Ben rushed to the body of the Arch-Mage, but he knew there wasn’t anything he could do. Tolfdir stood next to him and rested a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m afraid he’s gone,” said the old wizard. “Are you all right? What happened in there?”
“Ancano has done something with the Eye.”
“By the Nine! Is he responsible for this? I’m afraid it’s not just the Arch-Mage. Something is happening in Winterhold. Faralda and Arniel are on their way into town; you should get out there and help make sure it’s safe. I’ll find Mirabelle and see if we can put a stop to this.”
Ben ran down the pathway and met Faralda at the top of the ramp into Winterhold.
“What’s going on?” she demanded. “What happened in there?”
“Ancano caused an explosion. The Arch-Mage is dead, and Tolfdir said Winterhold is in danger.”
“It is; we need to get down there.”
“Do we have to?” Arniel groused. “They wouldn’t lift a finger to help us.”
Faralda gave him a dirty look and started down the ramp, and Ben and Arniel followed.
Ten little black-and-blue balls of magic were flying around town. Fortunately, Winterhold was deserted; all the townspeople had fled indoors, even the guards. Ben called spells to his hands, but one of anomalies came close enough to touch before he could send any off, causing searing pain in his fingers and up his arm. He retaliated with a firebolt, and the thing darted away. A few more shots and it imploded.
Whether the entities were sentient creatures or just errant spells, they were easy to damage; but they were fast, dancing to and fro like ice wraiths, then zipping in quickly and injuring their opponents. Ben, Faralda, and Arniel had their hands full trying to get rid of them. After over an hour of battle, the last one finally foundered.
“Get back up to the college,” Faralda told Ben, “and let them know what’s going on. We’ll stay here and make sure there aren’t more lurking about.” She reached out and took his hand. “And stay on your guard.”
Ben squeezed her hand and headed back up to the college. Mirabelle was still sitting against the column in the lecture hall, and Blanche was kneeling next to her.
“Winterhold is safe for now,” he announced.
“I wish I could say the same for us,” said Mirabelle.
“What can we do to help?”
“Tolfdir and I will try to keep this contained. You two need to get your hands on the Staff of Magnus.”
“Off to Labyrinthian, then,” said Blanche.
“What? Are you . . . are you serious? That can’t be a coincidence. Come with me.” She pulled herself up and led them to the office next to the Arch-Mage quarters, then opened a desk drawer and pulled out an enormous door knocker.
“Savos gave me this earlier today. He called it the Torc of Labyrinthian, and he said I would know what to do with it when the time came. Ben, I think he meant it for you.”
“Then he knew,” he surmised.
“He knew something. Whether he knew the staff was there or not, we’ll never know. Now, go, take this and get the staff, and bring it back before Ancano brings the whole college down around us.”
Ben and Blanche left the school, mounted horses, and rode hard for two days until they reached Morthal, where they would leave the horses. Blanche said the exterior of Labyrinthian was crawling with trolls, and their horses wouldn’t survive the wait, so they boarded them in Morthal and walked the rest of the way.
Ben gaped in awe when he first saw Labyrinthian. The crumbling ruin was the size of a village and was comprised of a plethora of ramps, channels, steps, and domed buildings. And trolls. Ben had never fought a troll, but Blanche had given him a lesson in killing them on the way. Ranged attacks were best, because going head to head with a troll was suicide. Fire was their enemy, though, and a couple of good fireballs from Ben and flaming arrows from Blanche brought them down fairly quickly.
In one of the domed buildings, they found a skeleton lying next to a wooden mask, a note, and an odd sculpture containing a dragon’s head and eight humanoid busts. They looked as though they had once held masks like the one lying on the floor. The note hinted that donning the mask would transport the wearer to a different location, and Ben just had to try it. Before Blanche could protest, he put the mask on. The world faded away, but he didn’t actually go anywhere. The scene that came into focus was that of the sculpture, but it and the rest of the structure were new, clean, and well-appointed with chests and urns, all empty. It seemed that rather than traveling through space, he had moved through time. The thought sounded ludicrous, but his Ma had time traveled once, so he knew it was possible.
He wondered if the mask he was wearing fit into one of the busts, but when he took it off to try it, he popped back to the present. “Well, that was interesting.”
“What happened?” she asked curiously. Ma would have tanned his hide for putting the mask on and disappearing like that.
“I believe I traveled in time to when this place was new. I figured the mask went on one of those busts, but when I took it off, I came back here.”
“Perhaps the mask is used to transport the wearer so others can be placed on the busts. Hold onto it. I’ve seen masks like these before.”
“Aye, Ma has two or three, herself. Maybe this is where they go.”
After exploring half a dozen buildings, they finally found the correct entrance with the aid of a few ghosts—Savos Aren among them. The ghosts weren’t aware of Ben and Blanche, and they seemed to be more memory than presence. They were students from the college, six of them, and they were arguing over whether or not to enter the tomb. They were here in secret, searching for powerful artifacts, but now that they were outside the door, a couple of them were reluctant. Savos and a girl called Atmah talked them into going, and they disappeared.
Ben and Blanche went to the huge, round door, which had no handle. There was some sort of slotted carving in the center, and Ben attached the Torc to it. With a whoosh, the door swung inward.
The first room was vast and teeming with skeletons. But they didn’t attack; they just lay on the floor, face down, in a crawling position. It was almost as if they had died trying to get out of the ruin. Ben wondered what they had been so frightened of, and if it was still in here.
Down the next tunnel they went, until they came to a room with a closed portcullis. A lever lay nearby, and Ben pulled the lever, opening the gate. He went through, but it closed again before Blanche could get through, and the lever wouldn’t work again. There was another one inside, but Ben didn’t have time to get to it right away because he was attacked by a dozen skeletons, and not all of them humanoid. A monstrous dragon skeleton lumbered toward him, snapping and swinging its tail.
Bone men were usually easy to kill, but there were so many of them. He drew his sword and started swinging wildly, but they still swamped him. He sustained a deep gash in his side, and the dragon came very close to biting him in half before he finally managed to dive for the lever to open the portcullis. Blanche came in, arrows flying, and finished off the last of the skeletons. Although Ben was bleeding profusely, he managed to help Blanche fight the dragon, and the bones finally dropped to the floor as though nothing had been holding them together.
Ben bent over, breathing heavily and clutching his abdomen.
“Take off your robes and lie down,” Blanche instructed. “This is why you’re not supposed to go into a ruin alone,” she chided him while she stitched him up.
“Aye, I get it. You don’t need to harp on it.”
“But I will.”
They saw the ghosts again after they left the chamber, but there were only five this time. One of them had fallen to the skeletal dragon, and again they entertained the idea of turning back. In the end, they decided to move forward and vanished.
Blanche and Ben walked into a room with an iced-over door at the far end. A wave of cold washed over them, and a voice resounded through the air. “Wo meyz wha dii vul junaar?” Ben could feel his magicka being leeched away with every word.
“What did it say?” he asked.
“He wants to know who we are.” She raised her hands and tried to call magic to them, but she too had been drained of magicka. She reached into her pack for a magicka potion, but Ben put a hand out to stop her.
“Let me try something.” He turned to the door and Shouted. “Yol toor shul!”
The ice melted, the door opened, and a spectral warrior stepped out and attacked. He died with a single Fire Breath Shout from Blanche, and they moved on.
Not far down the path, the magicka-draining voice returned. “Nivahriin muz fent siiv nid aaz het.”
“Something about showing no mercy?” Ben queried.
“‘Cowardly men shall find no mercy here.’” She tried to cast a spell again, groaned with frustration, and took her bow in hand. “He keeps eating away all our magicka! Draw your sword; it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to rely on magic.”
Ben drew his weapon, and they continued on. They fought a few draugr, but there was nothing they couldn’t handle until the voice came again and sucked away their magical energy.
“You do not answer,” he growled in the common tongue. “Must I use this guttural language of yours?”
“Do we answer him?” Ben asked.
“I’m of a mind to ignore him.”
“Works for me.”
“Have you returned, Aren, my old friend?” the voice asked. “Do you seek now to finish that which you could not before? You only face failure once more.”
They continued, fighting a few draugr and trolls, and lots of skeletons. The lack of magicka not only affected Ben’s ability to cast spells, it sapped his fighting energy as well. The gash in his side was also giving him a lot of pain. Fortunately for him, Blanche was there to pick up his slack.
“I’m sorry,” he moaned when he had to sit down and take a breather after a fight with a rancid-smelling troll. He swallowed a healing potion to help with the pain.
“You’ve come to rely too much on magic these past months,” Blanche told him. “You don’t need magicka to fight with a blade, but your subconscious can no longer tell the difference between stamina and magicka. It’s a common problem with battlemages. This ruin might turn out to be beneficial in more ways than one. You’re being forced to use your physical attributes, which desperately need exercise.”
“You!” the voice cried. “You are not Aren, are you? Has he sent you in his place? Is he too cowardly to face me again?”
They continued to ignore the ever-more-agitated voice. “Did Aren warn you that your own power would be your undoing? That it would only serve to strengthen me?”
“No, we figured that out on our own,” Ben muttered.
They reached a flaming door with a scroll of Ice Spike on the floor next to it. Ben turned to Blanche, but she shook her head. “Go ahead.”
“All right. Fo krah diin!” The Frost Breath Shout opened the door and released a warrior spirit, whom Blanche put down quickly.
Shortly thereafter, they happened upon the ghosts again. Another of their number was dead, and they were frightened and discouraged. Savos Aren urged them to move on. “We cannot go back now. We’ve come so far; we must press forward.”
After the ghosts disappeared, specters of another kind came into view. They entered an area filled with ghostly draugr, who used Shouts of their own to keep Ben and Blanche at bay. When they finally prevailed, they found a room with a Word Wall.
They stood together as the chants filled the room, the light faded, and a single word shone before them. Tiid. Time.
Blanche had always been a hero of Ben’s. She was smarter, more experienced, somehow better than he was. She was a mentor, a role model. But as he stood next to her with the word seeping into his mind, he felt for the first time that they could be equals. He was Dragonborn, just like she was, and that common bond made them peers.
And then he realized she had absorbed a different word than he had.
“Tiid,” he murmured. “I already know this word.”
“But do you know it as a Word of Power? Can you use it in a Shout?”
“Let’s find out. Tiid!” Nothing happened. It was still just a word.
Blanche stood facing him, folded her hands, and closed her eyes. A pale aura surrounded her and began to flow toward Ben, and soon he could hear the word in his mind and comprehend. Tiid meant more than just time. It was the ebb and flow, the beginning and the end, day and night, years and moments. It was now and would always be now. To know Time as a Word of Power, he would have to become time. He was the ebb and flow, the beginning and the end, in full control of the now.
When the waves between them stopped, he turned, faced the Word Wall so as not to Shout directly at Blanche, and tried again. “Tiid!”
This time, everything slowed down around him. Dust particles practically stopped in midair, and when he turned to Blanche, her lips were moving at a substantially reduced speed. Her voice sounded low and deep.
“Y-o-o-o-u-u-u d-i-i-i-d i-i-i-t.”
Time abruptly caught up with him again, and everything went back to normal. “Doesn’t last long.”
“The more words you know, the longer it will last.”
“What word did you learn?”
“Ul. Eternity. It’s the third Word of Power in the Shout. I’ll need to absorb a soul before I can use it, though.”
“Which means it probably won’t happen.”
“What’s the second word? Can you teach me?”
“Not here. I’ll gift you with it when we’re camping on the way back to the college. For now, we have to keep moving.”
They saw the ghosts again, only three this time—Savos, Atmah, and one named Hafnar. They were standing at heavy double doors, speculating on what lay beyond. “This is it,” said Hafnar, and the others agreed. The specters vanished, and Ben opened the doors.
They entered a cavernous hall with a high platform on one side and one with several levels of platforms on the other. A bridge connected the two sides. On the right, a mage in ragged robes was floating in the air, bound in place by a sphere of magic that was being sent by two ghostly beings on the other side. Atmah and Hafnar, now in spectral form, knelt with their hands stretched toward the mage, projecting the ubiquitous blue light at him.
“Dragon priest,” said Blanche. “You can tell by the robes. Do you see what he’s holding?”
The dragon priest held a large staff in one hand, likely the Staff of Magnus.
“Now what do we do?” Ben grumbled. “I mean, they’re obviously keeping him bound there for a reason. If we stop the spell, he’ll be loose. If we don’t, we can’t get the staff.”
“We stop the spell. Between the two of us, we can kill that dragon priest.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident. If he was easy to kill, wouldn’t they have done it already? And how do we break the beams?”
“We’ll have to kill the two ghosts. I’d wager they’re ready for a rest, anyway. Let’s go.”
They went up the stairs, and each took a spectral mage. Ben stood behind Atmah, who was repeatedly muttering an incantation, and swung his sword. She glowed brightly for a moment, then dissipated into a shiny pool of ectoplasm.
“Thank you . . .” she whispered softly.
The beam cut off, and after a moment, Blanche destroyed Hafnar and his beam went away. With a victorious shriek, the dragon priest began floating across the bridge toward them, casting fireballs. They dodged as best they could, and Blanche drew her bow and pelted the priest with arrows. Ben darted in to pierce him with his sword.
“I am Morokei, and I am free,” the priest boasted, “and now you die.” He sent a fireball at Ben and hit him in the face and chest, and Ben screamed in agony.
But the pain only made him more determined. He was tired of getting his arse kicked in this dungeon. He drew a deep breath and Shouted, “Yol toor shul!” sending back some of the flames Morokei had visited on him. Just as the fire hit, Blanche sent an arrow through the eye of Morokei’s mask, and with one last wail, the dragon priest disintegrated into a pile of ash. The only thing left of him was the Staff of Magnus and a mask much like the one Ben had picked up outside.
The bronze staff was as tall as he was, and the clawed head clutched a bluish orb. Which rotated on an invisible axis, humming and glowing softly—basically a miniature version of the Eye. A large crystal of the same material was set into the end. Ben took the staff, which was warm to the touch and pulsing with a constant vibration. A power surged through him, and he immediately felt stronger, more vital, even smarter. The pain of the blisters on his face and the gash in his side ebbed away to almost nothing. He lifted his free hand and could actually see the magicka flowing from it. “By the Nine,” he muttered. “This is one powerful staff.”
They found a back way out, and as they headed up the passage to the exit, they spotted Savos’s ghost. He stood alone, dismal, and defeated, gazing back at the door they had just come through. “I’m so sorry, my friends,” he said sadly. “I had no choice. It was the only way to make sure that monster never escaped. I promise you, I’ll never let this happen again. I’ll seal this whole place away.”
“They couldn’t kill Morokei because they only had their magic,” Blanche inferred. “We had mundane weapons and Shouts, so we were able to do what Savos and the others couldn’t.”
“Do we seal it back up?”
“Oh, yes. Let’s head to the front and remove the Torc, and we’ll take it back to the college.”
They stepped through what they thought was the exit, but it merely brought them to an antechamber. There was a chest and a couple of urns, but the most remarkable thing in the room was the Altmer wearing hooded Thalmor robes. A sinking feeling washed over Ben, and his heart pounded with terror.
“So. You made it out alive,” the Thalmor said. “My sources were right: you are dangerous. I’ll take that staff now.”
“Get out of my way,” Ben warned him, praying to the Divines he didn’t sound as scared as he was.
“You fool. You don’t stand a chance.” With that, he called magic into his hands and hit Ben with a blast of lightning.
Ben hit the floor and twitched violently, the stinging jolt spreading through his entire body, but he maintained a death grip on the staff. He wasn’t sure what Blanche did—he was too distracted to see—but she managed to kill the elf. He had been hit with shock spells before, but this was the most jarring bolt he’d ever taken, as if he had actually been struck by lightning.
Blanche knelt at his side. “Are you all right?”
He struggled to sit up, every nerve still tingling. “Gods damn it. If he was that powerful to start with, I don’t want to think about the damage he could have done with the Staff of Magnus.” He crawled over to the mage and examined him. Ben felt he had seen him before; he just couldn’t figure out where. He looted about a hundred gold pieces and an enchanted necklace from the Thalmor.
Blanche checked the chest and the urns, and she came away with two more pieces of magical jewelry, a healing potion, and some gold. “Let’s get out of here,” she told Ben as she placed the items in her pack.
“I can’t,” he confessed, not even trying to get up. “Can we get rid of that body and spend the night in here?”
“Of course.” She fished a healing potion out of her pack and handed it to him, and while he was drinking it and unfolding his bedroll, she dragged the Altmer’s body out of the ruin and left it in the snow. “I’ll keep watch. You lie down and get some rest.”
Ben didn’t have to be told twice. He tucked himself into his bedroll, closed his eyes, and sank into a deep sleep. When he opened them again, he felt better. Blanche sat on her bedroll, reading a book. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly.
“It’s not necessary. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to do what needs to be done, and you’ve been chosen to do this. You needed to sleep.”
“How long was I out?”
“More than half a day.”
“Oh, gods! We need to get a move on, get back to the college.”
“I just hope there’s a college to get back to.”
* * *
Ben hadn’t realized how prophetic Blanche’s comment had been. When they returned to Winterhold, they found that the ward had expanded to encompass the whole college and part of the bridge into town. Winterhold was crowded with displaced mages. While Blanche looked around for Mirabelle, Ben found Tolfdir at the bottom of the first ramp.
“Do you have it?” Tolfdir asked without preamble. “Let’s hope it’s as powerful as the Psijics believe it to be. Ancano’s power is growing. We can’t crack whatever magic he’s using to shield himself.”
“What is he doing?”
“We still don’t know. A stranger showed up three days ago, asking Mirabelle all sorts of questions about the Eye and the Staff. He spoke to Ancano and left, and shortly thereafter, Ancano’s ward began to expand.”
“You’ve been out here three days?” Ben asked incredulously.
“More or less.”
“Where is Mirabelle?” asked Blanche, who was just walking up.
“She . . . she didn’t make it. When it was clear that we would have to fall back, she stayed behind to make sure the rest of us were out.”
“So she could still be alive in there.”
Tolfdir looked her earnestly in the eye and shook his head.
“Let’s get in there,” Ben said. He went up the ramp and across the bridge to the outer perimeter of the ward, pointed the Staff of Magnus, and focused his will. With a hollow whump, the Staff emitted a burst of energy, and the ward dropped. He rushed into the Hall of the Elements, where Ancano stood exchanging power with the Eye.
“Is that what you’re doing? Trying to destroy the world? Or just pave the way for the Thalmor?”
“‘Pave the way.’ You worms have already lost a war that hasn’t even begun. There is nothing you can do. Ha, you have even helped me by bringing me the Staff!”
Tolfdir shot a firebolt at the Altmer, but it just bounced off. “Spells have no effect!”
“I am beyond your pathetic attempts at magic!” he laughed. “You cannot touch me.”
The room lit up as the Eye began to open like a puzzle cube. It continued to spin, but the power it emitted intensified, all of it radiating toward Ancano.
“The Staff!” Tolfdir cried. “Ben, use it on the Eye!”
Ben pointed the Staff at the Eye and focused his will. Energy flowed into the Eye, but nothing happened. A throbbing headache began to form behind his eyes.
“You persist?” Ancano jeered. “Very well. Come, then, and see what I can do.”
He waved his hands, and several of the magical anomalies like those they had destroyed in town began dancing around the room. Tolfdir, Blanche, and a couple of other wizards who had made it back into the hall began shooting spells, trying to get them to dissipate. Just as the last one was defeated, Ancano waved his hand again. There was a blinding flash of light, and suddenly everyone except Ben was lying on the floor, paralyzed. The Staff must have protected him.
“Blast!” Ancano snarled as he saw Ben still standing.
Ben continued to focus on the Eye, and it finally started to knit back together. When it was fully closed, Ancano backed away and took shelter behind a column. He stepped out briefly and shot a fireball at Ben, hitting him in the face. Ben shrieked, and when he was writhing in pain, the stitches in his side broke open. It felt as though he had been stabbed again. It wasn’t just the freely bleeding wound and the new blisters that were forming on his face and neck; his whole head felt like it was burning from the inside out, and his strength was fading. The Staff increased his magical power, but the struggle with the Eye was deplete his stamina and health rapidly. But he refused to fall. He couldn’t let Ancano succeed. He had to do this. Hot, stinging tears mixed with sweat ran down his cheeks as he set his feet and focused on the Thalmor.
The Altmer dashed from one column to the other, and Ben shot chain lightning at him. By Ancano’s yelp, he knew the spell had landed. Now if he could just get him to stay put. But he didn’t know the Paralysis spell.
Well, if he couldn’t paralyze him, he could at least slow him down. The next time Ancano stepped out from behind the column, he Shouted, “Tiid Klo!”
Ancano’s speed slowed to almost nothing, and Ben shot chain lightning at him again. The Thalmor screamed, the long, low howl of someone moving at a snail’s pace in a world that’s speeding around him. The Shout wore off just in time for him to fall, and he dropped fast, his head hitting the tiles with a sickening splat and a burst of blood.
Ben’s head swam, and the Staff of Magnus clattered to the floor. He noticed the others were beginning to move again, pulling themselves to their feet, but he found he could no longer stay on his. He collapsed, and a black haze filled his mind.
* * *
When Ben opened his eyes, Blanche, Tolfdir, Faralda, Colette Morence, and oddly, Quaranir peered down at him.
“Can you sit up?” Colette asked.
Blanche took his hand and helped him to a sitting position. He was exhausted, but he was in no pain. He put a hand to his face and realized the blisters were gone. The same with his side; his clothes were still bloody, but the gaping wound was no more than a scar. Someone had healed him, probably Colette. Overhead, the Eye continued to churn, opening and closing on its own.
“That was a close one,” he muttered drowsily.
“We knew you would succeed,” said Quaranir.
“How’d you know?”
“A great many things obscured to you are quite clear to us. We have long believed you would prevail. But the Eye has grown unstable. We cannot let it remain here for fear that it may destroy the world. Ancano’s actions prove that the world is not ready for the Eye, so the Psijic Order shall safeguard it. For now, you can carry on with your lives.”
“That’s it? You’re just going to take it and go?”
Quaranir patted him on the shoulder. “Yes, my young friend. You have done well, and you have our thanks. You have saved the world; your mother will be proud of you.”
“You know my mother?”
“I’ve never had the pleasure to meet her, but I know of her and her deeds. The power to do great things is in your blood; this is just the first. Take your rest now, because you will be needed again very soon.” He stood up and joined two other Psijic monks as they surrounded the Eye. They raised their hands as if they were holding it, and all three of them and the Eye vanished.
“You’ve done it!” Tolfdir exclaimed, clapping Ben on the shoulder.
“Now, we try to get things back to normal,” said Faralda. “We need to choose a new Arch-Mage.”
“Here’s your big chance,” he chuckled.
His lover’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “After all this, I don’t know if I want the job. I believe Tolfdir is the senior mage.”
“Actually, Blanche is the senior mage,” Tolfdir pointed out.
“No, no,” Blanche protested. “I have a life in Riften. I’m available as a consultant as always, but I will not accept the mantle of Arch-Mage. I’ve spent too long away from my husband and children as it is.”
“Well, I—I don’t know what to say,” the old mage stammered.
“We’ll have to discuss it with the rest of the college, of course,” Faralda reminded him. She turned back to Ben. “Can you get up?”
“Just long enough to get to bed. I’m so tired.”
“Then rest,” Blanche said softly. “The college will be here when you wake up.”
He struggled to his feet, and Faralda helped him get to his room in the Hall of Attainment, tucked furs around him, and kissed him good night. As he laid his head on his pillow, he considered Blanche’s statement. Yes, the college would be there after all. But he had a lot of thinking to do. After the saga with the Eye and Staff of Magnus, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do anymore. Blanche said he had come to rely too much on magic and not enough on his sword arm. There had to be a balance. He still loved magic, but he didn’t know if he wanted to stay at the college. It had been such a happy place for him, but as he listened to the drone of the focal point in the center of the building and thought of classes, rituals, and Tolfdir’s lectures on the dangers of magic, he only felt more exhausted. Even the thought of bedding Faralda held no charm for him. Well, okay, it still held a little charm. But he wondered if perhaps it was time to leave the college and join the Companions.
That, or he was just really tired. A decision like that could wait until tomorrow. Ben closed his eyes and began to drift off, hoping to the Divines he didn’t have nightmares but expecting that he probably would.