The location Quintus had marked on the map appeared to be a cave, but several Nordic burial urns and vases littered the area by the entrance. Rowan checked the urns, but as expected, they were empty. They found a chest in a cart just inside and looted it for a gem and a handful of gold pieces. Farther in, they encountered a frost troll.
They ducked behind an outcropping of ice, and Rowan mouthed, use your bow, silently to Dolff. He nodded, and they both drew their bows and aimed at the creature. Rowan was faster, and she got off two shots to his one, but the three arrows—in addition to the fact that both of hers were fire enchanted—took the troll down rather easily.
The snowy cave, which was dotted with several urns that did have some gold in them, wound around until it terminated in an iron door of the kind that normally opened onto Nordic ruins. They weren’t disappointed; the door led to a spiral staircase, at the bottom of which lay the type of ruin they were accustomed to. They navigated tunnels, skirted traps, fought draugr, and looted chests, until they came to the final room where Curalmil was interred. The corpse lay in an open sarcophagus and didn’t move until Rowan buried her sword in its chest. Then it flew up out of the coffin with a shriek, her sword still sticking out of his flesh, and began flying around the room, hurling fireballs at them. He yanked the sword out and summoned a flame atronach. A couple of draugr joined in the fray, and Rowan and Dolff had a serious fight on their hands.
They stood back to back, Dolff fighting atronach and draugr and Rowan shooting arrows at Curalmil, who continued to screech and lob spells at her. Her hair and the back of Dolff’s head got singed when a fireball hit just right, and he cried out and launched himself away, burying his blade into the nearest draugr’s chest. Rowan swiftly drew an arrow and shot for what seemed like the hundredth time, catching Curalmil in the face and finally dropping him. She lowered her bow and sighed with relief.
She turned to find Dolff bent over, his hands on his knees, panting heavily. “You okay?” she asked.
He stood to full height and regarded her with a smile. “Aye, I’m fine. See, this rather amazing person once recommended that I wear gear with a fire protection enchantment on it.”
“Now, who would do a thing like that?”
He came to her and placed a kiss on her lips. “And you? Are you all right?”
“Aye, I’m exhilarated.” She took hold of a lock of her hair, pulling it around so she could see the burnt ends. “I shouldn’t have to cut too much off. You know, Mama had hair halfway down her back for most of her life. She never cut it until she was around twenty years old; then she and Papa got caught in a fire trap, and it all burned off.”
Dolff chuckled. “Do you realize everything we do ends up in a story about your parents?”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No, just an observation. They did a lot. Someday our kids will have stories to tell about us.” As soon as he said it, he realized what he had done. His eyes grew wide and he placed a hand over his mouth as if to prevent it from betraying him again.
Rowan just laughed at him. “Oh, come on, Dolff. Do you think I haven’t had those same thoughts? It’s perfectly natural to think that way. The world’s not going to crumble because we dream of a future together, and it doesn’t mean we’re going to run off to Riften and get married tomorrow.”
He caressed her cheek. “I know, I know. It’s too early for that. But I would do anything for you; you know that, right?”
“Aye, I know. And the same goes for me.” She reached up and brushed her lips against his, then nodded to an alcove behind Curalmil’s sarcophagus. The alcove was two levels high, with a ramp leading up to a balcony above a short hallway. “Do see what’s up there?”
“Aye, and now that it’s quiet, I can hear the chanting. Go look at your Word Wall.”
The chanting grew louder as she walked up the incline and stood next to a very large treasure chest as the light dropped away and the Word of Power glowed before her. Krii. Kill.
“What is it?”
She told him. “I actually already knew the word, but not as a Word of Power. I’ll have to see my Mama or kill a dragon for that, I guess.”
“What about the dragon you already killed?”
Rowan shook her head. “I don’t know why, but a soul only helps you learn one Word of Power, and I used that one to learn the Slow Time Shout. It’s okay; it’ll keep. Hey, look at this chest!”
They got a wealth of loot from the chest before descending the slope and going down the corridor beneath it, where they found the font Quintus had described. Dolff uncorked the vial and poured the solution into the font, and an acrid green mist rose into the stale air. A door behind the alcove slid into its recess, revealing a small room with a plethora of alchemical ingredients and a pedestal holding their prize.
Rowan approached the Phial and started to remove it from its stand, but then she noticed it was badly cracked. “Oh, will you look at that,” she moaned sadly. “I bet it’s not going to do him any good.” She took it and wrapped it in some linen cloth before carefully placing it into her pack so as not to damage it further. Dolff picked up some of the ingredients to give to Quintus for good measure, and they made their way out of the ruin.
They arrived in Windhelm late in the morning and traded their loot, then took the Phial and ingredients to Quintus. The Imperial asked them to take the Phial up to Nurelion, who was resting by the fireplace.
The sickly Altmer was understandably disappointed. “How did you damage it?” he demanded. “This is what I get for not retrieving it myself.”
“It was like that when we found it,” Dolff told him.
“Figures,” he muttered. “I doubt you’d have sufficient knowledge to harm it, even if you wanted to. Either way, this is the end of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m not really in the mood to entertain guests. I trust you can show yourself out. Oh, and here’s for your trouble.” He dug five septims out of his pocket and handed them to Dolff, who rolled his eyes at Rowan.
Quintus caught them before they left the shop. “I want to thank you for all your help.”
“We were happy to do it,” said Rowan.
He handed them a coin purse with about 500 septims inside. “We hired you to go get the Phial; it wasn’t your fault it was damaged, and your efforts still deserve reward.”
“Now I’ll do what I can to make his final days a bit less painful.”
Rowan sighed as she left the shop. “I know he’s just a mean old mer, but I really hoped we could help him.”
“He’s just mean because he’s ill. Being in constant pain is bound to make anybody disagreeable.”
They made their way to the palace and told Ulfric how the trip went, and he was more interested than they would have thought.
“You say it was cracked? How badly?”
Dolff shrugged. “Badly enough that it wouldn’t hold liquid.”
“I wonder if it could be repaired.”
“Well, if anyone would know about that, it would be Quintus and Nurelion.”
“Hmm. We might have to check into that.”
“Do you think there’s still a chance, Your Grace?” Rowan asked.
“If there is, we should pursue it, don’t you think? Now, the two of you should get some rest. I would wager you didn’t sleep while you were on your mission.”
“Aye,” said Dolff. “We’re pretty exhausted.”
Rowan and Dolff went upstairs to his room, undressed, and got into bed. They both found they were too tired to make love, so they just held each other. As Rowan lay there in Dolff’s arms, she couldn’t help thinking about Ulfric. He seemed really eager to help the elf, which was out of character for him, even these days when his mind was more open. She would never tell Dolff what she thought, but she wondered if Ulfric had an ulterior motive. Dolff kissed the top of her head and mumbled, “I love you,” and she decided not to worry about it. It was probably nothing, and nothing seemed as important as Dolff and his body, which she curled around like a blanket. If there was anything to worry about, she’d worry about it tomorrow.
* * *
When Rowan and Dolff arrived back at Jorrvaskr a few days later, they got a surprise. Ben was waiting for them at the door.
Rowan hugged her brother warmly and said, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to stay,” he replied. “I, uh, went through some stuff at the college that I’d rather put behind me.”
She pulled back and glared at him suspiciously. “What did you do?” she accused him. “Did you get kicked out?”
“No, no. But I did bite off more than I could chew. Technically I’m still a member of the college, but I needed to get away. So I decided to join the Companions early. Ma was thrilled.”
“Well, we’re glad to have you here,” Dolff said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Means we have another whelp to order around.”
“Aye, I’ve gotten a lot of that these last couple of days. Kerr has been showing me the ropes—you know, sharpening swords, getting him mead, the important stuff. And a lot of training. I’m a bit rusty with a blade, so I’ve been working hard to get back up to full strength.”
Rowan hugged him again. “I’m just so glad to see you! Come sit down and tell me what happened at the college.”
Ben and Dolff accompanied her to a side table and sat down. “Well, you remember we went to Fellglow Keep to get some books about this orb we found in Saarthal? It turned out that the orb was a powerful artifact called the Eye of Magnus, and we weren’t the only ones concerned with it. There was a Thalmor at the college, and he almost destroyed it—maybe the world.”
“What?” Rowan gasped. “You’re serious?”
“Don’t worry, the High King knew about it. Blanche and I went to see him and told him all about it. Boy, he and Blanche really don’t get along.”
Dolff shook his head. “No, they have some history. If she hadn’t helped him out a few times, I doubt he’d even let her into the city.”
“So what happened?” Rowan asked.
“The only way to control the Eye was by using a particular staff called the Staff of Magnus, so Blanche and I went and got it from Labyrinthian. Ro, I fought a dragon! Inside Labyrinthian!”
“How did it get in there?”
“Wait, it gets better. It was just the skeleton. A walking, screeching, skeletal dragon that nearly bit me in half.”
“You’re making that up,” Dolff scolded him.
Ben held his hand up as if taking a vow. “As Talos is my witness, it’s the truth.”
“Did you get its soul?” Rowan asked.
He shook his head. “I guess his soul was long gone, him being undead and all. Anyway, when we got back to the college, this Thalmor was out of control, and I was the one who had to fight him.”
“Where is he now?” Dolff asked.
“Oh, he’s quite dead,” he replied with a proud smile.
“You went head to head with a Thalmor and survived? That’s impressive.”
Rowan eyed him with concern. “There’s more, isn’t there?”
Ben nodded. “Ro, they said I was chosen to do this. Monks from an ancient order that never leave their island came to visit me on several occasions, sort of coaching me along. They said nobody could do it but me.”
“That’s a heavy weight to put on anybody’s shoulders.”
“Aye. Made me understand a bit better what Ma must have gone through. It was scary.”
“So you ran?”
“I wouldn’t characterize it as running,” he said defensively. “Maybe just moving on.”
“Ben, if you’re chosen for something, they’ll find you here too.”
“Well, the whole saga with the staff is over now, and it’s safely tucked away in the college’s vaults. Things are back to normal up there. I just wanted a new normal.”
“We’ll try to keep things as normal as possible for you here, then.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” Dolff said mildly. “Nothing ever happens around here.”
Rowan glared up at him. “Did you really just say that? You know you just jinxed us, right?”
“Since when are you superstitious?”
“Since you said nothing ever happens here. Really, Dolff, what were you thinking?”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “‘Dolff’? They found out?”
Dolff shrugged in response, then ran his fingers softly down Rowan’s arm. “I didn’t jinx us,” he insisted.
Rowan folded her arms and continued to glare at him. “Uh-huh. Whatever you say, love.”
* * *
5E 19, 27 Frostfall
Coranil hadn’t expected to be back at the College of Winterhold so soon, and he grumbled to himself as the bitter cold stung his flesh. Why had the mages insisted on building the college out over the frigid Sea of Ghosts instead of someplace relatively warm like Falkreath or Riften? He should have come here last instead of first, maybe waited for spring. Spellcasting with numb fingers was not exactly easy. But he had been adapting to the cold for a long time, and he would persevere. He would just get in and out as quickly as he could.
In the wee hours of the morning, the common areas of the college were as empty as they had been on his previous trip. He had no trouble traversing the courtyard and getting into the Hall of the Elements without being seen. He took the stairs up to the Arcaneum, which was likewise deserted. Still, he stepped carefully through the library until he came to a door at the back, tucked away behind Urag gro-Shub’s desk. The door was heavily secured with two master locks, and Coranil set to work with his picks. He broke seven of them before the first lock clicked open, and another five working on the second one. He thought of Rowan, as he did so often. She could probably open these with her eyes closed. The lock finally opened, and he stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
The College of Winterhold’s vault was pitch-dark, but Coranil managed to find a torch sconce, which he lit with a Flames spell to illuminate the room. There were dozens of artifacts here, and the chamber fairly hummed with magic. He saw cloaks, staves, orbs, jewelry, objects that were practically new, and some that looked as though they hadn’t been handled in centuries. There were a few items that one wouldn’t have thought had any magic at all: an old shoe, a child’s doll, a fork, a very ugly statue of a black bird. And they were all ripe for the picking. A thief could be set for life executing a heist here.
Coranil smiled. He supposed he was a thief, although he would never join the Guild. But he was here to steal something—only one thing, though; the rest of the artifacts would just have to wait until a proper thief decided it was time to clean the place out. He thought it odd that the vault was secured only by a couple of locks.
He found his quarry in a weapon rack near the back of the room. The Staff of Magnus, reputedly so powerful, looked rather benign hanging against the wall with a handful of other staves. It was beautiful, the sphere at the head spinning languidly between the prongs and giving off a soft, azure glow. When he reached out to take the staff, he found out the hard way that there was more to the vault than just two master locks. With a bright flash, lightning whipped out from the weapon rack, sending an agonizing jolt up his arm and knocking him backward. He hit the floor hard, and it took him several minutes to recover before pulling himself up and trying again.
Coranil held his hands out and cast a Dispel Magic spell, searching for a weakness in the ward. It was incredibly powerful, and it pushed back against his spell insistently, sending more shocks into his hands and up his arms. But he persisted, and after a long while he found a spot where the ward wasn’t as strong. He concentrated his magic on that spot for what seemed like hours, and he needed to stop and drink magicka potions twice, but the ward finally wore away. Still, it was with great caution that he reached out and took hold of the Staff of Magnus.
He wrapped the glowing head in a burlap sack and secured it with leather ties; then he set about leaving. Carefully opening the vault door, he stuck his head out to find he was no longer alone in the Arcaneum. A female Breton sat at a table in the center of the room, flipping through a heavy tome. He slipped through the door and pushed it closed, although not far enough to latch, which might alert the mage. A cracked door would garner less attention, at least until Urag showed up, and Coranil would be long gone by that time.
Swiftly and silently, he edged around the perimeter of the library, passing through the dark outer ring behind the Breton. When he reached the well-lit hallway by the stairs, he double-checked to make sure she hadn’t moved, then crept through the hall and into the stairwell. The sun had started to come up when he finally stepped outside. The ward had taken too long to break, and he was out of time. Instead of rushing across the courtyard, he went around the edge, staying close to the shadowy walls and hoping to Nocturnal that nobody came out of one of the buildings. Lady Luck was not on his side, however, and a couple of apprentices came through a door near him. One of them even looked his way, but he barely took notice. Instead, he turned back to his companion and they continued on around the walkway to the Hall of the Elements.
Coranil drank an invisibility potion, something he should have done to begin with, and started out again. He finally made it to the opening on the other side and quickly went across the narrow bridge and down the ramp into Winterhold before the potion wore off.
It was with a great sigh of relief that he got through the crumbling town and started on the road south. His mission, possibly the most important one he’d ever had, was well underway now, and the first task was complete. He could check the Staff of Magnus, the first of six artifacts he needed to obtain, off his list and begin working on a plan to obtain the rest. Most of the items were rumored to not even exist, but then again, the staff had been subject to the same rumors. No, they existed, all right, and he would have them.
For just a moment, his old self threatened to bleed through. These artifacts would give immense power to the holder, immense power to him, if he chose to keep them. He entertained thoughts of just how formidable he could be and how much he could do. He could rule Skyrim, possibly all of Tamriel. The Nords, the elves, even the Thalmor, would be his puppets, toys to play with as he saw fit; and if they didn’t act according to his wishes, he could destroy them.
Coranil tugged on the chain that held his amulet of Talos and pulled it out of his robes, fingering the smooth edges, and he found his center again. He wasn’t that mer anymore. He had little desire for power, especially that much. And he had firsthand knowledge that a ruler’s subjects would only live in fear for so long before fighting back.
No, if he had all six artifacts, it would be his mission to keep them safe, to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands. But whose hands were the right ones? His order’s? His employer’s? Or someone more likely to do the right thing with them, like the Dragonborn? Or Dragonborns; he’d heard there were four of them now. Who best to keep them without using them? Perhaps I should keep them, after all, Coranil thought.
It was beginning to snow. The Altmer wrapped his cloak tighter around himself and picked up his pace.