In the soft light of dawn, Jenassa and I ride through the damp grassy marsh in search of the entrance to Ustengrav. Since our previous explorations were to the northwest of Morthal, we decide to head northeast this time, roughly following the rising sun. Soon the terrain begins to slope upward and the ground becomes less boggy as the soil gives way to bedrock. In the distance we can make out some upright stones that appear to be weathered and worn, some leaning at odd angles. We turn our horses in that direction and continue to ascend the hillside.
Near the standing stones, we find a large, perfectly circular hole descending straight into the ground. The hole is lined with tightly-fitted stones, forming a rim that has become mossy and scarred with time, but still appears solid. I glance back at Jenassa, and she nods. Something tells me we’re on the right track.
As we approach, there’s sudden movement on the far side of the structure. A small party of bandits rush at us from a makeshift camp on the hillside. Grave robbers, most likely. Jenassa and I jump down from our horses and grab our weapons as the bandits attack.
Fortunately their gear is shoddy at best. Although they’re clearly veteran fighters, we’ve caught them by surprise and they weren’t prepared for a determined brawl. We avoid the worst of their aggressive strikes and cut them down.
The unexpected skirmish has given me an appetite. As soon as the last bandit is dealt with, I rummage around in my backpack for some food. I grab some apples, cheese, and bread — breakfast of champions. Jenassa and I head down a stone flight of stairs leading to the entrance of the ruins, stopping to loot some gold from a chest on the way.
Inside the ancient building, the atmosphere is cool and damp. There are recent footprints in the dust at our feet. Evidently the grave robbers have been here for some time, although they don’t appear to have disturbed very much. As we travel further inside, we can hear echoing voices. We drop to a crouch and pull out our bows, ready for another confrontation.
There’s a confrontation all right, but we aren’t involved. Looks like the grave robbers ran into a cabal of mages, and they don’t seem to like one another very much. Jenassa and I keep to the shadows and quietly loot everything that isn’t nailed down while both parties are busy trying to kill each other.
After a few minutes, it’s apparent the mages are gaining the upper hand — and worse yet, they’re starting to block the way forward. That could a problematic for us, as competent spellcasters tend to make formidable opponents. We find a place that’s away from the fight but still affords a clear shot of our enemies, and a nod from Jenassa, we raise our bows and open fire.
We clear out the remaining adversaries with our initial burst of arrows, then loot the corpses. One of the mages has a fiery staff which I hand to Jenassa, as I have no idea how to use it. She finds a wicked-looking double-bladed weapon that looks like a cross between an axe and a pitchfork. I grin at her, imagining the upcoming pain she’ll inflict with her new toys.
The room narrows to a winding tunnel as we proceed. After the first corner we come to a halt. Up ahead there are more sounds of battle. We slowly make our way forward, round another corner — and suddenly Jenassa whips out her new weapons and charges forward.
Mages and draugr — a match made in hell. I aim carefully and take a few helpful shots with my bow as my kickass girlfriend shreds through the distracted enemies like a red-hot blender. It takes a few minutes, but eventually we’ve winnowed them down to a few stubborn stragglers. Seeing how much fun Jenassa’s having, I draw Dawnbreaker and add a few more sparks to the fire.
Finally the way is clear, and we meander through a series of winding stone halls. Some lead to treasure rooms, while others lead only to ancient crypts and more undead. It’s easy to get turned around in here, but the corpses we leave behind work well as a kind of macabre breadcrumb trail.
The layout grows more and more complex, with multiple passages and snaking tunnels leading to open walkways and back again. Fortunately we don’t run into more large groups of enemies, and our bows do most of the work as we make our way through the ruins.
We descend deeper and deeper into the ruins, awakening more undead. Some of them put up a hard fight, but between Jenassa and Dawnbreaker, none of them survive long enough to become a real threat. These draugr seem to have a serious aversion to fire, and we have enough of that element to spare, especially with the addition of the fireball staff. Occasionally even the crypts themselves provide some additional fuel to the general conflagration.
The treasure rooms are getting harder to find, most of them hidden away or locked behind doors that can only be opened by various mechanisms, several of which also set off deadly traps. I really have to wonder how these manage to work so perfectly if they’re supposed to be several centuries old. Either some of these draugr were skilled engineers in their former life and they awaken every few years, or the ancients knew some seriously long-lasting preservation magic.
If it’s the latter, then looks like the magic doesn’t work very well on undead. Come to think of it, that’s probably why we saw undead fighting with mages when we came in — they confused them with the original mages who cast the preservation magic all those years ago, and wanted to express their displeasure with the poor results.
Suddenly as we’re winding our way through the passages, I catch a whiff of a very familiar scent. Fresh air! And pine trees! We must be nearing the exit! We haven’t found the horn of Jurgen Windcaller yet, but I’m sure we must be getting pretty close by now. It feels like we’ve been wandering around in these ruins for ages. I’ll be happy to find the artifact and get out of here, have a bath and a good hot meal back at the Morthal inn, and… oh. Wow.
Seeing all this open space after the maze of tunnels has a profound effect. It’s a welcome sight, but also intimidating. Even though we’ve spent hours navigating our way through countless rooms and passages, it’s clear we’ve only just started.
Gazing at the incredible panorama revealing itself before us, it’s as if the ancient ruins are mocking my impertinent assumptions. The horn could be literally anywhere in a place like this, tucked away in a shadowy crevasse, hidden beneath a flagstone, or at the bottom of a chest in the most discreet of alcoves. My spirits rise only to sink again. Sweet Mara’s mammaries, where do we even begin to search?
We pick a direction and start exploring. There’s a long ramp that leads to the middle of the sunken floor, and from down here the view is even more intimidating. Jenassa reminds me to be cautious about traps, and as if to emphasize her words, in a few minutes we come across a draugr roasting in the middle of a fire trap. The smell is distinctly less than pleasant, but for all that it’s a welcome sight, as the trap is so cleverly concealed that we might have fallen prey to it ourselves instead.
Following an elevated hallway, we come to the end of the passage where some of the wall has collapsed. Beyond the rubble, we can just make out a treasure chest half buried in debris. It’s completely inaccessible from here, as the stones from the ruined wall are far too dangerous and heavy to move. However, looking around, I can see another possible path — if you happen to be Dragonborn.
It’s apparent there used to be a passage in this direction, but most of the stone has collapsed over the centuries, making it impossible to get there by any normal means. But I recall from practicing Whirlwind Sprint back at High Hrothgar that it felt as if my feet weren’t touching the ground, but rather hovering just inches above, as if my extreme speed rendered me weightless for a few moments.
I walk to the edge of the broken walkway, take a deep breath, and try to calm my nerves. Time to test out this theory. If I die here due to extreme overconfidence, Jenassa, I hereby bequeath you all my stuff.
I open my throat in a mighty Shout.
In seconds, I’m standing beyond the gap, perched on a small stone platform jutting out from a pillar. A few seconds more and I’m in front of the small doorway in the far wall. I turn around, amazed at my own ability, and look back.
I head through the doorway and find the treasure room. Unfortunately the artifact is nowhere to be seen, but the chest offers some valuable gems and armour. I head back the way I came and nearly Whirlwind myself straight into Jenassa. She’s been watching my progress and has an odd expression on her face — somewhere between concerned and amazed. I give her a hug to reassure her that I’m still in one piece.
We continue our explorations, poking into shadowy corners and disturbing more undead. At one point we stumble on a small army of skeletons that ambush us from the shadows of a dark passage, but Dawnbreaker fatally shows them the error of their ways.
Eventually, Jenassa and I find ourselves at the top of a long spiraling ramp that leads even further down. How immense is this place, anyway? We step closer to the edge and look over the precipice — and I catch my breath.
Far below us is a rushing waterfall, and close by is another engraved wall like the one in Bleak Falls Barrow. Aside from retrieving the horn of Jurgen Windcaller, I’m starting to understand why the Greybeards sent me here. Incredibly, it seems this is not even the end of our journey through this place, for I can make out the start of yet another path leading away from the wall.
Descending the long winding ramp, we come to a stop in front of the wall. It’s just as enormous as the others I’ve seen, but here at the bottom of this vast cavern, it seems much smaller, almost an afterthought.
Jenassa and I just stand there for awhile in awe, gazing around at this magnificent place. With the roar of the waterfall, the scent of the pines, and the sound of water splashing over rock, if I closed my eyes I could almost imagine we were in the middle of a forest on a calm day.
Jenassa reaches over to squeeze my hand. “It’s been a long hike, and it seems there is more yet beyond. Perhaps we should have rested before the journey after all. Are you weary, my patron?”
I think it over. There’s no doubt I’m not as energetic as when we started, but there’s something about this place that refreshes my spirit. I shake my head and turn to her with a smile.
“Nothing that food won’t fix,” I tell her.
She chuckles, a deep, delicious, throaty sound that echoes softly off the cavern walls. “Then might I suggest a picnic?”
“Excellent idea,” I reply. “But there’s something I have to do first.”
As I absorb the energy from the wall, I feel an odd sensation — almost as if I’ve become lighter, less dense, curiously rarefied. Bemused, I glance at my feet, half-expecting to discover that I’m floating in midair… and then just as swiftly, the feeling passes.
I turn and see Jenassa seated on a rock, removing some of our provisions from her backpack and arranging them for our convenience. She looks up at me and smiles — and damned if I don’t have that same feeling all over again. Although this time, I’m pretty sure it’s for a different reason.
I walk over, kneel beside her, and take her in my arms. The picnic can wait.