Friday, December 29, 2017

Skyrim Day 079 - A Timeless Prison of Souls (Part 2)

7 Sun's Dusk, 4E201

Relaxed all day and did nothing of note...two things which I cannot recall the previous utterance of, at least together.

Hidden behind the fireplace was a large laboratory with a raised section against one side overlooking a terraced circular depression in the floor. Candles had been placed around it and they were, again, lit.
Serana entered behind me and just about squealed with joy. She starting babbling about how her mother was deeply into necromancy (as I thought all vampires were) and that this hidden chamber had to be her laboratory.

I could not disagree with the last part. There was not a single section of wall unoccupied by a table or bookshelf and ingredients lay scattered all over the place. Serana felt that there would be notes or a journal describing her mother's work hidden for her eyes only, so we started searching the room from the entranceway, she to the balcony to the left and I to the right.

She shouted the names of ingredients as she searched the tables, enthusing about how clever Valerica had been. I found this odd, the two of them had not seen one another in, if Serana is to believed, over a thousand years. If I manage to live one-thousand years I imagine I will not retain much attachment to anyone alive today. Already I cannot recall the nature of my own upbringing, my time in Cyrodiil prior to the Oblivion Crisis, nor any clear memories of Morrowind, though I occasionally have uncertain flashbacks.

I found Valerica's journal while her daughter was busy enthusing over the laboratory. I read it quickly, then called Serana over. The journal opened on 27th Last Seed, year unmentioned. Valerica lamented that had been reduced to a mere annoyance in the eyes of Harkon. In response she dedicated her time to her studies, the next day's journal entry announcing a breakthrough in her research.

She had found a way to attune a portal to a place she called the 'Soul Cairn', but only for a few seconds. Help had been provided, for she mentioned a group she called the 'Ideal Masters', but the help was largely in riddles and she had been left on her own to discover how to sustain the portal longer than a few seconds.

More time had passed, the next entry was 3 Hearthfire. Valerica was able to keep the portal open via a mixture of bone meal, void salts, soul gem shards, and her own blood. Having secured her way out, the journal concludes with her rushing off to Dimhollow Crypt with Serana, her evidently not mentioning the inter-planar portal to her daughter on the way.

Her daughter gamely ignored being left out and explained that her mother had theorized that trapping souls with black soul gems sent them to the 'Soul Cairn', where the 'Ideal Masters' rewarded the necromancer responsible with powerful enchantments and spells. Where animal souls, the only I have ever experimented with, go, was neither a concern of Serana nor Valerica.

But it was into this Cairn we had to go if we were to retrieve the final Elder Scroll. Crushed bone meal, void salts, and shards of soul gems were easy to find in the laboratory, but a sample of Valerica's blood was out of our reach. I suggested we try Serana's and she doubt realizing we had no other choice.
Serana followed her mother's instructions and, with her own blood, successfully opened the portal once again. When I attempted to descend the stairs however I found myself quickly growing weaker with each step. Shaken, I retreated back to the balcony, instantly feeling far better.

Serana explained that the Soul Cairn was attempting to force a toll on me: my life. Naturally, those within the Cairn are devoid of it and whatever method the Cairn was using to extract mine went beyond what Dagoth Ur had blessed me with so long ago.

There were two solutions to this problem, neither of which I liked. The first was to be "turned" into a vampire by a bite from Serana. The thought is amusing afterwards, a Nord Vampire trying to bite through a mouthful of fur, but I emphatically denied it as a possibility, perhaps a bit much, for Serana seemed insulted.

The second was little better: Serana would use a soul gem shard to partially (I have never heard of such a thing before!) capture my soul, enough hopefully to pay the portal's toll. This was only slightly more appealing than vampirism, but there seemed no other way to gain I agreed.

She cast her spell, pointed the shard at me and...not much happened. Save for a slight feeling of emptiness and feeling like a bad case of 'Bone Break' fever I felt fine. Serana suspected something in the Cairn would reverse the effect, but that was just a guess. Having done whatever had been done, I descended the staircase once again and into a world of darkness.

It was not worse than what I remember of the plane of Oblivion. The Soul Cairn was a black place, poorly lit by a purple sky shot through with lightning and what may have been souls or magicka energy.

Above us was the underside of our portal: a circle of Nothing surrounded by swirling energy. Helpfully, our portal deposited us at the top of a floating staircase. While descending I noticed that there was something missing: air. That is not to say there was no wind, no breeze. There was simply no air at all. I found I was not breathing, nor was Serana, and that we did not need to, not in the Cairn. Our voices still carried, somehow, but the sound arrived poorly, as if we were thousands of feet away instead of a dozen. It made the rest of our time at the Cairn an even more miserable experience.

Ethereal forms wandered the blighted landscape, some appeared to be resigned, but lucid, others unaware of where they were or what had happened. One soul we passed still had her bow strapped to her back, but could only ask us where her ship had sailed to. Another soul was lounging against a ruined wall, advised us not to spend too much time in the Cairn. It is hard to say which of the two were worse off.

The place felt wrong. It was not that the Cairn was a place of death, it was not. It was a place of nothing, neither life nor death. Serana must have felt it too, for she muttered that she just wanted to find her mother and be gone as quickly as possible as we left another confused soul behind us.
The Cairn was separated into two halves by a large, crumbling wall, us on one side, a large, ruined castle forever collapsing upwards into the sky on the other. Serana and I agreed that her mother would likely be found there or nearby.

While on our way Serana stopped to investigate a throne that had four beams of light shining from it. A decrepit skeleton in battered armor was slumped upon it, but as we approached it roused from its slumber and grabbed a two-handed axe from behind its throne. I suppose we should not have been surprised by now, but we were.

Our foe was no more difficult than a powerful Draugr. Serana and I employed our usual strategy of me distracting the enemy while she fired magicka into its back. Simple, but effective.
We passed a partially-buried skeleton of a Dragon along the path to the castle, making me wonder if it had been possible to trap the soul of a Dragon normally, instead of...whatever I seem to do when one dies.

A morose soul sitting along the path warned us of a Dragon he named 'Durnehviir', but Dragons are usually noisy, proud creatures and there was no evidence of a Dragon living in the Cairn. I assumed the soul was stuck in his past life and moved on.
The castle was still impressive as it crumbled forever into the clouds. A chest at the foot of the front balcony contained rare Ebony plate armor, but I chose to leave it due to the weight, over Serana's objections.

A shimmering barrier surrounded the castle just inside the balcony where Valerica waited, trapped.
She was less happy to see her daughter than I expected her to be. She instead seemed more concerned about my intentions and despite my protests refused to believe I had anything but the extermination of all vampires in my heart. After pointless back-and-forth with the frustrated woman Serana jumped in, pointing out that I had done more to help her in the past week than her own mother had done within the past one thousand years. Harsh, but true.

What followed was an angry exchange of domestic concerns spoken across an impassable barrier of magicka, a greater concern, I thought, than their family history. Tempers soothed after several minutes and discussion turned to the present. Valerica suspected the barrier was maintained by three guardians she called the 'Keepers'. Dispatching all three would bring down the barrier, allowing Valerica her freedom and us access to the Elder Scroll she secreted away.

She also warned us of the Dragon 'Durnehviir', a guardian of the Cairn. The trapped soul from earlier had been speaking the truth. However, after defeating a dozen or so Dragons in Skyrim it was difficult to feel concerned about another one, even in the Cairn.

Tracking down the Keepers was easier than I thought it would be: each occupied a throne roofed by the beams of light that caught Serana's attention earlier and neither of the two remaining Keepers were any more difficult than the first. The castle's barrier disappeared upon the banishment of the third Keeper and we hurried back to Valerica.

Durnehviir was already waiting for us at the courtyard. Serana and I spread out as usual and, much to my surprise, Valerica did as well. Against two vampires and a Khajiit the Dragon had little chance.
Durnehviir's remains burst into purple flames upon his death, but no soul came streaming out of the blaze...which makes sense, considering we were in the place souls go anyway. With the castle's guardian temporarily banished (same as the Keepers, I suppose) Valerica's cache was free to us.
Other than the Elder Scroll there was not much: a few potions and some books. I gave Serana the Scroll and we prepared to leave, assuming Valerica would be following.

But she declined. Returning to Tamriel would mean Lord Harkon would have two sources of the blood he required for his ritual, a risk Valerica was not willing to take. Her harsh demeanor had softened and she only asked that I keep her daughter, the only thing she values any longer, safe from her father. I agreed and we parted ways. Serana stayed behind to speak privately with her mother, I was to wait at our portal for her.

And so I left the courtyard and came face-to-face with the increasingly-physical form of Durnehviir perched over the balcony.

But it was not vengeance the beast sought, only conversation. He named me 'Qahnaarin', Vanquisher in Common. Durnehviir had never been defeated during his long time in the Cairn, though I wonder if having the experience of Dragon-fighting in Tamriel is what made the difference. 

Our conversation was brief. He had reformed in my path to ask a favor of me: freedom, albeit temporary. Through the utterance of his name, combined with my desire to see it done, I would be able to summon Durnehviir to Tamriel for a short time as, I was promised, a valuable ally in battle. Alas for him, the summoning would soon send him back to the Cairn, but I would be able to call upon him after some rest.

I agreed, for I cannot see how any creature or any one person deserved an eternity in the Cairn. 

I was also given the tale of how he had come to the Cairn. Long ago, before the Dragon Wars, Dragons fought each other over tiny scraps of territory. So many Dragons, so little land. While the others were tearing each other apart with tooth and claw Durnehviir sought power via what we know today as necromancy. 

A deal was struck with the mysterious 'Ideal Masters': accept unmatched power from Beyond, but in exchange, serve the Masters in death until the one that will be known as 'Valerica' dies. It was a harsh deal, Valerica was probably not even alive in Durnehviir's time and he had no way of knowing she was essentially immortal. He agreed to the deal only to find himself trapped in the Cairn guarding a woman whose life would never naturally end.
He wished me a long life, unknowingly playing a second joke on himself, and flew off. Valerica still remained in the Cairn and he still had to guard her...from what, I do not know. Leaving, I suppose.

Serana had not come out yet, so I continued to the portal and waited for her there. She said nothing as she caught up and nothing as we arrived back on Tamriel.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we were back on the shore of Skyrim and well into the night when we stumbled into Solitude. An inquiry to the gate's guard revealed it to be 6 Sun's Dusk, a full two days since leaving Winterhold. We spent 7 Sun's Dusk recuperating and planning our trip back east, as well as my writing all this down.

There is a great deal more at stake here than a simple revival of a vampire family, but Serana has been quiet since speaking with her mother. I feel I can trust her enough not to pry into her personal affairs, but she will have to start talking again eventually. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Skyrim Day 079 - A Timeless Prison of Souls (Part 1)

6 Sun's Dusk, 4E201

Serana and I left Winterhold's inn early enough, I hoped, to reach Solitude by mid-afternoon. Early though it was we exited the Inn to the sounds of running feet and Nordic swearing.
Another vampire attack, this one with the benefit of the giant undead hounds the vampires seem to favor. Fortunately for us, the attack was nearly over, only two hounds remained of the raid and both were quickly dispatched. Almost immediately the victorious guardsmen began arguing over who won the rights to the hounds' silver collars and Serana and I were able to slip out of town without a notice...precisely the reason I usually spurn the College's superior accommodations.

The sky was the usual featureless grey and the snow, as it always does along the coast, fell incessantly. Seeking to trade comfort for privacy I chose to travel along the shoreline rather than the road in order to avoid the assassins, cultists, Dragons, bandits, and vampires that all appear to have an interest in one Khajiit. If Serana had any complaints she uncharacteristically kept quiet.

While trudging along the shore we passed a "hidden" shrine to Talos, the God outlawed by the Thalmor. The shrines are not particularly hidden, I cannot help suspect the Thalmor leave them standing to easier discover and ensnare Talos worshipers. I do recall one Thalmor agent for whom that strategy went awry, though I cannot remember his name.
My plan to avoid unwanted attention worked, almost to a fault. After two hours of walking we were halfway between Dawnstar and Solitude with no more excitement than an excessively-territorial Horker.

Unexpectedly the weather cleared as we arrived underneath Solitude, giving us a rare view of Skyrim's elevated capital city.
I felt that if we stopped inside we would not be leaving until tomorrow, so we pressed on through the marsh of Morthal and sought to take the bridge across the river, just before Dragon Bridge. A foul Orsimer clad in ancient Dwemer armor stopped us at the bridge, demanding a toll, a battle, or a shameful retreat. I offered battle. He had an Ebony Shield and I was tempted to carry it to my home in Solitude...but I did not. Feeling mischievous, I hid it underneath the bridge instead. Perhaps some adventurer will find it one day.

What remained of our walk in Skyrim was uneventful and the weather remained clear all the way to the jetty across from Castle Volkihar. I had to row, of course.
Snow began to fall midway to the island and by the time the boat scraped on to shore the sky had taken on its usual featureless grey along with a heavy snow. It fit the mood for what the castle had become, but Serana was uneasy at being back on the island, urging me towards the rear of the island.

I was expecting a hidden door behind some bushes, but Serana assured me that the castle dock had not been used in several hundreds of years...which I find to be rather implausible. Even vampires need to eat and drink, after all. Am I to believe they row each of their victims across the water themselves?

We easily dispatched the skeletons left to guard the ruined dock and entered the castle's undercroft.
The experience was not unlike any of the other crypts dotting Skyrim. The Gargoyles stalked the ruins in place of Draugr, but at least they had decorum enough to have gemstones for eyes. I rarely get such consideration from the undead.

After some wandering (Serana could not remember the way) we emerged from the castle crypt into a dilapidated courtyard dominated by a forlorn-looking moon-dial. There were circular platforms surrounding the dial, each depicting a phase of the moon via some sort of milky gemstone. Serana pointed out that several of the phases were missing, but we did not think this important until several minutes of searching revealed no way out other than how we came in.

More searching ensured, Serana assuring me only she and her mother ever went into the courtyard, so the missing phases was no doubt intentional on the part of her mother. I thought it cruel to point out that she had been sleeping for quite some time and things change, so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes open. Soon the wireframe-set gemstone moon phases were in my possession and I set each down around the sundial in the proper order.

As soon as I set the final phase in its place the moon-dial collapsed into a stairway. Serana excitedly exclaimed that it was exactly what she expected from her mother, but once we descended the sudden stairwell we found the secret underground area well-lit with candles and slippery with fresh blood. Someone was using the hideaway, but we never found out who.
Gargoyles stalked the halls as well, but they are much more fearsome-looking than they actually are. We passed several statues of Mara, making me wonder what Castle Volkihar was before it became a vampire den.
Onward we crept, most of the rooms were dining rooms of one kind or another, which I thought a bit strange. Eventually we reached what looked like a dead end: a room with one door, the one we entered through, and nothing else. Serana thought there should be a secret passage somewhere in the room and I thought so as well, though I kept that to myself.

We were correct. The passage was the classic behind-the-fireplace wall panel. I discovered it before Serana: nearly every candle we had passed had been lit, for some reason, but the fireplace was flanked on both sides by two platters of wall-hung candles, only one of which was lit. The second served as the lever to open the wall panel that led to the Serana's mother's laboratory...and the portal to a land I wish I had never set foot in.

But it is late now, so I am finishing tonight's entry here. I plan on doing nothing tomorrow save for recovering from this awful journey and will conclude this tale then.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Skyrim Day 078 - All Eyes On Me

4 Sun's Dusk, 4E201

After squelching about underground in Blackreach for most of yesterday Serana and I found one of our Scrolls and the inscribed cube for Septimus Signus. I was too tired to walk back to Winterhold and spent a surprisingly comfortable night outside of Alftand. I am not sure what Serana did during the night, but I am sure it was not sleep.
The weather was as poor as it usually is, but the journey would have been uneventful were it not for the Silver Hand who ambushed us near a ruined tower.
Supposed hunters of werewolves, I have never seen a werewolf in what few Silver Hand compounds I have found myself in. They are seemingly just as happy to assault regular travelers as those "blessed" by Hircine, just another group of bandits, if somewhat better armed and slightly more driven. That does not mean they are any more skilled than the average highwayman.
Having wasted our time with them, Serana and I reached the frozen coast by what was probably mid-afternoon, though the weather made it impossible to judge the time. Through the snow and ice in the air we were able to see a large, ruined hall on an island some distance away, but though Serana wanted to take the time to explore I did not and we continued along the shore until Azura came into view.

We were maybe halfway to Septimus Signus when the weather suddenly slackened, then stopped altogether. The sun started to shine with an intensity that pained my eyes and caused Serana no end of discomfort. It did make our walk a great deal more palatable though.
Septimus was still utterly mad, of course. He accepted the lexicon cube with a babbling about Dwemer blood loosening the locks...or maybe hooks? I do not remember. His plan to circumvent what he saw as a requirement was just as scattered. From what I could glean from his rambling, the Dwemer used their blood to unlock the giant cube. What was probably the case was that any one of the Dwemer could unlock the cube, but Septimus took this to mean actual blood extracted from victims.

He claimed that collecting the blood of a Falmer, an Altmer, a Bosmer, an Orsimer, and a Dunmer into a basin he gave me would be enough to "trick" the cube into opening. It is madness, no other way about it. I will not do this thing for him.

As if to validate my decision, a portal of tentacles and eyeballs was waiting for me as I tried to leave.
A frightening sight, but not a dangerous one. Hermaeus Mora, Daedric Prince of the Fate, the Unknown, All-Knowledge, many titles are attributed to Hermorah. I was given the honor of being his "emissary", but I declined. I have had far too many encounters with the Daedric Princes and I am not looking to become more familiar. The squirming mass of tentacles and eyes promised me that I had no choice, then disappeared entirely.

Serana had not seen Hermaeus Mora, to her it appeared I was speaking with the wall of ice before me, making her fear I was just as mad as Septimus. I am not however and will be playing no part in his insane blood-collection plan.

Crazy was the order of the day apparently, for while enroute back to the College we were startled by a charging Spriggan...amidst blinding ice and snow, with not even a blade of grass nearby.
How it came to the frozen north of the province is a bit of a mystery.

We returned to Winterhold after midnight and again I chose the inn rather than the College. Less questions that way. I am not at all looking forward to walking all the way back to Serana's family keep, but it does not appears as though I have much choice in the matter. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Skyrim Day 077 - Turned Around Underground

2 Sun's Dusk, 4E201

Serana woke me up impatiently an hour or so before dawn. She had not slept, as usual, and was eager to complete our task at Alftand so that we could return to her family's castle. Her hope was that she would be able to speak with her mother, but Alftand is an hour or so away and Volkihar Keep is on the other side of the province.

Alftand was just as I left it: frozen, broken, and empty.
Inside, the strange device which perplexed me during my initial visit showed itself to be the gateway to Blackreach. Inserting Septimus's Dwemer sphere into the device caused the floor around it to collapse, revealing a stairway that led to an elevator into the strange underground cavern of Blackreach. It was unlike anything I have ever seen in Skyrim, though fragments of memories from Morrowind surfaced among the giant glowing mushrooms of Blackreach.
Blackreach was home to a few Falmer and Chaurus that had managed to accidentally trigger whatever method of transportation sent them, plus one Giant whose very existence in Blackreach may be the most baffling mystery I have yet encountered in my very long life. Surprisingly, Blackreach contained almost no Dwemer guardians save for one of the ten-foot tall mechanical soldiers.
Serana wanted to leave it be but I was unwilling to leave the thing at our backs so long as we were unaware of its trigger. She agreed with my logic. The battle was a short one, the trick is to find which part of the thing is leaking the most oil, then hack away at it. 

A bit further on we came upon a small building which had served as the late Sinderion's campsite. Sinderion was an alchemist of some skill who developed an obsession with nirnroot. This obsession grew worse when an adventurer from Skyrim sold him a red nirnroot...a thing I had not previously heard of. The adventurer told Sinderion that the red (crimson, according to him) nirnroot had come from the caverns of Blackreach and likely only the caverns of Blackreach.

Sinderion relocated himself to Skyrim, then into Blackreach. From the arrow sticking in his skeleton's rib-cage, I presume he was wounded by a Dwemer mechanical, retreated to his workshop, then, surrounded by enough ingredients to craft something helpful, died. His journal was dated with the year as well, marking it as just over one hundred and fifty years old.
I had no time for crimson nirnroot and no care, but Serana's was curious to have heard of something new since before her one thousand year nap. We agreed to split up, her after the nirnroot, me after the device required to transcribe the Elder Scroll. We would meet back at the workshop in three hours.

There was a giant globe of hazy light suspended from one corner of Blackreach and I thought to look there first for the entrance (an elevator, I assumed) to Mzark Tower, where Septimus assured me I would find what I needed to help him.
The globe served as a Dwemer-built sun for a small, walled Dwemer village mostly inhabited by Falmer and...for some reason, Nords. They were clothed raggedly and cheaply, but each attacked me on sight. Were they willing servants of the Falmer? Slaves of some kind? I shall never know.
As agreed, Serana and I rejoined at Sinderion's workshop. His journal had called for thirty samples of the red nirnroot, but Serana had only twenty. She may return on her own when this is all over. Together we found the elevator for Mzark Tower and gratefully ascended. I do not know about her, but Khajiit are not made for long spells underground. 

Mzark was only two rooms: the one containing the elevator and the much larger one with a device that looked similar to the Dwemer observatory I visited a month or so ago.
Serana and I figured out how to start the machine: a small cup held Septimus's Dwemer cube. Placing the cube in the cup unlocked two of the five buttons, one rotated the machine from and towards us, the other side to side. With no clue as to what we were doing, we took turns pressing the buttons until we managed to reach some sort of pattern which unlocked two more buttons.

Again, we entertained ourselves pressing buttons randomly until the whole machine shuddered and a Dwemer mechanical arm holding a large tube descended from the ceiling.

Much to my surprise the tube contained an Elder Scroll...or something resembling one. The Dwemer cube was also changed: engravings dotted the formerly-smooth surface, though I could not tell when that work had been done. All of this has been very confusing.

With the Scroll and engraved cube in our possession we had to walk back to the elevator shaft we used to enter Blackreach and found ourselves, after what felt like a very long day, back on to the frozen surface of Skyrim.
Rather than force myself to walk back to the College I will be borrowing the still-burning campfire outside of the ruin to warm up one of the tents before settling in for what is a well-deserved, if rather cold, rest. I have nearly forgotten what I had set out to accomplish today, but I believe I have done it nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Skyrim Day 076 - Winter Hideaway

1 Sun's Dusk, 4E201

Fort Dawnguard does not advertise itself as comfortable for the waylaid traveler from the outside and does nothing to change this once you enter. Dexion finished the reading of Serana's scroll at around two in the morning, but within the entire fortress there was no free quarters for Serana and I, so it was right back out the gate for us in pursuit of the remaining two scrolls, dubbed 'Dragon' and 'Blood'. Not the first night I have gone without sleep, but I would rather not make a habit of this.

Fortunately for me the only lead we had for the 'Dragon' scroll was that Urag, the College's irascible Orsimer librarian, might know where to start looking. The alternative was to start the search for the 'Blood' scroll, requiring a trip across the entire province to a castle garrisoned by vampires. Finding the 'Dragon' scroll first was fine by me.

Almost immediately upon exiting the little canyon which housed the Dawnguard Serana and I were set upon by a group of vampires, one powerful enough to match Serana's magicka, but once I finished dispatching the weaker assailants the leader fell to a combination of vampire magicka and Khajiit swordsmanship. Disappointingly, none had anything of value.

The night gave way to an overcast, hazy morning as we left the sparse pine forest and entered the sulfuric hot springs separating Riften from Windhelm. An assassin from the Dark Brotherhood sprang out from beside the road, wisely cloaked with an Invisbility potion or spell, but the unwisely attacked us from the front, denying himself the benefit of surprise.

Other than a duo of master-less Mammoths crossing the road some way ahead of the assassin's corpse we encountered nothing else on the way to Windhelm.
I met a small group of Khajiit camping by Windhelm's gatehouse, but they were there not to trade, but to pull fish from the nearly-frozen river to sell, dried and prepared, to the caravans.
They were willing to ferry Serana and I across the frozen river for a few Septims, sparing us a much longer walk around the hills west of Windhelm. Just out of sight of the river we came under attack by two woman-spirits, each summoning hostile energies similar to those I fought at Winterhold. They were likely the 'wispmothers' the Nords speak of, the first of which I fought weeks ago.
They had been guarding a shrine to Arkay, but I could find no reason why.

Within sight of the College we came upon two bandits arguing near the body of a dead woman. Guessing what had transpired, I motioned Serana to take the one on the left while I readied my crossbow. It was darkly amusing to watch my victim simply drop dead with a bolt through his throat, whereas Serana's was flung sideways by her magicka, across the icy ground and over the cliff behind him.
The woman died wearing a powerfully enchanted pendant around her neck, probably the reason the bandits had been arguing. A letter on her body mournfully informed me that if I was reading it the author was likely dead. The unnamed woman explained that the bandits had broken into her home and taken everything she owned, including the pendant, a family heirloom. She was the last of her family and the comfort  the pendant brought her was dear to her. Regardless of the risk, she was going to get it back, even if it meant her death...which it did, but I am certain she approved of the bandits' fate.

This may be the first day I have visited the College without being suffocated by a snowstorm. The sky was cloudy, but the air was clear of snow and ice.
Urag was as happy to see me as he was anyone, which is to say not at all. He laughed when I asked about finding an Elder Scroll, wondering if I even knew what I was asking for...which I felt was pretty rude to say to the current Arch-Mage, if I may say so.

For his derision the Orsimer was not particularly knowledgeable about them either, content to use frustrating metaphors and state utter nonsense, such as the falsehoods in the Scrolls being truer than the truths...which would cease to make them falsehoods. The only actual help he was able to provide was in the form of a small volume written by a former student of the College, an Imperial named Septimus Signus.

It was titled 'Ruminations on the Elder Scrolls' and consisted entirely of nonsense. When I asked Urag what help it was supposed to be he laughed and said it was to prepare me for when I met the man. Surprised, I asked when the book was penned and found that it was only months old, the man wrote it, left it in at the College, then rambled about a great Dwemer treasure at the tip of the province...just north of Winterhold. Urag made it his business to know where exactly Septimus had disappeared to, but judged the man mad enough to not bother about his "discovery".

The walk along the peninsula north of Winterhold was as miserable as I feared: it was windy, snowy, and very, very cold. We were forced to precariously hop across ice floes just to reach the cavern Urag had found, one wrong step would plunge us into a sea equal parts ice and water. The mad man's boat, now frozen fast to Skyrim, came as a great relief.
Septimus was utterly mad, but he had found something interesting: a giant Dwemer puzzle cube wider than he was tall and taller as well.
He was a very difficult man to talk to, but I managed to get out of him the assurance that there was an Elder Scroll still in Skyrim, despite either the Empire or the Thalmor sweeping the province for them, which he meant was unclear. Predictably Septimus would not tell me where the Scroll was until I performed a task for him.

The Dwemer cube was driving him madder than he already was. He simply had to get inside no matter what was long as he did not have to leave the cave. His belief was that the Scroll would tell him how to open the giant cube.

He claimed that an ancient Dwemer city, Blackreach, more ancient than all the others, lay underneath Skyrim. To reach Blackreach I would have to "delve to the limits, then beyond", a clear description of a city underneath a city, I think. He suggested either 'Tower Mzark' or 'Alftand'.

The Tower is unknown to me but I visited Alftand while searching for Arniel's Dwemer cogwheels a month ago or so. Apparently I missed a lower level, Blackreach, during my first visit and will now have to suffer a second. At least it is not far.

We had only to walk back across the treacherous ice floes, avoid the Horkers, then climb up the frozen beach underneath the College while under constant assault by shards of ice blown about by the coastal winds. Because this was not difficult enough we came under assault by three Trolls and a Dragon once we advanced past the beach.

The Dragon landed right next to Serana, bringing her to her knees. I pulled my crossbow free of my belt, but knew I would not be able to to fire quick enough to save her life. Fortunately, the Trolls arrived ahead of my bolt.

They fearlessly loped over to the Dragon and started beating its armored hide with their fists, doing little more than annoying the beast and distracting it enough to give Serana time to retreat and regroup.

Against a Dragon the Trolls, even three of them, had little chance. Once the last was dead Serana and I launched our attack, her with magicka, as usual, me with crossbow and blade. The first Dragon was a terrifying ordeal, this one...not anymore. Serana too seemed to have quickly gotten used to the routine, only craning her head slightly as the Dragon's soul rushed into my body...a process which I still do not understand. Am I supposed to do something afterwards?
By the team we returned to Winterhold most of it was already sleeping. Rather than waste more time trudging up to the College we wordlessly agreed to head directly for the Inn in the hope for an early start at Alftand tomorrow morning.