“Of all the ways to die in Skyrim,” Katariah muttered, “this has to be the dumbest.”
“Stop acting like you know what’s going to happen,” Aleyne replied, mumbling out of the corner of her mouth. “It’s not as if you’re an expert in vampires.”
“I’m enough of an expert to know that wandering around the wilderness with one probably won’t turn out well.”
“You know I can hear both of you, right?”
Katariah and Aleyne quickly turned to face the woman trailing ten paces behind them. “I’d be worried if you weren’t suspicious,” Serana continued, ambling forward. “But right now, all I’m asking is for you to take me to the castle, off the coast of Solitude.” She smirked at Katariah. “I have no interest in your blood. I’d swear on my life, but I have a feeling you wouldn’t take that seriously.”
Before Katariah could muster a witty reply, Aleyne smiled. “Don’t worry about her, she’s been in a sour mood since she and the man she loves agreed to spend some time apart.” Purposefully leaning forward so she could talk past Katariah’s sputtering protests of “not in love” and “wasn’t really an agreement” , she asked, “Why were you locked away, if you don’t mind me asking?”
For the first time, the one-sided smile vanished off of Serana’s face. “I..” She shook her head, and straightened her shoulders. “ I would rather not get into that with you, if that's all right. Just take me to Solitude, and we’ll all have a better sense of where we stand, and who we can trust.” The sense of ease returned to her mouth, if not her eyes. “Does that work for you two?”
Aleyne was not so willing to give up this line of questioning, though she maintained a carefully neutral tone of voice. “Of course.” She glanced over to her friend for support, but only found stony silence. Time for a different approach. “Are you having trouble adjusting?”
The vampire’s brow furrowed slightly. “‘Adjusting’?”
“To the current time. I imagine quite a bit has changed from what you remember.” She looked over her shoulder to meet Serana’s eyes. Katariah had mentioned that a vampire’s eyes looked like blood to her. Aleyne could not see that. To her, Serana’s eyes were a shade of deep green, like her own. Perhaps some part of us is the same. Aleyne quickly dismissed that odd thought from her mind and continued, “How long were you down there?”
“Good question. It’s...hard to say. I feel like it was a really long time. Who is Skyrim's High King?"
Aleyne winced. Of all the conversations that would bring Serana and Katariah towards reconciliation, this seemed like one of the least likely to work. “That’s actually a contested matter right now.”
While glaring at the road ahead of them, Katariah replied, “Ulfric Stormcloak will be High King.” Aleyne noticed that the Dragonborn seemed to take no joy in saying that.
Serana’s frown deepened. “I’ve never heard of him. Is he well supported?”
“Among present company, he is,” Aleyne said while attempting to lighten the mood by elbowing Katariah in the ribs.
A smirk appeared as Serana glanced towards Katariah. “Is he your man?”
“Yes,” Aleyne replied before the Dragonborn could say anything.
“I had no idea that I was in the presence of royalty,” Serana quipped.
“Hardly,” Katariah grumbled.
“So besides you, who supports him?”
Aleyne paused for a moment, trying to give the most diplomatic response possible. “The Empire supports Ellisif, the jarl of Solitude, but there are many in Skyrim loyal to Ulfric.”
Serana suddenly stopped walking. “What empire?”
That question was enough to jerk Katariah out of her brooding. She shared a confused look with Aleyne. “The empire Empire, in Cyrodiil.”
A cold look passed over Serana’s face, which Aleyne interpreted as a mixture of fear and anger. “Cyrodiil is the seat of an empire? I must have been gone longer than I thought. Definitely longer than we…” She shook her head as her mouth set into a thin line.” Please, we need to hurry.” As she spoke, she strode past the pair on the road leading to the northwest.
This is absurd, Katariah thought to herself as Serana brushed past her. Not only were they in the company of a creature that could rip her throat out if she let her guard down, but one who was thousands of years old. She wondered if this castle they were seeking off the coast of Solitude was still standing.
A beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds scattered her dark thoughts. As the vampire quickly shifted to pull her hood over her head, the Dragonborn caught sight of a glimmer that solidified into a form that she would recognize anywhere. “How in Oblivion do you have that? ”
Aleyne’s brow furrowed. “Have what?”
Katariah sighed and grabbed her friend’s arm and moved her three steps to the left. “Keep your gaze fixed on the horizon in front of you, but watch her out of the corner of your eye.” She watched for Aleyne’s reaction. “Do you see it?”
“That gold cylinder? Is that—”
“An Elder Scroll? It is,” Serana replied. “It’s mine,” she added as she shouldered past Katariah.
“Care to explain why you have one of the most elusive objects in Tamriel strapped to your back?” The Dragonborn didn’t bother to try to maintain a cordial tone of voice.
Serana glanced back. “Don’t you think you’re being a little hypocritical? You have one as well.”
Aleyne’s eyebrow quirked in bemusement. “I’d never noticed that before.” She considered her two companions. “Are they fragile? Do we need to be careful with them?”
“Not really,” Katariah answered.
Serana smirked. “‘Not really’ is an understatement. Elder Scrolls have never existed, but they always have.” She continued striding westward. “How about you focus on protecting yours, and I’ll focus on mine.”
“Glad to have you two agree on something,” Aleyne said as they headed towards the shore of the Sea of Ghosts.
They travelled in relative silence until the formidable castle came into view from across the grey water. Katariah realized that her previous speculations were far from correct: not only was Serana’s home still standing, but it rivalled in size and apparent strength to any building that she had seen in Skyrim. The feeling of dread in her stomach increased. She had witnessed firsthand the various monsters that existed across the province, but they were never organized like this. She knew she could handle a coven of hagravens, but she had no idea about what lay behind those stone walls.
Serana stepped out of the rowboat first and took a few cautious steps towards the bridge. As Aleyne moved to join her, Katariah grabbed her friend’s wrist. “Don’t let your guard down here,” she whispered.
Aleyne looked as though she wanted to scoff, but paused when she saw the urgency in Katariah’s eyes. “Is this some sort of Dragonborn sense? What’s wrong?”
The Dragonborn shook her head. “I’ve walked alongside assassins and I’ve been interrogated by Daedra, and I have never felt fear like I am right now. There is something wrong about this place, and we shouldn’t be here.”
Aleyne tried to look calm. “All we agreed to do is bring her home. We’ll just talk to her, and hopefully you will be free of this island in a couple minutes, alright?”
Katariah faintly nodded as she threw her leg over the side of the jetty and walked across the rocky beach.
“Well, here we are,” Serana said in a voice totally devoid of emotion. “Home sweet...castle.” She cast a dark look towards the iron doors. “Listen, before we go in there, I just wanted to thank you both for getting me this far. But after we get in there, I'm going to go my own way for a while.” She regarded Katariah, who had never taken her hand off of Dragonbane’s hilt since they had left Dimhollow crypt. “I understand you probably want to kill everything in here. I'm hoping you can show some more control than that. Once we're inside, just keep quiet for a bit. Let me take the lead.”
Meeting Serana’s crimson gaze, the Dragonborn nodded solemnly. “You have my word.”
“Good. Let’s head inside.”
As they approached the castle, Katariah tried to steady herself. You are the Dragonborn, the World Eater’s Bane. You have the blood of Akatosh, and you will not fear any monster. When the doors opened, she thought for a moment that her meditations had worked. The inside of the castle didn’t look remarkably different, if perhaps a little darker, than the Blue Palace or Misteval Keep.
Then the smell of the dining hall hit her.
In an instant, she felt herself back in the Thalmor prison in Burma, watching as trembling figures sank into an endless sleep. Guards would come and collect the bodies, but the sickly-sweet smell always remained. The recollection hit her like a wave when a man’s voice called up to them.
“My long lost daughter returns at last!”
As they made their way down the stairs towards Serana’s father, Aleyne felt as though she was being torn in three different directions. On one hand, she was trying to keep Katariah, who had gone as white as a sheet, in the corner of her eye. On the other hand, she was growing increasingly concerned by the look the man in the center of the room had in his eyes. It was not the look a parent was supposed to give a child, but the way someone looks at a resource. That’s just a little too familiar, she thought to herself. On the hypothetical third hand, she found herself becoming more than a little distracted by the sounds emanating from the dining hall’s tables.
There was a sickening crunch as a Dunmer vampire reached forward and snapped a rib off of one of the corpses lining the room. Aleyne realized with a slight lurch of disgust that they must ship bodies across the bay from Haafingar. She was wondering who could possibly traffic in such a dark trade when one of the meals let out a moan of pain. Magnus preserve us, they’re still alive!
Serana’s father jerked Aleyne out of her thoughts. “I trust you have my Elder Scroll?” he asked as he grasped his daughter’s forearm.
Wrenching her wrist back, Serana shook her head. “After all these years, that's the first thing you ask me?” There was a pause, and she broke eye contact to stare darkly at the floor. “Yes, I have the scroll.”
“Of course I'm delighted to see you, my daughter. Must I really say the words aloud? If only your traitor mother were here, I would let her watch this reunion before putting her head on a spike.” Aleyne noticed that the man seemed to be addressing the vampires in the hall more than the daughter who stood in front of him. “Now tell me, who are these strangers you have brought into our hall?” For the first time, Aleyne caught a taste of what Katariah meant when she said that vampires had a gaze that was the color of blood and fire.
The corner of Serana’s mouth quirked up. “These are my saviors, the ones who freed me.”
I accidentally opened a box and you and Katariah tried to disembowel each other, we are very poor excuses for saviors, Aleyne thought to herself as she tried to keep the vampire’s gaze from boring through her.
“For my daughter's safe return, you have my gratitude. Tell me, what are your names?”
To her left, she could feel Katariah tensing up. “Why don’t you tell us yours first?” She can Shout us out of here, I have my magic, everything is going to be fine, we’ll be back on the road in an hour.
Apparently, the Dragonborn accidentally appealed to the man’s grandiosity. He swept his arms across the hall as he declared, “I am Harkon, lord of this court of the oldest and most powerful vampires in Skyrim.” He stepped towards them, coming so close that Aleyne could smell the rotting flesh and dried blood on his breath. “For centuries we lived here, far from the cares of the world. All that ended when my wife betrayed me and stole away that which I valued most.”
Aleyne was wondering if Harkon was referring to the Elder Scroll or Serana when Katariah spoke again. “What happens now?”
Harkon’s face stretched into a lifeless smile. “Now, I offer you two a gift. Something fitting for...reuniting me with my daughter.”
Time for us to get out of here. “Your hospitality and the opportunity for us to meet someone as storied as you is reward enough for us. We will be on our way right now.”
“Surely you both will wait to hear what I have to offer you.” He did not wait for an answer. “There is but one gift I can give that is equal in value to the Elder Scroll and my daughter. I offer you my blood. Take it, and you will walk as a lion among sheep. Men will tremble at your approach, and you will never fear death again.” As he spoke, Aleyne scanned the rising shadows of the hall for Serana, but the emerald eyes were gone.
Katariah and Aleyne glanced at each other. The elf watched relief wash over her friend’s face when she realized that neither of them had any intention of accepting this “gift.” However, something still gnawed at her conscience.
“We thank you for your gifts, but we will not accept them. However,” Aleyne paused before continuing, “I would like the opportunity to say farewell to Serana before we leave.”
Harkon sneered. “Predators do not deign to speak with prey. I banish you!”
As the ground shook and darkness tinted with scarlet clouded their vision, Aleyne could have sworn she heard a voice calling “Father, wait!” as the blackness consumed them.