Jenassa and I have a lovely picnic close to the engraved wall in Ustengrav. Although the food is plain since it’s from our travel supplies, the short rest is refreshing and the view is gorgeous. The scenery looks pretty nice, too.
But soon we agree that it’s time to push on. We still have the horn of Jurgen Windcaller to find, and I’m starting to be a bit concerned that we haven’t found it yet. This place is truly vast, and we have no idea how large — or small — the artifact might be. We talk it over, and decide to keep following the obvious route forward. Technically the horn could be hiding anywhere, on top of a pillar or under a rock, but I’ll be in Oblivion before I’ll turn over this entire place trying to find it. I have other priorities, such as having a life.
The path leading away from the wall slopes upward into an enclosure. It’s shrouded in shadow and difficult to see very far, especially as the cavern walls seem to lean in, blocking the light. Great. That’s all we need — more hindrances to our search.
The stony path resolves into a more structured area, with wooden ramps and flagstones on the floor. Around a corner, we discover a locked chest elevated on a platform. Picking the lock, we uncover a stash of scattered gold and gems, along with a rather impressive greatsword and a heavy shield. Neither of us can really make use of them, but they’re sure to be worth some decent coin.
One ramp leads to a couple more skeletons, who appear to be guarding a small collection of potions and burial urns. Why they weren’t guarding the chest is beyond me. I assume they thought the lock would be enough to deter greedy people like us, or maybe they were born in an era before the existence of lockpicks. Whatever the case, they soon fall to our hail of arrows.
At the base of the ramp is a curious collection of upright carved stones. In a way, they resemble smaller versions of the massive engraved walls from which I learn the dragon language. Jenassa and I step closer to check them out.
As I walk toward the nearest stone, the engraved portion lights up in dazzling patterns of crimson and white. Cool! The second stone in the series does the same thing when I approach. Sweet! Soon I’m running back and forth like a manic rabbit, laughing and watching all the stones turn pretty colours. Jenassa looks amused and stays out of my way, noting dryly how fortunate it is that such an mythical figure as the Dragonborn isn’t overburdened by a heavy sense of responsibility.
In my race around the room, I hear the occasional clank from the far wall, but I’m far too engrossed by the shiny stone patterns to take much notice. Fortunately Jenassa is paying closer attention than I am, and she steps forward to stop me in my tracks as I’m about to go around for the third time.
“Indulge me, my patron,” she says. “Walk in front of the stones again, but regard the iron gates at the end of the room as you do so. There seems to be more going on here than just lighting up the pretty rocks.”
I pout in her general direction, but I do as she says. Now I see what it was that captured her attention — there are three iron gates set in the wall, one behind the other. As each stone lights up, a gate opens briefly. However, try as I might, I can’t seem to make all three gates open at once, and so the passage remains blocked. Huh. That’s… really annoying, actually.
I try several different ways of activating the stones to keep the gates from closing, but nothing seems to work. Jenassa watches my attempts, nodding to herself every once in awhile as if working something out. She seems almost entertained, even acting slightly superior. Well, I hope she has some idea of what’s going on, because I’m completely clueless. I was happier when these were just a bunch of fun shiny rocks. Now they’ve turned into some sort of bizarre ancient intelligence test, and I never did test well under pressure. Sweet genius of Julianos, why does this have to be so difficult? Can’t I just press some buttons or something? And why does she look so bloody amused?
Irritated, I dart straight toward Jenassa, intending to plant my fingers on her ribcage and tickle her out of her self-satisfaction. But I forget — Jenassa isn’t just my girlfriend, she’s also a dangerous bladeswoman. As I get within a hands-breadth of her waist, she suddenly snaps to attention and whips out her weapons, one pointing at my torso and the other at my throat. I skid to a halt just in time, shocked and holding my breath.
Jenassa’s eyes widen. She lowers her weapons until I’m out of immediate danger. We stare at one another for a few seconds, processing the implications of the tragedy that we just barely averted. She opens her mouth to speak, but I interrupt her.
“That was awesome!” I exclaim. “I finally got all the gates open! Look behind you — aww, they’re shut again. And you are so amazingly fast! I nearly skewered myself on your sheer badassery! You’re like, the Daedra of Sudden Death! Love it!”
Her jaw drops open, and a succession of emotions rapidly flit across her face — disbelief, exasperation, and white-hot anger. The last one scares the hell out of me and I involuntarily step back, preparing to run for cover.
Then to my immense relief, she starts to laugh. It’s a deep, body-shaking belly laugh, and she completely abandons herself to it. Her weapons clang to the floor as her hands lose the strength to hold them. Tears pour down her face, and she grabs onto a standing stone for support as her knees buckle. I’ve never seen her laugh like this, and it sounds like she hasn’t done it in a long, long time.
Her laughter is brilliant and utterly contagious, and for a few minutes the caverns echo with the sounds of our combined hilarity. Finally she reaches for me, holding me close. We mutually support ourselves upright and wipe away each other’s tears, exchanging a few heartfelt kisses. Then her eyes grow serious and she cups my face in her hands.
“Never do that again,” she says.
“I won’t,” I assure her. Easiest promise I’ve ever made — although it was almost worth it all just to hear that laughter.
After a few more minutes, we turn our attention back to the puzzle. At Jenassa’s request, I sprint through the stones again — but no matter how fast I run, I can’t seem to keep the gates open long enough to pass through them.
I’m preparing to take another dash at it, even though it seems pointless, when Jenassa stops me with a question. “Why do you suppose these stones glow only for you?”
I think about it. “Because… I’m Dragonborn?”
“Precisely, my patron,” she says. “Therefore, perhaps the gates will also open only for the Dragonborn.”
“But I’ve tried to keep them open, over and over,” I tell her, somewhat impatiently. “You’ve seen that. It’s not working.”
She nods. “True, but perhaps the gates don’t need to remain open for long. Remember when you sped across those pillars earlier, even though the stone path connecting them had long since crumbled?”
It takes me a minute, but I finally clue in.
I race forward, lighting up all three stones — and then the cavern walls echo once again with my Shout. I can feel my feet leave the floor as I Whirlwind Sprint past the open gates. They clang shut immediately behind me, but there are chains beside me on the walls that connect to a switch. I pull the chains, and the gates rise once more, remaining open for Jenassa to pass through. She steps forward, smiling, and gives me a peck on the cheek. “Well done, my patron.”
I smile back, squeezing her hand, and we turn to the passage ahead. A set of stairs lead us upward, and we both drop to a crouch and ready our bows as we ascend. We’re expecting to see more undead, but when we reach the top of the stairs, we run into something quite different.
The entire floor is full of pressure plates. We’ve seen this before, back in the cavern when an enemy was considerate enough to commit suicide for us. One misstep, and we’ll be roasted in open flames. Far ahead, I spot one of those miserable overgrown spiders, just waiting to spit venom in my face. Great.
I could Whirlwind Sprint over the fire traps, but I’m unwilling to leave Jenassa behind. So we carefully pick our way forward, bows at the ready. We shoot down one spider, only to have three more come to the funeral. We dispatch those as well, and slowly make our way across the trapped floor without incident. I’m just starting to think we might get out of this without too much hassle, when something enormous with way too many legs drops out of the ceiling.
There’s no time to shoot the thing, so I grab Dawnbreaker and wildly hack at the closest set of legs. It ignites at once, and the creature screams as Daedric fire burns it alive. I hide behind my shield and use Unrelenting Force to push it away while Jenassa fills it full of arrows.
Finally it slumps forward, pathetically trying to reach me with its disgusting hairy legs just before it dies. Eww. Well, at least this time I managed to escape being blinded by venom. I consider that an improvement.
We move past the repulsive remains, through a short corridor, and find ourselves on a raised dais at one end of a stone bridge. Most of the room is flooded with water, creating hypnotic patterns of light and shadow on the surrounding walls. On the other side of the bridge is a well-lit platform, illuminating several burial urns and an engraved structure shaped somewhat like a high lectern. Its design is completely unique from anything else we’ve seen in this place, and I can’t help breaking into a grin. That’s got to be the resting place of the artifact!
As we approach the bridge, the water starts to bubble and churn. We reach for our weapons, but for once they aren’t needed. Massive carved pillars arise from the pool on either side, slowly heaving themselves from the water and forming a kind of open arch over the stone bridge, as if to honour our arrival. We halt for a few seconds, and just take it all in.
We proceed along the bridge and approach the stone lectern. I reach up to grasp the supposed unseen artifact, but my fingers close on something else entirely. When I see what it is, I nearly pitch my weapons into the water in frustration.
Jenassa raises an eyebrow as my expression of triumph changes to fury. I pass the note to her quickly before I tear it into a thousand pieces, then I grab my shield and strike the lectern hard. The clanging rings out over the water as it resonates like a gong. By the bowels of Boethiah! I don’t know who pulled this stunt, but I swear I’ll find out. If I don’t find them in Riverwood, I’ll tear all of Skyrim apart!
Reading the note, my companion grimaces. Slowly, deliberately, she crumples the paper and tosses it into the pool. We watch it take on water and sink into the black depths, much like my previous good mood.
“We’ll go to Riverwood,” Jenassa says, so softly I almost have to lean forward to hear her. “Oh yes, we’ll go. We’ll be there with our spells and our steel, and if we dislike what we hear from this — friend — then we shall exact our satisfaction with every last drop of their blood.”
Her words are swallowed by silence, but they echo in my ears as I stand there with my mouth hanging open. I’m not angry anymore. I’m more than slightly terrified.
I’m also turned on… but I think I better keep that to myself.