Yrith’s gaze wandered outside of her window, following a single snowflake fluttering toward the crimson-lit statue of Shalidor. Days passed slowly in Winterhold, like the lazy floes bobbing in the Sea of Ghosts. As the middle of Sun’s Height approached, the weather stilled itself into mild snowfalls and evening clear skies with gentle rose-colored cloud lines along the western horizon. Sun’s Rest was quickly approaching, promising a long-awaited extra day of leisure.
Tonight’s walk to the shore should literally be a breeze. Yrith was expecting a pleasant stroll filled with warm air from the south. Even the city had become slightly livelier, with people leaving their abodes for hunts, fishing or trading trips down to Windhelm. There were rumors of the Stormcloaks preparing for a great battle, causing people to rush their businesses so they could come back before the first sound of war drums would carry over the mountains. Reports of sudden Imperial assaults and kidnappings occurring at random places all over Skyrim spread like wildfire, which the sworn Stormcloaks denied, claiming them to be false gossip meant to make people doubt the Stormcloak protection.
Yrith rarely took any of the political gossip to heart, but she could feel the tension in the air. The magical murders the College had been accused of did not exactly help either. On every occasion, people were turning on each other, spouting accusations and blaming their own brothers for betraying their homeland. As if someone had put a curse on them, Yrith thought bitterly. Even her parents had fought more after they had relocated from Daggerfall. Many times she had wondered why they had moved in the first place. Upon her inquiry, the only answer her parents had given her was: “Because the enemy is near.” Yrith had never learnt who this supposed enemy was.
She picked up her coat and blew off the single candle that had been permitting her to read. The book that lay open on Yrith’s table was the fifth book on the art of Conjuration she was devouring. In all the other subjects, she was still but a hopeless novice, but when it came to Conjuration, she was not willing to provide Singird Larkwing with any reason to mock her or reveal her secret. And, in some remote and sneakily hidden corner of her mind, there was that tiny voice that was telling her that it would be worth it to stay on his good side.
With a hint of a smile on her face, she left the room and made for the College entrance, stopping by the kitchen on her way to pick up the fish sack.
Cain was waiting for her outside, leaning to the low wall surrounding the first circular landing before the bridge to the city. He was staring at the sea, eyes tracing a pack of horkers lazily smacking their flippers against the wet sand. The last few days he had mostly been silent, rarely speaking to anyone at all and keeping to himself when the rest of the class, save for Qassir, Tanya Verus and, for some reason, Leyna Travi, busied themselves scoffing at Yrith for being a pitiful lying skeever. The look in the Dunmer’s eyes had changed, becoming somewhat distant and difficult to read.
But when Yrith approached him, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, hinting a smirk.
“You’re late,” he stated.
She glared at him, a thought crossing her mind that she had preferred him to be that distant, silent elf. “I am late by seconds,” she snorted.
She expected him to retort, but the Dunmer simply turned around, marching down the bridge. She followed his footsteps, watching him with one brow quirked up in bemusement. His back was bent and shoulders stooped down, a sight she was not used to seeing.
Walking through the city, Yrith watched the dangling shop signs and deserted courtyards. It was quiet, save for their own footsteps and cold wind brushing the treetops. Cold wind from the north, she realized with a frown. Not what she had been expecting. She looked around, as though the answer would lay there in plain sight, but found nothing. Soft glow came from the windows of the surrounding houses. The chill in the air had driven the citizens back into the warmth of their homes. But there was something else, an ominous presence in the air. Something she could not quite put her finger on.
They left the city and entered the ravine. Yrith listened to their footsteps just to have something to focus on, eyes locked on Cain’s heels. Cain’s left, her left, Cain’s right, her right, one, two, three, four, one… until there was one more pair. She stopped, looking over her shoulder. Nothing.
“What?” said Cain as he turned around to face her.
“I thought I heard…”
“Nothing,” she waved her hand to dismiss him. “Must be my imagination.”
The Dunmer rapped the stone wall looming above them with his fingers. It gave a soft echo that lingered in the air before fading into nothingness.
“Are you afraid?” he asked her.
She tried to search for mockery in his tone, but found none, although his expression was as unreadable as ever. She shrugged.
“Do you remember how I told you about the Lone Demon?”
“Again?” Yrith scoffed. “Don’t you think your jests are getting old?”
He laughed, gesturing for her to follow him down to the shore. “They are, are they not?” He let the sentence hang in the air, calculating his footsteps so he would not slip on the icy path. Soon, they could hear the fierce splashing of the sea from below, combatting the harsh wind. As Cain walked on the pier and bent down to pull out the fishing net, she heard him sigh.
“You see,” he said, “most Dunmer families worship the Daedra.”
“And?” Yrith held out the sack so he could fill it. She closed her eyes as the cold water showered her face, and licked the salt from her lips.
“It is common for the Dunmer to have clan patrons they can pray to. The higher ranking Dunmer worship the Tribunal, but they are inclined to choosing one particular deity they prefer. We are scorned by the rest of the world for this. Especially by the Altmer.”
“Well… yes, I know that. But why are you telling me?”
“My family is different. We do not worhip the Daedra.”
“Let me guess. The Lone Demon you were talking about?”
He nodded, forgetting the net he was holding. “Indeed. There are no written records about the Lone Demon and we are forbidden from ever mentioning him in writing or depictions.” There was another sigh, longer than the one before. He threw a fish into the sack with ferocity that made Yrith wince. “Compared to the Lone Demon, the Daedra are saints.”
Even against the darkening sky, Yrith could see the struggle in his face. She said nothing, deciding to let him speak on his own.
“I hate my home,” he said. “It is filled with anger and strife. And I hate this place too because it’s just about the same.”
“And what does it…”
“… have to do with the Demon? Everything! He exists to sow discord amongst people. His purpose is to turn them against each other, to teach them pain, despair, and anger. To torture them in life and rob them of their death. That is what my family does. That’s what they do!” he gestured toward the dark, jagged silhouette of the College, flapping the fish in his hand. He threw it into the sack and ran his fingers through his hair. Watching him, Yrith was happy that she did not share Singird Larkwing’s obsession with cleanness. “Mother said that the Lone Demon is in every person’s heart. But… seeing you stand up to them, I think he avoids yours.” He averted his eyes, hypnotizing the fish.
The sight made Yrith laugh. “All this just to say a little thank you?” she quipped.
“I am not saying thank you, okay? Just that… I approve of what you did.” He pursed his lips like a small child grumbling to his mother that his favorite toy had broken.
“Indeed,” Yrith said, eyes glistening with amusement. “Your approval was just what I was waiting for.” They finished collecting the fish, Cain setting up the nets again while Yrith tied the sack shut with a rough bast string.
“Less than usual,” Yrith commented, knitting her brows as she scrutinized the poor catch. She threw it over her shoulder and set out for the city. As she approached the cliffs forming the ravine, she heard footsteps again. Heavy as they were, audible even in the incessant murmurs of the sea, Yrith assumed them to belong to a guard. She looked up at one of the cliffs as the sound suddenly changed into a quiet rustle and then slowly escalated into a rumble.
“Wha…” Cain hinted behind her. As she turned around to face him, she could see him staring above her. Slowly, his eyes grew wider, fear reflecting in his face.
“M-midget!” he gasped.
“G-get out of there!” he blurted out, pointing up at the cliff. “Get out! Now!” He bolted toward her, struggling against the soft, wet sand.
Yrith looked up. A mass of snow, pitch black against the dark sky, was sliding from the cliff, casting a threatening shadow at her and all about. She forgot her breath, face mirroring Cain’s fear. She released the sack, looking for the quickest escape route. It was too late. There was none. She would never make it.
“No!” she yelled the first word to come to her mind. She could feel her feet grow heavy, unable to carry her away.
He drew closer. He would be brought down along with her. She knew the snow around here. It never melted. It was ancient, hardened by never-ending winter into massive blocks of ice. And all that ice was falling on her head.
Instinctively, she raised her hands. They flared with magic, then spread it around, forming a shield that shimmered in the dark. She stared at the mass of frosty substance sinking to where she stood. For a split moment, it seemed to stop in midair only to show her the hopelessness of her situation. And then it hit.
The impact broke the shield and made the ice shatter. The next wave took the form of icy rubble, sending her to the ground and burying her frame. She could feel the air getting squeezed out of her lungs, and the sound of Cain’s shrieks grew distant.
She couldn’t move or breathe. Cold spread through her limbs, penetrating her every muscle. She wanted to cry out, but the only result would be a load of snow in her mouth. She wanted to reach out, but the weight on her body wouldn’t let her move an inch. And so she lay there, motionless, mind heavy with spreading darkness. Out of all possible options, she would have never imagined herself to perish in an avalanche.
And then, just as she was about to fall into a hazy slumber, a gust of fresh, salty wind whipped her cheek. Cain was frantically removing the snow, setting her free from her icy prison. She gasped, drawing in the air and shaking in pain as the senses were returning to her.
“Can you walk?” he asked, his voice trembling. She stared at him, unable to process the words. The sound was there, but her mind would not function. The only thing she was aware of was the dull pain spreading through her body. She pressed her lips together and clenched her fists to contain a moan. Her eyelids felt so heavy.
“No, Ravencroft! Come on, open your eyes! Snap out of it, we have to get you up there!”
“I’m so tired,” she whispered.
“I know. You’ll get to rest. But first you need to get on your feet and use them. Can you walk?” He pulled her up into the sitting position, forcing her to squint at his face. His expression was hard and uncompromising, though she could see a hint of concern in his scarlet eyes.
With his aid, Yrith tried to stand. She hissed as a flash of pain cut through her leg like a white-hot blade, but managed to shift her weight on the other one, leaning against Cain for support.
“The fish…” she mumbled drowsily as he dragged her away. He chuckled bitterly, flicking her forehead.
“Go ahead and grab it if you’re up to it.”
She had to smile to that, but could not find the strength to utter an intelligible reply.
They ascended the slope, slowly, carefully. Yrith struggled to keep going, clutching Cain’s shoulder every time she had to put her weight on the injured leg. The cold bit into her flesh and made her shiver. She fought against the slippery path, her breath shallow and eyelids heavy with exhaustion. By the looks of it, Cain was in a similar situation, desperately trying to keep her from falling while barely holding up against the beaten ice.
Yrith knew that every step would get them closer to the College, yet she felt as though they were just trampling the ice in one place. She stopped squinting toward the smoke rising from the chimneys in the distance and focused on her feet instead. At least she saw the ground move underneath her which gave her some assurance of their progress.
After a short while of silent walking, Cain suddenly came to a halt. She gave him a questioning look, but the answer came promptly.
“Blazes, urchin, what happened to you?!”
On the road before them stood Qassir, face twisted in genuine shock. He hurried to support Yrith from the other side, gently sliding a hand under her upper arm. Cain greeted him with a not so forthcoming snort.
“What are you doing here, sandman?”
The Redguard hinted a shrug with his free hand. “Why so angry?” he taunted. He gave the Dunmer a curious scrutiny, then stopped at Yrith’s limp leg. “You know, when you stand up there on the hill, looking at a cliff, and the next moment half of the said cliff is gone, it does raise a suspicion.”
“Spoken like true outlander,” Cain snorted, face turning into a spiteful glare. “You go to a faraway land and the only thing that matters to you is to be there when something happens. If only you had made yourself useful and gone back to the College to send help.”
“Which you certainly seem to be in need of,” Qassir gave a sagelike nod. “So here, let me help.”
With one smooth movement, he gently took Yrith in his arms as though she weighed no more than a paper doll. He flashed Cain his brightest smile, white teeth mirroring the surrounding snow. The Dunmer’s eyes shot daggers. Yrith looked up into the Redguard’s face and he responded with a playful wink. She quickly averted her gaze, feeling her cheeks redden regardless of the chill still paralyzing her body.
“No worries, urchin,” he assured her with his usual grin. “This Redguard has you. We can leave the Dunmer to his own fate.”
“But…” she breathed, but flinched at the sound of the Dunmer’s outraged voice.
“What is your–”
“The fish,” Qassir said, nodding toward the pile of crumbling ice and snow on the sea shore. “You wouldn’t want to let that go to waste, would you? Go ahead and fetch it. I shall escort the little urchin to the College.” The smile he regaled Cain with, however innocent on the surface, was the most wicked thing Yrith had ever seen. She suddenly felt a strong urge to punch the Redguard in the face, and perhaps she would have done so had she not been feeling so weak.
“I don’t think s–”
“Be seeing you,” Qassir called to Cain as he set out, holding Yrith lightly against his chest. “Apologies for stealing your beloved, but it seems she needs slightly better care than you can offer.”
With that, he sped up, leaving the dumbfounded elf behind to fight the drifts of snow and merciless wind with the darkness of the night as his only companion. The girl in his arms stared at him in shock, unable to utter a word. Her disbelief only deepened when she shivered and her escort instantly pressed her closer to his body to warm her up.
“W-why?” she stammered, her slightly doubtful eyes fixed on his mysterious smile. “Why would you…”
“How kind of you,” he said, eyes shimmering in the moonlight. “Always defending that person, even though he would never have done the same for you.”
Despite herself, Yrith snorted, feeling slightly more awake than moments before. “I am not defending him!”
“Then what are you doing?” he asked and she could feel a touch of amusement in the statement. She waggled in his arms and hissed as her leg promptly reacted by sending a flash of pain through her body.
“Just the right thing,” she mumbled.
“The right thing, eh?” He stared into her eyes, forcing her to shift her gaze to one of the misted windows they were passing. After a few moments of heavy silence, he let out a soft chuckle. “You know,” he said, sounding distant, “in the big picture, the right thing may not always be as right as you think.”
Yrith froze. She knew these words. She had heard them so many times before. Her father used to repeat them to her whenever she had done something foolish and tried to defend it with “the right thing.” The last time had been moments before his death.
“What do you know?” she uttered through gritted teeth.
“Seems like I touched a sore spot, didn’t I? I am sorry.” She stared into his face. He did not sound apologetic at all. Yrith let out a quiet huff but chose to leave the statement without reply. Talking to Qassir was meaningless. She closed her eyes, simply wishing they’d arrive soon. They spent the rest of their journey in silence, only listening to each other’s breaths and the Redguard’s light footsteps.
The evening dragged on. Curiously enough, Singird Larkwing had spent the last few days more occupied with searching for information on the Ravencroft family than with his own research.
Winterhold had access to information from all over Tamriel. Urag gro-Shub was known for hist thirst for knowledge that he expressed by hiring numerous scouts and adventurers who would occasionally bring him long lost books or records snatched from various governmental offices which tended to be, naturally, marked as classified information. The existence of these files was an open secret to the College staff, as the College of Winterhold was exempted from any state laws as long as the unlawful acts were kept within the College grounds.
To Singird’s astonishment, there were several boxes of Thalmor reports and dossiers, secret messages from Ulfric Stormcloak to his commanders and allies, copies of the White-Gold Concordat and both Treaties of Stros M’kai, and even reports from some raids in Valenwood that Singird had never heard of before. Birth certificates and records of people crossing any province border in Tamriel were also included, containing even the hidden Khajiit caravans. But the Ravencrofts weren’t there. They weren’t on any of the Lists of Recognized Magi that every magical institution in Tamriel was keeping either. There were no records of them ever existing. He traced several Ravencrofts in High Rock and some in Cyrodiil, but none of them seemed to be related to Yrith’s family.
Singird thought of asking Urag gro-Shub about them directly, but chased the thought away when he imagined the scowl on the orc’s brute face which was sure to follow that question. He could ask Miss Ravencroft herself. But he needed her to trust him, and he could hardly achieve that by bringing tears into her eyes again.
With a sigh, he snapped the last box shut and returned it to its rightful place. It was way past sunset and he could not wait to enjoy his evening cup of tea along with a pair of smuggled rockies, as the Skyrim folk liked to call the infamous rock-solid cookies from High Rock, popular for their strong, spicy flavor. He left the Arcanaeum, taking his favorite route to the Hall of Countenance through the College roof.
The fresh wind and starry sky did wonders to his mood. He took a short moment to lean against the stone wall surrounding the roof and let his eyes wander freely over the snowy moonlit landscape. Up from this height and distance, the mountains on the western side and the small isles surrounded by thousands of floes on the south-east looked so small, as though he could simply crush them with his fist.
He glanced upon the shore and frowned, distrusting his own eyes. The area around the fishing piers appeared to be buried under a thick pile of ice and snow while the cliff above it had lost a good portion of its original volume. Knowing everything around Winterhold was protected and held together by powerful magic, he blamed the night for tricking his eyes. He blinked to clear his sight, but the image stayed. With a shrug, he turned away, mind drifting to his favorite tea.
He had just entered the Hall of Countenance when an echoing yell from below made him freeze. Curious about the source of the commotion, he hurried to the brightly glowing focal point and bent over the low wall surrounding it, just in time to hear the screechy voice of Colette Marence, the Restoration Master.
“By the Eight! Mister Tahlrah… Miss Ravencroft, what on Nirn happened to you?!”
Singird froze, staring at the column of blue light as the realization sank in. A wave of cold gushed over him. Despite himself, he darted toward the stairs, nearly sliding down to the lowest level. Several doors opened as he ran past them, revealing curious faces of his fellow teachers, but paid them little attention.
Down by the entrance door stood Qassir Tahlrah, Yrith Ravencroft resting in his arms, obviously shaken and wounded. Colette Marence was giving her person a careful scrutiny.
“What happened?” Singird asked as he joined her.
“Master Larkwing,” said Colette without lifting her face. “Later. She needs treatment. She is already quite late; this leg is going to take some time to fully heal. Mister Tahlrah, if you would please take her to my room.”
“Wait. Where is Mister Aldaryn?”
“Somewhere on the road,” Qassir hinted a shrug. Singird stared at him, finding only indifference in the Redguard’s face. He had to exhaust all of his self-control on preventing the sudden outburst of rage from dying his face crimson.
“Somewhere on the road,” he repeated quietly. “I saw a crumbled cliff down by the shore. Is he still there? Is he wounded as well?”
“Cain was fine when we left him,” Yrith said, her weak voice almost drowned by the incessant humming of the blue fountain. Singird let out a small sigh of relief.
“Mister Tahlrah, please,” Colette urged, holding the door to her room open for him. The Redguard gave a slight nod and entered. She turned to Singird. “Master Larkwing, if you would please wait here. We’ll be done in a moment. If a cliff really did fall down, then we need to head down at once and restore the magic protecting the place. I would appreciate your assistance.”
“Very well,” Singird muttered before watching Colette’s back disappear behind the door. He stared at it motionlessly, pondering the tingling sensation on the nape of his neck he always felt when things were about to go awry. He drew a deep breath and seated himself on the fountain wall, allowing himself some of the comfort that he liked to deny the students.
The door opened in a few moments, revealing Colette in a fur-padded overcoat and expressionless Qassir. They exchanged a few quiet words before the Redguard scuttled away, leaving the two teachers alone.
“How is she?” asked Singird, jumping up. Colette shot him a semi-amused look.
“Ah, the detention student? Suffering from guilty conscience, are we?”
He shot her a piercing look. “Not at all.”
“You’re a terrible liar, Master Larkwing,” she laughed as she opened the door, letting the cold breeze ruffle her carefully coiffured hair. “She’ll pull through. The worst damage was done to her mind, though. I can hardly cure that.”
Singird nodded, following her outside. “Not even a Master of Restoration such as yourself can mend one’s soul, eh?”
She chuckled softly. “I have been researching that, in fact. But soul studies are quite a difficult discipline, even for a mage veteran.”
“I suppose. Do you mind sharing your experience?” They entered the bridge, squinting against the wind. Singird shot a glance at the stormy sea, waves wearing caps of white foam reflecting the moonlight.
“I would,” Colette said, carefully searching for the safest route with her feet, “but so far, it has been quite difficult to piece the information I need together. I had to put all the Restoration books aside to fully engage myself in soul studies. Not to mention I have to make two copies of everything I write because someone constantly keeps stealing my notes.”
“If you need assistance with finding the culprit…”
“Ah, no,” she waved him off, finding purchase by clutching the wall on her side. “It’s not that bad. The Collegium is not willing to acknowledge the art of Restoration as a real discipline of magic, though. And I strive to change that.”
“So, how far have you gotten in your soul studies?”
She laughed. “That is a good question. In the great tangle of information I’ve sorted through, very few parts are actually relevant. I’d say the most useful one was about each soul being a specific manifestation of the world. It may sound simple, but it is not.
“You see, a soul can interfere with other souls and influence them, but it can never control them. When I heal a person’s body, I can feel their bones and tissues, I can hear their heartbeat, and if I send in my magic, I can patch the body up, just like I would patch up a piece of garment. But that is all possible only because I know the anatomy of one’s body and, to some extent, I can change it at will. A soul is not like that. It has no tangible structure, nothing you could see or feel with the primary five senses. We can feel a person’s emotions through a variety of impulses, but mending a soul with magic would require a completely different approach. You would have to seek its origins and find out what formed the soul into what it is now. But if you had this information, nothing would be impossible. Not even bringing a soul back from the dead. I can imagine how something like this could easily get out of hand.”
“To bring a soul back from the dead…” Singird stared at her in silent contemplation. “Miss Marence, if you don’t mind me asking, where did you learn this?”
“Oh…” Colette hesitated, seemingly troubled by something. Singird studied her soft features and the dark shadows in her face contrasted by the pale moonlight. They passed a guard giving them a small nod. Colette looked over her shoulder at the steel-clad man as though she was afraid he’d listen. She put up a soft smile with a hint of guilt and mischief. “You see,” she spoke at last, “I… sort of snatched them from Urag gro-Shub’s personal collection.”
Singird could hardly contain a chuckle. “The one whose existence he always so ardently denies?”
“That one, yes,” she affirmed. “I noticed he always goes to sort new and returned books at the same hour, so whenever I need something I can’t find elsewhere, I go consult his little treasure. So far, I’ve always managed to return everything before he could notice it was missing.” Singird noticed a spark of excitement in the eyes of his colleague who apparently took unexpected pleasure in tricking the orc librarian. That was a feeling he could easily relate to.
“One should not underestimate the Restoration Master,” he quipped. “So? Which book was it?”
“It was called Soul Genesis. There was no author, but it was labeled with the symbol of the Association of Wizards and Alchemists.”
“Association of Wizards and Alchemists? Is there such an institution?”
“Truth be told, before I started rummaging through Urag’s collection, I hadn’t heard of it either. There seems to be no trace of them anywhere, although he owns quite a lot of volumes with their seal. Apparently, Miss Ravencroft’s parents were members as well.”
“Hold on. There are mentions of her parents too?”
“Quite a lot of them, actually. They were active contributors to the soul magic studies back in the day. I wish I could have a copy of their series of essays on compact regeneration of soul and body. One of them spoke about how one can use the connection between their soul and body to maintain their health, both physical and mental. Although some of the things the Ravencrofts researched are rather disquieting. Apparently, they were one of the few people who knew how to concoct the Spirit Blight.”
Deep in his mind, Singird grinned and made a mental note to find out Urag gro-Shub’s schedule. Those few minutes of talking to Miss Marence meant more to him than the last few days he had spent buried in books on his own. He now had a clear lead for both his research and the Ravencroft mystery, and sure as the night sky above him, he would use it.
“I have heard of that one,” he said. “The only poison that can literally melt your soul into nothingness.”
Colette nodded grimly. They had left the warm lights and smoking chimneys of the city behind. From the distance, they could hear the whispers of the sea. “And the one that can only be countered by another strong poison,” she added.
“Still, considering her parents’ prowess…”
“Having some trouble with young Yrith?” Colette teased with a good-natured smirk.
“That depends on what you call trouble,” he smiled back.
“The usual,” she hinted, amusement gleaming in her eyes. “But she sure knows how to surprise.”
“Well, let’s say that for the pitiful performance she’s been giving in my classes, she sure can make her wards count when it comes to it. That cliff would have killed her if it had not been for her magic.”
Singird’s smile faded, replaced by a concerned frown. “Then let’s be grateful she has it. I don’t suppose it would improve the College’s reputation if the world learned we lost a student in an avalanche.”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
He let out a somewhat bitter chuckle, stopping just before the crumbled cliff. The Falcon’s Beak, as the locals liked to call it, had lost its head. All that was left was a dangerously grinning jaw of glistening ice teeth. “I am beginning to think that there are less and less things that can surprise me anymore,” he said, shaking his head at the sight.
“Aren’t you a bit too young to be saying that?” she gently nudged him between the ribs, causing him to scrutinize his own robe and smoothen it immediately. A corner of her mouth twitched. “Let’s survey the area first. It is a little odd for the cliff to fall off by itself. It has been a few months since we recast the protective charm, and that spell is supposed to last for years, if not centuries.” She made a step toward the crumbling remains of the cliff, but Singird promptly grabbed her arm.
“Wait. We should muffle ourselves before we trample the place down.”
“Fair point,” she nodded. No sooner did they take off than they both cast the muffle spell, preventing their steps from being heard or leaving footprints.
The two of them struggled against the blocks of ice in their path, having to use magic to prevent themselves from falling or touching the ground several times. Singird strayed a little from his companion, studying the snow around the perimeter.
Time dragged on, but neither of them found a trace of anything suspicious. After a few hours, when Masser decided to take refuge beyond the western horizon, the two of them reunited, worn and less than happy.
“Nothing,” Colette shook her head. “Perhaps our enchantment was simply faulty.”
Singird knit his brows. It was not his habit to admit defeat so easily. Had it not been for Colette, he would have searched past morning. He gave an unsatisfied sigh.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
“It is becoming late,” she said, eyes drifting to the night sky. A soft veil of silvery green nebula started forming on its northern side, making the College seem like a dark, menacing fortress looming over the land. A chill in the wind made her visibly shudder. “We should reinforce it in case some foolish citizen decides to go sightseeing. Then we wait until morning.”
“Very well. After you, Miss Marence.”
Singird watched as Colette stretched out her arms, releasing her magic and letting it envelop the broken cliff. He promptly followed. After a lengthy while of draining their souls of their magic, the two of them set out for the College. For the last time, Singird looked over his shoulder at the jagged structure, threatening against the colorful horizon. He let out a deep breath, exhaustion weighing heavy on his shoulders. He nearly staggered over the gravel-like snowy surface around the cliff, eyes fixed on the thin line that separated the area from the smooth, foamy texture ahead. Suddenly, he froze, putting a hand on Colette’s shoulder.
“That,” he pointed to the line. “Do you see it?”
“You mean the–” Her hand shot up to her lips. “Divines preserve us!”
“Divines preserve us indeed. This whole time we have been looking in the wrong places.” Singird stepped toward the line, bending down to examine it. “Quite a clean cut,” he remarked grimly. “Most definitely caused by controlled magic.”
“But who could have done this? Why would someone want to compromise the College when we struggle to even survive?”
Singird left the question unanswered. He could not articulate his suspicion before Colette Marence. What a convenient coincidence that the Yrith Ravencroft who had been made to appear as though she had killed her own parents and attacked by an ice wraith that had strayed far from its territory was now an unfortunate victim of a very unlikely avalanche. He clenched his fists unwittingly. No, this was no coincidence. Whoever the culprit, they were not after the College. They were directly after Yrith Ravencroft.
“Whoever it was,” he mused, “they must have been exceptionally gifted in the arcane arts. Or there were more of them. How many of you took part in the last maintenance?”
“At least five members of the Collegium, if memory serves me right. Needless to say, we did not rely on our magic alone.”
“And to interfere with the local magic…”
“… you must be someone recognized by it,” she finished.
“Who else is recognized apart from the teachers and students?”
“Well, anyone who has ever gained authorized entry. Residents, former students, guests…”
Singird sighed, rising back to full height. “Let us go. There is nothing for us to do here.”
Colette gave him a look of concern, a deep wrinkle between her brows marring her beautiful face. “Rest in ease, Master Larkwing,” she said in a soothing tone, touching his forearm. “Come morning, I shall have Master Neloren examine the area for magical residue. We will get to the root of this.”
He gave a small nod, doubting her words as he did. Without another word, they returned to the College, each deep in thought, oblivious to the passing lights of the city of Winterhold or the crackling ice covering the ramshackle walls around the College bridge. Singird headed straight for his room, crashing on his bed without changing. For once, he did not care. His mind was too occupied with other things. He had no time to think about the dirt he had brought in on his person.
Just before sleep took him, he made a promise to himself. The next day, he would sneak into the library and steal his share from Urag gro-Shub’s precious collection.