Rowan, Ben, and Dolff had little trouble on the road north across Solstheim. Aside from a handful of ash hoppers and one insane mage babbling about learning to fly, they didn’t meet any hostiles on the trip. They arrived at the village after two nights on the road and approached a woman kneeling in the snow outside a cabin. She was in her mid-forties, with darkly tanned skin, golden hair, and piercing blue eyes.
“We do not get many strangers in the Skaal Village,” she said without getting up. “Why have you come?”
“We were sent by Selene Stormblade,” said Rowan. “We’re her children.”
With that, the woman smiled and stood up. “You must be Rowan, then,” she said warmly, reaching for her hand and holding it between her own. “I am Frea, the shaman of the Skaal.”
“Aye, I am Rowan. This is my brother Ben, and Dagur Ice-Shield.”
“You look like your father, Ben. You are all welcome here. Your parents are dear friends of the Skaal. Tell me, how are they?”
“They’re well,” said Ben.
“I think of them often. Selene was with us when she almost lost you, Rowan.”
“Aye, when she lost my twin. She told me how you took care of her.”
“She took care of us as well—as did Brynjolf. Selene worried that you would feel an emptiness, having lost a twin.”
“But they gave me a brother a couple of years later, and we’re very close. I’ve never felt any sort of emptiness.”
“Perhaps he is the twin Miraak took from Selene’s womb.”
“Are you serious?” Ben asked incredulously.
“Who knows how the All-Maker works? If he intended for you to be Rowan’s brother and Miraak took that away, perhaps he sent you back to her a few years later.”
“I like that,” Rowan said with a smile. Ben leaned in and kissed the top of her head.
“So what can I do for you, children of Stormblade?”
“We’re looking for Tharstan,” Ben replied.
Frea sighed. “I’m afraid Tharstan is not well. He has been bedridden for weeks.”
“We don’t want to disturb him,” said Dolff, “but we have questions about a tomb here on Solstheim. We were told he knew the island better than anyone.”
The shaman thought for a moment, then said, “Wait here.”
She walked across the yard and entered a building that was too big to be a house. Rowan figured it must be some sort of community hall, or maybe a jarl’s quarters. After a few minutes, Frea returned with another woman, weathered, gray-haired, and wearing a warm smile.
“Welcome to the Skaal Village, children of Stormblade,” the older woman said. “I am Fanari Strong-Voice, the chief. Frea said you had questions for my husband.”
“Aye,” said Ben, “if he’s up to it.”
“Tharstan is very weak, but if you ask me your questions, I will see if I can help you.”
“We’re looking for Vahlok’s Tomb.”
Fanari’s eyes widened momentarily, and then an amused smile crossed her face. “The All-Maker’s timing never ceases to amaze me. Come inside Greathall with me.” As Frea went back to her house, Fanari led them into the building and went to a desk, where she unrolled a map of Solstheim.
“My husband is weak and ill after a trip he made to investigate a new passage that had just opened up.”
“A passage?” Rowan echoed.
“Aye. We experience occasional earthquakes from the eruptions of the Red Mountain. About six weeks ago, we got word that the entrance to a tomb had opened up after one of the quakes. The location was unmistakable; it had to be the tomb of Vahlok the Jailor, for which Tharstan had been searching for years. Although he is much too old for such forays, he took one of the men from the village and went to the ruin. Nikulas carried him home on his back.”
“What happened?” asked Dolff.
“Old fool fell and broke a hip. He did manage to mark the trail, though. I just thank the All-Maker that if he had to fall, he fell before they got inside the ruin.”
“They didn’t get in?”
“They got to the door. It is partly underground, and Tharstan fell while climbing down the rocks. Frea healed him as best she could, but he is old.” She pointed to the map. “In any case, this is where you want to go. The ground opens up here, just past the snowline.”
“Thank you Fanari,” Rowan said. “We won’t keep you any longer.”
“Stay and have a meal with us before you go. You can tell me of your adventures. Are the lives of the Dragonborn’s children as exciting as hers was?”
“We like to think so,” Ben said with a chuckle, “but our enemies pale in comparison with those she fought.”
“Your mother is a great heroine. Come. Sit at the table, and I will fix some lunch.”
Rowan, Ben, and Dolff had lunch with Fanari, although every once in a while Tharstan would call out from the other room and she would rush away to tend to him. They told her about the Companions and Ben’s time at the College of Winterhold, but they never mentioned their quest for the Coat of Storms. The three left a few hours later and headed south.
After spending a night on the road, they crossed the snowline and traversed a few miles of mossy grass before coming to a spot where the ground opened up into a narrow crevasse. They climbed over a few boulders and followed a path down to an iron door that was tucked into the ground. Though it was clear from their vantage point, they wouldn’t have seen it from the surface if they hadn’t been looking for it.
“Wow,” said Ben. “Any more, and the door would be totally hidden.”
“Kind of looks like their All-Maker wanted us to find it, no?” Rowan mused.
Dolff tried the door, which swung open easily. “Shall we?”
Inside, a long tunnel led to a cavernous room comprised of three levels, the lowest of which was submerged. There was a trapdoor in the floor of the mid-level, and from their vantage point they could see that it covered a blazing fire pit. The floor surrounding the pit was littered with dead draugr. Four sets of walkways and stairs led to the upper level, or rather four separate upper levels. One came up to the platform where they stood, one went to a cage straight ahead, and two led to gated entrances to either side. The four corners were accessible to each other only by going past the fire pit. On the opposite side of the cage, across an empty chasm, lay a third portcullis.
“Lots of closed doors,” said Rowan, stepping up to a podium bearing a plaque written in dragon language. A handle protruded from the side of the stand. “How much you want to bet this opens one of them?”
“But can you read it?” Dolff asked.
She shrugged. “Should be able to. If I can’t, Ben can.” She and her brother studied the plaque, and Rowan nodded. “It says, ‘A sacrifice will bring you closer to that which you seek.’”
“A sacrifice?” Ben repeated. “Standing so close to that fire pit, that word gives me chills.”
“But it doesn’t say we have to sacrifice ourselves,” Dolff remarked. “Look at all the dead draugr on the floor below. Perhaps we can drop one of them in the fire pit.” He went down the steps, grabbed hold of the feet of the draugr closest to the trapdoor and dragged it over. When the corpse was lying over the trapdoor, he called, “Now pull the handle.”
Rowan engaged the handle, the door opened, and the draugr fell to the depths below. With a metallic clang, the portcullises to the left and right of the chamber opened.
“Take your pick,” Dolff said with a grin.
They went to the right first, across a short bridge, up the stairs and through the gate. A hundred yards in, they came to a room with another dragon language plaque. There was no handle on this stand, but a grid of nine pressure plates stood between it and the next room, which had three doorways closed off by portcullises. They could walk around the pressure plates, but there didn’t seem to be another way to open the gates. Distant chanting hinted that the room might contain a Word Wall.
Ben smiled. “Now, there’s a happy sound.”
“Well, don’t get too worked up over it,” said Rowan. “It’s not like we can use whatever Shout it gives us, anyway.”
“Still a happy sound.” He read the words on the plaque. “‘Continue along the path. Don’t tread where you’ve been.’ Seems pretty easy. Just step on each pressure plate once.”
Rowan placed her foot carefully onto one of the corner plates and was relieved when it didn’t spit fire at her. She wound her way around the grid, touching each plate only once, and when she stepped off the ninth, the gates dropped into recesses in the floor.
Several sarcophagi opened when they stepped into the room, and they had to deal with the draugr that emerged before making their way to the Word Wall. The epitaph announced that this was the tomb of a renowned guardian, which they had pretty much figured. The word mid glowed blue in front of them—mid for loyalty. But as always, knowing the Word of Power and using it in a Shout were two different things.
Dolff found half of a dragon claw key on one of the draugr. “I don’t think this is going to help much,” he said.
Rowan studied the claw. “I don’t know. It doesn’t look like it’s been broken. It seems to have been carved that way. Hold onto it; maybe we’ll find the other half.”
The back wall of one of the sarcophagi had opened onto a secret chamber, and the three stepped through. The tunnel came to a dead end after a short distance, with nothing but a pull chain waiting for them. Rowan pulled the chain, and the wall opened up.
“Hmm. It’s just the big, main chamber again.”
“Good,” said Ben. “Now we don’t have to go all the way back around.” He stepped through, dropped down to the mid-level, and crossed the room; then he led them across the bridge, up the stairs, and through the gate on the other side.
This corridor led to a burial passage, where they fought and killed a few draugr. Farther down the tunnel, a pull chain opened a gate onto a round room with a monolith in the center. The towering stone had three sides, each bearing glyphs in a different color and a relief of a weapon—a sword, a bow, and a staff. Three pillars flanked the larger one, each of them holding one of the weapons depicted, although not the same one as shown above it. A wide circle surrounded the obelisk, and another set of pillars stood outside the circle. They looked like soul gem stands, with little shields jutting up to direct any light or energy toward the center; but instead of soul gems, they held stone orbs. The exit, which was closed off by another portcullis, stood across the room. At the entrance was another dragon language podium.
“‘All men must die,’” Rowan read, “‘often by their own means.’ I get the bow.”
Rowan retrieved the bow from its stand, Dolff picked up the sword, and Ben took the staff. She stepped back and, aiming at the side that shone with green glyphs and depicted the bow, she shot an arrow at the obelisk.
“What’d I do wrong?” she wondered, glancing around for clues.
“Try standing on the inside and shooting out,” Ben suggested.
Rowan took her place in front of the giant bow and shot at the outer post. When the arrow hit, the pillar hummed and rotated to show green glyphs to match the central stone. Dolff struck his pillar with the sword, and Ben shot a fireball with the staff. As soon as each exterior post had been activated, the exit gate opened. They found another small burial chamber, complete with draugr who burst from their sarcophagi, anxious to be vanquished, and a Word Wall.
“This wall talks about Miraak,” Ben said as the word vur—valor—glowed brightly.
A check of the draugr turned up the other half of the dragon claw key, and Rowan found another tunnel exit at the back of one of the sarcophagi. It led to the expected dead end, pull chain, and opening onto the main chamber.
“Somehow, I think the next one isn’t going to be as easy,” she murmured as she peered down at the cage that waited a short flight up from the trapdoor.
The cage was locked, of course, but there was a keyhole on either side shaped just like half of a dragon claw. Ben took one and Dolff took the other, and they inserted the claw halves into the holes and turned. The door to the cage swung open, giving them access to another dragon language plaque. A handle protruded from the stand.
“Should I read this one?” Dolff joked.
Rowan stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “Stick with me, love, and I’ll teach you.” Then she turned to the plaque. “‘Stay your course. To idle is to die.’”
The opposite door opened easily, as did the fourth portcullis. But it was at least fifty feet away, and there was nothing between it and the cage except for dead air and a long drop into the water below.
“Whirlwind Sprint?” Ben considered.
“No,” said Rowan. “Too obscure. The lever on the podium probably extends a bridge or something.”
Dolff, who stood at the back, pulled the lever, and a platform made of magical blue light appeared before them with a crash like a door slamming. Another appeared just beyond it, and another one beyond it, and so on until the lights made a short, quickly disappearing path across to the other side.
“I guess that’s what it means by, ‘To idle is to die,’” Rowan said. “Gotta go fast and get off a square before it disappears. Pull the lever again.” When Dolff activated the lever and the blue light appeared, she stepped onto it, ready to go to the next one when it came up. It felt as solid as a stone floor. She made her way quickly across, and when she reached the gate on the other side, all the squares lit up at once, creating a solid bridge for the boys to cross.
The tunnel led them to a door that was barred from the other side and an opening onto another chasm, but the water below was inhabited by six shades that silently patrolled with bows and ghostly arrows. The trench was in an “L” shape, suggesting that there might be a third such obstacle down the next passage. A handle by the doorway revealed another walkway of light, but while the first one was straight across, this one meandered a bit before finally coming to an end at the opposite door.
“I’ve got this one,” Dolff said, and he stepped across the tiles of light and reached the other side without incident.
Sure enough, they found another path of blue light, and Ben stepped out onto the first square. But the maze was far more complex and the lights disappeared rapidly, and one misstep sent him tumbling into the water below.
“Shit!” Ben cried.
Rowan took aim at the shades that started moving toward him. She shot one, and Dolff stood at her side and shot another while she reloaded and fired an arrow at still another. Ben hurled firebolts at the shades from the lower level, and after a few moments, all six had dissipated into piles of ectoplasm floating on the surface of the water.
“Are you okay?” she asked her brother.
“The water was too shallow and I broke my fucking ankle!” he snarled. He started hopping toward the end of the room. “There’s a doorway over here; I’m assuming it leads up to that locked door.” When he reached the opening, he said, “There’s a staircase up. Give me a minute.”
Rowan couldn’t see him, but she could hear the faint hum of magic and assumed he was healing himself. “Ben?” she called.
“I’m fine,” he replied. “I’ll be right up.”
Rowan and Dolff backtracked across the second bridge, which was still lit up across the chasm, and just as they reached the locked door, Ben barreled through it.
“Well, at least we don’t have to redo this one,” he said as he stepped gingerly out onto the blocks of light.
When they reached the third path again, Rowan said, “I’ll go this time. I’m faster than you.”
“Okay, well, you’re still hurt, so there.” Dolff pulled the handle, and Rowan darted across the squares as they lit up. She slipped once and almost fell, but she righted herself and hopped onto the next square before the other one disappeared. When she reached the other side, she smiled and bowed triumphantly as all the squares lit up.
“Show off,” Ben grumbled as he crossed. He stopped and drank a healing potion when he reached the other side.
With the paths of light behind them, they opened a door onto a wide hall with images carved into the walls on either side. At the other end was a dragon claw puzzle door—three concentric wheels, each bearing three different animal glyphs, surrounding a disk with talon-shaped keyholes.
Rowan had never been in a hall of stories before, and she found the reliefs fascinating. They all depicted scenes of battle, the overarching theme being the war between Vahlok and Miraak. Spells were flung, dragons flew, and atronachs attacked in vivid detail. If she used her imagination, she could almost see the carvings moving.
When they reached the puzzle door, Ben held the halves of the claw together and grimaced. “Isn’t this supposed to have a combination carved into it?”
He was right: the palm side of the talon should have contained three small pictures showing the correct combination for the wheels of the door.
“Crap,” Dolff muttered. “Now what?”
“Maybe the reliefs on the wall,” Rowan proposed. She went back and studied each picture carefully, looking for patterns, as did the boys. It seemed as though hours went by without any clues, and she was about to give up when she finally figured out that the same three animals showed up in all of the drawings. “Now we just have to figure out what order they go in,” she said.
“What?” asked Dolff. “What do you have?”
“There’s a dragon, a hawk, and a wolf in every picture.”
Ben and Dolff stood back and studied the drawings, and after a moment, Ben said, “They’re all in the same order.”
“What? No, they’re not. Wait—” No, he was right. No matter where they showed up in each relief, the hawk was always on the left and the dragon was on the right. The wolf was invariably somewhere between the two. “Well, let’s give it a try.”
Dolff reached for the largest wheel and turned it with the grin of stone on stone until the hawk rested in place at the top. He did the same with the wolf and dragon images, and then Ben placed the two halves of the claw in the keyhole and turned it. The lock suddenly spat the two pieces out, and the circles turned on their own until the dragon image was showing on all three. With a whoosh of fetid air, the door began to drop slowly into the recess below.
The door opened onto a wide staircase that ended at yet another portcullis. Rowan pulled a chain next to the gate, and it opened onto a long, oval room with a Word Wall at the other end. A pool rested in the center, and a sarcophagus stood at the head. Except for a narrow path along the edge of the pool, the room was laid wall to wall with pressure plates.
“Well, there’s no getting around the sarcophagus to reach the Word Wall,” said Ben.
“No,” Dolff concurred, “and I’ll wager that whatever is in it isn’t going to burst out until we’re right on top of it.”
“I can stay back and shoot,” Rowan offered.
Ben nodded. He and Dolff started out, each taking one side of the pool. Dolff drew his bow in preparation, and Ben readied fire spells. When they neared the coffin, the lid popped and a dragon priest arose with a piercing screech. Rowan and Dolff shot arrows at it, and Ben exchanged fireballs with it, catching one in the shoulder with a painful growl. Rowan and Dolff each released another arrow into the dragon priest, and it fell onto one of the pressure plates, setting off a chain reaction in which every plate in the room released a quick jet of flame. One of them hit Dolff, and he jumped out of the way with a curse.
When the flames subsided, Rowan edged around the pool toward the body of the dragon priest, where Dolff and Ben knelt, each sucking down a healing potion. Neither was badly injured, just singed a bit. “Hello, Vahlok,” she said to the corpse.
Ben yanked an amulet from Vahlok’s throat and held it up. It was identical to the sketch Ulfric had shown them, sparkling with five tiny red gems. “Six down, one to go.”
But there was more. The Word Wall chanted at them gaily, and Rowan and her brother approached to learn about how the guardian was rewarded for his loyalty with an honorable death. The word shaan—inspire—stood out and infused itself in their minds.
“It’s pissing me off,” Ben moaned. “We’ve learned all three Words of Power for this stupid Shout, and we can’t use it because we don’t have any dragon souls.”
“So the chanting isn’t such a happy sound anymore?”
“Less every time I hear it. I mean, what’s the point of being Dragonborn?”
Dolff came up behind them holding Vahlok’s cloak. “You guys have any ideas for this?” he asked. “Because I do.”
* * *
The next afternoon, Dolff, Rowan, and Ben walked into the Skaal Village and knocked on the door to Greathall. Farani opened the door, and her face lit up.
“I hadn’t expected to see you again,” she told them, “but I’m glad you came back.”
“We have something for Tharstan,” Dolff said. He handed her the cloak.
“The cloak of a dragon priest! He will be very grateful for this. So it was indeed Vahlok’s tomb?”
“It was. It seems the whole crypt was built so he could continue his vigil, even beyond death.”
“And did you find the artifact you were looking for?” said a voice behind them.
Dolff turned to see Frea standing at their backs. “How did you know that?” he asked her. “We didn’t mention any artifacts.”
“I commune with the All-Maker, and he tells me what I need to know.”
“Did the All-Maker tell you anything else?”
“He does not speak to me with words, young Dagur, but I still understand. You are on a quest that is causing an imbalance with nature. The further you progress in this quest, the more out of balance things will become. There is too much conflicting magic in too small a space—a space unequipped to handle such power. It is a great danger, and you are in more danger than anyone.”
“Me? How so?” He couldn’t help thinking about what Peryite had told Rowan.
“I do not know. Protect yourself and your friends, and make no rash decisions. When the time comes, resolve to do what must be done. Must be done.”
“What must be done?”
“You will know.”
When they were back on the road, Ben said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have returned to the Skaal Village. You gotta love seers. None of them ever just comes out and tells you what you need to know. All Frea did with that little comment of hers was give us doubts.”
“Us?” Dolff echoed.
“What, do you think that gave me and Ro any confidence?”
“I suppose not. What if I don’t know what must be done?”
“Then we’ll help you figure it out,” Rowan declared.
As he hiked south with his friends, a weight settled on Dolff’s shoulders. It was all well and good for Rowan to say they would help him, but he had a feeling that whatever decision he had to make, whatever danger he was in, it was something they couldn’t help with. Up to now, whenever he worried, or when the world got to be too much for him, he could wrap his arms around Rowan and bury his face in her luxuriant red hair, and all the worry would melt away. Or Ben would lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and he would find the strength to go on. He did the same for them; they were all in this together.
But for some reason, he knew that Frea’s words were meant for him only. Whatever was going to happen, they weren’t in it together. Not this time.
Dolff had never felt more alone.