Although their trip from High Hrothgar was mostly uneventful, Selene and Brynjolf still had to brave the weather. They arrived in Winterhold late in the afternoon in the middle of a blizzard that put a chill even into their hardy, Nordic bones. They headed straight for the Frozen Hearth.
“The College of Winterhold is exclusive,” Brynjolf told her. “They don’t let just anybody walk in and wander around.”
“That’s why I want to find Enthir. Hopefully he can help me. If not, perhaps the fact that I’m Dragonborn will get my foot in the door.”
Nocturnal smiled on them; Enthir was in the Frozen Hearth, drinking and talking to a fellow mage. When he saw Selene, he stood up and held his arms out. “It’s good to see you,” he said as they embraced. He stepped away from the other mage and lowered his voice. “Have you got some, uh, merchandise for me?”
“Actually, I need your help with something else. I need to get into the college.”
“Sure, but what do you need to get in for?”
“I’m looking for an Elder Scroll.”
Enthir’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. “An Elder…are you out of your mind? Do you know how dangerous those are?” He took her arm and led her to a remote corner of the room. “What in Oblivion is going on, Selene?”
“I’ve got a secret, Enthir—well, it’s not that big a secret, I guess. I’m the Dragonborn.”
A broad smile crossed Enthir’s face. “You’re kidding! Really? I always thought the Dragonborn would be…taller.”
Brynjolf chuckled, and Selene smirked at the elf. “You’re all heart, Enthir.”
“All right, Dragonborn. I can take you to meet the librarian. Urag gro-Shub. I don’t know if we have an Elder Scroll at the college, but Urag should be able to point you in the right direction.”
“The college has an orc librarian?” Brynjolf asked incredulously.
“Hard to believe, isn’t it? But he really knows his stuff. Come with me.”
“Just like that?” Selene asked. “You don’t have a million questions?”
“Of course I do, but in our business we know better than to ask a lot of questions. I trust you, Selene, at least as much as I trust anybody, and I’ll take you at your word that you’re Dragonborn. Although, it would be interesting to see you perform one of those dragon Shouts I’ve heard so much about.”
She thought for a moment and then gave him a grin. “I’ll be glad to show you, Enthir. Outside.”
They walked out the door and into the blinding snowstorm, which had gotten worse since they had entered the tavern. It was perfect. Selene led the elf and Brynjolf to the edge of town, turned away from them and walked a few paces away, and then gathered her breath.
Enthir and a couple of town guards watched in amazement as the snow stopped and the sky cleared. Selene smiled up at Enthir from beneath a starry sky with Secunda waxing above her head.
“That’s astonishing!” Enthir cried. “And very handy in this part of Skyrim, if I do say so.”
One of the guards walked up and said, “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to keep it down. All this shouting will frighten the townspeople.”
“It won’t happen again.”
He nodded and started to walk away, but he stopped and looked back. “It was impressive, though.”
“Follow me,” said Enthir, and he led them up the steep ramp to the college.
Selene held her breath as they navigated the passage, which was narrow and crumbling. At regular intervals, small pools shone ethereal blue light into the sky, and she could feel subtle vibrations coming from them. At the end of the passage was a courtyard with a statue of a mage in the center and walkways around and through. Enthir led them past the statue and into the building, where they entered a vestibule with three doors. The center door opened onto a hall with another of the pools of blue light. A couple of students were in the room, practicing. The other two doors were closed.
“That’s the Hall of the Elements,” Enthir informed Selene as she stuck her head in the door. “Most of our lectures and meetings take place there. The Arcaneum is through this door.”
They followed him up a narrow flight of stairs to the library, a key-shaped room lined with shelves and tables. Books were placed neatly on the shelves; many more were piled on the tables and the floor, but even those were tidy. The library was overloaded, but it was orderly. Enthir led them to the desk, where an elderly orc sat reading.
“Urag,” he said. “I have some friends who need your help.”
The orc looked up and narrowed his eyes, peering critically at Selene and Brynjolf. “Enthir, you can’t just bring in strays off the street,” he grumbled in a rough voice. “Especially ones wearing Nightingale armor.”
Selene and Brynjolf looked at each other, eyebrows raised in surprise. Apparently this librarian did know his stuff.
“They’re not strays, trust me. And they won’t steal from you.”
“Well, you better not make a mess. The Arcaneum is my domain, and I say what goes on here and what doesn’t.”
“You seem very proud of the library,” Selene remarked.
“Heh, I should say so. If not for me, most of these books would have been dissolved or burned to ash before the Third Era.”
“Well, we’ll be careful. I promise. And we won’t steal anything.”
“Now. What do you need?”
“I need to find an Elder Scroll.”
Urag glanced over at Enthir and scowled, then did the same to Brynjolf before looking back at Selene. “And what do you plan to do with it? Do you even know what you’re asking about, or are you just someone’s errand girl?”
“I know what I’m asking.”
“And what makes you think I’d let you see even it if I had one? It would be kept under the highest security imaginable. Even the greatest thief in the world couldn’t get to it.” His eyes bored into hers, evidently still not trusting that she wasn’t there to steal something.
“What about the Dragonborn?” Brynjolf asked smoothly.
“The Dragonborn? Wait, you’re Dragonborn?”
“No. She is.”
Urag looked Selene over again. “You’re the one the Graybeards were calling? I always thought the Dragonborn would be—”
“Taller?” Selene interrupted.
“A man. Please. Forgive me. I should know better than to make such assumptions. So you need an Elder Scroll to fight dragons?”
“One dragon in particular. Alduin, the World Eater.”
The librarian growled. “Mh-hmm, I’ve heard of that one. Got your work cut out for you there. I’m afraid I don’t have an Elder Scroll here, but I can give you what I do have. Don’t get your hopes up; it’s not much.” He went to a shelf and pulled two books, then brought them to the desk. “Here you go. Try not to spill anything on them.”
Enthir placed a hand on Selene’s shoulder. “If you don’t need anything else from me, I have a mug of mead waiting for me at the Frozen Hearth. Stop back in when you finish here, and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Thanks for your help, Enthir.”
The elf left, and Selene and Brynjolf took the books to a side table. He took one, she took the other, and they began to read.
The book Selene got was a treatise on the effects of the Elder Scrolls. When Enthir said they were dangerous, he wasn’t kidding. Most everyone who ever read them was struck blind. Even the Moth Priests, who spent their entire lives training to read the scrolls, went blind eventually. Lovely.
“This book is incomprehensible,” Brynjolf complained.
“Let me see.”
She traded books with him and paged through what read like the ravings of someone who worshipped Sheogorath or who had been snorting nightshade. The writer spoke in allegory and metaphor, but the images he painted were vague, senseless. She wondered if he had read an Elder Scroll himself and had gone mad as a result. She took the book to Urag.
“This Ruminations of the Elder Scrolls makes no sense.”
“That was written by Septimus Signus. He’s a master scholar on the nature of the Elder Scrolls. Unfortunately, he’s gone.”
“Oh, no, just gone. At least I hope he’s not dead; he was a close friend. I haven’t seen him in years. He found this Dwemer artifact up north somewhere and went off to study it. Haven’t seen him since. If you want to try to find him, his lab is somewhere up in the ice fields.”
Selene reached into her pack, pulled out a coin purse with about a hundred septims in it and placed it on the desk. “Urag, thanks for your help.”
“Keep your coin. If what little I’ve given you helps stop the World Eater, that’s payment enough.”
As they left the college and headed back into town, Brynjolf said, “So it’s a trek through the ice fields, is it? That’s a lot of ice.”
“Let’s ask around town. Perhaps somebody knows a more specific location. Or can at least rent us a boat.”
The Frozen Hearth was at full capacity, which amounted to about eight people. It seemed the entire town had shown up to drink their cares away. Selene talked to each of them, but no one knew anything except for one fisherman who had just come in from the north.
“I know the one you’re talking about,” he said. “Keeps an outpost about five miles due north. Mad as a hatter, he is.”
“I don’t suppose we could rent your boat tomorrow, could we? We’ll pay well.” She took out the purse she had offered Urag.
The fisherman took the coin purse, hefting it in his hand as though he were weighing it, and nodded. “I could take the day off. You might have to moor the boat, though. The ice gets pretty thick, so you’ll have to walk part of the way across the shelf. There’s a stake in the boat.”
* * *
The trip to Septimus Signus’s outpost turned out better than they expected. The base was closer to Winterhold than the fisherman had indicated, only about two miles; and they were able to work their way around most of the ice floes and take the boat almost all the way. Directly north of Winterhold with the college still visible behind them, they found a small cave cut into an iceberg. A wooden door was set into an opening that was little more than a crevice and led to an icy pathway down a treacherous incline. They stepped very carefully on the slope, afraid that at any moment they would slip and ride the rest of the way down on their arses.
They finally reached the room where Septimus made his home. It wasn’t much of a room, just a space about fifteen feet in diameter, containing two tables with some wine bottles and water pitchers, a cupboard with some books and soul gems, and an enormous Dwemer cube. It was taller than Brynjolf, and one face was round with several concentric circles set into it at awkward angles, as if they had been pushed out of place. Three round, blue gems of a kind neither of them had ever seen before were set into the center. There was nothing else in the room—no bed, no chairs, no food.
A man in mage robes paced around the room. He was gray-bearded and emaciated, probably younger than he looked, with a maniacal look in his eye. He looked up at Selene and Brynjolf when they entered the room, but he didn’t speak to them; he just turned around and resumed his pacing, muttering incoherently. Selene went up and tapped him on the shoulder, and he stopped and turned around.
“When the top level was built, no more could be placed. It was and is the maximal apex.”
“Um, are you Septimus Signus?”
“The box entombs the heart. The ice entombs the box.”
Selene looked back at Brynjolf who simply shrugged. She turned back and said, “We’re looking for an Elder Scroll.”
The old man smiled and nodded. “The Elder Scroll gives insight deeper than the deep ones.”
“Do you have one here?”
“I have seen enough to know their fabric. The warp of air. The weft of time. Time bends under the hand that reads the Elder Scroll. The eyes. The eyes see the bend of time. And then they see no more. Or they see more clearly. Too clearly. This is where madness begins.”
“So you do have one here?”
“To read an Elder Scroll is to go blind. Or mad, in my case. Do you think me mad?”
“A bit,” Brynjolf admitted.
“Oh, but I am well. I will be well. Well to be within the will inside the walls.”
“Do you have an Elder Scroll?” Selene asked, speaking slowly as though he couldn’t understand her words.
“Great knowings inside an Elder Scroll. But no, it is not in my possession.”
“Do you know where we can find one?”
Septimus rested a hand on Selene’s shoulder. “It is here!”
“But you just said it wasn’t.”
“It is in this plane. Mundus. Nearby, relatively speaking.” He chuckled madly, and Selene resisted the urge to shake him. “On the cosmological scale, it’s all nearby.”
“But where? Old man, can you help me get the Scroll or not?”
“One block lifts the other. Septimus will give you what you want, but you must bring him something in return.”
“What do you want? You want the Elder Scroll too, don’t you?”
“Ha-ha, clever girl! Not the scroll but the knowings. You see this master work of the Dwemer. Deep inside their greatest knowings. But how to get in, eh? The Elder Scroll knows the way. Luckily, they left behind their own way of reading the Elder Scrolls. They existed before time began.”
The old man practically giggled. “No, no, silly child. The Elder Scrolls. They’ve always been here. And never. I can help you help me.” He went to the cupboard and rummaged around in one of the drawers, then retrieved two small objects and brought them to Selene. They were both dwarven, a cube and a sphere, inlaid with Dwemer carvings. The cube seemed inert, but the sphere gave off a faint vibration. “Two things I have for you, two shapes—one round, one edged. The round one for tuning. The Dwemer used music to solve their puzzles and open their gates. A clever thing, is it not? The orb tunes in to the tune of the orb of Nirn. The edged one is a lexicon for inscribing. To us, a hunk of metal. To the Dwemer, a full library of knowings. But empty. The machinations will read the scroll and lay the lore upon the cube. Then Septimus can do the opening! The Scroll will give the deep vision needed to open it.”
“And you want to open the cube because…”
“Inside is the heart. The heart of a god! The heart of you. And me. To harness it is to know. But it was hidden away. Someone used dwarven trickery to lock it away.”
“But where is the scroll?” Selene insisted.
“Have you heard of Blackreach? ‘Case upon where Dwemer cities slept, the yearning spire hidden learnings kept.”
“I’ve heard of it,” said Brynjolf. “It’s a mythological Dwemer city that’s said to have been built beneath Skyrim.”
“Not mythological. It is as real as the voices in my head.”
“Oh, great,” Selene muttered.
“Under deep. Below the dark. The hidden keep. Tower Mzark!”
“Mzark is real enough,” Brynjolf confirmed. “It’s on the map, and we’ve passed it before. But it’s just an elevator. There’s no way in.”
“Alftand. The point of puncture, the first entry. Delve to its limits, and Blackreach lies just beyond. The deepest doors of the Dwemer listen for singing. Place the sphere to play the attitude of notes for proper opening. Then find your way to Mzark through the depths.”
“Did you understand that, lass?”
“I think so.” Selene held up the sphere. “You’re saying this is some sort of key, right? There will be a hole or a slot for me to place this in, and that will open the way to Blackreach.”
“Can you not hear the singing now?”
“I can feel the vibration.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. What about the cube?”
“The Dwemer found a way to focus the knowings away and inside without harm. No blindness. No madness. Place the lexicon into their contraption and focus the knowings into it. When it glows, it knows. Bring it back and Septimus can read once more.” Without another word, he turned away and started pacing again, mumbling about the lock box.
Selene turned to her husband. “I guess we’re done, then.”
* * *
Alftand wasn’t far from Winterhold, so Selene and Brynjolf took a day to rest and get supplies before heading out. The hike took about four hours, and they arrived at the ruin just after lunchtime, having munched on bread and cheese while they walked. Most of it was buried in the snow, but a few towers poked their bronze heads out. It appeared to be the subject of some archeological expedition, or was once. Two shacks were built outside, and although the wood looked relatively fresh, the roofs were riddled with holes and the walls leaned precariously. A wooden bridge was strung up to the portcullis of one of the towers, which appeared to be an elevator exit. There was no lock to pick; the outside of the gate was smooth. There was no way in here.
In one of the shacks, Brynjolf found an expedition manifest. By the amount of wear on the book, they estimated the expedition to be fairly recent. The book hadn’t been lying in the weather more than a week or two, if that.
“Do you think we’ll have company inside?” Selene wondered.
“Hard to say. The snow has covered up any tracks they might have left.”
Outside one of the shacks were a cold campfire and two dead bodies, which were partially buried in the snow. It was an odd place for an avalanche, but they couldn’t think of another explanation. Just beyond the campfire, they found a wooden walkway and a bridge leading to an entrance several levels below the surface. There wasn’t a door; it was just a big hole in the wall. Selene and Brynjolf ducked inside. The interior was littered with more evidence of the expedition, but it appeared they’d had a bit of bad luck. Crates, barrels and carts lay broken and in shambles. Someone had left their journal near a bedroll, and it confirmed that an avalanche had occurred just after they had finished constructing the catwalk.
“Hmph,” Brynjolf grunted. “They probably caused the avalanche with all the digging and hammering.” He read further. “Then they got stuck inside by the blizzard. I’d say this expedition was doomed from the start.”
“Let’s just hope ours isn’t.”
Farther into the ruin, they found a humanoid ribcage and a trail of blood and gore, but there were no bodies.
“Where is it?” someone said, startling Selene. By the accent, it sounded like a very angry Khajiit male in the next room. “I know you are trying to keep it for yourself, J’zhar. You always try to keep it for yourself!”
Selene nocked an arrow, and they moved into the room, but although there was more blood, there was no angry Khajiit. They moved on, more slowly and cautiously now. They found another journal talking about dwarven spiders someone was studying and mentioning that he saw humanoid shadows in the ruin. He was excited about it. She bet he hadn’t stayed excited for long; he had probably seen Falmer. After killing a dwarven spider that popped out of a pipe nearby, they continued on without hearing the voice for a long while. Selene was just beginning to wonder if it was a ghost when she picked up his scent. Shortly thereafter, he spoke again.
“What? Who is this, brother? Another of the smooth skins looking for food? But this one wasn’t trapped with us.” The Khajiit came around the corner with a dagger. “Aha! You must be the ones who took my skooma! Give me back my skooma, Nord dogs!”
He lunged at Brynjolf, who was closest, and Brynjolf dodged the blade and buried Chillrend in his side, dropping him easily. Just around the corner was a room drenched in blood, along with a couple of woodcutter’s axes, and a dead Khajiit. This one had written a journal, as well. It seemed everybody on the expedition was keeping a record. He and the killer were brothers, and the one who attacked was addicted to skooma. They had run out while they were trapped by the blizzard, and the brother went crazy. He started hallucinating creatures coming out of the walls, and then the others started disappearing. He expected his brother was killing them.
“I don’t think he was hallucinating,” Brynjolf remarked, “what with the spiders, spheres, and Falmer. It’s anyone’s guess whether he killed them or not.”
As they explored the tunnels and rooms, they found lots of chests with valuable jewels, gold, and gems. They fought a few dwarven spiders, but nothing happened of any concern until they reached what the explorers had called the “animonculory” and found their first real evidence of Falmer. They came across one of their fences made of bone and chaurus chitin, and a short time later, they spotted piles of chaurus eggs.
After a while, they entered a chamber that was so high and had so many levels, it made the halls of Irkngthand look like a child’s bedroom. They followed a winding ramp down and down until it stopped at a dead end. Part of the ramp had fallen away, and the only way to the next level was to jump onto a large pipe a few feet down and then drop the rest of the way onto the ramp. Brynjolf made it without any trouble, but Selene’s foot slipped on the pipe and she hit the ramp on her bottom.
“Son of a bitch!” she growled.
“Aye, I wasn’t planning on sitting down any time soon anyway.”
“Is it wrong of me to feel nostalgic? This reminds me so much of Irkngthand.”
“Aye, love, it’s wrong,” she replied with a chuckle.
Selene dusted herself off, and they started down the ramp. The first Falmer was waiting just below. It was a constant battle from there on out, and they mowed through half a dozen of the erstwhile snow elves before finding a human skeleton in a pen. Farther on, one of the explorers was chained to a table in a torture chamber. Her skin was cold, but she didn’t yet have the stink of decay on her, even to Selene’s enhanced senses. She hadn’t been dead long.
After what seemed like hours, they finally left the towering chamber and all its satellite rooms and entered a hall that was as wide as the other was high. It was well lit, home to a handful of Falmer, and housed a large structure in the center. The edifice was open air and built on several levels, but it was blocked by a portcullis. Selene sustained a bump on the head fighting one of the Falmer, but otherwise they were easy enough to take care of. Their energy was waning, though, and if they didn’t rest soon, their fatigue would begin to affect their fighting.
When the Falmer were dead, they set about finding a lever that would open the portcullis. She looked for an opening the attunement sphere would fit into, but there was nothing of the sort. Brynjolf, however, found a lever that, when flipped, opened the gate. Inside the structure were two dwarven centurions. One had already been destroyed, but the other came to life when they entered. It ambled over to them, swinging its massive arms, one ending in the shape of a hammer and the other an axe. Arrows did nothing to slow the construct, so Selene dropped her bow and drew Dragonbane. Brynjolf ducked beneath the hammer and swung at its knee, landing a jarring blow that the centurion barely noticed. Selene did the same, and the shock from Dragonbane staggered it. It pivoted from the midsection, its arms swinging wildly, and Brynjolf gave another whack at its knees. It spun around and connected with the hammer, but it was slow, so instead of doing massive damage to Brynjolf’s body, it just swept him to the side. It strode after him, though, and this time the hammer was aimed in a more menacing direction—straight down at his head. Brynjolf scrambled out of the way just as the hammer struck the stone beneath him, sparks flying at the impact.
“Stand clear,” Selene called, and she swung Dragonbane again, staggering the centurion. It seemed shock was the only thing that would work, so she began hacking at it while ducking its blows, doing her best to wear it down with the electric charge of her sword. She just hoped it wouldn’t wear her down first. Just as she was beginning to tire, the dynamo core in its chest popped and sizzled, and the great sentry fell over with a crash. She raided it for its gems, and they started up to the next level.
As they got higher, Selene picked up the scent of two people, and they moved more cautiously. When they reached the top level, they found a mechanism, smaller than the one in Septimus’s outpost but containing the same concentric circles and blue stones. A small, round notch was set into the machine. Selene retrieved the attunement sphere and was about to place it into the receptacle when the people she had smelled began talking.
“Sulla, let’s just get out of here,” a woman said. “Hasn’t there been enough death?”
“Of course you want me to leave,” a man replied. “You’re waiting for me to turn my back so you can have all the glory for yourself.”
“It’s not about glory anymore. It’s about getting out of here alive.”
“So you say, but I see the look in your eye. You want the riches for yourself, the fame, the renown. I’ll never let you take what’s rightfully mine!”
The clang of swords rang out, and Selene stepped through the next doorway to find an Imperial man and a Redguard woman fighting. As the Redguard slew the Imperial, she noticed Selene and Brynjolf standing there. “No!” she shouted, lunging forward to attack. Brynjolf was closest, and she blocked his sword and bashed him with her shield, which had several long, razor-sharp spikes on the front.
Brynjolf screamed as the barbs tore through his armor and ripped into his flesh. The force of the bash knocked him back, and he landed hard, crashing against the doorframe and keeling over. Selene took a few steps back and drew her bow, nocking an arrow quickly and shooting the woman before she had a chance to advance on Brynjolf. The fire-enchanted arrow hit her in the arm, and she squealed in pain and turned on Selene, who had already drawn another arrow. She let fly, and the arrow hit the Redguard in the throat. Blood spurted as she choked and gurgled, grasping her throat. Finally, her eyes rolled back into her head and she fell dead.
Selene rushed over to Brynjolf. “Are you all right?
He peeled his tattered cuirass off to reveal a mass of shredded flesh across his chest where the shield had struck him. Blood flowed freely down his chest and abdomen.
“Oh, gods, Brynjolf.”
“Looks like my scars will match yours now,” he said, his voice thick with pain.
“Don’t talk, love. Lie down.” She dug in her pack for first aid supplies while Brynjolf, ignoring her instruction to lie down, retrieved a healing potion from his pack and downed it. She dabbed at the gashes with a rag and applied pressure to slow the bleeding, then used a healing spell to close up the worst of it. When her magicka drained, she drank a potion and started again until his chest looked more like a chest and less like a bloody chunk of meat. She would still need to stitch the wounds, but the spell fixed more than she had expected. Her Restoration magic was improving.
“I’ve never seen a shield like that,” Brynjolf muttered weakly, rapidly losing his strength from loss of blood. “It makes sense, though. You can do a lot more damage to your opponent a shield like that.”
“Think you might want to start carrying it? She’s not going to be using it anymore.” Selene prepared a needle and started stitching Brynjolf’s wounds as best she could.
“I’ve never been much for using a shield, but I might try it out. Seeing how we’ve been in such close contact. Have you noticed I get hurt more than you do?” he rambled. “Maybe I should start using a bow. Or the shield. Maybe that would keep me out of trouble. It’d be a bitch for my opponents, though. Don’t you think?”
“Brynjolf. Lie down.”
He drank another healing potion, then lay down with his head on his pack and his feet on Selene’s. She unpacked a bedroll and threw it over him to keep him warm and ward off shock. She stitched him up as best she could, then kept watch while he rested.
He awoke after a few hours feeling better, although he was still weak. Behind the mechanism was an elevator, and they took it to the surface and carefully made their way back to Winterhold. By the time they checked into the Frozen Hearth, Brynjolf was feverish and bordering on delirium. Selene left him in bed at the inn under the watchful eye of Haran, the innkeeper’s wife, while she ran up to the college to find help. Enthir introduced her to Colette Marence, the college’s Restoration master, and she worked on Brynjolf’s wounds while teaching Selene a bit about healing magic. Even Colette couldn’t prevent scarring from his injuries, but after only a couple of days, he was strong enough to head back to Alftand.
The elevator was still open, so they didn’t have to go all the way through the ruin again. They descended to the open-air building in the massive cavern, which was still mercifully free of Falmer, and Selene placed the attunement sphere into the receptacle. With a resonant hum, the floor began to drop to form a spiral staircase. She removed the sphere, and they descended the stairs to a set of bronze double doors.
“I don’t know,” Brynjolf said. “With all the buildup, I thought the door to Blackreach would be grander.”
“Maybe this isn’t it. One way to find out.” Selene pushed the door open, and they stepped from Alftand into an eerie wonderland.