To make matters worse, Vittoria Vici, first cousin to Emperor Titus Mede II, has been killed in Solitude at her own wedding feast. The callous act shocks the continent—many are quick to blame the Stormcloaks, though there are whispers of darker forces at work. Regardless, there are rumors that the Emperor is en route to Skyrim to attend Vici's funeral, meaning tensions in the province are higher than ever.
But the mages who study at the College of Winterhold—just as isolated from the affairs of the rest of the world as they are from the rest of Skyrim—have more pressing issues at hand than politics and blood …
"In many ways, [magic] is a question of extremes—how far we would permit our studies to take us."
- Quote attrib. to Voth Karlyss, Magister of Corinthe
Grimnir Torn-Skull strode onto the crumbling bridge with purpose in every step, and determination in his blue eyes. It was this bridge that connected Winterhold to the rest of the world—well, the bridge and no small amount of magic, Grimnir was sure; there was no other way that the meager thread of weathered stone could support him.
He was big for a mage, and broad at the shoulder as well—almost as much of a Nord as one could possibly be. Far from the spitting image of Ysgramor—Grimnir would know; he had seen him in person just two years ago, and had failed to see why anyone would make the comparison. Yet he also knew that behind Ysgramor's blue eyes, there was, again, that same flame of determination behind that gaze—and for a moment, Grimnir had remembered pausing in the Hall of Valor that fateful day, and he had wondered if perhaps he did indeed have something in common with the one whom they called "the First Harbinger."
But right now, his mind was elsewhere, as his mind was drawn to the reason he had come back to this place.
The last time he'd seen that swirling vortex of energy, it had only been a mere twenty feet wide—enough to fit inside the Hall of the Elements with room to spare. But that had been a few days ago—and much had happened since the moment Ancano had betrayed them all.
The mad elf had killed Arch-Mage Savos Aren with a single thought—such was the power behind the source of this magickal barrier. He had meant to tap into its power from the beginning—ever since the damned thing had been wrenched from its enchanted plinth in Saarthal. And in doing so, he'd done irrevocable damage to the fabric of reality. Winterhold had nearly been consumed by the strange beasts that had emerged from the tears left in the wake of the Thalmor's folly.
Suddenly, Grimnir paused. The shield that had once consumed Ancano and his new toy—and now threatened to consume the entire College—was distorting. There were many flashes and streaks of light, and only when Grimnir saw these streaks break free of the ward did he know what they were—and whom they were heading for.
More of the glowing anomalies he'd fought in the town several days ago swooped for Tolfdir, Faralda—two of his instructors—and Arniel Gane, a scholar that he'd met in Saarthal. There were almost a dozen of them—normally too many for them to fight at once—but Grimnir knew several spells that could deal with large groups of enemies at once.
He charged one such spell in his hand, and released it at the anomalies. The ice storm grew and grew until it enveloped them all, freezing them into tiny crystalline fragments that fell to the bridge with a small tinkling noise.
Everyone looked around to see the new arrival, and it struck Grimnir how very different they all looked. Faralda was nursing several cuts on her olive-colored face. Arniel was no different. And the normally kindly face of Tolfdir … Grimnir had never seen the master of Alteration look so tired.
"You survived!" wheezed the old Nord. "You have it, then?"
Grimnir nodded, and produced the object from within his bulging satchel—an ornately carved staff with a round, flawless crystal at one end that swirled with ancient energy. "I hope this is worth it," he whispered huskily, "I—we—went through a lot of trouble to recover this thing."
He glanced behind his shoulder. Three other students—Onmund, J'zargo, and Brelyna—waited behind him. They had been at his side almost since Saarthal. He had gotten to know them quite well over the past few months, and now he could not imagine a day without their company, and the odd friendship that had been forged in the time since—forged by time, fire, and the horrors of Labyrinthian, not least of which had been the former master of the Staff of Magnus.
Tolfdir gazed at this staff with abject reverence. "Incredible … " he whispered. "Let's hope it's as powerful as the Psijics believe. We've lost too many people as it is already."
They must have seen Grimnir's face fall at the mention of the word "people"—implying Savos Aren had not been the only person to fall to Ancano's designs. "Mirabelle didn't make it," Faralda said sadly. "When it became clear we would have to fall back, she elected to stay behind … covered our escape."
The news came as a blow to Grimnir, and his friends with him—losing the Arch-Mage had been bad enough, but his Master Wizard as well?
Onmund's face was hard as Nord steel. "Let's go," he said, voice low and shaking. "Let's get in there."
J'zargo, normally as cocky as any Khajiit, could only nod resolutely.
"We're with you," Brelyna could only say—but it was enough.
And the four mages strode towards the College—and the ward that swirled around it.
The wind was incredible—Grimnir was almost half deaf, it was shrieking so loudly. When it became clear that they could go no further without risking falling off the precarious bridge, Grimnir planted his feet firmly, raised the Staff, and willed it to obey.
The Staff responded—an arc of green energy, too slow to be lightning, but too quick to be fire, radiated outwards from its spherical orb, directly for the ward. The effect was immediate—a shockwave expanded from the point of contact of the ward, and raced all along its length.
But Grimnir did not let up. Slowly, deliberately, he pulled the Staff back, commanding it to take all the power of the ward into itself. The two artifacts—the Staff, and its Eye—possessed like energies, and he hoped that would be enough.
It was—the ward was beginning to swirl in a different direction; instead of circling the College, now it was circling the Staff. What was more, it was beginning to grow smaller. Like a great maelstrom, the energy was sucked in.
And then suddenly, their way was clear. Grimnir wasted no time sprinting for the Hall of the Elements. His three friends followed right behind him—and Tolfdir and Faralda weren't far behind.
Grimnir kicked open the door to the main hall to find a most eerie sight.
Ancano stood before them, suspended in midair between the mages and and the Eye of Magnus—exactly which of them was glowing more was hard to tell; the mad Thalmor must have absorbed a tremendous amount of power from the artifact. His white hair, normally impeccably tidy was blowing every which way, though there was no wind to be felt in the Hall.
Before him, the gates that normally barred the way to the lecture hall had been torn off their hinges, and twisted asunder like dough in the wake of the Eye's—Ancano's—power.
"You've come for me, have you?" Even the hated voice of the Altmer had changed—there was an echo to it now, as though he was speaking inside a massive cave. Now that Grimnir was closer to him, he could see the insane elf's eyes glowing—whether with yet more power, or with glee at achieving said power, was impossible to tell.
"You think I don't know what you're up to?" Ancano screamed at them. "You think I can't destroy you, speck?!" He gestured at the Eye behind them, and Grimnir noticed how quickly it was spinning on its plinth; it was a wonder how the artifact had not fallen off from the sheer momentum of its movement.
"The power to unmake the world at my fingertips," Ancano continued gloating, "and you think you can do anything about it?!"
Grimnir had heard enough. He strode forward, and took a massive breath.
"Fus … Ro DAH!"
The ancient magic of the Thu'um burst from his lips like thunder, and a blue wave of energy rushed right for Ancano—
—and passed right through him.
"Ha! I am beyond your pitiful attempts at magic!" Ancano crowed, sneering at them from on high. "You cannot touch me!"
Now, Grimnir was worried. "Pitiful attempts at magic" were not the first words he'd have used to describe the Voice—the same Voice that the dragons could use to breathe fire and frost, and bend the winds to their command. But if they hadn't affected Ancano in the slightest, perhaps his boasting hadn't all been just talk.
Then a thought occurred to him—and he heard the words of the Augur of Dunlain, the recluse of the deepest, darkest depths of the Midden: To see through Magnus' Eye without being blinded, you require his Staff.
Grimnir looked at the Staff of Magnus in his hand, then back to the Eye. Could it really be that simple?
He motioned to everyone behind him—his friends, his instructors, everyone who'd followed him inside to witness this fated confrontation. "Keep him busy," he said in an undertone to J'zargo, who was nearest him, and he hoped that the Khajiit had enough sense to pass it on to everyone else.
"I have a plan," he lied, more to himself than to anyone else, to help boost his bravado.
And without any further ado, Grimnir charged off to the side, running the length of the Hall, away from Ancano, but never once leaving the Eye out of his gaze. He heard the sounds of lightning, fire, ice and the battle cries of half a dozen races as everyone else met Ancano head-on.
"Enough!" Ancano roared, and his hands now glowed green. His mouth opened in an unearthly scream as a wave of emerald energy rippled out from his body. Grimnir felt the telltale sensations of a paralysis spell at the same time he saw everyone in the hall thrown backward from Ancano, unable to move even a finger.
And yet Grimnir had not been affected. Had the power of the Staff been protecting him in some way? Or had Ancano spared him, perhaps in hopes to finish him off himself? Either way, he would have to puzzle about it later—the Thalmor was making a beeline right for him, flying for Grimnir as if he had wings.
"Still you persist?" hissed the elf. "Very well. Come then—see what I can do now!"
He raised his hand, and it glowed with the energy of the Eye of Magnus—but Ancano did not fire that energy right at Grimnir.
He fired it at the Eye.
And now the Eye was changing in response to this energy, twisting into dozens of curved metal plates, revealing it to be completely hollow inside. The light of the magicka shining from within was blinding.
The words of the Augur came to him again, and Grimnir remembered what he was supposed to be doing. He made a ward with his free hand—knowing full well it might as well be tissue paper against the Thalmor's power—but he pointed the Staff at the Eye—and fired, hoping against hope that the Eye would recognize its own energy.
Another shockwave burst from the Eye, throwing Grimnir off balance and sending Ancano tumbling to the ground. Now the Eye was closing—and what was more, the glow around Ancano had disappeared. Instinctively, Grimnir knew he was vulnerable—but he had to strike now.
But even without his link to ultimate power, Ancano was still a formidable foe … and he was livid. "No … what have you done!" screeched the Thalmor as he ran up to the deactivated artifact—and then he rounded on Grimnir.
"Nord beast!" he growled at him—though Ancano no longer sounded like the elf he was, either. "I should have come for you personally at Labyrinthian! I should have killed you and that dragon priest then and there!"
"You had your chance!" Grimnir roared back at him, and he struck Ancano with the Staff of Magnus, right at the traitor elf's head, sending him flying right as he'd been about to charge another spell at the Eye to reactivate it—and then he struck him again, this time in the stomach, crumpling the Thalmor into a heap before his feet.
In spite of the severity of the situation, Grimnir felt some of that old Nord bravado returning, and as he raised his staff aloft, he used the opportunity to get a word in edgewise before the final blow was struck.
"Ancano, you are dismissed from the College!"
The Staff glowed with energy, and directed it towards the jagged crystal at its other end. Ancano had just enough sense to realize what Grimnir was trying to do, and cried out in sudden terror. "No. No!"
And then Grimnir brought the staff down on the Altmer, the magic-enhanced crystal piercing Ancano's heart with all the finesse of a sword blade. Ancano screamed and blubbered as blood began to flow from his mouth, his nose, and even his skin as the energy raced through his body, destroying it piecemeal and withering it to a dried husk.
Only when the screaming had stopped did Grimnir pull the Staff out of Ancano's destroyed body. The fallen Altmer lay there in a circle of his own blood, his scarlet-stained mouth frozen in a look of abject horror.
But amazingly, the Altmer was not dead—and he was laughing. "You should have … left me alive," croaked Ancano, his bloodied mouth curving into a smirk as he cackled weakly. "I could … not stop—could have … saved you … "
Grimnir was confused. "Saved me from what?" he asked, wondering why in the world a Thalmor, of all people, would have this change of heart so quickly. Death had a funny way of showing people their true colors, but even this was unexpected. What was he playing at?
Ancano spat out a wad of bloody phlegm. "Look … at … me," he choked out, so softly that Grimnir had to bend over at what he was saying.
The Altmer inclined his head only slightly, positioning his mouth to where it was level with Grimnir's ear, and spoke three words.
"Beware … the … grub … "
Then the Altmer fell back with a final sigh, and lay still.
Grimnir sat there for a long time, puzzling over the last words of the traitorous elf … and wondering more and more if the Thalmor had actually been a traitor.
What had been Ancano's purpose here? When Grimnir had first met him, he'd had enough experience with the Thalmor that he believed the elf had been a plant, someone to reveal the secrets of a place like the College of Winterhold. When Ancano had revealed his true colors, Grimnir had then believed he'd known about the Eye of Magnus from the beginning, and had been ordered to secure its power by any means necessary.
And yet … had Ancano simply wanted this power for himself? Or had something gone horribly wrong? And then there had been his strange choice of last words ... beware the grub.
Grimnir started—he'd suddenly heard footsteps. Ancano's paralysis spell must have worn off, because everyone was now rushing to his side, Tolfdir in the lead.
"It's done," Grimnir told them. "The College is safe."
Tolfdir beamed at him. "Well done, my lad—I knew you could do it!" he sighed in relief—but this was short lived. The old wizard was staring at the Eye with an increasing sense of worry, and with good reason, Grimnir thought: whatever Ancano had done to the Eye to get its power wasn't showing any signs of stopping—in fact, it almost seemed to be spinning even faster.
"What do we do now?" Grimnir asked.
Tolfdir was lost for words, clearly unsure where to go from here. Grimnir looked at the Staff of Magnus again, and knew what he had to do.
"Clear the Hall, Tolfdir—get everyone out of here," Grimnir said, feeling the fires of determination blaze in his eyes again. "Maybe I can use the Staff on this. I can try to stabilize it—maybe even slow the damage a little."
Tolfdir gaped at him. "The backlash from an energy source of this size could destroy you and the Staff!" he cried. "I'm all for heroics, my boy, but you'd be throwing you're life away for nothing!"
"He's right," said a new voice—one that Grimnir had only heard once before, and a feeling of uneasiness crept into his spine as he turned around to find the source.
Quaranir—the Psijic monk who had spoken to him once before, told him of the Augur and the knowledge he possessed, had appeared seemingly out of thin air, and without any noise at all. And he was not alone—three others had appeared with him, all of them Psijics—including one who Grimnir faintly recognized; this one had first spoken to him in Saarthal, and again in Mzulft.
"Now what's going on?!" Tolfdir was open-mouthed in shock. "Psijics? Here?! What in Talos' name—?"
He quailed beneath the magisterial look that one of the monks gave him—even though there was no malice in it.
"The Eye has grown too unstable for your efforts to contain," Quaranir continued. "It cannot remain here, else it may destroy your College, and this world with it. But rest assured, we will make sure that does not come to pass."
"We knew you would succeed," said the monk Grimnir had seen at Saarthal. "Make of it what you will, but your victory here justifies our belief in you. You have proven yourself more than worthy to guide this College."
Grimnir stopped. What had he just said? Guide the College of Winterhold? He couldn't mean—!
"You may now carry on with your lives," Quaranir was now addressing the others. "We will safeguard the Eye of Magnus, until such a time that the world is ready for its power. Ancano's actions have proven that that time has not yet come."
He turned to Grimnir, and all of a sudden Grimnir could feel the eyes of close on to a dozen people trained on him. "You have our gratitude … Arch-Mage," Quaranir said, with a little smile.
Arch-Mage … Me? Grimnir's head was spinning.
"It is only fitting," the Saarthal Psijic said, wearing the same gentle smile as Quaranir, "that the Dragonborn should be the one to lead this College. Whether you know it or not, your actions as Dragonborn have already inspired many people across Tamriel—and by taking the mantle of Archmagus, you stand ready to make a more profound change on not only Skyrim, but the rest of the world."
That interrupted the storm in Grimnir's head. Of course the Psijics would know of him—the rest of Skyrim certainly knew, after all, so why not an ancient order of the Summerset Isle?
The Psijics, meanwhile, had turned their attention to the Eye of Magnus. Their hands were brimming with light, and spellwork that Grimnir could not recognize. They were about to leave, he knew—and they would take the Eye with them.
Beware the grub.
Something stirred in his chest then, a sense of curiosity, as if he'd found one of those tombstones the Nords of old had raised to honor the dead, scored with the words of dragons, and the magic behind them—his source for power.
The Psijics raised their glowing hands—the opportunity might never come again—
The word had come unbidden, almost against his will. But the Psijics heard, and Quaranir turned in his direction, though he still kept his hands concentrated on whatever he was doing.
"The Thalmor, Ancano—before he died, he said something to me," he said. "All he said was 'Beware the grub,'—and that he could have stopped it. Do you have any idea what he might have been talking about?"
Tolfdir looked even more confused than ever at this turn of events. Quaranir, however, was silent for much longer than Grimnir expected a Psijic monk to be. "We are … unsure," he said eventually. "Perhaps you could search his quarters for any useful information? You do have that authority now, after all."
"But do not delay in your search," cautioned another Psijic, nodding towards the Eye. "We cannot remain here for very long."
Grimnir frowned. He wasn't ready to call himself the Arch-Mage just yet. Something else was at work here—something that Ancano had deemed necessary to warn him about himself. And if even the Psijic Order didn't know about it, that was immediate cause for concern.
Something was wrong here.
"All right," Grimnir said, brushing off his tan novice's robes. "I'll search his quarters—I'll report back if I find anything. Tolfdir, Faralda, can you come with me?"
"Certainly, Arch-Mage," Tolfdir responded, chuckling a little.
"Don't call me that just yet, sir," Grimnir told him, briefly smiling back as he emphasized the word. "Something's bothering me about this—not least of it is that Ancano might have something waiting for me when I get there."
Tolfdir looked thoughtful at this, but eventually nodded when he understood Grimnir's point.
"What about us?" J'zargo had stepped forward, looking hopeful. Brelyna and Onmund had remained some distance behind him, but the same expression could not have been more evident if it had been plastered on their faces.
And considering all they'd been through, Grimnir couldn't say no—not completely. "This is something I have to do alone … for now," he added, raising his hands to stave off any dissent. "You three have been a big help for me in all this, so I promise you that if I find anything, you'll be the first to know."
The three mages beamed back at this, and with a jaunty, two-fingered salute, Grimnir strode out of the Hall of Elements, with Tolfdir and Faralda in his wake.
Deep inside a cave, on the other side of the world, something formless and primal moved in the shadows. Its hideous mouth spoke arcane words of a language known only to itself, inaudible amongst the din of the waves breaking upon the rough rocks of the shoreline outside, as its repulsive hands began to gather blasphemous magic …