Sarthaal. Elspeth had never seen such an impressive excavation. The Imperial Office of Historical Preservation handled most of the archaeological research in Cyrodill. Any such research sponsored by Arcane University usually involved a notebook and, perhaps, a table for organizing artifacts. But Saarthal was something to behold. The mages had built wooden levels leading down into the pit that held the entrance to the ruins. The top levels contained two sections: a living area where researchers could camp and a research area where artifacts were stored on shelves, protected by tents.
Tolfdir gathered the mages around. “We are about to enter the ruins. The College has taken great pains to ensure the preservation of the ruins. It is imperative that you follow the basic principles of archaeological research. Take careful notes but do not remove any artifacts without permission.”
“Do you think there’s treasure here? Something to make J’zargo a powerful wizard?”
The Khajiit apparently did not know when to quit. Onmund glared at him and Lydia stepped up and said, “If you take anything from these ruins, I will cut your tail off.” For just a moment, J’zargo looked a bit fearful. Meanwhile, Lydia turned back to the group and winked at Elspeth and Onmund, who tried to contain their laughter
Tolfdir unlocked the entrance and led the mages down a narrow path and into an open area where wooden scaffolding had been installed. Tolfdir continued to lecture. “Saarthal is believed to be the first Nord settlement in Skyrim and is of great interest to the College. What we hope to discover are various applications of magic throughout history, evidence of magic use either in the form of artifacts or spells. As some of you may know, Saarthal was one of the earliest Nord settlements in Skyrim. It was also the largest. Sacked by the elves in the infamous “Night of Tears,” not much is known about what happened to Saarthal. This is an exciting opportunity for us. We’re particularly interested in the prevalence of magical seals placed on the tombs here. It’s rather unlike anything we’ve encountered.” He moved on town to the lowest level of the ruin and started looking around.
Elspeth looked at Onmund, who still appeared apprehensive. “I wonder if everyone else would be so happy to rifle through the bones of their ancestors,” he said as he shook his head disapprovingly. “I find it hard to believe this excavation was approved.”
Brelyna, who had earlier been excited about the project, now looked dejected. “To think, my ancestors destroyed the homes of Onmund’s ancestors. So much bloodshed,” she said sadly. Nirya nodded her head and Aine looked on sadly.
“Oh for the love of Talos,” came a voice from behind them. It was Lydia. She looked at Brelyna and glowered. “Enough with the ancestor guilt. Do you know what happened after the Night of Tears? Ysgramor returned with his companions, five hundred capable warriors, who kicked the elves all the way to whatever plane of Oblivion would have them.” Then she turned to Onmund. “And these are my ancestors too. Have you been to any ruins lately? Have you seen what bandits do to them? Taking everything they can find. And necromancers? Desecrating the burial places with some seriously creepy magic.” She observed the set up some more. “Everything here is arranged so carefully, so deliberately.” Her voice was filled admiration and her curiosity was apparent. “As far as I’m concerned, the College is the best thing to happen to the ruins.” Onmund and Brelyna looked a little sheepish but did not respond. She walked back toward Elspeth and whispered in her ear, “He’s wound a little tight, don’t you think?”
“Shut up,” whispered Elspeth harshly, although she was secretly amused at Lydia’s passion for arcane research. Balgruuf and Farengar were both strong supporters of these types of investigations. Lydia had the utmost respect for her ancestors, but try as she might to deny it, she had also been highly influenced by Farengar in the brief time she spent under his tutelage.
“Thank you, Lydia,” said Tolfdir, somewhat surprised at Lydia’s outburst. “Now, I have assignments here for each of you. Elspeth, why don’t you see if you can assist Arniel Gane? He’s one of our scholars, here working on cataloging our finds. I expect he’d appreciate some help in locating any additional magical artifacts here in the ruins. Lydia can go with you.”
Elspeth and Lydia left the rest of the group, heading deeper into the ruin. They found Arniel in one of the passageways, immersed in his research. “Arniel?” said Elspeth. “Tolfdir sent me to help you.”
Arniel looked less than pleased at being interrupted. He turned and lowered his gaze to them. “Ah, yes. You. I remember you. You’re going to help? That’s fine. Just… Just don’t make a mess of my work. I’ve only looked through a portion of this section. You, uh, you can look around in the chambers just north of here. Try to be careful, all right? We don’t want to damage anything.” He handed her a notebook and a pen. “Take this and log any all the enchanted items you can find.”
Elspeth and Lydia walked into the chambers he indicated. Elspeth threw a magelight up and they began inspecting the room for artifacts. Lydia found several small rings, but otherwise the room was mostly bare. They turned a corner and came upon a brightly lit sealed door on which Elspeth found an ancient amulet. She removed the amulet to make a note of its enchantment and as she did so, a steel gate went up behind her, trapping her and Lydia in the small alcove. She gasped and ran to the gate. “Tolfdir! We’re trapped in here.” Elspeth tugged at the gate, but it wouldn’t budge.
“What in the world was that racket? Is everything all right?” Tolfdir approached the newly sprung gate. “What happened?” he asked.
“I pulled an amulet off the wall,” she said. “I’m sorry!” Her voice was filled with worry and guilt.
“Don’t worry, my dear.” Tolfdir looked thoughtful for a moment. “Perhaps the amulet is important in some way. Is there some way you can use it?”
Elspeth looked around; Lydia had inspected the walls for a handle or lever but found nothing. It seemed there was little she could do other than try to use the amulet, which she put over her head slowly. As soon as the talisman touched her skin, the door gave off a subtle golden light and started vibrating and humming. Elspeth could feel it on her skin as well.
“Do you hear that?” asked Tolfdir. “It’s some kind of resonance…between you and the wall. It must be connected to the amulet.” He paused. “I wonder what effect your spells might have.”
Elspeth shook her head. This was going too far. Lydia sidled up behind her and asked quietly, “Which spell are you going to use?”
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” she said. “Onmund was right. Your ancestors deserve to rest in peace and this is taking a turn that isn’t all that peaceful.”
“Perhaps,” said Lydia. “But we need to get out of here.”
“Just tap it lightly with something,” said Tolfdir. “Frost! Yes, a little frost won’t do any damage.”
Elspeth sighed and looked at them. They were both nodding in encouragement. “Fine,” she said, “but just a light touch.” She cast a very light frost spell at the doorway, which shattered almost instantly into several large pieces. Elspeth gasped in horror as Tolfdir came up behind them, the metal gate having been released.
“It’s okay,” he said, trying to sound reassuring. “We’ll have Arniel find a way to restore it.” He looked around and moved in toward the newly revealed chamber, “Well this is highly unusual and very interesting.”
“Shouldn’t we just go back?” Elspeth wasn’t frightened but she was concerned about doing more damage. Her concerns fell on deaf ears, however, as Tolfdir and Lydia entered the chamber. She shook her head again and reluctantly followed them down a long, narrow cave, which was mysteriously lit with bright torches.
“Why in the world would this be sealed off? What is this place?” Tolfdir was almost breathless with curious anticipation. As they approached another chamber that appeared to contain an alter, his tone turned cautious “I’m not sure what to expect here. Please be on your guard.”
As they entered the alter room, Elspeth felt it shake. But it wasn’t the ground or the walls that were shaking—it was the air. The space around her turned a silvery-gray and at first she felt dizzy and then she felt cold, though not an uncomfortable cold. It was almost ethereal, as if her body had slipped into another plane of existence. And when she saw the apparition of a high elf appear before her, she believed that is exactly what happened.
He was dressed in a stunning set of gold robes with red silk trim. The robes were held across his chest and torso with silver armor joined at the neck and belly with blue stones set in a silver plate that was engraved with symbols that Elspeth did not recognize—although they seemed somewhat familiar. The apparition spoke, his voice somehow both calm and fearsome. “Hold, Elspeth, and listen well. Know that you have set in motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped. Judgment has not been passed, as you had no way of knowing. Judgment will be passed on your actions to come, and how you deal with the dangers ahead of you. This warning is passed to you because the Psijic Order believes in you. You, Elspeth, and you alone, have the potential to prevent disaster. Take great care, and know that the Order is watching. And that we have been watching for a long time.”
The apparition faded and Elspeth found herself standing with Lydia and Tolfdir who looked on as if nothing strange had just happened.
“Did you see that?” asked Elspeth breathlessly. “Did you see the Altmer in the robes? He said he was from the Psijic Order. He said there is danger ahead.”
Toldir looked perplexed. “The Psijic Order? Are you quite sure about that? That’s very odd. And danger ahead? Why that doesn’t make any sense at all. The Psijics have no connection to these ruins. And no one’s seen any of their order in a long time.”
Elspeth knew that this wasn’t true, that someone from the Order had been in contact with Arch-mage Relamus before the Thalmor purged Arcane. She also suspected that Ilario had connections with the Order, but she chose not to correct Tolfdir. She simply furrowed her brow. “Why would they contact me?” she asked. “Why now? Why here?” For a moment she wondered if it had something to do with surviving the purge, but she quickly pushed that out of her head.
“I have no idea, but it’s fascinating. Assuming it’s true, of course. The Isle of Artaeum disappeared over a hundred years ago, and no one has seen them since. And yet now, suddenly, they have chosen to contact you? Why, it’s intriguing! If nothing else, I’d take it as a compliment. The Psijics have only ever dealt with those they feel worthy.” Tolfdir was growing excited and urged them to push forward. Lydia suggested that she and Elspeth take the lead and Tolfdir agreed.
As they proceeded through the ruins, they confronted several draugr bursting from their coffins. At the far end of a large, open room, they saw a bright, beautiful glow emanating off a huge, spinning orb that appeared to be encased in a swirling energy barrier. The group approached slowly, wide-eyed and amazed. “Well now… would you look at that,” exclaimed Tolfdir, the astonishment in his voice was apparent. “I never imagined we’d find something like this. Why is this buried so far within Saarthal?” However, as he went to approach the orb, he was interrupted by the largest, most terrifying draugr deathlord that Elspeth and Lydia had ever seen.
Elspeth and Lydia charged forward, but were immediately thrown across the room just as Lydia had been in Bleak Falls Barrow. Tolfdir threw up a powerful ward that kept the draugr’s destruction magic at bay and Elspeth scrambled to her feet to join him. However, there was no way they could keep this up indefinitely and Elspeth was uncertain of what to do next. Tolfdir looked around and gestured toward the orb, from which the draugr appeared to be drawing energy. He let his ward down and quickly turned to the orb on which he cast a powerful chain lighting spell.
The spell succeeded in making the draugr somewhat vulnerable and Elspeth was able to strike him with a fire spell while Lydia rushed in, cutting at him with her axe. After some time they were able to defeat him although both were quite weary and injured by the end. Elspeth was keeled over on her side while Lydia groaned in pain from behind her. Tolfdir handed them potions and took care of Lydia’s most serious injury with Healing Hands. When they were fully recovered, the looked up and observed the orb.
“What is this?” asked Lydia. Her dark hair caught glints of light from the orb’s glow as she approached it slowly. She looked how Elspeth imagined a wispmother might.
Tolfdir’s face was lit up by both the glow of the orb and in astonishment at the discovery. “I have no idea! This is amazing. Absolutely amazing. The Arch-Mage needs to be informed immediately. He needs to see this for himself. I don’t dare leave this unattended. Can you return to the College and inform Savos Aren of this discovery? Please, hurry.” He gestured toward a door behind the orb. “Perhaps you can get out that way. Oh, and take the rest of the students back with you as well. And don’t forget to leave the amulet with me.”
Elspeth and Lydia nodded and made their way out the door, which, was, in fact, an exit. Outside of the ruins they found the rest of the mages waiting and Lydia informed them it was time to go home. J’zargo and Nirya approached them excitedly. They had heard noises and wanted to know what they found. Elspeth looked at them and walked past, shaking her head. She was exhausted and wanted to go home. She looked around for Onmund who was standing off in the distance. She was suddenly anxious, and not simply because of the strange orb and the message from the Psijic Order. Would he forgive her for what they had done, what they had uncovered in the ruins? But Onmund just smiled and waited for her to catch up.
The group was mostly quiet as they walked back to Winterhold; it was very late and everyone was tired. Lydia briefly described the events of the evening; mentioning only the orb and the draugr and leaving out the apparition that spoke with Elspeth. Back at the College, the students made their way back to the Hall of Attainment while Elspeth and Lydia went to the Hall of the Elements and up to the Arch-mage’s quarters. It was very late, but Elspeth thought he might be up. Her assumptions proved correct.
Savos welcomed them into his chambers although he looked somewhat concerned. “Please don’t tell me that another one of the apprentices has been incinerated. I have enough to deal with right now.”
“All the apprentices made it back,” Elspeth assured him. “We’ve found something in Saarthal, and Tolfdir thinks it’s important. He remained behind to guard it.” Savos simply nodded in silence at this and so Elspeth continued, “Also, I was contacted by the Psjilic Order while we were in the ruins. An apparition appeared to me and only to me.” Savos’s eyes widened and he looked a bit fearful for a moment before collecting himself.
“Very interesting!” He said, his tone suddenly curt. “We will investigate this at once. You can find your way out.” He turned suddenly and went to the back of his chambers, leaving the women looking at each other, mouths agape. After a few moments, they left and went back toward the Hall of Attainment.
Back in Elspeth’s room, Lydia insisted on sitting with a very nervous Elspeth. They stretched out on Elspeth’s bed and she listened while Elspeth confided her new anxieties, which were really more of the same that had been plaguing her since her arrival. Except now she was feeling just as concerned about the College and the rest of the mages, as well as herself. How long had the Psijic Order been watching? Had they seen her at Arcane? Elspeth was overwhelmed and exhausted. She put her head, now spinning with questions, down on the pillow. She looked back at Lydia and tried to tell her that they would need to press Savos soon and perhaps consult with Urag—but she could feel her own voice fading as she felt fast asleep.