Selene lay very still, silent so as not to wake Brynjolf, with her hand on her stomach, waiting. She had awakened to a fluttering in her belly that hadn’t felt like a normal hunger pang, and she was convinced she had felt the baby moving. Brynjolf stirred an hour later, sat up in his bedroll and rubbed his eyes.
“Morning,” he said sleepily.
He got up and came to the bed, where he sat down, leaned over, and kissed her, then moved down and kissed her abdomen. “Morning, little one.”
With that, Selene felt another flutter. With a gasp, she quickly grabbed Brynjolf’s hand and placed it over her belly, but unfortunately there was no more movement.
“It’s still pretty early, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Aphia said I should start to feel her moving any time now but that the movements would be few and far between for a while. Could be I’m just imagining it.”
“Or you have gas.”
Selene glared at her husband. “Of course,” she muttered dryly, “mommy’s little gas bubble.”
He laid his head gently on her stomach. “Have you thought about what we’re going to name her?”
“Hmm. Ben, of course, on the off chance that she’s actually a boy. You pick a girl’s name.”
“I’m no good at that.”
“I figured you brought it up because you had an idea.”
He thought for a moment. “I like Rowan.”
Selene chuckled. “You’re assuming she’s going to have red hair like you.”
“Oh, she will,” he replied arrogantly.
“I like Rowan, too. No, it can’t be that easy.”
She ran her hand through his hair. “Well, I guess we can sit here all day and wait for the baby to move, or we can get going.”
“We can wait awhile.”
The baby didn’t move again, so after a while they decided to get up. Today was the day. They had taken a day to rest, trade, and study a map with Glover, and now they were ready to head to Miraak’s temple. They broke their fast, packed their supplies, and got on the road. Reports had indicated that there was construction around the Tree Stone, a shrine a few miles north of the center of the island where legend had it Miraak once had a temple there. Steep, snow-covered mountains dominated the north half of the island, so going to the southern tip and heading back north was easier than a more direct route. They would stop at the dwarven ruin Kagrumez to spend the night before completing the trip the next morning.
Selene and Brynjolf trekked south and rounded the end of the Bulwark, the massive stone wall that spanned several miles southward from Raven Rock, then headed north across sand- and ash-covered terrain. Everything was gray out here, as well; even the evergreen trees that dotted the landscape had a grayish cast to them. They hiked around lots of rock formations and climbed several hills, but they didn’t encounter any enemies, only some hunters fighting a bull netch. With the lack of scenery and encounters it was a very dull trip, broken up only by the hunters and a brief stop for lunch.
“I wouldn’t even mind seeing a dragon at this point,” a bored Selene joked. “At least it would make things a little more interesting.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Brynjolf warned her.
They reached Kagrumez late in the afternoon. The ruin was underground with only the peak of the great lift rising above the surface. Stairs led down to the pit that afforded access to the elevator, and a brass safety rail traveled around the perimeter at ground level. Near the staircase, they found a dead elven mage in a tent. A fire had been built in front of the tent, but it didn’t appear it had ever been started. They found a few ingredients on the mage, including a chunk of human flesh, but there was nothing on him or in the surrounding area to indicate who he was or how he had died. The tent provided shelter from the wind, though, so as morose as it seemed, Brynjolf dragged the body outside, and he and Selene moved in. Selene used her Fire Breath Shout to ignite the logs, and they spent a cozy evening talking, making plans for parenthood, and waiting for tummy flutters. It warmed Selene’s heart to see how excited Brynjolf was over the baby. When they talked about things they wanted to do, his eyes would gleam and his smile would light up his whole face. He liked to say he wasn’t the fatherly type, but Selene could tell just by watching him that he had enough love in his heart to be a great father.
They headed out early the next morning, just as the sun was coming up over the horizon. A breeze from the east brought a chill along with the scent of the sea. If the map was accurate, they didn’t have far to go, only a mile or two, as the crow flies. Unfortunately, the way directly north was barred by the steepest hill they’d encountered, and they had to walk around it, extending the trip a bit. Later that morning, they turned a corner and headed up a hill littered with dragon skeletons.
They climbed wide staircases and ashen slopes, passing through several stone arches like the ones being built around the Earth Stone. People chiseled away at the arches, chanting monotonously. They finally reached the top to find scaffolding leading up to an amphitheater, at the center of which was the Tree Stone. The arches immediately around the stone had been completed and were embellished with the same type of wired panels Selene had seen in Apocrypha. All around the amphitheater, mesmerized workers chiseled and droned. Selene noticed a ramp curving down around the Tree Stone.
One woman was not working. Unaffected by the spell, she darted from worker to worker, shaking them, slapping them, and pleading with them to come out of their stupor and leave with her. She was blonde, about Selene’s age, her face rugged and her armor bulky. When she saw Selene and Brynjolf, she called out to them.
“You there. Why are you here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” Selene responded.
The armored woman came over to them. “I am Frea of the Skaal. I am here to save my people—or avenge them.”
“I’m Brynjolf, and this is my wife, Selene.” Brynjolf waved a hand at the workers. “Do you have any idea what’s causing this?”
“I am unsure. I do know it’s taken control of most of the people on Solstheim. It makes them forget themselves and work on these horrible creations that corrupt the stones and the very land.”
“Aye,” Selene nodded. “I fell victim to it myself.”
“Few are unaffected by the curse. I fashioned an amulet to guard me against whatever has taken hold of the people, but it is the only one of its kind. My father—Storn, our shaman—protects them in the village. He says Miraak has returned, but that is impossible.”
“I’m not so sure. His cultists tried to kill me.”
“Then you have as much reason as I to find out what is hidden below.”
“What is hidden below?” Brynjolf asked.
“Below is where the bulk of the temple lies. Miraak served the dragons as a priest in their order before their fall from power, but he turned against them. The tales say the dragons destroyed him for it.”
“And you think he is in the temple below, controlling the people of Solstheim?”
“Aye, but I do not know why.”
“By the chants the people are saying, I would assume he’s trying to take over the world. Or destroy it.”
Frea nodded. “That was why the dragons destroyed him. He wanted Solstheim for himself. If he is back, I must do what I can to save my people before it is too late.”
“The Skaal, you said?” Selene mentioned.
“Aye. We are Nords who have lived on Solstheim for many generations. We serve the All-Maker and live in balance with nature instead of exploiting it, as others would. We live with the land, not from it.”
Selene looked up at Brynjolf. “Well, it looks like we found what we were looking for.”
“You will help me explore the temple and find a way to help my people, then?”
“Of course, we will. We’ll help each other.”
They followed the curved ramp downward until they came to a heavy, iron door. Frea pushed the door open, and they went inside. They checked a couple of rooms near the entrance for supplies but only found a couple of poisons and a blazing firepit with two cages containing burnt corpses suspended over it.
“Are there others here already?” Brynjolf wondered.
“Miraak’s cultists come and go.”
“That would have been good to know before we came in.”
“My apologies. They’re mages, skilled but not all that powerful. They should not be a problem for the likes of you.”
With Selene taking point with her bow, they crept through dilapidated stone tunnels and explored ruined chambers as they went farther down into the temple. They fought and killed a pair of cultists in one room, and Frea proved to be a capable fighter. Afterward, she knelt over their corpses, apparently mourning their deaths.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “There was no other way.”
Brynjolf rolled his eyes at Selene, and they continued on.
“We must be careful in these ruins,” Frea warned. “Traps can be anywhere, and there will likely be many.”
“I’m pretty good at spotting traps,” Selene assured her. “Brynjolf and I have been in many ruins of this type. But I’ll be careful.”
Frea was right; the temple was heavily trapped, and they must have stepped around a dozen pressure plates before they reached a large room with a high, vaulted ceiling, a few sarcophagi, and a winding staircase leading downward. Several cages were suspended over the stairwell, all of them containing skeletons. The cages hung level with a high platform off to the side with a throne on the edge, but the stairs leading up to it had crumbled ages ago.
Frea went to the railing and peered at the cages. “I do not wish to imagine the kinds of things that happened in these chambers, what sort of suffering Miraak inflicted upon them. I wonder if it was in service to the dragons or for his own purposes.”
“I couldn’t say,” Brynjolf mused, “but it looks like Miraak had a front row seat. I’d like to get up there and see if there’s anything of value.”
“But the stairs are knocked out.”
“Heh. Not a problem.” He started around the staircase toward an arched beam that stood near the platform, and Selene and Frea followed.
A couple of draugr popped out of sarcophagi on the way, and Brynjolf killed one and Selene got the other. Several cultists came up from the lower floors, and they did battle with them, Frea sustaining minor burns from a firebolt and Brynjolf taking a jarring blow to the head when an Unrelenting Force Shout sent him sprawling, but nothing serious. Once they had prevailed, Brynjolf dropped his knapsack and shield and began to climb. He shinnied up the beam until he was level with the platform; then he jumped across. He leaned over the rail and grinned at them smugly. “That’s why I’m the best.”
“That’s why you’re full of shit,” Selene retorted.
“Impressive!” Frea congratulated him. “Was it worth it?”
Brynjolf disappeared, and they could hear him puttering around, obviously rooting through something up there. He finally came to the edge again and said, “Aye, it was worth the effort. I’m coming down.” He went to the crumbled stairs and worked his way down, and Selene and Frea went over to meet him with his pack and shield. He handed Selene a heavy sack of gold. “There must be at least three hundred Septims in there.”
“Very nice,” Selene said as she handed the sack to Frea. “Hold onto that; we’ll split it up when we get out of here.”
“Oh, I couldn’t—”
“Of course you could. That’s the way it works. Let’s go.”
They navigated a labyrinthine burial hall and killed a handful of draugr, and aside from Frea’s strange habit of apologizing to her victims, Selene and Brynjolf found her to be quite personable, and they got along very well. Eventually they found a hall of stories that was hung nearly end to end with pendulum blades. These were spread more widely than the ones in Bloodskal Barrow, and they moved faster, making getting through considerably more difficult.
Frea laughed. “I’m not going down there. I see a lever at the other end, but how will we ever get there to turn this off?”
“Don’t worry about it; I’ve got this.” Selene watched the blades to ascertain the pattern. Could she run through, or would the Become Ethereal Shout be the way to go? After a while she got a feel for the timing and noticed there was a period of about one second when the way was completely clear. She readied herself and waited until the pattern worked its way back around, and at just the precise moment, she Shouted, “Wuld…nah kest!”
She shot forward at blinding speed and reached the other end before the blades began to swing back down. The usual puzzle door was on the floor in pieces, and a portcullis blocked the way. Selene pulled the lever next to the door, and both the pendulums stopped swinging and the gate raised. She turned and waited for her companions.
Frea walked up to her slowly, eyes wide and hands over her mouth in amazement. “You’re…Dragonborn,” she whispered. “Miraak was…ah, that’s why they tried to kill you.”
“That’s right. They called me the False Dragonborn.”
They worked their way farther into the ruin, fighting cultists, draugr, and skeletons, and Frea began to get frustrated. “How much deeper can this go? I had been told Miraak’s power was great, but to have built so large a temple…do you have a temple?”
“What? Oh, sweet Talos, no! I’m not a god, and hero worship makes me uncomfortable.”
“I’m sorry. I meant no offense.
“Let’s keep moving,” Brynjolf urged. “It can’t be much farther now.”
They reached a chamber where a fearsome-looking dragon skeleton was hung from the ceiling. Also in the room were several sarcophagi, a chest, and—Selene’s favorite—a Word Wall. She went directly to the wall and began to learn the word, which she was thrilled to see was Qah, the second Word of Power of the Dragon Aspect Shout. Before she could tap into the understanding of the word, however, the ground shook and the sarcophagi began to burst open. She turned around and fought the draugr with Brynjolf and Frea, then retreated into her mind to commune with a dragon soul while they looted the bodies and the chest. Brynjolf found a key on one of the draugr, which opened a false back panel in the sarcophagus from which it had emerged. They went through the panel and then through a small antechamber to a large dining hall. There was a hallway leading out of the room and another small chamber, but it all seemed to come to an end very suddenly.
“A dead end?” Frea gasped. “Impossible! There must be something else.”
They looked around, and Selene did find a handle hidden in a nook in the wall. She pulled the handle, and a doorway opened up in the dining hall.
They came next to a round room with a grate in the center and stands of ruined books around the perimeter. A doorway led to another room, also with a grate, and dominated by a sculpture of the heads three of the unnamed creatures Selene had encountered in Apocrypha. Closer inspection ascertained that this grate was actually a trap door, and stairs descended to the level below. The lever was very close to the mouth of one of the statues.
“I’ll leave the honors to you,” Frea said uncomfortably. “I do not want to put my hands anywhere near the mouth of that statue. It almost looks as if it will come to life at any moment.”
“Chicken,” Selene teased her with a chuckle.
Frea laughed as well. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Selene pulled the handle, and they descended the stairs. Frea had been wrong when she had said it wouldn’t be much farther. They went down more stairs and through several rooms and long tunnels before beginning their descent down a winding staircase that seemed to go on forever. After navigating at least a hundred steps, the flight ended at a wooden door. Selene squealed in fright when she opened the door to find a dragon skull staring her in the face.
“Chicken,” Frea quipped, bumping Selene’s shoulder.
They walked around the skull and into a long hall with high ceilings and vaulted beams. The room ascended in a gentle slope to a raised platform at the other end, where several skeletons and draugr patrolled. They killed the undead sentinels and went up the stairs to the platform, where they found a large chest resting near a statue of a creature with many eyes and tentacles. Frea cringed at the sight of the sculpture, mumbling something about it being unnatural, but Brynjolf ignored it and looted the chest. Selene explored the area behind the statue and found a door with a pull chain. She pulled the chain and the door spun open onto a rocky tunnel. They walked another half-mile down through the tunnel before finally coming to a round, domed room with a pedestal in the center. The pedestal was topped with a sculpture of something that looked like a big flytrap and shone dim light on a thick, black book resting on it.
“There are dark magics at work here,” Frea murmured. “Ready yourselves. That book…it seems wrong. It’s as if it’s here but…not. Still, it might be what we seek.”
“It is,” Selene told her.
Anxiety pierced Brynjolf’s scent. “You’re gonna read that, aren’t you?”
“Do you want to read it?”
“You know this book?” Frea asked.
“It transports the reader to Hermeus Mora’s realm of Apocrypha—” Frea recoiled “—where they can obtain hidden knowledge. It’s also fairly dangerous, which is why my husband is skittish. But if we can get some answers, we have to try.”
Brynjolf took her in his arms and held her closely, then placed a hand on her stomach. “Just be careful.”
Selene reached up and kissed him. “I will.”
She opened the book and read. She materialized in Apocrypha as expected, but she wasn’t alone. She was in a courtyard similar to the one she had seen before, standing in the center of a stone circle, and just ahead was a mage in brown robes and a gold mask that vaguely resembled those of the cultists. A huge, gold amulet hung around his neck. Half a dozen Seekers floated around the courtyard as well, but miraculously, no one seemed to notice her.
The mage spoke to the Seekers. “The time comes soon when—what?” He looked up, saw Selene, and stormed toward her, shooting lightning from his fingers.
Selene cried out and collapsed to the floor as the mage stopped and loomed over her. A dragon landed behind him and peered down at her. It didn’t look like Skyrim’s dragons. It was bluish, had a round, smooth head, and its lower jaw stuck far out with jagged teeth splaying out in all directions. It leered at her with something like an evil grin.
“Who are you to dare set foot here?” the mage demanded.
Selene realized who she was looking at. This was Miraak. Of course it was.
“Ah, you are Dragonborn! I can feel it. And yet…”
It felt as though some invisible force was holding her down, but she managed to meet Miraak’s eyes. She glared at him, and he turned his head curiously.
“So you have slain Alduin,” he observed. “Well done!”
“Stay out of my head, Miraak.”
He chuckled. “You’re brash for someone on her knees. I could have slain Alduin myself, you know, but I chose a different path. You have no idea of the true power a Dragonborn can wield. Mul kah div!” The orange and blue light of the Dragon Aspect surrounded him.
“Sure. Mul kah!”
“My realm is beyond you, little girl; you have no power here. I will control Solstheim as well. I already own the minds of the people. Soon they will finish building my temple, and I will return home.” He turned to the Seekers. “She can await my arrival with the rest of Tamriel. Get rid of the other Dragonborn and send this one back from whence she came.” He climbed onto the dragon’s neck and flew away.
Two of the Seekers started to move toward Selene, and she still couldn’t move. In an instant, they were on her, pelting her with invisible energy bolts. White-hot agony exploded throughout Selene’s body as they hit her time and again. After a moment the pain started to fade from her head, limbs and chest, coalescing and intensifying in her abdomen, and she was helpless to stop it. Unable to fight back or even get up from the floor, she did the only thing she could: she screamed.