A/N: Well. *blinks* This was intended to be rather short…instead it mutated into a fifteen page monster. :/ I liked the idea but I'm not sure how well I pulled it off.
I also wasn't sure whether to split it into two chapters but I think it flows better like this. Hmm. Anyway, enjoy – hopefully – and if you make it to the bottom, please leave a review. Constructive criticism is welcomed; flames are not.
Disclaimer: Oblivion isn't mine. I own nothing. *cries*
She was beautiful, once.
She stares down at her reflection in the rain barrel. Her face is framed by the moonlit sky, dark against the starlight.
High Elf. Golden skin, golden hair, golden eyes. People used to say that she was like the sun made flesh, radiating light and life.
Her mouth twists into a contemptuous snarl. How different she looks now. Silken blonde hair darkened to dank brown by lack of exposure to sunlight. Skin bleached and drained of its beautiful gold hue, washed out to a dead white and lined with wrinkles. And worse of all; her eyes. Once the colour of clear, rich honey, the irises now blaze scarlet. A vicious, ugly red.
She slaps her hand down on the surface of the water and her reflection shatters into a thousand pieces. Turning, she whirls and leaps up, out of the narrow alley. Her fingers catch the edge of the roof and with an easy, fluid grace, the vampire launches herself onto the rooftop.
She straightens up and stands with her legs planted firmly apart on the wooden ridge. Such an unfeminine stance; but she no longer cares for such things. There is no one to affect them for anymore.
The vampire surveys the city spread out before her and she is content to simply stare for a while. She values beauty above all else and Chorrol is very pretty at night, bathed in silvery moonlight.
She lived in a pretty town once. High in the mountains, she had grown up knowing that she was beautiful. She had not had to try at anything. The world was at her feet. She had wanted for nothing. Beauty had opened many doors. Everyone had wanted to be her friend; every boy had wanted to dance with her, had vied for her attention; just a smile, a dazzlingly beautiful smile, and she was forgiven any mistake, any wrong undone, any apology accepted. And she had taken it all for granted; as her due, her right.
Her days had been long and happy; endless hazy summers, sunlit hours, never appreciated until it was too late.
The day the wind changed, when clouds rolled in to blot out the sun and cast her world forever into darkness, had come on the eve of her eighteenth birthday.
The memories are seared forever into her mind; the fire, the smoke, the screaming, the smell of charred flesh and fear. The sight of her town engulfed in billowing curtains of flame. The fire licking at the walls of her beautiful house; the floorboards growing hot under her bare feet; standing on the window ledge; desperate fear, keen-edged, the first time she'd ever truly been afraid.
Then the jump. The sickening crack as she had landed. The pain had taken a few seconds to register; then she was screaming, high-pitched, a long, ringing wail that went on and on and on. It was white-hot, lashing across her senses like nothing she had ever experienced. She had never so much as sprained her wrist before; the sheer intensity of the pain of a broken arm was inconceivable for her.
She had staggered to her feet, somehow, when something had crashed into her with the force of a galloping horse. Strong, thin, white hands had forced her head back and suddenly the pain in her arm seemed utterly negligible in comparison to this new agony.
It was beyond even screaming; her breath seemed to have utterly deserted her. The creature was thin but unbelievably strong; its bony limbs had pinned her to the ground more securely than chains and its eager breath fluttered rapidly against her skin. Two points of agony burned in her neck and there had been a hideous, wet, gulping noise directly in her ear. Warm liquid trickled down her neck and an unfamiliar salty, metallic smell floated on the air.
Then, suddenly, a shining swathe of silver metal had filled her vision. There had been a horrible crunching sound and the creature had screamed; a harsh, feral shriek. The pressure on her neck had been abruptly ripped away and the weight trapping her against the ground was lifted.
She fingers her neck, the raised ridges of scar tissue – long healed – and gazes contemplatively across the moonlight-drenched rooftops of Chorrol.
The burly town blacksmith – a Nord, she remembers, but she cannot recall his name – had saved her life, albeit temporarily. He and his brother had led a small band of survivors from the wreckage of the town, forging the way through the remaining vampires.
She never had worked out where they had come from or why they had attacked the town, though she did know why the town had burned. The blacksmith had told her that some villagers had attempted to kill the vampires with Destruction magicka; the resulting fireballs had accidently set fire to the thatched roofs of the houses and it had spread too fast to be contained. That, and the people were too busy fighting for their lives to pay attention to their dwellings.
The group of surviving townspeople had moved into a sizable hunting lodge higher up mountainside. She remembered sitting in a corner while the others had argued over what to do next, the conversation raging over her head. She had been the youngest there and only later did she realize that they had considered her a pretty, but essentially useless, member of the group. She was still alive by sheer luck. Everyone else who had survived had some modicum of fighting skill, be it physically or magically.
Not that it had helped them, in the end. For three days, while the townspeople had discussed what was to be become of them, she had lain curled up in a bed, shivering and staring blankly at a wall. She hadn't known enough then, to know that something was wrong; that the ice creeping through her veins wasn't merely cold, or even grief. That the reason she felt numb wasn't merely the shock at the utter destruction of life as she knew it. Wallowing in self-pity, she had believed that things could not get much worse.
When the moon had risen on the fourth night, she discovered that things could indeed get worse. She had come to her senses crouched in the blackened, twisted ruin of what had once been her house; kneeling in a thick blanket of grey ash, moonlight illuminating the fire-scorched skeletons of the houses all around her. She had raised her shaking hands in front of her face; her hands, slick with liquid that looked black but she knew, under the uncompromising gaze of the sun, they would be stained brightest red. And she had thrown back her head and screamed.
The clanking of a city guard in the street below shakes her from her reverie. The vampire drops and flattens herself against the roof, so that she is not outlined against the night sky. The guard passes below her; she watches him go by, curbs an instinctive flinch at the bright beacon of flame that he carries in one hand.
She reminds herself that she is in Chorrol for a reason and sets off across the rooftops. The night breeze carries many scents to her sensitive nose. The food of mortals is most prevalent; the warm fragrance of baking bread, the sweetness of cakes saturated in moist honey and the spiciness of hot, mulled wine floating across from a nearby tavern. Underneath are the fainter scents; the earth warming as winter's frozen grip slowly recedes, the clean freshness of the rain and the stirring of life, plants breaking dormancy and unfurling from the earth.
However, most abundant are the scents of the mortals themselves. Her nose tips to the wind and she inhales deeply. Life. And – more importantly – blood. The smell of it curls around her tantalisingly and her mouth waters. She swallows the venom back with extreme difficulty. Her restraint is tenuous at best, and her wilder side shrieks internally, fire and bloodlust clawing up and down her throat.
She concentrates with difficulty, wrenches her mind back onto the task at hand. She focuses on picking out an individual scent, the one she had marked out earlier as belonging to her target. As she concentrates, the bloodlust fades, becomes slightly more manageable. It is still there, simmering just under the surface, but controllable. Just.
She grins widely, displaying an alarming amount of fang. She has come a long way. Vicente would be proud.
She races across the roofs, following the scent trail of her mark, her predator's mind focusing entirely on the hunt. She remembers when the Dark Brotherhood had turned up to recruit her.
She had been on her own for two months. The brief moment of clarity – after she had butchered the surviving townspeople on the night she had awoken as a vampire – when she realised what she had become, had been just that; brief. The first two weeks were mostly a blur in her memory. The only thing she could remember was the all-consuming thirst, demanding to be quenched.
When she had been so bloated on blood that the thirst had died down enough for her to think, to regain some mental ability, there had been nothing left alive on the mountain. Walking the forested slopes, she found in her blood-crazed madness that what she had not drained, she had slaughtered brutally. Everything from wolves to bears. With nothing more than her bare hands, and her teeth. Her fangs.
For an elf girl who had not so much as lifted a weapon before in her life, it was staggering. She had wandered in a sort of daze, up and down the mountainside. She had lost her family, her home, her town, her life and her humanity all in the space of a few days. The ocean of pain surrounding these thoughts was so great that she had simply walled them off in her mind, refusing to think about them at all or feel the emotions that accompanied them.
But the worst – in her eyes – was yet to come. When she had happened upon a lake and looked down at her reflection, she had screamed. A raw-throated wail of disbelief and denial. To see the ruin of her beauty – the thing she valued most in the world – on top of the other tragedies that had befallen her, was too much for her to take and she had sought out something to take out her fury on.
When she had found a mine inhabited by goblins, she had entered and killed them all; fuelled by her newfound savagery and strength. She had taken a gleeful delight in ending their lives – her rage was so great that it completely obliterated any thoughts, other than making others suffer as much as she was suffering.
She had emerged into the sunlight out of the empty, blood-soaked mine, still shaking with anger. Everything else she could have handled eventually – but not the loss of her beauty.
Over the next two months, her sanity had waxed and waned, according to how thirsty she was. In her clearer days, she had taken up residence in a cave – oh, the irony – furnished with items stolen from towns in neighbouring mountain valleys.
Once she had realised that she would never regain her own beauty – that no matter how much blood she drank, her features never quite smoothed out into their former pretty youthfulness and nothing would persuade her eyes to return to their gorgeous honey colour – she became obsessed with collecting beautiful things instead, as if that could somehow compensate.
When a Speaker of the Brotherhood finally located her high in the mountains, her cave had resembled a treasure trove. Everything from stunning masterpieces in art to fabulous jewellery and rich fabrics had festooned the rocky walls.
She had risen from her nest in a pile of red and green silks, lips peeled back in a fearsome snarl, to confront the intruder. The Speaker, a male Redguard, had stepped back; then he had spoken to her, offered her a place amongst assassins.
A hysterical giggle had burst from her throat. Her bloodlust had burned, demanding the life of the mortal scant paces from her. Only the instinct of the predator, the predator that she had become, held her back; it whispered that this mortal was dangerous, even to a vampire.
"What can you give me?" she had hissed, shifting forward into a hunting crouch. "What can your 'Brotherhood' possibly offer that I need? The mountains brim with prey."
The Speaker's sharp eyes had flitted over her hoarded treasures. "We can offer safe storage places for your…items. And training."
"I need no training. I can hunt by myself." But his first comment had piqued her interest. In the moments when she was sane, she had grown concerned about the paintings; the dampness of the cave was making the paper and canvas begin to warp.
"I know that. Vampires like yourself are built for killing." His tone held a touch of admiration. "But you are drawing attention to yourself. The nearby towns are restless; they mutter about a fearsome creature killing everything in the surrounding mountains. They will eventually be driven to hire vampire hunters."
She had bared her fangs at him. "Let them come! All the more blood for me."
"You should not underestimate them. They are specially trained to hunt your kind; and you are, but a young vampire. A strong and savage killer, yes, but your fighting lacks intelligence. What if we could teach you how to control the bloodlust, to think and reason past it?"
She had been interested, despite herself. She hated the loss of control, the fact that she could not remember everything that happened when the killing haze descended upon her, and that she was completely subject to the whims of her thirst. But she had been suspicious. "How could you possibly teach me this?"
He had laughed, blue eyes gleaming with amusement. She envied him the beauty of his eyes; they were not honey like hers once had been, but crystalline-blue was still infinitely more beautiful than crimson. "We are assassins; bloodshed is our profession. Intelligent bloodshed. Deathcraft. Every murder is a work of art. At the moment your kills are very…messy. We can teach you control. There is also a vampire already among us. He is very old and knows first-hand of the struggles you experience; if you join the Brotherhood, he can help you control your bloodlust, instead of letting the bloodlust control you."
She was sold. Within a week she had moved everything down from her cave to a city called Cheydinhal, at the foot of the mountains. Over the next few years, she had gained control over her thirst, inch by painstaking inch. Her instructor, the other vampire, had turned out to be a Breton male by the name of Vicente Valtieri. He was extremely patient with her, even when she flew into wild rages and destroyed his furniture.
All the other inhabitants of the Sanctuary that they lived in gave her a wide berth. Even assassins were wary of a barely controlled vampire. She didn't care. She held herself aloof, cold and haughty, ignoring the mortals that she and Vicente shared the building with. She no longer cared for them; they were unwelcome reminders of everything that she had lost. It was the reason she had fiercely embraced the savagery of her new nature in the beginning. She had wanted to inflict pain on those who had what she did not; life. She would steal it from them, as it had been stolen from her.
She stops. The scent trail ends at a pretty two-storey house; the subject of her contract lives here.
And here I am, she muses, Almost ten years since the day I woke up to find my town burning around me. She wonders what has prompted her reflective mood tonight; then banishes it as unimportant. Tonight is for hunting.
Anticipation rises in her. She can almost taste the sweet, fire-quenching liquid flowing over her tongue. Suddenly impatient, she drops from the roof and lands in the narrow alley alongside the house, absorbing the impact on the balls of her feet. The jump would have shattered the legs of most mortals; she revels in the strength of her body.
Sometimes, the abilities she has gained through vampirism almost make it worthwhile. Almost.
She flows around to the back door of the house, silent as a shadow. Calling up her Hunter's Sight, she scans the building for life. A single shimmering purple shape is visible on the upper floor. Dropping the detect life spell, she sighs in satisfaction. Her mark, an Imperial if she recalls correctly, is alone. And asleep, judging by his stillness and horizontal position.
She crouches to examine the lock. It is one of those ones that are extremely difficult to pick. Luckily, this does not present much problem for a vampire.
She removes an ebony dagger from her pocket. It is prettily carved, and a present from Vicente; but it has never been used for its intended purpose. She much prefers to drain her victims.
Flipping it over, the vampire pushes the dagger hilt-first through the wood with sheer brute strength. The splintering noise is muffled by the small-range Silence spell she casts over the area.
While she has never learnt to use a physical weapon of any sort since joining the Dark Brotherhood – she sees no need, as her body is weapon enough – she has learned many spells. Being a High Elf, she had discovered, meant she had something of an aptitude for the magical arts and she had been fascinated to uncover the world of spellcraft.
She withdraws the dagger and observes her handiwork with satisfaction. A neat circle is carved in the wood around the lock and the door swings open freely. She creeps inside. She is in a kitchen; surrounded by barrels of vegetables and racks of gleaming pots and pans.
She goes up a set of stairs into a wide hallway. Everything is shadowy but she navigates with surety, utterly at home in the dark. She comes to a bigger staircase, clearly the main one, to the second floor. She walks silently up the steps and emerges on a landing; several doors branch off and quickly she casts the detect life spell again to determine which one hides the mortal.
The Imperial is behind the last door on the left. She pads forward and tries the handle. Unlocked. She is momentarily surprised, then suspicious.
She opens the door a crack and then slides sideways into the bedroom. It is tastefully decorated in blue and white; bookshelves line one wall and the teetering piles of books have spilled out haphazardly across the floor. The window is open a crack and the heavy curtains stir slightly in the night breeze.
She extends her senses but cannot detect any magical traps. She steps lightly across the room, illuminated by the silvery beams of moonlight streaming in through the window.
She is intent on the large double bed against the far wall, made from the same dark mahogany wood as the rest of the furniture in the room. The person occupying the bed is visible as a long shape under the covers, which rises and falls gently as he breathes.
But not for much longer, she thinks. Anticipation makes the venom well up in her mouth.
While she prefers to drink the blood while they are still alive – hot blood, pulsing frantically through veins, is far more satisfying than when it is stilled in death, or worse, cooled – but at the same time, she isn't stupid.
For past contracts that required her to murder a strong physical fighter, she had the sense to sneak up on them and snap their necks before draining them. From her observations, this will not be an issue for this particular mark; however, she suspects that the Imperial is a mage of considerable skill.
She halts beside the bed, the words of a Silence spell rising to her lips. Extending a hand, she places it on the arm of the sleeping man and the Illusion magicka pulses from her palm.
The Imperial jerks abruptly as the green light washes over him and he begins to sit up; she pounces on him, her superior strength forcing him back onto the bed.
She holds him, trapped; listening, entranced, to the rapid flutter of his heartbeat, to the frantic rush of blood speeding through his veins. He struggles futilely against her unyielding grip, her thin, bony fingers digging through the cloth of his shirt into his soft skin.
She relishes the moment; there is something positively delicious about trapped, panicking prey. She enjoys the fear in the mortals' eyes.
The vampire reaches up with one hand and yanks back the curtain behind the bed, wanting to savor the terror sure to be stamped on the Imperial's face.
Then I can drink...
The thought dies. Her eyes widen as the moonlight strikes the man's face, as she sees him properly.
Beautiful. The closest thing to physical perfection she has ever seen. A strong, angular face. Lean, square jaw, dusted with golden stubble. Perfect nose; full, soft, almost feminine lips. Velvety blue eyes framed by eyelashes so long that they cast shadows on his cheeks. His hair is a silken blonde – that gorgeous hue only available to those who spent most of their life in the sun.
She sits back slowly on her haunches, simply staring at him in awe.
He stares back, blue eyes full of tension and fearful confusion as her painful, restraining grip slackens. She is mildly surprised that he does not immediately try to run for the door. But she is still sitting on top of him.
"Do you know what I am?" she asks, her head to one side, still studying him intently with all the fevered rapture of an artist gazing upon a masterpiece.
"I…" His voice sticks. The Imperial clears his throat. "You're a vampire."
"Yes," she says thoughtfully, reaching out to run a finger from his temple to his jaw. His skin, sun-bronzed, is very soft. He flinches from her touch. "But I am also a member of the Dark Brotherhood."
"Ah." The man's shoulders slump as the tension leaves him. He seems almost relieved. "I was wondering…how long it would be before they – you – found me." He no longer looks afraid, merely resigned.
She is startled. "You knew that the Brotherhood was hired to kill you?"
The Imperial nods. "Yes."
The assassin stares at him. "Are you not afraid?"
He meets her gaze, blue eyes level. "I am afraid of dying; it is true. There are not many who can truly claim they are not. But I have made my peace with it. I know that there is no escape once the Dark Brotherhood sets their sights on you."
The vampire simply stares at him. She can see the fear in his eyes, smell it curling around him like the scent of a poisonous bloom; but she can also see his courage, the iron grip he has on his fear that allows him to look her in the eyes calmly. Brave, beautiful mortal.
I cannot kill this man. The thought rises in her suddenly, startling her, despite the fact she had known – subconsciously – that she would not be able kill him the moment she had lain eyes on his face.
How could anyone? Anger is building in her chest, constricting around her lungs like a band of red-hot iron. Who could have commissioned the Brotherhood to commit such an atrocity? Her anger climbs another notch. Who could destroy a creature of such beauty? Beautiful things, above all else, should be preserved and protected.
The man shifts away from her slightly, looking wary. She wonders absently what her expression must look like to provoke such a reaction from a man who has confessed he is ready to die.
"No. I will not kill you." The decision is made and the words are out. He stares at her; incredulous, uncomprehending.
"You heard me correctly." The assassin is already in motion, already planning as she leaps fluidly off the bed. She knows she cannot return to the Brotherhood, probably for the rest of her potentially limitless existence. The thought causes a mild pang of regret in her chest, but the loss is nothing compared to the loss that the death of this beautiful mortal would be. The Dark Brotherhood itself meant little to her; she is grateful for the training she received in controlling her thirst, but her gratitude is directed more towards Vicente than to the guild itself. Indeed Vicente is the only one she will truly miss – she never cared to get to know any of the mortals that came and went so frequently during her ten-year stay in the Cheydinhal Sanctuary.
The vampire drums her fingers on the wall, lost in thought, as the man slides out of bed and stands up. She blinks in surprise as he straightens up and faces her. High Elves are generally taller than Imperials but, extraordinarily, she is a few inches shorter than him.
"I don't understand," he says, as he brushes a few strands of blonde hair from his eyes. "Why won't you kill me?"
"Would you destroy a priceless work of art? A unique and irreplaceable masterpiece?" she replies. With a flick of her hand, she casts a strong Drain Fatigue spell. The Destruction magicka hits him, and he collapses, folding up as if he is suddenly boneless.
She catches him effortlessly and hoists him onto one shoulder. Carefully carrying her precious cargo, the vampire vanishes out of the window and into the night.
They spend a week in a remote cave somewhere in the Colovian Highlands, near the border with Hammerfell.
She plans and broods. She doesn't want to leave without saying goodbye to Vicente. For leave, she knows they must.
It is not uncommon for the Dark Brotherhood to have runaways; would-be assassins who realise that they are not cut out for the work after all. But this is not what concerns her – she doubts the Brotherhood will bother to track down an escapee. What they will do is send another assassin after her Imperial – she is not entirely sure when she started thinking of him as 'hers' – once they realise she has defaulted on the contract.
They will have to flee. When the vampire voices this thought aloud, the man quietly suggests that they cross the border and go deep into Hammerfell. He has been quiet and well-behaved. She knows he is grateful to her for sparing his life; even if it only because she admires his beauty. She has learned his name is Darius Suintilius; she remembers it as soon as he tells her and curses herself for forgetting.
When he asks her name, the vampire cannot tell him. She cannot remember. She has buried all memories of her mortal life deep within her and all the hurt associated with them. Even her name is lost to her. For ten years, her only name has been 'Sister'.
She does appreciate his suggestion though. It is a good one; but she is decided now. She will return to the Sanctuary; briefly, quietly, in secret, when she is sure that no one but Vicente is around. The assassin cannot abandon her mentor without saying goodbye and she wants to collect a few of her more portable treasures to take with her. The paintings, regretfully, will have to remain behind.
She tells her plans to Darius and he looks worried. She reassures him but she is, in truth, a little uneasy. Staying for so long in one place makes her feel skittish, and they have been in the cave for a week now. She worries that a Dark Brother or Sister will find their hiding-place in her absence and that she will return to find Darius dead.
"We will go to Anvil for now," she tells him. "Once I return from Cheydinhal, we can travel up the coastline and swim across the border to Hammerfell. That, hopefully, will confuse any pursuit."
They travel to Anvil; setting off at dusk and arriving at the coastal city just as the glow of dawn is lightening the horizon. Darius endures the journey without complaint; even though the vampire runs swiftly all night, the man slung over her shoulder, jolted roughly by her movement over uneven terrain.
She is wary; mindful of his safety. She does not want to risk staying in a hotel. Instead she buys a house on offer at a surprisingly low price – "Money is no object," she tells Darius firmly, when he tries to protest, aghast, at the extravagance of buying a house that will only be lived in for a few days at most. Gold, she had aplenty; more than she knew what to do with, from ten years worth of successfully completed contracts.
Soon, however, she finds out exactly why the price of the house is so low. The ghosts haunting the building find them themselves suddenly confronted with an extremely irritated vampire. She dispatches the spirits with relative ease and then the dishonest salesman for good measure.
"Stay safe while I'm gone," she commands. Darius nods unhappily, still worried. She is unwillingly touched by his concern, though she reasons that he is only anxious that if she dies, he will lose her protection.
It takes her three days, running all day and night – stopping only to feed – to reach Cheydinhal. When she arrives at the city, with its striking purple-and-white Dark Elf architecture, she knows instantly something is wrong. There is an underlying scent to the usual smells of the city; something foreign and out of place. She traces the scent to where it seems the strongest. With a sinking heart, the vampire arrives at the well entrance to the sanctuary. It smells of blood and death. Normally so heady, today it turns her stomach.
Descending the ladder, the vampire finds a horror that her mind rebels against. A thin, eerie wail claws its way from her throat; equal parts disbelief, rage and grief. The Sanctuary, her home for the past ten years, is drenched in the blood of her Brothers and Sisters. When she finds Vicente's body, she sinks to the floor, paralysed with grief.
She is not sure how long she remains curled on the floor but when she climbs to her feet again, she is simply numb. Hidden by the night's shadows, she carries the bodies out of Cheydinhal, up and over the walls. She gently lays them to rest on the hillside above the city, with views out across Niben Bay. Though she did not care much for the mortal assassins, she at least respected their skill, and this latest group had admittedly been more tolerable company than their predecessors. Vicente, her much-loved father-figure and mentor, is reverently placed above the others.
She sits beside the freshly-turned graves, the wind blowing her lank, brown hair across her face, watching the dawn arrive as the sky begins to lighten in the east. Gradually, the numbness fades. A burning rage is left in its place. Who had dared to slaughter the entire Sanctuary?
With a hiss of anger, the vampire rises and stalks down the hill. She soon picks up the scent trail of the only creature to leave the Sanctuary alive, their smell tainted with blood of her Brothers and Sisters. She traces it up the hill to an old, ruined fort. The scent trail winds around the ruin, then angles off to the north-east through the mountains. The assassin – consumed by the need for vengeance – speeds off in pursuit, her face set and grim. No mortal can hope to outrun her.
It takes her a week, following lengthy detours up and down the province, to finally track down the assassin of assassins in Bruma. To her fury, she recognises him; this Redguard is a Dark Brother! A member of the Cheydinhal Sanctuary himself!
He tries to plead with her when she confronts him, shouting angrily – "You idiot! It was a contract, the Speaker gave me a contract to kill them –"
But she ignores his ridiculous lies. How dare he invent such absurd falsehoods; as if the Brotherhood would murder their own.
So she kills him.
This mortal does not deserve the mercy of a quick death.
The vampire stands on the slopes of the mountainside above Bruma, facing into the bitingly cold wind. She ignores the mutilated corpse of the former Dark Brother at her feet, the Redguard's blood staining the snow, the rock, the earth, her armour, her skin.
It's gotten everywhere, she thinks absently, brushing away the tears streaming down her white cheeks with scarlet-stained gloves. Now that the anger has faded and the need for revenge is satiated by the Redguard's death, all that's left is the grief.
It takes her three days to return to Anvil, weighed down by her sadness. Darius is visibly relieved that she has returned safely; clearly he was worried by her unexpectedly long absence. However, he sensibly leaves her alone to mope and patiently waits for her tell him what happened in Cheydinhal in her own time. When she does, her words are halting and to her intense horror, she begins crying again.
Darius hesitates and then tentatively puts an arm around her. The vampire stiffens in surprise, pride warring with the need for comfort. She has forgotten what it feels like to be hugged; the last one to do so was her mother and the memories of her mortal life are hazy. This nostalgia, coupled with her emotional hurt, win the battle and she leans into the Imperial, accepting the comfort.
It is a long time before either of them move. She has cried herself out and is simply glad of his company. This is the closest she has felt to being mortal in so long; as a vampire, she eschews all physical contact and she is enjoying the long-forgotten simplicity of it. She feels a sudden intense longing that catches her off guard, a longing that she had long ago given up on; the desire to be human again. And for the first time, it is not because she wants to regain her former beauty. It is because she wants to be close to Darius.
Reluctantly, she moves out of his arms. She has been repressing her thirst for hours and the temptation is growing too strong to handle. His blue eyes flick up to meet her crimson irises, questioning.
"We'll leave for Hammerfell tomorrow." She answers his unspoken inquiry. The vampire slips out of the door.
Hours later, she is wandering the streets of Anvil, thirst slaked. She passes the open door of the lighthouse and reels back. The stench is appalling. It smells of death; an unpleasant reminder of the Sanctuary, the memory like a slap in the face. This is different, however. This scent of death is old; festering, rotting. Putrefaction.
The vampire goes inside and descends to the basement. The smell is strongest here, and death is everywhere. Grimacing in disgust, she navigates across the grisly room and her sharp ears catch a feverishly muttering voice. On silent feet, she creeps up on a man, a Breton, with his back to her. He appears to be praying at an altar with a severed, decomposing head upon it.
"They're coming for me, Mother. The Black Hand. They know! I was sure, so sure… But Lachance's Silencer was killed; killed before he could murder J'Ghasta! Now, they know...they know I'm the traitor. How are we to get our revenge now?" His voice rises to a shriek.
"I was certain that it was the beginning of the end when I engineered the Purification of the Cheydinhal Sanctuary. That was both the destruction of Lachance's powerbase and means to turn the Black Hand's suspicion upon him. But, no! The death of his Silencer made them finally realise that someone was framing him!"
The vampire's rage is rekindled with a vengeance. Her anger is so great that she is physically shaking. So I killed the wrong person. This man is the one responsible for the deaths of my Brothers and Sisters, for the death of Vicente.
She rises fluidly and hurls herself at him. The Breton is taken completely by surprise and crashes to the floor. Before he can react, she throws a pair of Silence and Paralyse spells in rapid succession, and then flips him over. Her fury redoubles when she realises she knows him.
"Mathieu Bellamont!" the vampire snarls. He had left the Cheydinhal Sanctuary about six months ago to become a Silencer for one of the other Speakers.
His dark eyes glare up at her, full of hate and fear. She bares her fangs and hisses, rage rendering her incoherent. She wants nothing more than to sink her fangs into him, her predatory instinct overriding self control.
By a huge effort of willpower, she wrenches her head up and away from the tantalising sight of the pulsing vein in his neck. Five black-garbed figures have entered the room behind her.
Her gaze flits over them. A Dunmer, a Bosmer, an Altmer, a Khajiit and an Imperial. The Black Hand.
"His life is forfeit to us, vampire. Find other prey." The Khajiit fixes her with a steady gaze.
"We will take him to the Night Mother," declares the Altmer, her tone one of religious fervour. "There have been enough mistakes and confusion! The Mother will judge him and we will know for certain whom the traitor is."
"I heard it from his own lips," rasps the vampire, her voice hoarse with thirst. "He admitted he is a traitor; that he organised the deaths of my Brothers and Sisters." By the end, her voice is husky with more than thirst.
The eyes of the Black Hand members flick to her in a disconcertingly synchronised movement. "You are one of us?" asks the Bosmer. She realises that they do not know that she is a Dark Sister; they have taken her for a marauding vampire simply scrounging around Anvil for a meal. Except for the Imperial – Lucien Lachance. The Cheydinhal Speaker. She sees recognition flicker briefly across his coldly impassive face, as he identifies her as a member of his Sanctuary; the only one to escape the bloodbath. She wonders if he knows that she left the Brotherhood a week before the slaughter. Abruptly, she is anxious; is she in danger from the Black Hand?
The vampire realises they are waiting for her reply to the Bosmer's question; she nods.
"Then you should come with us to see the Night Mother, dear Sister," says the Altmer generously, crossing the room to throw an affectionate arm around the other High Elf's shoulders. The vampire barely restrains the urge to sink her fangs into the warm-blooded mer standing so foolishly close. "A reward for your dedication in tracking the traitor down."
The vampire holds back a snort of disbelief. Finding him was an accident. And I have no love left for any living member of the Brotherhood.
Still, she allows herself to be swept up by the other Altmer, out of the lighthouse and down the hill to the stables just outside of Anvil. She wants see Bellamont die, even if she is not allowed to kill him herself. She joins the group as they travel to Bravil, Bellamont strapped to the back of her saddle. The vampire takes great pleasure in breaking his legs, on the pretext of preventing any escape attempts.
They arrive at the worn, dilapidated city and she watches as the Black Hand open the crypt of the Night Mother. They descend into the depths of the tomb. She follows, carrying a bound and gagged Bellamont easily over one shoulder.
When the Night Mother materialises before them, a shimmering, ethereal figure, the vampire is reluctantly awed. So is the Black Hand. She sees it in their eyes, if not their faces. Bellamont is less so. He struggles wildly against his bonds, muffled curses unintelligible through the gag. She dumps him unceremoniously on the floor.
The Night Mother speaks to the Black Hand harshly – she is short, sharp and to the point. They flinch under her withering scorn; her disappointment in their weakness and failure to apprehend the traitor sooner, in allowing him to wreak havoc in the ranks of the Dark Brotherhood for so long.
The Mother then displays her displeasure by killing the current Listener; the Bosmer drops to the floor, dead without a mark on him. The spirit turns to the remaining four. They visibly flinch under her cold gaze but she merely promotes the Khajiit to Listener.
"Leave." The Night Mother dismisses them without ceremony. "And take that worthless creature with you." Her eyes rest briefly on Bellamont who has long stopped thrashing about and is glaring at her with hate etched in every line of his face. "Dispose of him."
The spirit extends a hand; the Black Hand and their prisoner are swallowed up in a blaze of light.
The vampire shields her eyes. When the brilliance dies away, they are gone and she is left alone with the Night Mother.
The vampire meets the dead woman's eyes with a level stare. "Why have you not sent me away as well?" she asks.
The Mother looks expressionlessly at her. "I think that you know why, Carana."
The sound of her name is like a physical blow. The long-forgotten word brings a thousand associations rushing back; a thousand memories, spoken by a thousand lips.
Carana gasps, unable to help it, as the repressed memories of her former life, her mortal life, come flooding back into her mind from the hazy recess to which they had been banished for ten years. She wants to cry, be violently sick, and break something, all at once. She hid these memories from herself for a reason; they are too painful to bear, too painful to live with. They are memories of life and she is alive no longer.
The Night Mother watches her, a slight, cruel smile curling her lips. "You no longer wish to belong to our Brotherhood."
The vampire straightens up, anger in her face. "How do you know my name?"
"I am not bound by the restrictions of those on the mortal plane, foolish girl." The Night Mother is cold. "It is unimportant. I detained you to discuss your own…wavering… loyalty to the Dark Brotherhood."
Carana looks at her defiantly. "I never cared much for your Brotherhood; only for my Brothers and Sisters."
"And for yourself." The ethereal woman's smile is malicious and knowing. "You joined our Brotherhood solely to learn how to control your thirst. You have no real loyalty. You abandoned us almost a month ago, for that beautiful mortal. Oh, yes; I know all about that," she adds, seeing the vampire start in surprise.
"In reality, you cared nothing for your Brothers and Sisters. Your only love is beauty and the pursuit of it in all forms is your obsession."
Carana snarls in pure rage. She forgets who she is speaking to. "How dare you! If I had cared nothing for my Siblings, would I have been grieved by what I found in the Sanctuary? Would I have hunted down the one I thought had killed them?" She is breathing heavily by the end of it, trying to control her temper.
The Night Mother smiles; serene and vicious. "Such anger. You were a brilliant assassin. Cold and filled with hate for the living. Vampires take naturally to our way of life, I think; though few can achieve the necessary level of control."
"Were a brilliant assassin?" The Altmer vampire is suddenly wary, anger abruptly cooled.
"Yes." The spirit glides a short distance away, gazing into the distance as if she can see through the walls of the crypt. "I am releasing you from your service to the Brotherhood. I will also lift the contract on your mortal."
Carana regards her suspiciously. "Why would you do such a thing?"
The Night Mother swings around. "That is what you want, is it not? Even if I did not give my permission, you would leave us anyway. I am merely making it official."
There is something in her glittering eyes that makes Carana uneasy. "Why would you do that?"
The spirit sighs in mock sorrow. "Because, little vampire, one day you will return to us. Killing and death are what vampires are made for; your 'life' holds little else now. And –" Her lips curve in a vicious smirk. "– the beautiful mortal whose life you left us in order to preserve will not live forever. You will. His beauty will fade with age. He will wither and die. You will not."
Fury tightens into a constricting knot in Carana's chest, the anger choking her. "How – don't – you don't know anything about –"
The anger is bound up with another emotion; to her astonishment she recognizes the feeling of grief that has been all-too-familiar to her of late. The mere idea of Darius dying creates a hollow ache in her chest. Carana pictures his face, his beautiful face, but to her surprise, she finds that it is not what generates the feeling of loss. She remembers instead the warmth in his eyes, the gentleness of his manner, the astuteness of his observations, the comfort of his arms holding her when she cried. She remembers the concern when she was late and suddenly knows; knows that it was for her, not for the safety she represented.
Carana straightens up; suddenly calm, to meet the Night Mother's gaze. The ghost raises one eyebrow a fraction. "You know nothing," the vampire says serenely. "Nothing of either of us."
The Night Mother glares at her, the chill in the room intensifying. "I know that you are an arrogant child; arrogant and selfish. You care for no-one but yourself. So it was when you were mortal; so it is now that you are immortal. You are shallow and wallow in self-pity. When you were inflicted with vampirism, you made it your mission to deprive as many other creatures as possible of the life that was stolen from you. Girl; I know you."
Carana smiles carelessly, barely touched by the scathing words. She is flying from her sudden realisation. "Your words are true. That much I admit. But you do not know me. You have barely scratched the surface." She pauses. "If you have nothing more to say, may I leave now?"
The Night Mother's stare is cold enough to frost over a volcano. "You may." She spits out the words as if they had personally offended her. The spirit raises a hand and Carana braces, recognising the precursor for the same teleportation spell that had taken the Black Hand away. "But you will return. When his prettiness fades, you will tire of the mortal."
The vampire merely smiles. "His beauty will not disappear with age. His beauty – his true beauty – is not physical, or anything so easily measured. It is inside."
With a flash of light, Carana disappears. There is a brief moment of distortion; the feeling of the world warping around her. Then she rematerializes outside a familiar front door. She is standing once more on the streets of Anvil.
She blinks, unsteady for a moment, then the door flies open and she is confronted with Darius, face white with worry. Unhesitatingly, he draws her into a hug. She doesn't attempt to move away but leans in closer.
"I was worried," he says simply. "Do you regularly go out for an hour and then disappear for several days?" His tone is teasing, as he guides her inside and shuts the door. "It's happened twice since you met me."
"I'm trying to break the habit," Carana replies, a genuine smile twitching on her lips. She studies him, seeing his true beauty anew with wonder. Not the physical perfection of his eyes but the light behind them.
"What's wrong?" Darius looks a little uneasy under her intense scrutiny. He has long since lost his original fear of her but the intent stare of a vampire is enough to kindle instinctive fear in any human.
"Nothing. Nothing at all." Carana smiles, feeling absurdly happy.
Stop it, she tells herself. Just because you have realised you care about him, about more than his beauty, does not mean he feels the same about you. You are still a vampire, and a killer, remember?
The thought is sobering. She tells him all that has occurred since she left the house, including being given permission to leave the Brotherhood and the fact the Night Mother has lifted the contract on his life.
Darius drops into a chair, looking staggered. Carana watches, pain flaring in her chest. She knows that he is free to leave her now. He no longer needs her protection from the Brotherhood. She wonders if she is selfless enough to let him leave.
Darius looks up. "Do you still wish to travel to Hammerfell?"
She is caught off guard by the intense lash of emotion, the sudden surge of hope at his words. "Why – do you?" she asks.
"Yes." His voice is firm. "From what you've told me, the Night Mother seems a cruel, fickle creature. It would not surprise me if she changed her mind. I think it is best if we both disappear from Cyrodiil."
"And you want me to go with you?" She hardly dares believe that he actually wants her company for something other than protection.
Darius looks surprised, and then smiles warmly. "Of course. I owe you my life, several times over. And for a vampiric assassin, you're pretty decent company."
Carana smiles back, but her unaccustomed happiness is bittersweet. The knowledge that one day he will die, and she will live on without him, is a heavy weight upon her. The night he held her when she cried becomes back to her vividly and more than ever, she wishes she were human again.
"Though, if you don't mind, I want to make a little detour first," he grins, suddenly mischievous, and the expression makes him look even younger. Her heart aches.
"Where?" Despite herself, her curiosity is piqued.
The Imperial grins. "You don't think I've been idle while you were gone, do you? I've made some enquires, discreetly of course, at the local Mages Guild Hall."
"About what?" Carana is even more intrigued by the fact he is dancing around the question.
Darius winks, looking pleased with himself. "It's a surprise."
Carana follows him out of the door, still questioning as they lock up the house and head out to the stables. It is not until they mount their horses and turn them to face the open road, that he relents a little.
"It may be nothing, so I don't want to get your hopes up by telling you exactly what we're doing. But I will say that we are travelling to Skingrad."
"Why?" Carana asks, reining in her impatience with difficulty.
Darius merely grins and kicks his horse into a gallop. "To pay a visit to the reclusive Count Hassildor."