The assassin takes them all by surprise.
There isn't any reason to think otherwise. On their way to Windhelm to answer Jorleif's summons, they chance upon a Vigilant some ways off from the city, their mission to investigate a cave rumoured to shelter vampires. Of course, being the bleeding heart he is, Aenas agrees immediately. So, despite the thought of wading through more waterlogged cave systems, they reluctantly trail after Aenas.
True enough, there are vampires. Not established enough to be a coven, but numerous enough to be a future threat. And like all vampire hunters, they dispatch them efficiently - a stake through the heart while they're in deep sleep of the day, a fireball for those vigilant enough to stir upon their arrival. Silver-tipped arrows from their new Vigilant friend for any still alive.
In all respects, it's a straightforward mission with a straightforward end. Within an hour, they stoke the embers of the roasting spit in preparation for a hearty meal and settle in the furniture strewn around, as if vampire bodies don't lie cold nearby.
They don't expect their fellow Vigilant to stake Serana in the heart.
He's whittling a new stake from a wayward trunk he'd sawn off from a tree in the cavern, blade of his knife glinting like silver. Then, when Serana's distracted by the popping of burning firewood with her back to him, he strikes.
But Serana doesn't die.
She's pushed aside in the last moment as the stake sinks into Elisbeth's side instead.
Aenas shoots to his feet with his greatsword in hand as Elisbeth collapses with a grunt, the bowl she holds tumbling to the floor, but Serana's the one who electrocutes the rogue Vigilant to a crisp.
Before the body even lands on the floor, Serana rips his head off with her bare hands for good measure. Her hands shake violently, but it slips her attention scattered by the rush of how she'd been a moment away from death.
When she turns, she sees Aenas propping Elisbeth up on a mossy rock, helping her keep the stake steady. It juts out out Elisbeth's body, jerking in time to her breaths. Already, Elisbeth's hands sputter with the glow of Restoration magic, but sweat beads her brow and face twisted in pain by the mere effort, the herb smell of a healing potion lathered all around her wound doing little help.
Aenas hovers close to Elisbeth, his trembling hands on her stained red. Serana can't tell if its salve or blood in her panic. His expression tells all - he's worried, and rightfully so, Serana thinks. Elisbeth's a few bottles of blood away from shock and eventual death.
And she's already blacking out.
She hurries to Elisbeth's side, heart definitely not banging about in her ribcage, to augment the increasingly-pale woman's effort at healing. Serana clasps hands over Elisbeth's own and presses down around her wound; shaking her or slapping her cheek when Elisbeth's eyes flit dangerously closed. Like drawing from a dry well, Serana struggles to summon magic meant to heal instead of maim.
The minutes drag by, all three of them save Elisbeth transfixed by the blood gushing from the wound. Serana's perceptions fogs over from the roaring in her ears, herself wondering if this is how it'll end. When Elisbeth doesn't open her eyes again, her lifeblood poured out of her to soak the earth.
"No, no, No!" Aenas's cry draws Serana back. To the blood dribbling through her fingers. To the knitted skin beneath, and the stake lying forgotten close by - out of Elisbeth's left side.
But Elisbeth's eyes are closed.
Serana whimpers, mouth shaped in a quiet no.
Then, it opens.
Aenas sucks in a breath.
Elisbeth's gaze, mercifully clear, drags to her along the corner of her eyes. "Thanks," she says, voice cracking like splintered wood - but there's no mistaking the steel within.
Serana hasn't an answer to that, mind a scrambled mess of relief - and anger. "Just-" she bites back a cry "-don't do that again."
"Thank the Divines," Aenas sighs as he leans back, now seated on the floor. His blocky shoulders shudder from the sheer relief. "Almost thought that was it. Talos."
Elisbeth smirks. "Not like this."
Her face is as pale as Serana's, but the defiant spark is back, like like it should be.
Elisbeth, in fact, does do that again.
From their travels together, Serana assumes Aenas to be the one out of the Marcisio cousins to engage in reckless heroics. Given his history of charging at dragons, greatsword held high and a Thu'um from his throat, Serana expects no less. The Dragonborn talks of the thrill of battle, but as she tells him in her usual deadpan, it's because he hasn't been chewed out by a dragon yet.
But this time, there are no heroics from the unconscious warrior slung limp across Serana's shoulder. Blood dribbles from the long gashes on his torso, the sturdy Dawnguard mail ripped through - all because an ancient vampire had gotten too close and sent him sailing through the air with a vicious swipe of its claws. Elisbeth had spotted it too late to shout a warning, and Serana couldn't summon a bolt of lightning in time.
"Jump!" Elisbeth's warning breaks through Serana's brooding, and Serana leaps over the pothole that would've tripped her up and smashed Aenas's skull on landing. Their environment isn't helping - looming walls and darkened streets of a Windhelm the world above had ceased to remember seemingly pressing down on them, adding on to the despair clinging thick on Serana's skin even through her sleeves. Death and dust linger in the stagnant air, but that's nothing Serana isn't used to. Though, if Elisbeth's panting is any sign, the Vigilant's living lungs are struggling to breathe through the dust.
Serana hopes the wound in Elisbeth's side hasn't ripped itself open again. "You alright?"
"Have to!" Elisbeth yells over her shoulder, and that's that.
They turn corners and streak past raging bonfires in search of an exit, but Serana feels as if they've passed this set of stairs at least twice now. The growls of ancient vampires shake the air and she knows their time is running out. Defeating Lamae Bal had sapped their strength and injured Aenas to his current state. To make things worse, the ground had rumbled beneath their feet then; one that usually followed the dragging of stone across a surface.
There's no denying it - Lamae's second death has awakened something else. And that something else is the current horde of vampires hunting them down.
"I swear the doorway to the slums is around here!" Elisbeth curses, skidding to a halt. Her magelight spell illuminates more of the floor than Serana wishes for, even if her vampiric sight allows her to see clearly in the dark. There's blood and bones, sticking out from squelchy earth she hesitates to term as mud.
"I know," Serana reassures. She can't miss the familiar panic in Elisbeth's tone. "Catch your breath. I'll see if I can sense anything."
Elisbeth nods wordlessly as she sways to her stuttered breathing. Her soiled Vigilant robes hang limply off her frame, looking nothing like the regal embodiment of Stendarr's will.
Serana shuts her eyes and focuses on her senses, pushing out of her head the weight of Aenas on her back and the distant roars of their pursuers. She tries to discern the ebbs in the air for a clue to their whereabouts-
-and feels it in the wisp of a draft to her right.
She opens her eyes and sees a passageway in the corner, almost hidden by the stairway leading down.
"Elisbeth," Serana calls out, and the Imperial nods in understanding.
Serana heads off with Elisbeth in tow, sliding along corners and ducking into side corridors in search of the elusive draft she feels. From time to time, she feels Elisbeth blast away errant vampires behind them, but there's a growing pit in her stomach - that despite their efforts, the stream of vampires is unceasing.
After what feels like forever, Serana feels more than a weak hint of a breeze, only to arrive in front of a locked gate.
She kicks the lock - once, twice, thrice - before it smashes open to hang on its last good hinge. Beyond it lies a small alcove with barrels and chests pushed into a corner. Opposite that, is the statue of a crucified woman.
Their way out.
"Elisbeth, it's-" Serana's chest seizes as she spins on her heel.
Elisbeth isn't right behind her. Elisbeth is a distance back and battering away a swarm of vampires with only spells and her bound axe.
It's something a lone Vigilant can't handle.
"Just go!" Elisbeth yells over the clanging of battle. "I'll hold them off. Get him to safety."
"No. Not when you need help!"
Serana slides Aenas to the floor before sprinting to the gateway-
-and jumps at the vampire that bars her way, hand raised and crackling with red energy.
Her world slows. Serana hears her breath hitch. The vampire snaps its fingers-
-and Serana's world explodes as she staggers from the impact. When the fire clears, the entryway is free of vampires, but Elisbeth's still holding off a horde. Her hand, fizzing with the dying embers of a flame spell, outstretched towards Serana.
Even from afar, Elisbeth's face is as clear as water.
Elisbeth shakes her head slowly; usual scowl missing, and replaced with a rueful half-smile. If Serana's hearing isn't still ringing from the explosion, Elisbeth murmurs a quiet sorry then.
Before Serana can react, slabs of stone crumble in front of the entryway, keeping the vampires out and Serana in.
"No." A scream rips from Serana's throat. "No!"
She pounds on the rock with her fists, grunting as she tries to dislodge the rocks blocking the entryway - to Elisbeth - but they're simply massive.
This isn't an accidental rockfall. Serana knows who caused this and why. But that doesn't make it hurt any less.
She slings Aenas over her shoulders once more, a weight suddenly heavier than before, before she unlocks the statue with a drop of her blood from the cuts on her arms.
Sounds of battle still quake the stillness of the underground, even as Serana ascends the passageway towards fresh air; sounds that remind her of someone she's leaving behind.
Sounds that ring louder than the grief mangling her insides.
There's fresh blood dripping onto the snow after they clamber out of the well outside of Windhelm, but Serana doesn't realise where it comes from till she wipes her face with her hand.
Reflected on the glossy blade of Aenas' greatsword is her face, with trails of blood from her eyes.
The next few hours pass in a whirl.
Jorleif visits them in the Hall of the Dead the moment word reaches him, even if that means waking hours before dawn to the guard pounding a fist on his bedchamber's door. Once there, Helgird leads him to a bedridden Dragonborn and Vigilant seated beside him, and dread settles in his gut.
"Elisbeth?" He says, oddly quiet, and Serana swallows.
She doesn't reply.
He understands immediately. "I'm sorry."
They're paid handsomely for their work, though Serana knows there's more septims than previously agreed in the bags he hands over. (An amount that'll surely vanish should he spot the fangs pressing into her lips.) Aenas has yet to wake, wound still bleeding due to the corrupting nature of vampire claws, and there's no chance in Nirn that Serana can descend again into Windhelm's depths to search for Elisbeth. She needs help, but the Hold guards aren't prepared for such foes.
So she waits, torn between despair and anger in a dizzying concoction that stumps her. Requesting reinforcements from Fort Dawnguard by messenger pigeon feels like facing down Vyrthur again, and scrying unthinkable if she doesn't want want to collapse from the sheer effort required.
But she manages to pen down a letter, even if it takes her the entire night. And she knows she can't put off feeding for much longer.
Because her bloodlust hasn't spiked for some reason. Her all-consuming urge on the heels of exhaustion, dampened by something infinitely worse.
Her self-loathing for letting Elisbeth die.
Help reaches within a day.
Jalissa barges into the Hall, stomping down the stairs like a mammoth that Serana can hear from miles away, frenzied steps scattering snow all over the grimy stone floor. Serana rises from her chair when Jalissa walks through the doorway, and they all but throw themselves into a hug - arms encircled tight, as if letting go would make them fade away.
"I'm so sorry," Jalissa whispers in Serana's ear, bear-hug so tight Serana's head nestles snug in the crook of Jalissa's neck; her steady heartbeat beating against Serana's skin. It's comforting. "I'm so sorry you had to experience this."
"I'm sorry," Serana mumbles into Jalissa's fur cloak. "For-"
"No. Whatever Elisbeth did, she did it. Not you." Jalissa pulls back to stare down at the shorter woman, gloved hands still clutching Serana's arms. "You are not to blame."
"I could've been faster," Serana laments, despising the way her voice cracks. "I co-"
"No. You couldn't have, once Elisbeth's set her mind to something." Jalissa shushes Serana's protest with a finger on her lips. "I love her too. I love her like the waves lapping the coast, but Elisbeth's one of the best Vigilants you'll ever meet because she knows what matters. Because you can't match her tenacity one she decides on what she wants. And if that means sacrificing herself so you both could live, so be it."
Serana thinks of a response, but comes up with nothing - stumped completely by Jalissa's earnestness. Despite her instinctive need to remain petulantly in denial, Serana agrees with everything the Breton has said.
But what Serana feels isn't what she thinks, and that's why she can't bear to smile. Why, despite being centuries older than everyone in Windhelm, she looks to a mortal for answers. "But it still hurts."
"I never said it doesn't, dear," Jalissa murmurs. Instantly, she pulls Serana into another hug, resting her chin on the vampire's head while rubbing her back. "Never said it doesn't."
It's been a long time Serana's been held like this, so she sinks wholly into Jalissa's presence. Nevermind the hard lines of her armour buckles jutting into her skin, or the dampness of a snow-covered fur cloak; Jalissa's firm embrace from muscled arms convey a degree of security and sincerity that Serana doesn't remember receiving from- anyone, so she selfishly clings to the Vigilant as if that can stave off the hurricane whirling her.
It doesn't, but it helps.
When she opens her eyes, she spots Helgird standing by the doorway, looking distinctly uncomfortable; the way people do when intruding on a private moment.
"The guards are looking for you people," Helgird explains, sheepish, as Serana and Jalissa pull away. "Says there's something you might want to see. The Jarl's steward said so."
Serana goes rigid.
"Did they say why?" Jalissa replies when Serana doesn't.
Helgird shrugs. "I'm only telling you what I heard. Best if you both were off then - I'll watch over the young man."
Even before Helgird's done speaking, Serana bolts to the Palace of Kings, leaving a bemused Jalissa in her wake. Not that Serana even realises - her world narrows to a singular thought the moment it clicks.
It's foolish hope, but Serana latches on to any she can get.
The double doors bang open, startling the Palace guards enough for them to draw their swords. Seeing the familiar woman in red and black robes stride in, followed by a new face in iconic Dawnguard mail, they relax.
The steward looks up from his meal at the long table, face breaking into a wide grin as they approach. "Good, you're here. Come with me."
With that, he stands and heads for the stairs leading up.
"What's happening?" Serana asks. She's confused - expecting nervousness, fear even, only to be confronted with a joyful steward. Deep down, she isn't truly confused - but it's a dangerous, vulnerable feeling she quashes quickly.
Still, the hope. That doesn't flicker out too easily.
"You'll see." Jorleif leaves the door open behind him and the two of them follow.
Up the stairs and turning corners, they pass by bedrooms and bookshelves unfamiliar to Serana; a different wing than the one they crossed the other day to Windhelm's underground.
"Wonder where he's taking us," Jalissa finally speaks up from behind Serana. "I'm still tired from the journey here, but I can swing my quarterstaff if it comes to that."
"I don't know, Jalissa. Somehow, this feels different."
"Maybe you're right." Serana hears the smile rather than sees it. Not like she can, since they're struggling to catch up with Jorleif's long strides.
At last, Jorleif stops at a door right at the end of the corridor. He moves to open the door, but hesitates; looking to Serana with raised brows, a silent question of readiness.
Serana nods - not that she's aware of why he's asking.
Jorleif turns the knob and opens the door.
What she sees has Serana's stomach emptied from under her.
"Elisbeth!" Jalissa gasps from behind her, before shoving past to beeline for the double bed in the middle of the room.
Serana stays rooted to her spot. She blinks a few times, convinced that it's a corpse lying undisturbed on bountiful furs, the soft firelight of the hearth playing up signs of life on a cold body. Just how did Elisbeth survive?
"One of the dockworkers pulled her out of the water some hours ago," Jorleif answers, coming to stand beside Serana. "Neetrenaza, was it? Spotted her floating face down by the ships. A group of them brought her here and made quite a ruckus at the Palace gate." He folds his arms with a chuckle. "Those scaleskins all look the same to me, though."
Serana bristles at the subtle jab. "Actually, they're unique individuals, if you bothered getting to know them."
"Ah." Jorleif shrinks back. He coughs. "Well, I guess they do. I'll leave you to it, then."
Serana glares at his retreating back before heading to Elisbeth's bedside, footfalls painfully heavy and slow.
Jalissa has taken to squeezing the life out of Elisbeth's hands, her attention squarely on the unmoving woman.
Serana can't shake off the surrealness of what she sees. Though bruises and cuts discolour most of Elisbeth's skin not hidden under bandages or her tunic, Elisbeth's frame lacks the usual agitation that Serana can fool herself into thinking that she's looking at a corpse.
She sits at the foot of the bed, not once looking away from Elisbeth's sleeping form. Her hands yearn to touch her - just to reassure herself that she's there - but her hands remain pressed to the straw mattress. There's always an inexplicable hesitance around Elisbeth that confuses Serana, because aren't they past that? Aren't they more than that?
But Serana's never been sure about Elisbeth. Even after months of travelling together, Elisbeth remains a puzzle; liable to a meltdown if Serana missteps.
That's how the three of them remain, as the candles on the mantle whittles with the passing of hours.
Sometime during the night, Jalissa leaves to check on Aenas back in the Hall. And sleep, definitely, looking at how the Breton struggles to keep her eyes open. Not that Jalissa announces that last part - Serana guesses all Vigilants have a stubborn streak to them. For an Order hounded by Daedric forces with the occasional burnt-down headquarters, Serana guesses they have to.
That leaves Serana in an empty, spacious bedchamber furnished for royalty. But of all places to relax, Serana drags the high-backed chair by the fireplace to Elisbeth's bedside and makes herself comfortable.
At some point, she must've fallen asleep, because the next time she wakes, Elisbeth is watching her through half-lidded eyes.
"If you're here, then I'm in Coldharbour," she rasps, eyes roving the length of the room she can see. "I didn't expect it to be so comfortable."
"No, silly," Serana chuckles, moving to stretch out the kinks in her joints that crack obnoxiously in the silence. "You're still alive."
Elisbeth's eyes widen, before she winces from the bruises on her eyelids. "I- succeeded? Thank Stendarr."
Her breath rattles as she exhales, face pinched in pain.
Serana reaches out on instinct but Elisbeth shakes her head, a silent it's nothing. As fast as it comes, Elisbeth sinks back on the bed, looking less bothered than before.
Serana watches her, realising that it's a pleasant way to spend the entire night. Elisbeth drifts between wakefulness and sleep, far from squirming under Serana's acid yellow eyes gleaming in the dark. Almost as if she feels safe in Serana's presence.
A vampire's company.
"Why, though?" Serana asks, aware that she's likely to get an evasive answer from Elisbeth anyway. "Why did you do it?"
"Only way to convince you to leave me," Elisbeth answers, utterly blasé; at that moment scratching at some itch on her collarbone. It's a small movement, but Serana's distracted by it nonetheless. "Anyway, it's done. And it worked."
Oh, Serana wants to know, like the reason behind her hot flashes whenever she's around Elisbeth.
But perhaps now isn't the best time.
Instead, she lets her expression soften as she gingerly holds Elisbeth's hand in hers, feeling the tenderness of flesh subjected to excessive spellcasting in so short a time. An effort any regular Vigilant might balk at, and for someone already grappling with voices in her head urging her to surrender to familiar - destructive - habits of magicka addiction?
Serana gives her an encouraging squeeze. "I'm glad you're alive."
Elisbeth looks away, distinctly uncomfortable. "I too."
But she squeezes back.