A/N: I've deviated a little from the way the quest plays out because yeah, whatever, artistic license and stuff.
This is chapter two of three.
Disclaimer: Standard fanfiction disclaimer. This fic also contains multiple quotes from the game.
Beautiful Skyrim Weather - Chapter Two
Cassandra was stiff when she awoke. She was lying on the stone floor of the wayshrine, not particularly warm, but dry at least. What was left of her ebony armor was sitting in a neat pile beside her, along with the frozen ewer. She sat up slowly, feeling every muscle in her body, including all the ones she didn't know she had, ache. Her skin felt like she'd gotten the worst sunburn of her life and her neck in particular felt like she'd fallen asleep reading a book on a too small couch. It was nothing she hadn't pushed through before. After stretching and determining that everything was in working order, she buckled on her armor, took up the ewer, and stepped out into the morning light.
"May Auri-El's glow shield you from your enemy," greeted the ghostly prelate. Cassandra ignored him. "Serana? Where are you?"
"I'm right here." Serana was sitting with her back against the shrine and her arms crossed. Her hood was up and her face was hidden against the sun's rays. "Are you alright?"
"I am, thanks to you," Cassandra replied. "What happened? I don't remember much after I went under."
"I dived in after you. The dragon attacked again underwater, but I froze it," said Serana. She read Cassandra's face easily and added, "Don't look so surprised. I may have been sealed away, but I still remember how to fight. Hunger makes my affinity for frost stronger as well. I dragged you to the wayshrine because it was protected from the wind and I used fire magic as best I could to warm and dry you. I had to let your helmet and gauntlets sink. With your armor you were almost too heavy to swim up with and those were the easiest parts to drop."
"You froze the dragon solid?" Cassandra asked. "Why didn't you just do that as soon as the fight started? Why haven't you done that to everything we've fought so far?"
"I needed the lake to do it," Serana answered. "Do you think slaying a dragon is easy, Dovahkiin? I froze the water around it, not the dragon."
Cassandra ran a hand through her short brown hair. "I'm sorry. You saved my life. I should be thanking you, not questioning your methods."
"It's fine. Let's just get moving." Serana stood and turned to head down the path.
"Wait," said Cassandra. "I need to go back to the lake to get my sword. I left it in the first dragon. And I still want a look at that stone."
The Dragonborn had expected some kind of protest, even a 'You remember what happened last time?,' but Serana wordlessly followed her down to the lake. The wind seemed calmer than it had the day before, and for that Cassandra was grateful. Her helm was lost and there was nothing to protect her face from the elements now. There were no more dragons lucking this time, so the hardest part about reaching the great skeleton that still had her sword embedded between its vertebrae was keeping her footing on the slippery ice.
"You know," said Cassandra, "I read a book once that said Volkihar vampires lived in iced over lakes and could freeze people with their breath."
"Don't believe everything you read." Serana said tersely.
Cassandra picked her way through the dragon's remains and grasped her sword's hilt. The skeleton fell apart in a clatter of bone and scraps of scale.
When Serana didn't make a clever comment, Cassandra glanced over at her. "You're being unusually taciturn."
"I don't have an infinite store of witty remarks. Let's move faster. The sun is... it's not great for my skin, if you know what I mean."
Cassandra frowned. The vampire still had her hood up, her hands were hidden under crossed arms, and she'd even pulled her cloak down to cover the strip of cleavage her garment normally left exposed. "Not that the sun is hitting any of it," the Dragonborn remarked. "Do vampires tan?"
"Just look at your rock."
The stone was a Word Wall, but not like the others the Dragonborn had seen. It was a large standing stone instead of a semi-circular tablet, and there was no portrait of a dragon. It hadn't been built by the cultists. "Lungerd wahlaan qeth... Lunger raised this stone in her husband's memory, Thorgrima, keeper of crimson fire and lord of... magicka… Lah." The words were not entirely familiar, but she just knew. "Well, I think that was worth it," she said.
Serana said nothing. She continued to say nothing for the walk back across the lake and the slow walk along the crumbling cliff and the few skirmishes they had with falmer in the ravine. To call the travel slow would have been an understatement. The care that had to be given so as not to upset the makeshift falmer bridges was enormous, and fighting over the rickety platforms was difficult at best. In normal circumstances friendly banter would have relieved the stress of the journey, but… Cassandra was used to silence between them - when you walked across all Skyrim it happened - but this was off. Every now and then Cassandra would chance a look over at her companion, but Serana kept her face under the hood of her cloak.
Finally, when they'd stopped for the night in a falmer hut that they'd cleared of its previous occupants, Cassandra tried to start a conversation again while she unpacked a few strips of salted horker meat. She'd attempted to eat the… whatever it was that the former residents of the hut had kept as food (skeever? chaurus? dung?), but decided that preserving her dwindling supply of horker wasn't worth more than preserving her intestines. "So, Thorgrima... sounds like a woman's name, right?"
"But that 'a' on the end is a feminine sound. Like your name. Serana. That's a woman's name. Like mine. Clearly." Cassandra cursed at herself. Her conversation attempt was terrible.
"You're not a Nord," Serana said.
"No, I'm not," said Cassandra. "I am an Imperial. From Cyrodiil. You know there's an empire there now?"
"Well, it's not much of an empire anymore. But with Jarl Elisif as High Queen, Skyrim is still part of it. Thank Talos. Ulfric would have gotten the place conquered by the Thalmor."
"Is something wrong Serana?"
"By the Nine! You've hardly said a word all day and you've still got your hood up even though the sun set an hour ago!" On an impulse, Cassandra reached over and flipped Serana's hood back.
"My face, I-
Cassandra let out a disbelieving laugh. "Your face is fine, it's, it's perfect. I wish my skin healed that fast, I still feel like a boiled fish. I don't understand."
"I don't want to talk about this," Serana snapped, pulling her hood back up. She got up from the small fire they'd lit and walked out of the hut. "Just leave me alone for a while."
Cassandra wasn't stupid, at least, not always. She let the vampire leave. Serana wasn't bothered by the cold and wind, only by the remote possibility that she'd be snowed under since she had no body heat of her own. But what was bothering her so badly? Was it the hunger? Cassandra had lost her helm, maybe that was making things worse? Unconsciously, she raised a hand to massage her neck.
Huh. That was odd. Her neck hurt.
Gingerly, Cassandra prodded at her neck. She felt a wound that had scabbed over. The Dragonborn frowned. She didn't remember being hit there during the battle with the dragons, and although she'd lost her helm she'd been lucky enough not to be struck by any falmer. On the precarious walkways she'd paid extra attention to avoiding blows, fearing that just one misfortunate strike could knock her down into the abyss. Cassandra frowned. She needed to see her neck.
Cassandra lifted the ewer. It was just shiny enough to give her a dull and indistinct reflection. She held it up a little above her face and squinted at the image. There was a pair of ragged scabs near the base of her neck, relatively fresh wounds.
Cassandra set the ewer down and stood up. She stepped out of the hut. "Serana?" No response. "Serana?" she tried again. Still nothing. If Serana wasn't responding at all then she had probably gone some distance away, or she was pretending she'd gone some distance away. The hut was at least a hundred feet above the ground and, Dragonborn though she was, Cassandra couldn't see very well in the dark. "If you can hear me, I'd like to talk."
The wind howled through the otherwise quiet canyon.
"Serana, I know you fed on me," Cassandra said to the empty darkness. "I'm not angry. You did what you needed to. I understand that. I've been there. I understand too if you have other reasons to be upset. But you mean a lot to me and I don't want you to be upset on my behalf."
Cassandra stood at the entrance to the hut for several minutes, waiting for something, but it never happened. Finally she went back inside. The wind howled outside and slipped through the cracks in the carapace hut. She lay down for an uneasy rest, doing her best to ignore the chill.
  
The next morning, Cassandra was still alone. She stepped out of the hut when the sun was just beginning to brighten the horizon and saw no one. A tendril of worry wrapped around her gut. She had expected Serana to come back at some point in the night. Should she wait for the vampire? No. There were only two directions to go in the valley, forward and back. If she went forward now, Serana would find her eventually and she couldn't afford to waste any time just waiting. Still though, the worry twisted in the pit of her stomach. Cassandra took up the ewer and tied it by its handle to her belt with a strip of leather. She needed both her hands to fight – she would just have to trust that the water would remain frozen.
Threading her way along the falmer rope and log bridges, Cassandra was unnerved by the emptiness of the gorge. Where were the falmer? Where were the charus? Occasionally she would pass a splatter of blood on the ice or an arrow embedded in the wooden walkway, but nowhere were the enemies that should have been swarming the village.
The Dragonborn could only conclude that Serana had pushed ahead the previous night. The worry grew. Night was the vampire's natural element, but in a battle anything could happen. Every time Cassandra rounded a bend, she half expected to find Serana's lifeless body. Or maybe she would never find a body. Perhaps around the next bend there would be falmer and no sign of Serana.
How could the woman have been so reckless? Had she really been so upset that she'd abandon all caution and sense?
Cassandra was so lost in thought and used to the emptiness of the canyon that when the falmer arrow thudded into the breastplate of her ebony armor she almost lost her balance and fell over the edge of the walkway. She barely managed to drop to one knee instead of tumbling backwards. It took less than a second to locate the falmer archer at the other end of the bridge. It was unarmored, an easy kill if she could just close the distance.
Cassandra drew her sword. "WULD NAH KEST!" The Dragonborn sprinted forward. Although the walkway swayed beneath her feet she was moving so fast it hardly mattered. She only ended the charge when her sword was buried to the hilt in the falmer's chest, straight through the twisted thing's sternum. Blood splattered all across her armor and face.
For a moment she stood above her kill. Had Serana missed one?
By instinct, Cassandra dropped to the ground when she heard the whistle of an arrow. The missile passed harmlessly over her, right through the space her head had been a moment ago. Another falmer, this one larger than the last and armored to boot, advanced from inside a nearby hut. It dropped its bow and drew a weapon that looked more like a club than a sword. Still on the ground, Cassandra scrambled backwards until her foot reached the edge of the platform and slipped off to hang above the deadly drop. The falmer was almost on her.
The force of the Dragonborn's Thu'um staggered her enemy and bought her a few precious moments to stand. She caught the falmer's first strike on the hilt of her sword. The impact was greater than she'd expected and her arm and shoulder ached from the strain of holding the falmer back. Keeping her enemy's weapon locked against her own, Cassandra circled around until the monster's back was to the edge of the platform.
"FUS ROH DAH!"
The falmer let out a strangled scream and went flying back. It continued to scream all the way down to the icy river below. The canyon walls resounded with the shout; pebbles and stones shaken loose joined the falmer's descent.
Serana wouldn't have missed two falmer. She wasn't careless. Something must have happened. Cassandra cast her eyes around the platform, looking for some sign of what had transpired. The first falmer she'd killed was lying in a growing puddle of blood by the walkway. The wind had blown away any snow that might have kept footprints. She saw nothing of use.
Cassandra sheathed her sword. She was not a great mage, despite having been made Arch-Mage of the College of Winterhold. Like so many of her titles, it had been bestowed for her mercenary services, not for any great talent or accomplishment. When she absolutely needed a spell, she would find an enchanted staff, or bring along a companion who was a better hand at magic. However, though she was not a great mage, she was passable at a few small things. Clairvoyance was one of the first spells Cassandra had learned. Before coming to Skyrim she had never dabbled in magic. On a whim she had picked up a spellbook from the table in Farengar Secret-Fire's study in Dragonsreach while only half listening to the wizard describe the tomb he wanted an artifact from. The words on the pages seemed to have flowed from the book into her mind. Those were the words she thought of then on the swaying falmer platform in that forsaken vale.
The Dragonborn raised her hands and to her vision the world was bathed in a pale blue light. Not too far away a patch of ground glowed especially bright. Cassandra lowered her hands and walked toward the area the spell had illuminated. There on the ground was a stain of dark crimson. Not far from that was another, and then another, and they formed a trail down a rocky ledge that protruded from the edge of the cliff.
The worry in her stomach became dread and urgency. She took the bow and arrows from the enemy she'd slain and set off.
There were several falmer along the path but dispatching them was no challenge at all. They weren't even enough to distract Cassandra from the fear gnawing at her heart. What was worse than that fear though was the voice in the back of her head. 'If Serana is dead, her father will never have her blood.' It was a traitor voice. 'And if I die, we had the scrolls with us, and the scrolls were the map to get here…' Worse than the voice were the images – memories of exploring a Dwemer ruin and finding pieces of people or, even worse, finding mangled bodies left mostly whole, tied down with faces contorted in agony.
Eventually Cassandra came to a dark gap in the cliff wall and she entered without a second thought. She'd used her last torch on that first night in the valley. Using her meager magic, she summoned a flicker of fire to hover by her shoulder. It was just enough to illuminate the ground before her and to create a tableau of ominous shivering shadows just beyond its small halo of light. She advanced a foot or two at a time, always having to wait to see where the path was, always wary of a sudden cliff edge or trap. By using the wisp, she left herself unable to cast anything else, and she tired quickly, but without a torch or a guide she didn't have a choice.
Once upon a time Cassandra had been able to see in the darkness. Not too long after she had joined the Companions of the Jorrvaskr in Whiterun they had initiated her into the Circle, a group of werewolves within the Companions. She felt like she had been young then. All she had seen was power and she'd taken Aela's blood of her own volition. Young and stupid. For a time lycanthropy had had its benefits. She had roamed Skyrim, hunting and fighting in the form of a beast, a ruler of the night in her own right beneath the moon.
It hadn't been a curse then, it had been power. It had been fun.
But then the dreams began. Every night she was haunted by visions of daedric realms, and in every realm she was hunted. She never knew what chased her, only that it was at her heels and always gaining. It chased her through the labyrinths of Attribution's Share, stalked her in the shadows of Apocrypha, hunted her in Coldharbour. And then during the day there was the restlessness – not a desire for food or for anything tangible, but it drove her on, to keep moving, to keep fighting, to keep finding obstacles to overcome. With every new daedric artifact she hung on her wall, the dreams became worse, but she couldn't stop herself from claiming them. They were a challenge before her, and every challenge had to be defeated.
In retrospect, the lifestyle of the Companions made sense.
And then Kodlak Whiteman, Harbringer of the Companions, had died. His last wish had been to be freed, cured, released, from the werewolf curse. There was a cure. Cassandra went with the other members of the Circle to Ysgramor's Tomb to release Kodlak's spirit from Hircine's hunting grounds, and when she released him she released herself as well. The dreams still came to her sometimes, but not every night, and more and more infrequently as time passed.
That small erasure of daedric influence had meant a lot to Cassandra, but creeping through the cave, she suddenly longed for that power once again. How convenient it would have been to shed her clothes and grow into her beast, to go bounding through the cave ripping apart anything that got in her way, to follow the trail of blood even in the pitch darkness by scent alone. It would be easy. She could find Serana quickly, save the vampire quickly. Before anything worse happened.
But she'd given up that power to regain some small piece of her soul. The only daedric artifact she didn't keep locked in a chest in her basement in Riften was Azura's Star. Even the Dawnbreaker felt too much like someone else's power and control. But if the delay made a difference to Serana, if the speed would change things?
Cassandra moved along the path as quickly as she dared. She couldn't waste time, but she also couldn't afford to lose her footing. There was some sort of drop on one side of the track and she had no intention of finding out what was at the bottom. Judging from the way the path sloped downward though, she was going to find out anyway. Eventually the incline evened out and she felt confident enough to speed up to a slow jog through the long tunnel. Alongside of her, the wisp of light kept pace, warding off the inky black.
There was a distant crash, and then another.
Throwing caution to the wind, Cassandra broke out into a sprint.
At last the tunnel widened into a cavern and in the center of the cavern was the cause of the noise. A group of falmer were mobbing a strange humanoid thing with an extra set of appendages. Cassandra slowed to a stop and drew her sword but didn't charge in because she was unsure of what she was witnessing. The weird creature beneath the falmer was familiar to her, though she'd never seen it before.
A falmer went soaring through the air, thrown by the beast beneath it. The fallen elf hit a wall of the cave and crumpled.
The humanoid thing grunted. "Cassandra! What are you waiting for?" yelled Serana's voice.
Cassandra charged forward. Ah, right, that was why the thing looked familiar. It looked like Harkon when he had decided to exhibit his superiority. Serana had never transformed in front of the Dragonborn – had made a point of it, now that she thought about it – and so Cassandra had never seen her in her… other shape.
She was almost upon the pile of falmer and vampire now, and with only a few feet left to go, Cassandra unleased a shout, sending several of the cave dwelling creatures flying. With their numbers reduced, she set upon them, hacking and slashing and praying she didn't hit Serana as well. It was too dark to see properly. She couldn't block blows with her gauntlet like she normally would; if she tried, she'd lose a hand. Thank the Nine the falmer were short, hunched, and blind. Their blows were crude hacking motions that didn't reach high enough to threaten the Dragonborn's vulnerable head. If they connected with her torso and legs, they staggered her, but her armor protected her from any serious injury. She just had to keep swinging her sword and ignoring the blisters forming on her ungloved hands.
In her peripheral vision, she thought she saw a giant shadow reminiscent of a bat rip a falmer in half.
When the dust settled, Cassandra was the only thing in the cavern still standing as far as she could see. "Serana?"
Something moved in the dark and there was a sick cracking noise. The Dragonborn tightened her grip on her sword and waited, ready to kill anything that appeared.
Eventually a very battered, human-looking, Serana stepped slowly into the field of Cassandra's small light. After most battles Serana was one of those people who was still unfairly attractive no matter how much blood had been spilled – but from what Cassandra could tell, the woman currently looked like shit. "You certainly took your time about it," the vampire said, though not without gratitude in her tone.
Cassandra sheathed her sword and felt her shoulders sag as tension washed out of them. "I didn't recognize you at first. I'm not sure why though, I've seen your father and the family resemblance is striking."
"Hahah, very funny," replied Serana. She paused. Cassandra couldn't see the other woman's face, but she suspected the vampire was expressing something other than generic relief and gratefulness. "But in all seriousness, thank you. I couldn't fight that many falmer at once by myself. I believe we're now even."
"Listen," Cassandra said, "Can we talk about yesterday?"
"I'd rather not right now."
"Fine, not right now. It's not the sort of talk I want to have while standing in the pitch dark and in the middle of a heap of dead falmer. But when we get out of this cave."
"I'd rather not." Serana started to walk away. "I can feel a breeze from this direction, I think the exit is this way."
Cassandra quickly reached out and grabbed Serana's arm. She lost her grip the first time from all the gore covering both of them, but she tried again, this time catching the vampire's wrist. "Serana, we're not even. You saved me from drowning, I saved you from falmer. But I also found you, woke you up from that crypt. You still owe me. When we get out of here, we're going to talk."
"And then I won't owe you anymore?" Serana asked.
"Fine, as long as we talk," Cassandra said. She felt a little conflicted about relinquishing the debt, but if it would make Serana sit down and listen to her, it would be worth it. "Now where did you say the exit was? This place stinks like rotting chaurus dung."
The exit was thankfully close, and fresh air had never smelled so sweet. The cave let them out near the river at the bottom of the gorge. The sun was still in the sky, but it had sunk low enough that its rays no longer reached the banks of the river where they stood. Cassandra looked at the river. If they went upstream, they'd be going in the direction they needed. Hopefully they hadn't missed a wayshrine when they detoured through the cave. The water looked tempting for a bath, anything to wash off the dead falmer, but it was Skyrim water, no doubt straight from a glacier. Cassandra missed dearly the rivers of Cyrodiil.
"We're here," said Serana. "So talk."
Cassandra turned away from the river to face Serana. The vampire had healed most of the damage the falmer had inflicted, but the dried blood on her skin and splattered all across her badly torn armor was a testament to how many lacerations she'd had to recover from. A few of the deeper wounds still bled sluggishly. Cassandra took a deep breath. What was it she'd said last night? Ah, that was it. "Serana, I know you fed on me," Cassandra said. It was so much harder to speak to Serana instead of to the darkness where Serana may or may not be hiding. "I'm not angry. You did what you needed to. I understand that. I've been there. I understand too if you have other reasons to be upset. But you mean a lot to me and I don't want you to be upset on my behalf."
"Is that all you have to say?" Serana asked. "Because that's exactly what you said last night."
"You heard me?"
"Why did you go charging off on your own?"
"We weren't moving fast enough," Serana answered. "I wanted to clear the way so we could move faster."
What bullshit, Cassandra thought. She didn't say anything though, she just raised an eyebrow.
Serana's lips tightened into a frown. "I'm not upset on your behalf, I'm upset on my behalf," she said. "Don't misunderstand me, I am perfectly content with what I am. I may not be my father, but I am not an innocent nor do I long to be one. I am a vampire, and humans are what I eat – they're food…" She paused, but not long enough for Cassandra to interrupt. "You're not food. I didn't want you to be food to me, and that is why I was upset. As for leaving, I thought that killing falmer would be a good way to blow off steam. One of them dropped down behind me and knocked me out, and that's how I ended up in the cave. I woke up shortly before you arrived, but as soon as I started moving they mobbed me."
Cassandra should have been expecting something like that response. She had, half ways at least. But still, she didn't have a response ready. Instead, she said, "I see."
"You're… a better friend… than I've had in a very, very long time. Perhaps a better friend than I've ever had."
"I, uh, thank you," said Cassandra. She kicked at one of the larger pebbles on the bank of the river. "We should be able to follow the river to get to the end of the gorge. Let's go that way."
Serana nodded. "It's getting dark, follow me."
"Of course," said Cassandra. "Friend."