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Saturday, June 27, 2015

XX - Septimus Signus

Silronwe walked her back to the College’s front gates, her fur-lined hood low over her narrow brow as she pulled them open for Merill to pass through.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to go with you?” she asked Merill, worry in her voice. Merill glanced at her through the bars of the gate, her brows low over her brassy eyes. She found herself offering Silronwe a smile in spite of herself.

“I’ll be okay,” she assured the Altmer.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Silronwe assured her. “I’ll send a courier once I’m done here.”
Normally, Merill would have rather found her way to Septimus Signus on foot, but in the ice fields, a horse was a good companion to have. She had never seen the fields herself, but had heard stories of the broken chunks of frozen water that floated along the coast in the Sea of Ghosts – the true ones of horkers slapping the ice to make people lose their footing and drown or others imagining illusions on the far off water and losing their concentration to fall into the freezing water. Then there were the ones Brelin used to tell Nalimir and her on cold nights when they would sit at his knees around the hearth in their cabin while rain beat the windows outside, stories of vampires that lurked beneath the ice and pulled their victims under and of mythical snow whales from the Dawn Era that would swallow men whole when there was no one around to see. Either way, the fields were slick and dangerous, especially in the unrelenting snow, and Merill was glad to be astride Thelred.
He was a good steed, stocky and built for snow travel, with a thick grey coat dappled with darker spots and feathers around his great hooves. Merill had ridden a few times, on stolen horses they used to take for brief rides around the Reach when the city got boring, but it had been some time. She clung tight to Thelred, biting her lip as he carefully navigated the treacherous ice fields.
The blizzard had not relented, but Merill was determined to track down this Septimus Signus. She’d wound a wool scarf around her face and pulled her hood low over her head, leaving only her eyes exposed to the bitter wind, but the cold still bit through and touched her very bones, the icy air stealing her breath from her throat. She carefully navigated Thelred along the coast until they reached the tip of the continent where the ice fields began, a long stretch of freezing water broken by floating chunks of snow-covered ice. A few horkers lounged on the larger ice chunks, but Merill knew from hunting that the creatures had poor eyesight and wouldn’t be looking to eat in such arctic winds.
She carefully directed Thelred onto the first chunk of ice, and he plodded through the lapping water and stepped onto it, his hooves digging in deep enough so he wouldn’t slide. Merill swept her eyes through the wind and snow, scanning for some sign of life in the fields while she nudged Thelred onward. Merill soon discovered that the fields were very much a guessing game – it was impossible to tell how stable each chunk of ice was until it was stepped on. Her heart skipped a beat a number of times when Thelred lowered a hoof onto a slab of ice and it sank downward, sending him scrambling backward with an urgent whinny. She coaxed him forward carefully, constantly scanning the horizon for some sign of life among the pointed spires of ice that rose out of the sea.
The blizzard was unrelenting and the sky was beginning to darken when Merill finally spotted a minute pinprick of light in the distance. Even if it wasn’t where Signus had holed up, Merill urged Thelrend toward it – she had lost feeling in her fingers and the tears in her eyes had frozen along her nose. As they drew closer, Merill saw it was a torch, somehow still aglow despite the ferocity of the wind, encased in an iron sconce that appeared to be dug deep into the ice. A small wooden door sat in the surface of the ice just below the torch.
When they reached it, Merill slid off Thelred’s back and looped his reins around her wrist while she bent to examine the door. Its wood was beginning to rot, iron hinges growing orange with age – it was clear this portal had not been used in some time. Merill wedged her gloved fingertips beneath the door and yanked it upward, sending a spray of snow into the dark crevice below.
The cavern was free from bitter wind, but that did little to warm Merill’s freezing fingers. She was in a narrow tunnel, almost pitch black, and a touch of the nearby walls revealed that the tunnel had been chiseled straight out of the ice. Lucky I’m used to seeing in the dark, she thought, carefully making her way along the curves of the tunnel, her boots slipping slightly on the slick cavern floor. The wind slammed the door shut behind her, and she looped Thelred’s reins around the handle, slipping out of her cloak and tossing it over his back to keep him warm.
Merill continued down the passage, and soon the ground had evened out and faint, bluish light filled the space. She straightened up as she entered a cave carved out of the glacier, standing on a narrow walkway that stood above the small living space that had been eked out of the ice below.
The space was dominated by some sort of enormous…box. Merill didn’t know much about the ancient societies of Tamriel, but the construct looked Dwemer to her, all intricate brass and stone ornamentations and concentric patterns – like something she’d see in Markarth. The thing was wedged in the ice, as if it had been discovered there, with lanterns all around it throwing strange, spiky shadows over its curved edges. There was more furniture sticking haphazardly out of the ice, a crooked bookshelf buckling with tomes; a ratty, half-rotted bed; a rough-hewn table that boasted only a moldy heel of bread.
Merill carefully made her way down into the cavern, staring around for movement. There didn’t seem to be any other tunnels or ways out. She crossed the space to the bookshelf and began pulling volumes own and wiping dust from their covers – there were copies of Ruminations on the Elder Scrolls, along with dozens of other books on Elder Scrolls, their pages crinkling and damp.
“When the top level was built, no more could be placed,” someone said suddenly, and Merill jumped, turning to see a figure standing behind her, robed and impossible to discern clearly against the lantern-light.
“Are you Septimus Signus?” she asked, replacing the book she’d been scanning.
“It was and is the maximal apex.” Merill slowly moved around him, and he turned so he stayed facing her. He was an old man, so ancient-looking that Merill felt as if a strong gust of wind could scatter him into ash. The patchy beard beneath his hood did little to disguise his weak chin, pockmarked with age.
“I heard you know about the Elder Scrolls,” Merill said, and Septimus rubbed his gnarled hands together, as if in excitement.
“Elder Scrolls. Indeed. The Empire. They absconded with them. Or so they think. The ones they saw. The ones they thought they saw.” A broad smile stretched across his withered face. “I know of one. Forgotten. Sequestered. But I cannot go to it, not poor Septimus, for I…I have risen beyond its grasp.” He raised his hands then, gesturing wildly to the cavern’s dark ceiling.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said slowly, reminding herself to keep her tone in check. She’d had a long, exhausting day, and was growing impatient with incoherent replies from those that were supposed to be helping her.
“I am well,” Signus went on brightly. “I will be well. Well to be within the will inside the walls.”
“Then where’s the Scroll?” Merill pressed. Signus did not speak, but stared at her, a half-crazed look in his eye, standing stock-still save for the nervous wringing of his hands. Merill was nearly ready to reach over and try to shake sense into him when he lunged forward, seizing her own hands with surprising strength and dragging her to the ground. She tried to yank her hands away, but he pushed them down onto the ice, looking up at her with strangely clear, bright eyes as the cold soaked through her gloves.
“Here,” he rasped. “Don’t you feel it?” Merill jerked her hands away.
“What are you talking about?” she hissed.
“Here as in this plane,” he went on, laying his own bare, gnarled hands down on the icy floor. “Mundus. Tamriel. Nearby, relatively speaking. On the cosmological scale, it’s all nearby.
“Can you help me get the Elder Scroll or not?” Merill asked, standing.
“One black lifts the other,” Signus went on, as if reciting poetry. “Septimus will give what you want, but you must bring him something in return.”
“What do you want?” He took her arm again, though more gently, and looped it around his own, leading her over to the box as a suitor escorts a lady through the garden.
“You see this masterwork of the Dwemer,” he said, laying his free hand against the aged brass. “Deep inside their greatest knowings. Septimus is clever among men, but he is an idiot child compared to the dullest of the Dwemer. Lucky they left behind their own way of reading the Elder Scrolls.”
“So the Dwemer used the Elder Scrolls?” Merill asked, and when he did not answer she tried again. “Is there an Elder Scroll in there?”
“No,” Signus went on, his withered hand splayed upon the brasswork. “In the depths of Blackreach one yet lies.”
“‘Cast upon where Dwemer cities slept, the yeaning spire hidden learnings kept.’” He let his hand slowly drop, his fingers caressing every crevice and curve in the brass.
“Where is it?” Merill asked impatiently, pulling her arm out of his.
“Under deep. Below the dark. The hidden keep. Tower Mzark.” He moved past her in a curious stepping pattern that almost made him appear to be dancing. “The point of puncture, of first entry, of the tapping. Delve to its limits, and Blackreach lies just beyond.” He danced over to his bookshelf and began shoving through the books there, pulling them out and throwing them onto the ice. “But not all can enter there. Only Septimus knows the hidden key to loose the lock to jump beneath the deathly rock.”
“So how do I get in?” Merill pressed, her impatience roiling.
“Two things I have for you,” Signus said, turning with his arms outstretched. “Two shapes. One edged, one round.” He threw something from his left hand at her, and she caught it – a walnut-sized brass sphere that was utterly unremarkable, although it was light in her palm – hollow, she guessed. “The round one, for tuning. Dwemer music is soft and subtle, and needed to open their cleverest gates.” He threw the next object to her, a small hollow brass cube. “The edged lexicon, for inscribing. To us, a hunk of metal. To the Dwemer, a library full of knowings. But…empty.

“Find Mzark and its sky-dome. The machinations there will read the Scroll and lay the lore upon the cube.” Signus fixed his bright gaze firmly on her, an odd smile on his cracked lips. “Trust Septimus,” he said lowly. “He knows you can know.”

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