It was a beautiful night. Masser and Secunda were forming a nigh perfect eclipse, the latter shrouding most of the former, revealing only a thin circle of partially lit craters. They were watching over the still land of Skyrim like a freshly wed pair, surrounded by myriads of glittering diamonds forming a hazy veil of nebula on their background. The sea of dark, which they dominated, was lined by the colorful aurora on its edges. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Yrith had been preparing for it with all she had. She had read an incomplete collection of astronomy books that the Dwemer had left behind and some proactive wizard had gathered, calculating the position of the moons. She had studied all the constellations she would see in the sky that night. And sure as the shimmering lights of sundry colors lining the horizon, she remembered them all.
It wasn’t so long after dusk and the Night of Wonders would continue for several more hours, but Yrith was unsatisfied. She felt alone, abandoned. Her only companion was an elegant figure made of pure fire, silent save for occasional crackle. A circle of wet ground formed around it as its heat melted the snow.
Instead of the sky, Yrith was watching the window of a one-story house, lighting the snow below in gentle gold. The milky glass prevented her from seeing what was inside, but she did not need a single peek to know that the room behind it was occupied by two people bent down at a desk, drawing diagrams, calculating formulas or tending to their alembics. Two people whom she wished to be outside with her, and the two that kept rejecting her at every occasion.
A gust of wind rose to whip her face and she closed her eyes. She would open them again to look at the skies, but they were dark, as though someone had hid them behind a black curtain. She blinked to make sure that she didn’t see wrong, but the image remained the same. Alert, she glided with her eyes over the road leading southward along the shore, the snowy cliff ahead, the city houses which looked like a child’s puzzle blocks from the distance, and her own house. The light was still coming from the inside. She heard a clinking sound of glass falling on the ground and breaking into thousand pieces and stiffened as though she had been the one to break it. If there had been any chance to talk to her father, she had just lost it. Alembics were costly, and it usually took him a few days to come to terms with the fact that he had to make an extra investment.
She turned to the atronach at her side, ready to complain to the silent creature, but the words stuck in her throat as soon as her eyes found it.
Its crackling changed into a wild thrum and she watched as the fiery creature suddenly darted toward the house, leaving behind a blazing trail. For a moment, she gaped at it, frozen to the ground, but then it dawned upon her with the force of an avalanche. It went for the house.
“Wait!” she called, ignoring that it could not understand words. She took off, hoping to stop it before it wreaked havoc in the wooden building. The wind was her enemy, slowing her pace and making her task seem impossible. Something was amiss. A dreadful feeling overcame her as she rushed along the line of fire, and then, a blast made her halt. The window shattered and the others followed. The light flared and blinded her, then it passed and darkness took its place.
She stood there, forgetting her breath, and stared into the singed wooden frame. For a moment, all thoughts left her and there was nothing but absolute silence. She did not want to enter the house. And yet, she felt the urge to do so. Her parents are inside. Why can’t she hear them? Why isn’t anyone calling for help? There should be swishes and blasts, sparks of magic in the air, swearing… why is it so quiet?
Reluctantly, she took a step forward. Then another. Her tread soon turned into blind rush. She tripped over the threshold at the main entrance but paid little attention to it, gathering herself immediately. The corridor to the laboratory seemed endless and she wished for it to just disappear. The walls around her were strangely coarse on touch and gravel crunched under her boots.
And then she was there, in the lab. Pale moonlight lit a rectangular area beneath the window, but apart from it, the room was dark. She staggered to the desk, searching for a lamp, but it was shattered beyond recognition. There should be a spare in one of the cabinets. She fumbled about them, swiping a handful of powdery substance from their surface. At last, she found the lamp and lit it with shaky fingers. Her eyes wandered to the floor and widened in horror.
Silence took over her, the dreadful, paralyzing kind of stillness as though time had stopped, ceasing her breath. Then it felt suffocating, a hard lump settling in her throat, spreading and pressing and taking all the space it could. A stab came through her heart, piercing harder than the finest white-hot steel. And then her voice tore through the heavy, burnt air with deafening force.
Before her lay the singed remains of what once were her parents’ bodies, drowning in a flood of potions fallen from the shelves and blanketed in shards of shattered vials, sparkling in the light of her lamp. The furniture was black and deformed as the lacquer covering it had melted in the fire, the once beautiful decorations now vague and vitiated. A foul odor filled her nostrils and she didn’t even try to chase it away.
Her knees gave way under her trembling weight and she fell on them, covering her face with her hands, shaking with sobs.
“No…” she whispered shakily. “Please… don’t die… tell me you’re not dead… please… please…”
Then her whole body felt heavy and she fell face to the ground, soaking her hair in the potions mixed with dirt and cinders, the countless pieces of glass cutting into her skin.
“I killed my parents,” she wailed, suffocating on her own words. “I killed them… this was not supposed to… I couldn’t have… I should have died instead… I should just die…”
And then all went dark.
Yirith screamed and sat up abruptly, beads of sweat rising on her forehead.
“Gods dammit, midget!” she heard a voice above her and jerked as someone grabbed her by her shoulders. “I swear that one of these days I am going to shut you down. Now get up!”
Her eyes snapped open, staring for a moment without focus before she realized that a fiery-haired Dunmer was sitting next to her on her bed, leaning to her in attempt to wake her. He wore the same expression as always, smug and without so much as a trace of sympathy. With a start, she backed away, bumping into the wall behind her.
“You!” she hissed, fighting the embarrassed flush that was warming her cheeks. “What in Oblivion are you doing here?”
“That’s my line,” he snorted, seating himself too comfortably for her liking. Again, he took his chin in his thumb and index finger. Yrith was starting to hate the gesture. “You’re supposed to be at Larkwing’s class at the moment. So rise and shine!” The last word was nearly spat. Yrith scowled.
“So you’re only here to nag? Well, thank you very much, the door’s over there and I prefer you on the other side.”
“I was sent here by Larkwing, okay? I’d say I’m enjoying it just as much as you do so…”
“As if you ever enjoyed anything beside bragging in front of your groupies. Get out of my room. Now.”
“I’m not leaving until you get that butt of yours out of the bed and move it to the Hall of the Elements. I don’t want another detention. Especially not with you!”
“Wanna watch me change then?” Yrith could not help but smile inwardly. This scene was somewhat familiar.
“Ew! Fine, I’m going!” he retorted as her rose and made for the door. “I’ll be waiting right outside your room.” He let in a gust of cold air from the corridor before he snapped the door shut.
“No peeking!” she told the door sternly as she opened a chest at the feet of her bed.
“Who would want to peek at you?”
With a frown, Yrith scrutinized the novice robe that she pulled out of the chest, examining the stitched sleeve and the few stains that she had not managed to wash away. Unlike the rest of her classmates, she only had one robe and it had not even been made for her. Everyday usage and fights with classmates had taken their toll on it. Yrith would have liked to buy a new one, but she could only dream of having the coin to do so.
She scowled and sighed as she recalled her dream. Just how many times had she relived it? The pain of that moment was so vivid in her memories, making her despise herself above all else. So many times she had questioned whether she had the right to live. Perhaps she should have perished in the flames along with her parents. Perhaps Lady Faralda would have been better off without her.
That night she had had an argument with her father. A part of her believed that he had seen the good-for-nothing that she was. A useless wimp who can’t even use magic properly. She clutched the robe she was holding in her fingers.
“What’s taking you so long?!” a voice from the outside called to her. “Are you sewing a new robe for yourself or what?”
“Exactly!” she snapped, suppressing the welling tears from surfacing. Grabbing a quill and a few sheets of paper, she hurried out of the room. Cain was sitting on the edge of the magical fountain, his usual self-righteous smile curling slightly on his lips. He rose without a word, accompanying her in silence, but she noticed his eyes fixed on her face.
“What? Is there something on my face?”
“No, but that spider in your hair looks like a decoration fit for your style,” he said with a nonchalant shrug.
“What?!” Her hand shot up, fingers digging in the mop of her hair. Cain’s lips curled up in a malicious grin.
“Right,” she shook her head. “Spiders don’t even live here.”
“Well, lucky for me then that your hand is quicker than your wits,” he jibed.
She turned away from him with a snort, stomping her way outside and on to the Hall of the Elements, combing her hair with her fingers in the process. He followed her in tow but she refused to look back at him until they joined the circle of students waiting for them by the blue fountain. Singird Larkwing was standing next to Tanya Verus, the taciturn half-Altmer girl. Upon their arrival, the teacher gave Yrith a reproachful look, his eye narrowing into a pair of dangerous cracks.
“I don’t suppose you were looking for a textbook this time, Miss Ravencroft,” he told her coolly. “Mind enlightening me in terms of your delayed arrival?”
She stared at him, barely noticing her hands clenching into fists as she realized the mockery in his tone. He knew all too well that she could not forge a lie in front of Cain, who knew the truth.
“I slept in,” she muttered. A half-truth, for she had not been planning to attend the class at all.
“I beg your pardon?” he asked quietly. Yrith stared at him, cursing him with every Daedra name she could recall. Gods knew that he had heard her well.
“I apologize,” she said unconvincingly, making it sound more like a hiss. “I slept in and didn’t wake up until just a while ago.”
She could hear whispers and low chuckles all around her.
“Very well,” he sighed. “I guess it would be too much to expect you to have brought your homework with you?”
She decided against giving him an answer, her gaze now drilling through the floor underneath her feet. Any word she let out would only increase her humiliation.
Fortunately for her, the teacher did not spare more than a brief moment before addressing the whole class.
“As I was saying earlier, today you will begin learning how to summon atronachs. Fire atronachs are the most common and easiest to conjure, so it is advisable to start with them. All of you should be able to summon a familiar now, but familiars answer to even the weakest calls. This time, combine what you wrote in your essays with my instructions to grasp the basics about the Oblivion elementals. Each of you will try to summon your own fire atronach. I will observe and correct your mistakes in the process. Start practicing now.”
“Look what you did,” Cain snapped quietly at Yrith. “I missed his explanation. How am I supposed to practice now?”
“I could care less,” she shrugged, crossing her arms over her chest.
There was a humming sound and then a number of ah’s and oh’s rose from the crowd. The two of them turned their heads to the source of the commotion, spotting a slender figure of a fire atronach, floating in elegant circles in front of Qassir who was now the center of all attention. Indifference reflected in the Redguard’s face, but when his eyes rested upon Yrith, he gave a wink and hinted a smile. She turned away, finding interest in one of the grey floor tiles.
“Excellent work,” Singird nodded in acknowledgement. “This is exactly the result all of you should be getting. Don’t forget that fire is your key today.”
“Bah,” Cain snorted. “If certain someone hadn’t been wasting my time lolling in her bed, I would have done better.”
“Oh certainly. It’s definitely not your jealousy speaking through you, no,” Yrith scoffed.
“Silence, worm,” he growled. Yrith watched him stretch out his arms and call his magical energy, but it faded in a heartbeat. He repeated it, and then again, his brows closer and closer together with each try. She folded her arms over her chest, leaning to a wall, and watched him, a faint smile playing on her lips.
“Amused?” he hissed and gave her a death glare.
She shrugged. There were several hums around them, announcing that a few more classmates had managed to outstrip Cain this time.
“This is your fault!”
“Well, you could have, you know… read about it in advance.”
“Unlike you, I’m not a bookworm.”
“Not my problem.”
A number of shouts and swishes announced that two students had set their atronachs against one another. Singird Larkwing rushed past Cain and Yrith, his robes flapping about him like broken wings of a moth swept by a windstorm. Yrith winced as a fire bolt missed her by inches. It hit the wall behind her and dissolved into thousand tiny sparks before vanishing entirely. A few ice bolts from the teacher made the elemental disappear, forcing the students step back to escape the blast that followed. Yrith frowned. The explosion felt too familiar for her liking.
“Fools,” Cain said, shaking his head. Again, he raised his hands, attempting to summon his own atronach, still to no avail.
“You two will come to my office this evening to receive a detention.” Singird Larkwing’s eyes shot daggers as he pointed at the two offenders. One of them was Dorien Lafayette, a slight Breton boy with eyes almost as sharp as the tip of his nose, and the other was an Altmer girl known as Jearis Finoran whose chestnut firelock cast a deep shadow over her face, concealing her expression. Yrith doubted that any of them felt the tiniest hint of remorse. “If anyone as much as tries to pull something of this sort again, I will see to it that they receive severe punishment. Are we clear?”
The class was quiet. The students waggled nervously in their places, most pinning their eyes to the ground or hypnotizing the blue fountain light.
“Where is your answer?” the teacher demanded.
“We pay for this, you know,” Jearis uttered, one hand at her hip.
“Irrelevant. It is quite saddening, Miss Finoran, that I have to remind you of the fact that the ones paying for your studies are your parents. By all means, do let them know about this little incident. I would very much like to hear whether such conduct is acceptable in your household.”
Jearis’s eyes flared with anger, but she said nothing in response. Master Larkwing nodded.
“Now then. Let us continue our lesson. Mr. Aldaryn, that was a good attempt, but try to take a firm stance and give your soul energy a wide passage.”
“Y-yes sir,” Cain mumbled as he spread his feet. Yrith raised a brow as soon as the teacher turned away.
“Well, good luck with that,” she laughed dryly, eyes drifting from one classmate to another. Three people flinched away from a gusher of sparks someone managed to produce instead of a full-fledged atronach. It almost seemed alive, waggling in place, but faded moments after it had come to existence. Master Larkwing hurried to the conjurer, brows knit together. Yrith could not hear the words addressed to the poor student, but she was certain it was not a praise.
“What do you mean?” Cain inquired.
“I mean that the instructions he gave you are completely useless.”
“At least he gave me some instructions. Unlike certain smarty-troll.”
Yrith sighed, eyes still on her classmates and teacher. No one paid the slightest attention to them. With a hint of hesitation, she turned to Cain. “Very well. Just… try to imagine you’re a part of Oblivion,” she whispered.
“Simple. Instead of directing your call to Oblivion, spread your conscious and make it overlap. Realms are not only physical, they have a mental aspect too. It’s enough to touch its edge. Then imagine the creature you want to summon and call for it. Since your mind will already be a part of Oblivion, you won’t have to search for it. It will find you and come to your side on its own.”
The Dunmer snorted, face twisted in utter disbelief. “You must be joking.”
“Whatever you say,” she purred. “Don’t say I didn’t help you.”
She rolled her eyes. “For someone who never stumbles, you’re quite thickheaded. Hmm, let’s see. While your body is anchored here on Nirn, your mind is not. If you concentrate hard enough, you can feel the world around you, no? It’s like… when you close your eyes, your hearing improves to make up for the lost sense. But you can train yourself to use this improved hearing even with your eyes fully open and alert. Your body is capable of it and your mind can process all the information it gets. Just like that, you can also use your mind as your sixth sense to feel everything around you. Everyone can do that to some extent, that’s how emotions get through. But there is a way to reach further. Oblivion is just another realm in the world. If you spread your consciousness wide enough, you can sense it and even send it a thought. That’s where your spark of magic comes into play. You need to tune it so that it reaches the right creature. Flame atronachs are attracted to fire, so that’s where your thoughts should be.”
“You can’t be serious. Spread my consciousness? That’s impossible!”
Yrith threw up her arms. Another atronach emerged just a few steps from Cain, causing him to produce an anxious growl.
“There’s no way I could…” Cain took his chin in his fingers, staring into the blue beam of light in the middle of the room, deep in thought. “No, but maybe…”
A deep violet orb that seemed to drown the surrounding light enveloped his fingers. He knit his brows in concentration, released the energy from his hands. The familiar hum informed Yrith of his success.
“See?” she said, triumphant smile playing on her lips.
“Except I didn’t exactly follow your instructions,” he sneered. “Whatever you were trying to pull, it didn’t work. But I guess it was a good hint if nothing else.” With his back straight, he let the derision into his face once more.
“Very good,” Singird Larkwing praised as he suddenly materialized next to Yrith. She yanked to the side, nearly colliding with the wall. “I am happy to see that my advice helped you, Mr. Aldaryn.”
Yrith shuddered visibly. Master Larkwing’s tone would freeze an ice wraith, had one been nearby. The teacher gave a look that revealed nothing of his thoughts. Then, his eyes met Yrith’s and she felt the weight of her feet drag her down. Forgetting her breath, she stared into those dark pools, mind clouded with uncertainty. No sooner did she sigh in relief than the teacher left, eyes still tracing her from the distance.
“What was that?” she rasped, more to herself than anyone else. The Dunmer shrugged. Yrith stared at the teacher’s silhouette as he tended to her classmates, shifting her weight. “This place should have some chairs or something,” she grumbled.
“So you’re just going to watch?”
“Yes. Got a problem with it?”
“Why? Do you enjoy having others look down on you so much?”
Feeling restless, Yrith leaned back against the wall, scratching its coarse granite surface to occupy her hands. “That’s none of your business,” she said.
“I suppose,” came the unconvincing reply.
They watched in silence as their classmates continued their efforts. The beautiful Leyna Travi was demanding attention from Qassir, tossing her head to make the veil of white gold hair fly about her. For a single moment, Yrith spotted a trace of anxiety run over Altmer’s slender face, but it had passed so quickly that Yrith assumed her mind was playing tricks on her. Her eyes flicked to Cain who stared at the couple, a deep wrinkle forming between his brows. That too might have been her imagination, but it seemed to her that the obnoxious Dunmer looked very alone.
Her train of thought was interrupted by the voice of Singird Larkwing, announcing the end of the class.
“That will be all for today’s lesson. While most of you grasped the basics about atronachs rather quickly, some of you have a long way ahead. I would advise you to work on your conjuration technique as much as you can. Do not hesitate to ask me or your classmates for help. In our next class, we will practice some more and learn how to make your atronachs stronger. Class is dismissed. Miss Ravencroft,” he added before Yrith could bolt out, “you will accompany me to the Hall of Countenance.”
Yrith felt color retreating from her face. She turned to the teacher, barely suppressing a glare.
“Well, good luck, midget,” Cain said as he patted her theatrically on the shoulder.
“One of these days,” she hissed, “I’ll wipe that smirk off your face.”
“Oh, please do!” With that, he danced away. Yrith was ready to shout something back, but the presence of Singird Larkwing made her reconsider.
They waited for the other students to leave and followed them through the main entrance. Once outside, Yrith drew in the fresh air, oblivious to the fact that the rising columns of snow promised another storm. While the Nord teacher carefully picked his route to avoid any possible inconveniency, Yrith let her feet sink into the snow and the wind lash her cheeks. They would later turn the beautiful rose color that every noble woman hated, and she proudly wore. Her mother had had the same beautiful rosy cheeks which she nurtured by the means of a self-made ointment. Over the past six months, Yrith had developed a habit of stealing grease from the kitchen to substitute for it. A beautiful woman is one that is tough and healthy, her mother used to say. A soft smile spread over Yrith’s face as she recalled it, but her teacher’s deep frown made it quickly disappear.
They entered the Hall of Countenance and passed several teachers. All of them threw curious glances at the Nord, some approving, some almost enraged. There was no indifference among the collegium, as though Singird Larkwing had only come to sow discord. Unwittingly, Yrith gritted her teeth.
Master Larkwing’s office was as clean as Yrith remembered it. Before entering, the teacher made sure to magically remove all traces of snow and water from his and Yrith’s clothes, shoes and hair, triple checking for spots he might have missed. Yrith felt a strong urge to roll her eyes but managed to contain it. When they finally entered, she was feeling cleaner than ever in her life.
The room was lit by a moon-shaped glass paperweight emanating pale turquoise glow. Yrith’s eyes drifted to the window only to discover that the outside world was now shrouded in thick darkness. She could see a torrent of snowflakes twirling in a fierce dance before they vanished under the sill.
“Sit down,” the teacher ordered her curtly, pointing to a cushioned chair standing by his desk. She obeyed in silence, waiting for what would follow. With a sigh, he leaned over the desk, too close for Yrith’s liking.
“Now, Miss Ravencroft. Do you know the reason you are here?”
“No, sir,” she said quietly.
“Then take a guess.”
“Because I came late to the class?”
He laughed bitterly as he turned to her. She clutched the edges of the chair with both hands, eyes boring into his soft leather boots. “Ah, yes, you did, didn’t you? Thank you for reminding me. But no, there is a different reason.”
Yrith glanced around. The order in the room had been restored. Books, clothes and gadgets had returned to their rightful places, forming the cleanest and most organized universe she could imagine. Could he know that it had been her?
“I don’t know,” she replied shakily.
“I do not take kindly to lies,” he breathed as his face drew closer to hers. She wanted to avert her eyes but found herself unable to do so. “Cain Aldaryn is not one to hide his talents when he can boast about them. When the two of you arrived, I was done with explanations and Mister Aldaryn could not summon an atronach. A few moments later, he did it. It was not a feeble creature that would shatter upon the slightest impact. His atronach was strong and solid, not one he could conjure on first attempt without previous knowledge or experience. So here is the question, Miss Ravencroft. How did he do it?”
Yrith’s vision blurred and faded. The rosy cheeks that would have brought her pride and pleasure turned white as the purest alabaster. She could feel her heart beat its way out of her chest and the pain in her fingers as she tightened her clutch on the chair. On this day, her secret would be revealed. She knew it, and yet she could not bring herself to tell the truth.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she rasped.
“No?” he drawled. “Then explain this to me. Yesterday, I chanced upon a guard in Winterhold. This particular guard was quite concerned about the wellbeing of two students he had seen attacked by an ice wraith the night before. According to his words, those two students had warded the creature off by summoning a fire atronach. And I know only one pair of students who could have been wandering outside at such a late hour. Add the fact that Mister Aldaryn could not summon an atronach today. So I am asking you, Miss Ravencroft. Who was the one summoning the atronach on that night?”
Yrith could not suppress the tears welling in her eyes. She felt their hotness sliding down her cheeks and salt on her lips. She wanted to cover her face, but her hands would not move.
“Crying won’t help you,” the teacher said coldly, “but words could.”
There was a moment of silence when the two of them listened to the storm outside and Yrith’s quiet sobbing.
“So?” he insisted.
“I did,” she whispered at last. “I summoned the atronach.”
“So why,” he asked, and for some reason, Yrith sensed a sudden trace of softness in his voice, “why did you lie about not being able to conjure?”
She felt her own breath betraying her. Words would not leave her mouth, unable to surmount the lump in her throat. Let it out, a voice in her head whispered to her. Let it end and you will feel better.
She watched as her teacher drifted away, withdrawing a cup from one of his cupboards. A pot followed which he magically filled with water and heated. A moment of fumbling about his drawers resulted in a bundle of leaves which he promptly made into tea.
“Here,” he offered as he slid the cup toward Yrith. She took it in her hands, clutching it close to her chest and absorbing the heat, but did not take a single sip. A lone tear dripped into it with a silent splash.
“I… did not want people to discover… that I killed my parents,” she finally managed to produce.
There was a moment of silence before Singird Larkwing let out a long, deep breath. “I… beg your pardon?”
“It… it was an accident! I felt lonely and wanted a companion. I didn’t want to hurt anyone! But it… it just suddenly went rogue and…”
“You accidentally killed your parents with an atronach?”
“Yes,” she breathed, finally taking a sip. In spite of the despair she was feeling, she had to appreciate the light flowery undertaste of Master Larkwing’s tea. It reminded her of the tea market in Daggerfall. She remembered its scent from a stall that had belonged to an old, tiny Khajiit woman who only appeared every tenth Turdas. Every time Yrith visited the stall, the smell of tea and coffee wafted through the air, carrying tastes of sea and jungle. She found pleasure in sitting around and listening to old tales, mostly about the treacherous paths in Valenwood forests and the customs of the aboriginal Bosmer folk. The old Khajiit owner always welcomed her and offered discounted goods that she had saved especially for her. Yrith found the memory strangely soothing.
“Did you see the atronach kill your parents?” the teacher continued his questioning.
“No… I was outside when it happened. It just… entered the house on its own and went straight for the laboratory.”
The window quaked, strained by the violent wind. Through the tiny crevices on its side, Yrith could feel the cold trying to invade the room. Master Larkwing padded it with a few pieces of cloth and lit several candles which immediately drowned the paperweight glow and filled the room with the tiniest bit of warmth.
“These windows are old,” he remarked in a conversational tone, as though the two of them were having a simple tea party. “Everything here is old. I wonder how long the magic holding this place together is going to last.”
Yrith stared at him, clueless as to how she should react. She took another sip and felt the warm liquid melt some of her fear.
“Are you going to report me?” she uttered. She could barely hear her own voice over the constant wailing and clatter, but it reached its recipient nonetheless.
“Should I report you?” The teacher’s calm voice suggested a different question than the one asked. A slight shiver ran down Yrith’s spine as she looked into his unreadable dark eyes.
“I don’t understand the question,” she replied truthfully.
“So you don’t.” A soft smile spread over his lips as he took another piece of cloth and started wiping the window sill. “Would you show me your atronach, please?”
“Your atronach. Summon it for me.”
Yrith reluctantly put down the cup and stood. The strain and anxiety had taken its toll on her. She felt weak in her knees, as though she had run a very long distance, like she had done so many times back in Daggerfall when her Nord neighbor was pursuing her for stealing his precious figs. I sure have a history with the Nords, she thought to herself.
Following the very instructions she had given Cain before, she let the violet orb of magic envelop her hands and give passage to a fiery creature. The elemental’s flare chased away the remnants of the cold. Singird Larkwing nodded as he studied it, carefully inspecting every inch of it. Yrith waited in silence, eyes drifting from her atronach to the nape of the teacher’s neck and back.
“Let me make you an offer,” he said at last as he turned to her.
He paused to let Yrith ask, but when the question did not come, he continued.
“For my silence, I want you to promise me something.”
Yrith stared at him in tacit question.
“Promise me, that from now on, you will not neglect your studies. You will show unprecedented diligence and strive to place at the top of your class.”
The girl blinked in surprise. “Diligence? Is that all?”
“Don’t be fooled by how trivial it sounds. I will not go easy on you. You will work ten times harder than others and earn your place at the College. Don’t forget that you are not paying for your lessons, and as much as Lady Faralda patronizes you, she has negotiated all kinds of reliefs for you. I want you to make them count.”
Yrith yanked to the side as the loud crack announced the departure of her atronach. The warmth receded, and she suddenly felt the need to rub her arms. Despite herself, she smiled at the teacher.
“You’re not as heartless as I thought you to be,” she blurted out before she could stop herself. In an instant, her hand shot up to cover her mouth. The Nord knit his brows.
“I shall pretend I didn’t hear that,” he said in a reserved voice. “There is one more…”
The howling from the outside had subsided to a soft whine, revealing a shuffling sound from the corridor of the Hall of Countenance. Yrith could swear she heard footsteps. Master Larkwing was one step ahead, assaulting his own door a little too fiercely. One look outside of the room revealed a deserted staircase and an equally vacant corridor. The Nord’s hands glowed red with a spell which Yrith suspected to be Detect Life, but the following moment he only shook his head.
Carefully shutting the door, he enchanted it with violet aura and returned to his desk.
“There is one more thing I want you to do,” he continued as he scribbled something on a piece of paper. “Your assignment. I am prolonging your deadline till tomorrow’s dusk. These are the books you will use for your research.”
He handed her the paper. The Threshold to Oblivion by Dina Methic, Two Minds in One by Duncan Finch and Bound Creatures and the Tale of Lost Souls by Yzzik Nchuah, it said. Yrith raised a brow at the third name, clearly of Dwemer origins.
“It might take you a while to persuade the orc to hand you the last title,” the teacher added with a more than apparent hint of displeasure. “The College owns the only copy ever found on Tamriel. Although, knowing gro-Shub, he made a duplicate which he guards with his life.”
Yrith smiled. That was Urag, all right.
“I will be going then,” she said, nodding. As she stepped into the corridor, she turned back. “Master Larkwing?”
“What about my classmates?”
“If they ask, go ahead and point them to me. I doubt any more questions will follow.”
Me too, she thought with a good amount of sarcasm. Inadvertently, she bowed and backed out of the door.
“You did not finish your tea!” she heard him call as the door snapped shut. She shrugged, wending her way to the Arcanaeum.
Back in his office, Singird Larkwing hardly suppressed a laugh. Deep down, his conscience was biting him for blackmailing the slight Breton girl. Above all, if his reasoning was correct, he had had her believe in a lie. He threw a glance at the unfinished cup of tea and lifted it to his lips. He loved its scent, regardless of the fact that this tea had been smuggled to Skyrim by one of his friends, a Khajiit fence called Ri’saad. In his life, Singird had allowed himself a single exception from his puritanism, and that was supporting Khajiit caravans. To him, drinking smuggled tea was close to a family tradition. One of the few things that his late father had left behind.
The Nord drew in the smell, and without taking a single sip, he dumped the tea in the sink. As much as he loved its smell and taste, finishing someone else’s tea was not an option, despite his mind yelling at him for wasting.
After returning the cup and the rest of the room to its originally perfectly clean state, he left, only to stop two floors below, by the entrance to his Master’s chamber. With a momentary pause, he knocked on the door.
The head of Phinis Gestor appeared in the door a moment later, sizing him up for a good moment.
“Ah, Singe, I was just… well, come in,” he invited. The Nord entered and was immediately welcomed by the warmth of the joyfully crackling hearth. He could not miss that his teacher was wearing his night robe. A cozy armchair was placed by the hearth, next to which stood a low table with a steaming pot and a cup. Upon Singird’s arrival, the Breton master readied another cup and poured in some dark liquid that remotely resembled tea.
“Come and sit down, dear Singird,” he invited, pulling another chair toward the hearth. “Have a tea.”
“I don’t remember this room having a hearth, Master Gestor.”
“Oh, I have made a few tweaks,” Phinis stated with a hint of pride in his voice.
“Since last night?”
“Well, with the help of half of the College, I admit.”
“Quite convincing, isn’t it?”
“Quite so,” Singird concurred as he seated himself. “Will it last?”
“Not for long, but I think I can afford a moment of bliss from time to time.”
Singird’s eyes found the window and the snowy murk behind it. “I suppose.” He took a sip from his cup and suppressed a sour scowl. If he could allow himself a moment of criticism, he would deny that this liquid had anything to do with tea.
“So, Singe,” Phinis said as he sprawled in his armchair, legs spread comfortably over the thick rug underneath it. “What’s on your mind?”
“Let’s see,” the Nord began, carefully sliding the cup away from him, “I have run into a curious problem. Say, Master Gestor. What can you tell me about Yrith Ravencroft’s parents?”
“I presume you have a good reason to ask?”
“That I do.”
“To be honest, not much. They were always a bit of mystery around here. Didn’t talk to other mages too much, except for when they needed supplies. Our Enthir was usually the one to provide them and they paid him handsomely. Enough for him to donate a portion of it to the College, and you know Enthir’s love for gold. I know they talked to Lady Faralda every now and then, but she rarely shared. They were alchemists of sorts, but apparently quite skilled in magical craft. Rumor has it that they concocted elixirs that were thought to be forgotten and invented spells of unimaginable power. How much of it is true, I don’t know.”
“Such powerful people must have had enemies, no?”
“Enemies?” Phinis groped about the satchel conveniently placed between the chair’s legs and pulled out a pipe and a small linen sack. He began to skillfully stuff the pipe with dried leaves. Singird frowned at that, eyes drifting to the closed window, but stayed silent about it. “None that I know of, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Your questions are piquing my curiosity.”
“I will get to it, Master Gestor. But please, let me ask one more question. If I summon an atronach, is there any possibility that I lose control over it?”
The Breton mage fired a single spark at the pipe. It hissed and faded, but he did not continue, raising his head to face Singird, brows quirked in surprise. “What kind of question is that, Singird? Have the students blown your wits away?”
“Just pretend that I’m one of them for a moment, please. If there is the slightest possibility, tell me. I need to know.”
“You know there isn’t. No, an atronach cannot go rogue. A dremora, perhaps, if you mess up and forget that you are summoning a bound creature. But an atronach? They are simple creatures and cannot exist on Nirn without a soul bond.”
“Good. So, if you had a situation where one summons an atronach, the atronach leaves its master’s side and kills that master’s ally, how would you explain it?”
“Hmm,” Phinis mused as he returned to igniting his pipe, “that’s a tough one. I’d say that either that person wasn’t an ally, or there was another person who managed to incite the atronach.”
“I came to the same conclusion,” Singird nodded, staring at his cup. His hands felt awfully unoccupied. He decided to check for dust on his robes. Naturally, he found none.
“Where is this all going, Singe?”
The young Nord sighed and cupped his face with his hands. “I promised not to tell anyone, so you must promise me that you will keep this an absolute secret.”
“You could have told me sooner,” Phinis remarked, releasing a circle of smoke which flew directly toward Singird. The Nord took a moment to admire the regularity of the shape.
“I had to know,” he insisted. “You can still say you don’t want to know the rest.”
“Singe, my dear. Who do you take me for?”
“Your call then,” the Nord shrug with a smile.
“Cheeky lad. Go on, please.”
“Last night, someone from outside of the College hinted to me that Yrith Ravencroft might be a skilled conjurer, despite the image she has been making for herself. Naturally, I had a hard time believing it, but I did a bit of digging out of curiosity. I learned a few things about her family. That the Ravencrofts treasured their only daughter above all else and also that she craved her parents’ attention and fought for it on every occasion. She had worked hard to perfect herself in every way and the townsfolk found her likeable. That made me wonder why such a fine lady would turn into such a slacker.”
He paused for breath, watching the illusionary cinders before him.
“So today, after our conjuration class, I had her confess. She feels responsible for the death of her parents. If she was telling the truth, she had conjured a fire atronach and lost control over it. The creature left her side, entered her house and killed her parents.”
Phinis exhaled as he let out a cloudlet of white smoke, “Yrith Ravencroft, skilled in magic? That is indeed hard to believe.”
“I saw her atronach, Master Gestor. That girl is a powerful mage.”
“If you saw it with your own eyes, there’s no denying it, I suppose. Still leaves the question of whether she couldn’t have been lying to you about the death of her parents.”
“Then she would have put on an exceptionally good act. I don’t think she’d have a reason to let people scorn her had she known the conditions of controlling an atronach.”
“So… let me get the facts straight. Since there are no other options, you think that Miss Ravencroft’s parents were murdered.”
“I am quite certain of it.” Expression stone-hard, Singird reached for the cup and downed it, instantly regretting it.
Phinis let out a deep sigh, leaning back in his chair with eyes open ajar. “Let me ask you again, Singird. Where are you going with this?”
“There might be a murderer in Winterhold. Possibly even here among us.”
“And your self-righteous nature commands you to take action. You are aware that you will be the one paying with your life if they get ahead of you?”
“I am also aware that there have been cases of magical murders all around Skyrim that the College keeps being accused of. And Miss Ravencroft took the blame for the death of her parents. I can see a pattern there.”
“But the College has nothing to do with it, Singe. These are rumors and assumptions, nothing else.”
“Even you, Master Gestor?” Singird growled, fighting the urge to stand and slam the table. “They think her parents died during an experiment while she blames herself for their death! You were the one convincing me what a good girl she is! And you were the one complaining that the Jarls don’t support us anymore! Now you’re meditating over a pipe in front of a fake fireplace, speaking of rumors and assumptions! What are those weeds you stuffed in there anyway? They smell horrific!”
Phinis raised his hands, half in defense, half in a gesture of piece. “Singe, please. You go looking for trouble, you get more than you bargained for. For the love of the Eight…”
“Nine. And no. Go back to your happy-go-lucky lifestyle and pretend this conversation never happened. I will continue doing what I believe is right.”
The old conjuration master put his pipe down and sat up, eyes gleaming in the flickering light of the fire. He looked at his apprentice, putting up a soft smile. “I have always admired your determination, Singird. I think I’m getting too old for this. I have lost the passion I once had and you still possess. I apologize. But if this is what you believe in, then I shall believe in you. I’d be a terrible master if I refused to help my most precious student, wouldn’t I?”
Singird stooped his shoulders, suddenly feeling defeated. “You’re almost making me feel guilty, Master Gestor,” he said.
“Then you better make it all worthwhile.”
Singird let out a bitter laugh. Worthwhile was not a word he would associate with solving a case of murder.
“By the way, Singird, did you tell Miss Ravencroft?”
“About the murderer? No. If she knew, she would surely go looking for them.”
“She will find out sooner or later.”
“She will, but the later the better. She promised to study diligently if I keep quiet about this.”
“You still haven’t given up on that ritual of yours, have you?”
“Your compliment is much appreciated.”