'I... I think I will make a quick dash outside and check the road. You know, there just might be a traveller somewhere out there that's come to Rorikstead in search of a mercenary,' Erik said - somewhat sheepishly, for dashing outside and checking the road was about the only thing he had been doing since morning, apart from restlessly pacing around the inn with his hands thrust behind his back.
'There, there, son,' Mralki smiled, leaning over across his counter and making a most sincere attempt to give Erik an encouraging pat on the shoulder (thwarted by Erik shaking his hand off). 'Have a rest. It's only been a day since we fitted you for armour'.
'A day!' Erik exclaimed in rather over-melodramatic exasperation. 'More like a year! Why - why won't anyone hire me?!'
Mralki shook his head with a soft sigh, 'Patience, my boy, patience. Crops don't grow overnight, you know'.
Erik snorted. 'Yeah. Right. I learned it the hard way,' he muttered darkly.
'It's the same with everything else in life,' Mralki went on, closely eyed by his son, who found this sudden philosophic mood rather suspicious. 'You can't get what you want the moment you want it. I remember when you were little, and I would come home on my leave from the army, your mother and I used to take you to Whiterun to shop - and when you saw all those impossible treats in the sweet merchant's stand, you had a real fit. You just had to have them - all of them. At once. And it didn't matter to you that your mother and I could not afford half of all those things, or that you were not that hungry... You wanted the whole stand to be magically transported into your pockets at the snap of your fingers, as simple as that'.
Erik pouted. 'Will you ever stop feeding me these countless yarns of yours about how I was little?' he asked, his voice unnecessarily loud and almost tearful. 'You still think I am a boy, don't you?' the tearfulness seemed to have increased by several degrees, along with the volume. 'Well, guess what, I am not! And if travellers in need don't come looking for me here, I will go and find them myself!'
But the door had already been slammed, and when Mralki limped up to it and peered out into the evening gloom, Erik was but a small (but very defiant) dot, marching off into the wilderness. Mralki made a broad step forward - and clutched at the doorpost, wincing with pain. His old war wound had chosen a really bad time to start acting up.
For a while, Erik walked at a very fast pace, gazing straight in front of him and taking deep, gasping breaths of air - not as much to appreciate its invigorating freshness, as to calm the anger that was simmering inside of him (righteous anger, he told himself, though some sly imp at the back of his mind kept whispering the word 'childish'). Then, gradually, he slowed down and glanced around, eyes widened, listening intently, his mind strained in an attempt to register the elusive something that had distracted him from his mental soliloquy on the eternal subject of the generation gap. But the something was gone, dissolved in the rustling of the grass along the crisscrossing paths of small animals, the sleepy croaking of the frogs and the monotonous song of some solitary cricket. Erik shook his head violently, like a dog getting water out of its ears, and started speeding up again. And then the something surfaced again out of the sea of muffled nighttime noises - this time, much louder, much clearer, much more alarming. The shrill, echoing call of a dragon.
Erik's first instinct was to race back home, to the (relative) safety of his father's inn - but he suppressed it, blushing at his own cowardice. 'This is my chance to become a hero,' he whispered determinedly, commanding his shaking legs to remain fixed on one spot and bracing himself for the blood-freezing swoosh of wings and the first sight of the approaching dragon.
He had stood there for just about half a minute, blinking dazedly at the great expanse of the sky, his stomach contracting at the thought that every moment this perfect starry stillness might be shattered - and then events started unfolding, far too rapidly, and, well, far too far from the way Erik had begun to plan. He did not even have time to unsheathe his brand new greatsword - the tremendous thud with which the dragon landed knocked him off his feet. He rolled over several times and then lay still on his stomach, his left arm bent awkwardly beneath his body, the rough edges of his armour cutting deep into his flesh, and gaped at the scaly snout looming in front of him, nostrils dilating, sniffing the air raspingly - almost like a dog sniffs at something it has discovered in the gutter to make sure it is edible. Then, with excruciating deliberation - or maybe it seemed so to Erik, whose mind was stupefied with terror and whose blank, tear-filled eyes perceived everything in slow motion - the dragon opened its mouth, and breathed out what sounded almost like a word, in some strange tongue, old and terrible; and with that word, came fire, or maybe the word was fire... He really couldn't care less.
'Gods, this is going to hurt,' Erik thought, screwing up his eyes, his very soul seeming to shrink and hide in some remote corner of his body. But the wild pain he was expecting never came. The skin on his face did sting, but no more than if he had sat too close to the fire and been scorched by a flake of ash. He opened his eyes, blinking off tears - and gave a faint, half-strangled gasp. Hovering between him and the dragon, there was a shadow, tall and vaguely human-like, with an enormous, bulbous head, long clawed arms, and grotesque, tendril-like wings supporting it in the air. The soles of its feet almost scraped Erik's face, and as it slid forward towards the dragon, he felt a drop of something dark and hot land on his forehead. It was - had to be - the creature's blood; it must have taken the whole impact of the dragon's fiery breath onto itself... Erik checked his wandering thoughts; this was not the time for speculation. All heroism abandoned, he thrust his arm free from beneath his armour and, biting into his lower lip with the effort, started crawling away from the two monsters that rose together into the air and clashed with one another like something out of a horrible fever dream.
He paused under the cover of a large rock to catch his breath and then, curiosity getting the better of him, scrambled up awkwardly to a squatting position and lifted his head slowly over the rock's edge to see how the fight was going. It was certainly not something you saw every day, and gradually Erik felt the fear ebb away from him and even had to clap his hands over his mouth to suppress the urge to shout, 'Oh boy oh boy oh boy, look at 'em go!'.
The winged creature, though apparently much weakened by the first blast of dragon fire, still made a spectacular job of dodging new ones and at the same time conjuring in its cupped claws gigantic blood red orbs of light, which seemed to suck away the great beast's very life force till its wings could no longer support it and it lowered itself onto the ground again. And once - Erik almost squealed with excitement - the... thing cast another spell that reanimated a dead elk that had been lying in the nearby bushes, chunks of its flesh torn away by wolves. As this half-gnawed carcass raised its antlered head and looked around, swaying slightly on its unsteady legs, held together by fine threads of dazzling blue, the dragon turned away from its adversary, probably just as curious as Erik about this new participant on the battlefield (though obviously not as inclined to retch) - and the winged thing used this momentary distraction to dart at the dragon and plunge its claws deep into its neck. At this point, the amount of blood cascading in all directions made Erik resume his retching, which eventually lead to the shameful exodus of one big hearty meal - cooked oh so well by his father - into the grass. When he dared to look up again, the dragon was nothing but a smoking pile of bones, and the winged creature was squatting down in front of it, its chest heaving, blood dripping down its repulsive, bat-like face. Before he himself could realize it, his heroism awoke once again. 'Hey there!' the hero's voice called out within Erik's mind. 'This whatever is in bad shape after its fight with the dragon - you can easily finish it off with one shot of your bow. Then you can return to Rorikstead and bring back its claws as your trophy - no, make that the whole damn head! Throw in a couple of dragon bones, and you will be the hero of the village... And then they all will see... Father will see...'
Erik smiled a slow, dreamy smile and reached out for his bow. But there was one thing the hero within him had not considered - he was trying to fire a real shot for the first time in his life. He fumbled with the arrow - which insisted on slipping out of his grasp or pointing in the wrong direction - for too long and released the string too soon (it made deep cuts in his fingers, and he was frustrated by not getting his aim straight)... In short, Erik's arrow soared well above the creature's head, alerting it of his presence. With a loud screech, the winged thing dissolved into a dark cloud of bats and flew off towards the rising sun. Anger at his own clumsiness and fear of losing his prize making him suddenly agile, Erik leaped from behind his rock and darted across the plain after the bats; he passed the dragon's charred remains on his way and had half a mind to grab a bone or two and say to the folk at home it was he who had killed the monster - but then thought better of it and ran off to what he hoped would be his very first real battle.
The battle began soon enough, but it was not with the bats. As Erik raced through the wilds, panting and puffing and clanking his armour and tearing through the bushes with more noise than an Imperial regiment, he alerted a sleeping bear. On the one hand, this gave him an excellent opportunity to dwell on the origins of the simile 'as cross as a bear' - on the other hand, he would have preferred to do his dwelling while not desperately dodging the crushing blows of massive clawed paws. No matter how much strength he put into swinging his greatsword madly in front of the enraged mount of dark fur, he never seemed to hit it. Finally, when he brought himself to admitting that he was once again failing miserably at his hero work, he made a beeline - too bad the bear did not seem to be the one for wordplay - for what looked like the entrance to a cave, too narrow for the beast to climb through, but just wide enough for him. The bear followed close at his heels, and when he flung himself inside the cool stony semi-darkness, it tried to squeeze it after him, snapping its sagging, drooling jaws. Erik crawled deeper into the cavern, pushing himself forward with his arms, facing the bear and kicking at its snout frantically with his boots, - until he felt his back bump into something definitely alive. Erik screeched with fright and wheeled around, as far as his awkward pose allowed him. Sitting on the floor of the cave, preparing for himself a makeshift bed out of animal pelts, was a Bosmer, lean and dark-haired and rather unhealthily pale (or maybe it seemed so in the poor light); he glanced at Erik over his shoulder with an air of mild, somewhat bored curiosity, and as he moved, Erik caught a glimpse of a dagger hidden beneath his fur cloak.
'D-don't touch me!' he stammered, grabbing at his greatsword with shaking, sweaty hands. 'I'm... I'm armed!'
'I can see that,' the Bosmer remarked calmly. 'Armed, and legged, and bodied and headed - though the latter part is most likely empty as a werewolf's belly at moonrise'.
'Very funny,' Erik grumbled.
The bear, who had been abandoned during their little conversation, tried to draw attention to itself with an angry roar. The Bosmer moved the corners of his lips upwards, baring the tips of his teeth in a rather peculiar kind of faint smile, 'Let me take care of your furry little friend here, then we will discuss the peculiarities of my humour'. He sprung up to his feet lightly, went up to the cave's entrance, looked straight into the bear's bloodshot little eyes, and uttered a low, guttural growl. The bear instantly stopped clawing at the stone walls and withdrew, its whole air meek, almost apologetic.
'Now, where were we?' the Bosmer asked, returning to his seat and scrutinizing the rather flabbergasted Erik - he had heard of the special Bosmeri power of talking to animals, but had never seen it used before - his eyes glinting like two fireflies beneath a lowered hood. 'Ah, yes. You think I am a bandit, am I right? A Wood Elf, wearing fur armour, sitting in a cave, armed...' Erik gave a small, nervous laugh. 'Now if you could kindly brush the dust off your brain and use it for the purpose the gods intended for it. Think. If I was a bandit, looking to slit your throat and take your gold - which I don't even think you have - would I be sitting here with you, chatting like this, and graciously scaring bears away?'
'Oh, so you are not a bandit?' Erik asked, sounding immensely relieved. 'Oh, I know - you must be a hunter then! A lot of your people are hunters, right?'
The Bosmer's lips once again made that odd, smile-like movement, as he slowly lowered himself onto his bed of fur, 'Yes, I suppose you could call it that - for lack of a better word... Now, if you don't mind, I've been up all night - hunting, if you will - and I'd like to take a well-deserved rest. And I don'twant any farm boys breathing down my neck while I'm at it'.
Erik looked offended. 'Are you telling me to leave? That's not very friendly of you, you know. And I am not a farm boy - I am an adventurer! I am tracking down a terrible monster so I can slay it and rid the people of my hold of the menace that's lurking in the wilds!'
He blurted the last phrase out so fast that he had to catch his breath. The Bosmer took advantage of this little pause to ask mockingly, 'Oh? And what does your monster look like? Is it any less fearsome than the little bear that nearly chewed your legs off?'.
Erik went into an instant sulk. 'Knock it off, will you? I may be a beginner, but I am this close to making my first major heroic feat! And, uh...' he coughed and blushed a little, 'I am not too sure what the monster looks like. First it was big and grey and kinda human-like, though with claws and wings and things - and then it turned into a cloud of bats... So the next time I find it, it might be something completely different'.
This time, the Bosmer almost smiled for real. 'Good thinking, young tracker,' he said, stretching languidly. 'I might consider taking back that tirade about your brain'.
Erik made no reply; he stared, transfixed, at the Bosmer's chest, which he had bared by casually unbuckling his cloak - or rather, at the deep burn marks that were covering it in a dark, scabby layer.
'Your- your skin!' he gasped at long last, pointing a trembling finger at the burns.
The Bosmer's eyes narrowed to two slits of reddish-yellow flame. 'Ah, you noticed? It was worse, but I rubbed some ointment in. Wheat and blisterwort. Works wonders'.
'But... Who... What... How... How did you get like this?' Erik stammered.
'Think'. The Bosmer sounded as if he was teasing him, egging him on, pushing him towards some discovery...
After an eternity of silence, during which the Bosmer did not take his burning eyes off Erik for a single moment, the poor would-be-hero made an enormous, loud gulp and whispered, his eyes bulging with the sudden thought for which the Bosmer had been waiting to occur, 'It... It was you! The big grey thing!'
'It's called a Vampire Lord - just so you know,' the Bosmer said idly, putting the back of his hand over his mouth to suppress a (most likely fake) yawn.
'You are a vampire!' Erik breathed, backing away towards the cave's entrance and almost tumbling over a stone that got in his way (him, naturally, being too occupied with staring to watch his step).
'It didn't take you that long to figure it out. But then, I was giving you hints,' the Bosmer said, his tone very strange - almost... cheerful. 'You see, I find it rather entertaining to observe people's face as they realize who they are dealing with. To think that the first couple of times upset me... Any man or mer at a young age - and I am still young, even by mortal standards - has this strange urge to 'make friends', and when people refuse to have anything to do with you because of what you are... it rather wounds your heart. Speaking of wounds, will you finish me off now? Slay your elusive, shape-shifting monster? That dragon almost burned me to a crisp - did half your work for you...'
'Wait!' Erik checked the Bosmer's flow of eloquence with a frantic gesture, frowning. 'Why did you do it? Why did you stand between me and the dragon?'
'You may assume that I wanted to deprive it of its midnight snack... But that doesn't make sense, does it? N that case, I would have turned on you there and then - or here and now, for that matter. But I don't prey on piteous little things like you... No, I wanted to save my investment'.
'Your... investment?' Erik echoed, his frown growing deeper.
'My little bag of septims, placed so generously on your father's counter so he could buy you some armour,' the Bosmer elaborated graciously. 'You two poor superstitious Nords thought it was a gift from the Divines, but it was something quite different... Erik the Slayer?'
Erik's expression reached a whole new level of amazement. 'How do you know my name?'
'Because, among many other fascinating things, I can turn invisible. And when you are invisible, you tend to overhear most interesting things. Fathers and sons arguing, for instance... Now I take it your curiosity is satisfied and you are not going to kill me - unless you are one of those heroes who listen to the bad guy ramble before making their move... If you are not one of those heroes, do vacate this cavern and allow me to slumber the slumber of the dead'.
And without further ado, the vampire crossed his hands on his chest, closed his blazing eyes, and with a deep sigh, sank into sleep. Hours later, when he woke up, Erik was still there. 'Who's Serana?' he asked innocently.