“Ladies, if these ruins frighten you, take comfort in the knowledge that I am here.”
Xeri scowled as the pretentious mage stepped ahead and up to the platform where Nerussa has used the aetherium shards to raise the enormous entrance to the ruins of Bthalft, where the ancient forge was said to be housed.
“Remind me,” she said as he moved out of earshot, “Why did we hire a mercenary? I could be a mercenary. You should be paying me.”
“I’m sorry,” said Evangeline, taking care to keep her voice down although she was certain that Marcurio knew exactly how the ornery Dunmer felt about him, and he simply didn’t care. “It’s my fault.”
“Nerussa could have stopped you,” Xeri insisted. “Though I suppose it should be expected. Alcohol seems to have the opposite affect on a Breton’s courage.” She smirked as she delivered this last line, indicating that as annoying as Marcurio was, she wouldn’t hold it against her.
Evangeline sighed. The ride to Riften from Frostcrag Spire had been unremarkable but she’d silently fretted the entire time. For years, she had taught and practiced magic and combat alongside her students but not since the war had she seen battle of any sort. When she expressed her ambivalence about throwing herself into a Dwemer ruin, Nerussa suggested they bring along Trygve’s friend, Mjoll the Lioness, or his housecarl, Iona. But neither woman was available. Xeri assured them they would be fine. They would have to. After all, they would not be able to bring help with them for the Trials. It was just as well they find the shard and the forge alone.
While Xeri procured supplies around town, Evangeline and Nerussa went to the Bee and Barb, where they ordered a bottle of Colovian brandy—a libation that Evangeline had not enjoyed in several years. After several shots in quick succession, she became rather uninhibited, chatting up several patrons including a young Imperial mage while Nerussa simply looked on, amused at Evangeline’s increasing intoxication and sociability. Before long, however, Evangeline confessed some concerns and paid Marcurio his fee. Nerussa hadn’t stopped her because she didn’t think it was such a terrible idea. But Xeri was furious. And when she tried to dismiss him, he refused—even when she offered to let him keep the money.
As it turned out, Evangeline’s combat skills were rusty and Nerussa’s almost nonexistent. Marcurio also led them to the Dwemer bridge at Deep Fork Crossing by way of Dragon Bridge, along the western fork of the Karth river—thus avoiding the tribes of Forsworn residing throughout the Reach. Indeed, for a good portion of their journey, his skills were indispensible.
Nevertheless, Xeri found him insufferable. He talked entirely too much for her liking, regaling them with stories of his adventures of battling the deadliest creatures in all of Skyrim: dragon priests, wispmothers, Falmer. The elves simply ignored him, but Evangeline thought he was amusing. He reminded her of the young mages from the Spire, particularly the newer recruits, and it was a welcome distraction from her increasing distress. Xeri’s descriptions of Elspeth’s skills and personality had done little to assuage the growing ache in her heart, the one that she had repressed while she lived at the Spire. Arriving in the Rift was rough. Knowing that she would be in the same province as her daughter, but not able to see her, stung in ways that were simply indescribable. When he mentioned that he’d studied at Arcane University, she had to bite her tongue to keep from asking if he knew Elspeth.
“I am an apprenticed wizard, not a pack mule! Oh very well, but make it quick.” Marcurio’s snide tone interrupted Evangeline’s thoughts.
“Marcurio!” Xeri hurried to the where Nerussa was trying to balance her satchel and several other items. As she shoved him aside, she took the bag and held it open so that Nerussa could put the shards away. “You are dismissed.”
He scowled. “So you think you can make it on your own huh? We’ll just see about that.” He narrowed his eyes at the angry Dunmer. “When you find the aetherium forge, what do you think is going to be guarding it? A wee little Dwarven spider?” He paused and looked around at the women—all three of whom were irritated with him now. “No,” he said before anyone could bother answering. “It will be something big, like a Centurion.”
Not even Xeri could hold back a tremble at the thought of confronting a Dwarven Centurion. “Very well,” she said flatly. “But could you not talk anymore?”
“You didn’t pay me not to talk.”
“All right then,” Nerussa interjected, sounding impatient for the first time on their journey. “Shall we proceed?”
She opened the tall gate and they proceeded down the dark stone path into the ruin. Torches perched atop large pedestals flanked the path and Xeri and Marcurio ignited these with flame spells. Evangeline lagged a bit, stopping to inspect the carvings on the fonts and pedestals along the path. She had never seen the inside of a Dwemer ruin before and her curiosity was almost childlike. When she saw how far back she had fallen, she hurried to catch up.
“You were never much for exploring,” said Nerussa, as Evangeline joined her on the small platform at the end of a narrow bridge leading farther into the cavern.
“No,” she agreed. “I never cared before. But now…well, let’s just say that after twenty-five years in a small village with little more than a cave, my curiosity has been excited somewhat.” She paused and rubbed her hands together as she looked around, avoiding Nerussa’s eyes. “Besides,” she said finally, “I could use the distraction.”
The Altmer touched her on the shoulder. “You will see her, I promise.”
Evangeline closed her eyes and nodded, but had no response. She looked up and let her gaze wander across the darkened bridge in front of her. Xeri and Marcurio had hurried ahead and Evangeline found the outlines of their figures in the distance as they ignited two large torches that lit up the entire cavern.
When she gasped, Nerussa smiled. Bthalft was not a large Dwemer ruin, not like Alftand or Mzinchalef, but Evangeline had never seen anything like it. Massive stone columns, the size of small cottages, flanked the enormous staircase, and at the top of the stairs stood a small dead tree. To Evangeline it stood out, small and frail, against the brassy stone structures behind it.
“How did they grow this tree here in the first place?” asked Evangeline as she touched it lightly with her fingertips, pulling a few small pieces of bark from its gnarled trunk.
“It’s astonishing, is it not?” Marcurio mused as he sidled up next to her. “The Dwemer were the most innovative race. Their accomplishments in engineering and technology are still unmatched today.” Evangeline nodded in agreement as he continued. “They believed themselves to be equal, if not superior to the Aedra and Deadra. Perhaps their achievements are matched only by their hubris.”
“And then they vanished,” she replied. “See where arrogance gets you.” She raised her eyebrows at him before stepping back to join Nerussa and Xeri. The Dunmer was readying an arrow, aiming at one of two resonators elevated several stories from the floor. One, two perfectly aimed shots and they spun, making dull whirring sound that echoed throughout the cavern.
The door in front of them swung open and they paused—weapons and spells readied—for any Dwarven creatures the resonators might have triggered. They moved stealthily, down a dim, stone hallway until they reached a large room that appeared to be suspended atop a giant lava bed. Xeri entered first and within moments turned around and hurried back to the doorway, where the others were waiting.
“It’s too hot,” said Xeri, panting as beads of sweat rolled down her face. “I couldn’t even open my eyes.”
Marcurio held up his hand. “Do you hear that?” he asked. “Steam. If we turned it of, it might help. But, we’d need to find the valves.”
“How strong are your frost spells?” Evangeline asked him. Surely, a mage with his skill could cast a frost cloak or wall.
He looked away and frowned; he was a bit embarrassed by this but didn’t want it to show. “Not strong at all,” he said. “I favor lightening and fire. I could cast an ice-spike or rune.”
Xeri and Nerussa shook their heads. Xeri was also not skilled in frost magic and Nerussa’s destruction skills were weak. Evangeline rubbed her furrowed brow with her fingertips. “All right,” she said finally. “You’re going to cast a series of frost runes around the perimeter of the room. I’m going to set each one off—if you stay close to me, it should stay cool enough to find the valves–though you may still get quite a few burns.” She turned to the others. “Keep an eye out for Dwemer creatures,” she instructed. “The valves could trigger them and other traps. I’m going to be healing constantly and will be fairly useless.”
It was a fool’s plan, but it was the best they had. The elves simply watched as Marcurio and Evangeline proceeded in what looked like the most uncomfortable game of hop-a-long ever along the room’s upper platform. They found the first valve and sure enough, turning the valve triggered a mechanism that released a passel of Dwarven spiders. Xeri knocked them off with arrows, while Nerussa watched the platform, making sure that Evangeline’s injuries were not debilitating and that Marcurio was finding the valves.
After an hour of this, they found the last valve and the steam flow had decreased considerably, making the temperature in the room far more bearable though it was still uncomfortably hot. Marcurio and Evangeline had collapsed against the wall, too injured and weary to move.
Xeri knelt and looked them over. “Stay here and rest,” she said. “Nerussa and I will—” A rumble shook the room and a deafening clang of metal scraping against metal interrupted her.
“Oh shit!” Nerussa cried out and pointed at the Dwarven Centurion that was emerging from the lava bed.
Evangeline and Marcurio groaned as they tried to stand. Xeri instructed them to stay and fight at range, while she darted forward, casting her strongest ward and firing chain lightening at the massive Centurion. Xeri’s spells, though strong, would be inadequate without back up. She said a quick prayer that her injured comrades would recover quickly and after several moments, she felt someone bumping up behind her. It was Nerussa.
“What the fuck do you think you are doing?” she screamed as her ward started wavering. “Get out of here.”
“Draw his fire that way,” said Nerussa, gesturing toward the other side of the room away from Evangeline and Marcurio. She grabbed Xeri’s weapon—a massive Daedric mace and ran in the opposite direction.
“Wha—” But Nerussa was off and a split second before the Centurion sent a spray of fire that would have devastated the unprotected Altmer where she ran, Xeri drew his fire in the other direction.
“Are you insane?!?” Xeri screeched after her, but to no avail. Nerussa had positioned herself just behind the Centurion and started mindlessly hacking away at its leg joints. The weapon was so heavy, she needed to use both hands. Xeri regrouped quickly and cast her spells again. Finally, after several moments—quite possibly the longest of Xeri’s life—the Centurion came crashing down.
She was still catching her breath when Nerussa returned. “What…the fuck…were you thinking?” she cried, her voice shaking violently. She didn’t even try to hide her panic.
“Nerussa,” gasped Evangeline as she staggered from the platform. She lunged forward, clutching Nerussa by the torso in an awkward embrace.
“I remember reading somewhere that Dwemer Centurions can’t lower their arms or tilt their heads,” she explained to the other women, as they caught their breath and calmed down. “Now,” she said, grinning and gesturing to the enormous mechanism behind the destroyed Centurion. “Let’s see about this forge.”
The forge was unlike any Evangeline had seen before. Its hearth consisted of several raised basins; there was no anvil, no cooling trough. She and Xeri watched carefully as Nerussa laid out her supplies on a crate she’d found and turned on its side: gold, the Ayleid soul gem, which was considerably more difficult to remove from the Staff of Worms than anyone anticipated—requiring the help of Evangeline’s most powerful enchanter who was reluctant to destroy such an artifact without an explanation. And then there were the gems, one flawless stone for each Divine: a ruby for Arkay, an emerald for Zenithar, a diamond for Dibella, an amethyst for Mara, a garnet for Stendarr, a sapphire for Kynareth, a topaz for Julianos, and finally, a moonstone gem for Akatosh. Evangeline still couldn’t believe it. Moonstone ore was common enough—it was used to make much of the armor the dissident mages wore. But moonstone gems were the stuff of legend—the last known in existence was the one that adorned the Amulet of Kings.
She reached forward and touched the legendary gem gingerly. “Nerussa,” she asked suddenly. “Where did you get the moonstone gem?”
Nerussa cringed a bit but didn’t respond. She simply furrowed her brow and glared before turning back down and laying the last of her supplies out. She took her time, once again reviewing all the instructions; her eyes moving back and forth between her journal and the materials.
A wave of anxiety suddenly swept over Evangeline. “Which types of amulets did you forge in Markarth?” she asked. Before she had to leave, Nerussa had enjoyed a brief tutelage with the Jarl’s blacksmith, learning the basics of metal and jewelry crafting.
“Mostly amulets of the Divines, Zenithar and Julianos,” she replied.
Evangeline’s eyes widened. “Those are just metal on a chain! Have you ever worked with gems before?”
“I made several jeweled necklaces, yes.” Nerussa couldn’t believe she was bringing this up though she shouldn’t have been surprised. It was only a matter of time before the Breton’s ambivalence gave way to anxiety, and she started taking her fears out on everyone else. Nerussa let out a sharp breath before continuing. “Have I worked with this many gems at once? No.” She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips while she waited for Evangeline to respond
“Enough,” exclaimed Xeri as she wandered back toward the forge. “No one has worked with this many and these types of gems at once. And even if we could find someone, it wouldn’t mater. This is our task to complete—or fail.”
Evangeline pushed her hands through her hair and gripped the back of her neck. After letting out a long breath, she nodded apologetically. Xeri sidled up beside her; she knew just how much the Breton was hurting. She went to say something, but Evangeline spoke first.
“Where is our mage?” She wasn’t in the mood for Xeri’s attempts at consolation, which tended to be more condemning than comforting.
“I told him to look for more traps.” She scanned the room briefly and nodded up toward the platform, where Marcurio appeared to be rifling through an ancient Dwarven chest.
They turned back to Nurussa who was melting a gold ingot over one of the hearth’s basins.
When she was done, she moved the pot to the central basin and poured the metal into a mold. Even Xeri couldn’t conceal her astonishment as she watched the Altmer handle the gold and all the instruments required for the task. In some ways, the forge—with all its ancient, magical technology—did most of the work, shaping the amulet, and so forth. But assembling all the components was an exacting task and on this point, Nerussa was meticulous. She laid the Ayleid stone, now infused with Elspeth’s blood, in the middle of the amulet and then set each gemstone at specific points around it. Xeri and Evangeline held their breaths as she placed the last one, Auri-El’s moonstone, at the bottom tip of the talisman. When that was completed she fitted the aetherium shards to the top of the hearth, closed the lid, and pressed the button.
The forge made a distinctive sound as it worked. While she waited, Nerussa held her hands pressed together, touching her fingertips to her lips, as she stared at the lid. When the noise stopped, she paused and took a deep breath. Behind her Xeri and Evangeline looked at each other first and then stepped up so that they were on either side of her. Nerussa had laid her hands on the lid. With her eyes closed and lips trembling slightly, she appeared to be saying a brief prayer. After several moments, she shook her head slightly, as if jolting herself to reality, and quickly opened the lid. The woman gasped as they looked upon the amulet. It wasn’t an exact replica but it was close enough. Nerussa picked it up and strung it on a gold chain, never once taking her eyes off it.
“It’s a bit gaudy, don’t you think?” Xeri interrupted their stunned silence.
“It is,” said Nerussa, smirking slightly. They stood silently for several more moments until they were interrupted again, this time by Marcurio.
“Is that what you forged?” he asked, as he tried to peer over Nerussa’s shoulder.
“Yes!” she said as she cupped it in her hands, shielding it from sight. But it was too late; he’d caught a quick glance.
“You know,” he began, “that looks just like—”
Evangeline and Nerussa looked at each other uncomfortably, but before they could respond, Xeri quickly grabbed Marcurio and clapped her hand over his mouth. “Now you listen,” she said firmly as she brought her hands back down. “Some fat cat noble in Skingrad is going to pay us a lot of money so he can stick this in some display case. He’s got guards. We do not and if word got out that this…artifact is being forged, I don’t need to tell you what sort of danger you would put us in. We hired you to protect us. I’d like to think that you would extend the courtesy, even after we part ways.” Xeri narrowed her eyes at him and he nodded nervously. “Good,” she said quietly.
They gathered up their supplies and left, not a word was spoken among them as they exited the ruin. Later that evening, after they bade Marcurio farewell, they made their way to the Vilemyr Inn in Ivarstead—an air of triumph surrounding them. There were no words, however, simply the clank of tankards and satisfied grins as they toasted their first accomplishment.