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When a soul is trapped in a soul gem and the energy used to power an enchantment, the remnants are sent to the Soul Cairn. The only things that are said to survive are the undead, the souls and the rulers of the realm, the Ideal Masters.
The Ideal Masters are mystic entities that lord over the Soul Cairn, controlling every aspect from its fabric to its appearance. It's believed the only reason the Soul Cairn exists is for the Ideal Masters to collect souls and feed on them. Some theories even suggest they use the souls as a form of currency to an even higher power.
Souls are sent to the Soul Cairn by necromancers who wish to gain access to the powerful undead that exist in the realm. To do so they must strike a deal with the Ideal Masters and travel to the realm to finalize the deal, however they are often tricked and many become trapped as harvested souls.
GeographyThe staircase that the player descends to enter the Soul Cairn is located in the southwestern end of the map. The prison holding Valerica is directly northeast of that staircase (with the path connecting the two obviously running SW to NE), and roughly halfway between them is a large, fortified wall cutting across that path perpendicularly: NW to SE. The point where the two intersect can be useful as a tool to self-orientate around the map, especially in mini-quests such as Impatience of a Saint (see below).
Scattered across the Cairn are a number of floating purple crystals that resemble giant soul gems. Be careful when approaching these, as they will drain your health if you get too close. Eating a soul husk, however, will counter the drain for a short time.
It is located in the northern south-east edge of the Soul Cairn, past the stone wall. Inside lies the Reaper Shard Receptacle, which is activating by placing 3 reaper gem fragments in the receptacle. These fragments are located in chests beneath 3 giant floating soul gems which will sap your health when you get close. Lightning frequently strikes the center of the room. Putting enough shards on the receptacle summons The Reaper.
There are three Lightning Attractor locations in the Soul Cairn. One is located by one of the Keepers, to the left of where the Portal is. Another is located near Arvak's Skull by the glowing castle. Activate these by using Grand Soul Gems or Greater Soul Gems. Lightning will strike the Rod, and various enemies (Mistmen, Bonemen, and Wrathmen) will appear and the soul gem will be replaced by a Black Soul Gem. After being struck, the rod will slide into the orifice and the Lightning Attractor cannot be activated a second time.
Serana's mother Valerica is found here. She offers an Elder Scroll to the Dragonborn if the Boneyard Keepers located at the tallest spires in the Soul Cairn are defeated. She warns that a fearsome Dragon named Durnehviir may take notice of the Boneyard Keepers' demise. Once you defeated all of the Boneyard Keepers the wall that blocks you off from the castle disappears. Once you enter Durnehviir will appear and attempt to kill the Dragonborn. Once you defeated Durnehviir, you will speak with Valerica and then will lead you to the Elder Scroll. As soon as you exit you will see Durnehviir outside; after conversing with him, he will teach you a shout to call him from the Soul Cairn.
The Dragonborn can interact with the spiritual essence of Jiub and accept a quest to find the second volume of his autobiography. There are ten pages in total, and they are scattered across the barren landscape of Soul Cairn.
Find Arvak's skull
In addition, the Dragonborn can complete a side quest to free an undead skeletal horse named Arvak. This mount can then be summoned at will in either Nirn or the Soul Cairn. Arvak's Skull can be found under a pavilion that is glowing on the ground near the big castle. Returning the Skull to the owner will reward the Dragonborn with the Summon Arvak spell.
Soul Husk hunt
There is a soul, named Morven Stroud, directly east when you pass the wall. Speak to him and he will ask you to bring him 25 soul husks. If you bring him these items he will give you the choice between a few items to trade for the 25 husks. This quest is repeatable and the weapons come with enchantments. Be sure to look in the area around him for the obelisks with glowing orbs, hit them directly with a spell or arrow and the bars of the doorway to the building will open.
A glowing pit portal to the right of Morven Stroud will teleport you to on top of a building. If you look to the building with the obelisks with glowing orbs, there is a spot you can jump down and there will be a hidden chest to be found.
- While in Soul Cairn, a soul might say, "Death is but a door and time is but a window; I'll be back", which is a reference to Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II.
- You cannot enter the Soul Cairn without the Vampire Lord affliction or by being partially soul trapped.