She was so cold.
Her feet moved through the sludge, making little progress. It didn't matter, anyway. She knew it would be pointless in the end. Above her, the sky was on fire. In her veins, her Nordic blood burned. And yet, she was so cold. She was shaking and her mind felt hazed. She just wanted to curl up in a small, enclosed space and sleep – forever. Yet, she knew death wouldn't release her from her torment. Nothing would. And so, she kept walking.
Movement to her side. She increased her pace. He was coming – oh Divines, he was coming. She broke into a run, full blown despair fueling her legs, yet the movement did nothing to heat her up. She went through ruins and desecrated buildings, ghosts of their real selves. The suffocating feeling of helplessness and of being trapped squeezed out her chest, leaving her breathless.
A hissing noise, then cruel laughter. A serpentine tail wrapped itself around her ankle, tripping her, and she hit the ground hard. She felt herself being pulled by the leg – Oh Divines no no nononono –
Serana woke up screaming. On her hands, she felt the burning sensation left by Auriel's bow. She had known from the day she decided to defy her Prince that the consequences would be dire. She had known that Molag would not take kindly to her stopping her father, and the Daedra outdid himself in punishing her. He was restless. He was merciless. He savored every one of her desperate cries.
Still shivering, she brought the divine relic closer, hugging it to her chest to let its heat spread through her, and she couldn't help but think it was a poor substitute to its owner's warm embrace and soothing whispers. Holding the aedric weapon helped to keep Bal at bay, but not nearly as much as the presence of one of Akatosh's children. A surge of frustration went through her. She sat up on her bed – she never really got around to sleeping in a coffin – and furiously slammed the bow on the nightstand.
The moment her fingers left the metal, her muscles tensed and her blood froze.
"Sleep well, Serana dearest?" Molag Bal jeered inside her head.
Her hands flew to the bow and she slung it over her back, hearing the Prince retreat with a frustrated hiss. It was of little comfort; she was nothing but a hostage, and the weapon, her keeper. Her master had always been depraved, but now he'd taken cruelty to a level she'd never before experienced. She'd always had something to shield her from his fury.
At first, it had been his indifference – he hadn't really paid her particular attention. Then she stood against her father and in favor of the sun, and that had definitely caught Molag's eye. And yet, there had been no backlash, not until the fated day the Dragonborn handed her the bow and stepped out of her life. That had been the first night she'd been dragged to Coldharbour, and it didn't take her long to realize her torment was only just beginning.
It had been three months since she last saw the Dragonborn, and in the meantime, she'd tried to erase him from her mind completely. It was, of course, a hopeless intent – he was quite the unforgettable figure. Though she'd been thinking a lot about him lately, and not only because of her precarious situation with her Prince. She'd gotten a letter back from Cyrodiil – they had his bloodline traced.
She hadn't gone out much after they argued. Adventuring alone was no fun at all, so she isolated herself in the Castle, mostly dedicating herself to aid her mother fix the courtyard. They had removed the rubble already, and were currently working on replanting flowers. Mostly Deathbell and Nightshade, the ones useful for poisons, but Serana also made a point to keep a specific bud of Dragon's Tongue alive. It had been a gift, after all.
She got off bed and opened her cabinet's drawer. The bow was uncomfortable against her skin. She felt like she had her back to the sun – it burned. Yet it was better than the alternative, and she'd just have to deal with it. She stared at the envelope and came to a decision. Stuffing it into one of her pockets, she walked out of the castle, under the light of the twin moons and into the cool Skyrim air. She'd find him, and she'd give him his damn letter, and then she'd leave him to live his life.
Who are you kidding?
As she rowed the boat, she tried to strengthen her resolve so that it wouldn't crumble on the first five seconds. He'd take the letter from her and intentionally let their fingers brush. He'd look at her with those stunning blue eyes, notice the rings beneath her eyes, and his gaze would immediately turn accusatory. She would turn back to leave, and he'd hold her by the shoulder, proud but tender, and ask her if she was well.
She knew her resolution would last maybe ten seconds.
She stepped on solid land, tied up the boat, then turned herself to where Whiterun was – where he usually was. Once, she could have claimed to have the Dragonborn wrapped around her finger. But one could not hold a dragon by the tail without having it breathing down their neck, and as much of a hold Serana got on him, he had the same on her. In the end, their mutual need for the upper hand had driven them apart.
She set up a constant pace, trotting down the road. As a general rule, people in Skyrim knew better than to intercept her – the land was filled with eerie mythical beings, and a lonely woman traveling at night could only be one of them. Still, there were always those careless or stupid enough to cross her path, and that was how she ended up with a bandit impaled by an ice spike on her feet and another with his throat on her mouth.
The reckless thug made for an extremely unsatisfying meal. His lifeblood was tainted by traces of alcohol and skooma, making it overall very bitter. She spat with distaste. There was this inherently vile thing about feeding on blood that always made her feel like a monster. When it tasted bad, she was constantly reminded of what exactly she was drinking. And, most times, it was just terrible.
Mortals seemed to be under the impression that her kind treasured the flavor of their food, and while some did, Serana herself had always hated the metallic taste. The traces of adrenaline of a struggling victim, so very appreciated by her father, never had the same effect on her, and nor had her mother's preferred numbed down thralls.
On very rare occasions she had truly enjoyed it, all of which involved a willing subject. There were many of those, of course – her kind always attracted that sort of eager fascination. But something always spoiled it, be it the victim's anxiety or arousal or fear, all of which showed in the blood. All in all, feeding was much more an inconvenience than a pleasure for her. Blood was to her like wine, except she just liked mead much better.
She dropped the body and cleaned her lips with her sleeve, feeling slightly dizzy. Curse the skooma-addled bandit, and curse herself for having him on first place. Why had she done that, anyway? She had potions on her pack and had already fed the night before. That meal had been irrational at best, and unnecessary meals were symptom number one of a vampire going rogue. It didn't make any sense; she didn't even like –
"Having trouble controlling your urges, darling?"
Serana growled quietly under her breath. Ignoring the teasing remarks of her Prince, she gave her back to her victims and resumed her jog to Whiterun. As the sun began to rise, she stopped at Morthal's inn to wait for the night. Usually, the keepers would question her preference, but such a desolate, empty place, she expected no resistance. Emphasis on expected.
She had an axe on her throat before she could give more than two steps.
"You have a lot of nerve, coming here," The large Nord snarled.
On her peripheral vision, she spotted a large orc drawing his mace, and even the Redguard innkeeper had her dagger out. But by the Divines, this was really not her day.
"I thought the Dragonborn and the Dawnguard had eliminated your entire kind, leech," The org boasted. "Glad to see they left one for us."
And of course he just had to be involved - he managed to get her into trouble without even being around. Serana lifted her hands in the universal gesture for 'peace'.
"Now, now," She murmured with a predatory smile. "I am sure we can work this out peacefully."
"Ha!" The blonde snorted, waving his ax around. "Peacefully. Of course you'll want us to peacefully let you drink us dry –"
He didn't have time to finish. Serana took her chance, snatching the weapon he had been waving carelessly while using her other hand to pull him closer and twist him. Within the blink of an eye, the man's axe was on her hand. Her other arm held the his throat in a choke, and she gingerly moved her mouth close to his neck, letting her fangs slide out with a slip.
"Does 'peacefully' sound better now?" She breathed down, grinning.
The man struggled a bit, but immediately stood still when she put her lips on the crook of his neck. It was excessive dramatizing; she could just as easily snap his spine. Still, she liked the fearful increase of his heartbeat. She shifted, using the hostage as a shield against the orc just in case. The Redguard woman, she kept an eye on – tiny dagger or not, she could cause trouble.
"What do you want, vampire?" Said woman exclaimed, slightly lowering her weapon.
"I was going to ask for a room for the night –" She paused a bit, amused. " – or rather, for the day. Though I suppose you're not too fond of my gold."
Orc snorted. " Yes, and my ma was a hagraven."
"It shows," Serana snapped back. "How about I walk right out of here and you just pretend you never saw me?"
"Not bloody likely," Nord snarled.
She bit him on the shoulder, just hard enough to break the skin. The metallic taste of blood flooded her mouth and she licked her lips before pulling away. He squealed in pain and struggled, but she held him tight into place.
"I don't think you're in any position to argue, sweetie," She slurred softly on his ear. He answered with a very unflattering torrent of words. "Now, I'm sure we can nego –"
She was cut short by the door opening behind her. Acting quickly, she hit her head hard against the Nord's, effectively knocking him out. She dropped him and rolled to the side, ax pointing to the newcomer and ready to intercept any incoming blows, while her other hand held a charged ice spike pointing to the orc. It was no good - she had to share the aim of her spell between the Redguard and the Orsimer. But even though she was severely outnumbered, she had no doubts she could make it. The real question was how much of a mess she'd leave behind.
The man who'd just arrived raised his open unarmed hands, and Serana tensed. He was robed and hooded – a mage for sure.
"What is going on here?" He said in a tone too demanding for a man who had an ax on his neck.
"Falion!" The Redguard yelped. "Thank the Nine you're here. This – this creature –"
"It has come to finish what the others failed!" The orc bellowed.
Serana scowled. She did not like being referred to as an 'it'. This orc was really asking for a spike to the face. The man, Falion, gave her a quick once over and his eyes widened, then he shot her a meaningful look.
"So you've arrived!" He called naturally. "This is all a big misunderstanding. The lady here has an appointment with me. Follow me to my house, will you?"
She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head suspiciously, then slowly lowered her spell hand and dropped the ax next to its unconscious owner. She figured at least it'd be less of a carnage if she only had to kill her way through one mage. They stepped out together and he immediately started babbling.
"A vampire! In Morthal!" He exclaimed with enthusiasm. "Truly remarkable. Your kind is incredibly rare to come by these days, particularly one as powerful as you seem to be. Which are you? Keerilth? Bonsamu? Yekef? Telboth?"
No, you imbecile, those are Bosmer clans. Do I look like a wood elf to you?
"…Tsaesci?" He continued hesitantly when she did not reply.
"No, what the – Aren't those the snake people from Akavir?" She interrupted.
"Yes, yes, of course," He continued as if she hadn't spoken at all. "Maybe… one of the Iliac Nine? You seem quite gifted with Destruction, so perhaps Haarvenu? Or could it be…the Order?"
She had to admit that for a mortal, he knew quite a lot about her kind. Still, he seemed to be ignoring the glaring obvious. Serana shook her head with amusement. Falion frowned.
"Quarra-Berne-Aundae-" He sputtered, then finally closed his mouth, paused, and continued cautiously. "…Volkihar?"
What was that word they used to say at temples, once the preaching was finally over? Right. Hallelujah. She rolled her eyes.
"Yes, Volkihar. I thought it would be quite evident, what with me being a Nord and all."
They had been walking away from the inn, but at her words, the mage froze in place. "But…" He began carefully. "The Dawnguard. The Dragonborn and the Tyranny of the Sun – Wasn't your court destroyed?"
"Yes, and good riddance. Fortunately, I got out alive – as alive as I get, anyway." She shrugged it off.
He narrowed his eyes with suspicion. "Still. You don't have the… you know. The physical bloodline traces."
He made a slicing motion through his mouth, then pushed his nose up and scrunched his brows together. Slit lips, bat nose, large brow ridges – the marks of someone turned by the Volkihar lineage. She did not carry them, of course – she was a pure blood, and Molag tolerated no such distortions on his 'favorites'. The twisted faces went to the lesser vampires.
"Uh-huh," She acquiesced, letting him figure it out by himself.
He searched her again, looking for clues, and this time they stopped at the outstanding weapon strapped to her back. Serana grinned a fanged smile. The man gaped. And gaped.
"It's rude to stare," she casually pointed out as they halted in front of his door. Or at least she was in front of it – he'd stayed back, frozen on his spot. She motioned for him to come forward with a slight hint of irritation, then turned back and entered his house without waiting for any further invitation. He scampered after her.
The house was simple, filled with alchemy ingredients, a cooking pot, a bed – It would do, she supposed. She wouldn't mind waiting for the night there.
" – A real, living Daughter of Coldharbour!" Falion babbled as he stepped in.
"Not so sure about the 'living' part." She replied, taking a sit on his bed.
"And the bow – Is it – Could it be –?"
She slung the weapon from her back and into her hands. "Auriel's bow, yes. Thank the Nine I can stay here for the day, else I'd have to put off this annoying thing you call 'sun'."
She was only half joking.
"But then you must be –"
She kicked off her boots and moved to a laidback position, reaching out to a nearby book on Falion's bedstand. 2920, Rain's Hand, volume 4 – a history book. She liked those – she'd missed out quite a lot of recent and not so recent events.
"Serana Volkihar, at your service," She said flatly.
He stood there stunned for quite a while, so Serana reckoned she must be quite famous. Words of her adventures with the Dragonborn must have spread as quick as general gossip about him does. She noticed the man remained at the door, hesitating.
"I… am unsure if it would work for one as ancient and pureblooded as yourself," He began. She frowned.
"What are you talking about?"
The mage blinked. "You mean you didn't come for the cure?"
The words hit her like a punch. She'd heard about someone who was searching for the cure to vampirism, but there were always rumors, and she hadn't put the pieces together. She never really thought getting rid of the condition was actually possible. For some reason, the idea infuriated her, and she grabbed the man by the robes and slammed him against the wall.
"Do not presume," She growled. "I am here for a place to spend the day and nothing else."
She dropped him down and he stared, eyes wide.
"My apologies," He stammered out, then seemed to recompose himself. "Ah, would you mind answering a few questions?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I would." She grumbled, silencing the man. She opened the book.
Book Four of 2920, The Last Year of the First Era.
Rain's Hand – by Carlovac Townway
Volume 4 of an historical series about Vivec and the Empire.
Vivec, Vivec, which one was him? The name sounded vaguely familiar, but it was lost in the huge pile of information she'd acquired since the day she'd woken up. Vivec, Vivec… The Dragonborn would know – he always knew the historical names. He may not look like it, but he was quite educated. Disregarding her thoughts, Serana resumed reading.
3 Rain's Hand, 2920
2920. What year had it been when she went to 'sleep'? The 185th of the first Era? Or was it the 186th? She couldn't quite remember, and she was surprised once more by the realization that she was really, really old. She mentally made a list of things she was older than. It included the Empire, the Dark Brotherhood, the rise-and-fall of the Tribunal and even the ninth divine, Talos.
Shit, she was ancient.
Just then, the door opened again, revealing a young girl who carried a bag of something. Alchemical supplies, probably. Serana had mixed feelings about children – she was never quite sure on how to deal with them, so she mostly settled down with a glowing eyes, fanged 'boo!'. That usually sent them scurrying off pretty quickly. She admitted to herself she'd make an awful mother.
"I got the supplies, sir. Your sister wants desperately to see you at the inn – Oh. You didn't tell me we'd have guests."
Falion grunted something about annoying sisters, then instructed the girl on where to put the supplies and went off. Serana resumed her reading – or would have, if the kid hadn't tossed her bags on the table and ran up to sit next to her.
"So what's your name?" The little girl began enthusiastically. "I'm Agni."
Uh-oh. Colin – The Dragonborn – he was the one who was really good with the little imps. She would much rather see them from afar.
"Serana," She muttered curtly, never taking her eyes off her book.
The child's mouth dropped open in an 'O'.
She frowned. "I guess? I don't know any other 'Seranas'."
"That is so awesome!" The kid literally squealed, making the vampire mentally cringe.
That couldn't be normal. Running away in panic or begging for their lives was a normal reaction when seeing a vampire. 'That is so awesome' definitely wasn't. Whatever happened to self-preservation? She assumed children must have been smarter on her time.
Agni took her lack of reaction as a permission to continue babbling.
"Are all the stories about you true?"
"I don't know all the stories about me," The woman mumbled.
The Dragonborn would say most tales had at least some truth to them, and she supposed he was right about that. Not that she would tell the kid that, of course. Divines knew what they've been saying about her out there.
"Did you really meet the Dragonborn?"
It all came down to that – the damn hero and his heroics.
"Have you ever seen his face?"
It was odd for Serana to separate the person from the persona. She'd met the man first, and the hero later, but that's not how it went for most people. The general populace only knew the cowled champion who popped up solving everyone's troubles, killing dragons and never saying a word. Very mysterious indeed.
She realized the girl was still waiting for an answer.
"Is he really, really handsome?"
Serana did not dignify that with an answer. She turned her attention to her book instead.
3 Rain's Hand, 2920
Sotha Sil proceeded as quickly as he could through the blackened halls of the palace, half-submerged in brackish water. All around him, nasty gelatinous creatures scurried into the reeds, bursts of white fire lit up the upper arches of the hall before disappearing, and smells assaulted him, rancid death one moment, sweet flowered perfume the next.
Suddenly, talking did not seem like such a bad option. She did not like that book. Tossing the volume into the fireplace, she faced the expectant kid and put on her best blank look.
"I'm sorry, what? I missed that."
The girl did not mind. In fact, she seemed happy to elaborate on the question.
"Is the Dragonborn really, really handsome? What does he look like? Big strong nordy? Long silky blonde locks? I've seen him once, you know, but he had his mask on. He saved the city from the vampire conspiracy, did you know?"
'The vampire conspiracy'. Ooh. That certainly explained the general hostility. Not that her kind was too well loved anywhere.
"Um." Serana begun. The possibility of the girl being an agent of the Thalmor looking for information briefly crossed her mind. "How old are you again?"
"I'll be fourteen in summer," Agni stated proudly. "I'm almost old enough to join the College, but Falion says I won't need it. I want to, though. It's awfully lonely here."
A pang of sympathy unexpectedly hit Serana. This child, only one in the city, with a not very affectionate father – it reminded her too much of herself. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to humor the kid for a bit.
"So," The lass whispered eagerly in a nearly conspiring tone. "Is there a really handsome face behind that hood? Or does he hide it because his mom was really a dragon?"
She fought the urge to laugh. She settled with a mischievous half smile. "He's okay, I guess. Pretty eyes. Really intense blue."
"Ah, come oooon," The girl complained. "We're talking about the hero of the era and all you have to tell me is that 'he has pretty eyes'? I guess you're not as close to him as they say."
It was a bait. Serana knew it was a bait. Yet she couldn't help but bite.
"We're quite close indeed."
Agni's smile threatened to break her face. "How much?"
He would have given me his heart, if I'd asked.
Her face fell. "Not so much anymore. Don't feel like talking about it."
The girl shrugged it off. "He's just so...mysterious. What with that vow of silence and all."
Serana snorted. "Oh, but he talks. He talks, all right. The real trick is getting him to say something smart for a change."
The kid's eyes sparkled with excitement. "He talks? What is it like?"
She frowned, trying to figure out what exactly the girl had meant. "Hmm. A really deep baritone. A bit raspy, probably from shouting. It's not bad, though – almost husky, if you think about it."
Agni shook her head. "No, no, I mean, what is he like?"
The million septim question, that was. What was he like? The first word that crossed her mind was warm. Of course, from her vampiric point of view, everyone and mostly everything was warm, but perhaps it was marked as her first impression of him, and one that repeated itself over and over.
Warm, when he held her up on that first moment, as she fell off the obelisk. Warm, had been his welcome when she went to find him at the Dawnguard. Warm, warm, warm, the only source of heat, the only flicker of life in the Soul Cairn. And then in Blackreach, when she took his blood, he hadn't been just warm, he'd been burning up.
He was Akatosh's child, and it showed. Sometimes scorching, sometimes warming, sometimes ardent, he'd always been like a miniature little sun, and she was never sure whether she wanted to bask on it or put it off. And ever since he left, she had been feeling very, very cold.
She mentally scolded herself for the melodramatic nature of her thoughts. She should sound like a four thousand year old lady, not like a teenager. She couldn't really pick which alternative was worst.
"It's hard to say. He's… not a bad guy, but not a good one either."
"What do you mean?"
Serana struggled with an explanation. "Take the rebel leader, for instance. Ulfric, right? You either love him or hate him. Well, the Dragonborn is not like that. He definitely brings out strong feelings, but he's… confusing. Chaotic, even."
"It makes no sense at all," The girl complained, frowning.
"That's because he doesn't make much sense. If you tell him a bunch of bandits stole a family heirloom, he'll very likely retrieve it for you. He's also just as likely to steal said heirloom right from your pockets once you have your back turned."
"So he just does what he wants?"
She nodded. "Yes. Fortunately, 'what he wants' is generally harmless, if not downright good. Mostly."
"That's…rather unheroic. What happened to doing what is right for the sake of good?"
The vampire snorted. "I'd be dead."
"What?" The child questioned, puzzled.
"If he was bent on doing the right thing, I'd be dead. He would have put a bolt through my head the second he realized what I was. Instead, he told me vampires were one of the few supernatural creatures he still hadn't made friends with."
It briefly occurred to Serana that maybe she shouldn't be discussing ethics and morality with a kid who was yet to turn fourteen, and that she was probably not the best person to introduce a young mind to the concepts of 'right' and 'wrong'. On the other hand, she also found out she did not particularly mind corrupting children.
She shrugged. "I like his pragmatic way of acting. Guess I don't care much for the lawful and righteous, particularly being who I am – what I am."
"Not his way of acting," Agni interjected. "You like him."
This one girl was either awfully brave or awfully stupid, she mused to herself. It was very silly to go off making insinuations that might tick off a pureblood vampire. Very, very silly. She took a deep breath and decided not to murder the youngster. For now.
"He is – was – is my best friend," She said in a slightly threatening tone, hoping the girl would take the hint. "Of course I care for him."
"But you like, like him." The kid insisted stubbornly.
It was all she could do not to strangle her. She couldn't hold her fangs in her mouth though, and they slid out silently.
"Vampires don't like, 'like' people," She all but snarled, letting her teeth show. "We eat people for breakfast. And supper."
"Oh." The girl replied in a small voice, eyes wide.
Blessed silence. Serana shifted positions and searched through the cabinets for a book that she could read to pass the time – and preferably one not about Coldharbour. She didn't feel like sleeping and having nightmares, and she still had to wait for the sun to go down. She ended up reading a catalogue on armor enchantments.
"Sooo… You still haven't told me what he looks like."
It was a long, long afternoon for her. She thought the child's harassment would stop once Falion returned, but her plan backfired and she got two annoying pesterers instead. Three, if she counted the daedric Prince on her head.
"How often do you need to feed?"
"More often than you need, yes, my dearest Serana?"
"Is the Dragonborn a romantic?"
"Can you really reach out through ice?"
"Does he have a manly stubble?"
"Is the Vampire Lord shape a truth or a myth?"
"Has he proposed to you?"
That last one did it – Serana excused herself, claimed she'd had a long, exhausting day, turned around and pretended to fall asleep. Staying still wasn't too difficult since she was naturally a quiet creature; the hard part was not actually sleeping. She had no desire whatsoever of taking a walk through Coldharbour.
She set off as soon as the familiar thirst arose in her throat, signaling sunset. She stole a horse on her way to quicken her pace, and arrived at Whiterun by sunrise. She had had no further interruptions on her way besides a couple of stray wolves, and even getting past the guards had been not trouble. It was simply a matter of doing what the Dragonborn so eloquently called 'the bat trick' and flying over the city walls.
Once inside, she made her way through the streets to the Breezehome, clutching the letter tight against her side. He'd always been curious about his lineage, but by the Nine, he wasn't going to like what she got. She briefly considered burning the thing up and letting the secret die with her. Then she remembered she was immortal.
Sighing, she knocked the door, but no one opened. Odd. If he wasn't there, then at least his housecarl should have been, particularly at that untimely hour. His absence left her with two options: she could go looking for him at Jorrvaskr. Or she could break in and wait for his return – or at least wait out the daylight. It was a no-brainer – she obviously chose the latter.
She made her way around to the back of the house and was searching for a way in through the windows when a sudden uneasiness crawled through her spine. She was about to turn around and look for the source when she was smashed full force against the wall. A hand pushed her head and the other wrapped against her throat in a choke. Twisting her hips, Serana grasped the head of the attacker and attempted to flip them over. The aggressor did not let go, however, and they ended up both on the ground.
She hit the floor hard but gave it no thought, training overpowering the surprise. She tried to roll on her side and her eyes caught a flash of red hair before a hand quickly slammed her face to the dirt - too quickly for a human. Growling, she hit her elbow on her foe's stomach, eliciting a sharp 'oomph'. She took the chance to pull on the hand that was holding her, making the assailant lose their balance.
She swung her legs over and used the momentum to push the enemy off, landing on top of a very irate Aela the Huntress. She estimated she had approximately one millisecond to immobilize the werewolf before –
The redhead sat up with incredible speed, headbutting Serana right in the face.
Make that half a millisecond.
The blow was hard enough to make her see stars, and she raised a hand to her nose, which was bleeding profusely. The other arm, she used to block off an incoming punch. She was only partially successful at that.
"What the f –" She began, only to be cut off by a growl.
"What are you doing here?" The Huntress demanded.
That really ticked the vampire off.
"Sightseeing. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dragonborn bathing," she snarled back.
Aela did not see the humor in that, and before she could say anything, they were off exchanging punches on the ground again. The redhead was a formidable enemy, as quick as Serana herself and just as well trained in wrestling. Neither could really get the upper hand, and their stalemate only ended when they pushed one another off, both disheveled and panting.
"What are you doing here?" The werewolf asked again, spitting off a wad of blood.
"I have some matters I need to settle with Colin," She snapped.
Her back hit the wall again, and she grabbed The Huntress by the collar in return.
"What is wrong with yo –"
"Don't play the fool," Aela barked. "He's been missing for a month. Now I will ask you and I will do it only once – where is he? "
It was like a slap to the face. Knowing the Dragonborn and the lifestyle he led, 'missing for a month' was more likely than not a synonym for 'dead'. He was an adventurer, and when adventurers went missing for too long, it was safe to guess they were rotting on the bottom of an ancient crypt. Still, he was The Dragonborn. He didn't die so easily.
"How do you expect me to know?" You goddamn bitch.
The redhead narrowed her eyes and flared her nostrils, and her mouth curled in a sneer. Word was, a werewolf could smell a lie from a table length away. She put on a challenging expression, daring the Huntress to say she was lying. What she got instead was a much sharper rebuttal.
"You wouldn't know, would you? You've been gone for a while. Where have you been on the last few months?"
"Why do you care?"
The Huntress shrugged ungraciously. "I don't. Just wondering where were you when he came back from Solstheim. Because by the Nine, he was devastated. I've never seen him quite that wrecked before, and I was here all along his struggle with Alduin."
She knew the woman's intention was to make her feel guilty, and she'd be damned if it didn't work. Aela's accusation was clear – he had been there for Serana when she'd needed and she hadn't paid back the favor. She could argue that the Dragonborn and she had been mutually angry at one another, and that she had no way whatsoever of knowing he was in trouble, but it didn't make it any better because he always knew.
It was almost like he had a sixth sense. She remembered how she'd felt like rescuing her mother in the Cairn and one day later, there he was – "Up for some adventuring, vampire princess?" Somehow, he always knew. She and the Huntress never really got along, but Serana had to admit this time, Aela had the right to be irked. Her omission felt like betrayal of the worst kind.
Guilt, she realized, was a twisted sadistic whore.
"Midnight, leech." The redhead growled, letting go of the vampire with a hard push. "I want you out of my city by then."
Usually, she would have a sharp reply ready for situations like these, but this time, Serana just let it slide, watching the woman walk away. The letter suddenly felt very heavy in her pocket. Her kind could only get inebriated indirectly – by drinking the blood of someone who was drunk – but by the Nine, she felt like she really needed some mead right then. It wouldn't make her dizzy, like she wanted, but the exercise of drinking was sure to relax her a little.
She headed over to the Bannered Mare – she still had a long while before midnight and besides, it wasn't like she was afraid of the damn Jorrvaskr hounds anyway. She got in, took a table, asked the innkeeper for the good stuff and paid. While she drunk, she mentally planned her next move.
She'd have to find the Dragonborn, of course, but she had no idea where to start looking. It wouldn't be easy; not even Aela seemed to have a clue of his whereabouts and the woman wasn't called 'The Huntress' for nothing. Solstheim would probably be her best bet.
She was halfway through her second bottle when an uninvited man sat down on her table. Flirty patrons were something she was rather used to, but this time, something kept her from getting up and walking away as she usually did.
"You look like someone who can hold your liquor."
She didn't reply, putting the man under deep scrutiny instead. He was a Breton, wearing black robes and with a definitely fishy look to him. There was something about him… something…
"But perhaps I should introduce myself. I'm Sam. Sam Guevenne."
Bullseye. Serana stared. And stared. And stared.
"… Lord Sanguine?"
The man scowled. "You're no fun at all, are you?"
Serana shrugged. "Sam Guevenne…Sanguine… maybe you should go for a less obvious alias. For a Breton, try something like Henri or Louis. Perhaps Henri Louis. You don't get any more Breton-y than that."
Sam snorted. "It worked very well with your Dragonborn, and word is, he is supposed to be smart."
"Well, how drunk was he?"
He chuckled, then downed the remains of her bottle with one gulp. There went her drink.
"Point taken." He then proceeded to roll his eyes. "Mortals and their names."
"Yes, never mind our naming conventions," She snapped. "Next time, call yourself 'S'Am -Guine', or alternatively, 'Drinks-His-Mead'. I'm sure no one will notice."
The prince laughed. She rolled her eyes.
"So, how may I help you? To what do I owe the pleasure, Sam-Guevenne? "
"Oh, no, no, no. Today, I am here to help you."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. Daedra didn't help, they screwed people over and over on many different levels.
"You have a letter to deliver, I take it?"
Her hand flew involuntarily to her pocket, and she nodded. Sanguine grinned maliciously.
"I'll throw a fabulous party tonight. I heard the Dragonborn might come."
That didn't sound quite right.
"Oh? And does he know he will attend?"
He waved it off. "Details, details. But he'll be there, I guarantee."
"And you want me to go and give him the letter," She guessed. "Why?"
"Not just the paper. I have gathered a whole lot of information on him I want you to pass on."
"Why?" She repeated emphatically.
"I have my reasons – most of which involve my personal amusement. Why don't you have a drink as we talk?"
He flickered his wrist and a glass appeared in front of her. It was filled to the rim with a sapphire-colored liquid – Balmora Blue? She was not sure. Vampires couldn't get directly drunk, but she had a feeling her body could make exceptions for beverages offered by Daedric Princes. She hesitated, but the look on Sanguine's face was decisive. She would have the drink whether she wanted it or not.
Her fingers touched the glass and she was surprised to find it cooler than her hand. The contents inside tasted bitter and as she gulped it down, the effects were immediate. Her vision instantly grew fuzzy and her thoughts scrambled themselves, making her feel giddy. Sanguine's face loomed over her with a satisfied smirk, the Breton features twisting themselves into a dremora-like shape.
"Good, good – hear this story – unbelievable – "
The blurred edges of her visions grew dark, and throwing aside any remaining struggle, Serana let herself be carried away into blissful oblivion.
He scooped the dynamo core from the floor, then took a seat, leaning his back against some pieces of rubble. Arya shot him a sideway glare, still standing next to the giant robotic dragon they'd just slain.
"I'll just wait here while you find a way to detach the claw from the body," Dovahkiin said, tossing his newest toy back and forth.
He wondered how much one of those would sell for? Back in Skyrim, he could get up to two hundred septims for one, depending on whom he sold it to. They were rare, but not unobtainable. In Alagaesia, however, he could say with a fair amount of confidence that this core was unique. Perhaps he could get some good amount of gold for it.
"Why am I the one who has to figure it out?" She complained, bending over to better analyze the automaton.
He shrugged. "Well, they were elves. You are an elf. I'm sure the answer is somewhere in your superiorly bred brain, you just need to find it."
With a sigh, she knelt down by the machine's leg and began tinkering with it. She produced a knife from divines know where and carefully removed scale and plating from a small area. He watched her work, laughing when one of the gaps released a thin stream of steam on her face. With a scowl, she pushed her hair back, trapping it with her hood, then resumed prodding the insides of the mechanism.
"Do you have any idea of what you're doing?" He teased.
"Some," She mumbled. "But the sheer complexity of the device is unbelievable. Technologically wise, they're centuries ahead of even my people with this."
"Alagaesian elves did not strike me as too fond of progress," He pointed out. "I mean, you do live in trees."
She turned to him and rolled her eyes. "Our preferred lifestyle is not representative of our scientific development. Living in trees does not stop us from researching advanced physics."
She scratched her cheek with the back of her hand, leaving a black oil stain. He briefly considered mentioning her face was dirty, then decided against it. It looked interesting that way – a bit like warpaint.
"It just doesn't make sense to me," He argued. "To know the things you do and not make any use of it."
"We don't need robot dragons – we just want to understand the world."
"The Dwemer had both," He shot back. "And I digress. You could certainly use some automatons."
"We don't build killing machines," She all but snarled. "Goes directly – " Clank. " –against our philosophy."
He snorted. "If you say so. You find the detach button yet, or should I fetch an axe?"
"No such button," She muttered, removing a couple gears from the dragon and placing them on the floor. "One would have thought someone who built a mechanism this complex could have made the key removal easier."
"I'm sure they could. I just doubt they wanted to make it any easy. Hence the murderous automaton."
"Yes, well, I thought your worth was tested by fighting the guardian, not by disassembling it." She complained, sticking her knife inside the robot again.
"I don't think the point was testing our worth," He insisted. "Their objective was to keep that door closed. The more obstacles, the better."
"I suppose you are right. Say, Colin, what's your favorite color?"
Dovahkiin grinned. "Why do you care?"
"I don't," She snapped. "It's just unfair that you mysteriously know all my preferences while I know none of yours. So humor me, will you?"
He paused and gave the question a bit of thought. "Mmmh. Favorite color…fuchsia."
She stopped her tweaking to turn and face him, one eyebrow cocked skeptically. He decided she looked hilarious with that expression together with those oil markings on her face.
"Fuchsia," She repeated, incredulous, then closed her eyes as if trying to visualize the hue. "Isn't that a vivid shade of pink?"
"Indeed," He nodded enthusiastically.
"Your favorite color is pink?"
"Aye. Got a problem with that?" He braved.
She threw her hands up in the air, then exasperatedly returned to her work on the claw. "It's a heinous color."
"So it is," He agreed.
"Then why –"
"Because it's a good color," He interrupted. "There are no bad things fuchsia. It's always the evil black dragon or the yellow fever epidemic or the Red Mountain of doom. Have you ever heard of a Fuchsia Monster? Fuchsia Plage? The Sea of Fuchsia Horrors? No? Thought so."
To his amazement, she laughed out loud. "This has got to be the most ridiculous –" She shook her head, smiling. "Never mind. I won't even get myself started."
"Why is your favorite color blue?" He inquired. "I would have expected green."
The elf frowned. "People seem to think that, for some reason."
"It's the color of your Laas," He explained. "Your aura. It's somewhere between leaf green and chartreuse."
"Chartreuse,"She said emphatically. "Where did you even learn all these names?"
"I was sixteen, doing some thieving and mercenary work around Cyrodiil, when I met this famous dunmer painter named Rythe Lythandas –" He cut himself short. "You wouldn't believe it anyway. Even for me, that was a completely new kind of crazy."
"Right." She quickly conceded. Dovahkiin had a feeling she really didn't want any more madness in her life. "And what do you mean, my 'aura'?"
"The Laas, your…your life force, I guess." He gestured vaguely. "It's hard to explain. I call upon a Shout and they reveal themselves to me. I can tell, for instance, that Eragon's is yellow and Murtagh's is the directly opposite purple."
"Was that how you knew they were brothers?" She asked, interest piqued.
"Aye. You can't have that much antagonizing without some sort of kinship. I could see right away they were either brothers or brought up as such. Back home, Hadvar and Ralof grew up almost as siblings but ended up on each side of the civil war. They have auras like that, too."
"Green isthe color of my magic," She acknowledged. "Eragon does blue spells, but the rider's magic always matches the dragon. What about your color?"
He shrugged. "I can't see my own aura. And you still haven't answered my question."
"Hmm. Perhaps you could find out by doing a spell?"
She was clearly avoiding the topic. He frowned.
"No. I'm already an atrocious mage as it is; there is no way in Oblivion I'll try the stamina-magicka wonky thing you call magi – Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
She jumped back, cursing as a hose violently whipped out, spitting a clear transparent liquid. Dovahkiin would have taken it for water if it didn't immediately vaporize whenever it touched anything, leaving behind trails of frost. Arya dodged a blast of the fluid and barked out a spell, then ran back to the robot. She tweaked a couple valves then sighed with relief.
"What was that?" He asked, intrigued.
"I've hit the cooling system," She mumbled. "Incredible. They used some sort of… I guess you could call it liquid air. Highly pressurized. Absorbed the excessive heat to stop the more delicate circuits from melting."
"Huh," He grunted absently. "Dwemer and their machines. You any closer to removing this thing?"
"Almost there. The cooling tube was the only thing holding me back; I couldn't slice through it because I didn't know what was inside."
"But then you cut it anyway?" He teased.
"No other way to find out. I wasn't expecting the high pressure, though. Ah – There you go."
There was a hiss and a clank, then the claw thudded to the ground heavily. Dovahkiin moved to it and grabbed one side, motioning for her to take the other. Together, they lifted the piece off the ground – it was surprisingly less heavy than he'd expected, but weighty nonetheless – and made their way through the city.
"So why blue?" He pestered for the umpteenth time as they carried the burden along.
She sighed. "Can't you guess that?"
"You're asking a bit too much of my clairvoyance," He countered.
She did not reply, and for a moment he considered dropping it. He changed his mind, however, and chose to play along and push her for it instead.
"Mmh. Blue. What sort of secret, obscure fetish including the color could you have?" He frowned. "Wait a second. Dibella says you actually like –"
"Saphira's egg was blue," She cut him short. "It was just such an important part of my life, back when thinks still made sense. It has all gone downhill since then, but her blue is a reassuring constant. Faolin had blue eyes, too."
The last part was barely above a whisper and he almost convinced himself it had been just his imagination.
"Mine are blue as well," He ended up pointing out smugly. "Cerulean. Appealing color. Very intense. Careful not to confuse it with water-blue when using a magical paintbrush."
"An unfortunate coincidence," She muttered reluctantly.
He smirked at that. "Unfortunate, because you can't help but find them striking? You like them, don't you?"
"I fear them," She said with a hard stare. "They say eyes are the windows of the soul, and if so, yours perfectly match the fickle beast in you."
There was something deeply disturbing in knowing he inspired fright in others, but he shrugged it off with a playful smile. "But you do like them."
She simultaneously sighed and rolled her eyes. "Yes, Colin, you have pretty eyes. Happy now?"
"Aha!" His grin threatened to break his face. "Of course I am not happy. So, what else in me do you find pretty? My silky raven hair? Manly stubble? Hardened muscles? Ivory white skin –?"
"I perceive that last one as slightly sickly, to be honest," She snapped. "Perhaps you should spend some time working on a tan."
He took personal offense to that. "I don't tan. I go tomato red, and then peel back to my usual pale. Dark skins are for Redguards, not Nords."
He would have carried on with is ranting, but they were back again at the altar square. Without warning, he released his side of the claw, eliciting a stream of curses from Arya. Ignoring her, he fished the Dynamo Core from his pocket and made his way to the ceremonial table. He put the device on it and closed his eyes.
"So, dad," He began. "Thanks for guiding my shot back there. That's… a beginning, I guess. We could eventually get along. Someday."
He left the core there as an offering and backed up, then something occurred to him that made him stop on his tracks.
"Unless you didn't actually guide that shot," He voiced his thoughts out loud. "And it hit by sheer luck. In that case, I just wanted to let you know I still like Nocturnal much better."
He heard Arya scoff as he approached. "Are we done here? I don't have all day."
"What's the rush?" He bartered back as he resumed carrying the marble structure.
"We've been gone for a while. People are going to start worrying."
"Ooh. I see. Eager to get back to your man, are you?" He teased.
The elf growled. He realized with surprise that they were actually getting along. Their words were rash, but the bickering was friendly rather than aggressive. They weren't about to strangle each other, they were just being competitive. Or so he hoped.
"What about you?" She countered. "What's with you and the woman? Don't think I've forgotten about that."
He shrugged. "Nothing. There's nothing between us."
"But you do like her."
Oh for the love of the Nine.
"Sure. I also like big, expensive gems and ash yam stew. Among other things."
She ignored his rebuttal. "How far are you into a relationship? Have you kissed her yet?"
He gave Arya a quizzical look. "No, no, oh no," He frowned. "We don't do that."
It was her time to look puzzled. "You don't do…kissing?"
"I suppose maybe they do, in Cyrodiil. But not in Skyrim. I mean, it's a bit like long term affairs. There's no real issue if you do it, it's just… not culturally usual."
"You don't kiss?" She repeated, still amazed.
"We don't actively avoid it," He retorted. "It's just that Nords aren't the sappy kind. We're pragmatic. You want sex, ask for it. You want to get married, put on an Amulet of Mara – it means you're available."
"Elves have long periods of courting," She said. "A couple may dance around each other for decades. I suppose that may make us somewhat romantic – waiting centuries to be together."
"No, you're just not used to the idea of abrupt death," He replied. "Skyrim is dangerous, even without a civil war and a dragon outbreak. People die. You want to be with someone, you do it fast, because chances are if you wait too long, the opportunity will be gone – forever."
She flinched, and he realized too late how insensitive his words had been. An inconvenient truth, and he knew the hurt he saw in her face only meant he was right. Somehow, he did not feel triumphant over winning their argument. He cleared his throat and quickly switched to a more lighthearted topic.
"We do have a means of showing affection," He commented, and she perked up curiously. "A kunik. You give those to the people who are close to you."
"Ah? What is that? Some sort of artifact?"
"A gesture," He explained.
"What is it like?"
He stopped to look around. They were in front of the door, and he released the object on the floor to give his back a rest and work out the mechanism. Arya did the same, and the claw thudded down to the ground. Abruptly, he took two large steps, placing himself directly in front of her.
He touched her face with his gloved hands, cupping her cheeks, his fingertips reaching out to her pointy ears. She froze. Slowly, he turned her head to his, making her face him, his eyes locked with hers. He inched closer and closer, appreciating the feeling of her quickening pulse under his fingers. Then, their foreheads touched. He nuzzled her, rubbing his nose against hers – once, twice – then pulled back with a smirk.
"Like this," He said, noting mischievously that she'd turned a peculiar shade of pink. "A kunik. Or as they call it back in the Imperial City, an 'eskimo kiss'."
"Um," She blinked, then recomposed herself and put on a frown. "An interesting way of showing care. Affectionate, yet not really erotic. Could just as easily be used between mother and son."
"Indeed," He agreed, still grinning. "It is much more generic than a kiss, but in a way, also much more genuine. Here, help me haul this up."
Together, they lifted the claw and hooked it on the holes, facing the exposed hanging wires. Then they moved to opposing sides.
"We need to turn it, in your direction. On count of three, you pull and I'll push. One, two, three – Arrrgh!"
The door groaned and clanked, but with humongous effort, they managed to twist the key perpendicularly. With a loud rumbling, the claw was pushed out of the holes, then the ground shook as the door slid down ever so slowly. Pushing the heavy metal piece away, Dovahkiin waited until the door had fully disappeared.
"Ladies first?" He teased.
Ahead of him, there was total darkness. She casted some sort of magelight and moved in, rolling her eyes as she went. His ears caught a faint sound, almost like a thump, but then it was gone. Probably just the wind. And still. He drew his blade before following her inside – just to be safe. The place was damp and smelled moldy, water dripping from the ceiling.
They weren't more than ten steps in when a grinding noise sounded. Dovahkiin barely had time to turn back to see the door slamming shut behind them with at least ten times the speed it had gone down. In less than five seconds, it slid shut, trapping them inside.
"Shit –" Arya begun, turning around sharply.
"Shh!" He shushed.
He heard it again, very clearly this time.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Something cold and alien crawled through his spine – something very akin to fear. The pulsation was not unfamiliar to him, and suddenly he felt very much like screaming. The elf faced him, oblivious of what laid ahead. He desperately wanted her to put off the light so he could hide into the shadows.
"What now?" She questioned.
Thud – thump thump – Thud – thump thump – Thud –
His heartbeat seemed to play a game with the pulsating sounds, pounding perfectly in sync.
"One way out," He whispered, forcing his voice not to shake. It was no use – she detected the trepidation on his tone nonetheless.
"What?" Her head snapped to the end of the corridor, then back at him. "Colin, what? What is in there?"
"It won't attack us," He reassured, more firmly this time, then took the lead. There was only one way to go – forward. She followed hurriedly, her light trailing behind her.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
He wondered if she could hear it, too.
"What is 'it'?"
"I'm not sure," He answered, even though he was.
She grabbed him by the shoulder, halting his progress. He turned to face her. Her light hovered between them, robbing him from the comforting embrace of darkness. He clenched his fists in a sudden outburst of irritation.
Put that thing OUT
"What is in there?" She insisted
He anxiously ran his hand through his hair – something he used to do as a kid when he knew he was in deep trouble. A habit he had long lost, something he used to do when he felt insecure –
He forcefully dropped his arm down.
"A book," He breathed out. "A Black Book."
Can't you hear it breathe?
She frowned. "How will a book get us back to the surface?"
He gave a nervous chuckle. "Whoever said anything about going back up? It'll get us out of here, straight to Apocrypha."
She paled, and he felt a childish sense of victory that he was no longer the only one afraid.
"And that would be…?"
"Oblivion," He clarified. "More specifically, Hermaeus Mora's plane."
She leaned her back against the wall and closed her eyes, then let out a deep breath.
"You've been there before, I take it?"
No, not really, I wonder what kind of marvels we'll find there you goddamn BITCH –
He resumed his walk towards the room. One step, two steps, three steps, THUD THUD THUD THUD
He stopped where the hall opened into a room and she bumped into his back. He saw red. Clenching his fists, he couldn't keep a growl from escaping his throat. He breathed, in and out. In and out. It seemed to clear his head a little.
You're hysterical. Get a hold of yourself.
He knew dragons were not prone to panic. No, that was himself, his very human self. The fucking magelight entered the room, illuminating it, and sure enough, on the middle, on top of a pedestal, there it was – the Black Book. He walked over to it, dreading every step.
It emitted a faint green light, the ever familiar mixture of pincers and tentacles on the cover. Every muscle of his body seemed to tense when he approached it. He didn't want to go back there, by the Nine, he didn't want it so bad –
He lifted his arm, preventing the elf from getting any closer.
"It's eerie," She whispered.
"Yes," He replied absently. His mind was elsewhere.
"Knowledge is what you seek," Nocturnal's voice hummed in his mind. "Knowledge is what you always seek. And knowledge is Mora's sphere."
He closed his eyes and swallowed thickly.
That's it, then? I'm Miraak all over again.
"Oh, no," Nocturnal could feel the smile in the Prince's face. "Unlike your brother, you are never willing to pay the price of what you want. You are my child all the way."
He wasn't sure what to feel about that. It was – he just –
I can't help it. I can't help what I am. I can't change it.
The realization dawned on him like bucket of cold water on a warm day. Shocking, but also refreshing. He felt like a weight had been lifted off his chest.
"No, you can't," The Prince agreed. "An unfortunate price of being born of an Aedra. Man and dragon, mortal and divine, the unchanging result of opposing equal forces – you are stasis in its purest form. Ever the same, yet beautifully chaotic."
He'd always seen Aedra and Daedra as fighting opposites, but right then, a new possibility crossed his mind. Maybe the Daedra stuck around because the Aedra were the greatest source of entertainment known. Maybe all they had to do was give a little nudge, then sit back and laugh.
"But you can choose," Nocturnal continued. "You can choose. You are the same, but the universe around you doesn't have to be. You will push the world harder than it pushes back."
Suddenly the weight was back and doubled. An image of Paarthurnax flashed through his mind, those very same words coming out of his mouth.
But power is inert without action and choice.
"Yes. The old dragon knows his words well. What will you do then, Dragonborn?"
"I want to go home," He muttered, not realizing he'd said it out loud.
"Are you all right? …Colin?"
Arya's hands on his shoulders, shaking him. His eyes snapped open.
"I'm good," He muttered in a not very convincing tone.
"Is that what you really want?"
A twisting feeling in his gut. Was it? Was that what he really wanted?
"Put out the lights. Dive into darkness, and I shall take you back."
The offer surprised him.
Just like that? You want nothing in return?
"Oh, I'm willing to do it just this once," Nocturnal replied with a hint of amusement. "I will even drop off your friend in the closest city."
That was unusually generous from a Daedra, even for Nocturnal, and he couldn't help but think he was missing something. He looked at the Black Book again. He wanted to go home, and still… he also wanted to know.
He blinked, focusing his gaze on her. "I, ah, zoned out for a moment. Sorry."
She gave him a look of concern. "This thing is affecting you."
Maybe you could take her? Only her – I'll find my way out.
"Oh, no, no, no," The daedra laughed. "I'm giving you an option, but I have no intention of making it easy."
He bit his lower lip. "It'll hurt, Little Elf. Entering Apocrypha, I mean. It'll hurt body, mind and soul. It'll be worse than anything you could ever imagine."
She recoiled. He realized she had still been holding his shoulders. Would she make it through? Serana would. Aela would. Bryn and Karliah would. Frea had no daedric taint on her, but she'd looked Herma-Mora in the eyes and not flinched; that was more than even he could claim. He was positive his Skaal friend could survive Apocrypha. But would Arya? He didn't know. There were just so many things that could go wrong.
"You could die from the pain, and you could die from the shock." He muttered. "The very crossing from Mundus to pure Oblivion could kill you. And once you're in there, you'll wish you had died."
He wanted to know. He wasn't sure what he would uncover by reading the Black Book, but he wanted it nonetheless. He wanted it just as much as he wanted to go home – no, he wanted it even more. He was not afraid of not returning to Nirn – he was absolutely sure he would, sooner or later. But this, this Black Book… it was his only chance.
"You could be trapped there," He continued. "You could become…one of them. A Seeker. A Lurker. Apocrypha won't hesitate to seize your soul. And Mora is not like Nocturnal. Not even like Hircine. It… it is one of the bad ones. Not violent as Dagon and Molag, not even repulsive as Namira , but really, really bad. Hermaeus is its own particular definition of horror."
Could he do it? Could he survive Apocrypha once more? Possibly. He'd done it before, could he do it again? Probably. He was confident. Terrified, but confident. He knew he could die; he knew the odds would be against him. But there was also the possibility of him making it through, and just knowing that was enough. Arya might not be so lucky, both literally and metaphorically.
He gave her a long look. Her paleness wasn't just because of the white light illuminating them. She was scared. He was scared, too, but he realized then that it was a very different kind of fright. He didn't need to fear for his soul – he was what he was and that was it. Stasis. Beautifully chaotic.
She, on the other hand… her essence wasn't unchangeable. Whilst even his death would only release him, she could become an Apocrypha horror. And that was the real heart of the matter. Could he put her through that? Could he put her soul on the line for his own ambitions?
"Are you sure you want to do this?" He asked.
"Are there any options?" She asked, her voice small.
He could tell her about Nocturnal's offer, but he didn't. That was his decision, not hers. Instead, he ran his fingers lightly over the edge of his blade.
"There are some things…" He hesitated. "Some things are worse than death."
Her eyes widened as she realized what he was suggesting. Dovahkiin wondered what his friends would do on her place. Serana would try to talk him out of it, yet she'd follow him in if she failed. "Think I'll let you in there alone? You can't handle yourself without me." Aela, on the other hand, would not only refuse but also stop him from going as well. She'd dig their way out with him tied on her back, if necessary.
Bryn and Karliah would bail out somehow; the two would never go along with his ambition. "Go ahead, lad. It's your stupid ass. I'm outta here." And Frea… she would take the sword. Somehow, he was absolutely sure that if it came down to that, his Skaal friend would choose death over Apocrypha. "Do not let Herma-Mora lure you down further that path," She had said. And yet, there he was.
"That is not an alternative" She snapped. "It's not like I have any choice."
A man chooses, a slave obeys.
A flare of anger. That was it, then. The decision of his fate – and hers – fell on his shoulders.
"No," He agreed. "No, you don't."
Could he do it? Could he risk a friend that way? But he did give her an option. Still, maybe he should say the truth – the whole truth. That there was a third way out. No, he wouldn't. How far did his ambition go? Paarthurnax would tell him to fight it. Odahviing would tell him to go along. And Nocturnal… he suspected what he picked didn't really matter for her, as long as he actually picked it. Could he do it? Would he do it?
He rested a hand on the Black Book's cover, and it throbbed beneath his fingers – like Arya's pulse had just a few moments before. The tentacles on the figure began writhing, making his skin crawl. Right then, he knew what his answer would be. Could he? Would he?
Oh, yes. Yes, he could. Yes, he would.
With a quick twitch of his fingers, he flipped the book open.
"The first ones were brothers," He read out loud. "Anu and Padomay. They came into the Void, and Time began. As Anu and Padomay wandered the void, the interplay of Light and Darkness created Nir. Both Anu and Padomay were amazed and delighted with her appearance, but she loved Anu, and Padomay retreated from them in bitterness."
The letters began to shimmer, and he felt a tear start to open between the worlds. He accelerated his pace.
"Nir became pregnant, but before she gave birth, Padomay returned, professing his love for Nir. She told him that she loved only Anu, and Padomay beat her in rage. Anu returned, fought Padomay, and cast him outside Time. Nir gave birth to Creation, but died from her injuries soon after. Anu, grieving, hid himself in the sun and slept."
Huh. Guess even gods have women trouble.
He didn't elaborate further on the thought. The lines twisted and turned, floating off the book and gaining shape as Hermaeus Mora's tentacles. He braced himself, but there was no preparing for what came next. He begged himself to lose consciousness quickly, but even as everything went dark, he could still hear his own screams of agony and fear.
You guys can see I raised the rating to M. I'm mostly doing it just to be safe, but it also means I can get away with more swearing, which, as you probably notice, I'm making plenty of use.
This one chapter fell completely out of my planning - I was going to do Apocrypha and ended up doing Skyrim instead. It was a major struggle, too - as I go, it gets harder and harder to try and keep everyone in character. I guess this is why I went for Serana; it felt refreshing to write someone new.
On a side note, did anyone see the Elder Scrolls online trailers? I have sort of mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it looks awesome. On the other, it is an MMO, which I don't particularly like, and subscription based, which I can't particularly afford.
I'm living a busy life at the moment so the next chapter might take even longer - deepest apologies for that. Thanks for everyone who messaged, reviewed, favorited and followed - you guys keep me writing when I just want to kick the bucket.
And to all those who stick around despite my ridiculously slow updates - thanks for reading!