of the most important temples of the dragon priests, then grew into the city of Bromjunaar. Later, in the First Era, arch-mage Shalidor built his maze in the city’s ruins. From that, the whole place took the name Labyrinthian. Long abandoned, its exterior became a haven for frost trolls, and its interior was rumored to house powerful dark forces, perhaps the most powerful of the dragon priests. The main road between Whiterun and Morthal once ran through the place, but now even the bravest took the longer way around through Rorikstead. Yet it had a word wall I would need to visit. I had been saving it for later, when my power would be greater.

“I must go to Labyrinthian soon myself,” I said. “But it is a fearsome place. What madness would lead you there? Please, one of you, tell me what has happened.”

Brelyna stepped forward. “It is a long and grim tale,” she said. Her voice was serious, even for her, the most serious of my three college friends.

“Well, why don’t you tell it as we ride back to Whiterun? I am in sore need of food and rest.”

“There’s no time for that!” Brelyna snapped. “We must get the staff from Labyrinthian and return to Winterhold without delay. The fate of the college, and even the world, depends on it!” Both Onmund and J’zargo nodded in agreement.

“We need you to come with us,” Onmund said. “We can’t go in there without you – it would be suicide!”

I could see I wasn’t going to get a straight story out of them until I got them to calm down. “If the tale is long, perhaps we could take time for a cup of tea. Lydia, would you mind building a fire and preparing it for us?”

“Not at all, my thane,” she said, and went to her horse to unpack the necessaries.

“Now, would one of you start from the beginning, and tell me what is happening at the college? And at least we can sit down while the tale is told.” I found a spot where I could lean my back against one of the standing stones encircling Dustman’s Cairn, brushing away a thin layer of snow. As tired as I was, I suspected that sleep was yet farther in my future. My fellow mages took seats around me and Brelyna began the tale.

“After we last parted ways with you – what was that, a month ago?” We all nodded. “After our parting, we made for the college straightaway – that took us three days, travelling on foot as we were. We took the books and your warning to Savos and Tolfdir, but they made little impression.”

J’zargo spoke up for the first time. “So wise, these college masters are supposed to be. This one thinks they cannot see the whiskers on their own faces.”

“Yes, well, they seemed to think they could keep Ancano in check, if not exactly trust him,” Brelyna went on. “And they were so obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the Eye of Magnus! A week went by, and they went on researching, and nothing happened. Ancano spent an awful lot of time with the Eye as well, when he wasn’t skulking in and out of the college’s basement.”

“I didn’t know the college had a basement,” I said.

“Oh, it does, it does,” Onmund said, and shivered.

“We’ll get to that,” said Brelyna. “At last, the strangest thing happened. The three of us were visited by a Psijic monk named Nerien, or an apparition of him, at least. He was able to stop time for the rest of the college and talk just to us. He said he had spoken with you in the same way.”

“He did, twice,” I said. “I told him I trusted the three of you to deliver the message, and the masters to deal with Ancano and the Eye.”

“We did, we did!” Onmund exclaimed. “If only you had come back with us!”

“Now, now,” said Brelyna. “What’s done is done. Nerien warned us once more how dangerous the Eye was, especially with Ancano having access to it. Then he told us something passing strange. He said there was someone within the college named the Augur of Dunlain. This person would hold the key to what we should do next about the Eye. But Nerien couldn’t tell us who or what or where this person was. He seemed surprised we had never heard of such a person.”

Nearby, Lydia had the fire going and was melting snow in a small iron kettle, listening intently to our conversation all the while.

“So, who was this Augur?” I asked.

“A former student,” said Onmund. “He had gone into the college’s basement long ago, conducting some sort of research, but something happened to him there…” The Nord shivered again.

“Yes, we did eventually find the Augur in the basement, or the Midden as it is called,” Brelyna said. “But that came after almost a week of pestering the masters and wizards about him. Master Aren forbade us to bring up his name again. Finally Tolfdir broke down and told us to look for him deep within the Midden. He warned us that it was a dangerous place and we should take all our magic with us.”

“And well he might,” said Onmund. “There were skeletal walkers, frost trolls, ice wraiths…”

“Trifles!” J’zargo spat. “We handled them with ease, did we not? And this one proved that J’zargo’s flame cloak spell has been perfected. Undead get surprise, caster is not harmed. Is brilliant, no?”

“Yes, we did pass all the trials,” Brelyna said, “with just a few singed spots from that infernal flame cloak. Then we arrived at a final locked door. The Augur was within, but at first he didn’t want to let us inside. It seemed we were not the only ones who had visited him recently, and he was tired of being pestered.”

Lydia brought us our tea. We were short on mugs, so we would have to share.

“This one would enjoy a spoonful of honey in his tea,” J’zargo said. He was back to purring.

“This one thinks we’re in the wilds, not the Bannered Mare,” Lydia replied, sitting down next to me with her own mug. J’zargo gave a little hiss.

“So the Augur finally let us in, after much pleading on our part,” Brelyna went on. “His chamber was small, circular, and he filled most of it. He was … a glowing ball of light or energy or I know not what. His explorations in the Midden had gone horribly wrong – we found a journal later that said that several students were killed. But he was transformed into the form in which we found him. And somehow it allowed him to know things.”

“And did he hold the clue to your next step?” I asked. The tea was reviving me somewhat, but the story didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

“Yes, but not before he told us that what we sought would destroy us.”

“Pfft…” hissed J’zargo. “How can knowledge destroy us? Knowledge is our path to greatness. This Augur was just too weak for the magic he uncovered.”

“Maybe the Augur was right,” Onmund said thoughtfully, more to himself than to us. “Maybe knowledge only corrupts. Maybe my parents were right too, and I shouldn’t be fooling around with this magic.”

“The Augur felt certain the Eye would corrupt Ancano,” Brelyna said, “and it appears he was right. But we get ahead of ourselves. The most important thing the Augur told us was that we needed to get the Staff of Magnus. ‘To see through Magnus’ Eye without being blinded, you must use his Staff,’ he said.”

“What will the staff do?” I asked.

“We have no idea!” Onmund exclaimed. “But it’s our only hope!”

“So, you knew you needed to get this staff,” I said. “But that was two weeks ago, by my reckoning.”

“The Augur couldn’t tell us where to look for the staff,” Brelyna said. “We hesitated to ask Savos Aren or the other masters, after we had been forbidden to even mention the Augur’s name. We went to Tolfdir first, but he had never heard of it. Then we wasted some days in the Arcanaeum, hoping to learn something there.”

“Finally, we did go to the arch-mage,” Onmund said, “as we should have to begin with. He wasn’t even angry. He was pleased with our initiative. He gave us these circlets that increase our magicka.” He touched the jeweled circlet he wore on his brow.

“He didn’t know anything about the staff’s whereabouts either,” Brelyna said. “But he did say that the college had been visited some months back by emissaries from a magical order known as the Synod.”

“The Synod? How many orders of mages are there?”

“Many, apparently, and each jealous of all the others. This one is based in Cyrodiil. Neither Savos nor Mirabelle had anything good to say about them. Fancy themselves the Imperial authority on all things magical, according to Mirabelle. She said they mostly try to maintain the emperor’s favor, but now they’re trying to consolidate their power by gathering magical artifacts. She said they showed up at the college looking for the Staff of Magnus, as if we would have it stored away in a broom closet. They went away disappointed, saying they might have better luck in Mzulft.”

“Mzulft! That sounds like a Dwemer ruin!”

“Oh, it is, it is,” Onmund said, and he shivered again.

“So, you went there?”

“We did,” Brelyna said. “What with preparations for the journey and trav­ell­ing on foot, it took us three days to get there. It’s in the mountains on Skyrim’s eastern border, north of Riften.”

“I think I’ve seen it!” I said. “We fought a dragon on the slopes of Northwind Peak and when we were done I looked across the valley and saw circular towers of stone high up on the mountain face. They were topped with bronze domes, and steam rose from them.”

“That was it!” Onmund said. “Maybe we were there even as you were looking across at it.” The thought seemed to cheer him somewhat.

“The place is vast,” said Brelyna, “and … amazing is the only word. Those Dwemer machines! They still function, guarding the place.”

“This one has never seen anything like it,” said J’zargo. “The Nordic catacombs, they are mere child’s playhouses compared to the delving of the dwarves.”

“But the Dwemer are all gone now,” said Onmund, “and we found only their machines – and Falmer. Many, many Falmer.”

“Falmer!” Lydia exclaimed. Now it was her turn to shiver. Every Nord child had heard stories of the blind, vengeful creatures that crept out of cracks in the ground and stole away with children who had misbehaved. They were the twisted descendants of a once mighty race of mer, the Snow Elves who had inhabited what was to become Skyrim. Defeated and pushed out of their lands by the Nords, they took refuge with their cousins, the Dwemer. But the dwarves tricked them, feeding them toxic fungi that turned them blind. The Snow Elves became the Dwemer’s slaves. Over centuries of creeping underground, their blind, twisted forms became hereditary. Bitterness against the Dwemer and all who lived above ground grew in their hearts. Then, with the Dwemer’s mysterious dis­appear­ance, the Falmer spread throughout the old dwarven ruins, and even began making forays above ground, becoming the stuff of many a nightmarish Nordic children’s tale. I was glad my father had never indulged in telling those tales to me.

“And what of the Synod expedition?” I asked.

“Decimated by the Falmer, unfortunately,” Brelyna said. “I imagine they wished they had spent less time currying favor at court and more time honing their magical skills, in the end. We found the first of them in the ruin’s entrance chamber. With his last breath, he told us we needed to find a focusing crystal and take it to something called the oculory. Without it the project would fail.”

“And we didn’t even know what the project was!” said Onmund.

“But without that hint that we were on the right track, we might have turned back long before reaching the end. The place goes on and on, let me tell you.” Brelyna’s red eyes glowed with wonder as she remembered the place. “We were two days in there, fighting off the Falmer, the spiders, the chauruses – those are giant, poison-spitting insects with nearly impenetrable shells. And the Dwemer machines – the mechanical spider workers, the dwarven sphere guardians! They are fast, they pop out of the walls when you least expect them, and they are hard to stop with magic.”

Onmund shivered again. “Frostbite spiders are bad enough, but mechanical spiders as well!”

“But you survived, or you wouldn’t be here,” I pointed out. “So you must have reached the oculory.”

“Yes,” said Brelyna, “although it’s a good thing some of us were paying attention to Colette’s lectures about the importance of Restoration magic.” She gave a sidelong glance at J’zargo.

“This one says, leave Restoration to the women,” the Khajiit said. “J’zargo is made for greater things.”

Brelyna ignored him. “Along the way we found the crystal on the body of a Falmer we had killed. We found the bodies of several of the unfortunate mages as well. Finally, in the innermost chamber, we found the last of them, Paratus. He had survived by locking himself inside. It seems that the first researcher we ran across had just returned from getting the crystal repaired in Cyrodiil. The cold of Skyrim didn’t agree with it, and the adjustments to it could only be made in the Imperial City. Paratus was very glad we had found it, and took us into the oculory chamber straight away. He seemed more excited that the project could go on than upset over the deaths of his colleagues.”

“The oculory itself was some sort of Dwemer observatory,” Onmund said. “Paratus said the ancient dwarves channeled starlight through it to somehow gain insight into the nature of the divine. But the Synod had spent months adapting it to do something far different – reveal the sources of magical power in northern Tamriel.”

“And did the crystal work?” I asked. I wondered how long it would be before I discovered why my friends had seemed in such a panic when they arrived. Perhaps the tea had calmed them too much. The tea had reminded me of all those times sharing a pot with Mirabelle, and I wondered … but no, they would have told me by now if something had happened to her.

“It did,” said Brelyna, “but the machine was very complicated. It took some time for Paratus to move everything into position – mirrors, and even the domed roof of the structure itself. Finally, the oculory beamed a map of northern Tamriel onto the wall of the chamber.”


“It revealed something Paratus hadn’t expected. There was such a large bright spot around the college that he thought we were somehow interfering with his project. That’s when Onmund told him about the Eye of Magnus.”

“Was that wise?” I asked.

“It was the only way to get him to tell us about the staff,” Onmund said. “Otherwise, we would have had to race him here, and he never would have revealed the staff’s location. But once he knew the college had the Eye, he was much more interested in it than the staff. He didn’t mind telling us that the other bright spot on the map could only be Labyrinthian. The last we saw him, he was heading off to the Imperial City to report our news to his superiors.”

“So once you knew where the staff was, you came straight here?”

“No,” Brelyna said, “and this is the bad part.” She looked at J’zargo and Onmund, but they both just looked at the ground. “We thought it best to return to the college, since Labyrinthian has such a fearsome reputation. We thought certainly Master Aren would want to send more experienced wizards on such a dangerous mission. It took us three days to return to Winterhold, and when we got there it was…”

“It was awful,” said Onmund. “Ancano had barricaded himself in the Hall of the Elements with the Eye. He was somehow channeling its power to create a powerful shield wall all around the chamber. We found Savos and Mirabelle in the entry hall trying to get through it. They asked for our help when we came in, before we could even tell them about the staff. Maybe it would have been better if we had waited before confronting Ancano.”

“Why, what happened?”

“We finally broke through the magical shield,” Brelyna said. “I don’t know about Savos and Mirabelle, but our magicka was completely drained. But we entered the chamber anyway, and Ancano said something about controlling the power of the universe, and there was no way we could stop him. Savos confronted him and aimed a spell toward him. Then there was a blinding white light … and … “

“When we came to,” Onmund continued, “we had been scattered around the perimeter of the chamber like matchsticks. Mirabelle could hardly move. Ancano had put the barrier back up, though it covered a much smaller area. We didn’t see Savos anywhere, and Mirabelle told us to find him. We went outside, into the courtyard. Tolfdir and the other wizards were there, standing around a body…”

“Savos Aren’s body,” Brelyna concluded. “He had been blown clear of the Hall of the Elements, and the blast killed him. We all stood there crying and tearing out our hair and hugging each other. Finally, Mirabelle staggered out of the hall. She could barely walk, but when she saw Savos she went over and knelt beside him. She had been a novice when Savos was named arch-mage, and she owed her rise through the ranks to him. But more than that, I think she had a deep respect for him. I thought she would go to pieces like the rest of us, but she didn’t. She was strong!” Brelyna was crying even now, remembering it. I was too shocked to speak.

When Brelyna had recovered herself a bit, she went on. “Mirabelle took some­thing from around the arch-mage’s neck. She told the other masters and wizards to do what they could to contain Ancano and the Eye, but not to attack him. Then she took us up to the arch-mage’s quarters and had us tell her everything we had learned about the staff. She was surprised when we mentioned Lab­y­rinth­ian. It seems the place had been important to Savos – something had happened there that affected him deeply. She went over to his chest and took out a heavy iron torc – the Torc of Labyrinthian, she called it. She said Savos had told her of it long ago, saying she would know what to do with it when the time came. Then she gave it to us and told us it was up to us to get the Staff of Magnus.”

“This one told her we would go right away,” said J’zargo, “but these two said that Labyrinthian was beyond our abilities. Even after Mzulft, they have the bravery of little bunny rabbits.”

“It’s true, we did hesitate,” said Onmund. “But then Nerien appeared, speaking to the four of us. He said events were proceeding just as the Psijics had foreseen. He said our only hope was to find you, Deirdre. That’s when he told us we could meet you here.”

I had to agree with Onmund – if only I had returned with them to the college! But what could I have done then? And who knew how much more destruction the dragons would have caused by now, had we not slain five of them? It was no good questioning myself. But now I had to help get this staff, and we had to return to the college and do what we could to save it.

I stood up. “So Ancano remained barricaded with the Eye when you left?” I asked. They nodded. “And how long were you on the road?”

“Mirabelle gave us gold to buy these horses in Winterhold,” Brelyna said. “We left yesterday at mid-day, travelling over the Wayward Pass and cutting cross-country north of Whiterun.”

“It seems we have no time to waste,” I said. “Labyrinthian is just above us in the mountains north of here. We should be on our way.”

Lydia had already packed our things. “What’s another Nord ruin?” she said gamely. “We’ve faced dragon priests on little sleep, how bad could this be? Let’s go!”

“Wait,” said Brelyna. “Mirabelle gave us one other thing, once she knew we would be meeting you. She thought you could use it if you went into Lab­y­rinth­­ian with us.” From within the folds of her robes she withdrew a simple necklace with a jeweled silver pendant. I had seen it before. It was the Amulet of Savos Aren.

“I don’t need payment to go with you into Labyrinthian,” I said.

“Take it,” said Onmund. “It has great power. And we’ll need all the help we can get, if this place lives up to its reputation.”

The amulet flashed in the light of the newly risen moons as I placed it around my neck.

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