It was dark but…not. It was a cave but…not. The air was warm and humid but not stuffy. Far above lay a ceiling of black stone, but azure light shone through millions of cracks and crevices. They were too far below to believe the light came in from the surface; more likely, the geodes in the stone gave off their own illumination. In fact, most of the natural formations emitted blue light. Everywhere they looked, pale blue mushrooms, many of them as tall as trees, glowed brightly, illuminating the cobblestone roads and buildings. Even the boulders, grasses, and stalactites carried the same luminescence, and the cave was as bright as a moonlit night. The only things that didn’t glow blue were the cobblestones of the road and the tan stone and bronze of nearby Dwemer buildings and sculptures. Pale flakes of something like wisps from a dandelion floated through the air, never actually landing, just drifting along in the mist. Off to their left, dwarven pistons churned, and water rushed to their right. And they got all this before they even stepped off the balcony. They couldn’t see walls other than the one at their backs; the cave was vast, and it seemed the legends of Blackreach being the size of a city were true. They could see shadows of buildings and towers far away, although the mist obscured their distant view.
Selene stood and gaped at the tableau, speechless, barely able to breathe. What words could she possibly use to describe her reaction to this wondrous place? How could she ever speak again?
Brynjolf, however, was never at a loss for words. “It’s as if we stepped out of Nirn and into the fantasy world of some blue goddess.”
“Perhaps we did,” she whispered. “Sweet Kynareth, where do we even start?”
“How about with that building across the road?”
Selene nodded, and they descended the stairs and walked over to a small, well-lit building. A dwarven sphere guarded the door and Selene took it out easily; then they stepped inside. It was evidently an alchemist’s field house, judging by the alembic and the plethora of ingredients scattered on the shelves and tables. There was also the most unusual plant Selene had ever seen. It was a nirnroot—its distinctive song allayed any questions about that immediately—but it was bright red.
“Well, this is new,” she commented. She reached out to touch the leaf, which was fuzzy and tipped with a sharp point just like regular nirnroot. It had the same light, almost milky scent, too. The only difference was the color.
Brynjolf, who had been studying a skeleton on the other side of the room, picked up a journal and skimmed through it. “Crimson nirnroot,” he announced. “Our bony friend here is Sinderion, and he was living in Blackreach to study them. Says here they don’t grow anywhere else. I’d say from the dwarven arrows piercing his body, the mechanical guardians didn’t approve.”
Skeleton notwithstanding, the cottage was actually quite livable. A bed and a couple of dressers stood at the opposite end of the room from the lab, and a fireplace dominated the wall between them. Logs were already stacked in the fireplace, and more were stored nearby. A cooking pot also presented itself for their use.
“It’ll probably take several days to search this place,” Brynjolf guessed. “We can use this as our base of operations, at least for now.”
They rested for a few hours, then set out to explore Blackreach. It didn’t take long to spot the first Falmer. Two of them were standing on the balcony of a tower not far from Sinderion’s lab. A couple of arrows took them out easily, and Selene and Brynjolf began their search for Tower Mzark. Nothing is easy, though, and that first tower was not the one they were looking for. In fact, there wasn’t much to it at all; it seemed to be nothing more than an observation tower. They found a dwarven centurion farther down the road, and they employed their proven method of Brynjolf dodging the hammer while Selene hacked away at it with Dragonbane. They managed to destroy it without injury, and they continued on.
They soon realized that making Sinderion’s lab their base wasn’t going to work. Blackreach was too extensive to keep going back to their starting point. It was bigger than a city and closer to the size of a hold. They spent days in the cavern, mapping the area as best they could and quickly losing track of day and night as they searched dozens of towers and buildings, taking advantage of buildings they had cleared when they needed to rest. They occasionally came upon an elevator to the surface or to another Dwemer ruin; they spent a couple of hours in Mzinchaleft before they realized they were in the wrong place and turned back around.
Along the way, Selene and Brynjolf amassed thousands of septims’ worth of gold and jewels. They also left a lot behind, planning to bring a few Guild members back for a raid sometime in the future. They found several deposits of ore, but they weren’t the metals one would expect; they were soul gems. Unfortunately, neither of them had a pickaxe, so the soul gems remained in the ground. Once in a while they ran across crimson nirnroot, the red glow starkly visible among all the blue. Sinderion had mentioned a woman who might make use of the plants, and Selene made note of their location on the map so she might pick them up when they came back with the Guild.
There were Falmer and chaurus, of course, but they were sparsely distributed, and Selene and Brynjolf never had to deal with more than one or two at a time. They killed them if they had to, but they avoided them if at all possible. A trail of bodies would only alert others to be on the lookout. Oddly enough, they came across a giant wandering one of the roads. Selene couldn’t help wondering how he had managed to get so lost, but she didn’t bother asking him. Although he noticed them, he didn’t attack, and she and Brynjolf gave him a wide berth and went on their way.
Most of the buildings and towers were lighted by the usual Dwemer lamps and sconces, which put forth white light. It made those areas easier to explore and gave their eyes a welcome respite from the ubiquitous blue glow. There was lots of water, with dozens of ponds, lakes, and streams being fed by high waterfalls. Like the air, the water was warmer than Selene would have expected, and she and Brynjolf actually managed to bathe while they were in Blackreach. In some areas, the atmosphere was so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. Even a whisper sounded like a cacophony. Then they would turn a corner, and the roar of a waterfall would rush back in, or they would be assaulted with the repeated clang of dwarven machinery.
After a few days, they came upon a small city. The walled complex housed several buildings and was lighted by a giant, glowing orb suspended over the center. The orb, unlike anything else in Blackreach, glowed yellow, its golden radiance giving the buildings and courtyards the sense of warm daylight. Selene also picked up a familiar scent, although she couldn’t imagine how it was possible. There were humans living in Blackreach. She pulled Brynjolf into a corner, and they hid in the shadows as a man walked by. He was barefoot, wearing a ragged tunic and trousers, and he carried a mace. It looked as though he was patrolling. As they watched, a Falmer approached him and said something. The human replied in the same guttural language and continued his patrol.
The Falmer spoke! Selene had only ever heard them screech, and she hadn’t imagined they could speak. It was irrational because they were obviously intelligent. She already knew they had a written language; but hearing them talk forced her to think of them as more than just creatures, and that was disconcerting.
That, however, wasn’t the immediate issue. The issue now was the fact that this human was obviously allied with the Falmer. Why would a human do that? And how did they ever even get into such a situation? She had never encountered a Falmer who wasn’t trying to kill her. Even the people she found that they had captured were kept for torture and experimentation. These were actually cooperating. Whatever the reason, it was irrelevant. His association with the Falmer made him an enemy. Now, not only did they have to fight the Falmer, they had to worry about their human servants as well. Selene nocked an arrow and aimed at the human, dropping him quickly and silently. Things wouldn’t be quiet for long, though. Someone would discover him soon, and they would have a battle on their hands.
“We need to get him into the shadows,” Brynjolf whispered. Looking around carefully to make sure he wasn’t seen, he crept out to the yard where the dead human lay and took hold of his hands, dragging him into the corner where Selene waited. If he was out of the flow of traffic, it would be longer before he was discovered.
They managed to search the entire city without calling much attention to themselves. They encountered half a dozen humans and one Falmer in an auditorium, but they were able to kill them before anyone raised an alarm. Again, they found lots of treasure but no Elder Scroll. Disappointed, they left the city and headed for the next tower, which was up a ramp a short distance away.
This tower was different from the others. The door opened onto an elevator, which led to a round room with a fire pit and cooking pots in the center. Benches and tables stood around the perimeter, and a locked chest provided two valuable circlets. When Selene opened the door opposite the elevator, she knew they had found Tower Mzark.
The room they entered was massive, with curved walls and a domed ceiling, and it was filled almost wall to wall with a gigantic bronze sphere. It must have been a hundred feet high. There was only room for a narrow ramp that curved around the wall and led to the top of the sphere. As they worked their way to the top, they saw several patterns of greenish-blue crystals set into the orb. The walls were standard Dwemer stonework, but the ceiling was set with dozens of hexagonal stones in varying depths. Their surfaces were flat and as smooth as paper. As they reached the top, they saw that the center of the ceiling held a pentagon. It was hollow, and it emitted the brightest, whitest light they had ever seen. It almost hurt to look at it.
The sphere itself had five concentric bronze rings set around the perimeter, and a walkway led up to a small platform hovering over the center. Suspended from the ceiling were two bronze rings, from which five jointed arms extended downward, the placement corresponding with the points of the pentagon. The arms connected at the other end to a third ring, this one holding four egg-shaped crystals. The largest one, set into the center, was at least two feet in diameter. A network of other bronze arms extended out from the five, and each of these held more of the crystals in varying sizes and shapes.
“I…I’ve never seen anything like that,” Brynjolf whispered with awe. “Wonder what it is.”
As Selene gazed up at the complex apparatus, she knew. Whatever this machine was and however it worked, it was the key to finding the Elder Scroll. “All those arms were meant to move,” she noted. “If we can figure out how to make them move, perhaps they’ll point us in the direction of the Elder Scroll.”
“Septimus did say the scroll was in Tower Mzark. Well, sort of.”
“No. It’s here. I know it.”
A glass observation deck was constructed around the sphere, and tables and chairs were placed at regular intervals. Ancient, worn books were placed on most of the tables. Oddly, much of the floor was covered with ash.
“Do you think what happened to the dwarves happened so quickly that it just reduced them all to ash?” Selene asked.
“Perhaps. But there’s a skeleton over there. What happened to him?”
“He might have come later.” She went over to check the skeleton out and found a journal. Thankful that people seemed to love keeping their journals, she picked it up and read.
“He was trying to figure out how the mechanism worked. He says it won’t work without the box, and he mentions five rings and four buttons.”
Brynjolf pointed to a set of pillars at the top of the ramp. “Maybe those are up there.”
They took the journal up the ramp and found the buttons on the pillars. There was also a place for the attunement sphere and a receptacle that looked as though it was made for holding the lexicon cube. The pillar in the center had a glass face and displayed several lights in different shades of blue. The lights were connected like a puzzle or maze by a series of grooves, some of which were lighted to make a path to the center. The whole contraption was evidently a control panel, probably for adjusting the arms and crystals, but the buttons were all covered.
“‘The light through the knowledge through the machine rests on the cube,’” she read. “Maybe the lexicon is the box he was referring to. Let’s find out.” She placed the lexicon in the receptacle, and with a loud click, two of the covers came off the buttons. The pillars on the right, the third and fourth buttons, glowed invitingly.
“Which do we press?” Brynjolf wondered.
Selene shrugged. “Let’s start on the outside and work in.” She pressed the fourth button and nothing happened. “Hmm.” She pressed the third button.
The concentric rings around the orb flipped and rotated, and the arms swung outward and around into a new configuration. Selene pressed the fourth button again, and they went back to the way they were previously.
“Okay, so we don’t use the fourth button.” She pressed Number Three, and they swung outward again. Not knowing what else to do, she pressed Number Three again. The arms and crystals continued to change patterns until finally the second button opened up.
“Number Two,” Brynjolf said as he pressed the button. The arms swung around, the crystals changed their configuration, and the first button opened.
“I sure hope we’re doing this right,” Selene muttered as she nodded at Brynjolf.
He pressed the first button, and all the buttons snapped shut. The arms swung out to full length, and the largest egg-shaped crystal descended toward the platform at the top of the sphere. It split open with a high-pitched chime to show a huge scroll nestled inside. The lexicon buzzed and sizzled; then it suddenly glowed with myriad gold and blue patterns throughout the carvings.
Selene gasped. “Oh, my gods.” She started down the ramp toward the scroll.
“Careful,” Brynjolf warned her. “Things usually aren’t that easy.”
“You call all we went through easy?” Still, she stepped carefully as she approached the orb. She crossed the walkway and stood on a platform in the center, just staring at the scroll for a long moment. The white light from the pentagon made it practically glow. Selene started to reach for it, but suddenly she couldn’t move. The thought of taking the scroll filled her with terror. Then again, who wouldn’t be afraid of it? Reading the Elder Scroll might render her blind. Even if it didn’t, it would take her one step closer to fighting Alduin. The thought made her want to run from the room, screaming in terror.
“It’s warm,” Brynjolf said as he approached her with the lexicon in his hands.
“Brynjolf, I don’t think I can do this.”
“Of course you can, love. You have to.”
She took a deep breath and reached reluctantly for the scroll. It came out of its cradle easily enough, but it was unwieldy, almost as long as her arm.
“That’s not going to fit in your knapsack,” Brynjolf observed.
“I’ve got some leather strips in my pack. We’ll use those to tie it around my shoulders and waist.”
“Do you want to rest awhile before we go?”
“No, I want to get out of this place.” She pointed to a doorway under the control panel. “I’m betting that will lead us outside.”
Brynjolf helped her attach the Elder Scroll to her back and adjust it so she could wear it with the backpack, and then they tried the door. Sure enough, it led to an elevator, which took them outside. It was mid-afternoon in The Pale. It was snowing, but the air was fresh and crisp, not too cold, with light winds. Selene took a deep, cleansing breath. Blackreach had been beautiful, but after days in the otherworldly underground city, it was refreshing to be back in her own world. She was tired, and all she wanted to do was go home. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not yet.
“Let’s go to Windhelm,” she suggested. “We can unload some of this stuff and send the rest back to Riften, and I want you to get a bow.”
“I know you don’t like me fighting dragons up close.”
Selene shook her head. “No, and the thought of you fighting Alduin up close puts knots in my stomach. I’d be much happier if you were standing back with me, firing arrows at him.”
“So would I, honestly. A bow it is. Then we take Septimus his lexicon?”
“Septimus can wait. Let’s get this thing to the Throat of the World and get this over with. It’s heavy.”
“I can carry it for you, love.”
Selene looked over at her husband, actually considering it for a moment, but it wasn’t just the physical weight. The burden was hers, and whether he carried the scroll or not, it would still be on her shoulders. “No,” she said finally, turning and heading north to catch the road east to Windhelm, “it has to be me.”