The Sea of Ghosts was one of the most dangerous places in Skyrim. Navigating its waters by boat was nearly impossible on account of the jagged icebergs, but smaller fishing boats could often skirt through them without incident if they moved slowly enough. The fisherman along the coast had no interest in renting his boat to them, especially with no guarantees they would actually bring it back, but he sold them a small vessel for seven-hundred and fifty Septims. It was a large price to pay for a shoddy little boat that would probably sink halfway through the sea, but it was better than swimming the entire way. Nord blood, or not, there was only so much time a body could handle in those frigid waters, and it was a long way to Septimus Signus’s outpost.
Through the misted wind, she found her gaze lifting to him from time to time. For the most part things seemed to have gone back to normal after they’d left the Throat of the World, if anything between them could ever have been considered normal. But there were moments when she looked at him and wondered what he was thinking. They had said things to each other in the last few weeks that they’d never dared say before, her subtle admission that she was sorry things hadn’t turned out the way any of them wanted probably more than enough to confuse him further than he already was.
What had she really even meant when she’d said that? Even she wasn’t sure anymore, but more than once she found her own mind wandering to that impossible possibility—the place where she’d chosen differently, where Vilkas was still alive and Alduin was nothing but a bad, fading memory. Where Farkas was the father of her children and Ulfric Stormcloak had never been a part of her life at all. It was difficult to imagine Vilkas not being a part of her life, but there had definitely been times since she’d met Ulfric when she’d actually wished she never had. She would never give up what they had, never give up their son or the bond they’d come to share over those last few months, but her heart kept asking, “What if?”
It was a dark, sad place, on more levels than she was prepared to admit, and the forsaken Sea of Ghosts seemed to be the worst place in the world to be thinking about it. Did it make her sad because she hadn’t chosen it, or because every time she thought about it she felt like she was betraying her husband? Ulfric had once told her he would never compete with another man for her affections, and his sending Farkas away from her had been his way of demonstrating just how far he was willing to go to secure his place in her heart. Sending her out on her own with Farkas was a clear demonstration of his trust, and trust was not something he easily offered to anyone—not even his wife. Now her mind was wandering into forbidden places it had no business going, and though she would never act on the confusing emotional impulses coursing through her, that fact that she was having them at all made her feel wretched. As if she didn’t deserve her husband’s trust.
“Mm,” she only nodded, glancing out across the rocky sea. She could feel the icebergs knocking at their little boat, and in the distance a cave beckoning them closer. “I think that’s it up there.”
“We might have to leave the boat and walk across the ice,” he said. “Those bergs are wide and sharp. There’s no way we’re navigating through them without splintering this thing into bits and I’d rather not swim if I don’t have to.”
She agreed with little more than a nod and began gathering their things from the boat, rocking it every time she moved. He stepped out first, carefully climbing up onto the bouncing iceberg and then reaching down for her, first grabbing for her hands and then deciding it was easier to just lift her out. His strong hands circled around her waist and hiked her up as if she and everything she carried weighed little more than a hagraven feather to him. Placing her down in front of him, they stood still until the ice beneath their feet grew steady enough to move across, and then they edged their way carefully over the craggy, broken sheets of ice that led to Septimus Signus.
Several times they both slipped, and once she nearly dropped into the frigid waters, but his ever-ready hands reached out to grasp her, drawing her back with a swift jerk that nearly sent them both backward into the water on the other side. By the time they made it to solid ice and land, she could still feel the constant trembling of her own unsteady legs, and it took several minutes before they were both stable enough to climb down the ladder into the cold belly of the cave where the mad mage had made a home for himself.
They heard him muttering to himself from the top of the cliff overlooking his bizarre cavern. A large, mysterious Dwemer cube glowed below and several times as they watched him pace the floor, he stopped to talk to the cube. “Dig, Dwemer, in the beyond. I’ll know your last unknown and rise to your depths.”
Making the descent into his cave, he looked up at them as if they’d always been standing there, preaching almost as passionately as old Heimskr as he remarked, “When the top level was built, no more could be placed. It was and is the maximal apex.”
“Septimus?” she asked.
“Old Septimus, yes, he will reach the summit.”
“I’ve come from the College,” she told him. “I heard you know about the Elder Scrolls.”
“Ah, the ice entombs the heart. The bane of Kagernac and Dagoth Ur. To harness it is to know. The fundaments. The Dwemer lockbox hides it from me. The Elder Scroll gives insight deeper than the deep ones, though. To bring about the opening.”
“Mudcrab…” Farkas whispered over her shoulder.
She turned a sharp gaze back to quiet him and he turned to hide his snorting laugher into his armor. “Do you have an Elder Scroll? Here?”
“I’ve seen enough to know their fabric. The warp of air, the weft of time, but no. It is not in my possession.”
“Do you know where I can find it?”
“You just said it wasn’t here.” Farkas hunched up his shoulders in an intimidating stance. “Is it here, or not?”
“Well, here, as in this plane. Mundus. Tamriel. Nearby, relatively speaking.” Madness echoed in his playful laughter, seeping deep into her bones and making her shudder as she stepped back. “On the cosmological scale, it is all nearby.”
“Look,” Farkas drew his sword from the scabbard. “Don’t make me hurt you, old man.”
She held up her arm to steady his temper. “Can you help me find the Elder Scroll, or not?”
“One block lifts the other. Septimus will give you what you want, but you must bring him something in return.”
“What do you want?”
“You see this masterwork of the Dwemer?” He gestured to the glowing box at his back. “Deep inside their greatest knowings. Septimus is clever among men, but he is not but an idiot child compared to the dullest of Dwemer. Lucky then they left behind their own way of reading the Elder Scrolls. In the depths of Blackreach, one yet lies. Have you heard of Blackreach? Cast upon where Dwemer cities slept, the yearning spire hidden learnings kept.” He cackled again, turning his back to them and walking toward his Dwemer treasure.
She’d never heard of Blackreach, and when she looked to Farkas, he only shrugged his shoulders. “Where is Blackreach?”
“Under deep. Below the Dark. The hidden keep. Tower Mzark. Alftand, the point of puncture, of first entry, of the tapping. Delve to its limits and Blackreach lies just beyond.”
“Alftand,” Farkas muttered, nodding as he closed his eyes as if viewing some sort of visual map in his head. “South of Winterhold.”
“But not all can enter there. Only Septimus knows the hidden key to loose the lock to jump beneath the deathly rock.”
“You know how to get there?” she asked Farkas. He nodded and she turned back to the mad mage in front of them. “How do we get inside?”
“Two things I have for you. Two shapes. One edged, one round. The round one is for tuning, Dwemer music is soft and subtle and needed to open their cleverest gates. The edged lexicon is for inscribing. To us, a hunk of metal. To the Dwemer, a library of great knowings. But… empty. Find Mzark and its skydome. The machinations there will read the Scroll and lay the lore upon the cube. Trust Septimus. He knows you can know.”
He handed over the cube and the lexicon and she lowered them into her bag, still not sure what she was supposed to do with them, exactly. She tried to ask him for clearer explanations, but everything he said was spoken in riddle and rhyme and only served to confuse her more. She would just have to trust her instincts and hope they didn’t fail her when she needed them the most.
Lingering outside the cave, the brisk wind howled and screamed against them, their tiny boat still rocking and whole in the distance. Farkas hovered at her back with his arms closed, wind whipping his hair into his face. “Where do we go now?”
“Back to the College. We will rest there and gather potions, and I will send word to Ulfric before we leave. You know how to get to Alftand?”
“I know the general direction,” he shrugged.
“Then I guess we go to Alftand and find the Elder Scroll.”
“You trust that crazy old lark?”
“Sometimes the greatest wisdom lies nestled in the depths of insanity,” she turned around to look at him, watching his brow furrow with confusion and doubt.
“All right, but if you start talking in riddles after we find this Elder Scroll…”
She chuckled. “I may never be the same if we actually find it, but losing my mind would be better than losing everything I love.”
“If you say so.”
“Come on, let’s go.”