The return to Nirn was sudden and jarring, Kaius landed in a heap, emptying the contents of his stomach as he did. Serana, unsurprisingly, landed on her feet and appeared completely unperturbed. The constant background noise that had been absent within the Cairn seemed almost deafening. The human found himself suddenly exhausted and starving, as if his body had been in some sort of suspended animation and was now making up for lost time.
Serana crouched next to the woozy human, resting a hand on his shoulder. "The nausea should pass, the return to Nirn can be disorienting. At least that's what I've read, as a Vampire I don't get nauseous."
"Good for you?"
The Vampire snorted in a decidedly unladylike manner, smirking at the human sending her a halfhearted glare. "I suppose the advantages of being a Vampire are not something you are particularly interested in hearing at the moment?"
"You don't say…"
Her smirk softened into a smile. "Come on you oaf." She placed a hand on his chest, using it and the one already resting on his shoulder to pull him to his knees. "This should make you feel better…probably." Her free hand reached into her pack, producing the soul gem holding a portion of the man's soul. She pressed the slowly pulsing gem against his chest, speaking words he did not recognize under her breath. The gem crumbled and a warm light filled the room for an instant as the severed soul was made whole. Kaius grimaced at the strange feeling of fullness in his chest. The Dragon had said that what it had done was only possible due to his soul's damaged state; he couldn't help feeling that there were probably more than a few strings he had not been informed about.
"Are you alright?" Asked the concerned Vampire, her eyes peering inquisitively at the silent Imperial. "Is your chest feeling 'all burny'?"
The feeling passed momentarily but Kaius couldn't help feeling troubled. "Yeah…just felt off for a second or two."
"Could be whatever the Dragon did…why did you agree to its offer?"
"I didn't want the damned thing to attack us again."
Serana frowned, her gaze flicking towards the still open portal to the Cairn. "He wouldn't have attacked."
"Did you really want to bet it all on its goodwill? I had stabbed it in the eye minutes earlier after all."
"True…though Durnveer seemed more…honorable than that."
"Durnehviir." Corrected Kaius without thinking. Somehow, and he had no idea how, he knew he had pronounced the name perfectly. This thought was more than a little disturbing.
A petite hand landed on his shoulder, stirring Kaius from his daze. "Kaius? Are you still with me?" Serana's eyes were fixed on his, her gaze troubled.
The Imperial smiled. "Yeah, I'm fine. Believe it or not I was basking in the feeling of being home." Whatever was going on was his problem; Serana had more than enough to worry about.
Her shoulders lowered as she loosed a relieved sigh. "Good, we made it through the Soul Cairn; neither of us is dying now!"
"Touching Serana, truly. You were always skilled at manipulating men." Serana was standing instantly, dark energies exploding from her palms. The spell impacted mere inches from a Vampiric Dunmer who failed to flinch at all. "Tsk, Serana. Is that how you greet a friend?"
The Vampiress did not respond, settling for watching through narrowed eyes as her spell took effect. Two shadows stepped from the wall behind the Dunmer. Blue-white orbs of light flared to life in the creature's empty eye sockets as the two Bonemen restrained the other Vampire. Instead of looking surprised, or even concerned, the Vampire looked fascinated by the creatures, even when one placed its sword against his throat. "I see you found yourself some new friends."
"What do you want Garan?" Barked Serana, clearly in no mood for the Dunmer's failure to get to the point.
"Serana…who's the elf?" Asked Kaius cautiously. With the appearance of the unfamiliar Vampire he found himself keenly reminded of the loss of his sword and shield, he'd give anything for a weapon.
"Garan Marethi." The Dunmer responded, an arrogant smirk playing at his lips. "I'd bow but…" He motioned with a hand towards the sword being held to his throat. "…I'm preoccupied at the moment."
"A name's nice but just who is he?" Growled the Imperial.
"He is one of my Father's chief advisors." Kaius stiffened in agitation but before he could interrupt, Serana continued. "Unlike the brute Orthjolf, or the conniving Vingalmo, he-"
"-understands that power is of no worth if you do not live to use it." Interrupted the Dunmer Vampire. "I am the one that allowed Serana to leave Castle Volkihar."
Kaius lowered his arms, glancing between the Vampires skeptically. "So…he's an ally?"
Both Serana and Garan chuckled, sharing a mildly amused look before turning back to the mortal.
"He is not our ally Kaius…though he will assist us as long as he feels there is something in it for him."
"Precisely my dear." Confirmed the Elf before he returned his attention to the Imperial. "As I am sure you have guessed, I am…old. I have lived through the rise and fall of civilizations. I know the signs that precede the fall, and they have all appeared amongst the Volkihar. Harkon is mad; it is only a matter of time before the clan collapses down around him. That does not, however, mean that the Volkihar will not win this little war."
"We aren't at war with your clan."
The Elf's grey lips twitched in a smirk. "You might not be at war yet, but it is coming whether you recognize it or not."
"So…are we going to kill him?" Asked Kaius, not bothering to lower his voice.
Serana sighed under her breath and flicked her wrists. The two Bonemen that had been holding Garan hostage vanished back to the shadows. "No, he can still be useful. I trust you won't try to stop us from leaving?"
"Of course not my dear, I will do nothing to hinder you, of that you have my word."
"Why am I not reassured?" Kaius muttered but was ignored.
Serana walked past her human ally, casually picking up her Mother's diary from where it rested on a nearby table. The Imperial had to fight back a chuckle. Was she trying to look nonchalant? Because she was doing an awful job at it.
"How did you find us Garan?" Asked Serana as she opened the book. From his position behind the Vampire, Kaius could make out the subtle magic with which she burned her mother's secrets.
"You used magic recklessly when dealing with the Feral, you are lucky that I was the only one that was nearby enough to notice it. Ah…on that note, I drugged the Feral, she should give you no trouble when you leave."
The female Vampire put the book down, grimacing as she realized just how lucky she was that her use of magic hadn't doomed them. "Thank you Garan."
Garan responded with a borderline mocking bow, grinning crookedly. "I would leave as soon as possible though, in this instance the eye of the storm is not a particularly safe place to be."
After a moment's hesitation, Serana snatched Kaius by the wrist and pulled him towards the exit. "Come, we should not linger here."
Garan waited a few minutes before walking towards the book. It wouldn't do for her mortal pet to come back and realize he had been duped. He opened it, recognizing Valerica's elegant handwriting easily. Unfortunately the vast majority of the book had been burnt, no doubt when Serana had been pretending to read it. Clearly she did not trust him enough to give him her mother's secrets. Still…the portal that lay open even now hinted at Valerica's true location.
He lowered his head, blowing softly on the desiccated pages. Ash and burnt paper was blown away, revealing Serana's hidden message. He read it quickly, memorizing it before incinerating the book and any remaining evidence.
Kaius covered his eyes with a pained grimace as he stepped into the piercing light of the sun. His eyes adjusted slowly to the bright light, the time spent indoors or within the Soul Cairn having adapted them for the perpetual semidarkness. Serana's reaction was much more noticeable. Releasing an inhuman hiss she covered her face and stumbled as if gravity itself had suddenly increased upon her. The only reason she managed to avoid falling down was that she leaned against the cliff face to steady herself.
After a minute Kaius was finally able to blink the stars from his eyes and see clearly. The sun was almost directly overhead; it was a bit before midday. They'd been within the Cairn for at least twelve hours and judging from how hungry and tired he was they had been within for considerably longer than that. The tired human glanced at his companion, finding her still in the same position, leaning heavily against the jagged rocks atop which Castle Volkihar rested.
"Are you alright Serana?"
"I…I am fine. I just need a moment to regain my strength. We were within the Cairn for at least two days. I have not fed in too long a time; the sun is affecting me far more than it should."
"Do…ah…do you want a snack?" Asked the hulking Imperial, hesitantly proffering his arm towards her.
The Vampire squinted at him incredulously for a moment before a genuine smile spread across her lips. "No, I'm too hungry to feed from someone safely. As I am sure you will object to me feeding on the first person I see, I will need to find some bandits or other generally unpleasant types."
"You are no use to us weak just…snack on me to tide yourself over." Insisted Kaius, once more proffering his arm, going so far as to wave it about.
"No!" The human took a step backwards in surprise, eyeing the irritated Vampire cautiously. "I'm sorry but when a Vampire is this hungry once they start feeding they aren't going to stop. You being…large means that you would probably survive the feeding, but you would be weak for days."
"You really can't stop?"
Serana sighed through her nose. "Imagine the urges to eat, and drink, multiply them, and that is the Hunger. A Vampire doesn't stop mid feeding, it is almost impossible to do so."
Kaius nodded, understanding her reasoning and knowing better than to further push the issue. "Wait…where'd Patches hide the boat?"
The Vampire flinched, the loss of her oldest friend still a fresh wound. "I…I don't know I just assumed..."
"He'd be here to get it for us?"
"So, what's our plan? Do we steal a boat from the dock?"
Serana pushed herself off of the wall, stumbling a bit but regaining her balance fairly quickly. "There are magical wards between us and the docks; there is only a miniscule chance that we would get there without alerting every Vampire in the castle."
"If you suggest we swim I will be…displeased." Said Kaius, glaring out at the subzero ocean.
The Vampire sent him a withering glare. "I am well aware that you would freeze. Damned fragile mortal constitution."
"I am fairly certain that that is the first time anyone has ever referred to me as fragile." Retorted the frustrated human. As his undead companion glared at him wordlessly, Kaius took a few more steps down the beach, searching for any other means of travel.
"Be careful." Ordered the Vampire with a sigh. "We don't know where the nearest wards are. If you trip one…well…just don't trip one."
Spotting something only twenty or so feet down the shore, Kaius grinned. "Hey!" He exclaimed, pointing at the boat resting innocently against the shore. "Look wha…" The human trailed off, his expression growing confused as he noticed a slight tingling in his pointing finger. "Serana wh-" Serana slammed into the human, tackling him to the side as a fireball the size of his torso sailed through the air he had occupied not a second before.
Kaius found himself on his back, straddled by an irate Vampire glaring into his face. She lowered herself so her mouth was next to his ear. "Your finger tingled because it was setting off a ward you fool!" The Vampire's breath smelled vaguely of blood and meat as she whispered in his ear. For a moment, Kaius was certain her fangs were going to sink into his throat.
Moving with inhuman speed she leapt to her feet, one hand hauling him to his, while the other conjured forth a familiar creature.
Arvak pawed the sand nervously, sensing his master's anger. "Serana…how is Arvak supposed to help us get off of an island?"
The Vampire glared dangerously at Kaius. Deciding for his long term health that he should refrain from questioning Serana for the time being, he pulled himself up onto the horse. His ally leapt gracefully atop her mount, landing in front of the Imperial.
"Congratulations Kaius, you've succeeded in kicking the bee's nest." She leaned forward, hands resting on the spectral horse's skeletal neck. "Hold on." With no verbal command, Arvak took off. Sprinting at a speed no mortal horse could hope to maintain for any useful period of time, it headed straight for the ocean separating them from mainland Skyrim.
The Imperial barely had time to close his eyes and brace himself for the impending onslaught of freezing salt water. The expected cold never arrived.
Apparently ghostly horses could run across water.
Harkon paused for a moment, inspecting his sword. He had commissioned the blade ages ago, just after leaving his humanity behind. It was of Akaviri make, similar to the katanas the Blades had wielded before they died out. If those ancient Dragon hunters had been capable of one thing, it was the creation of truly magnificent instruments of death. It was perfectly balanced, stronger than dragon scale, and capable of cleaving through the heaviest of armors with ease. These aspects were not particularly noteworthy, at least not in an Akaviri katana. What made this weapon worthy of a Lord of Vampires was the enchantment he had crafted for it personally.
The sword hungered; he could feel it thirsting. Its rudimentary intelligence ached for the blood of the weak, the blood of the dying, the blood of the damned.
The Thrall behind him placed his cuirass over his chest, synching the leather ties tight. His pauldrons followed, the shoulder mounted armor giving his silhouette an ominous air.
Orthjolf entered his room, head bowed reverently. "They are fleeing my lord. Your daughter summoned some sort of spectral mount and is riding it across the Sea of Ghosts like death itself is after her."
Dismissing the Thrall attending to him with a flick of his wrist, Harkon turned towards Orthjolf. The Nordic Vampire was clad in a massive set of ash grey plate mail, easily heavy enough to bring a normal man to his knees. A helmet heavy enough to break the neck of a mortal rested atop his head, a grill of vertical bars protecting his face from harm. A claymore and two handed war axe were slung across his back each clearly designed for someone with the build of a larger than average Orc.
"My wayward daughter will wish it was death chasing her." Harkon stalked past the larger Vampire, unable to stop the predatory smile playing at his lips. Orthjolf fell into step behind him deferentially.
The Vampire lord had almost reached the exit when he was cut off by the last man he wanted to see. Garan Marethi emerged from the shadows silently, his hands held up in an effort to calm Harkon.
Harkon found that his patience for the Elf was waning as of late. There was a time when the man had been his favorite follower, when he had been as eager for blood and death as the deathless Lord. Nowadays, he found the Dark Elf preaching caution and patience far more often than he'd have liked. He could already imagine what the Dunmer would say. 'My lord, we shouldn't act hastily. For all we know they could be leading us into a trap.' Harkon was in no mood. Swiping his hand across his chest dismissively, Harkon hurled his advisor from his path. The man impacted the wall with a grunt, landing in a heap. The massive Nordic Vampire following in his wake chuckled at his rival's misfortune.
It was then, mere seconds before he would have set off in chase of his wayward daughter, that Garan said the last thing he expected, the only thing that could have stopped Harkon when he was on the warpath.
"My Lord, I believe I have found your Wife."
The ancient warlord spun around, Vampiric eyes flaring in barely contained rage. "Where?"
"Overcome with a feeling of nostalgia, I found myself-"
Harkon slammed his advisor into the wall, pinning him there with a hand to the throat. "I said where?"
"In the Northern tower, the entrance is in Valerica's garden."
"Do you think I am a fool? She is not within the Castle walls, I would have found her if she was!"
"You are correct." Choked out the Dunmeri Vampire, barely able to speak with the pressure Harkon was exerting on his throat. "I found a hidden study and a portal to Oblivion. I don't know where it leads, but Valerica is surely within."
Harkon dropped the manipulative Vampire, spinning towards his large follower. "You will find my daughter, you will return her here."
Orthjolf grinned, his pointed teeth gleaming in the dim light. "What of the man my Lord? What about when your daughter resists? How much can I…damage her?"
"Kill the human, he is nothing. Return my daughter alive. The amount of damage done to her is…irrelevant."
The Spectral horse darted through the forest, dodging around trees and leaping over roots with supernatural skill. The spirit's already impressive reflexes were augmented by its Vampiric master, through their bond she could command him with but a thought. Like a shadow given form, they moved with a speed no creature of the ground could possibly match.
"We need to stop in Dragon Bridge!" Shouted Kaius, much to the irritation of Serana. The man was hugging her to stay atop Arvak; his mouth was inches from her ear, yelling was not at all required.
"I need a weapon, preferably a sword and shield. And even if I didn't, it's the easiest way to cross the Karth River."
"There is no time!"
"The Karth River carves a path through the landscape! Even if Arvak can run across water, he can't fly. Climbing the embankment on both sides will slow us down, its faster this way. Besides I am not willing to continue this chase without something to defend myself with. Arvak's faster than anything I've seen he's given us enough of a lead to spare a few minutes at a blacksmith."
"The lesser Vampires and their Thralls will be far behind. They will need to be ferried across by boat before mounting up. They are not who concern me! The Vampire Lords in my Father's court will not be slowed by water. They will catch us; it is only a matter of time."
"How many are there?"
Serana sighed through her nose, glancing at Kaius over her shoulder before returning her attention to their path. "Three, including my Father. The others are two of his chief advisors. Vingalmo, a High Elf, he is cunning and manipulative, and one of the most powerful mages I have ever encountered. The other is Orthjolf, an absolute brute of a Nord, though you should not mistake his brutish ways for unintelligence."
"Just the three? I had figured…"
"That Harkon would have as many Vampire Lord followers as possible? He would be a fool to do so, Vampire Lords are powerful, and would be a threat to his control. The only reason he even turned Orthjolf and Vingalmo was because they hated each other more than they coveted his position. There was another that I never met, but you trapped him in my prison."
"It's fairer to say he trapped himself. That's not the point though, I still need a weapon."
"If my Father realizes I was the one that intruded on the island, he will be coming himself. If that is the case, your weapons and armor will not matter, he will kill you and drag me back to the tower for 'entertainment'."
"Serana…without a weapon I am useless to you. Worse! I'm detrimental. We need to make this stop, it won't take long."
"Fine…" Grimacing, Serana adjusted Arvak's course so they would pass through Dragon Bridge, and cross the river using the bridge for which the settlement was named.
They arrived within minutes, Arvak's supernatural speed more than proving its worth. When they neared the settlement, Serana dismounted and Kaius followed suit. She proceeded to dismiss Arvak. "It would be best if we avoided drawing attention." She said by way of explanation. "Come, let's make this quick and be done here."
They found the blacksmith quickly enough; the settlement consisted of less than a dozen houses, an inn, the blacksmith, and a barracks for the guard garrison. Pushing open the door Kaius entered, blinking slowly to allow for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior lighting. The store was run by an elderly Nord, sitting in a crooked chair by a fireplace. He had clearly been an imposing man in his youth, even with his back bent by age and his body becoming frail his broad shoulders were easily noticeable. A bushy white beard came down to his chest, contrasting with his starkly bald head. He turned cataracts filled eyes to Kaius as the large man approached.
"Imperial. Hmph! I've had enough of you Imperials."
Holding his hands out in a placating gesture, Kaius calmly addressed the man. "Come now. I need a sword and a shield if you have it. I don't have much time. I'll pay well."
"Fine…" The man stood, his milky eyes widening as he realized how tall Kaius was. "Damned half-breeds always get big."
The calm the Imperial had been clinging to dissipated instantly and he took a threatening step towards the elderly man. "Do you want to repeat that?"
"You heard me mutt, unless your ears don't work."
Growling low in his throat, Kaius pulled a hand back to punch the racist old bastard. Before the blow could land, Serana stepped in the way, placing a hand on his chest. "Relax." She ordered, voice tinged with Vampiric persuasion. She turned to the blacksmith, her eyes narrowed in irritation. "You will give us your best sword and shield, we have already paid."
"Fine, just so long as that disgrace you're traveling with doesn't come back."
Serana intercepted Kaius, shoving the man back towards the door before he could fulfill his attempted assault. "He's ancient Kaius, move on!"
"I fail to see your point. Come on. One punch, just let me speed him up on his path to senility."
Serana sent the human a final, scathing, glare before facing the elderly man. "The equipment we purchased…if you would be so kind."
Grumbling to himself, the blacksmith stepped into a back room. A short time later he emerged, a sheathed sword held in one hand. He gruffly handed it to Serana before muttering. "How big a shield do you want?"
When Serana sent Kaius a baffled look the Imperial answered. "Biggest one you've got."
The Nord studied Kaius for a moment before grunting and heading back to his storage room. He returned, struggling to lift a massive steel tower shield. It was unfurnished, almost simple in appearance, about five feet tall and three across.
"By the blood! Kaius that thing is immense! There is no possible way you could use that in combat."
Set on proving Serana wrong, Kaius grabbed the shield from the man. Hefting it clear from the ground with a minimal amount of difficulty. "See? It's enchanted, it's lighter than you would expect. I can use this."
Serana raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. "And how maneuverable are you going to be? I find that it tends to be far less painful if you avoid a blow, as opposed to letting your armor take the blow for you." Kaius opened his mouth to retort but was cut off when Serana raised her hand. "No, I don't want to argue. We need to keep moving."
"What is our plan?" Asked Kaius, as the duo exited the building. "Are we heading straight for the Fort, or trying to throw off pursuers first?"
"You know modern Skyrim better than me. How long would it take for us to get to the Fort riding Arvak?"
"With how fast that thing can move, I'd say by this time tomorrow if we stop for nothing."
Serana nodded. "Once we're out of sight of the town I will summon Arvak and we can be off. The less attention we draw to ourselves the better."
They neared the ancient Dragon Bridge from which the settlement earned its name. It had been constructed ages ago when Dragon worship was still prevalent throughout Skyrim. It was constructed of a strange dark grey almost black stone and was as impressive today as it had been the day it had been built. It bridged the chasm dug by the Karth River. At its center, mounted above the path so it was watching all that passed, was a surprisingly detailed sculpture of a Dragon's head.
"Fascinating." Murmured the Vampire. "Do you know that this bridge is older than me? It looks the same as I remember it, I thought time would have worn it but that is not the case."
"As nice as this reminiscing is, shouldn't we move on?"
Sending the Imperial an unamused look, she motioned for him to follow.
Atop his stolen horse, Erald the Elf-Killer grumbled to himself irritably. Events, it seemed, were conspiring against him. Returning from his scouting trip, he had informed Torborn of the Khajiit caravan's fate. The portly Nord had, unsurprisingly, not cared about the unfortunate felines. Erald had anticipated this, he had prepared for this, he was not prepared for the clearly senile fool to dismiss the threat these Vampires posed. While Erald was no expert on the elusive creatures, he knew one thing without a doubt. They were devious and subtle by nature. If they felt secure enough to slaughter entire caravans and make no effort to hide their involvement, they had a good reason for feeling so. When he had, rationally and reasonably, pointed out that these Vampires could very easily pose a threat to Stormcloak operations if allowed to move unhindered, he had been laughed at.
When you thought about it, his response had been completely understandable. The old bastard had asked for it, and anyone who had ever met Erald knew the drink had a way of riling up his temper. Surely no one who studied the situation could fault him; the arrogant old man had been asking to be run through.
The look on his rotund face as he stared at Erald had been priceless. Confusion and pain in equal measure, as if the thought that he had been stabbed was unimaginable. Leaving the dagger buried up to the hilt in the old fool, he had calmly exited Torborn's private quarters, mounted a horse, and rode from the Fort before any of the Stormcloaks had realized what had happened to their idiotic commander.
With the rapidly approaching night, he would need to seek shelter. Knowing what he did, the thought of wandering about at night held little appeal. He soon arrived at a small out of the way cave. Months ago he and a band of Stormcloaks under his command had driven a group of bandits from this location; the outlaws were skittish and would not return to a known hideout. If he was lucky, something he was not holding out much hope for, he could shelter there for the night before continuing on to the Dawnguard in the morning.
As he neared the cave he dismounted the horse, tying it to a nearby tree he proceeded on foot, ready to run if the need presented itself. The glow of a fire was visible, likely situated near the entrance to the cave. Against his better judgment, he got on his hands and knees and circled slowly around to get a better view.
Several armored figures were gathered around a fire. The first was a tall man with short black hair and a dour expression; he wore dark steel armor emblazoned with several wolf motifs. The other man was clearly an old warrior, a jagged scar ran down his cheek from the blind white orb that used to be his eye, and his head was either shaved or bald. He wore the same type of armor as his companion. The last of the figures was clearly a woman, wearing odd armor that appeared to be a mixture of animal hide and metal armoring. She was tall and judging from the lean muscles Erald could see flexing beneath her armor in very good shape. Her most striking feature was the beautiful reddish brown hair that cascaded down her back to brush the bottoms of her shoulder blades. They were all armed, and appeared formidable, knowing better than to risk the courtesy of strangers, Erald began to crawl backwards.
Instantly the trio spun towards the noise, eyes scanning their surroundings. Hidden amongst the plant life of the forest floor, Erald held completely still. With the fire at their backs and the darkness of the starless night they would not be able to see him; all he needed to do was wait. The woman's eyes flicked over the area he was hiding, glinting a strange silver color as they caught the moonlight. When they moved on, Erald was unable to suppress a soft sigh of relief.
The woman's strange eyes were instantly back, searching the forest around Erald for any sign of the hiding man. There was no way she could possibly have heard him. By the Divines, he was over twenty feet away! As if the Divines were set on playing some sort of joke upon him, the woman unslung her bow from where it rested on her back and docked an arrow. She took a step forward, her eyes narrowed predatorily, and began to draw the bow back.
With a mighty crash a man entered the clearing, pulling Erald's horse behind him. The man who had stolen Erald's stolen horse was massive, not particularly tall but with a build that made it look like he could wrestle a troll and win. He had shoulder length black hair and features similar to the dour man by the fire. "Brother! Look what I found."
The black haired man sighed through his nose, resting a hand over his eyes in exasperation. "Farkas, what have I told you about announcing your presence?"
"I should announce myself to avoid unnecessary surprise and remove the risk of being injured accidently." Responded the massive man in the tone of someone reciting something that had been drilled into his memory.
"And did you?"
The man, apparently named Farkas, flinched like a chastised child. "No…"
"I almost shot you." Said the woman, speaking for the first time. For no reason he could think of, her voice reminded Erald of a dangerous predator...a Sabre Cat on the prowl. "You must be more careful."
"I will in the future Shield-Sister."
"Where did you find the horse Farkas?" Asked the bald man.
"The woods." He gesticulated behind himself. "About a quarter mile back."
They were going to find him; at this point there was no question about it. Erald, against his better judgment, stood slowly, hands raised above his head. The woman whirled around with shocking speed, her bow pulled back and ready to fire.
"Hold!" The bald man barked. Thankfully the woman listened and restrained herself from lodging an arrow in Erald's face, though she did not lower the bow. "Who are you? Why are you here?"
"I am just a weary traveler, looking for a place to rest for the night."
The woman snorted but after receiving a glare from the bald man stayed silent. "You wear the uniform of a Stormcloak Officer, why are you alone?"
"I…have left the Stormcloaks."
"Why?" Asked Farkas, the large man was staring at Erald guilelessly, he seemed genuinely curious. His brother cleared his throat and Farkas jumped slightly, his face adopting a more hostile appearance. "Why?" He barked as if too make up for his slipup.
The woman scoffed, her fierce features twisted in disdain. "The whelp abandons his brother's in arms; he does not deserve the honor of falling to my bow."
Erald barely resisted the urge to snap at the woman, she was aiming a bow at his head after all. "If you will just give me back my horse, I will be on my way, there's no need for trouble."
Farkas paused, uncertain, and looked towards his brother for help.
The bald man hummed in the back of his throat, studying Erald intently. "There comes a time in a warrior's life where he has to decide what he is fighting for." He stepped forward, extending a hand. "I am Skjor, Shield-Brother of the Companions and member of the Circle." Erald shook the man's hand, wincing at his strong grip. "My Shield-Brothers are Farkas and Vilkas." The brothers nodded towards the new arrival, Farkas smiling welcomingly. "And lastly, my Shield-Sister is Aela the Huntress."
Aela looked Erald up and down once before turning towards Skjor. "I am going hunting. If the whelp is not gone when I return…I will most likely shoot him." Having said what she felt needed saying, she brushed past the alarmed Nord and stalked into the forest.
"I am Erald the 'Elf-Killer'. She won't really shoot me…will she?"
Skjor chuckled, shaking his head. "Recent events have made us all wary of outsiders. Aela is just being protective of her Shield-Brothers."
"Good, I don't much care for the idea of being shot."
"If you are going to be staying the night, you might as well sit down." Muttered Vilkas, the dour brother.
Still unsure if the woman was really going to shoot him, Erald settled himself next to Farkas.
"Elf-Killer is it?" Asked Skjor. "I assume you fought in the war against the Dominion."
"I did as well, it cost me my eye." Responded the bald Nord, gesturing to the sightless white orb.
Erald nodded. "What are the Companions doing out here?"
"We were searching for a valuable artifact related to our order, and that is all you need to know." Said Skjor.
"Were searching? So you found it?"
Skjor glared warningly at Erald for a moment before nodding. "Yes, we will be heading back to our mead hall Jorrvaskr in the morning."
"What was it like in the Stormcloaks? Some of our members want to join but Kodlak says we should stay out of the war." Asked Farkas, his eyes alight with an almost boyish excitement.
"Kodlak Whitemane, the Harbinger of the Companions." Answered Skjor, as he skewered himself a piece of venison with a rather large knife.
"So he's your leader?"
"We are called Companions for a reason. We are our own leaders; we choose when we fight and who we fight for. Kodlak is our Harbinger his word is respected, but it is not law."
Erald nodded before turning back to Farkas. "To answer your question, it was far less 'glorious' than the recruiters would lead you to believe. Many of the soldiers joined more out of xenophobic bigotry than patriotism for Skyrim."
"…what?" Asked a confused Farkas.
"Most of the soldiers joined because they hate everyone that isn't a Nord, and not because they want to protect Skyrim."
"Farkas…leave the man alone." Ordered an exasperated Vilkas.
"I'm just asking questions Vilkas."
"Sleep." Grumbled Skjor, through a mouthful of deer. "Both of you." He swallowed audibly before continuing. "We leave tomorrow come sunrise, you pups need the rest. I'll keep watch."
Farkas followed the command without complaint, grabbing his sleeping roll and heading deeper into the cave. Vilkas gave the bald Nord a sour look before following his simple brother.
"I thought you were Companions, all equal with no leader."
Skjor smirked, carving another chunk of flesh from the block of venison. "Aye, that we are. The boys know when to listen to their elders though."
They sat in silence for several minutes, Skjor staring into the fire and occasionally butchering the venison, and Erald staring out into the night sky. The Aurora was out, the stars hiding behind a florescent blanket of shimmering lights. It had been a long time since he had taken the time to study the night sky; he had forgotten its beauty. It shifted in color as he watched, an iridescent violet, a deep blue, a vibrant green, and finally settling on a burning orange so the sky itself was aflame.
"Amazing isn't it? How we become so wrapped up in our little struggles that we forget the beauty around us." Erald turned to face Skjor, the elder man was studying him intently with his mismatched eyes. Seeing that he had Erald's attention, the man continued. "Why did you leave the Stormcloaks? I might be allowing you to stay here out of the kindness of my heart, but I deserve to know if you're a threat."
Erald sighed. "I…lost my temper. A few days ago I led a group of scouts around the perimeter of the Fort. We stumbled upon a Khajiit caravan, they had been slaughtered. Every. Last. One." He glanced towards Skjor, the man was watching him intently, and his still working eye was fixed on Erald. "I thought it was bandits, a group of trolls…maybe even werewolves." Skjor shifted in place, and narrowed his eyes. "Until we found that one of the Khajiit was mummified. There's only one thing native to Skyrim capable of that."
"Vampires…why would Vampires sack a trading caravan?"
"I think they were trading with the Dawnguard. The bodies were arrayed so that when viewed from above they formed the heraldry of the Dawnguard."
"So…you think the Vampire hunters have finally managed to kick the leeches hard enough that they are viewed as more than an irritant?"
Erald shrugged. "I would assume so. I returned to the Fort with this information and the commander, a fat incompetent fool, had the audacity to laugh when I pointed out that the Vampires could be a threat. I gutted him, stole my horse, and left."
"That is it?"
Erald paused, looking at the older Nord in confusion. "Yes."
Skjor smirked before spearing another piece of meat on his knife. "You and I both know there are far worse things you could have done. If what you say is true, the man was a fool who should not have been given command of anything. Were our positions reversed I would have done far worse."
"Have you decided if I'm a threat yet?"
"You are without a doubt a threat…but I do not think you have any intention of harming the Companions." Skjor paused, his eye surveying the horizon briefly. "Will you keep watch or shall I?"
Erald opened his mouth to speak but found himself yawning.
"Sleep Elf-Killer, I am no stranger to sleepless nights."
Erald nodded. "I'll take you up on that offer Companion."
It wasn't until he almost fell off or Arvak that Kaius realized how exhausted he was. He was caught by Serana who frowned at the tired man. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"There seemed to be more important things to worry about."
She sighed, silently directing Arvak towards the ruin of an ancient tower. "You are of no use if you're too tired to fight, we will stop for the night there and continue in the morning."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, anyone pursuing us will likely assume we would stop for nothing and pass us by. And even if they do catch us, this tower should be defensible."
They dismounted at the tower's base, and Kaius studied the decaying structure skeptically. It was tall, perhaps eight stories in height and had clearly been taller before it had fallen into disrepair. The entire structure listed to the right, reminding Kaius vaguely of a drunk determined to stumble home unassisted. He stepped towards it only to be stopped when Serana's arm blocked his way.
"Hold up, there is no telling what has taken up residence inside." The Vampire thrust her arms forward, summoning several Bonemen. The black creatures, almost invisible in the dark night, flew towards the tower like shadows given wings.
The duo waited in silence for a few minutes before Serana smiled. "There was a rogue mage within; he will no longer be a threat." She turned to Kaius, her smile turning playful. "See oaf? There was no need to risk yourself."
Kaius suppressed a groan at his apparent nickname but followed the Vampire into the tower. The first floor was desolate; a staircase followed the curve of the wall upwards, vanishing into the darkness of the ceiling. The shattered remnants of a large table occupied most of the free space; a few of the chairs that had ringed it were still relatively whole.
Serana conjured forth a floating orb of light; it circled her head twice before darting up the stairs and onto the next floor. Overcome with the same somber feeling Kaius was feeling in this dead place, she silently motioned for him to follow as she climbed the stairs. The second floor was a grisly sight, dozens of bodies some little more than skeletons, some relatively fresh, littered the floor. One in particular, an elderly looking Breton, appeared to have been killed recently, judging from the robes he was wearing and the staff that lay broken at his feet, it appeared Serana's creatures had thrown the mage in with his victims. They did not stop, and continued climbing for the third story.
They found themselves in the mage's bedroom, Serana's ball of light floating serenely in the center of the ceiling. A rather opulent four poster bed occupied one corner and the floor was covered in animal skins. Bookshelves filled to the brim with hundreds of books lined the walls, and an enchantment and alchemy apparatus occupied the area opposite the bed accompanied by a writing desk. The stairs continued upstairs to a closed trapdoor.
"Above us are mainly areas the mage used for storage, he experimented upon his victims in the cellar." Said Serana as she closed a trapdoor that separated them from the floor below them. "Intersting…it appears he enchanted the door so the smell of rotten flesh would not pass through." She smiled, turning towards Kaius. "That should help you sleep."
She frowned upon seeing the troubled look that occupied Kaius' face. "Why did he do this?"
The Vampire shrugged. "I don't know. I'm sure he left notes though, if you're curious you could probably find out."
"This is why no one trusts you mages! There's always some sort of justification for the horrid things you do."
Serana raised a black eyebrow, studying Kaius. "You are upset, more so than the situation warrants. This…reminds you of something?" Her glowing eyes flickered across the man's face, noticing his scars. She had become so used to him that she had almost forgot about them, they were just a part of him. "How did you get your scars?"
The Imperial groaned, sitting down on the mage's bed. "I told you about why my family came to Skyrim, yes?"
"You were robbed by brigands and hoped to find family. You…did not continue after that."
Kaius sighed, his eyes distant. "We never did find my mother's family. Mom was a Nord and Dad was an Imperial, not that it matters, I identify myself as Imperial and that's how it's going to stay."
"I thought you were large for an Imperial."
"We were somewhere in the lowlands, near Falkreath maybe…I honestly don't know. We met an old man on the road; he offered us a place to stay for the night. Food, water, and shelter. It was more than we'd had in a long time and my parents took him up on the offer. He must have drugged us…or enchanted us…the next thing I remember is waking up in a room with my family. I was resting against the far wall; the only exit was directly opposite me. My family was all collared, chained securely to the opposite wall by the door. There was plenty of slack, so they could move throughout almost the entirety of the room. The only place they could not reach was where I was huddled."
Serana inhaled in surprise, her eyes widening as they landed on a scar that was clearly a bite mark on his neck. "It took me a while to notice it, but there was something off about them. Their eyes were wrong, and they were unnaturally pale. In the beginning they were still my family, still the people I loved." He smiled sadly. "My mother would sing myself and my sister to sleep every night. But as time passed they began to lose weight. The old man showed up several times a day, always feeding me but never them. When I realized they were starving I tried to give them some of my own food, they refused."
Kaius absently rubbed the back of his hand, staring at the floor. "I was stubborn, and one night while they slept, I tried to force feed my sister. I was putting a piece of bread in her mouth when she did the last thing I would have ever expected. Her eyes snapped open, glowing a strange orange, and she sunk her teeth into the back of my hand. I screamed and tried to push her away. She grabbed me, grabbed me with a strength no child should possess. The taste of blood drove her to frenzy, and incited my parents. I was lucky; while they tried to get at me they unintentionally dislodged my sister."
If it was possible for a Vampire to pale, Serana did so. "I don't know how long I was trapped in that room with those…things that used to be my family. Eventually Isran and the Vigilants of Stendarr raided the old man's hiding place. They killed him and set off some sort of booby trap in the process. It released the chains that were all that kept the abominations from getting to me."
"By the blood…"
Kaius smirked humorlessly. "What you see…" He said, gesturing to his heavily scarred face. "is my family's last gift to their son. These…" He pointed to the four claw marks that raked down the left side of his face and barely missed his eye. "My mother. This…" The savage marking on his throat. "My father. This…" The section of his right ear that is missing. "My sister. There's more but…you get the idea. Isran and the other Vigilants managed to save me…barely. But the scars remain."
"I…don't know what to say." Murmured Serana as she sat next to the scarred man.
"Then don't say anything, I don't want your pity."
The Vampire paused, clearly trying to choose her next words carefully. "I…am sorry." Kaius growled but before he could object she continued. "Not for what happened to you, though it was awful, but for thinking you were an ignorant fool for refusing my offer of Vampirism. Were our positions reversed I know I would feel the same."
"You don't have to apologize."
"Why did you tell me this?"
Kaius chuckled, a spark of his usual humor shining though. "You asked."
"How many others know this?"
"Just Isran and Celann now. They were both Vigilants but left because they felt Vampires were a threat deserving of more attention. Anyone else that was there is now dead."
"Celann is the quiet Breton man?"
"Yeah, he's Isran's oldest friend and like an Uncle to me."
"I have one last question Kaius, though I already know I will not like the answer."
He stayed silent, watching Serana as she studied his scars with a fresh eye. "How old were you?"
"I'm not sure."
"Your best guess."
Hello readers, it's been a while. Sorry about the long absence, I've had some writers block and wanted to iron out exactly what order I wanted all the various events I have planned to happen. I figured that the end of the Soul Cairn arc was a fairly good place to stop and get my bearings, with luck a wait this long should not happen again.
This chapter introduces the final faction that will play a major part in the story, I'm pretty sure anyone who has played the game saw them coming but here they are. The Companions were surprisingly hard to write, Vilkas is serious and feels the need to look out for his simple brother, Farkas is loyal, almost innocent, and several cards short of a full deck, Skjor is an old warrior, the type that would respect Erald even if he doesn't agree with him, and Aela is...a huntress. I know she was a bitch this last chapter but she's not the type of person that concerns themselves with social niceties and is agitated now that the Silver Hand have suddenly learned who they really are. *cough* how'd they do that? *cough* Anyways, the Companions have a fairly major part to play in the story. I can't help but wonder how Isran would have reacted to the knowledge that some of the most famous and respected mercenaries in all of Skyrim were Werewolves. He doesn't object to the player being a werewolf but that's more because he just doesn't acknowledge it at all then the fact that he might accept it.
On the Vampire side of things, Harkon is on the warpath, Orthjolf is eager for a fight, Valerica is in trouble, and in the middle of it all Garan is still manipulating with the best of them. I'm looking forward to expanding on the relationship between Serana and Garan, while they don't trust each other in any way shape or form, Serana needs a source of information inside the Volkihar and Garan wants to play both sides of the board.
Oh and for those of you who are curious, Kaius was always a half Nord half Imperial, I didn't just decide to add that in just now. He identifies himself as Imperial for many reasons but mainly because if you're the type of person that would dislike him for being Imperial he has little to no interest in interacting with you.
As always thank you for reading and I appreciate any and all feedback you have to offer.