3E 19, 7 Hearthfire
All over the southern part of Skyrim, autumn was in full glory. Fall color dotted the landscape and set the mountains aglow, and a brisk wind blew through the air. Animals’ pelts were beginning to thicken as their winter coats started to grow in. Treks through the woods were accompanied by the sound of crunching leaves. To many, it was a magical time. But Ben was missing out on autumn this year, because there was no autumn in Winterhold. Just winter. All the time. It wasn’t so much that he minded the snow; he was just bored with it and would like to look at something a bit more colorful for a change. A blizzard had been raging all day and the snows were just easing off, but the wind still howled with temperatures well below zero.
But that didn’t matter to Ben at the moment, because Faralda was warm and he was inside her. Her moans and whimpers made him crazy, goading him to plunge harder into her as he tried desperately to hold on until she climaxed. She finally cried out, her body tensed, and she dug her nails into his back as she pulsed around him. With a gasp, he buried his face in her pinkish-red hair and released inside her.
“You are so wonderful,” she sighed.
“So are you,” he replied, kissing her lips, her cheek, her throat. He moved off of her, and she laid her head on his chest. She went to sleep quickly, and that was fine with Ben, because he wasn’t much of a talker after the deed was done. He caressed her hair as she snoozed softly and joined her in sleep soon thereafter.
He was awakened by a knock on his door. Faralda stirred, and he groaned. “It’s too early for this. Who is it?”
His friend Onmund stuck his head in as Faralda ducked under the covers. Ben didn’t know why she bothered; everybody knew they were sleeping together. Still, if it made her more comfortable, so be it.
“You’re running late, my friend,” Onmund told him. “We leave in less than an hour.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
Onmund closed the door, and his lover emerged from beneath the blanket. “Do you think he saw?”
“Probably not, but I’m sure he heard us last night. I think everybody heard us last night.”
“Faralda, it’s just not that big a deal. Why do you care what people think?”
“Because if Nirya had her way, she would replace Savos Aren as Arch-Mage and send me packing. I don’t want to give her any more fodder for my humiliation than she already has.”
Ben breathed a frustrated sigh. “Well, if it’s so shameful to be with me, maybe we should stop seeing each other.”
Faralda glared at him. “That’s not what I meant.”
“It’s not like Savos Aren is going to step down or anything, and even if he did, he would look at your accomplishments at the college, not your personal life.” He placed a finger under her chin and raised her face so he could kiss her. “You need to stop worrying about Nirya and just live your life.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You have no ambition.”
“Of course I have ambition. I just don’t see the point in making myself miserable trying to achieve it. And honestly, you don’t look very miserable right now, either, lass.”
With that, the elf smiled. “I’m not. Fine, I’ll stop whining. In the meantime, you have a field trip. You should get going.”
They got up and dressed, and Faralda did her best to appear surreptitious as she slipped out of his bedroom, but it didn’t matter; Enthir was standing in the middle of the common area and said, “Good morning, my dear,” as she passed.
Ben chuckled as he pulled on his boots; then he went to the dining room and served himself a plate of food and a mug of warm mead. “Morning, Brelyna,” he said as he sat down across from his Dunmer classmate.
“Oh, go to the Void,” she snapped as she got up and stormed out.
He looked innocently at Onmund and J’Zargo, who sat nearby and looked on. “What’d I do?”
“You’re an idiot,” Onmund, a fellow Nord with dark hair and an affable personality, said.
“What? Is she still mad? That was months ago, and I told her at the time it was just the one night.”
“You might have told her that, but that doesn’t mean she wants to hear you and Faralda making noise till all hours.”
“How much noise did we make?” he asked apprehensively.
“This one did not hear you at all,” J’Zargo said. J’Zargo was Khajiit, his fur mostly gray but with long, black whiskers trailing down the sides of his face. While Onmund was a good friend, J’Zargo had made no secret that he looked out for himself and no one else.
“It’s just that Brelyna’s right next to your room,” Onmund explained. “She didn’t take it well.”
Ben stuffed a piece of bread in his mouth. “Great.”
After breakfast, the three apprentices donned heavy cloaks and went to the Hall of Elements to meet Brelyna and Tolfdir, the instructor who would be escorting them to Saarthal, a Nordic ruin the college was excavating. Tolfdir wasn’t quite ready; he was busy talking to a wizard who was visiting the college as a consultant to the Arch-Mage. Ancano, Ben believed his name was. He was Altmer, tall and imposing, with white hair and a derisive glare. Ben had never seen the mage come anywhere close to smiling. Mostly he just looked at people as though they were something that needed to be scraped off his boot.
“I absolutely must protest,” Ancano was saying. “I insist on being allowed to explore the ruins myself.”
“I’m sorry, Ancano, but the Arch-Mage was very specific,” said Toldfir. “Only full members of the college are allowed. If you want him to make an exception, I suggest you take it up with him. I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
The elf stalked out of the Hall of Elements, muttering under his breath. Tolfdir watched him go with bemusement, then turned to his apprentices. “Well, then! Shall we get started?”
Fortunately, they had sunny skies, but going was still slow because the snow was several inches deep. The walk to the ruin took just under three hours.
As they came over a hill and started down the slopes and scaffolding to the main entrance, Tolfdir said, “As you know, Saarthal was the largest of the early Nord settlements, sacked during the infamous ‘Night of Tears. It was quite a boon to be allowed to explore the ruin and learn about the magics they used. We’ll be looking for anything at all that might be of interest.”
“Like what?” Onmund asked.
“I honestly don’t know. That’s why I adore this location: we have no idea what we’re going to find! If along the way, the message about the dangers of magic should happen to sink in for a few students, that would be a happy coincidence, now, wouldn’t it?”
Ben chuckled. He loved Tolfdir. The old man was enthusiastic about everything, and his eagerness was contagious. He would get so excited over a topic he was discussing that it made Ben want to learn more. If it was important enough to get that worked up over, it was important enough to know. Tolfdir could be overly cautious at times and was always admonishing them that magic was dangerous and precautions should always be taken. The other apprentices found it annoying, but Ben found it endearing. Besides, Blanche had told him that many apprentices had been killed over the years. Old Tolfdir was just trying to keep them safe.
As they entered the excavation and began to navigate stairs and catwalks down into the ruin, Onmund stepped up and whispered, “I don’t like this idea. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Listen, my friend,” Ben said, “my ma and da have been in a lot of these types of ruins. Just keep your wits about you and everything will be fine.”
“Did anything bad ever happen?”
“Of course. That’s why I said to keep your wits about you.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Ben patted him on the shoulder and continued down a long spiral staircase, where Tolfdir was waiting at the bottom.
“Ben, why don’t you see if you can assist Arniel Gane? He’s in a nearby chamber, cataloging some of our finds.”
“Aye, sir.” Ben took a torch and went to find Arniel while Tolfdir gave the other apprentices their instructions. Arniel wasn’t as close by as Tolfdir had suggested, and Ben had quite a time finding him. He had to admit, though, that he wasn’t in any hurry. He had only been in one other Nordic ruin, when his ma had taken him on a job with her once for training purposes, and he was very excited about exploring this one. He finally found Arniel deep within the ruin, leaning over a table, muttering about his research.
“Arniel? Tolfdir sent me to help you.”
“Good, that’s fine. Just don’t make a mess. I’ve only looked through a portion of this section. You can check the area north of here. Just pick up anything magical you find, but be careful. We don’t want to damage anything.”
Ben looked through the chambers and turned up a couple of enchanted rings, which he placed in his knapsack. He walked through a doorway into a room with a heavy grate at the end and a highly embellished recess in the wall. An amulet was set into the recess, and Ben reached out and lifted it from its resting place. With a sudden clang, a portcullis fell over the doorway behind him, locking him in.
The thought of his ma pulling a lever and getting stuck in a room while Farkas turned into a werewolf crossed his mind, and he almost laughed. But another story crossed his mind, too, one his da had told him about spending time in jail, and it wasn’t funny.
Arniel didn’t even look up from his work, but Tolfdir came running.
“What was all that racket? Is everything all right?”
“No, it’s not all right; I’m stuck in here.”
“Now, how did that happen?”
“I pulled an amulet off the wall.”
Tolfdir brightened. “Ah, the amulet must be important somehow. Perhaps there’s a way you can use it to get yourself out.”
Ben tried putting the amulet back where he had gotten it, but nothing happened. He decided to try putting the amulet on, and when he placed it around his neck there was a crash of thunder and the air in front of the recess began to vibrate. With it, a power went through Ben, an energy he had never experienced.
“Do you see the resonance between you and the wall?” said Tolfdir. “I wonder what effect your spells will have.”
He shot a lightning bolt at the wall, and the whole thing crumbled, revealing a hidden passageway. As the wall shattered, the portcullis behind him raised and Tolfdir walked through. He ambled past Ben and through the gap in the wall, and Ben followed him.
“Well, this is highly unusual and very interesting! Why in the world would this be sealed off?”
“Perhaps to keep people like us out?”
Tolfdir looked at Ben as if he had horns. “Why, I can’t imagine such a thing.”
The long, narrow passage finally opened onto a small room that contained a bookshelf, some candles, and three sarcophagi. Tolfdir stepped into the room first and immediately froze in place as Ben entered. The air shimmered, and an Altmer surrounded by bright blue light appeared in the room.
“Hold, mage, and listen well. Know that you have set in motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped. 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.”
“Set in motion how? By coming here? The amulet?” The Altmer nodded. “Who are you?”
“I am Nerien. I give you this warning because the Psijic Order believes in you. You alone, Ben Stormblade, have the potential to prevent disaster.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Take great care, and know that the order is watching.”
Nerien vanished, along with the blue light, and Tolfdir stared moving again.
“I . . . I felt something strange just then. What happened?”
“Some sort of apparition appeared to me. He said events had been set into motion, and there was danger ahead. He mentioned the Psijic Order.”
“Are you sure about that? That’s very odd. And danger ahead? That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Ben shook his head. Standing in the middle a Nordic ruin and not thinking there could be danger ahead? That didn’t make any sense.
“The Psijics have no connection to these ruins,” Tolfdir continued, “and no one’s even seen their order in a long time. Until we know more, I think it best that we continue our original investigation, no? Just be careful. Who knows what we’re going to find?”
They started inspecting the coffins in the little room and Ben asked, “What is the Psijic Order?”
“They were a group of mages with a history that predates the Empire. Very powerful, very secretive. About a century ago, they vanished, along with their sanctuary on the Isle of Arteum.”
“Well, why are they contacting me? He knew my name.”
“I have no idea, but it’s fascinating. If nothing else, I’d take it as a compliment. The Psijics have only ever dealt with those they’ve felt worthy.”
As Ben approached one of the sarcophagi, it burst open, as did the one across from it. He heard Tolfdir cry out in surprise as draugr stepped out of the two coffins. Ben took his out easily with a chain lightning spell, and he turned to see that Tolfdir had defeated his draugr as well. The lid of the third sarcophagus had opened to reveal another passage.
They came upon a round room with a portcullis at one end and several sarcophagi lining the room. Four of them popped open, and they had to fight the draugr that emerged. Ben’s ranged attacks and the storm atronach Tolfdir summoned ensured the weak draugr didn’t have a chance, and soon all four were lying dead.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in a Nordic ruin before,” Tolfdir exclaimed.
“Really? My mother says they’re all like this.”
“These coffins bear closer inspection. I’d like to stay awhile and examine this. You should press on and see if you can find whatever this vision of yours mentioned. But be careful; it could be truly dangerous. I’ll catch up before long.”
Ben pulled a chain on the wall to open the gate and went through. He pulled his sword but kept his lightning spell ready in his left hand, fairly trembling with exhilaration. Although this was his second Nordic ruin, the first had been just a tagalong on his mother’s adventure. This was his adventure, and he had been chosen for something. He rolled his eyes and admonished himself for not having sense enough to be afraid.
Along the way, he fought a few draugr, skirted a couple of runes, looted some chests, and worked out a pillar puzzle. He also got blistered when he passed too close to a lightning rune. He spent half an hour working on another puzzle where the pillars wouldn’t stay where he put them. Turning one would invariably turn one of the others. He found he had to turn them in just the right order so that the correct shape would show up on the other pillars. Just about the time he thought he was going to scream from frustration, the correct pattern worked out and the gate opened. “‘Bout damn time,” he muttered as he went through.
“I thought it high time I caught up with you,” Tolfdir said as he walked through the gate behind him. “Have you had any trouble? I noticed a few dead draugr.”
“Nah, it wasn’t so bad. I’d fought draugr once before, so I knew what I was doing.”
“Just don’t become too overconfident, my boy. It could be dangerous.”
“You sound like my da.”
They opened a door and descended into a room dominated by a huge sphere, which rotated in the air and pulsed with energy. It was surrounded by a force field of swirling blue light. An altar and throne stood before the orb, and a draugr with a high, horned helmet lounged in the seat.
“Well, now,” Tolfdir murmured. “Will you look at that? I never imagined we’d find something like this! Why is this buried so far within Saarthal?”
“Maybe this was what the Psijic monk was talking about.”
“I . . . I suppose it’s possible. This is so fascinating!”
The draugr noticed them and got up, tottering toward the stairs and attacking. Ben brandished his sword and hurled lightning spells at it, but the creature just laughed and kept coming. Now he had sense enough to be frightened, but he kept fighting.
“You keep it busy,” Tolfdir said. “I’m going to try something.”
Although Ben couldn’t see exactly what the old mage was doing, it seemed he was trying to weaken the force field around the orb. In the meantime, Ben ducked and dodged the huge draugr’s onslaught of frost spells.
Suddenly the force field dropped and Tolfdir cried, “There! Now attack it!”
Flames exploded from Ben’s mouth and engulfed the draugr, who finally dropped. When he looted the creature, and he found a staff, part of an amulet, and some sort of writ. It read:
Be bound here, Jyrik, murderer, betrayer.
Condemned by your crimes against realm and Lord.
May your name and your deeds be forgotten forever,
And the charm which you bear be sealed by your ward.
“Hey, Tolfdir, take a look at this.”
Tolfdir looked at the amulet and the writ. “How interesting! Why, this ruin is just filled with unusual artifacts! Take those back to the college, and we’ll study them with the class.” He turned to the orb. “I’m not the only one seeing this, am I? Why, this is utterly unique.”
Unique, it was. It was made of crystal in several shades of blue and gray and was carved with a pattern of deep, green-glowing grooves. Pale blue runes lined the green furrows. The orb floated in the air between four pillars and several feet above a bed of the same material.
“What is that thing?” Ben asked.
“I have no idea! The Arch-Mage must be informed about this at once. He needs to see it for himself. I don’t dare leave it unattended. Would you go back to the college and tell Savos Arena about our find?” Ben turned and started to go out the way he had come in, but Tolfdir said, “These ruins usually have secret exits. Try that door beyond the orb. And please, hurry.”
Ben went through the door Tolfdir had pointed out and down a narrow passage until he came to a chamber with a Word Wall. He had encountered one in the ruin his mother had shown him, so he knew what to expect, but that made it no less invigorating as the warmth and the chanting surrounded him and the word formed in his mind.
He stood for a long time and studied the wall, trying to decipher the other words engraved into it. He recognized a few, but he couldn’t translate the whole thing. His ma had written a book with the dragon language. He was going to have to get a copy for himself so he could read these things.
The door beyond the Word Wall led him back through the excavation, and he made his way to the college as quickly as he could. Savos Aren, a studious Dunmer with wise eyes and an officious manner, sat in his study with a book.
“I need to speak with you, Arch-Mage. It’s about Saarthal.”
The mage looked up with a long-suffering sigh. “Please don’t tell me another one of the apprentices has been incinerated. I have enough to deal with right now.”
“None that I know of. We discovered some sort of orb in the ruin. Tolfdir wanted you to see it.”
“I trust he will provide a more . . . specific explanation. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. You can start researching the subject. Speak with Urag in the Arcaneum, tell him of your find, and see if he has any books. Report back to me with any information you come up with. Will there be anything else?”
“Aye,” Ben said tentatively. “Have you ever met anyone in the Psijic Order?”
“One of them used to advise the Arch-Mage when I was an apprentice here, but that was a great many years ago. The Psijics haven’t been heard from in over a century. Why do you ask?”
“I might have received a message from one of them.”
“Really? I highly doubt that.”
“He appeared to me as an apparition and said he was with the order.”
“I see. Well, be sure to mention that to Urag as well. You’re dismissed.”
Ben ran into Faralda on the way to the Arcaneum, pretty in her gray robes with her hair pulled back into pigtails, and told her what he had found. She was less interested in the orb than the piece of the amulet. “Check with Urag to see if he has any books about that, too.”
“I will. I’m also going to send a letter to my ma. It sounds like something she and my da might know something about. Well, I’m off to see Urag.” He reached up and tugged gently on her pigtail. “You be around later?”
“I’m off to teach a class on runes, but I’ll find you this evening.”
He went to the Arcaneum and found Urag gro-Shub, an old orc with snow-white hair and beard and a perpetual scowl. He was gruff, rude, and not afraid to threaten the life of anyone who mistreated his precious books. Ben adored him.
“You are now in the Arcaneum, and it may as well be my own little plane of Oblivion,” the orc said, repeating a litany Ben had heard a dozen times. “Disrupt my Arcaneum, and I will have you torn apart by angry atronachs.”
“You know, Urag, some people might like that.”
“Don’t get smart with me, Stormblade,” he growled. “Even your mother was afraid of me.”
Ben smiled. “Somehow I doubt that.”
With that, the orc chuckled. “Well, I already know why you’re here. Word travels fast. Discovered some big mystery, huh? I don’t have anything for you. Not anymore anyway. The pertinent materials have been stolen. Orthorn was an apprentice here at the college. Not very skilled, but he got involved with a group of mages who took a liking to him. When they left, he took a bunch of books and supplies and followed them. They’re all holed up in Fellglow Keep these days.”
“And you let him get away with that?”
“Wasn’t my choice. There was no one to go after him. Needless to say, I was not pleased.”
“Why did the mages leave for Fellglow Keep?”
“Let’s just call it a difference of opinion with the college. They were interested in research that goes outside the bounds of what is allowed, so they were, ahem, persuaded to leave.”
“Are the books worth retrieving?”
“Are they worth it? Of course, they’re worth it! What kind of question is that? You up for a little quest?”
“Sure, Urag. Where is Fellglow Keep?”
“Just northeast of Whiterun.”
“Hey, that’s great!” Ben cried. “I can see my sister while I’m down there. She’s a Companion; maybe she can help me get into the keep.”
“She might come in handy. Somehow I don’t see these mages giving the books up willingly. Be prepared for a battle. Just bring them to me when you get them. And feel free to teach Orthorn a lesson about stealing from the Arcaneum.”
Ben laid the amulet and writ on the counter. “What about these? Do you know anything about them?”
Urag read the page and studied the amulet carefully. “Perhaps. Leave them with me and I’ll do some research. This may prove to be quite a find as well.”
As Ben started to leave the library, Ancano stepped in front of him, blocking his way. “You there. I have questions for you. You were in Saarthal, yes? It has come to my attention that something was found there.”
“It’s an archeological expedition. Of course something was found there.”
“I’m not talking about trinkets. Please do not insult my intelligence.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that.”
“Tolfdir is still there now, is he? I shall expect a full report when he returns.”
This guy was starting to get on Ben’s nerves. “And you’re telling me this, why? If you want Tolfdir to report, ask him yourself.”
“I warn you, impertinence will not be tolerated.”
“Why does this matter to you anyway? Aren’t you just here to consult with the Arch-Mage? This isn’t really any of your business.”
“Something was discovered in Saarthal that was significant enough that Tolfdir sent a new member of the college, alone, to deliver word. That sounds precisely like something that should matter to everyone. Especially me.”
“I’m not new.”
“Enough. You may go now.”
“Thank you, oh, respected, noble sir.” Ben gave a little bow as he shouldered past the mage. As he started down the stairs, he muttered, “Asshole.”