(A/N: This chapter continues from here. I’ve rewritten this one so many times and I just can’t anymore.))
Something was wrong. By all indications, everything in Winterhold was normal and quiet, but Elspeth took one look at Faralda and could tell by the distinct look of terror on the Altmer’s face that something was terribly wrong. Had Trygve and Onmund not been there, pushing her up the bridge, she might have collapsed as her body turned cold and her head dizzy from the flood of emotions triggered as Faralda desperately motioned for them to hurry. Following her gesture, they ran through the courtyard, past the apprentices and instructors who had gathered around the statue and were staring helplessly toward the Hall of the Elements. They stopped to speak with Brelyna but were interrupted by Drevis who pulled Elspeth away from her companions.
“They need you,” he croaked and pushed her toward the hall.
Elspeth took a deep breath and charged into the antechamber, gasping when she saw the barrier that had been cast on gated door that led to the main room. Initially, it looked like a powerful ward but a closer inspection revealed a wall created from energy that appeared to be in a perpetual state of motion. Then there was the noise. From a distance it sounded like a low hum, but up close sound of buzzing static was almost unbearable, causing Elspeth to cringe and recoil. But before she could move away, Savos grabbed her arm and pulled her so roughly that Elspeth’s first instinct was to hit him, though he was speaking before she had a chance to react.
“Elspeth! Thank the gods you’re here,” he said, his voice a combination of relief and dread.
“What is happening?” she asked.
“It’s Ancano. We don’t know what he’s doing. We’ve been trying to find a way inside,” he explained. Then he turned and looked at Elspeth intently. “We may need your spell.”
She paled at the suggestion and started to protest that it wasn’t her spell and that she would rather not, but Mirabelle stepped in. “We’ll use it as a last resort, for now just use your most powerful storm and incineration spells.” She turned and readied her hands to cast. “On me, 1…2…3.”
As Elspeth cast Thunderbolt, she admired the way Mirabelle took charge. Her tone was commanding, yet her delivery was firm and composed. With her, things seemed less terrifying but not less urgent, keeping Elspeth focused, when she could just as easily collapse at the prospect of yet another purge of mages.
They cast spell after spell; the sounds of the violent clash of fire, frost, and lightening against the barrier reverberated in Elspeth’s head and shook her to her core. This barrier was possibly the strongest of its type she’d confronted and she was becoming increasingly terrified that they would never break through and the destruction of the college would happen as she watched helplessly. Finally, after what felt like an eternity—but was probably not more than twenty minutes—the barrier started to waver. They gave one final push and with a loud, electrifying snap, it fell.
After shoving replenishing potions into Elspeth’s palm, Mirabelle lunged forward after Savos. Elspeth swallowed an elixir and hurried ahead, but as she entered the main hall she stopped and gasped. At first glance, Ancano appeared to be simply casting a powerful lighting spell on the orb. However, it soon became apparent that the power being generated between the Thalmor adviser and the strange artifact was immense. A field of static engulfed the room, making it difficult to think or even move. Panic gripped her once again as she looked at Ancano. He didn’t speak, but his countenance was menacing, like that of a madman. Before his presence was merely intimidating—as anyone in Thalmor robes would be. With the sheer amount of power he seemed to be creating, however, Elspeth was certain that something terrible was about to happen.
Mirabelle screamed for Savos to hold back, but to no avail. Elspeth tried to approach but the static in the air grew so thick that it was impossible to move without feeling sharp pricks on her skin. She looked up to see the Arch-Mage who had somehow gotten within inches of the Altmer. Digging her heels in, she forced herself forward, pushing against the painful sensation that wracked her body when she moved. Within moments there was a deafening sound, one that seemed to start in her head and push its way out. Elspeth’s whole body once again seized in terror, and as her visual field went white, she knew she’d met her end.
“Elspeth! Elspeth!” Mirabelle’s voice echoed in her head. “Are you all right? Can you get up? I need you on your feet. We’re in trouble here.”
The master wizard sat propped up against a stone column. Elspeth rolled over and leaned back, her body twitching as sharp, painful shocks continued to reverberate through her muscles and bones.
“Wh…what happened?” Talking hurt, as the static seemed to work its way around her jaw, causing her teeth to chatter. Looking around, she saw another huge barrier had been erected, this time around the orb. She squared her jaw and looked at Mirabelle intently, forcing herself to ignore the prickly feeling on her tongue and lips. “Are you all right?”
“Never mind me, I’ll be fine,” she said, though her tone indicated otherwise. “Ancano is doing something with that thing. We can’t stop him.” She groaned and shifted slightly. It was clear she was in a bit of pain, but she drew back and held her hand up when Elspeth reached forward. “I haven’t seen Savos since the explosion. He must have been blown clear and he may be injured. I need you to find the Arch-Mage and I need you to do it quickly. Get moving!”
Elspeth knew that Mirabelle was not in good shape but she dared not defy her. She hurried out of the Hall of the Elements though when she arrived back in the courtyard, she stopped suddenly, letting out a strangled cry when she saw the Arch-Mage sprawled out on the ground, his lifeless body surrounded by a small group of mages.
“Elspeth!” Trygve’s voice broke through her stupor and she lunged forward; but before she reached the arch-mage’s body, he and Onmund were on either side of her, gripping her upper arms and holding her back. “Not now,” he said. “Something’s happening to Winterhold, some sort of magic is destroying the town and we need to stop it.”
Elspeth swallowed against the lump in her throat and scowled as she jerked herself away from the men and hurried out of the courtyard. From the bridge she could see Farada, Arniel, and a bunch of destruction apprentices battling what looked to be thousands of strange magical creatures.
“What in Oblivion are those things?” asked Onmund.
“I have no idea,” she replied, though the low humming sound that now pervaded the town was painfully familiar. The creatures, which looked somewhat like wisps and attacked like ice-wraiths, were not ethereal in nature but instead seemed to be made up of the static energy that had engulfed the Hall of the Elements. Their bodies were composed of a bright, glaring light that made looking directly at them difficult. At the base of the bridge, the swarming, glowing mass made it almost impossible to see more than a few feet ahead though Elspeth could clearly discern some of dead bodies on the ground; so far all appeared to be guards.
As she drew her sword and readied her casting hand, she felt someone bump up against her. It was Faralda who was tossing fireballs haphazardly at the creatures. “Don’t bother unless your weapon’s enchanted,” she shouted. “Some of the mages are pairing up, standing back to back; others are using cloak spells—fire seems to work best.”
Trygve, whose weapons were useless, went to see who needed healing or if his wards could be of any use, while Elspeth and Onmund charged off in the opposite direction from Faralda. The creatures, too numerous to count, swarmed the entire town. Elspeth and Onmund stood back to back and cast a series of incineration spells and one wall of flames—which turned out to do more harm than good, killing only a handful of the creatures and blocking Onmund’s sight and letting swarms of creatures pass right by and on to a group guards who were clumsily trying to cast spells from a pile of scrolls Faralda brought from the college. Elspeth wondered if perhaps they were doing more harm than good, hitting each other and scattering the strange static creatures to the edges of town rather than killing them, but as they started dive bombing her and Onmund, she didn’t have time to ponder this.
“Elspeth!” Trygve shouted, “Behind you!”
She glanced over and saw a figure darting amongst the creatures toward the rundown building on the west edge of town. Elspeth could not tell who it was, but it was clearly not a guard or an apprentice. Fuck, she thought but before she could follow them, she felt Onmund collapse behind her.
“Onmund!” she screamed as she whipped around. After quickly killing the last creature darting around his head, she could see he was fine, weakened a bit by his injuries, but not seriously wounded. “Oh thank gods,” she said, reaching out to help him. But before she could, she felt someone yanking her up by the neck of her armor.
“What the fuck—Trygve!” She jumped to her feet and angrily jerked herself away from his grip.
“Come on!” He glowered as he ran back toward the dilapidated building with Elspeth on his heels. The last of the creatures were swarming around and Elspeth picked them off one by one. When the dust—or whatever it was that turned up as these things were destroyed—settled, Elsepth could see the woman who had made her way to the building lying in a heap on the ground. “Oh gods,” Trygve gasped as he tried to find a pulse.
From behind a pile of broken boards came a cry as a little boy crawled out. He took one look at the woman and let out a choked sob. “Ma!” he cried as he threw himself on top of the woman and wept.
Elspeth covered her mouth as Trygve stood back. Curious mages gawked at the commotion, but remained a respectful distance. Only Onmund approached and when he did, his face fell. “Oh no,” he whispered. “Elspeth that’s—
“Thaena! Assur! THAENA!” Jarl Korir’s voice thundered in her head as he ran up, flanked by several guards and his steward, Malur. He shoved everyone out of the way and fell to his knees by his wife, gripping his son by the shoulders.
They stepped away and averted their eyes while the Jarl held his son and cursed the gods. Soon the apprentices started to wander back toward the college. Only Elspeth, Onmund, and Trygve stayed, knowing the Jarl would demand an explanation. Elspeth felt terrible. Had she simply run after the Thaena as soon as Trygve called out, she might have prevented this. A long, awkward silence passed and after the Jarl sent his son away with Malur, he stepped up to the group, his face red with grief and anger.
Though Elspeth stood poised and ready to confront the grief-stricken jarl, her voice trembled as she spoke. “Jarl Korir—” she began.
“You fucking mages!” He bellowed as he lurched forward with his hands out, ready to throttled her. She steeled herself for his attack, but Trygve wedged himself between the incensed Jarl and the Breton.
“My Lord,” he shouted. “I will remind you that Elspeth is the Dragonborn. Now we are extremely sorry—“
“Sorry!” he sputtered. “Sorry doesn’t bring my wife back you milk drinking elf-fucking piece of shit.”
Elf fucker? That was new. Elspeth frowned sadly; she was trying think of something to say, something that might diffuse the tension and express, in a way that wouldn’t incite more ire, how completely sorry she was. But there were no words. So she kept her mouth shut and despised herself for it.
Trygve stood practically nose to nose with the furious jarl, who still looked like he might tear into Elspeth’s throat if he got past him. “Step away my Lord. Step away before something happens that you might regret.”
Before the Jarl could respond, Malur sidled up behind him, this time accompanied by Kai Wet-Pommel, the Stormcloak officer stationed in the Jarl’s Longhouse, several guards and Frida, a local priestess. Korir looked at them and glared, but Malur managed to coax him away while the officer and the priestess directed the guards to move Thaena’s body.
They stood quietly until they saw the last of the group disappear into the shack that functioned as the town’s hall of the dead. “Come on,” said Trygve gruffly. “We need to get back.” He turned without so much as a glance in Elspeth’s direction and hurried back up the bridge.
She felt the last bit of energy leave her body as she leaned into Onmund. Swallowing against a hard lump growing in her throat, she fought back tears as she continued to scan the town, now empty but for an occasional guard. This was all her fault. She resisted a bit as he tried to guide back up toward the college, as if standing in the cold all night staring at the strange debris that littered the ground could be penance for her failure to save the jarl’s wife. But there was much more to do. As she trudged up the bridge toward the college, she tried to prepare herself for the next task by focusing her thoughts but she was simply too weary.
They needed to find Mirabelle, but Onmund took one look at Elspeth and directed her to his room. “Go lie down, please. I’ll talk to Mirabelle.” She opened her mouth to protest, but realized she desperate needed the respite he was offering. Although she knew an important job was forthcoming, the master wizard was the last person she wanted to see and for once she was happy to leave the details to someone else.
After seeing her safely into the Hall of Attainment, Onmund walked across the empty courtyard. Inside the Hall of the Elements, he shuddered at the sight of the orb, still encased in the powerful barrier and quickly made his way up the steps to the Arch-Mage’s quarters, where he found Trygve talking with Mirabelle just outside the door.
“She’s resting,” he announced before either of them could ask; his tone firm. There was nothing either of them could say that couldn’t be relayed to Elspeth later.
Mirabelle nodded and turned back to the conversation she’d been having with Trygve. “Tolfdir and I will try to keep this contained. Elspeth needs to get her hands on the staff of Magnus.
“Are you certain the staff will help?” asked Trygve. “Leaving the college at this point seems dubious at best.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed, “but if the stories about the staff are true, if it really can absorb a tremendous amount of power, it may be the only way to break through Ancano’s magic.” She didn’t sound terribly confident, but it was fairly obvious that they had little choice. “Elspeth was directed to get the staff,” she reminded him. “That can’t be discounted.”
“I guess we’re going to Labyrinthian then,” Trygve said.
“Labyrinthian! The staff is there?” Mirabelle sounded surprised at first but then she looked thoughtfully at Trygve. “Well that can’t be a coincidence. Wait here.”
Mirabelle disappeared into the Arch-Mage’s quarters and when she returned, she handed Trygve an iron torc. “Savos told me that this was from Labyrinthian and that I would know what to do with it when the time came. I think it’s meant for you—well, Elspeth. I’m not sure, but there was something very personal about it for him.” Then she paused for a moment, her face falling a little. “I also think she should have this. It’s Savos’ amulet. Take it. Now, get some rest and then get that staff.”
After Mirabelle turned back into the Arch-Mage’s quarters Trygve crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Onmund intently. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to stay behind while Elspeth and I head to Labyrinthian,” he said.
“Excuse me?” said Onmund. He had no idea why Trygve didn’t want him to accompany them, but she wasn’t about to leave a grief-stricken and guilt-ridden Elspeth alone with Trygve.
“I think Elspeth fights better without you around,” he explained.
“I doubt that’s true,” he replied, narrowing his eyes and glaring at the other Nord. “I’m not staying here.”
“Very well,” said Trygve, letting out a frustrated sigh. “Here, take the torc and the amulet. I’m going to stock up on potions.” He paused for a moment, as if considering his next question carefully. “How much do you weigh? About 12 stone?”
“What? Why do you…never mind, yes…12 stone sounds about right.” Onmund let it go, not really caring what his weight had to do with anything.
“We’ll leave in a couple of hours. Make sure she rests.” Trygve said sternly before walking down toward the Arcanaeum glaring the whole way.
Onmund shook his head and let out a frustrated sigh as he left the hall and walked back across the courtyard. He pondered Trygve’s comment and recalled the times he fought alongside Elspeth. He never knew her to be anything but focused and disciplined. Trygve was wrong.
Back in his room, however, Elspeth was distracted and miserable and he had never seen her in such a state. She lay on her side, staring blankly at the wall, not even acknowledging when he came in. As he sat down, he nudged her gently and moved her hair out of her face. But she was unresponsive, almost catatonic. Onmund wasn’t sure what to do. He was worried, but he sat next to her and simply waited for her to react to him in some way.
“The Jarl’s wife is dead,” she said finally, her voice raw and defeated. “Because of me.”
“You can’t blame yourself,” he replied.
“Yes, I can,” she said firmly. “I can’t…how could I have been so careless? Whatever tolerance Korir was holding for the College—
“Was never there in the first place.” He wasn’t inclined to interrupt her normally, but he wouldn’t let her beat herself up for all this. “Elspeth,” he said quietly. “You won’t be able to save everyone.”
There was a long silence after that. She was unconvinced in this instance that such reassurance was deserved. And the more she played the scenario over in her head, the clearer that became.
“Come on,” he said, tugging her up. “We have a few hours to sleep, then we have to recover the staff in Labyrinthian.” While Elspeth pulled her armor off, Onmund reorganized their satchels, removing rubbish from their last trip and making room for new supplies. When he returned to her, she still looked rather unhappy though far more comfortable now in her woolies.
He pulled out Savos’ amulet and paused for a moment, feeling somewhat awkward at presenting her with another amulet. But he pushed this aside; his discomfort wasn’t important. “Here,” he said as he lay down beside her. “Mirabelle thought you should have this.”
She looked at it sadly and started to shake her head but Onmund put his hand to her cheek, directing her eyes to his. “I’m going to put this on you. Even if you think you don’t deserve it…you’ll have a chance to earn it soon enough.”
“All right,” she whispered and dropped her head down. He placed the amulet around her neck and after smoothing her hair down, pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead.
“Good night,” he said quietly. “We only have a couple of hours before Trygve wakes us up.” He heard Elspeth murmur something softly and within moments, they were both fast asleep.