A/N: For my buddy Annde. Because a promise is a promise.
Second, a big thank you for those of you who posted anonymous reviews and comments.
Also, a shout-out to the thuum dictionary online community. Yes, there is a site out there dedicated to fleshing out the dragon language, with a working translator. I'm totally geeking out here. Thank you to all the contributors. I got a feeling I'll be using your tools again in the future.
Tolan had not been mistaken when he said the mysterious crypt hidden within the tomb of our ancestors had clearly been added in long after the initial construction. We made our way together through a network of natural caves where flowed small underground streams that seamlessly transitioned into grand burial halls, their walls carved with the stories of those laid to rest in this place. Rows after rows of iron sarcophagi flanked, all of them neatly sealed thanks to the prior efforts of the Vigil, a rare sight in this day and age when dragons haunted the skies and death failed to hold their former servants. Everywhere around us the harshness of forged iron was balanced out in a strangely fitting manner by curves of stone almost too smooth to have been touched by the hands of men. I learned long ago that dragons respected the stone of the earth. Their love for mountains did not stem solely from the view they liked to lord over us land-bound creatures; according to them, mountains have not always been. They grow, like the bones of Mundus itself, driven by a slow, eternally patient power that dwarfs even the dragons' at times. It seemed insane to me, but it did drive the ancient dragon overlords to command their followers and slave to build with as much care and respect for the living stone of their mountain fortresses as they could, so as to not taint the work of this inexorable power with traces of their slave races' existence. Whatever that power they claimed could grow mountains was, they held it in much higher regard than my ancestor's lives.
The mysterious crypt had not been built with any such care.
Oh, do not misunderstand me, the stone work we could make out once we reached the collapsed passage Tolan told me about was exquisite. The change, going from the burial halls where every 'disgraceful' trace of mortal hands upon the stone had been methodically erased was jarring, however, to say the least. Gone were the swirling painted designs and jagged forged irons that emulated the dragon overlord of old's shape; in their stead stood smooth walls of carved stones forced into submitting to the jagged shapes and sharp angles born from a decidedly sinister, but brilliant, mind. Hammer, chisels and pickaxes had cleft intricately carved columns from the stone to support large, sweeping arches at least thirty feet off the debris-littered ground we now stood upon. Dull illumination shone from a few phosphorescent cave mushrooms nearby, casting deeper shadows in the colossal hallway.
"There were magical wards here." Tolan revealed before we could take a step inside. "Watch yourself."
Of course there were. Because magically reconstructing the stone face and building a bloody portcullis was not enough. I snidely addressed the builders the thought as I took a step forward and made out the mangled remains of the iron gates. Not the work of amateurs, to have pulled off this feat of engineering off underground; it was further evidence that this was a relatively more recent addition, one that my ancestors could not have managed, requiring more recent innovations.
The fact it had been seemingly torn down was not exactly a small feat either.
"Do you feel them?" I asked, surprising us both by deferring to him. I had some experience of magic, including how to disrupt wards and magical defences. By employing my Thu'um, a very primal form of magicka, to first sense the disturbance they left behind in the fabric of this plane, and then using its power to lash out from 'below' at the foundation of a protective spell, I had learned to circumvent most traps wizards could lay. A brute force approach, but one that served me well. Tolan had first-hand knowledge of these wards, however, and no matter how adept I could have gotten at bludgeoning and bumbling my way through magical defences, he might be able to catch something I had missed. "I sense nothing." I observed, sending out my Thu'um through the rock, letting it map out any magical perturbations, like a bat screeching to orient itself. Nothing.
"No. There is... nothing." Tolan outstretched his hand, magic aglow around it.
"You sound dismayed by that." I frowned at his dejected tone of voice.
"You do not understand what I meant by 'wards', Eleanor." Tolan lowered his hand, dissipating his spell with a sigh. "There were layers upon layers of spells here. The work of years for a master wizard to set up, and at least weeks to disarm with even a modicum of safety. It took our loremaster Adalvad the better part of a day to get himself and his assistant through unscathed."
"And if those vampires had the key to allow themselves safe passage through those wards, this hallway would still be defended." I reasoned in turn.
"Exactly. There is only one explanation. They must have used live bodies and triggered them all."
My grip on the crossbow tightened. He did not need me to mention it was likely any surviving Vigilant had been thrown at these wards as fodder for the wards to spend themselves against. Bastards.
"Come. If they want to offer us their unguarded backs, I feel all too eager to oblige." I coldly growled and strode forward.
While I was still under the influence of my previously imbibed nirnroot potion and could navigate the mess the destroyed portcullis had left behind, Tolan benefited from no such advantage. The going was slow with him in tow, mumbling curses as he bumbled, half-blind, after me, stumbling every third step.
Stumbling very nearly, in fact, into thick strands of dirty white, sticky silk, like a fly straight into an awaiting web.
I gasped and frantically lunged for Tolan, wrenching him back by the collar of his robes, hard enough for his surprised cry to be strangled in his throat. He collapsed in a pile, his hammer instinctively clutched to his chest so as to not lose his grip on it.
"What are-" I let myself fall on top of him, my hand covering his mouth, before Tolan managed to utter more. My eyes were riveted to the bit of webbing my companion had very nearly tripped over. Under my gaze, the still silk strands began to strum, though there was no breeze to be felt or limb to be seen to explain why... at least at this end.
"Be quiet, and do not move a muscle." I whispered without taking my eyes off the ceiling I could barely make out. "Wait here." I ordered him, quiet but unquestionable, as I took to my feet and scanned my immediate vicinity. My enhanced vision assisted me in discerning the webs along the ground, but the shadows still unnerved me in a way they hadn't managed to in years.
Snarls surround us on all sides, though not one source is in sight. Ominous clicking and growling approaches us from everywhere and nowhere at once, the scent of rot and death conjured up seemingly from the very darkness. Isran's breathing at my back turns frantic and very nearly afraid, for the first time in all the years I have known him.
No choice but to give in. Give in or die.
"Run." I tell my mentor as the darkness is lifted, and I see our foes clearly, hunched forms and slithering bodies revealed. "Do not look back, no matter what you hear."
Something dark and wary lurking in the depths of heart stirred at the unfamiliar taste of fear coating my mouth. I swallowed thickly, trying to center myself, quiet my unease and focus on tracking the webs to their central spot, but for a rare instant, my grip slipped. For barely a heartbeat, my vision turned from bluish to a dark shade of amber, piercing the darkness with the ease of a dragon's tooth rending dry parchment.
In that moment, pitch black, beady eyes stared blindly back at me. Maws large enough to engulf my body down to the shoulders lazily opened and closed. Mandibles as long as my arms groped fitfully at the empty air, mimicking the numerous legs that moved from one strand of web, extending from this central nexus within which the creature laid, to another, setting it to strum as it felt for any alien vibration signaling the presence of intruder invading its lair.
A low, barely audible growl rumbled its way out of my chest before I could settle my racing heart, but with a sharp shake of the head, I managed to stifle it before it betrayed my position. I took a moment to scrunch my eyes shut, and when I opened them again, only the familiar blue murk of my nirnroot-enhanced vision surrounded me. I took a deep breath and began to slowly back away so I could rejoin my vigilant comrade. To his credit, Tolan could apparently listen to me when he put his mind to it. I found him holding perfectly still, his chest barely rising as he dared not so much as breathe.
"I asked you to stay quiet, not asphyxiate yourself." I shakily chided him, unsure whether it was my dip in control or the sight of the predator that induced that hated quiver in my voice. "It is as I suspected. There is a Frostbite spider in here. A pale female. An exceptionally large pale female." I corrected myself, remembering the long clawed limbs sprouting from a stocky body the width of a pall of mead. Tolan had been lucky not to set foot into her web. Not only would he have gotten his leg tangled up in the unnaturally sturdy strands, he would have brought the massive creature down upon us, likely sealing our doom before either of us could react.
This would be so simple with a little dragon fire, but I doubt this passage could survive being subjected to the Voice. I pondered upon this ugliest of hurdles. At least she does not seem to have any attending males with her. Small favours, but we never could have snuck past otherwise. Three things happen to a female Frostbite as she ages; she grows phenomenally in size and ferocity, her carapace becomes paler and paler with each molt until she turns the shade of dirty snow, and she gathers a veritable harem of her much smaller male counterparts to see to her needs, whether they be feeding, grooming or breeding. Complete hedonists, I tell you. This one, however large she was, appeared to be tragically single. Perhaps the vampires had not blundered and offered us their vulnerable backs after all. Perhaps they had taken a page out of the handbook of power-hungry sorcerers and turned the loathsome creature into a guardian familiar, depriving her of her usual creature comforts. No wonder she looked so grumpy.
"Get behind me. Step exactly where I step, and keep quiet." I instructed Tolan, using the glow of the mushrooms and my enhanced vision to map out a route through the spider's web. "I would rather not tangle with her."
"I agree." Tolan nodded.
"Shocking." I quietly jested. "You may not want to do this too often, Vigilant. I might start to think we could get along otherwise."
"Just get a move on." He grunted back at me.
"Aye. I can just make out a doorway on the other side. Follow me."
It was one of the more unnerving moments of my life, crossing the web of a pale Frostbite right under its lack of nose, but by some small miracle, Tolan and I almost managed the feat. There would likely have been no 'almost' about it, had the spider been as lonely as I suspected. The only advance warning I had something was amiss was the dull thud of Tolan's body splaying on the cracked tiled floor, and the briefest glint slithering across my field of vision.
There was a vampire behind me, one that seemed eager to introduce my jugular to the cutting edge of his short sword.
Jerking back straight into a chest that felt as immovable as a mountain, I barely managed to intercept the blade before he managed to plunge it in my throat. I felt a new gash being carved in my old, worn bracer as sharpened ebonite almost glided clean through, stopping inches from me when my forearm lodged itself in the angle formed by the handle of the blade and my assailant's wrist. Immediately, my arm began to quiver with the effort of fending him off; as a mortal, even an exceptional one by most standards, pitting my strength against that of a vampire was a losing proposition, especially since any noise could alert the spider to our presence.
"You should just give up." The vampire murmured in my ear, his smooth, seductive voice unstrained, as if he was not wrestling a six feet tall, armoured Nord. "Slitting your throat will be much faster than having my pet up there suck the innards out of you while you still draw breath."
"Tolan!" I frantically gasped in the direction I could hear him groaning as the tip of the vampire's weapon closed another fraction of an inch. Opposite him came some scurrying, the soft, queer clicking and crooning of the pet Frostbite being roused by the quietly desperate struggle going on in her lair.
Wait... He said 'his pet'... if he was the who captured this spider, then maybe...
It was worth a try. If it didn't work, well, I was a dead woman regardless.
"Tolan, if you can hear me, run." I grunted, my strength nearly spent. The blade was nearly across my throat. "Get to the door!" I snarled just as I violently thrust my elbow back into the vampire's solar plexus. My assailant stumbled back with the force blow, as unfortunately did his sword which bit into... the protective leather collar meant to defend against the fangs of vampires I wore, the glancing blow thankfully harmless. The very instant I had use of both my hands again, I gripped the vampire's sword arm and wrenched it over my shoulder, twisting my body into a hip toss that sent him directly into the entangling webs his pet had woven. It took less than a heartbeat for the alerted spider to let out a screech and drop from the ceiling onto the floor, but that was all the time I needed; one hand above his wrist, the other below, and a sickening crack later the vampire was wailing in anguish, clutching his uselessly limp hand.
That scream soon turned into one of sheer terror as the pain momentarily shattered his mind, and with it the spell he used to control the spider. I will spare you the grisly details; the spectacle of a Frostbite feasting on live prey can make anyone queasy.
Narrowly, I managed to duck underneath one of the spider's serrated, scythe-like mandibles and slip past it, scrambling to the far door as quickly as I dared, bobbing and weaving so as to avoid putting myself in the same position as the vampire. The spider, focused on the prey tangled up in her web, let me go, age and experience having no doubt taught her a sure meal was preferable to gambling for two and risking an empty stomach. My maddened dash ended at the opened set of doors, and I breathed a sigh of relief when Tolan shut it behind me, trapping the nightmarish creature and her gory meal behind. The frame was solid stone, and too narrow for the spider to squeeze in after us. From her at least, we were safe, though a rapid examination of the bracer on my sword arm and the half-torn collar around my neck sent a chill down my spine, reminding me none too subtly not to take that safety for granted again.
I took a second to acknowledge my companion with a hasty nod, calmed my breathing, and raised my crossbow, scanning the room we found ourselves in for any new threat. Tolan and I stood in a grand hall that would not look out of place in the most obsequious of Imperial temples. Two rows of columns extended away from us, flanking a dark, musty carpet even the most fanatical housekeeper would have given up on two centuries ago. The ceiling was even higher up than before, completely obscured at least forty feet up. The air was stale and the heat stifling, even compared to the rest of the cave network. Faintly, in the distance, I could hear water running, and not just the small streams Tolan and I had been following up for the past hour; this sounded like a proper underground river.
And that is one very life-like gargoyle, I thought as I slowly took my finger off the nearly depressed trigger of my crossbow, having nearly lodged a bolt into the rounded forehead of a nearby statue. To be fair, while it was dwarfed by the enormous spider we had left behind, the gargoyle appeared more than a little threatening, its large extended wings giving it a daunting presence, its crouched stance was more appropriate for pouncing on an unsuspecting passerby than resting, and its hands and feet were tipped with long, wicked talons that looked like they could rend through plate armour with ease.
Stone. Just cold, inanimate stone. I took a hand off my weapon and brushed my fingertips against the large, dust-covered ear of the nearest snarling statue, reassuring myself it was not threat before I ventured further down the hall. My posture melted into a familiar half-crouch, lowering my center of gravity to better absorb the recoil should I need to fire.
"Do you know about any other surprises?" I asked Tolan without cessing to scan the shadows down the length of my crossbow. "Anything else we should look out for?"
"Not that I know. There is a balcony further ahead that overlooks a small bridge, leading to an artificial island. Adalvad seemed to think this was the focal point." Tolan replied.
Then I wager whatever they are after, we will find there.
The further in we went, the lighter the shadows became, replaced instead by a dim, purplish gloom that was just sufficient to allow Tolan to cease relying on me as a guide. The grand hall came to an end what felt like a hundred yards away, narrowing into a colossal doorway that led to a portion of the crypt, or whatever this was, in far poorer shape than the rest. The railing surrounding the balcony Tolan mentioned was mostly intact, but everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of years of neglect; wall carvings faded and covered with moss and cave mushrooms, shattered stonework, fractured and missing tiles on the floor...
Huh... No, these are not missing. A small corner of my mind mused as I took a closer look at the damage. They were never put in to begin with. Could it be whoever built this place had to seal it up and hide it before it was even complete? An interesting thought, but not one I had time to assess further; I had not taken a dozen steps onto the balcony that a scream of pain ripped the relative silence asunder, drowning out the sound of running water.
Instantly on full alert, I took three quick steps towards the source of the noise, gazing upon the gigantic open cavern below over the intricately carved balustrade. A dozen figures stood in a rough circle some forty feet away, surrounding a thirteenth one looming over a naked man, curled pathetically on his side, writhing and twitching under the onslaught of magic spilling from his tormentor's hands.
Two against thirteen... plus a dog of some kind, I mentally added when I noticed the canine shape lurking around the circle. Mostly canine, anyway. What in Oblivion is that thing? Its head seemed too large, its body too stocky, too muscular, for it to be merely a dog... not to mention the deep shadows that enveloped it like tendrils of smoke.
Risky odds, even with the element of surprise. Not that, in the end, we had a choice but to face them. You see, this was not just any man the vampires were torturing, but someone Tolan knew very well, someone he had mentioned moments before; the lost loremaster of his order.
"Adalvad?!" Tolan gasped at the sight, quietly, so very quietly you would not think a pair of ears forty feet away could pick up on it. That would have been the case, had the owner of the curious and glowing crimson eyes that turned to face us been mortal.
The vampire opened his mouth to shout, but I fired, cursing, before he could manage to make a sound, the steel bolt piercing the material of his light armour. His body slumped heavily to the floor, his heart, still the second most vital organ, even for an undead predator, shredded, his unlife extinguished before he struck the ground. Instantly, eight more pinpricks of red lights pierced the darkness, fixed directly upon our position. A chorus of reptilian snarls and hisses rose to meet us, and in a heartbeat we were beset by the vampires and their thralls.
"Get down!" I yelled and wrenched Tolan back, nearly forcing his face into the ground, covering his body with my own as one of the more magically adept vampire riposted to my attack by lobbing a fist-sized, explosive ball of flames at us. The spell missed us by a hair's breadth, instead colliding violently with the wall at our back, the backlash of the explosion washing hotly over us, sending splinters of stone to break against the mail of my armour. Without hesitation, I loaded another bolt and poked my head over the railing we were using as cover, took aim and, all in the same heartbeat, shot a second vampire dead. Three more vampires, six more thralls. I thought, a handful of the mortals falling down upon their knees, clutching their head and screaming like wild beasts. They had minutes to live, if that. Less than that, I corrected myself when the vampires decided to cut them down rather than risk having them turn on their former overlords. The frenzy of a thrall is a rather... unpredictable phenomenon.
"Can you fight?" I asked Tolan, feeling more than seeing him nod his head affirmatively. "The thralls are going to charge us. Cover that stairwell, keep them from swarming us." The balcony had originally been built following a symmetrical pattern, with a stairwell at each end leading to the lower level, upon which began the bridge Tolan knew about, with the man-made island beyond. Fortunately for us, however, the stairs on our left had not survived the passage of time, meaning that we held the high ground and could funnel our enemies where we wanted to engage them. The stairs were only broad enough for two men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and there is a difference between merely standing and a fighting stance; unless he blundered far worse than a veteran like him should, Tolan could use the terrain to bottleneck his opponents, forcing them to face him one by one.
"Keep those vampires off me." Tolan grunted, hefting his war hammer, and rushed into position, keeping his head low enough that he did not offer a shot to the vampires slinging an array of spells at us from below. The first thrall that tried to pass him by, the last of the frenzied ones that rushed blindly over his comrades, got his torso reduced to chunky paste by the Vigilant's blow, his body stumbling down the stairs, tripping several of the approaching slaves. Satisfied my flank was covered, I turned my attention back to the vampires. Rather than risk their own skins, the three survivors had taken cover behind diverse pieces of rubble, exposing themselves only long enough to fling magic my way. Bolts of lightning, shards of razor-sharp ice, balls of flame, globes of corrosive goo, orbs of raw, explosive magicka, they used a slew of destructive spells, but from my lookout, I was a small, difficult target, and most of their efforts wasted themselves above or below me, adding to the damage time and the earthquake had already extolled on this place. I fired back as quickly and accurately as I could, but it was also much harder for me to inflict any real damage when the vampires stubbornly refused to give me any opportunity for a lethal shot. Several times did I manage to graze one of the fiends, but it took many tries for me to finish another one off, another male whose death cries were drowned out by the suddenly louder, more frantic din of battle coming from my right. I barely had time to finish my last reload, drawing the bolt, laying it on the crossbow's tray and cocking back its lever in one fluid, practiced motion, before it abruptly cut off, the relative silence alarming me. Either my companion had finished off the last of the thralls, or...
... Or one of them stood a cut above his comrades, and had managed to trump the Vigilant's guard.
"Tolan!" I shouted at the sight of him, hunched in pain in the shadow of a tall, square-shouldered man dressed in a tattered quilted doublet, a two-handed sword, longer and more massive than the one at my side, lifted above his head, poised to deliver the finishing blow. Tolan's war hammer was nowhere to be, leaving him defenceless, without any means that I could see to block the impending strike.
"WULD!" I frantically Shouted, switching over to the dragon tongue on pure instinct, the ground quivering under my feet for an instant. The world turned into a blur as the sound enveloped me and, faster than the eye could follow, the Shout carried me in its wake to the exact point I had visualised; between the downed Vigilant and his opponent. The thrall's eyes went wide at the sight of me seemingly materialising out of thin air, but this one was definitely a trained warrior; already he had shifted his grip to strike me with the pommel of his sword, the blade of which was too long and unwieldy to be used against an opponent this close. I lifted both of my arms and caught his wrists before his swing could gain any momentum, the sword between us swishing precariously as we both grunted in our attempt to overpower the other. The contest lasted less than a second; twisting away, I turned his strength against the thrall, my left knee rising to violently meet his right side as he descended, his breathing momentarily cutting off with the impact. My fist hitting his temple likely did not help matters as well, and he stumbled away, stunned, giving me enough room to draw my own sword, holding it one-handed pointed at my side in a flaunting, provoking stance.
Quickly, the man recovered, using his sword as a cane to push back to his feet before bringing it to bear in a high grip, his fingers tightening around the pommel in anticipation of his next move. We studied each other briefly before he let out a cry and rushed me, his sword tracing a low arc towards my off-hand side. Steel rang against steel as I slipped my sword beneath his, simultaneously crouching, twisting and lifting my opponent's weapon so it sailed harmlessly above me, sending him spinning off balance with the momentum. Taking the opening, I lunged and cut low, opening a deep gash in his thigh. The thrall let out a cry of pain and almost dropped to his knee, his injured leg refusing to support him. Narrowly, he managed to raise his own blade in time to parry my overhand blow, the deafening impact of my dragonforged steel edge nicking the shoddier metal.
He could do nothing, however, about the brutal side kick I landed in his face, sending him tumbling back down the stairs.
"How bad?" I panted at Tolan; the Vigilant was very clearly alive, though other than a gash on his forehead, bleeding profusely as all head wounds did, I could not assess his injuries.
"Putting up with one of you was bad enough. Now I see three." He mumbled in reply, earning himself a quick, dry chuckle from me. "I will live."
"Stay out of the way until your vision clears. Do not dive back into the fray unless you absolutely have to." I breathlessly ordered him, gripping his shoulder with my free hand for emphasis. Wobbly as he looked, he would likely be more of a burden in battle than an asset.
Where were we? I thought savagely, turning my attention back to the spot my previous opponent had disappeared from. I could see him sprawled on the floor below amidst his deceased comrades, still out cold; of his masters I could see no trace, though I knew it meant little. Vampires who did not want to be seen could be exceedingly difficult to spot.
Unfortunately, in the murk, I only spotted the night-black undead hound a heartbeat before its massive jaws clenched around my calf. The creature was clearly not from this world. Its eyes glowed red like those of its masters, and its teeth would have been comically large had they not been powered by equally oversized biting muscles. If not for the shin plates I wore, it would have likely bitten the limb off. As it were, its violent trashing attempts only succeeded in making me lose my footing, sending me careening off down the stairs, grunting in pain when I finally came to an abrupt halt at the bottom, landing awkwardly on my side, my ribs thoroughly bruised. Breathing immediately became a chore, but I had no time to lie down and writhe the way I felt inclined to. In a blink the surviving vampires were on top of me, the lone female's hands aglow in ominous red while the male hung back, a few yards behind her and the recovering mortal man whom I had sent sprawling down the stairs. Suffice to say that if looks could kill, his glower would have put a bloody and violent end to my existence then and there.
The worse part, however, was that in this joyous tumble, my sword had landed several feet out of my reach, leaving me with one crossbow bolt and a long dagger to fend off my attackers.
With a snarl of pain, I pushed into a crouch and reached behind my back, slipping my hand into my shield's grip and wrenched it free, twisting the handle so that by the time I brought it to bear between myself and the closest vampire, the lone surviving female, the metal wings had deployed into place, just in time to catch a lazy stream of entropic magic flowing from her hands.
Draining spell... good to know these vampires can at least do something predictable. I thought as a sudden and intense wash of weariness nearly overcame me. The shield on my left arm almost drooped, seemingly tripling in weight, my strength nearly failing me before I could tuck myself properly behind it.
"Well, well. What have we here?" The male vampire sheathed his sword as he drew near, drawling confidently. "A little lost lamb in wolf's clothing? A puny mortal who thought she could tangle with us? Quite the folly your order committed, Dawnguard, to send you alone against us."
"What can I say?" I grunted in reply. Come on, just a little closer... "No one ever accused me of lacking confidence."
"Lacking intelligence is another matter entirely." He disdainfully mocked me, and in that moment, with my side igniting agonisingly with every breath I took, I felt inclined to agree with him. "Still, you have strength and spirit in abundance. I will enjoy breaking both before sending your soul to our lord, just like we did the Vigilants."
"Lokil..." The female vampire attempting to subdue me began.
"Is that what you have done?" I asked, every trace of humour dropping from my voice, as well as several octaves. "To that woman outside?" Just a little closer...
"Yes." The male vampire proudly declared, a sick grin spreading his lips, exposing the sharp fangs hidden behind them. "My brethrens and most of our thralls had their way with her before the end. Soon, your strength will fail completely, and you will know the same fate." He stared lecherously at me as he unhooked a long branding iron from his belt, where it hung opposite his sword. I recognised the sigil at the end of it as the one on their violated victim's breast, and the fury in the pit of my belly roared into a raging inferno. "I will make sure your death is even more drawn out, but first, you will witness the beginning of our ascension, and the downfall of your kind."
"What downfall?" I panted, faking a growing fatigue I did not truly feel. My patience with his continued existence was growing thinner than my endurance. I longed to end it.
"Lokil." The female vampire unsuccessfully attempted to get her superior's attention again.
"An end to the tyranny of the sun!" He grandly declared. "The key to our triumph lies not a hundred feet away, and there is nothing you can do to..."
My eyes fluttered close, and his voice faded until I barely heard him. Slowly, I drew in a deep breath, banishing the pain in my side from my consciousness and letting my muscles relax. One, two, three, four. I mentally counted, positioning both vampires, their lone surviving slave and the pacing undead mutt in my mind's eye.
"Lokil!" The female vampire finally yelled, getting her master's full attention, as well as his scorn for interrupting his egomaniacal ranting. "Something is wrong! My spells can barely pull anything from her!"
"What?" An instinct honed against the harsh lessons of countless battles declared in that instant that the time to strike was upon me. My eyes flew open, flint hard, my pupils pinpricks that saw nothing but my next kill. I did not give 'Lokil' time to realise that, thanks to a coating of magic-resistant wax on my shield, the draining spell his minion had used to 'subdue' me was not having the intended effect. One. With their attention divided and off me, I reached behind my back for the crossbow still hanging on its sling, gripping it with one hand and pointing it at the bewildered she-vampire. Under normal circumstances, I would not even consider firing it in this shoddy manner, but my target was close by and the shot flew true, the steel tip burying itself into that ridiculous cleavage her armour proudly displayed, off center but still killing her instantly.
Two. Lokil whipped around, snarling with rage at my little deception, his magic dormant and his sword hanging uselessly at his side, too far to do him any good. Sharply twisting the handle of my shield, I stood up and raked the vampire's middle with the contraption's edge, a fourth and final circle of honed steel wings deploying from within to turn it into a large circular blade, providing a nasty, razor-sharp surprise to the conceited fool. His eyes widened and his fanged mouth fell open as his blood and guts spilled out from the gash in his abdomen, though only for the time it took for me to complete a full revolution, letting my momentum carry the bladed shield forward into a straight punch aimed directly at his throat, slicing it open while the weight of the shield shattered his neck. Through the haze of battle, I was seldom aware of the man I had thrown down the stairs screaming in agony, confirming both that he was indeed enslaved to Lokil, and that the vampire had left this world for good.
Three. Reversing my spin, I snapped a quick low heel kick at the gaping maw of the strange dark hound, before it had a chance to wind up its lunge for me. Stunned, the creature fell on its side, whimpering in a fashion so similar to that of a true, living and breathing dog my heartstrings were nearly plucked. Nearly, not quite. Without missing a beat, I positioned myself above the dazed hound, dropping to one knee, hard, over its thick, muscular neck, the impact jarring my hip but also immobilising the beast long enough for me to pull out my dagger and drive its curved tip deep into its exposed belly, twisting the wound open with a savage wrench of my wrist, revolting, brackish fluids no doubt analogous to blood spilling over my gloved hand.
Four. I left the blade embedded into the dying creature, turning my attention to the final threat I faced. Hefting his massive sword, the nameless thrall let out a guttural scream of absolute, primal hatred, rushing at me with the clear intention of cleaving me in two from shoulder to hip. He would have likely succeeded had I not anticipated the angle of his attack; already I had my shield braced up on both of my arms, ready to deflect the heavy overhand blow. I grunted with the effort of holding the shield steady, but the great blade skidded across its slanted surface with a screech of tearing metal, a few sparks flying off in every direction like shooting stars in the murk of the crypt. Gliding clean off a fraction of an inch from my pauldron, the sword landed harmlessly to my left with a thundering clang, shattering the stone tiling where it impacted. In one smooth motion, I righted myself and struck out with my right foot, my boot connecting violently with the two-hander's cross-guard. With his fingers no doubt numb from the impact and vibrations it sent along the blade, the thrall could not maintain his grip. The handle slipped from his fingers and the sword went careening off the edge leading to the small artificial island, into the black waters below. Without giving my opponent the chance to get his bearings, I shouldered my shield and threw my whole weight behind it, following through with a powerful bash that sent him crashing to the ground, dazed and confused. For a few long seconds the thrall trashed pathetically at my feet, the blind rage caused by the severing of the bond keeping his body from realising his life force was bleeding away just as surely as his master's had. He soon went still, the only movement he made the erratic rise and fall of his chest under the crude armour he wore. The darkness clouding his eyes dissipated like whiffs of smoke on the breeze, leaving them clear and blue for a heartbeat before a veil of sorrow misted them over.
"It's gone..." My kinsman murmured, hoarsely, his voice barely rising above the rumble of the current coming from below. "I no longer hear him... You. You freed me."
"I did." I neutrally replied, keeping a wary distance between the two of us, even though my first instinct would have been to kneel at his side and offer comfort in his last moments. Keeping my eyes on him and remaining poised to react to any last ditch effort at retaliation, I recovered my sword before I approached the dying thrall. "Who are you, kinsman? Did these fiends take you against your will, or did you serve them of your own volition?" I spat upon the body of Lokil as I addressed him. Next time, do not waste time gloating. Just kill.
"Nay, I did not. My name is Rainar. I was a loyal soldier in the service of our king, guarding the southern borders. My patrol and I were attacked... I do not remember how long ago. It feels like another lifetime. Vampires. So many of them. They ambushed us out of nowhere. Most of my comrades were cut down." Rainar paused in his frantic recollection, his eyes clenching shut. "I envy them. They fell in battle, like true Nords should. The vampires had no such mercy for me. One of them was more adept at magic than his fellows. Paralysed me from behind. I had to watch helplessly as they butchered my friends." His eyes misted over, and I took his hand in a gesture of comfort.
"The past is done. The fiends have paid for their crimes. Your comrades have been avenged today." I told him softly. His hand was cold, even through my gloves. He was not long for this world.
"Gods..." He whimpered as the first tears streaked down his dirty cheek. "I wish I had died alongside them. The things I have done as that bastard's slave..." His anguish redoubled as his conscience caught up with what his master had forced him to do. "I raised my sword against the righteous and the innocent. I... Gods, I forced myself on her..." He choked out amidst raging sobs.
"You said it yourself. That bastard made you do it." I murmured reassuringly. "Do not blame yourself. The Vigilants all rest at their god's side now."
"They... they deserve it. They fought valiantly."
"Be strong, Rainar." I addressed him a small, sad smile. "Soon, you can rest as well."
"Rest?" The former Stormcloak laughed mirthlessly amidst his anguished tears. "There is no rest for me. Shor will not welcome a raping murderer into his hall."
"You are wrong. Their sins are not yours." I assured him, gripping his hand more tightly. "You fell, honourably, in battle. Sovngarde will not deny you. When you stand before its gates, with the Whalebone Bridge stretched out before you, Tsun will not refuse you crossing. And should he doubt what is in your heart, tell him that Astlyr Stormblade sent you to him. Hold your head high and tell the Shield-Thane of Shor that you crossed swords with the daughter of the Dragonborn without wavering, as her father crossed swords with him, and she vouches for your courage and valor."
"Stormblade." The dying man reverently pronounced my seldom-spoken surname, and I nodded sadly, revealing it the only comfort I could offer him in his final moments. "Kin to the high king. You honour me, Dragonborn."
"I fear I am simply dovahkiin, a dragonborn, my friend." I sadly corrected him for using a title that, although I had inherited, I could never prove myself worthy of. The greatest battle of our era had already been fought and won by its previous bearer, before I was even born.
"Regardless. Do not let these mutts fool you. They were nothing but sycophants. Their true masters, the true Volkihar, are out there, and their power dwarfs that of any other vampires. Skyrim will need the strength of the dragonborn."
"Why?" I asked, shifting uncomfortably under his faith-shimmering gaze. "Lokil spoke of 'ending the tyranny of the sun'. What are the Volkihar planning?"
"I do not know. I only know they cannot be allowed to succeed. Stop them. Grant me this last request, Dragonborn." Rainar pleaded, using up the last of his strength to implore his dying wish. "Please promise me you will stop them, for my comrades, for the Vigil, and for Skyrim."
"I promise you." I brought a fist to my heart and pledged to the dying man as the last of the light left his eyes, and I reached for his face to lightly shut them. "As long as there is strength in my arm and my heart, they will not be victorious."
"I did not expect such compassion from you." Tolan quietly commented some time later, his footsteps breaking the silence. While I had been busy accompanying our adversary through his final moments, Tolan had rushed by Adalvad's side.
"How is your comrade faring?" I asked, ignoring his remark.
"In poor shape, but out of danger I think. He lost consciousness out of relief and exhaustion a few moments ago, but his breathing is strong. He should live. I cannot assess the state of his mind until he wakes, however." The Vigilant looked around us, and I followed his gaze to the numerous bodies surrounding us. "You are a skilled fighter." Tolan said, parroting my earlier words to him with a mixture of irony and awe. "It is easy to fault Isran's attitude, harder to fault his skills."
Once again, I found myself agreeing with him.
"Not quite skilled enough." I repeated his earlier words back at him with a wince, resisting the urge to press a hand to my wounded side. I suspected I had cracked a rib falling down that flight of stair, but I had no time to dwell upon the pain stabbing through my flank, or the fist gripping my chest. Killing thralls was always the hardest part of hunting vampires, at least on the heart. "Remain with your comrade, Tolan, and stay on your guard. We still have no clue what all this is about." It was about time we found some answers, and what Lokil said suggested they were close by, on the man-made island.
"Astlyr." Tolan called out my given name before I could walk more than a few feet away.
"Eleanor. Eleanor Moonhunt." I whipped around and half-snarled, more in pain, physical and metaphysical, than anger. "I told you my name, Vigilant. Use it, or hold your tongue."
"Eleanor." Tolan corrected himself, his tone placating. "Thank you for this. I entered this cave hoping to die, so I could rejoin my brothers and sisters at Stendarr's side. Thank you for returning one of them to me. You gave me back a reason to live."
"You're welcome." I quietly said with a lowered brow.
"Go. I will see to them both." He affirmed and knelt by the side of Rainar's body. I watched him for a moment, finding some solace in the delivery of Rainar's final rites, administered by one of the few survivors of the massacre he had unwillingly partaken in. With a renewed resolve that banished the pain and weariness of my body, I loaded one of my few remaining bolts into the crossbow, hefted my sword and took my first step onto the bridge, a sense of awe taking over me as I began crossing.
Magic positively crackled around me the closer I drew, creating a dim purple haze around the structure. Three concentric circles of columns and archway stood upon the island, all of them carved in the same sharp, angular style the rest of the crypt had been. More of those gargoyles I had seen earlier stood guard above me, perched upon the intricate structure at regular intervals, their gem-like eyes giving the unnerving illusion of tracking me, like they could pounce at a moment's notice. At the center of the segmented, perfectly hexagonal floor, I found a chest high pillar of pitch black obsidian, the intensity of the ambient magic around it reaching a crescendo, setting my ears abuzz like a vibration I could not quite make out. Atop the pillar rested a rounded, shallow pool of what looked to my alchemist eyes like quicksilver, the sides of the basin engraved with runes I did not recognise. Carefully, I brushed my hand over the top, brushing away centuries of dust to reveal the polished surface beneath... and very nearly got my forearm skewered when the liquid below it reacted violently to my presence, solidifying into a long, smooth stake that extended upward like a striking viper. My reflexes were barely enough to avoid the worst of the damage; despite jerking my arm away, the quicksilver spike managed to score a long, shallow gash through the sleeve of my doublet. Gasping in surprise, I took a step back, watching mesmerised as a fat drop of my blood slowly glided down the length of the trap or device, or whatever it was, leaving tiny sparks of mauve lightning in its wake, all the way down to the half-filled pool. The drop dissolved slowly within instead of floating on top as expected, as if the liquid metal had been a simple pool of still water, leaving behind a small burst of heatless purple flames that rapidly engulfed the whole pillar. The entire floor followed suit, trembling in the wake of the magical wave. Of dispelling magic, I realised as the thrumming feeling in my inner ear lessened and died out.
Something in my blood was clearly not agreeing with this place.
The tremors intensified to the point I had some trouble keeping my balance. Abruptly, the floor shifted under my feet, the segments rearranging themselves into a soft slope, creating a depression in the center of the island. The obsidian pillar seemed to grow before my very eyes, but I quickly realised it was I who was sinking. Before long, the whole process ground to a halt; relative to me, the object, whatever it was, now stood half again as tall as I did, its surface at a glance featureless. With a hiss of rushing air, the last of the magical seals dissipated, and the obsidian slab slowly retreated back into the floor, letting the purple gloom fill the hollow cavity within.
For a brief instant, I caught a glimpse of skin pale as freshly fallen snow and dark red or perhaps purple garments before my knees nearly buckled under a hundred and some pounds of sudden added weight.
The clatter of my sword hitting the ground for a second time this night echoed against the distant roof of the enormous cavern, drowning out my grunt of effort and surprise. The previous occupant of the... well, if it was not a coffin, it certainly looked the part of one, had spilled out like a puppet with cut strings right into my arms. Biting back a wince as the effort strained my bruised ribs, I lowered us both to the slanted ground with instinctive care, even though in all likelihood whoever was in my arms was long dead. The rush of air into the coffin had been evidence enough they would have suffocated.
What is the meaning of this? My eyes, so far busy scanning my surroundings for any sign of sprung traps or additional guardians, settled on the limp body, and my breath caught in my throat.
By Dibella and Mara, she's... I had trouble finding any suitable adjectives to describe the young woman. Never in all my years had I laid eyes upon such striking beauty. Her hair seemed woven out of pure shadows, so dark it would not have looked out of place framing the face of Nocturnal herself. Her skin was incredibly pale in contrast, almost but, ironically, not quite deathly so. High cheekbones, a small impish nose and a fine jaw gave her features an aristocratic (and somewhat insolent) quality that, coupled with a slight build despite obvious Nord descent, made me consider she must have been the heiress of some noble family in life... if the elaborate tomb and magical warding were not enough of a hint. Her milky skin showed not a sign of decay, which was not that unusual; there were spells I knew could preserve a dead body in pristine condition for millennia, and many a grief-stricken noble had employed them to ward the remains of a loved one against the passage of time. It lent credence to this theory that she had obviously died before her time as well; I could only generously place her in her early twenties, if that.
What in Oblivion is going on here? I wondered. Was this woman's body the object of these vampires' search? And why, if that was truly the case? What could they possibly want with it? Necromancy? Could they be hoping to raise her? Or perhaps she had been buried with some precious item?
I tore my eyes away from her mesmerising face, dragging them down the rest of her, trying to find any clue as to who she was. Her attire's rich purple hue clearly identified her as a member of either nobility or great affluence. Oddly, the outfit was cut in a fairly utilitarian fashion, including a pair of black trousers, and was probably her idea of simple travel clothes in life. The lace cuffs of her sleeves and the embroidery covering the black, corset-like top snuggly hugging her narrow waist somewhat ruined the effect however. The top of small, almost perfectly round breasts peeked through a narrow gap between the bodice and the garment she had on underneath, while a thick collar doubled with some kind of soft grey material encircled her throat. Her shoulders were covered with a lightweight black cape, pinned to her chest by a dark, strangely gleaming brooch, in the form of a crest I did not recognise.
These are no burial clothes... I thought, palpating the strangely familiar material of her bodice, finding out it was much more resilient than I had originally thought, making it nearly more of a light breastplate than an enticing article of clothing. In fact, I realised with a cold and sudden wash of fear, it was all but identical to the strange, flexible leathery material the armour of the vampires I fought was made of.
I felt her hand press delicately against my armoured side at the exact same moment my eyes met the hungry crimson gaze of the woman in my arms, too late to do anything about it, other than wonder how I could have missed the signs this was a perfectly animate, merely slumbering vampire I held.
A dull green glow flashed briefly between us, and instantly, my every muscle pulled tight, so tight they threatened to tears off my bones.
For a beat, pain so intense I could not dream of screaming overcame me; a spasm overtook my entire body as it attempted to fend off the paralysis, before it went completely limp, turning me into a veritable ragdoll that slumped helplessly to the floor, to the obvious delight of the vampire. Crooning wordlessly, she crawled on top of me, her fiery eyes fixed not on mine but a bit lower, where my jugular was still covered by its newly scarred protective collar. Her thighs settled on either side of my waist, and her long, tapered fingers began to leisurely pry the leather away from the pulse hammering at my throat. Soft, supple and cool, despite the fact she had just emerged from a bleeding coffin, her lips began delicately scouring my skin, looking for the appropriate spot for her to sink her razor sharp fangs into me, and there was not a damn thing I could do to stop her. With ease, her slender arms lifted my broader armoured upper body off the ground, pulling me close into her embrace. Deft fingers combed through my hair, freeing the wild, reddish brown strands from their braid so she could get a firm but gentle grip on it, using it to tip my head to the side, making room to settle her head in the hollow of my throat. Her fangs grazed my skin, teasing, playful; my eyes went wild in near-panic and my heart hammered in my chest, but my body refused to obey me.
Her lips curled into a smile against the tender skin of my throat, and without toying with her meal further, she unceremoniously bit deep into me.
The prick of pain as the sharp tips broke through my skin was minuscule, but I clung to it desperately, as if it could save me from the humiliating violation that was to come. Tendrils of cool ecstasy crawled sinuously under my skin, breaking it out in gooseflesh. I shuddered, my breath catching in a low moan, torn from me by insidious pleasure when her throat began to work convulsively to pull the blood from my veins. With near-violence, my body readied within the suddenly constricting confines of my armour, the uncontrollable bucking of my hips in time with her pulls and swallows the first evidence the paralysis charm she had used had worn off. Thick fog seemed to enshroud me, clouding my thoughts; I was only distantly aware I was desperately clutching the vampire much tighter than she was me. There was no need for her to apply any strength to keep her mouth latched to my throat; in fact it would probably have been harder for her to pull away than anything else. Not only could I barely conceive of wanting to remove her, I was desperately clutching her closer. Each pull sent me deeper under a constant, orgasmic tide; each drop she took blurred the line between our two beings until, even through cloth and leather and steel, I could no longer tell where I ended and she began.
"What in the name of Bal are you?" She withdrew her fangs and let out in a loud moan, her back arching in sheer pleasure, her hips grinding feverishly against my thigh. Her voice was low and throaty, the feeling of smooth liquor gliding down your throat given sound. Her face was a mask of sensual ecstasy, her lips half-parted to let out her passionate pants, her eyes heavy-lidded with overwhelming pleasure. Her beauty was nothing short of unfathomable.
"So powerful." She murmured after nearly collapsing on top of me, her fiery eyes inches from mine, her delicate hands framing the strong lines of my face with infinite reverence. "I'm so sorry. I can't... can't stop. I need more. Need all of you." The surge of passion she invoked in me when her dainty little fangs slid back into my skin lifted her cleanly off the floor. I had never felt anything like this; climax after climax washed over me, my hunger for more only stoked, not abated, the deeper she taped me. I clutched desperately at her clothes, instinctively trying to tear them off, to feel her cool skin against the raging inferno of mine.
One would think she felt as eager to get me out of my armour as I felt to get her out of hers. They would be wrong. That is not what she meant by saying she needed to have all of me. As the ecstasy sapped my will, her mental grip shifted from simply coaxing pleasure out of me to something deeper and much more insidious. Her claws closed in on my heart, playing it like a master bard strumming her favourite instrument, sinking exquisitely in the most vulnerable parts of myself, parts life had taught me to hide from the world.
She wanted all of me for herself, not just for a moment, but for the rest of my mortal existence, or whatever was left of her immortal one. She wanted me as her thrall.
I could muster no defence but a pathetic whimper of fright by the time I realised what she was about to steal away from me, how deeply she would change the very fabric of my being.
Shhh... A voice, smooth, soothing, whispered seductively in my mind in a mental caress as intimate as any lover's. Stop fighting me. I promise I will not hurt you. You're safe now. Give in to me. Her fingers stroked my hair, appeasing, easing the fear. It would be so easy to just give in; no more doubts, no more pain, just bask in the all-encompassing love that was my mistress...
A roar of outrage echoed through my soul, so deafening I was surprised the cave did not collapse in on us. No! The vampire can try to conquer this feeble mortal heart, if she is so easily amused, but I am DOVAH! zu'u los dovah! zu'u fen kreh wah nid, suranmiik ni joor voth hahnurov do ul!
My mind careened back to reality, and with it, the awareness of my body, the discomfort of lying down in armour, the scalding cold of her dead fingers and lips around my neck, the prick of her fangs underneath the physical bliss. With badly trembling fingers, I reached down for my belt, where my dagger hung, a last hope against the subjugation the vampire was attempting. My strength rapidly waning, I wrenched it from its sheath, the tremors wracking my body almost causing me to drop the weapon when I twirled it around into a stabbing grip. The vampire tore her mouth away from my throat as I drove the blade into her chest, the tip of the dagger ripping against her ribs causing a feral, inhuman hiss to erupt from her parted lips. Fangs red with my blood gleamed before my eyes, brought instantly into focus as her mental grip on my mind slipped, and I realised the depths of danger I still found myself in.
While I could think clearly once more, my clumsy thrust had missed her heart, and I quickly assessed that injury was not much more than a painful distraction to the undead straddling me. Already her hand glowed with the green light of her paralysing spell, and I doubted she would give me a chance to escape its effects a second time before draining me dry. Twisting under her before she could complete her casting, I slammed the palm of my hand into her face, putting as much strength as I could behind the blow from my less-than-ideal position. Despite lacking leverage, my efforts were rewarded with the satisfying crack of her nose breaking. Her blood-curdling hiss gave way to a much more mundane sound of outrage, muffled by the hands the vampire clutched to her face.
The pain caused her to jerk away from me, giving me just enough leeway to wedge my boot between her body and mine, and with a grunt of effort I managed to shove the vampire off, and roll to a crouch to stand up, my eyes searching the ground for my sword. My adversary stumbled backward, momentarily off balance, her back hitting the coffin out of which she had come with a hard thud. Blood streamed down her face when she pulled her hand away to glower at me, murder pure and simple in her fiery eyes. The dim green light in her hand faded, replaced by viciously crackling strands of lightning arcing between her fingers and down to her wrist, the light they emitted intense enough I had to squint. A keening whine drowned out the sound of running water, along with a potent charge, like the stifling interior was about to play host to a thunderstorm. This was no mage novice's spell, nothing at all like the onslaught the lesser vampires I had killed had barraged me with. This one was clearly much more adept at the Destruction school of magic. Brilliant...
I dove blindly to my right, my ribs screaming in protest as I turned the fall into a controlled tumble, rolling with the momentum to bring my feet under me and rise to a half crouch, just as the bolt of lightning crashed a few feet away, right where I was standing mere heartbeats earlier. The bluish white flash banished the murk of the cave for a fraction of a second, blinding me as well as the vampire. Blinding her to a much greater extent, I quickly realised as I blinked back tears to see her stumbling away, groping behind her for anything to brace herself against. Her perfect vampiric night vision had turned into a double edged sword, the burst of light having overloaded her sight completely, stunning her momentarily and, though I had trouble believing it, redoubling her outrage until she looked on the cusp of spontaneously combusting. Both of her hands were now shrouded in raw, unwoven magical energies, and there was no doubt in my mind she would not make the same mistake twice. The air in the cave grew several degrees hotter, then frigid in a matter of seconds, as she employed her magic to chase the heat it held, converting the ample ambient moisture into hundreds of shards of ice that coalesced into a jagged spear longer than my forearm. What she intended to do with it, well... there are not that many uses for a levitating icicle large enough for an adult dragon to use as a toothpick. Her eyes locked on mine, flint hard and merciless, all of their earlier playfulness gone, and she wound back her arm for a toss...
Fus. Force. The simplest expression of power, the result of will attempting to shift reality, in however small or large a way.
Ro. Balance. The equilibrium allowing force to overcome all obstacles. With the proper balance, force could topple all.
Dah. Push. The direction, the thought and intent guiding force, making it more than simply will, straining aimlessly against the oppression of the universe.
"FUS!" I inhaled with the uttering of the first word, my lungs seeming, for a single heartbeat, to hold all the air of Mundus as my Thu'um surged with all of its might. "RO DAH!" Before the vampire could impale me with her icy spear, the Shout manifested, the energy invested in the draconic words of power transforming their fully visualised intent into reality. A crack of thunder and a wave of force emanated from my body, sweeping all in its path away like the fist of an angry giant. Weighing in at all of a hundred or so pounds, with only light armour on her back, the vampire was batted away like a gnat caught in a storm, her focus instantly shattered, as her body would likely be once her current course ended, abruptly, at one of stone the pillars surrounding us...
... or it would have had she not disintegrated into a swarm of bats at the last possible second.
Surely you jest... I gaped, almost dumbstruck, at the spot the vampire had vanished from, wondering if I had lost more blood than I thought. Of course, vampires in folklore were traditionally associated with bats, something I had always chalked up to the bestial aspect every vampire, save this one, donned after rising from death, but this was the first time I had ever seen one display such powers. It made just a bit more sense now why other vampires may have been after her.
Speaking of which, all vampires have the ability, and the instinct, to project an illusory veil about themselves to camouflage their bestial features behind a normal human or elven mask. Being dragonborn grants me a fool-proof immunity to illusions of all kind; to me, all vampires looked like long-toothed, fiery eyed monsters. This vampire truly did look like a beautiful young woman, with only her eyes betraying her true nature, eyes that were shut when I first saw her. I was most definitely not distracted by a pretty corpse falling into my arms, especially not to the point of being blindsided. That was an embarrassing mistake, but a honest one. Truly.
Feeling defensive? Who, me?
Could she be one of those 'true Volkihar' Rainar warned me about?
A trickle of warmth made its way under the collar of my arming coat, drawing my fingers to the wound still seeping at my throat, neat little punctures almost too clean to have come from a bite. The biting cold of fear in my blood was subsiding somewhat, and without its numbness to shield me, I became more than distantly aware of my body once more, and the after-effects the vampire's bite had, both the humiliating and the dangerous ones. My thighs were as uncomfortably slick as the bitten side of my neck, but I had no time to feel embarrassed about my rapidly cooling state of forced arousal. Far more distressing was the acute awareness of the taint her bite had left in my blood, like hundreds of minuscule spiders crawling in my veins.
Already, barely a minute after the first vampire bite I had ever experienced, I was beginning to turn into one of the fiends. Inconceivable.
Urgently, I half-walked, half-stumbled to my dropped sword, all my senses alert against any ambush attempt by the mysterious vampire, and gripped it firmly in one hand. The other I used to pull out a second purifying vial out of my satchel of assorted curatives.
I had to use one sooner or later, I thought, bemused, as I pulled out the cork with my teeth and took a deep breath, spilling the contents upon my wound as I began to exhale. The liquid was cool where it hit my intact skin, but as soon as it poured into the clean, almost quaint little punctures my jaw clenched with the effort to keep myself from screaming bloody murder. My left arm drew tightly to my side, the pain turning the muscles into useless bands of white-hot iron. Dark and revolting bloody froth was expelled from the wound, much, much more abundantly than it had from Tolan's neck, the stench combined with the maddening pain driving me panting and pathetically whimpering to my knees. It took all of my will, and quite a bit of my pride, not to curl up into ball and break down in anguish.
"Gods..." I gasped once the vice of pain loosened enough for me to utter the quiet plea. "I am going to murder this bitch." I muttered, whipping sweat, tears and a bit of saliva from my face with the back of my hand before forcing my tetanised shoulder to roll back and forth into a semblance of usefulness, then my arm, and finally my forearm and fingers. My entire left limb felt exhausted and clumsy, but at least it was moving again, and it supported the weight of the crossbow I shouldered easily enough. My rage might have something to do with that last part. I think I was fifteen the last time I felt this bloody eager to add a notch to my belt.
"You know, when I went to sleep, 'vampire hunters' usually meant a scared and bloodthirsty slobbering mob brandishing torches and pitchforks." I whipped around in the direction the smooth and slightly sarcastic voice came from, my crossbow sights setting upon nothing more than an empty space between two archways. "I have never met a mortal who was so ready and able to face my kind. These ones certainly never stood a chance. Quite the number you did on them." Up, I thought, and lifted my eyes to find the twin, minuscule pinpricks of her crimson irises lancing the darkness. The crossbow's mechanism released with a loud twang, but to no avail. The bolt flew true, but the vampire was already gone by the time it reached the spot she had occupied. Cursing, I reached for my hip and fished another bolt out of my small quiver, momentarily disturbed by the rate I had been going through them. My marksmanship was a point of pride for me; yet shooting at that vampire cow left me feeling like a blind cave troll.
"What are you?" The curious vampire asked from a point behind me, a point from which she was gone by the time I drew a bead on her. "You are fast. The way you move is so sparse and so sure, even with a skin of steel on your back. And your blood... like drinking liquid fire."
"Damn you, hold still!" I cursed under my breath. Invariably, with each new sentence, she spoke from behind me, no matter how quickly I turned around.
"Maybe I will, if you ask nicely, or you put that stake thrower away." She chidingly replied. Of course she heard that. "Perhaps we could even finish what we started earlier."
"I would sooner kiss a draugr." I called out to her, my temper getting the better of my discipline.
"I am a much better kisser than some dusty shambling corpse, trust me." She laughed, enjoying what she likely thought of as banter.
"'Dust' is the only difference I see between you and them."
"You wound me." She replied, sounding anything but. "Oh, why do you lie so? You enjoyed yourself at least as much as I did. I can still smell it from here."
"Enjoy your attempt at enslaving me? To force yourself upon me? You flatter yourself."
"I said I was sorry. I have no idea how long I was cooped up in there. It might have been years since I had blood last. My thirst was certainly unbearable enough when I woke up. Can you blame me for grabbing the first meal I could sink my fangs in?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?" I asked, the painful pulse in my neck lending extra heat to my words. "If not, get over here and I will explain to you in great detail just how much I blame you."
"Say that again with a bit more sultriness, and I will be sorely tempted. It was your own fault the sharing turned unpleasant. I certainly did not pour that potion on you, did I?" She paused, a quiet, thoughtful cluck of tongue betraying her position. She had stopped radically changing her position for the past several seconds, instead drawing me further and further away from her coffin. "On second thought, I am glad you stopped the change. As interesting a vampire as you would make, I would loathe to lose my chance to taste your blood again." I rounded the pillar, crossbow steadily pointed at her supposed hiding place, finding only empty air.
"Damn it all!" I cursed out loud in exasperation, and turned back around just in time to spot her, right back where she had emerged, crouched next to the obsidian pillar, frantically fiddling with something within. Her eyes met mine, and I experienced a fraction of a second of elation when they widened in fear at being caught in the open... Not that the bolt I fired at her struck anything but the polished surface of her coffin. Damned vampire and her thrice be-damned speed.
Attempting to lure me away? Clever. What exactly were you trying to recover? I salvaged the bolt that just missed her and loaded it back in the crossbow's tray, setting my weapon within easy reach before I cautiously peeked inside. What with the vampire falling into my arms when the coffin had opened, I had little time to take note of the interior; it was as bare as the outside, the cavity within rounded and smooth but otherwise cold, devoid of any kind of upholstery, of any trace of comfort. A terrible place to spend Hermaeus knows how long locked up; had we been talking about anyone other than a vampire who practically raped me, I would have felt a pang of compassion. Her, though, I just wanted to stuff back inside. Possibly without her heart.
It only took one pass of my fingertips for me to find the discreet indent signaling the presence of a secondary compartment. The panel, just like its larger sibling that sealed the entire coffin off, disappeared under my touch, sliding noisily down to reveal the compartment's contents, a large, heavily jewelled golden cylinder. A cylinder the simple sight of which made my clench with a peculiar unease, a feeling I knew but had not experience in nearly thirty years. Not since my father had taken a very similar objects out of our Whiterun manor house vault, showing the priceless treasure off to his daughter before he left to entrust it to 'one of his friends'. I remember breaking down crying that day, incapable of understanding why the sight of something so harmless could put my then-frequent nightmares to shame. It had taken my father's arms around me and his deep, gravelly voice to reassure me it was natural for those born with the dragon blood to feel uneasy in the presence of a piece of the divine. Dragons, he told me, unlike mortals, know and recognise their creators on a deeper level, understanding the gods that had sided with man in a way that dwarfed the knowledge of the most revered of priests. They know and fear what created them, and could grant the other races the power to destroy them.
I had not truly understood back then what he meant. It is still difficult to put into word just what an elder scroll is. I just know that any dragon or dragonborn knows one by sight, and that is exactly what I found in my latest nemesis' coffin.
A leather strap had been attached to both ends of this particular scroll for ease of carry, so I wasted no time. Swallowing back my instinctive discomfort, I gripped it and slung over my shoulder, recovered my crossbow and stood up, hastily making sure my precious burden was secured on my shoulder, and strode off, pivoting at regular intervals to make sure the vampire did not blindside me. I only made it in sight of the bridge before that beautifully despised voice rose to envelop me again.
"That is mine." The vampire petulantly declared from behind me. I snarled and turned around, my finger pressing lightly on the trigger, and found myself staring much more closely than expected at flaming red eyes. The languid look in them was gone, replaced by something very near outrage, not to mention... worry?
"I believe the divine would disagree with you." I corrected my stance and narrowed my eyes down the crossbow sights, my need for answers the only thing keeping me from crushing the trigger beneath my finger and ending her where she stood. "Where did you get that?" I demanded.
"That is no concern of yours. Give me back the scroll." She demanded in turn, extending an exigent palm towards me.
"I think you may have gone mad sleeping in there." I scoffed. "Hand an elder scroll over to a vampire? Over my dead body."
"I liked you better as a grumpy vampire hunter than a self-righteous petty thief." She crossed her arms under her breasts and huffed, supremely unconcerned by the weapon trained on her... or at least much more concerned with getting the scroll back than getting a bolt through the heart for her troubles.
"Where did you get the scroll?" I repeated myself more forcefully. "Why were you sealed away with it?"
"If you give it back, there is a chance you will never have to find out." She caustically replied. "Please? Will a curtsy and a bow make you more amenable?"
I may just pay to see that, I thought snidely, but the words out of my mouth were harsh and aggressive. "I will not ask again."
"I believe that was my line, not yours." She shot back, her hand impatiently tracing a pattern in the air. A signal, I realised too late; already, an ear-splitting screech, like a glacier grinding upon stone as it inexorably shifted, filled the air. Dust and splinters of stone rained down upon me, almost blinding as it covered my hair and face. I was lucky that was all that fell on me; the animated gargoyle that landed like a boulder between me and the vampire would have most likely made a much bigger mess. I knew something about them rubbed me the wrong way. I just knew.
Even though it stood a few inches shorter than me, the creature's large wings and stocky body still cut an intimidating figure. The shower of dust had been composed of its charcoal-grey skin, the creature underneath turning out to be a milky white or very light grey. Huge bat-like ears sprouted out the top of its head
"Do you like my pets?" She innocently asked while I cursed up a storm. As masterfully crafted as my sword was, defeating stone was simply not the forte of any cutting weapon; and my crossbow simply did not bear mentioning. A look at the creature was enough to tell me it would shrug off its fire like so many bug bites.
"Adorable." I grimaced, wiping the dust from my eyes. "Should I be worried? You tasted my Voice. You know I could Shout both your curs to pieces without breaking a sweat."
"No doubt." The vampire nodded her head, though she looked no less confident for that admission. "However, do you think you could do the same to those closing on the other humans as we speak?" She pointed behind me, and I barely reined in the impulse to turn around, my blood running cold in fear for Tolan and Adalvad. I did not have to look; I could feel the distant gargoyles' deep snarls in the marrow of my very bones.
"Don't you dare. Do you hear me? Don't you dare touch a hair off their head!"
"Daring has nothing to do with it. I cannot let you walk away with the scroll, simple as that."
"Call them off, or I swear, I will kill you even if it is the last thing I do!"
"No one has to die!" She raised her voice as I did. "Just give me back what is mine, and I will let all of you go."
"Just how foolish do you think I am?" I asked.
"Not at all." The vampire glided more than walked closer, past her two gargoyle protectors and within very easy reach of me, her gaze intently meeting mine. "I am hoping you can be reasoned with, so I will not have to kill three persons who did nothing to me. Please. Do not make me do this." There was hunger in her eyes, as there is in the eyes of every vampire, but also something else as well; earnestness, honesty even. I believed her when she said she did not want to hurt Tolan and Adalvad.
And coming from a vampire, that gave me pause more than any of the powers she had displayed.
"Assuming I gave it to you..." I reluctantly began. "What would do with the scroll?"
"Nothing." The vampire replied impassively.
"Did I mishear your when you said you did not take me for a fool?" I dubiously shot back.
"I am telling you the truth, Huntress." She calmly assured me. "I was entrusted with this scroll, nothing else. I have no sinister design for it to try and keep secret from you. Not beyond keeping out of the hands of my- bad people." She stumbled awkwardly, as if she had nearly spilled exactly the kind of secret she claimed she was not keeping from me.
"Bad people? Really?" I arched a brow, neither impressed nor quite satisfied with that answer.
"Worse people than you and me, at least." She gave me a sheepish look, pleading wordlessly not to press those questions.
"You mean your clan?" I asked, remembering the words of that fool Lokil.
"That is a personal-" She began to reply but cut herself off, her face closing down. "You only need to know I plan to keep it hidden from the world."
You are at least as insane as she is, I berated myself as I drew my shield, the only tool in my arsenal I figured could help me against the gargoyles if I turned out to be wrong, and pulled the sling of the scroll off my shoulder, letting it drop heavily to my hand.
"Do I have your word?" I gruffly asked.
"You have it." The vampire told me without hesitation, an actual, honest smile spreading her velveteen lips. "No harm will come to you or your companions unless you instigate violence."
Grumbling wordlessly, I extended the scroll towards the vampire. She approached me slowly, that otherworldly un-sinister smile still plastered to her face, both her hands held out before her to indicate she was no threat.
"That is not necessary." I twitched and growled at her when her fingertips brushed against my hand, a jolt of something I preferred not to reflect upon too closely jumping between us.
"Your mannerism is a bit odd. Wild." She teased me, not exactly off-put, her touch lingering on my hand. Like the rest of her, her fingers were long and slender, hiding, I knew all too well, a deceptive strength. To say they looked odd covering my worn, blood-splattered leather glove would have been an understatement. "Has anyone ever told you that?"
"No." I replied too quickly to sound convincing.
"Mortals must be less observant than I remember, then." She mused as she began to move her hand to my face, her fingers drawn to the three jagged scars on my left cheek, thin pale lines that followed my jaw almost perfectly. "The Voice, the potency of your blood... there is something strangely compelling about you."
"Just take the bloody scroll before I come to my senses." I warned her with my eyes not to press her luck.
"Your personality could use a bit of work. My fault for bringing out the worst in you, I suppose." She let out an exaggerated sigh and smirked crookedly at me, choosing wisely to withdraw her hand. I have not splattered you into unidentifiable chunks of meat on the floor. You have no idea what the worst of me looks like. "By the way, I realize I've yet to introduce myself. My name is Serana. Will you not tell me yours?" She asked me after a few seconds, her continued attempts at civility again shocking me.
"Eleanor." I grudgingly answered.
"Eleanor." Serana scrunched up her nose pronouncing my name, like its syllables tasted sour to her. "I suppose you were born to be at odds with me, hmm? Thank you." She declared with a graceful bow once she had the scroll secured against her back. "I can tell it was... difficult, for you to trust me."
"I do not trust you as far as I can throw you, vampire." I snarled back from behind the relative safety of my shield, refusing to use her name.
"Well, that Voice of yours did send me flying a fair distance..." She sardonically mused. "I will remain hopeful. Our friendship has to start somewhere."
"Our friendship?" I shook my head, laughing humourlessly. "You truly are insane."
"Well, let's see. You reasonably gave me back my possession, you fed me..." Serana recited, counting her points off her fingers.
"We tried to kill each other..." I pointed out, bewildered she could even be thinking such nonsense, let alone spouting it.
"Well, you tried to kill me, really, but that is quite all right; you always did it openly and from the front, never the back. Where I come from, we would be considered close friends."
Though I did not have pity to spare the vampire, I had no clever repartee to that, so I silently watched her turn to assess her surroundings. "This way leads back to the ancients' tombs. You should find a safe exit there." She helpfully provided, pointing at the far side of the cavern from the point Tolan and I had entered, and headed in that direction... apparently intent on leaving me alone with her gargoyle pets.
"Your word?" I reminded her, glaring warily at the closest one, still poised to attack me at the drop of a hat.
Serana turned to face me, the tips of her cape billowing gracefully around her. "I will be true to it. The gargoyles will go dormant once I depart, I promise. Until we meet again, Huntress." The beautiful vampire tipped her head at me, and in a beat she vanished. Abruptly, the gargoyles sprang into motion, as, reflexively, did I, but to my astonishment, they did not turn aggressive. Without a fuss, all three constructs returned to their resting place, leaving me alone in the center island, dazed and confused and covered in a myriad aches, unsure just what in Oblivion had I let slip through my fingers.
I only hope Isran and the rest of the guard can make sense of this. All those efforts will feel mighty useless otherwise. I thought, running the cleaner of my hands through the damp, sweat-matted, dust-caked mess of my mane of brown curls. I was in dire need of a bath, a hot meal and a warm bed, none of which was present in my foreseeable future.
"What happened?" Tolan asked as soon as he caught sight of me.
"I wish I could tell you, Tolan." I sighed, shaking my head, a bit of dust ending up stuck on my upper lip. "Can he walk? We should get out of here before more vampires show up."
As it turned out, with a little help from his comrade, Adalvad was able to hobble around at a humble pace. Seeing as Tolan and I had left a riled Frostbite in the passage we had come from, we had little choice but to head the way Serana had pointed out and trust she had not sent us into a trap.
Although to tell the truth, I was more concerned by the fact that, even though I had just let a vampire with motives I only half believed in, at best, escape with one of the most powerful artefact in creation, I had trouble banishing the haunting feel of her lips against my skin from my mind.
A/N: All the best romances start with stabbings. That's what I always say. Hope you enjoyed. If anyone has tips for writing action-heavy sequences, I'm all ears. This was the first such chapter I wrote, and while I'm not completely dissatisfied with how it turned out, I take all the pointers I can get.
Also worth pointing out; I've never been in a fight, held a sword or thrown a punch in my life. My apologies to any real martial artists who read this.
Finally, the reason Serana does not like Astlyr's alias is that Eleanor means "Light". Not something a vampire would appreciate.