He began his search in the Hall of the Elements, planning to look for evidence in the Arch-Mage’s quarters; but the glowing orb in the lecture hall caught his eye, and for a moment, he just gaped in awe. It was glorious.
The sphere floated above the magicka well, and even from the doorway, Coranil could feel the power. Not only did it emit energy, it pulled at him, drawing him into the hall. He hid behind a column and watched the seductive orb as it rotated and hummed.
Coranil wasn’t alone in the room. A mage stood next to the sphere, holding his hands out as if to warm them. Blue energy radiated toward his hands, but whatever he was trying to do, the result wasn’t what he wanted. He growled in frustration and stormed out of the room. When he passed, his hood fell away to reveal a pale-haired Altmer that Coranil knew well. Ancano.
So it was true. The Thalmor had infiltrated the College of Winterhold. But did the college know who Ancano was? And if they did, why did they allow him to stay?
He would have to find out before he left, but for now, he couldn’t tear himself away from the orb. He ventured a few steps toward it and held his hands out like Ancano had done, and tingles spread up his arms. The power this amazing object put forth was incredible, and in the wrong hands—or the right ones—great and terrible things could be accomplished.
An immensely powerful artifact turns up in the college at the same time as the Thalmor. Well, it was no secret what Ancano was doing here. Coranil imagined his employer would want to get his hands on the orb, but it wasn’t as though he could stuff it into his knapsack and cart it away. Arrangements would have to be made. Assuming, of course, that they could even figure out what it was and how to use it.
Coranil broke away from the enthralling sphere and started up the stairs to the Arch-Mage’s quarters. He would find out just how much the college knew about Ancano and the orb, and then he would get out. He thought of confronting Ancano, but now was not the time. Better to leave as quickly as possible. Revealing himself could have unfavorable consequences.
* * *
Ben and Blanche stopped in Windhelm to tell Ulfric about the Thalmor at the college, and also so Blanche could feed, and then they headed south.
Mzulft rested on a mountainside just east of the Aalto, which was home to Sovenahlok, one of a dozen non-hostile dragons residing in Skyrim. Bonestrewn Crest dominated the center of the Aalto, and Sovenahlok glided lazily through the air around the dormant volcano. He swooped down curiously when Ben and Blanche passed, and though Blanche tensed visibly and readied a spell, there was no altercation. He just climbed back to the sky and left them alone. She was very relieved when they reached the eastern road.
“You thought he would attack,” Ben guessed.
“I am not as well loved by the dragons as your mother.”
Blanche didn’t answer. She simply turned her gaze to the dwarven ruin they were approaching.
They climbed dozens of steps to the door, which was unlocked and swung inward easily. They entered an antechamber, where a mage sat bleeding on the floor.
He looked up at them with bleary eyes. “Crystal . . . gone.” He coughed, and blood spattered all over his robes. “Find Paratus . . . in oculary.” With that, he gasped, choked, and expired.
Ben searched the mage’s body and found a research log with a note tucked inside. He was evidently named Gavros, and he was supposed to take a crystal to Mzulft’s oculary. He hadn’t made it very far.
“What’s an oculary?”
“I’m not sure. I guess we’ll find out.”
There was a key in Gavros’s pocket, and it opened the next door, which was locked. From there, they crept quietly through an underground city comprised of steam-filled, partially collapsed corridors and ramps, their movements drowned out by the constant clang of the machinery. Hundreds of bronze artifacts and machine parts lay everywhere. Lanterns and wall sconces still glowed with yellow-white light bulbs. Not far into the ruin, they came across the bloody body of another mage, but there was no sign of a crystal.
They made short work of the first dwarven spiders they found, but they had more trouble with the giant bug that flew at them. They had just entered an area that was more mine than city, and a monstrosity with filmy gray wings and a stinger the size of Ben’s leg came out of nowhere. It spit poison at them, but they ducked out of the way and threw lightning bolts to kill it. They found another one hovering over the body of a wizard down the path.
“Chaurus hunters,” Blanche told him. “It’s what happens to chaurus at the end of their lifetime.”
“Well, they’re disgusting, whatever they are. I can just see Ro trying to fight one, as afraid of bugs as she is.”
After killing another couple of chaurus, they moved back into a city area, where Ben watched with fascination as Blanche did battle with a dwarven sphere. They stepped carefully past some pressure plates and stoppers designed to push them over a ledge and into a pit below, but other than the marvel of the contraptions, Ben was beginning to find the ruin a bit boring. He had expected more.
When they came across a dead Falmer, he suddenly wasn’t bored anymore.
Blanche killed the first live Falmer they found quickly and silently. As they continued to sneak through and fight more of them, Ben found they weren’t much more challenging than the draugr in Saarthal, at least in groups of one or two.
He picked up a few gems from the machines and looted the occasional chest, but he left the heavier items behind. “All this bronze,” he mused. “Is all this stuff worth anything?”
“Probably, but I shouldn’t be the one to judge what is or isn’t worth picking up.”
“I wonder how much a team of thieves with strength enchantments and a wagon could get out of this place. I also wonder why Ma and Da never did it.”
“Perhaps they did and you just don’t know about it.”
They continued to trudge through miles of corridors, some clean and well preserved and some little better than caves. In one of the more rustic areas, Blanche inspected a dead mage with a basket holding wine and cheese.
“Is that a . . . picnic basket?” Ben asked incredulously.
“Not exactly a scenic spot for an outing, is it?”
Just past the picnic, they fought a couple of Falmer and a chaurus that appeared to be their pet.
“What would you name a pet chaurus?” Ben speculated. “‘Fluffy’ somehow doesn’t seem appropriate.”
Blanche chuckled, and Ben considered it a major victory. It was hard to get his aunt to laugh, and he had spent long hours trying to break her stoic countenance.
They entered a vast atrium with several elaborately carved columns in the center and some ornate stairs leading to the far exit. The room was inhabited by six Falmer. Blanche summoned a frost atronach and raised the first Falmer she killed to fight alongside them, but it was still a hairy battle and resulted in several stitches and empty healing potion bottles.
They finally found the crystal they had been searching for next to one of the Falmer. The rough-hewn stone was nearly the size of their heads, mostly round, and spun on an axis inside a bronze ring. Several smaller crystals were attached to its surface. Ben stuffed it in his knapsack, and they went up the stairs and down a corridor, until they found a locked door. He started to pick the lock, but a voice sounded from the other side.
“Gavros? Is that you? I’d almost given up hope. Let me get the door.”
Ben stepped back and let the door open. An Imperial wearing blue mage robes stood there, eyes wide.
“What the—?” He was instantly on alert, calling magic into his hands. “Who are you? What have you done with Gavros?”
“I’m sorry,” Blanche said, “I believe Gavros is dead.”
“It was the Falmer, wasn’t it?” the mage whined. “Curse them! They’ve ruined everything! Gavros was supposed to return with the crystal. Without that, all our efforts are wasted. See, it didn’t work the first time. I tried to tell Gavros, but he wouldn’t listen. We brought it all the way from Cyrodiil; of course the cold was going to warp it. It was completely wrong by the time we got here. Gavros had to cart it all the way back to the Imperial City. Left the rest of us here to fend off those damnable Falmer. We didn’t fare well.”
“What’s the crystal for?” Ben asked.
“Can’t talk about it. Official Synod business.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be Paratus, would you?” Blanche asked. “We found a focusing crystal in the ruin. Is that what you’re looking for?”
Ben pulled the crystal from his pack and showed it to Paratus.
“You found it! How in the world? You may have saved our project! Say, who are you, anyway?”
“We’re with the College of Winterhold,” she answered.
Paratus folded his arms and glared at them. “You are, are you? Savos Aren wouldn’t even grant an audience when we came to you, but now you come here expecting help from me? I don’t much like it, I tell you, but you’ve saved my skin so maybe I can overlook the past. Come with me.”
He led them up a ramp, talking as he went. “It was my idea to use the oculary; please keep this in mind. I say ‘oculary,’ but who knows what the dwarves called it? From our research, it seems they were intent on discerning the nature of the divine. The oculary was designed to collect starlight and then split it somehow and project an image. It was my idea to replace one of the key elements with our focusing crystal.”
Paratus led them to a small room completely filled wall to wall by a colossal brass orb with crystals set in different places around the outside. Some of the crystals were bigger than Ben. They went up a ramp to the top, where they found a mechanism made of brass and crystal hanging from the domed ceiling, which was comprised of three concentric circles, each containing a huge crystal. Another one was set into the top of the dome, and sunlight filtered in through it. Farther up the ramp was a control panel.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” Paratus said. “Now hopefully we can get it working. Place the crystal in the central apparatus.”
Ben took the crystal to a platform that extended out over the orb and snapped the brass ring around the focusing crystal into a slot on the mechanism. The device shifted, and the crystal moved out of reach. Three beams of light radiated outward. “What now?” he asked.
“Now the crystal needs to be focused. It must be heated and cooled until the beams point to the tracks in the ceiling. You do know magic, don’t you? Has the college taught you simple fire and frost spells? If they’re as incompetent as I’ve heard, there should be a spell tome around here somewhere.”
Ben glared at him. “Thanks. I got it.”
He called Flames to one hand and Frostbite to the other and began alternately heating and cooling the crystal, watching the beams as they moved up and down on the ceiling. After a few minutes, the lights lined up with the concentric circles.
“Good!” said Paratus. “Now press the buttons on the control panel until the crystals match up with the lights.”
“You could help, you know.”
“No, he can’t,” said Blanche. “You were told you needed to do this, remember?”
Ben grinned. “Oh, right, I was!” He darted up the ramp to the control panel, where three glowing buttons corresponded to the tracks in the ceiling. Ben pressed the buttons until the lights lined up with the crystals, then chuckled with amusement when Paratus leapt into the air with glee.
“Finally! All my work is—wait, what’s this? These results are not at all what they should be.” He walked over to the wall below the control panel, followed by Blanche.
Ben rushed down the ramp and joined them to see a map of Tamriel projected on the wall. “Wow.”
“No, no! This projection should be lit up like the night sky, but something is creating an incredible amount of interference. Something . . . in Winterhold.” He turned and regarded Ben and Blanche suspiciously. “What are you playing at? Are you here to stall my work? Did you know what we were attempting? Explain yourselves!”
Ben looked at Blanche, who shrugged, and then back at the Imperial. “Did something go wrong?”
“Go wrong?” he echoed, eyes wild. “Wrong! Everything is wrong! How did you do it?”
“How did we do what?”
“You have something at your college, don’t you? Something immensely powerful. What is it?”
Ben shrugged innocently. “I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Why are you here?” he demanded.
“We’re searching for the Staff of Magnus,” Blanche told him.
“Aha! That woman—the Breton, Miriam or something—she told you we would know where to find it. Of course. I doubt you’d know enough to sabotage my research anyhow. The crystal was meant to harness all the latent magical energies and overlay the positions of said energies on a map.”
“You’re mapping sources of great magical power,” Blanche surmised.
“Purely to help safeguard the Empire, of course.”
“Oh, of course. But Skyrim is no longer a part of the Empire. Does High King Ulfric even know you’re here?”
“Well, I—I’m sure all permissions were acquired prior to—but it doesn’t matter! Only two locations have been revealed! Your college is one. The other, well, that can only be Labyrinthian. So, mages from Winterhold, despite your intentions, I’ve beaten you at your little game.”
“What game?” Ben replied in frustration. “We’re not up to anything! I think it’s starting to look more like you’re up to something.”
“No, no, you’ve given everything away. So go. Trudge off to Labyrinthian in search of your little staff. But this is not over, I assure you!”
“So the Staff of Magnus is in Labyrinthian?”
“Yes! Well, probably. I mean, certainly it is. There’s something there. But it doesn’t matter now, because I know you’re hoarding something even more important at your college. The Synod Council will be informed of this, and they will find out what you’re up to.”
Ben smirked at him. “I think you’ve been here alone too long. You’re crazy.”
“Am I? Am I? Your trickery won’t confuse me! We’re done here.”
“Thank you for your help, Paratus,” Blanche said kindly.
“I trust you can show yourselves out.”
They left the oculary and started back through the ruin, and Blanche found an exit. As they started through the door, blue light filled the hall and Blanche froze in place. Nerien appeared before Ben.
“You’ve done well thus far, and you are on the right path, but trying times are ahead. It is imperative that you return to your college at once.”
“Why? Did something happen?”
“You will be called upon to take swift action, Ben. Rise to the challenge and discover what you are capable of.”
Nerien disappeared, and Blanche said, “What—did the Psijic monk appear again?”
“How can you tell that? Nobody else could.”
“Perhaps because I’m a vampire. My perception is different. What did he say?”
Ben told her, and they started back toward Winterhold with haste.
* * *
Coranil stood before his employer, explaining about the Thalmor and telling him about the orb he had discovered. “The members of the college are calling it the Eye of Magnus,” he said. “It is rumored that it was the source of the conflict in the infamous Night of Tears at Saarthal.”
“You know I don’t trust magic,” his employer said.
“All the more reason you should know more about it, don’t you think?”
“And you said this Ancano was doing something to the object?”
“He was somehow . . . connected to it. Whether he was sending or receiving, I could not tell.”
Coranil’s employer read through a page of notes and a stack of papers he had taken, considering what to do next. He finally looked up and said, “Fine. I’ll send an emissary, who will speak with the Arch-Mage and find out what we’re dealing with. I may call upon you to retrieve the item.”
“Of course, but I should point out that my further involvement could be detrimental. Ben Stormblade is an apprentice at the college.”
“And he’s met you, I presume.”
“We were introduced by his sister.”
His employer rolled his eyes with annoyance. “I told you at the time that getting involved with Rowan Stormblade was a bad idea. There were too many variables to consider, and now one has come back to bite us.”
“Perhaps you’re right and the relationship was a mistake. It’s over, in any case.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about her flirtation with—what is he calling himself? Dagur Ice-Shield?”
“As far as I am aware, very few know his real identity. You know, my relationship with Rowan could still turn out to be beneficial to our cause. We’ve maintained our friendship and she trusts me.”
“But do you trust her?”
“Implicitly. I do not, however, trust her brother. He is too much of a maverick, and he’s unpredictable.”
“I believe you’re right, my friend. No matter. I have someone keeping an eye on him. All right, go back to Whiterun and utilize any resources you have to research this Eye of Magnus. And continue to watch Rowan and Dolff.”
“I’ll let you know what I turn up, if anything.” Coranil nodded to his employer, then left and headed back to Whiterun.
* * *
Bad weather slowed Ben and Blanche down, and even riding hard, it took three days to get back to Winterhold. They arrived late in the evening and entered the Hall of the Elements to find that the door was blocked by a blurry curtain of energy. Savos Aren and Mirabelle Ervine stood in the vestibule.
“What is going on?” Blanche asked.
“It’s some kind of ward,” Mirabelle told her. “Ancano cast it. He’s in there doing . . . something.”
“I don’t care what it is,” Savos was saying. “I want it down now, and I want to know what he’s doing in there.”
Blanche and Mirabelle called lightning spells and cast them at the ward. It dropped after a few moments and they all rushed in.
Ancano stood next to the Eye of Magnus, his hands up and sparkling magic flowing between them and the orb.
“Ancano!” Savos called. “Stop this at once, I command you!”
The Altmer ignored him, and Savos called spells to his hands and started toward him.
“Don’t go near him!” Mirabelle warned.
White light filled Ben’s vision, and a deafening boom resounded through the hall. The next thing he knew, his head was pounding and he was lying on the floor next to Mirabelle, who was sitting with her back against a column. The ward around Ancano and the Eye was back up. Blanche was lying nearby, just coming around.
“Are you all right?” Mirabelle asked him. “Can you get up? I need you on your feet. We’re in trouble here.”
Ben struggled to his feet and dusted himself off. “Aye, I’m fine. What happened?”
“Ancano is doing something with the Eye, and we can’t stop him. I haven’t seen Savos since the explosion; he must have been thrown clear, and he may be injured. I need you to find him quickly.”
Ben searched the Hall of the Elements and couldn’t find him anywhere. He stepped outside to see if he had perhaps left the building, and he found a group of mages standing near the statue in the courtyard. A crumpled mass lay at their feet, and Ben recognized the robes. It was the Arch-Mage. Savos Aren was dead.