Nchardak was a huge dwarven ruin about a mile north of Tel Mithryn. It was just offshore and reachable by a wide bridge. Ramps wound around the five exterior towers and led to the main tower in the back. The once-magnificent stone and bronze structures were crumbling beneath their feet after several eruptions of the Red Mountain and centuries of being battered by the sea. As they crossed the bridge, they were attacked by bandits.
“Reavers again!” Neloth grumbled. “I had to clean out this riffraff the last time I was here too. Where do they all come from?” He summoned an ash guardian, who floated ahead and engaged the reavers alongside Brynjolf, while Selene shot arrows at the bandits on the next level up. Closer to the entrance, a mage hurled lightning and fireballs at them, but between the three of them and the ash guardian, they took the bandits down easily.
The entrance was an oversize brass door with no handles, only a small cube pedestal like the one she had seen in Tower Mzark. Neloth held up the cube he had brought from Tel Mithryn.
“The Dwemer of Nchardak appear to have been fond of these control pedestals. There are many inside. Luckily I found a cube to operate them on my last visit.” He placed the cube in the pedestal, the doors opened, and the cube was ejected from the pedestal with a pop. “The book is just inside.”
They entered a round room with a large brass ring set into the floor. Four turquoise crystals were set in as well, and another one hung in a brass holster above their heads. In the center of the floor was a recess that held the Black Book. It was covered with glass surrounded by a brass ring bearing Dwemer runes. A pedestal with a single control button stood on the other side of the room.
Neloth went to the center and stood on the glass seal. “Tantalizingly close, isn’t it? But trust me, no magic can break this. I’d already have the book if it could. We’ll have to do this the hard way. Like all Dwemer mechanisms, this room is powered by steam, but it seems to have been shut off. If we can restore the steam to this room, I’m certain we can open the seal. The boilers are just below.”
He led them to an elevator, and they descended deep into the ruin. When they stepped out of the lift, they went down a winding tunnel until they came to a corridor flanked by a couple of control mechanisms. Just beyond was a platform that overlooked a massive chamber that was a couple hundred feet high and possibly that much deeper. Most of it was submerged. Two cube pedestals stood at the edge of the platform.
“Nchardak, the City of a Hundred Towers,” Neloth announced. “In its day, it was the largest of the great Dwemer archives and perhaps the most advanced. When the Nords came to conquer it, it’s said that the Dwemer submerged the entire city beneath the sea until the invaders gave up. As you can see, most of the lower levels of the city are flooded, but the pumps still seem to work.” He placed his cube into one of the pedestals, and the water level in the chamber dropped dramatically.
“Amazing,” Brynjolf murmured.
“Yes, I suppose it is. But the pumps only operate when a cube is in the pedestal and I have only one.” He pointed to four large brass shafts jutting up out of the water. “Those are the boilers. They will provide the steam we need to reach the book, but each requires a cube to operate. The water level will also need to be lowered before power can be restored to them.”
“And they’re still under water for the most part,” Brynjolf pointed out. “I’m assuming a cube in the other pedestal would lower the water even more?”
“Then we need to find more cubes,” said Selene.
“By my count, I would say we need a total of five, possibly six.” Neloth turned and went back to one of the mechanisms in the corridor. Selene looked over his shoulder and realized it was a map of the ruin, and it showed where more cubes were located. “I count four in this section of the city,” she noted.
The mage nodded. “Five should suffice if you’re fast. Are you fast?”
“You wanna race?” she replied with a grin.
Neloth actually smiled at her before turning back to the map. “It looks like most of the cubes were moved to the lower levels, perhaps to try to control the flooding before the city was abandoned.” He pointed down a short corridor to a set of large brass doors. “Three of the cubes are in there. Follow me. Oh, and you—red-haired man—“
“Brynjolf,” he responded sardonically.
“Yes, Brynjolf. Take that cube. We’ll need it.” He didn’t appear to hear the foul name Brynjolf called him as he led them down the corridor.
Brynjolf placed the cube in the pedestal, the doors opened, and the cube popped up. It seemed the pedestals that opened doors returned the cubes, and the ones that turned on the pumps and lowered the water levels had to be manually released. The room they walked into was in ruins, but the control pedestal was still working and a cube rested comfortably in its embrace.
“I suppose it’s too much to ask for the others to be that easy to find,” Selene mused. She picked up the cube and they moved on.
After fighting a couple of dwarven spiders, they reached a long, narrow room with a bridge across the middle. There were two lower levels, mostly submerged, and doors on either side. One was partially under water but easily accessible once the water level was lowered, but the other one was hard to get to. Submerged stairs led up part of the way but were blocked by a small footbridge and ended in a sheer wall. By the marks on the wall, Selene discerned that they were stairs that unfolded when the cubes were inserted in the right pedestals. Tables stood in the corners of the hall on all levels, bearing dwarven mechanisms of different types.
“These must be the great workshops of Nchardak, “Neloth surmised. “Impressive, even in ruins. Much of the Dwemer’s army at the Battle of Red Mountain must have come from here.” He pointed to the door on the wall. “If I remember correctly, the map indicated that a cube rests through that door. We’ll have to lower the water to make any more progress and then figure out how to get up there.”
They found two pedestals on the other end of the bridge, and Selene placed her cube inside it. The water lowered part of the way, and it washed out altogether when Brynjolf placed his cube in the other one. They went down the stairs to the next level, which was essentially just a mezzanine around the lowest level. They had to walk around to get to the footbridge and door, and on the way around, Selene and Brynjolf had to fight a dwarven centurion that decided to come to life and attack them. Selene dropped her bow and pulled Dragonbane, hitting it a couple of times and shocking it while Brynjolf distracted it. He got knocked to the level below for his trouble, but Selene finally managed to short-circuit the centurion and it fell over.
Brynjolf shook himself off and walked over to the stairs that went under the bridge, and Selene came to the edge of the bridge, where another pedestal stood. “There’s one down here as well,” he noted, “but we’re going to need one of those cubes.”
Neloth went back up and removed one of the cubes, tossing it over the side to Brynjolf as the water began to rise. He handed it up to Selene. “Perhaps that pedestal raises the bridge.”
She placed the cube in the slot, and the bridge flipped up as the cube popped out. She jumped into the water in the lower level and handed it to Brynjolf, who placed it in the pedestal. Together they watched the steps unfold.
“Oh, good!” Neloth exclaimed as he swam toward them.
Dripping, they all ascended the steps. The door opened onto a hallway with two wings. One led to a chest and some gold, which didn’t interest Neloth; the other led to the cube. When Neloth removed the cube from the pedestal, the ground shook and the water began to rise. “Unfortunately, each cube we retrieve shuts down the corresponding pumps, raising the water level. We’ll have to be careful.”
“We can swim across to that other door,” Brynjolf said.
The door opened onto a corridor that led to a partially submerged room. A pedestal stood at a gap in the floor, and a doorway stood across the gap. The problem was it was about fifteen feet above their heads.
“We could reach that passage if the water level were higher,” Neloth told them. “There is still a cube in one of the pedestals behind us.”
“I’m on it,” Brynjolf volunteered. He swam back to the previous room, and after a moment the water level began to rise again. Selene and Neloth rode it up to the doorway, and Brynjolf followed a moment later.
Behind the next door was a dwarven ballista unlike any Selene had ever seen. This one had legs and was shooting on its own from a mezzanine level. They all dodged the bolts, but Neloth swore violently when one of them caught his robe. Selene shot at it, but her arrows didn’t do much damage. Brynjolf found some stairs to the mezzanine and bashed it with his sword and shield until it stopped moving.
The cube was off to the side, by the wall across from a sleeping centurion. When she removed the cube, the water started to rise and the centurion awoke.
“Let’s get out of here!” she called to Brynjolf. “We don’t want to shock it in this water.”
The three of them swam for cover, and Neloth managed to get the door closed before the clunky centurion caught up with them. They swam back the way they came and treaded water in the workshop. “By my count, we’ve found a total of four cubes, assuming you haven’t dropped any.”
“You know, you could help carry them,” Selene replied wryly.
Neloth ignored the comment. “Back to the Great Chamber, then. The last cube is in the area beyond.” When they reached the platform above the sunken chamber, he pointed to the north end of the chamber. “The last cube is somewhere beyond the northern door.”
Selene and Brynjolf each placed one cube in a pedestal, and the water drained out of the cavernous room. As she followed the men down the ramp, they were attacked by two ballista that patrolled in front of the door and fired bolts at them.
“Again?” Neloth whined as he summoned an ash guardian. “I think they’re rebuilding themselves while we’re not looking!”
After they destroyed the ballista, Selene placed her cube in the pedestal and opened the door. They entered another large chamber with several levels and pedestals in different locations around the room. Three bridges provided access to the different sections of the chamber and ultimately led to a control room at the top level. The bridges were all raised, however.
Neloth pointed to a completely submerged door on the lowest level. “The last cube should be in the chamber beyond that door. I just hope we can lower the water enough so that we don’t have to swim around in this filth anymore.”
“You’re right. This can’t be good for our baby,” Brynjolf said pointedly, casting a glance at Selene.
The mage cocked his head curiously, then looked over at Selene. He peered down at her belly and raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yes, I hadn’t noticed you’re with child. This probably isn’t good for it, is it? Ah, well. Best wishes. Now. That control room will probably lower the water so we can get to that door, but how to reach it?”
Selene walked up a nearby ramp where three pedestals stood. “I’m guessing these operate the bridges.” She placed the cube in the left-hand pedestal, and as it popped back out, one of the bridges lowered. When she lowered the second bridge, however, the first went back up. What followed was a comical game of “musical pedestals,” and she even tried using Brynjolf’s cube in addition to hers, but only one would work at a time. Selene finally managed to get them all to stay down, and she sighed with relief.
As they navigated the bridges and steps, they had to fight a handful of dwarven spiders and spheres, and much to Neloth’s dismay, they had to wade through more of the water. He complained every step of the way. Selene chuckled. She didn’t know what it was about the mage. He was pompous and arrogant, and he seemed to think of them as his assistants; but for whatever reason, she adored him. Every time he complained about the dirty water, she wanted to hug him. She wondered what he would do if she actually did it.
When they finally reached the control room, Selene placed her cube in the pedestal and the water lowered enough so that they could get through the door on the lower level.
“I have an idea,” said Neloth. “I’ll wait here and retrieve this cube once you find the last one we need.”
“Why don’t you go with me and let Selene wait here?” Brynjolf suggested through clenched teeth.
Neloth looked terrified. Selene didn’t know if he was more afraid of the trip or of Brynjolf. “It’s fine,” she told him. “It’s really just salt water, and you and I are better suited for this than he is.”
Brynjolf glared at the mage, obviously not sharing Selene’s affection for him, but complied. They wound their way back through the room and down to the lower level, where Selene placed her cube in the receptacle and opened the door. They went down a hallway and around a bend into a room with two spinning blades moving back and forth across the floor. The cube was behind a gate on the opposite side.
“Don’t even think about it,” Brynjolf warned her. “I’ll do it.”
The two apparatuses didn’t spin together, and there was time to get across when they were on opposite sides of the room. Brynjolf stepped between blades and placed the cube in the receptacle outside the cage door. When the door opened, the blades stopped spinning. He went inside and took the last cube from its pedestal, then swam out as the water began to rise.
“I have to agree with Neloth on one thing,” he commented. “I’m getting really tired of all the water.”
“Oh, good,” Neloth said when they exited the chamber. “I’ll be right down.” He took the cube from the control pedestal, and the water rose even more. He caught up with them and they all swam to the door together.
Armed with their three cubes, they went back to the Great Chamber, where they placed them in the pedestals to start the boilers. There were four boilers, though, so they had to take one of the cubes that was operating the pumps to place in the last boiler. This was what Neloth meant when he hoped Selene was fast, and she was indeed quick enough to get the cube in the receptacle before the water rose too high.
“That seems to have done it,” Selene sighed as the great machines started churning.
“There’s another one!” Neloth cried, pointing to the boiler level, where a dwarven centurion had awakened and was lumbering toward them.
“We’re faster than it is,” Brynjolf pointed out. “Let’s just get to the elevator before it catches up.”
They ran to the elevator, and Selene threw the switch before the centurion got anywhere near them. The lift took them back up to the reading room, where the Black Book awaited, still ensconced safely below the glass. The pistons were pumping, though, and the steam was hissing through the pipes. Selene went to the control panel and pressed the button, and a window opened in the dome above. The crystal moved until it was in the right position to catch the sun, and then a beam split into four shafts of light and connected with the crystals in the floor. The glass slid away, and the pedestal containing the Black Book rose up and locked in place.
“At last!” Neloth cried. “I hope it was worth it.” He stepped aside and gestured to Selene. “Please. Be my guest. You deserve the first look.”
“Or is it that you just know how dangerous the Black Books are?” Brynjolf countered. “After all, they’re known to drive people insane.”
The mage shrugged. “Oh, what’s the worst that could happen? Well, I suppose you could have your mind sucked dry by Hermeus Mora, but that’s supposed to be fairly rare.”
“You’re all heart, Neloth,” Selene muttered. She kissed her husband and opened the book.
* * *
The title was Epistolary Acumen, and it transported her to a small platform surrounded by ink. A bridge across the way was raised, but a scrye stood next to it and Selene was able to lower it. It led to a tunnel that moved back and forth, making a scraping sound as it swung. Many tentacles floated a few feet out into the black sludge.
“At least these are all different,” she muttered, placing a hand on her belly. “Not gonna get bored here.”
She walked across the bridge, but when she reached the other side, she found the tunnel was moving too fast. She tried to jump, but she missed and landed in the ink. It was thick and heavy, as though she were swimming in glue, and it burned her skin like acid. She kicked her feet and flailed her arms, struggling to stay afloat, but the muck, seemed to be intentionally pulling her down.
“No!” she screamed in protest. Rowan kicked furiously, as if she was fighting just as hard as Selene. With that, she fought even harder.
Her head dipped below the surface, and the ink got into her eyes, burning as if they had been set ablaze. She gasped, taking the noxious substance into her throat and lungs. Choking, she kicked as hard as she could and managed to break the surface, but she couldn’t make any progress toward the bridge or platform. The tunnel swung by, sending a wave of ink washing over her head.
It was no use. She was beginning to tire, and soon the acidic mire would overwhelm her. Poor Brynjolf would be devastated. He had been grief-stricken after Selene’s miscarriage, and he might never recover from losing her and Rowan too. I’m sorry, she thought as her eyes rolled back into her head and exhaustion claimed her.
“Oh!” she cried as she opened her eyes and the pain stopped abruptly. Suddenly she was back in the reading room with Brynjolf and Neloth staring at her curiously.
“That was fast,” Brynjolf said.
Selene dove for him, throwing her arms around his neck and knocking him off balance. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she covered his mouth with hers.
“Selene, what’s wrong? And what were you sorry about?”
“Just hold me,” she whimpered as she held him tighter. After a moment she pulled back. “I said I was sorry?”
He nodded. “Right before you jumped on me.”
“What did you see?” Neloth asked eagerly. “Where did you go?”
“I was in Apocrypha, but I fell into the ink and lost consciousness. I guess they’re right about not being able to die there.”
“Doesn’t make me feel better,” Brynjolf told her.
She pressed her forehead against his. “Well, it makes me feel better. I thought I was going to die, and I didn’t want to leave you.”
“You will go back, won’t you?” Neloth nagged. “Soon?”
“Aye, Neloth, I’m going back right now.”
“Not yet,” Brynjolf pleaded. He wrapped his arms even tighter around her and held her for a long moment.
“Brynjolf, we can’t keep doing this every time—”
“I know, I know. But I don’t care how you want to phrase it; you died in there.”
“I’m still here, love.”
He pulled back with a sigh. “I think I’m going to have gray hair before this is all over with. I love you, wife.”
“I love you, too.” She kissed him again and turned back to the book.
The bridge was still down, so Selene made her way across, jumping into the moving tunnel just in time. The landscape might have changed somewhat, but she was getting used to the way things worked in Apocrypha, and she had little trouble. She fought a few Seekers and two Lurkers, and though the battles were difficult, the notion that they couldn’t actually kill her did a lot for her confidence.
She reached the final room, which was resting atop a column across a great chasm. Selene activated the nearby scrye, and the room unfolded like a flower, its walls becoming bridges. It was actually quite beautiful. She walked across the bridge and found the Black Book on its pedestal. When she opened it, however, she got more than she had expected.
A great eye opened in front of her, its baleful stare surrounded by inky tentacles, black mist, and dozens of smaller eyes that seemed to surge and wane. The whole image roiled around the eye, which remained fixed on her. A chill ran down her spine.
“Your search for knowledge has brought you to me once again,” Hermeus Mora’s voice rang through the air. “You have sought out the forbidden knowledge that only one other has obtained. You are Dragonborn, like Miraak before you. A seeker of knowledge and power.”
“What do you want with me, Mora? I still won’t serve you. I merely seek the knowledge to defeat Miraak.”
“You will serve me, willing or not. Those who seek after the secrets of the world are all my servants. I have knowledge for you that you didn’t even know you needed. To defeat Miraak, you must bend the will of the world around you. I give you the second Word of Power for the Bend Will Shout. Use it to bend the wills of mortals to your purpose. Hah.”
Hah meant mind. She reached deep inside for a dragon soul and immediately understood its meaning and how to use it, although she didn’t see herself bending the will of any innocent mortals.
“This is not enough,” Mora warned her. “Miraak knows the final Word of Power, and without it, you cannot defeat him. I can grant you the same power, but it has a price.”
Selene chuckled. “You’re like a drug dealer! The first is free, but if I want more I have to pay. And dearly, I would imagine.”
The Daedric Prince chuckled, a sound that went right through Selene and chilled her to the bone.
“So what’s the price?”
“Knowledge for knowledge. The Skaal have withheld secrets from me for many years. I want this knowledge to be added to my library.”
“You don’t think they’ll just give those secrets up willingly, do you?”
“My servant Miraak would have found a way to get what I want, and you will if you wish for my assistance. All you need to is send their shaman to me. I will handle the rest.”
Mora disappeared, and Selene sighed with relief. His presence alone had made her feel dirty. She wanted a bath more than just about anything.
The circles on the Black Book began to glow and text appeared on the page. Behold the Book of the Voice. Choose.
All three choices were designed to augment her Shouts. Dragonborn Force would do more damage with the Unrelenting Force Shout and possibly disintegrate her enemies. Dragonborn Flame would create a fire wyrm to fight alongside her when she had killed an enemy with her Fire Breath Shout. Dragonborn Frost encased her foes in ice.
“That one sounds interesting,” she considered aloud. She didn’t use her Frost Breath Shout very often, but she decided to give it a go and see how it worked. If she didn’t like it, she could always read the book again and make a different choice. When she chose, an icy wind washed through her, and she shivered. It only lasted a second, though, before everything went back to normal. She closed the book and returned to Nchardak.
Brynjolf grabbed her and held her closely, burying his face in her hair. “I’m glad you’re back,” he told her as he backed away and caressed her belly. “Much longer and Neloth and I might have killed each other.”
Selene chuckled and looked over at the mage. “Did you actually learn what you needed to know by reading that book?” he asked.
“Well, part of it, anyway. I learned part of a Shout I need. He’ll give me the rest if I help him obtain the secrets of the Skaal.”
Neloth scoffed. “Secrets, bah. What secrets would they possibly have worth keeping? Sounds like a bargain to me. He learns some fascinating new ways to skin a horker, and you become the second most powerful Dragonborn that ever lived.
It was nice to think of, but Selene had a feeling it wouldn’t be nearly that simple.
A dragon attacked them as they left the building.
“By Malacath’s toenails!” Neloth shrieked. “Where did that come from?”
“Miraak has commanded your death,” the dragon’s voice boomed.
Selene shrugged. “Well, let’s get on with it, then. Joor zah frul!”
The dragon screamed, soared for a brief moment, and then plummeted to the ground. Neloth summoned an ash guardian, Brynjolf charged with his sword, and Selene shot from a distance. When the dragon looked as though he was about to take flight again, she threw Dragonrend at him a second time. Not long after that, he gave one final roar and died. Neloth watched in awe as Selene absorbed his soul.
His name was Krosulhah, which translated to Sorcerer, Day, Mind. It didn’t make any sense to Selene, and he wasn’t talking to her. Perhaps she was wrong about the meaning.
“I wonder if a dragon could be captured alive,” Neloth said as Selene pulled a bone and scale from the dead creature. “It would make a marvelous specimen.”
“Aye,” she replied, heading toward the exit ramp, “it would really be amazing to capture a dragon alive.”
Brynjolf chuckled and walked after them.
“Neloth, I need a bath,” she mentioned as they walked. “I don’t suppose you could help me with that, could you?”
“Heh, are you joking? After trudging through that mess, we all need baths!”
She looked back at Brynjolf. “After we get cleaned up, we can take a short rest and head back to the Skaal, aye?”
“Aye,” he replied, although he didn’t seem to like taking anything else from Neloth.
Selene shrugged. He would get over it.
I wish there were more of this kind of puzzles in the Dwemer ruins on the main land, those in the nordic tombs are just disappointing. Somehow the Dwemer strike me as a people able to come up with the most brainbreaking riddles ever.
I agree. I enjoyed this one. I actually had to write it down to keep track of how many cubes I had at any given time.