The next morning dawns bright and sunny. After our morning meal at the inn, Jenassa and I head out to check on our horses, stabled near the gates where we entered last night. We want to make sure the horses are well rested. Somewhere out in the surrounding marsh lie the ancient ruins of Ustengrav and the horn of Jurgen Windcaller — but apparently Ustengrav isn’t the only ruin out in the marsh, so it seems we’ll have to do some exploring. I just hope the mosquitoes have gone into hibernation.
No one would ever mistake Morthal for a tourist trap. It’s a grey, low-lying mudhole in the middle of a swamp, and quite a few of the streets are little more than rickety boardwalks suspended a few inches over the stagnant water. The townspeople seem have a sort of love-hate relationship with the marshlands surrounding their home, quick to mention how it makes the town so defensible and how many rare plants grow here in abundance, while at the same time being fearful of the treacherous muskeg just outside their doors. I have to wonder how much of this town is built on the remains of old sunken bones.
On the way down the steps of the inn, I glance to the south and notice a burned ruin of a house at the end of the boardwalk. Unlike most other ruins in Skyrim, this one seems very recent. It’s hard to imagine any building in these wetlands being dry enough to burn.
As we head toward the stables, we notice a few children playing. One of them, a young boy, runs up to me and declares that I’m not like anyone else in Morthal. What’s the matter, kid — never seen a Breton before?
He makes the strange statement that sometimes he gets lost even though he’s still here. Then he runs off again without waiting for a response, as if I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about. Right. I suppose if I were a kid growing up in a backwater like Morthal, I might lose touch with reality as well.
I’m still trying to make sense of the encounter when a young woman motions me over. She introduces herself as the boy’s sister, and tells me not to mind what he says. It seems her family comes from a long line of seers, and her brother Joric is frequently troubled by visions. Apparently he’s even known to the priestess in Whiterun. Huh. I guess Skyrim is smaller than it looks.
I mention the ruined house near the inn, and she replies that she doesn’t know much about it, but that her mother would know more. Turns out her mother is the Jarl, and she’s also a seer. A Jarl who can divine the future — I bet that comes in handy.
The Jarl’s dwelling, Highmoon Hall, is on the way to the stables. Jenassa points out that it’s probably wise to learn as much as we can about the town and its surroundings before heading out into the marsh, and asking about the house will serve as a reasonable conversation starter. Works for me.
Why does everyone keep giving me assignments?! Do I have “Chief Problem Solver” written on my forehead?! Mind you, this burned house does have some juicy gossip behind it. Seems the owner blamed his deceased wife for starting the fire and moved in with another woman while the house was still smouldering. His daughter was also killed, but he’s not too broken up over that either. Sounds like a homicidal asshole who couldn’t be bothered to wait for a divorce.
After accepting the assignment, we head straight to the stables. We’re just looking over our horses when I’m approached by a courier. Given my previous experience with this guy, I’m extremely apprehensive. No offense mate, but if this is more bad news then I’m going to hide whenever I see you coming.
Right, this has got to be from the Jarl of Whiterun. If he’s been talking to the Greybeards and they’re sending complaints about me taking too long to retrieve that bloody horn, he and those doddering old hermits can kiss my lily-white… hang on…
I pass the letter to Jenassa, who reads it carefully and then looks up with a raised eyebrow. She doesn’t say anything at first.
“Sounds good, doesn’t it?” I ask her.
“Mmm. Yes indeed. Although I have to wonder about which exploits the Jarl is referencing.”
I stare at her, my mind racing. “I expect he’s heard about the Companions… and fighting a dragon… and maybe Dawnbreaker… ”
She folds the letter, handing it back. “If he’s heard all that, then it’s reasonable to assume he’s also heard about your unfortunate tour through Solitude. The question is, what exactly has he heard, and why does he want you?”
I wince. A very smart girlfriend is a wonder and a delight, and occasionally also a pain in the arse.
Jenassa smiles and squeezes my hand. “Relax, my patron,” she murmurs. “This isn’t anything we need concern ourselves with just now. It’s true that you’re making a name for yourself, and it’s to be expected that other people will want you. But,” she adds, her eyes twinkling. “They’ll have to wait their turn. I’m hardly done with you yet.”
I squeeze back and give her a long, lingering kiss. I nearly suggest that we go back to our room at the inn for the rest of the day, but this town is far too small for it to go unnoticed. Not to mention, I doubt the Jarl would be very understanding.
The blacksmith is close by, so we make a brief visit to grab some extra arrows and make a few minor upgrades. My armour is still in reasonable shape, but Jenassa’s is beginning to show the effects of heavy use, since she prefers to get up close and personal with her blades. Unfortunately the selection here is pretty limited, so we’ll just have do the best we can with what we have.
Back at the burned-down house, we find a visitor waiting for us. Well, I suppose technically we’re the visitors, as I’m pretty sure this little girl lives here — or did.
For a forlorn phantom from beyond the grave, she’s remarkably friendly. I ask her about the fire, and she tells me how hot and scared she was. It’s truly heartbreaking, and I’m suddenly determined to get to the bottom of this for her sake. I agree to play hide-and-seek with her, after which she’ll tell me the rest of the story — but she says that we have to wait till after dark. Fair enough, little ghost. I’ll be back.
There’s still several hours of daylight, and we’ve seen most of the town already, so Jenassa and I head out to explore the marsh. Even if we don’t find Ustengrav today, at least the horses will get some exercise.
The marsh is extensive and difficult to navigate, especially off the paths. It’s really a massive estuary, with multiple brackish creeks of varying depths and islands made soggy by repeated flooding. Scattered around are a few waterlogged abandoned structures among the twisted remains of dead trees. I’m thankful this is a sunny day, because under an overcast sky this place would be utterly depressing.
Our progress is slow, but eventually we find a ruin that’s clearly of ancient Nord origin. Unfortunately it’s also half-drowned. We’re not sure if this is the place the Greybeards were talking about, but it’s of the right vintage and it’s in the middle of the marsh. That ancient artifact better not be underwater, as I highly doubt either of my Shouts will do much good in fending off schools of deadly slaughterfish.
We make our way past the tall grass and standing water, entering the ruin. Fortunately the interior is relatively dry and our only adversaries are a bunch of mudcrabs. It’s obvious that this is not Ustengrav, unless the horn of Jurgen Windcaller happens to be in that chest right in front of us. I wish.
Big surprise, there’s no horn, but it hasn’t been a complete waste of time. The chest contains a scattering of gold and potions, as well as a ringmail hood and a quiver of decent arrows. These last two I give to Jenassa. We’ve been out here for quite awhile and I’m starting to get peckish. I grab a snack from our provisions, and we continue our exploration of the marsh.
In the distance, we can see the sunlight flashing off a tall, smooth surface. As we approach, we can make out the silhouette of a standing stone. Huh. Kind of a strange place to find one, but it’s worth taking a closer look.
Leaving our horses near the path so we can find it again, we start making our way through the mud and swamp grass. We reach a circle of dead trees when suddenly a fireball nearly blasts my face off.
Three wizened old hags emerge from the underbrush and attack. Apparently we’ve stumbled across some kind of dark ritual, and they’re not too happy about the interruption. Jenassa rushes in, blades drawn, while I grab my bow and start shooting. I’m hoping to draw the attention of one of the hags, but all of them focus on my girlfriend. She’s putting up a brave fight, but three against one is really putting her skills to the test.
My arrows are helping but not enough. Soon it’s pretty clear that Jenassa will be fatally overwhelmed unless I do something fast. Hoping that Meridia’s powers are effective against creepy hag-bird hybrids, I draw Dawnbreaker and charge into the fray. If this doesn’t work, at least my girlfriend and I will go down fighting together.
Jenassa manages to cut down a hag just before she drops to her knees. My heart nearly stops when I see her fall, but finally I have everyone’s full attention. I dash forward, striking as fast as I can, blocking their spells with my shield and continually lighting them on fire. Finally one of the hags falls at my feet, wrapped in flames, and lets out a death rattle.
I can hear the last one coming up behind me. I swing around and punch Dawnbreaker straight into the hag’s guts, slicing through her spine. For Meridia!
Enemies dealt with, I run to my girlfriend’s side. She’s already standing and seems fine, if a bit shaky. I embrace her, relieved that nothing worse has happened. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever lost her. Jenassa holds me tight, whispering reassurances in my ear. I suspect I’m more shaken by the encounter than she is.
Once the hags have stopped burning, we check them out to see if there’s anything worth looting. On the charred corpse of one of hags, we find a key. A quick search reveals a locked chest just beyond the circle of dead trees.
I unlock the chest. Inside is a set of light armour that looks as if it was designed by necromantic witches with plenty of hagraven feathers and superior fashion sense. Score!
After we admire it for a few minutes, Jenassa encourages me to try it on. I slip into the armour, pull on the headpiece, and turn to face my girlfriend — who nearly falls over laughing.
After I’m back in my ranger gear, I’m about to toss the ridiculous outfit back in the chest, but Jenassa points out that it’s probably worth some decent coin. Fine, but I’m not carrying this silly thing around. It’s all yours!
We explore a bit longer, but the wind is picking up and the sun is sinking low in the sky. We decide to head back before night falls, since the last thing either of us wants is to get lost in a swamp after dark. Divines only know what sort of creatures wander around out here at night. We’d probably get pinched to death by were-crabs or something. Besides, I’ve got an appointment to keep with a little ghost girl.
After a long nap and a substantial meal at the inn, Jenassa and I return to the ruined house to play hide-and-seek with a ghost. Now that I think about it, wouldn’t a ghost have a serious advantage playing this game? They’re incorporeal, after all — and we have to find this little girl at night, no less.
The house itself appears to be abandoned, but that’s not surprising — there’s nowhere to hide in that burned-out shell, not even if you’re a ghost. Through the remains of the back wall, we can see an open area beyond a small hill. We head that way and discover a cemetery with a recently-dug grave. Hmm… something tells me we might be on the right track.
I don’t even bother reaching for my bow. I know an undead abomination when I see one. I grab Dawnbreaker and rush at the vampire, while Jenassa cuts off any escape route. In seconds we have her dead to rights.
After the vampire’s body hits the ground, I hear the voice of the little ghost girl emanating from the coffin. Right, that’s not disturbing or anything. She congratulates me on finding her, then tells me a harrowing tale of how the vampire tried to “save” her by turning the girl into a vampire before she burned to death — except she was too late. Wait, what was a vampire doing in the house in the first place? I’m about to ask the ghost, but she’s already gone.
As I’m trying to work this out, Jenassa nudges me and points to the cemetery entrance. One of the townspeople is heading toward us, but seeing the corpse on the ground at our feet, he cries out in grief. Turns out this is the husband of the vampire. After bemoaning her death, he reveals that his wife disappeared a few days ago, and last he heard, she was going to visit Alva. Alva… something about that name sounds familiar.
Didn’t the Jarl tell me that the girl’s father shacked up with a woman named Alva right after the fire? Suddenly I have a good idea of how all these problems started — or rather, with whom they started. Glancing at Jenassa, I can see she’s arrived at the same conclusion. Time to pay Alva a little visit.
We reach Alva’s house a few minutes later, but the door is locked. I successfully pick it while Jenassa stands lookout. Fortunately no guards seem to be around, which, come to think of it, is a little odd. Well, no time to think about that now. I swing the door open and we rush inside, weapons at the ready. We’re expecting to encounter Alva herself, but that’s not quite what happens.
After dealing with the vampire’s boy toy, we search the house. It’s a fairly small dwelling and doesn’t have a lot of hiding places. We don’t find anything unusual until we head downstairs to the cellar.
We approach the coffin cautiously, but there’s nothing in it except for a slightly battered journal. I pick it up and start leafing through it. Jenassa heads up the stairs to stand guard while I skim the handwritten pages, looking for evidence of our suspicions. In a few minutes I find the latest set of entries. Jackpot.
Suddenly Jenassa calls to me from the top of the stairs. “There seems to be some sort of disturbance outside,” she says. “It’s best if no one knows we’re here. I’ll distract the guards away from this place and meet you at the Jarl’s hall.” Before I can reply, she’s already out the door.
I slip the journal into my backpack and head up the stairs. Now that I’m in the main room, I can hear the commotion she was talking about. It’s not right outside the door, but it’s headed this way. I listen carefully, but I can’t tell if Jenassa’s managed to distract them or not. Finally I take a deep breath and slip out of the house.
Turns out I didn’t have to worry about being seen — it’s complete pandemonium out here. The guards are fighting an invasion of bloodthirsty vampires as gigantic black demon hounds run through the streets. As I descend the steps from the house, one of the hounds charges at me and leaps at my throat. I deflect its attack and cleave through its skull with my sword, and suddenly the night explodes with holy fire as the full power of Dawnbreaker is unleashed.
The almighty blaze severely damages the remaining hounds. The guards and I quickly gain the upper hand, and soon the pack of hellbeasts is reduced to a pile of ugly corpses. The vampires take longer to deal with, but I cause another explosion of light with Dawnbreaker, setting most of them on fire. They all scream curses at me as they burn.
By the time I reach Highmoon Hall, most of the invaders are dead. I enter the hall and reveal the results of our investigation to the Jarl, handing over Alva’s journal as confirmation.
The Jarl states that the master vampire mentioned in the journal, Movarth, was thought to be destroyed some years ago. It’s apparent that’s not the case, so it looks like I’ll have to track down this vampire and make him permanently dead. Great. Just great. That’s exactly what I want to do instead of, y’know, go back to the inn with my girlfriend for a well-earned rest.
I’m inwardly groaning at my new assignment when I’m told that I’ll have several able-bodied fighters at my command. Well, that’s not so bad. I’ve never led a posse before. Do they come equipped with torches? That could be pretty badass.
Speaking of badass, Jenassa said she’d meet me here, but I haven’t seen her yet. I sure hope nothing’s happened. Maybe I should head back to the inn just in case… oh. Oh, wow.
Jenassa smiles as she watches my jaw drop to the floor. “I’ll take that as a compliment, my patron,” she murmurs.
She looks so good, and I’m so glad to see her, that it takes me a few seconds to remember how to speak. But when I do, I get right to the point.
“We are never selling that armour,” I tell her.
I go out to meet the members of my posse with my girlfriend’s amused laughter ringing in my ears. Vampires? Bring ’em on.