It was well past nightfall when they finally made their way up the broken bridge to the College. The Hall of Elements was silent and empty, their lone footsteps echoing so loud as they made their way up the stairs and into her quarters. Farkas wrestled out of his armor and immediately crawled into bed, but Luthien sat down at the table to write Ulfric and let him know what they had learned from Urag and the crazy old wizard in the ice cave. She explained that they were making their way to Alftand to find the Elder Scroll, but after that her words grew more emotional. She really did miss him; her heart ached with longing only his strength could quell. I promise to return as soon as I find the Scroll, my love, and together we will face Alduin. Together, we will save our world.
Farkas didn’t even stir as she bundled into her hood and cloak. She made the long walk down into Winterhold and found the courier in The Frozen Hearth. Warming herself with a mug of mead, she then made her way back to the College and disappeared into the stairwell that led to her quarters.
She needed rest; she knew that, but every time she glanced toward Farkas sleeping in the bed—as he’d done so many times before—her guilty thoughts drew her back to that morning at the Throat of the World. She was afraid to wake up in his arms again, even if it had been innocent enough in nature.
Her own thoughts had been far too disturbing of late, and try as she might to deny how comfortably she’d slept in his embrace, she was a married woman. Comforting her was Ulfric’s job.
So instead of sleeping, she crafted potions until her fingers were sore and her eyes felt like they would dry up and fall out of her head. She stacked them into her bag, arranging and rearranging them so many times, she knew she was only stalling, as if she expected him to actually wake up just so she could go to bed. The hour grew only later, and soon she was so tired she thought she might just fall asleep on her feet, so she finally gave in. Laying down on the opposite edge of the bed, she rested so close to the end she nearly fell off onto the floor several times before actually falling asleep.
But she didn’t dream. She hadn’t dreamed when they were at the Throat of the World either, she’d only slept in an empty void of comfort and peace; something she hadn’t known since before Vilkas had died. When she woke several hours later, she was relieved to find the bed empty. Stretching awake, her body actually felt well-rested, and when she sat she caught a glimpse of him at the table spooning porridge into his mouth.
He heard her stir, and turned over his shoulder. “I forgot how good the food was here,” he commented, gesturing to the empty space at the table. “I brought you some too.”
She rose and joined him, sliding into the empty chair and diving into her porridge as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks. “This is good,” she noted.
“I slept good too,” he said. “I feel like a million Septims.”
“No bad dreams?”
“Me either.” She scratched absently at her cheek before tucking her braid behind her ear.
“Maybe Tolfdir put up some kind of ward or something, to keep nightmares at bay. You know, I heard awhile back that everyone in Dawnstar has been having bad dreams.”
“Sounds like Daedra.”
“Sounds like we should stay away from Dawnstar.”
“That too,” she agreed. “How long do you think it will take to get to Alftand from here?”
“A day, maybe two. Depends on the weather. It’s pretty damn cold down there, a lot of wind and blizzards. Ice wraiths everywhere.”
“Ah, good. I’ll feel right at home then,” she grinned.
“I went down to the Arcaneum while you were sleeping to ask Urag if he had any books about Blackreach. He laughed and snarled at me. Said even if he did, I wouldn’t know what to do with them. I don’t even know what that means.”
Rolling her eyes, she shook her head and lowered her spoon into her empty bowl. “That’s his way of saying he doesn’t have any books about Blackreach.”
“He could have just said so,” he shrugged. “I just wish we knew more about what we’re getting ourselves into.”
They’d been in enough Dwemer ruins in their travels together to know they could probably expect skeevers and spiders, Falmer and chaurus, mechanical spiders and Dwarven Centurions, all of which with only one objective in mind: destroying them. By all rights, they should have been going into that place with an army, but they didn’t exactly have one at their disposal… or did they?
“Do you still have the Sanguine Rose?” she asked him.
The story behind how they’d even come to own that staff was one they’d never told anyone, mostly because the majority of the details surrounding it were so murky, neither of them actually remembered. She only knew there’d been a great deal of drinking and the friend who’d gotten them drunk in the first place hadn’t really been named Sam at all. After dragging themselves halfway across Skyrim and back, they wound up in Misty Grove, face to face with the Daedric Prince of Debauchery himself, who’d commended them both on mischief well managed and rewarded them with the Sanguine Rose. Afterward, they’d vowed to never speak of that night to remember again. No one they knew would ever understand and Vilkas would have been furious.
“I gave it back to you after we defeated Ancano, why?”
“I think it’s in one of the chests here in my quarters. I want you to carry it with you. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the help we can get in this place.”
“You’ve been able to conjure your own Dremora for years. What do you need the staff for?”
“Because two Dremora is better than one,” she winked as she rose from the table and headed down the hall to search through her old chests for that staff.
It was mid-morning before their feet actually touched the road. They traveled as light as they could, packing enough food to carry them through at least two weeks and more than enough potions to spare. Even that didn’t feel like it would be enough, but they’d survived on much less in the past. With no idea what they faced in Alftand and Blackreach, they would have to make it work.
Despite hungry wolf packs and the occasional snowy saber cat, the road to Alftand was surprisingly clear, the sun lingering overhead and gleaming almost blindingly off the snow as they trekked through it. The snow was so deep in some places walking was damn near impossible, but they soldiered on, making camp when the wind and snow squalls were too hard to pass through and sheltering themselves inside their small tent.
Farkas took first watch that night, lingering near the tent flap and mostly listening to the keening wind, while Luthien huddled in her bedroll and tried to find sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, Alduin’s face was there; gaping maw, jagged teeth dripping with blood and flesh, earth and stone. Fire rained down around her as she sunk into the melting world, still clutching her children desperately in her arms. Eyes opened, she stared into the darkness and listened to the wind scream, the low, distant howl of wolves echoing just south of where they’d set up camp. The next time she closed her eyes, the ghostly, expectant faces of all those she’d loved and lost hovered above her, moaning in agony and pleading for her to guide them, protect them, save them from his wrath.
That time she must have cried out because she woke to find his hand on her shoulder, gently nudging her from the darkness, whispering, “Lu… Lu, wake up.”
Leaning upright, she shook off the murky web of dream that still tethered her to the darkness. The wind rattled and shook at their tent, moaning like a thousand old ghosts pleading to be set free. “I’m awake,” she muttered, shrugging away from his hand on her shoulder.
Every night, the dreams had come, but why hadn’t she dreamed in Winterhold, or at the Throat of the World? It didn’t make sense, and as she lifted to sit, wrapping herself in her cloak and blankets, she tried to understand it. Farkas hadn’t dreamed then either. Were their dark, ethereal wanderings somehow connected? The paths they walked intertwined? Casting her magelight, the blue orb hovered in the space above their heads, illuminating the tent so they could see each other.
“We don’t dream when we both sleep,” she said quietly.
“When we’re together, if we’re both sleeping, we don’t have the dreams.”
“Huh, I hadn’t noticed.”
“Maybe it’s just a coincidence. I don’t know.” Shaking her head, she lowered her gaze to the frozen ground beneath their bedrolls. It had only been twice. Maybe she was just looking for something that wasn’t there. “Those dreams have haunted my sleep for over a year now. It is a rare thing if I don’t have them.”
“I know what you mean, but I still don’t understand. Are you saying that’s important?”
Luthien swore to herself she’d never tell him the cruel truth about his own nightmares. His brother was really calling out to him from the afterlife. Every time he dreamed, Vilkas was pleading for help and guidance, another lost soul amidst the many roaming Sovngarde in search of Shor’s great hall. Farkas had already lost so much; telling him would only serve to destroy him, but something about that small revelation gave her hope—even if she was only reaching. Somehow, he was connected to her destiny. She needed him with her at the Throat of the World when she read the Elder Scroll and faced Alduin.
“It just means we’re stronger together,” she sighed. “That’s all.”
“Well, yeah.” He elbowed her playfully. “I’ve been tellin’ you that for years.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m sorry.” She heard shame in his voice then. “I shouldn’t say things like that.” He lowered his stare to his gloved hands in his lap. “I know you love Ulfric. Just like I know you loved Vilkas. I just… sometimes I can’t help but wonder what could have been. You know? You and me, we’re like… I don’t know. We’re just us.”
“Us?” She almost laughed, but when she heard how serious he was, she knew her amusement would hurt his feelings so she swallowed it.
“I haven’t made you carry dragon bones in a long time.” She tried to bring some humor into the conversation because he was skirting too closely to some of her own thoughts of late and that disturbed her.
“But I would if you asked me to,” he said softly. “I would do anything for you.”
“I know you would. I would for you too.”
Silence; a stillness so strong she didn’t even want to exhale for fear of breaking it. Even the wind outside seemed to die down, as if Nirn held its very breath, and then he sighed. They spoke no more, but neither of them slept either. When the grey edges of dusk began to pry around the open edges of their tent, they packed up camp and journeyed further south in search of Alftand.
The old ruins were buried in ice, only the tops of their towers jutting out of the snow like a beacon. Luthien followed lost footsteps buried beneath the squall-blown snow up the difficult hillside until she was standing on top of the ruins looking down. Farkas disappeared, but she could hear the crunch of ice beneath his boots as he wandered around the tower in search of a way inside.
She followed the sound of his voice and found him hunched down next to worn pallet leading down into the tower. “A way in?”
“It has to be.” He pushed up from where he’d squatted and scanned the horizon before returning his gaze to her. “If not, I don’t know how else we’re going to get into this place, but this is it.”
“I’ll go down first,” she said. “I’m lighter.”
He nodded, stepping back and watching as she slowly descended the worn and frozen boards. He followed slowly, carefully guarding every step for fear the old wood might give way under his weight, but they managed to navigate the bridges and arrived just outside the gaping entrance without incident. The walls of Alftand ruins were guarded in thick layers of ice that melted and dripped into puddles on the slick floor under the sputtering fire of several dropped torches in the path.
“Doesn’t look like we’re alone here,” she noted. “Keep your eyes open for trouble.”
Abandoned camps and evidence of old fires littered the alcoves and recesses in the walls, forsaken treasure hunters who’d either frozen to death in the cold cavernous ruins or moved on to face darker foes in the belly of Alftand. The deeper they ventured, the warmer the air seemed to grow, as if the miles of ice that packed in around the place acted as an insulation, trapping what little heat there was inside.
She found journals, Khajiit brothers in search of their fortune, but according to the words within Skooma had come between them and torn them apart. Wondering how long it had been since those journals had been left behind. The occasional pools of blood smeared across the ice walls and slippery floor suggested it hadn’t been long at all and she felt all the hairs raise on the back of her neck as she lowered the journal back to the table.
Moving forward, everything inside Alftand echoed, their breath, their footsteps, their heartbeats. She could hear the distant clank and whir of dwemer machines in the depths, or maybe they were just ahead, it was impossible to tell inside that place. When centuries’ old mechanical spiders heard them coming, they sprang to life and charge in with electrical attacks she staved off as best she could with her ward while Farkas smashed them to bits with his blade.
“Hate those gods damned things,” he growled. “They’re worse than real spiders.”
The sound of their battle must have alerted the surviving Khajiit, because he leapt out of the shadows with his claws bared, swiping to attack Luthien. He was just within arm’s reach when Farkas sunk an arrow into his eye, wrenching a surprised shriek from him as he fell backward and bled out into a slick puddle of blood that made the icy floor more dangerous than it already was.
She’d always hated looting bodies, but he had lockpicks and potions they could definitely use, so she slipped them into her bag and then they moved on. They found his brother, already dead, deeper in the cavern, but she had no desire to loot that body. She didn’t care what he was carrying on him.
For hours they navigated the icy catacombs of old Alftand, grateful as the air grew warm enough that they could no longer see their breath, but disturbed by how quiet and empty it felt. They’d only come across a few Dwarven Spheres and spiders, but she also knew there were always Falmer in Dwemer ruins, and it was only a matter of time before they ran into them.
It was as if just thinking about them brought them out into the open, and soon they passed down the long, winding pathway that led deeper into the belly of Alftand and the Falmer were waiting for them. Sneaking and hitting from a distance and calling upon their Dremora seemed to be the only way to thin out their numbers and avoid running into an army of poisoned blades and arrow tips.
Deeper and deeper into Alftand, they delved, cutting down Falmer and raging against machines. When they came upon a Dwarven Centurion, they were so exhausted, Luthien wanted nothing more than to sneak around it, but as soon as she activated the lever that opened the gate, the Centurion came to life, stomping down from its platform and challenging them with a blast of steam that would have seared the flesh from their bones if not for their shields. They summoned their Dremora and she used Unrelenting Force to stagger it back, as Farkas charged in with a vengeful cry, dropping his warhammer down hard and severing its heavy, metal head from its mechanical body.
Silence, save for the constant whir and clunk of distant machines and hissing steam funneling into the air from the broken Centurion at their feet.
“This place is killing me,” he remarked, dropping down to grab the soul gem from the Centurion.
“Me too,” she agreed. “I wonder how close we are to Black Reach.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if the place really even exists.”
So was she, but she didn’t have the heart to tell him that. Instead, she turned away from the Centurion and soldiered on, passing through the gate the mechanical monster had been guarding. As they marched onward, she could hear frenzied voices arguing down below about treasure. She’d seen no sign of other treasure hunters since they’d left the dead Khajiit in the winding, frozen catacombs above, but the two battling it out just ahead were definitely professionals.
“That looks like some kind of Dwemer gateway,” she whispered, gesturing toward the platform the two adventurers were fighting on.
She nodded, and both of them drew back their bows, aiming at different targets and taking out the skirmishers in two separate, single hits. They stood back awhile, waiting for them to get up again, but when they didn’t, Luthien nodded in that direction with her head and they crept slowly toward the platform. She checked their bodies for signs of life, while Farkas studied the central mechanism with furrowed brow.
“What do you think this does?” he activated the button and the platform trembled, a set of stairs opening up that led further into the dark reaches.
“After you,” she said, lingering near the edge of the stairs.
Farkas shook his head, shrinking back a little as he peered down ill-lit steps. “I bet there’s spiders down there.”
“Milk drinker,” she muttered, nudging past him to lead the way.
The stairs wound downward for what felt like miles, before they finally reached a set of tall, golden doors. Drawing in a deep breath, she reached for the handles and pressed them down, pushing the doors open and swallowing the lump in her throat as they swung forward to reveal a world unlike any she’d ever seen before.
“That’s just…” Farkas lingered over her shoulder, so close she could feel the exhale of his breath on the back of her neck. “That’s… wow. There are just no words,” he murmured.
Luthien agreed. There were no words to describe the breathtaking beauty of the secret world they’d stumbled upon. She could hear the singing ring of nirnroot, beckoning her into the lost city of Blackreach. One step and then two, and she was drawn away from the doors to stand on the landing overlooking the incredible glow of a world unlike anything she’d ever seen in her wildest dreams.