A/N: For those of you who know me, first and foremost, an apology if you're disappointed reading this. If I'm on any of your subscriptions, odds are it's because of "Entre l'Amour et la Mort". I'm sorry I'm not presenting you with a new chapter tonight. I know I left the story at a cruel place, but I've been writing it for a very long while now. In fact, I've only ever written Hollows stuff, even though I haven't been able to stomach those books for over two years now. That's a lot of time writing about stories, characters and plots I stopped caring about. I'm not abandoning "Entre", but I am taking a break from it and trying my hand at something different. It's still femslash, and it's actually also about a black-haired vampire princess. She's not Ivy Tamwood, but then again, who is?

To those who don't know me. A big thanks for clicking that link and taking a chance. I hope you enjoy my take on the Dawnguard storyline.

And finally, a big thank you to the elder scroll wiki contributors for helping me nail as many historic details from the elder scroll universe as I could. If it tastes authentic, it's thanks to these folks. If it doesn't... my bad?

Prologue: A fateful night

One could learn a lot from listening to the ambient noises filling the common room of the Winking Skeever Inn. Winter may have given way to spring twenty-seven times since the end of the last civil war, in which the rebellious Stormcloaks had won the independence of their lands from the Cyrodiilic Empire, but still the discontented whispers remained, filling the dark corners of these once cheerful halls. It was to be expected in this city of Solitude; the former capital was the last bastion of the Empire to fall in the rebellions. No amounts of mead or ale could wash the bitter taste of defeat from these mouths. Nord honour tends to hold on to grudges, like blood seeped into a cloth that was never to be clean again. No amount of mercy could sway their hearts either, not even the grace our current High King and then victorious rebel leader had granted to Solitude's queen, not only in sparing her life but in allowing her to keep a title of Jarl as well her hold.

The civil war had been long and bloody, its cause rooted in the great conflict between the Empire and the Elven Aldmeri Dominion, a supremacist faction of elves. Over fifty years ago, a united force of Bosmer and Altmer out of Valenwood and the Summerset Isles presented emperor Titus Medes the Second with an impossible ultimatum. He was to surrender a large portion of the Empire's western-most province to the Thalmor, the Dominion's ruling body; to allow its agents oversight into his entire government; to disband the secretive order of elite spies and assorted agents known as the Blades; and finally, to outlaw the worship of Talos, the hero-god of mankind, ascended from mortality for his unparallel deeds in life, and an unparallel affront to mer who clung to ideals predating the ascendency of men. Refusal to comply would result in open war, and refusal was the emperor's swift and unadulterated reply to this sudden and unprovoked challenge, prompting an immediate, theatrical response from the Dominion; to send the heads of every Blade agent who had been active in the Dominion's territory to the Imperial palace.

Thus had begun the Great War. The Dominion's relentless onslaught lasted five long, bloody years. Five years of untold carnage and atrocities, the crux of which was the sacking of the Imperial City itself. Though the battle lines shifted many times, often in favour of the elves, the Empire held strong, eventually fighting its enemies into a standstill, in no small part due to the heroic efforts of the Redguards of the province of Hammerfell, and my own people, the Nords of Skyrim. The price in blood was steep; the extent of the devastation defying comprehension, but a clear victory remained elusive. Rather than keep fighting what many had begun to feel was a pointless war, Titus Medes opened talks once more with the Thalmor. The peace treaty between both powers was known as the White-Gold Concordat, an accord heavily favouring the Thalmor and in essence giving in to their demands, just as they were before the war. Needless to say, the terms did not go down easily for everyone. Imperials and their Bretons ally were more than glad just to achieve peace, no matter the cost; Nords and Redguards were not convinced. Included in the terms of the treaty was the ceding of much of Hammerfell to the Dominion, as well as the outlaw of the worship of Talos, who in life had been Tiber Septim, greatest of Nord heroes. The Redguard forces returned to their homeland to fight on, eventually managing to secure their borders against the Dominion, despite the Empire upholding the Concordat by rejecting Hammerfell as an Imperial province and abandoning them to their fates. The Nord legions grudgingly marched back to Skyrim, only to find their own homeland, spared by war thus far, far different from what they had left.

Thalmor emissaries now walked the streets of their cities, as was the elves' right under the new treaty, ensuring the complete obliteration of the clergy of the ninth. Those who did not comply were simply dragged away into the night while their families watched powerlessly. Skyrim's former blessing, to have remained unspoiled by the great war due to its location on the opposite of the continent from the Dominion, became a curse once the Empire levied the funds it required to rebuild from whichever province could provide them. With Hammerfell lost, Dominion influence overriding Imperial authority in Elseweyr, and the Dark Elf province of Morrowind still recovering from the eruption of the red mountain over a century prior, much of that financial burden fell upon the prosperous cities of Skyrim and High Rock. The Nords' reward for the blood they spilled away from their homeland was impoverishment and indentured servitude to overlords that despised them, and watching from a distance while their Redguard brothers-in-arms achieved the victory they were denied by Thalmor appeasers. To many, this was too much to take, none more so than Ulfric Stormcloak, a veteran of the Great War and son to the deceased Jarl of Windhelm, the oldest human city in all of Tamriel. Sparks of discord began to ignite in his wake as he came into his title and birthright; his outspoken cries against the Empire he felt had failed the Nords became the epicenter of a of genuine movement of rebellion and independence that swept across Skyrim, named after their leader, the Stormcloaks. So great was the discontent, so many were the voices that joined his, that it was not long before he had the followers required to attempt a coup and make a play for the crown.

In accordance with ancient Nordic custom, Ulfric challenged and defeated the former High King Torygg in a duel to the death, declaring his intentions in the most spectacular fashion a Nord could. In one fell swoop, the usurper tore his opponent apart, by summoning the ancient and sacred power of the Voice, or Thu'um, in the dragon tongue. The honour of Ulfric's victory is a point of history many in Skyrim disagree on to this day. Many claim the power of the Thu'um made the duel a ritualised murder at best. Others, that the Thu'um is no less rooted in the lore and traditions of Skyrim as any martial prowess, and that employing it was no less honourable than striking down the king with a blade. Regardless, the point is moot. Ulfric's claim to the crown was rejected by Torygg's widow Elisif the fair, who sought out Imperial aid to defend the legitimacy of her own rule. Civil war was unavoidable.

In a strange twist of fate, Ulfric very nearly met the same fate the Empire did in the previous war against the Thalmor. Towards the end of the war, some thirty years ago, the Jarl of Windhelm fell victim to an Imperial ambush near Skyrim's southern border. Bound and gagged, on his way to the headsman's block, the end of the road appeared to be drawing near for the would-be king. Along with his men and a handful of unfortunate souls, Ulfric was taken to the fortress town of Helgen, where an unceremonious summary execution awaited him under the watchful gaze of Imperial general Tulius and Thalmor ambassador to Skyrim Elenwen.

Fate, however, always had a sense of humour.

That day in Helgen turned out to be more pivotal than any mortal could have conceived; it coincided with the first recorded dragon attack in over two whole eras, and the beginning of what would become known as the dragon crisis. Helgen was burned to the ground by a single, seemingly invincible beast that day, leaving scores of charred corpses behind in the ruins. Yet despite being taken prisoner, the rebel Jarl escaped, for all intents and purposes unscathed, with his followers and a new ally in tow; an unassuming Nord man returning to his homeland from Cyrodiil, captured in the same ambush as the rebels. The Jarl returned to Windhelm, and the waning conflict between Nord brothers waxed once more. From that point forward, however, never again were the loyalists to claim victory. The standstill was shattered, and one by one, starting with Whiterun in the central plains all the way to the coast of Solitude, every city fell. Once more, over the corpses of the last imperial troops and their slain general, Ulfric stared down Elisif the fair, this time, not as two pretenders for the throne, but as conquered and conqueror. From that day forth, Skyrim was free. For better, or worse.

That Elisif still rules Solitude, nay, that she still draws breath to this day is a confounding piece of the riddle that was the Stormcloak victory, one that is often chalked up to simple pragmatism. While Jarl Ulfric's mercy had prevented any further uprisings in the months leading up to his inevitable coronation, the inhabitants of Solitude had never truly gotten over their sudden and resounding defeat at his hand. It did not matter in their minds that once the Dovahkiin, the simple man met at Helgen, now a legendary hero known to more common folks as the Dragonborn, had rejoined the Stormcloak's campaign, the rebel advance had turned into a calamity worthy of Kyne's greatest wrath. That the rest of loyalist Skyrim had, just like them, folded like a house of cards, without exception. It did not matter that the other vanquished had neither fared better in battle or in the aftermath. If anything, it wounded their prides deeper that they were not the ones who could hold the line against that tide. They prided themselves as being a special breed, set apart from more common men. Ironic that they would have share this prideful trait with the "true sons and daughters" of Skyrim that had defeated them

All of that history was echoed in the drone of conversation in the inn's common room, the crackling of the fires and the ballads of the bards not enough to drown out the tales of lost honour or the tense murmurs of impotent conspiracy and dissidence, shared by like-minded individuals who knew they were powerless to change their lot. Skyrim had been its own nation for decades now, but the passage of time was seldom enough to quiet them for any length. Not often does the inn fall silent, like a man lost in the forest holding his breath as a hungry beast stalks by. Such a silence generally announces the entrance of the city watch, coming to arrest some drunken lout dancing on the tables, or even the drawing of knives and swords when idiots in their cups come to blows. The apparition of soldiers clad in the dark red armour of Solitude's guard, all of its members sworn followers of our High King would always guiltily silence those that seconds earlier swore bloody revenge on every last supporter of the usurper. Politics... enough to drive a woman mad sometimes.

However, the entrance that cast a dramatic, paranoid silence into the room was not that of the guard, but rather a lone figure, unfamiliar, unexpected. A stranger. An unknown. In the patron's mind, a threat, a possible spy. In mine? A footnote. While the sudden, and welcome, silence made me take notice of the newly arrived patron and the measured cadence of his boot falls as he made his way towards the bar, my eyes did not linger on his cloaked form for more than a few heartbeats. For good or ill will, I have long since lost my fascination with traveling adventurers, travelers or assorted sellswords, being a mercenary by trade myself, and one who has traveled all across Skyrim in the past decade. Generally I am the one causing silence and attracting glares whenever I make an entrance anywhere, although a month working at clearing the marshes surrounding Solitude from a sudden and unexplained infestation of frostbite spiders, chaurii and trolls had helped the locals warm up to me. I almost trusted the bartender enough to turn my back on him while he poured my drinks now. Almost.

It made the entrance of the man even more of a footnote in my mind that I was busy studying a map of the surrounding burial sites and caverns, the usual lairs of the creatures I had been exterminating at a satisfying premium for the past few weeks. While the creatures had been a problem, the Jarl's steward who hired me was wise enough to realise they were a symptom, not the cause of the actual disease. The true question was now what had driven normally insular creatures like giant spiders and cave trolls from their lairs and to the surface, a question I was intent on tackling at first light the following day. The stranger was not worth my time, as long as his presence here did not involve daggers or spells pointing in my direction. Even on the wages of a royally appointed mercenary, tavern brawls are a costly hobby.

And this is how this fateful night found me; hunched over my maps, my thoughts on caverns, coins and the ever present debate whether to throw a few septims away or not for some company for the night. The latter was a more complex calculation than one might think, balancing my conscience and its distaste for my occasional hiring of prostitutes against the pressure growing in my loins I hadn't sated in over a month, far more than the coin in my purse. Taking advantage of another woman's desperation never sat well with me, reminding me too much of certain vicious creatures I had trained long and hard to track and eliminate. In the wake of the economic vacuum left by the secession of Skyrim from the Empire, desperation was not all that uncommon to come by. In these hard times, many young girls, especially those not of pure Nordic blood, grew up begging for their sustenance, only to move on to whoring themselves out for it when they came of age (or often even sooner, as much as the thought sickened me); there was little chance for them to improve their lot from there. The more cunning of them would find their way to the thieves' guild or some other conglomeration of petty criminals. Others would, by some charitable or divine intervention, find the strength to walk a path similar to mine, living by the sword, their heads held high amongst men. Most of the rest would wither away in the shadows of a world that was, for the moment, too absorbed in its grand struggles to notice the ones it left behind and forgot.

My, we are in a gloomy mood tonight, are we not? I thought to myself, running a hand slowly through the tangled mess of my wild, untameable hair, debating whether I could delay calling upon one of the women servicing the room for one more night. Thinking too hard about their situation would not miraculously change it. Though I was not deluded enough to think they somehow truly enjoyed their encounter with me, I was intimately convinced a night spent in my arms could not be as unpleasant to the women I paid as spreading their legs for the first drunken oaf who tossed a septim their way. Would that I could spare their dignities in the same way I spared their bodies pain, but my need was slowly coiling itself tighter than a drawn bowstring low inside of me. I needed release, and soon, but finding a willing lover that shared my own preferences was not the most common of occurrence, especially when I was constantly on the road, rarely staying in one place long enough to get to know someone well enough to share their bed. Other than the occasional adventurous tavern girl or curious country maiden, neither of which were available tonight, prostitutes were my sole option, distasteful as that option may be.

Resigned that I could not hold back my craving any longer, I let my gaze be drawn to a Redguard woman garbed in clothes distinctly lacking in modesty going around the common room, trying too hard to look fetching and coquettish for the benefit of her potential customers. She was young, barely more than a girl, to be perfectly honest, her body still gangly and skinny from a rough adolescence, and not used at all to plying her charms. Whereas many of her 'sisters' had been successful in reeling clients for the night, the young Redguard had yet to find her mark, despite the hour getting later and later. I could tell even from a distance that she was getting desperate, and I wondered if she would have a roof over her head or food in her belly tonight unless she brought in her share of coins. I did not care for the looks of the men she was starting to approach, and judging by their lack of female company, willing or bought, I doubted I was the only one. The matter was quickly settled in my mind. She was not strictly to my tastes, although her legs were definitely captivating, but the thought of her spending the night with one or more of the ruddy louts made my skin crawl. It was hardly honourable of me, but taking her upstairs with me once I retired would at least keep their paws off her for one more night.

Hypocrite. Such a flaming hypocrite... I gave a quiet mirthless chuckle at my own sudden protective impulse towards a young woman I planned to use and discard. Better hygiene and a more careful touch between the sheets did not make me any less ridden by my baser impulses than they were, as evidenced by my eyes raking my intended lover's slender frame. A more animal part of me was rising to the occasion to mentally undress her and imagine her naked, submissive and offered beneath me; I had to give my lust-clouded head a shake or two to break free of my dark contemplations. Oblivion take me, it had been too long since I had last felt the skin of another upon mine; though I held them in check, the urges were getting distracting, and I understood myself well enough to know ignoring them would not suffice for much longer. Abstinence was not a choice I could make for long.

Hastily, I finished plotting the route that would, come morning, take me to the nearest known frostbite brood lair so I could begin my investigation, the terrifying and loathed giant arachnids seeming to me like the most promising lead into whatever it was that was driving dangerous subterranean creatures to the surface in such numbers. I would be in for a few miles of hiking through difficult wetlands, but I could honestly only give the upcoming trek only a passing, dismissive thought. Before I even began putting the maps I'd spread out before me away, I took a quick look around the room for a waitress to settle my tab for the evening, only to freeze when I heard something that gave me pause.

The tell-tale sound of a purse of coins angrily tossed upon a hard surface cut through the hushed conversation like cheerful chimes betraying less than avowable intentions. It was a sound I always associated with a grudgingly delivered bribe, one that most often followed drawn-out and unfruitful negotiations. More worrying was the fact that the sound had come from the direction of the bar, where the stranger who had entered earlier and promptly slipped my mind stood, talking to the inn keeper in hushed tones I could not clearly make out. What I could see plain as day was the way the balding man was looking in my direction, which made a long string of mental expletives fill my thoughts. Immediately, I lowered my eyes back to the maps, hoping he hadn't noticed me noticing him and I hadn't squandered the element of surprise should the need for violence arise.

As discreetly as I could I pushed my chair back a few inches from the table, so I would have room to clear it if need be, and let my right arm slip into the broadening space between my body and the horizontal surface. My hand drifted slowly closer to my left hip, my index and middle fingers running slowly along the fine leather wrappings covering the handle of the long, wickedly sharp dagger I kept there at all times. My eyes traveled the roads and rivers etched into the worn paper without truly seeing them, my attention focused rather on my peripheral vision and my hearing. The stranger's boot falls resonated again in the somewhat quiet common room, louder and louder as he drew closer to me, making no effort not to be noticed, which did not befit any assassin worth their salt. Either the man meant me no harm, or he was confident enough to believe he had no need to surprise me in order to take me down. The realisation made me relax a fraction. If the former was true, there would be no bloodshed tonight; if the latter was, whoever it was approaching me so unwisely would likely not have time to realise the error of their ways before I slit their throat open.

I pretended to be absorbed in my maps until the stranger walked into my field of vision, waiting until that precise moment when I knew beyond doubt I was the object of his interest before I fully gripped the small handle at my waist, drawing the short blade a fraction of an inch out of its scabbard. Inhaling slowly through my nose I took in a deep but discreet breath, calming myself for the moment I would counter whatever his first move would be, either by ducking under the table if they flung a spell at me or pull them over it if they tried to swing a weapon. I was ready, ready to kill if need be, but as my exhale ended and I found myself inhaling again without having to spill blood to earn the right to my next breath, I realised I had overreacted. Still, I did not feel silly for bracing myself for an attack that never came. As my father often said, a killing blow can come from your own failures more easily than your opponent's merits.

Yet without lifting a finger, the man, and the stranger under that cloak was indeed a man, still managed to surprise me, although he did in a manner I could have scarcely braced against.

"Astlyr." I gasped when the man quietly spoke the two syllables of my name with a calm assurance, as if he knew my identity beyond a sliver of doubt. My eyes instantly went from the table top to his face, narrowing as my nose crinkled and the corner of my mouth curled into an annoyed scowl.

"If you have any business knowing that name, then you should also know I have not gone by it for a long time." I replied evenly after swallowing the sudden surge of annoyance. The light from a nearby candle cast deep shadows into the hood he had not drawn back, obscuring more than revealing his features. Out of habit, I gave my mysterious interlocutor a quick once-over, hoping to gain some insight into who he was. The cloak itself was little help; it was thick and as well-tailored as it was well-worn, the standard garb of any adventurer interested in surviving Skyrim's inclement weather long enough to be gored by some of its less hospitable fauna. If not for its light tan colour, I might have mistaken it for my own. What lay under the cloak however, was far more telling. The man was in full armour, but of a make and style quite uncommon to these parts. His was not the typical hide or leather armour worn by the gallery of rogues and brigands that gave the roads of my homeland a veritable taste for blood, theirs or their quarry, or the ornate steel or iron cuirass commonly favoured by serious (or not so serious) soldiers of fortune. Instead, his armour consisted of a chest piece made of carefully woven plated mail, worn over a light gray arming doublet that fell to his mid-thighs. Sturdy leather pants protected his legs while still granting him critical mobility in the event of a scuffle, and his feet were protected equally well from glancing blows and frostbite by thick buckled boots. As the cloak parted when he reached upwards to pull back his hood, I also noted the assortment of pouches and satchels hanging from a number of belts around his waist, as well as the seemingly simple war axe suspended in an iron loop at his side. How strange that once again, if it was not for the differing colours, I might have mistaken his attire for my own. Well, there was also the obvious difference that my armour had been forged with the curves of a woman in mind, but the style and utility was unmistakable; it offered more than decent protection, without encumbering the wearer with the rigidity and bulk of full metal plates. Though familiar to me, the armour was more than unusual enough to draw the eye of the inn's clientele, as evidenced by the murmurs I heard coming from a neighbouring table.

"Dawnguard..." An awestruck man declared somewhere to my left, coming to the same conclusion I had seconds prior. Although I was puzzled that a commoner would know the armour of the reclusive order by sight, I paid them little heed, turning my attention back to the stranger's face he finally allowed the light to touch. Like me, he was dark of hair and fair of skin, although his loose brown hair looked insouciantly ruffled where mine was simply wild and unruly the second I shook it loose from its braid. His feature exuded a rugged charm, and there was an easygoing look in his eyes that contrasted sharply with his attire, or the carnage I knew he was capable of unleashing.

"Celann." I rigidly nodded my head to the vampire hunter, and my former comrade in arms.

"Eleanor, then. It is still Eleanor, right?" Celann mockingly asked me, making my eyes narrow again. "I seem remember that was the latest name that struck your fancy."

"It is a good name. And more importantly, it is a name I earned." I replied, trying and failing not to sound defensive. There were reasons why I did not go by the name my mother had given me.

"Ha. Right. You and your issues. I had hoped striking out on your own would give you time to get over them. Shows what I know."

"My issues with that name are my own, hunter." I told him off, not the slightest bit amused by his teasing. "They are not yours to mock or dismiss, nor are they the Dawnguard's. Especially not the Dawnguard's."

"As you wish, Eleanor." Celann said with a touch of irony before nonchalantly seating himself across from me.

"No, by all means, do not remain standing. Have a seat." I dryly said, and gestured for the bartender to send over some drinks. I might have been none too pleased to see him, or any representative from the Dawnguard save for a few, but what kind of Nord fails to offer a drink to someone who stood at their side in battle, no matter how poorly their last meeting went? "What do you want?"

"I was also worried you would greet me with a blade. I'm glad to know I was wrong, and you've kept your cheerful disposi-." He was cut off when, already exasperated, I finally drew the dagger I had kept handy, and in one smooth motion drove it hard, tip first, into the wood of the table between us before casually reclining comfortably in my seat. "Oh. I see. You have greeted me with a blade after all." Although I knew Celann was not, could not be truly intimidated by my small outburst of aggression, it made me feel marginally better that I had managed to silence his glib tongue, if only for a moment.

"Celann, for your information, I have spent most of today knee-deep in a freezing swamp, covered in spider and troll gore." I sighed morosely. "I have another hard day ahead of me tomorrow. No, I am not pleased to see you, nor would I be pleased to see any other member of the order. I would say it is nothing personal, but we both know what a lie that would be."

"Yes, we do." Celann acknowledged after several long seconds holding my gaze, my last declaration accomplishing what a dagger sinking into solid wood could not and humbling him. "Forgive me. When I began looking for you, I was clinging to hope you might have forgiven the order, or at least those of us who stood by while Isran excommunicated you."

"There are few things I wish to linger upon less than that day." I warned him, my voice a low growl. I fell quiet for a moment as the bartender placed mugs of chilled mead before each of us, a disapproving scowl on his face at the sight of the dagger still sunk in the table. How terribly unfortunate for him that he had the lack of judgment to point Celann my way... "What. Do you. Want?" I slowly enunciated each syllable, fatigue and hunger eroding my patience with my former comrade at an alarming pace.

"I want you to come back." Celann declared after a few moments of terse silence he filled by taking a gulp of his mug. I blinked. "We need you." He gave me a steady stare as I blinked again, hoping to clear away the red rim threatening to engulf my vision. I was not successful.

"Excuse me?" I nearly stood up and shouted at his ludicrous request. "You need me to come back?!"

"I believe this is what I said." Celann calmly replied.

"And I cannot believe the nerve he has to send you-"

"No. Don't put words in my mouth, lass." Celann interrupted me. "I said 'we', as in the Dawnguard, need you. Not Isran. As far as he knows, I am only bringing word of a new threat to the Jarl of Solitude. The situation across Skyrim is severe and becoming worse by the day, but not so much yet that he would..." Apologise? "...you know."

"Of course he did not send you." I raged, my anger still as fresh as the day I last saw the fort the Dawnguard called home six years ago. Some wounds are simply not meant to heal, as evidenced by this jagged gash the rejection of my former comrade had left upon my heart. "Isran would not know to apologise to a mother dragon for trampling her nest! Why would a mere mortal such as me warrant such a lofty honour?"

"You are preaching to the converted, lass." Celann calmly tried to appease me. "You know not all of us were happy when he showed you the door."

"I can count them on the fingers of one hand, in fact." I spat out.

"When I heard of a mercenary with strange armour and weapons cleaning up the marshes by herself back in Morthal, I followed my gut feeling and swapped assignments with Mogrul so I could come to investigate." He shrugged, seemingly oblivious to the stormy mood his words were evoking in me. "Even if it had not been you, I might have found a decent recruit."

"A decent recruit..." I scoffed, burying my face in my hands in an attempt to keep myself from shouting. "By the Nine, I cannot believe this. Give me one good reason why I should walk back into fort Dawnguard like nothing happened. Just one!"

Celann regarded me grimly for several long seconds, his hands rolling the pewter mug around in a thoughtful tick. "Very well." He finally said. "We need you because for the first time in nearly a decade of existence, the Dawnguard is not simply providing a handy service to this land. In fact, we might finally be as desperately needed as Isran always said we would be."

This gave me pause. In fact, it brought me to a screeching halt. The Dawnguard is an organisation devoted to one purpose and one purpose only, and that is the extermination of vampires, wherever they may be found. While being dedicated to the hunt of the craftiest and most vicious breed of undead to ever walk Nirn sounded like a valid goal for those with the stomach and the mettle to go toe to toe with the beasts, in reality the vampire problem, in Skyrim at least, had never been bad enough to truly warrant our..., their presence. In most cases of vampire infestation, the folks of Skyrim tended to turn to the Vigil of Stendarr, a martial splinter group of the faith of the god of justice and mercy, one that dedicated itself to defending the faithful from all manners of unnatural threats. Their specialty might be daedra and all of their manifestations in our realm, but they would not eschew the chance to fight a vampire or two, and in their brief history this was always a sore point of rivalry between the two orders. In the end, while I could attest that the Dawnguards were hands down the better fighters, most common folks preferred to deal with a stern but kind-hearted missionary able to both strike down that which they could not and provide healing and comfort, rather than a lone, nearly fanatic hunter clad in esoteric armour wielding weapons and knowledge the likes of which they had never seen. Our... their, rigorous training and extreme methods were never warranted. Back in my days, the Dawnguard mostly worked thanklessly behind the scene, finding and eradicating vampire nests and tracking down the beasts that hid in plain sight amongst their prey. The impact we had was never felt, simply because the problem was never bad enough for people to take note of it in the first place.

"What do you mean?" I asked Celann, the first inkling of worry quieting me. "The last I heard, the Vigil was doing a good enough job of keeping the vampire troubles suppressed. They might lack our... your thoroughness," I caught myself, but a corner of Celann's mouth nonetheless lifted in a joyless near-smile, "but a few stray vampires are not much more dangerous than your average rogue mage or necromancer."

"I see the news hasn't reached Solitude yet. I wondered." Celann said with a slow glance around the mostly peaceful common room, filled with only murmurs of discontent at simple political matters. "Eleanor, the Vigil is gone."

"What!?" I uttered in disbelief. By the Nines, how many times could I be struck dumb in one night?

"It is the truth. The Hall of the Vigilants has been burned to the ground, and most of the vigilants, including their Keeper, are presumed to be dead. There are a few stragglers here and there, but they are disorganised and lost without the guidance of the clergy and their superiors. We're the only ones left who can hold the tide."

"Hold the tide? You mean..." My eyes widened when he nodded. "Vampires did this? Are you serious? When have vampires ever dared to act out so openly?"

"Never." Celann responded. "It gets worse. Many of the smaller settlements down south are practically under siege. Hjaalmarch, Falkreath, the Pale, there are hundreds of the beasts out there, infesting every dark nook and cranny during the day only to come out at night and take whatever and whoever they want. The guardsmen simply cannot hold their own, and with our armies guarding our borders against Imperial or Elven incursions, they cannot count on reinforcements. Scores of citizens are already dead or missing. They are gathering strength, and we fear it will not be long before they turn their attention to the larger cities, like Whiterun, Windhelm and Solitude."

"I think they might already have..." I whispered, lowering my eyes to the map still spread out between us. A vampire infestation of this magnitude would certainly explain why subterranean predators were suddenly being ousted to the surface. Vampires needed someplace to rest during the day, and they certainly would not share their lairs with vermin. "What else would drive every single cave creature in a fifty miles radius from its lair but..."

"... a concerted effort by a horde of vampires looking for shelter." Celann completed for me. "Did you encounter any of the beasts out there?"

"Only the evicted tenants of their new lairs, but only a fool ventures into the Haafingar marshes at night. I did not want to risk my skin pointlessly. It would certainly explain much, however." I mused, my anger and annoyance at my interlocutor's presence all but forgotten. "What course of action is the Dawnguard going to follow?"

"Right now all of our veteran hunters are out there in the Hold capitals, trying to keep the streets clear at night. Solitude is the last major city we have left to secure." He pointed to several locations on one of my maps showing the whole of Skyrim. It made sense that the hunters would be coming here last, since the former capital was the most distant city from Riften, far to the south east, where the Dawnguard made its home. "We have also stepped up recruiting efforts, which is how I heard about you, as I've said. Isran, Gunmar, Sorine and Florentius are working day and night back in fort Dawnguard to whip our new recruits into shape."

"How bad is it?" I asked, knowing that during times of crisis, the need to field troops had a tendency to outweigh the usefulness of properly training them first. The philosophy of the Dawnguard had always been that quality trumps quantity; hunters were taught a high degree of self-sufficiency, and trained to a ridiculous extent in the use of an array of techniques and weapons. With a prey so vicious and cunning, every ounce of that knowledge was needed not only to succeed but live to tell the tale. To send someone half-cooked against any vampire more than a few years old is practically a death sentence.

"Bad." Celann said, wincing for the first time tonight. Going by the face he made, I was inclined to believe him. "Most folks who heed our calls are farmers or commoners who lost loved ones to recent vampire attacks. They are looking for vindication, and they lack neither motivation nor spirit, but... we would be in better luck than we are now if a third of our current crop had ever held a sword properly in their lives. We have no basis to start teaching them our ways when they barely know the hilt from the point, so Isran and Gunmar have to start from the ground up. A few may make decent hunters yet, but the rest of them will most likely end up as fodder."

"And Isran will just send them out there regardless?" I asked, and cursed under my breath when Celann nodded. Our potential recruits back when I had been part of the order had been mercenaries or professional soldiers, guardsmen or the odd marauder wanting to turn his life around. Basic sword drills were not something Isran and I ever had to worry about six years ago.

"He has no choice, though I doubt the man is too broken up about it even so. At the very least they can wear the armour and give a town the appearance of security. It may give the vampires pause to see twenty men on the streets instead of two. Otherwise, we will be bogged down. Our hunters are holding the line against them, but while we work to keep citizens safe, we're not out there finding the source of all these vampire attacks. We can only stop the infection from spreading for so long before it overtakes us all."

"And you have no clue, none whatsoever, of where these vampires came from."

"Some idea where they came from, of course. Other vampires." He replied with dark humour. "In all seriousness? None. We're just as much in the dark as the rest of Skyrim, and by Talos, it is getting darker and darker out there."

"Gods damnit..." I swore again.

"I know the last thing you want is to come back to Riften," Celann diplomatically said, "but we can ill afford to go on without your help. I implore you, at least consider. Whatever transpired with Isran, the two of you have to put it in the past where it belongs."

Isran never told them? I arched a brow, taken by surprise by this unexpected revelation. The order had never been told the reason why one of its most seasoned members had been so suddenly expelled?

"I don't know if this is an issue that can be laid to rest." I said, absently fingering the silver ring on my right hand, baffling myself that I was no longer enraged by the sight of my former comrade, and much more importantly, for even considering forgiving Isran. "Besides, I am only one woman, who has not hunted vampires in six years, I might add. What good can I realistically do, if the situation is so dire?"

"Ha!" Celann scoffed, for good this time. "You? You, of all people wonder this?" He eyed me knowingly, leaned forward and murmured, "I may have no business mocking your issues with your name, but Astlyr Stormblade is the very last woman in Skyrim who has a right to doubt the impact a single person can have." And just like that, I was annoyed by his presence once more. "Besides lass, the day you lose your edge is the day I hang up my ax and become a baker."

"Be careful with such oaths, old friend. You never know..." I darkly left the words hanging, but as he downed what was left in his mug, Celann rightly looked as worried as a hungry dragon staring down a rabbit. I had most certainly not lost my edge, no matter how long it was since my sword tasted the blackened blood of a vampire.

"I have to get back to the men. We will to report to the Jarl first thing in the morning, get the guards up to speed and organise a night watch. Farewell, Eleanor. I hope your reunion with Isran goes well. I wish I could be there to see it." Celann tipped his head to me and stood up, his gloved hands pulling the tan hood of his cloak back over his face.

"I never said I agreed." I called out after him, but the smile plastered on his face never wavered. "I don't have to, especially since you just cost me a contract!" Somehow, I doubted the steward would pay me to investigate the cause of the marshes' infestation once such a convenient scapegoat was dropped in his lap.

"Of course not. However, I'm sure leaving Gunmar, Sorine and Florentius to fend for themselves will sit well on your conscience. You know that the greater the hindrance we become, the greater the odds the Dawnguard will go the way of the Vigil." He trailed of, and I hissed at the mention of the three Dawnguard members I still held up as friends, my eyes narrowing.

"You swing below the belt, hunter."

"Not my fault you have more to hit down there than most men I know." Celann countered good-naturedly. "Dawn approaches, Sister." He told me when I failed to take the bait, before leaving the inn behind to rejoin his fellow Dawnguards.

"May your courage last the night... Brother." I whispered the reply to the traditional Dawnguard farewell under my breath, long after the door shut behind Celann. Better to be safe than sorry; I would never hear the end of it if he heard me reply. Sighing and weary, I motioned to the bartender I was done for the night before wrenching my dagger out of the wooden table and slipping it back into its sheath.

"Will there be anything else?" The acrid old man asked me once I had handed him the count of gold I owed for my supper and drinks. I opened my mouth to tell him no, but my body, no longer distracted from its urges by Celann's presence, chose that moment to remind me we had unfinished business. My blood began simmering with need anew, and I shuddered discreetly with the urge to touch another.

"The Redguard over there." I took a glance over my shoulder to see if the young woman I had set my sights on earlier still had not found her mark. Sure enough, I found her sitting on a bench by the entrance, her head in her hand and a desperate look in her eyes that all but confirmed she would be sleeping outside tonight.

"Lyna?" The inn keeper looked surprised for a moment that a woman would require female company for the night, but once it wore off, he snorted almost disdainfully. "You shouldn't bother. Pretty face on that girl, but she's not all that in bed. I can find you better."

"I do not remember asking." I nearly growled. "Send her up to my room. With a bottle of Alto wine." I added and fished a few more septims from my coin pouch for the wine. I could pay the girl for her services in person. That way, she would at least see the colour of that coin before her 'protector' took his share.

"Hum, there is also the matter of the table..." The old man trailed off, something in my tone wisely making him uncomfortable.

"Take the price out of your latest bribe." I replied with a dismissive wave of my hand.

"What? Now wait just a damned minute!" He began to protest, greed overthrowing his sense. Foolishly, he gripped my right forearm as I began to walk away, his stubby fingers tightly encircling the leather of the studded bracer I always wore when out of armour, as if he could somehow squeeze his gold out of it. My head whipped to the side in his direction, and I immediately ground to a halt, my stance instinctively widening and lowering in preparation for a quick dodge, block or strike. My grey eyes hardened into a steely glare, thoroughly cowing the sleazy man into letting go of me.

"Consider it a lesson into respecting your paying customers' privacy, barkeep." I said with a touch of snide humour. "Send her to my room, and make sure we are not disturbed until morning."

I turned again and left the slightly bedazzled man in my wake, feeling his wide, frightened eyes tracking me every step of the way as I climbed the stairs leading to the second and third floor of the inn, where my room was located. A fragrant scent filled my nostrils as soon as I pushed the door open and walked in, wafting from the laboratory setup I had rented and installed in the corner in prevision of an extended stay. The quiet bubbling sound of potions distilling over a small everlasting flame stirred the silence in a familiar and deeply comforting way that made me smile peacefully. Alchemy always had a very soothing effect on me. Something about the absolute attention it requires always takes my mind off matters for a time, just like meditating or maintaining my weapons and armour. It represents the calm before the storm, giving me the assurance that preparation, along with my skills and experience, will see me through the next ordeal.

But what ordeal would that be? I wondered distractedly, the night's revelations still spinning madly in my mind. A vampire invasion? Could there even be such a thing? It seemed to go against everything I knew of the fiends. While they certainly had the power, as well as the contempt towards men and mer to dream of attempting something as ambitious as the Dawnguard suspected, there was one insurmountable hurdle I knew would always stand in their way; the sun. While vampires were fearsome by night, daylight sapped a great deal of their unholy strength away. In all but the oldest, it deprived them of their magicka reserves, slowed their speed and reflexes almost to a crawl, and profoundly exhausted them after only a short exposure. They would be cut down in a matter of days if they became too much of a problem.

Yes, they would be, if the king's armies were not occupied with repelling Thalmor and Imperial raids along the coast... I grimly thought. Could this be nothing more than inopportune timing on the fiends' part? An arrogant festival of bloodshed and slaughter that would end on its own once we repelled the threat from without and could focus once more on the one from within? Unheard of, but not impossible. I might have dismissed the thought of working with the Dawnguard again if it was the case, but if Isran truly did believe the vampire hunters were truly finally needed... I was tempted to trust his fanatic instincts. The day he said he told the ones who doubted him so would be bad, for everyone.

Sleep on it. I finally decided. I could not do anything tonight, regardless of whether decided to rejoin the ranks of the order or not. Hastily, before my company for the night arrived, I took the potion off the fire and gave it a twirl to test its consistency. The liquid had concentrated into a thick sludge in the hours since I had left it to simmer. Although it required a bit of insistence I poured what was left into a small tin of waxy polish, and used a copper spoon from my apparatus to mix the two together into a smooth, shimmering paste before capping the container and putting it away. Under normal circumstances I would have treated my gear immediately, but preparing the magic resistant mixture was all I had time for before a knock at the door announced the arrival of the young Redguard. Not that I actually assumed it was her, and didn't reach for my dagger as well as the door handle.

"M-my lady." She stuttered when I opened the door to let her in, her deep brown eyes downcast and her pretty face framed by a cascade of dark, dark curls. She held a simple serving tray in her unsteady hands, upon which rested a dark green bottle and a single silver goblet.

"Come in." I told her quietly, my features softening a fraction as I stepped out of the way. The girl jerked into motion and walked past me, her nervousness as obvious as the moon in a cloudless night sky. Breathing in deep, I shut the door behind her and turned to face the room, my fingers beginning to play upon the buckle of the bracer on my left forearm.

"I'm s-sorry if I kept you waiting." She needlessly apologised as she put down her tray on the smaller of two tables in my room, the one I had kept for private meals that was not covered in pieces of armour and assorted weapons. "Here, let me get you some w-wine."

"It's not for me." I told her from across the room, where I set the pair of bracers down amongst the rest of my gear. She mustn't have heard me, or else her nervousness kept her from understanding the implications of what I said because I found her facing me when I turned around, timidly extending the goblet of wine to me. Still she wouldn't make eye contact.

"It's for you." I whispered, taking her quivering hands in both of mine and gently pushing them towards her face, and she emitted a quiet sound of surprise when I brought the rim of the goblet to her lips and tipped it encouragingly so they dipped into the rich red wine. Her large eyes darted to mine, the look in them reminding me of a skittish doe about to flee. She stood perfectly still and tense, like she expected me to strike her for daring to taste the wine, but as one heartbeat gave way to another and I made no move other than convey my approval with my eyes, she gathered enough assurance to have a taste. Smiling reassuringly, or at least I hoped I was, seeing as I could think of little else other than stripping her clothes off, I let my fingers slide along her arms, relishing the feel of her smooth cinnamon-hued skin. Gently gripping her tantalisingly exposed shoulders, I lightly pushed her back until she was sitting on the bed, then settled myself next to her, close enough to touch but not so much she felt smothered.

"Thank you..." She murmured, a shiver passing over her as I began to rub small circles over her shoulder. "I... I'm sorry if I seem nervous."

"I don't think you seem nervous." I throatily chuckled and moved my hand to the base of her neck. Her muscles were taut and tense, and my caresses instinctively changed into firm kneading, making the young woman sigh and her lovely brown eyes flutter close. "I think you are. You've never been with a woman before, have you?"

She shook her head, unsurprisingly. "I don't have a clue what to do." She admitted, still quiet as a mouse. "I can please a man, but I... I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint."

"What to do?" I smiled and brushed her hair off her shoulder, exposing the long lines of her throat. "You're going to finish your wine." I said, my lips ghosting against her skin for the first time. "And once you do, I will show you." I pressed more firmly into her, drawing a reedy sound of surprise and near-delight from her, and for a time, pushed away thoughts of old acquaintances and dusty oaths long since abandoned. My inner struggles could wait until morning.