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Uncharted Lands

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He is not quite certain what happened. His ears are still ringing, and his body, thrust downward into a half-crawling pose as it would seem, is being pierced by a spasmodic little shiver, as if he has just had a violent sobbing fit and is still struggling to regain control of himself.

That would probably be not too far from truth. He certainly remembers screaming, even spitting at the soldiers that were advancing at him, with glinting firelight dancing off the images of the flame-wreathed eyes on their cuirasses and thus multiplying their warning glares. Who knows, maybe there was some crying on his part, too - hot, angry tears, like when he looked into his wife's marble-white, uncannily indifferent face before she was laid onto her funeral pyre. The bystanders must have thought he was mourning her - and he was, in a way... But he was also angry. So very angry. Because it was all so unfair. Because she did not deserve to die, not now, not when she had so much to look forward to, so much to accomplish. Because she did not deserve a husband like him, who was not there when she needed him most.

He was angry in that fire-lit hall, too, as he backed off into a corner, surrounded by the agents of the Inquisition. A thought momentarily crossed his mind that he could have submitted to them. Just... Dropped to his knees in front of that Rivaini-blooded boy they were calling the Herald of Andraste, and call for an end of this charade. But in the end, anger prevailed. A scorching, suffocating rage that consumed him whole, drawing a long, hoarse cry from his lips.

He hated them all so much at that moment: those southern bumpkins who thought they could prod him, a magister, with their little swords; the useless rebel mages; the Rivaini and his blasted knack for surviving; even Dorian... But most of all, he hated himself. For not thinking his plan through well enough; for allowing the enemies of the Elder One to succeed, thus destroying any chance he might have had to earn his boon; for failing, once again, to save his son.

I must do better than this, he told himself, feeling a hot, bubbling sensation creep up his chest and throat. I must not let this turn into my final failure. I must not give up.

I must not give up. I shall not give up. For as long as I live, I shall not give up. I will keep trying. Other spells. Other ways. Other insane alliances with dark entities. Blood magic. Selling my soul. Anything. Anything at all.

And with this desperate chant pounding against his skull, he stood tall in front of the Herald and his men and, pulling a bewildered, half-stunned Felix to his chest in a one-armed embrace, cast a spell. He was not even certain which one he had in mind; the details of what he wanted to achieve were somewhat vague - except for one thing. An intense, feverish wish to get as far as he could from this miserable dog pit they called a castle; from the Inquisition, the Venatori, the Elder One. From everything. Get away from everything. Rip his way through time and space, fling himself into the unknown - and start again. A clean sheet, a new search, and no failures this time.

And so, here they are. Sucked into a whirlwind of magic (he thinks he must have opened a small Rift; not that much of a great feat, really, with the Veil so thin and so many violent emotions brewing within him). And then, chewed up and spat out the ground in the middle of nowhere...

Wait. Did he say 'here we are'? Here he is. Dragging himself on his hands and knees across greyish, hardened, frost-touched soil, with the blurry outline of thatched roofs of typical rural cottages and a lone stone structure... a guard tower, most likely, slowly shifting into focus around him. Felix, however - Felix is nowhere to be seen. They must have been separated as the spell released its hold over them and flung them down on the ground. His boy can't be too far, though, can he? Maker, there really is no way of knowing... He has no idea exactly how powerful his spell was... He has no idea about anything...

Staggering like a drunkard as the surrounding buildings seem to jerk abruptly, first to the side and then upwards, floating away from him, he gets up - a dazed, wild-eyed old man in tattered, dusty robes, probably looking as if a herd of dracolisks has stampeded over him. Holding his hand up to his throat and swallowing loudly, he prepares to call his son's name, his stomach contracting at the thought of what he might do to himself or any innocent bystanders if he receives no answer; but before he can even inhale properly, he is knocked off-balance once more: this time, by a tremendous rumble underneath his feet, as the ground quakes with an echo of a sound that, during his brief but eventful service to the Elder One, he has come to instantly recognize, with an icy chill running up his spine each time... A dragon's roar.

Landing quite painfully to his knees, he finally blinks off the haze that shrouded his vision - and sees that he has not merely transported himself into the middle of a rustic village with vaguely Fereldan-ish architecture... He sees that the village is burning.

Dammit... So he has not travelled that far, has he? This must still be Redcliffe, only some street (if it can be called one) that he has never bothered to explore before; or maybe whatever hole the Inquisition has set up camp in... And the source of the crackling flames that eat into the clumsy little cottages, making their roofs cave in upon themselves - it must be the dragon of the Elder One, who has decided to wreak his vengeance on the hapless southerners, outraged over having lost his mages... He has failed, failed again! And now Felix is somewhere out there, among all these wild flames and smouldering ruins ready to collapse... And Dorian - Dorian could be there, too! In mortal danger, his demise furthered by his own mentor - and his last thought of the poor boy was how much he hated him for thwarting his plan! Which is not even true; by the Maker, nothing could be further from...

He has gotten to his feet again, he does not even remember how, and has even taken a few stumbling steps in the general direction of the blaze, berating himself mentally all the time. But suddenly, his scrambled inner monologue is cut short as something brushes against his ankle. With a small... no, frankly, not so small start, he glances down, and sees a young dark-haired woman curled up at his feet, her simple greyish-green cotton dress splattered with blood, half of her face mangled by an oozing burn, her hands clawing blindly at the ground.

His immediate response to seeing her is telling himself to walk away, not to waste his time. Of course there would be burn victims littering the ground all over the place: there is a dragon attack going on! A tragedy, of course; an unavoidable one; can't be helped. He cannot allow this to distract him; he has to find his son, to make sure he is alive (Maker, please let him be alive!), and then get him out of harm's way. This is what should be on his mind, not some croaking villager!

And yet, suppressing his first instinct, he finds himself crouching next to the woman, hands alight with a healing spell... At least, he tells himself to start casting a healing spell... but instead of the usual greenish-blue glow, he produces a whirl of warm, gold-tinged pink. This... This does not seem right. Did something get in his eyes, perhaps? A flake of soot blown by the wind from the nearest burning building? Or maybe he hit his head, and...

The woman tries to speak, pushing the words out forcibly with a gargling wheeze... And to his utmost confusion, he realizes that he barely understands what she is saying.

When she repeats the phrase - something about a child... in danger... forget her, save the child... - that it dawns on him that the tongue she is speaking somewhat resembles old Tevene. But, again, this doesn't make any sense! The language of his ancestors is dying, decaying faster than the society that fostered it; his generation spoke it with relative fluency, and on complex subjects, too, but younger men from educated circles, like Dorian and Felix, know only the basics, preferring the mangled, modern version of speech, and the general populace has long since switched to Common, retaining only a few most colourful curses from the ancient tongue. So how could a peasant woman from Ferelden, who should (regrettably) be barely able to read the Chant in Common, have suddenly decided to start talking in old Tevene? And with her dying breath, too? Maybe this means that he has travelled to the future, where glorious Tevinter of ages past is restored, and everyone in Thedas is now the Empire's subject, having to its language?

While his mind is preoccupied with all these questions, his hands continue to do the healer's work. He is almost done, almost ready to put the woman back on her feet - but before he can do that, a sweep of gigantic wings sends a wind-like invisible wave lashing against the ground, disrupting his spell; and a massive black shadow breaks through the veil of drab, greyish clouds, obscuring the pale sun.

Now that it has actually shown itself, the beast turns out to be quite unlike the one that obeys the Elder One's commands. Its form is more angular, more spiky, and it is jet-black in colour, without a tint of Blighted red. Not that this makes the creature any less dangerous.

For a moment, the tiny dishevelled human and the great black-winged shadow stare at each other in silence; and then, the dragon's eyes flare up with a red-gold glow like two blazing coals and, opening its toothy maw so wide that its jaw almost rests on its scaly chest, it lets out another deafening roar, a jet of flame pouring over the ground in a scorching current.

With a small gasp, the little human flings himself down by the woman's side, frantically conjuring up a spell dome over their heads. It holds up for a few moments, shimmering with a white-blue light (White? Why white, though? His barrier spells were always green!). But the dragon fire promptly eats through the protective bubble, burning misshapen black-edged holes in it. A few of the flame tongues break through the ruptures, scorching the woman before the mage can pull her away. After this blast, all his restorative spellwork goes to waste: she breathes one last long, rasping, cough-like breath, and with it, a word that definitely does not belong to old Tevene.

'Haming'.

A moment later, the dragon moves, apparently disinterested in finishing off the second human at its feet, and breathes fire onto another villager a little way in the distance, a man this time, red-haired and wearing crude leather armour that leaves his torso completely exposed to the devouring flames.

As the man falls, the word is repeated; he cries it out, evidently choking on blood that bubbles at the back of his throat, before the dragon turns him into a tiny, brittle charred carcass.

'Haming!'

And then, the meaning of the word becomes apparent, as yet another figure emerges from the acrid clouds of dust and smoke that the beast has raised in the village. A boy of no more than ten, stumbling foolishly across open ground, swivelling his head to glance first at the burned-up man and then at the dead woman. 'Haming' has to be his name - the hapless wretches were calling for him before they succumbed to their burns. And he calls back, uttering words that have equal meaning in any language, and equally heartbreaking when spoken with such a tearful quiver,

'Mama? Papa?'

The poor little child - too young, far too young to be crushed by the pain of seeing his family destroyed before his very eyes, ripped apart by a monster... He does not deserve this.

The ground heaves in another rumble, and fire rains from the sky; they little boy called Haming should run for cover, but does not, too petrified by the realization why his parents are not answering his call. He keeps standing on one spot, narrow little chest rising and falling in strained breaths, gushing tears tracing pale tracks across his sooty cheeks - until a grown-up he has never met before rushes to his side and, without saying a word, grabs him forcefully by the hand and pulls him towards a half-crumbled wall of one of the village's few stone buildings. Stone does not go up in flames; if they take care to find a safe spot to hide, they might just live through this dragon attack. The grown-up has raised another barrier for good measure, too - and when the shining blue-white dome closes its curve round his head, the boy, already half-blinded by tears, lets out a full-blown wail and, shivering and hiccupping and spluttering, buries his face in the grown-up stranger's chest, clinging on to his grimy robe. And the stranger closes his eyes and, keeping up the barrier with one hand, strokes the child's hair with the other and whispers something soothing to him, the way he did when another boy sobbed into his chest, long ago, hurt by the disdain with which he was treated by everyone except his parents, for having no magical talent, for being 'deficient' and 'broken'; and when another boy still also suddenly flung himself upon him in a desperate plea for comfort, much later - his hair reeking with cheap perfume and hookah smoke and wine in his breath, cocky and bold  on the outside and thinking himself a man, but still fragile and vulnerable and screaming silently with pain over his parents' neglect.

He does not know if little Haming understands what he is saying - nor does he particularly care. His only hope is that the boy might sense what he means.

It will be all right.

It will be all right.

He cannot say when; he cannot say what it will take for life to make sense again - but it will.

He can promise that much.

It will be all right, little boy.

You have the word of Gereon Alexius.

Chapter Text

Well, talk about leaps of faith. Last time she jumped off an elevated point (which was a tree branch back in Valenwood), she made a soft landing on top of an enormous leaf. Granted, the plant the leaf belonged to tried to eat her moments afterwards... which would have kinda been a problem because she had to fight back, but she was already leaving on her exile for breaking the Green Pact anyway.

But in any case, that little bit of acrobatics was far, far less intimidating than having to fling herself out of the hole that has just been clawed in a solid stone wall by a real, honest-to-goodness dragon, in hopes that she will not get impaled on one of those jagged wood beams protruding out of the inn's burning rooftop... And all of this with her hands tied, too!

She had to take quite a long breath before making that jump, closing her eyes and thinking of all those dreams she kept having ever since she was knee high to a Falinesti peeper. Dreams about flying, her head swimming with the odd sensation of feeling no earth beneath her feet, her arms glimmering with star dust; soaring over the treetops, so high up that she could almost stroke the moons' coarse surface... She could sure use some soaring now!

In the end, she didn't soar, of course - but she didn't smack her head against anything either, crashing down on the top floor of the inn with barely more damage than a couple of bleeding scratches on her knees. And here she is now, straightening up as best she can without being able to properly spread out her arms for balance, and making her way slowly over the creaking floorboards, taking care not to misstep and not to get her leg lodged in a gash as the floor gives way under her weight.

By Y'ffre... Wait, is she even allowed to swear by Y'ffre now? She is an oath-breaker, after all; a disgraced outcast, an ever-tainted criminal in the eyes of the Green, a disrespectful little wretch who dared to pluck some healing herbs and try and make a potion that could maybe... maybe... No, now is not the time to get mushy. The past is in the past; she needs to stay focused on the problems of the here and now - on that crazy old dragon, for one, and on a way to escape this pit of fiery death, which would have sure made Mehrunes Dagon's mouth water with excitement!

So yeah. By insert-deity-here, the monster sure has ravaged the place! She feels her heart jolt painfully as she looks around, sitting down on the edge of a giant hole in the floor (which looks as if someone has taken an enormous bite out of the woodwork) and lowering her legs inside, with the intention of slipping down and landing on the ground floor.

That blonde Nord fellow, Ralof - the one who sat opposite her in the prison cart - he talked about this inn a little on the way here, appearing oddly wistful, cheerful even, for a man about to lay his head down on the chopping block. He mentioned that the innkeeper, Vilod, had some special mead recipe, 'with juniper berries mixed in'; and knowing Nords and their penchant for flocking together to whatever place where they serve special mead, this poor, mangled little building must have once been crowded with noisy, happy, smiling people, relaxed and at ease as they basked in the warm golden firelight after a long day in the harsh, cold wilds. And now they are all gone...

'All gone,' she whispers, barely moving her lips, as she makes her second, far smaller jump, landing softly on her feet like a Khajiit... And then starts and gags a little, spotting a shapeless lump of raw red flesh slumping down against a wall, which itself is marred with a gigantic soot stain, a pale-yellowish silhouette imprinted against it: the outline of a Nord's figure, with his head thrown back an one hand raised high holding a tankard... The very same tankard, no doubt, that has now been turned into a twisted clot of half-melted metal, resting on the floor at the fleshy remains' side. One last drink before the end; how very like those northern humans.

The young Bosmer is unable to look at the wall for long; covering her eyes and shrinking her head into her shoulders, she walks out of what once was the building's doorway. She has never been overly keen on the sight of gruesome deaths, despite growing up in a community of overenthusiastic Green Pact followers.

When she brings herself to look around again, however, she instantly beholds a sight that brings a faint smile to her face and makes her raise her hand to wipe her slightly puffed-up eyes.

Not all gone, it seems.

She has stumbled right into two survivors: a little boy and a man in his... fifties... sixties... early hundreds? So much roaming from one corner of Tamriel to another, and she is still bad at telling human ages.

The survivors are huddled together in a tight corner by the ruined town wall, with the man casting a spell shield over their heads and the boy sobbing uncontrollably, with his ruffled head resting against the front of the grown-up's, uh, robes (quite unlike any mage garb she has ever seen during her travels... well, except, perhaps, the Alik'r desert, where people wear somewhat similar pants). The Bosmer makes a move towards them, tethered arms outstretched as if she wants to join their embrace... Or is doing a very poor and inappropriate impression of walking corpse, of the kind she would sometimes rouse from their sleep by setting off a rumbling echo in whatever cavernous chamber they were buried in (usually with an excited cry 'Shiny!' at the sight of some ancient artifact).

But hardly has she managed to walk a few steps, when the dragon lands on the wall (which instantly takes to resembling a messy pile of rocks as the creature claws at it and weighs down on it with its colossal bulk). With a loud, rumbling snarl, the beast breathes out several long, blindingly bright tongues of flame, which curl around the ethereal barrier, beginning to wear it thin, while the mage inside it sweats and grows red in the face with the effort of sustaining his spell.

The dragon cocks its head a little bit to the side, resembling a very morbidly curious oversized chicken (insert-deity-here, now is really not the time for such bizarre comparisons), and then lets out what must be nothing more than a feral roar but, to the twitching, pricked-up ears of the Bosmer, somehow sounds like a word... Or two words even, spoken with a clearly audible tone of derision and superiority,

'Bein joore'.

Whatever this means (and even if she's hearing it right; dragons can't really talk, can they?), it sounds very insulting. Having thus... cursed at the mage and the boy, the dragon takes off, not caring to stay long enough to see them fried by its breath. Good thing, too, it being so arrogant; because as the beast leaves, the mage, despite the heart-wrenchingly obvious fact that all blood has drained away from his face and he is seconds away from fainting, keeps struggling to keep the barrier strong enough to absorb the dragon fire. Drawing closer, the elf thinks she can see his lips move as he mutters something under his breath, with a look of determination mixed with agony on his deeply lined face.

The boy latches on to him ever tighter as the flare of the spell grows more and more dazzling; he will be safe, the Bosmer observes to herself with mounting glee. He will be safe.

The flame tongues fade away, and the mage collapses onto the pile of debris, while the boy straightens up, rubbing his fists fiercely into his reddened eyes.

'Haming! There you are! I thought you perished with your parents!'

A familiar voice.

The Bosmer turns around to make a small and genial wave (or rather, awkward flop with her tied-up arms) at the Nord soldier in Imperial armour who promised that her body would be returned to Valenwood before his commanding officer yelled at the prisoners to hurry up and get to the block already.

Not that anyone at the village she and her brother used to call home would really mourn her demise, or be overly thrilled to have her headless corpse dumped on their doorstep... But the Nord had no way of knowing that, and she thought it was rather sweet of him to give thought to her final resting place, under the circumstances. And she is not the least bit angry with him for being part of the Imperial troop that snatched her up when she was crossing the border and shoved her into a wagon with a brood of (brooding) tied-up Stormcloaks. That whole time, he was quite insistent on getting his captain, or whatever that yelling woman's rank was, to realize that this was all just a big misunderstanding, and that a small, trustingly smiling Bosmer travelling the land with nothing but her bow and a map with lots of smudges, from her eagerly tracing her route with her fingertip, was not in league with the grim Nord rebels with their chainmail and battleaxes and ferocious battle cries on the tips of their tongues. It is hardly his fault that the stubborn yeller refused to listen, now is it?

'Still alive, prisoner?' the Nord asks, a smile of relief flickering on his lips. 'Keep close to me if you want to stay that way!'

Having said that, he turns his attention to the child.

'Hey Haming,' he says, laying his hand on the boy's shoulder. 'Don't be scared. Go run to Gunnar over there, all right?'

At this point, the Bosmer notices a second man hovering behind the friendly soldier's back; much older, and wearing a rather badly dented iron cuirass than the Legion uniform.

'He'll get you to safety'.

'But I... I don't wanna leave without my new friend,' the boy mouths, glancing over at the mage, who so far has not moved an inch, or, indeed, let out a breath. 'He tried to save my Ma, and then he saved me'.

The soldier walks over to the debris heap and looks over the mage over, eyes narrowing and a small frown creasing his forehead, just as when he pointed out to the yeller there was that no-one named 'Yalanwen the Bosmer' on their list of Stormcloak prisoners.

'I am afraid your friend won't be able to follow you, little one,' he says at length. 'No, go to Gunnar, there's a good lad'.

Haming obeys, and the old man leads him off, after giving the younger soldier a heartfelt 'Gods guide you, Hadvar' as a farewell.

Before the two of them disappear beyond the smoky pall that obscures the outlines of buildings closer to the edge of town, the boy looks over his shoulder anxiously several times, trying to make out whether his fallen protector is still not moving. And he is not the only one to be upset over Hadvar's words: Yalanwen the Bosmer plops down awkwardly to her knees as the mage's side and places her bound hands underneath his chin, tilting his head upward and trying to find a pulse in his jugular.

It would be so, so awful if he were dead. Fifty, sixty, even a hundred years is such a young age to die at... And he stood so bravely against that dragon, giving his last strength to protect the boy that he might not even have known before today: they are unlikely to be related, as the child is a Nord, and this man, with his narrow, slightly curving nose and thin lips, looks rather like an Imperial (a handsome Imperial, as far as Yalanwen's taste in humans is concerned, with the lines on his face almost making him resemble a rugged mer). And besides, Haming referred to him as his 'new friend', and, knowing how children are (well, at least, knowing how Yalanwen was when she was the boy's age), he could have met the mage just a few minutes ago, and instantly assigned him as his friend.

He doesn't deserve this, this brave Imperial. He doesn't deserve this.

Hadvar, in the meanwhile, does not really appreciate Yalanwen's attempts at checking for life signs.

'I have to find General Tullius and join the defense at Helgen Keep' he says impatiently. 'Now, are you coming with me, to where I can keep you out of danger and sort out that mishap that got you here - or do you want to fuss over this man all day? He is not breathing; leave him be!'

He might keep saying something more, but Yalanwen manages to distance her mind from his voice, which is reduced to a distant, muffled rumble in the background, like the flow of a far-off stream - while all her being is focused on another sound, faint and faltering, but definitely present. The mage's heartbeat beneath her fingertips.

'Hold up a moment,' she urges the Nord softly. 'He's got a pulse. If you cut me loose, I might be able to revive him. I know a bit of healing magic.

A tiny bit. Just a basic spell. A little trick that occasionally helped her brother get through the day without feeling too much pain, but was not enough to save him - her Halcian.

Her first and best friend. Her playmate and teacher and guardian, the only family she remembers ever having.

Because her parents did not even live to celebrate her first birthday.

Because all that is left in her mind of the life the four of them had together is a vague memory of a tall, black-robed figure obscuring the entrance to the nursery, before Halcian grabbed her and ran for dear life, half of his face scarily crimson with the blood that was pouring down from what would later become his scar.

Because before she met her father and accepted his friendship and comfort in her time of grief, Yalanwen's mother had been married to an Altmer, Halcian's father, who had been casting an illusion of a Bosmer's appearance on himself half his life, to hide among the Wood Elves and be with the woman he loved, until a warped soul gem made his spell go wrong, killing him.

And because the Thalmor found out about all of this and decided that none of them was allowed to exist.

These are just stories, however. All things that have to do with their parents' love and their own daring escape from the clutches of the Justiciars who had 'punished' their mother. Just stories. Tales of adventure, romanticized and with all gory details omitted, to be spun to a wide-eyed, gap-toothed girl before bedtime. Ghosts of years long-gone, faded and no longer threatening. Halcian made sure of that.

Thanks to him, Yalanwen managed to have a carefree childhood in a remote village in the wildest heart of Valenwood, where the Thalmor could not get to them. He gave her everything; he was always there when she needed him... But when the poison from the spit of a giant spider, which Halcian fought to protect the village's jagga pigs, festered in his wound and infected his bones with a debilitating fever; when he got so sick that he could barely walk, and stopped speaking altogether because every time he opened his mouth, he could utter nothing except for a whimper of pain; when, for once, he needed her instead of the other way round... She could not help him.

She did not work her magic hard enough; she did not beg the village elder to do the same urgently enough; she did not go after those healing herbs stealthily enough, allowing herself to get caught and exiled and leaving her brother to die.

No, no, no! She isn't getting mushy now! She isn't supposed to wallow in her misery! She is supposed to still be chirpy and cheerful, as she was as a youngster in that sheltered village! She is supposed to accept her exile as a chance to see the world, the way she always wanted! This is what Halcian told her, during the last meeting they were allowed, looking up at her from his hammock in their tree pod, his stiff hand cupping her twitching, wet face, so pale yellow against her brown skin that it almost glowed, his eyes bloodshot and weary but still gentle.

He wanted her to move on. But... By... By some god that would care to listen, it is so hard! She manages to beat down the hurt sometimes, smiling and singing and hugging people, and exploring alluringly mysterious ruins and dungeons, and squealing at the 'shinies' therein... But then, there are moments like today - moments when she looks at the unconscious Imperial and instead sees her brother, her darling Halcian; grey shadows circling his eyes, deep, Welkynd blue like her mother's, like hers; his cracked lips whispering her name...

And suddenly, her hurt overflows all the inner dams she has been trying to build up, and bursts free in a torrent of bright gold magic; and she looks down, bewildered by her own spellpower, and sees that Hadvar leaned in with his sword and cut her ropes like she asked, without her even realizing it. So she smiles vaguely, and draws her hands apart, weaving broader and broader trails of healing light; and the magic envelops the human before her, strong as her pain and pure as her happy memories; and an errant thought flicks through her mind: the barrier spell that kept the dragon at bay... it was also remarkably strong, and pure... Could it be that the Imperial's powerful magic was fed by an equally powerful pain?

Two spots of faint flush appearing on his cheekbones, the mage twitches, takes a greedy breath of air, and opens his eyes, which grow blank with almost fearful disbelief the moment Yalanwen's face comes into focus.

Chapter Text

Alexius' first thought is that the face looming over him has to belong to some bizarre new variety of demon. How else could one explain its sharp features, forming an almost perfect overturned triangle that starts with a tall, broad forehead and two prominent ridges protruding over the angular eyebrows, and ends in a small and pointy chin? And these eyes, too, are quite unlike those of any human, or any other sentient being encountered in Thedas: large and almond-shaped, they are taken up entirely by vivid blue irises, with swirls of darker colour surrounding the pupils, which widen at the sight of Alexius being awake, as if their owner feels profound relief.

He must say... Though far from the features that he is accustomed to seeing, the being's eyes are not entirely unappealing, and if he were to look into these blue depths any longer, he would have been in great danger of turning into a poetic sop and prattling on and on about cerulean orbs or some such nonsense. Which... which would have been precisely the sort of effect desired by a demon. He needs to keep his guard up; the creature might offer him a deal to save Felix, the way the Elder One did - and ready as he is to accept it, some precautions are still necessary, and...

The face lights up with a smile, so radiant and sincere and so very different from your typical demon's jeering grin, that Alexius is almost ready to forget all that he has just being saying to himself. His attention is now inexplicably drawn to the odd creature's... person's... more human-like, endearing features. Like the little dimples at the corners of their mouth, or the freckles sprinkled over their nose and cheeks. More than that, he suddenly feels himself smiling back.

He would have doubtlessly grown horrified over his mellow disposition, thinking himself the captivated prey of a demon; but he does not have time for that. At this very moment, a seemingly male voice calls to the blue-eyed being somewhere from behind their back, speaking in the same version of old Tevene that the dying woman used. Alexius does not discern all the words (something about hurrying up? getting to a tower? a stronghold?), but it seems to him that the man addresses the being as 'elf'.

So... They are an elf? Well, they do have... Rather prominently pointed ears, peeking out among the strands of their wild black hair... And there are markings, too, highlighting their cheekbones and forehead ridges - pinkish-yellow, in stark contrast with the muted bronze of their skin. A Dalish, then? If so, could their unusual look be explained by their kind spending too much time separated from the city elves... and evolving somehow? As good a theory as any, Alexius supposes; after all, he has never seen a Dalish before, either at home in Tevinter (for obvious reasons), or during his travels across Thedas, when the elves he had to deal with were mostly the quiet, ever-frightened servants of Orlesian nobles, supposedly free but in reality hardly better off than the servi in a magister's household. This always upset Felix so, especially since he had made friends with a couple of elven students that attended classes with him as part of Empress Celene's 'inclusion initiative'; he kept talking about how he would have loved Alexius to meet them and hear them talk about their lives, but they never agreed, too wary of a real-life Tevinter magister.

Speaking of being wary... It will not be long before the Dalish realizes who he is; and then, their genial smile will likely fade away, and Alexius will end up with an arrow pointing at one of his eyeballs. He has to make them understand that he has no intention to harm them... Unless they stand between him and his son, that is.

Damn, he has been distracted for too long! Befuddled by this odd place, and its inhabitants' choice of language; wasting so much energy on protecting a random urchin - when he should be trying to find Felix!

Instinctively yanking at the hand that the Dalish extends to him, he rockets to his feet like some large roused bird, and blurts out a mangled phrase that he hopes the elf can understand,

'Child... Where is... child? Have you seen...'

'Haming?' the Dalish inquires, nodding in understanding. Their voice sounds soft and melodious, and now that he has a chance to scrutinize their small, lithe, raggedy figure from head to foot, Alexius is rather inclined to believe that the elf is a woman, though some degree of uncertainty still remains.

'Haming is safe!'

Well, that's all well and good, of course (he did almost literally leap out of his own skin to make sure that the second barrier did not fail) - but not quite what he meant.

'No,' Alexius says slowly, trying to pick out short, simple old Tevene words that are more likely to be recognizable, and dearly hoping that he does not make himself sound like he is soft in the head. 'Not that child. My child. Young... Young man. White... face. Short black hair. Eyes like mine'.

The Dalish's face falls.

'I haven't seen him,' they whisper. 'I am so sorry'.

And before Alexius can realize what is going on, he finds two brown arms, thicker and stronger than those of any unfortunate city elf, closing round his torso in a reassuring embrace. The sensation is barely familiar to him, as open physical displays of friendliness and affection are not exactly the common social norm in Tevinter - but he has, during rare and cherished moments, enjoyed the warmth of a hug shared with him by his wife and son... And, to be quite frank, he needed this. The feeling that another living being, even if a complete stranger, is standing next to him, offering him a shoulder to lean on - it makes him... more grounded, somehow. Less dazed by the chaos that he has plunged into. And more determined than ever to make things right.

As the confused magister and the friendly Dalish still hold on to each other, the former mirroring the latter's smile again, the man who urged the elf to get to the tower pipes in once more, coming into Alexius' field of view with a very disapproving look on his face.

He is bulky and broad-shouldered, looking rather more like an Avvar than a Fereldan, and carries a simple longsword, which he brandishes emphatically, pointing at the sky, where the black shadow appears to still be gliding, slicing up the clouds with the sharp, hook-like joints of its wings.

'To the tower! You, girl, and you, Imperial! Run!' he cries out, starting up a debris-littered path the leads to the village's tallest stone building - apparently eager to get his companions to where they can take shelter from the dragon fire.

Let them run, then - the Avvar soldier and the Dalish. He will not come with them. He will not scramble for cover when his Felix might be inside any of these burning buildings, placed there by his own father's errant spell, wounded perhaps, suffering because of him, the way he has been all these years...

A blazing golden whip comes unfurling down from the sky, and tears into the ground right at Alexius' feet. The Dalish cries out and grabs his hand, long thin fingers entwining firmly with his; biting into her lips with fierce determination, she pulls him forward, not allowing him to fall back - and all around them, the sky keeps bleeding sizzling streams of fire, and the air shimmers with the heat and vibrates with the roaring call of the winged beast. The Dalish slows down only once, turning her head towards another man that they pass by on their way - a burly blonde fellow in a chainmail tunic with a faded blue cloak thrown over his shoulder and a complexion even more like an Avvar's. She looks like she wants to take him along, too, but he snarls in anger when he sees the man with the sword; the latter, in turn, hurls some sort of angry tirade into his face, which ends with the definitely Avvar-sounding word 'Sovngarde', and races on, the Dalish hurrying in his wake with one last apologetic look at the blonde man.

Alexius follows her as best he can; he could have jerked free of her grasp and slipped away, but she is holding his hand so tightly that he cannot see a way of doing that without hurting her... something that he is far less willing to do after she tried to comfort him.

Perhaps it was foolhardy, after all, wanting to stay out in the open, he says to himself, pushing forward with such an exertion of his every sinew that he can taste blood at the back of his burning throat. Perhaps a better strategy would be to wait till the dragon leaves and the smoke clears, and then look for Felix. Look at what happened to those villagers when they tried to reach for their son amidst all that chaos. Not that he is particularly afraid of being devoured by a dragon - but a living father who is still working on a cure is better than a father killed by his own foolishness, leaving his child completely alone in such an unfamiliar place, where things barely make any sense.

He will figure out what to do next once they get to the tower.... He just wishes... They did it sooner... His heart is not... exactly... what it used to be...

When he thinks he cannot take it any longer, when the constricting pain in his chest reaches its peak, when he legs grow numb with weariness and he just begins to sense them give way - they make it to the tower door. With a short creak, it opens and shuts behind them; the air grows notably cooler (a pleasant change after the raging flames) and, snuffed out like a candle in the night, all the cacophony of noises fades into nothing.

The Avvar with the sword must have led them into some sort of garrison quarters; in the semi-darkness of the room, tinted green because the stone walls are overgrown with moss, Alexius can make out a row of simple narrow beds with crudely skinned beast pelts serving as blankets. With a prolonged wheeze, he collapses on the one nearest to him, gulping down the cold, moist air as if it were water.

'Not made for running, eh, Imperial?' the Avvar asks jokingly.

He adds something else, pointing at the chest arranged in parallel with the beds (soldiers' footlockers, presumably), and Alexius guesses that he is offering him to borrow some of the equipment inside. There was a time, when he was at the height of his career at the Magisterium, when he would have curled his lips and scoffed at the idea of donning someone's sweaty castoffs; but he does not think he will ever return to that life again.

Leaning down, he opens the chest within his reach and, after some rummaging inside, picks out a long, dirtyish-orange cotton robe, which looks like it will be far easier on the spine than his current apparel. With the robe under his arm, he gets up and dives behind a makeshift screen in the corner of the room; the Dalish, who has also opened a footlocker and taken some gear that would protect her better than her current threadbare shirt and pants, trots to the second (and only one remaining) screen. Shortly after disappearing behind it, she emerges again, with her head popping up over the edge like that of a curious squirrel, and, thrusting out her now bare arm, sends her rags flying across the room.

They, of course, just narrowly miss Alexius' head. The Dalish giggles when she sees that, and waves at him mischievously. Alexius rolls up his eyes, exasperated but not too much, and then takes to undressing.

He is a bit startled by how much of a relief it is, feeling his Venatori garb slide off his shoulders and knowing that he will just be leaving it pooled up on the floor, as extra, over-encumbering baggage that is no longer needed. A thought suddenly crosses his mind that it might be prudent to burn his old attire, lest someone tasked with capturing him (be it an Inquisition agent or a servant of the Elder One) stumbles across it and uses it as an ingredient for a tracking spell - so he steps a little bit away from the cloth pile and snaps his fingers, reducing it to ash with a soft whoosh. Ah. Much better.

The new (relatively speaking) robe is somewhat tight under the arms, but otherwise fits; and the cloth, though dense and rough, is less itchy than the heavy Tevinter embroidery. When he steps out, the Dalish is already waiting for him, having donned the same leather armour as the Avvar and snatched a bow and a couple of daggers for herself from the weapon rack. A few seconds pass before either the elf or the mage makes a move; each of them too preoccupied by pondering over how flattering the new equipment is to the other's appearance. The Dalish blushes and chews at her lower lip when she studies Alexius' robes; and he can feel a certain warmth on his cheeks as well - something that has not happened to him in far too long, as being a grieving widower on an all-consuming quest to save his only son has not exactly made him perceptive to the charms of pretty young women. Yes, pretty - though he started out being so stunned by her unusual appearance that he mistook her for a demon, he is gradually coming to consider her looks more and more pleasing, in a very refreshing way... Not that it should have any impact on their joint escape from the dragon fire. He is certain that the young Avvar agrees. Just look how impatient he looks for them to snap out of it already!

And snap out they do, their senses alerted by the very loud, unceremonious arrival of a group of warriors in the same blue cloaks as the blonde 'Sovngarde' man the Avvar exchanged pleasantries with on the way here. These fellows appear to be even more hostile than 'Sovngarde'; hardly catching sight of the Avvar, the Dalish, and Alexius, they raise their weapons and drown out whatever words of reason the Avvar might have tried to stop them with, by letting out a fierce battle cry that Alexius does not find at all surprising,

'Down with the Empire!'

There is a blinding flash, and a metallic clamour; the biggest of the blue cloaks, who could be a woman if lack of facial hair is any indication, pounces upon the Avvar, her battle axe screeching against his sword, while the two smaller, bearded ones accost Alexius and the Dalish respectively. The magister makes quick work of his adversary, shooting him in the chest with a lightning charge, and turns to the Avvar - just in time, too, for the massive woman has knocked his sword out of his hand and is just about to cleave him in half before being hit with a blast of frost magic. Alexius intended to encase her in solid ice, giving the Avvar an opportunity to smash her petrified form to pieces - but for whatever odd reason, his spell has taken the form of a single, glowing blue shard, which enters the woman's throat like a rogue's throwing knife, and sends her keeling over, her blue cloak now crimson and soggy. Well, that worked out as well, did it not?

The Dalish, in the meanwhile, has walked backwards out the dormitory and down a broad stone-walled corridor that leads somewhere deeper into the fortification structure - shooting arrow after arrow at the hairy warrior that pursues her. She has managed to hit him in the shoulder, but he has merely lowered the injured limb and taken his mace into his off hand. Her next shot would have hit him between the eyes, and finished him off - but she missteps, stumbling over some elongated object that lies on the floor, glinting faintly, and falls down on her back, her arrow drawing a piteously short curve in the air and thunking to the ground.

Alexius grips at the front of his robes. He recognizes the glinting object: it's one of his Venatori gauntlets, which he carelessly tossed off while changing, sending it rolling outside the range of his fire spell. No, no, the Dalish has done nothing but aid him, a magister of all people! She can't perish because of him! This isn't right; he needs to fix this!

And, for once, the fix comes on time - in form of a fire bolt that lights up the back of the hairy man's cloak, making him spin around madly, flapping his arms, so disoriented by pain and confusion that it gives the Dalish plenty of time to get up and fire that killing shot after all, her arrow tip plunging into one of the man's ears and exiting out of the other, dripping with blood and specks of brain matter.

Contrary to the tales of the wild elves' bloodthirsty savagery that Alexius has heard circulating around, the sight triggers a spasm of nausea in the Dalish, rather than a fit of ecstatic glee. She sways, pressing her hand against her mouth, while her eyes well up with tears; Alexius steps over to her side to support her, and she looks up at him gratefully, lowering her hand and whispering,

'I am such a bad Bosmer...'

He has no idea what the word 'Bosmer' stands for, but if she is bad at being one, then the term must imply cruelty and a lack of compassion. Fearing that he will not be able to put this into words, as he keeps struggling with this strange version of Tevene everyone here insists on speaking in, Alexius merely shakes his head with a smile, which the elf happily returns, making it the third time in, what, an hour or so, that they just gazed at each other, skin warmed by a flush and lips tingling with that odd pull at their corners. Is it even possible to be so at ease around a complete stranger without even talking to them properly? The voice of reason would suggest no - but Alexius seems to remember feeling the same way when he had just been introduced to a young woman from House Arida, who was to become his research partner... Though, of course, back then, his mind was clearer, and there was no dragon chaos involved. So... He must be just imagining things.

The fight with the blue cloaks has taken their little group out of the dormitory - and before they can decide what to do next, a thundering dragon roar shakes the guard tower to its foundation, loosening a few large chunks of the stonework, which come down all around the accidental adventuring companions with an ear-splitting, grating rumble. All three of them manage to leap back in time, and the rockfall leaves them unharmed; but when the dust settles, it becomes evident that the doorway is blocked - and with it, the way out of the tower. The way back into the desolated village - back to where Felix has to be.

The realization sends Alexius reeling. Lunging forward with a roaring scream, his face glistening with cold sweat, he assaults the solid mass of rock with a barrage of magic bolts. He tries anything he can think of, in a rapid succession: fire to attempt to shake the stones loose somehow, and then telekinesis to make them slide apart and clear the way, the way he has so often seen it done before - and performed the feat himself, on occasion. In this damnable place, however, telekinesis does not seem to work this way; the stones refuse to bulge, indifferent to his spells and cries and curses, and to the feral clawing of his fingers, which he scrapes against the unyielding greenish-grey rock till his knuckles crack and his nails turn into crimson half-moons.

He might have smashed his head against the bloody (in all senses) wall, too - but the Dalish stops him. Taking his hand again, she passes her fingertips over the oozing cracks in his skin, tingling golden sparks tracing the direction of her gentle strokes. The spell has a pleasant, cooling effect - and Alexius remembers that he was feeling the same soothing tingle when he had just come to his senses outside, after protecting that Haming boy. So... So the Dalish must have healed him back then, too. Saved his life, probably. A debt he has already repaid, by fending off the hairy brute. And now she is returning his favour of wordlessly comforting her; which leaves only the matter of their embrace unsettled. He will probably need to start a ledger.

'There has to be another exit,' the Dalish points out - at least, Alexius deduces that the word she is using must mean 'exit'.

'You will find your son. Soon'.

The Avvar scoffs, looking skeptical - but the elf glares at him meaningfully and leads Alexius away from the blockage. Inhaling deeply and clenching his freshly healed hands into fists, he collects his wits, and makes the first step down the passage.

The companions walk on for a while in somewhat awkward silence (ah, if only Alexius had a good enough command of the other two's Tevene dialect to express his sincere apologies for making a scene!), entering and exiting an occasional underground chamber along the way.

One of the rooms they have to pass through uncomfortably resembles the 'private research chambers' that an colleague of Alexius' from the Magisterium had in the cellar of his Minrathous home, for conducting experiments on the Qunari specimen collected during the war. Both of his companions are greatly affected by sight of blood-smeared spikes inside half-open iron maidens, and skeletons swinging in cages that hang from the low, oppressive ceiling on mournfully creaking chains. They huddle closer to Alexius from either side, little short of hanging on his arms like two frightened children seeking the protection of an adult. He is not sure why - especially not after his shameful outburst at the cave-in - but he does not push them away, and even conjures up a protective spell bubble around them, muffling the rattling of bones and the whines of badly greased metalwork.

The two torturers - Alexius can tell their trade by the layers upon layers of old dried-up blood caking the leather aprons that they wear over the standard-issue armour (same as in the footlockers) - are still going about their business, crouching in front of a cage and trying to pry something out of the purplish-white fingers of some poor young man that lies inside. For a second - a second that lasts long enough for Alexius' heart dissolve completely in his chest and then reassemble itself out of pulsing, mangled pieces - a terrible, terrible thought crosses his mind, and he has to stand on tiptoe behind the torturers' back to see better inside the cage. But no, the dead victim they are poring over looks nothing like Felix. He can move on. He can move on.

This little inspection has not even alerted the torturers, the spell bubble having muffled the steps of the three people inside it just as effectively as the outside noises. And none of the companions is particularly eager to engage the two men in conversation, much less offer them to come along: if they are too absorbed by their morbid craft to notice a dragon attack, they would certainly not make a... pleasant addition to the team. Alexius knows it: he has had the misfortune of enduring the company of their sharper dressed, better read counterparts at multiple parties.

The torture chamber behind them, they step through a few crumbling, zigzag-shaped gaps in the walls, which must have been cracked open by the quake caused by the dragon's incessant roaring. And inch by inch, their path starts looking less and less like a manmade structure and more and more like a natural cavern, with stalactites jutting from the ceiling, and little frothing streams running through deep gulleys in the ground, feeding the roots of sagging pale ferns and reflecting the bright turquoise shimmer of the bulbous glowing fungi that have begun to appear in jelly-like clusters along the dripping walls. Not the most pleasing of landscapes, especially when one is used to contemplating the verdant coastlines of Tevinter from the balcony of a summer villa - but the most important thing here is the tiny gust of wind that keeps snaking its way among the damp rocks, carrying tiny flakes of snow. It means that there is a cave mouth somewhere ahead - the source of all this fresh air - and, consequently, that they are closer and closer to emerging into the great wide open world... where Felix is waiting.

Chapter Text

Their trek through the cavern has not been entirely uneventful. They have had a couple of more run-ins with the Stormcloaks, who stubbornly preferred brandishing their weapons and roaring like horkers with their flippers on fire, rather than allowing Hadvar to extend them an offer to form a temporary truce and escape together. But no matter how loudly they may have barked about Skyrim belonging to the Nords (which made Hadvar cough apologetically and avoid looking at his two obviously non-Nord companions for a while), or how fast they may have raced across the cavern, axes bared and ready to descend upon the 'filthy Imperials', the rebels have not been able to do too much damage. In most cases, the old mage started raining fire and lightning on them and brought them to their knees, yelping with pain, while the prisoner... No, that's not right; he shouldn't call her that; she was just a modest traveller crossing the border; she should never have been captured in the first place!

Yalanwen. Yalanwen - that's her name. He remembers because it sounds a bit like what that elven lady is called, the one that keeps lurking behind General Tullius' back all the time, making him look as if there's a tiny personal storm cloud wreathing his head, and makes you feel like someone's ducked a bucketful of icy water all over you if you meet her gaze. Not that the two elves have anything in common - thank the Divines for that!

Anyway. The old mage cast his Destruction spells, while Yalanwen finished off his gurgling, writhing victims with her arrows, sparing Hadvar the necessity to run up to them and engage them in melee combat. And that was a bit of a relief, frankly. Not because he is a coward, oh no - he will prove to General Tullius that he has what it takes to be a Legate, that he will! - but because a lot of the captured rebels were from the villages and farmsteads around Helgen, and seeing as Hadvar had often come here as a young lad, playing wingman to Ralof, who had a crush on that girl Ingrid, Vilod's cousin, it was highly likely that if he were to approach them, he would have seen a familiar face or two. Which would have made striking the killing blow rather... difficult.

Crossing paths with Ralof back there, in the Keep's courtyard, was bad enough. He had shouted at him, and cursed him, and said he hoped the dragon would take Ralof and all of his ilk to Sovngarde - that helped keep up the pretence that he hated him, as an enemy should hate an enemy. But he knows it would not have lasted.

If they had glared at one another any longer, Hadvar would have frozen up like he did when his troop had captured Ralof's rebel band, and his captain had to smack him on the back of the head with her sword hilt to bring him back to his senses. He would have lowered his sword, trembling all over, swept under the flood of memories of himself and Ralof fishing together, their bony bare legs white and zigzag-like in the icy water like twisted trunks of young birch trees; and of how purple their hands looked, dripping with the juice of berries they had been sent to gather, as they curled their fingers and lunged at each other with mock roars, pretending to be savage Dark Elves. And memories of Ralof turning towards him as they lounged about on a green hillock after a day of cutting grass for the cows, with the setting sun flaring at the back of his head, and the light frizz over his blonde hair forming a halo like in the pictures of Divines; memories of his own, Hadvar's, mouth growing parched one moment and wet the next, because the air was so warm and the sky to golden, and the cut grass smelled so strong and heady, and he was sixteen years old and he had never noticed that his best friend was so handsome before... but no, this was not right, Ralof was like a brother to him, and had a thing for Ingrid, and he would get angry if Hadvar tried to kiss him, and...

Yeah. It is better for the rebels, these rebels, rebels that Hadvar might know, to stay faceless - just distant blurs of blue for the mage to tackle. He is a good fighter, that one. Albeit a bit odd, maybe even Sheogorath-touched, with that temper of his, and with very obscure origins: Hadvar certainly does not remember him being either among the captives in the cart, or among General Tullius' entourage; nor did he see him among the villagers that had gathered to watch the execution. He is pretty sure he would have noticed someone in get-up as bizarre as what the mage had been wearing before changing into a robe of one of the healers that used to service the Keep - that silly red hood made him look rather like a crayfish. It's as if he had just popped out of nowhere - and who knows, maybe he did? There is a whole college full of his kind up north in Winterhold; magically zipping from one place to another sure sounds like something they would do!

But anyway. Like Hadvar noted before, for all of the Imperial's weirdness, he is a good fighter. Even despite being a mage... He tries to be more tolerant towards magic than his superstitious kinsmen, and he has seen Legion battlemages (and even the Thalmor, off-putting as they are) do some pretty impressive things with their craft. The odd Imperial can now be counted among those. Definitely.

And plus, Hadvar has already lost track of the number of times when the old man really went out of his way to protect him or Yalanwen, be it from the Stormcloaks, or from the critters that followed after, when they left the Keep for good and delved into a cave that lay beneath its walls.

There were giant spiders in there - horrid, slimy things, with dozens of bottomless black eyes and thin legs that made unnerving skittering noises as they moved. When the creatures flooded the cavern all around them, spinning down from the ceiling on long, sticky white webs, Hadvar was able to properly join the fray: sliced up a few of the horker-humpers, and then almost got munched up by the one that had crept on him from behind. Luckily, the mage hurried to his aid, barely dodging the poison spit of another spider on the way (which he casually disposed of with a firebolt over his shoulder, without aiming properly). He shot at the creature behind Hadvar with several ice shards, blinding its creepy eyes and making it thrash about, belly wobbling and legs probing the air with a sort of frantic, fitful twitching - right until its ugly bulging head met Hadvar's blade. He was rather grateful to the Imperial for letting him finish the critter off on his own - which must have shown on his face, because the old man nodded slowly, the upper left corner of his lips twitching.

The spiders were not the only cave-dwellers they had to squash to get to safety. There was a bear, too. A giant black sow, asleep on their path, with gnawed bones scattered all around her. Roused by Hadvar's whispered suggestion to try and sneak past her, she galloped towards them in heavy, thundering strides and took a huge swipe at Yalanwen with her clawed paw - which never reached the Bosmer's face, cleaved almost completely off by another shard fired by the mage, whose eyes had widened in almost as much terror as when he saw the Keep's gateway cave in. The bear rose threateningly to her hind legs, eyes bloodshot with agony and the severed paw still dangling off a sliver of sticky and reddened fur; roared at the two humans and the elf, showering them in scorching blood and frothing saliva - and then tumbled down, a blindingly white lightning blast singing her fuzzy chest and instantly stopping her heart. The mage, who had gotten very close to the bear to be able to zap her, placed one foot on her fallen body and smirked a little at his handiwork - but did not get distracted for too long, making sure to support Yalanwen while she was washing the grime off her armour, her breaths a little bit short and shaky. Hadvar didn't blame her: that bit with the paw was kind of... startling.

But now all their tangling with wild creatures is behind them, and they are standing on a winding hillside path, the cavern behind them, and Hadvar's native village of Riverwood lying somewhere in the valley ahead. The black dragon has finally left the poor ravaged Helgen be, soaring off somewhere towards Whiterun, and Hadvar knows that the people there need to be warned, and that General Tullius needs to be warned (if he made it... he has to have made it!) - but right now, he just wants to square his shoulders and breathe.

Neither he nor his companions are allowed to rest for long, though. Yalanwen is just beginning to clear herself a spot on a nearby mossy rock, having laid her bow down and muttered something about 'stretching her legs', when a brawny, fuzz-covered arm reaches out from the shrubbery behind her and wraps tightly around her waist, while another arm reaches for her head, thick fingers sinking into her hair and pulling her head back. There is a gasp, a grunt, a rustle - and Hadvar gives a start and breaks into a run, chasing after a tall kinsman of his, in weatherworn, mead-splattered studded armour, who is carrying a kicking and squirming Yalanwen up a narrower, more overgrown path that branches off from the road to Riverwood. The poor Bosmer does her best to eel free, but her captor is so much bigger than her, and his grip is far too strong. When she attempts to bite him, he lets go of her with one hand, pulls off his fur-trimmed glove with his teeth, and shoves it inside her mouth, like a makeshift gag; and when she raises her knee, aiming for the hulking brute's groin, he quickly swerves to the side, making the elf bump her head on the edge of a jutting rock that it hanging over the path - obviously on purpose, to make her too dazed to struggle.

Hadvar was caught so much off-guard by this sudden abduction that he did not look under his feet properly and gets his boot stuck between the ground and some arching root. Jerking his foot loose has been quite easy, not taking too long - but the man who took Yalanwen has still gained a bit of a head start.

The mage, in the meanwhile, has walked off a few paces in his own direction, looking over the surrounding boulders (perhaps in search of a high point to keep watch for his son). Hadvar gets a glimpse of him over his shoulder when the path takes a sharp turn, and their eyes meet for a moment; the old man falters in his tracks, unsure about turning back (something Hadvar does not find surprising at all: they are all strangers, after all, and now that they are out of the caves, the mage must be more dead-set than ever on finding his son). But eventually, the old Imperial does catch up with the chase for the bandit, each fist blazing with magic and a visibly worried look on his face. Hadvar even thinks he can hear him mutter something about low... lowly slavers of the... worst kind? Worst order? Never... Never buy... anything off them? From them?

What an odd thing to be grumbling about! People-trading died out centuries ago - and besides, weren't elves the ones taking humans and beast races as slaves? Yes, the fellow is definitely Sheogorath-touched. He'd better turn all that madness against these skeeving law-breakers!

The path leads to a rickety, shoddily hammered together wooden door, of the kind that usually marks the entrance to a mine. Hadvar vaguely recalls this place - Embershard, it is called. They used to extract iron here before the war; but now, amid all this chaos, it has been abandoned, like so many other mines all over Skyrim - and apparently has been turned into a den of cutthroats. Squeezing through the door side by side with the mage, Hadvar feels a faint pang of shame: here he is, trying to be a model Legionnaire,  to maybe, one day, deserve a nod of acknowledgement from General Tullius... And he has not even paid attention to bandit activity next to his own home village! Well, he'll have to fix this, won't he?

The inside of the mine is murky and damp, much like the cave they have just been to. There are wobbly red mushrooms springing out of every nook and cranny, and Hadvar thinks he can hear running water. Looking around, he spots a heap of boulders on a wooden platform, ready to be set loose when a careless intruder snaps the rope pulled taut a few inches above ground. Placing his hand over the mage's wrist, he alerts him to the trap; the man follows Hadvar's lead and steps over the rope cautiously, bowing down his head as a sign of gratitude. Not much of a talker, this mage - and when he does open his mouth, the words come out abrupt and scrambled, and with a weird accent. Quite unheard of, for an Imperial to be so bad at Tamrielic - maybe that's also part of Sheogorath's trickery? Eh, it's not like Hadvar is here to enroll him at the Bards' College!

The man they were chasing seems to have vanished, and the place is otherwise quite deserted; but as they progress further in, they suddenly hear voices, echoing oddly over the murmur of water in the mine's depths,

'Here, boss! Spotted this one on the road just when it were my turn to guard the entrance! Got me a bit of a thrashing, she did, with her little elbows, but I managed to quiet her down! Lucky catch, eh?'

'We'll see about that when she delivers!'

The first two voices are low and gruff, like you would expect from a couple of lowlifes - but the third is Yalanwen's, her gag apparently off now; despite her ordeal, she sounds more bewildered than frightened - maybe even oddly curious,

'Deliver? Deliver what? Is one of you having a baby somewhere out there? I... I am no midwife, I'm afraid; why don't you go to the nearest town and ask there? I hear Whiterun has good healers at the Temple of Kynareth...'

'Stop blabbering!'

This has to be the bandit that got addressed as 'boss'.

'My man took you cuz you're an elf! And all you elves are magical, right? You gotta help me figure out this spell book; the mangy cat I took it from swore it would legit lead me to hidden loot... Killed the blighted old rag anyway, but gotta check if she was meowing the truth'.

'Umm...' Yalanwen again - this time much more nervous. 'Umm... I am not really that magical. I know one basic healing spell, and that's it!'

'YOU! ARE! AN! ELF!' the 'boss' bellows hoarsely, and Hadvar thinks he can hear a slap ringing through the dank air. 'You will do your elfy thing, or I will cut your fingers off one by one!'

Throughout the exchange, Hadvar and the mage have not been standing still: they have been maneuvering through the mine tunnels, following the sound of the voices, and by the time the bandit boss makes his threat, they have already reached a large, rusty lever, which has to control the wooden bridge over the underground stream (the bandits must have raised it after them from the other side, so as not to be disturbed). The boss is still barking at Yalanwen when the mage, his face a tight-lipped mask, extinguishes one of his readied flame bolts and instead conjures up translucent green threads of telekinetic magic and, wrapping them tightly around the lever, pulls with such force that he almost dislodges it from its socket.

The bridge comes down with a cough-like creak; this finally alerts the bandits, who must have been standing guard around their ringleader. They rush out from behind the wooden partitions that support the mine's ceiling; seeing them bang their weapons aggressively against their shields only makes the mage curl his lips in rather weary disdain - while raising a cupped handful of spitting, unearthly purple-white fire. A single lightning blast - and the bridge is cleared, the bandits flopping down into the water below, their bodies bumping against the rocks like burlap sacks.

From here, it is a clear way ahead to where the boss has holed up. An unpleasant-looking fellow with a large beer gut and a curling black beard, he is leaning over a low wooden table, which has an open book with slightly charred page borders resting in its centre. Yalanwen, hastily tied up and with a fresh bruise under her eye, has been placed in a chair (too small and uncomfortable even for a Bosmer of her stature) in front of the table. Both of them must have heard the commotion on the bridge, because by the time Hadvar and the mage arrive, they are both frozen up in alarm, the elf's ears pricked up and the bandit's large, square hand resting on the hilt of his axe.

The ruffians that tried to fight them off appear to have taken up the entirety of the boss's crew; the only bandit the yet remains by his side is the lookout who took Yalanwen. He is busy nursing a bruise on his forearm: quite evidently, even though she never did break free, Yalanwen has still put these wiry archer's arms of hers to good use. Standing closest to Hadvar, he tries to pounce on him, baring the greatsword he is armed with and grunting angrily like a wild boar. The noise takes away any element of surprise, and Hadvar is able to block the bandit's first blow with ease. After that, he leaps back just like he was taught during his sparring sessions at the Legion training camp (his most ardent dream those days was for General Tullius to come by and see his wicked sword-fighting skills). With Hadvar's sword suddenly yanked away from beneath his blade, the man looses balance and leaves himself vulnerable just long enough for Hadvar to find a weak spot in his armour and thrust his blade in, as deep as he can. Not as flashy as cutting off a bear's paw with a bit of magic ice, but it does its job. No more catching unsuspecting elves and carrying them off to gods know where for this big lug.

Looking away from the gaping, milky-eyed face of the bandit he has just killed, Hadvar discovers that he has almost missed quite an amusing spectacle. Seizing a chance amid all the commotion, Yalanwen has managed to shift her chair a little, rocking it left and right along the way, and has pinned the bandit boss's foot down with one of the chair legs. This makes him almost spit out his (blackened and scarce) teeth in a roar of pain, and hammer his fist blindly into Yalanwen's face, blackening her second eye - but that is the last thing he is ever destined to do in his life, for the mage falls upon him from behind, holding up a cupped hand on either side of his throat as if he wants to strangle the man. But he does not even need to touch the bandit's skin, as there is a beam of pulsing light  zigzagging from under each of his fingernails, like a thread spun by a spider. The lightning encircles the bandit boss's neck like a spiky collar, which dissipates into nothing moments later, leaving behind a bloated black stain. When the mage draws his hands away, the boss thuds lifelessly to the ground, a whiff of smoke coming out of his wide-open mouth. These magicky types do get a tad carried away sometimes, don't they?

The cutthroat being dead, Hadvar can freely approach Yalanwen and, for the second time today, cut the ropes that bind her. Lifting her hands to her face, she gleefully flexes her fingers, which must have fallen asleep, and tries to cast a healing spell on the heavy folds of skin that have begun to form round her bruised eyes. She makes comical faces while doing this, eyes travelling up and down the figure of the Imperial mage, who seems very ill at ease, mouthing something about slavers again. Then, her gaze falls on the spell book the bandits have been trying to force her to read, and her battered-up face splits into a grin.

'You should read this!' she declares eagerly, sliding the book to the Imperial. 'It's the Clairvoyance spell! It shows you the path to what you are seeking! The bandits wanted to learn the spell to dig up hidden treasure - but you can cast it to find your son!'

The mage, who has been watching her lips move with an intent frown, obviously having difficulty understanding her, spends a few seconds processing what the elf has just said to him - but when the meaning of her words finally does set in, he raises his eyebrows in joyful surprise, and wastes no more time gawking. Picking up the book, he flips through it hurriedly - and, with a loud rustle, the pages turn all blue and glowing like someone has placed a couple of cave shrooms over them. Funny, none of the books in that Valerius fellow's family store ever did anything like this when a younger Hadvar tried to play around with them. Well, at least he hasn't had Sheogorath mess with his head! Except when he wanted to kiss Ralof... But better not think of that. Ever again.

The glow of the book is reflected in the old Imperial's eyes and still remains for a little bit, even after the little tome itself melts away in his hands, together with the cloak of its magic. He seems somewhat dazed the whole while; but when the blue sparks vanish from his eyes, he comes to his senses and, lifting up his hand, starts casting the spell he has just learned, noiselessly whispering a name that Hadvar does not catch.

But whatever the name is, it must belong to the mage's son. And sure enough, once the old man has finished whispering, a trail of little wisps of blue light springs up at his feet, showing a path that leads somewhere out of the mine and beyond, into the wilds.

'It works!' the mage exclaims, with a little stifled chortle. 'It works!'

Whirling on the spot, he reaches for Yalanwen, as if to hug her by the waist and pull her into a little happy dance - but stops himself and stiffens, instantly turning into the sort of huffy, reserved character you would expect a mage to be.

'Thank you,' he says to Yalanwen, holding his head up high and struggling to keep the tone of his voice even. 'Thank you...'

He falters for a bit, creasing his forehead in an effort to remember something - and, after a small pause, carefully tries to pronounce some odd word Hadvar has never heard before... Except maybe in Dunmer talk?

'Ma... Ma serah... Ma serannas'.

Yalanwen rounds her eyes, genuinely puzzled.

'I don't know what you are trying to say to me,' she admits, 'But I can tell you that my name is Yalanwen, and I will always be your friend if you need me! Now, go find your son!'

'Yalanwen...' the mage echoes her carefully, still not dropping his dignified act. After that, he makes an introduction of his own, accompanied by a little bow.

'Ge...' he hesitates a little, and finishes cautiously, 'Gideon'.

Hadvar has met enough Imperials to know that this cannot be his full name. There's usually a second one, ending in -ius or -aus or something. Wonder why the fellow doesn't want to share it? They haven't allowed a real fugitive from justice to tag along, have they? Hadvar should probably have started investigating him - but the dragon is more important.

Yalanwen agrees. As they head back towards the exit to the mine, the mage asks her slowly,

'What... What will you do?'

And she responds with,

'I think I will keep tracking that dragon. See what it's up to. There was something... odd about it. I think it spoke to me? I don't know, but I would sure like to find out! Come join me some time, if you are up for more adventuring... Gideon'.

And then, one more smile – to say goodbye.

Chapter Text

It has taken Felix some time to recover from the nausea that would (quite annoyingly) keep surging up his body, making his limbs grow weak and rather... floaty (yes, that is not even a proper word, but one well-suited to describe the sensation). His first two attempts to get up have resulted in failure - no doubt, quite comical in the eyes of an outside onlooker; he would have chuckled apologetically himself if he wasn't so afraid of retching. But this is by far not the first time in the past few years that he has felt so faint that he fell back immediately after getting out of bed (or off the ground, in this case). He knows that all he needs is a little patience, and lots and lots of rest after each attempt. With some persistence, he does eventually manage to find balance and lift his head without his surroundings beginning to spin.

Nevertheless, because of this onset of sickness - his usual state multiplied by the aftereffects of Father's spell, he would presume - he has barely been able to move a foot from the green grassy patch where he has landed, over the lapse of... Around half an hour, he would say. He cannot be too certain about that.

The thing is... When, shielding his eyes with his hand and forcing his heavy eyelids into a long and slow blink, he glances at the sky to determine the angle of the sun, something about it seems... Off. He cannot quite put his finger on it, still too dizzy to think properly, but there is a certain... Discrepancy. Like a thorn lodged in the back of his brain, creating the steady faint pulse of an as of yet informed realization. Well, he will get back to that later, after he has found Father, given him a good shake and demanded to know what in Andraste's name he has done this time. If he doesn't keel over and vomit black blood all over his robes, that is. He really hopes it does not come to that; Father might start crying again, in that pained, tearless way of his - and seeing that always makes Felix's heart sink.


More time passes, and, little by little, he is able to speed up his unsteady, shuffling steps somewhat - and actually starts taking an interest in the natural scenery. He appears to have been transported far enough from Redcliffe for its quaint little cottages and imposing castle to be nowhere in his field of view; instead, all that he can see is rocks and ferns and grass, rippling in every possible shade of green and grey, with a few splashes of pink or blue now and again, where a patch of wild flowers is growing. Somewhere up ahead, he thinks he can discern a curious structure, like three standing stones with holes carved through them close to the top. Nodding to himself (as much as he can), Felix sets himself a task to reach this landmark - mostly because it is easier to explore an unknown location when you have at least some idea where you want to get to, and also because it might be a convenient place to take cover, should a group of apostate mages and Templars suddenly leap out and decide to have a skirmish. He hears that tragic incidents like that have become quite common in the South; part of the reason why Father's insane mission to claim Grand Enchanter Fiona's rebellion for the Elder One has met with so few obstacles. The poor, long-suffering southerners had grown so tired of running and hiding and killing, they were ready to take shelter with anyone, even the Venatori. Well, at least they have allied with the Inquisition now; that will keep them safe...

His thoughts racing away from him, Felix takes a deep breath and pulls himself back on track. It turns out that he has made less progress towards the stones than a drunken turtle; and in the meanwhile, the sky has gotten a gentle tint of blue and lilac closer to the horizon, with the first stars beginning to come out...

Like during those moments when he saw Father cry, Felix's heart plummets, and then begins to beat feverishly somewhere in the middle of his stomach. More dazed than before, he blindly gropes around and, finding a sturdy log to sit on, sinks onto it, his unblinking eyes fixed on the darkening dome above.

The stars... Dear Maker, the stars are all wrong! He cannot recognize any of the constellations; the patterns of the tiny dots, which glint softly among the tufts of purplish clouds, are so unlike the ones that are supposed to be there that he cannot even write it off as his sickness muddling his eyesight. And the moons - even though they can be seen just barely, like half-transparent tear drops in the sky, it is enough to tell that these are not, by any stretch of imagination, the Thedosian moons! Astronomic lore stipulates that there are two moons in Thedas, but one is so much smaller and so often obscured by the other that the general misconception is that there is only one... And yet these moons, waxing brighter and brighter overhead, are clearly separated and much closer to one another in size; and the bigger one is... red?

What is this place? Where have he and Father travelled to? This cannot be the Fade - its denizens do not create new images; they copy them from real life, studying the thoughts and memories of mortals... The images could have come from within his own mind, of course - but he has never had any ideas, any fantasies, any daydreams about such a different sky! And besides, his link to the Fade is not even that strong - as so many people were fond of reminding him as a child. How could the spirits have built such an elaborate vision out of what they dug up in his subconscious, when he is not a mage?

No, he is not a mage; he is a scientist. He has to rely on logic rather than the aid of spirits. And his logic is utterly flummoxed, his mind wiped blank as if he is sitting in an exam and the professor asks precisely the one question he did not revise for! Only this is much, much more serious. A flunked exam can be passed on the second attempt; a failed paper can be rewritten - you just have to find the right books and focus on the right topics. But this... Are there even books that cover this sort of situation? Unless it's something like My Father Has Bent the Rules of Time and Space Again, Must Fetch Help: an Autobiography by Felix Alexius?

Wait... Wasn't there a scholarly mage in Orlais some years ago, what was his name, B-something... The one who suggested that, apart from the world known to us, the Maker might have created others? This went against the most basic principle of the Chant - one world, one life, one death, one god - and resulted in the Templars coming after the poor man and executing him for heresy... But what if this is actually true? What if this is actually... not Thedas at all, but some place beyond all lands known and unknown, beyond the Fade even? What if his Father, his desperate, heartbroken Father, who was ready to warp the flow of time itself just to cure Felix and maybe even get Mother back, cast a spell so powerful that it ripped the two of them out of their world and placed them... well, elsewhere? In the middle of a different creation of the Maker?

Or... Or what if this place wasn't brought to existence by the Maker at all, or by the spirits? What if there is an infinite number of preternatural beings, each creating its own worlds... Like people writing books? And they have just made a crazy leap from the pages of one book to another?

This torrent of questions fills Felix with dismay and a terrible, blood-curdling loneliness, at the thought that he is so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, even more so than he imagined when his terminal sickness first prompted him to start pondering over the meaning of life and death. It is so utterly benumbing for the mind to process that he is but a tiny splatter of ink on a book page, in a realm filled with countless Makers; and even on a more down-to-earth level, to think that Thedas is now so far away, and he is now more a stranger in a strange land than he ever was upon his first arrival to Orlais, or to Ferelden.

But at the same time, somewhere in the far, dark reaches of his brain, he can sense a spark of scientific curiosity. Why, this is an uncharted land to top all uncharted lands! A white space supreme! No, no, that's frivolous, boyish thinking - he can't get overexcited about new worlds when, in his condition, he is the last person to frolic around with a map and a sketchbook! And when his own world is in such grave danger, too! He cannot linger here; he has to get back somehow; he has to see the Elder One defeated... before he...

A ghostly wisp of blue lights up in the gloaming, and, making a deafening noise in the trampled undergrowth, a human figure approaches, and a familiar voice whispers hesitantly,

'Felix?'

Then louder, more joyfully, arms sweeping him up, a cool clean-shaven cheek rubbing against his stubble, chest heaving against his,

'Felix! You are alive! You are safe! Oh, for a moment, I thought I'd never find you! I thought I'd never see you again!'

'Papa...' Felix breathes, suddenly feeling explicably warm and safe, with the numbness letting go of him, and all of his tangled feelings momentarily giving way to relief. The same thought did cross his own mind as well - but he preferred to chase it off, imagining humorous scenarios of himself shaking Father and demanding answers. Now that they have been reunited, however, he does not feel even remotely like acting that scenario now; they may be two puny mortals from a different Maker's creation, misplaced because of an... incident that one of them caused - but at least they are together. And together, they just might have a chance of sorting things out. Provided that no more insane would-be gods show up with their fiendish bargains.

Without warning, the nausea returns, and Felix has to gently draw away, and say quietly,

'I... I am sorry... I don't think I feel so well...'

His Father is on his knees in the grass in front of him; his hands tremble a little when Felix says that, and, swallowing hard, he starts casting a healing spell. In its light, Felix notices that he has swapped his Venatori uniform for a much simpler robe; he himself would not mind a change of wardrobe. These heavy garments have not made lugging his useless, ailing body around much easier.

As always, Father's magic grants Felix temporary relief, and he suddenly becomes aware that the air smells sweetly of herbs and river water, and that there are insects chirping somewhere in the grass. He smiles, thinking of these pleasant little things - but then decides to steer the conversation into a serious vein.

'Have you looked at the sky, Pa... Father? Have you seen the stars and the moons?'

Father gets up from his knees and sits by Felix's side on the log instead, allowing him to lean on his chest as he points out the unfamiliar patterns.

'Kaffas,' Father breathes out, gripping Felix's free hand tightly, 'These are not Thedosian constellations! We are not in Thedas! So the locals were not speaking some garbled dialect of Tevene: they were speaking their own tongue, which just happens to sound like Tevene by coincidence! Or maybe understanding it by bits and pieces was even part of the spell that brought us here...'

'You met the locals?' Felix perks up, quite in spite of himself, once more feeling like an inquisitive boy. 'What were they like?'

'Some tried to kill me,' Father says dryly. 'Others were... helpful. Now I feel a little guilty about not trusting them with my real name - but I thought there might be people out there who would want to capture me... These... locals led me to a spell that allowed me to find you. There was a lovely... An elf that only had her ears in common with the... with the elves one is used to seeing. I took her for a drastically evolved Dalish tribeswoman, because she is so different. But perhaps this is just what elves look like in this...'

'In this world,' Felix finishes, sounding grim again as his initial elation over seeing Father fades, and the enormity of the journey they have travelled weighs upon his heart anew. 'I think this is another world! Father... What did you do to us?'

'I don't know,' Father edges away and buries his face in his hands. 'I don't know. When the Inquisition took me, I realized it meant that you would die alone, branded the son of a traitor... that if I submitted, I would fail you, once and for all... It was all a... deadly mixture of rage and panic and...'

His voice cracks, and he looks up at Felix,

'And fear of losing you forever'.

'I am already lost, Father,' Felix says, struggling to be patient. Maker, why can't he just let go? Just accept his loss and grieve and focus on things that actually matter?

Sometimes his Father's blind faith that the Blight can be cured, if he just throws more and more obscure magic at it, both terrifies Felix and makes him want to punch him, especially after this Venatori mess and the whole... world-hopping escapade! But he knows it would be unfair, not after all that Father has suffered. And he is grateful to have him by his side, feeling that there will be always some small, childish part of him that will keep instinctively turning to his Papa for protection... Whether he himself likes it or not.

'I am already lost,' he continues insistently. 'I will die, just as everyone dies. And I would much rather die in Thedas - preferably one free from the Elder One, thanks to Dorian and his new friend the Herald!'

Dorian. Oh Andraste, Dorian will go mad with worry where they have gone to... And then, after no restless searches and scrying spells reveal their presence either in the waking world or in the Fade - he will assume them dead! Which Felix kind of is, but it was still immensely cruel to Dorian to make their goodbye turn into... this. And Father - Dorian loves him, far more than he lets on; sometimes, as it seems to Felix, even more than he loves Master Halward. While they are here, talking and star-gazing, he is out there in Thedas, mourning his mentor, putting up a smoke screen of vice and bitter jests to shield his sorrow, retreating behind even more walls than he has already built around his heart...

Felix ponders over how to voice all this - but Father has already latched on to another subject.

'Oh, but you see - this is just it!' he exclaims breathlessly. 'Magic in this world differs from ours - I have seen it first-hand! Maybe there is a cure for you, here somewhere - one that does not even exist back home! I will just need to familiarize myself with this place more; study its laws; immerse myself in its magic... Oh Felix, I used to hate the phrase... But I think it's fate - fate brought us here! For once, my spellcraft gave promising results! For once, I did something right!'

'We have been ripped out of Thedas,' Felix says weakly, ordering his inner child explorer to shut up. 'And you have no idea how we can return, do you? How is that right?'

'But... But I can save you!' Father grabs his hands and shakes them a little, a feverish smile making his lips twitch. 'Returning to Thedas can come later!'

'Returning to Thedas should come first! I do not matter! I never mat...'

Their argument would have probably gone on and on in circles, but when making his last objection, Felix is cut short by a long, violent coughing fit, which, though dry unlike most of his usual coughs, still shakes him to the core, wearing him down so much that he is unable to move a limb or draw a single even breath, while Father whispers his name, sadly, soothingly, and fires up a more powerful healing spell, letting it burn in the night like a golden beacon... Which must be what draws the attention of their two newest robed friends.

***

'Tyranus, I wonder, why don't we catch a wagon to Dawnstar and reach the Hall from there?' says a young, portly Nord woman, in her early to mid thirties by the looks of her, with thick blonde braids framing her round face, as she hobbles to a halt for what is far from the first time on their trek, and pulls off her crudely sewn oiled cloth shoe to shake out a pebble. Her footwraps are grimy and drenched in sweat, with a few splashes of red indicating where a blister must have burst; the woman clicks her tongue in frustration and shakes her head when she sees the stains.

Her travelling companion, a slightly older Imperial, with tightly pursed lips and steely eyes glinting under the rim of his hood, tells her off gruffly,

'For the last time, girl, as my apprentice, you are to address me as Master Tyranus! And what did you expect to find when you joined the Vigil? Rose-strewn beds and breakfast in bed? You must work on your endurance if you want to hunt for mankind's enemies!'

'I expected that I would be able to help people!' the woman says through her teeth, putting her shoe back on. 'That I would do the Divines' work! Spread the Light into the darkest corners of Skyrim! Actually do some good deeds after wasting so many years cooped up as a Temple acolyte! And all that you've made me do so far is to chase down a perfectly peaceful group of Dark Elves for gathering flowers and wisp dust in the forest to offer to their goddess!'

'Azura is not a goddess,' Master Tyranus growls, pulling at the horn-shaped amulet round his neck as he begins to get emotional. 'She is a vile abomination that destroys people's lives for her own amusement! All of the Daedra Lords are! And how many times do I have to hammer this into your stupid head: the Mercy of Stendarr does not extend to Daedra worshippers! The moment those elves decided to lay down offerings at the altar of a dark being was the moment they turned their backs on the Light - and now they have to be dragged into it, kicking and screaming! Wait, are you even listening to me?!'

She is not. Distracted from her mentor's lecture by a bright flash of light in the distance, the woman has veered off the path, placing her sore feet one in front of the other as quickly as she can. Before long, she locates the light source - a Restoration spell, humming and shimmering in the hands of a middle-aged Imperial in a healer's robe, who is sitting on a log next to a younger kinsman of his - his son, perhaps? - whose face is unnaturally grey in colour, with blackened veins twisting all around his eyes.

Shor's bones, the poor boy looks so very sick! And helping the sick is definitely on the list of things the Vigil is supposed to do - not even Master Tyranus will have any objections against that! There he is, by the way, panting and grumbling a few paces behind her back... Well, he is about to see his apprentice, whom he has been treating as if she is two times younger than she actually is, take initiative into her own hands!

'Greetings,' the woman introduces herself - solemnly but with a smile on her face, taking a broad step towards the log with her hand extended. 'Divines keep you! My name is Siponja, though my friends, few as they are, call me Pony... I am with the Vigil of Stendarr, on a noble quest to right wrongs and aid the ailing! And I would like to take you two poor souls to our Hall...'

'Are you out of your mind?!' Master Tyranus hisses in her ear, having caught up with her, and laid his heavy hand on her shoulder. 'We cannot go about just... asking strangers over! Especially not when the Hall is so undermanned, and Keeper Carcette is away hunting vampires! Not that she would have ever authorized this in the first place!'.

'Pony' pointedly ignores him, only raising her voice more as she beams at the slowly blinking, flabbergasted sick Imperial.

'We will be happy to provide you, dear child, with shelter and healing! Don't worry,' she turns and narrows her eyes meaningfully, shooting a glance at Tyranus. 'We will be travelling there by wagon'.

Chapter Text

'Wait... Are these... Whole wheat grains?' Felix asks, bewildered, after something small and yellow catches between his teeth when he takes a sip of his healing potion.

'Wheat seems to be the staple ingredient of local alchemy,' Alexius explains, bending down to double-check one of many books that are scattered over and around his son's bunk. 'Surprising how two completely different worlds can produce the same crops, is it not? At least it's not...' he checks the books again, 'Marsh marrow? I wonder what that is... The marrowbone of people who drowned in a marsh?'

'Why don't you go easier on the unseemly images?' Pony chides him jokingly, having just joined the conversation. 'You don't want to make the boy choke on his medicine, now do you?'

'Oh great!' Felix rolls up his eyes in mock despair. 'Now there are two people thinking I am five years old!'


It has already been several days, at the very least, since a creaky little wagon, driven by a fuzzy-legged paint horse, brought them to the Hall of the Vigilant - a large wooden building with an austere interior, nestled under a blanket of snow amid the icy plains somewhere to the north of the forest where the spell had tossed them. Alexius did not gaze at the landscape too much throughout the journey, too preoccupied by supporting his son, charging up his healing spells, and giving evasive one-word responses to the 'Pony' woman's attempts to make conversation - but he did manage to notice that the climate in this bizarre world seems to be growing colder the further north one travels, rather than the other way around. Yet another one of his many uncanny discoveries.

Throughout most of his stay with the Vigilants, when not busy with spell-crafting and potion-brewing, Alexius has been hastily, greedily (and rather excitedly) devouring any and all books on the local lore he could lay his hands on. In addition to that, having started to figure out the world's Tevene-like common tongue (not in the least bit thanks to some potions this order had in stock, for boosting one's mental capacity), he has been posing some probing questions about this world's races, flora, and bestiary to the inhabitants of the Hall. To Pony, for the most part, since her mentor would only end up snarling at Alexius and retreat into a back corner, his narrowed eyes studying Felix with a suspicious look that always made the magister shift closer to his son, shielding him from view, with one hand thrust behind his back and fingering a half-transparent shape that was ready to materialize into a fully cast shard of enchanted ice at any moment.

And as for any other people from the Vigil, they mostly just came and went in the background, entering the building for a brief rest and then vanishing off into the wilds again, with a sideways look at the odd stranger and his ailing son and a few disapprovingly muttered words about how 'An apprentice deciding to oversee the healing of a stranger? Keeper Carcette is not going to like this' - but never more than that, because they were all silenced by a defiant glare from Pony, whose full figure had a way of making her look soft and kindly when she was relaxed, and rather intimidating when she was affronted by something and drew herself up to her full height to express her protest.

Alexius introduced himself to the Vigilants as 'Gideon' as well - even though there is no real need for that, with no Inquisition or Venatori in this world to hunt him down. But somehow, it seemed unfair to Yalanwen, letting others know his real name when she does not. Perhaps, when Felix's health allows, he will ask around, and seek her out again, and make a proper court... courteous introduction.

He has also deemed it unnecessary to burden his hosts with tales of otherworldly travels. That might have proved rather dangerous, as, from what he has gathered from snatches of their conversations amongst themselves, their order is something akin to Thedosian Templars, particularly those outside the Imperium, prone to screaming 'Abomination!' at anything they do not understand. With, perhaps, the exception of Pony, who also seems to believe in the existence of 'great evils' that need to be slain, with the gods' sanction - but at least (judging by the argument she had with one of her fellow Vigilants while Alexius was poring over an illustration of some Rift-like apertures from two hundred years ago), she has enough sense not to extend the definition of the word 'evil' to a confused farm boy who tried to figure out how to use a necromancer's staff he had inherited... and was apparently brought to tears, and likely even beaten, when the Vigilants tore it out of his hands by force.

Pony might have cared little for her guests being from another world - but the same would not have been true of her associates. So instead of disclosing the truth, Alexius has come up with the legend that 'The shock of seeing the dragon at... what was the name of that village, next to the place where you found us? Ah yes, Helgen... The shock of seeing the dragon at Helgen has taken its toll on our minds, and made both me and my son lose much of our memories. Would you kindly remind us what year this is again, and who the local ruler is?'.

This has yielded an astounding wealth of new knowledge - a scholar simply could not ask for more. And at times, Alexius feels almost... content; almost as if he is back at home in his study, with his family safe and whole and unplagued by disaster. He cherishes each of these moments of calm, when he sits by the fireside opposite his son, while somewhere beyond the Hall's sturdy walls, icy winds thrash and howl shrilly, making the coziness within so much sweeter. He welcomes the chance to read to his heart's content, and then talk to Felix in an excited whisper (lest the Vigilants overhear them making comparisons to some unknown 'Thedas' place) about the fantastical people of this world - like a tall, fierce, green-skinned race that somewhat resembles darkspawn and yet is classed as a type of elves; and more elves, grey as the Qunari and wandering without a home as the Dalish; and cats that can talk and stand as tall as a man on their hind legs; and lizards that are apparently descended from sentient trees.

Felix is as interested in these wonders as himself, never abandoning the desire to get back home as soon as possible - but at the same time failing to resist the overpowering, instinctive thirst for knowledge. Alexius can feel a moist, stinging pall being cast over his eyes whenever his boy stirs among all the beast pelts piled up over him, and says eagerly,

'So they have an Empire of their own!'

Or

'Wait, this Alessia woman sounds a bit like Andraste, doesn't she?'

Or

'Is it weird that I imagine this... bawdy play about the, um, dough and the spear as an Orlesian pantomime?'

Or

'Listen to this... Corals growing like trees inside a coastal cave! The shell of an enormous crab serving as a home for people! A warrior academy centered round the statue of a gigantic hand lifting a sword! An entire city built in the branches of a walking tree! How I would have loved to see all of that!'

Or

'Hmmm... The dwarves have vanished mysteriously en masse... You don't suppose they pulled off something like your spell, and turned into Thedosian dwarves? No, it says here they were actually as tall as elves...'

Or

'Slavery and haughty wizard war lords in solitary towers... Now doesn't that sound familiar!'

Or

'At least the elves here seem to have had happier history... Wait, what was that about the Grey Quarter?'.

Ah, dear Maker, as Felix asks all these questions, and chuckles at his own outlandish theories, or gazes in awe at the pictures that he has come across in an atlas of these strange lands, his eyes light up just the way his mother's used to, when the two of them, husband and wife, best friends and research partners, studied the Fade together, pondering over what mysteries its furthest reaches might conceal... She would probably have loved it here, his Livia. She always enjoyed a good challenge. She would find it far less enjoyable, however, to find out that her widower manages to somehow combine missing her and caring for their son with smiling to himself whenever he remembers the elven girl with whom he made a storybook escape from a dragon. This really is not the most opportune time for that.

Especially since, idyllic though their reading sessions are, Felix is still far from cured. There is a multitude of completely new restorative formulae that Alexius has not yet attempted to recreate, but the potions he has tried out so far have all had their usual effect: lessening the symptoms for periods of varying lengths, but never destroying the Blight completely.

Now, Pony mostly observes Alexius, readily fetching the components he needs and fending off her mentor when he starts hinting (crudely) that the outsiders have outstayed their welcome. But at the beginning of their stay at the Hall, she made Felix stand in the centre of the room a couple of times, and performed some sort of healing ritual, full of rippling threads of blue mage fire and loud appeals to the 'Eight Divines' (this civilization still worships a pantheon! How remarkable! And at least one of their gods appears to have a dragon as his avatar!). But her efforts have hardly yielded a better result than Alexius', much to her chagrin.

She seems a good woman, this Pony, if a bit overenthusiastic about her faith (this is nothing new, really), and at times overly... mothering over Felix, despite being no more than five or seven years older than him, if the local humans age at the same rate as in Thedas (though Alexius is uncomfortably aware that this is just him feeling jealous of someone else trying to help his son - a base instinct, and quite unworthy of him). In all, she is more than well-suited for her calling, with her heart set on helping the weak and 'fighting the good fight'. In between her and the sweet... the Bosmer (now he knows what the word means; and he had better start using it in reference to her, instead of undignified endearments), Alexius has been very fortunate to meet friendly souls that would gladly take him and Felix under their wing, making this new world just a bit more survivable. If only there was a way of ensuring that their kindness doest not prove to have been in vain...


'Well, not that I am complaining about being fussed over,' Felix says, taking another sip.

This new potion is of the potent variety, and he seems genuinely cheerful. Perhaps he will be even up for a walk outside when the wind dies down. Alexius has heard that snow can be quite picturesque in sunny weather - in Thedas, at least. And here, these... powdery water crystals are in even greater abundance than on the slopes of the Frostbacks.

'This is probably the most food-like substance I have been able to stomach since yesterday!' Felix muses, chewing at another wheat grain he has found.

'And the high and mighty Master Tyranus has the sheer audacity to complain about you wasting our supplies!' Pony scoffs, resting her hands on her hips and glaring at her mentor, who is fiddling with the leather straps on his mace's hilt in the corner of the room.

She has made no effort to keep her voice down, so Tyranus hears her, and retorts angrily,

'I meant our alchemy supplies, not our food! We needed these ingredients for brewing poisons to better combat witches and werewolves and other foul creatures! And what have you done in Keeper Carcette's absence? Turned our noble Hall into a bloody alms house!'

This is not the first time that the insufferable, Templar-like oaf has intruded into their conversation - and not the first time that Alexius has lost his temper over his remarks.

'Did you just compare me and my son to beggars?' he asks, his voice perfectly even, almost silky - while inside his chest, scorching liquid fire begins to bubble, like in the heart of that 'Red Mountain' he has read about. Perhaps the man does have a point - they are not exactly paying for room and board, and Alexius is yet to bring up when they will leave - but a magister's pride runs deep. And there is also another reason to be angry: not on his own behalf.

'And did you just insult your own apprentice - who follows your order's rules better than you do?'

'Do not pretend to know the Vigil, outsider,' Tyranus snaps back. 'Our first focus is on cleansing Daedric filth; healing is just a side task, and Siponja has made it a distraction! It has been days since we went out in the field and showed the true meaning of Stendarr's mercy to the vile and corrupt spawn of darkness! Babysitting your offspring is nothing but a waste of my time, which would be better spent with a mace in my hands!'

Yes, that definitely sounds like Templar talk. Give the man a mask and frilly pantaloons, and he will fit right in among the zealots of the Orlesian Chantry.

'Why don't you go then?' Alexius asks acidly, sensing his fingertips tingle sharply as a charge of lightning magic courses through them, ready to erupt the moment this man says another harsh word about his son. 'Take your mace, apply it to some heretics, enjoy yourself... elsewhere'.

'Siponja is my apprentice,' Tyranus sighs heavily, 'Her foolish transgressions are my burden to carry. And besides... There is something I have been pondering for a while now...'

A tiny spark of malice lights up in his eyes, and Alexius feels that the magic in his grasp will not be contained much longer.

'Why is it that you have been trying spells and potions for days, and yet your son is still not cured? Our rituals get rid of the deadliest fevers in a matter of minutes; why don't they work on him? Perhaps he is carrying a curse? Perhaps what he needs is not Siponja's inane fussing, but a firm sword hand like mine - to cleanse him?'

Felix chokes in alarm and edges closer to the weapon rack, looking in sincere disbelief at Tyranus, who has gotten up from his spot and is moving towards him, mace unsheathed.

'Don't you dare...' Alexius begins, barring Tyranus' approach to his son - but the Vigilant raises his mace-free hand and then thrusts his arm downward, rays of green light bursting from between his clenched fingers. The same green light, only dimmer, cloaks all the three other people in the room: Pony, Alexius, and Felix, who drops his potion flask, with the shattering glass echoing deafeningly through the otherwise silent Hall. Chained by the spell, they thud to the floor, stiff like statues; nodding smugly to himself, Tyranus steps over the first two, and then stands over Felix, more magic swirling round his fist.

'I should have done this long ago,' he says. 'I was too lenient towards you and your suspicious disease. Now... Let me take a closer look at you... Let me see what makes you so sick, boy'.

With a flick of his wrist, he pulls the still petrified Felix to his feet by threads woven from mage fire, and glares into his face - while down on the floor, Alexius widens his eyes, which are beginning to well up with blood as he struggles silently against the hold of the paralysis.

Tyranus draws close enough to Felix to grip him by the throat, blackened veins pulsing feverishly under his vice-like fingers - and after he has forcefully tilted the younger man's head and stared into his eyes for a while, the closest and longest he has ever been able to examine him since his arrival, he steps back, relaxing his grasp somewhat, as his nostrils and lips quiver and his pupils dart to and fro, his mind apparently processing some momentous discovery.

'I sense a… darkness in you...' he whispers. 'Like nothing I have ever seen on this plane... I knew it! It's Daedric influence, isn't it? You are reeking with Peryite's evil magic! And you know what this makes you? An abomination!'

He breathes in sharply and, raising his mace over Felix's head, utters a phrase that sounds stilted and rehearsed - but no less ominous for that,

'May Stendarr have mercy on you, for the Vigil has none to spare!'

'Tyranus, don't!'

'Hands off my son, if you want to die with them attached!'

These two screams ring out at the same time, in a muddled, chaotic chorus, as the paralysis spell wears off and both Alexius and Pony scramble to their feet, while Felix breaks free and staggers back, trying to dodge Tyranus' attacks. The air ripples and crackles with magic, bolt after bolt of white-hot lightning flying at the Vigilant from Alexius open, clawing hands. Tyranus ducks, seizing Felix again, this time by the collar of the spare Vigilant's robe that Pony found for him, and pulling him after himself, apparently still determined to complete his 'cleansing'.

Pony, stout as she is, manages to stop him just in time - when, ignoring the fact that Alexius did hit him with one of his sizzling projectiles and singed his sleeve, Tyranus swings his mace yet another time, grazing Felix's cheek.

Pushing both the father mage and his son out of her way, her brute Avvar... that is, Nordic strength showing through the image of a well-spoken alumna of a Temple school, Pony pounces at Tyranus, punching him as hard as she can. This is far from the swing of a mighty warrior, as Pony (by her own admission) spent her youth studying healing spells and reading books rather than perfecting her swordplay like most Nords her age - but it's still enough to make Tyranus drop his weapon and grow dazed enough for Alexius to pin him against the wall, breathing heavily.

Pony watches the two of them in silence for no more than two seconds - before she inhales hoarsely and clenches and unclenches her fist, as if trapping and releasing some insect... Only instead of an insect, it is a cloud of sickly magical smoke, which forms an odd likeness of half-transparent helmet round Tyranus' head, making him scream shrilly, throw up his arms, and, shoving past Alexius before the latter can properly realize what is going on, break into a run at an almost impossible speed, whizzing towards the door and then vanishing into the snowy wilds.

Silence falls, long and heavy; the apprentice Vigilant and two of her guests, the only three people remaining in the empty Hall, barely move or even look at one another. More than a few minutes crawl by before Pony can finally bring herself to speak, hanging her head on her chest,

'By Stendarr, what has this place come to... This is not what I signed up for when I decided to leave behind my books and my meditation... You must think us monsters now...'

'Monsters that now freely roam the land,' Alexius cuts in, his voice low and almost just as cold as when he addressed Tyranus. 'Why did you do... Whatever it was you did?'

'It was an Illusion spell,' Pony explains quietly, lowering herself on the nearest stool and weaving her dimpled fingers together. 'The opposite of Calm... which was what I learned back at the Temple, usually on thrashing women in labour and such. I... I gave Tyranus the urge to flee... He will race wildly through the snow until the effect wears off - and since the spell also increases your speed of movement, he will be far, far away from here by then. Maybe even in another Hold. I cannot be sure, but he might also not remember what just happened'.

'Why?' Alexius demands, towering over her, his face a thundercloud. 'Why did you let him get away?'

'Because you would have killed him,' Felix points out, wiping off the dark blood that is oozing out of the gash in his cheek, and making a small motion with his hand to hold his father back.

'What Tyranus tried to do was deplorable, and inexcusable, and simply frightening,' Pony looks up suddenly, a sombre look in her greenish-grey eyes. 'And gods, punching him felt so right!.. But he... He is... was my mentor. He was the stranger on a quest that once stopped by at the sacred shrine where I an acolyte, and inspired me, the sleepy, fat, complacent me, to go out and do good deeds and sing praise to the gods through my actions rather than empty prayers. Perhaps it would have been the more just thing to do, but I couldn't let you and him keep fighting to the death... I am sorry. He has always taken Stendarr's teachings about banishing darkness to the extreme, and I guess that made him... what he is. But underneath all that... horrible mess... he was still my mentor... and I couldn't...'

She never finishes, too overcome by emotion - but Felix understands. And when he comes up to her and pats her awkwardly on the shoulder, he glances at Alexius - and Alexius understands as well.

'Hug her,' he suggests in a whisper. 'It will help. Trust me'.

Felix smiles shyly and wraps his arms around Pony, who draws a deep sigh and nods at him in gratitude.

'I... I don't suppose we should be staying here any longer,' Felix speaks up, a few more minutes of silence later. 'If your fellow Vigilants return and have the same... reaction to me as Tyranus... You could get in trouble for sheltering us'.

'I normally like trouble,' Pony replies, making both father and son raise their eyebrows, as they are reminded of Felix's favourite phrase back when things were... better.

'But yes, sadly... I don't think you two will be safe here. And come to think of it - I am suddenly not so keen on remaining a Vigilant either. Maybe I am better off healing people under the roof of some shrine in the middle of nowhere'.

'Whatever calling you choose,' Alexius says earnestly, feeling that he has not been so moved since the... the Bosmer showed him a way to find Felix, 'I am certain you will be admirable at it'.

Their farewell could have lasted a little bit longer, with more tokens of gratitude and appreciation, and assurance that, though Felix remains sick and Tyranus did what he did, their stay at the Hall has not been fruitless... But before the three friends - yes, this is what Pony is: a second friend Alexius has made away from home - can properly part their ways, the Hall's doors swing open, and a whole cohort of Vigilants comes marching in.

Chapter Text

The wilds of the Pale are like a sea, with waves of white and grey slush and snow rising as tall as the tree tops, and then falling with a tremendous, ear-splitting whoosh; thrashing against the solitary rocks and the sturdy trunks of old pines that they have not yet felled - a perfect mirror image of the heaving deep-blue waters that roar their ceaseless song as they hammer against the icy shore, in an onslaught after onslaught like the mighty armies of Ysgramor that once set sail here.

And in this snowy sea, he, a tiny, staggering human, is like a sliver of debris that is caught in a frothing whirlpool, unable to set its own course and going only where the current takes it. The blizzard broils and howls all around him, knocking him off his feet after every few paces, and slicing at the burning, crackling skin on his face with countless razor-sharp ice crystals; it is almost too overpowering to resist. But he is stubborn, the little debris-man: he keeps getting up after every fall; keeps craning his stiff, frozen neck and straining his stinging eyes; keeps searching, ever searching, for any landmark that might prove useful, for any sign of a path to the Hall of the Vigilant.

Sometimes, he allows himself to creep into a sheltered nook under some tall cliff that withstands the waves of snow, powdery gusts billowing over its edge like ribbons of white and silver - and lies down for a while, pressing his knees against his chest like a child in the mother's womb, to catch a few moments of rest. He takes care not to fall fully asleep: he knows that that the heavy blankets of snow can suffocate, and that the only way he will be waking up from slumber in the embrace of the icy wilderness will be as a draugr. And he also knows that there might be shadows lurking beyond the snowy veil - men and women in black cloaks, with their faces shaded a blue-tinged white like the ice floes in the sea, and their eyes burning like embers in the deep, bruised pits of their sockets. He knows that they might have dogs at their heels - monstrous hounds with bodies molded out of snarled inky flesh and twisting sinews, and with curving fangs protruding from their skeletal snouts. The shadows and their dogs do not feel the cold or weariness, navigating the icy wastelands like giant black gulls circling round their prey - and there can be no rest for as long as they have his scent.

But even with all precautions taken, even with his eyes half-open and a small corner of his mind always awake, he can feel himself drifting off, blurred images forming before his heavy-lidded eyes. He can see the Hall, its windows floating in the murk like specks of golden glow dust; and the silhouettes of his fellows Vigilants, going about their business, picking up bowls of food, cleaning and sharpening their weapons, stopping to talk to one another...


They used to mock him, his brothers and sisters. Used to roll up their eyes when they thought he could not see them, and deliberately talk over him when he tried to explain his theories that the creatures of the night were not just being 'unusually active', that they had to be rallying around some greater force, organizing themselves, searching for something...

'Foolish old Adalvald', the others would call him. 'Almost as bad as that Isran in his crumbling tower'. 'Batty conspiracy theorist... Haha, batty! You get it?'.

Well, batty conspiracy theories do not draw the attention of figures lurking in the shadows as you make your inquiries about artifacts linked to vampirism, and do not send whispers of your discoveries travelling to all corners of Skyrim's beast dens, marking you as a threat.

Batty conspiracy theories do not get you rudely snatched out of the bedroll that you set up for yourself to rest before returning to your order with a report on your exploration of a mysterious cavern, marked by the stark contrast between the usual Nordic burial architecture and the sinister later additions: fierce-looking gargoyles and tall stone arches, reminiscent of illustrations from volumes on the vampire crisis in the High Rock region of Rivenspire, hundreds of years ago.

Batty conspiracy theories do not lead you to being carried off in a cloud of black mist, and then tossed on the floor of a draughty stone chamber, in front of a vampire with hair as white as its flesh and garbs as black is its soul - as if you were a mouse caught by a cat, chewed up and ripped apart and then presented to the cat's owner for approval.

Batty conspiracy theories do not make creatures of the night rip your robes off with sharp grey claws and whip your exposed torso for days on end with long, cutting threads of throbbing crimson magic, making you bleed all over the rustling carpet of your own scattered notes - which cold, yellow eyes have studied and found wanting - and demanding that you reveal how much you know about the cave and what lies within.

And batty conspiracy theories certainly do not turn you into the quarry for a whole pack of vampires, who are Oblivion-bent on getting you back to where they found you, and silencing you forever.

Adalvald already had his mind set on giving up his life with honour, and embracing Stendarr's glory - but fate willed to grant him a chance to escape, when his torturer became distracted by a message that had arrived from someone named Harkon, carried by a mer-like vampiric creature that apparently travelled from place to place by taking the form of a flock of bats. And Adalvald took that chance, cautiously getting up and slipping away while the torturer was talking to the messenger. After some groping around on the floor of the underground chamber, he frayed his binds against a sharp rock, which, having strained his arms and ripped free, he also used to strike down one of the vampires patrolling the path to the exit. Quickly wrapping himself in the creature's cloak, he sneaked past the other vampires, which were too busy gossiping about some Lokil (the one who tortured Adalvald, perhaps?) to pay heed to the scent of living flesh that floated right past them.

Once out of the beasts' vile underground den, Adalvald broke into a run - and he has been running ever since, ploughing his way through the snow, ducking behind trees and white-capped boulders at the sight of the faintest black spot moving within his field of view, pushing his malnourished, torture-racked, freezing body to the limit, just to get to the Hall in time.

Now they will believe him.

They have to believe him.

The vampires are on the move; they are about to unearth an artifact of incredible power, buried somewhere in a cave to the east of the standing stone marked by the star sign of the Lord. They appear to have become stumped by the puzzle that bars their way further in, but it will not be long until they figure it out. In this window of time, the Vigil must act, cleansing them all before it is too late for Skyrim - for all of Tamriel, perhaps!

And if passing on this warning makes Adalvald 'as bad as Isran' - well then, they must team up! They must help the man restore his 'Dawn wardens' or whatever they are; they must make up for not taking him seriously. Because Isran was right; Adalvald was right. And the Vigil was wrong.


***
The hunt has been fruitful; the Jarl's court wizard must be very pleased that Haafingar is no longer plagued by the coven of Pine Moon Cave. She did not thank the Vigilants in person (just as she never spoke with them face to face when she appealed for help) -  but she did send along a courier with a weighty coin purse.

Some members of Carcette's cleansing team curled their lips at the sound of jingling gold, saying huffily that they were the servants of Stendarr, not some lowly mercenaries (Tyranus would probably have protested the loudest, were he hunting with them rather than honing the skills of that round little Nord that had tagged along with him as an apprentice). The few solitary brothers and sisters, who were coming back from quests of their own and joined them as they crossed border of the Pale Hold, have also been exchanging disapproving whispers, once they learned about the outcome of the Haafingar expedition.

But the Keeper still accepted the payment, bowing politely and asking to pass her gratitude on to the Blue Palace - nor has she regretted her decision since. Stendarr knows, new robes and spell scrolls do not weave themselves out of thin air, and they still need to hire a carpenter somewhere in Dawnstar to do something about those age-old roof supports - because most of Carcette's people are too busy vanquishing evil to realize that the Hall might collapse on top of their heads if the snowfall continues and the weight on the roof proves to be too much... Which reminds her, she really needs to get one of the younger Vigilants to get up there and shovel off at least some of the snow! And then write another appeal to Skald the Elder, spelling it out to him, preferably in words of two syllables or less so he can understand, that, war or no war, a holy order like theirs is supposed to be exempt from taxes!..

Preoccupied by these thoughts, along with some preliminary calculations of the pending expenses (do they still owe the Khajiiti traders for the incense for the shrine?), Carcette almost trips over something large and dark that suddenly darts across the road in front of her, and then falls down to the hard, frost-crusted ground.

One of the Vigilants, who was walking a few paces behind her, strides forward, mace drawn, and pokes cautiously at the black object, which seems to be something vaguely alive in a bundle of dark cloth. This motion makes the bundle stir, and as the cloth falls back, the living thing beneath it turns out to be a barely conscious balding Nord with a short beard that was once neatly trimmed but is now knotty and tangled and singed with magicka burns in a few places. His body, grimy and with a flat, sucked-in stomach, is also crisscrossed with markings left by some sort of destructive spell, and his fingers and toes are stiff and curled up and bloated with frost bite.

'By Stendarr!' Carcette exclaims in alarm, coming close enough to the Nord to make out his facial features. 'Brother Adalvald! What have you gotten yourself into this time?!'

From what she remembers, the poor confused soul was planning to head to some cave or ruin or whatever it was, and bring back 'proof' that would allegedly make them all see the truth in his over-the-top theories about vampires being some organized force going after a source of power, rather than feral pack animals that needed to be destroyed without second thought. Apparently, his little attempt at playing archeologist did not play out quite as intended... And has he managed to lose his robes in the process?

'Keeper...' Adalvald wheezes when Carcette crouches down in front of him, a healing spell glowing in her grasp. 'Dim... Dimhollow Crypt... The va... va... vampires... They must not... unlock...'

Delirious. She expected as much. The man is not particularly coherent even on his best days, let alone after prancing through the snow in little more than a threadbare black cloak to cover himself. She can knock off the worst of his fever right here, but she will need the magical energy concentrated in the Hall, around their shrine to Stendarr, in order to conduct a ritual that will allow Adalvald to fully recuperate.

Getting up, she issues a few brief commands to the Vigilants, who quickly fashion a makeshift stretcher out of two staves and Adalvald's own cloak, which they mark with a fire-based spell that, while not burning through the cloth, makes the shivering Nord feel somewhat warmer.

Apart from the shivering, there is a great deal of mumbling, too. Somewhat revived by Carcette's magic, Adalvald grows more agitated, and keeps trying to catch her hand as she walks by the stretcher's side, so as to draw her attention to the gibberish he is spouting about gargoyles and underground lakes and research notes. Carcette humours him with a reserved smile and the same polite reassurance in response to all his claims at 'important discovery',

'Now, now, Brother. What you need is rest. We have almost arrived at the Hall'.

And once they are there and Adalvald is back on his feet, he will, no doubt, want to talk her ear off. Just wonderful. And here she thought that the letter to Skald would be the highlight of her day.

When their procession reaches the Hall of the Vigilant, it is even more numerous than a few hours before, several more Vigilants having emerged out of the woods with hands raised in greeting. They claim to have stumbled across Tyranus, who was racing from the direction of the Hall in such a hurry that he did not even slow down or turn around when they called out his name. Well, he has always been overzealous, that one; probably had some quarry in sight, and wouldn't stop until he struck it down. He will return shortly, to catch a breath after his travels like the rest of them - and unlike Adalvald's, his report will actually be believable.

The Hall turns out to be empty, save for Tyranus' apprentice, left behind by him for some reason (maybe that mission of his was too urgent). Carcette almost rams right into her, because she is blocking the doorway, talking about something to two Imperials that the Keeper does not know. One of them, a young man with cropped black hair and a trace of a magically healed cut across his cheek, is wearing the robes of the Vigil, but Carcette certainly does not recall recruiting him. He looks ill, too; there are bruised circles round his eyes, faint but still visible, and he is much paler than his older kinsman - who is standing by his side, sparks of Restoration magic still trailing from his fingertips.

Oh. Oh, she can see it now. The apprentice is at it again.

Before Tyranus brought her into the light of the Vigil, she used to be a healer at a temple somewhere - Solitude, maybe? And she is still very keen on the idea of opening the Hall's doors to more people in need of having their sickness treated. No matter how many times Carcette has to tell her that the Vigil simply does not have enough resources for that! Healing a random adventurer on the road who got their face slashed up by a bear carrying Bonebreak Fever - that they can do, on occasion, when they are not in too much of a hurry to dismantle a witch coven or eliminate a Daedric cultist. But letting people stay in their headquarters until they recover? That is too much! And that is not what the Vigil even is about! The Vigil is about...

Funny thing; these days it sometimes seems to her that the Vigil is about filling in paperwork and arguing with goods suppliers and Jarls and scrounging up enough money to keep a noble crew of witch hunters from (nobly) starving to death.

'What is the meaning of this, Siponja?' she asks sharply. 'Who are these people?'

'They... They were just leaving, Keeper,' the apprentice reassures her, looking rather taken by surprise and doing an odd little dance in front of Carcette, so that, wherever the latter might turn, the young Imperial will always be blocked from her view.

'No, they will not leave,' a quiet, cold, eerily even (almost cheerful, actually) voice suddenly speaks from behind the Vigilants' backs, as at least a dozen figures, wearing cloaks very similar to the one Adalvald was wrapped in, gradually come into view, appearing to weave themselves out of the very woodwork of the Hall's walls.

'No-one will'.

Chapter Text

Lokil can just barely remember that, at a time when he was still a mortal - a laughably weak Nord boy with the fairy tales of heroes going to Sovngarde still fresh in his mind - he would sometimes break into song when something made him feel especially pleased. And right now, in this moment, he just might come close to doing that again.

But he contends himself with a broad, leering smile, which he gives the shock-struck Keeper of the Vigil as he whirls his raised hand daintily through the air, making all the doors and windows in the building seal themselves with a simple, yet so very elegant, Alteration spell.

She really shouldn't have clucked so much when she ushered all of her Vigilants inside, like a mother hen leading her squeaky offspring to the coop for the night. She really shouldn't have said 'Come on, everyone inside, don't crowd on the porch!'. She really should have chosen her words more carefully - does she not know, as a supposedly seasoned vampire hunter, that the children of Molag Bal need to be invited to the dwelling of a mortal; and that once they are, they will be able to enter by any means, through every crack in the wall and gap between the window panes, seeping in like inky mist, blending with the shadows, perching on the rafters like a flock of bats? And does she not realize that her words, 'Everyone inside', have been interpreted just like that - as an invitation?

Oh, but she does! She does! Look at her staggering back, with her little chickens drawing their pathetic, useless weapons all around her, thinking their miserable lot might stand a chance at escaping! Ahh, so delectable!

The plan is playing out far better than Lokil could have foreseen. It did not take him long to figure out that the bearded flesh bag  that he and his underlings followed to Dimhollow Crypt did not, in fact, have anything more to offer than vague, inane guesswork on the true nature of the prize that lay in the cavern's heart. He would have been no help solving the puzzle - and Lokil would have sent him off to his beloved Stendarr without second thought.

But then, in a moment truly inspired by the infinite cunning of the Lord of Schemes and Domination, Lokil devised a plan that will now certainly earn him Lord Harkon's favour and become his new most trusted advisor, instead of those imbeciles Orthjolf and Vingalmo.

Really, he still cannot quite get over how brilliant his thought process was.

What would a captured little mortal do if he was foolish enough to believe that the higher beings watching him had suddenly become distracted?

Why, he would attempt to slither off to safety, like the worm that he is!

And what course of action would he take then? How would he proceed once out in the wilderness, tricked into thinking that he had actually thrown a team of skilled Volkihar hunters and their hounds off his trail, and they were all collectively just lumbering about through the woods, with not a clue as to where, oh where the mortal could be?

Like a good little lookout rat, he would skitter back to his warrens, and try to warn the rest of the mortal vermin of the coming danger!

He would rally them all to his side, gathering them in one place - where they could be safely disposed of, once and for all. Starting with that Keeper of theirs.

Oh, he has heard of her. Her bumbling little missions have sometimes done the Volkihar a service, as her Vigilants culled the ranks of feral covens that do not abide by the civilized code and rudely steal the cattle from superior vampires. But her continued existence in a world that Lord Harkon intends to reshape would be... Inconvenient.

'Greetings, Carcette,' Lokil says with a bow, while his fellow Volkihar seize the opportunity granted to them by their sudden arrival and begin casting frost and paralysis spell to keep the cattle from scattering around their pen once the initial shock has passed.

'My master sends his regards'.

His words come out in a soft, silken hiss, which travels through the Hall like a gust of icy wind, and snuffs out all the sources of light, from the candled to the oil-filled goat horns to the crackling embers in the hearth. This Nordic long house ambience is so very dull - the place could use some lighting in the... colder spectrum.

For but a moment, the building is plunged into pitch-black murk, with only the Volkihar hunters' eyes shimmering in the inky nothingness, closing their circle ever tighter. And then, she appears, a faithful servant summoned by Lokil from the frozen, barren plains of his Daedra Lord's realm. A beautiful atronach, with a slender female body made out of twisting tongue of cold blue flame, which casts a ghostly, uneven light on the walls, making even the most innocent shadows grow twisted and menacing, reaching for the frozen-up mortals with their claws. The Atronach's touch does not scorch vampiric flesh like the crude torches that mortals carry - indeed, as she glides past her summoner, tracing her flaming fingers along his jaw and neck and shoulder, he can feel the inebriating throb of arousal, both at the sight of his Daedric minion's ethereal grace and at the thought of the carnage that is about to follow - but her magic will be enough to eat away at the wood  (and the limbs of those living wretches who come too close) and reduce all the meaningless clutter these mortals keep in their chests to little mounds of ash.

The Atronach floats off, ready to do her work, while the vampires rip into the ranks of the Vigil. Most of mortals are still rendered helpless by the hunters' spellcraft, and it is an easy and highly enjoyable process to dig one's nails into their necks, licking off the blood that spurts out - or to sink one's hand into their flesh, making a bet with a fellow Volkihar if it will be possible to tear the mortal's heart out while it is still beating.

That worm Adalvald is among the first to be feasted upon.

The other Vigilants have carried him in on a stretcher - made out of the cloak of one of Lokil's hunters, no less. She is a capable one, that High Elf; she put up quite a performance when the mortal crept up on her, with a stone for a weapon like the barbarian he is. After spending so long without a proper meal, his imperfect mortal body was failing him, and the strain of his muscles was barely enough to gently stroke the huntress' temple; but she played along nicely, casting an Illusion spell to give him the impression that he had cracked her bone and made her slump to the floor on the verge of death. And therefore, the sight of Adalvald's demise is made all the more amusing, since he looks up at the High Elf in sheer shock, before she latches on to his throat, drinking greedily till the foolish mortal is finally sent to his pathetic god.

But shortly after the huntress falls back, her long, delightfully flexible tongue flicking round her mouth to clean off the streaks of crimson, those Vigilants that are still standing begin to come to their senses and to fight back. One of the first to do so is a mortal of the Imperial race, who appears to be wearing the robes of some other order - not that it matters; these meat chunks are all alike anyway, once you peel off their clothes and skin.

Feeling the vampires' spell partially wear off, he strains to break apart the ice crystals that have formed shackles round his feet, and exclaims,

'I cannot believe this is the second time in one day when someone tried to immobilize me! And we were just leaving! Ah, well, since I am still here, I might as well fight the greater evil!'

During his little speech, he charges up and fires a flame bolt - of the disgusting red-and-yellow variety - and manages to strike down one of the hounds, which has begun growling at him, sensing that he is about to break free. This makes Lokil feel mildly annoyed - good hounds can be so hard to stitch together. Lifting the hapless half-dead creature with telekinetic magic, the man slams its body against the taller, sturdier wall of ice that surrounds a nearby Vigilant, a big and round Nord woman with straw-coloured hair. The impact both finishes the hound off, caving in its skull, and makes the hardened magical frost crust crack. Now the woman is free to step sideways and take up a defensive pose, magic blazing at her fingertips.

'You know... Pardon my Nordic, but getting bitches tossed at you still beats being called a lardy bitch,' she remarks, glancing down at the hound, which has thudded at her feet.

These two freed mortals, who waste no time in leaping upon the nearest vampires and pelleting them with blinding magic flashes, are presently followed by several more. In a matter of seconds, the battle grows far more heated, with weapons clashing, and flaming projectiles zooming through the air - some hitting their targets, some shattering into tiny sparks against spell wards - and shadowy silhouettes lunging at one another against the background of ever-spreading blue and purple flames, which the Atronach dutifully cast before vanishing back to her plane of Oblivion.

The wretched mortals do fight stubbornly for their excuse for a life, Lokil will give them that. They have even managed to thin his hunters' ranks.

The robed Imperial has incinerated at least one unfortunate Volkihar, hitting her with a lightning charge before she could properly investigate whether that blonde Nord's big body contains more blood than usual - and he would have likely claimed another, had he not had to retreat in order to heal the gash left in his forearm by an ice shard.

And while Lokil is pinning a young female Dunmeri Vigilant to the wall, wringing back her sword arm till he can hear her bones crackle and slipping his free hand under her robes (because the arousal is still there, darkened, heightened by the smell of blood and magicka-stung flesh, and the cattle might as well be of use to him before he rips of her throat), he catches a glimpse of Keeper Carcette out of the corner of his eye. She seems to be bashing in the face of one of his hunters - and screaming, with a sort of youthful recklessness that really does not match her age (she is no longer at the dawn of her ludicrously short mortal life span, now is she?),

'Yes! Yes! This! This is what it means!'

The sight of his fellow Volkihar sinking to his knees, with his head turned into a barely recognizable bloody blob, makes Lokil's eyes cloud over with rage. Growling under his breath, he shifts his grip from the Dunmer's bruised, broken arm to her throat, burning fury pulsing all through his body. He will get to Carcette; he will put her down like the cattle she is - but first, he must finish here. He must give an outlet to some of his anger before it tears him apart.

His fangs bared, his tongue arching with thirst, he rips the front of the Dunmer's robe along the seams, exposing her breasts - but before he can properly set to work on her, something blunt and heavy hits him on the back of the skull. The flaming Hall blurs together into a messy haze of black and blue, and as Lokil sinks to his knees, he can hear echoes of voices, distant and muffled, as if he were listening to them while lying in wait under the ice on the bottom of a frozen river.

The first voice is male, young, quiet and tremulous with concern,

'Are... Are you all right? Miss Qun... Elf... Dun... Dunmer...?'

It gets responded to by a female voice, uneven and hoarse,

'I... I think so...'

Then, the male voice again,

'Best... Get you away from that vile man. I won't be able to protect you if he stirs. I am not a warrior; I have mostly been dodging attacks, not fighting back... But when I saw... what was about to happen... I - I just grabbed a broom or something and... well'.

A third voice chimes in - it sounds rather like the one of the round Nord, but Lokil cannot be certain, with all this fog creeping into his head.

'Arkay's beard, Dinny! Waht did those vampires do to you while I wasn't looking?! Oh... Introductions, right? This is... DUCK, ICE SHARD! Like I said, this is... DUCK, FIRE BOLT! This is Dinya Balu, my fellow apprentice! She was a Dunmer refugee over from Eastmarch; joined up... what was it, six months ago... when some blasted Daedria cultist burned down her farm. Dinya - this is my brave little patient... What was your name again?'

'Felix. And I am not exactly little!'

'Felix... That sounds lovely'.

The voices seem to retreat to the back of the room, and keep blabbering on and on about something, till the apprentices are called off back into the fray. Lokil tries to force himself to... get up... To come after them... To claw all of them to shreds... But the fog has muddled his mind far too much, and when his head is finally not too heavy for his neck to hold it up, Lokil realizes that at least some time must have passed: the blue flames have simmered down, leaving the building transformed into a pile of grey, dusty ruins, with flakes of cold ash floating past, carried by the wind that comes streaming through a jagged hole in the wall, apparently blasted open by mage fire.

The number of bodies on the floor seems to have increased as well. Lokil gets to his feet groggily and surveys the fallen: much to his satisfaction, most of them are Vigilants; quite a few sport deep claw marks across their throats, or puncture wounds on the few slivers of flesh that have remained unmangled by the feral hunger of the vampires and their hounds.

Out of the survivors, only Keeper Carcette and the hound-tossing Imperial are still engaged in combat, pushing persistently at what must be the entirety of Lokil's hunting party, despite being vastly outnumbered... Ah, mortals and their hope - the greatest folly in existence!

The little Dunmer wretch that had the audacity to escape from Lokil has survived as well. Worn-out and horror-stricken, with her broken arm in a sling, she is sitting down, on a charred overturned bench, away from the main skirmish; and by her side, is a young Imperial man, who seems just as stupefied by shock as her, instinctively scraping at the dried blood splatters on his face.

Lokil is not too surprised by their stunned state. The cubs of these worthless, snivelling mortals are hardly ever able to stomach the sight of glorious bloodshed.

Hovering in front of the Dunmer and the Imperial like a hawk, a see-through blue shield rippling in front of her, is the round Nord. The three seem to be engaged in some inane banter again - parts of which Lokil can overhear when, cloaking himself in protective mist, he creeps towards them, biding time until the last of his dazedness subsides and he feels well enough to strike.

'Pony...' the Dunmer whispers in a small, weepy voice, drawing together the torn edges of the cloth on her chest with her good hand. 'We are losing, aren't we, Pony? Everyone's gone... I can see my mentor from here... Gods, one of those awful dogs kept biting at her neck and shoulders till she stopped twitching... She would always say I was too weak for the Vigil... Too soft... And Tyranus said the same about you... When they had drinks together... And they were right, weren't they? We are too weak... And we are going to die... When they kill off Keeper Carcette, and that... that Imperial... The vampires will come for us... And we will die...

'Pony' (Really? Is there no limit to the depths of stupidity where the cattle can sink?) turns her head a little and smiles, speaking with a nauseating saccharine gentleness in her voice,

'That Imperial is Felix's father, Dinny. He is a great mage - isn't he, Felix?'

'One of the best in the Imp... Empire,' the young man confirms proudly as he watches his father repel the encroaching hunters with a wall of magical fire, allowing a rather breathless and dishevelled Carcette to chug down a healing potion. As he speaks, one of those uncanny mortal blushes appears on his cheeks, which have before now been almost tolerably pale.

'If anyone can defeat those...' he gulps slightly, breaking into a sweat, 'Those creatures, it's him'.

Lokil smirks to himself. Is that so? Well, he will have to do something about it, won't he?

He is feeling himself again, ready to resume the hunt... And he rather thinks that a more exciting pastime would be not to wring the necks of three huddled up little chickens - but to kill a beloved father before the eyes of his proud son. Especially since the said father has this annoying habit of fighting back against those who try to slay him like proper cattle, and thus really needs to be shown his place.

Crossing the room at blinding speed by transforming into a whirl of mist, Lokil materializes behind the Imperial's back and, conjuring up a ghostly flaming blade (enveloped in the blue and purple fire of Coldharbour, of course), leans down and slices at his lower legs. Not deep enough to bleed him dry, but painful enough to make him stagger into a kneeling pose, where Lokil secures him with yet another portion of enchanted ice, and a muffling spell for good measure, so that the mortal cannot interrupt him until he decides it is time for screaming.

Lokil intends to draw this out, to make the mortal sob and grovel for mercy when the higher being lays out his own raw, bleeding intestines before him. Perhaps in that case, he will get some of the satisfaction that the Dunmer denied him.

Carcette is dismayed to realize that the mage who was guarding her back has been incapacitated. This dismay leaves her vulnerable - and sensing the prey's weakness, the hunters fall upon her, swarming in a black cloud, fangs bared in ravenous leers, each pulling her limbs in a different direction.

The last coherent words that she utters before the screams begin are,

'Better a death like this than blasted paperwork!'

And then, the air is ripped through by shrill notes that caress Lokil's ears like sweetest music, inspiring images of exciting new games that he can play with the morsel he's caught... And the round Nord breaks her ward and hurries towards the swarm of vampires, her face twisted by anger and glistening with tears - only to get his in her broad bosom with a lightning spell, cast by one of the vampires that turned away from the feast for a moment. And along comes a second spell, and fells the Dunmer, who has rushed to her fellow apprentice's side, sinking to the floor and cradling her head on her knees. And so here they remain, the two Imperials, staring at one another across the ash-filled room, the younger man staggering with his hands pressed against his chest and the older trying to give him a reassuring smile, even as Lokil's blade makes the first, warning cut along his cheekbone.

The other hunters draw away from the messy heap of blood-soaked cloth and half-picked bones that was once Keeper Carcette, and form a watchful semicircle, understanding that Lokil wishes to toy with the mortals for a while before they return to their work at Dimhollow Crypt.

The young man moves his hands from his chest to his mouth to his temples - and finally throws them up in the air in desperation, and flings himself on the ground before Lokil, crying out with such a look on his face as if he himself can scarcely believe what he is saying,

'Please! Don't hurt my father! You have taken everyone else... Don't take him too! Please! I'll do anything!'

An empty promise, coming from a puny weakling who just now wielded a broom instead of a proper weapon... But Lokil will humour him with a conversation, for drama's sake.

'There is nothing you can do for me, mortal,' he drawls, tracing the captured mage's other cheekbone with a new fine crimson line. 'Unless...' he muses for a moment, and then finishes with the first condition that comes to his mind, 'Unless you have a hidden talent for solving millennia-old puzzles'.

'I... I am good at puzzles!' the young Imperial looks up eagerly.

Well... this is a curious new development. Lokil just spoke at random, thinking back to the unfinished mission that awaits him at Dimhollow Crypt - but could this pleading little worm actually be put to use?

'I can certainly try!' the young mortal goes on, his eyes shining and his lips drawing into a hopeful smile. 'And if I do solve it... Will you let my father live?'

Lokil has no intention of doing that, of course - but the mortal seems quite earnest. And who knows, maybe, with the right incentive, he will help Lokil make more progress than that Adalvald ever did? He will just save the torture for dessert, then.

'Very well, mortal,' Lokil concedes silkily, giving the young Imperial a small bow. 'We have a deal, mortal. Your sire's life in exchange for solving the puzzle that I shall point you to. Let us not delay, then'.

Before the hunting party leaves the Hall, with the older Imperial in tow - still silenced by magic and bound by unbreakable threads of purple light - the captive's son lingers next to one of the charred, warped supply chests. Diving inside it, he fishes out a filthy little bottle, with the pinkish liquid inside just barely visible through the smoky glass, and places it carefully on the floor next to the two dead apprentice Vigilants.

'If you ever wake up, Pony,' he whispers, squatting down and brushing the round woman's hair out of her face, 'Please drink this, and give some to your friend. Please make it out of here alive'.

Lokil finds the little spectacle so bizarre that he does not even sic his hunters on the boy, or even shout at him for dallying around when they have tasks to complete.

Honestly.

Mortals and their hope.

Chapter Text

'See, that wasn't so hard!' Felix says, trying to sound as patient as when he had to help some of his fellow students with their home assignments.

Not that the being in front of him is anything like his fellow students... He even has a hard time thinking of it as a man, even though he can clearly discern its human-like features. A tall, muscular built; a haggard face; silver-blonde hair shaved on one side of the head; a general physique like that of an Avvar warrior... Except that it is not an Avvar warrior. Not at all.

It utterly terrifies him, for he has never seen, or even imagined, the likes of it before. There are no 'vampires' in Thedas; maleficars, yes - but this... this is a maleficar taken to the extreme; a maleficar multiplied by a hundred. A pallid, icy-cold, lifeless body sustained from within by a dark, aggressive force that needs a constant supply of fresh blood in order to function... Kind of like a revenant, he supposes, but with less rotting flesh and more cunning.

And the creature disgusts him, too: every time Felix casts a look at its bony white hands, he can see them strangling and bruising and groping that poor elf, over and over again, recreating a scene that was tragically familiar to him back home in Tevinter (save for the grey colour of the victim's skin, of course).

But he has to remain calm. He has to act natural. He has to keep his wits about him; and not, under any circumstances, antagonize the creatures - now that Father's life is at stake.

The vampires hurt him when Felix was too slow: if he paused to think for more than five seconds while pushing those sliding braziers - so that they would catch a purple flame and fill in the blanks of the pattern that needed to be traced to complete the puzzle - the air would crack with a whip-like noise, and Felix would shudder from head to toe, seeing a new swollen magicka burn appear on Father's torso, which had been exposed after the vampires tore the upper half of his robes to shreds.

And whenever that happened, whenever Father looked up at him, silenced and bound and held back by two or three dark creatures at a time, but still never stopping his attempts to fight against the magic that chained him, Felix realized, with more and more painful clarity, that he really did mean it - that desperate plea that he had sobbed into the silver-haired vampire's face when Father was captured in the Hall of the Vigilant. That he really was prepared to do anything, anything at all, anything those monsters asked of him - because it would have been so wrong and unfair if Father died first; because he, not Father, was the one living on borrowed time; because that harrowing battle was the most bloodshed he had seen since the darkspawn killed Mother, and he would not bear it if his remaining parent was torn apart by another pack of savage creatures; because, even though he had made that sappy little scene with the potion flask, a more sombre, more rational part of him suspected that Pony, the kind and solid and dependable Pony, the first friend he had managed to make in this crazy alien world, was gone forever - and if Father got killed too, he would be all alone...

And with that realization, came a persistent, heart-gripping thought, which wakes a feverish pulse in Felix's chest even now, as he smiles politely at the vampire and then looks past it, to make certain that Father is still breathing. A thought that... Oh Maker, Father must have felt the same way when the Venatori came to Minrathous. The same desperation, wild and verging on insanity; the same crushing fear of the person you love so much being wrung away from you, so that you would never see them again, never hear their voice, never purposely seek out and share something weird and silly, a rumour or a picture or a passage in a book that invokes your inside joke, knowing that it would make them smile...

Of course, it still does not excuse all the things Father did - either invading Redcliffe, or authorizing the hunt for those poor Tranquil, or trying to erase the birth of the Herald of Andraste from history, or casting a disaster of a world-travelling spell... But it has given Felix a far deeper understanding of him than he ever had before. Making it all the more important that Father survives this - so he can figure out a way to return home, and atone for his actions. So he can hear his son tell him that he forgives him.

'That wasn't so hard,' Felix repeats, gesturing at the platform (with what looks like a... massive upright stone sarcophagus?) that was uncovered in the centre of the cavern once the braziers were properly aligned, and the entire elaborate stone structure disassembled itself, grating and sliding and revealing an extra level, rather like a dwarven puzzle box.

'Are you implying something about the level of my intelligence, mortal?' the silver-haired vampire snarls, flexing its clawed fingers to conjure up a new blast of dark magic to whip Father with.

Felix sees that and, his stomach contracting fearfully, cries out sharply, dropping his mask of perfect courteousness for a second. The vampire, in the meanwhile, goes on, sounding deeply insulted,

'I would have cracked this giant stone lock myself - had I the patience for such dreary pursuits!'

Yes, of course you don't have the patience for puzzle-solving. You prefer burning down buildings for your own amusement, and violating helpless elven girls, and getting people to do what you want to by using their loved ones as leverage. Oh, how warmly you would have been welcomed in Tevinter!..

No, Felix - don't go this far. Don't lose your temper. Remember: you are an Alexius; and an Alexius is highly likely to do some really dangerous things when he loses his temper... And you don't want that. One wrong move, and Father dies because of you... Just like Mother did.

You have to bargain with these beasts for just a little while longer - and then, you will both be free.

Having told himself that, and mentally counted to ten, Felix tries his best to reassure the vampire,

'What? N-no, of course not! I would not dream of implying anything offensive! Anyway...'

He coughs nervously and makes an unobtrusive sliding sidestep towards Father, who is kneeling between two vampire guards, face turned towards his son and his torturer.

'I have completed my task, so if you kindly let my father go, we will be on our way...'

The silver-haired creature throws back its head and laughs, in a hollow, mirthless voice that sends a shiver up Felix's spine, with its thin purple-tinged lips pulled back to show the tips of long, sharp, snake-like fangs.

'Are you really so foolish as to expect that my hunters and I will allow you to just brazenly walk out of here? Without consequences?'

Felix feels his heart sink, but still strives to follow his chant-like motto 'remain calm, act natural, do not antagonize' to the last.

'We had a deal, did we not?' he reminds the vampire graciously, not even a tremour breaking through his voice.

Andraste, if he ever gets back home and delivers a speech on the Inquisition at the Magisterium like he planned, it will be a piece of Orlesian frilly cake!

The creature spits on the floor, lips curling in a grimace of contempt.

'A Volkihar does not honour deals with cattle'.

Cattle... Oh dear. If this means what Felix thinks it means... The creatures have tricked him! They have used him to get them past the brazier puzzle, so that they might claim... whatever ancient treasure has been sealed away in that sarcophagus - and now they intend to slaughter him like a stupid, squealing piglet, and drink his blood... And then Father's, too! But - but they do not yet know that they have gotten not quite the sort of meal they had in mind! Maker's breath, he would never have guessed that this filth in his blood might actually prove useful!

'I am afraid I will have to disappoint you,' Felix declares, folding his arms on his chest with a sort of gloating smugness that he did not know he had in him. He may not be a mage - but he is still a magister's son, and this must be the first time in his life that he actually carries himself as such.

'I am ill, you know. Incurably ill. My blood is tainted with a dark poison that has been slowly killing me for years. I would not recommend drinking it to my worst enemy... Which, all things considered, you kind of are. No offence'.

Oh, by Andraste's holy pyre - how he wishes Dorian could see him now! 'Little Felix, all permeated with sass like my mother with alcohol vapours! I am impressed!'

The creature laughs again, louder this time, exposing a whole row of glistening, pearly white, canine-like teeth.

'Oh you naive little lesser being!' it sighs, once it is finished. 'The gift of vampirism is stronger than any disease or any poison! Your so-called taint will not harm me - it will be cleansed as I feast on your blood!'

For a fleeting moment, before the vampire darts towards him, conjured blades swooshing through the air, Felix thinks he can see Father smile excitedly for some reason... But that would be madness, wouldn't it?

And in any case, it is just a passing vision - for exactly one blink later, Felix finds his field of view blocked by a large dark spot, as the vampire leans on him heavily... But not like a predator pinning down its prey. Rather, like a man so drunk that he cannot walk a single step without clinging on to a sober friend for support. Just as in a situation like this (which Felix experienced first-hand when he had to make sure that either Dorian or one of his rowdy Orlesian student friends did not hurt himself during some wild escapade), the vampire's limbs hang listlessly along its sides, and its head droops down, heavy as a cannon ball. But quite unlike a reveller being dragged home after a long night, the creature has a shard of ice sticking out of its chest.

Gasping and letting the slain creature slip out of his grasp and slump down on the floor, Felix looks around wildly - and so do the vampires guarding Father. At first, Felix assumes that he was the one who cast the shard, having loosened his binds somehow - but then he sees that this is happening only now, before his eyes.

The magically chained captive slowly gets up from his knees; the purple threads, which have just grown fainter as the vampires are too startled to properly channel their spell, twitch and twist like the strings of a kite tangled in a tree - and, with a bright flash, snap in two. The vampires hiss angrily, ready to destroy the escaping 'cattle' - but instead, are destroyed themselves, caught in a rising tide of fire magic that rushes towards them, long blazing tongues licking against the clammy white flesh until it turns black and crispy and brittle. Their shrieks of agony draw the attention of more of their ilk - the remaining 'hunters' that fought the Vigilants. They come racing in, somewhere from the direction of the cavern's mouth, hastily charging up glimmering orbs of ice magic - but those just evaporate with a faint hiss, and the advancing flames close in, swirling round the writhing black silhouettes with their arms thrown up in pain and fear, until the black melts away, and there is nothing but blazing red and gold.

When the fire wave does ebb away, a few moments later, Father is standing tall and proud, with the bodies of his enemies crumbling into dust at his feet - every inch a magister again, even despite being half-naked and covered in sores from the lashes of a magical whip. Breathing in deeply, he passes his hand over his mouth and throat, and half-closes his eyes in relief, as the faint blue glow of the muffling spell finally releases his ghostly clutches.

The next thing he does is to little short of float across the distance that separates him from Felix and sweep him into his arms.

'My boy,' he whispers, wincing as the coarse cloth of Felix's Vigilant robes presses into his open wounds - but still smiling. 'My brave, brave boy...'

However, after the first moment of elation is gone, Father steps back and, frowning down at the silver-haired monster, asks in confusion,

'Wait... If you didn't kill this... thing, and I most certainly didn't kill it either... Then who did?'
'That would be me,' a female voice speaks up, with a very obvious note of sarcasm. 'Your friendly neighbourhood damsel in distress'.

The voice seems to be coming from the direction of the sarcophagus, and as both father and son swivel their heads to look around, they see that the stone lid has slid aside, and a black-haired woman has stepped out, with a large, metal-encased scroll strapped behind her back, and with eyes that burn the same shade of vivid yellow as those of the monsters that sacked the Hall of the Vigilant.

'Father...' Felix says warningly under his breath, 'She... It is one of them! It must have killed the other vampires to... to "steal the cattle"!'

'Bite your tongue, handsome, before it runs ahead of you,' the woman... vampire... thing protests, striding towards the two men with a bold swagger in its gait. 'First off, I am a "she", thank you very much. And I killed these louts because I woke up the moment the puzzle clicked into place; a little bit of Illusion magic to get myself attuned to how much Tamrielic had evolved - and I managed to understand enough of the conversation going on around my... cozy little sleeping bunk, to learn who had awakened me. And who was just here for a snack. Let me tell you: I was not at all thrilled over being sealed away in here; so saving your necks was the least I could do for getting me out of here. Although...'

The creature ponders for a bit, looking around the cavern.

'The topside world might well have changed a bit since I was last there; I may need your help getting to the coast so I can take the boat home'.

'Is your "home" filled with your kind?' Felix asks suspiciously. 'We will have no more dealings with them! Those will only lead to betrayal – and more bloodshed! And we will not find the way to the coast in any case: we are... strangers here'.

'Felix, wait,' Father stops him softly... And there is that look on his face again - that little smile, filled with a sort of odd, feverish glee that does not sit right with Felix. Not right at all. Maker, please don't let this mean that he has come up with one of his plans again!

'I may know a spell that will make the journey easier,' Father adds, turning towards the... she-vampire.

'Good,' she nods. 'I am certain my family will reward you for bringing me back'.

'That's what I wanted to hear,' Father says, the smile never leaving his lips.

No, no, no - what is he thinking?! And here Felix was, ready to embrace and forgive him! Atoning for your actions does not, in any way, involved getting entangled in some dark plot once more! It is... It is the opposite of atonement!

'Whatever it is you are planning, please stop before it's too late!' Felix hisses urgently in Father's ear, clenching his fists with agitation. 'Allying with these monsters is a bad idea! Don't you remember what they did to the Vigilants?! To Pony?! Didn’t you see how they tried to kill us, even after they swore not to?!'

'The one who ordered that attack, who tried to betray us, now lies dead,' Father reminds him patiently. 'As do all his minions. This woman seems less savage; I can ask her family to show me... magic that will help you get cured... or maybe get us back home'.

Suddenly remembering what the silver-haired creature said when he warned it not to bite him, Felix knits his eyebrows.

'Like... Like a potion based on the blood of their kind?'

'Perhaps,' Father confirms. 'I know you think me reckless, insane even... But please understand that I will do...'

'Anything,' Felix finishes the sentence for him, closing his eyes. 'I know'.

When Felix opens his eyes, he sees that Father is cupping one of his hands in his and looking intently into his face.

'Will... Will you go along with this, son?' he asks him earnestly. 'Will you... Will you trust me?'

The proper thing, the right thing, the wise thing would have probably been to refuse. To remind again Father how he, Felix, almost got tricked when he was so ready to butter up these monsters. To encourage him to cast his battle magic again, to kill the she-vampire and leave the cavern behind forever... but the pang of understanding, which pierces Felix's heart with a renewed force, proves too much to ignore.

'I will,' he mouths - and before he can even finish, the she-vampire claps her hands together and exclaims,

'Very well then! Cast that spell of yours and let's get moving! I have had about enough of this dank old place!'

And they would have gotten moving - except that there is one small... or not so small problem. The she-vampire was not the only thing in the cavern that awoke from ages-long slumber. The loud ring of her clap resounds beneath the vaulted ceiling and, reaching one of the grotesque winged stone statues that Felix noticed on the way in (guardians of sorts, he believes), makes it stir.

Chapter Text

The stone creature towers over the two mortals and the vampire, seeming to reach at least eight feet - standing on two legs like a human would, but with a grotesquely disproportionate figure: bulging muscles on its arms and torso, and tall, thin legs, with knees pointing backwards like an animal’s and long, curved claws digging into the ground. There are claws on its massive front paws, too - and, shaking off the last of its rock-like stiffness with a faint rumble, it makes a huge forward sweep, the force of which would have surely shredded human flesh like a fine sheet of paper. The beast's would-be victims dodge and scatter, but it still manages to swat at Felix.

He does not get the full impact of the blow, nor do the claws leave deep markings in his flesh - but when the creature touches him, its claws get coated in dark, blood-red mist, while Felix sways, growing a few more shades greyer than his usual Blighted pallor. The second thrust of the red claws would have been far more deadly - but Alexius and the vampiress rush to his aid in unison. The former snarls in protective rage, and hits the rock colossus with a fire bolt in the middle of its hardened chest, which pulses a faint crimson, golden cracks ripping across the brownish-grey surface and making the stony flesh resemble molten lava; and the latter darts in front of Felix, her hands stretched forward and a barrier spell rippling under her fingertips like a wall of water. So when the beast makes its second strike, the red glow reflects off the spell shield, and seeps through the burning wounds of its own caster.

The creature roars, sticky threads of saliva quivering like harp strings between the tips of its sharp teeth - and the lava-like cracks keep growing broader and broader, making the staggering winged monstrosity shake all over... till, ripped apart from within, it bursts into several chunks of rock of varying sizes, while the humans and the vampiress barely have time to leap back.

One of the flying rock shards hits Alexius on the top of his head, where his skull is barely shielded by bristly greying hair; he lets out a small 'Oof!' of pain, and falls back till he stumbles into a nearby solid surface, grabbing his head and wincing.

Felix looks anxious - and doubtful, at the same time; glancing at the vampiress with his eyes narrowed, he asks, in a very reserved tone,

'Can you... Can you help heal him? I would have myself, but I am no mage'.

The vampiress sighs.

'I don't think I can, handsome; if I did know a spell to mend human flesh once, at a... simpler time, I have long since forgotten it. But I have this neat little trick up my sleeve'.

With that, she approaches the still dazed, bleeding Alexius, Felix never taking his eyes off her all the while, and, standing on tiptoe, passes her hand over his scalp, half an inch away from his skin, with the muted blue light of frost magic emanating from her fingertips.

The spell soothes the bleeding gash; so much so that Alexius half-closes his eyes in enjoyment and, apparently not having quite come to his senses, mumbles a word, or several words, that Felix does not quite make out. Yellow... something? Yellow vein? Yellow lane... wren? Yellow and when? Maker, how hard did that rock hit him? Will he be all right? Is the she-vampire... vampiress... thing actually making his Father better or worse?

Before Felix can start panicking, however, Alexius grows quite awake and alert again.

'I will take it from here, thank you,' he says, a bit stiffly, after a small start and series of blinks.

'You are welcome,' the vampiress responds, stepping aside to allow the human to trace a large glowing golden bubble of healing magic around himself, erasing not only the wound across his head but also most of the whip lashes on his body.

'Hey, you can borrow my cloak,' the vampiress suggests, after watching him for a while. 'It may be too small for you, but better than nothing. You mortals are so fragile, especially when it comes to extreme weather. Can't have you prancing off underdressed like this...'

She pauses, apparently having intended to personally address him, but not knowing how.

'Wait - I don't know your name... You do have one, don't you?'

'Gideon,' Alexius once again uses an alias - and now he has more reason for it than ever. Letting a creature of the night know your true name would most likely lead to no good.

'Serana,' the vampiress introduces herself - and then gives a sly smile to Felix, who, having made certain that his father will be all right, has busied himself with examining the remains of the stone creature.

Some pieces of its shattered body appear to have specks of some bright metal ingrained in them. Smaller ones could probably carried off and offered to a merchant in some settlement, since they cannot expect to wander these lands forever without any of the local currency on their hands - having spent quite some time as a foreign student adjusting to living on his own in Orlais, Felix knows that this would be a bad idea. Plus... He would get immersed in any activity at all, just to avoid looking into those cold yellow vampiric eyes.

'And you must be Felix,' Serana calls out to him, making him freeze in a bent-over pose, letting go of the stone shard he has picked up.

Alexius does not like the thought that some blood-sucking fiend has learned his son's name any better than Felix himself: he frowns and purses his lips and kneads the air with his fingers, bright electrified sparks coursing along his veins. This does not pass unnoticed by Serana.

'Why so shocked?' she asks, eyebrow raised. 'Mystified by my mind-reading powers? The truth is actually a lot simpler: I heard you, Gideon, whisper this name as you moved closer to your son when the gargoyle jumped to life'.

'I... I did that?' Alexius asks, looking rather guilty.

'It was part of your mother hen routine,' Serana says, smiling wryly.

'There is nothing that deserves mocking about Father being protective of me,' Felix says, somewhat testily.

Serana bites into her lower lip.

'I suppose not,' she says, after a short pause. 'Need me a freak like that'.

Her tone is sarcastic, as with most of her remarks - but when Felix finally looks into her face, his expression suddenly turns far less hostile. There is something about this vampiress that, unexpectedly yet poignantly, reminds him of Dorian.


***


The vast expanse of Skyrim is crisscrossed by many paths, some broad and paved with weather-beaten, cartwheel-polished stones; others overgrown with ferns or crawling vines or tall, golden dried-up grass, and barely visible. And along these paths, many a traveller has to make their way towards whatever remote destination that awaits ahead - from a caravan of Khajiiti traders, wrapped in long coats that, together with their poofy natural fur, barely protects them from the cold; to a band of stealthy Skooma smugglers, Dunmeri eyes burning ruby-red under leather hoods; and a convoy of Thalmor soldiers in glowing gilded armour, escorting a ragged Nord prisoner that is about to disappear forever.

But at this particular moment there are six travellers, all pursuing their own paths, that deserve special attention - for they are all pieces of the same puzzle, their fates intertwining in a way that they cannot yet fully see.

Six travellers. One and two and three.

One: a solitary Bosmer, with windswept black hair and deep blue eyes, a bow behind her back and her feet bare because gods, she is tired of those boots, and though the stone-hard rime is nothing like the sun-warmed, springy moss of her native forests, it is good to feel the soil again.

Marching forward with her eyes focused on the horizon, where a great mountain looms, its peak drowning in milky mist. On her way to answer the thundering summons that she heard when her last arrow sank into a gap between the steely scales of a dragon, and then, suddenly, everything burst into flame, and the dragon was gone, reduced to a smoking pile of clean-picked bones, and everyone hailed her as a hero from the prophecies of all.

Marching forward, telling herself to be cheerful, to be excited about this new adventure... And yet unsure, so very unsure, if those Greybeard monks were right, if she really is what so many people think she is... How can she protect this realm, the land of another people, if she was exiled from her own? How can she be expected to save Skyrim, or the whole world even, if she could not even save her dying brother? How can she be the legendary slayer of dragons, if she can swear she hears them try to say something to her before they die, calling out to her in a language she can identify as such but does not understand, making her wonder endlessly if they are actually not monsters but a whole new race like the Orcs or the Khajiit or the Argonians; capable of having thoughts and dreams and of pursuing a purpose?

Marching forward. Always forward. Because she is so afraid that if she stops, if she breaks the rhythm of her march for but a moment, she will burst into tears again, unsure and ashamed and somehow... longing to see a certain pair of brown human eyes again, smiling at her and reassuring her that she is not a bad Bosmer... not a bad Dragonborn.

Two: two women in torn, soot-stained robes that would have once singled them out as members of the Vigil of Stendarr. One is a small, shivering Dunmer, with short hair and eyes as dark as over-ripe cherries. The other is a blonde Nord, tall and with full, round curves; she is almost constantly keeping one arm wrapped around her friend's shoulders, ready to shield her from whatever danger lurks in the icy wastes. What seems like an eternity ago, they emerged from unconsciousness on the ash-strewn floor of a ruined building, surrounded by the stiff cold bodies of their fallen comrades; groping around groggily, the Nord found a vial with a healing potion, which she shared with the Dunmer, restoring some of their strength.

And now they are moving slowly away from the place that was once their home, from the order that is no more.

Marching forward, weary and frightened and yet struggling to be brave and hopeful, clinging on to one another because the shared warmth of their bodies is the only thing keeping the cold, merciless darkness at bay.

Marching forward, their eyes focused on a single star that twinkles sleepily in the sky, as the snow-laden clouds roll back and fade into pinkish wisps, marking the direction of the town that bears this star's name.

Marching forward, ignoring their growling stomachs and aching bones and bleeding feet. Marching forward - to a place where, instead of the rest they long so much for, they will find a horrible, broiling crucible that will consume them as they curl up under warm beast pelts (the Dunmer in an inn bed and the Nord on the floor because there are no more vacant rooms), bringing back visions of inky shadows closing in and yellow eyes burning amid the heavy blue smoke. Marching forward to a town plagued by nightmares, where they will find an unexpected new friend that the Nord will draw into a bone-crushing bear hug instead of spitting at him as a former Daedra worshipper - for she will remember how horrified and appalled she was when her former mentor tried to kill a sweet, caring, courageous young man because he thought he could tense a Daedra's touch on him.

Three: two men and a woman, two mortals and a vampiress, two Imperials (or are they?) and a Nord, following the guiding thread of the Clairvoyance spell, in a direction parallel to the journey of the two women, but not quite intersecting with it: on and on towards the coast. Marching forward, slowly but steadily, having to stop and make camp every now and again because the younger of the two Imperials is clearly finding it hard to endure such a long journey, despite all his attempts to put on a brave face.

Marching forward, barely talking - save for that one time when the vampiress shoots an ice shard into the night, making a small squeak ring out, travelling among the snowdrifts together with a powdery gust of wind.

Bending down, the vampiress picks up the bloodied, still twitching rabbit, and says, her manner a little snarky, but not unkind,

'From what I seem to remember, you poor things also need to have meals at some uncannily frequent rate, right?'

'We are not eating this raw!' the older Imperial protests, looking affronted.

'Of course you aren't,' the vampiress chuckles, before biting into the squirming little critter's neck with a loud crunch that makes the younger man gag. 'I am. You can take the leftovers and fry them on a campfire'.

Then, silence falls among them once more, and lasts all through the old Imperial's preparations for the meal, at yet another of their tiny temporary campsites among the roots of a tall fir tree. His movements are clumsy, like those of someone not used to performing the daily chores by himself, but he still does his best to light a fire with a small spark of magic; skin the hapless, now dead creature; and start frying it by turning it over the fames via telekinesis. The vampiress watches him idly; when he is almost finished, she nods in the direction of the younger man, who is still shivering a little at the sight of the rabbit,

'Save the most tender bits for him, will you? He seems... kind of ill'.

'Are you trying to ingratiate yourself to us?' the young man pipes up, frowning.

The vampiress scoffs.

'No, nothing as degrading as that! I just... I suppose I cannot help but feel interested in you two, since it us such a refreshing novelty, seeing a father get along so well with his child'.

Her expression darkens when she says that, growing sombre, almost melancholy - and the young man moves closer to her, his eyes widening in the same sympathetic surprise that filled him during their conversation after defeating the gargoyle.

'I... I am sorry,' he says earnestly. 'After seeing what those other vampires did... I am finding it hard to see you as anything more than a monster. But... But I am starting to hope that I could be wrong. I have a dear friend back... back home who feels the same way as you do. If you are capable of... of emotion, then perhaps...'

'Ugh, thanks, I guess?' the vampiress knits her eyebrows, obviously not too thrilled about how the mortal has worded his apology; then spreads her shoulders and tosses her head up, trying to make herself sound more confident. 'Things may well have changed since I was gone. Maybe... Maybe he has come to miss me'.

She tosses her head again, impatient both with herself and the two mortals, who look like they are about to give her a comforting pat on the shoulder... Which is clearly the thing she wants least.

'Just... Just eat your rabbit, and let's keep moving, hmm?'

And so they do. They keep moving - keep marching forward, until the dancing, beckoning magical wisps that have been guiding them stop their journey at the edge of inky-black water, in the shadow of a tower on an icy cliff, half-ruined and with narrow windows blazing with flashes of many-coloured magic - as, unbeknownst to the Imperials, the Nord that had been so kind to them is burning a path through the ranks of Vaermina cultists and reanimated Orc marauders.

'So... What next?' the older Imperial asks, peering ahead and very obviously not impressed to see nothing by mist and ice floes bobbing up and down on sleepy waves. 'I thought you said we were meant to expect a boat - but there is not even a pier! Where, pray tell, is it supposed to cast anchor?'

The vampiress scoffs again.

'Oh please, we don't build piers,' she says. 'If things still remain the same, the boat will appear when it appears. It knows how to find people'.

After saying this, she gestures at the father and son, silently commanding them to wait and listen. For a few moments, the three of them stand on the shoreline like watchful statues, faces turned towards the sea - and are presently rewarded for their patience, as the waves heave and froth, their glassy surface breaking into countless bubbles, and a jet-black boat rises from the sea bottom a little way off-shore, streams of water cascading down its sides, which are sleek as the coat of a well-fed seal.

'And there we have it!' the vampiress declares as soon as the little black vessel emerges completely. 'Get in - and let's go meet my family!'

Chapter Text

Oh dear sweet Maker - this is like being stuck in Redcliffe Castle, only far, far worse! At least, that place was full of life, with its rooms always brightly lit, and with funny-looking carved wooden dogs grinning at you from every corner. This castle, on the other hand, is dark and draughty and full of eerie noises that sometimes sound like prolonged, mournful sighs and other times like the shrill creaks of woodwork under the weight of something heavy; and also, other times still, like the howls of an unseen wolf pack; or laughter, cold and hollow, like the way that monster in the cavern laughed when breaking the deal with Felix; or even... even muffled screams.

This is during the nights. The endless, sleepless, feverish nights, when Felix tosses restlessly in a four-poster bed with black silken covers, which is far, far too huge for him and is decorated with elaborate carvings that seem to show countless naked bodies, human and elven and demonic (with leering fanged grins and long curving corns protruding out of their heads), all intertwining in some sort of gruesome orgy turned blood bath, with hands and tongues and procreation members and bleeding daggers and barbed pikes getting thrust into the flesh of the bodies next to theirs in a way that makes Felix's hands and feet grow icy cold - and all topped by the image of a gigantic spiked mace.

In the daytime, when the castle finally grows quiet, Felix occupies himself by pacing across the floor till his head begins to turn - and occasionally hammering against the tall, solid door of his unhomely bed chamber, and calling out desperately,

'Father? Father! Can you hear me?! Where are you, Father? What have they done to you? Please, please answer me! Father... Papa!'

But there never is any answer. Never. Not once. The door remains shut, not giving in an inch to Felix's frantic thrashing - for it can been sealed by a shimmering, dizzying purple barrier spell.

Andraste, it has been over a decade since the time when he retreated into his room, after an outing with his parents that exposed his fragile teenage mind to all the contempt and false, gloating pity the other magisters' families showed towards him, and sliced, sobbing and gasping hoarsely, at his wrists with a letter opener, first in a foolish attempt to turn himself into a blood mage and 'show them all', and then out of a burning desire to punish himself - for being 'defective', 'underdeveloped', 'an unfortunate accident', 'a Soporati-like embarrassment'. And never in all the years that followed, the years that he spent finding his path and growing into a happy, confident young man that did not need to excel at spellcraft to earn his parents' love - never has he hated himself so poignantly for not being a mage.

 

He thinks he has spent three nights here, judging if not by the shifts in the colour of the sky outside his narrow window, then by the regularity with which some invisible being - who, perhaps, has some way of magically teleporting inside the barrier and then back outside again - places a tray with food and potions on the night stand, and takes away the chamber pot.

Once, Felix even thought he heard a disembodied voice mutter, 'I would do anything to be of service to Master Feran and Master Vingalmo - but cleaning off a mortal's piss is far too much!' - to which he replied sheepishly under his breath, 'I am sorry', not even being quite certain if the voice's owner could hear him. And once, just as when the tray was being lowered on the table at (presumably) lunch time, he tried to grab the unseen hand, in an insane hope that he would be swept along during the teleportation process... But only ended up groping at thin air.

The window would have been another option, but, even if it was not too high for Felix to reach (not for the lack of trying, though: he almost broke off half of the self-devouring wooden debauchees when clambering on top of the four-poster bed in an effort to reach the stupid thing), it is also shut tightly with the same barrier, save for a tiny narrow slit to let the air in. And so, with all exits blocked, Felix has nothing left to do but throw himself against the walls of his prison and descend deeper and deeper into the pit of desperation.

He does not even properly remember how he got here. He thinks there was a... a shrivelled old man with coal-like eyes, watching the gates of an imposing, gloomy castle, who cried out in amazement when he saw who had gotten out of the boat, and raced inside to fetch a very tall elven vampire with a yellowish angular face and long white hair combed back into a ponytail. The yellow creature, though far more haughty and reserved, was also utterly stupefied to see Serana - and soon, the echoing call 'She is back! The lady is back!' rang through the whole castle, prompting Felix to conclude that Serana's family was not just some ordinary pack of vampires... They were the owners of a real dark fortress that looked almost like the Black City in miniature (or so Felix's over-agitated imagination was telling him).

And then, there was a vast hall, filled with dim crimson light that made everything look as if it was submerged in water that had too much red algae in it... Or more appropriately, soaked in blood.

And there were vampires, too - a different brood of them, it seemed, than the hunters that had burned the Hall of the Vigilant. Instead of dark cloaks, they were wearing lavish dress clothes, as if they were all out to have a formal dinner. And they were having one... Oh Maker, they were.

Yes, that's it - this has to be why there is such a blank spot in his memory. He felt horribly faint, the usual nausea of the Blight multiplying tenfold, as his eyes darted across the hall, taking in the long feast tables and the 'dishes' they were laden with.

He remembers, with a constricting pain crawling up his innards, that there were... people lying right there, on the tables - men, women, even a couple of weeping, helpless teenagers; some tied up and gagged and struggling, others too drained to be able to as much as twitch their fingers when the dining vampires tore into their necks, just like Serana did with that little rabbit. Scattered in between them, were body parts, still bleeding and pulsing, guts stretched like garlands, rib cages with a sticky mass of raw flesh clinging on to them, livers and hears and lungs drooping over the table's edge like soft, slippery leather pouches.

He remembers Serana's lowered voice in his ear, the only thread keeping him afloat while the rest of the world danced away in a swaying, circling motion,

'I know this is not the coziest place, but please keep it together just a little longer. If you faint now, they will either take it as an insult and kill you - or decide that a new helping has arrived, and still kill you. Just... Just show some control. This goes for you, too, Gideon. Keep quiet for a tiny bit and let me take the lead'.

He... He does not think he did show control, after all. There are few other images of the feast retained within his memory - but among them, is the sudden whirl of the floor as it switched places with the ceiling, and Father's noiseless anguished outcry, and Serana again, this time speaking louder, more imperiously,

'These mortals are with me. They were the ones who found me in Dimhollow Crypt. Vingalmo, take the young man where he will be safe and untouched until his father and I are finished conversing with Lord Harkon'.

The yellow elf responded with a (rather artificially) reverent 'Yes, my lady'... And then, there was nothing but darkness - until Felix woke up here, on a bed adorned with people who are simultaneously torturing and copulating with one another. In a locked room where the very walls seem to be closing in on him, as he feels more and more crushed by the enormous weight of fear and loneliness. At least in Redcliffe, he had the portrait of this sad-eyed young boy to look at; not exactly company, but wondering idly who he might have been was a rather soothing thing to do. A chance to momentarily catch a breath amid worrying over the Venatori schemes. And in here, he only has this ghastly bed and a nightstand, and no more furniture to rest his eyes on. Not even a mirror.

With a heavy sigh, Felix flings himself on the covers and, for what must be the hundredth time, begins to mentally measure the dimensions of the chamber. This will hardly be any use for a potential escape plan - but he has to exercise his mind, for fear of going completely insane.

His calculations are interrupted by a soft 'Whoosh!' sound and a familiar voice exclaiming, 'Yes! I've got this!'

Sitting up in bed and looking around, Felix feels his lips stretch into the broadest grin possible. The barrier has vanished! He is finally free - to explore the castle, to find Father, to...

'Run'.

Serana, who must have cast some sort of counter-spell to dissolve the barrier, has entered the room, her expression grim and urgent.

'Run, mortal boy - before it's too late'.

'What?' Felix grows tense and gapes at the vampiress in confusion, while she begins to pace swiftly across the chamber, like he did just recently.

'Look,' she says, wringing her arms slightly, with not a trace of the snark Felix remembers, 'When I became... me, it was not... the most wholesome family activity. My own father... Ah, it doesn't matter now. I was betrayed by someone whose job it supposedly was to love and protect me. Only he never did. He still does not. When you took me back, I thought... I hoped he would feel something again. I hoped he could welcome me back as a daughter - but no, it turns out that I am still a means to an end, a pawn in his bid for power. That all he cared about was that scroll I was buried with'.

She slows down and collects herself, now looking at Felix with the more familiar wry smile.

'Not that you would care about my monologues. This isn't about me - it's about you. You are about to go through the same ordeal. I could gloat, I suppose - but I didn't have it in me. I slipped away the first chance I got, and...'

'What do you mean, go through the same ordeal?' Felix asks, barely moving his lips.

'Do not listen to her, child,' a male voice cuts in, deep and slow, creeping into Felix's ear like a slithering serpent, every word drenched in smooth, dark venom. 'She is confused; she has spent too much time underground, torn away from her family by a scheming witch who turned her against me...'

Serana tries to protest, but hardly does she open her mouth, fangs bared, when there follows a loud, commanding snap of two fingers, a flash of magic - and she vanishes into thin air, leaving Felix alone in the room with another vampire he does not know: tall, with long black hair and a nearly trimmed goatee, and wearing a purple vest with a serpent scale-like pattern that would surely have made the creature a fashion icon in Tevinter.

As the vampire looms over Felix, taking up almost the whole field of view between the posters of his bed, the chamber seems to grow significantly colder, and, falling back onto the covers to (very awkwardly, and rather improperly) try and distance himself from the creature, Felix catches himself wishing to just... give in. Just close his eyes and let the cold benumb him; allow the vampire to do whatever it wishes to do: violate him, rip him apart, claw out his heart and eat it raw... He does not care, really, as long as it is over soon.

This has all been too much, too long, too painful. He should have died an eternity ago; he should have known peace, and seen Mother again - but instead, he keeps drowning in a whirlpool of plotting cultists and monstrous beasts and travels between worlds. He is tired; Maker, so very tired... If only Father had let him go...

No. Wait. Father. He is still somewhere out there; he has suffered for him, has been ready to die for him, to lose his home and his soul and his sanity. He needs to be saved - from the dangers of this world, and from himself.

Inhaling shakily, Felix jolts into a sitting pose, and then leaps to his feet and tries to push the vampire in the chest. To show that he is not afraid; he is not giving in. He is an Alexius, dammit!

'Who are you and what did you do to my father?' he asks demandingly, glaring at the vampire and quite sincerely forgetting for a moment that he is shorter and weaker and unarmed and sick.

'Do not test my patience, mortal child,' the creature hisses, lips curled - before moving its hand and setting off some sort of invisible spell wave that flings Felix back onto the bed again. 'I have been very lenient to you and your father, allowing you to enjoy my hospitality out of gratitude for bringing Serana back to me... But if you dare do this one more time, I shall not condone being besmirched with the touch of prey in my own halls!'

While saying that, the creature brushes some invisible speck of filth off its vest, clearly disgusted.

'Your hospitality?!' Felix chokes in anger, while in the back his mind, a feverish chain of thought flashes by: a series of possible scenarios where he might distract the vampire by making it soliloquize for a bit (and from what he remembers of the Venatori, soliloquizing is part of being what Dorian calls a 'villainous cliché'), and then make a beeline for the exit.

'You call this hospitality?! I was your prisoner for three days!'

And... Here comes the soliloquy.

'That was for your own safety, mortal,' the vampire says, sounding weary and exasperated at first - but then growing animated with the 'villainous cliché' spirit.

'Some members of my court tire of always dining on the same cattle; no-one but that obsequious little servant, Ronthil, was allowed to enter here. You should thank me for this - for keeping you alive just long enough for me to finish my dealings with your father'.

Dealings? What... What sort of dealings?!

The question burns unuttered in Felix's eyes, through a film of tears - and the vampire smirks when it sees that.

'For returning my daughter and the Elder Scroll, I granted your father the greatest boon of all. The gift of my blood. After three days of slumber, he has risen above the mire where you mortals abide. He now walks as a lion among sheep, a proud sorcerer in my court - and he shall never fear death again. Neither shall you, child, for I have summoned him to your chambers to share my gift with you. I would have done so myself, lest my blood be diluted through his bite rather than mine - but he insisted on dealing with this personally. So be it, then - you will be a lesser vampire, but it is still closer to the true gift than contracting a disease from a rabid bloodfiend in the wilds'.

True gift... Bite... Sorcerer in the... in the court... No! No, no, no! This leering, condescending maleficar has... has turned Father into one... one of those disgusting, deplorable, sadistic 'hunters'! And wants Felix to suffer the same fate?! Well, it and ifs vile brood will not have them! Either of them! He will do anything - he will set the whole bloody castle on fire if need be! But he will be reunited with his Father - his real, living, loving Father, not some white shade with burning eyes! He...

Panting and sobbing, Felix lunges at the vampire again, determined to do far, far more than just push it... But the creature melts away in a cloud of black smoke - and when it clears, Felix realizes that there is yet another figure standing in the doorway. A figure that has a silhouette that he knows better than anything - and yet feels so horribly, horribly wrong.

'Felix...'

A voice whispers his name - his voice, the same voice that murmured lullabies to him, and asked him how his studies were going and swore to struggle to the last breath to cure him of the Blight, and only just recently, begged him to trust him. It is his voice - but the face that comes into view, when the figure steps underneath the window, is not his face. It is pale, more pale than Felix's has ever been even on the worst days of his sickness, with cheekbones jutting out sharply and a fine purple line crossing the thin grey lips and going up to the nose tip, making it resemble the cleft snout of those blood-sucking bats that are said to live in the jungles of Tevinter. And his eyes, once warm and brown, now glow like cold embers, gold in the centre and red around the rim... They are not his eyes. Not his eyes.

'Father...' Felix calls back to the figure, fearing the words that might be more fitting. Vampire. Beast. Monster.

'How... How could you do this to yourself?! I thought you needed these things' blood for a potion, not in your veins! Or... Or mine! If you think this is a cure, you are wrong! This is just - just exchanging one Blight for another!'

'You are wrong,' the figure says softly, arms reaching forward to Felix in an embracing gesture that makes his heart sink. 'This is no Blight - this is a source of strength; of eternal life. If you let me finish this, we will never have to be afraid of losing one another'.

'It's like blood magic,' Felix protests weakly, even as he allows the figure to take his hand and pull him to his feet. 'You... You used to hate blood magic!'

'Blood magic is a sin in Thedas - but we are not in Thedas any longer'.

Maker... And now the voice does not sound like his voice either...

'Exactly!' Felix cries out tearfully, shutting his eyes as he cannot bear to look into this alien face any more. 'How will we ever return to Thedas if you... and me... are like this?!'

The voice turns into a derisive hiss.

'Is returning to Thedas all that important, Felix? What has Thedas ever given us? There was no cure to be found there, despite years of searching - and here, now, I can finally save you!'

'This will not save me!' Felix tears his eyelids apart, now close to wailing in desperation and anger. Must they always be coming full circle?!

'This is like the Elder One all over again! I would not be surprised if that... purple vampire also has plans for world domination!'

The dark figure hesitates.

'Well?! Does it?!'

At this point, Felix doesn't even have it in him to be shocked.

'I wouldn't call it that...' the voice replies evasively, 'But Lord Harkon did say...'

'Oh, so it is "Lord Harkon" now?!'

His rage is now brimming over, scorching, inebriating, pounding violently in Felix's head, while somewhere outside his body, a hoarse voice screams, also not sounding like his own any more.

'I thought you could turn away from this path! That you could atone! I... I trusted you; I thought I could help you be yourself again - and you ran off to lick the boots of a new dark overlord! Maybe the people in Redcliffe were right... Maybe the Inquisition was right... Maybe you are nothing more than an evil Tevinter magister!'

The voice quivers with hurt and dread - and for a fleeting second, does sound a bit like Father's.

'No, Felix, please! You make it sound as if it is all a bid for power - I swear it is not! Once you are cured, I will figure out a way to sever the ties I made with this court when I pledged to serve Lord Harkon! I... I just don't want you... don't want you to die...'

As his heart contracts with pity - an impulse he can never quite control - Felix finally gives in to the embrace the dark figure has been offering him... And the next thing he knows, everything around him, from the window to the crawling figures on the bed posts, shatters into countless blood-red pieces, as two long fangs sink into his neck and the flood of pain streams through his body.

Before his vision goes black, the last, smouldering inklings of his anger make Felix cough out the words he never thought he would say to his father - accompanied by the first curse he has uttered in years,

'I hate you. I fucking hate you'.

Chapter Text

Once, they had names.

Once, they had families.

Once, they had likes and dislikes, favourite meals and colours and songs, and little quirks and habits, like closing their eyes before casting the fishing line, or never letting go of their childhood stuffed toy while sleeping, or being superstitiously afraid of stepping into cracks between cobblestones.

Once, they were people.

Now they are not.

All the differences between them, all the tiny things that, if put together like an intricate Alinorian puzzle, made each of them into a one-of-a-kind man or mer or beast, have been erased. They are cattle now; faceless, nameless, all clothed in the same dull greenish rags, all packed away into damp cells, with fungi growing on the floor and walls, deep beneath the ancient castle on the rocky island somewhere in the heart of the frothing black sea.

They do not know exactly where their prison is - where they are. Or… when they are. Sometimes, as one of them goes to uneasy, twitching sleep, almost entirely hollowed out after a visit from one of the masters, they dream vague dreams, quick to fade away like smoke blown in the wind: dreams of being half-smothered by icy-cold, clawed hands, and then snatched off into the night; taken from... some place else, some place that they loved living in, some place where there were hazy faces of people that might have meant something to them... once. But they have no idea how long ago that might have been, or whether it was even real.

For all they know, they have always been like this. For all they know, they have always been cowering behind their prison bars, muttering under their breath and whimpering at the slightest noises. For all they know, they have always been cattle: simple, submissive creatures, with their minds dulled by the frequent pain of the long, ravenous bites during the masters' feasts; and by hunger, too - for the masters only feed them enough to keep them from dying.

For all they know, this has been their apportioned fate, since their very birth, and for all eternity. A fate they must suffer in silence, living from one meagre meal to the next, with their bodies always tense in the anticipation of agony that might come at any moment. A fate that cannot be changed...

Except that, one day, it is.

One day - or one night; what does it matter, really? - yet another one of the masters walks into their cells to feed.

The Thrallmaster is with him, his broad-cheekboned, flattened grey-white face turned towards him and he gestures generously at the cells,

'So, changed your mind about not feeding, have you? That was quick! I guess the shock of receiving our Lord's potent blood addled your brains for a bit, but then you came around? Well, you are welcome to any thralls so long as you don't overfeed on them. It's daytime outside, and everyone's still asleep, so the cattle are all yours'.

So he is a young vampire, then. A new addition to the masters' ranks. There have been others like him before, coming down to savour his or her or their very first breakfast. Not all cattle have a lifespan long enough to remember the last time such a visit happened - but still, there is nothing out of the ordinary here. Just part of the never-changing routine; all they can do about it is shrink into the shadows and hope, hesitantly, almost not daring to allow themselves the luxury, that, after lingering for a little, the vampire will pass on to the neighbouring cell.

And he does do that. Well, something like that. Something... quite unlike that.

Pausing in front of every cell, he pushes at the creaking iron door - and then leaves it open. The Thrallmaster watches him in bewilderment for some time, before eventually grabbing at one of the doors, with the clear intention to close it, and asking,

'What do you think you are doing?'

The young vampire turns his head, one eyebrow raised and a small smile on his purple-slashed lips,

'You did say I was welcome to any thralls. That they were all mine. So I am claiming them all - and setting them free'.

A gargling, feral growl pulses at the back of the Thrallmaster's throat - a sound that the cattle have learned to fear. A sound that means that their usual pain is now going to seem like a tiny pin prick.

Unlike their miserable, tremulous lot, the young vampire stands undaunted, his eyes linked with the Thrallmaster's in an unblinking glare, while he slowly draws apart his arms and stands on tiptoe, as if preparing to take flight.

Before long, ribbons of scarlet mist begin to crawl rapidly round his ankles, reaching higher and higher till they wrap him whole into a shimmering red cocoon. He emerges a few seconds later - just in time for the Thrallmaster to have drawn the large black club that once left deep bruised imprints on some of the cattle's backs, back when they mistakenly believed that they were still people, and tried to fight back against their new owners.

By now, with a soft crunch, two large wings have torn their way out of the young vampire's back - like two additional long, bony, clawed arms, with webs stretched between their joints. His skin, in turn, has gotten thicker and greyer; his eyes have filled with an oily black film; and his limbs have swollen with extra muscle - which allows him to overpower the Thrallmaster when he leaps forth to attack him, and toss him back against the prison wall with a single swipe of his arm.

After that, the young vampire glances down briefly at his clawed hands with a snarl of disgust, and mutters,

'At least there is one thing this wretched beast shape is useful for'.

Then, he turns to the cattle and says, raising his voice to a command... No, not a command exactly - not imperious, not haughty, but rather... Friendly? Concerned? Are those the right words for that? The cattle are not certain; they have not been addressed like that before. Not in this prison; not in this life.
'Come on - follow me! Before this brute wakes up and raises the alarm!'

Slowly, clumsily, stumbling groggily, the cattle flock out of their open cells. They do not know where they are being taken, or for what purpose, or why their overseer needed to be taken out - but one of the masters has willed it, and they have just enough smatterings of sentience left in their minds to know that a master's orders are to be followed.

On and on they wobble after the young vampire, out of the dungeons and onto the island's shore. Is he luring them out into the waves? Does he intend to drown them in the sea? They do not know - but nor do they protest. Perhaps it shall be for the best; perhaps this way, they will finally be at rest. They just need to brave a few more steps towards the tide line... And it will all be over.

As the Thrallmaster said, it is daytime, and the sun is blazing overhead, so huge and white and angry, like an orb of destructive magic, burning holes in their eyeballs, making their skin itch and blister, driving invisible flame-coated spears through the back of their heads...

'It's all right'.

The young vampire is affected by the searing rays as much as the cattle: he has bent forward slightly, shielding his eyes, and reverted back to his natural form. But the smile that he gives them, ushering them closer to the water's edge, is, again, filled with that unfamiliar, un... un-evil emotion that they do not have a word for.

'It's all right,' he repeats, fingering his own neck and face in discomfort but otherwise quite cheerful - making a point to be cheerful, in fact. 'You must have been locked away for so long that you forgot what sunshine feels like. But do not worry: you will remember very soon. I am sure of it. Now... If you please!'

He gestures broadly at the glimmering greyish-green waves, welcoming the cattle to go ahead - to submerge themselves in the cold, soothing water, and let it carry them off, away from the scorching sun, away from the cruel castle, away from their pain and fear, away, away...

Only instead of the open sea, he is leading them to a boat - a sleek black boat that has emerged from beneath the water surface, waiting to be boarded. Still obedient and fumbling like sleepwalkers, the cattle climb onto the wooden seats, blinking in confusion as the boat rocks under their weight and seems to expand in size the more of them get in. The vampire is the last to board, perching himself in a crouching pose on the boat's bow - like... like a figurehead, one of the cattle thinks. Wait, how does he know that? Where has he seen a figurehead before?

And then, it comes back to him - a tiny thought at first, then swelling bigger and bigger, burning brighter and brighter in his head the further away the boat glides from the castle's shadow, not needing any oars to move it along. A few rushing, breathtaking seconds later, the thought turns into a ringing scream that escapes the man's lips as he turns his face towards the sun, smiling and weeping at the same time,

'I am Holgerr! I am Holgerr the sailor!'

Startled by his bear-like roar, the woman next to him frowns and massages her temple for a little bit, and then whispers faintly,

'I... I think I am Katarina... A... A seamstress...'

The Dark Elf opposite her rubs his eyes, as if waking up from a long, deep sleep, and slurs hoarsely,

'Thelas... My name is Thelas... I was taken... From the docks... in Windhelm...'

The boat travels on, its journey swift and smooth, the dark island falling behind till it is no more than a tiny dot on the horizon; and with every inch of its journey, more and more voices resound, confused and incredulous and gleeful.

They remember now. They remember their names. Their families. Their likes and dislikes, their jobs, their passions, their quirks. They are cattle no longer.

The young vampire looks them over with a gentle, dreamy look on his face, revelling in their overwhelmed outcries of joy and their excited introductions to one another, like in the world's sweetest music. And once he can get a word in, he introduces himself as well,

'And my name is Felix'.

***

'Has the clan suffered much damage from this escapade?' Harkon asks, pacing across the room.

Garan Marethi lays two of his dark grey fingers on the beads of the abacus he is holding, carved in the shape of little skulls, and rocks them thoughtfully back and forth.

'Not as much as we might have, my...' he begins.

Harkon bears his fangs and, flicking his hand through the air, knocks the abacus out of the Dunmeri vampire's gasp with a little blast of red-shaded magic.

'Get to the point, Garan'.

His tone is perfectly even, but the Dunmer has known his master enough to know that, if he tests his patience any longer, he will soon follow the fate of the abacus, which is now lying smashed on the floor, the skulls rolling off in all directions.

'Not all of our thralls were in the dungeon,' he explains, trying not to follow the skulls' bounces with his gaze. 'Some of the more mind-wiped ones had been allowed to roam the hallways, and others had been taken to the private chambers of some of the court members. If we round them up in one place, we should have a minimal food supply to last us until Rargal recovers – which he should do fairly soon, thanks to the admirable efforts of Sera Sadri – and catches us more cattle’.

'I trust our Illusion magic will prevent the worms from remembering where the castle is and siccing those insolent "vampire hunters" on us,' Harkon says sharply, slowing down his pacing.

Garan nods.

'They will merely return to their pathetic little lives, with just a few hazy nightmares to remember us by. Maybe Rargal will even manage to recapture some of them once they think they are out of danger - thus proving the boy's efforts to have been for naught'.

'Ah, the boy...' Harkon hisses, rage beginning to break through the smoothness of his voice. 'The boy...'

He is cut short by a small, hesitant knock on the door, which is followed by a brief creak of wood and the sound of footsteps on the stone. A third vampire has joined him and Garan - the new one. The Imperial. The rescuer of the Scroll (and yes, Serana, of course)... and the father of the little brat who had the audacity to disrespect the gift. The foolish child may not have done much damage - but his transgression against his betters cannot go unpunished.

Harkon whirls around, his royal cape flapping around him, and extends his arms forward, the tips of his claw-like nails slowly coming together as a wave of crimson magic lifts the Imperial up till his head almost hits the ceiling, and lashes against his throat, almost making his bones crack with its constricting grip.

'I showed you the greatest power a man could have,' he says, his voice mounting in strength and volume like a rumble of thunder that grows ever closer. 'I let my pure blood enter your wretched mortal body; I accepted you into my clan - and how did you repay me?! By letting your son slither into my dungeons, like the treacherous serpent he is, assault my Thrallmaster, and take away my cattle! A worthy Volkihar would have cut the thief down before he could get away!'

'I... I did not know of this, my lord...' the Imperial wheezes, his arms reaching for his throat and falling helplessly back again. 'My son... has barely… spoken to me... since his turning...'

'But you would not have stopped him if you did know, am I correct?' Harkon snaps, his magic slamming the Imperial against the wall. 'You would have allowed yourself to be deluded by meaningless notions of kinship! Know this, then: for what he did, your son is no longer kin to the Volkihar! He is prey, like mortals! He shall be hunted down relentlessly, until I see his stripped skin as a carpet in my chambers! And I will not have to wait long for that - Garan here is excellent at hunting down feral vampires'.

Little by little, the red magic has worn off by now, and the Imperial has slid along the wall right to his master's feet. No longer strangled by the spell, he whispers shakily, pressing his forehead against the icy stone,

'My lord... Please... Let him be... He never wanted to be part of this... If you need someone to take out your wrath on, let it be me and me alone'.

Harkon is not moved by yet another display of the 'notions of kinship' - but the Imperial's humiliation amuses him. Giving the prostrate vampire a small kick, he says generously,

'Be thankful that your son has not left us to starve, and that we will not be losing our valuable Thrallmaster. Or else you would not have had the slimmest chance at earning my mercy. Garan will delay the hunt... for now - provided that you do not stray from my service, and follow my every order. Do you understand?'

'Yes, my lord,' the Imperial mouths, lifting his head and look at Harkon with a very odd, slightly distant expression on his face... As if he is having a déjà vu. 'I understand'.

'Good. I shall send you to Orthjolf, so he can teach you some discipline. He is very good at applying... force to people. Then, my other servants shall give you jobs to prove your loyalty to the clan. Do not disappoint me'.

***

Felix first transformed into this big grey winged creature when Father came knocking on his door, begging for a conversation, just after he had woken up from three days of unconsciousness,  with the Taint gone from his body and replaced with an odd, stiff feeling, as if he had recently been incased in ice. As he turned towards the door, screaming at Father to go away, a new surge of anger wracked his body, awakening some deep, dark magic he had never possessed before and making him spend an hour stumbling about and knocking things over with his wings, until he told himself to simmer down and focus - and, quite miraculously, shrank back into his normal... well, more normal body.

He is not at all thrilled by this little... ability of his; but at least, it seems to make him strong enough to fight against the people that intend to hurt him, or those in his care. And the wings have proven to be rather convenient for moving about and, as he transformed again and soared off after saying goodbye to the thralls he had rescued, Felix even felt a momentary rush of elation. The wind in his face, the forest view stretching far, far below, the tidal wave of energy he had not felt since falling sick (especially powerful once the sun slid behind a cloud) - it all made becoming a monster almost... bearable. But not for long.

At first, he flies off in a random direction, just wishing to stretch his wings, to clear his head, and to get as far away from the sea as possible - because somewhere beyond the sea, was the cursed island. That castle. Father.

But when the ecstasy of flight ebbs away, and Felix glides down to the top of some tall cliff to rest and hide from the sun, which had emerged from the grey pall again, he decides that he needs to set himself a course. A purpose. And he knows exactly what it is going to be.

With the prospects of returning to Thedas now seeming quite bleak, the least he can do, so long as he is stuck away from home, is try to warn the people of this other world - the good people, the innocent people, like Pony and Dinny and those poor thralls - that they are in danger. To find some local equivalent of the Inquisition, and spread news of the Elder One. Again.

Only... Only where does he start?

From his vantage point, Felix can see far to the bluish, cloudy horizon - and what catches his eye is a solitary mountain, tall enough to be seen even from this great distance. If... If he is right, this could be the... what was that name again... Neck... No, Throat - Throat of the World, one of the tallest peaks of this realm. , one of the tallest peaks of this world. He has read about it in the books that Pony lent him; he thinks there are some wise old... warrior monks living up there. They are supposed to be universally respected - if anyone is to be approached with a report on the threat posed by the forces of darkness, it is them. At least, this will be more effective than running from village to village like a crazed doom-sayer and risking getting killed for being what he is, before he can even properly put his message into words.

Very well. Throat of the World it is. Time to test what those wings are truly capable of.

Chapter Text

Going down a hill - or great big massive mountain, in this case - is supposed to be quicker than going up. But not for Yalanwen.

She takes her time descending the seven thousand steps. She pauses to chat with the pilgrims at the inscribed standing stones, and makes a point of tracking down and shooting the frost troll that chased her on the way up (a good thing, too, because it was clearly planning to make off with a poor terrified hunter in its teeth), and lingers to enjoy the view on every stone ledge, for as much as she can before the bitter icy air begins piercing her skin and creeping into her bones.

And when she finally makes it to Ivarstead, she is more than willing to take a long walk beneath the birch trees with the village's only Bosmer and talk about how Skyrim's climate differs from the humid, clammy summers and rainy winters of their homeland (thankfully, their conversation turns out quite lighthearted and leisurely, never growing more profound than discussing the weather - because she would have screamed internally right into the next age if this Gwilin fellow suddenly decided to quiz her on the Green Pact).

After the walk, she graciously accepts the invitation to stay at the Vilemyr Inn for a few more days, and forces her lips into the most radiant of smiles as she sits down to entertain the gawking, awestruck villagers with stories of how the Greybeards tested her Voice, conjuring up ghostly images of themselves that she had to dispel with a well-aimed Shout... just like this... Oh dear, she is so sorry; was that pot awfully valuable? How about she stays behind and helps Wilhelm around for a bit, to cover the costs? No, no, she does not mind at all; it is not like she is in a particular hurry to go anywhere!

... She should be in a hurry, actually. As the final part of her initiation, the Greybeards have tasked her with retrieving a precious artifact, the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller - and she is terrified of not passing her test, so much so that sometimes she can scarcely breathe.

She has already imagined all manner of scenarios of her possible failure. Ones where she does not find the Horn at all - maybe because she is not skilled enough at tracking (she may be a decent archer, but she never has been more than an average scout, by traditionalist Bosmer standards at least), or maybe because the relic only reveals itself to the worthy. Ones where she loses the Horn; or where the Horn burns her hands or shatters into pieces the moment she picks it up - again, because it has not found her worthy. Or ones where the Greybeards welcome her back at their monastery, ready to present her to that mysterious leader of theirs, and he mocks and scorns her, like the village elders scorned her for being born an outsider.

The Voice is such a Nord thing, after all; the first Tongues were all from this land, and Tiber Seltim is still held in reverence - no matter how hard the Thalmor crack down - as the mighty Dragon of the North. And here she is... a Bosmer - a Bosmer who did not really do all that well at being one. And if she is far from perfect at doing things that come naturally to her kind, how can she expect to suddenly become a most Nordly Nord?

Most of the villagers at Ivarstead seemed enthusiastic to hear of her adventures - but not all of them. Like that Temba - the grumpy saw mill owner, who is constantly on the verge of smashing things apart because a bunch of bears keeps driving her out of business. Yalanwen heard the bitter, scowling Nord insult Gwiling for being a 'stupid undersized imp' - and when Wilhelm and Lynly the bard urged her to speak of her Dragonborn training, she thought that she caught sight of Temba, out of the corner of her eye, huffing in disapproval. It must be pretty offensive for a proud Nord to see 'an undersized imp' claim such a meaningful title from her heritage... And even as Yalanwen went on with her story, still smiling till she thought her face would burst, a nasty little clot of guilt curled up in the pit of her stomach and never really went away, adding up to her uneasiness.

Yes, the Greybeards (or rather, one of them, Master Arngeir, since the Voices of the rest are too powerful for them to risk speaking) reaffirmed that she was, indeed, the one they had summoned. The Dragonborn. Mortal born with the soul of a majestic winged creature, descended from the great god of time himself. And yes, ever since hearing that, ever since learning what Words of Power are and how special she is for unlocking their secrets in a matter of moments where others struggle for years, she has pushed her mind and heart to the last possible limits to feel happy and proud and blessed...

But part of her shall never be certain if this is right; if she is the proper person for following the Way of the Voice. That is the same part that has been preventing her from truly believing that her life goes on quite swimmingly, despite her brother being dead, and that her exile is no big deal, and that it is really too early to worry about her afterlife, when she will surely be punished for breaking the Pact.

She has not told any of this to Arngeir, of course, or to any of her listeners at the inn, for fear of seeming whiny - but she cannot stop mulling this over inside her head, the number and fantastical variety of disastrous scenarios growing ever bigger, never letting her rest. Never letting her breathe freely. Never letting her make another attempt to move on.

And she knows that the dark clot will only keep growing, keep pulsing, keep constricting her, the more she thinks about the Greybeards' task. And she will not be able to bear that. So she goes on and on, inventing distractions for herself - anything to avoid looking for that wretched Horn. And just as she begins to feel that she is about to run out of ideas, fate itself presents her with the biggest distraction of all.

She walks out of the inn one morning, bow in hand just in case, to watch the mist fall back, washing over the birch trunks like a river of milk, and to maybe ponder over what un-Horn-related task she might occupy herself with today (that haunted barrow Wilhelm told her about sounds promising) - when suddenly, the morning stillness is disturbed by the loud roar of some beast. Being vague on the wilderness lore as she is, Yalanwen cannot peg the roar down as the call of any particular animal. It is certainly not a dragon (to her ear, dragon's roars appear to have words in them, fragments of an unfamiliar tongue - Dovahzul as the Greybeards call it). But beyond that, she has no clue. Could be one of those bears Temba is constantly so mad about?

Oh, wait. No, it is not a bear after all. It is a sabre cat, seemingly fat and clumsy because of its thick fur, but still capable to cover a lot of ground in tremendous leaps. Its fangs bared, its broad nose crinkled in a snarl, it is chasing down some poor Nord lad, dressed in simple farmer's clothes and carrying nothing but a notched, half-rusty old axe to defend himself with.

The poor boy - he needs to be saved, doesn't he?.. Yalanwen just needs to take aim, pull back the bow string - and get over herself! She always feels bad about killing sabre cats, because they remind her of some kindly, peaceful Senche-Raht she met when passing through Reaper's March. But that's just her being weird - sometimes she feels bad about killing dragons, too! Sometimes she cannot help thinking: if these beings have a language, perhaps they can be reasoned with, persuaded to live in harmony with men and mer, questioned about what has suddenly brought them back to Skyrim,,and what makes them so intent on burning down villages...

Stop being weird, Yalanwen! Just - just fire that shot before your bizarre ideas cost an innocent Nord his life!

Biting into her lower lip in anger, Yalanwen releases the arrow she has readied - and hits the sabre cat between the eyes just as it pounces at the poor farm boy, who has tripped over a tree root and fallen down helplessly onto the carpet of rustling golden leaves. The farm boy yelps fearfully and covers his head, pressing his knees against his chest - but the sabre cat's heavy body thuds down a few inches away from him, and when he raises his head, looking a bit like a newborn chick peeking out of its egg shell (what with his matted, fuzzy blonde hair and all), the first thing he sees is not the leering, toothy mouth of the felled beast, but a small brown hand extended forward to pull him to his feet.

'Hello there,' Yalanwen says, her friendly smile growing inexplicably wistful as she remembers how she reached out to another stranger lying on the ground and in need of her help. She hopes that he did find his son, and they are both somewhere warm and safe.

'My name is Yalanwen - what's yours?'

'Agmaer,' the farm boy coughs sheepishly, brushing the leaves off his clothes. 'Thank you... For helping me with that cat. I would have killed it myself, I am sure - I have my Pa's old axe with me, after all! - but it, uh, caught me by surprise. And um...'

He looks around and scratches his head.

'And it made me go off the path I was taking, too! You... You don't happen to know the way to Dayspring Canyon, do you?'

Yalanwen's large, sensitive ears perk up in eager interest. A young man, travelling all alone while armed with his father's axe, heading towards a canyon - that definitely sounds like an adventure! One that - if she is allowed to tag along - will take her as far away from that pesky Horn as possible.

'No, I don't know the way,' she admits, before adding hopefully, 'But you can drop by at the inn over there to ask for directions... And maybe let me join you? You know... If it is not too personal'.

'Oh, it isn't!' Agmaer reassures her - and then takes to cleaning his vest again, even though by now, no leaves remain. 'Actually... I would kind of be grateful if... if we went together. I, er...'

He blushes deeply and readjusts the grip on his trusty axe.

'I want to join the Dawnguard. You know, the order of vampire hunters?'

Ah, yes - Yalanwen has heard a group of guardsmen in Whiterun pass on a rumour along these lines, right before they went back to complaining about some cousins of theirs, who all seemed to have collectively teamed up and gone off to fight dragons.

'Only I...' Agmaer goes on, blushing even a more vivid shade of crimson and digging a small dent in the ground with the tip of his boot. Truth is, I'm a little nervous. I've never done anything like this before. They might not even take me on. I... I am great with this axe,' he reassures Yalanwen hurriedly, with a few demonstrative swings. 'But I am no seasoned warrior! All I have to offer is a wish to stop these creatures from creeping out and attacking my neighbours' farmsteads'.

'I am sure this will be enough,' Yalanwen tells him earnestly. 'Even great heroes have to start somewhere'.

Gods, if only she could believe these words if they were applied to herself!..


Wilhelm was a bit uncertain when trying to mark the location of Dayspring Canyon on the trusty old map that Yalanwen held out for him when returning to the inn with Agmaer - and eventually, after lots of puffing and hmm-ing from the innkeeper, Lynly the bard was the one who ended up leaning over his shoulder, snatching the bit of charcoal he was fingering out of his grasp, and tracing a very bold, clear line from Ivarstead to the Dawnguard fort.

'Hey, girl, I didn't know you were such an expert on the wilderness!' Wilhelm exclaimed, amazed - to which Lynly only replied, with a shrug, that she had once had to spend some time exploring the Rift, 'because of reasons', and then went back to her usual spot by the fireside to play a new song.

After exchanging a few words of gratitude and farewell, Yalanwen and her new young companion left Ivarstead behind - and now they are walking side by side along the course set for them by Lynly, every step bringing them closer to the 'mighty fort' - which, as Agmaer keeps saying excitedly (more than encouraged by the Bosmer's presence and little short of leaping into the air and dancing amid the falling leaves) is manned with 'great warriors, who have killed lots and lots of vampires!'

He is in the middle of one such tirade when his gleeful voice is drowned out by a tremendous crackle directly ahead of the two travellers - as something large and grey plummets out of the sky straight into the tangled undergrowth - like a giant wounded bird... Or a cliff-racer; but they do not migrate this far from Morrowind, even though the Velothi mountains should be pretty close. So... A dragon?

Agmaer starts and clutches his axe with a small, squeaky gasp - but Yalanwen approaches the source of the crackle far more boldly, with her bow raised but not terse, and her eyes widening in wonder. If a dragon has really just landed here, it has to be at least a little dazed after its unfortunate fall - and this could buy her just enough time to talk to it, like she always wanted. And maybe, when she is done, she will not feel so doubtful about being the Dragonborn any longer...

But when the grey creature comes into view, lying on top of a heap of mangled shrubbery with its face turned upwards towards the swaying golden tree tops, it turns out that it is not a dragon at all. Nor is it like any other beast that Yalanwen has ever seen, or heard about, or even dreamed up at night.

It is like a... like a bizarre sort of cross between a person and a giant bat, with a bare, sunken chest, a face like a skull smeared with a thin layer of grey clay, and a pair of webbed wings behind its back, with large, sharp claws at the joints. Its eyes are closed, seeming to pulse underneath the thin grey lids, and its long, wiry limbs are twitching slightly, as if it were trying to get up but did not have enough strength for that.

And this little twitch is precisely what makes it so piteous to look at, despite its unusual, even monstrous features. Somehow, it makes Yalanwen see a person within the bat, just as she saw a kind Senche within the voracious sabre-tooth beast.

'The poor thing...' she breathes out, lowering her bow. 'I think it's wounded... Or at any rate, worn out after a long flight'.

'M-maybe... We should leave it be?' Agmaer suggests, as he begins to hyperventilate a little. 'B-before it comes to and rips us apart? C-can't go to Dawnguard headquarters when we are -nothing but r-ribbons of flesh! Ha, ha!'

Yalanwen looks at him in understanding over her shoulder - more than familiar with this feeling of having to force yourself to laugh when you feel so far, far from it. But beyond that, she does not heed Agmaer's warning; instead, she tosses aside her bow completely and, reaching up to where the creature... or person rests, performs what is now becoming her usual routine when facing someone beaten down and barely conscious. She smiles, and holds out one hand, while stroking the clammy grey flesh with the other.

And by some miracle - or coincidence, most likely; she has never been the one to perform miracles - the more beast-like form of the bat creature slowly begins to fade away at her touch, melting like ice on the first morning of spring in the human lands. And as it vanishes, it leaves behind another body - that of a young man, an Imperial or Breton by the looks of him, with shortly cropped black hair and skin so pale that it seems to reflect the first rays of moonlight and cloak him in a ghostly glowing cloud. Now that sort of transformation is something far more familiar to a person who grew up in Valenwood.

'A shapeshifter!' Yalanwen exclaims in an excited whisper. 'Will you look at that!'

Agmaer passes his axe-free hand nervously over his sweating forehead, evidently not at all sure whether to make a strategic retreat behind some fallen log or stay by Yalanwen's side and prove himself to be Dawnguard material. Before he can voice his thoughts out loud, however, the young man tears apart his parched lips, which have a thin vertical purple line passing across them, mirroring the cleft lip he had as a... werebat - and groans faintly, apparently in delirium, his eyes still closed,

'Come to the Chantry... You are... in danger...'

'Chantry?' Yalanwen repeats, squatting next to him and helping him hold up his head. 'What's a Chantry? Do you mean a Chapel - like the ones your people build for the Divines? There is one in Riften, I think; dedicated to Mara...'

When the young man hears her speak, a powerful shudder ripples though his body; he opens his eyes and stares straight ahead, making Agmaer whirl into the air with a  shrill cry - like a young girl that has seen a skeever.

And well, to be fair, it's not like he doesn't have a reason for that.

The eyes of this 'Imperial' are not like the eyes of any human Yalanwen has come across - instead of being blue or brown or grey or green, they have a cold yellow flame burning in them. And as he opens his mouth wide in a blank, dazed expression, it becomes apparent that he has very long, sharp canine teeth... which is usually the sign of someone being a...

'A vampire!' Agmaer chokes, swooshing his axe chaotically in front of himself till he almost chops off his own fingers. 'It's a vampire! Please, please, let's kill it! Let's kill it like brave vampire hunters! P-pretty please?'

They probably should, shouldn't they? Vampires are evil, unnatural creatures, the cursed spawn of Molag Bal; their main driving force is the undying hunger for human flesh... But then again, Yalanwen has heard the same being whispered, in frightened, lowered voices, about the Bosmer, and while she is far from being on friendly terms with the most orthodox of her kinsmen, she knows that this is not true.

Even the most devout followers of the Green Pact - by the Void, even the Wild Hunt! - are people, or were people at some point. So who is to say that vampires, at least some of them, do not retain some grip on their personhood? And this hapless young man is trying to warn them about something, too - it would not sit right with Yalanwen if she cut him down before hearing out what he has to say.

So she waves her hand impatiently to shush Agmaer, and picks up a few branches from the common pile to throw together a tiny impromptu shelter from the sun, so that she and the vampire can talk in peace, without him turning to ash or whatever it is they do. After that, she meets the vampire's burning gaze, not faltering, and keeping up her smile... Which, ironically, now seems far easier than when she tried to appear carefree in front of her audience at the inn.

'I think you were trying to say something,' she prompts him gently. '... Friend'.

The young man, who has been watching her shield him from the sun in silent disbelief, raises his eyebrows even more incredulously at being called a friend, and hastens to explain himself,

'I... I am sorry if I sprouted a lot of nonsense just now. I... I have travelled a great distance, and... and so much sunlight was really taxing, too'.

He speaks with a slight accent, which is somewhat familiar, yet rather hard to place - perhaps it's Colovian or Nibenese; Yalanwen has met a few people from there, but has never actually been to Cyrodiil, where there are far too many Thalmor lurking these days, so she wouldn't know. But regardless, his Tamrielic is easy to understand.

'I have made this long journey to reach the Throat of the World - to find the... uhh... respected elders that live there, and warn them of the coming danger. They must know of the Volkihar; a clan of... beings like me, which plans to take over the world!'

Despite the gravity of this message, Yalanwen cannot help but snort with laughter.

'Respected elders? Do you mean the Greybeards? Goodness, they will be no help! They spend their days in what they call peaceful contemplation, not caring about what goes on down below; the world could be on fire, and they would just shrug and go on meditating!'.

The vampire almost visibly deflates.

'Oh. Where... Where do I turn then?'

The poor sweetheart - he really did have his hopes set so high, didn't he? But just because the Greybeards wouldn't listen to him, doesn't mean he can't help!

'You said the Volkihar were like you?' Yalanwen says brightly. 'Vampires? If you want us to fight back against them, you can join me and Agmaer here; we are about to find Fort Dawnguard! A whole whopping tower full of vampire hunters!'

The young vampire smiles wryly - while Agmaer gapes in shock in background, his jaw almost hanging off its hinges.

'I suspect they would not be too welcoming... But I am used to that. At least it would be worth a try... Thank you'.

As he breathes out this word (well, metaphorically at least; she does not know if vampires can breathe), Yalanwen suddenly realizes, the tips of her ears flaring, why his accent seems so familiar. Gideon... Gideon spoke the same way, when he thanked her for sharing the Clairvoyance spell with him!

And now that she looks at the young man more closely, trying to see past the way his features have been warped by vampirism, she truly believes she can spot traces of a certain... family resemblance.

'Oh sweet Mara!' she cries out, sensing that, any second now, she will burst into tears. 'You... You are his son! Gideon's son! He was so worried about you, so determined to find you - and now look... Look what happened to you! Tangled up in a vampire plot, forced to suffer in the sun - and separated from him, too! He must be so heartbroken!'

The vampire's face hardens.

'So you know my father,' he says stiffly. 'Or think you do. I thought I knew him too - but I was wrong. This... curse of mine is his doing; and he serves the vampire who leads the Volkihar. I... I would appreciate it if we never spoke of him again. Just... Please take me to Fort Dawnguard'.

Chapter Text

'You are behind on the rent again!' Haelga says sharply, her hands resting firmly on her hips.

Then, tapping one foot impatiently against the grease-caked floorboards - really, her useless niece Svana should do a better job keeping this pile of matchsticks in order - she lifts one hand and brings the tips of her index finger and thumb together so that they almost touch.

'I am just about this close to gathering your belongings and tossing them out in the street!'

Niluva Hlaalu raises her head, which she has been resting on the table, heavy as a giant, swollen grey cannon ball, and slurs,

'I bet you wouldn't treat me like this if I had a giant, juicy milk finger sticking out between my legs'.

Haelga's nostrils flare in anger - and grow even wider when she notices Svana, who has been going around her chores, clumsily as usual, cease her floor-sweeping and snicker into her fist.

'All right, this is the last straw,' Haelga declares. 'I will not stand being constantly pelted with either insults, or empty promises of gold! You are not welcome at the Bunkhouse any longer'.

The broom clunks to the floor, and the flustered girl rushes up to her aunt, all snickers forgotten.

'Please, don't!' she gasps, as her eyes, which are always bloodshot with lack of sleep and the dusty, acrid air in the Bunkhouse, grow even redder with tears of pity and frustration. 'You can't do this! Niluva has no place else to go!'

'Oh Svana, will you stay out of this for once?!' Haelga shoves her niece in the chest, while pointing dramatically at the door. 'Go write a sappy poem or something! And you - '

She bores her eyes into Niluva as the latter struggles to get to her feet, her limbs barely obeying her due to the uncontrollable twitching and shaking.

'Hurry up and get your arse out of here, you Skooma-addled idiot! The sooner you clear off, the sooner I can offer your bunk to that lovely Madesi; I don't think I have ever had an Argonian man as a... tenant before'.

'And I will clear off!' Niluva spits, veering her course in zigzags towards the door, without even bothering to pick up the bundle with her few meagre possessions. 'I was sick and tired of this bloody hole anyway!'

As she stumbles out into the street, she almost rams her drooping shaved head into Romlyn Dreth, her kinsmer and fellow worker at the Black-Briar Meadery.

Oh - only he isn't her fellow! No, she reminds herself, glaring at Romlyn; he ranks above her. Everyone in there ranks above her - the fumbling, useless cleaner, who is always late, always untidy, always letting things slip through her fingers because everything wobbles and jitters so much when she has the shakes. She can hear them all, mocking her, always mocking, whispering to each other about what she is - as if she doesn't already know it herself! as if she asked for extra reminders of what she has become! - and their voices stay with her all day long, jerking inside her hands, splintering her bones, and only the Skooma, the sweet, delectable Skooma can wash them away...

'And what are you staring at?' Niluva barks at Romlyn, aggressively wiping at the drool that started dripping out of the corner of her mouth at the thought of the sugary tingle on her tongue. 'Come to gloat that I am getting kicked out?'

Romlyn, usually smug like a well-fed guar, looks oddly grave - almost frightened.

'No, not from here too...' he whispers hoarsely.

'Whaddayamean?' Niluva asks, frowning as she struggles to get her brain back from liquid to solid state.

'I... I ran to find you from the meadery,' Romlyn says, 'Snuck out while Indaryn decided to give himself a lunch break'.

'Lunch... Wha?' Niluva asks, suddenly beginning to pant as the pain in her joints, which has been eating at her body like rot at an apple, reaches its peak.

Having rapidly turned into mouldy apple cores, her legs are barely able to support her; and Romlyn has to catch her in his arms. He is handsome, Niluva thinks deliriously to herself. If the two of them had a droplet or two, he might have even wanted her. Because out here, in the real world, where there is no sugary haze, nobody wants her. Nobody ever will.

'It's past midday, Niluva,' Romlyn says, helping her balance herself. 'You overslept... Again. Indaryn was furious, the damn s'wit - and... and he fired you'.

'Oh, he fired me, did he?!' Niluva shrieks, suddenly awake, the throbbing joint pain roaring in time with her voice. 'He dared fire me?! He thinks he is so much better than me!'

She snarls at Romlyn and pushes him away, with extra force because she now hates herself for liking him, and hates him for being that clever rogue way out of her league.

'You all think you are better than me! Oh by Azura's creamy tits, I am so fed up with you!'

Romlyn grows visibly more worried, which only enrages Niluva further.

'That's it!' she announces shrilly. 'I am leaving! For good! To some place where nobody thinks I am worthless; where I can be myself, far, far away from each and every one of you n'wahs!'

'You... You are not talking about a Skooma den, are you?' Romlyn asks, trying to catch hold of her hands and pull her back towards him - but she stomps on his foot with all her might, grinding her heel in viciously.

While Romlyn bends over and yowls in pain, Niluva storms off, still not quite able to walk a straight line, but with her eyes set on the city gates.

'I know of a place not far from here!' she shouts to him without turning back. 'Red Water Den! A cozy little corner where they serve special Skooma! Extra-potent Skooma! Where I can finally be alive!'

She ends her outcry with a loud burst of hysterical laughter, throwing her head back and flapping her arms like wings. The thought of finding more Skooma seems to give her a rush of feverish energy, and she even manages to break into a run.

As she disappears through the gates, Romlyn makes a few limping steps after her, cursing at her under his breath but still determined to reason with her - but stops in his tracks very soon, deafened by the outraged voice of a male Nord (the stable master, he thinks), booming loud enough for all of Riften to hear,

'HEY, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING, YOU BLOODY GREY-SKIN! GET BACK HERE, THIEF!'

Oh, great. She stole a horse.

Romlyn sighs deeply and buries his clawing fingers in his hair.

Even if he does, somehow, catch up with Niluva, getting her off that horse, wrestling with her and calming her down in her current state will take too long, and Indaryn will probably get back from his break soon. If he returns before Romlyn, he will promptly notice that he's gone, and then... Then he might fire him too, and no genius plans to burn down the competing meadery will get Romlyn back in the brew master's graces.

And with no access to the meadery, he will be unable to go on with his... covert side operation. He will be unable to save up enough money to finally spit in Indaryn's face, and say that he quits, on his own terms, to start a new life worthy of a proud Dreth - a life that he thought Niluva could share, maybe, just maybe... If he ever found the right words to explain to her that complaining with bitter relish about Indaryn's mistreatments has not been the only thing he found enjoyable about their talks. If he ever stood up to Indaryn and to Haelga for belitting Niluva for so long, thus proving to her that his intentions are honourable (for, uh, the most part). If he ever persuaded her to give that robed bore Maramal a chance and see if a visit to the Temple might actually help ease her ache for Skooma - not because of that 'Divine warmth' nonsense, of course, but because they do have some pretty potent healing potions in there. He would know; he once tried to relieve the place of some of the valuables that clutter it so much.

Wait. The Temple! This is it! He might not be able to bring Niluva back - but there are people at the Temple who claim that this is exactly the sort of thing they do.

They showed up in town just recently, three of them, with an offer to assist the priests of Mara with 'saving the hapless souls of Riften' or some such rot. But unlike Maramal and his sing-a-happy-song crowd, at least two of these strangers seemed battle-ready: Romlyn's male kinsmer and the braided female Nord. They talked about starting a 'Vigil of Mara', travelling across the Hold and beyond, solving problems, having adventures. Romlyn scoffed when he first heard them blabbering, and went on about his... mead redistribution business. But what if their words were more than just empty boasting?..

Rummaging through his pockets, Romlyn fishes out a little charred stick for writing (he always carries one around, to keep track of his, um, activities) and a grimy, sticky snatch of label off a Black-Briar mead bottle. Having sucked at the stick's blackened tip to moisten it a bit, he hastily scribbles down a message in the label's only more or less clean corner,

Vigilants of Mara:

A Riften citizen named Niluva Hlaalu has set out into the wilds to find a Skooma den. Prove that you care about people, including those who cannot afford your stupid tithes - save her.

A concerned friend

Taking this note to the Temple would have been problematic, what with his foot still feeling sore and time running catastrophically short - but, by an exceedingly fortuitous coincidence, he suddenly happens to spot the newcomers walking by, crossing the market square. All three together: the Nord, the male Dunmer, and also another kinsmer, a small, short-haired female, who seems the meekest of their little gang.

'I... I think I might take a vow to Mara,' the Dunmer woman is saying, eyes cast down and cheeks slightly flushed. 'After... After what happened at the Hall, I don't think I will be able to fight evil with a blade and spell in my hands any longer. But I do want to do my small, quiet share of work to make the world a better place'.

'And make that Redguard's quarters a better place too, I would wager!' the Nord chortles - but instantly checks herself and adds apologetically,

'Sorry, Dinny - that was probably too insensitive'.

'I no longer have nightmares, Pony,' Dinny points out softly (Pony? Really? What sort of name is that?). 'I am healing, I truly am. Maramal has been a great help with that - and I do like him very, very much'.

'That's wonderful!' the male Dunmer smiles. 'Not... Not to rush things along, but it might be of use to you to know that priests from our order are allowed to form bonds with the person they care about, to set an example to the community'.

'Oh they are, are they?' the Nord nods meaningfully. 'That is a useful fact indeed!'

The male Dunmer coughs and looks away, his face redder than the tomatoes at the fruit stall that they are passing - and just at this moment, Romlyn, who has folded his message into a little paper cliff-racer, shoots it across the square, almost hitting the mer in the eye. The three friends cry out, at various pitches, and huddle together to examine the note - while Romlyn, inclining his head in satisfaction after yet another display of the legendary Dreth finesse, limps off towards the meadery.


***


Of course, Isran, the rough, battle-scarred Redguard and the leader of the vampire hunters from Dayspring Canyon, was beyond furious when two prospective recruits sauntered in while accompanied by a 'creature of the night'. Apparently, he had been patrolling the grounds when they arrived, so he intercepted them outside the fort, just as they entered the canyon and the tall stone tower came into view. His first welcome to the three travellers was a charge of burning golden magic, like sunlight turned into a spell, which rushed forward in an alarmingly rising tide, and scorched the short blades of grass and fallen leaves, making them turn into sorry brittle curled-up things, like butterfly cocoons in its wake.

Feeling her eyes slowly turn into boiled eggs because of the bright sun flare, Yalanwen grabbed her young vampire friend by the hand and pulled him to safety, just like she had done when escaping Helgen with his father (goodness, that poor, poor man... how could he have caused his child's vampirism when he obviously cared for him so much?).

Isran was prepared to recharge his protective sun blast - but she urgently pleaded him, still holding on to the vampire's hand,

'Please, wait! I know what this looks like - but I promise my companion does not want to hurt you! He put himself at great risk getting here, and his intentions are pure! He wants to pass on a warning! The other vampires are organizing themselves - aiming for conquering the world!'

This gave the Redguard some pause, and he allowed the vampire to tell him what he knew - all the while insisting on calling him 'creature' and 'it', despite the young Imperial having clearly told him his name: Felix. And after Felix was finished, Isran hoisted the small crossbow he was carrying at his belt, and said,

'Learning this has been beneficial. It officially reaffirms the suspicions I already had, and makes it clear that the Dawnguard must take immediate action. For that, I suppose the creature deserves a quick death via silver bolt to the heart, rather than the pain of being consumed by sunfire'.

Quite naturally, Yalanwen could not stand idly by and allow something horrible like this to happen! She edged between the Redguard and Felix - with Agmaer almost audibly blinking at her, struck by shock - and declared that she would not let Isran hurt such a noble, courageous young man just because he was a vampire.

This earned her a very painful slap with another blinding spell - some sort of scrying magic to check if she had been enthralled: forced to defend her 'master' by means of a powerful illusion. Which she most certainly wasn't - leaving Isran utterly confused. Apparently, he had never met a vampire and a mortal that were working together merely as friends, with no strings attached. Well, at least he was getting a chance at some valuable life-long learning.

Yalanwen made it quite clear that she would not budge until Felix was out of danger - and eventually, reluctantly, the Dawnguard leader caved. After some colourful Redguard cursing (which made Agmaer giggle for some reason), he took a deep breath, lowered his crossbow and muttered gruffly that he was letting Felix live.

Not only that - but Isran also (seeing that the poor boy now had nowhere else to go and would very much like to personally see the other vampires stopped, which Yalanwen made sure to emphatically repeat after Felix about half a dozen times) allowed to 'conduct a test whether the creature can be a permanent asset'.

And now, here they are, going off on their very first Dawnguard mission: Yalanwen, Felix, and a fierce-looking pony-tailed Orc named Durak, who apparently is responsible for watching over new recruits (Agmaer has stayed behind at the fort, impatient to begin his vampire-slaying training and to impress Isran with his 'untapped potential').

The task at hand is to bolster the Dawnguard ranks in the face of what looks to be an all-out war with the vampires - starting with some old associates of Isran's, who went their separate ways some time ago... Ater some argument, Yalanwen would wager.

The first person on their list is a Nord named Gunmar - a red-haired 'giant of a man', according to Isran's description (he groused far less than usual when he said that, which made Agmaer puff out his chest eagerly, whispering to Yalanwen, 'Do you suppose this means he likes big and strong Nords?'). A Breton named Celann, another one of the Dawnguard members, brought news that Gunmar had been recently spotted making camp in one of the surrounding birch groves, so he should not be too hard to track down - even for a mediocre scout like Yalanwen.

That is, if she actually gets her mind focused on doing some scouting. Because so far, she has been too distracted by glancing into the faces of Durak and Felix. Like Isran, the Orc is barely tolerating the boy's presence; and at one point, his hostile scowl becomes too much for Yalanwen to bear.

'Oh, please don't look at Felix like that!' she cries out, wringing her hands in exasperation. 'He is on our side!'

'You have clearly lost no family to vampires,' Durak says darkly, wrinkling his nose as if Felix is exuding some foul stench. 'The bastards destroyed Isran's home; took two of my wives - so forgive me if I am not in too much of a hurry to welcome one of their kind with open arms'.

His little rant makes Felix stumble in his tracks and bury his face in his hands; this unsettles Yalanwen even more than Durak's glares, and she lingers behind by the young Imperial's side, letting the Orc walk on a little way ahead. Durak still keeps turning his head and suspiciously scrutinizing the vampire from every angle, but at least he has moved out of direct earshot; meaning that Yalanwen can comfort Felix without the Orc starting to call him names again.

Leaning in with a sympathetic look on her face, she asks in a lowered voice,

'Are you all right? Has Durak hurt your feelings? Should I take it up with him?'

'No, no, please don't!' Felix flaps his arms almost like a little vampiric windmill. 'I... I was feeling ashamed of myself because I had a thought that was very... unworthy of me! When the, uh... Orc mentioned that "my kind" had killed his wives... Orcs are polygamous, by the way, aren't they? I am not too familiar with the cultures outside the, er, Empire of... of Cyrodiil... Anyway, when he said what he did, my first mental reaction was... "I could say the same about you - you remind me of the creatures that killed my mother!".

With a tiny squeak, Yalanwen moves even closer to Felix, opening herself for a hug - which he gratefully accepts.

'Orcs killed your mother?' she echoes him softly. 'I am so, so, so very sorry!'

'They weren't Orcs,' Felix corrects her, choosing each word with extreme care. 'It's just that... Out of all the people in this... in, er, Tamriel, Orcs look most similar to them... On the - on the outside. Like I said, drawing that comparison was unworthy of me, because from what... what I know, each Orc is a person, with thoughts and dreams and hopes and affections. Those creatures, on the other hand - they were warped by... um... by dark magic and disease, with not a shred of personhood left. They...'

He shuts his eyes for a moment and throws back his head, one hand resting on his brow.

'They clawed out my mother's throat when she tried to shield me with her magic, and... infected me with the... sickness they carried. The Orc... Durak is nothing like them. I shouldn't have thought of him that way'.

'Well, he shouldn't have thought of you the way he did either. You are nothing like the vampires that killed his wives - I am sure of it,' Yalanwen states firmly, once again wrapping her arms around Felix and swaying slightly from side to side.

She does not sway for long, though. Struck by realization, she stiffens and steps away from Felix, trying not to blink because she feels that if she lets her unshed tears flow, there will be no stopping the louder, stronger sobs - and she had best not make a scene when she is on a mission to prove that both she and Felix can be trusted.

Dear gods, she hopes she will not hurt Felix too much - he did tell her not to discuss this any further. But she feels that this thought that has dawned upon her just now is far too important not to try and put into words.

'If you were infected...' she begins slowly, hoping that a single deep breath will last her. 'Then it must me that... that Gideon...'

'He turned me to cure me,' Felix admits. 'He became a monster himself and bit me so I could become one - because nothing else had worked'.

'So this means that he is not evil!' Yalanwen blurts out excitedly. 'That he does not deserve being pushed away and not talked about ever again!'

'I... I wouldn't be so certain about that,' Felix shakes his head mournfully. 'He... He is a very determined man... being.... When he gets involved in something, he lets it consume him whole. And I believe that the same happened with the darkness of vampirism'.

'Hey, you two!' Durak cuts their little heart-to-heart talk short, waving at them impatiently from the path ahead. 'Hurry up, will you? I think I saw someone moving between the trees! Could be Gunmar, could be a random bandit - but we'd best investigate!'

***

Niluva can hear Hofgrir's cries behind her for a while, then the heavy hoof clops of another horse, which he must have saddled to give her chase. But the sturdy little beast that she has snatched for herself does a great job swerving among the birches and leaping over logs and ducking behind large boulders - especially since Niluva herself has only a very vague general idea how to steer a guar, let among one of those weird mammalian mounts. All she can do is spur the horse on with her heels, grip wildly at the saddlebow, and shut her eyes whenever a birch branch slaps her on the forehead, her almost always being too slow to bend down. The rest of the chase is entrusted to the horse - and it does take her deep enough into the wilderness for the shouts and the clopping to finally cease, replaced by the rustling of the leaves, the creaking of the birch trunks, and the shrill chirping of some annoyingly cheerful bird.

And just now, when she has finally lost that bothersome stable master and can begin a proper search for Red Water Den, the stupid creature decides to slow down and hang its head. Wait, is it chewing on grass down there? Swatting off flies with its tail?! The nerve of the nag! And how is she going to get to her Skooma if the brainless beast doesn't cooperate?!

'Move!' Niluva bellows, hammering at the horse's arched neck with her fists. 'I said move! Don't you hear me?! I have to find Red Water Den! I have to!'

The stubborn thing slants its eye at Niluva and snorts loudly, still without budging. And the thirst for Skooma, which is still splintering her bones and making her limbs shake, whispers to Niluva that the horse must despise her too. Like all of them: Haelga, Indaryn, Maramal, Romlyn, her n'wah of a father, stuck on that dismal farm near Windhelm under some insane hope that he will restore the Hlaalu traditions...

The horse patronizes her! The horse thinks itself better! Oh, she will show it who's better! She will!

'Move, you fucking flea bag!' Niluva roars, her voice louder and louder still. 'Move, or I will gut you! I will rip your eyes out with my bare hands!'

'Your horse is wise not to obey you,' a calm, cold voice speaks up suddenly, as a dark figure appears out of nowhere right in front of Niluva, a tiny whirlwind of fallen birch leaves circling round its feet. 'You do not belong in Red Water Den. No mortal does'.

Niluva leaves the horse's neck alone and rubs her eyes, not sure if what she is seeing is real (judging by experience, it probably isn't).

The strange shadow sounds like a man (human one, most likely), and is built like one too; but there is no visible face underneath the black hood it is wearing - just a pair of burning yellow eyes. The figure's long cloak shifts at it steps forward, and Niluva notices two things, neither of which is particularly encouraging: one, that the stranger is carrying some sort of goblet or chalice strapped to his belt, dark and spiky and unmistakably Daedric-looking, marking him as a cultist; and two, that there are blood splatters on his vest. Oh damn, the fetcher had better be a hallucination!

'Red Water Den is a trap,' he goes on, walking up to the horse and patting it gently on the neck while Niluva watches him from her saddle, petrified and unable to utter a word, a piercing chill travelling up her spine.

His hand is whiter than finest sugar dust, and there is green magic trailing behind it like smoke; its coils enter the horse's eyes, making its eyelids droop, its eyelashes casting a long, dark shadow. Niluva tries to lean back, to slide off the saddle - but the magic reaches her too, and suddenly there is only one impulse animating her aching body: a desire to hear the stranger out and do as he says.

'The whole purpose of the place is to lure hapless addicts like you,' he tells her. 'Once they have a taste of that vile substance, they can never leave, can never return to who they once were. Mindless and vulnerable, they serve as easy prey for those who want to taste their blood. I lingered by their side once my...'

His free hand slides instinctively to check if the chalice is still there.

'... Once my business there was concluded. Most of them were too far-gone; utterly unable to realize what fate had befallen them. You, however, have not tasted Red Water Skooma yet; you can still be saved. When I leave you be, your horse will turn back and carry you to where you came from; you will seek out the people who care about you, tell them you are safe, and never seek out Red Water Den again'.

'I cannot... do that...' Niluva mouths, her vision growing cloudy save for the two yellow eyes that float before her like torch bugs. Nobody... cares about me... Why did you think... I am... looking for... Red Water... Skooma...'

The yellow eyes widen.

'I see. In that case, allow me to be that person for you. There are hardly any things worse that having no-one who cares about you... I would know'.

The voice sounds sad, in odd contrast with the Daedric cultist get-up. Niluva cannot be sure whether or not it's just the green spell at work - but she is compelled to reach forward, to shake the stranger's hand or something... But the shadow is gone. There is nothing left behind but a tuft of greyish mist and a few trampled-up leaves. And just as the stranger commanded, the horse slowly turns around and heads back towards Riften... Until it hears the distant roar of a bear.

Chapter Text

The human figure that Durak spotted does turn out to match the description Isran gave of Gunmar - a tall Nord with a bushy ginger beard and bulging arm muscles, each about the size of Yalanwen's head. When the Orc catches up with him, two recruits in tow, they see him pass his hand along the four deep, splintering gashes that have maimed the trunk of a nearby birch, and then crouch down to the ground, focusing intently on something in the thicket ahead.

'Hey Gunmar!' Durak says loudly, approaching the Nord till he can almost extend his band and tap him on the shoulder. 'Quit what you are doing and listen up! We have a vampire crisis on our hands, and Isran needs your help!'

The sound of his voice almost makes the poor man leap out of the heavy beast hide armour he is wearing.

'Whoah there!' he exclaims, getting up and turning around. 'Don't go sneaking up on people like that! Wait, what was that you said? Did you just use "help" and "Isran" in the same sentence? Whatever could Isran possibly need my help with? He always said he could handle himself alone! Besides, I moved on years ago. I have more important business to attend to...'

'More important than stopping a whole clan of vampires from taking over Skyrim, maybe even Tamriel?' Durak asks, folding his arms on his chest. 'What part of the word "crisis" don't you understand?'

'By the Eight!' Gunmar scratches his head. 'I did not hear you say that! Was too busy being deafened by your growling Orc voice! That does change things, but...'

His gaze travels from Durak to Yalanwen and Felix, and he instantly reaches for his battle axe (which is as massive as can be expected of a warrior of his physique).

'Oooh, so that's the crisis! The buggers have infiltrated Isran's Dawnguard and turned you into their thrall!'

'I am not a thrall, I assure you,' Durak grunts. 'That creature is tame, or so its Bosmer handler insists. I can even punch it to prove that I am not under its control'.

'For the last time, he is not a creature, and I am not his handler!' Yalanwen flails her hands in front of Durak, indicating that she is close to grabbing and shaking him. 'You two really should talk and come to an understanding! Felix has more in common with you than you think, Durak - and he is on our side!'

'You seem to have some weird things going on up there in the fort...' Gunmar remarks, narrowing his eyes. 'I might just head back to the old headquarters and check if Isran hasn't gotten in over his head. But not now. First, I have a bear to kill'.

Yalanwen cocks her head in confusion.

'Are you hunting for food and fur, or sport? Because if it's for sport, that is, well, not very polite, considering what we just told you'.

'This is no ordinary hunt,' Gunmar replies to her, resting his hand on the mangled tree again - and the longer he keeps talking, the more agitated his explanation gets.

'I am a beast trainer, see. I can take the wildest, meanest creature out there, find the right approach to it, and get it to follow certain commands. My specialty is armoured combat trolls, but I can also wrangle an odd bear or two. And this is just what this sorcerer fellow hired me to do - tame a bear for him, he said. I will pay you handsomely, he said. Little did I know that he only needed me to subdue the bear so that he could experiment on it and turn it into a merciless killing machine! Well, in the end the bloody thing tore loose, bit the sorcerer's head off, and went rampaging through the countryside. Been tracking it down for two weeks. It left a blood trail after it as broad as my arm is long - and I simply cannot risk it taking any more lives!'

'So, if we help you finish with that bear, will you return with us to Fort Dawnguard?' Durak tries impatiently to steer the conversation back on track.

'We have a deal,' Gunmar nods, with another long glance at Felix. 'The bear headed that way. Follow me'.

They do not walk through the bushes too far before they hear the shrill neigh of a horse and the long, booming roar of a bear. The four travellers barely have time to tumble aside (Gunmar pulling at Durak's Dawnguard armour and Durak little short of tucking Yalanwen and Felix under each of his arms) when the beasts that made the commotion leap out into view: first, a wild-eyed, frothing horse, with a wide-mouthed, glassy-eyed female Dunmer rider clinging on for dear life; and then, a gigantic creature that does have a recognizably ursine shape but is coloured a violet-tinted black and has what looks like soul gem shards sticking out of its thick fur in places, pulsing with a bright purple light, just like the monster's eyes.

The poor little horse struggles as hard as it can to escape from the transformed bear's dripping, toothy jaws - but proves to be too slow and worn-out to outrun its lumbering pursuer. The bear pounces at it in mid-gallop, digging its claws into its prey's hind quarters and pulling with such force that, with an unnatural scream of agony, the horse gets almost completely ripped in half.

The same impact sends the rider soaring through the air, tracing very a steep curve that would have surely ended with a fatal fall, if it were not for... the grey bat-like creature that Felix has hastily transformed into, since walking through the dappled shade of the birch forest has given him just enough strength to use his vampiric powers.

The bear has been distracted by ploughing through the dead horse's steaming, ripped-up intestines and raising an endless upward drizzle of blood - not for sustenance, it seems, but rather out of sheer cruelty and malice, with its purple eyes burning brighter and brighter the more carnage it causes. This would have given either of the two men a chance to strike the monster down - but instead, amazed and bewildered, they watch Felix, as he glides towards a large rock, tall enough to give even the killer bear at least some pause should it try to claw its way up, and, gently placing down the Dunmer, who has fainted with shock, rejoins the fray.

Only Yalanwen has had her eyes on the bear this whole time; reaching for her trusty bow, she fires the first shot, muttering to herself, 'I hope this does not go the way it did with the bear under Helgen Keep!'... And apparently, she jinxes her own arrow, because when it hits the furry hump on the monstrous bear's back (the snout being out of reach as it has dug too deep into the raw red mass of shredded horse flesh), the creature only flies into a rage and, straightening up menacingly, glares down at the little Bosmer with its blazing, empty eyes, paws prepared for a mighty swatting blow that would have likely torn Yalanwen's skin off her face, or worse.

But, having learned her lesson from the Helgen encounter, Yalanwen roll-dodges away from the bear, so that, instead of clawing at her, it comes down heavily on all fours again. By now, Gunmar and Durak have finally begun to pay attention again; they whip out their respective weapons and charge towards the bear.

The air grows dense with a shower of projectiles: both Durak's bolts and new arrows from Yalanwen; the monster's coat is thick and half crusted-over with soul gems, but a few shots do make it bleed, in dark rivulets that look more like oil oozing out of a damaged Dwemer construct. As the killer bear slows down and begins to stagger, Gunmar seizes this opportunity to strike a few blows in melee range, opening a deep wound that showers him in more black oily blood - but even then, the beast does not quite succumb to its injuries. With a roar that ends in a stifled, tremulous note - almost piteous, even - it presses all of its weight against Gunmar, toppling him to the ground and mothering him in dense black fir, while a few of the soul gem crystals that stick out of it sink into the ground a hair's breadth away from his face. Yalanwen and Durak even have to lower their arms, because the more they fire at the creature, the closer its body sags to the forest floor and the harder it is for the Nord to breathe.

Panting loudly, Gunmar attempts to wriggle free - but the moment he thrusts out his arm, the bear, which is still alive, snaps its jaws at him, almost severing his limb off its body. The only thing that prevents the bear from doing that is, once again, interference from Felix. After trying and failing to hit the bear's hind paws with his long grey clawed limbs, he has been mostly keeping to the ground and focusing on not getting hit by friendly fire; but now that there are no more arrows and crossbow bolts zooming around, he finally dares to spread his wings again.

Lifting himself a little way off the ground, he takes a short dive at the bear's head, with his eyes shut and his claws thrust forward, so that when he lands, they plunge directly into the creature's sockets. The pain of losing its eyes seems to force the bear to muster together all the final remnants of its strength; it rears its head again, stumbling up to its hind legs, while Felix dangles off its back like a small, grey, and very much terrified leech.

The bear sways blindly from side to side, as if intending to smear poor Felix all over the nearest rock (the same on top of which the unconscious Dunmer is still lying) - but at the most crucial moment, when it already brushes against a solid stone surface with its side, a bolt of dazzling white lightning comes flying somewhere out of the forest, and fells the colossal black creature for good.

Luckily, the dead bear lands on its belly (after ramming its hind quarters, a bit comically, into a tree trunk), meaning that Felix does not get crushed under its weight. He remains half-sitting on top of the monster, having reverted back to human form and gaping in shock at the blood trickling down from his fingers. Gunmar, a bit crumpled-up and with reddish stripes imprinted in his arms where the bear's coarse fur cut into his skin, waddles up to him and, helping him get down, pats him on the shoulder.

'Never been in such a gruesome battle before, eh?' he asks, understanding in his eyes. 'Don't be ashamed of your fear, lad - it proves to me that you are not as darkened as other vampires; does it far better than a punch from Durak, too'.

Felix swallows and looks up at him.

'Are you... Are you really...' he begins hesitantly.

'Changing my tune? Aye,' Gunmar nods. 'I owe you my life now! And the thing is... If you met Isran, you know that he is Oblivion-bent on cutting down every last vampire, even if that means, say, sacrificing a whole village full of innocent farmers in the process. And I sort of get where he is coming from: he lost his family because of... creatures like that. We both did. He is bent on revenge, old Isran - but me... I care far more about protecting people than avenging the people that were taken from me. Needless bloodshed will not bring my family back; all I can do is make sure no-one else has to go through that kind of loss again. And I think... I think you might be of some help on that mission, lad'.

While Gunmar and Felix are bonding by the dead monster's side, and Durak is watching them, still uncertain but not quite hostile, Yalanwen becomes greatly interested in whom that crucial magic charge came from. Based on the choice of spell and the awfully familiar way in which it killed the bear, part of her is even hoping that it might have been Gideon. And oh, it would have been so very, very wonderful! She would have been beyond ecstatic to see her mage friend again, to watch him get reunited with his son, to see that thread-thin, unsure smile of his grow bolder, broader, happier, a spark of warmth livening his eyes and those lovely gossamer lines appearing around their corners...

But it was not Gideon who fired that lightning bolt; and it is not Gideon who walks out of the thicket, taking in the scene that unfolds around the bear's corpse with surprise and relief. It is another Dunmer, male this time, with a small, greying beard and long strands of salt-and-pepper hair escaping from under the hood of his traditional healer's robe, as he strides brusquely towards the dead beast, evidently quite intrigued by its nature.

He grinds his heels abruptly into the ground when he spots Felix, who has concluded his conversation with Gunmar by giving him a brief handshake, and is in the middle of transforming into a bat again. The wider Felix spreads his wings, aiming to glide up to the top of the rock again and carry the hapless rider down, and the more he bares his fangs in concentration, the deeper the Dunmer's frown grows, and he even cautiously raises his hand to cast another lightning spell. Yalanwen's big Bosmer ears seem to catch him grousing faintly, 'Not another one of these damn abominations'.

And she is more than ready to come up to that uninvited mer, and tell him all she thinks about him for calling Felix names - but she does not get a chance. For the tree that the bear hit as it fell is rotten and crumbling inside, and that powerful blow made its trunk snap in two, a jagged crack running through it and its upper half barely holding together with the lower, wobbling like a loosened tooth. And now it finally decides that it is time to fall - right onto the Dunmeri rider, who has come to her senses and is swivelling her head around madly and mumbling incoherently. She may have been protected from the killer bear, but is completely unshielded from the trunk, which, though eaten through by rot, must be still quite heavy, and from the whip-like lashes of the long tree branches.

With a small 'Oh no!', which he exclaims in a high-pitched voice that does not at all match his appearance, Felix propels himself in between the rider and the tree, extending his grey arms to first stop the tree from falling and then push it away in the opposite direction. As he does that, one tree bough catches against his wing and rips up the webbing, drawing out an outcry of pain. With his torn wing pressed to his side, Felix cannot get down from the rock by flying - so he just cradles the Dunmer woman to his chest, taking care not to get her simple, rather threadbare dress smeared with his blood (while she gapes at him with a blank expression that makes her look like a slaughterfish out of water) and passes her down to Durak, who has found a foothold on the rock's side and pushed himself up just enough to reach the top.

After the woman is safe on the ground, nestled on a carpet of fallen leaves as far away from the two gory animal carcasses as possible, and with Durak patting her hand awkwardly, and telling her to 'breathe or something', Gunmar stands in front of the rock and spreads out his arms.

'Come on, lad!' he encourages Felix genially. 'Jump down! I will catch you!'

The injured bat straightens up, his lower limbs a bit unsteady, and after a moment of bracing himself, throws himself over the edge. True to his word, Gunmar helps break his fall, his strong arms holding the lanky bat body until Felix's clawed paws firmly press against the soil.

'Well what do you know,' Durak says, shaking his head. 'You do have a way with every creature'.

'I don't think it's right to call him a creature, Durak,' Gunmar objects sternly, while he looks over Felix's wound. 'Funny thing, eh - helping kill that whooping-arse bear, and then getting badly smacked by a tree? Sooo...'

He looks around questioningly.

'Anybody here know healing magic?'

Yalanwen should probably have responded to that, as she is the proud master of a single Restoration spell. But she is still too preoccupied with glaring at the newcomer, whom the others have not yet properly noticed. He, in turn, makes his presence known by coughing softly, and saying,

'Ordinary restorative magic might not work on an undead thing... being. But I did happen to research a spell called Necromantic Healing, designed specifically for vampires, when a friend of mine... Ah, it doesn't matter. If you allow me, I can help your... associate'.

Though he tries to be helpful, the last remaining notes of distaste in his voice are still evident, and Yalanwen has to scold herself very hard for the dark, angry thoughts that keep crossing her mind, even as the mer motions Felix to sit down on the fallen tree half that is now lying on the ground like a log, and lowers himself next to him, taking a small healing kit out of the sachet at his side and weaving threads of eerie pale light through his fingers. She has never felt so frustrated with anyone before, even when they were mean to her friends! Goodness - could it be her dragon blood showing, fiery and aggressive, whispering how great it would be to Shout both Durak and that Dunmer off their feet?.. She really is terrible at this, isn't she?

'I am sorry, muthsera,' she blurts out, addressing the Dunmeri healer as politely as she can. 'And... And you, Durak. I have been feeling... rather... cross with you. Every time you showed distrust to Felix, I... I just... I am not usually like this, I promise!'

'There is nothing to apologize for, child,' the Dunmer assures her as he stitches up Felix's wing, his magic having indeed quelled the bleeding. The sight of the injuries that the vampire suffered when shielding an innocent, along with the bright, thankful smile he has given him, seems to slowly shake the healer's conviction that he is sitting beside an 'abomination'.

I... I always believed that vampires did not deserve the Benevolence of my Divine, but seeing what this young... man just did, I am starting to think I was too narrow-minded. In that case, your anger was more than well-placed'.

'Great, now I feel even guiltier,' Yalanwen sighs. 'You speak so nobly, muthsera!'

"Muthsera, muthsera", Durak mimics her, scowling at the healer. He would have come up to him, but the mer's kinswoman is holding on tightly to his hand as she blinks her way to reality. 'Who are you, anyway, poking your nose into strangers' business in the middle of a forest?'

'A humble priest of Mara making his way through these woods to perform a task for the people of Riften,' the healer introduces himself, with a reserved bow. 'My name is...'

'ERANDUR!' a female voice calls breathlessly, getting closer and closer and accompanied by hurried, noisy footsteps. 'Stop running off... like that! If you got hurt by that bear we heard because you didn't wait for me, I will...'

Without finishing the sentence, a tall, ample-bodied Nord woman stumbles out of the woods; she is wearing the same robe as the male Dunmer, and there are long, dark sweaty streaks under her arm pits.

Seeing her makes Felix stiffen, his fanged mouth wide open.

'Pony!' he squawks, flapping his healed wings energetically (so that he almost knocks Erandur off the log). 'You are alive!'

The Nord is even more taken aback than Felix.

'Wait...' she says, circling around the log and pointing an inquiring finger at the overjoyed bat. 'Why does your voice sound like Felix's? Who are you? And for that matter, who are all these people? And is that... Is that supposed to be a bear? Oh, and a... horse? Who does that to a horse?! Erandur... What have you gotten involved in?'

Hanging his head in shame, Felix sheds his bat-like form, wincing and grabbing at his forearm, as this is where the stitching must have moved when his limbs (rather grotesquely) rearranged themselves.

'It's me, Pony,' he says sadly. 'I have been... turned into... this... against my will. But... But I swear haven't tasted a droplet of human blood - nor do I intend to! And... at least I don't have to deal with my... old sickness any longer'.

With a gasp of recognition, the Nord races to embrace him, her whole body heaving with emotion.

'Stendarr! Mara! Arkay!' she laments, holding Felix so close that his head nearly drowns in her bosom, with only the (suddenly pale-pink) tips of his ears visible. 'Will your suffering never end?! Oh, to think that you have been corrupted by the same beasts that sacked our Hall... But you have not lost your true self, have you?'

'He hasn't! He is working against those vampires who wish to hurt us mortals! He has even been recruited into the Dawnguard... Well, kind of,' Yalanwen assures her gleefully - and the Nord responds with a smile of gratitude over the top of Felix's head.

'Pony, wait... You know each other?' Erandur asks, a little crack seeming to run through his voice.

'We did,' Felix corrects him, disentangling himself from Pony. 'When I was still human'.

'Which was not even a month ago,' the Nord points out. 'You make it sound as if a century has passed!'

Felix merely gives her a long, silent look, and then turns away and changes the subject with such abruptness that he might as well have transformed again.

'You were saying you were performing a task for the people of Riften,' he says to Erandur. 'Is this anything you need assistance with? You did kill that bear, after all - and took care of my wing. I would very much like to return the favour - and perhaps...' he looks at Yalanwen, Gunmar and Durak, seeming rather apologetic for having taken initiative. 'Perhaps you agree as well?'

The Dawnguard, Durak included, do not raise any objections, much to Felix's relief.

'That is an honourable sentiment,' Erandur replies graciously. 'And yes, I suppose we could use some aid...'

Pony inclines her head in affirmation - and slight embarrassment.

'We have been stumbling around on a bit of a wild goose chase, I'm afraid,' she confesses, combing her hair back with her fingers. 'We are supposed to rescue a Skooma addict who left Riften to look for some drug den in the wilds... But the problem is, her horse's tracks have not been much help, and since we are new to town, we do not even know for certain what she looks like'.

'All we have to go on is her name, really,' Erandur continues after her. 'Niluva Hlaalu'.

The female Dunmer, who has so far been silent and half-obscured from view by Durak's bulky frame, springs into a more upright pose and speaks up, almost tangible rust flaking off her voice,

'That's me! That's me, you stupid Temple types! I am Niluva Hlaalu - I am the one you were supposed to rescue! And you didn't even notice me! You didn't even care to check who I was, or how I was feeling! You were too busy patching up that bat freak! So what - even a monster like that deserves more attention than me?!'

'Please, child,' Erandur implores her gently, moving over to Durak's side.

The Orc is only too happy to make way for him, since Niluva has finally stopped clinging to him and started thrashing her arms chaotically through the air instead, spit flying out of her mouth and her crimson eyes sickeningly close to rolling back in their sockets.

'Please... Forgive me for my carelessness. I got distracted from my duty to help another - but I am here now. And I will not turn my back on you again. Just keep still, and I will cast a healing spell that will subdue the agony of your withdrawal, so we can all head home...'

Niluva curses and wails a bit longer, but Erandur manages to escape the blows of her writhing limbs, and carefully wraps her in an ethereal blanket of healing magic.

'You may start feeling a little drowsy,' he warns. 'This is nothing to be alarmed about. Once you have rested, you will feel much better'.

The blanket glows brighter, appearing more and more soft and downy, as if Niluva is snuggling inside a soft, warm, golden cloud. She lies back on the leaves again, her hands no longer twitching and her breathing growing steadier; still, as long as the spell has not yet taken full effect, Niluva keeps trying to express her bitterness.

'You are... trying to trick me...' she mumbles thickly, her eyes sliding shut. 'Trick me... into thinking... you care... No-one cares about me... I am... alone... and worthless... And miserable... Even a Dae... Dee... Deer-drick cultist agrees...'

Erandur starts, a shadow darkening on his brow.

'Did you say Daedric cultist?' he asks, raising his voice. 'Did you meet one? Where?'

'In... in th'forest...' Niluva slurs in an ever-fading whisper. 'He had these... Yellow eyes... Like that freak over there... They were scary at first, these eyes... And then... then sad... No-one cares about him either... He put some sort of... spell on me... So I'd go back... to Riften... and never look for... Red Water Den...'

As her last word gradually turns into a long snore, Felix bites into his fingernail thoughtfully.

'Red Water Den...' he ponders. 'I think... I think I heard some of the other vampires talk about it... Before they went off to sleep during the day, and I made my escape. I think there were rumours of Skooma addicts disappearing in the area, and they thought that some vampire... not of their clan... could be using them as a food source. They...' he makes a little disgusted retching sound. 'They approved'.

'That sounds worth investigating!' Durak remarks, stroking the hilt of his crossbow. 'Gunmar, you coming?'

'Absolutely!' the male Nord says enthusiastically. 'The bear has been put down, and I am now all at Isran's disposal!'

'Then this is where we part ways, my friends,' Erandur looks over the Dawnguard teammates and glances down to study Niluva's face. 'Freeing more addicts from the vampires' clutches is a worthy cause, but must see to it that this lost soul properly recovers. Unless you, Pony, would like to...'

'Oh, no, no, please, I am sure my companions can manage!' Felix silences him, with a forced, nervous laugh. 'Can't you? You make such a great team! Come on! Let's head out!'

'I... I think I would father stay with Erandur,' Pony says stiffly, with an offended frown that does not escape Erandur's attention.

While the vampire hunters and their new acquaintances are saying their farewells, he leaves Niluva in Pony's care and leads Felix to the side for a brief moment, asking him in a lowered, concerned voice,

'Why are you avoiding Pony? There is something on your mind, I can tell'.

'You sound like a priest offering to take a confession,' Felix says - and then claps his hand against his mouth and adds, his eyes cast down, 'That is... If there is... such a thing in... in this part of, er, Tamriel'.

'Of course there is such a thing,' Erandur chuckles. 'And as a matter of fact, I really am a priest. But I am asking more as a friend of Pony's... And someone who wants to make up for mistaking you for a monster'.

Felix sighs.

'If you want to hear the truth... Back when Pony knew the... normal me, I... I think I rather... fancied her, you know... I mean, she is quite... um... feminine... and well, kind and sincere and... But now...'

His eyes flash a fiery yellow.

'But now I am a vampire, and it does not feel right... Not that it would have worked anyway, because I am from... Because it would not have worked'.

'I could encourage her to rekindle your friendship, if you'd like... Give it a chance to blossom into something... deeper,' Erandur offers; and it seems to Felix that there is that crack in his voice again. 'You may be... what you are, but you are obviously pure of heart, and who knows, maybe Mara in her infinite wisdom will show a way to escape your affliction. The thing is...'

He slants his eyes to seek out Pony, who is discussing something with Gunmar and Yalanwen, and furrows his forehead.

'She now has her sights set on a man who does not in the least deserve her affections. A vampire with good intentions may actually stand a better chance at making her happy than... someone like that'.

'Don't you think it is up to Pony to decide who she wants to get closer to?' Felix asks, a little testily.

Erandur fidgets with his hood, apparently taking great care to tuck his hair underneath it - but in actuality, as Felix suspects, just avoiding eye contact.

'I know that man very well,' he says, the crack in his voice now running deeper than ever. 'And he agrees that... that Pony is too good for him... even as a friend...'

A sneaky little thought creeps into Felix's mind - but before he can ponder on it properly, Durak calls to him.

It is time for the Dawnguard to go clear a Skooma den.

Chapter Text

Niluva was barely capable of giving coherent directions, and the rumours from Castle Volkihar were not exactly enough for Felix to draw a step-by-step route to reach Red Water Den - so in the end, the four travellers stumble on the place by sheer accident, while retreating from a clearing that turned out to be the favourite napping spot of a most grouchy family of Spriggans.

Roused from their dormant state (in which they resembled a cluster of mossy tree stumps all leaning against one another), the forest beings released a buzzing, blinding, stinging swarm of tiny flies that crawled into the startled team mates' mouths and nostrils (and, at least judging by what it felt like, underneath their eyelids too). The cloud of the nasty little mites did not disperse until the adventurers backtracked far enough for the Spriggans to go back to sleep, crossing their long, bark-covered arms on their chests and freezing up in the tree stump guise again.

Gunmar mutters something about 'damn trees beating people up everywhere!', but does not make a move to attack the Spriggans - which, to be frank, makes this little wave of relief rush up Yalanwen's chest. The Green has taken a huge spit at her, but this doesn't mean she is going to be spiteful and relish in the distraction of tree spirits. Unless, of course, the dragon inside her decides to show its teeth again.

As they turn away from the Spriggans' clearing,  the travelling companions spot a small, dilapidated wooden building, too far away from any proper road to be an inn, and with no vegetable patches, wood-chopping blocks, or leather tanning racks in the vicinity, making it very unlikely to be a solitary homestead, lumberjack's hut, or hunter's lodge.

'Now there's a fishy little place if I ever saw one,' Durak mutters, squinting at the rickety shack from beneath the shield of his hand.

'Let's see if we find any of these cunning blood suckers inside!' Gunmar declares, sauntering forward with a determined look on his face - which fades away somewhat when he turns around and adds a hasty, 'No offence', directed at Felix.

They first saw the suspicious building from the side; at that angle, it appeared shabby but still intact - but as they move closer, a more detailed look reveals that it has half a roof and most of the front wall missing, as if cleaved right off by the strike of some titanic blade. Stepping through the gaping hole where the front porch should have been, they see a trap door in the exposed floor - a clear square outline, still visible through the smattering of fallen leaves.

Lowering themselves inside one by one, they are almost stifled by the contrast between the bright, vibrant golden forest outside, with a fresh little breeze playing with the birch branches, and the heavy, stagnant air in the room they have entered - an acrid mix of smoke, stale sweat (and at least several other bodily fluids), and some pungent alchemical reagent.

'Dear Mak... Mara, this place is like one of those dismal little cheap pleasure houses!' Felix whispers, barely able to collect himself after a tremendous gagging noise.

Gunmar flicks an eyebrow curiously.

'Never figured you'd be the one to go to such places'.

'Oh, I didn't actually... avail myself of the services,' Felix hurries to explain himself, while they move further into the room, past a long, low counter, which is safeguarded by dark, greasy-looking iron bars, and then towards the mouth of a narrow dark corridor, taking time to explore everything properly.

'I had... have... had a friend who was prone to disappearing there sometimes. Especially after he got into an argument with his family'.

'Psst!' Durak hisses at Felix and waves his hand irritably in his face. 'Will you stop blabbering about these pointless trifles! Don’t you see there’s a dead body in there?!’

And so there is. A Bosmer woman in a neat brown dress, not much older than Yalanwen (in elf years, at least), lying on the floor with her body propped back against the counter and a black magicka burn on her bared neck. Other than this wound, however, she appears untouched; her face is not drained of colour, as one would expect a blood-sucker’s victim to be, and her eyes are closed, giving her an almost peaceful expression.

‘Odd, she doesn’t look like she was bitten,’ Durak muses, while behind his back, Yalanwen wipes her eyes covertly with the back of his hand, and allows Felix to do the same while using her long black hair as a napkin.

‘But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t vampires that killed her! Now we know we have to be on high alert! Keep moving, and listen carefully for any strange noises!'

The noises do not take too long to make themselves heard: countless mumbles and coughs and sighs and groans; some fairly audible, even with snatches of separate words surfacing like solid chunks of debris that float on the slurping, froth and algae-filled sea waves; others, so quiet that the four explorers seem to hear them with the tingling goose bumps on the backs of their necks rather than with their ears. The noises creep out of the further corners of the corridor and slowly fill it whole, creating an eerie ambience that makes both Durak and Gunmar whirl around wildly and point their weapons at the hissing, rustling, heaving darkness, ready to rain crossbow bolts and axe chops on whatever unseen creature that is about to raise its ugly head.

But it turns out that there is no creature; that it is not a vampire brood that is whispering in the murk, which grows ever deeper the further the four outsiders walk into the den, and seems to acquire a subtle reddish hue. No, the noises are being made by what looks to be at least a dozen of half-naked men and women, sprawled over the floor of little cell-like rooms on either side of the corridor, with empty Skooma bottles littered all around them.

They are, for the most part, just as unresponsive as Niluva was while Felix was trying to rescue her from the killer bear. A couple of them appear to be stuck in an almost comatose state, still breathing but unable to wake up no matter how hard the mighty Nord Gunmar shakes them; a handful of others have their eyes wide open, with their pupils darting back and forth at a speed that cannot be humanly possible, but cannot focus on Durak's fingers, no matter how many times he might pass them before their very noses; and there is a man who, as Yalanwen gently tries to shake him awake, suddenly pulls her into a long kiss that sounds as if he is sucking in a bowlful of noodles and then goes back to snoring, leaving the elf petrified with shock, the man's saliva still dripping off her chin.

Then, as she collects herself, she kneels down next to the sleeping kisser, and looks into his face with genuine pity in her eyes.

'I wonder whom he mistook me for,' she muses to herself, instinctively trying to pat at the man's worn-through, pancake-like excuse for a pillow so that he might rest more comfortably. 'I wonder how much time has passed since they last saw each other - and if that person still thinks of him... If they miss him... If they want him to come home...'

She inhales sharply and gets up, turning to address the three men.

'We have to send word back to Erandur and Pony,' she says. 'Before they can go too far! They need to know about this! All these wretched souls have to be freed from here somehow, before something evil shows up and does the same thing it did to my poor kinswoman - and then, they ought to be taken to a place like that Temple of Mara. Where they can get healed'.

'Well, I am not done investigating the vampires yet,' Durak objects gruffly. 'And don't you think of sneaking off, either - I need you to help keep an eye out for... what was your name, Felix? Just in case. Sure, we killed a bear together - but Isran teaches us constant vigilance'.

'The lass has a point. Clearing vampire dens is a worthy task, but we have to think about these people's safety. I can pop out and grab the healer crew,' Gunmar suggests readily. 'Shouldn't take long. Me and my axe will be back in no time! Try not to kill too many night creatures without me!'

Begrudgingly,  Durak lets him go - and hardly does Gunmar disappear up the trap door, when it becomes apparent that the Skooma addicts are not the only beings down here, living or otherwise.

Something moves in the dark - a large pale blur that sometimes seems grey and sometimes dirty-pink, depending on how the dim light shifts.

'Oh, you think you can take us down with our melee fighter gone?' Durak growls, taking aim with one eye shut tight and the other boring into the murk, seeming completely black as the pupil expands and almost fills it whole.

'Well, you blighter have another think coming!'

The blur freezes and then jerks in alarm; the motion is so sudden and hectic that it skews Durak's aim, so that when he fires his bolt, there is no squelching sound of metal piercing flesh, and no gargling last breath. Instead, there comes an outraged yowl, and a gravelly, unmistakably Dark Elven voice cries out,

'B’vek, that was rude! I was here first, you boorish fetchers! Go find your own loot!'

'Loot?' Durak echoes while edging forward, with Yalanwen and Felix in his wake. 'By Mauloch's bright-green balls, I thought I was banishing some unholy apparition... But I just shot a worthless piece of marauding scum!'

That he has - though the 'piece of marauding scum', a grey-skinned elf in a while shirt, with one sleeve pinned to the wall by Durak's bolt, does not appreciate his tone.

'Mind your tongue, n'wah!' he hisses, his red eyes lighting up fiercely, as he slides one foot forward to protect the pile of clothes and personal satchels that is scattered all around him. He must have stripped down the addicts (at least, the red dress at his feet matches the colour of the faded ribbon in the hair of one moaning comatose woman, and there is a leather cuirass that fits the tan patterns on the body of the man who kissed Yalanwen) and then dropped his precious prizes when he heard Durak's voice.

'I used to work here! I am entitled to anything I can find - as compensation for the... the torment I had to suffer when this place went to the nix-hounds!'

'So you were in on the vampires' scheme?' Durak asks demandingly, looming over the looter - so close to him that the tip of his crossbow squishes the elf's nose. 'You fed Skooma to those poor sods so that your masters could feed on their blood?!'

'Whoah, whoah, slow down!' the looter recoils from the crossbow, shrinking as far back against the wall as he can while being stuck in place, with his eyes popping out and three deep folds of skin forming under his chin. 'Serving Skooma to some slumming lowlifes wasn't my first choice! Wasn't my fault that the Red Mountain burned and forced so many of us to move to this dismal far end of a frost troll's arse, where they don't even have normal jobs like chitin carver or nix trainer! What's a mer gotta do when he has a husband who's always sick in this blasted weather, and children to feed, too?!'

At this point, Felix becomes slightly distracted from the conversation, the voices of Durak and the former Skooma server fading to a distant, vague rumble, like the echo of sea waves in a conch.

He has a husband. This elf, this husky, rugged, glaringly masculine elf, who just referred to himself as a 'he' - has a husband.

This is not something Felix would have ever thought of hearing back home - certainly not in Tevinter, nor in the circles of Orlesian society where he mostly moved. Some of his male university friends did have lovers of the same gender, which was not exactly frowned upon by their parents; but for the sake of prolonging their lineage and establishing advantageous connections, they were all expected to marry women, sooner or later - and, once their duty was done, they could safely return to 'indulging in their little quirks'. But to bond oneself with another man... To raise children together... That was a luxury no high-born Tevene or Orlesian youth could afford.

'Umm...' Felix whispers, nudging Yalanwen a little, while the Dark Elf continues to swear to Durak that he knew nothing about the vampires 'till the very last moment, when mammoth shit went down', thinking that he had been employed by some run-of-the-mill shady Skooma dealers.

'Umm... Can a man really marry a man?'

Yalanwen gapes at him, making almost the same face as the pinned-down looter.

'You can't be serious, can you? Of course he can! Anyone can marry anyone, so long as they are of age and give their consent! Here in Skyrim, all you have to do is put on an amulet of Mara to show your intentions, and bam! Wedding!'

Felix looks down, unable to escape the mental image of Dorian, strolling proudly through a Chantry, with a glinting amulet on his chest, ready to join hands with that man Felix knew him to pine for - Rilienus he thinks his name was. This would have made him so very happy - and Felix would have been happy to see his friend enjoying his freedom to express his feelings; and if Father were still around, still... himself, he would have been happy for his apprentice too. He may have even led him to the altar, because Master Halward would never have agreed to this. That would have been wonderful... So wonderful...

The roseate vision dissipates at the sound of Durak barking at the looter,

'What did you mean by "mammoth shit"? What happened here?! Where did the vampires go?! Where are they hiding?! Answer me - I have plenty of crossbow bolts left where that came from! I came here to destroy vampires, and by tusk, destroy vampires I will!'

The elf snorts.

'You are going to be mighty disappointed, my green friend. All the blood-suckers have already been dealt with. Did you think I would come out to do my... compensation collection if the place was still crawling with them? No, the cloaked fetcher took care of your "destroying" for you'.

'Cloaked fetcher?' Durak mimics him. 'What cloaked fetcher?'

'I can't go telling you tales of mysterious strangers in this awkward position, now can I?' the looter grouses. 'Let me go, if you please, and I will share all I know. The goodies are all mine though. No sharing here, no sera'.

With a low grunt, Durak yanks the bolt out of the wall; the elf flexes his shoulders and, nestling down on the floor among his scattered loot, tells the Dawnguard a rather curious tale.

It started out as a regular day; the elf's job as what he calls an 'Attendant' was to walk among the addicts, replenish their Skooma supply if necessary, and summon the thugs that guarded the den should any of them get rowdy or refuse to pay. He also had to make sure they did not choke or hurt themselves during a particularly eventful hallucination; the guards were very fond of reminding him, with a few kicks for emphasis, that 'the suckers were more use alive, with their blood pumping'.

At the time, the Attendant assumed that they meant that living addicts brought in a constant flow of gold - but now he knows the true implication behind these words. Just as he knows why the guards would sometimes order him to escort one of the mindless wretches to the back room to get a 'special dose', and why he would never see that addict again. He would tell himself that the man or woman had just slipped out of some side exit he was not aware of: outlaws' dens like these were bound to have a few, right? Right? Only... Only this was not right at all, was it?

At this part of the story, the Attendant has to pause for a while, after a long shudder, and only musters enough strength to continue after Yalanwen pats him gently on the forearm.

So... Things were all going smoothly according to the regular routine, when suddenly, the den's door swung wide open, and 'in walked that cloaked fetcher', yellow eyes a-blazing, demanding to know where he could find something called the 'Bloodstone Chalice'. At this point, something very bizarre came over the guards: growing about as hollow-faced as the addicts, they bared their swords and clubs and axes, and closed their ranks round the fetcher, chanting in unnatural, toneless voices,

'None shall know the master's secret. None shall know the master's secret'.

Immediately sensing danger, the Attendant ducked into the nearest booth and, pulling the fur-adorned overcoat off some decadent nobleman and pretending to be his 'Skooma-sucking buddy', lay down on the matted bedding, while keeping a close eye on what would happen next.

The cloaked fetcher did not take long to knock most of the guards off their feet, swirling around rather like one of those humming top toys ('My youngest loves playing with one; it's the most we could afford') and sending a wave of shock magic in all directions. Then, looking over the barely conscious ruffians, he smirked to himself and wove ghostly green ropes around the weapons that they had dropped to the floor, pulling them upwards and then tugging down forcefully, so that the sword, clubs, and axes descended upon their very owners... Hack, smack, slash... Splurt!

Here, Durak has to wave his crossbow around one more time, because the Attendant has been getting too carried away by his little raspberry-based performance, recreating the sounds made by the flying brain matter. The elf takes personal offence, claiming that his husband and children believe him to have an excellent artistic talent - but still continues.

The death of the guards had not gone unnoticed; just as the fetcher was stepping over their mush-like bodies, the gate opened 'with this sad, sobbing creak'...

'What gate?' Durak interrupts.

'There used to be a gate here,' the Attendant comments, pointing at the misshapen rock pile at the furthest end of the corridor, with a few bent slips of metal sticking out of it. 'It was always locked, and I was to warn people not to as much as fart in its direction. Now there's nothing but this netch-ass cave in, because... Just let me get to that part, hmm?'

'With this sad, sobbing creak', the gate opened, and out of it, marched a whole pack of snarling, deformed black dogs, which, by means of some vile dark magic no doubt, made the floor boards crust over with ice if they stepped on them too hard. And behind their backs, were more fetchers, with their eyes as yellow as those of the one in the cloak, and with their faces tinged grey - 'but not proper, deep, noble grey like a Dunmer's; no, a sickly sort of watered-down grey, which even blended into white in places'.

'You took our thralls!' they shrieked, flapping all around the cloaked fetcher like a swarm of bats. 'But you shall not take our cattle!'

And then, magic came flying, blue and purple and stinging white; and the dogs' jaws snapped and frothed; and the cloaked fetcher raised the guards' weapons again, along with any furniture in his spells' reach - and made all this clutter clash together in the air, the metal splitting the wood into splinters, which then barraged the pale creatures, sinking deep into their chests and making many of them fall to their knees, vomiting streams of black blood ('Yes, yes, I know: no more genius performances! You can cut it out with the crossbow-poking!').

As the wave of his foes receded, the cloaked fetcher got a chance to step back and charge up an orb of purple mage fire, about as big in size as his own torso - which, once he released it ('The orb, that is, not the torso; though it would have been more fun if he ripped his clothes apart in battle rage!'), rolled over the creatures, gathering them all up like a dung beetle's ball gathers up more and more crap ('What? That's what it looked like!') and reduced them all to smoking cinders, along with the dead guards.

Indeed, the little ash piles are still scattered along the corridor, especially around the cave-in, lending credibility to the Attendant's story - which only grows wilder along the way.

After this fiery show, the only creature that remained was a sorry, barely twitching black dog, with a splinter stuck deep in its side. The cloaked fetcher, who looked quite worn-out after the fight, dealt with the whimpering thing by squatting next to it and sinking his teeth into its throat, closing his eyes and shaking all over with every long, ugly, spluttering draught of blood he took.

'I have seen that look many times,' the Attendant says, shaking his head sagely. 'A lot of addicts have it. They need a fix, need it badly, cannot go on without it - but at the same time, feel revolted by what they've become'.

'Blood... Blood is the same way for vampires...' Felix says in a half-strangled voice, and Yalanwen pats him like she did the Attendant.

In the end, the dog 'jerked around for a bit and died', its body getting disintegrated just like the others - albeit with a weaker spell. When all the creatures were finished, the cloaked fetcher stepped through the forbidden gate - and, pulled after him by a sudden irresistible desire to find out 'What in the name of Boethiah's backside scales has been going on here?!', the Attendant followed, casting off the nobleman's coat but promising to return for it as compensation.

He confesses that he wouldn't be surprised if the fetcher was able to sense his presence ('He just looked like the type to have that sort of power... thing, you know?'), but the latter was far too preoccupied by reaching that 'Chalice' thing to pay particular attention, and the Attendant was able to sneak after him unnoticed. Which apparently was quite a feat on his part, because it was so very hard to contain the gasps of shock at every corner.

According to the elf, the part of the den now sealed by a cave-in was once a series of enormous underground chambers, with bones and rotting limbs littering its floor, and a blood-red stream gushing out in the very heart of this morbid maze. Its surface was veiled in the same crimson mist that would sometimes trail along 'this here corridor's' floor - only denser, more opaque, almost like the air had been filled with three-days-old, half-congealed tomato soup. Having reached this point, the Attendant decided that he had seen enough, and backtracked into the familiar part of the Skooma den - leaving behind a freaky shadow play, as the cloaked fetcher had apparently come across the 'master of this place', who had gotten very cross with him for wreaking havoc on his territory. Their figures grew warped and darkened by the waves of the red mist, as they clashed against one another, with the occasional flash of magic piercing the bloody swirls like lightning pierces thunder clouds.

The Attendant did not stay long enough to find out who would win - but quite obviously, it had been the cloaked fetcher, because soon after the elf made it to safety, the floor and walls of the den began to creak and heave ('Sort of like hubby’s and mine bed on our wedding night, but in a much, much less pleasant way'), shaken by a tremendous rumble coming from the caves. It all calmed down only after a bunch of boulders crushed down the gate, giving the cloaked fetcher just a fraction of a second to dart out, wreathed in clouds of rock dust, and with a spiky black goblet clasped tightly in his outstretched hand.

'I am sorry, Lord Harkon,' he said snidely, with one last look back. 'Our arrangement only included getting the Chalice. I may be your pawn, but I cannot allow this place to keep existing. Amazing, what a single well-placed flame bolt can do to an unstable stone structure...'

As soon as the Attendant reached the part in his imitation of the 'cloaked fetcher' where he mentioned him being 'Lord Harkon's pawn', Felix grew exceedingly agitated; since then, he has been itching to cut in with a question - but the story is not yet concluded.

There were more fetchers coming! Two more - a man and a woman, also pale-grey, and with their noses squashed as if they had been hit square in the face with a frying pan ('I would know; my husband once did this to some drunk Nord who had mistaken our kitchen for a public outhouse'). From what the Attendant could see and hear (having crept back into his hiding place), they had also been sent for the 'Chalice', each intending to kill the cloaked fetcher for it and bring it back to one their respective 'Masters'. Only it seemed they had not agreed which one exactly - and one hiss-like word after the other, their argument got more and more heated, until they conjured up a shard of magical ice each and lunged at each other, instantly stabbing themselves.

They remained in an upright position until the ice melted, held up by its magic, still glaring with their dead, empty eyes, their fingers frozen up and sunk into one another's hair.

The cloaked fetcher shrugged, saying, 'Well, I need the blood of an ancient vampire anyway' - and set down the spiky goblet on the floor, letting the two adversaries' blood trickle down till it filled it whole. Presently, the ice shards also vanished, the two corpses instantly thundering down. Sweeping up the goblet ('or chalice or whatever') with one hand ('rather elegantly, too, for a blood-sucking freak'), the fetcher burned down the additional bodies with another.

After that, he walked up and down the corridor for a bit, looking into the faces of the addicts, his eyebrows knitted.

'All this commotion, and you still have not woken,' he whispered. 'Truly beyond all hope. I wish I could stay and try to rouse you... But I am expected elsewhere. At least... At least these monsters shall steal no more lives like they stole yours'.

Before leaving the Skooma den for good (much to the Attendant's relief, because 'I still don't know how to feel about that fetcher: scared, disgusted, sympathetic, or just a tiny bit aroused by his, well, badassery'), he also stopped to lean down and close the eyes of the girl that had worked the counter. She must have been killed by an errant spell during the skirmish with the pale dog lords - and the cloaked fetcher seemed quite stricken by it.

'I did not know her all that well,' the Attendant finishes with a sigh. 'Don't even know if she'd been just duped into working for those... vampires, like me, or maybe thralled like those guards... But still, it was a nice little gesture, him paying respect to her like that. Vampire or not, he still seemed to have quite a bit of decency left in him'.

At long last, Felix can ask the question that has been fluttering on the tip of his tongue.

'What... What did that fetcher look like?' he breathes out.

The Attendant shrugs.

'I tried not to get too close to him; but from what I did see... I'd say he was a human... Or had been, at some point. With a squarish sort of face, bit of a curved nose, thin lips... and these tree little trails of hair: under either corner of his mouth, and one on his chin'.

When Gunmar appears again, with news that Erandur is following behind him - while Pony is on her way back to Riften, where she intends to leave Niluva with her friend and fellow 'Vigilant of Mara', Dinya Balu, and try and scrape together enough honest guards for a rescue party - he beholds a most uncanny sight: Yalanwen and Felix are holding both of each other's hands, spinning in a dance, and singing (well, Yalanwen is singing, at least, while Felix mainly smiles a small, uncertain smile),

'He is not evil! He is not evil! He is not evil!'

Chapter Text

Isran is tired. He will never admit it to anyone; and it is at very rare moments that he admits it even to himself - but he is. Damn, he is tired.

When all your life is dedicated to serving a singular purpose, everything else must be swept aside, discarded as needless clutter, cleansed as that little speck of dirt in your eye that prevents you from seeing clearly. And in the case of hunting vampires, this heap of clutter, this multitude of bothersome specks also includes sleep.

Vampires do not sleep, not in the conventional sense; they shut themselves into coffins and freeze up in a dormant state to escape the rays of the sun, which, depending on how much blood they've gorged themselves on and which brood they belong to, can either weaken them or burn their skin off their bodies. But should the need arise, they can spend weeks, months on end without rest, always on the prowl, always hungry, always waiting in the shadows.

And with an adversary like that, sleeping is not advisable. Not at all.

Isran knew a scholar once, back when he coddled those Vigilant weaklings, who explained to him that, in the days of old, when the tongues of men and mer were still shaping themselves, there was a word 'slepan', which would eventually come to mean 'to sleep'; but at the time, the word's root also used to mean 'to be weak'. Isran has never had any particular aptitude for learning languages - but that little lecture always stuck with him.

Sleep means weakness. Sleep means that you are unable to observe or to hear what is going on around you. Sleep means that your mind is sinking into an ever-shifting, intangible realm beyond your control, leaving itself open and vulnerable to all manner of threats, like the corrupting influence of a Daedra like Vaermina, or Illusion magic commonly woven by vampires to gain control over their victims.

This is a little mantra that Isran likes to repeat to his Dawnguard recruits - and to himself as well. A persistent reminder to keep the mind ever vigilant.

Most of the time, he manages to avoid sleep with relative success, apportioning himself two brief periods during the day when he is allowed to close his eyes and clear his mind; and two more when he can give his eyes a rest but has to remain grounded in reality, usually mentally reciting old Redguard poems to keep himself focused. At all other times, whenever he feels his body giving in to that warm, beckoning laziness, he punishes it with doubled force, forcing himself to perform a gruelling training routine, with fifty repeats of the same exercise added for each yawn, and a hundred repeats for each time he catches himself thinking of a soft pillow.

Being in touch with the Khajiit caravans that trade in the coffee beans imported from his distant homeland also helps a lot - and once Durak, the Bosmer, and that suspicious turncoat creature return with Gunmar, he will have to task them with finding Sorine Jurard, too; the girl has always been handy with Dwemer contraptions, and he can ask her to tinker a bit with that armchair that he has lying around here somewhere, gathering dust and cobwebs, and in bad need of getting repaired... It has some manner of mechanism in it, which showers you with icy water if you doze off for more than a set amount of time. Very useful.

But even without the chair, he has an efficient routine that works quite well... Or has worked, until now. With all that has happened recently - the little blood-sucking worm showing up with a warning, and the whole fort being on high alert - Isran has had a lot of Dawnguard business to preoccupy himself with. Meaning that he has missed several of his little 'shut-eye' moments; finding no outlet in a moment of indulgence, the weariness has been building up within him, burning into the insides of his eyelids, pouring lead into his lower legs, wiping at his brain till it turns smooth like a glass orb, and utterly empty on the inside.

He still struggles to keep going, walking, speaking, training, inspecting the fortifications - but with each passing hour, it becomes harder and harder to stay focused, and to push back the sickly ooze that seems to be taking over his body, making it wobbly and jelly-like and difficult to steer in the direction he wants it to follow. And the task is made even more challenging since he must make sure that no-one notices what is happening to him; it's a little bit like when he was a teenager and thought that stealing a dusty bottle of cheap liquor from his play mate's sailor uncle and chugging it down was such a manly, mature thing to do, and then had to waddle back home and act as confident and nonchalant  as he could, lest Nana noticed that he was drunk, gods, so very drunk, so very close to throwing up all over her precious hand-woven carpets.

No, wait! His mind really is melting away, isn't it?! He isn't supposed to think of Nana - or of any other members of his family! Not... Not like this - not in the form of distant memories, where everything seems to be bathed in hazy golden light, even Nana's face when she came to yell at him the morning after, her booming voice almost splitting his stupid, boyish, pounding head - and then ended up sighing in exasperation and shuffling off to brew him some herbal concoction for his nausea, peppering each spoonful of ingredients with a lecture on how 'just because your friends tell you something is a great thing to do, doesn't make it so!'

These idyllic little scenes from the past are too misleading - they make Isran forget about his pain, and smile at the recollection of his Nana's wrinkled face, or of the way her heirloom necklace heaved on her chest as she pretended not to sob at his and his Little Bird's exchange of wedding vows, or of how bright-orange the squares of sunlight looked on the clay wall of his home, Little Bird's silhouette outlined in charcoal-black against them. And he must not smile. Smiling, like sleep, is also something left to the weak and the stupid.

The only thing he should remember about his family is the necklace's beads scattered across the floor, a pallid clawed hand having pulled at it violently when Nana tried to fight back; and the splatter of blood on the clay wall, tracing the outline of Little Bird's soft, delicate hand, now stiff and cold. The only thing he should remember - and never, never forget! - is his agony, his suffocating rage at the creatures that did this to his family. This is all the matters; this is his single driving impulse, which is to keep him going until the very last vampire is cleansed off the face of Tamriel.

Everything else is just a distraction.

This is why he becomes so livid with himself when his mind travels back to thoughts of Nana. This is why he screams in frustration as he rips apart his eyelids (which seem to have been melted by the hot, prickly pulse inside them, and welded themselves together), and shakes his fist in the air. His outburst of anger is directed at himself and himself alone - but, much to his surprise, it gets responded to by someone else. Someone young, who speaks in a small, terrified voice.

'I... I am sorry, Master Isran! I will do better next time!'

Isran blinks. What... What was that now? What has he been doing?

Ah. That's it. His vision shifts back into focus, and he is able to make out a stack of empty wooden crates, with a target crudely drawn over them, and a bunch of crossbow bolts littering the floor. So... So he has been overseeing that new boy's marksmanship training? Very well. Time to snap right to it, then. Time to make his empty, useless mind get back to work.

'Just, uh...' he says, pushing back a yawn and readjusting his cuirass, 'Just watch the recoil. It takes some getting used to'.

The young Nord nods, to show that he is hanging eagerly on his mentor's every word - rather too many times; far too many, as Isran begins to feel queasy just from watching his blonde head bob up and down. Inhaling deeply and straining to keep his eyes open, he suddenly notices that the boy's aim is off. Hah, good work, brain - so you can grind your gears even without the inconvenience of going to sleep! You will last through this yet!

'Your arm is too relaxed, and your shoulder is all wonky,' he chides the Nord, shoving him in the back with his knuckles so that the boy is forced to straighten up. 'That's it. Now, adjust your crossbow like this... And remember to take a deep breath and let it out as you fire'.

When shaping the young recruit's clumsy limbs into the proper stance, Isran suddenly feels his hand slide to the Nord's waist and then rest there. This makes his mind grow blank again; everything around him seems to be swallowed up by a gaping, lightless, silent void, and there is only one thing that remains. The warmth of the young recruit's body next to his.

Gods, it feels so good... To hold on to someone so soft and warm, to embrace a living, breathing human being after so many years of recoiling from every touch - because he never ceased telling himself that you never know who might turn out to be a vampire, and physical contact is an easy way for the predator to gain advantage.

Of course, he performed all the proper scrying procedures, and is quite certain that this farm boy... Agmaer; yes, that's right... is not a vampire. But still, Isran would never have allowed himself to get so close to him, were he not half-mad with sleep deprivation.

Even now, even as he leans against Agmaer, hugging his waist tighter and tighter, he attempts to command himself to let go... But both his mind and body have growth unresponsive; the warmth is too compelling, too soothing; it seems to rise in a gentle tide, as Isran moves his other hand to caress the Nord's hair and cheek, and, somewhere in another world, the crossbow falls to the floor.

His eyes close and another golden vision forms before him. Agmaer, flushed and smiling a radiant, ecstatic smile, resting on a bed - not in his recently apportioned Dawnguard uniform, but in that simple green peasant's tunic he was wearing when he first came here; the one with a deep neck cut, held together by a flimsy bit of string. Isran imagines himself pulling the string out with his teeth, his eyes focused on Agmaer's glowing, beautiful face, and then... then pulling back the cloth, exposing the young Nord's shoulder... And kissing, kissing every inch of skin that opens before him.

He has been holding this impulse back, both angry and frightened at the direction his thoughts were taking; but now that sleep has claimed him, he can admit it, boldly and unabashedly, with the last shreds of restraint left behind in that same far-off plane where the crossbow lies abandoned on the floor. He wants Agmaer; like he wanted a number of beautiful men and women he had met before, during his time in the Vigil and his travels in pursuit of new vampire clans to destroy. Of course, he has always had to rip himself free of any shackles of attachment, physical or romantic or anything in between. There can be no room for that when you are serving a purpose like his. And he knows that he will cease all his advances once he properly awakens. Probably even yell at the poor Nord for good measure.

But in here, in the dream realm, he is tempted, for a moment, by the ghostly reflection of Agmaer, responding to his kisses, sating his hidden, long-suppressed hunger for being touched, being held, being reassured that he is safe and he is loved...

All lies, of course. And the fact that he as much as expressed an interest in these false visions just goes to show that he has succumbed to the vampire hunter's most unforgivable sin. Weakness.

Emotion is weakness. Affection is weakness. Comfort is weakness.

Sleep is... Sleep... is... sleep... sleep is... is...

'Master Isran? Have you... Have you recovered?..'

Agmaer asks this question, concerned and still a little big frightened, seemingly a couple of seconds after Isran shuts his eyes and the blasted illusion tried to take over. But when Is ran propels himself to the surface of the more of sleep, breathing in greedily as if he has indeed been underwater, and then looks around - it turns out that he has been miraculously transported to a bed. Not his bed, obviously; he doesn't have a bed... He doesn't even know why he dreamed up a bed when... All right, this has better be the last time he returns to that disgrace of a fantasy.

'How long was I... incapacitated?' he asks sternly.

Agmaer, who has been sitting on a small stool by Isran's bedside, stiffens his spine, presses his legs together, and cups his knees, freezing in the closest equivalent of standing on ceremony his current position can allow. Just before he does that, Isran can feel something release his fingers and flit across his covers. Has... Has the boy been holding his hand?

'I wouldn't know for sure, Master Isran sir! I carried you here as best I could when you... collapsed against me, sir - but I didn't watch over you the whole time, sir. I had to rest too, sometimes - but not for long, sir, because I was worried about you, sir...'

'Minutes,' Isran barks, silencing the voice inside his head that whispers that Agmaer's fussing looks adorable. 'Give me an approximate number of minutes I lost lying here!'

Agmaer giggles nervously.

'Oh, um... I'd say around ten...'

'Ten minutes?' Isran grumbles, getting out of bed and starting at how... lightweight his body feels without the protective shell of his trusty padded Dawnguard cuirass.

What, has Agmaer stripped him down him to an undershirt, too? Who does he think he is, some feeble old man who walks around in a silly cap and with a candle on a saucer?

At least he left his armour within reach... Gods, he feels so exposed without it; brrr, like his skin has been peeled off!

Good thing Agmaer did not think to stab him in his sleep. But he did see his body - more of it than anyone else has ever caught a glimpse of, because Isran has a rule to patch up his own wounds as long as he is conscious enough to do that, and always casts protective wards around himself when he is bathing, lest any sneaky creature gets an idea to leap at him out of the water.

Despite his best efforts, Isran wonders if Agmaer found him too hairy; if his gnarly old scars were not too off-putting for him; if he was impressed by... No, no - he is not going there!

'Ten minutes, huh?' Isran repeats, slipping into his cuirass and lingering a bit before properly adjusting it on his shoulders (must hide the stupid look that is now doubtlessly plastered all over his face!). 'That is a waste, of course, but not as bad as I feared'.

'Ummm, sir...' Agmaer pipes up faintly. 'It was actually... Ten hours. G-give or take'.

'Ten hours?!' Isran thunders, whipping around and barely containing a blast of destructive sun magic. 'What do you mean ten hours?! That's... That's almost half a day! And you didn't think to wake me?! Who gave you the authority to decide that the leader of the Dawnguard can be gone for ten fucking hours?! What if the fort was attacked?! What if...'

'You weren't gone, sir, you were asleep,' Agmaer objects softly. 'It's bad for you to avoid sleep for so long. My Pa taught me that; he has to wake up at the break of morning like any farmer - but he takes naps in the afternoon, when the sun gets too hot, or else he says his head will break apart like a bad clay jug. Your Breton friend told me you have long had a habit of going for days on end without sleep - that can't be healthy! Gunmar agrees too; he says he remembers you driving yourself mad by not shutting your eyes for more than...'

'Wait, Gunmar is here?!' Isran makes several agitated leaps on the spot, wrestling with his pant legs. 'Durak found Gunmar? Where is he?'

'Setting up his beast pens, sir. He didn't want to disturb you'.

'Disturb me!' Isran mimics Agmaer irascibly. 'You know what disturbs me? Being kept out of the loop for so long! This is my fort, my responsibility, dammit! What... What about that little critter and its Bosmer friend? Are they under control?'

Agmaer coughs.

'The... The critter's name is Felix, sir. I actually think that Yalanwen is right, and he might be... A person. I am not too sure, but he seems very... well-intentioned. Gunmar trusts him; Durak, not so much - but he's also admitted Felix has been helpful. They went off to train in the courtyard - Durak and Felix, I mean. And the Bosmer, well...'

He coughs again, for much longer this time.

'We sort of have a... guest. It... She... Um... Just showed up, demanding to see you, not too long ago. The Bosmer... Yalanwen should be speaking with her outside right now - and she sent me to fetch you, sir, as soon as you've had your sleep... Oops!'

He lets out another giggle.

'I guess I kind of got carried away with my talking, didn't I?'

Isran has a very unpleasant suspicion that he is not going to like this new 'guest' - and this suspicion proves correct, as soon as he storms past Agmaer, without looking back (because if he did, he would have gotten too dazed by the sight of his embarrassed flush), and nigh on flings himself out of the front gates like an exceptionally angry cannon ball.

He finds Yalanwen the Bosmer sitting on the steps of the main stone staircase that leads to the fort's entrance. She has her back turned towards him, her messy-haired, pointy-eared head deep-black against the deep-blue evening sky. Resting on her shoulder, is another head, to whose owner (wrapped in a long dark cloak like a comfort blanket) Yalanwen is saying something along the lines of, 'There there'.

The cloaked stranger next to her responds, after a short silence - in a female voice that somehow sounds young and eerily ancient at the same time,

'Uh... Thank you? I am sorry if I sound cold, it's just that... I am really not used to people caring about all of this. I guess the bottom line is that my father is not... not exactly a good person, even by vampire standards'.

Vampire standards? He knew it! He fucking knew it! The bloody Wood Elf has dragged in another fanged stray!

The stranger turns around, perhaps having heard Isran spit on the ground in rage - and thus dispels the last doubts he may have had on who this might under this cloak. These cold, hungry, inhuman eyes cannot be mistaken for anything.

'You stupid, stupid little elf!' he yells, cradling a dormant solar flare between his palms. 'What is with you and dragging filth like this into my fort!'

The vampire flicks an eyebrow and responds sarcastically,

'This "filth" was not dragged anywhere. I came here myself. And I am about as thrilled to be here as you are to welcome me. But this is more important than any petty feuds'.

'Petty feuds?!' Isran spits again. 'Your kind take joy in destroying people's families - and you call righteous wrath in response to that "petty"?!'.

He swears, he is this close to setting his magic loose, not caring even if it burns the Bosmer along with the blasted fanged creature (will serve her right if it does, actually). But the beast reaches forward with its claws and says insistently,

'Cool down your zeal for a bit and listen! See this thing next to me?'

Isran used his peripheral vision to glance at the long, glinting object lying on the stairs next to the Wood Elf and the monster - he will not switch his full attention to it, oh no! After shamefully falling into the trap of sleep, he will not allow himself to become distracted again!

'It's an Elder Scroll,' the vampire continues. 'I brought it here because I need your help to stop my father'.

Yalanwen joins the conversation, breathlessly recapping what she and the monster must have been talking about.

'Serana says that the Scroll is the key to some sort of prophecy that will allow vampires to put out the light of the sun - and that they are on the hunt for a Moth Priest at this very moment!'

'I have run away and taken the Scroll with me, but my father's minions out in the field do not know that yet,' the creature continues after her. 'Last I heard, he was going to send an Orc named Malkus and that new fellow, Gideon, to ask around if anyone has seen a Moth Priest. I suggest we do the same and intercept them before they do gods knows what to the poor fellow. They are both incredibly dangerous, Gideon especially: my father threatens to hunt down and kill his son if he does not commit whatever atrocities he is told to... And unlike some people, he actually feels enough parental affection to do just that'.

'He... He might still have good in him,' another voice cuts in from the gloaming. 'I was afraid he did not, but after Red Water Den...'

The she-vampire rockets to its feet, cloak flapping, and rushes to greet its fellow Bal-spawn, returning from target practice with Durak, crossbow on the shoulder.

'Felix!' it cries out. 'You are here! Fancy that - I thought you were gone forever! That... That kind of happens with the people I start to find... not at all awful'.

And the male creature, in return, calls back,

'Serana! By And... A-Alessia, I am so glad to see you! I... rather missed you, I think... Did you decide to join the Dawnguard too?'

'Shut up, you vile piece of Daedric scum!' Isran roars over both vampires' voices. The solar spell has not yet been cast, but it is still there, in his hands, pulsing in time with his words.

'You are not joining anything! You are resources! Assets! Nothing more and nothing else! I will be keeping you around for inside information on your brood - and if either of you does anything to make me regret my sudden outburst of tolerance and generosity, it will be your mutual Wood Elven friend here whom I will hold responsible! And you don't want to see the price I will have her pay!'

Gods. Oh gods. He is going too soft on these vampires. Far too soft. He should have burned them down here and now. But no, he is continuing to put his trust in them. Is this the result of his sleep overdose? Or Agmaer's influence? He must take care to keep avoiding both, then. As much as he can.

Chapter Text

'With all due respect, Master Dawnguard leader,' Felix says, steepling his hands together - either to collect himself, or to beg Isran to reconsider. 'You must let me join the search for that Butterfly Monk!'

'Moth Priest,' Yalanwen corrects him in a whisper.

Felix nods.

He is still a bit vague on this part of Tamrielic lore.

Magical scrolls with mystic messages that exist and don't exist at the same time (which is a violation of the most basic principles of natural order), refer to all possible pasts and all possible futures (rather like... bits of the Fade captured and woven into parchment), and can be read only by monks from a special cult, who apparently wear robes made out of living moths? Manifestations of Divine wisdom that are described as fabric pressed against the gills of some creature lying on the sea bed, and absorbing all manner of mud and algae? Or something?

Yes, those metaphorical accounts of the Scrolls' properties were quite a bit confusing to read, at least for someone with his mathematical, logic-oriented mindset. His parents would have found this fascinating, however... Perhaps Father still will, if they can reach him before darkness truly claims him, and bring him back, so Felix can apologize for being so rude to him the last time, and offer him his trust and forgiveness again.

Which is precisely what makes this all so important! He has to find his father! He has to be the one who looks him in the eye, and extends his hand, and leads him away from all that Volkihar plotting, forever!

Felix thinks he can hear Isran mutter suspiciously, 'An Imperial that has never heard of the Ancestor Moths or the Elder Scrolls... Now that is a first!' - but he can come up with excuses to cover up his ignorance later. Right now he focuses all his attention on continuing the argument.

'Please! This is my father we are talking about!'

'Precisely!' Isran snaps. 'You must not be allowed to interact, not at a crucial moment like the rescue of a Moth Priest! Can't risk him trying to lure you to the dark side!'

Felix opens and shuts his mouth like an utterly flabbergasted and just a bit outraged fish. What manner of clichéd thinking is this?

'I...' he manages to croak at length. 'I won't...'

Isran dismisses him.

'If you want to prove you can still be an asset, creature - go help Gunmar find another one of my old associates, Sorine Jurard. The girl is obsessed with the Dwemer, so you should be able to track her down in the Reach somewhere'.

'The Reach?' Felix echoes, craning his neck and blinking down at the table round which they have all gathered, with the map of the 'Province of Skyrim' spread across it - as best he can, what with Isran having drawn a gigantic flaming ward around himself and the Dawnguard members present, which Felix is unable to step on.

'That's... On the opposite end of this realm! It will takes us days to get there - and all the while, my father...'

'Hey, I can help you with that,' Serana suggests.

Reluctantly allowed to attend the Dawnguard council, she is standing outside the burning golden circle, together with Felix and Yalanwen, who bounced out of the ward the moment Isran cast it, as a defiant show of solidarity with her new vampire friends (Gunmar is also hovering on the outside boundary of the circle, and Agmaer keeps casting uncertain glances at Isran and then at the golden line on the floor).

'If you have ever been to the Reach before,' Serana explains, 'You can focus your thoughts on the place, and I will cast a spell that will open a temporary gateway to the precise spot you picture in your mind. Portal magic was all the rage a few thousand years ago, you know'.

'I haven't been to the Reach, I am afraid,' Felix says sadly.

'I have!' Gunmar pipes in, finally making up his mind and taking a broad stride out of the ward. 'I visited Markarth several times, before I quit vampire hunting for a while; they have the best silver in there, which is....' he coughs into his beard, looking away from both Serana and Felix, 'Kind of important in this line of work'.

'Well then, get down to recollecting your last visit!' Serana urges him. 'Try to think of a place that would have remained standing over all these years; like an architectural landmark, not your favourite mead stall at the market. Otherwise you might end up stuck with your body clipping through a rock or your head stuck inside the pavement or in some other majestic and dignified position'.

'Got it,' Gunmar nods, closing his eyes. 'You'll see, Felix, we'll pop in, grab Sorine, and then get back to the fort in time for you to meet your Da!'

'Wait!'  Isran tries to protest. 'You can't be agreeing to this so readily! This is vampire witchcraft, for gods' sake!'

But Serana has already taken Gunmar by the hand, with white and purple sparks beginning to travel between their fingers; while with her other hand, she traces an elongated, oval-like shape in the air in front of her. As the number of sparks increases, filling the air like fuzzy poplar seeds in the summer, Serana squeezes Gunmar's fingers tighter and tighter; he seems quite uncomfortable about this at first, his free hand twitching in the general direction of his axe, but gradually relaxes. And the instant he does, the shape Serana is drawing pools up with the same purplish-white glow, which circles round and round in a hypnotic whirlpool.

'You are very welcome,' Serana says, letting go of Gunmar.

The Nord makes a move towards the portal, but Isran darts out of his own ward (making Agmaer gasp a little), and pushes him out of the way so that he can stand in front of the spinning oval and poke his head and shoulders inside.

'Of all the bright ideas!' Serana rolls up her eyes. 'You know this thing will suck you in, right? Or split you in two?'

Letting out a second gasp and almost tripping over his own feet, Agmaer leaves the ward after Isran and, throwing himself on top of him, his arms locked tight under his stomach, tugs him forcefully out of the portal. Popping back into the room like a cork flying out of a bottle, Isran topples backwards on the floor, dragging Agmaer after him, while Serana looks on, with her arms folded and her eyebrows raised in amusement.

'Oh you mighty vampire hunters,' she says sarcastically, as Isran and Agmaer hastily disentangle themselves from one another and get to their feet, with some help from Gunmar and Yalanwen. 'I should have quivered in my boots more when I came to your fort'.

Pointedly ignoring the fiercely blushing Agmaer, Isran dusts himself off and declares, his voice stiff and formal, as if his comical tumble has never happened,

'My inspection revealed that the portal does, in fact, lead to Markarth, and not to some secret evil den. Gunmar, you have my permission to go in with the... other vampire'.

'Yes, your outburst of tolerance is really showing,' Serana mutters, after Gunmar and Felix make their dive into the portal (the big Nord even swings his massive arms back and forth a few times, as if preparing for a long swim).

'And you quit mouthing off and head to Riften with your Wood Elf protector,' Isran orders her sharply. 'Go poke the innkeepers, the carriage drivers, the bards, the Thieves Guild lookouts - any of these rumour mongers. Check if anyone has news of a Moth Priest'.

'Shall we travel by another portal?' Yalanwen asks eagerly.

'I don't know,' Serana muses. 'Riften is not nearly as far from here as Markarth, is it - and I was kind of hoping... to look around Skyrim some more. See how much has change since my absence'.

'Suits me!' the Bosmer agrees chirpily. 'Maybe we will even meet someone who'll share useful information before we actually reach Riften!'



... As it turns out, they do not meet anyone, after all. If one does not count a pack of wolves, which slowly advances at them from the deepening evening murk, paws blending with the trailing mist so that they appear to be four-legged, snarling ghosts, floating closer and closer, teeth bared and eyes burning with hunger. Yalanwen grows tense and prepares to fire her bow, but Serana is completely unfazed. Standing in the centre of the wolves' constricting circle, she squares her shoulders - and suddenly, her eyes flash bright green; a cold, eerie light that is reflected in the widened pupils of the pack. The wolves freeze, some with their front paw half-lifted off the ground; then, Serana's lips draw into a small half-smirk, and the menacing ghosts turn into bouncing, yipping balls of black fur, which roll off into the night, tails stuck between their legs.

'And that, my friend, is vampirism in action,' Serana announces after the last wolf vanishes from view, trying to make herself sound cocky but still with a note of sadness in her voice. 'If you can't hold your family together, you can at least use your Illusion powers to scare off pesky wildlife'.

'Don't be upset, Serana,' Yalanwen tells her softly. 'I know this prophecy is pretty terrifying, but... Think about the amazing adventure we are about to have!'

The vampire makes a small, snort-like sound.

'I suppose. Can't say that rescuing Moth Priests has been part of my many... diverse life experiences'.

They do not talk too much for the rest of the journey, save for Serana making an occasional displeased remark when the wind blows a wet birch leaf into her face. The night keeps descending on the misty forest, and the vampiress conjures up a little spark of blue magelight to see by (mostly for Yalanwen's benefit, since her own blazing eyes can allow her to find her way in the dark with relative ease). It is not too bright, but enough to make out the leaf-strewn path underfoot, and to take notice when the first buildings begin to emerge out of the mist.

The air grows warm and permeated with an unmistakable scent of straw and manure, and Yalanwen's elven ears catch the sound of muffled chewing, soft snorts, and hooves digging into the ground. They are approaching the city stables - which is a perfect place for bumping into a carriage driver or traveller that might have crossed paths with a Moth Priest on the road.

'As good a place to start as any,' Yalanwen remarks to herself. 'Hope that there will be people around this time of night'.

And there are - at least two of them, one leaning against the stable wall, another facing them. Two silhouettes with the features barely discernible from this distance and in the spell's weak light. The voices, on the other hand, are recognizable - one of them, at least. Yalanwen cannot help but grin when she hears the familiar hoarse croak of the Dunmer Felix rescued: Niluva Hlaalu.

Yalanwen has not heard from the poor woman since Pony arrived back to Red Water Den with the Riften guards and a few local volunteers (she thinks there was a young Redguard among them, and another Dunmer, with an odd, Argonian-like name). While the rescue crew helped Erandur pick up the stupefied, ragdoll-like addicts and lay them onto stretchers so that they could be carried to the Temple of Mara, Pony gleefully informed everyone that Niluva was being taken care of by 'those love-stricken potatoes, Dinny and Maramal'.

The Dawnguard left shortly afterwards, without making a detour to Riften to personally watch the addicts settling in - so it feels good for Yalanwen to set eyes on Niluva again (sort of).

'And what are you doing, Romlyn - hanging about here this late?' Niluva asks the second silhouette, her tone grouchy but not hostile.

The 'Romlyn' she is speaking to sounds like typical a male Dunmer - rasping and deep-voiced, like he has ash at the back of his throat.

'I finally finished my shift at the meadery, and thought I would go to see you,' he explains, tilting his head down to look at his feet. 'I... I'd heard you were back, and the Temple people said you'd gone to see Hofgrir, so I, er... followed'.

'Yeah, I was feeling bad about getting his horse killed,' Niluva replies, also turning away from Romlyn and picking at her sleeve. 'He was surprisingly forgiving, though. Said the chubby priestess who dragged me through the gates offered to pay for the damage out of the Temple coffers. And when they couldn't agree on the price, she challenged him to a brawl and won, so apparently he is now her number one fan'.

'How very Nordic of him,' Romlyn chuckles - but Niluva cuts him short, by asking sharply,

'Wait - did your shift only end just now? Who does fetcher Indaryn think he is - a Telvanni slaver?'

Romlyn chuckles under his breath, sounding a bit embarrassed.

'Well... He did get pretty angry with me... And not for the usual reasons, too... I... I was very distracted... Because I kept thinking... thinking of you... I - I mean...'

Yalanwen, who has been waiting in the misty background for the whole conversation to end (out of both tact and curiosity), cannot hold back a delighted squeal - which the two Dunmer would surely have heard, were it not drowned out by... the sharp swoosh of dragon wings, and a loud roar.

'Oh no you don't!' Yalanwen cries, leaping out of shadows with her head thrown back and her bow string pulled taut. 'Why are you dragons always so aggressive?!'

The giant winged creature does not deign to comment, choosing instead to release a tremendous jet of flame, which scorches the earth and, for a moment, bathes the clearing with the stables in stark orange light, snatching the face of Romlyn the Dunmer out of the murk. Horror-struck, unarmed, dressed in a flimsy tunic that barely covers his chest and knees, he still stands his ground between the dragon and Niluva, clenching his fist and shaking it threateningly... As if this is going to make any sort of impression on such an enormous creature.

Yalanwen, in turn, shields them both with her lithe little body, sliding in front of them and releasing arrow after arrow till she manages to hit a vulnerable spot between the beast's scales.

The dragon shudders - wobbles even, like the flimsy, scaly stalk of a mushroom that has been prodded too forcefully; and then makes a heavy, rumbling landing that knocks both Dunmer back and makes Yalanwen sink to her knees. As the massive reptilian jaws snap in front of her face, she sighs and half-shuts her eyes and says reproachfully,

'I always keep hoping it doesn't come to this... But if you insist... FUS! RO!'.

When she utters the last two words, her voice comes out different, deep and distorted, with a powerful echo throbbing within; it sends visible, bright-blue ripples through the air, which cut painfully into the dragon's snout, causing it to claw deeper into the soil to retain balance. And while it is thus weakened, another, smaller creature, with sleek grey skin and bat-like features, soars behind its back on webbed wings, the way Felix did during the fight with the bear, and falls upon its throat, digging its dagger-like claws deep between its scales to pry them loose, its forearms now glistening with blood almost up to the shoulder.

The dragon reels and writhes, swaying its limp neck from side to side; this opens an opportunity for Yalanwen to bounce back from her knees and to readjust the aim of her bow. When one of her arrows enters the dragon's throat just below the jaw, the creature spreads its wings, as though preparing to take flight - but never rises into the air, for its scales suddenly catch fire, turning into scorching golden embers and floating away like birch leaves. The fire rapidly spreads to the exposed flesh, too; its grey winged assailant barely has time to roll off its back, turning back into a rather battered, messy-haired Serana in the process - and moments later, the big beast's entire bulky body melts away, leaving behind nothing but a smoking carcass, which is being held together by pale threads of ghostly glow, which float through the air towards Yalanwen, wrapping around her and turning her rounded, glassy eyes into tiny replicas of the blaze that has just devoured the dragon.

Then, the ground is shaken by another rumble; the last of the glow fades; the beast's skeleton falls apart into a messy mound of rattling bones; and Yalanwen's eyes revert to their normal blue, while she herself catches her breath and smiles shyly and Serana and Romlyn, who are both gaping at her in silent amazement (to be more precise, Romlyn is gaping at Yalanwen and Serana both, since it is not every day that a mer sees one lovely lady suck out a dragon's life force, and another transform into a giant werebat).

Niluva, on the other hand, seems to be astonished not by the fiery battle that has just unfolded before her eyes, but by something else entirely.

'Romlyn...' she whispers faintly, reaching out to the male Dunmer while they both straighten up. 'You... You protected me... You... You cared enough to protect me... I thought... I thought no-one cared...'

Romlyn starts and then, inhaling hoarsely, impulsively draws Niluva into an embrace.

'Of course I care about you,' he says tenderly, stroking her cheek with the back of his hand. 'I always have... I was the one who sent Mara's cronies after you... Because I was afraid you would destroy yourself, and... And then life in this hole of a city would become impossible to bear'.

'I was so... so cruel to you,' Niluva laments, gripping weakly at the front of Romlyn's tunic. 'My... My thirst for Skooma clouded my mind... I... I did not see you most of the time... And when I did... I thought you despised me... like everyone else... I am... I am so sorry...'

'I understand,' Romlyn soothes her, his gravelly voice turning into a soft drawl. 'Just... Just promise me that you will try to get better... Get a good rest at the Temple, try to drink some of the potions that they shove at you... And when you think you are well enough to leave.... You... You can stay with me.... If you'd like...'

'I will do my best,' Niluva says earnestly, sealing her promise with a chaste kiss on the corner of Romlyn's mouth.

And somewhere in the blue nocturnal mist, the mighty heroine that has just destroyed a dragon blows her nose on the rim of her disgruntled vampire friend's cloak.


***

Felix's first look at Markarth is from a dizzying height - for apparently, when Serana told Gunmar to think of an architectural landmark, he imagined the tallest structure in the city. Stumbling out of the portal, which glows for a few moments behind his back and then fades away, he almost falls backwards, his legs growing numb and unwieldy, as if they had been stuffed with cotton wool. But in the end, after some half-drunken swaying on the spot, it is forward that he drops, grazing his hands and knees against the massive carved stone slab that the two of them have materialized on.

His eyes watering, he looks down in a dumbfounded daze, the outlines of the enormous dark-grey maze below barely making an imprint on his mind. He is brought back to his senses when Gunmar asks him sympathetically,

'Not one for heights, eh?'

'N-no...' Felix coughs the word out of himself as if it were vomit. 'I am... normally... semi... good with heights... I just feel... Strangely weak all of a sudden... Like... I am sick all over again...'

'Hmm...' Gunmar props Felix into an upward pose and then scratches his beard. 'My experience with beasts tells me that you probably haven't been fed in a while - have you?'

'I am not one of your trolls, you know,' Felix mumbles, too nauseous to be particularly angry.

Gunmar looks sheepish.

'Yeah, sorry about that, lad. But... But you still need to get your strength from somewhere! Say... How about we head down to the city market, and if it hasn't closed for the night yet, get you something at the butcher's; I think I have some spare coin lying around in my pockets somewhere... That works for you?'

'I... I guess...' Felix says vaguely. 'Tha... Thank you, Gunmar'.

'Don't mention it,' the big Nord moves his hand to give Felix a pat on the back, but thinks better of it.

It takes them a while to get down from whatever tower they landed on. Markarth, it seems, is made out almost entirely of staircases that go up and down and intersect at almost surreal angles, all in the shadow of oppressive, thick-walled square stone buildings, the design of which somewhat reminds Felix of the entrance to the Dwarven Ambassadorium in Minrathous. The light of the braziers that have been kindled for the evening gives the labyrinthine streets an ominous ambience, and Felix can almost swear there are shadows creeping up the steps. Watching. Waiting. Plotting.

At long last, they find themselves on the bottom-most level of this vertical puzzle box of a city, which is taken up by a small, packed market square. This time, Gunmar does give Felix that (quite staggering) pat, declaring joyfully,

'Aha! We are still in time!'

And indeed, the merchants' stalls are still open, with a few late-night buyers strolling among them and browsing the goods. Out of all the traders in the square, the butcher, a balding, round-bellied, flabby-armed man in a bright red shirt, is the loudest; as Felix and Gunmar approach him, they hear him shout something with an almost unnatural excitement as he shoves a dripping raw cut of meat into the face of a blonde girl in revealing clothing that one would expect to see on the stereotypical 'voluptuous tavern wench' in a Tethras novel.

'Come on!' the butcher wails in frustration while the girl hurries to get away from him, a look of disgust on her face. 'You have to look at the blood closely to see the quality of the produce! Doesn't anyone here appreciate the beauty of good meat?!'

'We do, my good man,' Gunmar says generously, striding towards the butcher's stall and temptingly jingling the coinpurse he has tugged out of his armour. 'My friend and I will have this cut if you please'.

The merchant breaks into a grin so broad that it verges on insanity; as Gunmar has his hands full, he passes the meat to Felix, who snatches a moment to slip away into a dark corner, covertly licking off the blood with quick flicks of his tongue. Much as he hates to admit it, the taste of the warm, salty liquid does invigorate him: his limbs feel strong and supple, and the hazy lightheadedness is gone. Flexing his neck and shoulders and breathing in the crisp night air, he looks around to check if anyone has seen what he has been doing... And finds himself meeting the blank, horrified stare of a woman in a dark-blue dress with a brown corset.

Maker. This is bad. This is very bad. B-but maybe... Maybe she will believe him if he tells her that he was just too hungry to wait for dinner, and...

The woman makes a step towards Felix, preparing to speak... But the only thing that ever comes out of her half-open mouth is a loud groan, as the glinting tip of a dagger suddenly rips its way out of her stomach.

Chapter Text

The little black boat, which returned to the castle after Felix's daring escape with the thralls, has taken to the water again, magically gliding across the inky waves towards the giant cliff that looms in the distance, outlined in blurred strokes of pale blue.

The Orcish vampire, Malkus, is staring unblinkingly into the distance, with a rather demanding look on his warped, greyish-green face, as if he is mentally ordering the cliff to draw closer at a faster rate. In all, he seems very determined to complete the task they have been assigned - maybe even excited about it, in his own, hungry-eyed, leering way.

Alexius, on the other hand, is not at all thrilled by this journey. Leaning overboard, he is absent-mindedly watching the little gulley-like trails left on the black glassy surface of the water by his fingertips, which he has barely dipped in - and keeps mentally going over the little speech Harkon gave once he had drunk out of that Bloodstone Chalice.

The promise of a new era, of world domination, of a reward to all those who are loyal, and death to all those who dare oppose 'the cause' - he has heard it all before, almost word for word in places. He even believed it at some point. And as he thinks back to himself, wrapped in a storybook black cloak, standing by his new master's side in front of a crowd of cheering devotees, in a darkened room where the air was red like diluted blood - he has to wonder...

Perhaps he deserves this shattering, constricting pain he felt when Felix told him he hated him. Perhaps he deserves even more than that.

Perhaps he is what Dorian warned him against: nothing but a clichéd villain. No, less than a villain. A villain's minion. A mindless, obedient goon that will follow any of his master's orders, however questionable.

And these orders are questionable, in many respects. For one thing...

'I think we are heading out too early,' Alexius says, his eyes still on the trails in the water. 'If Har... If Lord Harkon started spreading rumours of an Elder Scroll being found in Skyrim as soon as Serana arrived at the castle, the Monks... The Moth Priests may not have had a chance to hear of this yet. And then there is the lapse of time it would take them to travel to this province from the, uh... Imperial capital... The only way we might find a Moth Priest so quickly is if one was already here all alone, by some sheer coincidence, and decided to investigate these rumours, thus making his presence known to us...'

The wooden board Malkus is sitting on creaks threateningly, and when Alexius turns around, he meets a blazing glare and a snarl that makes his companion look like one of the foulest ogres lumbering about the Deep Roads.

'Are you disagreeing with Lord Harkon's orders?' the Orc spits out through his massive yellowish teeth (which must have been quite prominent to begin with, judging by the illustrations Alexius saw in an atlas of the local Empire, and have now become even more disproportionately elongated due to vampirism).

Ah. Blind zealotry. Of course. All part of this same stale old story he is reliving.

'I am not disagreeing with anything,' Alexius sighs wearily. 'I am hardly in a position to disagree, am I? I just believe we are being too hasty'.

'Hasty' is one of the milder words he would choose to describe this... wild moth chase. When Harkon announced his intention to capture a Moth Priest and have him decipher that prophecy of his, Alexius could see his hands shaking, like those of a drunkard reaching for a bottle. And afterwards, the master vampire little short of kicked him and Malkus out of the castle, egging them on feverishly to go, go, travel to all corners of the land, as fast as possible, and bring him a Moth Priest, soon, soon, yes, as soon as possible.

He suspects this might be the effect of drinking blood from that Chalice - the notes of the rogue vampire he killed before collapsing the cavern suggested something along these lines. Consumed by his desire to see the prophecy fulfilled, Harkon is balancing on a razor's edge - and he just might be tipped over the edge after harnessing the power of that dark artifact (which might also have had some of that mind-addling red water left in it when Alexius filled it... He did not exactly rinse it with a detergent potion, after all). And in this state, Harkon will surely fly into a broiling rage when the Priest is not brought to him (which is the most probable thing to happen). Which means... Which means that he might send his hunters to kill Felix... If Alexius does not beg him hard enough not to.

So yes, again - for him, this little expedition is nothing to be thrilled about. He is forced to follow an inane, shoddily thrown together plan that is almost surely doomed to fail - and has some more humiliating belly-crawling to look forward to when he gets back. Such is the life of a minion.

Malkus might have growled at him some more - but at this point, the boat thunks against a long wooden pier, signalling that they have arrived.

On the pier's other end, there are several flights of wooden steps, winding their way uphill, into the sprawling city that rises on top of the great blue cliff. Passing through the tall gateway after the silent, still glaring Orc, Alexius momentarily gets distracted from his grim thoughts, by taking in the sights that surround him. He first has to push through a band of gawkers, who are gathering next to the gates to watch some spectacle that is about to unfold on a small wooden platform (a public execution, most likely, if the locals are anything like the commoners of Thedas). But when, after a few bumps and elbow shoves, he breaks free of the crowd, the city is unveiled before him in all its glory.

The architecture is, of course, far too simplistic, compared to his beloved intricate Tevene style, but there is still some rustic charm to the winding streets, with the colourful little flags flapping between the buildings, and flowers being allowed to grow freely on the sidewalk.

Felix would have loved it here - he always enjoyed discovering new places, and nothing could have made Alexius happier than the enthusiasm in his son's voice when he showed him around his favourite parts of Val Royeaux whenever he came to visit. Dear Maker, how different things were back then; how different they might have been now if, instead of the scowling Orc, he had his son by his side, both of them healthy and whole, untouched by vampirism, just two travellers exploring a fascinating new world...

'Stop dawdling, Imperial!' Malkus bellows, pausing in front of a door that has a tavern sign swinging above it on creaky hinges, with a picture of some rather unseemly rat-like creature that is winking for some reason.

'We will start our search here! It's a public place, so all are invited... Including ourselves'.

There are no patrons inside the tavern; Alexius can hazard a guess that they all must have flocked out into the street, in a hurry not to miss the execution. The publican himself, a blonde middle-aged man with a bracket-like moustache, is also about to close down and head out - but Malkus evidently has other plans for him.

As soon as the two of them walk in, the Orc passes his hand through the air in the same gesture as that savage Lokil, the one who sacked the Hall of the Vigilant. A soft whoosh of magic - and the front door and all the windows bolt themselves shut; another whoosh - and every single source of light is snuffed out, save for a blue wisp that has manifested itself over Malkus' shoulder, casting off a shimmering aura that creates an illusion that the inn has been plunged underwater. Under very cold water, with a crust of ice on top.

'Hey, what do you think you are doing?!' the publican squawks in indignation.

Alexius is rather inclined to share his sentiment. All of this is so overdramatic and unnecessary - much like the Flashy Show of Dramatic Timing he himself put on when he intercepted the rebel mages.

'Malkus, I don't think this is how one is supposed to ask for directions,' he whispers - but the Orc is already flexing his back, preparing for a pounce across the room.

Which he performs, with just as much clichéd flair as when he extinguished the light. He lands on the bar counter, which almost cave in underneath his weight; squatting in a gargoyle-like pose, he moves his broad neck forward till his nose almost presses into the publican's, and grunts,

'Tell me everything you know about a Moth Priest'.

'A... A M-moth Priest?' the poor man stutters, blinking and attempting to step away from the Orc before his tusks start peeling off his skin. 'I did see one passing through, but why ever should I babble about that to...'

He... He did see a Moth Priest? What an extraordinary turn of fortune! So Alexius has less cause to worry for his son's fate - all they need to appease their master is  get the information they need and proceed to collect that Scroll-reader...

Malkus is already on it - in his own way.

Before the publican can eel his way to freedom, the Orc locks his fingers round his neck and lifts him off the floor slowly.

'You will tell everything you know,' he repeats, giving the poor wriggling wretch a few shakes and then tossing him down.

'You will kill him before he does, at this rate!' Alexius tries - and fails again - to be the voice of reason.
All this pressure finally proves too much for the counter; Malkus has to shed his gargoyle impression and crawl off it, before is collapses into a pile of debris. The vampire and the hapless publican resume their confrontation while standing up opposite each other, separated by a spiky fence of splinters.

'You... Burst into my inn...' the man wheezes, clambering to his feet. 'Wreck my property... Put my life... in danger... And seriously expect me to just have a chat with you? I am... calling... the... guards...'

'Kaffas, man, you should have just bribed him!' Alexius groans, too exasperated to stop and think whether his cursing with unknown words might seem suspicious.

At this point, they are interrupted by a little girl, blonde like publican, who walks in from a back room, starting to whine pleadingly the moment she comes into view.

'Papa, I still don't understand why I can't go see what they do to Roggvir! Sorex is going, and you always say that I am more mature than him... Wait, are these customers? Should I go and fetch some Fat Toad 190? Will you let me come to look at Roggvir then? Why... Why is it so dark?'

Malkus' eyes flash in a way that Alexius does not like at all.

He has not quite perfected this little vampiric trick yet - but his surge of anger and alarm fuels his magic just enough to pull it off. He zips across the inn by turning into a clot of black mist and then materializing again behind the little girl's back, his hand firmly on her shoulder.

'You are not doing this, Malkus,' he says warningly. 'You are not laying one finger on this child to intimidate her father'.

'I don't have to,' the Orc leers, a blood-red orb swelling in his grasp.

With an incoherent roaring noise, Alexius thrusts forward his free hand, clenching it into a fist and then unclenching it to send a razor-like shard of ice flying in Malkus' direction. It does not injure the Orc too gravely, but still grazes his wrist and makes him jerk it sideways, the aura of the spell dissolving.

'You dare turn on me?!' Malkus says, in a low, booming voice, will all around him, the underwater murk of the inn grows denser, and his shadow stretches tall and clawed behind his back, its feet drowning in swirling blackness and its arms stretching across the ceiling, reaching for Alexius' head.

'Lord Harkon will crush you for this, you treacherous  maggot - if I don't get to you first!'

The little girl presses against Alexius' legs, quivering tearfully - and her father pulls desperately at his hair and shrieks,

'Stop this! Stop! Dragon Bridge! The Moth Priest went to Dragon Bridge! It's not too far! My cousin runs an inn there, and I recommended it to him! That's all I know, I swear! Now will you please take your... creepy duel elsewhere?!'

Malkus gurgles something, his lips still stretched back over his tusks in a feral grimace - but does not attack Alexius. His shadow retracts, and presently, he himself disappears, together with the black swirls.

'This isn't over, Imperial!' he breathes out in farewell - again, a bit too overdramatically.

'Oh, it most certainly isn't,' Alexius says with dark determination, knitting his eyebrows and striding to the door to remove Malkus' spell.

It takes a bit of effort to shake off the girl, but after a while, she unlocks her grip and trots off to hang upon her father instead.

Alexius thinks the man calls something out to him, but whether it is an exclamation of gratitude or a curse, he does not linger to find out. He has no time for this. He must race as fast as he can, back up the street and through the gates, past the crowd that is still shoving in the spot around the platform; he does not know if the execution is over and done with, and nor does he care. He must keep going, eyes always looking ahead, no sideways glances, no distraction, onward and onward, and then downhill, downhill, almost slipping on the paved road, his cape flying behind him like wings. He thinks he saw stables somewhere near here... Ah, yes, here they are - and a carriage waiting too!

He could have changed into that hulking winged form that Harkon is so thrilled about, and flown to Dragon Bridge. But he is not yet overly familiar with the terrain (leisurely glances at maps excluded) and uncertain whether the Clairvoyance spell will work if he transforms - and following it on foot can take up time, as he now knows. So conventional transportation will have to suffice.

'Here, driver!' he cries out, tearing off the web-shaped broche that holds his cloak together, not even turning around as the black fabric folds and flops down into the mud. 'Will this suffice as payment? I need to get to Dragon Bridge - as fast as possible!'

The man's eyes glint with greed; Alexius guesses that the broche costs much, much more than the fare to what the publican described as 'not too far'. But it does not matter. What matters is whether that long-maned, thick legged horse can outrun a vampire that is probably travelling by teleporting across short distances in his smoke form.

He must intercept that Orc at any cost. He must not let him get away. He must not let him live long enough to return to the castle and inform Harkon of Alexius' assault. Because if he does... Alexius will, once again, find himself in the shoes of that poor man at the tavern, with his child's life being hovered over him on a thin thread, about to be severed with a single blow if he does not comply with orders.

And he shall show compliance. Oh yes he shall. He shall be the one bringing the Moth Priest to the castle, the one securing Harkon's favour. The Orc is just... a temporary inconvenience. Suddenly, Alexius finds himself hoping maliciously that, when Malkus looks up at him before dying, his reflection in Alexius' eyes (if he ever has one) will remind him of that little blonde girl's face.

The carriage ride to Dragon Bridge does not indeed take long. It is a small hamlet, made out of but a handful of thatched-roof cottages that huddle together on the edge of a deep river gorge, which is crossed by what must have given the settlement its name - a broad stone bridge adorned with small jutting pillars that make it resemble a reptilian carcass, and with the enormous likeness of a dragon skull carved into the arch.

Under different circumstances, Alexius would have whipped out a scroll and a quill and started going door to door with excited questions: what prompted such an intriguing design choice? A desire to warn off outsiders, or some religious reverence towards dragons perhaps? Are such creatures common here? Do only the females grow to the size of powerful winged beasts? Are any of the locals aware what happened to the big black dragon that sacked a village some weeks ago?

Again, he feels a fleeting but no less poignant pang of longing for being just a carefree scholar learning the secrets of uncharted lands, side by side with his son... But does not allow himself a single spare second to wallow in his misery. The circumstances could not have been more ill-suited for that.

Hardly does he leap off the carriage, waving absently at the driver to thank him for his efforts, when Alexius notices the long, strip-like traces of rime on the cobblestones of the road passing along the village outskirts. At first glance, it is nothing unusual, not in this land's climate; but during his brief stay in Skyrim, he has seen enough natural frost (almost more than he has throughout his entire quite considerable lifetime in Thedas) to be able to tell that this glowing bright-blue crust is the trace of an ice spell. Precisely the manner of magic that would be favoured by a vampire. He would know.

After a short while, the ice trail leads Alexius onto a narrow, barely paved path that branches off the road - and almost the instant he makes the side turn, he hears the sounds of battle. Looking up from the rime-touched earth, he catches sight of a mangled, overturned carriage, and the corpse of a horse, its ribs glinting pearly-white against the dark, blood-soaked fur, in the places where they protrude out of vicious claw wounds.

Next to this grizzly wreck, there stands a young man, wearing the same kind of standard-issued leather armour as that Avvar-like fellow who helped Alexius escape the dragon. His sword is unsheathed, and he looks as if he is barely holding balance, little red rivulets streaming from beneath his left pauldron.

And opposite him, is Malkus, with magic trailing from his fingertips like cold vapour, and his nostrils twitching like an enraged wild boar's: the young swordsman seems to have struck him in several places, tearing his signature Volkihar vest, grazing his bulging forehead and chipping off a bit of his greenish pointed ear. He has to thank the brave youth for doing a share of his work for him.

'Now, where were we, my Orcish friend?' Alexius says, loudly and venomously, snapping his fingers to strike out a little spark of magic lightning. There has been more than enough ice flying around - and he has always been partial to this particular element.

Malkus looks over his shoulder, deeply inhaling the drops of blood that roll off his brow.

'The time is close,' he says, his voice thicker and huskier than usual.

Alexius does not have a clue what he means - but not for long. For when the yellow vampiric fire in the Orc's eyes is replaced by a wild spark of read, he remembers, in a terrible flash, the overview of the special abilities of the races of Tamriel.

The Nords - the people he first mistook for the Avvar - are especially hardy and resistant to frost; the Dark Elves can commune with the spirits of their ancestors and even summon them to aid in battle (a skill that would have been much appreciated in Nevarra, no doubt); the fantastical lizardfolk of Argonia can breathe underwater and are immune to poison; the Redguards - a sea-faring nation that, just as the Rivaini, is notorious for its pirate raids - can catch second wind in a sword fight, leaving their enemies no chance; and the Orcs... The Orcs, like some of the Thedosian warriors, have mastered the art of harnessing their anger in battle and can, once a day, lose themselves in a bloody Berserker rage. And combined with the preternatural ferocity of a vampire... Maker, it would make what he did to that horse seem like a gentle pat on the back!

Again, just as when he protected the girl at the inn, Alexius uses the black mist trick to rush up to the boy with the sword and push him out of harm's way. But this time, he comes to the rescue too late. Grinding his large yellow teeth, Malkus gives Alexius a powerful punch that sends him flying backwards onto the broken cart.

He rams his back painfully against something hard and wooden and gets his leg caught between the spindles of a wheel; miraculously, no bones in his body seem broken, but he has been rendered unable to move - at least temporarily. And while he strains to build up enough spellpower to shift some of the boards telekinetically, Malkus has plenty of time to kindle his Berserker ability even further. His eyes now burn like two tiny red furnaces, and there seems to be blood coming out of them, like sickeningly red tears; whereas the tear in his vest expands as his muscles swell.

The boy retreats, his legs a bit unsteady - but Malkus shortens the distance between them in a single stomp. He grabs at the blade of the boy's sword, the deep cut it makes in his flesh only making him grin madly, and then yanks at it, together with the poor warrior's arm. There is a sound of something ripping, and the boy screeches hysterically in pain, as his arm hangs limp and useless by his side, while Malkus tosses the sword carelessly behind his back.

As the vampiric Berserker's blood-caked fingers reach for the boy's face, Alexius feels his gut heave, and has to shut his eyes. But he does not stop spellcasting, and just as the second - and last - scream rings out, he finally feels the debris shift around him. Opening his eyes, he realizes that not only has he set himself free, but also unearthed the cart's passenger, a long-bearded man in a light-grey robe. He is lying on the ground, apparently having been buried under a tent-like, triangular pile of wooden boards; his chest is rising and falling in uneven, irregular breaths, and his right leg is bent under his body at a very painful angle.

A more intent look at his attire reveals that it has been crafted out of a very curious, shimmering silken fabric with what appears to be a series of long inscriptions interlaced into it, matching the brief account he's read of the ancient Nibenese silk enchantment technique (he had to pick up some of the lore on the Ancestor Moth Cult in the castle's library, as soon as he heard Harkon's announcement, in order not to appear too much of a dunce).

This... This has to be the Moth Priest! He has found the Moth Priest!

Sliding off his corner of the ravaged cart, Alexius crawls closer to the robed man to inspect his wounds - but is prevented from doing this properly by a large, green hand, with what appears to be a fresh human eyeball stuck to one of its thick fingers. It claws at his shoulder, only now making him realize that he has a bruise swelling up. He looks up, wincing - and sees that loathsome Orcish face again. The Berserker rage seems to have subsided, as Malkus' eyes are glowing yellow again - so instead of his bare, bloodied hands, he reaches for Alexius with a new ice spell.

There is a thrust, an odd sound made by his own pierced flesh, a wave of cold... And then, darkness.

Chapter Text

'Moth Priest, eh?' Keerava the innkeeper pauses thoughtfully to check how well she has polished the empty tin tankard she is holding - and then gives it a wipe with her long Argonian tongue for good measure. 'You know, there was this old fella passing through here quite a while ago; paid for his tab nicely, and talked a bit about himself to Talen-Jei here... Oi, Talen!'

As she calls her kinsman, who is maneuvering among the tables and sweeping the floor with both a broom and his long green tail, his scaled face gets lit up with an almost frightening razor-tooth grin.

'Yes, Keerava?' he asks eagerly, sliding up towards his employer across the now immaculate floor boards.

Yalanwen cannot help but 'Awwww' under her breath, and then lean in with a conspiratory whisper towards Romlyn, who dropped by at the inn with her and Serana after seeing Niluva off at the Temple of Mara (Yalanwen wanted to dash in and catch up with Pony and Erandur, but Serana seemed nervous when approaching consecrated ground, so off they went to gather rumours among the local mead lovers).

'Now there's another adorable love-smitten puppy!' Yalanwen giggles, making Romlyn roll up his eyes and hide a goofy smile behind his mead bottle.

'You remember that bearded dry-skin in the shiny robe?' Keerava asks. 'The one who rattled to you while you served him?'

Talen nods eagerly.

'Ah yes, the old man. One White Gold Tower, extra cream topping. Had a curious sword at his side...'

The Argonian clicks his tongue thoughtfully, trying to recollect more details.

'He appeared starved for conversation, with no company but his one Imperial guard throughout the whole journey from Cyrodiil,' he elaborates. 'I just "hmm"d politely at regular intervals, and that seemed to satisfy him. I remember him saying that he was interested in exploring Skyrim in search of the Elder Scrolls; he mentioned something about the ruins around Solitude and Dragon Bridge, I think...'

'Solitude and Dragon Bridge...' Yalanwen repeats, tapping absently at the bar counter. 'Say, Romlyn, if you - I mean, not "you" you in particular, just sort of any general person kind of "you"... were trying to, umm... kidnap a travelling Moth Priest for... nefarious purposes - you wouldn't try to capture him in Solitude, would you? It's a big city, after all, with lots of crowds and guards'.

'No, it would make more sense to wait until he is on the road to Dragon Bridge, alone again save for a guard,' Romlyn agrees.

Then, his ears twitch in surprise.

'Wait, are you saying someone is plotting to kidnap that Moth character?'

'Weeeeell,' Yalanwen drawls sheepishly, 'It's a rather long and complicated story...'

'Just like the one about how in Oblivion you managed to set that dragon on fire?' Romlyn asks testily, hinting at Yalanwen's evasiveness when he started bombarding her with questions about her 'fetchin' incredible battle skills'.

'K-kind of,' Yalanwen confesses, with a guilty cough-like noise. 'The bottom line is, the Priest might be in danger, and my friend and I have to save him'.

Romlyn's eyes light up.

'A high-profile rescue operation, eh? I like the sound of that! I could contribute - provided I am not required to leave Niluva! Did you know my ancestor took part in a mission like this, too? He had to protect Emperor Uriel Septim himself! The cultists from the Mythic Dawn were after the poor old geezer, and Grandpa Valen single-handedly slew fifty of them with a barrage of flame bolts before they finally slipped past him and did their evil deed!'

Yalanwen pushes her lips forward in a small, mesmerized O shape. Keerava, however, is not the least bit bedazzled by the heroics of Romlyn's ancestor.

'You'd better erect the spine of disbelief, friend,' she warns the gaping Bosmer. 'Romlyn changes the details of his story more often than Haelga changes lovers. Last week, Valen was supposed to swoop in to rescue the Emperor while riding on the back of a giant mudcrab'.

Romlyn pouts.

'I have a legacy of aiding prominent personages from Cyrodiil,' he says, taking a very offended swig out of his bottle. 'If you do not want my contribution to saving the Moth Priest...'

'No, no, you can help!' Yalanwen reassures him, blinking rapidly and clasping her hands. 'If you have ever been to Dragon Bridge, you can channel your memories of the place so that Serana can cast a portal there!.. Wait, where is Serana?'

As it turns out, instead of heading to the counter with Romlyn to talk with the innkeeper, Serana remained closer to the entrance door, mingling with the late-night crowd of inebriated patrons. When Yalanwen finally sets eyes on her, Serana is writhing in an awkward dance between two ruddy-faced, swaying men, with her head cocked to the side slightly and a very focused look on her face, as if she is waiting intently for them to start sprouting the latest rumours. She has even picked an empty tankard off a nearby table to complete her 'disguise'.

'Serana, is this your idea of going undercover?' Yalanwen asks as she comes up to her.

There is no disapproval or mockery in her voice: just sincere curiosity.

Serana sighs and sets the tankard down, slipping off gracefully just in time to escape the groping hands of one of the men, an older fellow with eyes so bloodshot that they look like dull blue buttons sewn onto snatches of burgundy cloth.

'I had no ardent conviction that this was going to work, mind you... But I was locked in a coffin for millennia,' Serana reminds her under her breath. 'I have not had much opportunity to try out what you'd call the... silly things'.

Yalanwen smiles in understanding.

'Silly things can be... helpful,' she agrees, her eyes sadder than her voice. 'If you'd like, we can do a silly dance together when we return to the fort. Bonus points if it's in front of Isran'.

Serana snorts quietly into her cloak - and then asks, her tone pointedly more business-like,

'So, what have you found out by using the more... conventional information-gathering techniques?'

'Apparently, we need to head to Dragon Bridge. And since it's quite far, we will really need to use a portal again. So Romlyn...' Yalanwen turns to the Dunmer and makes a genial gesture, inviting him to resume the conversation.

'Ah, yes - I have been to Dragon Bridge, in fact,' Romlyn says. 'Serviced a very... dedicated appreciator of fine spirits there, before his wife ran me out of town. So, what did you need me to do again?'

'You will have to take my hand, and focus on the image of Dragon Bridge, and then...' Serana begins - before being cut short by Keerava.

'Oh, no, no, no!' the Argonian shoos the three of them off. 'No bizarre portal magic in my inn! Go and play in the streets - and if you whisk some of that Thieves Guild scum away with you, I will be very grateful!'

Exchanging a simultaneous shrug, Yalanwen, Serana and Romlyn step out of the door into the now almost pitch-black night gloom, which, moments later, will be split apart by the purple flash of a portal to Dragon Bridge.


***


Clinton Lylvieve knows that it is quite a shameful thing to cry. Unless you are a girl. Or Varnius Junius. But he just cannot hold it back - this nasty feeling like someone has wrapped all his insides round and invisible fist and keeps tugging, tugging down, so that his head bobbles stupidly like a string puppet's, and his mouth keeps flapping open, and his eyes just cannot stop squeezing out huge, hot tears.

These burning drops in his eyes make it hard to see, but he still races after the grown-ups, stumbling blindly sometimes, and groping ahead of him to catch at their sleeves. And as he races, he screams and screams and screams, in a shrill chorus with his pet goat Lucky, begging them to stop, not to do this, not to hurt his friend...

Because he is his friend. Clinton is sure of it. He does not care if it doesn't make sense to the grown-ups, even if these grown-ups include his own Pa, who, when Clinton first tried to make him let go of his friend, looked at him with these odd, widened, frozen eyes, and whispered something about him being 'enthralled'... whatever that means, and asked Julienne, Clinton's big sister, to dump some cold water over him. Or his own Ma, who yelled at him to go home, her voice quivering oddly, like it did when she made a speech on Julienne's eighteenth birthday, only stronger, with darker, more frightening emotion - and even pushed him, which she never does. Or Julienne, who tries to do as Pa told her and screams in frustration when Clinton dodges her, looking angry and terrified like when the soldiers passing through town try to place their hands on her... hehe... on her butt (which Clinton knows is a bad thing, because Pa says that a girl's body is her own; it's just that the word butt is so funny).

But anyway. This is not about butts. This is serious. Almost as serious as his and Lucky's crime-fighting quests, and definitely way more serious than school.

No matter what they all say to him, no matter how hard they try to chase him away, no matter how bent they are on hurting his friend, Clinton knows they are wrong about him. He just knows. Like he knows that he will become a bold, strong warrior when he grows up, and that Lucky is the smartest goat in all of Tamriel. He knows that he is not evil, this strange old Imperial with a pale face and yellow eyes. Because he, the brave Clinton Lylvieve, protector of Dragon Bridge, would not make friends with someone evil.

He found his new friend just recently, while he was going around on his usual evening patrol of the village, with a sharp stick as a weapon to fight off scone-under-reels, and his trusty companion Lucky by his side. Like any noble warrior in the service of justice, he looked over the village streets with a keen hawk's eye (even standing on tiptoe now and again to see further), to check if anyone needed assistance.

But, much to his disappointment, all was still and quiet; even Olda from the mill had apparently decided to take a break from screaming at her husband, whom Clinton secretly refers to as Uncle Smelly-Breath.

He could have asked Gaius, the Imperial from the big log house with the flags, to play with him: he does that sometimes, even allowing Clinton to take his sword - a real, honest to goodness, polished metal sword - and pull it a couple of inches out of its sheath. But Gaius was away, gone on some (no doubt very important and exciting) expedition, and most of the soldiers were gone with him, leaving behind the few drunk, dozing butt-grabbers Clinton wouldn't like to wake. They didn't appreciate noble quests, that lot; all they were good for was looking for butts, and Clinton wasn't interested in that. Unless he asked them to grab his sister's butt so she could be a damsel in distress for him to rescue... But no, that would be wrong.

So, with the town being so boring tonight, all that Clinton had left to do, before Ma called for him to get to bed, was, as Gaius would call it when yelling at the butt-grabbers, loy-teer. And that was... Not the nicest way to spend an evening: kicking around an empty mead bottle when he could have been writing his name into the history of noble warriors!

So, after some consideration and consultation with Lucky (who bleated in absolute agreement), Clinton decided to go a little bit further than he is usually allowed, crossing the bridge and following the path a little bit into the wilds. It was getting... kind of dark, and he felt scared for a moment, as the cold air washed all over him, and a whole sea of odd blue shadows rose before him, shifting and blinking and leering. But then he reminded himself that real heroes do not get scared of silly things like these, and that he had Lucky with him, so everything would be all right. This gave him just enough strength to take a step forward into the twilight - and scarcely had he done it, when there came a scream from up ahead, so sudden and loud and terrifying that Clinton almost wet himself like a tiny, helpless baby.

But he was not a helpless baby, he reminded himself ferociously; he was Clinton Lylvieve, an aspiring hero - and this was his chance to prove himself! He was going to head up there, and find whoever had screamed, and help them, the way a true protector of the people should!

He sped up, Lucky trotting energetically in time with his hurried footsteps - and then broke into a run, spurred on by the second scream, which ended in a gargling sort of noise, like when you are having breakfast and trying to pull off this trick with milk coming out of your nose, but do it all wrong and start choking. He strove to keep running with all his might, trying not to think about the scary things that might have made that poor person scream; and only stopped when he arrived at what had to be the scene of the crime. A most horrible, hay-in-ous crime!

For one thing, he thought he saw a dead horse; who in their right mind kills a horse?! Horses are the most amazing creatures ever! (Right after goats; sorry, Lucky!). And then, there was this broken cart - and something big and dark leaning against it. An Imperial man, as Clinton discovered when he drew near; an old man, by the looks of him, even more ancient than Ma and Pa. His face was so white it glowed in the evening light; and he was lying without any sign of movement, with his head drooping to his chest like he was drunk - but Clinton smelled no mead in his breath. Which was... kind of worrisome; because from what he had seen of drunks (usually the butt-grabbers and Uncle Smelly-Breath), they would always wake up after a few hours of snoring... But - but this man... Would he wake up, if he wasn't drunk?

'Hello?' he called out, crouching next to the man and laying down his mighty stick weapon. 'Hello? Sir - are you hurt?'

Like an owl that whirls its head almost full circle and stares at you with its enormous yellow eyes, the man suddenly looked up. Clinton started, because he had never seen a human person with such a burning stare - but held his gaze, even despite the shiver that ran up his spine. Owl-like or not, this man needed his help.

'Blood,' the Imperial croaked, barely moving his lips. 'Please... I need... Blood...'

That was... a weird request, but Clinton was glad to give any form of aid he could. And luckily for the pale Imperial, he had scraped his knee badly while climbing the rocks over by the base of the waterfall, and now had a big, fat, bulging sore crusting over all the way down his leg; he knew that if he scabbed it off, blood would come flowing again... He had plenty of experience in that department.

Rolling up his pant leg, Clinton slid his nails underneath the crust and pulled upwards; as the caked brownish-red strip was peeled off his skin, he felt a warm trickle crawl down his knee, and hurried to catch it with the palm of his hand. Having gathered up a little red pool, he lifted his hand to the man's face and said,

'Hey... Here's some blood! What do you need it for?'.

Instead of a response, the Imperial pressed his face against Clinton's fingers, making feel a bit like he was having some farm animal eat out of his hand. What... What sort of... creature drinks blood?

And then Clinton remembered all the adventure stories he had read, and the ghost stories he had heard... And his eyes must have gotten the same blank look as Pa's would, a little while later.

'You... You are a vampire!' he whimpered, in a very small, unheroic voice, backing away from the pale man. 'I just fed a vampire!'

The man kept silent - and remained silent while getting up to his feet and casting some sort of spell on himself, which looked like healing magic (Clinton had seen the Imperials from the flag house cast something of the sort), but felt... off somehow, icy cold instead of pleasantly, soothingly warm. A drink of blood must have given the pale man the strength he needed to fix whatever wound he had... And now that he was no longer hurt - what was he going to do? Leap at Clinton and suck all the juices out of him, leaving him dry and wrinkled like a raisin?

But the man had no intention of leaping; he was not even looking at Clinton, his yellow eyes focusing on something behind his back.

Slowly, holding his breath while his heart and stomach churned madly, Clinton turned his head in the same direction - and almost fell over backwards with an uncontrollable, shameful, un-warrior-like onset of panic. There had been a whole pack of wolves gathering round the cart all this time; drawn to the carcass of the poor horse at first, they had now gotten very interested in poor Lucky, who had darted off with a fearful bleat and was frantically trying to scale the pile of wood that the cart had been turned into. Oh, no, no, no - they would surely get him, Clinton's fluffy best friend, the smartest goat in all of Tamriel! And then, they would eat Clinton too! So much for trying to protect the people of Dragon Bridge!

Zap. Zap. Zap. A blast of chain lightning zigzagged from one wolf to another, topping them down like dominoes. Clinton heaved an enormous sigh of both relief and admiration of the bright, fast, deadly, awesome spell - and glanced at the pale man again.

He was smiling. Not an evil, hungry, vampiric smile; a calm, reassuring, genuine smile. The sort of smile a father has.

'You need to get home, child,' he said softly, with a funny sort of accent (was that how all vampires talked?). 'It's too dark, too dangerous, and your parents must be looking for you... Here, look: your pet agrees!'

He nodded at Lucky, who had bounced off the cart and was already cantering up the road back home. Clinton snickered at these words, and the vampire chuckled back - but then, the boy frowned and asked earnestly,

'Who hurt you?'

'If I said "a bad man", that would be too simplistic and rather hypocritical,' the vampire replied, a bit bitterly, making the first stride toward Dragon Bridge.

'What's... Harpy-crit-eek-all?' Clinton said as he hurried after the pallid grown-up, rolling the unfamiliar word slowly over his tongue.

'It's when...' the vampire sighed. 'It's when you call someone bad while being a bad person yourself'.

'I don't think you're bad,' Clinton confessed. 'I mean... I was afraid you'd be, at first - but then... Then you saved Lucky, and me! I think that's a good thing... I think we should be friends! My name is Clinton; what's yours?'

'Gideon'.

'Say, Gideon...' Clinton continued asking his questions, while the two of them drew closer and closer to the village. 'That bad man... Is he still out there somewhere?'

'Yes,' the vampire clenched his teeth, and his eyes flared up like a fire does when you throw a good, dry log in it. 'He has taken someone... a wounded, helpless old priest... and I am fairly certain he is going to torture him'.

'And you are going to save him?' Clinton beamed, doing a happy little prance on the spot. 'Like a real hero?'

Gideon smiled again - but this time, his smile was thin and crooked, like he was hurting on the inside but didn't want to let it on (Clinton had smiled the same way sometimes, when he reminded himself he had to be brave and warrior-like).

'More or less,' he said at length. 'But first, I am going to see to you getting home safely'.

Oh, Clinton did get home all right - but that only made things worse.

The grown-ups of the village met them halfway to his house, each carrying a blazing torch. Papa was in the lead, rushing to meet Clinton the moment he saw him, talking rapidly and loudly about how he hadn't come home on time, and how they'd heard the screams and wolf howls, and the 'goddamn... sorry, Clinton' soldiers were not help... And then he caught Gideon's fiery yellow gaze, and this whole mess began.

They are leading Gideon away now, all these angry, screaming, torch-bearing grown-ups; circling round him the way those wolves did round poor Lucky. He could have zapped them, too - but he does not as much as try shake their hands off him. All he does is talk, quietly, calmly, insisting that he is not their enemy; that he 'meant the boy no harm'; that he is 'on a chase after another of my kind, with no quarrel with his village'...

But they do not listen.

Just as they do not listen to Clinton.

Grown-ups are bad at listening.

Chapter Text

Gods alone know what Romlyn was thinking of when Serana took his hand and began charging up her portal magic, but when the oval window of purple light spits the Bosmer and the vampires out, they find themselves sliding rapidly along the slanting side of some building's roof. Serana barely has time to conjure a barrier before they are flung right over the edge. They bump into it, Yalanwen 'Oof'ing softly and Serana almost biting off the tip of her tongue with her own vampiric fangs; and their faces get smooshed against the cold, wobbly wall of magic as if it were a pane of glass.

'Well, we're off to a nice start,' Yalanwen says jokingly, after she has caught her breath and yanked out a sharp bit of straw that dug deep into her palm.

'Wait... What's that?'

Having quickly patched up her hand with a healing spell, she points ahead to draw the attention of the spitting, hissing Serana to a procession of small bright dots travelling through the darkness below.

Serana squints, her keen yellow eyes scanning through the dark-blue veil that blankets the sleepy village.

'A mob with torches,' she concludes at length, her upper lip curling. 'Good to see some of Skyrim's fine traditions have not changed'.

'Oh dear,' Yalanwen says, something falling in her voice. 'I think we should check who they are after, and help that poor person escape!'

'Hey, we are here to find the Moth Priest, remember?' Serana reminds her. 'We can just leap down and walk off and disapprove from a distance. Maybe conjure up a couple of goblets to drink judgementally out of'.

But Yalanwen is already crawling to the part of the roof that is not shielded by the barrier, looking for as spot she can jump off from. Serana is still talking when the Bosmer promptly locates that spot, slips off, the way she did in the crumbling inn in Helgen, landing on the ground with a soft bump, and then breaks into a run.

A wiser person would probably have agreed that they really have no business getting bogged down in the affairs of this village, not when the mission at hand is so crucial; a wiser person would have reasoned that judgemental drinking would have been a far more appropriate course of action; a wiser person would have pointed out that, whomever that crowd is chasing, they probably deserve it, and saving them would likely turn things for the worse.

But Yalanwen is not wise, even though she has somehow (utterly inadvertently!) managed to fool the Greybeards into thinking that she is. She is not wise - she is too soft for that; and right now, her soft, soft heart is knitting itself into a clot of pain, because she remembers what it felt like... Seeing the familiar, (sometimes) friendly faces disappear beneath frightening, angry masks, as the blaze of the torches makes the shadows underneath their angular meric cheekbones turn into strokes of purest charcoal, and fills their eyes with a flood-red glow.

She was not exactly chased out of the village by a mob, having left of her own accord before things grew violent - but she came too close to it for comfort. And she knows that her heart will keep on getting soaked with blood like a droopy, soggy towel if she allows another person to suffer the same fate.

She keeps up her sprint for as long as her legs can carry her; and when they finally give way, with a shooting pain coursing through her calves, she has at least drawn close enough to see where the mob is headed.

The torch procession has moved uphill, to the building of a saw mill that stands a little distance aside from the town, its large, creaking wooden wheel powered by a torrent of water, which looks like orange-dappled tar in the firelight, and comes crushing into a roaring waterfall just a little way downstream. As the villagers flock around the mill, Yalanwen, who has managed to straighten up (with her legs feeling like the next walk up a flight of stairs will kill her), spots a thick arm separate itself from the dark blob of heads and limbs, brandishing a bottle, while a slurred male voice calls out,

'Let's cut the thing up like a big log! Let's…’

The owner of the bottle-bearing arm probably intends to go into more grizzly detail, but an unseen woman silences him shrilly,

'What sort of nonsense are you spewing, Horgeir? And where did that bottle come from?! Are you stashing your booze somewhere again?! Hey, everyone, will you look at that lazy lout?! The things I have to put up with!'

'Now is not the best time for this, Olda,' a second male voice says. At first, it sounds quiet and tremulous, and gets interrupted by more than a few gulping noises - but with every word, it grows louder and stronger. 'Your husband is right. This yellow-eyed fiend has bewitched my poor son... Put him under some sort of dark curse that makes him think this... monstrous Daedra spawn is not evil! So we have to kill it, so that the magic dispels and no-one else becomes a thrall!'

This remark is met with protest from yet another man - and, hitting her like a punch in the gut, the sound of his voice almost sends Yalanwen reeling again.

It's him... It's Gideon! She has met Gideon again - she is sure of it! He probably does not remember her, but she does... Oh, how can she forget that dazzling magic of his, and her own thought that he had to be in as much pain as she was! And she turned out to be right, didn't she - he was in pain back then, lost and separated from his son... And now he has to suffer again! Turned into a vampire, torn away from Felix once more, pulled into that Harkon's nefarious plotting... And now, close to death at the hands of an angry mob! Oh, she needs to get to him before it is too late! She needs to save him, and bring him to Fort Dawnguard, and wiggle her bum in front of Isran in that silly dance if the crusty old vampire hunter raises objections again... And then, she will watch Felix and Gideon get reunited, and reassure each other of their love and forgiveness, and... and maybe adopt Serana into their little vampire family, because the poor thing needs the company of someone who is both her kind and not trying to turn her into a pawn. Oh, this is going to be glorious!

Steadying herself with a good, long draught of nocturnal air, Yalanwen hobbles across the remaining stretch of the path that separates her from the crowd. In the meanwhile, Gideon can still be heard speaking - and sometimes, through the gaps between the villagers' backs, she can catch sight of his face, too, bathed in orange torchlight.

Dear gods, he looks so gaunt now, even more so than Felix; and his eyes have been widened by the same look of desperation as when he thrashed against the cave-in in Helgen. He has been pressed into a corner, with some villagers almost shoving their torches into his face, close to branding painful scorch marks into his clammy white skin - but he does not fight back, trying to talk down the mob, especially the male Redguard who stands closest to him, shivering from head to toe but still glaring (he has to be the one who spoke about the curse).

'Please, for the last time, Riv... Redguard,' Gideon insists urgently. 'I did not "bewitch" your son! I just...'

He pauses, stricken by shock - and Yalanwen has to freeze up too, his pained voice piercing her heart like powerful ice magic.

'I... I drank his blood...' Gideon mouths, his fingers travelling up his face, which has grown even whiter than before (to such an extent that this splash of pallor is visible even in the dusk).

'I didn't know where my mind was; I was wounded, dazed, and begged for help... And your child... this selfless, generous child - he gave me some blood from the sore on his knee... And I accepted it - thoughtlessly, recklessly... Maker's breath...'

That is quite a bizarre expletive, almost unheard of in Tamriel; unless you are one of those, uh, how do you call them... the Skaal. These reclusive Nords who live on the island of Solstheim and worship a single god for some reason). But this outcry passes unnoticed by the people surrounding Gideon: they are too preoccupied by digesting everything else he has said.

'Maker's breath... I fed on a child...' he groans, his hand now resting on his throat as if he is attempting to strangle himself. 'I... I used blood magic on a child! This... Out of all the things I did... This is the most despicable. There can no longer be any doubt: I have turned into a monster! I... I don't deserve to live, do I? Not after this'.

His gaze wanders past the faces in the crowd, and it is now more than obvious that he is talking to himself rather than any of them.

'What is the point... of trying to cling on... to a thought that... that Felix might still be out there... I lost him long ago. I was just too stubborn to see that'.

The crowd gasps at his confession that he drank a child's blood - and the Redguard lunges at Gideon with a sound that is half a roar of wrath and half a sob. And most horribly of all - Gideon does not fight back.

'Someone find a large stone to tie around this creature's neck,' the Redguard pants, pinning Gideon against a log pile. 'We are going to push it off the waterfall. Let it drown. Let it suffocate!'

'I... I think that such... things are more afraid of fire, Azzada,' a woman from the crowd suggests.

This spurs on the drunken enthusiasm of Horgeir the bottle-waver.

'Yeah! Yeah! Kill it with fire!' he bellows, swiping his torch madly in front of him.

'What are you doing, brother?! Are you mad?!' another man, a Nord with long dark hair and a small smattering of facial bristles around his mouth, barks at him, grabbing at him and pulling his arm back forcefully. 'You want to burn down your own lumber mill?! No, drowning it is! I heard that some things like this one cannot stand river water either! Let it soak like a bloody rat!'

'Drown the rat! Drown the rat!' the mob chants, while the same man who stopped Horgeir lifts a boulder off the ground and looks around for something to tie Gideon up with.

Yalanwen would have stopped them; she swears she would! But... But the stupid torch that Horgeir tossed aside just happens to whoosh through the air to where she stands, concealed from the villagers by the shadow of a large heap of firewood - and ends up hitting her. It does not do much damage, as it instantly thunks to the ground, and Yalanwen frantically stomps on it to put it out (good thing she has decided to wear boots on this journey) - but, for a moment, she does feel a burst of scalding pain devour almost half her face. The light of the torches seems to get snuffed out abruptly, and Yalanwen curls up on the ground, blinded, twitching, and choking on sobs.

Dammit, she is such a disgrace! She needs to stop wallowing like this, and get up, and stop this mob! By the... gods, even a little child is prepared to do more than her! She can hear his footsteps, catching up with the procession, and then his voice, hoarse with weeping, begging the grown-ups to stop... But he is silenced, and shoved out of the way (she discerns the echoes of a scuffle, and a little 'Hey!' of indignation).

And when Yalanwen finally opens her eyes and looks up (roused, among other things, by the fact that some animal has suddenly started chewing on her armour in the dark), she sees that the preparations are complete.

Gideon, still as submissive as before, has been wrapped up, like a misshapen parcel, with a long cord made out of random rags and belts belonging to some of the men, with the stone shoved into his arms. Azzada the Redguard, who has picked up a large, pale, shiv-like splinter (perhaps intending to stab Gideon before he pushes him off) has steered the captive towards the very edge of the bank. But even as seconds remain before he puts his plan to fruition, the child that has been imploring him to let Gideon go - a boy clad in a dark-blue shirt, aged no more than ten, and with a somewhat lighter complexion than his father - is trying to grab at his elbow.

'Please, Pa!' he whimpers. 'Do you really wanna do this?'

'It brings me no pleasure, Clinton,' Azzada says, his voice, once again, less than confident. 'But I have to stay strong: for you and your sister and your mother'.

'You are not being strong, Pa,' Clinton sniffles. 'You are being stupid!'

'You don't know what you are saying,' a Breton woman in a large white cap comes up to Clinton from behind and pulls him back by his shirt. 'You are not well. But you will be, soon, once this monster is safe on the bottom of the river!'.

'I won't!  I won't!'

'It's all right, child,' Gideon says, as he backtracks even closer to the drop into the inky water, doing the mob's job for them. 'It is a kindness'.

'You are being stupid too!'

This piercing outcry comes from Yalanwen, who has staggered to her feet (shaking off the uninvited goat that decided that her leather pauldron would make a good midnight snack). Elbowing her way past the villagers, not caring if she gets burned by more of their torches, she tosses herself at Gideon, pushing him on the ground away from the drop, and scissors his body with her legs... It would have made a rather inappropriate pose under different circumstances - but blast it, she needs go get these bindings off, and she can't risk Gideon shaking her off and going on to drown himself!

Her arm, which is not covered by the cuirass she is wearing, is throbbing with a sort of hot, dull pulse, and she feels something wet and oozing touch her skin. She must have scratched herself against Azzada's splinter when she was pushing past him. But it's no big deal, even combined with the burn across her cheekbone. She has suffered worse, and most importantly, she knows other people who have suffered worse, so it is not her place to whine. And since she is now bleeding, she can feed Gideon too, the way that boy did, should he need it to restore his strength. Can't arrange for Felix to be reunited with his father if his father does not make it through.

Fortunately, the 'parcel cord' around Gideon is not too sturdy - having been literally thrown together out of the scraps at hand. When it comes loose, Yalanwen makes a little nod of triumph - and suddenly realizes that the mob has gone suspiciously quiet. It is rather... eerie, this silence behind her back; so eerie, in fact, that its unsettling chill cools off the warm flush that Yalanwen has begun to feel now that the cord has been cast off, and she is just sitting on top of a half-stunned Gideon. What could possibly have happened to make them forget about their murderous rage and just... ignore the strange Bosmer who is blatantly untying their quarry before their very eyes?

Looking over her shoulder, Yalanwen sees something that makes her flap her mouth a little in surprise. A row of bright green dots, hovering in pairs in the murk - sparks of hypnotic magic, filling the villagers' pupils, just as they filled those of a wolf pack prowling the outskirts of Riften. Which has to mean that...

'Serana!' Yalanwen beams.

Even though she cannot see her vampire friend, what with it being so dark and the villagers blocking her line of view (now standing in single file, their bodies stiff and their faces blank), something tells her that a reply will follow. And so it does - a little bit snarky as usual.

'Sorry I took so long. That roof decided to break under me and catch me into a trap. Not the most glorious descent, but I did climb out of the hole eventually. And look, it turns out that Illusion spells work just as smoothly on angry mobs as on feral animals. Same level of intelligence, I suppose'.

But, effective as it is, it seems that Serana's magic has left one person unaffected. Little Clinton suddenly leaps into Yalanwen's field of view, waving his arms wildly to draw the adults' attention. But the villagers remain still as statues, stuck in similar poses, with a torch in their left hand, and left arm bent at exactly the same angle; and not a single flicker of emotion livens up their faces.

'What has happened to them all?' he asks squeakily, groping in the dark to find the hungry goat and give his horns a small pat.

This seems to make him feel less agitated, but only for a moment.

'Is everyone dead? I didn't want them to be dead! I just wanted them to stop hurting my friend!'

'Oh, uhm, they are all right... Rest assured, little... person,' Serana responds, now sounding rather awkward.

Yalanwen figures that she must not have come into contact with children too much after becoming a vampire... Unless they were food, that is.

'When I snap my fingers, they will all turn around and go home to bed, and when they wake up in the morning, they will forget any of this ever happened. Like this'.

Serana does as she says: and at the sound of her fingers snapping, all the villagers turn around in a single synchronized motion that makes them look like Dwarven automatons, and shuffle off downhill.

Little Clinton frowns in confusion - and then bursts into a snicker.

'Hey, look at them go! That is so cool! Can I learn that spell too? So I can stay up late every night and make my parents forget about it?'

Serana, who has finally come into view now that the villagers have left, seems uncertain how to respond to that - so she changes the subject instead.

'I see you have been passing the time pleasantly while I was squirming in a hole in the roof,' she remarks, strolling up to Yalanwen.

'Oooh, right! Sorry! This... This is not what it looks like!' Yalanwen stutters breathlessly, whizzing into the air and helping Gideon get up.

'Ummm... Hi, Gideon! G-good to see you again! Please don't ever agree with people who try to drown you!'

'Yalanwen,' he responds blankly, slowly collecting his thoughts. 'You... I mis... I mean... What brought you here? And... Wait, Serana is with you? How... Why... What of the Elder Scroll? And does Harkon...'

'It's a long story', Serana says, making an odd little motion with her hand as if she is unsure whether to wave at Gideon, give him a handshake, or charge a spell to defend herself against him. 'The bottom line is: no, neither of us is working for my father. You are, though, aren't you? Father sent off both you and Malkus to fetch that priest... So where is Malkus, then? And your... target? I would really hate to fight you, to be honest - so some peaceful information-sharing would be great, thank you very much'.

'Malkus and I... Had an altercation,' Gideon says, clenching his fists slightly. 'He wounded me and escaped with the Moth Priest. I have no idea where he went'.

'Was that the bad man?' Clinton - who still has not gone home - pipes in eagerly. 'If I was a bad man, I'd go hide in Forebears' Holdout. It's this old ruin not far from here, across the river; I heard it has these creepy old staircases and scary statues and weird stones inside it, all covered in swirls, and the air there is filled with dark magic!'

'Oooh, nice one!' Yalanwen says brightly. 'I guess we will know for sure if you use that path-finding spell, Gideon?'

Hearing that, Gideon staggers away from her.

'You... You want me to help you?' he asks, his voice so hollow and depressed it barely conveys a note of surprise. 'You cannot quite grasp what it entails, can you? You have seen my true face just now - the face of a...'

'A broken, desperate man who hates himself because of some things he did,' Yalanwen finishes for him, her firm tone making it more than clear that she will not abide any objections. 'Which does not make him unworthy of being alive; of having friends... Or family'.

Gideon starts - and Yalanwen gives him a slow, meaningful nod, as an answer to his unuttered question.

'Felix is alive, and safe. And he doesn't hate you. You will see him again once we - all of us - return the Moth Priest to the fortress where he has found shelter'.

Gideon cries out faintly, torn between joy and doubt.

'But... But what about...' he gestures weakly at Clinton, who is beginning to lose interest in the conversation, and has taken to rubbing his eyes and yawning (it is quite a bit past his bedtime, after all).

'He gave his blood willingly, you said so yourself,' Yalanwen points out, as she places her hand on Clinton's back and begins to steer him towards his house (following the lead of his pet goat). 'And it was just a tiny bit! That doesn't make you a monster! I am sure that if you completely patch up his knee, that will more than make up for it!'

'And do heal our Bosmer friend while you are at it,' Serana says, having noticed the bleeding marks on Yalanwen's face and arm.

She cannot help but place her hand on her stomach at the sight of fresh blood, but Yalanwen looks sorry for her rather than disturbed.

Gideon gives Yalanwen an apologetic look - and sets to work, letting his restorative magic wash over both Yalanwen and the sleepy Clinton. The gash in the boy's knee and the Bosmer's arm vanish without a trace, but the burn from the torch leaves a gnarly trace on Yalanwen's cheek.

'Aww, I have a scar now, don't I?' she says, fingering her face.

'Scars are not detrimental to one's appearance,' Gideon reassures her while they walk side by side down an empty street, seeing off Clinton and his goat. He is still quite shaken, but whenever his eyes meets Yalanwen’s, something faint and tick-like can be seen pulling at the corners of his mouth.

'My... My late wife had one, from a failed assassination attempt staged by a rivalling... mage family. Just as yours, I found it to be quite... Ah, you don't want to hear about that'.

'All right,' Serana says loudly, making her companions focus their attention before at least one of them gets smothered by a violent flush.

'Say your last goodbyes to the child - and then we had better go after that Moth Priest. There is too little time to waste on being what Garan Marethi calls a Drama Kwama'.

Chapter Text

Malkus did not have any particular direction set for himself when he left the broken cart behind, having dealt with that pathetic turncoat Gideon and dug the Moth Priest out from beneath the wooden planks (which got shifted and carelessly strewn over the eyeless face of the mortal who had fed his Berserker rage). Even with his racial ability drained, he was still strong enough to hoist the barely conscious old man over his shoulder and stride away without even swaying under his weight. He walked for a short while at random, the brownish grass flopping against his boots - and then... Then, he felt it - the call of age-old, dark, very likely vampiric magic, like a wordless song that needed to be sung not with his tongue and throat, but with the very marrow of his bones.

It throbbed through his flesh, its powerful pull almost as hard to resist as the sweet thirst for the beautiful, warm red drink. And Malkus followed it - gladly, eagerly, the same way he always follows his thirst.

And now, the magic's song has guided him through the wilds: first, along paths that he did not really discern, too focused on the longing voices whispering in his bones - and then, down a narrow, slit-like cavern mouth, which has taken him away from the dreary plains outside, with all those blank open spaces and the sighs of grass in the wind, and led him instead right into the surroundings that he appreciates much more. A vast, dark underground chamber with thick artificial walls erected in its centre, perfect for containing screams, and a circle of standing stones topping an elevated platform at its furthest end.

This must be what summoned him here. An ancient ritual site, dormant for Bal knows how long, waiting for the assured, steady hand of a skilled spellbinder - his hand - to unleash its locked power again.

Malkus starts by ascending a series of stone stairways - guarded, as he notes, by several pairs of gargoyles, which twitch, just barely, at the sound of his footfalls, with their eyes flaring up like coals in a stoked furnace, and then go back to sleep, satisfied to see that the intruder in their cavern is far from being a pesky mortal.

Having reached the platform with the stones, Malkus lays the Moth Priest down in the circle's centre. The old man moans weakly when his back hits the hard floor - and that very instant, the circular groves carved into the standing stones fill with a soft green glow, which rushes from the ground up in a pulsing wave, and then fades.

Malkus cups his chin with his hand, his long nails tapping against his cheekbone. Things are shaping out quite well so far. Quite well indeed.

'I wonder if the magic of this place will be enough for me to break the priest's will and properly prepare him for serving his purpose,' he muses out loud.

And in response to his words, the patterns in the stones flare green again, brighter this time, pulsing at a more rapid rate, like the beating of a rejoicing heart. The dark enchantments of the ancients are growing more and more impatient to get activated; this thought is so moving for a vampire's heart that Malkus would have even let out an 'Aww'-like exclamation of endearment... If he could remember how.

The priest stirs, struggling to lift his head - but only ends up falling back and groaning again. He is in pain, Malkus can sense it: he seemed to have broken his leg during the attack on his cart. Ah, but the ache is his shattered bone is nothing compared to the agony that he will be feeling moments from now, when Malkus gets down to business!

The thought makes him smirk in malicious joy - and the stones seem to share the sentiment. They positively vibrate with delight, their patterns' glow now constant, and so bright that the green lines are now spitting out sparks - which in turn start clustering together into trails of light, long and glittering like necklaces out of purest emeralds.

Malkus remembers seeing jewellery like that on the daughter of a nobleman in some small fortress town in Daggerfall, many decades ago; as it turned out, she had quite a weakness for Orcs, both male and female, which made hunting her down especially entertaining. He tugged at her necklace to pull her back to him, when, in the middle of kissing him in her chambers, she looked into his face and realized that he had been quite literal when he promised to 'devour' her. The cord strained and ground against her throat, indenting a searing red mark across her lily-white skin, till it finally burst, and the emeralds scattered across the floor. After Malkus was finished feeding, he tossed the cold, marble-white noblewoman down, and as her black hair spread around her frozen face, the emeralds twinkled in it like fireflies in the night. Malkus was younger then, slower on the uptake, and less absorbed by discovering the many uses of his Berserker rage, so he found the scene almost... poetic.

But then, the lady's Orcish maid walked in, and he had to dispose of her too - and that was when, annoyed by the sudden interruption, he allowed himself to get carried away by his bloodlust for almost the first time in his unlife, ripping off the girl's breasts and clawing out her eyes and doing all the other things now habitual for him.

And the most amusing thing is - when she first spotted him, she was almost happy to see what he had done.

'I am not sorry the mistress is dead,' she said, freezing in the doorway and drawing a long, hoarse breath. 'She was a selfish, shallow thing, and she treated our people like animals, too dumb to be used for anything but sex. If you come with me quietly, I will help you escape through the back door, and then make it look like she had a bad fall down the stairs or something. Her father won't be back from the hunt for hours; I'll have plenty of time to stage an accident'.

The foolish mortal, coming in, buzzing over his ear, spoiling the aftertaste of his meal - of course, the last thing she had to be told, before he fell upon her and dug into her chest, was,

'Oh no, girl - I am not one of your people'.


While Malkus is lost in memories, the emerald sparks travel to a standing stone that bears similar patterns but is significantly smaller than the rest and is located separately, on a small ledge that overlooks the ritual circle and is secured by protective railing. Swarming around it, they slip into the spirals, flooding them with their green light, which reaches its most dazzling point at the precise moment when Malkus thinks back to his arms, plunged elbow-deep into the bubbling, slurping red mass of flesh within the Orc maid's caved-in chest, and to the intoxicating thrill of carnage.

As the carved spirals burst with rays of green, the upper half of the smaller standing stone dislodges itself from the lower, revealing itself to be a polished, tear-shaped rock that used to smoothly fit into a special slot. After rising into the air, it glides towards Malkus, who reaches out to catch it, the leering snarl on his face growing ever broader. When his fingers close round the stone, it hums faintly in his grasp, and the sound is echoed by a far stronger rumble underneath his feet. Ah. It seems he has been given a magical focus to control the flow of power at the ritual site. Now the fun may truly begin.

Still holding on tightly to the glowing stone tear, Malkus takes a precautionary step away from the circle: and just in time, too, for the rumble is followed by the geyser-like eruption of a vivid-green jet of fluid magic, like water made into light. Gushing out of the cracks in the ground, it propels the priest up into the air in a dizzyingly rapid motion that causes him to open his eyes and shudder with mounting pain, as Malkus hoped he would.

Moments later, a dome of ghostly, rippling green light forms high above the mortal's thrown-back head, thus trapping him within a gigantic magical bubble, which steadily fills up with jagged bolts of lightning - dozens upon dozens of long, wicked white stings that bite into the captive's body, burning holes in his grey robe and making his flesh swell with round, pale, watery blisters that pop now and again, shooting out blood and pus and drawing a sharp breath from the mortal's lips as he makes pathetic attempts not to cry out in pain.

A few of the lightning tendrils wrap around the Akaviri blade still sheathed at the priest's side. They move in a slightly different fashion than the rest of the spell bolts, appearing to have come alive like ropes enchanted by a Khajiiti lute player (too bad those showy, laughably self-assured performers did not prove skilled enough to command their own inventory to hold back Malkus when he decided to feed on them). A couple of seconds wrapped in the tethers of sizzling magic is all that it makes for the sword to fall to the ground, now a useless, blackened, melted lump. Should anything go not quite as planned, the mortal will have no means of fighting back... Unless he knows magic, which is rather likely - but Malkus can always see to it that the lightning strikes especially hard at his hands. Can't conjure up a fire ball if you have bleeding stumps instead of fingers.

A few minutes pass; with his arms folded and his foot tapping against the floor in tune with some cheery melody, Malkus watches the priest writhe in his seething bubble and occasionally cough up slimy clots of blood. When he deems the mortal sufficiently... conditioned for the next stage of his taming, he moves closer to the standing stones and, closing his eyes and pressing the focus to his chest, concentrates all his willpower to expunge all the unnecessary thoughts that might be cluttering his mind, so that it might be sharpened like a deadly spearhead, pointed straight at the foggy, pain-ravaged brain of the priest, ready to burst through and rip through everything that makes him a creature of relative (and rather annoying) independence. Every thought, every cherished memory, every attachment and every ambition. A thrall does not need all that cumbersome baggage, does he?

That silly little man tries to set up defenses, holding back Malkus' intrusion into his thoughts even despite the physical torture he is going through. And, to give the priest his due, he actually does that more decently than most of Malkus' recent playthings. He guesses they do not take on simple, easily befuddled bumpkins at those Ancestor Moth monasteries. But when the flesh is constantly being lashed at by destructive magic, the spirit is bound to break, sooner or later - and in such conditions, not even the keenest intellect will be able to withstand the systemic, persistent onslaught of an Illusion made who has had more than a single lifetime at his disposal to practice.

It is not too long before Malkus begins to sense little cracks appear within the barriers of the priest's mind - and to speed up the process, he puts all of his mental capacity into filling his captive's mind with soothing, gentle whispers, promising him that once he lets go of his free will and lets another, superior being set the course for his thoughts, then the pain will go away. The bubble will burst, and the burning green stones will go dark; the mortal's wounds will be treated, and he will be cared for - kept safe and warm and even well-fed with whatever it is the cattle sustain their deficient bodies with. He will make a valuable thrall, after all.

'Come now,' Malkus mouths, pressing even closer to the spell bubble and opening his eyes so he can see the priest's sweating, distorted face. 'The more you fight me, the more you will suffer, mortal. You know that. You know that all you have to do is give in to me, and it will all be over. And you want it to be over, don't you? You want the agony to stop. It is all in your hands - just acknowledge me as your master, and do as I bid you. This way, everyone will be happy'.

'Must... resist...' the mortal croaks - but that pitiful noise does not convince anyone: either Malkus, who only shakes his head, jeering, or the priest himself, for the echo of his voice is still hanging in the air when his inner gateways come crushing down, and his weary mind is laid bare before Malkus, like the flat grassy plains outside, waiting obediently for any seeds he chooses to plant. And oh, by his Prince's Mace, does he plant them! And what beautiful vines of corruption and enslavement shoot out of them, twisting and slithering and sprouting long, venomous thorns, and smothering the priest's delusional visions of personhood so that he can embrace his new role as cattle.

Looking down at the focus stone in his hands, Malkus passes his fingers over its carved surface, and mentally calls off the lightning. Upon his command, the bubble stops sizzling on the inside, and the priest gets thrust down into a kneeling pose - quite fitting for a thrall like him. Another slow sliding motion across the focus - and the spell dome turns from venomous green to a cooler, more muted shade, closer to light-blue, with its inner glow lapping against the priest's body, cleansing the pus from his blisters, and mending his broken bone.

'There, what did I tell you: no more pain, and everyone is happy,' Malkus says generously - and he can swear that the answer that he receives is almost as delectable to savour as the screams of his Berserker rage's victims.

'Yes, master. Thank you, master'.

Well, this stage of the mission has been brought to a most satisfactory conclusion. All he has to do now is to bring the thrall to Lord Harkon - and inform him of the worm Gideon's betrayal. Maybe, as a reward for the priest's successful capture, he will even be allowed to lead the hunt for that bastard's son. It will probably be of no practical importance to the clan, now that Malkus has disposed of Gideon (who cares about leverage if the person you intimidated it with is gone?), but everyone will have to agree than nothing is more enjoyable than tearing into a young whelp's throat while he is still wailing over his father's death...

Wait, what was that? Voices?

'And here we are. The creepy ruin across the river. Let us hope that little... young... person was right'.

'I believe he was. While casting, I was focusing on finding Malkus, not this specific location'.

'So we'd best brace ourselves; from what I know of that Orc, he will not go down without a fight. He might even attack me, given that I have... rather outlived my usefulness to my father... Though he might torture me a little to find out where I re-hid the scroll'.

'Oh goodness! That's so, so horrible! Do you really think your family would be that cruel?'

'They... They are less of a family to me than I hoped'.

'I am sorry as well. I know that it is hardly sufficient, but...'

'Don't trouble yourself with it. Not everyone turns their children into vampires for noble purposes'.

'I... I was not...'

'Oh, don't be modest! I admit, you had us all fooled by being so eager to join my father's court - but it was actually for Felix's sake, wasn't it? I... I kind of misjudged you, I guess. I - I actually went to his room before you turned him, and told him to run'.

'And I can only commend you for it. What I did...'

'Oh don't start with the Drama Kwama again! We are almost there'.

Yes - without a doubt, Malkus can hear voices, drawing nearer and nearer from the direction of the cave's entrance... There are three in all, though Malkus cannot be absolutely certain, for their conversation is intermingled with the sizzle of some spell. But what he does feel certain about is that, out of the three interlopers, he recognizes two.

One of them is Lady Serana; and the other... The other is Gideon!

That... that maggot! He thought he had squashed him, and left him by the roadside to be picked apart by wild scavengers like the piece of rotten flesh he is! What in Oblivion is this filth doing alive? And in the company of Lord Harkon's daughter?! Who has... re-hidden the Elder Scroll?! Does this mean the ungrateful wench went against her father, and started scheming to disrupt his glorious plan? Gideon put her up to this, didn't he? Well, they will both suffer for it! Though Serana will suffer slightly less - she is vampire royalty, after all, and in spite of what she just said, Malkus would prefer to present her to Lord Harkon (mostly) unharmed so that the latter can discipline her personally.

They have already come into view, climbing the staircases with the determination of infesting vermin. Malkus can spot Gideon and Serana (the nerve of these traitors!) - and walking between them, is some sort of puny mortal of the Bosmeri race, with black hair and blue eyes. It seems the double-crossing wretches have brought a small snack - which Malkus will be claiming for himself, of course. It has been a while since he heard a Bosmer scream.

As the three intruders approach the first gargoyle pair, Malkus lifts the focus stone high over his head, hoping that the cavern's magic might also have some influence over its stone guardians - and bellows an order,

'Awaken and attack! The she-vampire is to be spared, but the other two are prey!'

Either pulled out of their slumber by the focus stone, or catching the scent of cattle, the living statues spread their wings and leap off their pedestals with a mighty roar, swarming their quarry in a manner of seconds. The blighter Gideon has the audacity to dodge and incoming blow, crying out to the little mortal,

'Be wary of their claws! They drain your life force!'

'Oh?' the mortal responds enthusiastically, whirling away from a gargoyle before it can knock her off her feet with a bat of its wing. 'Do you suppose it works on other... cursed statue thingies?'

'I have no idea!' Gideon calls back, while trying to hold two more gargoyles at bay with a spitting current of magical lightning that streams out of both his open palms. 'But it would be educational to find out!'

'A bit of education, coming right up! Watch me!' the Bosmer chirps, allowing the gargoyle she just evaded to chase her.

What is that miserable little thing playing at?! Malkus widens his nostrils, huffing in anger, and turns his back on the enthralled priest, drawing closer to the scene of the battle.

The huge, lumbering gargoyle follows the agile little Wood Elf in heavy leaps, its groping claws dripping with crimson primal magic, which will weaken the prey with a single touch. Presently, they pass by the other gargoyles, which are flocking around Serana, blocking her ice magic blasts by folding their wings in front of themselves, but hesitating with an attack (they were commanded to spare her, after all). And at this moment, while the gargoyle is stomping past its brethren, the mortal whips around and utters some sort of incantation, her squeaky elvish voice suddenly sounding much deeper,

'FUS! RO!'

This summons a crushing force wave, half-transparent and greyish-blue in colour, which pushes the gargoyle in the chest, making it stagger and fall right into the coiling ring of stone limbs that encircles Serana (who barely has time to leap aside before the gargoyle plops onto the spot where she stood moments ago).

As the creature falls, its glowing claws slice at the shins of some of its brethren, clouding their bulky forms in life-draining vapour. The cave's guardians, now looking more grotesque than intimidating (as they are supposed to be, dammit!), stumble drunkenly on the spot, growing more and more subdued by their own magic - especially as, in the confusion, they continue shoving their claws at their own faces and limbs.

And, of course, trust Gideon to use the situation to his own advantage: the bloody traitor lets a huge ball of flame swell up in his hands (even though the hot aura of his own magic makes him wince in discomfort) - and then hurls it at the stupefied gargoyles, managing to pull Serana and the mortal away with him in the fraction of a second that flashes by before his spell fully erupts.

The explosion of golden magic shatters the gargoyles into a smoking pile of debris - and even Malkus has to stagger, deafened by the thundering roar of the flames.

As he steadies himself again, he sees Gideon sweep the elf off her feet in an elated, impulsive embrace.

'Oh, that was brilliant!' he exclaims, his smile so devoid of malice that he looks sickeningly like a mortal. 'Brilliant! Turning these stone monsters' magic on themselves! I forgot how wonderful it is, to watch a successful experiment! Somehow I feel... I feel far better now. Oh, thank you - thank you, you wonderful girl!'

His face falls the moment he says that, and he lets go of the giggling, flushed mortal. Well, what do you know, he has enough sense to realize what a fool he has made of himself! Let that embarrassment be the last thing he ever feels.

Crossing the remaining distance to the interlopers by transforming into a wisp of black mist, Malkus rematerializes inches away from them - and incapacitates Gideon and the elf with a gust of frost magic that paralyzes their torsos and arms (with their fingers still just barely touching) and makes their legs crust over with a bumpy layer of ice. The spell should hold the pesky critters still for several minutes, keeping them out of his way while he captures Serana; and with his lord's foolishly rebellious daughter being put in her proper place, he will be able to unfreeze his meal and feast in peace.

He begins by attempting to negotiate.

'I do not know what prompted your escape, my lady,' he says, bowing (with a spell-gloved fist clasped behind his back just in case. 'But if you come with me to the castle willingly...'

'No. Been there, done that, was not impressed,' she interrupts him.

Yes - he suspected things would turn out this way. Lord Harkon has hinted more than once that the poisonous influence of his wife has rendered his daughter... difficult. Well - disciplining it is then.

Sliding his hand from behind his back, he opens his palm to release a new portion of glittering, icy magical dust - but Serana blocks his attack with an ethereal barrier, which she holds in place with one hand while aiming a spell of her own at Malkus with the other.

'Please, do use your magic to its full potential,' she tells him mockingly, as she almost pierces Malkus' eye with an ice shard, which he manages to catch in mid-flight and break in half in his grip. Quite an impressive feat, he is sure, but it knocks him off-balance and mages his palm bleed - or rather, ooze out a splatter of dark liquid, mixed in with ash.

Serana's eyes burn brighter when she sees that, and she goes on,

'This needs to be a fight to the death. I will not have it any other way. I am done playing the role of a parcel sent away from my father and then delivered back to him'.

While she is talking, she and Malkus exchange a few more shots of elemental magic, almost each of them negated by a barrier or a counter-spell. The ones that do hit the target are mostly directed at Malkus, who was rather slowed down when he caught that ice shard. The spells do not inflict grave wounds - but they do make him grunt in frustration and order himself to 'keep his eyes on the wench's spells, blast it!'.

But, as he grows too absorbed by tracking the movements of Serana's hands, Malkus almost does not notice her grow taller, bulkier, with her shoulders hunching over, her face stretching out into the flattened, toothy visage of a bat, and a pair of grey wings sprouting out of her back.

And when his mind does fully register Serana's transformation, it is already too late: suddenly, there is a long pale arm reaching for him, and clammy clawed fingers closing round his throat, pressing down at his windpipe - with a crushing, relentless force, no matter how hard he kicks at the tall grey figure's stomach, and tries to stab it with a new conjured shard... And finally, something cracks, and he can't breathe, and the cavern around him inexplicably turns into a deep black well, down which he falls and falls and falls till he hits the bottom.

His long, nauseating drop ends with a painful bump, which makes Malkus let out a deep-throated 'Oof!' and screw up his eyes. When he opens them again, he discovers that he has landed in the middle of a broad street, with the cobblestones buried beneath a thick layer of soft ash. There are tall grey buildings rising on either side, with roofs shaped like giant overturned boats with sharp, curving keels, and adorned with the enormous, many-socketed skulls of monstrous creatures. Behind the buildings, there is a massive wall of glaringly bright, razor-like spikes wrought out of iron and steel. Taller than any of the most reinforced fortifications Malkus has ever seen, the spikes soar up towards the leaden sky, which rains flakes of cold embers over the grey roofs.

'What... What is this place?' Malkus wonders groggily while getting up.

He is not on the mortal plane any longer, his senses tell him as much. Serana has actually managed to kill him, curse her! But if he is truly dead, then surely... Shouldn't he have travelled to Coldharbour, the domain of Molag Bal, his kin's patron Daedra? Shouldn't he have awakened in a realm of eternal night, amid jagged black cliffs and beneath a cold, swirling purple sky? This dusty fortress does not match any accounts of Coldharbour that he is familiar with; in fact, it looks more like...

'The Ashpit,' a husky female voice says, while the stately, fur-clad figure of an Orcish warrior comes into view. She carries a massive axe on her shoulder, its blade age still dripping crimson; her broad hips are girdled with a garland of skulls; and there is stark red war paint encircling her eyes and crossing the part of her chest that is visible over her beast hide vest.

'The Ashpit,' she repeats, her eyes lighting up with fierce pride. 'The afterlife of my people'.

Malkus frowns. There... There is something familiar in the way she says that; she reminds him of... of a distant memory - one he dwelled upon only recently. And when the realization hits, he knows he had to prepare a defensive spell.

'You!' he cries in astonishment. 'You are that little maid from Daggerfall...'

'The one you killed,' the warrior nods gravely, readjusting her weapon. 'I never dreamed I would be taken here, since I was not born in a stronghold - but Malacath's doors are open to all Orcs that were scorned and despised in life, and he honoured the wrath I felt when my mistress mistreated and insulted me and still demanded that I pleasure her'.

She grins to herself, patting her skull belt with her free hand.

'I am a chieftain now. I have a thousand beautiful, strong wives that feast and fight by my side as my equals; I have had decades to hone my combat skills, and now I can take on the mightiest of warriors in the Ashen Forge - and then drink to our glory after we are done competing!'

Malkus flicks an eyebrow. This may not be the afterlife he envisioned himself having (he was hoping to still roam Nirn for at least a couple of millennia, actually), but perpetual bloodshed on a Daedra Lord's combat grounds does appeal to his inner Berserker.

'So now I get to join you too?' he asks cautiously.

'Join me?' the warrior maid echoes, throwing her head back with a loud guffaw. 'Oh, yes, you might say that!'

When she is done laughing, she straightens up and stares deep into Malkus' eyes, her face and voice darkening.

'Have you guessed what my war paint means?' she asks, advancing slowly at Malkus till he finds himself with his back against a wall.

'It marks the places where you tore into my body to eat my flesh and drink my blood. Because an Orc - a true Orc, one of my people - never forgets. I have waited for many years till this day would come; and now, my wives and I are going to hunt you down, and skin you alive, and roast you for our feast... And then gather your bones and piece them together, so that Malacath can revive you and we can hunt again. And so it shall be for all eternity. Welcome to the Ashpit... vampire'.

Chapter Text

Malkus lies dead on the ground, a broad stripe of dark bruises collaring his greyish-green neck; and a few paces away from him, rests Serana, who had to lay herself down limply after reverting from her winged form. As soon as the Orc's ice spell wears off and Yalanwen and Gideon can move again, the little Bosmer - her hair and armour now slightly soaked in thaw water - rushes to the vampiress' side, throwing herself on her knees and sliding against the floor like an overzealous bard that breaks his lute towards the end of a performance, and clasps Serana's hands in hers.

'Are you all right?' she asks, unable to keep up even breaths due to the coils of anxiety beginning to tighten around her heart and lungs. 'Are you badly hurt? Gods, that was some fierce battle! You risked your life while we couldn't even lift a finger to aid you! At least... Nod if you can hear me, pretty please?.. Goodness, you are so cold!'

'I am a vampire, you silly thing, I am supposed to be cold,' Serana smiles weakly, while pushing herself into a sitting pose. 'That brute bruised me a little, but I will be fine'.

'Do you need some blood?' Yalanwen asks eagerly. 'I can feed you if that helps! I can feed both you and Gideon! I have no problem with that...' she narrows her eyes and gives a meaningful look to the other vampire, who is squeezing water out of his sleeve with an expression that suddenly reminds Yalanwen of a Khajiit that stepped in something wet. 'It's like giving a sick person a potion!.. I failed at that once, so I had better try harder to help others from now on'.

Gideon stops fussing over his sleeve and glances at Yalanwen with a frown. This makes her stomach clench painfully, because part of her feels guilty about bringing up a subject that still (quite obviously) makes Gideon upset; whereas another, smaller, more than a bit insane part suddenly wishes that he would ask her what she meant by 'failed at that' - so that she could tell him all about her brother, and hear him say 'I understand; I have been through the same'.

But it's... It's weird to want that, isn't it? She has never really talked about this to anyone, not in great detail, fearing they would not care - why would Gideon be any different? He has enough pain of his own; he and his son are both vampires now, for gods' sake! It would not do to burden him with her whining - or Serana, for that matter. Her family history is also wrought with tragedy - far greater than Yalanwen's, what with the fate of the sun hanging in balance.

'No blood necessary, I will manage,' Serana reassures Yalanwen, putting an abrupt end to her inner moping. 'If I feel too peckish, I will grab a cave rat or something on our way out. Just give me a moment to rest. In the meanwhile, you two can start figuring out how to drop this barrier so we can free this captive! It has to be the Moth Priest, right?'

She gestures at the giant ball of greenish-blue magic with a kneeling human figure trapped inside, surrounding by towering stones that must be sustaining the spell, by means of the bizarre carved patterns that cover their surface, glowing the same colour as the barrier.

The poor captive's features are half-obscured by the constant shimmering of the barrier veil, but even with the spell in the way, a grey robe and a long beard are still quite discernible - and when Gideon draws closer, he confirms, with a nod, that it is who they have been looking for.

'That's the man Malkus took from the cart,' he says, walking around the glowing ball and inspecting its every inch, with his hands locked behind his back in a busy, concentrated pose. 'He seems completely subdued... I don't think he is even aware of our presence'.

He places his hands with the palms flat against the barrier; the outlines of his fingers are instantly traced by bold, white strokes of pure white light that makes Yalanwen's eyes ache; apparently, the light stings, too, because Gideon leaps back, scowling and blowing at his skin. Trying to throw spells at the green ball does not yield a better result: its ever-shifting, wavy surface merely absorbs Gideon's successive charges of lightning, frost, and fire, making them vanish with a single ripple, like heavy boulders tossed clumsily into deep water.

'The standing stones must be sustaining this magic from within,' Gideon sighs, stepping back. 'So nothing will work until we... deactivate them somehow'.

'Hey, what about this thing?' Yalanwen asks, after she leaves Serana's side and trots up to a smaller, slightly elevated stone. 'It has the same wibbly-wobbly carvings... And oh - looks like some object is intended to fit into this hole here! A off switch maybe?'

Gideon smiles - in a soft, wistful way, as if he has momentarily travelled somewhere deep into his memories; and Yalanwen thinks she can hear him repeat the same thing he said when she defeated the gargoyles,

'Wonderful... Truly wonderful... Exploring; experimenting... Side by side with a...'

He coughs, to keep himself in check, and raises his voice,

'I will see if Malkus had anything on his person to serve as a switch of this kind!'

He lowers himself next to the fallen vampire and looks questioningly at Serana, who has wrapped herself in her own cloak like a blanket and is watching him and Yalanwen out of a snuggly black cocoon.

'This will not disturb you, will it?' he asks, laying his hand down on the Orc's vest. 'You are so close to the corpse...'

'It really shows that you haven't been a Volkihar for long,' Serana responds, a bit snidely. But then, her features soften, and her voice grows more sincere.

'I... I do appreciate your concern, though. It is such a tired clichéd phrase - but I really do. I... I might have said this before, but I could count the people who care about what I think and feel with the fingers of one hand. And two of them are present here'.

'When you are feeling better, I am so giving you a hug!' Yalanwen sings from the railed ledge where she stands facing the 'switch' stone.

Both Serana and Gideon chuckle to themselves - which makes their whole exchange almost idyllically domestic... If you pretend for a while that there is no corpse of a strangled vampire lying about.

Gideon's brief search reveals that there is, in fact, a peculiarly shaped carved object lying beneath the Orc's body. Tugging it from under Malkus, Gideon gets up and joins Yalanwen, who almost claps her hands with anticipation. He was right - it is quite exciting, piecing things together to get out of a magical conundrum; especially when you are working as a team. Exciting enough to cause a blush when your and your team mate's fingers touch over the mystical shard of stone, apparently.

The carved object Gideon found fits into its slot perfectly - but when both the vampire and the Bosmer push down at it (Yalanwen still feels the warm glow on her cheeks when Gideon's hand lingers on hers) and it clicks into place, nothing happens. The barrier is still as strong as ever, and the swirls on the standing stones show no signs of fading.

Gideon makes a small 'Hmph!'-like noise and takes the carved insertion out again, twirling it in his hands.

'Perhaps a spell of some sort is in order?' he asks, thinking out loud. 'Or an incantation?'

'If this is magic designed by vampires,' Serana pipes up from below, 'It must have needed some dark energy to activate. Maybe Malkus drew some of the Moth Priest's blood to get the barrier working; or maybe he just thought evil thoughts - either is entirely possible. So to remove the spell, I guess we'd need the opposite of what he did. Not helpful, I know, but that's the only thing I can think of, relying on my... experiences from being around my mother'.

'The opposite of spilling innocent blood and thinking evil thoughts?' Gideon muses, holding the carving up over its socket. 'So... Healing perhaps? We could try performing a restorative ritual together - what do you say, Yalanwen? Yalanwen?'

The Bosmer's lower lip quivers. The clenching feeling has returned, and is now spreading from her stomach up her innards and to her heart, growing tighter and tighter and tighter till she comes close to shrieking in pain - and then, with just as much violent force as when it gripped at her, it lets go, tearing something up within Yalanwen and unleashing a long, hoarse, hiccupping, unseemly sob, which she did not even know she was holding back.

'I... I told you...' she gasps, groping at the railing for support, while her shoulders keep jerking up and down. 'I... I failed at healing! I have always... failed at healing... I can do.... Silly little tricks... Like mending scratches... But I would never... Pull off anything... Anything like... A ritual... Not me... Not the... stupid... worthless... piece of... pig... pig sh-shit... that let her brother die...'

And, at long last, after an eternity of hiding behind carefree laughs and smiles and assurances (addressed both to herself and to others around her) that she will cope with this, that she will put on a brave face and move on, of course she will - she gives full voice to the ghostly echoes of her past that have, so far, only haunted the confines of her own guilt-ridden mind. After thrashing inside her skull for so long, they have been set free - splashing out in a torrent of mangled, half-melted words... Not even words, really, but blurry word-like shapes, like the lumpy grey spots on a sheet of paper with a letter you have been weeping over.

Inhaling raspingly again and again, Yalanwen struggles to string these tearful blobs together into at least some semblance of a narrative; she tells Gideon everything, about Halcian, about how much he meant to her, and how desperately she searched for a way to make him better, even if that meant going against the very way of life dictated by the sacred laws of her people. She tells him how her failure of a potion got her exiled, her name cursed by the Green forever - and how Halcian still died, leaving her feeling so very small and lonely and broken.

Even as she bawls into the vampire's chest (unable to remember properly how her head ended up resting there, or how her fingers clenched frantically around the stone he is holding), a tiny detached voice inside her head screams in horror that this is so irrational and improper and insane, and that he is barely even her friend, and that after this scene, neither he nor Serana will ever want to have anything to do with her.

But she cannot help it; she is so tired of sobbing alone into her pillow at night and running away from her own sobs in the morning. This little mention of a healing ritual on Gideon's part was merely the last straw - and now the whole messy haystack is coming down on top of him. He will push her away, she is sure - any moment now, he will push her away; like she pushed herself away whenever she got too mushy.

Only he does not. He draws her closer with his free arm, and strokes her hair, and murmurs something gentle and comforting that almost makes his breath against her cheek feel warm as a mortal's... And suddenly, he is weeping too; not as violently as Yalanwen - rather in subdued, faint groans, with just a thin, glinting film of moisture in his eyes... But still. He is weeping, leaning against the Bosmer as much as she leans against him - and moments later, when she has quieted down a little, she finds herself listening to what Gideon, by his own admission, has not shared with anyone either.

He tells her about how happy he was to prepare for the Saturalia dinner with his wife and son (he pronounces the holiday's name a bit oddly, more like 'Satinalia', but who cares); and about how instead, it turned into a funeral. He tells her of Felix's illness, which should have claimed him in a matter of weeks but instead was drawn out over years by his magic - years filled with silent suffering, not a minute of every day passing without moans of agony and strained, barking coughs, as dark taint bubbled in his son's blood and the sight of him, slipping away inch by inch, cut new jagged, bleeding cracks into Gideon's heart... 'Just when I thought: this is it; this is the limit; it would humanly impossible to contain any more pain within my chest'.

He whispers, his words brittle and his grip growing tighter, of how he grew colder and emptier on the inside after each miserable fiasco of a healing concoction had to be thrown away - so that when cultists (Daedra worshippers?) showed up on his doorstep and promised aid in exchange for servitude (yes, definitely sounds like Daedra worshippers), he nigh on threw himself into their arms, blindly agreeing to kill and enslave people in their name... Anything - anything for Felix.

And he speaks of what, in part, Yalanwen already knows: how he heard from Lokil, one of Harkon's minions (now dead by Serana's hand, just like Malkus), that vampire blood can cure any disease - and, once again, failed to resist the vague hope of salvation for his child, even if that meant allying with the forces of darkness.

'And I still failed...' he mouths, burying his fingers in Yalanwen's hair and swaying from side to side. 'I still failed to restore my son to his former self... And it never stops to cause me pain... So much... Pain... I am sorry that you know this suffering, too. You do not deserve this'.

'You do not deserve this either,' Yalanwen replies to him - putting fervent meaning into every single word.

And hardly does she finish speaking when the carving, which they are both clinging on to without even properly realizing it, pulses a muted blue. Gideon and Yalanwen unlock their embrace, gaping incredulously at the stone in their hands; and Serana stirs as well, unwrapping her cocoon and getting to her feet.

'You got it working!' she says after she reaches the ledge where her companions stand, sounding both impressed and a little taken aback. 'Who knew the thing would react to sob stories!.. Oh. Oh, wait'.

She swallows and bites into her lower lip.

'I apologize. That was insensitive. I just... I honestly was not expecting this'.

'Neither was I,' Gideon confesses, his gaze filled with quiet wonderment. 'But I think I understand now'.

Never letting go of the stone, he shifts his free hand to wipe the tear tracks off Yalanwen's face with his thumb, so absorbed by gazing into her eyes that the intimacy of the gesture does not strike him until later. And when it does he, tries his best to turn his embarrassed cough into a coherent word.

'Empathy. The opposite of vampiric cruelty is... Empathy'.

'We need to activate this switch properly,' Yalanwen says thickly through her nose, her skin still blotchy around her eyes but her cheeks now thankfully dry.

It takes her some effort to tear her gaze away from Gideon and to address the other vampire.

'Serana... Why don't you join us?'

Sera starts, her expression a confused mix of doubt and longing: the very same feelings that were clutching at Yalanwen's heart before she spilled it all out to Gideon.

'You mean... Tell you the story of my not so glorious life? I don't know about you two, but I'm not at all comfortable with the idea of my memories being used to power up some magical contraption'.

'It is not just about the contraption,' Yalanwen tells her earnestly. 'I did promise you a hug, remember? You should start getting used to people caring about you - to people wanting to listen'.

'She is right,' Gideon agrees, steering his own and Yalanwen's arm forward so that they point the stone at Serana. 'Bottling your pain up for thousands of years must have been quite... corrosive for your heart'.

'Fine,' Serana sighs resolutely and places her hand on the stone. 'First of all... It's awful what happened to you both. As for me...'

She shuts her eyes and makes an odd little whimper at the back of her throat - and, seconds later, she is already talking about her family, and how her father, a proud, powerful king in a land long gone, had always been cold and distant, and then plummeted abruptly downhill, from the day he noticed a thread of silver weaving through his hair, and started obsessively searching for a way to hold off the end of his life.

Then, as Serana says, her face and voice growing horribly hollow, while both Yalanwen and Gideon reach for her and  press their bodies against hers in a protective, cradling embrace - then... There was a ritual; a mass blood bath to appease Molag Bal, the Lord of Domination and the Master of Schemes, so that he would 'reward his faithful servant' with immortality. A thousand people - the purest souls of the kingdom: sweet innocent children, bright-hearted teenagers, kindly mothers - impaled on giant spikes, their limp bodies looking like black paper cutouts against the broiling whirlpool of purple-tinted clouds. Herself and her mother, wearing white as they were about to be presented as 'Brides' for Molag Bal, to undergo the same torment that transformed Lamae, the first of the vampires. The descent of a giant winged shadow; female screams ringing in the suffocating darkness ('I... I think they were my own...' Serana whispers weakly). And splatters of red on the white bridal silk.

And after that, years of suffering in a dark, dreary castle, away from the sun and fresh air, with her mother's garden being the only place that did not reek of raw blood. Her parents, constantly at each other's throats, each descending into the opposite corner of an abyss of madness: Harkon intoxicated by his new obsession - a desire to blot out the sun so that vampires could rule the world, with himself as their overlord - and his wife, Lady Valerica, losing herself in countless schemes to counteract her husband's, and dragging her daughter along. Then, thousands of years of sleeping in darkness, alternating between the void of oblivion and inescapable nightmares - only to be woken by two people who seemed to have what she never did: a real, strong bond of unconditional love between a father and his child...

Somewhere along the way, Yalanwen lets go of the carving, to hold Serana closer and to hug her tighter - and Gideon follows suit: a vampire father who turned his child to save him, shielding a vampire child who was turned so save her father's vanity and arrogance. The stone does not matter any more - it could have dropped to the floor and rolled off into a crack somewhere, and Yalanwen and Gideon would not even have stirred.

But it does not drop - it soars, burning blue and white like a shooting star, and slides into its slot of its own accord. And when the three companions finally look up from their cuddle pile, they see that the barrier has been dispelled.

'Whoah...' Serana mumbles, a bit groggily. 'That really was... Quite a healing experience. Like stepping out of my sarcophagus all over again... And seeing the sky after being locked away in that stuffy crypt... Speaking of crypts - the Moth Priest seems to have come to his senses! We can all leave the cave now!'

She points at the circle of stones, where the captive's silhouette can be seen straightening up. Side by side, the three companions return to the Moth Priest's former place of containment, ready to offer him any aid he might need, and then explain why the Dawnguard needs him. But when he turns to face them, his face is blank like a mask, and his eyes, darkened and sunken, resemble deep holes, with something peering out of them... Something alien; something malevolent; something that inhuman.

'I serve my master's will,' the priest says monotonously, as if reciting a script that was written for him by another. 'I serve my master's will'.

'Dammit,' Gideon swears through his teeth. 'Whatever Malkus did to him has not worn off with his death!'

'I serve my master's will,' the priest repeats for the third time - and the alien presence in the depths of his eyes flares up into a spark of anger. 'But my master is gone, and his enemies shall pay!'

Neither Serana nor Gideon intend to wait until the enthralled captive finishes ranting; they draw themselves up to their full height - towering vampiric guardians on either side of Yalanwen - and raise their arms simultaneously, making a new magical barrier. Though nowhere as impressive as what the standing stones were capable of, it serves its purpose: the combined strength of the vampires' spell proves enough to withstand the impact of the fire bolt that the priest hurls at them. The glaring red orb of destructive magic clashes against the curving shield of cold blue light, and sizzles into nothing, as if it just hit a jet of water. Granted, this also makes the vampires' magical defenses wear through - but at least the thrall is off-guard. He was clearly counting on turning his masters' enemies into a crisp with a single blast of flame, and failing to do that has given him pause.

Before he can get a chance to collect himself and prepare for another strike, Yalanwen steps forward, shimmering blue sparkles wreathing her wind-swept hair as she walks through the last shreds of the melting barrier (Gideon just might have gotten a bit of a dreamy look on his face as he follows her with his gaze). Walking up to the Moth Priest, she looks intently into his empty eyes and announces, in all seriousness,

'Sera Priest, I am going to use the Thu'Um now. I will try to keep it down so you don't get too hurt. Please understand that this does not mean I hate you. I am just trying to get you to stop attacking us - and maybe lie down until you feel... more yourself?'

The priest gapes at her dumbly - and then, begins to repeat his chant,

'I serve my master's will. I serve my master's will. I...'

Yalanwen does not let him go on any further. After shaking her head like a teacher disappointed in her student, she utters a single word, which lashes at the ground at the priest's feet like a whip woven from ghostly light,

'FUS'.

The lash itself does not reach the priest, but does set off ripples in the air that make it hard for him to stand up straight. Staggering backwards, he bumps his head against the nearest standing stone and whirls on the spot for a while, his legs intertwining and his feet tripping over his own robes - as if he has just stepped off a magical merry-go-round (Yalanwen took a ride on one early in her wanders, when she visited an Alinorian carnival, and it took her half an hour to tell the sky from the ground again).

Eventually, the priest does find a point of balance, leaning against the solid stone surface for support, and passes his hand wearily over his face. When he looks up again, his eyes, though a bit dim, are quite a regular human shade of brown, with not a flicker of wild flame in sight.

'I... I am sorry,' he says, in a voice that quivers so hard that Yalanwen decides for herself that he is to be offered a hug as well, when the time is right. 'That... That wasn't me you were fighting. I was trapped - first in this circle, then in my own body; and I was completely unable to control my actions. Thank you...' he reaches for Yalanwen's hand and gives it a limp, weak shake. 'Thank you for breaking that foul vampire's hold over me'.

'Eh, I did make you hit your head in the process,' Yalanwen kicks a clump of dirt awkwardly.

'Do not worry; I shall treat him if necessary,' Gideon steps in.

Noticing his gaunt features and his Volkihar attire (what remains of it, anyway, after so many misadventures), the priest yelps in alarm and slaps his own thighs frantically, groping for a weapon that is nowhere to be seen (Malkus must have disposed of it).

'More of these creatures! I am not submitting to you again!'

'Calm down, Your Mothness, we are not here to hurt you,' Serana reassures him, with an audible note of mockery seemingly back to her old snarky self. 'We are all allied with the Dawnguard, if that word means anything to you. We need you to read an Elder Scroll for us, so that the Dawnguard might know how to stop the world domination plans of the vampires that are less friendly and charming than myself - and, kind of, my associate here'.

'Dawnguard...' the Moth Priest echoes, his eyes travelling from the faces of the two vampires to that of their mortal companion, in sheer amazement. 'If my knowledge of history serves me, I recall that the Dawnguard was an ancient and noble order of vampire hunters. But... How could this be possible? The hunters recruiting the very creatures they persecute?'

'Like you said, we are a noble bunch,' Yalanwen beams. 'And accepting aid from those who wish to do good is a noble thing to do'.

When the priest does not show signs of being particularly convinced, she spreads her arms emphatically.

'Come on, trust me if you don't trust my friends! I am a mortal that is not afraid to travel in the company of vampires - and you can tell that I am not enthralled like you were! Can't you?'

'I... I suppose,' the priest mumbles vaguely, still scrutinizing Serana and Gideon with a frown.

'Well, that's that then!' Yalanwen declares brightly. 'Serana - could you please teleport us out of here, back to Fort Dawnguard?'

Serana nods and sets to work - but her already quite familiar purple oval spell is thrown completely off-kilter, distorting and then fading away, when a large black blur flies into the cavern, slaps Yalanwen across the face with what seems to be a long, feathery wind, and settles into a hovering position inches away from the tip of Gideon's nose.

Now that it is not moving so fast, it becomes clear that the blur is actually a large raven, with sleek, well-groomed feathers and keen beady eyes that hold the vampire's gaze with an almost human interest. Around its neck, there is a small red amulet that glitters with magic.

'What...' Gideon begins, trying to step away before the bird pecks out his eyes.

The raven, however, does not let him finish.

'Greetings!' it caws shrilly, beginning to flap its wings more energetically, while its glowing amulet pulses in time with its words. 'My name is Bothela! Not this bird's name, that is - he's called Fran'Ddu, and he helps me out around the shop. Makes himself more useful than that girl Muiri... Anyway. When they took the boy, I put this enchantment on Fran'Ddu and sent him to find the people who share the same blood and deliver a message from me'.

Gideon's hand travels slowly to his mouth.

'If... If the raven found me... Then... The message is about Felix.... Someone took Felix!'

He bellows the last phrase so loudly that poor Fran'Ddu almost gets half his feathers blown off his body. Still, the bird continues cawing, for this is not the end of the mysterious Bothela's message.

'So if you are the boy's family and you care about him, abandon whatever you are doing, and come to Markarth. He and that big redheaded Nord who was with him...'

'That's Gunmar,' Yalanwen guesses.

'...They were both thrown into Cidhna Mine. A prison that no-one escapes'.

Chapter Text

Fran'Ddu the raven did not wait for the gravity of his message to fully sink in, and flew away, darting back up the cavern passage and leaving the travelling companions behind to process what they have been told and come up with a plan.

In the end, this task fell almost solely to Yalanwen and Serana, because the Moth Priest had no idea who Felix was and could not contribute anything save for confused blinks - and Gideon had taken to pacing erratically back and forth, his fingers clawing at his temples, muttering snatches of incoherent phrases,

'In prison... My Felix - in prison?! No, no - it can't be! How did this happen? How could I allow this to happen?!'

After watching him for a while and exchanging concerned whispers, the two women decided to split up. Serana agreed to re-cast her portal spell and pass through with the Moth Priest, so that Isran would see that she had completed her task and thus deserved as much trust as any other Dawnguard member - and the priest himself would get a chance to begin 'meditating, listening to the sound of bubbling water, running naked through a field of wheat, or whatever it is you need to get in the Scroll-reading mood'. Yalanwen, in the meanwhile, was to stay behind and help Gideon find Felix... without doing anything foolish to himself again.

And here they are - walking away from the circle of stones, with Serana's portal flaring purple behind their backs, and emerging outside, into the heart of the drab brown wasteland dotted by solitary gnarly juniper trees that sway sadly in the cold wind.

It must be the small hours of the morning, for the sky has changed from inky blue to an indefinite greyish colour, like one of those Elsweyr green teas mixed with too much milk, and the two travellers can discern their surroundings even without the glow of the Clairvoyance spell that Gideon has lit up, whispering urgently, 'Please, please - I need to find my son'.

'Wow, we've been in there longer than I thought,' Yalanwen says, with a small yawn. 'Looks like I missed a whole night's rest, and didn't even notice'.

Her sleepy drawl startles Gideon, who has already managed to race ahead, his eyes fixed on the thread of shimmering blue that stretches away from him a few inches above ground. He stops in his tracks and says over his shoulder, his voice close to snapping,

'I... I do not mean to be inconsiderate, but... If you are weary, perhaps it would have been better if you followed Serana? I do not need sleep, and...'

'And I am slowing you down,' Yalanwen sighs, catching up with him.

'I did not mean that,' Gideon tries to protest, but the Bosmer shakes her head.

'You did. And it's all right. I'd also be impatient to get to wherever my loved one was imprisoned. I will try my best to stay awake and alert, I promise. I just... I just don't want that Dragon Bridge incident to repeat'.

'You think I am too unstable to be allowed to come on my own?' Gideon asks when they resume their journey under the guidance of the dancing blue wisps, which keep tracing a winding path that leads the two wanderers into the depths of the milk-tea predawn mist.

As he speaks, with his neck craned forward and his quivering pupils, once again, barely shifting away from the Clairvoyance spell, his tone initially is abrasively sharp. But eventually, his manner grows calmer, mournful even.

'You... You are right,' he admits bitterly. 'I am not proud of the person I can turn into when Felix is threatened, and... the emergence of that person is best avoided at all costs. Especially now that I am... like this'.

When, with a crooked smile on his face, he mentions vampirism, Yalanwen suddenly realizes that, when the night completely melts into day, they are going to face a far bigger problem than her drowsiness.

The sun! Whatever will they do once the sun comes out?! Lord Harkon does not hate daylight, to the point of putting it out once and for all, for no reason: from what Yalanwen has seen and talked about during her joint adventures with Felix and Serana, the burning rays can have any number of devastating effects on a vampire. From making them dizzy and weakened, to scorching their skin till it begins to flake off like ash (Yalanwen is pretty certain that the actual damage depends on when they drank blood last, and maybe on how long they have been a vampire, too).

And knowing Gideon, he will continue pressing on, regardless of how much pain he might be in. He will keep trudging across these brown grasslands, hurrying after the blue wisps - even as the rising sun drowns him in a boiling river of blinding white light, and his legs start giving way under him, and his arms grow brittle like a couple of charred sticks...

She gets so carried away by painting dreadful pictures in her mind (again!) that she comes embarrassingly close to making whimpering noises out loud - but thankfully, the mist around them only grows denser; and suddenly, it is not just a mere mist, but an endless curtain of watery beads, dripping down from the swirls of muddled tea brewing in the sky. The day is beginning with a drizzle - and this discovery, which would have upset so many other people (perhaps even herself, under different circumstances) makes Yalanwen draw a huge sigh of relief.

Like her yawn, it does not pass unnoticed by Gideon. He looks up from the glowing trail again and asks, his tone equal shares puzzled and concerned,

'Is... Everything all right?'

'I was just thinking how the sky is so overcast with rain clouds - so you won't have to deal with the sun, at least for a while,' Yalanwen comments genially. 'Isn't that wonderful, Gideon?'

'It is... Thank you,' Gideon says, a little stunned by his companion's thoughtfulness.

Then, struck by some sort of thought, he slows down and clears his throat.

'I have been meaning to tell you something, Yalanwen. Gideon is not my real name. I came up with an alias when I met you in Helgen because I thought... I thought there were people after me and Felix'.

'Stormcloaks?' Yalanwen nods knowingly. With this horrible war going on, it's no surprise that at least one of the two Imperials wanted to lay low.

Another option, which she does not really care to voice, would have been other Imperials: Gideon - or whoever he really is - is such a brilliant mage that they would have surely wanted to have him in the Legion, but since he was so absorbed by saving his son, he might have decided to desert so he could continue his research in peace. Oh - or it could be those Daedric cultists he was talking about! But it would probably be rude to keep listing people he may have wanted to run away from...

And in any case, the vampire makes a vague sort of sound that Yalanwen interprets as affirmation. Stormcloaks it is then.

'You have been considerate towards me like few other people in this... province,' he says earnestly. 'I believe you more than deserve to know my real name. It's not Gideon; it's Gereon. Gereon Alexius'.

'Gereon,' Yalanwen echoes, looking thoughtfully up at the sky while the dust-like drizzle powders her freckled face, making her old, dried-up layer of war paint melt off in little colourful trickles. 'I like the sound of that. Thank you for trusting me'.

'I like the sound of my name too, when it is uttered by... when it is uttered again after such a long spell of going under an alias,' Gereon blurts out - and then, mangling up the second half of his phrase awkwardly,  demonstratively returns to watching the Clairvoyance wisps weave themselves into a path.

They follow the blue thread for a while in silence, only exchanging a few phrases when the rain starts pouring down harder, and, as there is a hazy pall filming over their eyes whenever the rain drops roll down their faces, making it hard to see where the path disappears off to, Gereon has to conjure up a little barrier over their heads to deflect the water, which forms a cloudy wreath around the spell shield's edges.

'Won't you wear yourself out, keeping two spells up at once?' Yalanwen asks. 'If... If you do not care about your own health, think about not wanting to slow down at least'.

'We will see how long I'll last, won't we?' Gereon responds. 'If you are sacrificing your rest to follow me, I am sure I can get over a little mana... I mean, magicka depletion'.

His voice is a bit uneven, as if he is out of breath (if that is even possible for a vampire), but his head is raised up high defiantly - which causes the Bosmer to envision a new picture in her mind, of her stubborn companion pressing on ahead to find his son until he collapses, this time out of exhaustion rather than exposure to sunlight.

That moment never comes - but only because, shortly after they fall silent again, an arrow zooms past them, ripping through the billows of moisture and passing unsettlingly close to the side of Yalanwen's neck.

The two travellers stumble to a halt; Gereon is so startled that he stops casting both his spells without even appearing fully aware of it. With both the barrier and the Clairvoyance thread gone, they become utterly lost for a few moments, plunged into grey wet murk where even Gereon's sharpened vampiric vision does not prove to be of much use.

There are the same watery ripples surrounding them wherever they turn, be it left or right or backward or above, and the only thing that stands out in this mass of grey is the dark mush that covers the ground, with a few grass blades drooping sadly into the mud.

The two companions' confusion gives the perfect advantage to their unseen attacker - or rather, attackers, who emerge out of the wet mist with hostile grunts, accosting their victims from all sides. There are at least five of them - five elongated blurs at first, with misshapen globes on top and an elongated appendage protruding from either side.

A few blinks later, the blurs turn into humanoid bodies - some wiry and lanky, some with flabby fat coating their arms and stomachs, and all clothed carelessly into beast pelts and mismatched pieces of armour that look glaringly alien on them, a size too small here, two sizes too big there, obviously having once belonged to someone else. And the appendages shape themselves into weapons, a sword, a bow, and a few clubs - all pointed straight at Yalanwen's and Gereon's throats.

This motley band of assailants mostly consists of Nords, each unshaven to various degrees; but the archer is a Bosmer like Yalanwen - male, at least if you judge by the angry 'you fucking worthless leaf boy' that the most bearded Nord spits into his ear when he looks into his kinswoman's face and lowers his bow, his hands shaking. He is barely out of his teens by the looks of him, with wide amber eyes and a smooth, frightened-looking face.

And they have a non-human spellcaster with them, too. This grey-scaled Argonian, with heavy, spiked brow ridges and a drooping, shrivelled bag of flesh hanging under his chin, has a spark of mage light hovering over his shoulder, which must be what allowed the gang to move about in the heavy rain without becoming disoriented.

When Gereon catches sight of him, this disrupts his concentration even further; he stares at the other mage with bulging, glassy eyes, as if he has never seen an Argonian before. The spellcaster leers at Gereon's dumbfounded expression, exposing tips of tiny, sparse, but very sharp teeth - and tosses an orb of searing white light at his chest.

Her ears ringing, her heart pushing its way up her windpipe, Yalanwen does not even pause to think - she slides through the mud, shielding Gereon with her body. She promised to keep him from getting hurt on his way to find Felix, didn't she?

As the spell strikes her, the world grinds to a standstill, and the veil of the rain turns soft and gauzy and dream-like, gently muting the colours of the figures that move around her, each step lasting an eternity, while she falls and falls and falls, suspended in an frozen backward flip over the mud, with her hand clutching at her magicka burn and her lips quivering in a pained little smile - because she kept her promise.

She thinks she can hear muffled, distorted voices echoing around her, while two of the muted figures clash against each other and then break into a run.

'You damn lizard! I will rip off your tale and force-feed it to you!'

'Hisssss! The dry-skin will have to catch me first! Let's see how fast you'll swim along this upward river!'

'Oi! Don't let that crazy mage come after Loots-All-Pants! He's the only one of us who can throw fire bolts! You - yes, you, Axl! - go after them! Now!'

Then, the white veil gets charred to void-like black, and Yalanwen feels so very cold and wet and numb... Until more voices ring over her, jerking her out of the heavy sleep that began glueing her eyelids.

The first voice is the same booming bark that insulted the young Bosmer and ordered someone named Axl to follow Gereon and the Argonian. It comes from somewhere high above, like a thunder clap bursting through the clouds.

'Come on, leaf boy! Finish the little bitch off and take all the valuables you can find! Just like we taught you!'

'B-but... B-but Steel Beard...'

This voice is more high-pitched - and much closer to Yalanwen's face, as if its owner is sitting somewhere by her side.

'I have never killed another Bosmer before!'

'Don't you people all eat each other for Sondas dinner?'

'N-not all of us! My village just tried to get by with hunting and fishing, until the Thalmor came with their purge and forced us out of our homes...'

Awww, the poor sweetheart, Yalanwen laments weakly to herself. No wonder he turned to robbing people - just like that Attendant fellow was forced to work in a Skooma den to feed his family.

Out loud, all her thoughts of pity come out as a squeaky moan, which makes Steel-Beard even more impatient.

'Oh, fine, I will do it myself, while you can watch and learn,' he growls, before the icy cold edge of a blade scorches Yalanwen's skin.

No, wait... This can't be it, can it? The moment of her beheading that was postponed in Helgen? She... She can't die - not now! She had it coming, of course, as punishment, for failing her brother and breaking the Green Pact, and being such a shoddy Dragonborn - but... But Gereon is still out there, still apart from Felix! And Serana has gone off with the Moth Priest - Yanawen was hoping so ardently she would be able to get back in time to find out what the Elder Scroll says, and how she can keep helping to stop the vampires... No, no, no - she is not ready to go yet! She has so much to do! Where is an interrupting dragon when you need one...

Oh - and here it comes! It has somehow heard her pleas! Yes - that swoosh of giant wings, and that rumbling roar is unmistakable! Thank you, oh thank you, interrupting dragon!

'Oh shave my arse and call me an elf!' Steel-Beard swears. 'All right, let's go, you louts! We'll get back to looting later! To the camp; everything's wet so if fat winged rat decides to breathe fire, it won't get to our stash, and we'll gain the higher ground to chase it off! Go! Go, go, go!'

'But what about Axl and Loots-All-Pants?' the Bosmer asks, in a very small voice. 'Shouldn't we warn them?'

Steel-Beard grunts.

'I dunno... Axl is an idiot, so we could do without him... But Loots is valuable... On the other hand, if the dragon eats them, it might leave the rest of us alone... Ah - I know! Leaf boy - you try to warn them! Make yourself useful: either bring Loots back, or fill that scaly fucker's belly! Good luck!'

There is a sound of footsteps slurping away through the mud, and a scared, puppy-like whimper coming from the Bosmer. Still unable to open her eyes or even shift her head, Yalanwen blindly moves her clumsy, limp hand to try and find her kinsman's fingers and squeeze at them to get his attention. If he... If he only helps her get up... She will fight the dragon for him... She will try to make it leave - and if it refuses to cooperate, she will even take its soul so it does not come back... If he only... Notices that there is still enough life in her - at least, so... so she... She thinks...

'Please...' she croaks, trying to tear apart her lips and to move her tongue, which feels huge and swollen, as though stung by a bee.

Out of the darkness, there comes a gasp - and suddenly, Yalanwen feels something tickling her. Something light and soft and warm and cooling at the same time... Healing magic.

Its soothing touch makes it easier for her to breathe, and her neck does not feel like the listless stalk of a wilted flower any longer - she can actually move it! And her eyelids, once again, are fluttering and blinking as they should, with not a trace of the layer of lead that was weighing them down!

When she opens her eyes, she sees her kinsman - crouching next to her, just as she thought, with ribbons of golden light wrapped around his hands.

'Loots-All-Pants may be the only one to know Destruction magic, but I know Restoration magic!' he says proudly.

Yalanwen beams at him and gets up - with such wonderful ease that she can almost burst into song. Her armour and hair is caked with mud - but otherwise, she feels well enough to get down to her Dragonborning business (in her own fumbling way).

'Thanks so much, brother mer!' she says, giving the helpful young bandit a firm handshake. 'Now let's go save everyone from that dragon!'

The other Bosmer - whose expression became a tiny bit strained for some reason when Yalanwen addressed him as 'brother mer' - follows her lead as she strides boldly into the rainy nothingness, and mimics her drawing her bow.

After a few steps forward, it becomes apparent that Yalanwen and Gereon, too caught up in following the Clairvoyance spell, have blindly stumbled into a whole bandit fortress - a sprawling construct looming over the highway, with lots of lookout towers and rope bridges and tiny crisscrossing wooden ladders and squarish buildings that look like equipment sheds. And it is now all lit up by dragon fire, as a winged shadow circles round and round with prolonged, hungry-sounding screeches... Only 'fire' is really not the best word for it.

The light that floods the fortress, making the panicking bandits that scurry up and down the ladders look like jet-black ants, is pale-blue in colour, and every time a blast of it reaches the ground, the moist, glistening wooden platforms turn into miniatures skating rinks, smooth and slippery with not a single foothold - while the ladder steps and the bridges become bumpy, dangerous slides, far more gruesome than the winter rides Yalanwen saw Orcish children enjoy in Wrothgar. As the scattering highwaymen tumble down them, they scream in fear and in pain, and the bluish crust gets tinted red with blood. And once they fall, the dragon does not take long to swoop down, catching a small, squirming, broken-limbed human being in its trap-like jaws. Then, after a few careless crunches, it spits the now faceless, torn-uo sack of flesh out onto the cracking scarlet ice, and flies off again, sowing more destruction with its frost breath.

Standing side by side, the two elves keep firing arrows at it, but not all of their shots hit the target - and those that do not quite miss still do not seem to bother it too much, as it continues to ravage the bandit fort with a sort of wicked relish that makes Yalanwen sigh mournfully under her breath. Yet another dragon that it will prove impossible to reason with.

'Oh no,' the Bosmer bandit mouths, covering his face, after the dragon claims yet another victim, a pot-bellied Orc with enormous grey sideburns - which turn into droopy red rags when the creature is done. 'Oh... That's... That's Old Gobmog! He was the only member of the gang who was kind to me! And even though I did not expect an Orc to understand, not with their marriage customs, he at least listened to me when I tried to explain that...'

He swallows loudly and reveals his face again. His expression is now hardened, somehow making him look older.

His chest heaving in an ever-rising emotional tide, he draws his bowstring back farther than he has ever done so far, taking aim between the dragon's eyes. The torrential downpour lashes at his face, blinding him - but he only breathes the water in, his nostrils flaring and his eyes welling up with an angry orange glow. Old Gobmog really must have been very special to him.

Twang! The string is released. The arrow propels through the rain, the way it did when the bandit almost hit Yalanwen. But instead of sinking into the mud, it hits the intended target. The dragon comes crashing down, making half the fort's protective wooden fence collapse with a fitful strike of its wing. In the process, the falling sharpened logs bury Steel-Beard the Nord - the last of the fort's inhabitants still standing. He vanishes underneath the caved-in fence completely, save for one extended arm, which twitches for a little bit, and then slumps down to the side, lifelessly still.

'Goodbye, Steel-Beard,' the Bosmer whispers, his tone so malicious that it alarms Yalanwen somewhat.

She gives him a very long, concerned look over her shoulder - but has to keep moving to where the dragon fell, pulled to its corpse by the eruption of dazzling magic, which burns bright even in the heavy rain, its threads entwining round Yalanwen with a mounting hiss, leaving the carcass bare, washed clean to the purest, glowing shade of white.

'Whoah!' Yalanwen's kinsman splutters, rubbing his eyes as the last of the magic threads are absorbed by her body. 'What... How...'

'I am still as confused as you are,' Yalanwen confesses with a small chuckle. Then, she gives the dragon bones a thoughtful kick. 'You know... I've met a wizard in Whiterun who will pay a fortune for these. If you bring him as many bones as you can carry off, it may be a way for you to start a new life. You never wanted to become a bandit, did you? And now that... your gang is all gone, you might want to...'

'Gods, thank you,' the young bandit says, bending down in an attempt to figure out which bone he will be able to hoist out of the brownish slush. 'Umm...'

He looks up again, chewing at his lip, small flushed circles appearing on his cheeks.

'Do you suppose... There'll be enough here to pay the fee of that face sculptor they say lives in Riften? That, uh, kind of... part of the reason why I was trying so hard to scrape together some gold. I wanted to be a sell-sword because I was kind of a decent hunter back home, and hitting things with weapons is about the only thing I'm even remotely close to being good at... But then... Steel-Beard accosted me in a dark alleyway when I was having an argument with a merchant who didn't want to pay me for escorting her through Haafingar... And...'

He shudders a little, momentarily shutting his eyes.

'He killed the poor woman for her jewellery... Bashed her skull in with a club... Wanted to kill me, too... Twisted my arms behind my back before I could even draw my weapon... But I begged for my life, and he agreed to spare me if I served as "new meat" for this gang he was gathering out in the wilds. So... Whoosh went my plans to find the face sculptor, right down the drain...'

'Oh, I am so, so sorry!' Yalanwen cries, hugging him. 'I... I honestly don't know where that face sculptor is, or how much she charges. But you could always try!'

She draws away from the bandit and pats him on the shoulder.

'I have to find my friend now. Best of luck to you, brother mer!'

The bandit clears his (oh... oh wait - it isn't 'his' at all, is it?) throat.

'Please don't call me that,' she - yes, she! that makes so much sense now! - tells Yalanwen quietly, but firmly.

'I understand,' Yalanwen nods, her heart clenching with guilt. 'I apologize for assuming... Going by what that thug Steel-Beard called you was a horrible idea'.

‘Yeah, he took one look at me and decided that he knew who I was better than myself, and most of the gang followed his lead, because of course they did,' the other woman smiles wryly. 'But hey - don't let me keep you from finding your friend! Axl and Loots are... kind of big assholes, so I hope nothing bad happened to him. I'd be happy to meet you again, sister'.

'Me too, sister!'

Chapter Text

He could have mused on how this is far from the most glorious achievement of former Magister Gereon Alexius - racing wildly after a talking spell-casting lizard (talking! spell-casting! lizard! no amount of preliminary reading could have prepared him for that) and then, slipping up in the mud and shooting down a mud-covered hill slope, his legs getting somehow entwined with his shoulders and his once darkly resplendent Volkihar attire turning into a sagging wet rag that belongs wrapped round some mop pushed by a despondent overworked servant. But he has to be honest with himself: this exaggeratedly comical tumble is but one on the list of many, many disgraceful things that have happened to him thus far. Take his recent crawling at Harkon's feet for example, when he was ready to let the master vampire carve open his rib cage and use it as a lute, just so he could call Marethi and his hounds (both literal and metaphoric) off Felix's trail. He is not a proud Magister any longer, either in this world, or in Thedas. He just needs to get used to it.

So he does not allow himself to wallow in his humiliation, and merely gets to his feet, clumps of mud plopping off him with a very inappropriate sound, and tries to scan the grey haze for any sign of the... Argonian he believes the race's name is.

'Focus,' Alexius tells himself sternly. 'You are a vampire; you should have some sort of preternatural ability to sense the blood of the living. The blood you are about to spill...'

Oh yes - he will spill the lizard's blood. He will make it flow like a goddamn fountain for what he did to Yalanwen!

Strange... He has not known this little elf for very long, but he is rapidly becoming quite protective of her. Could this be because he has met so very few people in this realm that he can put his trust in, making each exceptionally... precious? Or because her face was among the first he saw when he was thrust into Tamriel, and she... imprinted on him, in a way? Or because, now that she has saved him both from that mob and from the bandit, he is indebted to her again?

Well, whatever the answer, it had better not have anything to do with the deep blueness of her eyes and the constellation-like patters on freckles on her skin and the simple charm of her smile and the...

Ah. There. He knew that he had this power within him. As he focuses on how meaningful Yalanwen's companionship is becoming to him, and how agonizing it was to watch her get wounded, and how he hates the scaly mage for causing her pain, Alexius' vision begins to grow darker, while all of the ambient sounds, like the patter of the rain and the rustling of the grass phase out into the background - save for one. The distant pulsing of a mortal's heart. And then, the mortal himself emerges: a pinkish flicker of life force against the dimmed surroundings, standing on top of the hill that Alexius rolled off from, getting ready to cast some sort of spell, with his head seeming to bob up and down in a gloating snicker. Oh, but you won't be snickering for long, you blasted Argonian!

Alexius is fully prepared to launch an attack of his own - perhaps he should try turning into a cloud of bats and claw the lizard's eyes out? - when another, louder heartbeat makes itself heard behind his back, coming closer and closer and closer, thundering like a war drum...

Alexius blinks, the world melting from black to rainy grey again, and then turns around, baring his fangs in a hiss of warning. It turns out that he is being accosted by another of the cutthroats that surrounded him and Yalanwen - a pudgy human with his second chin grey with stubble. If the layer of mud that covers him like traditional Avvar armour, he must have found his way here in the same manner Alexius did, following as closely behind him as his bulge allowed.

The big brute has raised a club to bash at Alexius - but is too stricken by the sudden reveal of his gaunt, vampiric features to make any further moves.

'What are you waiting for, stupid dry-skin?!' the Argonian shrieks, while sliding down the hill with his arms spread out for balance. 'Squash his face in!'

Why, what excellent advice! Alexius is only too happy to make use of the technique that he has already found to be quite efficient. A moment later, the club is already glowing green, vibrating with magical force and trying to escape the clutches of its bug-eyed owner like a slippery eel. With a little bit of effort, Alexius will be able to gain full control over this crude implement, and turn it against the bandit.

Of course, to pull this trick off properly, he first has to lure the double-chinned thug out of the Argonian's spell range - because the pesky lizard, annoyed by the face-squashing getting delayed, keeps on showering him with stinging magical projectiles; and casting barriers or just dodging incoming spell charges is rather distracting when you have cast Telekinesis on an unwieldy spiky club and are playing tug-of-war with its owner, who has dug his heels into the mud and refuses to let go.

So Alexius eases his magical hold on the club, making the green glow fade almost into nothing, and, in a swirl of black mist, teleports a few paces further, then a few more, and a few more. All the while, the bandit lumbers after him, obviously thinking that his club won't be getting away from him again - and if Alexius wasn't so amused by his naive persistence, he might have even been intimidated by the growling and jaw-clicking noises he makes.

Having led the bandit a sufficient distance away from the Argonian - who can still be heard somewhere in the rainy depths, calling for him impatiently, 'Move your tailless rump! Grind that dryskin to paste!' - Alexius powers up his Telekinetic spell again. A new struggle ensues, and Alexius is able to finally jerk the weapon out of the thug's hands, making it soar into the air and thrust itself forcefully through the dome of the hapless fellow's skull.

As he steps away to avoid blood and brain matter getting added to the palette of stains on his muddy attire, Alexius is tempted - just for a moment - to raise the club again and land a few more blows, for good measure. No - that won't do. The thug is clearly dead; there is no need for him to stoop down to Malkus' level and turn him into Starkhaven haggis. Besides, any vampiric bloodlust he might have started feeling had better be saved for his primary target - the Argonian that hurt his... his friend. His first friend in Tamriel, who took that blow in his stead.

Once again, Alexius channels his determination to track down the lizard to distance himself from the sounds and colours of the rainy plains, and to see only the pink wisp marking the bandit's heart. It is further off now, just barely visible - but even this is enough for Alexius to pick the right direction.

However, it seems that in his rush to deal with the Argonian, he has discounted one thing: the bandit has had plenty of time to prepare himself while Alexius was beyond his spell range.

When the colours come flooding back in, Alexius sees the Argonian move his hands through the air, like an underwater current moves seaweed; and, to continue the metaphor, there are silvery crystals of ice slipping through his scaly fingers like a school of nimble little fishes. It takes Alexius a moment to deduce the crystals' nature - but then it hits him that the cunning mage (who does not stop cackling to himself all the while) is freezing up the rain drops around him, and moulding them together into a giant, bristling sphere, which he obviously intends to send rolling towards his approaching adversary, so that it either flattens him under its weight or stabs him with one of the many icy spikes that protrude out of its sides. Well, who is to say that what worked on a common club shouldn't work on a conjured tool of destruction as well?

With a new flash of green, Alexius thrusts his hands forward, straining to either turn the Argonian's ice magic against him or at least keep the sphere from continuing its journey. This proves far harder than snatching a weapon from a common thug; as his reserves of magic rapidly deplete, Alexius begins to feel strangely light-headed, a sharp little twang of pain pulsing in his temple, as if he has breathed too much rain water up his nose.

The Argonian has cocked his head to the side curiously, gathering up more and more ice shards into his murder ball; he seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself, the way Malkus enjoyed himself when he clawed out that poor guardsman's eyeballs... The way Alexius thought he would enjoy himself when he saw the lizard pay for taking down Yalanwen... or when he made that Vigilant, now a shadow from another life, pay for threatening Felix.

The thought of his son, of his unfinished mission to find him, of the generous elf that is ready to save his Felix by his side, makes the very last dregs of magic that still remain within Alexius rise up and course towards his fingertips. The spell he is casting erupts into a jerking, unstable zigzag; and the ice sphere bursts.

Its shards, driven away from Alexius by telekinetic force, all fly towards the Argonian, who, in the fleeting moments he has left to live, can only do as much as open his elongated, scant-toothed maw in shock, before a glowing frozen spike pierces the roof of his mouth, its tip coming out of his scaly scalp, while two more puncture his yellow eyeballs, and a whole handful turns his wrinkled grey neck into a bleeding pin cushion.

Alexius cannot hold back a fanged smirk when the Argonian's body splashes into the mud at his feet - but his next conscious impulse is utter distaste.

'I am not Malkus,' he chants, looking away from the porcupine-like corpse. 'I am not Malkus. I must stay in control'.

With his eyes no longer focused on the dead lizard, he is able to inspect his surroundings (to a degree, as it is still raining)... And, like a carriage driven at breakneck speed by frenzied horses, a single devastating thought hits him.

He has no idea which direction he came from.

Oh, dammit, dammit, dammit! With all the circling around in this cursed weather, falling off hills, chasing lizards, fooling thugs, and escaping ice balls - he has wandered off too far from the place where he left Yalanwen, and now he has no clue where he should turn to get back. How is he supposed to heal her?! To continue on his journey with her?! To finally get to that Markarth place, and break Felix out of prison?!

Muttering curses to himself in a colourful mix of Thedosian Common, Tevene, and Tamrielic (which has rather grown on him), Alexius hastily fires up the Clairvoyance spell. But the path shown by the blue wisps closes into a loop and then fades away altogether, with no energy left to sustain it. Frustration pulling at the tightly woven invisible ropes within his stomach, Alexius forces himself to close his eyes and count to ten, hoping that at least a sliver of his magical capacity will return. But even after this little pause, Clairvoyance still fails to work: it merely traces a new, somewhat brighter loop, refusing to assume any other pattern no matter from which angle Alexius tries to re-cast his spell... While a wail of desperation thrashes silently against his tightly gritted teeth.

He figures it out eventually; not that this brings any particular insight into getting out of the current dismal mess. The Clairvoyance spell is supposed to show the best way to reach one's destination - and Alexius has two of these now. The Cidhna Mine prison, where his poor, terrified little boy is being held, punished for going on some foolhardy adventure with the Dawnguard, suffering the consequences of his father's madness again - and wherever it is Yalanwen is lying wounded in the dirt, with her life being drained by the spell that should have hit Alexius. These two places must be quite far apart, which has made the spell malfunction. And he cannot fix it, because... Because how can he pick just one?

Felix comes first, always and forever - but Alexius will hardly be able to... just erase all thoughts of Yalanwen! Not after all she's done for him! And she seems to have befriended Felix too, so what will he say if he finds out that his father left her to die? How will he look at him? It... It will be like Redcliffe and Castle Volkihar all over again.

No. There has to be another way. One does not involve making a choice.

Ah - of course. That life detection skill his vampirism has granted him. Regardless of the impossible turns he took in the rainy mist, he can't have gone too far from where he and Yalanwen were attacked; and there were plenty of other bandits lurking about when he ran off after the Argonian. This means he could try walking a short way in any direction until he reads life signs from a large group of people. Splendid; this is exactly how he shall proceed! Now... He just needs to clear his mind... Summon this muffling darkness again.

After a certain while, Alexius' search for the pulsing outlines of living people yields the desired results. A whole swarm of pink dots blooms in the black void, moving busily to and fro. It is impossible to tell which one of them is Yalanwen, but Alexius hopes to see her once the dark pall falls back... In vain, as it turns out.

He has located a large group of people, yes - but they are not bandits. Not... The same bandits, in any case. For they look nothing like them.

Where the thugs from the Argonian's gang wore a grotesque mishmash of gear, none of it the right size, these strangers are all wrapped in the same (quite revealing) garments, sewn out of hide and fur, with bird skulls and long black feathers attached to their chests and headwear as adornments - which, as Alexius is quite certain, have a ritual significance. All of their weapons have been crafted in the same fashion as well - carved out from some cervid's antler perhaps? - and have an invariable and very distinct design, resembling branches of some thorn-bearing plant.

There are both men and women among them, intricate black tattoos covering their faces (as it happened when he saw Yalanwen for the very first time, Alexius could well have taken them for the Dalish, had he not known better, and had not their features have been recognizably human). They keep patrolling up and down a massive stone staircase, which has almost turned into a cascading waterfall in the rain, and is framed by two rows of tall pillars, with bird-like visages carved at the very top.

The strangers' faces and weapons are turned upwards, as if they are keeping an eye out for some danger in the sky (a dragon? like the one Alexius saw in Helgen?). But still, one of them, a man in a cowl sewn out of fur from a deer's neck, complete with the beast's head, chances to spot the mud-covered, cluelessly wandering mage, and alerts his brethren.

It is good that, lost and confused though he is, Alexius' reflexes still have not failed him. For if he did not put up a protective barrier just now, he would have turned into a dead, bleeding porcupine like that Argonian bandit. Except that, rather than ice spikes, he would have arrows and spears in the place of quills.

'Come! Come and face the Forsworn!' the Dalish-like humans scream as they wade down the stone cascade, readying new arrows to fire after those Alexius deflected. 'We shall protect the Reach, for it is rightfully ours!'

Well, he is not really here to argue about that - whatever the Reach is. But if they insist on driving their point home so aggressively, he is afraid there will be retaliation.

Chapter Text

Yalanwen is really, really cross with herself. It is only now, after realizing that she needs some way of moving through the wilds quickly (so as to cover a lot of ground and get to Gereon before those remaining bandits do anything to him), that she has suddenly remembered her ability to channel her Voice into a powerful, whirlwind-like sprint. The Greybeards taught her that Shout when she was still staying at High Hrothgar and trying hard not to make a fool out of herself. It really did give her clumsy little legs quite a boost, allowing her to dart up a mountain path to one of her teachers and pass through the gate he had opened, before its rusty hinges could creak shut again... More than that, before he could even completely turn his head towards her!

And she is cross because she didn't think of using this Shout when she was saving Gereon from the mob. Her fear for him - still the unknown victim of angry villagers back then - must have knocked the few brains she has right out of her head. To think, she actually ran all the way to that sawmill - when she could have saved so much time and strength! When she could have interrupted the mob long before that conversation that made Gereon hate himself! Ugh, this is just more proof that she is a lousy Dragonborn! Lousy, lousy, lousy - with more lice than the hairiest, stinkiest swamp troll!

Well, at least now her anger feeds that hissing little dragon that lives in her chest and sometimes decides to act up. Her 'WULD!' comes out loud and clear, making her shoot into the wilds ahead like a bolt released from a gigantic crossbow - one with a glowing drawstring woven out of bright Thu'Um magic. She spends some time like this: sprinting (with whole plumes of mud rising in her wake), then swivelling her head around and calling for Gereon until the little dragon has had a few moments of rest and is ready for another Shout, then sprinting again into the different corner of the mushy palette of grey and brown that spreads far and wide all around her.

Calling. Sprinting. Calling. Sprinting. Until she finally discovers something other than the endless patches of soggy grass and glistening grey rocks and dripping juniper trees. A monumental stone stairway, leading up to an ancient, half-crumbled redoubt, where smoke seems to billow in the shadow of half-fallen pillars and huge eagle statues rise up to the overcast sky like (very disapproving-looking) sentinels.

As Yalanwen draws closer, her hand on her bow, she notices that someone has come up with the idea to recreate the effect the frost dragon's attack had on the ladders in the bandit camp. The little streams of water, which must have been coursing down the steps amid all this downpour, have been magically frozen, their hardened crust locking around the ankles of the few scantily clad (but heavily tattooed) men and women that are now standing glued to the spot, straining in vain to break free - while a short distance upstairs, the rain droplets are being sucked into an ever-swelling ball of cold white and blue vapour, which churns them out as sharp, pin-like little spikes of ice. The spikes, in turn, stick together, secured by a rapidly spreading layer of rime, and thus keep building the ball to an even greater, Ogrim-like size, solidifying it in the process, too... And after yet another coating of ice is completed, a male voice announces from behind the enormous construct,

'I will have to give that Argonian credit... This is pretty ingenious! If mana-consuming'.

Oh, thank the gods! Yalanwen rubs her face in agitation with her free hand, feeling her lips tingle with a silent laugh of relief, mixed in with nervousness.

It's Gereon. He's all right! And planning something again! Something that is about to turn... Quite deadly.

Yalanwen leaps sideways into the wet grass, a fraction of a moment before Gereon releases its ice ball and it rolls down the stairs, rumbling deafeningly as it bounces off each step. And then, she has to press her hands over her eyes, because the heavy sphere cracks the spines and limbs of the petrified men and women that got in the way. She realizes that Gereon is probably defending himself - but his methods, and the results they achieve, cannot but make Yalanwen a little squeamish. Yet another reminder that she is a bad Bosmer, she supposes.

And Gereon seems to understand that - for the next thing Yalanwen hears, with her face still hidden in her palms, is the whoosh of another spell, followed by an ear-splitting dry crackling (which must come from the ice orb getting broken down), and a raised voice, which quivers, ever so slightly, with emotion. Surprise? Or concern? Or just a teeny bit of sheepishness?


'Yalanwen... You have found me! Before... Before I found you! Have you treated your wound on your own? Is it still bothering you in any way? Please, accept my apologies for the gory performance... I got carried away by applying a certain spell I picked up from that bandit I chased. He - he is dead, incidentally. You need not worry about him any longer'.

Yalanwen lowers her arms, and cannot resist mirroring the smile Gereon is giving her, while shuffling slowly towards her down the icy steps. Before her can complete the descent, however, a long, thick, sickly green tendril of some warped nature magic comes slithering out of nowhere and, wrapping itself round his throat from the back, whisks him back up the stairway - where a new, far larger group of underdressed archers and melee fighters with jagged black facial markings now stands, spearheaded by a very tall man in a headdress bearing such a massive, intricately branching set of antler that it is no small wonder how he can keep his neck from snapping under the weight.

Yalanwen would have had trouble getting a proper look at his features from this distance - but almost the very instant Gereon is snatched, while the outcry of alarm is still welling up in her chest, a second magical green vine whips towards her, locks its coils around her body in several places, knocking the wind out of her and making her eyes water, carries her up... once again, bringing back the most nausea-inducing memories of the Alinorian carnival.

With the stairs having fallen a long way behind, the vine melts away, tossing Yalanwen at the antlered man's feet, so that she finds herself forced onto her knees side by side with Gereon. From her current pose, with her lower legs pressing hard into the stone underneath her and a cold, sticky plant tendril still wrapped around her ankles, she can just barely see her captor's tall fur boots and the very tips of his fingers, which are still smoking with wisps of green. But when she dares to try and tilt her head upward, her gaze is instantly drawn to a gaping dark hole in his chest, where his heart is supposed to be. The swollen, ragged chunks of skin round the hole's edges are being held together by flimsy-looking stitching, underneath which a pulsing, bloodstained... something is visible. Something thorny, vaguely resembling a deformed, monstrous chestnut. Yalanwen can hazard a guess that this is what is keeping her and Gereon's captor alive, what with his heart having been dug out of his flesh - and probably, also what is giving him those vine-controlling powers. And her first thought is: wonder if the poor man is in pain? That chunk of thorns certainly does not look healthy - and nor did the green tendrils he cast.

Knowing her, she might have even voiced her worries out loud - but the man speaks first, with a rasping undertone to his voice, as if every word makes the thorns of his gruesome implant scrape against his chest.

'You have intruded into our redoubt and killed our lookouts. Now you will face the full scope of a Briar-Heart's wrath!'

Briar-Heart. So that's what he's called. This gives a whole new disturbing meaning to that joke of Romlyn's about how his employer, Maven Black-Briar, must have briars instead of a heart.

'Your lookouts attacked first,' Gereon tries to protest, 'Did I show off my impressive magical abilities while fighting them? Yes, perhaps! But you are hardly the one to judge, since you just did the same! And we were not intruding! We were merely lost in the wilds, and searching for one another! Perhaps a more civilized arrangement would be...'

Upon the Briar-Heart's command, another vine weaves itself out of green smoke and tightens a slimy noose round Gereon's throat.

'A civilized arrangement is what cost us our home,' the Briar-Heart growls. 'There shall be no more patience for outsiders on our land'.

'I... I see,' Gereon croaks, closing his eyes. 'Then... Then I am afraid... It is time to... show off again'.

The vine is still holding him tightly bound - but he does not seem to be putting much effort into ripping himself free. Rather, he is focusing on something within him, the way Yalanwen does when she is preparing to Shout; and as the shade of his skin gradually begins to change from the vampiric white to a deeper grey, she thinks she can guess what he intends to do.

As the wave of grey washes over Gereon, his body grows in size, so that the vines are no longer enough to hold him back - especially when, with a faint crunch, two webbed wings burst out over his shoulder blades. The curved claws on their joints make short work of the vines, slashing them in two as if they were breakfast greens. The Briar-Heart stumbles backwards, obviously not having expected his prisoner to undergo such a striking transformation - and then receives a swatting blow across his chest, landed by the heavy, clawed paw Gereon's hand has turned into.

The hardened black claws that have sprouted out of Gereon's fingers cut through a couple of the stitches, making the Briar-Heart double over, wheezing in pain and clutching his chest. The underdressed crowd gasps; a woman's voice can be heard screaming,

'A matron! Someone go down to the caves and fetch a matron to fix his chest!'

Judging by the sort of gruesome operation that mangled the Briar-Heart's chest in the first place, the matron who will be fixing the stitches is hardly going to be a smiling, kindly old lady in a starched white cap. Not that Gereon has any intention to wait for her arrival.

He raises his wings with their joints locked together in a sort of makeshift leathery tent - to shield himself and Yalanwen from the arrows, swords and spears that many of the warriors readied when the Briar-Heart fell - and mashes his claws into the plant shackles round the Bosmer's feet. Then, he lifts her up so that the side of her cheek brushes against his chest, and, locking his grey limbs around her, leaps into the air, higher than any of the warriors' weapons can reach.

A couple of arrows do flit by, narrowly missing one of his shoulders and his now pointed, bat-like ears - but he just keeps flapping his wings in a rhythmic motion that somehow makes Yalanwen feel quite cozy as she nestles in his arms, her sleepiness making itself known again.

Some time during their confrontation with the Briar-Heart, the rain stopped pouring, and instead of being pelleted with cold, hard little peas of water, the dark rocks below are now drowning in a stream of white, warm mist, like bits of bread soaked in milk.

Ah, bread... Since leaving Green Pact territory, Yalanwen has come to love this curious human invention, with its fragrant golden crust and the warm, springy crumb mass beneath. She even had a whole enthusiastic conversation about it with that Nord warrior woman who met her in Dragonsreach and joined her and Irileth on the hunt for the dragon that burned down the Whiterun guard tower. What was her name... Li-something...

'Lee... Lydia...' Yalanwen slurs drowsily, nodding her head.

The flapping stops, and Yalanwen, who has half drifted off somewhere far, far away from her tired body, jolts awake, as vampiric claws sink a bit too deep into her side.

They are hovering over a deep river gorge now, with the outlines of the cliffs and the narrow ribbon of water below having been turned by the soft touches of the mist into the blurred brush strokes of a watercolour painting. The air smells fresh and sweet, as has wind carries a subtle herbal scent. It is quite a novel, exhilarating feeling, being suspended in mid-air, high above such a dream-like landscape - but the face of Gereon's werebat form is twisted into a scowl, and as soon as Yalanwen notices that, her own little heart, which soared with the sensation of flight (ah, her inner dragon must have been so overjoyed), turns into a crumpled towel again.

'Is there something wrong?' she asks, shifting in the vampire's arms and reaching hesitantly upward, with her fingertips not quite touching his grey bestial face. 'Am I too heavy?'

'No, I just... You said...'

Gereon turns away, the gaze of his darkened eyes wandering past the milky billows of mist.

'Oh, I was probably talking in my sleep!' Yalanwen reassures him, trying to make herself sound as light-hearted as possible. 'I dozed for a tiny bit, and my thoughts wandered to all sorts of silly things. From the weather to bread to one Nord I fought side by side with, briefly. Lydia'.

'Lydia?' Gereon echoes, slanting his eye to look back at Yalanwen. 'I misheard you then. I thought you were saying a different name... The name of someone dear to me, someone that I lost a few years ago but still have not quite let go of. If I acted melodramatic, it was not on purpose'.

'Oh,' Yalanwen rounds her mouth in understanding. 'Your... Your wife's name?'

The bat-like creature mournfully inclines its large head.

'Do you want to talk about her? I mean, more than you mentioned in the Holdout? I would be happy to listen. To make it hurt less'.

A little wry smirk bares the jagged row of the werebat's upper teeth.

'Perhaps. But not right now. It would not do for a creature carrying off a young maiden, like the monster lover from some dark romance story, to suddenly start reminiscing about his dead wife'.

Yalanwen's heart, no longer limp and droopy, gives such a violent jolt that she is almost ready to imagine it turning from a towel to a thorny bleeding blob like the one in the Briar-Heart's chest.

'What do you mean... Romance story?' she blurts out. The notion that she is being stupid, and tactless, and who in Oblivion talks about romance to giant bats anyway, only comes to her as an afterthought, when the question is already out of her mouth, having left her breathless and collared by a tightly constricting band of flushed heat round her neck.

'It was just an attempt at humour. Prompted by the fact that, even though I still cherish my Livia's memory, you are... Wait, was that a ray of sun bursting through the clouds? I had better find a safe place to land, lest I drop from the sky like a charred meat nugget'.

With that, Gereon spreads his wings to the farthest point, to be able to catch the wind, and takes a dive towards the gorge's opposite side. The wind whooshes in Yalanwen's ears - but somehow, not in a sickening way like it did when she was dragged up the stone stairway by the magic vines. No, it is quite a joyous whoosh, one that banishes the last shreds of that towel-like feeling, sending her heart fluttering instead, and causes her inner dragon to do a gleeful somersault.

The sweetness mounts ever more in the after-rain breath of the rejuvenated wilds, which draw closer and closer, ready to embrace Yalanwen with the rustling branches of the juniper trees, rich green now instead of dull grey. It envelops her in prolonged caresses, and goes to her head faster than a swig of rotmeth; as she laughs and cheers, her lips tingling, she still feels warm with a blush but is no longer smothered by it. Quite on the contrary, she is able to drink in whole jugfuls of fresh air, loudly and greedily, between each burst of 'Haha, yesss!'.

And Gereon laughs too, noiselessly, with his fangs showing again in a grimace that should perhaps have seemed frightening, but not to Yalanwen. Not now. Not in this incredibly, impossibly magical moment, when, infected by her ecstatic enjoyment of the flight, Gereon makes several breathtaking loops on his way downward, slicing through the clouds and leaving holes in them, with soft puffy swirls around the edges.

And as he passes tuft after tuft of milky mist, breaking through the creamy layers that conceal the river bank, they slowly begin to melt away in his wake. His flight is a race now - race against the sun, which is pressing closer and closer against the cloudy veil, its first dazzling white rays beginning to shine through, so that Gereon's head and the tips of his wings now have slanting shadowy lines trailing after them.

For a second or two, Yalanwen even feels worried, recollecting his words about turning into a 'charred nugget' - but her fear is soon assuaged, for they are gliding less than a human's full height above ground, and her vampire friend seems very confident about his strength. Confident - and happy. Happiest she has ever seen him. And they have not even been reunited with Felix yet! Oooh, imagine how he will be feeling then! The anticipation of being witness to that burst of purest joy almost makes her want to kiss him. Almost. Because that would be... awkward to say the least. Yeah. She's been over that already.


Their descent from the sky is completed in the middle of a little village nestled some distance away from the drop into the gorge. They arrive right in the middle of an argument between two groups of people. On the one side, with their backs turned towards the handful of modest village dwellings and with their shoulders spread out protectively (kind of like the wings of a mother hen shielding her trembling, peeping little chicks from danger), there are a few miners, their trade being made evident by their grimy, once white shirts and pick axes tucked beneath their belts. They are headed by a foreman of some sort, who is dressed in better, cleaner clothes, and sports a pair of very carefully groomed sideburns, framing his face - which bears the same tattoos as the Briar-Heart's warriors, but none of their wild ferocity.

Facing the tattooed man and his miners, is a band of Nord and Redguard swordsmen, almost all of them snarling and swinging their unsheathed weapons back and forth in a very meaningful way. Their leader, a bulky male Nord wearing a helmet carved in the shape of a bear's head, is glaring at the miners' foreman the way a minotaur lord would glare at an adventurer in red breeches (or so Yalanwen is told).

While the werebat is hovering behind the two opposing groups' backs, searching for a safe, shady place to land, the foreman takes a deep breath to steady himself and says, obviously struggling out of his last strength to remain calm and patient,

'I want you sellswords out of my mine'.

The  Nord curls his lips and, with a very demonstrative nonchalant, leisurely air, struts towards the foreman and slides the edge of his blade under his chin, while the rest of his band jeers at the sight of the shock on the miners' faces.

'Watch your tongue, native,' he hisses through his teeth, with droplets of his saliva landing on the foreman's cheek. 'We'll leave when we're sure there's no Forsworn here'.

Having said that, he draws back; the 'native' gulps and has to massage his throat for a while before he is able to speak again.

'When would that be, I wonder?' he says quietly. 'When I sell my land to the Silver-Bloods?'

The Nord runs his finger along his sword, in a seemingly carefree manner that contrasts starkly with the minotaur-like look that still has not left his eyes.

'The Silver-Bloods have made you a very generous offer for this pile of dirt,’ he says, and then spits of the ground and rubs the damp spot in emphatically with the tip of his armoured boot. 'I suggest you take it'.

'This mine has been in my family for generations,' the foreman objects, having to catch his breath in mid-sentence. 'And it provides livelihood for all these people!'

He gestures at the silent, watchful miners behind his back, the mother hen impression intensifying. 'The Silver-Bloods will either kick them out of their homes, or turn them into slaves!'

The Nord throws back his head and laughs, and every of his derisive 'Ha's comes out like yet another spit.

'Oh please! You are a Reachman! Being slaves is the only thing your kind is good at'.

It is at this moment that Gereon decides to make his presence known (showing off a little bit again). He lands, softly as a Khajiit, on his big clawed grey feet - and, after Yalanwen slips out of his arms and stands by his side, stretching herself, he clears his throat, so that everyone in the crowd stops staring and one another and turns to look at him, instead.
'I wouldn't be so brash with my choice of words if I were you, my bear-headed friend,' he says silkily, addressing the Nord, even as the latter's face turns about the same colour as the miners' shirts, and his eyes pop out like pale orbs, fixed unblinkingly on the werebat's (kind of, to some people maybe) nightmarish visage.

'An attitude like this can get your heart ripped out of your chest. A former colleague of mine can attest to that'.

He must still be in a very good mood from the fight, for he grins toothily when the Nord, no longer so smug and domineering, flaps his gums helplessly and squeezes out a weak whisper,

'What... What manner of wicked Reach magic is that?'

The foreman is at a complete loss what to say in reply - but unlike the heavily armed sellswords, who have been sent all a-quiver (as a Nordic storyteller would euphemistically put it) by the sheer sight of the giant winged creature, he at least seems ready to keep defending his village. Curling his fingers into tight fists, he turns around slowly to face Gereon - but, of course, the vampire has no intention to attack either him or his miners, who have tentatively started drawing their pickaxes (something that makes Yalanwen breathe out a soft 'Oh dear!'.

All he does is wriggle his fingers in front of him. This prompts a chorus of almost unnatural shrieks, which, through some miraculous feat that would have greatly interested the Bards' College, is produced by the band of sellswords (some of whom even try to leap into each other's arms with fright). Throwing down their weapons, they scurry off, moving their legs so fast that they seem to turn into wheel-like blurs.

'Oh good,' Gereon mutters as he transforms back into a human, a look of profound relief on his face. 'They are as cowardly as I expected. I don't think I would have been able to go far beyond this little bluff... What with the sun being out'.

'Who are you?' the foreman demands, moving his fists in front of him in a rather uncertain imitation of a pugilist. 'What are you doing in Karthwasten?'

'Just... Just someone... Who has... unpleasant personal... connotations with... village invasion...'

Gereon half-raises his hand to try and dissuade the villagers from advancing at him - but, a few seconds later, his arm falls back limply, and he sways, dark-grey veins swelling up under his skin like cracks. The last of the misty clouds have dispersed, and the sun is flaring with its full force now, with barely any place for him to hide.

Yalanwen ducks underneath his arm to prop him up and looks earnestly into the foreman's eyes.

'My friend will not hurt you if you don't try to hurt him first. We were just trying to make our way to Markarth. His son is there, wrongly imprisoned...'

'In Cidhna Mine?' the foreman finishes for her, crinkling his forehead. 'That bottomless pit has swallowed up a lot of my kin, so I can sympathize... And you did clear those Silver-Blood goons off my land... They will be coming back, of course - or some others like them - but still. The help is appreciated. At least we can get the mine open again'.

'But Ainethach,' a black-haired Orcish miner pipes up, clutching her pickaxe tighter. 'Didn't you see him go all... Freak-like?'

'A lot of people would assume that I am evil just by looking at me,' Ainethach tells her sternly. The same is true of you'.

With that, he pierces a human miner, also bearing tattoos, with a glance that seems to speak volumes. The miner looks at the Orc, then at his feet, and splutters something apologetic.

'So yes,' Ainethach concludes, 'I am going to repay your service in kind. Ragnar,' he calls to yet another miner, a tattoo-less Nord. 'Weren't you planning to pick up some supplies for the village at that little farm on the outskirts of Markarth? Do you suppose there will be room in the wagon for two more people?'


Ragnar complies with Ainethach's request, of course - he's in charge of the village, after all, Reachman though he is. But he still spends quite a bit of time looking at his two odd, mud-covered passengers with a very, very suspicious eye. He follows their every move while they board the cart, the little Wood Elf carefully supporting the old Imperial, who looks like he is about to throw up at any moment. And when they settle in, Ragnar makes a point of searching under his seat with his foot, to double-check if the axe he placed down is still there. It is meant for fighting off bandits and stray wild beasts - but he supposes that a good chop can cleave off those creepy slimy wings if the Imperial decides to get back to his skeever business once again.

It is not until they are well on their way and Ragnar chances to glance back while readjusting his reins, that he decides begrudgingly that the two strangers Ainethach decided to trust might be all right, after all.

When he looks at them, he catches them dozing off - or at least, the elf seems to be, with her head rolling to the side and a little bit of drool tricking out of her mouth. The Imperial has his eyes closed as well, though he looks more sick than sleepy, and the way he nuzzles against the Wood Elf, wincing and twitching restlessly until her hand slips a little and comes to rest over his - it makes something stir inside Ragnar, something stupid and weepy, as if he has just seen a mother bird feeding her hatchlings.

Yeah. He's all right, that bat shifter. He has to be.

Ragnar nods to himself and pulls at the reins gently, prompting his horse to slow down. If he takes his time getting to Markarth, this will give the strangers a chance to rest.

Chapter Text

The copper-shaded torchlight has drawn an uneven square on the rough rocks surface - and against this background, charcoal shadows move, with their heads and hands distorted into bulbous spheres and long rake, like the grotesque characters in some nightmarish version of a slapstick puppet show. One that is especially cruel and twisted. And sickeningly real.

The shadow on the left belongs to the Orcish guard that roused them with a painful kick in the side when they were tossed down here. A steel-clad colossus of a woman, with a long-tusked lower jaw that extends further than the upper and gives her a snarling, dog-like look, she is holding a long whip that coils and writhes in her clutches like a serpent. And all of its searing stings are endured by the shadow on the right - that of a shirtless torso that bends a little bit further towards the ground after each crackling strike. Now and again, the shadow jerks sideways, and a bowed-down head becomes visible, with little dark droplets - blood or sweat or tears or all at once, it doesn't matter; it is agonizing to watch either way - bouncing down from the moistened tip of a once bushy beard.

Gunmar's beard.

It is Gunmar who is being tortured out there. Punished for lowering his pick for a moment and starting a whispered discussion of a possible escape plan. Felix should have been there too, getting whipped together with him - but when the Orc walked in on them, he insisted on taking all the blame and agreed to take a double lashing.

'It's all right, lad,' he said to Felix, with a little smile, as he was being dragged away. 'You are one of those high-born types, aren't you? You wouldn't have lasted through five lashes. Me, though - I've been scratched worse by one of my trolls'.

He was putting on a brave face, of course - Felix knows a forced smile when he sees one. This is far, far worse than a simple scratch left by a beast's paw. This is horrible, inhuman torment; even one look at a shadow reeling under the lashes of a ghostly whip makes Felix's heart contract painfully, so that he has to lean against the pickaxe he was handed and bury his face for a moment in his throbbing, sore hands. And Gunmar, his friend, one of the few mortals who was ready to accept him for what he is, is forced to suffer the punishment for real -  because of him.

Because of him.

All of this, all that is happening in this dark, dismal... wrong place - it is because of him.

Because he wouldn't stay away.

When the woman in the blue dress sank to her knees in front of him, her whole figure folding up like a half-melted wax doll, and the guards swarmed around her attacker - a swarthy, ragged youth with odd facial markings, vaguely reminiscent of the elven vallaslin from back home, who kept screaming 'The Reach belongs to the Forsworn!' even as the axe blades came down at him - Felix almost fainted with shock... And, of course, dropped that bleeding meat chunk into the gutter somewhere, wasting a perfectly good meal that he was intending to share with a balding, wild-bearded beggar that he had spotted wandering around the marketplace out of the corner of his eye.

Gunmar could not come to his aid, as he was still distracted by gaping at the scuffle - so instead of him, Felix was supported by another young man with 'vallaslin'; he had pleasant features and long light-brown hair, and was dressed in a short green tunic.

Steering Felix away from the agitated market crowd, he clicked his tongue and sighed with a vague air of an indifferent observer, politely expressing his regrets over ‘that poor woman’s’ death, and made some usual, offhand complaint about crime running rampant through the streets of 'our fair city'. He claimed to have only caught a brief glimpse of the attack, as he was just 'walking by', 'catching some fresh air after one drink too many at the Silver-Blood Inn'.

When he bade goodbye and walked off, Gunmar, who by then had also turned away from the scene of the attack, shrugged his shoulders, muttering to himself that it was a little bit odd how he had not caught a single whiff of liquor in the young man's breath - but he was ready to drop the matter then and there, and to go on asking around if anyone had seen a Breton woman who gets sparkly-eyed whenever anyone mentions the Dwemer.

Felix should have followed Gunmar's lead. He should have shrugged as his Nord companion had done, and moved on. He should have just sought out that Sorine woman and returned to Fort Dawnguard as planned (if he had done that, he would probably be sitting back in some semi-comfy chair right now, watching Isran blink in amazement, processing the thought that the vampire had proven himself useful again). He should have checked this mission off the list and busied himself with thwarted the Volkihar plans, and getting his father back. And he most certainly should have purged every last thought of this encounter in the marketplace - tragic incident, yes, but really none of his business - out of his mind.

But he could not resist, could he? He could not ignore the folded little slip of paper that he suddenly discovered in his hand - pressed under his fingertips, no doubt, while that tattooed stranger was helping him steady himself. The message is bore was short and simple, 'Meet me at the Shrine of Talos'. How very familiar - covertly passing an invitation to a secret meeting in a place of worship, where he would likely be told about some terrible danger lurking behind the facade of a simple street crime.

He had been on the opposite end of that once - and that was precisely why he looked up at Gunmar and declared resolutely that he was going to follow up on this message. Oh Maker, what a stupid, stupid thing to do! As if he could ever pull this off as brilliantly, as heroically as Dorian and the Herald of Andraste! He is not the noble savior in this type of scenario; he is the savior-fetching messenger! Reversing the roles was bound to lead to a crushing fiasco from the very outset. He was just too blinded by his own enthusiasm to see that.

Oh, how eagerly he set out on this new quest of his - dragging a rather reluctant Gunmar in his wake like a playful puppy dog drags his owner behind on a terse leash. How diligently he scoured the streets and questioned the locals about where he might find the shrine of Talos!

Most of them responded with blank stares and edged away, sometimes even pretending that there was an empty spot where Felix was standing. Gunmar, too, was quite unsettled by Felix's zealous investigation.

'Whoah, lad,' he whispered into his ear, pulling him aside after yet another failed attempt to get a passerby to talk to him. 'Mind what you are saying out here! Talos worship was banned years ago - and Markarth was where it all started!'

Yes, in hindsight, that was a bit of a blunder on Felix's part. There had been... something on the matter of Talos in Pony's books at the Hall. A bit like the purported erasure of the Canticle of Shartan, only with the elves and the humans switching places. No wonder that tattooed young man wanted to meet at the Shrine of Talos - no better secret rendezvous point than the sanctum of a god whose veneration was a taboo subject.

But even though no law-abiding citizen would tell him where it was, Felix continued his search for the shrine, his excitement making him stubborn. And in the end, his persistence was rewarded (or so it seemed at the time), when the very beggar whom Felix had meant to feed blocked his path, his eyes glinting, and wheezed,

'I hear ye been lookin' for the Shrine of Talos, and I just might know where it is. But first, ye gotta give me alms'.

Gunmar shook his head silently in response to that: most of his money must have gone to paying that uncomfortably bloodthirsty butcher fellow. The beggar did not take that too well; he grabbed the big Nord's forearm tightly with his bony, grimy fingers, and screeched into his face so loudly that poor Gunmar's beard almost went askew,

'Come on! I said alms, ye lazy back-biter! Give a crippled worker a helping hand!'

This made Felix almost physically feel his body deflate into a sad, guilty little rag, with his thoughts travelling back to the ruined piece of meat. And, in his foolish delusion of heroism, he thought of no better solution than to strip down to his waist and hand the beggar the Dawnguard vest Durak had shared with him before their first crossbow lesson. It would not matter to him either way (in terms of weather protection, at least), as his vampirism would likely help him endure even the coldest nights, but for an aging man with nothing to cover his body but a tattered shirt and a pair of pants with almost nonexistent knee threading, it would make all the difference.

The beggar accepted the gift, after sniffing at it thoroughly and poking his fingers at the padding, and then revealed that the shrine was 'smack-dab-underneath the Temple of Dibella - you know, the goddess of them... boobs and things'.

Asking for directions to the Temple of Dibella turned out to be much easier - apparently, Felix now being shirtless also factored in... Much to his embarrassment, for it was only at that point that he realized that he had to look pretty ludicrous, with his gangly, awkward student's body (especially underweight after years of recent illness) exposed for all to see - and made particularly piteous by the contrast with the beefy, manly arms of Gunmar the proper Nord.

The tattooed stranger was not at all impressed by Felix's diminished wardrobe, either. When, at long last, they located him, pacing around a narrow stone chamber at the foot of the giant statue of a man in a winged helmet stabbing a snake (so that was this forbidden Talos deity), he froze for a moment, and addressed Felix in an audibly offended tone,

'I am afraid you have misinterpreted my message, my... uh... mer-blooded friend'.

He must have mistaken the vampiric glow in Felix's eyes for one of those bright, whiteless colours that seem to be typical of this world's elves. That was a bit of a relief, but did not make the situation any less awkward.

'You are not without... interesting traits, both you and your Nord companion,' the young man went on, 'But I am married, and have a child on the way. I merely wanted you to help me investigate something - to look at it with an outsider's eye, especially since our supposedly valiant guards won't lift a finger. But... But I hope you do find someone to pass the time with'.

Of course, this was followed by a long, gasping apology from Felix (during most of which Gunmar had his face buried in his palm), and then an equally long (though less gasping) return apology from the young man, who had introduced himself as Eltrys, 'for assuming'. And then finally, there came an explanation of what was going on in Markarth.

From Eltrys' brief but emotional tale, Felix deduced that his people - the Reachfolk - had suffered the same tragic fate as the elves of Thedas. After fighting for centuries for the right to live in peace in their own kingdom, they finally claimed the Reach for themselves a couple of decades ago... Only to have it snatched out of their hands, the way the Dales had once been, while they themselves were reduced to a miserable, nigh on slave-like state in their own homeland. Downtrodden, ostracized, considered less than human by many Nords (especially the Silver-Blood clan, who had half the Reach in their pocket), they now passed their time between toiling at the spitting, broiling silver smelters for a dubious reward that mostly amounted to 'maybe being paid in time and not being beaten by the Orc overseer', and snatching a few hours of restless sleep in the murky Dwemer ruin, disdainfully referred to by the non-Reachmen as the Warrens, where the damp air only ate away further at their lungs, already sore from all the acrid smelter smoke.

Quite a few of the sons and daughters of the Reach, Eltrys explained, could not abide the mistreatment at the hands of the Nords (Felix thinks Gunmar had withdrawn into the shadows somewhere, rubbing the back of his neck and shaking his head in a mixture of disapproval and shame at every mention of his kinsmen's cruelty).

Dubbing themselves the Forsworn - the same word, as Felix could well recall, as the attacker in the marketplace had screamed, before blood finally came spurting out of his mouth and he fell silent - these rebellious Reachfolk took up arms and, like the wild-spirited Dalish, took to the hills, where they reinforced their campsites amidst the old ruins, and conducted rituals in honour of the Old Gods, and occasionally raided Nord settlements.

'I am not at all surprised that poor Weilyn - the young man who killed that poor woman - joined the Forsworn,' Eltrys said with a sigh. 'Some of my fellow Reachmen romanticize them. Spend the evenings in the Warrens warming their aching bones by the fire and talking about how great it would be to put on one of those antlered headdresses, grab a spear, and run free as the wind... But not me. I do not trust the Forsworn. They claim to be the true protectors of the Reach - and yet they hurt innocents. They hurt their own kin'.

His voice broke for a moment at that point, and Felix had to pat him hesitantly on the forearm, his motions rather stiff and awkward due to him still being painfully self-aware over his lack of clothing.

'They killed my father,' Eltrys confessed, sounding as if the words had been festering inside him for a long, long time and he was relieved to finally say them out loud.

'The guards said it was just a madman, but I knew better. I have always known better. My father fell to the Forsworn. They raised their blades against a man who had never wronged them. A man who shared their blood. A man who had to fight tooth and claw for the right to own a mine, which is very, very rare for anyone who isn't a Nord. I was just a boy then - but I still do not understand why they did this. Why they continue to do this. It's like... My father's ghost is haunting me. Still searching desperately for the truth'.

After this heart-to-heart talk, Gunmar, too, became invested in helping Eltrys out, outraged both by the actions of the Forsworn and the Nords. There was so much determination in his gait as he strode out of the shrine by Felix's side, heading towards the inn where, according to Eltrys, the dead woman had stayed. So much urgency in his voice when he led Felix aside to propose a plan of action, after the two of them had hovered around the firelit dining hall for a while, pretending to be interested in the Dwarven-style masonry (actually, Felix wasgenuinely interested) and listening in on the innkeeper lament to his late-night patrons about what room the woman had been staying in.

'The one down the hall to the left! The nicest in my fine establishment...'

Here, he was interrupted by a shrill female voice coming from the kitchens somewhere.

'The only one that doesn't have rotting furniture, you mean!'

'... Now going to be cursed forever!'

'Oh come on, Kleppr! It's you who's a real curse on this inn, and everyone knows it!'

It is almost with longing that Felix now recalls this quaint domestic bickering between Kleppr the innkeeper and unseen owner of the female voice (his wife perhaps?). Just as he recalls the warm glow of the hearth, and the drowsy strumming of the silver-bearded bard's lute strings, and the leisurely chatter of the patrons, so unlike the strained grunts and hoarse breaths that sometimes echo through the mine shafts. And, of course, the look on Gunmar's face when he talked to Felix. The look of someone who had his mind set on doing the right thing - and had no way of knowing that it would earn him no reward but hard labour and wicked whip lashes.

Gunmar was so proud of his plan. So certain that it would work. And it did, didn't it? Damn it for having worked!

Upon learning where they needed to look for clues, Gunmar informed Felix that he was going to cause a distraction by starting a brawl ('This is Nord-run inn!' he assured Felix in an emphatic whisper, 'A brawl is all part of the evening entertainment!') with the deeply flushed drunken labourer who was sitting listlessly at the bar counter. Whereas Felix was to duck stealthily behind the counter, grope around for a key, head to the now empty 'nicest room', and go through the dead woman's things.

Perhaps, if this scheme of his had not yielded any results, if Felix tripped over something and alerted Kleppr, or if that ruddy-faced pugilist proved too intoxicated for the brawl to last long enough, Gunmar would have become discouraged, and talked Felix out of pursuing the investigation any further. And they would both still be free and safe and untouched by torture. And Felix would be so much closer to getting reunited with Father.

But no, it just had to go off without a hitch! Damn it, damn it again! Gunmar just had to flail his fists around  in an exaggerated, noisy dance that made all heads at the inn turn towards him, and Felix just had to suddenly exhibit sinister vampiric sneakiness and snatch the key chain off its nail on the counter's inner side without the innkeeper as much as starting. The man, too consumed by cheering for Gunmar (with rallying cries like 'My money's on the big one!'), was not even alerted by the calming chant 'I am not stealing, I am borrowing; I am not stealing, I am borrowing' that Felix kept whispering to himself.

The room, though 'nicest', was still fairly small, cramped even, and did not take too long to inspect. If only the dead woman had left behind a mess that made her personal items impossible to find - or kept everything of importance hidden in some lockbox protected by an uncrackable puzzle... But yet again, Felix found no obstacles that might have pushed him back: all of the woman's few belongings were arranged in neat little stacks on her small writing desk and square stone bed (the guards had not even bothered to seize anything for their own investigation, making Felix think that Eltrys was definitely right, and the work of the local law enforcement was even shoddier than when the Tevinter Templars pretended to 'look into' the death of a known enemy of some influential magister).

Topping the carefully filed papers, was a small, leather-bound journal that contained records of the woman - apparently an agent sent from the city of Solitude - investigating the local treasury and, most importantly, the Silver-Blood clan, the same powerful and corrupt Nord family that Eltrys had mentioned.

Felix remembers pausing over the journal and tapping his upper lip with his index finger - a gesture he used to make when delving into an especially complex mathematical problem back in Orlais.

The journal made the victim sound like an enemy of the Silver-Bloods - and yet she had been killed by one of the Forsworn, who were also enemies of the Silver-Bloods, and theoretically should have approved of the work she was doing, or at the very least refrained from getting in her way, because surely, exposing the exploiters would have benefited all of their beloved Reach. It was quite a conundrum - and at that moment, Felix had the misfortune to remember that he loved conundrums. By thinking like a scholar, by heeding the voice of that fidgeting, child-like imp inside him that refused to rest until he learned everything about everything, Felix doomed himself - and poor Gunmar.

Chapter Text

The cruel, blood-curdling shadow puppet show on the wall goes ever on. The whip keeps flying, and the bearded prisoner keeps shuddering - and Felix cannot stop staring, a hot lump caught in his throat. He is not even sure if vampires retain the human ability to cry (that's certainly hard to imagine when he thinks back to Harkon, or even to Serana), but he certainly feels like crying. Because he is so sorry for Gunmar, and still barely able to believe that this is all real, and so crushed by the thought that the distance between him and his father has grown even more.

'Hey you,' a drawling, slightly high-pitched male voice says into his ear. 'New blood. Stop daydreaming and give that pickaxe some proper swings'.

Squeaking something apologetic, Felix turns around, and finds himself facing a small, lithe man with greying hair combed back into a ponytail, and his emaciated torso exposed the way Felix's was before the guards threw prison rags on him.

'That Orc,' the man continues, taking a swing with his pickaxe and jerking his head at the moving shadows. 'She will be done soon, and leave. Won't be back for days. She and her ilk only come in here about once a week or so, to clean out the bodies, grab any ore we've mined, and beat down the troublemakers... Like she's doing with your Nord friend right now'.

At this point, he cracks the rock especially hard - for emphasis, maybe.

'That's the only time when we get food, too. And if there's not enough ore mined up, we don't get any. We earned our food this week; so don't ruin things for the next! Don't want to deal with an empty stomach? And a whole bunch of angry miners holding a grudge against you, for messing up our quota with your moping? Then make yourself useful'.

Felix, who did not even realize his work had stumbled to a halt while he was watching the whip's shadow, obeys the command. He loathes the thought of causing even more people to get hurt. Maker's breath, food supply coming in only once a week - in a best-case scenario! This is even worse than some slave labour arrangements he remembers from back home in Tevinter! Of course, when the Orc goes back to the surface and leaves behind this week's share of rations, he will be giving his away. He does not need... normal food, after all.

Come to think of it... How will he sustain himself in this mine? Will he be sneaking around, waiting till one of the prisoners slashes his hand with a pickaxe or scrapes off his skin against the stone? Or maybe... Maybe when Gunmar's whipping is done... There is bound to be blood... Lots and lots of blood... Far more than in that raw meat slice...

No, no, no! What is wrong with him?! Felix gnashes his teeth in silent rage, hitting the rough, damp, brownish wall in front of him so hard that the 'picky' part of his pickaxe (Andraste, he is so useless that he cannot even name the components of the tool he is using) flies right off the handle, bouncing off a nearby stalagmite with a deafening rattle.

The shirtless man seems amused. Pausing with his own work for a while, he walks off after the loosened pickaxe part and, getting it off the floor, jerks the handle out of the grasp of the stupefied Felix (who would be profoundly grateful if the ground swallowed him up right now, yes please), and reassembles the tool.

'First time doing hard labour, huh?' he says with a little smirk, thrusting the pickaxe back into Felix's hands and turning him around like a wind-up toy, to face the wall again. 'Got a boy like you right there down the shaft. Though no, not exactly like you... He's one of us, a Reachman, and you are what, half-Imperial, half-Altmer, with eyes like yours? Eh. Anyway. Take my advice: just serve your time with a pick and get out. You don't wanna end up getting a shiv in your back for a bottle of Skooma'.

After imparting this little bit of bitter wisdom, he turns away and fully absorbs himself in the monotonous chipping at the hardened layer of stone - so hard to clear off that it even seems to grow back, flake after flake of brown, after he chisels some of it off. Felix follows his example - and with his hands preoccupied, his mind returns to reliving his and Gunmar's ill-fated meddling in the affairs of the Forsworn. Because out of the corner of his eye, he can still see the endless rises and falls of the whip. The Orc is far from done yet. Gunmar is still suffering. And Felix is still wallowing in guilt over what happened.


Their next stop, after finding a lead at the inn, was at the treasury. The building was a bit of a challenge to find amid all the winding, asymmetrically planned streets and sheer stairways (some of which had worn through almost to smooth vertical walls) - but in the end, Gunmar and Felix were able to spot it thanks to a long queue of angry-looking people, many with the telltale Reachman markings on their faces, crowding outside.

Pushing past them unobtrusively (with Felix mumbling a great deal of apologies, because he was feeling a bit discomforted about having to jump the line like that for the sake of their investigation), the two men squeezed through the metal doors and found themselves in a spacious reception hall, where they were instantly accosted by a short-haired young woman in a tightly laced corset that seemed to constrict her movements and breathing, not to mention cut quite painfully into her pushed-up chest.

Just as it dawned on Felix that, what with him having so few clothes, his concerned look at the woman might be interpreted as lewd, she shook her head and told him strictly,

'I am sorry, sir, but your attire is very inappropriate for doing business at the Treasury House'.

He sighs when he remembers this - yet another chance for him and Gunmar to stop and forget all about this tangled Forsworn web. If only the woman had succeeded in kicking them out... But before she could do that, Gunmar intervened. Poor, big-hearted Gunmar; how he must regret standing up for Felix now... How he must hate him.

'The lad gave away his last shirt to a beggar in the street,' Gunmar told the reception worker, towering over her like a very cross, ginger-furred bear. 'And you are clearly allowed here, though you have not much more clothes than him!'

The woman blushed, seeming to gag a little.

'Master Thonar makes me wear this,' she explained under her breath. 'He says it is better for his patrons to be greeted by someone who is... easy on the eyes. I...'

She gagged again - and moments later, she was already sobbing faintly into her limply clenched fist, and candidly telling the two total strangers that she hated this dress, hated the winks Master Thonar gave her every time he passed her by, and the venomous, jealous whispers of his wife. And that, even though she kept reminding herself that working at the treasury was not all too bad and at least she was being paid a good wage, enough to get her family out of the Warrens some day, the humiliation of smiling at the visitors like a dumb prettied-up doll, and reciting all that sugary drivel about Cidhna Mine being 'a fine prison and source of silver', was sometimes far too much. And that the corset made her sickness worse, and she was so worried that being squished into it so tightly might hurt her baby... While Gunmar was comforting her, fumbling helplessly for an apology, and Felix was skulking by with a sympathetic look on his face, trying to keep a respectful distance between the whimpering woman and his own half-naked self.

Before long, they found out that she was not just any expectant mother, but Eltrys' wife; and of course, of course, she was only too happy to help them get to the bottom of the Forsworn matter.

'If I could have my way, I would have gotten him to let go of it all,' she confessed, leading the two men into a private back room where the treasury's head, Thonar Silver-Blood, kept his personal papers. 'I keep worrying that he will get in over his head: the Forsworn do not have much love for the city Reachfolk who do well enough for themselves to climb at least a little way out of the gutter. They think we collaborate with the Nords. But I know he won't rest until he learns the truth - and at least he is not snooping around by himself. Oh, and did you say your clues pointed to Master Thonar? You know, seeing the Jarl give him what he deserves for working with the Forsworn... It might be quite satisfying, actually'.

It was getting very late by then, and, according to Eltrys' wife, who had introduced herself as Rhiada, Thonar had three appointments for the night: one at the city keep with his brother, another with a man named Nepos who was in charge of settling disputes with the smelter workers, and one with his wife and a group of Dibellan priestesses, for the purposes of what he had called 'marriage improvement'. In other words, he was probably not going to return to the treasury until morning.

So Gunmar and Felix had all of the archive at their disposal, while Rhiada intended to return to the reception and start sending away those poor petitioners who were still waiting their turn outside.

The two investigators spent the next few hours rummaging through stacks of papers, many of which just contained faceless columns of numbers and abbreviations, sometimes with arrows pointing at them. The big Nord, who was far better at taming trolls than handling paperwork, was evidently bored. He might even have abandoned the quest (ah, if only!) if they had pored in vain over the reams of rustling parchment just for a little bit longer - but before that could happen (yes, yes, again, in another happenstance that ultimately got them imprisoned), Felix came across a number of curious little notes on the margins of some ledger. Notes about someone named 'Madanach'.

Judging from what was dashed down in those messy ink scrawls (by the hand of Thonar Silver-Blood, most likely), the Forsworn held this Madanach in high regard, as a sort of... hahren, to continue the elf analogy. Locked away deep in the bowels of Cidhna Mine, this hahren was now dispatching secret orders to the Forsworn, to assassinate the 'enemies of the Reach'... Except that they were not the enemies of the Reach at all; they were the enemies of the Silver-Bloods. Like Eltrys' father, an 'upstart native' who had had the audacity to start his own mining business, threatening the absolute dominance of the Nordic clan.

That was it. That was the key to the conundrum. The final jigsaw piece. The Forsworn attacks have all been orchestrated by the Nords - through the hands of the puppet they kept imprisoned in their torture chamber of a mine. And who knows, Felix might even catch a glimpse of this... turncoat hahren some day. For when, spurred on by the enormity of their discovery, he and Gunmar rushed out of the treasury and raced through the stone maze back towards the shrine, they found Eltrys lying on the floor, with his mouth a gaping black hole and his brown hair now crimson and sticky with the sweet... no, not sweet, horrible, horrible liquid that was pooling up under his head.

There were several men standing over him, all in the same armour, which made Felix think that they were either the city guard or the personal entourage of some local nobleman... Though, given the way things were being run out here, this might well be one and the same.

Seeing the two investigators come in, one of the guards placed his hands on his hips and said, sounding a bit irritated,

'Oh, so you're with him, right? With the little native boy who asked too many questions? Great. Here I thought me and my boys could make it look like he had a teeny weeny sad accident... But now, we're gonna have to pin his murder on you! Ugh. Work, work, work'.

Even though he is pretty indifferent to cold, Felix cannot but shiver when he remembers the shock and disbelief with which he gaped at Eltrys, and then at the men who had killed him.

'What... What did you do to him?' he asked weakly, even though he knew the answer perfectly well.

'Same thing we do with all the other natives who want to change things around here,' the head guardsman jeered, as he and his men raised their axes in unison with the panting, suddenly red-raced Gunmar. 'We had a nice little deal going between Thonar and Madanach until you and Eltrys started snooping around. Well, you wanted to get into the thick of the action here? Cidhna Mine is as close as you can get!'.

In a terrible flash, the weapons' blades ground against one another, raining orange sparks on the stone floor. Gunmar's trusty two-handed Nord axe was bigger, more massive than the standard-issue weapons of the Markarth guards; he disarmed a couple of them during the first few seconds of fighting with a single assured swing... And he might even have emerged victorious (after all, he had bested a big whopping demon bear, so a battle with a few run-of-the-mill corrupt city officials had to be like child's play). Had not the doors of the shrine swung right open, letting through a far more numerous contingent of guards, who all swarmed Gunmar like a living, wriggling ball of rats, wringing his axe out of his grasp and beating him down to the ground.

Watching the chaos unfold through the dark red spots that began to cloud his vision, Felix was more than ready to shroud himself in his bat-like form, and to swirl among those crooked guardsmen, battering at as many of them as he could with his wings and his claws. But before he could complete the transformation, they fell upon him as well. They punched him in the jaw and pinned him down, not even caring for his defensive hisses (which, now that he thinks back to them, must have been pretty pathetic). A couple of heavy strikes - and the shrine filled with a curious ringing noise and a whirlwind of blinding sparks that made it hard to concentrate; a couple more - and the sparks all blended together into a wall of white fire, which was then abruptly replaced by blackness.

And when the blackness ebbed, Felix and Gunmar were already being trawled through the dark streets, paraded by the blinding torchlight, while the guards were rousing the citizens with their booming voices and the thumping of axes against their small shields - and calling for them to come and see what happens to those who cross the Silver-Bloods.

This part of his recollections is much foggier; the noise and the light flashes were too overwhelming. He thinks he was trying to look around and search for Rhiada among the yawning, dumbfounded onlookers crowding on the doorsteps of their homes - for he was worried that, with her husband dead, the corrupt guardsmen might come for her next. He never did locate her, though, being forced to turn away when a guard slapped him across the face with his heavy gauntlet, leaving a deep gash in his cheek, which, together with his nose, rained a drizzle of blood over the pavement (he still had some blood circulating through his body; who knew!).

Then, there was this old woman - a hunched shadow in the corner of his eye, with some sort of large bird perched on her shoulder. He snatched a momentary glimpse of her leaning down, apparently inspecting the splashes of his blood with great interest, before the guard hit him again - and the next thing he knew, he was already in the mine, separated from the city, and from the world, and from everyone in it - from the Dawnguard! from Father! - by an oppressive mass of rock.

Suddenly, the dark, confined passageway where Felix is toiling goes eerily quiet, and he realizes that the whip has stopped cracking through the air. He straightens up, sickeningly lightheaded and unable to feel his feet - just in time to see the she-Orc stride in and dump a raw, oozing sack of flesh on the floor. Barely able to recognize this battered shape as Gunmar, Felix scans it with his widened eyes - in search for any feature, any at all, that has not been too mangled, that is still human; and in the end, he does meet the gaze of a single eye (the other having been obscured by the bloated dark folds of a bruise, which the Orc landed him first thing before dragging him off). Dim and bloodshot and with but a faint flicker of sentience, the eye gazes up at Felix through the sticky strands of blood-soaked hair - and, a pang piercing his not quite cold vampiric heart, he thinks to himself that its expression seems to be full of reproach.

'Forgive me, Gunmar,' he mouths, watching the eye blink slowly and then slide shut, not to open again. 'Please forgive me...'

'All right,' the Orc announces, clearing her throat with a tremendous scraping noise and then spitting a clot of yellowish, mucous saliva onto Gunmar's beard. 'Me and crew are out of here. See you arse-wipes next week! And remember: no quota, no food!'

'You... You won't forget what you promised, will you, Urzoga?' a new voice whines pleadingly somewhere out of the tunnel's deeper end. 'You said you'd reward me!'

'I'm Urzoga only to those who buy me drinks at least three times, and give me a good enough roll-around after that,' the Orc growls, turning her head in the voice's direction. 'You low-lives are to address me as m'am. But yeah, I remember our arrangement. You point me to what sorry pink-arses need to be whipped, and I slip you something special with your next share of rations. Today I got someone new to beat, so I wasn't even half-bored.  That Skooma is as good as yours - if you and your fellow dust-biters mine enough ore to earn those rations in the first place. Have fun now'.

With that, she struts off, the clamouring of her heavy armour sending waves of echoes through the passageways. Before the last echo dies, Felix is already completely blinded by those dark red spots again - submerged head to toe into a scorching red river, which seems to carry him, or some empty, mindless husk that looks like him, while the real him looks on indifferently, down and down the tunnel, deeper and deeper into darkness, where a balding man, with scabby, acne-covered cheeks and a wispy little moustache, is fighting against a particularly stubborn rock and muttering something to himself.

The voice is the same, there is no mistake about it. It was him who called out to the Orc guard just now. It was him who begged for the drug, Skooma, in exchange for informing her that Gunmar needed to be whipped. And it is him who is to blame for the poor Dawnguard's torment, for the dreadful, despicable... delicious scarlet mush that his back turned into. Him. Not Felix. Him. Him. Him.

A long, brawny grey arm suddenly extends into Felix's field of view. His arm. It has to be his arm; he must have changed into that bat creature without even realizing it. And yet, it feels so alien; he does not sense a connection between the arm's movements and his own mind; he still cannot quite process that this clawed paw, which locks tightly round the miner's throat and lifts him off the tunnel floor, does, in fact, belong to him. Or that this voice belongs to him, garbled and rasping and bestial.

'You damn snitch! You will suffer for this!'

Splash. Splash. Splash. Something warm drips over Felix's wrist; he starts and blinks in confusion - and then realizes that this is the Nord, weeping in fear, as he is holding him up, with his legs dangling above the very rim of a ledge that extends over a sheer drop onto one of the mine's lower levels.

Dear Maker, what is he doing?! Was it the sight and smell of Gunmar's fresh blood that affected him so?! This - this is not him! Not him - he swears on the name of Andraste and all the deities that are venerated in this new world! He would never want this hapless prisoner to die!

'I am sorry!' Felix screams, feeling his monstrous maw twist into a weepy grimace, which would have surely looked far more appropriate on a small child than on a bulky hunk of a winged beast. 'I didn't mean to! Let... Let me get you to safety!'

But as it turns out, feeling utterly disgusted with yourself and shaking a man by the throat over an abyss do not mix well at all. Before Felix can stop it, his beast form fades; and suddenly, the miner feels too heavy for his puny human limbs, and... and he has to let go of him.

Instantly coming to his senses, Felix drops to his knees and attempts to grab at the miner and pull him back before it is too late; but... But there already is no-one left to grab hold of. The poor man is lying sprawled on the ground below, staring sightlessly upwards the way Eltrys did, a deep red halo around his head.

His entire self shattered by the weight of what he has done, Felix is more than ready to toss himself after the miner, to smash his stupid head right open, to make the world go black again and never to emerge from the blackness' embrace - but instead, he has to rise from his knees, spurred on by the impatient pull of a large, coarse hand that has grabbed him by the shoulder from behind.

The hand's owner turns out to be another Orc, male this time, and a fellow prisoner, going by his rags. He is even bigger and more muscular than Durak, with one eye blood-red and another white and unsettlingly blank. There are two rows of spikes jutting over his knitted eyebrows, and white war paint smeared over his face, outlining his forehead and cheekbones and upper lip so that his head resembles a leering skull.

'Well, lookie here,' he grunts, narrowing his eyes at Felix. 'A shifter! And looks like your special little trick has made you strong! As strong as me, maybe! Madanach will want to see you. Oh yes'.

Chapter Text

Felix's feet carry him obediently after the skull-faced, one-eyed Orc, down some winding passage and then up again (or is it up, and then down?), while his mind keeps aching with guilt. He only becomes somewhat aware of his surroundings when he stumbles over the threshold of what looks like an almost decent room, with a narrow fur-covered cot, a simple, somewhat ramshackle wooden chest, and even a writing desk. Behind that desk, scribbling something away on a sheet of greasy paper, sits a ragged man with a tangled mane of grey hair, some of which is woven into matted braids, which look like they have not been undone for a very, very long time.

Hearing footsteps, he turns around slowly, shooting a single glance at Felix with his piercing bluish-grey eyes (so bright against his grimy, lined face that it almost hurts to look into them too long), and says sharply,

'I don't remember seeing you before. You are new, aren't you? Turned into an animal by the Nords, like all of us here. A wild beast, caged and left to go mad. So...'

He shifts his eyes to the big Orc, laying down his quill and tapping lightly against the parchment.

'So Borkul, pleasant introductions aside, I assume you brought this boy to meet his fellow beast for a reason'.

The Orc grins, showing what looks like far more teeth than is natural, most of them yellow and slanting one against the other.

'He really is a beast,' he says, pushing Felix forward. 'A shape-shifter. Turned into a huge grey thing with wings and threw old Grisvar against the rocks like he was a feather pillow. The sop died on the spot, I saw it with my own eye'.

Somehow, knowing the miner's name makes the pain that burns at Felix even stronger. Something tells him that, from now on, he will be unable to catch a moment of that death-like vampiric rest he saw the Volkihar plunge in before he stole their thralls. Because the instant he closes his eyes, he will be hearing that one word, over and over again, scraping at the back of his skull like a branch swaying in the wind against the windowpane. Grisvar. Grisvar. Grisvar. His name was Grisvar.

The ragged man raises an eyebrow, a spark of keen interest (too keen for Felix's comfort) kindling in his eyes.

'Grisvar, eh? Well, can't say I will bemoan his death. The man was a thief and a snitch, and had long since outlived his minor usefulness. And if what you say is true; it this little hatchling can actually change into a powerful creature...'

'I swear by the torn-off arm I beat that one guy with,' Borkul the Orc says solemnly - and given that both his arms are still intact, Felix gets a not too cheery thought that the torn-off limb must have belonged to the poor 'guy' himself.

Adding up to that, the spark in the icy eyes burns even brighter, and Felix gets a sudden urge to turn around and break into a run.

'Then the powers of this... shape-shifter will be just what we need to complete the final stretch of our work', the ragged man finishes.

'That's what I thought, Madanach,' Borkul nods.

Madanach. Of course. Felix suspected as much when Borkul marched him into the room, professing to take him to Madanach, and there was no-one there except this man. But now his guess has received a final confirmation. He is facing the hahren of the Forsworn, the King in Rags as Thonar's journal referred to him, the puppet and puppeteer all in one. The man who has been giving orders to young men like that Weylin, making them think that they were fighting injustice, but in reality pointing them at the targets selected by their very own slave masters.

And now he thinks Felix is going to side with him - just like that? He thinks he is going to just rush in and become a part of this damnable Forsworn conspiracy? How corrupted does he believe Felix is?!

Oh no. He had better discard all thoughts of turning and running (where would he run to anyway?). He had better hold the man's gaze and tell him all that he thinks of him. Not every Alexius automatically sides with the forces of evil.

'I will not help you with any work of yours,' Felix says, astonished by how firm his voice comes out. 'You are a murderer!'

'So are you,' Madanach retorts, his face a mask - and with one look at him, about half of Felix's short-lived righteous resolve evaporates.

He is right. There is no arguing with that. Felix iscorrupted, after all. Like the ragged man facing him, he now has blood on his hands. And not just the blood of a vampire thrallmaster (whom he is pretty certain he didn't even kill) or a magically mutilated killer bear. The blood of a human being - not a very honourable one, perhaps, but a human being all the same.

This does not give Felix a lot of moral high ground, not nearly enough to entitle him to throwing around words like 'murderer' and 'force of evil'. Coming to terms with that, as much as he can, he despondently prepares to agree with the hahren when, seeing that he has shaken him, he keeps on talking - now in a more relaxed, confident pose,

'It's almost endearing to look at you, you know. Standing here, so defiant, thinking you are better than us. Well, let me break it to you in so many simple words: you are not. You are one of us now. A slave. With the boot of a Nord stepping on your throat. The best you can do is join your fellow slaves in what they are planning. But if you still need convincing, let me show you around. I have been down here for over twenty years; I have enough patience to spend a few more minutes on letting you understand the true injustice of Markarth'.

The ragged hahren gets up, flexing his neck with a little crackle, and walks out of his quarters. Felix follows him - not out of being particularly enthused, but because he feels he does not have much choice, and because Borkul is scorching the back of his head with snorting breaths.

They traverse the mine's tunnels at a slow pace, as Madanach frequently pauses and makes a broad gesture, inviting Felix to take in the miners, clinging on to rocks like tiny pale ants, their backs either bare and glistening with sweat, or covered with a coarse, tortoise-shell-like layer of filth that, with time, has merged into an indistinguishable whole with their prison rags.

'A lovely kingdom we have here, don't we?' Madanach says at length - and even though his voice is harsh and sarcastic, Felix thinks he can catch a glimmer of sadness in his eyes, like it so often happens with Serana. 'There was a time, almost three decades ago, when we built a life for ourselves topside...'

His face hardens.

'The Reach was our land. Always has been. We were here first. Then the Nords came and put chains on us. Forbid us from worshipping our gods'.

Felix has heard it before from poor Eltrys (he hopes his soul gets embraced by his gods in this world's afterlife) - but, even though he finds Madanach rather... less sympathetic, he cannot help but be silently overwhelmed by the poignant parallel with the Dalish elves again, and almost misses what the ragged hahren says when they move on.

'And when they went off to fight their war with the elves, we finally seized a moment to take what was ours. Killed a few of the cruelest bastards here and there, set up a capital in Markarth, began to settle down. I was even ready to negotiate with your people... The Imperials are your people, aren't they, hatchling? You vaguely look like one... To have us recognized as a kingdom. But it did not last long. The Nords returned, and their retribution was swift. I was captured, quickly tried, and sentenced to death. But my execution never came'.

'The Silver-Bloods prevented that,' Felix says quietly, taking his eyes away from a prisoner not too far away, who is lying, exhausted, on top of a lumpy boulder, appearing to be hugging it, with his shoulders twitching and blood streaming from underneath his fingertips.

'You are catching on,' Madanach nods in confirmation. 'They offered me a deal: I was to be kept alive down here, and some of my people were to be left free to wander the Reach. And in exchange, I was to send out... not so secret orders to the Forsworn. Point their rage at the Silver-Bloods' enemies, and spare their allies. It was...'

His throat contracts.

'It was humiliating at first, but I knew this was the only way I could ever lull them into thinking that they were in control. That I had lost my teeth. This was the only way I could keep my rebellion alive right under their noses, to one day rekindle it anew. And this day might just be today - with your help'.

'With my help?' Felix echoes, getting his guard up again (though not as adamantly as before).

'Borkul and I have been doing a little... construction project these past few years,' Madanach says, throwing his head up a little, so that, for a second or two, his posture creates an illusion that he is still a free, proud king, discussing the renovations in his palace.

'Digging a tunnel out of my quarters. This city's lower levels are like a sponge, all eaten through with old Dwarven passages. We've almost hit one, which I am fairly certain will lead us out to the upper city, and then the wilds. But we've hit a rock wall that refuses to bulge, even under the brawny shoulders of an Orc and a few faithful Reachmen I've trusted with this'.

'And you think I can clear it?' Felix asks with a frown. 'In my beast form?'

'If you can, I just might pick up my prayers to the gods where I left off twenty years ago,' Madanach grins.

'But what if I refuse?'

'Well, I am pretty certain the lot of us will be able to tackle you, beast or no beast, and do everything to make sure that you do not follow in the dearly departed Grisvar's footsteps and snitch on us about the tunnel,' Madanach shrugs casually, his eyes sparkling once more as he savours the look on Felix's face.

'But you seem like a good sort of hatchling - maybe even an eaglet, with a potential to grow up into the like of one of our mighty heroes - and perhaps I am growing soft after going for all these years with nothing but ink, dust, and Skooma to sustain my mind... But I would rather threats were not your main incentive. You got into your topside meddling because you wanted to do the right thing, didn't you? Then let me assure you - again - that helping us escape is the most right thing there is. Here. I have saved my best argument for the last'.

He stops again, behind the back of a squat-figured man with long, dirty hair. 

'Braig,' he calls out to him. 'Braig, if you would...'

The man swirls on the spot, revealing that, much like everyone here, he has a haggard, unshaven face, and dark ink markings on his forehead.

'Ma... Manadana... Madanach,' he stutters, rubbing his hands over his cheeks in a vain effort to make himself look more presentable. 'What do you wish of me?'

'Tell this eaglet your story,' Madanach says simply.

The man he addressed as Braig heaves a deep, rasping sigh, which ends in a small cough. Felix guesses that this has to be the result of the rock dust grating at the inside of his chest - he has also begun to feel its dry, grainy taste on his tongue. He wishes he could wash it down - but he cannot. Not with his current... drinking habits. 

'There is not that much to tell,' Braig confesses once he is able to speak again. 'You know that. I was thrown in here for what the Nords called the gravest treason... Speaking to you once. Should have killed more of these bastards on my way down here, if they insisted that I was so evil anyway'.

Madanach inclines his head a little, apparently in an expression of regret - but his eyes remain sharp like prickling shards of silver.

'Tell him about your daughter, Braig,' he insists quietly.

Braig starts. Then swallows, as though he has gulped down another mouthful of dust.

'My... My daughter...' he says, sounding a little dazed. 'Yes, my daughter. I did have a daughter once. In another time. She would have been what... twenty three... twenty five... I don't know... Years pass by in such an odd way when you don't see the sun... Yes, she would have grown into such a beautiful young woman, like her mother was back in the day. She would have led a quiet little life of her own, safe and content... Married to some hot-headed silver worker or maybe looking out for herself, learning the herb trade. But... They took her. They took her from me'.

The veins in his unwashed neck bulge with the visible strain, and he has to catch a breath yet another time before continuing. Felix makes a tentative little step closer to him, his hands reaching out awkwardly - but Madanach makes a decisive gesture for him to wait until Braig is finished.

'You know me, Madanach,' Braig chokes in the meanwhile, shaking his head. 'I was not a great Forsworn warrior. Just a simple villager minding his own business, trying to adjust to the new kingdom. But the Nords did not care. They just busted my door down, making my little one stir in her bed, and grabbed me under the arms, saying you had been caught, and anyone who had ever had anything to do with you was going to suffer for it. But my girl...'

His voice, naturally husky, now turns into an almost incoherent wheeze.

'My sweet darling girl, my little Aethra... Flushed with sleep, with her hair all gathered up into this fuzzy uncombed knot, and her knitted toy ram pressed against her chest... She... She didn't want to see her papa leave her. She ran after us, stumbling over her night shirt's hem, and crawled into the cart where the Nords had tossed me. And when we got to Markarth, she pleaded to the Jarl not to hurt me, to take her instead. The jarl just sat there, mumbling something dumbly about her being "just a child"...'

Braig makes a grimace here, mocking the accent Felix has notice in the speech of a few Nords he met, with bitter, malevolent exaggeration. 

'But the guards jumped on the idea, the bloody swine. They treated it like a source of some sick amusement; "change of pace", they called it. They led her off to the execution spot, same as they would do with any adult - and had the gall to laugh when she kissed her little ram goodbye. She was not scared, my little Aethra, and she told her ram not to be scared either. She was doing a good thing, she said. She was saving her papa. But... But after they made me watch as her head rolled off the block, they threw me in here anyway, to dig up their silver'.

The last few words burst out of his chest in a long, full-blown sob - and now Felix does not bear standing back any longer. He catches Braig just as his knees are about to give way, and supports him in a close embrace, his stomach churning with the haunting thought that, if the girl Aethra should have been in her mid-twenties by now, then the poor prisoner must be close in age to his own father - a realization that makes him sob as well, or at least, make a gasping, sob-like yet tearless noise, before he lets Braig dig his face into the rags on his chest.

Father. Oh, Father... If it was you about to get imprisoned, I would have done the same as that little girl. Without hesitation. I wish you knew this, wherever you are... But you don't, do you? Because you still think I hate you. You still believe you cannot be forgiven. I... I understand it now, Father. The wish to go back in time and fix a single moment where everything went terribly wrong. If I could, I would have shoved those words back down my own throat so that you would never have to hear them. I don't hate you, Father. I love you. And I miss you. And I fear for you.

When Felix has it in him to glance back at Madanach, having chased off his own memories and forced himself to focus on Braig, his former flash of anger returns.

'You want me to believe you are doing the right thing, and yet you just made this man relive his most painful memories just so I could watch!'

Oddly enough, Madanach looks like he approves.

'I did stage quite a show for your benefit, eaglet,' he remarks calmly, folding his arms on his chest. 'But this was the only way you would truly understand. You have had a glimpse of Braig's pain. You have felt it resound in your chest. And now imagine hearing a story like that, over and over. Each time a different family. Each time a different injustice. How could I not do what is necessary for giving these people a chance to rise up again? How could I not protect my rebellion?'

It is a sudden, intrusive, barely rational thought, and Felix quite detests it - but he suddenly draws a parallel between this fierce, icy-eyed, obviously more than a bit insane overthrown king, and Grand Enchanter Fiona, leader of the southern rebel mages, who, when pushed into a corner, was ready to accept any deal offered by Tevinter, to swallow the news that her charges were going to become little more than slaves. And after making that comparison, he has no choice but to admit to himself that he is going to help the Forsworn escape, after all.

He has a nagging suspicion that he has just given in to manipulation - fostered by a quarter of a century of rubbing shoulders with masters of political intrigue, both in Tevinter and Orlais. But so be it. He concedes the victory to Madanach... On one condition.

'I am not leaving without my friend Gunmar,' he tells Madanach point-blank, staring into his icy eyes with an inner resolution that he will not be the first to blink.

He is not sure whether Madanach does blink earlier, in the end - but he is the first to turn his face away, wordlessly demanding an explanation from Borkul, who has loomed behind them like a greenish gargoyle throughout the whole exchange with Braig.

'He means the other new blood, one that got whipped cuz of Grisvar's snitching,' the Orc comments. 'He's a Nord'.

'He is not with the Silver-Bloods,' Felix cuts in. 'He was involved in unveiling the conspiracy as much as I was. Him and I are a...' 

He searches for a proper expression, and hopes that what he has come up with is not too alien to Tamrielic.

'A package deal'.

'A Nord, painting the ground red with his own blood,' Madanach muses, his tone far too close to being dreamy for it not to be disturbing. 'That is a sight I have always welcomed. But I suppose I can make an exception for another fellow beast...'

'Borkul,' he orders the Orc brusquely,  'Go and pick up that sorry Nord meat bag; see if Uraccen and anyone else who has not yet forgotten the old magic can heal him. I will focus on making contact with Nepos. And you, eaglet,' he squints at Felix, 'Let go of poor Braig and get your wings ready. You will be taking us out of here soon. And remember... Having entrusted your Nord friend to my people, you have just given me some new leverage. Not my first choice, like I said before. But... Food for thought'.

Kaffas, Felix says to himself as their little group disperses. Imagine letting this man into the Magisterium.

Chapter Text

She is there when the guards take the outsiders. Of course she is there. It is her job to scour the streets for the old man, flitting through the shadows like a crow, swift and silent and always alert, perching herself on the square, carved parapets of Dwemer buildings and sifting carefully through the chaotic bursts of sound and colour, in search for something meriting attention. So that later, she can go back home, slip into the simple brown dress of a housemaid, tie a apron round her waist and dance, light-footed and sweetly smiling, into the room where the old man is receiving his guests, and pass on a report in plain sight, while those ignorant Nords are slurping their wine and talking about silver production levels. A particular tilt of the tray here, a sweep of the duster there, the shape of the bow on her apron - everything tells the old man what his little crow has noticed in the streets, and how the Forsworn are to respond to that.

Of course, she could just wait until the guests clear off and share information with him in a proper fashion, using words and paper sheets - but she loves this little game. Has loved it ever since a botched Forsworn raid left her fatherless, and the old man took her in as a 'little urchin picked off the streets out of pity' to everyone who asked, and an agent and apprentice to everyone who did not need to ask. And she excels at it, too. No-one plays with the shadows with such skill and relish as her - and the old man knows it.

'If I am the Nose,' he is fond of saying, 'Then little Uaile is my Eyes and Ears'.

But right now, she does not even need to exercise any special finesse. The darkened streets are boiling, and the upheaval is obvious enough to alert even the most thick-headed of Nords. Which it has: Uaile can see them blinking in the torchlight, standing on tiptoe to better make out the prisoners' facial features, pointing their fingers at them, and shaking their heads, and ushering their children back inside their homes. When one of the guards hits the shorter of the two captured men, drawing blood, the town butcher, Hogni Red-Arm, can distinctly be seen licking his lips in excited relish that is borderline orgasmic... Though Uaile has to make allowances for him likely being a Daedric cultist (as evidenced by the certain... peculiarities of his schedule, in particular his tendency to leave town on certain nights, never missing ones that fall on date of the veneration of Namira).

But Uaile is not here for Hogni. That would be bestowing too much honour on the sleazy blighter. No, she is here to find out the cause of the commotion, and report it to old man Nepos. Her job is made easy because the guards spare no lung power on announcing the reason (or should she say excuse) for the two men's detainment to the crowd: clearly meaning to intimidate Reachfolk and Nords alike.

'These two outsiders are to rot in Cidhna Mine!' they bark, hammering at their shields for emphasis. 'Because this is the only place fit for the scum that go messing with the Silver-Bloods!’

Messing with the Silver-Bloods, hmm?

Uaile can guess, with a relatively high degree of certainty, that these two are the very same nosy outsiders that visited the treasury this evening. She did not come across them in person before, being too busy keeping tabs on Nepos' meeting with Thonar; but after the puffed-up pheasant of a man finally strutted off, Nana Idlene from the Treasury House came in with a report, slightly breathless and croaking after climbing all the stairs. She had spotted Rhiada, Thonar's receptionist and scribe, leading two men into the archive, and was in two minds over whether or not she should have fried them with a lightning bolt on the spot.

She is a cunning one, Nana; cunning and fierce - wearing the mask of a kindly old biddy that fits almost seamlessly and does an admirable job concealing deep reserves of magic knowledge and a burning fury to match that of a fully turned Hagraven. Uaile hopes she can be half as spry and battle-ready when she is Nana's age... If she ever lives long enough to reach it, that is.

The news brought by Nana concerned Nepos somewhat - understandably so. Who was to say that the outsiders looking for dirt on the Silver-Bloods would not, at some point, decide to look into their 'trusted consultant on Reachman affairs'? And it would be no exaggeration to say that nothing but disaster would follow if one of Markarth's most influential citizens, respected by the Reachfolk and trusted by the Nords just enough to let him handle part of their business, were exposed as a Forsworn agent. Uaile is not privy to all of the old man's dealings (much to her frustration; sometimes he does still treat her like a child), but she suspects that this was also the reason why Nepos sent that Warren boy, Weylin, after the woman from Solitude.

He wanted to deal with the two new snoops in a similar fashion, seriously considering calling for Dryston, his favourite bruiser, so that he would teach them a lesson. Uaile would not have objected to that: this would have occupied Dryston for the night, and he would have, at least for a time, stopped his persistent attempts to invite her for drinks at the Silver-Blood Inn. He is one of those annoying cases when, after she tells a man that she is not interested in anyone his gender, he responds with a knowing grin and some stupid blather along the lines of, 'Haha, maybe you like both women and men and just don't know it yet, and I just might be the one to open your eyes!'.

But now it looks like the Nords have handled their pesky little outsider problem without the interference of the Forsworn. Not the most thrilling feeling in the world, having your interests overlap with your enemies', but at least Nepos will rest easy.

The guards' procession marches off, the half-stunned onlookers retreat into their homes, and Uaile is ready to turn around and head back to Nepos' manor (bracing herself for another round of Dryston's advances... maybe if she flashes a dagger in the general direction of his most restless body parts, he will finally get the hint?). But suddenly, she registers something with her peripheral vision - a small figure in a flimsy skirt, racing down the street and pausing in front of every guard that has not walked away with the prisoners.

Her curiosity piqued, Uaile moves in; it does not take her long to recognize the figure as Rhiada from the Treasury House. From what Nana overheard, the two outsiders had been tipped off by her husband, Eltrys... So it stands to reason that the Nords would finish him off as well.

Even though Nepos has always taught her to be indifferent to anything that does not concern the mission at hand, Uaile cannot help but feel sorry for the poor thing. Neither Rhiada nor her husband have ever been part of the cause; they are... were just a couple of ordinary Reachfolk, trying their best to eke out a living in a city full of Nords who have more compassion to a slug to the bottom of their shoe than a 'tattooed native'. And in Uaile's view, they are precisely the sort of people the Forsworn are trying to build a kingdom for.

Not all would agree with her - certainly not the war clans that live in the redoubts in the wilds. They consider the city folk to be weaklings, traitors, submissive sheep that allowed themselves to be tethered. Who knows, maybe Uaile would have thought so herself if she was raised by her father. But she was not - instead of a hot-headed boy that fled to the hills and donned the ritual headdress and started killing, her childhood was spent under the guidance of a man who tries his best to protect the smelter workers from cruel overseers, who wages a war on behalf of the Reachfolk not with a spear in his hand and a briar heart lodged in his chest, but with a web of spies at his fingertips.


'Please!' Rhiada cries out, wringing her hands and trying to catch the glint of human eyes through the slits of the guardsman's bucket-like helmet. 'I am trying to find someone who would tell me how to report a person missing! My... My husband hasn't returned home, and it's so late, and I have no idea where to look for him!'

'Hands off, Reachwoman,' the guard grouses, his pot-round belly rippling aggressively in Rhiada's direction. 'Your husband is probably lying piss-drunk on the floor of the Silver-Blood inn, or in some gutter nearby, where he belongs!'

'No, you don't understand!' Rhiada protests, hiccupping slightly. 'My husband was not headed for the inn; he was doing something... Something very important! Please... His name is Eltrys; when I saw him last, he was dressed in a green tunic, and...'

Oh, silly, silly girl. Who turns to the guards to look for someone who is trying to undermine the very people who have these guards in their pocket?

'Eltrys, you say?'

The bucket helm clatters from the inside with the sound of a malicious snicker.

'Oh, you will need to wait a long time for Eltrys to come home. A very, very long time'.

Rhiada gasps faintly and presses her hands against her mouth.

'What... What happened to him?'

'He got what he deserved,' another guard says, approaching from behind - with a few more bucket-headed silhouettes looming even further up the street. 'And you said you were his wife, eh? In league with him? Getting some quality family bonding over snooping around together? Perhaps you'd like to join him?'

The metallic snicker rings again, this time multiplied manifold as the guards close their ranks around Rhiada, most of them with their axes drawn. The poor woman whimpers and, shrinking up into a little quivering ball, locks her hands instinctively over her stomach.

Uaile, who has already slid under the cover of shadows almost close enough to strike, falters momentarily, remembering how she was talking to Bothela at Hag's Cure a few days ago while her trained eye mechanically scanned the details of the store's interior... Including the few lines of Bothela's ledger that were not obscured or smudged off by the still dripping Daedra heart she had dumped onto the page.

Mage Calcelmo - eye drops, 2 phials
Steward Raerek - the usual, 1 phial
Rhiada - herbal tea for morning sickness, two weeks' supply

Herbal tea for morning sickness. Uaile's mind did not process that line in depth back then, but now it has surfaced again, piercing the inside of her skull like a sharp thorn.

Herbal tea for morning sickness. She... She is with child. Rhiada is with child. These bastards are waving their axes over a terrified, vulnerable, pregnant woman, whose only crime was wanting her baby's father to return home safely. If Uaile was preparing to fight them off before, now she is more than eager to drown them in a fiery river - after ensuring that Rhiada is well out of harm's way, of course.

In between two of Rhiada's tearful blinks, the glowing blue wall of a barrier spell rises in front of her, separating her from the guards, who turn their bucket heads around in confusion. And gawking to their left and right is all they have time for, before an enormous flame bolt lands in their midst, flooding the streets with scorching golden swirls that clash against the barrier shielding Rhiada as if it were a ghostly wave-breaker, and then roll back with doubled momentum and splash over the guardsmen, turning their armour into misshapen chunks of melted steel and making little ribbons of smoke trail out of their helmets' eye slits.

All of this happens so fast that the wretched Nords do not even manage to scream, before their throats grow black and brittle. After swirling on for a few more moments, the magical blaze simmers down to a swarm of firefly-like embers, which dance off upwards, blending in with the stars. Rhiada, it seems, becomes mesmerized by the sight, quite in spite of herself, and follows the embers' journey with glazed-over, dreamy eyes. While Uaile, in turn, follows the motions of her head and body, and the way the night breeze plays with her hair, and the way the sparkling embers are reflected in her widened pupils...

She looks so beautiful in this moment of enchanted stillness, so absorbed by her pure wonderment, that she almost seems to glow - a ray of light shining amid the ashen darkness of the spell's aftermath... No, wait, this came out quite stupid, didn't it? Rhiada is not a ray of light - a ray of light is shining on her, because the glowing barrier is still active, albeit fading, and because the moons are slowly moving towards the horizon, and the beams they cast just happen, at this very moment, to be gliding over Rhiada's figure. A perfectly natural phenomenon. Nothing to get googly-eyed about. She is a young widow expecting another person's child, for Sithis' sake!

When the last remnants of the barrier melt into darkness, Rhiada lifts her arm and gestures shakily at the charred bodies and scorch marks on the pavement, which has even caved in with the fire spell's impact.

Uaile walks closer to her, stepping into the moonlight, with her hand extended as a token of reassurance and friendship.

'Do not pay heed to these poor sops,' she says - almost lightheartedly. 'If anyone heard the explosion and comes running, we will tell them the tragic story of a group of brave guardsmen who, oh so very concerned about the citizens' safety, tried to disarm a cunning mechanical trap left over from the times when this was a Dwarven city, but ended up triggering it'.

'They... will not... believe...' Rhiada tries to point out, with her lips barely moving. Her eyes are wandering all over Uaile's face (is she vainly flattering herself, or does she spy a glimmer of admiration?), while her hand slips mechanically into hers.

Ah. Time for lesson number one from old Nepos the Nose.

'People will be ready to believe anything as long as you say it in an assured voice and do not blink or turn away,' Uaile says sagely, giving Rhiada's fingers a comforting squeeze. 'Now, let's get you out of here. If you follow me, I will take you to a safe place'.

'Is that... One of those things... you are supposed to say without blinking?' Rhiada whispers.

'No. That's the truth. To you, nothing but the truth, sweet thing'.

Oooh gods, was that a bit too much? Too forward? Well, she does not seem to express any outrage... But that is probably because she is still in a shocked stupor - which does not let her go until, the next grey rainy morning, she wakes up in a tall-backed chair by the fireside at Nepos's, wrapped in so many blankets that her flushed face, glistening with tears and snot, seems like a cherry peeking out of a large, fat dumpling.

'Eltrys is gaaaaawn,' she wails, inhaling the droplets that are dangling off the tip of her nose, with a tremendous, oink-like noise - which does not in the least put Uaile off sitting down on the floor next to her and reaching up to pat her covers. Poor, poor little sweetling. There is hardly a fate less enviable than being an innocent in Markarth.

'I... I knew he would get himself killed! But... But I wasn't...' she gulps and then draws a hoarse breath. 'I wasn't ready... for it to happen... so sooooooon... What am I going to do? Tho... Thonar will kick me out after this... Won't he? How will I live... without Eltrys? How will I raise... My baby?'

'Hush, sweetie, hush,' Uaile coos, weaving her fingers through Rhiada's again and giving her hands a carefree little swing, meant to cheer her up. 'Everything will be all right! You and the little one will be taken care of! We Reachfolk ought to look out for one another!'

'Don't speak on behalf of all of us, girl,' Nepos tells her gruffly, while pacing in front of the fire with his hands behind his back, casting a long-nosed, hunch-backed, bird-like shadow on the wall. 'What's gotten into you?! What made you think it was such a brilliant idea, blowing up, what, a dozen guards to save a damsel in distress? Do you have any idea how difficult it will be for me to make it all go away?'

Uaile rolls up her eyes.

'There weren't a dozen of them, Nepos, and I do have a cover story ready! A malfunctioning Dwemer trap - not so implausible, is it?'

'The Jarl's wizard will see right through this,' Nepos retorts. 'By Anu, girl, I never could have predicted that the sight of a pretty face would make you so reckless! I thought I raised you better than this!'

'You did raise me better,' Uaile says - in full earnestness this time, her voice so grave that even Rhiada falls silent and gives her an awestruck look with her rounded, bloodshot eyes.

'You raised me better than to walk away from a kinswoman in need. Isn't that what we are all about - fighting for our land so that the fearful and downtrodden don't have to?'

'Oh by the Eight,' Rhiada moans, withdrawing into her blankets like a scared tortoise in a shell. 'You are Forsworn. I have walked right into the lair of the Forsworn'.

'See this, Nepos?' Uaile cries out, gesturing at Rhiada. 'Our people fear us, instead of looking on us as their protectors! How is this right?'

Nepos pauses his pacing and gives her a long look, moving his head from side to side.

'Oh, dear girl, there is so much you don't understand...'

'Hey Nepos, you can be cryptic and tragic later - when I arrive to join you!'

A new voice, one that Uaile has never heard before, rings through the room, sharp and demanding, while a ripple of magic sends a chill through the air and snuffs out the warm light in the hearth.

With the fire extinguished, there follows a new source of light - a translucent human figure, woven out of pulsing blue light. Uaile can guess what it is, having learned similar magic under Nepos' tutelage - but Rhiada does not. Uaile can feel the poor thing's hands grow icy cold in her grasp, and so she hastens to whisper,

'It's all right; it's nothing to be afraid of. Just a projection spell - someone is casting it to be able to talk to Nepos across a distance. That's all'.

She says 'someone' because she does not recognize the ragged, wild-haired man whose ghostly likeness has called out to her mentor. She does not have to wonder long, though, as Nepos, with a lot of croaking and 'Oofing', tries his best to move his stiff old body into a kneeling pose.

'My King!' he exclaims, gaping at the projection in astonishment. 'Why didn't you send a note, like you always do?! You are taking a terrible risk! Don't you know that...'

'Yes, yes,' the figure dismisses him impatiently. 'Thonar had some mage hireling ingrain wards in the mine's floor; they will alert him the moment any of us tries to use magic. But it doesn't matter - because we are not staying!'

The ghostly man grins with triumphant, slightly mad glee, while Uaile has to let go of Rhiada  and cover her mouth with her hands to muffle an utterly childish 'Wow'. The King... The King in Rags! She has heard rumours that he was still alive, languishing in Cidhna Mine - but she dismissed them as one of those 'Some day, our try king will return and deliver us all from evil' legends, preferring to focus on how to help the cause in the here and now. But... What do you know - the rumours are all true! Here he is, Madanach of the Reach, as large as life (well, kind of), giving orders to Nepos... And it looks like they have been in touch for quite some time. That sly, secretive old buzzard.

'This is happening, Nepos,' Madanach says. 'This is finally happening. We are breaking out, with the help of this outsider Thonar's people have graciously thrown down to us. Send someone along with equipment to meet us at the mouth of the Dwarven passage that connects to Cidhna Mine. Time to see the sky again - and make it rain red!'


***


'Madanach... What is going on?' Felix asks in concern, as he glances down at the threads of red glow that are now running under his feet.

They first appeared when a group of Forsworn prisoners gathered round the unconscious Gunmar and, following their ragged hahren's command, began casting a healing spell.

On their own, they would have been barely capable of sustaining a magical charge strong enough to close all of the Nord's wounds, most of them being too worn out after years upon years of ceaseless toil away from the sun and the sky - but together, they managed to conjure up a huge orb of white-gold restorative light, which wobbled in the air above Gunmar's chest for a little bit, like an iridescent bubble, and then burst into a fountain of glowing specs that floated down and filled in the jagged contours of each whip marking on the big Nord's body. Their pulsing light kept growing brighter and brighter, until the onlookers, Felix included, had to turn away, stung by the blinding whiteness. When they looked back, the specs were gone - and so were Gunmar's whip lashes: some had been wiped clean altogether; others, reduced to pale thin lines, which seemed to stretch and contract as Gunmar's chest began to rise and fall, in measured, healthy breaths.

Opening his eyes, the Nord looked around wildly, his disoriented, darting gaze growing especially alarmed when he noticed the Reachman markings on some of the faces hovering over him. But Felix did his best to settle his doubts (even though he was not exactly free from them himself).

'Yes, they are Forsworn,' he said, lifting his Nord friend to his feet. 'Most of them, anyway. But we are allies now... Of a sort. We shall be escaping this prison together'.

And that was when the dusty ground began to rumble, and the first streaks of red began to appear. Felix might even have written them off as a sort of natural phenomenon - the heat of a lava spring bursting through, perhaps - but now that Madanach has finished giving orders to some unseen man named Nepos, with his eyes weeping cold, piercingly blue mage fire, the lines on the floor have grown far more prominent, burning more vividly and spreading further, tracing arcane patterns that are definitely man-made.

'What... What is this...'

Madanach has to breathe in and out heavily several times before he can reply. The communication spell has definitely taken a lot out of him, though he makes a point not to show it. He even snarls at Borkul when the latter edges in to support him.

'That's... the wards going up...' he mouths, before shaking his shoulders and making a motion as if he is dusting himself off. 'Clever little... Trick... To prevent us from using... magic... Thonar is probably stirring in his comfy Nord bed right now, while some clever Dwarven... device... hums in his ear... that the natives are... casting spells... But no matter...'

He swallows, tossing his shaggy head like a wet dog, and finally gains control over his voice.

'When he comes busting in here, we will be long gone. Brothers - follow me. We have been here long enough. It's time to leave Cidhna Mine and continue our fight against the Nords'.

He leads the procession of prisoners back towards his private little corner of the mine, pausing in front of an inconspicuous metal gate, just beside his quarters (left over from the city's previous Dwarven owners, maybe). When Madanach pushes at it and it swings open, it becomes apparent that it leads into a half-finished tunnel that ends in a massive pile of boulders.

'All right, eaglet,' Madanach announces, shoving Felix forward to face the dead end. 'Show us what you've got'.

Closing his eyes and straightening his back, Felix taps into his reserves of vampiric power... Kind of like as if he was standing over a basin full of blood, and then sank his arms in, submerging them to the elbow.

The image, though gruesome, does the trick to awaken the beast, and by the crunch of his own flesh and the gasps behind his back, Felix can tell that he has pulled off the transformation.

'I am... Not much of an eaglet, I am afraid,' he mumbles, opening his eyes and glancing back over his shoulder. 'More like a bat... let... thing'.

Madanach smirks.

'Don't fish for compliments and dig in'.

Felix does not have to be asked twice, with Madanach's persuasion tactics still being fresh in his mind. Thrusting his thick, grey arms forward, he slips his claws into the crack underneath the largest boulder - and heaves it upwards with all the might that now flows through his monstrous body. The weight pressing upon him is tremendous, and for a single stupefying moment he fears that he will fail, that his straining, rope-like sinews will snap and he will collapse, dropping the boulder on top of him... But, just as he feels he will not be able to keep this up a second longer, he tears his burden away from the rock pile, hoisting it just high enough for Borkul to slip his shoulder under it and ease some of the weight. After the two of them roll the biggest chunk of rock aside, the others join them, pushing at the wall of the cave-in, and even managing to clear off the smallest stones with telekinetic magic. Still, most of the work falls to Felix: where the mortals stumble back, panting and sweating, he burrows in with his mighty claws and scatters the loosened rock shards by the swats of his bat-like wings.

And before long, he does succeed in breaking through the wall, opening up the way into a much broader passage, with thick stone slabs lining its walls and ceiling, and a few fallen pillars lying across it.

Madanach was right - they must have hit an underground Dwarven hall. Sort of the local equivalent of the Deep Roads. And knowing first-hand what manner of vile creatures tend to creep about in the Deep Roads, Felix decides to himself that it will be wise not to shed his bat form for a while.

As, slouching a little so that his bulbous head does not bump against the mouth of the cleared cave-in, Felix steps into the Dwarven chamber, his eyes meet Madanach's - and the hahren snorts and says, sounding almost... benevolent,

'No. Still an eaglet'.

Chapter Text

The first thing that meets the eye of the escaping prisoners, when they leave Madanach's tunnel completely behind, are the thick grey webs that stretch along the walls and, like dusty bridal veils, shroud the square-jawed, bearded faces that can be seen in some of the carvings (modelled after the long-gone masters of these empty halls, no doubt).

'Oh great,' one of the Forsworn, a young man with a small mohawk, whispers in exasperation. 'Giant spiders. Heard about these things, but hoped I'd never get to see them'.

'Relax, Odvan,' says the grey-haired prisoner who was the first to talk to Felix (he thinks his name is Uraccen). 'Maybe the things died out like the Dwarves. There can't have been a lot to eat down here, not with us being behind that cave-in...'

It would certainly have been great, Felix thinks to himself. Giant spiders have earned themselves no love in Thedas, being vicious predators with enormous appetites (and quite repulsive appearance, in the eyes of some), and the local ones can't be any more amiable.

But it looks like both he and Odvan are in for a disappointment. Uraccen is still talking when he is interrupted by a skittering noise, initially soft and so quiet that it might have easily been mistaken for a trick of the mind, an echo of one's own thoughts - and then, much louder, drawing closer, filling every darkened nook in the Dwarven chamber, making every shadow come alive.

As the skittering mounts, Uraccen has to finish his reassuring little speech with a disheartened 'Or maybe not' - and the moment he does, the many-eyed, long-legged, fat-bellied creatures come into view, coming down in a sickeningly rotating motion on their rope-thick cobwebs, and clicking their pincers hungrily. Uraccen was right about one thing at least: before now, these cave dwellers must have been sustaining themselves with scraps... Until a generous helping of prisoners came along.

In a single simultaneous motion, Uraccen, Madanach, and a couple of other escapees fire a barrage of lightning bolts at the spiders, each of them hitting its target. The affected critters either roll onto their backs, curling up their legs on their exposed bellies, or sprawl over the floor, bleeding acidic green slime onto the age-old stone. Still, the spell casters do not kill off all of the spiders, and even as the Forsworn keep firing their magic, the skittering continues, loud as resounding war drums now, while a dark wave of voraciously glinting eyes rises all around the prisoners, threatening to come crushing down on them, and then roll back, leaving behind nothing but desiccated husks.

'Dammit,' Gunmar breathes, wincing as yet another spell blast from Uraccen makes a spider's belly explode, showering everyone in the vicinity in blobby chunks of some vile-smelling, congealed mucous substance. 'Wish I had my axe'.

'You need an axe for this?' Borkul scoffs, as he catches a giant spider by one of its legs and pulls out first this leg, and then all the others, the way a child would do to a fly. 'Weakling!'

'Disregard Borkul,' Uraccen chuckles, tossing Gunmar the pickaxe he has been carrying tucked underneath his belt. 'He's a bit... old-fashioned. Here, this pick will do for a weapon. I have always been handier with spells and shivs anyway'.

He drives his point home (quite literally) by poking out three of a nearby spider's eyes with his shiv - a short, self-made blade, made out of what looks like a scrap of brownish Dwarven metal - while roasting the rest of its face with a charge of flame. Gunmar seems quite impressed, his initial distrust for the Forsworn slowly giving way to a spirit of battle kinship, which he does not hesitate to express by bashing in the soft, squishy head of another spider, which has reared up behind Uraccen's back.

'These things are bogging us down!' Madanach growls after dodges a jet of some sizzling, no doubt highly poisonous liquid that a newly descended critter has spat out at him, and then goes on to press his hand against the wound in Odvan's forearm, in a hurry to close it before the venom infects it. 'We need to exit into the city before Thonar and his people come to check on the mine!'

Felix, who has tossed aside his share of spiders, flaps his wings thoughtfully, looking around. This certainly seems like a counter-productive way of dealing with hostile creatures. To clear their path for good, they would need to curb this spider infestation at the source - so what they need is to find out where the critters came from. And soon enough, he does discover a few protruding white-grey objects, right underneath the ceiling. They could have been metallic pipes of some sort, but now that they are all covered in cobwebs, it is hard to tell. In any case, the spiders definitely seem to be coming from the dark holes on the objects' outer ends.

Something tells Felix that Madanach would have been delighted to shoot fire up these pipes - but there is no way of knowing how deep in they actually go, and whether throwing spells at them would destroy all the spiders that might still be nesting in there. Not to mention that, from a scientific point of view, erasing an entire colony of creatures would probably be quite harmful (oh great, he recently killed a man, and now he has decided to feel sorry for a bunch of poison-spitting arachnids).

There is another way, a better way - as he tells himself while dashing in between Uraccen, Gunmar, and a new spider before it can spit in their faces, and letting its slimy projectile scorch his hardened grey chest instead. To somehow... persuade the spiders to return.

In the midst of some more spider dodging, he remembers how Pony dealt with a senior Vigilant - the one who tried to 'purify' him after sensing his Blight - by casting some sort of spell on him to make him flee; not being a mage, he highly doubts that he will be able to pull off the same illusion, even now that vampirism has expanded his range of skills. But even though he doesn't have any aptitude for spellcraft, his fellow escapees certainly do!

'Look up!' Felix calls to Madanach and his men, flying above the squirming heap of spiders to point at the pipes. 'These are their nests! Can you cast an Illusion spell to make them want to retreat?'

'Should be simple enough!' Madanach responds. 'These things have tiny minds, easy to affect! Very well, my brothers, you heard the eaglet!'

At their hahren's word, the Forsworn step closer to one another and, moving their hands as if they were trying to swim through the air, weave countless wreaths of green light, which hover over the spiders' heads like halos, before slipping down and spreading the glow to their eyes. No longer snapping their pincers (even appearing to hang their heads down), the critters scurry back up the walls in a fuzzy living carpet - while Madanach gives Felix, who is slowly hovering downward


The path ahead is open; the attack has left their little group largely unscathed (save for a few scratches here and there, which get promptly treated by healing magic, and the slight itch from the spider spit on Felix's chest, which fades away before he even begins to give it much thought); and Borkul seems to have acquired a handy chitin walking stick for himself... Which, of course, he has to use to pull down the pants of the man walking ahead of him, so that he momentarily flashes a pair of pallid buttocks at his brethren, drawing a laugh from most of them (Gunmar is among the loudest, and even leans against the shoulder of Uraccen as he guffaws; the latter does not seem to mind).

Madanach, too, joins this little burst of revelry, by smiling - much calmer, more serenely, than Felix has ever seen him smile so far. And, much to his own astonishment, Felix realizes that he has seen this smile before - on his parents' faces, when the apprentices they had invited to live at their estate, to study the Veil and means of manipulating it under their guidance, got up to some childish foolishness, like hovering their food over their plates with magic to assemble their greens into phallic shapes. Because even Tevinter's best and brightest cannot resist giggling at that particularly deformed carrot, especially when they are not even twenty years of age.

He... He does care for them, this hahren. He cares for his Forsworn. And perhaps... perhaps he regrets manipulating them for so long, for the sake of the greater good. And the Forsworn themselves - even though they are murderous raiders, they are not without their share of humanity. It has been rather... enjoyable, watching them fight together and laugh together and come to each other's aid, all the while knowing that he, Felix, has his own part to play in their escape as well. Though of course, he could just be feeling more akin to them because he himself now is guilty of murder. Because he killed Grisvar.

Grisvar. Grisvar. Grisvar. He will never forget his name.

They walk on for a while without incident, passing by some impressive shattered fragments of ancient architecture (which Felix would have loved to examine in detail, but Madanach hardly would have approved). When they are about to enter a long, stone-lined corridor, with odd spherical metal ornaments placed along either side, Braig stops suddenly and, closing his eyes, tilts his head so that the draught of cool air coming out of the corridor's other end washes over his toil-worn face.

'Can you feel it?' he asks huskily. 'Fresh air. I think... I think I can smell... juniper. There was this big, gnarly old juniper tree near my home... I made a swing for Aethra in its branches, and when she came home after playing outside, her hair would always smell of... of juniper...'

Seeing that the poor man is about to become overwhelmed by his memories again, Felix rushes in to... he does not really know... Hug him maybe? If he does not crush his bones with his massive bestial limbs. Or... Or stroke his head at least (taking care not to poke his eyes out with his claws). He is guided by sheer impulse, a desire to give Braig at least some comfort, because, when he was barely beginning to succumb to the Blight, he could sometimes swear he heard his mother's voice, somewhere by his bedside, asking him how he had slept, offering to tuck him in better like she did when he was a child (she would never trust the servants with that), and chuckling about 'poor dear Gereon worrying so much about everything'... But when he raised his head and turned to look, she was nowhere to be seen, and instead of her hands, he was clutching at the folds of his own bed sheets... And it hurt so, so much.

In his rush to get to Braig, Felix clumsily knocks his wing against one of the ornaments. It responds with a hard metallic tick-tock - and, before he knows it, the sphere's upper half is already unfolding into a complex clockwork construct, somewhat resembling a human figure, with long limbs ending in sharpened appendages that look like several types of tools and weapons (a blade, a long thick needle, a saw, a pike, and a small axe) all layered over one another.

The sphere's awakening is followed by more ticking, and sliding and rattling and grinding. Before long, all of the ornaments have already come alive - veritable army of mechanical warriors, determined to hack and slash at the creature of flesh that has disturbed them. Surrounded by blank, indifferent metal faces wherever he turns, with the glinting tips of many-tiered weaponry all pointing at him, Felix attempts to soar up again - but the razor-fingered hands grab him tightly by the ankle, cutting deep slashes in his grey flesh, and then drag him down.

The constructs' violent tug brings him to the stone-paved ground with a painful bump, which is merely the beginning of what he is about to suffer when a buzzing saw grazes his chest; the surrounding metal figures all blur together into a blinding copper flare; the ticking and clicking turns into a deafening cacophony that makes cracks run through Felix's temples; and the only thing he is now aware of are the faces, these empty orange-tinted faces, which twist and warp till they resemble the snarling, ghoulish visages of the darkspawn... And suddenly, he is thinking of Mother again, falling back onto the sand, her throat raw and crimson. The gash grows bigger, darker, filling his entire field of view - and now he is the one falling, sinking into the blackened wound, drowning, drowning... Drowned.



'All right, brothers, time for some old magic again! On my word, attune your powers, and...'

'If you want to use the same spell you healed me with, it won't work. He does not respond to common Restoration magic because he is not, umm... Not completely alive'.

'Ah, so that is where the shapeshifting powers come from? I was beginning to guess as much. Very well. I will try a necromantic healing spell your common, non-matron healer would use to aid a Briar-Heart in battle. Not exactly the deepest darkest magic, but this ought to work...'

Felix is brought back closer to the surface of consciousness by the soft tingle of a benevolent spell. He is still not completely aware of his surroundings, but he has begun to discern a few noises: snatches of conversation between Gunmar and Madanach right over his ear, and the somewhat distant metallic clamour and whooshes of mage fire.

After commanding his mind to push upward, further and further away from the black whirlpool of oblivion, Felix finally emerges, opens his eyes, and discovers that three of the constructs that accosted him are now lying still on the ground, their mechanisms silent and their limbs unhinged (young Odvan is still struggling to pull his pickaxe out of the place where he must have struck one of the automatons: the very base of its head). All the rest of the metal guardians are being chased around by the Forsworn, rolling across the floor on their bottom sphere half, while the ragged prisoners wave their picks at them and barrage them with magic bolts.

'Did I miss much?' Felix asks groggily, raising his hand to his face (and discovering that his fingers are the usual human shape and colour again; he must have transformed back when his strength began to ebb).

'Not much,' Madanach says, glancing back at his men with that fond smile again. 'We have only just gotten to the good part of the fight. These metal buckets won't last long against the Forsworn. You feeling up to fighting again, eaglet?'

'Hey,' Odvan, who has finally lodged his pickaxe free, joins the conversation with the back of his hand turned towards the other men, so that they can see the red trickle between his fingers. 'I cut myself on that stupid scrap heap - so I was wondering if you might need a bit of blood? For a healing ritual or something? My Great-Aunt Bothela always says it's not a proper ritual if you don't add a bit of blood...'

Madanach grins, his teeth glinting yellowish-white like the fangs of a snarling wolf.

'Smart girl, Bothela. Good to know she still has the same spunk as when the King of the Reach would drop by at her shop for a little... visit'.

Odvan blushes, definitely not quite ready to process this detail of his great-aunt's past.

'Then again...' he mumbles, 'It was probably a dumb idea...'

'Yes! Yes! Very dumb! I... I mean... Not that you are dumb... I mean I can manage perfectly well as it is! No blood needed!' Felix blurts out in agreement.

Licking a cut of beef, or whatever it was, back in the market was one thing, but this is a living, breathing person! What if this little cut is not enough for him? What if, having tasted a droplet of Odvan's blood, he will want more? What if... What if this poor young man, who has a family out there on the surface, who must be looking forward to getting back home to his 'spunky' great aunt (like Felix himself is looking forward, as much as he dares to, to his reunion with his father), suffers the same fate as Grisvar?

No. Never again. He will not be preying on a human or elf or any other sentient being. Even if a Forsworn might deserve such fate. Even if his own wounds are but half-healed. Even if he collapses, for not having gotten his share of... food. Never again.

Grunting something determined to himself, Felix stands up - almost without any help from Gunmar - and even kneads the air a little with his fists, demonstrating how healthy he is, and how eager to squash some metal heads. Though the latter does not even prove necessary: by the time he shuffles one step ahead, the constructs have all crushed been by the picks and spells of the prisoners.

Borkul, of course, tried ripping at least one automaton apart with his bare hands, and has apparently succeeded, judging by the black smears of machine oil that now cover his arms up to the elbow.

'Eh,' he says, unimpressed, as he looks himself over. 'Blood looks way better on me'.

Another bout of laughter ensues, and the Forsworn move on, following the gust of wind that moved Braig so much.

And, at long last, it leads them out of the murk of the Dwarven catacombs, with their oppressive stone walls and hostile inhabitants, into the streets, where the air does smell of juniper, and is fresh and heady as if it rained out here some time ago; where the sky is a brilliant blue that draws tears to the eyes of all prisoners (Madanach deems it absolutely necessary to comment that he is only weeping 'because the blasted light is too bright'); and where there's a waterfall rumbling somewhere not too far ahead, raising glimmering clouds of watery vapour that are visible just enough around the corner. And as the rays of the pale-gold sun pass through these clouds, they suddenly shine was all colours of the rainbow, turning into rich silken billows of red and green and deep blue.

The street pavement shines, too, like a stream of the purest molten silver that the city is renowned for: as it has been made smoothly damp by the recent rain and reflects the radiant disc in the sky. Markarth is greeting the prison escapees, bathed in vibrant, jubilant glow. Markarth is ready to welcome its king back... Although its residents might be no less hostile than the creatures they left behind.

Thankfully, it looks that they will be ready for that contingency: having stumbled a few steps forward, still blinking off tears and groping blindly for support, they bump into a woman with spiky hair somewhat similar to Odvan's, who has dark facial markings highlighting her intently narrowed grey eyes, and some sort of tribal attire - crafted out of beast hides, with long black bird feathers trailing from her shoulders - highlighting the... the rest of her.

Coughing in embarrassment, Felix averts his gaze and takes an interest instead in the orb of greenish magic that is hovering by the woman's side. Packed inside it, are more hides, along with curiously shaped weapons that make Felix think of fish bones, what with all the spikes that protrude from them.

'I am Kaie. Nepos send word,' the woman says, in a curt, business-like fashion, while carefully drawing at the threads of magic with her hand, so that the orb unwinds like a knitted garment, and the hides float up to the prisoners, who gratefully start removing their old rags (some still reeking with spider acid). When the new clothing is all aligned with the prisoners, the woman extinguishes the spell's light, making the hides fall right into their outstretched hands, serving as a convenient screen for those who have already managed to cast off their pants.

There are enough tribal pelts for Felix and Gunmar, too. The fur and the feathers feel a bit itchy, but it's still better than the threadbare prisoner clothing (which, in Gunmar's case, is all caked over with dry blood).

'Since you are back in charge,' the woman says to Madanach, 'I might as well give you a report on my activities while you are changing'.

Madanach, who has just dived into a long fur cloak that has a deer's head instead of a hood and leaves his chest half-exposed, dips his head as a sign that the woman can continue.

'My group was closest to the city, tracking a cart from Karthwasten from the clifftops. The village chieftain, Ainethach, makes some clan leaders suspicious - he could be working for the Nords. The cart was moving very slowly, so we figured there could be something of value in there - a bribe, perhaps. We were planning to come down and raid it before it could cross into the farmland around the city, but then the crows came with a message from Nepos, and we diverted to collecting supplies for you instead. Figured that aiding the King would be more pressing business'.

'That it is,' Madanach says, spreading his shoulders. He still cannot quite look at the sun without his eyes beginning to stream, so he has to slide his eyelids shut... And when he looks Madanach over as he stands tall, with his eyes closed and his long tangled hair waving behind him in the juniper-scented wind, Felix becomes distracted from the (mostly figurative... so far) blood that is covering him, thinks he looks quite a bit like a statue of some romantic hero of legend. The liberator of his people.

There was a monument of the sort erected somewhere in Ferelden, as he can recall (his excitement over visiting a new country and eagerness to learn about its culture were very much dampened by his illness and concerns about the Venatori, but he still managed to latch on to few snatches of knowledge). A memorial to Loghain McTir, commissioned by his daughter, the current queen. Now there was a fascinating historic persona: freedom fighter and murderer, savior and madman all rolled into one. And yet another Thedosian memory that Madanach reminds him of. He wonders how the King in Rags feels about dogs...

'Should we continue looking into Ainethach, My King?' the woman asks. 'Karthwasten is also an area of interest because there is a child living there with the abilities of a Seer; I think one clan that recently lost its matron might be interested in turning her into a Hagraven...'

'I like your hands-on approach, young Kaie,' Madanach nods approvingly, opening first one eye, then another. 'And there is certainly a lot of work to be done. But first, let me have a few words with our favourite outsider'.

He turns full-body towards Felix and, in an abrupt, startling motion, places his hands on his shoulders, blue light seeping from beneath his palms.

'What... What are you doing?!' Gunmar barks protectively, as he draws back his pickaxe to begin a swing.

'Nords', Madanach says disdainfully, curling his lips, and continues washing the blue light over the speechless, baffled Felix.

'I am blessing your armour with a bit of old magic,' he explains (pointedly addressing Felix this time). 'Something to remember me by. Say, eaglet... What is your name?'

Felix is not certain how to feel about this question - but then he figures that there will be little harm in giving a truthful reply, since he has already been through such a long adventure side by side with the Forsworn.

'Felix'.

'And your father's name?' Madanach asks next, still not ceasing his spell work.

'Gereon,' Felix answers mechanically, slanting his eyes to follow the magic's progress; it is only when the word is out of his mouth that he remembers that Father chose to go by an alias.

'Then you shall henceforth be known as Felix ap Gereon, Eaglet of the Reach,' Madanach says, as he finally steps back to survey the fruits of his labours. He has put on quite a kingly air, and is definitely enjoying it... perhaps a bit too much.

'Say this name when you are among the Forsworn, and you shall be spared... Probably. But otherwise, remember: no place in the Reach is safe from us now.

'I would not be so certain about that,' a voice says loudly from further upstreet. It belongs to a tall Nord in a long, evidently expensive padded brown coat and with hardened, boldly chiselled features.

Madanach makes a cringing grimace and spits on the ground.

'Look who's finally rattled his dried-up Nord brain hard enough to realize that the wards had been set off'.

The Nord mirrors his hostile expression and begins to close in, revealing that there are several bodyguards flexing their muscles meaningfully behind his back.

'Think you can escape my prison, do you Madanach? You'll pay for your insolence!' he hisses, lifting his arm to give a signal to the guards... A motion that leaves his chest open to a strike.

'You've poisoned the Reach with your tainted silver for long enough, Thonar!' Madanach cries out, when the shard of enchanted ice is already halfway between his palm and the Nord's body. 'Let this be an announcement to all of Markarth that I have arrived!'

Thonar hears the end of this exclamation with his fingers clasped around the sleet, thawing, pinkish chunk of ice that that is sticking out of his chest, with more and more deep-crimson swirls appearing within it. With an almost outraged croak, he sinks to his knees, his bug-eyed stare still fixed on Madanach's face; but soon, the last shreds of life force are no longer enough to keep his body in this pose, and he plops down, his face mushing into the pavement - even more so after Madanach places his foot on the top of his skull and makes a circular grinding motion, as if getting rid of some pesky beetle.

The dry crunch of their leader's head and neck make the bodyguards snap out of their gawking stupor and charge forth, crossing weapons with the Forsworn. And even though the recent prisoners appear not quite as well-armed as the chainmail-wearing Nords, their hide and feather attire allows for far greater flexibility of movement, making their fishbone swords and spears dart in and out of the spots the bodyguards have left vulnerable - thrust! twist! squelch! - before the latter can even figure out where to hit them. Not to mention that the spells that were so effective against giant spiders and Dwarven constructs work perfectly fine when applied to human flesh - which soon begins to give off a sharp, pungent scent, like overcooked pork. No, the smell of raw wounds is much, much more... Disgusting. Felix was meaning to think 'disgusting' - wasn't he?

'Fine work,' Madanach announces, wiping his hands, when no Nord is left standing. 'I am sure the ravens will appreciate the treat. Now, Kaie - lead the others out into the wilds. Plant some false trail clues for the guards if you can. I will be along shortly'.

'Are you sure it's wise to just saunter through the streets so soon after escaping prison?' Kaie frowns.

'And after killing Thonar,' Odvan chimes in.

'Ah but you see,' Madanach says, taking the young man by the hand and casting some manner of spell that makes both his and Odvan's bodies grow translucent, as if they are moulded out of glass. 'I can't allow you to become a notorious outlaw without saying goodbye to your great-aunt first, now can I?'

Chapter Text

'All right, girl, open wide...' Bothela the apothecary dips a long spoon deep into the concoction her apprentice has just finished sweating over, and lifts it to her mouth, with a firm, steady hand (much steadier than this silly young thing's, that's for sure!).

Muiri wrinkles her nose.

'It smells like something blew wind after having a very disgusting dinner,' she mutters.

Bothela would have shrugged, but that would have meant jerking the spoon.

'You were the one who brewed it,' she reminds her apprentice. 'And we had a deal: you taste everything you make before I can offer it to for sale. Don't want to start turning our own customers into frogs'.

'Fine, fine,' Muiri sighs in a resignation and, grabbing at the spoon herself, thrusts it almost halfway down her throat and makes a tremendous gulp.

A few moments pass; Muiri smacks her lips with a look of utter revulsion on her face - and then starts drawing short, wheezing breaths, with her eyes turning into enormous white-and-pink spheres that might roll out of their sockets at any moment. Her lips seem to swell, and when she rolls her tongue out, flapping her arms in an attempt to tell something to Bothela (for she is unable to speak), it becomes evident that it has sprouted tiny glowing green fungi, which are growing out of the wet pink flesh in circular clusters.

'And here we go again,' Bothela says wearily, snapping her fingers to magically clear these unnatural growths out of Muiri's mouth. 'You mixed in the ingredients in the wrong order - the second time this week!'

'I am fowwy, Voffela,' Muiri lisps, after the fungi burst into tingling sparks and vanish, leaving her tongue slightly swollen but otherwise back to normal. 'I muff faf vefome diffraffed'.

She must have become distracted. Of course. The girl keeps thinking back to that scoundrel who turned her head and used her to rob the family of her wealthy best friend - framing her in the process. That was the reason why she had to leave her native Windhelm and ended up bumblingly searching for a calling here in Markarth.

She came to the city with her mind tangled worse than the roots of a tipsy Spriggan (yes, Bothela does have a real-life experience that inspired this analogy). And the prickly, brambly knot has not yet quite come undone yet. She is full of anger, this young thing, which laps inside her and eats through her own flesh like concentrated bile.

She hates herself, for having been so gullible and quick to drown in honey poured into her ear.

She hates her friend for believing some planted evidence over the word of the woman she had known since childhood (even wants her dead; Bothela had to whip at her hands with a bunch of smoked skeever tongues when she caught Muiri nosing about among the books on the low shelves and muttering something about 'Nilsine' and 'Dark Brotherhood').

She hates Markarth, for being so unlike her home city and making her feel homesick.

She hates men as a gender, seeing lewd glances and ulterior motives everywhere (she almost hit poor Raerek with a broom when he came to discuss an increased dosage of his discreet delivery, even though it was not her he was meaning to spend time with).

And she hates that one particular man who broke her heart... While still obviously pining for him.

Oh yes - Bothela can see it in her eyes. She hates him and loves him and misses him and does not want to have another thought about him ever again, all at the same time. This is something Bothela is quite familiar with - though thankfully, for her, the colours have all become muted, and the corners, not as sharp; and the vivid splashes of emotion that are now confusing Muiri so much are all a thing of the past.

'Let's work on something else, then,' she says, steering her apprentice back to the potion-crafting station. 'And do try to take your mind off that bandit of yours'.

Muiri starts - thinking perhaps that the wise old hag has read her thoughts (wouldn't be the first time people assumed that about Bothela).

'I just...' she breathes shakily. 'Sometimes I remember... He said he loved me, Bothela. He said he loved me'.

Ah. He said he loved her. Don't they all? Don't they all...

Bothela, who has picked up a bowl of finely ground bonemeal for the next potion, looks up at Muiri - and then past her, through her, as, without warning (and quite against her own volition), the dim colours of the past grow bright and stark and alive again.

She looks and looks, and sees two barefoot toddlers, a girl and a boy with their round, wavy-haired heads seeming so big in contrast with their underfed bodies, which have nothing but worn-through, greyish-brown shirts to cover them. Life is hard for them in the slums of Markarth (is the place already referred to as the Warrens? She cannot quite recall), where they are raised collectively by a handful of grown-ups with dust in their voices and in the deep lines of care that cross their faces.

A lot of images from that time are vague, blurred, and Bothela is not even certain if the girl toddler’s parents — her own parents — are among those grown-ups, or they had already been killed by Rockjoint and smelter fire. She thinks she remembers another girl, slightly older than the toddlers, but still too young, far, far too young, to rub shoulders with the adults, and join their gloomy ranks as they march off to work every morning. Her sister, Odvan's future grandmother, grown up before her time, trying so hard to provide for the both of them.

But the memory is not really about this girl, or little Bothela; it's about the other toddler, the boy, the wild, half-toothless thing, who just showed up among the poor of Markarth one day, out of nowhere (some even claimed that he'd been found at the tit of a she-wolf). Bothela sees him exploring the city, climbing the crumbled Dwarven walls, persistently inquisitive and stubbornly determined to get to the top, even as his tiny arms prove too short to reach to the upper ledge, and his bandy legs do not quite get the hang of walking yet. Very often, as he topples backward and falls, the girl toddler reaches out clumsily to try and catch him, and when his weight proves too much for him and they plop down to the ground, they both burst into a giggle, which the bards would have referred to as 'silvery', but gods, Bothela is so sick and tired of silver at this point.

The boy goes on with his climbing as he grows older, too: as Bothela is sucked into the next whirlpool of colour, she catches sight of two scrawny children, two troublemakers from the Markarth streets, two inseparable urchins that draw many a curse out of Nord guards with their antics. In this memory, rather than running for dear life after they had the audacity to stand between a smaller child of the Reach and an adult Nord that intended to hit the little one, or trying to steal a string of sausages from the market stalls, they are braving the slippery rocks near a waterfall somewhere on the outskirts of the city. There is a mighty old tree growing there, its glossy, narrow, needle-like leaves bathed in wet vapour. Young Bothela needs its bark, and a handful of its small pale berries, because her big sister's blood week has been so painful that she has barely been able to get out of bed, after almost passing out on her way back from work on the evening before. The girl is not really sure when or where or how she learned that the tree might help, but she has a strong gut feeling that tells her what to do.

Her sister will get better, and will get up and go to work and continue living her life, and will eventually find herself a bond-mate (sworn to remain by her side by the old Reachfolk vows in a small, closed, family ceremony, for the main shrine of the Nord goddess of family and marriage is in Riften, and few people in Markarth have enough gold for the journey), and then have a son, who will grow up and also have a son, Odvan... But the young Bothela, the one in the memory, the one whose progress her old self follows with her blank, distant gaze, does not know it yet. The silly girl has convinced herself, with the full earnest fervour of a twelve-year-old, that without the bark, her sister might die - and so she keeps moving up recklessly, blindly, with her eyes not seeing anything but the tree, while her feet jump from one moistened rock like the hooves of a mountain goat... Except that goats always land on firm ground when they make a leap; and foolhardy human girls, not so much.

Her foot slips, stepping on thin air rather than on solid rock; and the fall that follows is so sudden that even back in the present, old Bothela gasps a little. The boy gasps too, and when the girl hits the water, plummeting into the stream where the waterfall descends, he waves his hands, tiny snowflakes circling around his fingers; there is a flash of dazzling grey and blue and white, like the icy colours all blending together in the boy's eyes - and before either of the children realizes what just happened, the girl finds herself stuck at the base of the waterfall, from the waist up, a sturdy layer of ice holding her in place before the current can carry her off, towards the second cascade, which is smaller, but rife with sharp rocks that poke out of the whitewater froth like darkened, rotten teeth.

'Whoah!' the boy cries out, grinning at his reflection in the part of the stream that was untouched by ice. 'I was so amazing! I knew I had magic, but this is something else! Oooh yes! I wonder what other mind-blowing things I can do!'

'Please un-ice me, Madanach,' the girl squeaks, her teeth chattering. 'I... I can't feel my legs'.

'Yeah, yeah, wait a moment,' the boy waves at her absently, his head tilted back, his eyes fixed on the tree. 'I'll get you that bark, first!'

Sticking his tongue out between his teeth, he takes aim - and casts a new spell, fire this time, right at the rock beneath the tree's roots.

'Easier than throwing stones at pots!'

The jet of flame explodes when it hits the rocks, and the impact loosens the roots of the tree, which leans forward with a mournful creak, leaves and berries and slivers of half-charred bark raining down onto the ice in front of the girl, who has managed to break off some of the ice and wriggle herself loose without the boy's help, and is now pushing her way out of the hole in the conjured white-blue crust, looking rather like a horker (the image makes her older self chuckle under her breath).

'You shouldn't have done that, Madanach,' she sniffs, once she has clambered out and started scooping up the berries with her reddened hands. 'You've hurt the tree! You shouldn't hurt things just to get what you want!'

'But now you won’t have to be falling down any more — because I helped you,' he reminds her smugly, jumping onto the ice to help her before the spell wears off.

'You also got my clothes wet,' she grumbles, pulling up her heavy, soggy skirt and squeezing the water out of it.

Her exposed legs glow white against the grey of the rocks and the water - and when she looks up at Madanach, she catches him staring... And blushing, for the first time in her memory.

The colours dance before Bothela's eyes; the flight of her thoughts skips several more years, and she is now looking at a couple of youths in their very late teens, perched on a rock in the wilds again. The girl's hair is long and thick and falls below her waist, and the boy weaves his fingers through it absently as he lies by her side, reading a book while she sorts through the herbs and mushrooms she has collected (her movements are deft now, more assured; she knows the scholarly names and the properties of every little leaf that lasses through her reagent-stained fingers; she is almost a half-decent apothecary, though Bothela would be lying if she said she never had any fungi-tongue accidents like Muiri).

'Where do you keep finding those books?' the girl asks, giving her companion a sideways glance. 'They look too fine for the likes of us just to walk in and buy! And stop pulling at my hair! It's distracting'.

''It's fluffy,' the boy chuckles - and there is a spark in his eyes, like the first flicker of sunlight flaring on the tip of an ice cap. Ah, that spark - bound to make you blush, to lure you, till you are not watching your step and get stuck in an icy hole again.

'Besides, you like it. I know you do. And as for the books... That little brat Igmund, the Jarl's son, threw a tantrum in the street not that long ago, while the court wizard was trying to drag him to his reading lesson. Tossed the books in the gutter - well, his loss. There's a lot on our people here. Apparently, we were an absolute terror in Skyrim and the border regions of High Rock a thousand years ago. There was this sorcerer  1 they called him the Grave-Singer — who made a deal with Molag Bal and...'

'You... You are not trying to...' the girl breathes, whipping her head around, with her hair flying behind her, so she can see the boy's face.

She is feeling terrified, oh so terrified that he might actually pull off something reckless like this... And at the same time, there is something else... Some new, heady sensation that is making her head spin, like she has breathed in the vapours of an intoxicant. Not that far off from Muiri, is she now? Not far off at all.

'I won't be summoning any Daedra... Maybe,' the boy says, the spark in his eyes brighter than ever. 'But I can't just sit on my hands when your and my kin are being pushed around - in our own land! This is supposed to be our home, and we have every right to stand our ground! At least our ancestors understood that much'.

'Listen to yourself,' she protests weakly, still treading on dangerously thin ice as she follows the beckoning of the boy's gaze. 'You are barely of age! You can't run around starting rebellions! They will catch you and throw you in the stocks faster than you can say... than you can say "Hello, my name is Madanach, I'm here to fight Nords".

He raises an eyebrow.

'All this clucking and fussing... It doesn't sound like you, Thellie'.

'I am not clucking! I'm just...' she begins talking with long pauses, frustrated because the words she needs to explain herself all seem to have slipped away from her, digging themselves deep into some sort of dark muddy goo, like a school of river betties she is trying to catch for her potion-brewing.

'I... I am worried you'll get yourself killed... because... because...'

She lets out a short, incomprehensible noise and, with not a single word left behind at her disposal, leans in and kisses him on the cheek.

When she draws back, redder than an amanita cap, he gapes at her with a dumbfounded, goofy expression that she has never seen on his face before (Really: Madanach, dumbfounded? Clean-nailed giant toes would be more common!).

A few blinks later, laughing happily, he catches her hand and pulls her close to him again.

'Well, now I will have to try really hard not to get myself killed!' he jokes, before kissing her back.

It's a quick, soft, chaste kiss that barely covers one corner of her mouth... But it leaves young Bothela no less breathless and giggly than all the other kisses that would follow. And there are so many of those, oh so many, and they are coming back, in a torrential stream of colourful images; Muiri would have dropped her poor little jaw right down into the bubbling potion if she knew what her cranky old mentor is seeing right now.

She is seeing the two of them, no longer a boy and a girl planning antics side by side, but a man and a woman: her already with the markings of the Reach that she had tattooed on her face as a show of solidarity with the brewing rebellion, and him in that tell-tale hide armour, a deer's head covering his carelessly braided mane.

He keeps disappearing into the wilds, doing gods know what, coming back with smudges of blood over his knees, just like when he was a child and scraped himself in some street scuffle... Except that now the blood is not his own, but rather that of someone he held pinned down at his feet, while stabbing them repeatedly with a spiky traditional blade or a conjured weapon.

And she, for the most part, remains in the city, having inherited an alchemy shop from an elderly Nord who noticed her aptitude for the craft, took her on as an apprentice and, being childless, wrote her into his will (despite the little ripples of outrage among the neighbours). The Reachmen militia - all rallied by Madanach, of course - come and go in and out of her store, receiving healing concoctions and poultices out of the back door; the Nord guards try to raid the place now and again, but never find anything incriminating, though more than once, they come so close that Bothela's chest almost rips apart as she struggles to hold her breath and to keep her thrashing heart from leaping out of her mouth.

It is especially hard to maintain a collected facade when Madanach is here, plastered against the potion shelves with a Chameleon spell cloaking him. She does not need to see him to know that his fingers are clenching and unclenching, the way they do when he wants to fire a blast of fire or lightning - but she warned him before not to start a bloodbath in her shop, and he reluctantly agreed. And once the Nords are out, he fades in again, and little short of dances towards her counter, flipping his legs over it and spinning her towards the wall, his mouth hot against her neck, his hand sliding under her robe. Forceful, irresistible like a gust of wind in a mountain gorge; brimming over with confidence in his strength and cunning.

He has a plan, he tells her when she tries to pretend to be business-like and to ask him, in between stifled gasps, what he has been getting up to. He has a plan, he laughs, when the fur wrappings he has girdled himself with pool up on the floor, and the account of his own scheming doubles the relish of his arousal. There are whispers trickling in from beyond Druadach Mountains: Hammerfell barely holding together; the Thalmor landing on Cyrodiilic shores. Soon, the Nords will march off to war, summoned to defend their Empire - and with a reduced military presence in their land, the Reach will be so much easier to reclaim.

'We will seize the moment,' he murmurs, narrowing his icy eyes when he sees the younger, still supple-bodied Bothela's chest heave at the very particular flick of his fingers between her legs. 'We will seize the moment - and we will win. Gods, Thellie, we will win!'

The vision of the past grins at the old woman, and, still feeling quite hot after recalling what those firm, assured hands did to her, she hunches her shoulders and hangs her head in a sort of calm, resigned sadness, with a pinch of sweetness still mixed in.

They did win, didn't they? And for two unbelievable, dream-like years, they had a kingdom of their own.

For two years, Madanach, once a scraggly street urchin with (purportedly) a wolf for a mother, ruled his people, harsh but just, sometimes even surprisingly merciful (like when he granted amnesty to all but a few of the cruelest Nord land owners, searching for Bothela in the crowd with his eyes as he announced the public verdict, silently wondering if she approved, like on the days when he kept his promise not to flood her store with blood and guts). And so full of even more big plans, up to getting the Reach recognized as a proper province of the Empire, separate from Skyrim.

For two years, he would sneak out of his stone chambers at night and, much to the exasperation of his spy master Nepos, make a beeline for the little alchemy shop, and start kissing its owner right from the doorstep, long and hard, in no hurry to stop, because there were no Nords breathing down his neck.

Bothela stiffens and rubs her eyes angrily with the back of her hand. Look at her, going off embarrassing tangents, as if Sheogorath has already paid a visit to the ancient dome that is her skull. She wants the colours to fade away again; she does not want to see them any more. She does not want to relive the night of the first anniversary of the new Reach, when the most skilled of their mages put on a bewitching show of glittering wisps and light trails in the dark sky, and, with his face turned to the flashes up above, Madanach took her hand and told he that he...

No. She does not want to remember. She does not want to let this break her apart, like it happened more than twenty years ago, when the Nords came back, and toppled the Mournful Throne, and took the king. Her king. Hers through smiles and embraces and crazy expeditions to the clifftops; hers through touches and kisses and secrets breathed onto sweating skin; hers for so many years, without either of them stopping to think for long about their bond, or to put it into words - and when that finally happened, hers no longer.

She does not want the silent screams to ring out within her. She wants to slip back into her hardened hag's skin again.

'Don't dwell too much on the words of men, child,' she says to Muiri, now firmly back in the present. 'They are as empty as the air they run through'.

With that, she finally does take a pinch of that bonemeal, and throws it into the mix. The familiar hiss of a potion consuming a new ingredient is suddenly joined by another sound, fresh out of her memories - soft, cautious footsteps. Forsworn fur boots treading on the stone floor.

Ready to curse herself for continuing with this onset of senile hallucinations, Bothela peers ahead - and sees a human figure melt into view, with a Chameleon spell having just worn off.

'Odvan!' she wheezes, flailing her arms in the direction of the mohawked youth that has just materialized before her. 'Odvan, what in the Void are you doing, scaring your old nan like that! And Muiri, too - look, the girl's grey as Storm Atronach salts because of you!'

Odvan shuffles his feet sheepishly, which makes Bothela chuckle.

'All right, more to the point,' she says, in a more good-natured tone. 'They let you out of Cidhna Mine, did they? Never figured they'd see reason and hammer it into those thick heads of theirs that a tipsy boy sleeping in after a late night does not equal a murder suspect!'

Odvan ruffles his already spiky hair even more.

'Actually, Great-Aunt... They didn't let me out. I escaped. Didn't you hear the commotion outside just now?'

'Eh,' Bothela says, curling her lip. 'I was not paying attention. I had more than enough of that noisy nonsense last night, when they took some bright-eyed… half-elven boy and his friend to Cidhna Mine. I took some of his blood and sent my birdie to fetch his family; hopefully, it worked, as my Fran-Ddu came back and is resting now... Wait...'

She brushes past a bewildered Muiri and grabs Odvan by the shoulders.

'What do you mean, escaped? Are you a fugitive now? And stupid enough to come here?! I am your only family - this is the first place where they will look for you!'

Odvan rounds his eyes, looking a bit like a puppy that has been called 'bad dog'.

'I... I will be leaving soon. I joined the Forsworn, see, when I was in prison - it was easier this way. I... I will be running with them now, I guess. I just... I came to say goodbye...'

'Forsworn?!' Bothela squawks after him. 'Sithis' bony arse, you are a Forworn now, too?!'

She crinkles her face up and mimics Odwan in a piercing voice.

"It was easier this way"! No it was not! The Forsworn never make things easy - they make things messy! Difficult! So many friends, so many kin, still fighting for a past long gone... Breaking an old woman's heart'.

'Now, now, don't be so hard on us... Thellie'.

What is this now?! The only person who called her that is dead, smothered by the Nords in some dark corner like a kitten from an unwanted litter, with not even a body left for his people - for her! - to mourn.

Some have wondered if he might be still alive, daydreaming of his return when fighting the spinning tavern walls in a drunken haze, or floating off in a fever dream and leaving behind their stained straw bedding in the Warrens. But for her, it has been much easier to think that he's gone, gone forever; it has caused the visions of him, with his wild grin and his icy eyes, to fade away quicker, and to stop bothering her most of the time (not counting stupid nostalgic snivelling like today). Thinking he was alive would have given her hope, and hopes have this way of getting crushed and ground to dust and leaving you aching even more, as if you have just come to your senses after befuddling yourself with Skooma, and now feel sick and broken and disgusted with yourself. She has never taken the stuff herself, not even when she was younger - but she has had to treat many others when they had the shakes, and seeing what they went thought made her think, oh no. Oh no. Not me. I will never be dabbling in this. Neither Skooma - nor hope.

And yet... And yet, there he is, stepping forward from behind Odvan's back, shedding the Chameleon disguise like all those years ago. Grey and withered like herself, deep brownish-purple shadows circling his eyes - but with the same focused ferocity in his gaze, the same determination in his gait... Even the same blood splatters on his knees.

'Hello Thellie,' he says simply, before kissing her gnarly, wiry hand. 'It's been too long'.

'Too long my foot!' she spits, coming to her senses and jerking her hand back, every inch the hag that people rumour her to be. 'You've been in Cidhna Mine, too, all this time?! And didn't think to let me know?! I convinced myself you were dead - dead, Madanach! And now, you decided it's time to come back, like nothing happened?! Well, things did happen, didn't they?! Look at me - look at you! So many years, so many people still dying for you, still honouring your memory - and you just... vanished!'

'I didn't just vanish!' he barks back at her, so that both Odvan and Muiri have to scurry off into the background, exchanging emphatic, wide-mouthed, noiseless screams. Old hag Bothela and the King in Rags... Quarrelling like an old married couple? Now, that is a tale for the ages!

'Don't you dare say I just vanished! I didn't spend all these years - years that the Nords stole from me; from us! - lying on a bed of roses! I mined silver in that fucking hole like everyone else - biding my time to escape! And I am sorry that you weren't told - but we had to limit this to as few people as possible! Just me, Nepos, and...'

'Oh Nepos?' Bothela echoes after him, resting her hand on her hips. 'Nepos! Was Nepos your oldest childhood friend? Was Nepos there when you realized how strong your magic was? Was Nepos the one who first listened to your ramblings about the Reachmen of old? Was Nepos the one you fucked senseless in between skirmishes with the Nords? Was Nepos the one you led aside during that firework display, and told him that you... that you...'

Her voice cracks, and she throws up her hands helplessly - and then, something softens in the icy gaze, and the next moment, Madanach is already holding her close to his fur-clad chest, and she is crying, loudly, stupidly, like a scared little girl and a scorned young woman and a lonely old hag who likes to crack cynical jokes about men to her gawking apprentice, because she has only ever cared about one man, and he was taken from her.

'Thellie,' he whispers, stroking her hair, silver and tangled like his. 'I did mean it, Thellie... I... I missed you so much...'

'Ummm,' Odvan says quietly to Muiri, clearing his throat. 'I'd better try to put some muffling spells on the doors and windows and keep watch for the Nords until these two are done. You wanna help?'


***


While Madanach is having his secret reunion, and the rest of the Forsworn are being led away by Kaie along some complicated, winding route, Felix and Gunmar are left somewhat confused what to do next.

'I... I guess we should get back to looking for Sorine,' the big Nord says, scratching his head. 'And... And better keep low till we are out of the city, because this Forsworn getup might get us arrested again'.

'I think this lane is deserted,' Felix suggests, pointing at a narrow side path, cast in deep shade, with a thin curtain of mist hanging over the pavement, despite the rest of the city being so sunny and cloudless.

Gunmar frowns in discomforted uncertainty.

'Bit creepy, isn't it? Did your vampire sense help pick it out?'

Felix shakes his head with a slightly exasperated snort.

'Just a little joke,' Gunmar explains, his tone not exactly mirthful. 'All right, let's head in there. Get you out of the sun'.

As soon as they turn into the lane, it is as if they find themselves in a completely different corner of Skyrim - in some dreary, draughty swamp perhaps, where the cold wind blows through with a monotonous whistle, and the overcast sky presses down, the lowest layers of the grey clouds merging with the white swirls of mist.

There is a single house in that lane, down a small, narrow flight of stone steps (of course, you can't throw a brick in this city without hitting a flight of steps). It is dark and silent, with not a single window carved in its thick walls, and a door cast out of blackened metal. Hammering against that door with tightly clenched fists, is a small figure, which, now and then, is racked head to toe by a rasping noise - half sob, half desperate call of someone's name - or names.

His vision sharpened by vampirism, Felix is able to make out the figure's features after walking just a few steps closer. It is a woman - an elven woman. With all too recognizable brown skin and deep blue eyes.

Chapter Text

Since his accidental arrival in Tamriel (and before it, too, to be quite frank), Alexius has had multiple experiences when he thought to himself that he has hit rock bottom. And this is not even the worst of them. But it does rank quite high on the disaster scale. Especially since now, he has hit rock bottom almost literally.

He is locked inside a dark pocket of stone, with an impenetrable layer of carved rock meeting his groping fingers whenever he turns. Logic demands that there be a door in one of the walls he keeps hitting in his dazed, spinning dance (which, as he remarks to himself in great discomfort, must follow the same pattern as the confused motions of an animal locked in a cage). Yes, there should be a door out there... somewhere... He did not come in by walking through a wall like a wraith! But it seems to have vanished the moment he entered this blasted house... If it is even a house, which he doubts more and more with every second spent inside.

For one thing, the size of the space seems to expand and contract, like the diaphragm of some living, breathing creature. One moment, the room he is in seems so tiny that he bumps his head against the opposite wall when he cranes his neck too far forward; and the next, that same wall rushes back, revealing a large chamber, which even appears to have some furniture inside, lit up by the greenish flickers of unseen candles... Though the arrangement of this furniture is far too unlike what one should find in a normal, comfortingly mundane human dwelling. Some of the tables have been glued to the ceiling - never in the same place with each expansion of the room - and there are wicker baskets and pieces of cutlery suspended in mid-air, as though tossed up without landing on the floor, their fall forever frozen (his own kitchenware performed similar feats when he and Dorian first began their tentative experiments with time magic).

No. This is not a house. He is positive now; and the explanation he has found fills him with a profound, shattering dread the likes of which he has not felt since that one time in his early teenage years when he got lost in the Fade and thought for a moment that he would never wake up, and his father would spit on his sleeping body in the material realm, for being a failure as a mage, and then burn it as if he were dead.

It was foolish, irrational ideation, of course, dictated by some demon that had rifled through the muddled, mostly dark-tinted mess of feelings that young Alexius had towards his strict, demanding father, twisting his memories to its own advantage. And the fear that Alexius is overwhelmed with right now is just as irrational, and the sentient part of his mind, which has not yet been entirely paralyzed, suspects that it is also being dictated by someone... Or something.

He is being infected by a... presence that most certainly dwells within the walls, hiding beneath the coarse stone texture like an insect hides in its chitin shell. Yes, that is a fitting image.

It watches, this monstrous insect, always watches, like a predator lying in wait; it probes the darkness for signs of movement with its whiteless eyes, and scissors its barbed mandibles - and keeps secreting fear, letting it ooze like poison into every crack, polluting the air, getting forcefully absorbed by the flesh of those locked inside this... place that is not a house.

Not a house. This is not a house. This is a gateway to some... what was the local lore on the supernatural... Daedric realm, masquerading as a house from the outside and luring unsuspecting passersby. And all it took to become sucked into it was one touch. One light, unintentional touch of his hand against the metal door.

And to think, he was so close to his goal - to finding, and rescuing his son! His and Yalanwen's trip to Markarth had been perfectly smooth - smooth enough for her to briefly fall asleep, finally catching some of that well-deserved rest; and for him, to allow himself to slip in the dark, death-like oblivion that is the closest a vampire can apparently get to restful slumber. At least, it gave him an illusion of cold, making him forget about the flaring sunlight for a little while.

He even dreamed of long, rock-hard spikes of ice, with whiffs of frosted vapour snaking in between them. They rose out of a deep black pit that he was slowly but surely slipping into down a wintry, rime-caked slope, and threatened to impale him when his slide ended. Not the most pleasant of visions - but vampire dreams are never pleasant, as Harkon warned him when showing him around the crypt where his clan kept their coffins.

Thankfully, in this case, he never saw this particular vision through - as he shifted around in the waking world, he envisioned a delicate female hand in his dreams, breaking through the darkness, like a ray of warmth, and catching at his fingers. Surprisingly, this hand's grip proved strong enough to halt his slide; Alexius would have loved to shake it somehow, or to courteously raise it to his lips, or to make some other gesture of appreciation (even if it was just a dream) - but before he could do it, all of his surroundings melted away, the hand included, and he spent the rest of the cart ride plunged into inky blackness.

Then, Ragnar, the villager from Karthwasten, shook both Alexius and Yalanwen awake and let them stumble out onto the ground  - both being quite flustered by the discovery that they had apparently been holding hands for half the journey... Which meant that Alexius' dream had been rooted in real life, like on those happier, simpler days in another world, when he would drift off during late-night studies and imagine that Livia was there, walking across the semblance of the starry sky in the Fade side by side with him - and then, upon waking, he would find out that she had actually entered the room while he slept and put his arms around him. He… he is not at all certain what to make of this… similarity.

After his passengers had gotten off the cart, Ragnar pointed the city's front gates out to them, and went on whatever business he had with the shrivelled, sour-faced farmer in a tight-fitting little round leather cap, who was tending the potato patch in the shadow of the stone walls.

'Welcome to Markarth,' a squarely built guardsman in a full-face helmet greeted them, with a very false note of 'hospitality' in his voice, when they passed through the gateway, entering something that could well have been an Orzammar thoroughfare before the collapse of the Dwarven empire.

'Safest city in the Reach'.

At that point, Alexius felt a searing impulse to tighten a telekinetic loop round the oaf's throat, lift him as high up into the air as he could, and smack him against a nearby stone pillar with full force, preferably several times, saying something along the lines of,

'Safest city in the Reach?! You threw an innocent boy in chains! How is that safe?!'

But, when the first sparks of magic were just beginning to appear at his fingertips, Yalanwen caught his gaze, and he instantly simmered down, which earned him a small, gentle smile. They did not even need to exchange words: she must have understood how he was feeling, but still encouraged him to keep his temper in check - and he, in turn, mirrored her smile with an eager nod, grateful to her for having prevented him, in her own quiet way, from turning into that wrathful creature he is not proud of. They had not even started exploring the city; it would not do for him to make a public spectacle so early on.

Of course, he could have turned his outburst into a deliberate attempt to get himself arrested, thus getting reunited with Felix faster - but that would nave tipped the power balance against him. He'd require a strategy to set Felix free; resources, too - and those can be hard to come by when you are doing hard labour in some silver mine for assaulting local law enforcement.


Venturing further into the maze of Markarth's streets by Yalanwen's side, with the guard remaining behind, perfectly unscathed, Alexius reminded himself that he needed to stay level-headed, unless he wanted everything to end in failure again. A lesson that he still has a hard time learning.

Case in point: his current predicament. He is not languishing in this otherworldly prison alone: there is a man by his side, even more confused by this place than he is. A man in a faded purple robe, with an amulet - a small metal likeness of a hunting horn - hanging on his neck on large, round chain links. A man that Alexius met before, under circumstances that made his blood boil; a man the sight of whom threw all of his level-headedness out of the proverbial window. That goddamn Vigilant Tyranus.

He and Yalanwen spotted him when, intending to find the 'Bothela' woman who had sent them a warning about Felix and probe her for more information, they swerved into a dark alleyway, because Alexius' elven companion was worried that the sunlight might make him sick again.

It was wonderfully considerate of her, of course, but Alexius had seen enough big city slums to have misgivings about just sauntering into a dark corner like that. He was not concerned on his own behalf, oh no (he was nothing if not capable of defending himself); but on the behalf of his companion. She was not defenseless either, of course, far from it: she had her bow and that fascinating 'FUS RO' incantation, capable of unleashing a powerful force wave and knocking back all her enemies in a most impressive (and frankly... a bit arousing) fashion.

But still, the mere thought of Yalanwen having to get entangled in some ghastly street crime, just because she was ready to show him kindness - it stung at Alexius so much that he would have cried out in warning and grabbed her by the hand to hold her back... Had he caught at anything other than thin air — for Yalanwen had already hopped off ahead.

Still worried for her, he followed, dipping into the alley like into a deep pool. Thankfully, the proverbial coast seemed to be clear, and Alexius had to admit, it was quite soothing, this contrast between the cool shade in this side passage and the irritating white glare that reflected off the rain-washed stones in the broader streets.

That said, moments later, it turned out that he had relaxed too soon. The alleyway began to give off a vague, restless feeling, one that Alexius had trouble mentally processing and describing coherently - but certainly one very different from watching out for shady thugs.

It was like... Something was whispering to him, out of the black cracks between the stones, and from the bottom of the stagnant, barely rippling river of mist that the two of them were wading through. It was not exactly... an audible whisper, more like the anticipation of it, a chilling wave against his skin, an inkling of a tick inside his temples, bristles rising on the back of his neck. And something was telling him, some primal, gut instinct - perhaps a sort of vampiric intuition - that if he lingered here, the whisper would get louder, and he would make out what it was trying to tell him. Which was definitely something he wouldn't want to hear.

'Thank you, Yalanwen,' he said, starting at the ghostly echo that trailed after his own voice and looking back at the entrance to the alleyway, which somehow seemed quite a bit further away than it was logically supposed to be. 'I feel much better now. But I think it would be better if we... if we got back into the main street again. We do need to ask around where to find Bothela, and...'

Yalanwen wasn't listening. She had been led aside, deeper down the alley, by some hooded figure that had emerged, silently and unexpectedly, out of the mist. Alexius recalls that he thought to himself, startled,

'So there are thugs lurking in here, after all!'

His first thought was to fight that seedy stranger off (making quite a would-be-gallant fool of himself in the process, but so be it). But before he could unleash his wrath, Yalanwen stopped him again.

'You should see your face, all heroic-like,' she chuckled, turning towards him. 'That's the classic damsel in distress scenario, isn't it? But don't worry; my new friend here means no harm. He just wants to ask a couple of questions about this abandoned house right here!'

She pointed at the tall metal doorway a few paces away from her.

'Don't you, Sera...'

'Tyranus,' the misty figure said - and the sound of that name, and that voice, made Alexius' protectiveness flare into something very, very different.

'You!' he remembers screaming, as a thin, white-hot lightning thread uncoiled from his twitching fingers and cracked against the pavement like a whip, melting some of the mist away and snatching out the face of Tyranus - a bit wild-looking, with traces of carelessly peeled-off stubble, but otherwise the same as on the day when he had tried to 'cleanse' Felix.

'How did you worm crawl in here?!'

Tyranus looked sincerely, almost innocently confused, making a fish-like gaping face that would have been reminiscent of a student that had fallen asleep during a lecture and was now startled by Alexius' question... If the man had not been so loathsome.

'I... I just found myself in this hold!' he said. 'I don't really recall how, but what does it matter? When I reached the capital, I heard rumours about strange, possibly Daedric activity in an abandoned building. It is my duty as a Vigilant to investigate anything and everything that might disrupt the natural order - so I have been investigating ever since. Questioning witnesses, doing surveillance, and now thinking about heading in... What business is it of yours, anyway? Unless you have information about the house, I suggest you leave me be. A Vigilant's work is too important for the safety of Skyrim and its people, to get sidetracked by idle chatter'.

The lightning lashed again - and this time, it hit the pavement only because Yalanwen grabbed Alexius by the wrist, with profound concern in her eyes. He had been - very, very deliberately - aiming for Tyranus.

'You have some gall, telling me to leave you be!' he hissed. 'And look who's chattering idly... About the safety of the people, no less! You bloody hypocrite!'

'Gereon, what's wrong?' Yalanwen asked him, and something twisted and snapped inside his heart at the sound of how close to crying out in anguish she was. 'Do you know this Vigilant? Why are you so angry with him?'

'He tried to kill my son,' Alexius spat out, his voice stifled, his fingers still burning with a white electric flame. 'He held him by the throat, and called him an abomination, and decided that he deserved no mercy. My boy - my kind, gentle boy, so brave and selfless even in pain... No mercy!'

This finally made Tyranus snap out of his temporary amnesia (perhaps the result of that Illusion spell Pony cast on him, or, as Alexius preferred to think, damnable trickery for the sheer purpose of infuriating him).

'Oh, I remember you now,' he said, glaring  into Alexius' eyes - which must have flared the brightest, most scorching shade of yellow. 'The sire of that Daedric vessel... And now I see that you have been turned into a foul, blood-sucking perversion of nature! Well then, vampire - time to face the Vigil's wrath!'

The blabbering buffoon really was out of the loop, to use a colloquial phrase - wasn't he?

'Your Vigil is gone,' Alexius jeered back at him, after raising a small barrier to block the first fire spell the insolent Vigilant had shot at him (he had found himself completely unable to resist showing the full length of his fangs).

'Burned alive inside their Hall, to the last man and woman. And I was far more sorry about their passing than I shall be about yours'.

'Gereon, Sera Tyranus, stop this!' Yalanwen urged them, both frightened and a little angry, while trying to edge herself between the two men, after Alexius' barrier had sizzled down. 'You are not actually intending to kill each other, are you? Please!'

'Silence, child,' Tyranus said, shoving at her chest, again and again and again, each time with more and more force, so that she could step aside. 'You do not understand what needs to be done! You may even have become enthralled, for the vampire spins a web of lies! The Vigil cannot be gone, I refuse to believe it! It's just a fear tactic by this monster!'

'He is not a monster!' Yalanwen cried out, her pupils drowning in a wet blue shimmer.

She wanted to add something more, but at this moment, Tyranus pushed at her the hardest, making her trip and fall, sinking into the waves of mist with her hands thrown up helplessly.

This wrung an echoing roar out of Alexius - a reaction almost as violent as if this had been Felix, shoved aside and felled to the ground, hitting his head against the mist-cloaked stone.

'You will regret hurting her!' he screamed, pouncing at Tyranus, with one hand magic-free and clawing at the front of his robes, while he was trying with all his might to move it away, and the other hand drawn back and clenched into an enormous white flaming fist, ready to fry the eyes of this pathetic excuse for a Vigilant in their sockets.

But it was during this struggle that they both happened to brush against the metal door of the mysterious empty house - which opened much faster than its rusted old hinges should have allowed, and gulped them down with the greed of a giant, monstrous, and very hungry bird hatchling. And here they are, watching the ghostly room stretch and shrink, with no way out in sight. They have even forgotten that they were at each other's throats - for a brief while.

During one of the room's transformations, the candlelight falls on Tyranus' face, pooling up into reflective white streaks as it highlights the patches of cold perspiration on his forehead and over his upper lip, dancing over his pinpoint pupils, tracing the outlines of the horn-shaped amulet that he tries to grasp at for moral sustenance. The fear has affected him too - perhaps even more than Alexius, who began to feel a little bit more like himself again when he thought of Felix and Yalanwen.

And the moment this notion - of Tyranus being deeper under the house's influence - crosses Alexius' mind, the whisper, that crawling, wordless whisper that he first heard when he just entered the shadowy lane with the abandoned house, finally rings loud and clear, shaping itself into words.

'Look at him,' it urges, twisting round Alexius' head and neck like an unseen serpent, so that he cannot turn and look away from Tyranus. 'Look at him. See him sweat. See him drip and melt with fear. He is weak; you are strong. Crush him!'

Well, he is not entirely opposed to that. He bears no love for the Vigilant, and the animosity is more than mutual.

Alexius may not be a bloodthirsty sadistic berserker like that Malkus, may his soul find no peace in the afterlife - but he would find hurting Tyranus to be... rather satisfactory. There is no denying that. And who knows, if he does as the house says, perhaps it will conjure the door back, and set him free, so he might continue...

No, no, wait. This is the logic of a man who justifies becoming possessed by a demon. It does not matter if he loves or hates Tyranus; it should not matter! He must not allow himself to be sicced on him by some invisible, otherworldly puppet master! If he is to confront Tyranus, he will do it on his on terms, in the world outside, and absolutely not in the underbelly of this... house-monster.

Level-headed. He must stay level-headed.

Alexius' conviction that he is being toyed with by a demon (or Daedra, if you will) is reaffirmed when Tyranus frowns, rips his parched lips apart, and mutters hoarsely,

'Yes... Kill the vampire... I will... kill the vampire...'

'I will happily dare you to come and get a piece of me,' Alexius calls to him loudly, hoping that he will drown out the voice that Tyranus appears to be hearing inside his head. 'But not here! Not in this cursed place! Don't you see - it is pitting us against each other! If we obey, we will just feed it, give it more power! And with more power, who knows what it will do next!'

Tyranus looks at him, his gaze vacant, his face sweating even more than before.

'It says that I will kill,' he chants in a hollow, toneless voice, letting go of his amulet and slowly stretching his hand towards Alexius, a cluster of flame tongues blooming in his palm. 'That I will kill, or I will die'.

'Oh come now!' Alexius snaps irascibly, as he hits Tyranus slightly in the forearm with the side of palm, making him lower the fire spell. 'Weren't you all righteousness just a moment ago? I can't believe that you are so susceptible to de… to Daedric influence!'

'That is because he is weak,' the whisper repeats, audible only to him, caressing his ear with a soft, fluttering forked tongue. 'He is but a mortal, but you - you are more. You are made of darkness. Of might. Of domination. Show me your full glory. Prove to me that you are worthy of a vampire's mantle. Feed the blood of this cattle into the cracks in the floor. I am urging him to fight back to liven up your combat, but I am certain that you, my child, will prevail. Do not hold back. Impress me. Amuse me. Then, and only then, will I let you go'.

When this last sentence fades into throbbing silence, the room grows in size yet again - only this time, the walls remain in place for quite a bit longer, and Alexius can even see a square, door-shaped shadow flicker and vanish almost literally right under his nose. The house is dangling a metaphorical carrot on a stick in front of him - the promise of a way out that will take him back to Felix, to Yalanwen; if only he acts like a good little plaything, and... Amuses and impresses.

Kaffas, sometimes he hates being right.

And when the shadow of the door dissolves, there comes that fear again, a stronger, darker, colder wave of it: fear of the house, of failing to meet the demands that it whispers, in a voice that flows like tar in the place of Alexius' bone marrow.

It... It would be easy, wouldn't it? It's not like he is being asked to sacrifice a beloved family member; now, that would have been impossible to agree to! This deal, however, looks far more beneficial to him. Just kill the man he detests, and be rewarded.

So why shouldn't he do it? Why shouldn't he just plunge a shard of ice into Tyranus' chest, and burrow it in, in a long, leisurely twist? If he complies, Tyranus will get what he deserves for threatening Felix, for hurting Yalanwen, for assaulting Alexius himself... And the fear will be gone. He will be a captive no more. Or... Or will he?

'No', Alexius whispers stubbornly, cloaking himself in a barrier, in case Tyranus tries to encroach upon him with fire magic another time. 'No! I am not bending before some dark master again!'

The frozen objects shift in the air; the kitchen knives are now pointing at Alexius, and the wicker baskets are slowly coming undone, bristling with sleek, bared withes, sharp enough to poke out an eye. Meanwhile, the back wall begins to slide closer again - but this time, its movement is far from its previous silent, dream-like shifts. It advances with a loud, very much physical, growling grind of stone against stone. And it seems like it will just keep closing in until both Alexius and Tyranus are both squashed like a pair of over-ripe grapes. 'You will kill or you will die' indeed.

With a sad little hiss, the barrier spell wears off - and not an instant later, Tyranus reaches for Alexius' throat.

'I will not die here,' he wheezes, swallowing the droplets of sweat that trickle into his twisted mouth. 'I will not die! I will slay the vampire; I will bring glory to Stendarr! I will prove that I am strong!'

'And you will be a fool for it,' Alexius murmurs wearily, preparing to cast another barrier... But before he can, the square outline of the door appears again. And this time, it is shaped by rays of pure golden light.

Chapter Text

This is all just amazing! Simply amazing! So amazing that Pony is utterly unable to keep a straight face - each of her breaths absolutely has to be accompanied by a broad grin. Because she is this much happy for her friend, because she has found peace and happiness after suffering so much on that woe-filled night when the Vigil fell; and for herself, because she gets to travel around Skyrim and help people once again, with full Divine sanction!

It all happened on that evening when Maramal, the Redguard priest who took the three of them in after their travels led them to Riften, finally decided he could hold back no longer, and confessed his feelings for Dinny.

Of course, it had been fairly obvious that he was smitten with her: he was always surrounding her with utmost care and attention, doing things big and small for her, like filling her room with fresh mountain flowers every morning, going out of his way to procure a book of Dunmer songs for her, or insisting on throwing a little celebration party 'with all the good cheer and none of the drunkenness' when she passed the initiation ceremony to become an acolyte of Mara. He would always hang on to every word when she spoke, was always first to comfort her (before Pony even) whenever she woke up from one of those nightmares she used to have, of Lokil and the things he did; and he always, always, with a comical inevitability, break out into that dopey drunken grin when she as much as walked by and waved hello.

But still, it felt so good, so right, when, breathless and filled with uncharacteristically boyish excitement, he rushed towards her as she returned to the Temple, having finished yet another round of handing out leaflets and getting ready to care for all those poor Red Water victims they had taken in. Niluva was supposed to help her, too - she was getting quite good at assisting the healers, and even seemed to enjoy her work, no matter how much she grumbled about it - but Romlyn had thrown together a bit of a picnic for her on the Temple rooftop, so she was running a bit late, and Dinny and Maramal were alone... Well, kind of.

Pony was there as well, in the middle of changing their patients' linen. She had slowed down, stealthy-like, in the background, obscured by a tall laundry basket. Perhaps it was... a bit improper to spy on them, but she suspected where this was going, and her instincts commanded that she stay and make sure Maramal does not need punching.

He did not. He behaved quite sweetly, pressing his hand against his heart, and blurting out,

'Dinya, please do not think me too bold, but... But I thought you should know... You have been a ray of sunshine in the mire of sin that is this city... And I... I do believe... I very, very firmly believe... That I love you, Dinya'.

Of course, Dinny was quite overwhelmed by this confession - in a good, happily flustered sort of way, complete with a flush at the tips of her ears and a shy smile, the sight of which made Pony bury her face in the linen, lest her overjoyed 'Eeeeeeeee!' shatter all the glass objects in the vicinity.

'Oh Maramal,' she said, moving closer and placing her hands over his, 'I love you too'.

And, of course, to make the scene complete, she had to seal her words with a long, tender kiss on his lips. And that was when it happened - after standing for a few moments with her lips softly catching at Maramal's, she drew back, her normally cherry-black weeping with a bright gold light.

Maramal cried in alarm and reached forward to her; Pony, too, dropped her laundry basket and glanced swiftly round the room to pick out an object that could be used as a weapon. And then, Dinny opened her mouth, and spoke.

'She... She talks to me...' she said, her voice echoing like there were two people speaking, one lagging a bit after the other. 'Her Benevolence talks to me... She says... She says She is impressed by the journey of healing and nurture that I have taken, and by the love Maramal and I feel towards each other... So She chooses me as the mirror unto which She shall reflect images of people in need of Her guidance. People all across the frozen wastes of Skyrim long for the warm embrace of love; Mara heeds their prayers, and wants to relay them to me, so that I might send someone forth to give aid to aching hearts'.

'By the gods!' Maramal exclaimed, throwing himself on his knees. 'What... What a tremendous boon!'

Dinny smiled down at him - and, with a little trickle of goose bumps up her arms and spine, Pony thought to herself that you could not be quite sure whose smile this really was - hers or Mara's.

'There is more...' she whispered, after a small pause. 'I... I am getting my first vision... I see... I see embers... They lay lie nestled in the stone of grey, needing only fuel to bloom to a flame that will warm all around them... And there is a voice... a voice, too... Mara... Mara is telling me... That there is help required in Markarth... There is a mage there... named Calcelmo... Wise, acid, and reclusive. He needs someone who will act as bellows to the spark inside his heart, prompting him to emerge and state his intentions. Such is the will of Her Benevolence'.

After that, she began to stagger, until Maramal shot back to his feet and caught her in his arms, where she sagged heavily, her head drooping on her chest and her eyes back to their natural colour. When Dinny, nestled by Maramal carefully on one of the Temple pews, caught her breath, and Maramal, in turn, got a grip on himself and became capable of saying something other than, 'Her Benevolence has blessed us! Truly blessed us!', they called Pony - who was busy thrusting the scattered laundry back into the basket, clicking her tongue at the thought that she was going to re-wash it all over again. After a brief conversation, it was decided that Pony and Erandur, being hardier and more battle-ready than Dinny or Maramal, would be the ones to take the carriage through the dark pine forests of Falkreath and into the wild heart of the Reach, notorious for its dangerous roads and frequent Forsworn raids.

And they did have a little spell exchange with the native Reachfolk, shortly after they crossed the hold's border. A small group of about three women and four men in beast pelt loincloths and bird skull necklaces suddenly stepped into view on the top of a cliff overlooking the road, and, with a short war cry, started raining magical ice shards upon the cart - like the continuation of the drizzle that had ceased, only with the raindrops turned into hardened, dangerously sharp projectiles, which, if aimed right, could easily puncture an artery.

Pony and Erandur were travelling with Wujeeta, a friendly bronze-scaled Argonian from Bolli's Fishery, who would sometimes hover tentatively on the doorstep of Mara's Temple, twirling the hem of her dark-blue dress with her long, bony, scaly hands, and hinting to the passing priests, with a soft cough, that she might need a healing potion (Pony has long suspected that, like their current batch of patients, Wujeeta might have a Skooma problem, but the poor Argonian has not had the courage to talk about it openly so far, and Pony has just had to contend herself with handing out a generous dosage of restorative solutions and keeping an eye out for her).

Apparently, the most recent potion had revived her quite a bit, because Wujeeta was in a fit enough shape for her employer, Bolli, to entrust her with delivering a shipment of fish for the Markarth innkeeper, Kleppr - preserved with a bit of ice magic from a helpful Erandur. This had made the Argonian feel very pleased with herself, even humming some husky little song - but when the Forsworn unleashed their attack, she yelped shrilly and, leaping off her seat, started racing up and down the cart, making it creak and heave like a boat in a storm.

Granted, this made it somewhat harder for the assailants to target the cart properly - but Wujeeta, in her panic, had also spread her arms out wide, as if welcoming the mages on the cliff to hit her, and the startled driver did the same.

Thankfully, Erandur did not allow himself to become addled by the chaos, and quickly came up with a plan (he always does, bless him). As he started gesturing emphatically at Pony, she figured that he was trying to silently tell her to jump out of the bumping, bouncing cart - which she hastily did.

Well, to be completely truthful, she more like oozed over the edge and plopped to the ground, since she is not exactly a weightless air spirit, but that is beside the point. It has always been beside the point, for herself, and for her dearest friends, Erandur included.

Pony still chuckles to herself whenever she remembers that one time when she, Erandur and Dinny came to drag Maramal out of the inn, where he is so fond of going to preach and 'cleanse the heads of these drunkards with Our Lady's light', and some old man, with blood-red eyes and a whole blast of a meadery on fire in every belch, blinked at Pony and said thickly, 'Is that a sow walkin' upright?'. Oooh, the look on Erandur's face was delightful; he had momentarily transformed from a reserved, polite priest into one of those ornery Ashland-bred Dunmer you hear about and sometimes find half-undressed on the cover of some book from a Forbidden Romance series. Not that she ever... read any of those... or - or imagined Erandur in the place of the heroic lover, especially if there was this  Second Seed, Evening Star relationship going on, and the lover in question was this stately mer with silver-streaked hair, whose age had only made him more ruggedly handsome...

Ahem. Anyway. Pony got off the cart, clambered to her feet, spreading her legs wide and planting both soles firmly onto the ground - and then, caught a flash of vibrant purple light out of the corner of her eye. Erandur had cast a protective spell over himself and the people in the cart, its glow similar to the aura that had once shielded the Skull of Corruption. This had to be the sort of magic that he had learned when he was still a follower of Vaermina - and by the looks of it, it was serving him well, so Pony was certainly not going to waste her time flailing and recoiling and squishing up her face and going all, 'Eww, foul Daedric cultist!'. She had better things to do.

From what she understood (and she has, most of the time, understood Erandur correctly without him putting his intentions into so many words), the plan was for her to deflect the incoming spells while Erandur put all his energy into keeping the barrier stable. Well, challenge accepted!

It was actually quite a bit of fun, rapidly releasing charges of mage fire to shatter the Forsworn's ice shards before they could as much scrape the barrier. It set Pony's blood pumping faster, in a sort of breathtaking battle rhythm, and sped up her reflexes so that she could almost feel that the world around her had frozen, gotten stuck between one blink and the next, while she was moving her arms and torso in an exhilarating cadence, turning towards each incoming ice blast, and clenching and unclenching her fists to keep the barrage of flame bolts going. Pew-crack, pew-crack, pew-crack - not a single shard escaped her magic!

Eventually, the Forsworn must have gotten weary (and quite a bit sour, from what Pony could make out of their facial expressions), so they paused their torrential onslaught, giving Pony an opening to blast off a much bigger fire bolt that crushed against the cliff at the Forsworn's feet, scalding their bare knees... Yes, Pony used the good old Nordic fighting tactic: always aim for the knees! Spitting and cursing, they had to withdraw, casting healing magic on themselves - while Pony turned back to the cart. The barrier had dissolved, Erandur sinking onto the nearest seat in exhaustion, and the driver bent down to help Pony thrust herself back in again, before whipping the reins through the air to spur on the horse and get the passengers as far up the road as possible before the Forsworn had a chance to regroup.

He has been doing a pretty good job of that so far; the carriage is moving swiftly and smoothly, with not a sound disrupting its journey save for the rhythmic clopping of the horse's hooves and the  muffled sighs of Wujeeta, who is resting her head on Pony's chest (the one thing about her chest that makes Pony quite proud is its pillowy softness, perfect for comforting people in need of a good, long sob). The poor scared Argonian started out with shaky whimpers, but now her breathing is gradually becoming more even. Hopefully, she will be able to move past this terrible shock she has suffered; a small, nagging part of Pony is anxious that Wujeeta might seek out Skooma again to bring herself some relief. She will need to get the Argonian to accompany her and Erandur everywhere, all three of them doing their errands together and never letting one another out of sight.

Speaking of Erandur: he seems to have recovered as well, leaning out of the carriage and letting the sun caress his upturned face, while little strands of salt-and-pepper hair escape from underneath his priest's hood, flowing in the breeze.

Pony, still tingling with excitement over their important mission, is very tempted to talk to Erandur: to praise him for his quick thinking, to remark, with a smile of pride, what a great team the two of them make, handling combat together, him on the defensive, her on the offensive... But she knows what sort of vein Erandur will try to steer the conversation into. It has been his hobby horse (hobby guar?) for days now: hardly does Pony mention the words 'us' and 'together' in the same sentence, when he inevitably cuts her short by blurting out a string of names belonging to people that she - according to some bizarre idea he has rammed into his head - might all of a sudden become romantically interested in.

Erandur insists on talking of them, urgently, feverishly even, mentioning everyone, from the lovely vampire boy Felix (who is definitely quite dear to Pony, but as a friend only) to Madesi, the Argonian jewellery maker in the market, with whom she chatted in the market square, what, once? Sometimes, given that Pony mentioned in passing that she finds women as attractive as men, Erandur might even suggest Alessandra, the perpetually bitter Priestess of Arkay that shares the living quarters with the followers of Mara, on the grounds that Pony occasionally tries to cheer her up and distract her from the loathsome trade that was foisted upon her all the way back in her childhood.

'Why don't you try getting closer?' he will say, with an odd, uncanny, artificial smile. 'Who knows what will bloom in the warmth of Her Benevolence?'

The silly, silly mer. Surely, he can't be so blind as not to notice that all his awkward attempts at matchmaking are predestined to end in failure - because Pony has decided quite resolutely for herself what she wants, and not even the most seductive vampire, the smoothest Argonian, or the sultriest Priestess of Arkay will be able to distract her from that.

She wants the one whose gentle smile she woke to, after suffering from one of those curse-tainted nightmares in Dawnstar; the one who, still a complete stranger, a Dunmeri priest with no name, sat down next to her on the inn floor, and wiped off the tears she did not even know she had been weeping, and promised her, with a quiet, grave solemnity in his voice, that everything was going to be all right; there was a away to make those haunting, jet-black shadows, with long smoky arms and strangling claws, disappear from her dreams forever; that he knew how to fix this. The one whose face lit up with the radiance of gratitude when Pony inquired whether the said fixing involved any adventuring legwork, because she was very happy to help in any way she could - and whose eyes glowed with ruby warmth in a net of little wrinkles that she found quite adorable.

She wants the one who stood by her side over the inn room's only bed, where she had tucked away Dinny before resting on the floor herself; the one who helped wake her friend with a refreshing caress of coldly tingling healing magic - and listened, closely, seriously, compassionately, when, still bleary-eyed and lost amid the last shreds of her visions, Dinny started talking about what she had seen: the blue-flame Atronach, ripping through the Hall with her touch, and Lokil, reaching forward with his pale hands, all shivering with hunger and lust.

She wants the one who escorted Dinny out of the room, into a bigger, firelit portion of the inn, where the two travellers, having previously been too worn out by their trek through the Pale, only just then noticed a group of dishevelled villagers with gaping mouths and wandering, unfocused gazes, and blankets round their shoulders; the one who made sure that Dinny received her own blanket and a hand-scorching pewter mug of piping-hot coffee (or at least, according to the yawning innkeeper, the closest imitation of this time-honoured Redguard drink that could be made out of beans bought from passing Khajiiti traders and brewed by the town's only adult Redguard, a young woman in a coarse blacksmith's apron that shielded the bulge of her mother's belly, with the help of a skinny little urchin boy, whom the Dunmer kindly called to as 'Alesan', stroking his hair and begging in a sad whisper to hold out a little longer when the child began to cry from lack of sleep.

She wants the one who, after everyone settled down, gave the villagers a sincere, pomp-less little speech, his gravelly Dunmer voice growing even deeper in places with sincere emotion; the one who explained that he was going away for a short while, but he would be back and continue to strengthen Mara's light within their hearts; the one who looked into the villagers' eyes, his gaze hardening somewhat, and implored them to look out for each other and, no matter what, not allow any of their friends and neighbours to fall asleep.

She wants the one who led her through the lashing snowstorm, putting up a barrier in front of her whenever a gust of wind threatened to hit her painfully square in the chest; the one who, when they entered the ruined tower that he had deduced to be the source of all evil that plagued the town, showed himself to be as formidable in battle as he was kind to those in need. The one who, right from the outset, right from the very first step into the purple billows of the miasmic vapours that had kept the tower's inhabitants asleep for many years, started to work with his new companion in a fearsome battle team, each of their destructive spells erupting perfectly in sync, filling the gloomy vaulted halls with flashes of white and blue, and piercing the Orcish marauders through the heart before they could properly get back to their marauding.

She wants the one who, after the marauders fell, paused over their bodies, his head dipped in mournful reverie; the one who turned to the Orcs' stirring adversaries, the cultists of the Daedra Vaermina, with longing in his eyes, obviously wishing for them to stand down and listen to reason - and who still did not hesitate to come to Pony's aid when the cultists insisted on attacking, and one of them singed the hem of her tattered Vigilant's robe and was preparing to finish off the job when the Dunmer's gust of frost magic sapped all of the life force that had woken within him.

She wants the one who, in the middle of their of their exploration of the tower, was not afraid to turn towards her and admit that he knew so much about this place, and the magics emanating from its heart, because he himself had once been a cultist in service of Vaermina, mother of nightmares, artist of pain; the one who held nothing back, not the atrocities he had committed as he followed the dark path that, since childhood, he had thought his only possible life, nor the bitter, heart-wrung confession of how much he loathed himself now. She wants the one who opened his mind to her, for the sake of their mission to banish Daedric corruption; let her pass through his memories; let her look at Vaermina's sanctuary while hidden as an unseen, shadowy presence, within the body of his younger self, as it was being torn at by an internal scream 'No, no, I am not ready for this! I am not ready to go to sleep!', and he was racing half-blindly down the dark passages, with the Miasma being seconds away from flooding in after him in a tar-like stream, and consuming him whole.

She wants the one who stood waiting for her, when her journey through the realm of memory was concluded, and she materialized precisely on the path her companion's past version had followed, allowing her to pull at the right switch and clear the way to the Daedric artifact safeguarded by the coven of Vaermina - the cursed wellspring of nightmares that needed to be destroyed before the people of Dawnstar, and possibly the surrounding settlements, went mad. She wants the one who looked into her eyes, with that same hardened determination as when he had addressed the villagers, ready to defy Vaermina, to save Dawnstar, to do the right thing - even if that meant facing his former friends in battle, like Pony had once been prepared to face Tyranus.

She wants the one who dropped to his knees, with his hood knocked back and his benumbed, crooked-fingered hands and the front of his robes painted dark-crimson with the blood of his fellow Dunmer, the mer he had known by first name, perhaps had even grown up together, locked away by the senior priests from the outside world, with no playthings but snatches of parchment and potion vials and perhaps an odd human bone or two (and there was his own blood added to the mix as well, for while he was fighting his kinsmer off Pony, the other cultist, a Nord, had managed to stab him, before getting his beard, and subsequently his whole face, set on fire by Pony's spell bolt).

She wants the one who glared at her through loosened, sticky, sweat-soaked threads of hair while she healed him, and croaked a bitter, 'I hope you are not expecting a thank you,' - and the one who, seconds later, sank into her arms, mirroring his own pose when she had first set eyes on him at the inn. Because she had nodded, and whispered, 'Of course I'm not. You had to kill your... your brother to save me. I will understand if you hate me for this'.

She wants the one who replied to her, in between dry rasps, which sounded like sobs and yet were entirely tearless,

'No... Mara, no. I could never hate you. The only one who deserves hatred... Is myself'.

She wants him. And him alone.

She wants him - because she disagrees with the words he uttered, right before getting up and setting to work on their ultimate goal: approaching the Daedric artifact, an enormous horned skull mounted on a long, reed-thin staff, and wrapping threads of throbbing crimson magic round it to pull it out of the mortal realm. And because she disagrees with the words that were hissed out by Vaermina, who must have been pretty desperate to keep her net of nightmares cast over Dawnstar - the mere recollection of that disembodied voice ringing through the chamber with the staff makes Pony feel as if her blood is breaking out into these little popping bubbles, in an onset of boiling anger.

'He is deceiving you,' Vaermina said, the echo of her words pounding against Pony's skull.

Her voice sounded quite deafening within the confines Pony's mind - but Erandur apparently could not hear it, for his expression and body language never changed; he kept conducting the ritual with the air of calm, assured concentration... As far as Pony could tell, because while Vaermina spoke to her, there were those nasty, blurry, lentil-like spots shimmering over her eyes.

'He is trying to claim my Skull of Corruption for himself, not banish it!' the Daedra told her. 'When the ritual is complete, he will turn on you, like he always turns on the people who put their faith in him. That is part of his nature; that is all he is. A treacherous coward, unworthy of trust or mercy'.

And when the voice trailed off and Pony's head cleared, she stomped her foot indignantly on the ground and did not move an inch until the priest's spellcasting culminated in an explosion of red light, which seemed to shape itself for me moment into a long, gaunt, skeletal face, with a sharp-toothed mouth stretched out into a silent shriek. The shape slid forward forcefully, appearing to swallow the staff whole - and when the last red billows cleared, the cursed thing was gone. Vaermina had been proven wrong - and Pony had been proven right. Not that she ever doubted that.

She still does not doubt - she does not doubt that Erandur, her wonderful, brave, selfless friend Erandur, a runaway Daedra worshipper that dedicated his every waking moment to a relentless effort to redeem himself, is more than worthy of mercy. And of love.

If only there was any use in telling him that! If only, just once, he cared to hear her out; if only he could just sit there and let her gush about how kind and noble-hearted (and handsome, that goes without saying) he is, about what a joy it is for her to travel by his side - instead of stubbornly changing the subject and trying to divert her attention to someone, anyone, that is not him. Even though she can tell, almost completely for certain, that Erandur feels, at least a little bit, the same way as she does: it's all written down, like the lines of some old tome, smudgy but still fairly readable, in the crinkles of his skin when he smiles at her, and the wet, angry glint in his eyes when she faces some toothy critter in the wilds and it almost manages to topple her onto the ground (thwarted only by Erandur's well-timed fire bolt).

He cares - she does not know how deeply, but he cares. And if only he gave her a chance - gave himself a chance - perhaps they might have had something.

Ah, if only.

Pony sighs and turns away from Erandur - and just in time to see that they are almost there. The first outlines of the grey, square Dwarven towers are beginning to come into view, like gloomy sentries watching over the road.

Markarth, here we come!

Chapter Text

Kleppr the innkeeper finds the fish most satisfying, and even tips Wujeeta for a job well done (though it might stand to reason that he only does it because his wife was intending to let the team of travellers leave for Riften without any extra reward).

'Here,' he says with a wink, tossing a little bulging, jangling pouch into the Argonian's outstretched scaly hands. 'Enjoy, my spiky-tailed friend. Buy something nice for yourself'.

'Something nice...' Wujeeta echoes dreamily.

This alerts Pony, who has been hovering leisurely behind the Argonian's back and scanning the bold lines of the carved Dwemer walls with a leisurely gaze - a pretext not to meet eyes with Erandur, because, after her musings in the cart, she is feeling rather awkward and frustrated by the rushing tide of warmth that overwhelms her every time she allows herself to dip just a little bit into those ruby, wine-like depths (because gods, what's the use, what's the use of fawning over him if he would rather she find someone else for herself).

'Wujeeta,' she says meaningfully, edging closer to the Argonian. 'Please don't do anything reckless. Remember: Bolli put his trust in you, in your ability to control yourself. If you return to the fishery in an unfit condition, you might lose your job. We'd welcome you to the Temple like Niluva and the others, of course - but wouldn't it be better if it never had to come to this in the first place?'

Wujeeta inclines her round brown head in a guilty expression and pulls habitually at the threading of her dress.

'I apologize,' she murmurs. 'I try to stop, but I can't help myself'.

'It's all right,' Pony reassures her. 'It's not your fault. It's the fault of those poison dealers that crawl in the streets of Riften'.

'If you ever feel safe enough to let us know more of your plight, we are always here to listen - and take action!'

That is Erandur cutting in. Well, at least in this context he is not afraid of the word 'we'!

Both he and Pony have been eager to take the fight to the elusive Skooma peddlers that seem to escape the Riften guards with suspicious ease. This is what the Vigilants of Mara are duty-bound to do, after all! But Wujeeta, scared into submission by her dealer, still has not dared to reveal their name, or how and where they arrange for her to bring them gold in exchange for a new dose of bottled sugary oblivion. And even now, when she is in another city, presumably out of the dealer's reach, things are no different.

The Argonian just shakes her head wordlessly in response to Erandur's promise to act, a shudder passing up her scaly spine - and he does not press the matter further.

'Let's all be heading out to look for that Calcelmo, then,' he suggests, with a small smile that is meant to bring comfort back to Wujeeta (and that it does; it is hard to imagine that beautiful smile of his not to have a soothing effect on people).

'Or do you want to rest some more?'

Whatever Wujeeta might have preferred, she has no chance to voice it, because she gets interrupted. A young fair-haired woman in a short dark-green skirt and a very... uplifting corset, who has just walked into the inn with a basket of groceries under her arm and heard the very last snatches of the travellers' conversation, cuts in,

'Pardon me for my boldness, but I think you should stay. A guard outside told me that there might be Forsworn roaming the streets. Another guard stepped on his foot, all bear-like, and no short of roared at him that they had it all under control and not to start a panic. Still, I figured... Indoors is safer, you know?'

Both the innkeeper and his wife throw up their arms and rush to the young woman, who is either a serving maid at their establishment or even a family member, and almost blow off the few clothes she has, with the ripples sent through the air by their clucking chorus.

'Forsworn? What do you mean, Forsworn? Forsworn-Forsworn or wimpy Forsworn? Actual, real, horned savages from the hills - or just another Sheogorath-touched kid like the one who killed Mistress Best Room?'

'Psst, don't harass her, Kleppr! Not so loudly, anyway! What if the guests hear you? I know you never bother to care about them, but...'

'Ah, darling wife of mine, it is so good to see you so concerned about our daughter, who has just gotten back from Forsworn-infested streets with blood on her clothes!'

And Kleppr is right to be sarcastic: now that she's taken a closer look at the girl (through the curtain of her parents' thrashing limbs), Pony notices a large dark spot on her corset. The sight almost instinctively makes her crack her knuckles and light up a warm golden blossom of healing magic. Erandur does the same - she can see him moving his hands out of the corner of her eye - but neither of their spells proves necessary.

The girl smiles at her father and gently places her hand on his wrist, so that he can quiet down his flailing.

'That's not mine,' she says. 'That was that disgusting butcher, Hogni, tossing a chunk of dripping raw meat into my face - again! - so that I...'

She derisively mimes quotation marks with her free hand.

'So I could see "how fresh it is". For the second day in a row, too - and this time, he managed to touch me with it, the vile man! There were some splatters on my, well, actual face too, but Degaine helped me wash them off'.

'He probably hounded you for gold after that,' the girl's mother grumbles, having calmed down enough to return to her bickering with her husband. 'I always told you, Kleppr: no point giving the child so much spending money if she just scatters it down the drain'.

'I gave him one of my bangles,' the girl explains, wriggling her wrists with a faint jingle as her many bracelets, some thin, some large and heavy, knock against one another. 'He did waste half of the flask he was going to drink from, and now he will have to climb to the waterfall to refill it again, with his bad leg and all, and having to hide from the guards in case they try to beat him back for...'

Ironic quote imitation again.

'For "soiling the water". So yes, I wanted to give him something for his trouble!'

'He'll probably just waste it all on Skooma,' her mother says, scoffing and rolling up her eyes. 'That stuff flows from the Warrens like piss from our outhouse - which you still haven't gotten cleaned up, Kleppr!'

'Why, my adoring wife, that's because I spend so much time gazing at your lovely face that I have become immune to the sight of any other sort of disgusting filth... I simply cannot tell when something gets too dirty!'

Seeing that almost everyone present at the inn becomes absorbed in watching the argument unfold, Wujeeta, whose eyes almost literally turned into enormous bright-orange stars at the mention of Skooma and its local source, has apparently seized a chance to slip away.

Pony is about to get over her infernal emotional drama and give Erandur a silent nudge, as a hint that he should probably start acting all priestly and offer Mara's guidance to the discordant couple - but then, she catches sight of a bronze-scaled tail, disappearing through a gap in the door. This immediately tops all of her other concerns, from finding and helping Calcelmo to trying to make peace between Kleppr and his wife.

'Wujeeta, wait!' she calls breathlessly after the Argonian, squeezing out into the street and breaking into a sprint that she keeps up for as long as her body is capable of lasting before the strain proves too much and she has to stop, resting her hands on her knees with a long wheezing rasp, her heart pounding and her face and chest scorched by a crimson heat wave.

Wujeeta, whom she has almost caught up with, outruns her at this point, veering into some murky side lane - precisely the sort of place where you would expect to find a Skooma dealer, leaning against the wall with his legs interweaving and a chewed-up little splinter bobbing up and down between his teeth. Well, darn it! This isn't good! This isn't good at all! What is this poor little lizard doing to herself?!

Erandur has made his way out of the inn too by now, and seeing him, Pony waves her hand, as urgently and energetically as she can, in the direction of the seedy alley. Erandur nods and continues the pursuit - but not before splashing a handful of green light over Pony, which puts out the flames in her bones and sinews, and gives her enough stamina to hurry after him, her breath and pulse far more even.

See, it's the little things like this that make her just sweep the stupid elf off the ground and give him a long shake and yell at him,

'Come on! You are taking care of me all the time! Let me take care of you!'

No, now is not the time. Must save Wujeeta - from herself, and from whatever sleazy characters that might prey on her.

Quite curiously (but not really unexpectedly, after what that tavern girl said about her conversation with the guards), the sleazy characters turn out to be nothing like Skooma dealers. Instead, the seedy lane has been taken over by Forsworn.

There are two of them at least; Pony cannot really make out their faces, because the moment she entered the lane, her vision became obscured by tufts of greyish mist - but she can still see that they are wearing precisely the same beast pelt garb as the wildlings that attacked the cart not too long ago... And they seem to be tangled into a struggle with a third person, who is wearing a different type of armour and has darker skin and very prominent pointy elven ears. Wujeeta is out there too, her tailed silhouette looming darkly through the mist; she is looking on at the scene without a motion... petrified by fear, perhaps? Or stunned by some kind of dark magic?

'Get back, you bloody Reachmen!' Pony commands.

Frowning sternly and rolling up the sleeves of her brand-new red-and-white robe (not exactly the same as the priesthood of Mara wears, but still comfy and stylish, if she says so herself), she ambles closer to the Forsworn, ready to save both Wujeeta and the unknown elf, by spellcraft and punching, too, if the need arises.

Erandur is tagging along by her side as well, somewhere in the lane's semi-darkness; at least, she hopes so... He had better be.

'Leave these innocents alone!' she goes on, before starting to roll saliva around inside her mouth so she can spit on her hands and get down to landing punches.

The Forsworn and the elf turn their heads in Pony's direction - and suddenly, it strikes her (like a darned cart of bricks falling onto her head, making her choke barkingly on her own spit) that they have not been struggling. They have been hugging. In that sad, pained way that is all too familiar to her - like she hugged Erandur over his friends' bodies, or like Maramal would hug Dinny after she had just had a nightmare. The elf has been comforting the shorter, skinnier of the two Forsworn, who looks terribly distressed about something, with his eyebrows arched and his mouth twisting... And who is not even a Forsworn at all. Well, not a Forsworn-Forsworn, like Kleppr put it. Just someone wearing their tribal clothing. Someone whom Pony knows quite well.

'F-Felix?!' she stutters, slowing down her battle-ready gate and giving the trouble little vampire a grin that is both astonished and as reassuring as she can make it. 'Well, fancy meeting you here! What... What's wrong? Can I help?'

'Pony,' Felix calls back to her faintly, disentangling himself from the elf and the bigger Forsworn (who in actuality is that Gunmar fellow from the Dawnguard) and giving her a limp, weak sort of handshake.

Dear gods, the heartbroken look on his pale little face is almost too much to bear!

'Perhaps... Perhaps you can... See - see this house?'

He points at the darkened metal door nearby. Somehow, it makes Pony a bit queasy to look at it for too long, as if it's not really a door but a bottomless whirlpool - so she inhales and blinks to shake off the uneasy sensation; after her eyes grow somewhat less bleary, she notices fresh red smudges pooled up in the carving grooves that run across the patina-layered metal surface. As if someone has been hammering against the door till their knuckles began to bleed - and Pony does, indeed, notice the tell-tale scuffs on the hands of both Gunmar and the elf... who is also familiar to her... Why, yes, it's that other Dawnguard member, the one who was travelling to recruit Gunmar together with a grouchy Orc, and actually showed the boy the kindness he deserves. Quite a likeable lass, this... Yalanwen.

Yes, Yalanwen, that's her name! Oh, Pony definitely remembers her - hard not to, with her really striking Bosmeri looks, that lush hair, and cute freckles, and eyes as deep blue as a magicka potion. She now has a recent scar on her cheek, but as a Nord, Pony can only say that it has made her even prettier (better not let any of this slip out loud in front of Erandur, or he will try to play matchmaker between them as well... that silly, obstinately evasive, adorable mer).

'We think this place is haunted,' Felix goes on, making Pony tosses her head and mentally scold herself for getting sidetracked by another circular chain of thoughts about Erandur. 'It has sealed itself shut, and we cannot enter... But we must enter! We must!'

His voice rises in pitch and then snaps, like a terse lute string, fading into a deep, anguished gasp.

Seeing that it might be a while before Felix can muster enough strength to speak again, Yalanwen joins in helpfully.

'His father is in there,' she says, giving Felix another embrace. 'Me and him... We got word that Felix and Gunmar were in trouble, and hurried to Markarth to save them... But then... This house, it just... Swallowed him up. I was... incapacitated for a little bit, but when I came to, the street was empty, and there was a tiny snatch of his clothing lodged inside the door...'

She stretches out her hand, a little crumpled-up sliver of dark, mud-caked fabric slowly spreading out in her palm like a captured butterfly.

'When Felix and Gunmar found me, I was trying to get to him... They joined me, but... We don't have that much magic between the three of us, and brute force doesn't work...'

'I even tried changing into my bat form and clawing at the door,' Felix whispers, his yellow eyes dry but his voice quivering and tearful.

Pony squints closer, trying to ignore her queasiness - and spots that, as testimony to Felix's words, there are also pale scratches snaking across the dark metal, apart from the traces of blood. Some of them are quite deep, others less so. Looking at their jerking patterns, Pony can clearly imagine that large, grey, web-winged creature that Felix can now turn into, thrashing against the unrelenting door... Yes, there it is... Leaving markings and dents but not quite getting the door to yield, channeling more and more desperate force into every next blow, until there comes a shattering climax (perhaps these two imprints of inhumanly large hands in the metal are what's left after it), which is then followed by a slow, worn-out slide down to the ground (Pony thinks she can see its trace in the thinnest, most shallow scratches along the door's side).

'Eventually,  I was... drained, and had to turn back...' Felix comments, noting the direction of her gaze and passing his hand along the faint marks. 'I... I feel so useless... Who knows what is happening to him in there, and I can do nothing to save him... like... like he wanted to save me...'

'I have magic a-plenty,' Pony says, making a point of sounding as chirpy as possible - and catches Yalanwen beaming at her in silent gratitude over Felix's shoulder. 'Erandur here has, too! What's even better, he's a fully ordained priest of Mara, so if there are dark forces at work, he will fight them off with one arm behind his back! He's done this sort of thing before - am I right?'

While Pony has been listening to the account of her friends' plight, Erandur has been standing next to the downcast, slightly whimpering Wujeeta, with one hand on her slouched shoulder, and speaking to her in a calming, lowered voice. Pony's question startles him a bit - but, after giving one last reassuring squeeze to the Argonian's forearm, he turns towards the Dawnguard and says,

'Forgive me for becoming distracted: Wujeeta is quite guilt-torn over her little escapade, and I had to tend to her. It is good to see you again, Felix; and you, too, Yalanwen - and Gunmar! You have all been so helpful with saving those lost souls from Red Water Den - and I am truly sorry about what happened here. Pony may exaggerate my accomplishments, but I will do my best. Stand back, if you will'.

With that, he spreads his shoulders, closes his eyes, and steps in front of the battered door, red, white and gold sparks floating from his raised hands and cutting into the metal surface like a multitude of miniscule knives. Gradually, their twinkling stream swells into a torrent, burning a bold rectangular outline into the metal - a door within a door.

It is just barely beginning to take shape, but there is hope... Mara's garters, there absolutely is! Pony can feel it, so strong that her heart is about to soar up her chest on fluttering bird wings - hope that, once it is complete, this new bright door will swing wide open, and let out the house's prisoner.

Hope is well and good, of course - but as the spell powers up, it also begins to take its toll on Erandur. His face has lost some of is deep ashen colour, and there is a glossy ribbon of sweat winding down the side of his nose; and soon enough, the awe in the eyes of the onlookers (Wujeeta included) is replaced by concern.

Pony readjusts her sleeves (which are still rolled up). She may not be aware of what sort of magic Erandur is working on the house's door, but she knows the spell that he used to boost her stamina when she had run out of breath after her charge to stop Wujeeta. And it's only fair that she returns the favour, right?

Just as it seems that Erandur is close to succumbing to exhaustion and breaking his concentration, a blast of leaf-green restorative energy shoots out of Pony's palms, bearing him up as if he were a wilting sapling. When she casts her spell, Pony, once again, goes over all the memories that came back to her in the cart on the way to Markarth; she focuses, as intensely as she can, on how much Erandur means to her, on how beautiful she finds both his soul and body to be, on how profoundly she admires him for having been able to put his past behind him and turn from darkness into light. The spell feeds upon her thoughts, drinking them in with its greedy glowing roots - while its ethereal branches caress the Dunmer gently, their aura as warm and protective of him as Pony herself.

And at the touch of the green magic, which has turned out far more lush than Pony could ever have predicted, Erandur's face darkens to its usual, healthy deep-grey colour, and, steadying himself, he returns to burning at the door with renewed force. While doing so, he turns his head to smile at Pony - and it is after this smile, thankful and affectionate and a little bit wistful, that Erandur's magic flares up to a blinding peak; the golden door is now fully visible, carved through the heart of the dark metal. All that remains is to give it a push, and...

'Foolish mortals,' a disembodied voice pulses in between Pony's temples, smothering her in its clutches, every word like a hot flush of blood to her head.

She thinks she alone can hear it, like when she heard Vaermina command her to claim the Skull of Corruption  - but when she glances around, she sees that the same is happening to everyone, to Gunmar and Wujeeta, to Felix and Erandur, and to poor little Yalanwen. They are all wincing in pain and clutching their heads and rolling their eyes madly back and forth, to try and detect at least some hint at the voice owner's presence.

'You think you can intimidate me by vandalizing my creation with your pathetic Aedric magic? There are my children amongst you, one inside, one outside. At least one of them will bend before me. And see to your destruction'.

'Dammit,' Erandur spits, still swaying on the doorstep with his hood off and his fingers pulling at his hair. 'I think... I think it's Molag Bal, the father of vampires!'

'That... evil force is no father to me,' Felix declares, speaking loudly over the voice in his head. 'I have only one father, and he is inside this house! And I will save him - but we will not be bending to anyone! Or destroying our friends!'

Eyes burning, fangs bared, the vampire boy brushes past Erandur, and slaps his hand down on the glowing gold rectangle. The Aedric energy stings at him, making his skin blister - but he just clenches his jaw, and pushes hard. The door-within-a-door swings open, and almost this very instant, two dark figures tumble out, head over heels, and land onto the pavement in a bizarre bundle of limbs, while inside the hole where they came from, a wall slides forward with a low grinding noise that sounds almost like a bestial growl, and blocks the golden door.

Presently, the glowing aura dissipates - and miraculously, the first, dark, metal door melts away with it, so all that is left is a blank, solid stone wall facing a narrow lane, which, all of a sudden, does not look so gloomy and misty any longer, the oppressive feeling in the air having been lifted.

The voice of Molag Bal resounds through the travellers' minds for the last time.

'Sometimes the prey turns and nips at us,' it drawls, with a deliberate yawn. 'It is but a small thing'.

And then, there is silence - which is soon punctuated by the distant rolling of cart wheels, and the rush of water, and the muffled, incoherent tumult of voices. The usual noises of the street, where the house finally fits in, boarded up and empty and threatening no more.

Chapter Text

The limb bundle groans and twitches, attempting to get straightened out. Yalanwen crouches next to it, helping as best she can, while Erandur, out of breath and with dark soaked circles under his armpits, is soothing the raw marks left on Felix's hands by the glowing door (a bit of a challenging task, as Felix is fidgeting on the spot, impatient to get to Yalanwen's side).

Eventually, the wriggling ball splits apart into two men, both rather grimy and more than slightly worse for wear after whatever misadventures befell them inside the haunted house. And both of them known to Pony.

Gods, but Felix's father has been changed by vampirism... Even more than his boy, or so it seems to Pony at least. Although, the gaunt outlines of his cheekbones and the blackened folds of skin around his yellow eyes could just be signs of him being care-worn. Knowing him, he must have been beside himself all the while when he was apart from his son. Well, now at least they are together again.

Felix, of course, takes less than two seconds to sweep him up off the ground and squeeze him as tightly as he can. Still a little bit dazed, the poor fellow blinks in confusion - and then, after figuring out who is holding him, breathes out (if such a word is applicable) something in between a scream and a sob.

'Felix,' he chants, again and again, spinning in a slow, dance-like motion, locked into the boy's arms and stroking the back of his head with a shaking hand, and kissing him swiftly on the forehead several times. 'Felix, my little Felix... You are safe... You found me; oh, you found me...'

The sight of the father and son clinging on to one another makes Yalanwen gasp and grin and finally sniffle, rubbing her eyes with her fists and whispering,

'I have been looking forward to this for so long!'

Gunmar, too, seems pleased, and is ready to offer the little Bosmer his shoulder (or the crook of his elbow, rather, because this is as high as she can reach) to hiccup into when the emotions prove too much for her. Even Wujeeta is moved, looking up at Erandur and Pony first before smiling, as though she feels like she needs their approval for that. Bless her heart, she really does feel awful about chasing after Skooma. Pony had better hug her too!

In the meanwhile, Felix has gotten past the initial inebriation of joy and found enough coherent words to greet his father back.

'Well, you can't always be the one saving me,' he chuckles, drawing back to get a better look at the older vampire's face.

For a few seconds, his sunny grin fades, and he looks taken aback, stupefied even, having noticed large, blood-like drops rolling out of the corners of his father's eyes. He has evidently never seen the likes of them before - nor has anyone else, as Pony hears quite a few gasps behind her back.

As for herself, she is not certain how to feel. It... It kind of figures that vampires do not weep the same way as mortals do; though frankly, Pony did not even expect them to be capable of weeping in the first place. So... So that could be a good thing? In a morbid sort of way.

But regardless of how he or anyone else might have first reacted to the sight of the bloodied tears, Felix quickly overcomes his shock, eager to comfort his father, and does his best to smile at him again as he wipes the murky, red-tinted streaks off his face.

Soon, the older vampire takes a step away from Felix as well, his arms falling listlessly by his sides.

'When... When we spoke last...' he whispers, 'When I turned you... You said...'

'That's what I've been meaning to talk to you about!' Felix hastens to reassure him, now also with wet red ribbons crawling out of the corners of his eyes. 'I... I've been meaning to apologize. I was angry, and terrified, and lost... But I never hated you! Not at that moment, not ever! I believe there's good in you, like there's always been, even when you were a Ven... even back in the past; and well... you know... after some of the... things I did, I cannot really judge you. I... I am just so relieved to see you again!'

'As am I!' his father confesses joyfully - but instantly cuts himself short, some of the roseate haze clearing off, and tilts his head in bewilderment as he eyes Felix's attire.

'Wait... What is this supposed to be? Last time I saw such... approximation of garments, it was on a group of hostile tribesmen who tried to throttle me with summoned vines. What have you gotten yourself involved in, young man?'

Felix chuckles nervously.

'Well, you see... This was a gift from some... acquaintances I made during my... eventful stay in this city. Rather like...'

He lowers his voice.

'The local version of the Dalish elves... Well, they are humans, actually, but the basic concept is the same. They are quite hostile, but we happened to share the same interests, and, um... Became allies, I guess?'

The other vampire shakes his head incredulously.

'I honestly do not know why I am so baffled,' he says at length. 'If anyone from... our home were to make an alliance with a Dalish-like people, it would have been you. You always make the impossible possible, my boy'.

Pony has no idea who or what the Dalish elves are (some cult from Cyrodiil, maybe; the place is certainly crawling with not-so-well-intentioned elves these days) - nor is it any of her business to continue spying on the father and son's reunion. Especially when she has to concern herself with the second man who got spat out by the house.

Because bloody Oblivion... It's Tyranus! Tyranus... Her former mentor, whom she subjected to an Illusion spell and sent as far away from the Hall as she could, lest he hurt Felix. She's remembered him now and again over these weeks, but with every time, he seemed more and more like a vague symbol of her own past rather than an actual person, living a life somewhere out there... In hindsight, she probably should not have thought of him this way. She should have made an effort to find him, to see how he was doing, maybe offer him to join her, now that the Vigil is no more and he might have no purpose. Well, now she will have to make up for it.

'Hey,' she says softly, helping the man get up. 'It has been a while. I'm glad you are... not dead, but please don't get any ideas about attacking my friends again'.

'Friends?' Tyranus echoes after her, his fists tightening. 'I see the tainted one is now a vampire as well... No, these creatures cannot be your friends, Siponja! They need to be destroyed!'

'Back at it, are you?' Felix's father snarls at him, stepping away from his son and flexing his neck. 'Very well, let us settle this. I promised myself not to kill you under the orders of some talking house, even though you have hurt my son, and my... my friend; but I will still defend all of us from you out here, if you keep threatening us!'

His snarling expression makes it clear that he is more than serious. Underneath his muddy rags, his body grows tense, wound up into a tight spring like the muscles of a tundra predator stalking an elk. He would well have pounced on Tyranus and finished what the two of them had started all the way back in the Hall - but Felix and Yalanwen dart to him, holding him back, just as Pony is prepared to hold back Tyranus.

Still, there is pulsing red magic trailing from his fingertips, visually extending his nails - which are already quite long and sharp - into curving crimson talons. Similarly, Tyranus' fists are now giving off purple sparks, and Pony spots his gaze travelling all too eagerly up his adversary's jugular.

'Whoah, whoah, you roosters, not so fast,' Pony clears her throat threateningly, drawing the attention of both men to herself.

'Nobody will be threatening anybody! Let us just get out of here, in peace! The house seems fixed - but what if it's still affecting you!'

Tyranus gapes at her in a mixture of anger and disappointment, jerking his shoulder to push her back.

'Have you completely forsaken the duties of the Vigilants of Stendarr, girl? The God of Mercy demands these monsters' blood!'

Pony gathers up the front folds of his robe into her fist and draws his face closer to hers. The others cluster round them, quiet and apprehensive, and Pony catches a momentary thought flitting through her mind: this must be one of those times when her size actually makes her look intimidating. Well, good. If Tyranus insists on getting stuck in his 'Grr, I will drag you all into the light!' mode, she will soon be changing her mind about offering him a new calling.

'Listen here, Tyranus,' she says, with slow, clear, very deliberate articulation. 'I am not a girl, and you are not my teacher. Not any longer. The Vigil of Stendarr does not even exist now. Keeper Carcette is dead, and most of our brothers and sisters are too. The Hall was burned down, and Dinya and I were the only survivors... And you know who left us a healing potion so that we could come to and get out of there?'

She points dramatically at Felix, who smiles shyly, his eyes lighting up. Aww, look at the sweetheart - he is happy to see that Pony still appreciates his help! Well, of course she does!

'That's right!' she nods energetically. 'Felix here! The very same Felix you are calling "monster" and "the tainted one"!'

'Also, Gereon just mentioned that he didn't listen when the house when it wanted him to kill you,' Yalanwen, who went somewhat googly-eyed when Felix father called her his friend, returns to the conversation, nudging the vampire with a meaningful, rather stern look. (Gereon, huh? Pony thought the man's name was Gideon; not that it is relevant: Yalanwen makes a good point either way).

'So why don't we focus on that - instead of this needless violence?'

With these words, Yalanwen turns from Gereon (all right, let him be called Gereon) to Tyranus and back again, her eyes rounded and sparkly and pleading like those of a cuddly little baby Khajiit.

Tyranus, however, does not want to focus. He stopped paying attention immediately after Pony mentioned the fall of the Vigil. What he does next prompts Gereon to finally extinguish his red spell, his greyish face frozen in an expression that is stunned, a little bit revolted, and reluctantly sympathetic all at the same time.

He bursts into tears. Far more loudly, far more violently, than the two reunited vampires or the sentimentally happy Yalanwen. With glistening snot gushing out of his nose, and red blotches swelling all over his face, and his mouth twisting into all manner of lopsided shapes, like the overturned figure eight.

'So it's trooooo,' he howls desperately, now gripping at Pony all by himself and sagging off her like a very heavy, human-shaped pendant. 'How can I... How can I go on after this... The Vig-Vigil was all I knjooooooo... Is my life... Truly over na-na-naooooooo...'

'Do not say that, brother,' Erandur tells him firmly, as he tries to tear him off Pony. 'Your life is not over. Your path may have ended - but that just means that another has begun. Come with us to Riften - with me, and Pony, and Wujeeta. We still have a task to complete, set to us by Mara Herself - but once we are done, we will return, and offer you a place to stay in the light of Her Benevolence. You will recover from the loss of your order, and build up the strength to move on'.

Pony cannot help beaming - even if it makes Erandur flush darkly and look away... As it so often happens.

'I was just thinking of the same thing myself!'

'Yes, please, take this lunatic with you and duck him into holy water or something,' Gereon says through his teeth.


They exit the lane in little groups: first Gereon, strolling in between his son and Yalanwen, his air now far more good-spirited what with Tyranus out of sight; then, Gunmar, engaged in a quiet conversation with Erandur, who is little short of dragging a groggy, blank-faced Tyranus under his elbow like some sort of inanimate flour sack. Wujeeta is trotting a few paces behind them, leaning in towards Pony, as if seeking her protection. This whole entanglement must have confused her so much, and the strain of hearing a Daedra's voice within her mind might well push her back towards her self-destructive habits; Pony makes a firm reservation to talk it out with Wujeeta first thing she gets a chance to sit down and have a long, thorough, serious conversation. She should offer her to stay at the Temple, at least for a little while. See how it helps her cleanse her body and mind, and return to her work at the fishery with her strength refreshed.

As they step into the broader street - keeping to the shady side as much as they can, to accommodate the vampires - Felix seeks to catch Pony's gaze; when he finally does, he asks, quite eagerly,

'What was that task you were doing for Mara? If... If you don't mind my asking: I just wanted to catch up!'

'Oh, not at all!' Pony responds. 'Mara wants us to solve a relationship problem for this mage who has trouble expressing his feelings...'

'Erandur?' Felix cuts in, with a nod of understanding.

This makes their entire little procession stumble to a halt; Erandur is the first to freeze up, passing Tyranus on to Gunmar for support and making a chaotic flapping motion with his arms, while gasping for air a little.

'What... What makes you think...' he just barely manages to wheeze, his mouth opening and closing a bit like a fish's (which makes Wujeeta giggle a little).

Felix clears his throat in embarrassment.

'I am sorry,' he says sincerely. 'I should not have let it slip in public like this. It just struck me, last that we met, that you had... feelings for a certain person, but did not want the two of you to be together'.

Erandur collects himself, drawing his spine up into a stiff, stick-like position.

'This is not a subject I would care to discuss,' he says. 'Let us move on. Your friend Gunmar told me that you and him might get into trouble for walking around dressed like the Forsworn, so we should stay discreet and...'

'Wait, wait, wait!' Pony cries.

Bless Felix for steering the conversation into this vein - he has given her a chance she never thought she'd get, and she is definitely using it!

'We will move on - but only after I get this one thing out. I care for you very much, Erandur, and I have learned the rules of Mara's priesthood well enough by now to know that you are allowed to...'

'Siponja, please,' Erandur silences her. He has almost never called her by her full name before - and something about the way he pronounces it sounds like a suppressed sob.

'I... I care for you as well. Very much so. But... But I cannot... You know of my past; you know what I used to be before Mara gave me a chance to atone. It...'

His voice quivers, but he goes on speaking, too carried away by the crushing stream of his own torment to mind the size of his audience any longer.

'It took me decades to stop looking upon my physical flesh without a desire to cut it, rip at it, bring it pain... But my soul... I will always keep looking upon my soul in the same distaste. You are so much better than me, so much purer; all I can do is look on as you find real happiness in the arms of someone worthy, and wish you well'.

Pony grinds her teeth a little. She knew it - she bloody knew it!

'I don't want someone worthy!' she says, echoing her longing musings in the cart. 'I want you! And I just want you to love yourself enough... to let me love you! Gods, Erandur, how can you serve the Divine of Love if you do not love yourself?!'

'Loving yourself can be impossible with a heavy conscience,' Gereon speaks up suddenly, locking the fingers of one hand over his son's shoulder while tentatively trying to brush his other hand against Yalanwen's. 'But there are some people that... that you love so ardently that you forget, for a time, what hating yourself feels like'.

He says that with his gaze fixed, without blinking, on Erandur's face; the Dunmer holds it for a while, before eventually caving and mouthing,

'I... I want you to love me... And oh Pony, how I want to love you back... To just give in and... lose myself in happiness... But... But surely... someone like me... shouldn't be happy... Is not supposed to...'

'Mammoth-shit,' Pony snaps. Then, with a sudden spark of mischief warming up within her, like she has taken a swig of strong mead and it has gone to her head, she turns towards the onlookers and declares,

'Yes, I am going to kiss him with that mouth!'

And so she does. She kisses him long and hard - and it is only for the first few seconds, when he has still not recovered from her sudden onslaught, that she is the only one to do the kissing. Before she knows it, Erandur is kissing her back, recklessly, greedily, as if her mouth holds a wellspring and he has been crawling across one of those sweltering Hammerfell deserts for weeks... Oh dear - whoever taught him to exercise his tongue like this, the Vaermina crowd, or the Mara crowd?

And oh... She hopes that the others have looked away by now, because she cannot resist laying one hand on Erandur's chest and beginning to search for some little nook where she can slip it under his robe.

But regardless of whether or not the rest of their motley team have kept their eyes on her, it is a stranger's voice that makes her break the kiss. Although it is not addressing her, not personally.

'You are Eaglet, right? What are you still doing in the city? The guards are busy stumbling along Kaie's trail, but you should best leave all the same!'

Pony opens her eyes and turns around, while still holding Erandur's hand in hers (he does not draw it away - oh Mara, he doesn't draw it away; he even clutches her hand tighter than she his, and his fingers feel so very warm).

It seems that, while the two of them were distracted,  their gathering was joined by a young woman with ash-blonde hair. She is dressed like a maid, in muted brown colours, with an apron round her waist - and yet, her bearing is nothing like a maid's, and she has a spell readied in one hand, its light breaking through her fingers in soft lilac rays; whereas in the other hand, she holds a bared dagger.

She has been talking to Felix, her speech rapid and hushed, her manner business-like, with such an air as if he is her co-conspirator in some elaborate intrigue, like the ones you read about in novels set in Daggerfall. And most interestingly of all, Felix is nodding, showing her that he understands what she is talking about, while Gereon watches him in utter amazement, a flicker of shock magic readied in his grasp just in case.

'What about Madanach and Odvan?' Felix asks in a half-whisper. 'Have they moved out?

Whoah, Madanach? The King of the Reachfolk himself? The one who tried to make a coup here during the Great War? Pony's heard of him - but she has had no idea that he was alive! And apparently, chummy with Felix. What has he gotten himself involved in, indeed?

At least now Pony knows better than to blindly trust all of her kinsmen's accounts of the Reach natives' mindless savagery -  or think that all who wear that armour of theirs are like the spell-casters that attacked her, Erandur, and Wujeeta on the road. They cannot be absolutely, irredeemably evil if Felix became, how did he put it, allies with them.

The woman nods.

'My sources tell me that, after Madanach... passed some time attending to personal business, an old friend opened a portal for him and Odvan to some "special place" he has somewhere out there on the cliffs. Most of Markarth is aware that he's escaped by now - but there is nothing they can do about it'.

She gives Felix's and Gunmar's non-Forsworn-dressed companions a defiant look.

'All the prisoners in Cidhna Mine have been freed. The Forsworn are regrouping. So if you outsiders have any ties to the Silver-Bloods, you are too late'.

'They do not!' Felix assures her urgently. 'They are all my friends!'

'My companion and I are followers of the Divine Mara from Riften'.

As Erandur introduces himself and Pony, he readjusts his hold on her hand, and allows the corner of his lips to twitch in a small, fleeting smile. It could just be her eyes playing tricks on her, now that she is no longer stumbling in the murk of that cursed alleyway - but somehow, it seems to her that he now looks... quite a bit younger. The rugged lines on his angular face are still there - but the imprint of his inner torment has been erased, at least in part. Gods, Pony would give anything for Gereon to have been right; she would give anything to be allowed to make her Erandur forget how to hate himself.

'We were merely here to deliver some fish to Kleppr the innkeeper, and then find and aid a mage named Calcelmo,' Erandur continues. 'We are not aware of the inner workings of your city, and our only quarrel with the Forsworn is that they attacked us first, like common bandits!'

The young woman's face falls.

'I am sorry, outsider. That is not their purpose. The Forsworn are supposed to be fighting for justice in the Reach, but many people have forgotten that over the years, so much so that our own kin distrust us. If... If you allow me, I can accompany you through Markarth. Help you in your dealings with Calcelmo. Provide protection, if necessary'.

Erandur flicks an eyebrow.

'I have spent enough time in Riften to know what "protection" usually implies,' he says, a bit dryly. 'What is it you want?'

The woman bites her lip, suddenly a lot less eloquent than moments before.

'It is not... Not for myself. Since you follow Mara, I thought... I have this... kinswoman of mine under my wing... sort of... She is pregnant, and her husband was killed last night. She needs someone to comfort her in her grief, and while I have tried, I may not have the best... the best training for that. Maybe she will find more peace if she... if you...'

Erandur's expression transforms instantly.

'Of course, of course, child!' he beams. 'Pony, Wujeeta, Tyranus... I think this is when we part ways with our Dawnguard friends'.

'Aye,' Gunmar agrees. 'We still have to find Sorine Jurard'.

'I can help with that as well,' the young woman offers. 'I will just... send word that it is for the Eaglet, and... certain friends of mine will locate her. They can take her to some meeting spot, a landmark, like... Like the Reachwind Eyrie - suitable for an Eaglet, no? And then a spellcaster will open a portal for you to whatever place you need to travel with that Sorine. But you still need to get out of the city first'.

She points for a stretch of sunlit pavement, which separates them from the tall gates leading out of Markarth. The twin metal shutters are wide open, but there are guards marching to and fro all around the gateway, some of them kneading the air with their chunky arms in short chainmail sleeves, others talking about something in raised voices. Whoever this Kaie is, they must have gotten them all thoroughly confused.

'I don't know if you have magic that will get you across the street fast enough for the guards not to suspect anything,' the helpful young woman begins.

'I can take someone - Gunmar, say,' Yalanwen chimes after her, 'And use the Wuld thing to sprint through the gates. It should work'.

Gereon cocks his head, his yellow eyes darting from one guard to another.

'I can utilize my mist form,' he remarks, extending his hand to Felix. 'And take you across'.

Felix takes his hand with such trusting readiness that the older vampire seems to get a little choked up.

'Thank you, Father'.

'Best of luck to you!' Pony says, as the young woman beckons the rest of them away. 'I hope we cross paths again!'

'Me too!' Felix waves at her with his free hand. 'Thank you - and you, Erandur - for breaking through that blasted door! I...' he stutters for a moment. 'I hope you are very happy together!'


With the farewells said and the four companions having assumed their sprint-ready poses, leaning forward slightly with their eyes focused on the gate, all that remains is to wait for the precise moment when all the guards, occupied by whatever it is they are doing, have turned away. When that moment comes, Yalanwen fills her lungs with air and then exhales a short, curt word, like a clap echoing through a vaulted stone chamber,

'WULD!'

The word unleashes a gust of blue, billowing, magical wind, which carries her and Gunmar down the street and through the gates before the guards can even complete a single blink, let alone turn around and try to deduce where the odd magic came from.

The two vampires follow shortly after: the father closes his eyes and lets his whole figure dissolve, head to foot, into a black, smoky veil, which wraps around his son and, not a fraction of a moment later, vanishes together with him. Like in a dazzling show of an illusionist, Felix reappears on the other side of the gate, safe and sound and holding his father's hand like nothing just happened.

'Ah, splendid,' the older Alexius says, after a swift glance back at the gate towers. 'We are out of those blood hounds' field of view. Now, what was it that girl said? Reachwind Eyrie? Let us see if the path-finding spell can lead us all there'.

'You... You will be returning to Fort Dawnguard with us?' Felix asks hopefully, while his father begins to weave wispy light-blue magic threads.

'I... I cannot return to Castle Volkihar at this point, can I?' Alexius replies, after the wisps line up into a clear trail the leads somewhere to the southwest. 'Nor do I wish to. I would gladly join you in taking battle to Harkon and his ilk, if you let me. But...'

He looks up at Felix, his throat contracting.

'But if you would rather not have me by your side, after all I did... I suppose I could... Try out the role of a wandering vampire...'

'You really ought to practice what you preach, Father,' Felix laughs. 'You did not let Erandur push Pony away - you can't seriously expect me to push you away after that! Please, fight Harkon with me, Father - with us!'

'Isran won't be pleased,' Gunmar mutters.

Yalanwen takes up a defensive stance, her hands planted firm on her waist.

'Me, I will insist that both Gereon and Felix aren't evil, no matter how much Isran squirms!'

The Nord eyes her very resolute little figure with a kindly twinkle in his eye.

'Not arguing with you there, lass. I always like to say that... It is the sense of right and wrong that separates us from the monsters we hunt. And our vampire friends seem to have a pretty darn good sense of right and wrong! So if arguments arise, I will also be urging Isran to see reason'.

'Good,' Yalanwen says, with sincere relief. 'For a moment there, I felt that creepy anger again. I don't like when that happens, honestly'.

'Maybe this anger will be just the thing to make Isran listen to you,' Gunmar points out.

And with that, they stretch out into single file, ready to follows the guiding thread of the spell to that place called Reachwind Eyrie. By a convenient turn of the weather, the sky becomes overcast again, allowing the vampires to march among the jagged rocks and the crooked juniper trees with far more vigour.

On their way towards their goal, the two mortals first drop by at a nearby farmstead, asking the owners to give them something to eat - as their stomachs, more dependent on regular and varied meals than those of the vampires, have just started growling demandingly. The first response of the farmer in the leather cap, whom Alexius and Yalanwen met before, is to grumble something about 'lazy loafers'.

'What do you think this is, an alms house?' he wheezes, flapping his nigh-toothless gums and cutting at the soil aggressively with his hoe. 'There won't be any charity for you lot unless you are ready to pour some sweat and help my wife and I with the potato harvest... And then fifty years later, you will wake up, and you'll still be here!'

Thankfully, there is no need for such a lengthy stay at the farm: for Alexius stands over the potato patch and, with an elegant, leisurely motion of his hand, bathes it in the green glow of a telekinetic spell, which uproots the entire crop and showers the petrified farmer with it, building a veritable semicircular potato fort around his bandy-legged, gaping figure.

'Now, if you will please feed my companions?' Alexius asks in a deliberately silken tone, one hand resting on his hip, suddenly appearing dignified and majestic even in the current pitiable state of his attire.

Swallowing loudly several times in a row, the farmer bows his head and ushers the famished guests inside his modest abode, promising them hot mash and a stew left over from yesterday.

The vampires excuse themselves from the meal, claiming they are not particularly hungry (which is not far from the truth) and remain outside, guarding the potato fort.

Seizing a moment when they are well beyond earshot, Alexius asks a hushed, cautious question to his son - something that has been bothering him all this while,

'Why... Why did you seem shaken when you wished Pony and Erandur happiness? You like her yourself, don't you?'

Felix forces out a mockingly exasperated noise.

'I thought you'd want to probe me with questions about my involvement with the Tamrielic Dalish, not some trivial schoolboy things!'

'Oh, we will talk about that too - but your feelings are not trivial,' Alexius says sternly. 'Do you expect me to be indifferent to my son's own heartbreak?'

'There was no heartbreak, Father,' Felix says, sounding almost convinced. 'I had some... crush-like sentiments towards Pony; they were not mutual, and that's the end of it. I am not fifteen years old - I can survive without a love interest! Besides, even if Pony was interested in me that way, I could not have allowed anything... you know... to develop between us!'

'Why?' Alexius asks in a small voice, his eyes widening - as if he knows how his son will reply, and it leaves him quite distraught.

'Because, for one thing, I am a vampire,' Felix explains. 'And for another: we belong to different worlds! What if... impossible as it sounds by now... What if you and I return to Thedas some day - say, when Harkon is defeated? How will that affect a person from Tamriel with romantic ties to either of us?'

'Yes, my boy,' Alexius concedes, covertly looking at the farm house. 'You... You have a point'.

Chapter Text

'I still cannot believe how you found my way here! Of all the possible scenarios, this is something I could never have imagined!'

With an incredulous but not mean-spirited chuckle, Sorine Jurard, a small Breton woman with short auburn air, looks up from the crossbow she has been tinkering with. She has set up a makeshift working station outside, underneath the rippling dull-copper canopy of birch tree leaves, and is chasing the dusky purple shadows away with the pulsing yellow-green light of a swarm of torchbugs that she has collected into a transparent orb - 'less practical than an ordinary lamp, but supposedly more fun, right, with all this twinkling and motion!'.

This remark of hers was meant to entertain Agmaer, who is sitting in a slouched pose by her side. The crossbow is his as well: the Breton is making some special Dwarven-style adjustments, to bolster his freshly acquired marksmanship skills, before he sets out on his upcoming mission for the Dawnguard. He always carries his father's axe with him for good measure, but Isran insists that the true weapon of a vampire hunter is the crossbow, and Agmaer always listens to him, mesmerized and starry-eyed.

Serana is coming with this Nord boy too - or rather, he is coming with her, as Isran made a point of putting it.

'Someone has to watch over the creature,' he declared, while assigning tasks to his vampire hunters. 'And it is going to be you... Yes, you, Agmaer. Time to test your mettle out in the field; the Volkihar are not going to wait until you have thoroughly completed your training, and then knock politely on the door and ask to be fought! This could be dangerous, of course; travelling to the back yard of those blood suckers' lair, in the company of one of their own brood - but I am not letting you rest your haunches in the safety of our fort just because you are... you. I have no intention of giving you preferential treatment. Absolutely not. Why should I? There is no reason for me to be extra-protective of you, is there? Of course there isn't! No reason at all!.. You aren't special or anything!'

This odd semblance of a pep talk left the poor mortal child quite crushed, all the stars in his eyes growing dim. He must be feeling so disappointed that Isran does not think him special - and it must sting at him with extra bitterness,  considering how he spends almost every waking moment pining for that insufferable Redguard.

Serana is not really the best expert on romantic relationships (he parents were rumoured to have had one, millennia ago, though that theory is somewhere out there with nonsense like 'the Dwemer have devolved into mudcrabs') - but that much is obvious even to her. What Agmaer sees in the man, is a mystery.

Well, anyway. Seeing how Agmaer's whole figure drooped down under the heavy weight of despondency - he even seemed to grow a few inches shorter - Sorine offered to brighten up his mood with some new knick-knacks for his crossbow and an amusing anecdote or two.

Normally, that would have been the responsibility of Yalanwen, but the poor mortal had spent all this time almost completely without sleep - so all she could do was lean against Felix's father, step awkwardly on Sorine's foot, point limply at Agmaer and slur thickly, sounding like her tongue had been pierced with an ice shard,

'Cheer... up... Ag... meeer... Needs a... funny... story... funny... face...'

Upon which she passed out completely, and Gunmar had to lead off the uncertainly smiling vampire that was holding her, and show him where he could lay her down - and get some new gear for himself from the armour rack while he was at it, too.

Sorine, left behind with these barely coherent instructions, was a bit puzzled at first - but then, decided to go along with them.

'Though there is no clear statistical data on the subject, some people believe that a depressed state of mind at times of adversity increases your chances of getting killed,' she said to Agmaer sagely - which was hardly better than what Isran had been barking, but at least she was meaning well.

And here they are, seated on a couple of tree stumps in the fort's courtyard, enjoying the fresh air that mortals seem to be so keen on. They are within the earshot of Serana - who, now that the sun has gone down, has also come out, to teach her teleportation spell to Felix's father, Gereon... Gereon Alexius (turns out that he did not introduce himself to the Volkihar by his real name; well, Serana cannot really blame him).

He has been very eager to learn - both for the practical reason of saving time during the expedition that he is supposed to embark on with his son and with Yalanwen (who is currently enjoying one of those 'nap' things that mortals cannot function without), and because the sheer nature of the spell makes him as excited as a Death Hound at the sight of the first incision made by its master across the wildly twitching body of a thrall that is about to get skinned alive and then fed to the leaping, barking, happy pet... All right, this is probably not the best of analogies, but what are you going to do? You draw inspiration from what you've experienced, and all that Serana has at her disposal are images of blood, cruelty, damp dungeons - and then, oblivion.

What she's trying to say is... Alexius is very invested in the teleportation spell, his eyes glinting with a surge of bubbling energy and his lips drawn into a toothy grin. All of his mental aptitude, all of his concentration, all of his magicka has been poured into this one lesson. So once he has picked up the basics, there is really nothing left for Serana to do - other than nod approvingly as he opens one pair of portals after the other, each with more and more distance separating the twin whirlpools of purple magic, and sends through objects of increasing size and complexity, from little pebbles to fragile dry twigs (that he manages to teleport without snapping off a single splinter) to his own boots (part of the spare set of Dawnguard armour that the vampire hunters begrudgingly gave him to replace the muddy mess his Volkihar vest has turned into) to a living creature like a snail or a butterfly.

And since her... pupil? That is a really odd way of referring to him: despite the fact that Serana is technically thousands of years older than Alexius, she does not really see him as her junior. So, uh... Since her... fellow portal enthusiast is doing so well without any particularly strenuous input from her, Serana can allow her mind to wander - say, towards Sorine and Agmaer's conversation.

'Imagine this,' Sorine says, as she picks up a couple of cogs and twirls them around in her hands, comparing their size. 'Here I am, inspecting those Dwemer convectors that dot the landscape of the Reach... on the verge of a great discovery... When suddenly, around a dozen Reachmen, in beast skins and in antler... crowns, I suppose... just appear out of nowhere! I am a bit preoccupied, see, because I keep worrying over my tool satchel, which some cheeky mudcrab just up and carried off - so my reflexes are not the best, and the next thing I know, there are spiky swords pointing at my throat, and some woman, with a couple of swirly hair buns framing her head, knocks a gnarly staff, topped with what I think was a goat's skull, against the ground at my feet, and says, in a manner far from friendly...'

Sorine waves her tools around for emphasis and recites the Reachwoman's words,

'The Eaglet of the Reach, friend of the King in Rags, has commanded that you be brought to Reachwind Eyrie, Sorine Jurard!'

Although Sorine's voice imitation skills are not the best, this still makes Agmaer smile - and the Breton leans back with as much satisfaction on her face as if she has just solved a complex Dwarven puzzle.

'Aha, I knew that a little acting would up the chances of you cheering up! The little Bosmer really did have a point... So, as I was saying: of course, I try to tell the Reachmen that I know no Eaglets, and most certainly no Kings either; but the woman just conjures up a cluster of thick, spiky crawling plant tendrils, which tether me head to foot, whereupon a tall, burly man, who looks like he just got up in the morning and crawled inside a dead elk as a way of getting dressed, flings me over his shoulder, holding me tight no matter how much I struggle... And off they carry me!'

Sorine shakes her head.

'Turns out, the Reachwind Eyrie is a solitary Dwarven structure, standing over the wilderness, miraculously intact even after all these eras of being exposed to the elements and the activities of encroaching looters. Given an opportunity, I would certainly have studied it as thoroughly as I could - but, of course, getting hauled around like a bushel of potatoes by tribespeople of suspicious intent is the exact opposite of being given an opportunity. They carry me to the top - and, how do the bards put it...'

'Lo and behold,' Agmaer suggests, now almost back to his usual puppy-like self (oh great, Serana is in for infiltrating her father's castle with a puppy).

Sorine nods.

'Lo and behold... There is a whole welcome delegation waiting for me, against the dramatic background of bluish misty plains and distant rocks. My old associate Gunmar, accompanied by a smiling blue-eyed Bosmer girl... and two pale men, very likely to be vampires, both in quite picturesque rags. Of course, I immediately recollect the scenarios I once drew up, of vampires overrunning the population - I presented them to Isran, by the way, but the man will only have his own plan of action or no plan at all. I assumed that they have all been thralled: Gunmar, the Bosmer, even the Reachmen... But no, none of the signs of the loss of free will are there; and while I am still going over the possible explanations inside my head, the less clothed vampire tells the Reachmen, ever so politely, to let me go. And they chant back...'

She narrows her eyes, trying to remember.

'Your armour is marked by the old magicks. You are the Eaglet of the Reach. Take this outsider to where you want to take her, and leave the Forsworn to do their work'.

Sorine falls silent for a second or two, lifting the crossbow up to the torchbug jar with her tongue sticking out between her teeth with the effort.

'I am still as baffled as ever, and more than a bit indignant - because the mudcrabs are still holding my satchel hostage, and those convectors are not going to inspect themselves! But Gunmar gives me his genial Nord smile, moving his outstretched hands to calm me down like I am one of his pet critters... And tells me it is all fine, it is all normal, and we are all going back to Isran, because, for once, he has not been too proud to ask for help. Then, the bun woman touches the Eaglet and instructs him to think of the place where he needs to travel - and then waves her staff again, and a blinding oval appears before us. I feel uneasy - because what are the chances that this is really a portal and not, say, a simple dazzling charm hanging over the very edge of the tower's upper balcony, so that when I step closer to it, I will topple over and fall splat on my face?'

She mimics the downward plunge off the tower by brandishing the crossbow - which, by now, is finished, shiny and new and with a lot of toothy cogs that click softly when Sorine finishes her pantomime and bounces her finger on the trigger for a test.

All that she has left to do is hand the weapon to Agmaer and bring her story to a conclusion.

'I really do not want to take this risk... But Gunmar snatches me by the hand and rushes through... And suddenly, we are back here. Face to face with Isran'.

Serana smiles wryly to herself. She remembers the other travellers' arrival, hours upon hours after she brought the Moth Priest through a portal of her own. Isran made a scene, of course - when the second portal appeared, he had already set himself on dragging Serana to that quaint little corner where he keeps his torture implements 'for making the bloodsuckers useful'.

'You spun a pretty little story, you fanged witch,' he kept snarling. 'You and the Bosmer found the Moth Priest, and then she went on to "help" Gunmar and that other creature...'

Serana had not deemed it necessary to mention Alexius joining them, or to go into details of what was keeping Gunmar and Felix in Markarth - but even without learning that 'the bloody critter's father was now part of the team, and that his fellow hunter had been imprisoned, Isran was itching to strap Serana to a very uninviting contraption, made out of a dark metal frame and several planks and rolls (rack, she thinks her father's people called it) and stretch out her limbs till he heard the version of the 'truth' that matched his paranoid ideations.

'Why should I believe you?' he went on, circling around Serana like the lions from his homeland must circle around some fretful antelope. 'Why should I convince myself that you did not simply kill that trusting Wood Elven child, while the other abomination killed Gunmar? Why should I not regret my tolerance towards you both? Why should I not do what is right and avenge my hunters? Why should I not follow my duty's call, like I was supposed to, all this time?'

Serana's patience was wearing thin at that point; she did make an effort to convince Isran, as patiently as she could, that there was no-one to avenge, that Yalanwen had been alive and well when they parted; that, once he had had a proper rest, in the care of Celann and a few junior Dawnguard members, the Moth Priest would be able to reaffirm this; and that it would have made no sense for her to return to the fort with him if she had been planning to betray the hunters like this! But even as she was trying to talk Isran down, she had thrust one hand behind her back and, under the cover of her cloak, was letting a dagger-like piece of enchanted ice take shape between her fingers. She was not some antelope for Isran to tear into; she was a fellow lioness, and if he laid one finger on her, she was ready to use her teeth and claws.

Thankfully for the obstinate fool, it did not come to that. The air shimmered and moved, spinning into a half-transparent whirlpool, which then began to overflow with vivid light, colouring the entire torture chamber into a few stark shades of purple, which contrasted with the coal-black shadows in the corners and underneath Isran's spiky little toys. An instant later, the whirlpool spat out two figures, a man and a woman, the former pulling the latter after him, and the latter stumbling and nearly tripping over her own feet.

The woman was Sorine, as Serana later learned - a smart, enthusiastic mortal, if a bit too focused on accounting for every possible turn of events that might result in her and her friends' demise (it's not something completely unnatural for someone so short-lived, Serana supposes: it just reminds her... a bit discomfortingly... of her father, back when he was still a human, obsessed with learning the secret of eternal life). And the man was Gunmar, the beefy beast tamer; when he saw where the spell had placed him and his companion, he flung up his brawny arms and exclaimed,

'Isran, what do you think you are doing?! How can you treat our allies so cruelly?!'

'I was just trying to make sure you and Sorine were safe,' Isran retorted, his voice like the snap of a whip. 'Greetings, Sorine, by the way... And aren't you cruel to your beasts sometimes, when you discipline them?'

'Oh, for Mara's sake, man, don't go comparing apples to chaurus eggs!' Gunmar roared, his very beard seeming to bristle in outrage.

'I am your leader, Gunmar! Don't raise your voice at me...' Isran began, but the Nord only scoffed.

'Or you will what, kick me out of the Dawnguard? Right after going through so much trouble to recruit me? You need me, Isran; you need all of us. And if you don't want your order to fall apart before it's even been properly restored yet, you had better start listening to our opinions! And my opinion is this: none of our vampire guests are beasts! I have seen this, you have seen this - and to deny them common decency is... is to stoop as low as the Volkihar!'

One of Isran's pale, unblinking eyes seemed to twitch.

'What do you mean... None?' he asked slowly. 'Shouldn't it be... neither? As in, neither of the two?'

And then there came the moment for omissions in Serana's story to come into light.

Gunmar braced himself to give the Redguard an explanation, popping his mouth open and shut again - but Isran's question got answered without him, as, before its light went out, the portal also coughed up Yalanwen... and the Alexius father and son, in their full vampiric glory; though still in dire need of a change of clothes.

The Redguard's rage skyrocketed to the heights of a lava stream gushing out of a volcano... Not - not that Serana has ever seen one... she has seen very little of the world beyond the thick walls that had contained her for so long; but she heard Garan tell stories of the Red Mountain, which he would see looming on the horizon every day when he was a mortal member of Great House Dres. Ah, if only she could travel to all those wondrous lands her father's advisor had seen, and marvel as their wild, alien beauty with her own eyes. But that will hardly ever happen; that is not her reality.

Her reality is trying to stop the madman who was once her father, to keep the world from plunging into eternal darkness, all the while hearing things like what Isran spat when he ran around in breakneck zigzags, and gestured wildly from herself to Felix to Alexius.

'We are not taking in another one! What do we think we are doing, running an inn for these creatures?! Do you want to wake up one night with two holes in your neck?! One monster, we can handle; two, maybe - on a tight enough leash... But three - three?!'

'Your hatred blinds you, Isran! All these vampires have the same goal as ourselves! Not only that, they have hopes! Emotions! They remember what justice is, and companionship, and... love! And that is what sets them - and us! - apart from the monsters in the night! They are so different from the Volkihar that I... that I even think they can be proper Dawnguard members, with time!'

It went on and on and on - a real verbal duel between Isran and Gunmar, with a few shrill feminine notes added by the utterly flabbergasted Sorine and Yalanwen, who was not as sleepy yet, and, of course, was ready to put everything at stake to prove Isran wrong about 'these vile fiends' - even she had to use her own living, beating heart as insurance.

But, although the mortals still continued to lash out at each other, Serana had to draw her attention towards Felix, who, almost immediately after walking out of the portal, turned a shade of purplish grey that is sickly even for a vampire, and collapsed, sobbing, into his father's arms.

'Felix?' a startled and anxious Alexius whispered to him, lowering himself by his side on the edge of some iron contrivance that Serana is pretty sure was not intended for sitting on. 'Dearest boy, what's wrong?'

'I... I didn't know... That the spell would... bring us here...' Felix choked in reply, with a shiver - that obviously has nothing to do with him wrapped in a mangy fur pelt and a half - rippling through his upper body. 'I just... Focused on Fort Dawnguard... the... the inside of it... But now... now I see... That this is the only place... we could have landed... because at the back of my head... I never stop... wanting to be punished... I... Father... I killed a man!'

This confession came out as a hoarse sigh, audible only to Alexius and Serana, who had also edged closer, not quite knowing what to do but at the same time wanting to make herself useful. She had already had a a dab at these healing heart-to-heart exchanges in Forebears' Holdout, but she still believed that Yalanwen would have been better suited for the, uh... comforting thing. Sadly, Yalanwen was not available: she was too busy defending the vampires from Isran, her voice now taking up most of the conversation, angry, tired tears streaming down her face.

'I... I didn't mean to...' Felix went on, clutching at his father as if he was being carried off by a rapid stream and the solid, sympathetic figure next to him was the only thing keeping him from going underwater. 'I... I was angry with him for... for getting Gunmar hurt... But I... I never would have... I tried to hold him... to... save him... but he still fell... And now his blood... is on my hands... I... I am turning... into ex... exactly the sort of monster... Isran thinks I am... Thinks we all are...'

Still uncertain and discomforted by the lack of Yalanwen's smile to indicate that she was doing the right thing, Serana, nevertheless, dared to cut in.

'Sounds to me like it was an accident,' she said firmly, using the hem of her cloak to wipe Felix's blotchy, blood-stained face. 'And... Now, please blink your tears off and listen to me carefully, because I am bad at this sort of thing, and I will not be doing it again. You shouldn't call yourself a monster. Vampirism is no cakewalk, I will give you that: it tore my own life apart; but I know there are mortals out there who are worse people than you and your father. Remember how... When we just met, you saw me get upset over my oh so complicated family history - and confessed that this made you see past the monster? I was kind of offended back then, but... But now the important thing is for you to see past the monster in yourself. If that makes sense'.

'Practice what I preached to Erandur, and you preached to me,' Alexius added, pressing his lips against the top of Felix's head. 'Practice what you preached'.

This made Felix brighten up somewhat, and Serana quickly withdrew to let him and his father keep talking. Now that she was done lecturing Felix, she felt a little bit better herself, less stiff and clunky; less like a badly greased Dwarven machine. Even now, when she thinks about how attentively Felix listened to her, and how his face appeared less twisted as her words sank in - she cannot but smile to herself.

It just might... just might start getting addictive, telling people about her feelings and listening to them and giving advice when they talk about theirs... Funny; that's certainly not something she would ever think of becoming interested in back in Castle Volkihar, where, on some days, she could almost physically feel a heavy, icy hand slapping against her mouth, smothering and pushing back any outcry, any expression of her fear and pain and sadness and confusion, just like when she was offered to Molag Bal. And now - now instead of iciness, she is beginning to feel warmth, comfort, especially when she is in the company of the smiling little Bosmer and these incredibly, unusually devoted father and son. True enough, the opposite of the darkness and loneliness brought to her by vampirism is empathy.

Empathy. What a beautiful new thing.

Chapter Text

As Serana's mind has been preoccupied by all manner of thoughts - some bitter, some sad, and some oddly uplifting - she has somehow neglected to notice that Alexius has already managed to not only perform all manner of magical manipulations with the objects at hand, but even transport himself up the fort's front stairs and back again.

'You have not been watching me, Serana,' he calls to her, after rematerializing by her side with a pop!-like sound that almost makes her jump out of her boots.

As he speaks, his voice has an audible tone of tone of subtle, not stinging mockery. 'It is a poor teacher that allows their attention to stray from their student'.

'Well, I am not really a teacher... And you are not exactly a scatter-brained child,' Serana points out, turning to him. 'You have been managing perfectly fine without me! And I... well, I remembered a few things. How you all came back here. How we talked to Felix...'

'I never did thank you for that, did I?' Alexius says earnestly. 'I comforted Felix further, while I was making sure Yalanwen was comfortable, and we were preparing to go off on our separate training sessions. I think he is practicing with that... Orc. Hopefully he will find Felix sturdier armour to wear under those beast skins, too. The boy looks like a tattered scarecrow in them - and it's so easy to get hurt with half your body exposed to the winds... But I digress'.

He cuts his concerned ramblings short and finishes emphatically,

'Your words have truly meant a lot to him. Thank you - on his behalf, and mine'.

Serana raises an eyebrow, falling back to her trusty old snarkiness.

'I thought you would be jealous of me infringing on your fatherly privileges'.

Alexius shakes his head.

'You jest, I know; but... A family is not a closed, exclusive club with entry barred to outsiders. I... I had an apprentice who used to think that, and my wife and I did our utmost to prove him wrong, until... until things changed'.

His jaw clenches momentarily, large round lumps rolling in its corners. But when he speaks again, it is with the same composure and assurance in his voice.

'I would be happy to do the same thing for you... for as long as I am able. Now that you, me, and Felix have been hurtled into the same vampiric misadventure, perhaps it would be best for us to stay together, to keep teaching one another and learning from one another... to look out for one another, as they say'.

Whoah... Is he... Is he adopting her?

That is a foolish idea to come up with, of course - too girlish and naive and all-around ludicrous. But... But now that it has unexpectedly sneaked its way into Serana's head, she cannot deny that... it was sort of... bound to occur to her?

At least, what Alexius just said is much more parent-like than most of the things she heard from her own father; and her mother, come to think of it.

Ugh. Her mother. Her supposed best friend, her only source of comfort in the desolation of Castle Volkihar, who, in the end, turned her into a pawn in a centuries-long, deadly game she played against her father. Once, Serana would have laid down her life just to earn one of her mother's calm, reserved nods of approval - but now, she is not too thrilled about meeting her again.

And yet, meet her she shall - once Agmaer is done waving his new crossbow around, and Alexius is done portal-making, and she can set off. That is her mission - to track down Mother, and the scroll she supposedly hid with her, like Serana hid hers. That is the task that Serana volunteered for - not out of particular longing for a motherly embrace (which she would never be getting anyway) but out of a desire to further their cause. Isran - very grumpily - allowed her to undertake this quest just before the courtyard training.

For hardly had Serana finished soothing Felix, when the ongoing argument between Isran and the others was interrupted by the arrival of Dexion the Moth Priest. The old scholar eyed the crowd of the yelling Dawnguard the way a responsible adult eyes bickering children and, clearing his throat politely, announced that he had fully rested and believed he was ready to start studying the Elder Scroll.

Isran, who had been treating the Priest with sincere reverence (wonder of wonders, Isran respecting people), dusted himself off in slight embarrassment and hissed at Gunmar and Yalanwen out of the corner of his mouth,

'I may be letting you and your fanged pets off now, but I will be watching. Watching all of you!'

After that, he ushered everyone towards the stairwell, and then into another chamber, circular and bare-walled, with nothing inside it save for a pedestal with Serana's Elder Scroll in the very centre. Well, at least the Redguard had made himself useful by fully accommodating the Priest.

With a nod of approval, Dexion stepped forward and took the relic in his hands; at the snap of Isran's fingers, dim silhouettes of some Dawnguard recruits stepped out of the shadows in the background and snuffed out the candles, so that the only source of light that remained was the gradually unfolding Scroll, its fabric woven out of glowing blue and white threads, with curious patterns slithering beneath the surface of the silken texture, never remaining in place longer than a second.

Dexion unwrapped the mystic fabric with very slow, meticulous care; no wonder than the fatigued Yalanwen began dozing off, both her arms wrapped tightly round the forearm of Alexius, who kept biting his lip, like he was torn between enjoying the proximity to Yalanwen and perhaps thinking that it was a bit improper. The hapless nap-deprived mortal must have felt especially sleepy when the Scroll was almost completely unveiled, and the Moth Priest asked the onlookers to close their eyes, because, as he explained accidental exposure to the glowing relic could result in instant blindness. Most Moth Priests inevitably went blind anyway, towards the end of their lives, but at least for them, the effect was delayed due to many years of training and contemplation; laypeople did not have that luxury.

The Dawnguard obeyed; even Isran, who tried to grouse something about constant vigilance, had to crinkle his eyes shut. Everything appeared to go dark and quiet - but not for long. Soon, Serana (and, as far as she could guess, everyone else) started hearing odd rustling noises, as though there was an invisible swarm of moths rising all around the room in a cloud on soft, powdery wings; and as the rustling mounted, there were wobbly dark-blue spots slithering across the black pall that pulsed below her fluttering eyelids.

At one point, the spots even seemed to grow hot, stinging at Serana's eyeballs through the protective curtain of flesh - and judging by the muffled gasps on either side of her, the others in the room were feeling the same. She was already half-prepared to tear her eyes open, to see if the cool touch of air could make them burn less - but then, the spots faded, as did the rustling, and all that remained in the dark was Dexion's voice, rhythmic and entranced, echoing off the rounded walls with a sharply ringing undertone,

'I see a vision before me... An image of a great bow... I know this weapon, from its depictions in the legends of old... It is the bow of Auri-El, the very same that shot the arrow to carry the heart of Lorkhan across creation! Now... Now a voice whispers to me... It says... It says that... in a time of strife, when dragons return to the realm of men, and the force of desperation challenges the laws of the worlds, a dread lord shall rise among the night's children... And upon his will, darkness shall mingle with light, and the night and day shall be as one. The words shimmer and distort, and I can see and hear no more... But I believe - I believe that there is more to the prophecy, its secrets locked away in other Elder Scrolls'.

And this was what Isran and the Dawnguard concerned themselves with when, breathless with his recent exertion, Dexion allowed them to open their eyes - and immediately sagged down, his chest heaving, into the arms of the baffled Redguard. Isran was still supporting the Priest, not too pleased with the burden but still careful enough not to let him fall to the floor, when he started assigning missions.

So. There are two more Elder Scrolls to be found. Serana knows that her mother hid one of them, so she is to seek her out, under Agmaer's supervision (hopefully, the puppy will not whimper too much on the way).

The other Scroll could be anywhere in Tamriel, but a good place to begin researching its whereabouts - according to Sorine - would be the library at the College of Winterhold, a secluded place far up north where mages go to study. Alexius has been deemed qualified for the task, since he has mentioned that he used to be a scholar and a teacher before being 'gifted' with vampirism. Felix has expressed a wish to come with his father (much to the latter's joy) - and, as Isran has barely just met the older Alexius, and still cannot bring himself to fully trust the younger, the two of them will also be watched over.

Serana believes that this responsibility will fall to Yalanwen, once she has caught enough sleep, as the rest of the recruits will be hunting down vampires and dealing with any agents the Volkihar might send along to try and thwart the Dawnguard's efforts; and Gunmar, who is still sulking at Isran, will stay behind at the fort, getting back to training and armouring his dogs and trolls. Sorine will stay too, so that she can find her bearings and start upgrading the fort's entire arsenal in the image of the crossbow she's fashioned for Agmaer.

Speaking of which, the Nord boy has finally put away his shiny new weapon. After waving goodbye to Sorine as she tucked the torchbug bowl under her arm and headed indoors, he has made a swift, energetic prance towards Serana, all determined and business-like, an axe beneath his belt and a crossbow on his back.

'Are you ready to move out?' he asks. 'Where shall we be going? Where is your mother hiding?'

Serana glances at Alexius - and, after receiving a nod from him to confirm that he needs no further tips on portal-making, tells Agmaer frankly,

'Actually... I am not quite certain. She... Did not trust me with all her plans, you see. She had her mind set on stopping this dark-and-light-mingling prophecy from happening, and it turned her into something... something akin to your Isran, I suppose'.

The comparison only just came to her, and that's... Not a cheering thought, not in the least.

'She was almost as paranoid and secretive as my father by the time she shut me in'.

Agmaer, who cast down his eyes sheepishly at the mention of Isran, looks up and blinks in confusion.

'Then why did you tell Isran you would handle this - if you don't even know anything?'

'Because at least it's a lead,' Serana says, trying not to give in to offense.

'And I may have been blank on my mother's location simply because I had no-one to talk to about it. Now, you and me, we can do a little... what's it called... brain-storm. See what we come up with'.

Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Alexius smile. Is that... Is that how a parent is supposed to smile?

She whips her head from shoulder to shoulder, to keep her thoughts from scattering all over the place again.

'Here's what comes to mind when I recall my mother,' she explains to Agmaer. 'The last time I saw her, she said that she'd go somewhere safe. Somewhere that my father would never search. Other than that, she wouldn't tell me anything. But I keep going back to the way she said it...'

Serana closes her eyes for a moment, envisioning the perfectly smooth, impenetrable white mask her once beloved mother's face had turned into during the years before her burial in Dimhollow - and has to clench her fists to push down a pang of pain.

'Somewhere he would never search,' she repeats deliberately, looking at Agmaer again. 'It was cryptic, annoyingly so - and yet... I think she called attention to it. She wanted me to remember this. This exact wording. But... I honestly can't imagine a single place my father would never think to look in. And he's had all this time, too. Any ideas?'

Agmaer scratches his head - and giggles suddenly.

'Please don't think this silly - but... It just... popped into my mind how my Da would stumble round the farmhouse, looking for his comb to groom his beard... And couldn't find it because he'd tucked it behind his ear! So... So maybe... Your father would never search his own castle?'

Serana beams; the way she must have bared her fangs frightens the boy somewhat, but he quickly calms down, guessing that she is simply enthused.

'That makes a lot of sense, actually!' she exclaims. 'Yes, good thinking, pup... Agmaer! I know where we will be heading now! There's a courtyard in the castle; I used to help Mother tend a garden there, collect the ingredients for her potions. She used to say that my father couldn't stand the place; too peaceful for his liking. I cannot teleport us there, as the castle is shielded from this sort of magic - but we can travel to the coast and take the enchanted boat to... to this unused inlet on the northern side of the island. An old tunnel from the castle exits there - this will be our way in!'

'Well, looks like you are all set,' Alexius remarks, giving Serana and Agmaer a small, courteous bow. 'I will go fetch Felix and see if Yalanwen has awoken. Best of luck to you both'.

'Thank you...' Serana says - and her voice catches abruptly, when she almost finishes the sentence with the word 'Father'.

She was grumbling to herself about the reality of her life just now - but perhaps... Perhaps, if she looks past the Volkihar madness, and past Isran (he is not the be-all, end-all staple of mortals, after all; just as her parents are not the staple of all vampires)... Perhaps it is not that bad, after all, her stay in this big old fortress. There are people here she does not detest. Felix, Alexius, Yalanwen. Perhaps even this pup Agmaer, if he does not prove entirely incompetent on their upcoming trip. She will see about that, won't she?


***


Quite proud of his newly acquired ability to teleport, Alexius uses it to zoom around the fort's courtyard and surprise Felix and Durak the Orc in the middle of their target practice, by stepping out of a purple vortex behind their backs.

The weapon Felix borrowed from Durak has not yet been upgraded with the clicking Dwarven cogs and wheels - but the boy still handles it quite admirably... Well, of course Alexius would think that; in his eyes, everything Felix does is admirable, especially if it is something he himself has no expertise in and can only gawk at with a layman's eyes. But even the Orc is impressed enough to make a muffled, Yes-like grunt when Felix asks him if he can take the crossbow with him this time.

And he is wearing a vest and a pair of pants now; some of the hides still remain, wrapped around his waist and flapping behind his back like a cloak - but at least he will have enough protection if something hostile tries to make a prod at his vital organs (provided, of course, that it somehow escapes being disintegrated by Alexius).

'Winterhold awaits, to mimic a corny adventure novel,' Alexius announces with a smile, making the Orc start and clutch his heart with a small 'Oof!'.

'Stupid bloodsucker, creeping up on people,' he grouses - to which Felix replies, with a little note of mischief that warms Alexius' heart (as much as it is possible),

'That's my father for you. The master of dramatic entrances'.

Durak snorts, unamused.

'Good for you that you found each other at all, and I hope the old vamp proves useful like you did - but I am kind of with Isran here. Got too many of you blighters in the ranks lately; makes me uneasy'.

'You will be changing your mind once we are back from Winterhold,' Felix assures him, hoisting his crossbow on his shoulder. 'My father will dig up clues for that scroll in no time; he is brilliant!'

'Yeah, yeah, well, hurry up,' Durak flaps his hands at the two of them impatiently. 'Don't forget your Bosmer nanny, or Isran will never let you go gallivanting across Skyrim'.

'The "nanny" has a name, and aspirations aside from shepherding us,' Alexius snaps testily.

He is probably making a mountain out of a mole hill, but Yalanwen is a... a bit of a sensitive subject.

'I will go and rouse her; Felix, if you will, please wait for us at the entrance to the fort,' he adds, after a bit of a strained pause.

'Very well, I will catch up. I was going to ask Gunmar or Sorine to let me take some gold from the order's coffers. Can't go giving away the shirt off my back to beggars again,' Felix says.

Having shaken hands with his son to seal their agreement to rendezvous, Alexius walks off (with a very dignified gait, he hopes) into another portal, which leads him right to Yalanwen's sleeping cot.

Sensitive subject, indeed. When he sees her, still asleep, with her face flushed and her hand resting in a half-clasped fist next to her cheek, he feels something crumble inside him... Something like a wall, which, once it has been reduced to dust, leaves his heart completely bare and helpless and at Yalanwen's full disposal.

Of course, Felix was right. Neither of them should form deep attachments in this world, where they don't belong - and where they might, indeed, not linger after Harkon has been dealt with, for perhaps this teleportation spell of Serana's can be refined into something more complex, something that will cross boundaries between worlds.

Strictly speaking, Alexius shouldn't even have spouted all that sentimental drivel about family to Serana, no matter how poignantly every thought of what she's been through makes him miss Dorian, pushing him to try and show the vampire girl the same manner of hospitality that he tried to extend to his apprentice.

And Yalanwen... Oh dear Maker, Yalanwen. He shouldn't... He really shouldn't look at her like this, melting at the sight of the peaceful expression on her face; he shouldn't brush her hair out of her eyes - and he most certainly shouldn't... he mustn’t... Oh, thank heavens he just had enough self-control to jerk away and not to wake her up with a kiss!

This is selfish of him, so selfish. So what if it has been a few years since Livia died, and mourning for her, together with fretting over Felix, has left him, as Dorian would put it, parched for affection? So what if Yalanwen has been kind and friendly to him almost since his first moments in Tamriel; so what if he feels happy and light-hearted in her presence, like he has seldom felt since the days when he was an aspiring young researcher at the Circle, not ashamed of turning into a sappy fool in public whenever his amata was near? So what if he... if he finds her beautiful?

His dilemma is not even comparable to Erandur's. That elf, like him, is old and tired of running away from what he once was - but he can allow himself to enjoy domestic bliss with Pony, because they are both borne of Tamriel. Neither of them might suddenly say to the other, once all the messes in this world have been fixed, 'Well, now that we are done, I really have to go back home! Enjoy the heartbreak'.

And, of course, there is the matter of him playing host to a feral, bloodthirsty, incredibly dangerous entity that might break through at any moment. He has (mostly) stayed in control this far, even prided himself on not being like Malkus or Harkon - but what if it is merely a matter of time before he snaps and, say, feasts on another child, unwilling this time?

No. He cannot do this to Yalanwen. He cannot... He cannot keep getting closer to her; that is simply not fair, and potentially risky, and in the future, it might very well hurt them both. But... But Maker, he cannot distance himself from her, either. It is already too late for that. He has already...

Stretching herself with a small, creaky groan, the elf opens her eyes. And there it is again, her disarming smile, which is physically impossible not to mirror.

'Have you been watching me sleep?' Yalanwen asks, sitting up - scoldingly, but not angrily. 'That is what creepy storybook vampires do - but you are nothing like them, I know that!'

Alexius hides his face in his hand.

'I... I only got here, I promise. I just came to tell you that Felix and I are ready to explore that... Winterhold place'.

'It's all right, it's all right, don't be embarrassed,' Yalanwen chuckles, standing up and giving herself another stretch. 'Just let me wash up, and then let's go scroll-scouring!'

From the fort's entrance, where the three of them gather, Alexius teleports the team to Riften stables (this requires taking Yalanwen by the hand in order to power up the spell with her memories of the place, and Alexius has no choice but to admit to himself that he is weak, oh so weak for her touch). Once in Riften, they use some of Yalanwen's - or rather, Dawnguard's - gold to pay a carriage driver to take them to Winterhold.

The journey north turns out long and tedious, especially since the colours by the roadside quickly fade from the gold and copper of the birches and then to drab grey and blurry white, which is swiftly being consumed by the muted, monochrome haze of the gloaming (Alexius summons a flicker of mage fire to rest over the driver's shoulder and help him see the road better, but it does not help).

Perhaps, as a vampire, Alexius is supposed to enjoy the sight; but as a native of a sunny, verdant nation, where the difference between the summer and winter is in the slightly higher number of rainy days, this snowy Skyrim evening makes him want to yawn.

Yalanwen offers to let the father and son to pass the time by playing a casual game of 'cities ', wherein players are supposed to list the names of different cities, each one beginning with the final letter of the one before. But their little match soon dwindles into miserable silence, because both Alexius and Felix utterly fail to recollect Tamrielic cities to fit in with the ones Yalanwen so eagerly prompts them with. They have made themselves casually familiar with the local geography by now - but it is still so hard to fight back the initial instinct and not to respond to 'Marbruk' with 'Kirkwall' or to 'Skywatch' with 'Halamshiral'.

'I apologize,' Alexius says in a small voice, at the end of a stretch of strained silence that followed when Yalanwen named some place called 'Skingrad' and the only city he could think of in return was 'Denerim'.

'I... I appreciate your effort to help us all pass the time - but it seems that neither of us is particularly good at this'.

'Think nothing of it,' Yalanwen shrugs genially. 'Sometimes I forget the most obvious words myself. I will think of another ga... Oh, by the gods, look at this!'

Fidgeting joyfully in her seat, she points upwards - and when Alexius and Felix turn to look, they both freeze in awe, their vampiric eyes widened and filled with a honey-warm glow.

There is a river of the most vibrant turquoise streaming across the sky - somewhat like the wound left by the Breach over Thedas, but not at all ominous. Its flow is drowsy and serene, and there are glinting specks of white and silver bobbing up and down on its large, rounded waves. In the river's light, it becomes apparent that they are travelling along a body of water, which reflects the flowing ribbon up above, breaking it up into countless splashes of blue and green, which dazzle the eye more than the over-the-top gemstone adornments on a magister's ceremonial robe.

Suddenly, the nocturnal journey does not seem the least bit boring any longer; and the winding ice-crusted road seems to turn into a magical bridge, which leads into the heart of a new, mystical realm, that of ever-shifting colours and mesmerizing dances of light and shadow, a wondrous vision from an unexplored corner of the Fade turned into waking reality.

'Oh heavens... This is beautiful...' Alexius whispers, taking Yalanwen's hand before he even realizes what he is doing and lifting it up so it can rest on his chest. If his heart was still capable of beating, it would have been throbbing with excitement now.

He had no idea that the local climate was capable of producing such magical phenomena; perhaps it merits exploring a little longer, even after Alexius and the others thwart Harkon's plans. Knowing his inquisitive nature, Felix is probably as enthusiastic about the wonders of Tamriel as himself; he might not disapprove if his father uses this excuse to linger... To spend just a little while more by Yalanwen's side...

Alexius' wishful thinking is cut short when the ethereal turquoise ribbons suddenly begin shifting and twisting and wrapping themselves into an odd, vaguely humanoid figure... A man - no, an elf - in billowing robes, walking across the sky, apparently visible only to Alexius (as neither Felix nor Yalanwen seem alerted by any changes in the pattern of lights).

As he walks, he extends his hand to the flabbergasted vampire - and says, his voice a pulse inside Alexius' skull, like the call of the Markarth haunted house was.

'Look at me, outsider, and listen well! Know that the mages in the College that lies on the road ahead of you have already set in motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped. Judgement has not been passed, as they had no way of knowing. Judgement will be passed on the actions to come, and on how the mages, and you, will deal with the dangers that await. This warning is passed to you because the Psijic Order believes in you. You, traveller from beyond, and you alone, have the potential to prevent disaster. Take great care, and know that the Order is watching'.

Chapter Text

It all starts out quite well, if Agmaer does say so himself.

Serana the vampiress (yes, he is going to call her Serana, because, much as he admires Isran, it feels wrong to refer to her as 'it' like he does) obviously tries her best to be friendly to him, and Agmaer is ready to return the favour.

Her swirling bright-purple portal, which she conjures up after that other vampire, Alexius, leaves, looks a bit iffy to Agmear at first, and he hesitates, a blotchy hot flush on his face, as he remembers how he tried to catch Isran when he almost got sucked into one of these things. But presently, he collects himself, and reaches out to touch the portal's surface, his fingers quivering a bit.

His hand passes through like a knife slicing off a bit of melted butter... Mmm, his Da's farm makes the yummiest goat butter; it is probably a bit of a milk-drinker thing to do, have such a weakness for dairy, when there is rib roast to be torn apart in a true manly fashikn... But Agmaer cannot help it! He even had a dream once, where he was offering Isran to try some bread with a generous helping of it - and Isran was even smiling... But that is neither here nor there.

After Agmaer plunges his hand into the portal's whirlpool, the rest of him follows without even any particular effort on his part, pulled up from the leaf-strewn ground by the same invisible force that wanted to whisk Isran off to Markarth.

The magic stings at Agmaer's body, and it frightens him somewhat, his mistrustful Nord instincts kicking in - but he reminds himself that he is a brave Dawnguard member, on his way to prove himself to Isran, so that he maybe... takes back those hurtful words of his; so that he can see that Agmaer can be special, if he only just lets him!

And since Agmaer is setting out to impress Isran, he can handle getting prickled by some portal spell - especially as, in truth, it is no worse than putting on a knitted yarn shirt. He closes his eyes and dives in completely - and very soon, all the prickling is gone, and when Agmaer looks around again, he is already in what definitely is a completely different part of Skyrim... The Pale, maybe? Those massive, sharpened chunks of ice, which jut out of the sloshing water like the fingers of some impossibly enormous frost troll that sank to the sea bottom and is begging for help, surely do look like something you'd see in the Pale.

Serana is standing on the frozen shore by Agmaer's side, looking at the waves from underneath her hand.

'This is the place where I caught the boat to the castle last time,' she explains. 'It is enchanted to serve the will of those who have vampiric blood, and even though I kind of... defected, it still ought to obey me and take us to the inlet'.

And sure enough, it is not long before the water surface breaks into pearly bubbles, and a little sleek black vessel rises up from below the waves. Serana gestures at it with mocking hospitality, and Agmaer feels his insides curl up uncomfortably again. This... This is a bit too much creepiness for a simple Nord farm boy - but think of the stories he will tell Isran of his bravery! Think of how his frown will melt, and he will say,

'Agmaer, I have misjudged you. You do mean a lot more to me than the other hunters. Now, let's kiss!'

Or... Or something.

Squaring his shoulders, Agmaer climbs into the boat (which turns out surprisingly dry) after Serana - and in a single blink, it already rushes off across the black icy swell, needing no oars or sails or wind to guide it.

A few more blinks, and they are already approaching the grey rocky coast of an island - which has to be the place where the Volkihar live. Serana leans in closer to the boat, stroking its sides and moving her lips noiselessly, as if whispering some command. A command that the boat follows, ducking underneath the overhanging snow-capped cliffs, out of view of any sentries that might patrol the castle parapets.

'In hindsight, we should probably have waited through the night till everyone here's asleep,' she whispers. 'But Isran would have probably flayed us alive for dallying'.

Agmaer blushes, his heart quickening. That is... That is because of the thrill of going on a stealthy mission, right? Right?

'I am sorry Isran treats you and your friends like this,' he mouths back. 'He... He just really believes that all vampires are monsters'.

'Yes, yes, I know, I should not begrudge him that,' Serana says, somewhat irascibly, as the boat glides towards a half-crumbled stone pier that rises over a tiny, rubble-filled bay at the side of the island, with a cracking, age-worn stairway leading up from it somewhere into the heart of the overhanging rock mass.

'Especially if the other vampires he's met are like my father... But gods, he is so annoying at times! And having some vampire-linked tragic past doesn't excuse him being... what do you modern people call it... a hole of the arse to everyone all the time. To you, say. I mean, who, apart from us horrid, horrid vampires, mistreats the person who loves them?'

Agmaer makes a small squeak. It's that obvious, then? This sort of... stifling feeling, like there is not enough air to breathe, that overcomes him almost every time when he is in Isran's vicinity.

'I... I don't...' he stammers. 'I mean... Isran... He does have a... s-softer side... I have seen it...'

And it is true (or so he hopes): he has witnessed the rare spectacle of Isran being fast asleep, his large coarse hand limp and warm underneath Agmaer's fingertips, his lips twitching, as a smile tried to form on them and then faded away again. Gods, his face looked even more handsome when he was so utterly peaceful...

'Well, if the man cares for you, he had better show that elusive soft side more often,' Serana says resolutely, helping Agmaer out onto firm ground - and, moved by her being as considerate of him as Yalanwen and Sorine have been, he decides, much firmer this time, and once and for all, that she never, ever be an 'it' to him.

They might have kept talking about Isran - if Serana had not looked up and hissed out a curse.

'Bone hawks!' she says, after she is finished naming the parts of Molag Bal that she would like to kick or shove sharp objects inside. 'Oh, these critters are devious! My father's alchemist, Feran Sadri, sort of... builds them out of the bones of the birds our... their Death Hounds kill. They spy on the approach to the castle and alert the residents if they spot something suspicious - and dammit, look how many of them are up there!'

Agmaer follows the direction of Serana's angry gesture - and sees a whole rippling curtain of black dots filling the dark-blue sky. Squinting a little in the light of a spell orb Serana has summoned, he is able to make out that these dots actually have wings: long, spiky, and completely featherless.

'All right, Agmaer,' Serana says, taking aim with a shard of ice. 'Time to see how fancy that crossbow of yours actually is!'

Oh, she wants them to shoot down the winged spies before they can bring the whole vampire brood upon them? He can do that! He has a very fine piece of Dwemer weaponry at his disposal - together with a huge dose of proper Dawnguard courage, yes! He will show these hawk critters what for!

Cocking the crossbow on his shoulder, Agmaer points it at the skies; looks through the round target-like thingy Sorine has installed for better aiming; inhales, a tingling warmth pooling up in his stomach when he remembers Isran's guiding hand on his waist and his deep, gruff voice telling him to mind the recoil - and fires.

The bolt hits one of the birds: not exactly in the chest, which is what Agmaer was going for; but it does chip off half of the creature's bony wing, making it lose balance and plummet down, getting entangled with a couple of other hawks along the way. Their bones a crisscrossing, chattering mess, they jerk madly in the air in a squirming ball, catching against more and more hawks - and then splash right into the heaving waves, never to surface again. While these hawks are falling, Agmaer manages to hit a few more, sending their bones down in a white shower. Serana, who, incredible a warrior though Agmaer is, can see a lot better in the dark, also takes out quite a few hawks with her spells - and in between the efforts of the two of them, the sky is cleared of flying lookouts.

Agmaer is ready to turn to Serana and offer her to bump her fist against his in recognition of their mutual heroics - but suddenly, the gravel underneath his feet begins to bounce up and down, set in motion by a low rumble below the surface; and the next thing Agmaer knows, there is a pair of skeletal hands locking round his windpipe, trying to strangle him from behind.

He almost weeps with frustration when his vision begins to grow dark: this cannot be the end! No, please no! He has to complete his mission! He has to become special in Isran's eyes! He has to live long enough to tell him that... that he might be... he may be... he is in love with him!

'Done and done!' Serana's voice calls out, while Agmaer is deafened by the rattle of bones against the crunching gravel, and then the world falls back into place again.

Wheezing loudly and massaging his half-squished neck, Agmear looks down to see that he is standing over a mound of mismatched human bones, which must have, minutes ago, been a complete human skeleton - wearing a horned Nordic helmet, no less, which is now lying overturned at his feet.

'Could be one of the castle's previous owners,' Serana comments. 'My family did not exactly conclude a fair estate deal with them when they moved in, so there must have been some... Bitter sentiments. Oh, and here comes another one!'

The second skeleton, also in a horned helmet, rises up at the very bottom of the stone stairs - and hardly does it begin to wobble towards the two intruders, when it is stopped by a hail of ice magic and a few bolts from Agmaer, which deepen the cavities that are already nestling in these age-old, brittle bones, making the skeleton trip over its own feet and crumble into dust.

'My mother used to say during our Necromancy lessons that Nord skeletons are the weakest because they stop drinking milk when they reach adulthood, and mock anyone who does so,' Serana remarks, with a little bit of wry, dark humour that sends a shiver up Agmaer's spine, before stepping over the little bonemeal heap and beginning to walk up the stairs. 'She was right about this much, hmm?'

Agmaer giggles nervously - and tells himself that he should no longer find shame in being so fond of the milk and butter from his Da's farm. There are other ways to prove that you are not a milk-drinker, apart from actually not drinking milk! Like - like taking battle to bone hawks and skeletons and whatever other things that may await him on the other end of this staircase!

The top landing faces a small arch; there must have been a door here, once, but the wood has long since rotted through. Their path unbarred, Serana and Agmaer step over the threshold, and find themselves in a narrow tunnel, with glistening, damp walls that Agmaer would really prefer not to touch.

'Yes, this is the place,' Serana nods, striding on ahead, with a guiding spell light bobbing over her shoulder. 'It leads to the old cistern; we have less use for water than mortals do, so Father would sometimes just dump bodies in there... Ugh, the smell it had... You really should feel lucky you weren't around back then!'

The cistern, which the reach after a short walk, is a vast, vaulted catacomb that is almost completely taken up a huge basin of deep, perfectly still water, with only a narrow strip of slippery sidewalk framing it. There are heavy grey vapours hanging over the water, the outlines of low-arched little bridges looming through them like blotchy streaks of ink on rain-splattered paper. The inklings of a bitter, rancid smell still linger, but not enough to make you sick - and the sight of the cistern, though eerie, is also kind of beautiful... And exciting?

It's like Agmaer and Serana are characters of some adventure novel, delving deep underground to uncover secrets and claim treasure, exploring darkened passages, with their faces lit up dramatically, their shoulders cloaked in a mantle of mist, their footsteps echoing throughout a mystical ancient chamber... A wonderful sensation, really!

Things get slightly less wonderful, however, when, without warning, a hunched black shape, with long arms that almost trail over the floor, and a pair of blazing yellow eyes, emerges out of the mist and pounces at Serana, who is still treading ahead, and almost knocks her into the water.

Much to his shame, Agmaer shrieks like a child that has seen a creepy crawly many-legged creature running up his leg - but while still shrieking, he whips out his crossbow and rushes to defend his loyal adventuring sidekick, like a true master dungeon delver would. Shrieking, he loads the bolt; shrieking, he aims between the creature's eyes; and shrieking, he releases the trigger.

Then, when the figure falls, still twitching and now trying to grab Agmaer by the ankles, he continues to shriek. The sound, high-pitched and monotonous and somehow seeming to exist apart from him, accompanies him motions when he switches from his crossbow to his axe and brings the blade down on the writhing, deformed thing's neck, with a crunch that is almost inaudible amid all the shrieking. He only falls silent when the creature freezes up at his feet and Serana crouches next to it, her expression thoughtful and almost sad.

One look at her face makes Agmaer shut his mouth with a soft 'flop', then gulp a little and let his arm with the axe droop down, dark blood still dripping on the floor.

'Was that a vampire?' he asks in a hushed voice, now noticing that the dead creature has a squashed-up face that resembles Felix's bat form, and a gaping black hole of a maw, with needle-like teeth sticking out of it. Its clammy grey forehead is creased with a deep frown, and its purple lips are all lopsided, as if it was in great pain before it died. It could have been from the wounds that Agmaer inflicted - but now that he thinks of it, the figure was already making a grimace when it attacked them.

'Yes,' Serana sighs, getting up and looking away. 'A feral one. Barely sentient at this point. It happens sometimes... When the turning ritual gets botched, or the hunger for blood proves too much, and the person goes mad. I've wondered if these poor wretches can be helped, made feel better - but it is bad tone among the so-called civilized vampires to as much as speak of them. It is so much easier to lock them away in a dark tunnel and pretend they don't even exist'.

Agmaer tries to make a vague sympathetic noise - thinking back to that one time when his Da tried to overcome his Nordic prejudice and ask the wandering mage who was spending the night at their cottage if she could heal one of their goats, which had fallen sick and was bleating shrilly with pain day and night.

'I am no healer,' the mage said, shrugging. 'But I can put a Muffle spell on your barn door so you cannot hear the animal scream any more'.

'That is not the same thing!' a younger Agmaer pouted, to which the mage shrugged again.

'It will get rid of the problem, yes?'

Agmaer's Da, too, did not approve of this in the least.

'Well, how about you put a Muffle spell on our front door instead,' he said, with a warning huff, like a bull digging his front hoof into the ground. 'And then we kick you out into the rain, and when you knock on our door, begging to let you in, we won't hear you, and this will get rid of the problem!'

Needless to say, the mage left, scowling, shortly after that.  But the whole conversation remained imprinted into Agmaer's memory for all the years to come - and it now comes back to him, making him wish he could put his recollections into words, without insulting Serana by making her think he compares her kin to goats (though goats are far cuter than most vampires, to be fair).

But she dismisses any of his bumbling attempts at conversation with a swift shake of the head, and takes a stride forward.

'I... would prefer not to go into this. Talk of the facets of vampirism doesn't exactly make me giggly and excited. Let's just keep moving'.

After they pass through the cistern - with a few more feral vampires popping up on their way, all of which both Serana and Agmaer take great care to shoot at from a distance only, before they could see the pain in their faces again - they enter a whole dark web of tunnels, many with dozens upon dozens of bones piled up in the corners, large fat skeevers slinking in and out through the arching rib cages and sending skulls rolling with the kicks of their pink, scabby little feet.

The sight always makes Agmaer go blank-eyed and a bit nauseous, but Serana reminds him that he needs to stay sharp - for the floor of the tunnels is crisscrossed with tripwires, and one wrong step may send a long, spike-adorned rope unfurling from the ceiling somewhere, threatening to slash at your face and limbs if you do not jump back in time.

'My father installed all these convoluted defenses when he started becoming more and more paranoid,' Serana says, while putting a barrier in between Agmaer and yet another one of the swooshing spike garlands. The shield spell is barely a hair's breadth thick, but it is the only thing that saves Agmaer's eyes from getting punctured.

'Whoah, thank you,' he coughs, staggering back and rubbing his fists into his sockets.

Serana smirks.

'That is just the beginning of it'.

And she is right. The traps and bone piles are soon joined by creaking draw bridges, crossing over dark pits strewn over with even more skeletal remains. Not all of these bridges are lowered, and some among those that are, lead to dead ends or to false tunnel mouths, pictured in cracking paint on damp, ancient canvas. And, of course, according to Serana, most of the bridges that they actually need to cross, in order to keep progressing through this cavernous maze, are to be brought down from a steep, vertical position, by pulling at levers that just have to be hidden in hard-to-reach little cave thingies - alcoves, Agmaer thinks Serana calls them.

One of these alcoves even turns out to the lair of the most gigantic spider Agmaer has ever laid his eyes on. The initial shock of seeing the creature trotting across the floor, with its clawed front legs raised into the air and jerking unpleasantly, makes Agmaer shriek again - but not for long this time, because the blasted thing turns its swollen, bristly behind towards him (in a way that Agmaer really, really doesn't like to have behinds shown to him), and squirts out a blast of sticky white mass that gets into Agmaer's mouth and glues the entire left half of his body to the already dull-grey, dusty old cobwebs that cover the nearby wall. Not exactly a dignified turn for a battle to take - but, like a true hero of the Dawnguard, Agmaer finds a way out.

While Serana is keeping the spider busy, circling around it with magic humming in her hands and dodging new jets of webbing and of sizzling acidic venom (this stuff comes out of the critter's mouth for a change), Agmaer flexes the shoulder of his right arm, which has not been incapacitated by the sticky tethers and, tying himself into knots like a fish struggling for dear life on the tip of an angler's hook, reaches for Da's trusty old axe and tugs it free. A few chaotic chop-chops later, Agmaer is unbound and prancing towards the spider, back on his journey to the heights of heroism again.

Of course, you could argue that it is Serana that kills the critter off, driving a glowing frozen lance through the top of its head - but Agmaer prefers to think that it is his mighty weapon that does the job, cleaving off the spider's legs and pincers till it is nothing but a very disgusting, fat, hairy dumpling that twitches its last on the ground before receiving a few more farewell slices from the Nordic axe and, at a snap of Serana's fingers, getting engulfed in ghostly purple flame.

'I did great, didn't I?' Agmaer says smugly, while posing against the cobwebbed lever that he and Serana have been trying to reach all along. 'Do you think Isran will enjoy hearing a report of my...'

He searches for a word a bard would use.

'My audacious exploits?'

Serana rolls her eyes.

'Just pull at the thing already. We have not even properly started the mission yet'.

Agmaer complies, still making a point to puff out his chest. When he yanks at the lever, the whole tunnel fills with resounding creaking and grinding and rope stretching, and the biggest drawbridge yet flops down over a bone-filled trench below.

After crossing this bridge, it is a relatively short trek under ground, after which, the two adventurers finally emerge into fresh air. The maze of traps and murk and stagnation remains behind their backs, while their faces turn towards the tall dome of the starry sky, which arches over a desolate little square, paved with grey stone, some slabs of which have been clawed off the ground and dumped into lopsided little pyramids. There are tufts of wilted, ashen-shaded grass slumping along the square's sides, sometimes growing through the cracks in the overturned earthenware vases and pots. The only plant that appears to be thriving is nightshade, which, as Agmaer has been told, loves desolation and decay and is the necessary attribute of all lifeless, gloomy places, like cemeteries and such.

A depressing sight, in short, quite in contrast with the pretty twinkling in the sky, where Agmaer can spot the first bright strokes of a nighttime rainbow. Is this the vampires' idea of a peaceful family garden?

Apparently not: seeing the wreckage all around her, Serana chokes on her own gleeful exclamation 'We made it to the courtyard!' and folds herself weakly into a kneeling pose.

'No,' she whispers, mechanically cradling a shard of a broken flower pot. 'No... This place used to be so beautiful...'

She glances up at Agmaer, her lower lip quivering, her expression so very humanly helpless that his innards clench painfully.

'Imagine a garden lovingly nurtured by a master who had hundreds of years at her disposal... And now, it's been turned into - into this!'

'Do you think your father wrecked it?' Agmaer asks, squatting next to her, inexplicably feeling tiny, like a speck of dust blown by the wind into a dead garden under the burning blue-green sky - which now seems cold and empty and indifferent. 'So... So he did think to look here... My... My thought was wrong... I was wrong... I am not special, after all... I will fail this mission... Isran will never love me...'

'Oh, come on, pup, don't start whining now!'

Serana raises her voice; her expression is still heartbroken, but she is trying very hard to return to her snarky self.

'Maybe you weren't wrong, after all,' she says, grabbing Agmaer by the collar of his Dawnguard vest and pulling him to his feet. 'Look over there!'.

There is a giant disk in the couryard's centre - like a sundial, only Agmaer doubts that vampires would have any use for those... So, a moondial, then? Yes, that could be it: when he walks closer, the dead grass rustling sadly around his ankles, he sees that the disk is decorated with little circular plaques that picture the phases of Secunda (he saw something like this on the shepherd's calendar in his Da's home). Although - although a few plaques are missing from their slots; this must have been what Serana noticed with her vampiric vision.

'You think this is a clue?' he asks, poking at one of the empty slots with his foot. 'The moon thingies? But - but maybe your father just tore them out, when he was thrashing everything else here?'

'No, I don't think so,' Serana muses. 'They have been removed far too carefully. Maybe my mother hid them on purpose. We should take a look around'.

Agmaer agrees eagerly - if Serana is right and this is not a dead end, he might still prove that he is special!

The two of them wander off in the opposite directions, they wandering eyes scanning every inch of the rubble that covers the garden - and shortly afterwards, Agmaer has to shriek again, for gods know which time, because when he looks down into a dark, stagnant pool at the base of the courtyard wall, he sees a skeleton on the bottom. It has crossed its arms, which glow like broken-up rays of white light through the water; and there seems to be something large and round poking from underneath them.

'Not so loud,' Serana hisses, hurrying back to Agmaer's side. 'We are technically in Castle Volkihar now - in a more secluded corner of it, maybe, but still! Oh, wait... What is that? Hold a moment, let me raise it'.

Agmaer's shriek is stifled by mute horror - for the next thing Serana does is to stretch her arms forward, clench and unclench her fingers, and make bright purple ripples rush over the pool's surface, so that the water hisses and boils without giving off heat, and then rushes back on either side of the skeleton. The purple light is now dancing in both of its eyeless sockets, stretching into long tongues of cold flame, while the skeleton slowly gets up to its feet, still clutching the round object to its chest.

'All right,' Serana says, in a loud, demanding voice, articulating every word as if she was speaking to someone hard of hearing. 'Who were you in life, and what is this you are holding?'

Agmaer bites hard into his nails to prevent himself from shrieking again. He can handle this. He has dealt with walking skeletons before; surely, a walking and a talking skeleton can't be that much worse? Isran would certainly not be scared by something like this!

'I was...' the skeleton replies, in a grating, dusty voice that has a very odd, choppy intonation (well, what would you expect from a bunch of reanimated bones). 'I was... the thrall of Lady Valerica... I  gave her my blood... I gave her my mind... I gave her my life... She... She went beneath the moondial... And told me to remove three disks with the moon crests... And then.. drown myself...'

Serana hangs her head, casting an apologetic look at Agmaer as he shudders from head to toe.

This poor, poor soul! To meet an end like this... Well, if they ever do cross paths this 'Lady Valerica' (who, as Agmaer guesses, must be Serana's mother), Agmaer is certainly not letting her do the same to him! Sure, Serana has been friendly and all - but he is not getting thralled by her mother! He is a true warrior of the Dawnguard!

'I am the daughter of Lady Valerica,' Serana continues talking to the skeleton, having composed herself. 'And I know some of her magic. I can release you from your thrall if you give us your crest, and tell us where the other two are'.

Agmaer can swear that the skeleton perks up with glee when it hears this.

'Here,' it croaks, unfolding is arms and handing Serana the round object, which is precisely one half dark and one half silver. 'The Half-Moon Crest. The... Full Moon Crest... is buried... under... the patch... of nightshade... And the... Crescent... Crest... is attached... to the inner side... of the table... on the terrace...'

'Thank you,' Serana says earnestly, laying one hand on the skeleton's fleshless shoulder while holding on to the moon crest with the other. 'Rest now'.

There is a curious noise, like a hushed sigh; and at the same time, more purple light spreads from Serana's hand, its streaks glinting through the core of the skeleton's bones like precious ore veins. When the light permeates the whole skeleton from head to toe, it flares up to its brightest, moulding into the image of a smiling broad-shouldered man with a braided beard - the last reminiscence of what the poor thrall looked like in life - and when it fades, there is nothing left behind, not a bone or a tooth. Just lapping pool water with flakes of ash peppering its surface.

'Let's find those other crests,' Serana says, her voice a bit stifled. 'The mission is back on track - and you were right to suggest looking in the castle, after all!'

The remaining two moondial fragments are exactly where the thrall said they would be (well, the crescent one is actually lying around on the ground under the table, but it must have simply become unstuck over all these years). And when Agmaer and Serana insert each of the crests back in its place, the dial's giant disk shifts to the side with an ear-splitting scrape, revealing a long winding staircase that leads somewhere underground again. To Valerica's hidden lair, perhaps?

Even though his heart is still somewhat heavy after listening to Serana talk to the thrall, Agmaer cannot resist skipping two stone steps at a time when he begins descending the staircase. They have made progress; things are shaping themselves well again...

Until they aren't.

Chapter Text

Agmaer is barely aware of himself stumbling out of the portal that Serana has conjured up to take him back to Fort Dawnguard. He is barely aware of anything, really, not even that annoying pulse of pain that has been shooting through his ankle. All that remains is this odd sensation, as if someone has burned a hole right through his chest, making all of the vital stuff fall out... His heart, mainly.

Yes, there is an empty, charred space there his heart used to be, and some clumsy, ragdoll limbs, with no sinews or nerves or pain, have gotten attached to his hollow body in place of his arms and legs. They carry him somewhere, he does not even know where (and doesn't care, either), shuffling and flailing in an otherworldly plane that is completely separate from himself, and does not feel quite real. Nothing feels quite real to him, not any more.

The only thing closest to reality right now is the single thought that hangs over his hollow self like a storm cloud. He has failed. He has failed. He has failed. Soon, Isran will see him, and ask him where the Scroll is, and the only thing he will be able to do in response will be to bow down his head, and shrug, and mumble something pathetic like 'I am sorry, I tried'. This is not how... how special heroes return from missions! This is not how they win the heart of the person they admire! This is not how they contribute to the cause!

He has failed - and worst of all, he did not even foresee this until the very last. When the moondial opened a passage in Valerica's garden, he was so, so stupidly full of himself. He thought he was keeping up the good work he had started; he thought things were going to be easy as mammoth snout pie from then on.

And his blasted illusion was further sustained by how well he did in the few trials that followed next.

The passage that he and Serana entered, after going down the winding staircase, turned out to be guarded by two gargoyles - those huge, winged, thick-skinned creatures that can disguise themselves as statues and, according to the senior Dawnguard members, are often found nesting in the darkest corners of vampires' strongholds. But Agmaer was not deterred by these stone sentinels - he did not even shriek too much when they began to stir in their shadowy alcoves, huffing heavily through their widened nostrils and clawing so hard at the stone that it crumbled under the touch of their claws like the softest loaf of bread.

He thought he had been toughened up by his previous encounters with hostile critters; he was even happy to load his shiny Dwarven crossbow and distract the gargoyles by scraping at their thick necks and massive bulbous heads with his bolts, while Serana got close enough to duck underneath their thrashing wings and shackle their hind paws with a whole slab of conjured ice, which made them stagger in the relatively narrow confines of the passage, and slash at one another with their long, crimson-tinted claws.

'Gargoyles use primitive magic to drain a victim's life force,' Serana commented, when the stone monstrosities became hopelessly stuck on the floor, too weakened to get up. 'A neat trick while fighting them is to make them wound one another. My... My friends, Yalanwen and Alexius, taught me that. And now I'm teaching you. Camaraderie and such. Now, you can finish them off if you like. So that you have even more fantastical tales to share with Isran'.

And he did finish them off - boldly, proudly, with his Da's axe sinking deep into the few slightly less hardened spots on the creatures' bodies,  and hacking, hacking away, chopping the beasties down into a pile of rocks. Oh gods, he was feeling so ecstatic, so tingly all over, when he finally slid off the vanquished gargoyles and trotted further up the passage; he was so convinced that he would absolutely tackle whatever came next. Little did he know.

After the skirmish with the gargoyles, they came across a new puzzle to solve, when the underground corridor gradually widened into a darkened room, with ancient-looking furniture out of cracked, dull-red wood, all gathered around a cold, dust-filled fireplace. There were no other tunnels or doors leading anywhere beyond that room, which could have prompted Agmaer to get upset again, thinking that this was another dead end. But now, he believed he knew better; now, he was undeterred, enthused by the success with solving the moondial puzzle (thanks to that poor thrall, may he find his way to Sovngarde, for even though he had not died in battle, he most certainly deserved some rest and a good feast).

Summoning memories of all the exciting adventure tales he'd ever heard and read, Agmaer began to grope around the cobwebbed walls, convinced that the fireplace was actually concealing a secret passage. What else would the vampires need a fireplace for, after all? It's not like they spent the evenings warming themselves by the cozy crackling hearth.

And he proved himself right, in the end, even strengthening his stupid delusion that he was to complete the mission with flying colours. Oh, if only he had some of those weird magicky powers so he could travel back in time and punch his own smug face! If only he could wipe off that toothy grin of his, which seemed to light up the entire room brighter than Serana's glowing wisp spell when he finally found a candlestick that looked slightly different from the others and wobbled it to and fro, making the back panel of the fireplace crawl slowly to the side, revealing another corridor. If only he could slap down at his own hand, and stop himself from making a deliberately broad, generous, inviting gesture to a mildly amused Serana, with which he called for her to 'join him in more exciting dungeon delving'; if only he could give himself a good shake, and say... Say something strict, something disapproving, something Isran-like. Something along the lines of,

'You brainless kid! This isn't going to be exciting! This is going to be awful, and you are going to bloody hate yourself towards the end!'

But he has no such powers. And he bets that time travel is impossible anyway, even for experienced vampire sorcerers like Serana or that Alexius fellow. So the only thing Agmaer can do now is relive the memories of his disaster of a mission, while the hole in his chest keeps on growing.

The secret passage behind the fireplace took him and Serana to a huge room, where the walls were lined with large, elaborate alchemy stations - whole mazes of twisting, curling glass tubes and round smoky orbs and flasks of different shapes and sizes, some of which still coughed out tufts of green smoke (through some unearthly magic, no doubt). There were tables too, heavily laden with large bowls and incredibly thick, definitely unliftable books, their open pages grey with age-old dust; and shelves upon shelves of the most bizarre ingredients imaginable, from bundles of dried up roots, shaped like hairy-legged, pot-bellied little men that seemed to stir and even grumble sleepily at the sound of the two explorers' footsteps, to eyes floating around in slime-filled jars. One of these eyes rotated on the spot as Agmaer was passing by and gaping around at all these icky-yes-also-storybook-like alchemical troves - and glared at him, its pupil shrinking to a tiny pinpoint.

Agmaer was ready to shriek again - like the failed excuse for a Dawnguard that he actually is - but just at that moment, Serana drew his attention to some little, crinkly journal she had picked off a table and was busily been leafing through, and he went back to fancying himself a daring investigator, cracking old secrets and unearthing the path to the legendary Elder Scroll.

The journal belonged to Serana's mother, Valerica, and in it, she talked on and on about her plan to escape from her husband and his 'ridiculous, short-sighted crusade'. Agmaer did his best to make out her rushed, squiggly handwriting, while dancing on tiptoe behind Serana's back, his eyes squinting at the small, yellow-tinged paper sheets. But he has always been more accustomed to printed books with large, round, clearly discernible letters (and even those, he is a bit slow to read) - so the only words that really caught his eye were the ones that Valerica had put down with more care than the rest, even taking time to underline them in a neat, bold ink strike.

The Soul Cairn.

Serana's face fell when she read that part, and Agmaer saw a shadowy crease appear between her eyebrows. That should have served as a warning, a premonition that nothing good would come out of this - but Agmaer did not care for premonitions. All he cared about was being a dashing knight that would fight evil and ultimately sweep Isran off his feet. The dunce.

Serana explained that the Soul Cairn was a ghostly, nightmarish realm, not unlike a plane of Oblivion, where the unneeded shreds of life energy went to, after a living creature got soul-trapped to power a necromancer's enchantment. And furthermore, to be able to walk inside it freely, as a conscious person rather than a lost, half-drained wraith, you had to be... well... like Serana and her mother. Undead.

Hearing this made Agmaer clutch at his chest with one hand and his throat with the other, to keep the quivering invisible string, which was pulling itself taut inside him, from snapping - because if it did, Agmaer was certain he would shriek louder than ever before, smashing all of those alchemy flasks and ingredient shards and showering himself and Serana in slime, magical green farts, and glaring eyes.

His mind filled with visions of Serana biting him so that he could pass into that Soul Cairn place; of blood streaming out of the punctures in his neck in twin dark rivers; of his own skin turning the colour of dust and old cobwebs and stretching back over his skull till his cheekbones began jutting out sharply through the thin layer of flesh, the way Alexius' cheekbones do. And, of course, there were also visions of Isran, his face changed into a stone carving, with no emotion in his eyes save for the most bitter, stinging revulsion.

He will still be looking at Agmaer this way, although for a different reason. And who knows - perhaps it would have been better if he did agree to get turned into a creature of the night, to become Serana and Valerica's kin. Becoming a vampire is a more valid cause to be despised by Isran than... Than just being a wimpy weakling.

But he never did become a vampire. Seeing the obvious distress in his eyes (which by then, had begun to brim over with tears), she lifted her hand in front of her, as if signalling Agmaer to stop, and said hurriedly,

'All right, all right, no need to make a scene! I think there should be another option... If my calculations are correct. Here!'

She glanced around and dipped her hand into a deep stone bowl that was filled with elongated, many-sided shards, tinted many shimmering shades of purple - like a bowl in a merchant's store would be filled with sweetmeats.

He drew that comparison to make himself feel better, because the way Serana brandished one of those shards in front of his face, right after talking about stealing souls from people, did not promise anything particularly pleasant.

'I can lock part of your soul inside this gem,' she said. 'Only temporarily... I hope. This will trick the Ideal Masters - that's the creatures that, um, run things in the Soul Cairn - into thinking that you are dead, and they will let you through. After we are done there, I will release your essence back from the soul gem and make you whole again'.

'Whoah,' Agmaer breathed out, the string inside him still throbbing painfully. 'That's... That's quite a plan. But, what in Oblivion, let's do this! I can cope with walking around with half a soul for a while!'

He did cope - and patted himself mentally on the back quite a lot for this afterwards - even though being partially soul-trapped turned out as painful as it sounded.

Serana stood opposite him, the tip of her soul gem pointing into the middle of his chest; and a second or two later, Agmaer was already being bent in two by some dark magical force, which ripped its invisible claws deep into his heart and then tore them out in a tremendous yanking motion that made his flesh burn, as though at the touch of very, very many white-hot little needles, and bleed white, blue and deep-violet light.

While making a low hissing noise that echoed inside Agmaer's skull with a force of a dozen blacksmith's hammers pounding down at the anvil, the light entered the gem, a never-ending stream of it. Serana tried to hold the gem steady, but sometimes her hand would get tired, and she had to shift it - and every time that happened, the slightest twitch of her fingers mounted the agony that was already devouring Agmaer... Like Serana had unravelled every raw nerve within his body and was now holding all of them wrapped tight around her fist: pulsing reins coated in searing fire.

At a certain point, the pain became so great that Agmaer's vision went black - and when he came to his senses, suddenly feeling very cold and weak in the knees, he discovered that Serana had already managed to dig through the secret laboratory and find whatever ingredients were needed to open the way into Soul Cairn and follow after Valerica. A huge chunk of the floor in the room's centre was missing, swallowed up by a massive purple vortex - kind of like one of those teleportation spells Serana liked so much, only many times bigger, and scarier, too, with blobby clots of dark vapour and chunks of what looked like rock circling round and round near its core, like debris circles in a whirlpool.

'Awake, are you?' Serana asked, giving Agmaer a startled sort of look and then knitting her eyebrows. 'Let's step right in'.

With a long, loud gulp, Agmaer wobbled up to the portal, preparing to leap on the nearest floating rock when it completed a circle and moved past him. Serana also took position by his side - and right before they made that jump, she said, her voice lowered and her yellow eyes clear like fine amber,

'You are a very brave young man, Agmaer. Never forget it - and if Isran does not respect that, spit into his face'.

She might have actually meant that, who knows: Agmaer did not really detect any snark in her voice. But it doesn't matter either way. She turned out to be mistaken; and it will be Isran who'll spit into Agmaer's face. With every right to do so.

Back then, though, Agmaer latched on to Serana's words (about him being brave, of course; not about spitting at Isran). He repeated them like a prayer  during the whole trek through the Soul Cairn - which was like walking across the bottom of a cold, dead sea. Except that the ground was covered not in sand (sand is familiar, at least; sand means summer and sunlight and happy games on the river bank) but in finely ground dust, the same colour as the soul gems in Valerica's laboratory; and in more than a few places, it was scarred with deep, jagged gashes that belched out upward rivers of faint ghostly light. When Agmaer moved closer to one such river, he realized, to his horror, that the light stream was actually made out of countless mask-like weeping faces, and emitted faint sighs and sobs as it flowed off into nothingness.

The sky, in turn, rippled and heaved like ocean waves, its frothing swirls lashing against the tops of the tall jet-black towers that dotted the landscape, at least somehow disrupting the flatness of this dismal place (Agmaer and his companion had agreed to head towards the largest tower, as it was an easy landmark to focus on). The tops of some of these gloomy structures seemed to have crumbled off - but instead of littering the ground, the dark stone rubble continued circling up there, in the sky, the way the rocks had done in the portal opened by Serana.

And the people - oh gods, there were people, too! Or, well, shadows of people who had once been soul-trapped out there, in the waking world; not partially like Agmaer, but completely; used up to make some sorcerer's staff shoot fire balls, drained to nigh on mindless husks that were now roaming from tower to tower. Their fleshless bodies let light pass through them, and were shaded a pale blue colour from head to toe. Some of them did not even have faces, with their features mangled into a vague mess like a half-erased drawing, or rubbed off completely, leaving the front halves of their heads blank like the side of a clay jug. Others, still recognizably human or elven, stumbled drunkenly on the spot, repeating the same phrase over and over, in voices that were, for the most part, as bleak as their bodies,

'I don't understand. I don't understand. I don't understand'.

Or,

'I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be here'.

And one of the shades, smaller in size than the rest, whimpered in a clearly child-like high-pitched tone while floating past Agmaer,

'I wanna go home!'

This resonated through Agmaer with almost as much pain as the effects of Serana's soul trap. Swivelling his head, he glanced longingly at where they had left the portal. He, too, wanted to go home - a simple wish and yet so strong that it brought tears to his eyes. He had not yet walked half the way to the tower, a d he was already feeling as tired as if he had been ploughing the fields all day. He did not want to do this any longer. He wanted to go home - to Fort Dawnguard, or better yet, back to the farm, where he always had a warm bed and a mug of milk waiting for him, where he could curl up under the blankets and take a good, long nap, and forget all about vampires, and heroic quests, and Isran. Where he could be as un-special as he liked, and nobody would mind. Not his Da, not their goats, not their chickens.

But as all these thoughts piled up over him like heavy boulders, squashing him into the ground, he just had to shake them off, and to remind himself that he was brave. That his bravery had gotten him this far, and he had to keep pressing on, to keep triumphing over challenges, to keep showing all and sundry what epic deeds he was capable of...

Yeah, right. And now look where that attitude got him.

The mission entrusted to Serana and Agmaer came to a crushing end shortly after they reached Valerica. Or, well, it must have been Valerica, at least - that pale, gaunt woman, with black hair combed into large, fuzzy buns. They found her, as Serana had hoped, at the base of the biggest tower, pacing back and forth behind a rippling, slightly jelly-like glowing wall that was most certainly magical in nature. It stung at Serana, spitting out scorching white sparks, when she tried to reach forward - and as she jumped back, the woman behind the wall mirrored her motion, her eyes widened into astonished yellow orbs.

She put on a whole silent dance for them, too, like the pantomime of a jester in the market square (not the most fitting parallel for the one-time lady of a vampire castle, who knew so much about spellcraft and potion-making and other realms and enthralled people willy-nilly... but Agmaer could not help it: the buns were just a bit too distracting). She shook her head and waved her hands and called out to her daughter and her companion - but the magical barrier smothered her voice, and the only thing that either Agmaer or Serana could snatch out of her frantic speech was,

'...eepers! ...eepers!'

Apparently she was worried about some things called 'Weepers' or 'Creepers' or... 'Sweepers'? Whatever their actual name, it did not take them too long to appear in person.

Their arrival was first heralded by the staggering quake of the soul-gem-dusted ground under Agmaer and Serana's feet. When, barely able to keep balance amid all the rising and falling and crackling and rumbling beneath their skidding soles, they finally managed to turn around, they saw three giants, stepping heavily towards them seemingly out of thin air.

Well, in truth, a better word for them would be 'giant suits of armour' - because that was what they were. Three cuirasses, crafted out of the yellowish spiky bones of some enormous beast (maybe even a dragon!); three pairs of gauntlets and greaves; three weapons - a bow, a mace, and a battle axe that was at least the size of its wielder. All held together by snaking wisps of black smoke that kept coiling and uncoiling in the gaps between the armour pieces. The greatest amount of smoke could be seen over the upper rim of the chest plates, where it gushed out thicker than the acrid pillars that rise to the sky over a burning forest. These huge smoke clouds shaped themselves into some semblance of heads, faceless like those of some poor souls slinking across the wasteland behind the giants' backs.

And through each cloud, roughly in the place where the forehead should be, there shone a single speck of purple light, like a tiny eye that glared down at the puny intruders, while the smoky limbs lifted up the colossal weapons, and the dragon bone boots dug deep into the glittering dust, balancing the giants for a strike.

The strike did come - a tremendous sweep of the mace wielded by the giant closest to Agmaer, which knocked him straight into the air and sent him backwards, his back ramming hard against the tower's wall. And when he was trying to get up (although his limbs were ripped through by a convulsive shiver and refused to obey him), the second giant fired an arrow at him. It only grazed his shoulder slightly, stinging just a tiny bit worse than the sudden slap of a tree branch in the forest thicket - but it did lodge itself in the folds of his vest, leaving him pinned down in a tight corner, with the faceless Creepers (or whatever) closing in relentlessly.

This could have been the end of Agmaer, who was feeling so overwhelmingly fatigued and barely that he could not even rip himself free, and barely completed the single task of reaching for his crossbow with his numb, suddenly clumsy, thick-fingered hands. And it would have been a good end, too - at least he would have died trying not to make a fool out of himself.

But Serana deprived him of this chance - by moving her hands over the ground, as though kneading an invisible chunk of dough, and raising up a tiny funnel of purple dust, which twisted itself taller and taller, until it reached the level of the three giants' lone eyes. And when it did, the funnel split apart into a showering burst of soul gem shards, each sharp like a miniature razor, whizzing through the smoke and blinding the glaring specks.

With the giants left vulnerable, their weapons lowered, their smoky bodies billowing and twitching all over with anger and confusion, even a tired, cornered, half-soul-trapped weakling like Agmaer could turn the battle in his favour. While the monsters were all swaying and groping around randomly, he had plenty of opportunity to power up three successive crossbow shots, and release them with just enough force for each bolt to make a hair-thin crack in each of the dragon bone cuirasses. It might not have seemed like much at first, but the rock-hard icy lances that Serana started hurling at the giants immediately afterwards made the cracks even wider, and before long, they began to leak black smoke.

The solid forms of the Creepers (Sweepers?) were falling apart before the heroes' very eyes, the pieces of armour detaching themselves from the bleeding inky clouds and falling to the ground with a deafening clamour. Soon, the Weepers (Creepers?) would be reduced to nothing but tiny dark ghosts, sightless and unprotected by their dragon bone shells, and then Agmaer and Serana would make short work of them.

That was what Agmaer thought, at least, leisurely watching the giants collapse. He could not be more wrong.

For, when the battle with the Sweepers (Weepers?) was almost complete, the clattering of their breaking armour drowned in a ferocious,  echoing roar, and a dull-green winged shape churned its way through the sea-like sky.

'Damn,' Serana said, looking up. 'They have a dragon in here! All right, we shall better be getting out - and fetching Yalanwen'.

'What? Why?' Agmaer asked, wanting to sound outraged but too worn out to as much as raise his voice. 'Why can't we handle this between just the two of us?'

'Because Yalanwen has some sort of... power that sets dragons on fire! Gets rid of them for good! I could use it here, if I ever am to reach Mother!' Serana explained, in a rushed, almost breathless voice, as she darted past the no-longer-so-giant Creepers, tossed out the arrow that was holding Agmaer in place, and dragged him after her.

'Otherwise, who knows how long we'll have to battle this thing, and maybe fruitlessly, too!'

'I do not battle things fruitlessly!' Agmaer protested, this time finding it in him to grind to a halt, shake Serana off, and even cock his crossbow towards the sky, seeking out the circling green shadow. 'Watch me!'

And that was when he failed. That was when he proved to be an utter disgrace to the Dawnguard Order. That was when he messed things up so badly that Serana had to send him away, teleporting him to the fort as soon as they retreated all the way back to where they left the boat, and then crossed the sea to the Pale coast.

Agmaer failed because most of his shots turned out too sloppy, and completely missed the dragon - and the one that did hit it, only seemed to make it angry. So, to reach the portal to the waking realm, the two would-be adventurers had to run across the otherworldly flatlands, pursued by a swift-winged beast that missed no chance to try and fry their heels with a jet of purple flame. And worst of all, because his weary legs had picked that very same time to do a wet noodle imitation, Agmaer tripped and fell several times, plastering the prickly gem shards all over his face. Serana yanked him to his feet, sometimes grabbing him by the hand and sometimes letting the ghostly ropes of her telekinetic magic wrap round his body and do all the work. But either way, Agmaer would inevitably topple down again a few steps later.

That was utterly humiliating; not to mention painful, for every time he made his clumsy landing onto the ground, there followed a flap of wings overhead, and a scalding fountain of dragon fire washed over him - which Serana not always managed to keep at bay with her spell shield. So when he finally scrambled into the portal, he was covered with nicks and cuts and bruises and hot, pulsing, soaking sores framed by the crisp edges of burnt cloth.

'Whoah, that dragon made a fine work out of you,' Serana said, looking him over after she was done pouring his soul back into his body.

The reverse process was just as agonizing as the actual soul-trap, and Agmaer did not find it in him to feel relieved once it was over. His body's fatigue may have ebbed away, some moments after Serana's gem coughed up his life essence and his flesh absorbed it, pulsing and stinging - but his spirits remained downcast, and he could not bring himself to do anything except dangle his legs absent-mindedly, perched on the edge of one of Valerica's lab tables, with his tattered back hunched so far forward that he resembled a very grumpy round barnacle.

'Don't worry,' Serana kept reassuring him, 'You just have to hobble a little bit by my side back to the inlet, and then I'll open a way to the fort for you. They can heal you there; I do not really have expertise in mending... living flesh. Only damaging it'.

Agmaer lifted his head when he heard that, his lower lip trembling.

'I cannot go back!' he said. 'Not without the Scroll! What will Isran think of me?!'

But Serana was adamant.

'You made it this far,' she told Agmaer when they left the laboratory behind them. 'You went through dungeons and dragon fire and half-death - all on your very first mission! You have more than earned your rest! Don't worry about the Scroll; Yalanwen and me will take care of that'.

'So Yalanwen is better than me now?!' Agmaer snapped. 'More special?!'

At that point, Serana let out a little impatient groan.

'This is not about who is better! This is about keeping you alive! Now come on, back to the boat!'

Well, what use is being kept alive to him now?! Is being kept alive really worth this - hobbling up and down the paths around the fort, with his head swimming, his armour and body a singed mess, his chest hollowed out and his heart missing?..

Not even properly understanding what his limbs are getting up to, Agmaer slides down a wall, stretching his legs in front of him and staring dumbly at his swollen ankle. He thinks he can hear some muffled noises up ahead - a human's voice and then the guttural growl of an animal. Gunmar must be walking his trolls; wouldn't it be nice if they suddenly went rabid and tore Agmaer apart? He would not have to report his failure then. He would not have to...

'Agmaer? Is that you, boy? Where did you come from? You have been gone so long; have you found the Elder Scroll? And wherever is that creature that went with you? All right, hold up, no more questions. Let me heal you first!'

Agmaer blinks, dazzled by golden right that shines upon him, warm and bright like the rays of sun. That... That is Isran's magic. And the voice - it's Isran's voice!

Oh no. No, no, no. He is doomed.

Chapter Text

The boy Agmaer is horribly trampled up, like he has narrowly escaped a house fire only to be kicked around like a ball by a bunc