Chapter 26

"Fane," Tariq learned, was merely an old word for "temple." Of course. Where else to bury a leader of their order? According to the book Vilkas had loaned him, the ancient fane of Ustengrav was in the area bordering Hjaalmarch and Haafingar. Another underground dragon temple. The visible remains looked like many burial mounds one could stumble across in Skyrim.

Aela had agreed to accompany him into Ustengrav. But right now, she was on the latest trail of a runaway thief, which had taken her along the northwest coast on the other side of Solitude's mountains. As it was a simple tracking task, she told him to go ahead and explore the nearby dragon-era tombs he'd originally pinned for summer exploration.

He hadn't intended to complete the Greybeards' quest until after winter, but fate would have it otherwise. The Companions had accepted this item recovery job, and he and Aela had taken the assignment. Some hard-headed young idiot had resented his parent's order to stay in Whiterun this year because the boy had discovered the thrill of gambling. So he'd written to his grandparents in Solitude, saying his parents didn't have time to make the trip, so they obligingly sent a carriage for him. He didn't have much to gamble with, so he'd stolen his father's family's sword and his mother's family's wedding necklace for gambling collateral. He went out one night to a party and never came back. Returning the boy was optional. The family was paying double bounties for the items only.

Rodina had come along because she wanted to research legends at the Bards' College. They had an eclectic library and wanted to see what they had on dragonpriests in their historical collection.

She'd found Second-Era stories of a dragonpriest named Vokun of the High Gate Temple to the dragon Cold Cruel Snows. Vokun, "the Shadow," controlled the north coast with storms and storm creatures. No one could sail those waters without first paying tribute to his dragon god. The dragon and its priest were defeated by Tongue Chieftain Kvenel. Yes, that Kvenel that Tariq and Athis had defeated for the Aura shout.

He'd gone into that seaside ruin looking for the dragon wall and encountered a Nord witch looking for a scroll. She'd said the scroll wouldn't matter to him or anyone else but her family. She used fireball attacks but said she wasn't a Winterhold wizard. The witch was arrogant as an elf, talked too much, yelled at him to watch his swords as if he were a clumsy novice, and questioned his actions. No help at all with the dragonpriest. He fancied that she may have been a descendant of Vokun. Why else search this tomb for proof of her ancestry? Or less exciting was that one of the draugr lords they'd defeated was an ancestor making the scroll a roll call of all the guardians buried with Vokun.

Whatever. Vokun used fireballs, kept moving around, and summoned lightning atronachs. Fighting two constantly moving foes casting coordinated high-level attacks and a witch with a rotten aim at moving targets, it was a long and exhausting fight. In the end, Tariq got a steel mask, the word "STRUN," and the sense of stormy weather. The witch also paid for his incidental help by gifting him a spell scroll that would teach him to summon a fire-based creature if he cared to learn it. He felt Rodina would like it, so he packed it away for her; otherwise, he would sell it.

She loved it. They went to the courtyard with a tall wooden, fire-charred pillar in the center. Once she'd memorized the spell, she summoned the Oblivion creature after determining she had enough mana to do the job. Fortunately, it was an apprentice-level spell, and the mana cost was well-within her reserve. What came forth was a large-size wolf with a pelt of flame. At her command, it attacked the sacrificial pillar. As soon as its teeth dug in with bone-breaking force, it exploded with the power of an adept-level fireball. An impressive return on the investment.

"Why does a bardic college have a burning stake in its courtyard?" He looked around the area. It was clearly a stage with the sides stepping up every meter for an audience to gather and view a performance.

"Ah, this old pillar was set up for the King Olaf Festival. But the festival was canceled by Jarl Elisif because she thought it was disrespectful to her husband murdered by Ulfric late last year."

"And why 'disrespectful'?" he asked.

"Well, it's actually called 'The burning of King Olaf.' Jarl Olaf One-Eye was the ruler of Whiterun in the mid-First Era. The dragon head belongs to Numinex, the dragon Olaf captured and held in his new palace, which is why it is called Dragonsreach. Olaf became the High King for this great deed, although it was not without controversy. Stories arose, hinting that since all the witnesses of this feat suddenly became wealthy lords, maybe this great battle wasn't all that. Maybe his voice wasn't that powerful, and he wasn't blessed by Shor to be worthy of the high king's throne. For some reason, Elisif thinks this traditional burning of an ancient false king insults her husband. She likely reacts so because Ulfric first denounced her husband as a false king and unfit to rule before murdering him."

"Whiterun. Then he is Balgruuf's ancestor?"

"Mm-hmm. As certain as one can be of a man that lived nearly five thousand years ago." Tariq laughed.

"So long ago! You could claim to be his descendant. Indeed, half or more of all the Nord families in Whiterun could claim the same," he said. "So, these detractors, what proof did they have other than witnesses gaining wealth and title for suspicious virtues?"

"History isn't clear. Aside from the conquest of a dragon, King Olaf was lauded for his conquest of the Reach. Hmm, I also know there was a messy dispute with Winterhold, the original capital city of the Old Kingdom of Skyrim. That period was confusing with all the wars of succession. The early eras are not ones I've extensively studied. The dean of history would be the one to ask if we need more information."

"When did this festival start? Has Olaf been burning for these millenniums? If so, how can the current jarl consider it a disrespectful reflection of her husband? Did she love him that much that all celebrations are anathema to her now?"

"The festival is not celebrated outside of Solitude," answered a gravelly voice. An old Altmer paced up to them. Rodina made a slight bow. "Master Viarmo, good afternoon."

"A good afternoon to you, Rodina."

"Dean, this is Tariq, a Companion and a thane of Whiterun. Tariq, this is Viarmo, the headmaster of the college."

"Dragonborn, an honor," said the Altmer with a small, tight smile. Tariq nodded warily. He didn't quite understand how an Altmer became the dean of the Nord college of music. Altmer favored long, complex music and, as usual, considered any other art forms not coming from Summerset as incredibly inferior. He couldn't help imagining this old elf trying to bellow "Ragnar the Red" over a noisy, drunken tavern audience.

"I prefer the title of 'Companion.' It is more suited to my skills and has a measure of respect without the overwhelming obligations of that other title," said Tariq. He grinned in sly, feral humor. "I make no declarations to be the savior of Skyrim or the true emperor of the world. I'm here to do what I can and then move on."

"Oh-ho, not a mere emperor or the dragon son of Akatosh but HoonDing himself? How ambitious," observed the Altmer. Tariq scowled, reluctantly acknowledging the mer had scored a hit on him. Almost immediately, the Altmer inclined his head. "My apologies, companion. I intended no disrespect. I've been reviewing Ra Gada lore since our mutual acquaintance, Calcelmo, wrote to me about you."

"I've explored Nchuand-Zel once already. I'm satisfied," retorted Tariq.

"Well, yes, I did have a place in mind that needs exploration" admitted the Altmer. He looked at Rodina and smiled. "I've been wracking my brains to think of arguments to persuade Jarl Elisif of the importance of holding the King Olaf festival. She, like most people, only sees it as a Bards' College festival for food, drink, and showing off our musical skills. We need proof that this festival is more than that. The dean of history and I think we've found a good argument — the original edda of Svaknir, the bard whose works criticized King Olaf's achievements. We believe we've identified the tomb where King Olaf is buried and, not-so-coincidentally, the same place where Svaknir is buried. It seems the High King made sure he took his greatest critic with him."

"You're telling me this because you want me to go fetch it?" asked Rodina.

"We're willing to pay mercenaries, or a Companion, to help you. It's a stretch on our budget, but it's that important."

She and Tariq exchanged looks.

"Alright. Just send the fee to the Companions. I'll help Rodina recover this edda," said Tariq.

"Thank you, companion. Oh, and there's something else there if our research is correct. King Olaf was not a dragon worshiper, obviously. But the architects he commissioned to build his tomb were. Ancient scraps from that period were found to be records of the ancient Revaak Masons Guild. Revaak means 'holy' in the dragon tongue. That guild dominated the First and Second Eras. Aside from architectural plans and cost sheets, we found personal letters gloating at their clever enslavement of the enemies of their dragon gods by trapping their souls to service by placing word walls in their tombs. So there might be one there holding King Olaf."

"The Masons Guild were dragon worshipers? Is that why so many tombs of those eras have draugr? Even tombs of blessed heroes and saints?" asked Rodina, wide-eyed.

"It would seem so. Most of the upper Guild officers were members of that masonic order claiming descent from the priests and builders of the great dragon temples of Bromjunaar in the ruined city of Labyrinthian in Hjaalmarch and Skuldafn located somewhere in the mountains between Skyrim and Morrowind. You were researching the legends of a hero of The Pale, were you not?"

"One of them, yes. Tongue Chieftain Kvenel."

"Yes." The Altmer cleared his throat and then crooned in a surprisingly rough but pleasing baritone:

The winds howl doom
As his shadows goes by
Nothing will bloom
By his words we die
Cold Cruel Snows ruled over the land
Would soon fade away when Kvenel sang

Snow buried wheat
Frozen wells, frozen ponds
Herds died in the sleet
Birds fled and stayed gone
The Shadow of Winter taxed the water and air
Sucked dry our blood, leaving only despair

"He has his own edda," said the Altmer. "Quite an interesting allegory of the changing of the seasons. The rhyming scheme is simplistic, which leads to some obscure imagery references. The tune is easy but boring, so it relies on the performer's skill to add depth and excitement. Now, if you have a map, I can mark the tomb's location." Tariq gave his map over. "I recommend taking the eastern route to Dragonsbridge, then south to Frost River. Follow along the river as it curves east. Watch out for robbers. The other route goes through Hjaalmarch's frozen swamp, and you're more likely to encounter necromancers, trolls, and chaurus. Rumors of vampires, too, lately. The tomb is called Dead Men's Respite."

"With so many robbers nearby, I wonder why the tomb hasn't already been thoroughly plundered," said Tariq.

"That was our suspicion when it first came up in our research, and we initially dismissed it. But we later found tales that hint that it's quite haunted and well trapped."

… … … … … …

Aela was still hunting on the north coast, so he sent a messenger to Morthal to tell Lydia to meet him a the tomb. He was sure she'd happily give up mushroom hunting in the freezing swamp for draugr fighting.

"Fortunately, your messenger got to me before I quit Morthal to head home to Whiterun. It was becoming impossible to find all the ingredients the healers wanted with much of the swamp freezing up. How is Argis doing, by the way?"

"Able to hobble about, Lydia," answered Tariq. "He is able to make it outside, walk once around the house, and make it back inside without assistance."

"Ah, good, good. He's too good a man to waste away and die abed like that."

Tariq eventually found the tomb the Altmer had marked on the map Rodina and Farengar had redrawn from Vilkas's book of First- and Second-Era tombs. On that map, Dead Men's Respite was an unnamed tomb ancient scholars classified as unimportant.

Getting inside the tomb was easy. The great doors opened with little effort, proof there were enough visitors to loosen the rusty hinges. The last lot was now a pile of stinking corpses in the entry hall.

"Guess this lot of would-be robbers didn't make the cut," observed Lydia with a vicious smile.

"They could be just honest adventurers," said Rodina.

"Maybe. But not likely, considering the neighbors. Got two big groups here, with multiple bounties. Biggest one is that encampment sitting on that trade road with the bridge. The other does illegal hunting of mammoths. Farms and small settlements suffer for it because the giants are angry when their mammoths go missing."

A dragon claw was prominently displayed in the chamber at the end of the hall. A ghost stood behind the alter, beckoning to them and pointing to the claw.

"Don't touch that claw yet," said Tariq. "Trap."

"Of course. Your orders, my thane?" said Lydia.

"You take the right side, I'll take the left. Keep close to the walls and stick your sword into the lungs or throat cut any corpse with too much meat on it," he instructed.

"Lungs or throat. Understood, my thane."

"Lungs?" asked Rodina. "I understand cutting their throat, but lungs?"

"Assassin trick," answered Lydia. "Puncture the lungs, the victim can't shout an alarm. It won't kill them immediately, and they can still whisper, so there's time to interrogate if needed."

"I just don't want to give them a chance to shout," said Tariq. "Let's get to it, Lydia."

It worked, but, being draugr, it didn't stop them from getting up to fight. The next was a small maze of doors with monsters behind them. They kept going downward. One level had large, enchanted doors and was likely King Olaf's burial chamber. But the tomb still went down. Two more floors and a long stairway ending at a small room where they found the ghost, his bones, and a crumbling book. The ghost nodded at the book. Rodina took a quick peek inside and swore softly at the condition. Svaknir's body had fallen on top of it; the fluids of his decaying body had soaked into the book, blurring the ink and leaving most of it indecipherable. She wrapped the disgusting artifact in a large kerchief. "I really hope Dean Viarmo can do something with this."

Svaknir was waiting for them on the level with the great door. He excitedly motioned for them to follow.

"Ah, it seems our friend here wishes to be repaid with our aid for his vengeance," said Tariq.

"It's not really our fight," said Rodina. "But you also came here for a dragon shout, and it, of course, would be guarded by King Olaf and the heroes of his guards." She sighed deeply. "The sensible thing would be for me to go back up the original path and let you two chase after that ghost—"

"Not possible after that freefall drop from the spider room," said Lydia. "This tomb means to keep its secrets. The exit — if there is one — would have to be past King Olaf's finally dead body."

They followed Svaknir through the hall of stories. The ghost, of course, ran through the claw-keyed door. Behind that was a short hallway and stairs leading to King Olaf's burial chamber. Tariq had his silver scimitar out and focused every bit of his spirit mana to overlay the blade. "Lydia, stay on my back, do not get separated. Expect at least half of these bonewalkers to still be able to fight."

"Olaf, arise! My vengeance is at hand," Svaknir cried.

Tariq used the Seek Aura shout he'd gotten in Kvenel's tomb to see which of the seated army were still active, and a little over half were still battle ready. The four generals seated on the dais below the great sarcophagus were ready. He softly recited the prayer for the dead's way to the Far Shores as what was left of the standing troops charged. Svaknir's ghost sword made strikes on the draugr, but it was his frost spells that seemed to work more damage. Then there were the fire wolves that bit and exploded. The mana cost was low enough that Rodina could conjure a new one as soon as the current one exploded. Lydia kept them off his back, enabling him to focus on the generals. Force had the shortest recovery time, but the fire shout killed them faster.

Once they were down, Svaknir resumed calling out King Olaf. At last, the sarcophagus burst open. King Olaf sat up, snarling, "Insolent bard!" The two battled. Tariq and Lydia watched until Svaknir was disarmed and staggering back, then they gave him a hand. While Svaknir strummed a celebratory tune on the lute that appeared from nowhere, Tariq studied the word wall and heard "Nah." A feeling of speed, so maybe another part of the Whirlwind Sprint shout. If so, he hoped it would add some measure of control like "Ro" modified "Fus," making it less dangerous to the user. He was tired of falling on his face when practicing "Wuld." Like riding a half-trained horse without saddle, stirrups, or bit control, one face-plants with tiresome regularity.

There was an exit corridor from the tomb, and it came out in the entry room, the only blank wall against which had been piled rubble and pottery.

So, if he wanted this word, he had to hunt down another dragon. Didn't he see one flying in the hills south of here?

No, it had come north. How convenient. Rodina's lightweight bow and fire wolf weren't useful here, so she retreated into the tomb's doorway. Lydia used her bow, but she'd lost all her steel arrows. Rodina ran back into the tomb to fetch the draugr archers' arrows. And just as the dragon timed its shout at the nadir of its diving arc, Tariq likewise timed his shouts to rise and argue supremacy. His shield and armor took the dragon's shout like the dragon's scales to his.

They were at a stalemate. Force didn't do much except help the dragon to ascend faster to a safe height. It was a fire dragon, so Tariq's fire shout was useless against it except as a brief visual nuisance.

The dragon's flight suddenly became erratic. The membrane of its wings started showing gaps and tearing as it tried to stay in the air.

"Lydia?" he shouted.

"Not me, thane. I can't put arrows that high or that fast."

The dragon dropped low enough that Lydia could confidently place her arrows. Tariq watched with narrowed eyes, waiting until it was close enough, then the force of his "FUS!" ripped wider the wounds. The dragon sacrificed its wings, beating them furiously against the air, further ripping its own flesh beyond flight to be able to land on its feet without crashing.

Tariq knew from practice that channeling some of his stamina into shouts did not physically tax him enough. Not yet, anyway. He still had that reserve of stamina and speed. He invoked it fully now for a battle with the dragon. Lydia attacked the wings. Rodina's wolf savaged its ankles. The dragon's wings had stopped bleeding despite the horrific damage, so weakness from blood loss was not to be.

This dragon, so far, relied on shouts and his teeth like a viper. Should it have fought like a fighting cock with its wings and feet, it would easily win. Its wings could no longer lift its bulk. But it was still all flesh wounds; the bones were not broken, and wing muscles could drive them with the force of a giant's club. Tariq remembered when he was younger and training in a field, he'd been routed by the goose whose nesting territory he'd intruded upon. A wing blow had knocked aside his shield and sword, and the other wing knocked him ass-end over. Only his fast feet had saved him that day. But it was not a fighting style this dragon had trained in.

He and Lydia were trained ground fighters. Even Rodina, the behind-lines commander, knew how to direct her wolf to advantage. And there was Aela. Tariq had finally caught sight of her red hair on the hillside on the other side of the river.

As he'd hoped, 'Nah' was a Whirlwind Sprint component. He tried it and found that his feet could coordinate with the speed. Before, it had been like a boost to long jumping without his feet being able to position in time to properly land at the end of the jump.

"You're damn lucky I got back to Solitude when I did," declared Aela. They were all back in Solitude enjoying a grand dinner at the Winking Skeever on Dean Viarmo's tab. "I came here looking for you three. The old elf who overheard me questioning the innkeeper told me you'd accepted the job to find some artifact from a Hjaalmarch tomb."

"Yes, we are greatly indebted to you for grounding that dragon," said Tariq, hugging her and topping off her flagon. "Your shooting, as always, is magnificent."

"Hm. As long as you admit that the bow is as good as a sword," she huffed.

"As a distance weapon, yes, I have never contested that."

"Bah. But you will still consider the bow inferior because you are a swordsman. You only consider true battle to be a face-to-face contest." She elbowed his arms loose as if insulted by his touch. He laughed and hugged her close again. She snorted obligingly leaned against him.

"You bring your prize to that elf?" she asked Rodina.

"Yes. He's furiously working on trying to flesh out the missing text based on some suggestions we made. He's on tomorrow's afternoon court schedule to present his argument. We'll be attending to watch his performance."

"Hm. I'll just stay in town an see if I can find a competent smith to make some repairs to my armor. Then we go to Ustengrav, right Tariq?"

"The day after tomorrow, yes. If the elf is successful in his performance, there will be a festival that night that I am promised will be worth attending."

"Excellent. I found the necklace with pirates in a hidden cove on the north coast. Well, it was a cove, but a cave-in closed off any further entrance by a ship. The pirates didn't give it up, though. They'd built themselves a cozy hideaway and turned it into a smuggler's haven. From them, I learned the sword is in the hands of a robber chief. In fact, it's that lot near that Dead Men's tomb. So after Ustengrav, we go there, all right? I've already checked at the palace, and there are some hefty bounties on that robber chief in three holds. We can earn nearly a thousand outside of the retrieval job."

"O great wonders," snorted Tariq. "Who knew my time here in this part of country would be so rich with the walking dead?"

… … … … … …

Only Aela and Lydia accompanied him here. It wasn't a good sign when a necromancer and her victims patrolled outside the tomb. A necromancer group had resurrected bandits to dig the walls of the great chamber. If the necros hadn't been here to uncover the hidden passage, Tariq wondered how he was supposed to fetch a horn from this long-looted tomb. Was he supposed to have shouted like Tiber Septim at all the walls until they crumbled like the city walls of Old Hroldan?

Necromancer adepts and masters were fighting with draugr. Tariq decided to retreat and wait until they mutually destroyed each other or only one exhausted party remained. Then they would kill the winners and proceed on. They made their way through corridors, rooms, and traps to a massive cavern.

Satakal's spit. He thought the underground of Geirmund's Hall was ridiculously big, but comparing it to Ustengrav was like comparing a campfire sand pit to a canyon. He figured Geirmund's Hall and Nchuand-Zel, including Understone Keep, could fit in this place with room to spare. He saw that the Folgunthur temple or barrow was nearby. If its width and depth were like Folgunthur's, how is it that this part of the land has not collapsed in one giant sinkhole? Sep's ambitions and the clutch of young, ignorant Aedric fools recklessly crunching together Satakal's shed skins of realities gets you this kind of slap-dash work.

He studied the cavern below. Most obviously, here was the temple. Where they were now was on a ledge. The back of the cavern had one open level above the main floor. The large open area on the main floor had rows of benches facing a skeleton seated on a throne. The Aura shout showed the skeleton was just waiting to attack. There were patrols roving on the upper level and main floor.

"Aela, there, see those overhead bridges? Best perch to shoot from should be up there." They made their way to a bridge. Below, Tariq heard a waterfall. He looked and saw an even lower level. Near the base of the waterfall was the familiar sight of a word wall. He drew their attention to the wall. "I'm going to head down there. You two should stay here. Shoot as many bonewalkers as you can, then return back to the surface."

"I should accompany you, my thane!"

"Tariq, don't be foolish. There has got to be a high-level draugr guarding that wall."

"I'm sure there will be. But, no. Clear this level for me."

He left them on the bridge while he went to a nearby downward sloping corridor. By the time he'd gotten to the main floor, there were only scattered bones and arrows.

The word here was "Feim." It called to him, and he gave it a dragon soul. "Fade" was the meaning the soul rendered to him. Upon shouting the word, his flesh faded away. He could see faintly see himself as translucent. He would try this again with Aela and Lydia and ask them what they were seeing. He wanted the other two words. There was a lesson of the spirit here, something he knew would help him in his studies to achieve mastery of his spirit weapon.

The state didn't last long enough. Still, while he recovered, he prepared himself until he could shout again. Meditating upon his spirit weapon, calling it forth, then shouting, "FEIM!" It was difficult, yet for the first time he could feel the solidness and utter bliss of holding his spirit sword. And when he looked upon it, it wasn't just the vague outline of a blade. Its true form was…

Gone before he could make a detailed note of it. Satakal's scale. He needed those other two words! He wondered if the Greybeards could point him where he needed to go.

He went back up. Aela and Lydia waited for him at the top. He aura-checked — nothing except a crimson pinpoint at the dark end of another bridge. "Well done, Aela. You have the eyes of an owl to see prey in the darkness."

"Hmph. I'll allow that, though I'd prefer to be another animal."

There was a riddle here of three stones and three gates. The stones each had one flat face. Stand in front of that flat area, and a distant gate opens. The faces were pointed inward to form the entry path to the gates. The stones were placed far enough from the first gate so that even swift-running Aela only just passed the first gate before it dropped, trapping her because the second and third gates had fallen before she'd gotten to the first. Tariq couldn't make it even that far.

"So that is why they gave me the Whirlwind Shout," said Tariq. The Force shout was not only for fighting but for crumbling the wall that hid the deeper levels. The speed shout is to be able to trigger all the stones and clear the gates. There may be a lever to open all the gates, but if not, you two must return the way we came and wait for me outside the tomb."

"I don't like the idea of letter you continue on alone," said Lydia. "There are enough urns and weapons around we can use to block the gates. The Greybeards may have intended this to be a solo test, but if they did not expressly forbid assistance, why make it harder than it has to be?"

"A wolf that hunts solo is not always expressing strength or independence," said Aela sternly. "A true lone wolf is a miserable creature. It is living in exile, alone, friendless, and without the strength of others to sustain it in times of weakness. Also, we are not the mothers of your children, so you need not be concerned about our survival. We came here as your battle partners."

He gave in. Lydia's pride would not allow her to stand idly at a safe distance while her thane gambled with his life. Aela, if he argued enough, would quit him in disgust, and their future relationship would cease to exist except as disinterested associates of the same company. He did not want that.

In the final room, they were impressed by the four great stone dragons rising from the water. A raised, dry path led to the tomb. The stone hand of the sarcophagus lid held a folded note. A note from "a friend" instructing him to rent the attic room at the Sleeping Giant Inn. They all knew there was no attic room there.

"That innkeeper. I knew she was a sly one," grumbled Tariq. "She could come all this way and get herself in here but couldn't be bothered to fetch that dragonstone map from Bleak Falls Barrow next door? What a—" She had to have known the golden claw good luck piece of the Valerius's was the key to the barrow. And the size and traps of the barrow were nothing compared to this place.

And here was another puzzle — the door of the exit tunnel could not be triggered from the other side. The false wall showed no forced entry. So, this innkeeper had abilities or some talented allies. There was a treasure room for Jurgen Windcaller, and it appeared untouched. They, too, had taken nothing from it out of respect for the Greybeards. This innkeeper — "Delphine," wasn't it? — was clearly issuing a challenge to the Dragonborn.