"When thou enterest into Oblivion, Oblivion entereth into thee."
- Nai Tyrol-Llar
The setting sun casts the world in orange and pink as she grips the edge of the weathered stone altar. She keeps her eyes lowered, focused on the shadows that spread around her hands. It's too much. She's a mage, she's supposed to be in control of her own head, but the past several months have left her mind in tatters.
"You remember when I met with Nelacar," she murmurs, "and he told me, 'Don't serve the Daedra. They care nothing for our lives.' Only because he doesn't understand, he can't understand, he's not… I'm sorry. That's beside the point." She presses her lips together and finally looks up to the face of the statue. Azura, the Queen of Dawn and Dusk, Mother of the Rose, mother of her people—Azura is cross with her. It's the only explanation for all of this. Maybe she lost her favor when she lost the Star, or maybe it was when she let the Thalmor break her, but either way, she's suffering divine punishment.
It's the small details that haunt her thoughts. The slick feel of another man's blood as her neck lay across the chopping block. The rot of decay and upturned earth as Alduin worked his profane magic to raise his servant from the dead. The crunch Lydia's body made as it split apart in Sahloknir's jaws. At night she revisits the Thalmor prison cells, and during the day the winds carry the foreign calls of dragons to her ears. She can't understand most of them, but she knows they're laughing, mocking her, the fated Nordic hero who happens to be a sorry little elf.
"I'm a rotten champion," she continues. "And I'm sure I deserve all of this, but I can't…"
She can't continue like this. They've pitted her against Alduin, with the fate of the world at stake. She needs to know that somebody is on her side—a sign, some direction on where to go, what to do. But the marble eyes of the Prince gaze past her, unswayed. Her pride crumbles, and she falls to her knees in the snow, reciting prayers in Dunmeris until the stars are all risen and the howling wind has frozen her tears to her cheeks.
Returning to Winterhold is little better than a death sentence, but Indrele has escaped from those before. She won't spend one more day waving around a cheap Imperial broadsword while lamenting what the Thalmor took from her. Some of her equipment might still be in the College, and even if she can't get to it, she can lift some soul gems to make more.
There is, of course, the small matter of how she'll get into the College. It's one of the most well-protected buildings in Skyrim, and she knows little of stealth or thievery or even illusion magic. But she has little left to lose; after facing dragon after dragon, escaping death from their claws and teeth by inches and watching their acts of unspeakable savagery play again and again in her mind, the thought of a guard's sword through her heart no longer frightens her. It might even be welcome.
She can't stay at the Frozen Hearth—Nelacar would be all too happy to give her away—so she uses telekinesis to jar the lock of a small, abandoned cottage that sits close to the cliff. After some debate, she lights a fire in its hearth; even if someone sees the smoke, it's the dead of winter, and they surely won't bother to investigate.
She's wrong. In the middle of the second night, as she tries in vain to sleep on the dusty straw mattress, a sudden draft stirs the embers in the fire. She sits upright, drawing her sword in one hand and casting a candlelight spell with the other. Blinding iridescent light floods the room, and as her eyes adjust, she spots the intruder: a short, tawny Khajiit in College robes, the hood drawn low over shifty eyes. Its mouth twists upward in a feline imitation of a smile.
"This one has a bet to collect from Enthir."
"You," she hisses. "I swear, if you tell anyone I'm here, I'll…" What will she do? Go to the guards? What guard will care about his deviance and petty theft when she's wanted for murder?
J'zargo only chuckles. "Your secret is safe. Khajiit will not tell."
"Then why did you come here?" She sheathes her sword, but keeps her hand resting anxiously on the hilt. "And if it's a long explanation, shut the door. It's damned cold out."
J'zargo strides inside and latches the door behind him, draping himself lazily across the one chair that hasn't been broken down as kindling. "You remember what they were doing when you left here, yes? The excavation of Saarthal?"
"Arniel's pet project," she scoffs. "Don't tell me they actually found something?"
"We do not know. Several days ago, they removed us all from the ruins. They refuse to tell us why, but it must be important." His eyes gleam in the spell-light.
"So you want to go down there and find out what it is, and whether or not it's worth stealing."
"Precisely. But the way may be dangerous. Many undead lie in such ruins."
So this is what he wants from her. She sighs and tries to run a hand through her hair in frustration, only to remember for the hundredth time that it's all been shorn close to the scalp. Damned dragons. "And why would I agree to help you?" Besides the fact that he could end her life with a single word to the jarl.
"J'zargo would not ask if he had nothing to offer in return." He reaches into a bag at his side and pulls out a misshapen parcel wrapped in parchment. It pulses with magical energy that she recognizes immediately; she snatches it from him and tears it open. An eight-pointed star of precious geodes and finely-wrought metal, divinely connected to the goddess herself. To hold it in her hands again, after thinking it gone for so long… She traces its facets with whispered prayers, her mind at peace for the first time in months.
Azura has not forsaken her.
"How did you get this?" she whispers, clutching the Star to her breast and feeling its aura resonate with her own.
"The Thalmor spend much of their time looking down their noses at others, but rarely notice when something goes missing from underneath them." His smile widens, revealing sharp, pearly teeth. "Is it a deal?"
Of course she agrees. There is no other answer she can give. And so the next night J'zargo takes her to the excavation site, where two other students, Brelyna and Onmund, are waiting. They glance at her, at J'zargo, and then at each other, but say nothing. Indrele wonders if J'zargo has bribed or blackmailed them into coming as well.
Among the four of them, Indrele stands out. She's older than the rest of them, more road-worn, the only one wearing real armor, and, of course, the only one to have been arrested and sentenced to death. More pressingly, she's the only one who's never been inside Saarthal. Brelyna, Onmund, and J'zargo each hold the rank of Apprentice, a level where they're able to handle dull tasks and labor without getting themselves killed, and not important enough to complain about it. As a Scholar, Indrele has tried to avoid field work as much as possible; she's seen enough of tombs to last a lifetime. And so, as they travel through heavy iron doors and across precarious wooden walkways, she sees the ancient city for the first time.
For all its fame, Saarthal looks much like any other ruin, albeit bigger—much bigger. In the colossal antechamber, a complex maze of crumbling stone pillars and walkways stretches into the dust and blackness. While the few remaining magelights of the excavation team provide just enough illumination to navigate, the air is too thick with dust to see the surrounding walls or the ground floor below them. It's disconcerting, like standing on a platform in a blank and endless void.
"We need to split up," says Brelyna, summoning a vibrant orb of candlelight. "See if you can find anything that looks odd. I'll head north to Arniel's section." Onmund and J'zargo nod and go in different directions. Indrele, unfamiliar with this place, stays close to Brelyna. She'd always liked her—a true Dunmer from the old country, with a proper family tree and magical lineage traced back to the once-great House Telvanni. She wishes she could claim the same things about herself. The twisting paths of bridges and stairs seem endless, intersecting one another at odd junctures or ending abruptly with sheer drops to the invisible ground. It seems that one could wander lost on these passages for years, until the first careless step or rotting board spelled an instant death. Brelyna, however, appears unfazed, navigating the maze with confidence and purpose.
"This place is enormous," Indrele mutters thickly as they descend a spiral staircase. Brelyna remains silent until the path evens out to another bridge across the abyss, and then stops and turns on the spot.
"We're glad to see you alive, of course," she ventures. "But the Thalmor… aren't known for their leniency. How did you get away?"
Indrele grimaces. "A wild string of coincidences and sheer, dumb luck." She assumes her frantic prayers had paid off, and somebody had been looking out for her that day (perhaps Nocturnal), but they seem to have abandoned them since.
"Hm. The agent they sent to replace the one you killed is even worse. He's always watching, won't leave any of us alone. Mirabelle's at her wit's end."
The small complaint sets her temper flaring. "Well, I'm sorry I couldn't kill every member of the Dominion for you," she snaps. "Maybe take matters into your own hands and chop up a few of them yourself. See where that gets you."
They lapse into an uncomfortable silence until Indrele speaks again, rubbing her temples with a sigh. "Sorry, I know you didn't mean it that way. Recent events have just been very trying."
"I can only imagine." No, she can't. Everything in Indrele's life has been shattered. Now instead of being a respectable mage (who had just a little longer to wait until Sergius Turranius expired and the position for Head of Enchanting opened up), she's regressed to a vagrant sellsword with a bounty on her head. It's Morrowind all over again, except she's thirty years older and tired, far too tired to build another life for herself.
She still maintains that disemboweling that Thalmor advisor was worth it, if only for her honor, but it becomes a little less so with each passing day.
They're walking again, and finally, they can see one of the walls. The walkway extends to a hallway carved into the stone. "Arniel was working here. He was convinced he was onto something, and didn't want anyone else near him." The cramped corridor shows signs of the conjurer's obsessive research. There are small tables littered with quills and parchment, bearing scribbled-out notes and wild theories about the construction of Saarthal. Indrele flips through them as Brelyna continues on. Soon, there's a gasp of surprise from her direction.
"I don't know how new this is, since he's only allowed me into this section a few times," Brelyna explains when Indrele comes over to investigate. She motions to a pointed archway in the wall, its edges still holding jagged chunks of stone. The path beyond is pitch-black. Brelyna shoots a ball of magelight into the tunnel, which disappears into the dust.
At the very least, it's worth a look. After some shouting and confused wandering, they manage to gather the other two at the entrance to the passageway. J'zargo, armed with foolhardiness and nightvision, enters first. Onmund blanches. "Wait! Are we sure this is a good idea?"
J'zargo turns around and cocks his head. "The Nord would come all this way only to turn tail and go back home?"
"We—we don't know what we'll find in there," he stammers. "There could be traps, monsters, curses…"
"Yes. Monsters, magic, treasure; that is why we are here. What is the problem?" His tail flicks impatiently.
"Really, Onmund, from the way you're behaving, one would think you'd never explored a tomb before," Brelyna says smoothly. A mischievous smile plays across her lips. "Or haven't you?"
Onmund's face flushes bright red. "I'm a Nord, all right? We respect our dead."
"Destroying undead abominations is just another way of honoring your ancestors," Indrele says in a practiced, even tone. Is he really going to argue about this with a pair of Dunmer?
He opens his mouth to protest, but freezes when Brelyna touches his arm. "It's all right. If you're scared, you can just wait here for us."
"No!" he says, a little too quickly. "It's fine. I'll—I'll go with you."
With Onmund's reluctant agreement, they begin the trek through the tunnel. Like every other path in this place, it's sloped and curved, spiraling steadily downward. The only sounds are the shuffling of their footsteps and the occasional drip of unseen water. As they progress, the air takes on the unmistakable sour tang of death and decay, and after what feels like a mile of walking, the shaft opens up into a circular chamber lined with coffins. It seems this is a tomb after all.
J'zargo sniffs the air. "There are only dust and the dead here," he says. No sooner does he finish when the sarcophagi explode. Draugr shamble from their resting places, hissing and growling, their eyes glowing with unholy blue light. Onmund yelps and J'zargo snarls. Indrele draws her sword.
It's simple enough to overpower draugr. They're stupid and slow, and they burn like kindling. Indrele engages the first zombie with her sword, the runes of its fire enchantment glowing and searing through flesh and sinew. The others are kept at bay by a wall of fire sprayed from her left hand. She's still out of practice for melee combat, but as the only properly-trained and equipped battlemage among them, this is the role she's stuck with. J'zargo, Brelyna, and Onmund fight from afar with destruction magic; lightning bolts and fireballs crackle past her face, some a little too close for comfort. One after the other, the undead collapse into piles of burning skin and ichor.
Just as the last draugr is about to fall, she feels a sudden shift in the air. Something subtle and pointed cuts through the roiling chaos of destruction magic. Despite her years of study at the College, she doesn't recognize this school at all. The space around her grows thick with nearly tangible psychic pressure, thrumming with such intensity that she can feel it against her eardrums. She whips her head around, expecting to see one of the spellcasting draugr guardians. Instead, there is a man standing on the battlefield—not a draugr, not even a Nord. His face and robes are golden in the firelight and for a sickening moment, she thinks that the Thalmor have caught up with her. But his face lacks the scowl of the Justiciars; his eyes are calm, almost serene. The sounds of battle fade away as the other mages and draugr fall suddenly still and silent; even the spells have frozen in mid-air.
He fixes on her, his placid gaze unexpectedly troubling. When he speaks, his tone is even and impassive, his face unreadable. "Hold, mage, and listen well. Know that you have set in motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped."
"You mean this Dragonborn business?" she interrupts. "I'm well aware—"
He continues as if she hadn't spoken. "Judgment has not been passed, as you had no way of knowing. Judgment will be passed on your actions to come, and how you deal with the dangers ahead of you. This warning is passed to you because the Psijic Order believes in you. You, mage, and you alone, have the potential to prevent disaster. Take great care, and know that the Order is watching."
Psijics? Those odd monks? Before she can ask what the order wants from her, the air ripples and the man vanishes, as though he was never there. The strange magic disappears as well, and time starts again. J'zargo's firebolt continues into the draugr as though it had never stopped.
"Did you see that?" She looks at each of them in turn, but their faces are blank. None of them are even aware that anything unusual has happened.
Just what she needs. Another vague prophecy that only she can fulfill, another order of secretive recluses dogging her every move. In her frustration, she launches a fireball at one of the withered corpses on the ground, exploding it in a spray of flaming, rotted flesh. Onmund starts to complain about the unnecessary desecration of corpses, but Brelyna shushes him hastily.
The rest of the ruin is a disappointingly typical tomb, and she's almost forgotten about the Psijic mage by the time they reach the final chamber. It's a giant room that houses a colossal, glowing sphere, engraved with ancient runes and emitting immense power.
It also holds the guardian of the barrow. It's a hulking draugr in ancient ebon armor and a sharp-horned helmet, wreathed in swirling frost and shooting electricity from its staff. A glowing ethereal link connects it to the orb and repels every one of her attacks, as well as the magical bolts from her party. She narrowly sidesteps a blow from its axe and swears in frustration.
"The orb! He's drawing power from that orb, you s'wits!" Her old vernacular comes out with the stress of the fight. "Hit it with lightning, sapping, anything to drain it!" By Azura, if she dies here, of all places, she's coming back for at least one of them. Mercifully, Onmund and Brelyna listen, sending streams of sparks from their hands to the globe. J'zargo can't stop taunting the walking corpse long enough to contribute, but at least he's diverting its attention.
She steps back a few paces, turning her mind inward from the battle and to the deep pool of magicka at her core. Without her spellcasting catalysts, she's used up most of it already, but there's just enough left for this. She begins to shape it into one of the many spells she knows, feeling it writhe and tremble in response. This one is a hex to deplete the target's magical energy; primarily meant for enemy mages, but it works for this as well. She focuses on the concepts of the incantation—a withering, desiccating force that evaporates magicka like water from the Ashlands. The spell spreads from her chest through her arms with a warm and comforting sensation and gathers at her palms, burning and struggling to be released. At last she lets it loose with an arcane word and gesture, and the spell flies towards the orb.
After a few moments, the effects of their combined spells begin to show. The shining thread between the guardian and the sphere fades to nothing, and J'zargo's next firebolt burns some of the skin from its decayed face. Indrele moves in to attack the draugr once more, but her sword's cheap enchantment has run dry, and the dull blade barely cuts its flesh. The hoarfrost radiating from the draugr's body seeps through her gloves, numbing her fingers and weakening her blows. Still, she continues attacking, trying to bluff it into keeping its attention on her. It swings its axe in a downward arc, which she raises her sword to block, but the blow hits with bone-breaking force. It tears her weapon from her hands and sends pain shooting up her arms. The next strike sinks into her shoulder, denting the flimsy iron armor and sending her to her knees.
Enough of this. Bidding a short prayer to her ancestors, she uses her last resource. The power of the ghosts of her clan swells within her and bursts through her skin in the form of blazing flames. She draws the steel dagger from her hip and plunges it into the draugr's gut with a scream, the fire traveling through the blade to engulf its putrid body. The draugr shrieks as it burns, until a well-aimed firebolt from one of her companions blasts off its jaw. It stumbles back under the barrage of magic, and she withdraws her dagger to strike it again and again, splitting open its stomach to release rotted, burning entrails.
Finally, the draugr's body is enveloped in shimmering violet light as its corrupted soul is torn from its body—the other effect of her dagger. It swirls aimlessly in the air until she holds up Azura's Star. The artifact sucks the soul into its depths and pulses with contentment; it has been empty for far too long.
Onmund approaches to ask about her injuries, but she brushes him away in favor of the orb. "I suppose the Arch-Mage will want to know about this." Her heart clenches at the thought of Savos Aren. The last time she saw him was the day the Thalmor came for her—she still remembers his eyes in that moment, the way they pierced through her drugged haze and burned into her soul. She supposes his last memory of her is the image of her on her knees, bound and gagged and dying of hypothermia. It's still a prettier sight than what she is now.
Savos Aren is the true reason why she's still alive.
She distracts herself with the impersonal task of gathering and dividing up the treasure. Indrele takes the soul gems and a share of the gold and jewels, leaving the bulkier items behind. Brelyna picks up the staff of the draugr guardian, and J'zargo pulls a fractured amulet from its neck. Onmund takes nothing, watching them loot the tomb with the pale expression of a condemned man.
Overall, she decides, the trip went unexpectedly well. Nobody is dead, and they've made a historical discovery, albeit one that they can't take credit for without risking expulsion. Again, she's reminded of her days in Morrowind, but in a more positive light. The thrill of successfully completing an old-fashioned dungeon crawl—with only gold on the line, and not the fate of the world—is something she's almost forgotten.
But even here, she can't escape the business of the Dragonborn. As they search for a quick exit from the barrow, all-too-familiar whispers begin to tug at her. To her right is a grey stone wall inscribed with the unmistakable language of the dragons. Biting her lip in resignation, she waits until the others have continued down the passageway, and then approaches, placing her hand on the one rune that seems to stand out from the rest. The effect is immediate. A stream of ancient knowledge enters her mind, the lore of long-dead men and beasts, drowning out all other thoughts as it swirls around in her head.
Iiz. Ice, firm and enduring like the permafrost of the tundra, wickedly cold and sharp like the deadly glaciers in the Sea of Ghosts. With some meditation and reflection, she learns, she can use this word to call upon the rime and freeze an enemy solid.
Ice has never been her specialty. She prefers to burn things.
The world fades back into view as somebody touches her arm. She blinks and sees J'zargo standing beside her. Her hand is still pressed against the wall, her mouth silently forming the new word. The cat's eyes gleam in unrestrained curiosity. She only shakes her head and walks towards the exit, drawing her hood tighter against the frigid winds of Winterhold.
Apologies for any dialogue that's salvaged from in-game text. I've tried to keep it to a minimum.
My thanks to all the people who helped me with this, knowingly or otherwise, including Chimera Belle, thequixoticbedhead, Fastern, Dunmer Cuss-Word, and others. The next chapter will be posted only after I find a beta.