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Doom Driven

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Prologue: False Hope

Lord Harkon strode into his daughter's chambers. Immediate disappointment in his quest for solitude awaited in the form of the lowliest member of his court, sweeping the floor.

"My lord!" The runt dropped his broomstick. "I'm so sorry, I should have known you were coming, I only wish I had been able to do—"

"Ronthil…"

"Yes, my lord." The runt scurried away, leaving his broomstick where it had fallen. Judging by the way his footsteps faltered on the steps down into the hall, Ronthil realised his mistake but did not dare return. Harkon gathered his magic in the palm of his hand and reached for the broom. It leapt into his hand, and he hurled it after the runt.

A yelp was followed by several thuds and the clattering of wood on stone. "Thank you, my lord!" Ronthil croaked, his voice coming from the bottom of the stairs. Only the runt would thank him for inflicting pain.

Another burst of Telekinesis slammed the door shut when Ronthil failed to close it when he crawled out. One day, Harkon promised himself, he would find out which of his court had gifted the runt with the ancient blood, and they would pay dearly for it.

Still, for all of the runt's failings, he was at least more useful than Vingalmo and Orthjolf had been of late. Perhaps he should put them on cleaning duty for a while, but they could not be trusted to keep their hands to themselves. No, Ronthil was the only one of his court who could perform that service for him.

Serana's chamber was out of bounds for anyone else in his court. The last fool to intrude ended up being eaten undead by CuSith and Garmr. Since then, no one else dared enter except for the runt, and he knew better than to continue with his cleaning duties when Harkon arrived.

He idly wondered what his court thought of his yearly disappearances. Those old enough to remember would know that it coincided with the day Valerica betrayed him. Waiting until he slept, then stealing away with his Scrolls and Serana. Did they think his vigil for his lost daughter a weakness? Or did they respect him for it? He cared not, so long as they did not say anything to his face, but only a fool would dare.

Harkon slowly walked over to the bed. In her own way, Serana was as strange a vampire as Ronthil. Persisting with a mortal bed… it was unheard of, but unfortunately a necessity for a vampire with a fear of tightly enclosed spaces, including and especially coffins.

His goal was not the bed itself but the painting mounted on the wooden headboard. The family portrait, painted long before his wife's betrayal. He glanced at the torn canvas where Valerica's head had once been depicted, ripped out so long ago. His teeth clenched, fangs trembling in their sheaths, as he fought back the consuming rage that gripped him whenever he saw a reminder of her.

Perhaps he should have let himself destroy this painting like all the others of Valerica, but it was the only surviving portrait of himself with Serana painted from undeath and not memory. Valerica had possessed a similar painting, but it had been obliterated in his fury after discovering her theft. He had come perilously close to doing the same to this painting. Serana had stopped him. Her painted expression somehow reflected the pain in his own, both then and now.

He had rarely seen her smile; and all too rarely had the opportunity to see her much at all, even after the ritual granting the gift of eternal life in undeath. Valerica had hoarded her all to herself, keeping their daughter away from him whenever she could even before she finally took her from him completely. But not forever, not if it was within his power to find her.

He reached out to his oil-and-canvas daughter, to trace her features as he had countless times over the centuries. The comfort of the bittersweet ritual was worth the occasional work of retouching the painting, as his fingers gradually wore through the pigment with every longing touch.

Like the family portrait displayed to his court, Serana stood beside him. Unlike that painting, here she stood on his left, between his throne and her mother's. The composition of the publicly displayed portrait was far superior, with the only sign of Valerica there in the features their daughter had inherited. Her nose, her lips, even her jawline. If only she had been a son, then she might have favoured him instead.

But her resemblance was not to the vampire who betrayed him, but to the mortal who he fell in love with, the mortal wife who gave him his only child. The mortal who aged with him. The mortal whose life Lord Molag Bal had claimed when bestowing his blessing upon them. Long before she betrayed him it became clear that his beloved wife had died during that ritual, leaving a pale shadow in her place. Serana was the only thing he had left of her.

His beloved daughter. A daughter he would soon reclaim, if Lokil's boasts were to be believed.

'Soon, my darling. Soon. Return to your rightful place at my side. I will convince you of the rightness of my cause, purging your mother's poison. We will bring about the end of the Tyranny of the Sun together.' Harkon caressed her painted cheek. "Come to me, my daughter," he whispered, repeating the pleading command for the umpteenth time.

"My lord!" Vingalmo's voice was muffled by the door and distant, echoing as if from across the great hall.

Harkon closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Could he not have one moment's peace? Whatever his uppity ex-Thalmor advisor wanted, it had better—

"Everyone! Serana has returned!"

His eyes flew open and he inhaled sharply.

Could it be true? Vingalmo had never met Serana, how could he be certain enough of this to risk announcing it? But of course… every single member of his court and their underlings knew her face, thanks to the portrait behind his throne.

A smile spread across Harkon's stern face. His first true smile since Serana had been taken from him. The day long hoped for had finally come. The accursed sun's days were numbered. Eternal night would fall. Soon.

He swept out of Serana's chambers, trying not to move too fast. The lord of the castle was dignified. Not one of his court would run, except maybe the runt.

Now, to greet his prodigal daughter. He regretted the cold formality required in front of his court, but he would make up for it later in private. She would surely understand.


AN: Please review! Tell me what you like, what you don't like, what you think of Harkon, what you think of his thoughts on his wife and daughter… whatever you have to say, I want to hear it.

If you spot any errors, please let me know so I can fix it. I can't catch all of them myself no matter how hard I try.

Vingalmo was once a Thalmor? Apparently so, according to the Prima Official Game Guide. And turned by Harkon some hundred years ago, which must make him all the more annoying to Orthjolf, as it sounds like he was around rather longer than the elf and not turned by Harkon but by an unnamed member of the court.

Coming up next: first meetings in Dimhollow Crypt and the journey home. There will be more from Harkon's POV, and maybe some other villains as they come into the story, but this is largely Serana's tale.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1: Rude Awakening

Her mother's spell released Serana the moment dank air flooded her prison. Closed for so long, it took her eyelids a few heartbeats to remember how to open. Her hands and knees throbbed from their jarring impact with hard stone, and her head—

'By… the… blood…'

Serana cradled her aching head in one hand, the other pushing herself up from the floor. Her muscles cried out with every move she made. Why did everything hurt? Her foggy mind abruptly grasped the fact that the heartbeat in her ears was not her own. Too rapid, too strong… a mortal. So close!

Too close. A whisper cut through the still air and something sharp pressed against her throat. A trickle of blood ran down into the cold, constant sting of silver around her neck.

Serana's eyes finally snapped open, blearily focusing up the blade of a sword to the mortal holding it. A woman, clad from head to toe in form-fitting black leather armour. A masked cowl covered her head, leaving only her eyes exposed, as cold and hard as the steel of her sword.

The mortal's sword arm tensed. About to thrust?

'I don't think so.' Serana lowered the hand from her forehead to hold the blade between finger and thumb, wrenching it away and out of the mortal's grip, clattering across the stone floor.

"Void take it!" The mortal jumped back out of reach – almost tripping over the step behind her – and gestured upwards, purple light flickering in her palm. Her other hand drew a dagger from a sheath on her hip. Ebony, by the look of the pitch black blade. A Daedric sword flared into being in her right hand.

Serana slowly held up her hands, spread wide. Easy enough to assume a casting pose, but relatively non-threatening, and a universal gesture of submission.

"I don't want to fight you," she rasped. "But I will—" She coughed. "—defend myself."

The mortal groaned, her voice slightly muffled by the mask, "I'm going to regret this." She hesitated a heartbeat longer and banished the sword back into Oblivion. Another heartbeat, and she sheathed her dagger. She set a knapsack down at her feet, pulled out a bottle and tossed it to Serana, who almost fumbled the catch.

"Only water, I'm afraid I don't carry bottled blood around."

Of course that was when her head cleared enough to register the mortal's mouthwatering scent, all the stronger for the blood on her right gauntlet. Clearly a victim of her mother's trap for idiots too curious for their own good. Her own hand throbbed in sympathy… and with a phantom ache of pained remembrance.

"That's not on offer," the mortal snapped, fingering her dagger.

Serana pointedly uncorked the bottle and gulped down the water. "I wasn't going to ask," she said, voice returned to normal. Much as she wanted to sample this delicious morsel, it wouldn't exactly be the best reward for freeing her. She threw the bottle back to the mortal, who replaced it in her pack.

"Who sent you?" Serana attempted to stand. Her muscles screamed at her again, and she fell back onto her knees, sending another jolt of pain through them. Damn it, up until now she'd thought vampires couldn't get stiff.

"That's none of your concern."

"I rather think it is, actually, as it has everything to do with what you intend to do with me." Hopefully not to her, like attack her with that dagger she was still fingering. She'd probably be no threat – what mortal was to a Daughter of Coldharbour? – but she'd clearly killed vampires before. She could smell the rich tang of their thinner blood, both in the air and as traces on the mortal's sword and dagger. Including one turned by her father… perhaps this mortal would be a challenge after all. Especially for a vampire temporarily crippled by aching muscles.

Better distract the mortal before she did decide to do something to her… "So, who sent you? Who told you where to find me?"

The mortal scoffed, "No one. I mean, a group of vampire hunters sent me here, but nobody told me there was a vampire locked away in here. I knew these vampires were looking for something, but you? You're a surprise. A relatively pleasant one, considering you haven't tried to drain me dry yet."

Her muscles twinged as she shifted, but they were quickly getting used to the idea of moving around rather than standing still for however long it had been. "You went through the ritual to free me just for the fun of it?"

"Up until now I've never been able to resist mysterious buttons."

Serana finally managed to stand up, her legs only grumbling a bit. She noted that the mortal was about half a head shorter. Almost certainly not a Nord, then, which would explain her unfamiliar harsh and clipped accent.

"Where are you from?"

"Why do you want to know? Collecting different races as a vampire gourmet, are we?"

"Actually I'm trying to place your accent."

The mortal relaxed slightly, although she was still strung tighter than a bow. "Cheydinhal. In Cyrodiil."

"And what are you?"

"Ah, so you are collecting races, then?"

"Look, if I wanted to snack on you I already would have." Hopefully the lie was not as obvious as it felt. "Do I have to guess?"

"Guess away." Judging by the way the mortal's eyes sparkled and creased at the corners, she was smiling.

Serana cheated and inhaled, too slowly for the mortal to notice. Except it didn't help. The mortal didn't smell like anyone she'd met before. Not a Nord, or a Cyrodiilic, or a Manmer. Or whatever they called themselves now. Breton, that was it. She really would have to guess.

"Cyrodiilic?"

"Imperial, yes."

Serana blinked. "There's an empire based in Cyrodiil?" How long had she been gone? What had happened? Had the situation really still not been resolved?

'Where are you, Mother?'

"What are you?" A different accent slipped through in the mortal's shock, lilting and decidedly more pleasant, if accompanying plain rudeness.

"Charming," Serana muttered. "You had me at swordpoint, you must know perfectly well what I am. Or do you greet everyone you meet that way?"

"You're a vampire, but like no vampire I've killed. You've been in there for centuries if not millennia, yet you're not blood-starved, let alone feral. You could pass for human if I hadn't seen you fall out of a glorified coffin."

Serana flinched. While she mercifully couldn't remember her time in there thanks to her mother spelling her asleep, the mere idea of being trapped like that, surrounded by impregnable stone on all sides pressing in on her she couldn't move think breathe escape—

"…Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Serana croaked, and took a shuddering breath. She edged away from the monolith, all too aware of the gaping maw ready to swallow her whole again. She'd be a lot happier if she could get outside. Even bright stinging sunlight beating down on her would be better than this.

"You're not about to go feral on me, are you? That you're different wasn't a complaint. I'd be perfectly happy if you didn't try to eat me."

"It's not that. Don't worry, I don't go feral." Daughters of Coldharbour couldn't. Vampires only went feral if they got too thirsty, and a pure-blooded vampire couldn't get any thirstier. That was her blessing and her curse: constant burning hunger for blood. Her eyes were drawn again to the mortal's hand, to the drying blood there.

"What are you?" That was an exasperated mortal if she'd ever heard one. She could almost feel her blood boiling.

Serana laughed. "I'm not your average vampire. And you're not the average Cheydinhal resident, are you?"

The mortal snorted. "Far from it." That harsh accent had returned, sadly.

"Why don't you use the other accent?"

"What?" She seemed genuinely baffled. How strange…

"The one you were just using." Serana attempted to mimic that lilting cadence.

"…That was the worst impression of a Khajiit I've ever heard."

"You talk like a Cat when you don't talk like a grumpy human. Where did you pick that up from to slip into it without even knowing it?"

"I do? Well, I was raised by a Khajiit, and didn't spend much time with anyone else for about fifteen years. That might explain it."

"But you don't use their quirks. You know, 'this one' and 'Khajiit' this and that. You don't move like one either."

"Rasha didn't use them either. Not with me, anyway. And don't be daft, of course I don't move like a Khajiit. I don't exactly have the body for it." Her eyes narrowed. "It's my turn to ask the questions. Who are you, and why were you sealed away with what can only be an Elder Scroll?"

Serana suddenly registered the warm weight and ethereal presence on her back. Amazing what you got used to after snuggling with something for centuries.

"Do you talk better at swordpoint?" That purple glow appeared in her fist again.

"There's no need for that," Serana huffed. "My name is Serana, and… I'm sorry, but I can't tell you. I need to know where things stand. If you get me home, I'll share what I can, but not until then."

"I'm supposed to deliver an ancient and powerful vampire to her home, doubtless a cave full of equally ancient and powerful vampires?"

"We're not all cave dwellers, you know. I for one have spent more than my share of time in caves already."

"You spent most of it inside a tomb. Where vampires are right at—"

The rest of the mortal's words faded into hissing and a black void threatened the corners of Serana's sight. She staggered away from the stone monstrosity behind her until she was pressed against something reassuringly solid that didn't threaten to… She shuddered.

The comforting temptation of the distinctive lub dub of a living heart approached, and the mortal hesitantly laid a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right? Wait. You're…" Her grey eyes widened. "Really? A claustrophobic vampire. Wow. That must have been like suffering in the worst plane of Oblivion for you." She awkwardly patted her shoulder. "I'm sorry. Whoever locked you away must've hated you."

'No, she loves me! Doesn't she? Is that why Mother began to push me away? I reminded her too much of Father? No. I won't believe it. She wouldn't have protected me from my stupid fear if she hated me.'

"No, it was to protect me. Thanks, though. Not many vampire hunters would be concerned for a vampire."

"I really shouldn't be. But I've never had much in the way of common sense." The mortal stepped back and retreated to where her sword had landed. She picked it up and sheathed it on her right hip. Left handed, then? Come to think of it, it was the one she'd pulled it from. It must've been stinging too much for the mortal to focus her magic in it.

Thinking of magic… "Why bother with that when you can conjure up a better one?"

"Because in my experience a Bound Sword buggers off back to Oblivion at the worst possible moment. That and there's times when I need a weapon that actually weighs something."

That just sounded inconvenient for someone with a mortal's pathetic strength. What could she possibly mean by that?

"Back to the matter of your request, it's not going to happen. Especially not with an Elder Scroll at stake. From what I hear, mess with one of those and at best you'll break yourself, at worst you'll break the world. I can't imagine a vampire is up to anything good with that thing. I should kill you and take that Scroll. It's what any sensible vampire hunter would do." The mortal toyed with the hilt of her sword.

Serana felt ice coalesce in her left hand and drew her dagger in her right. "I'd like to see you try!" 'Especially if I resort to that monstrous form…'

"Oh, please. Powerful vampire or not, you're no match for me."

Serana bared her teeth, fangs descending. "We'll see about that if you don't listen to me first! Kill me and you've killed one vampire. But—"

"Relax, if I was going to kill you I already would have. You're lucky I'm only a part-time vampire hunter and a pretty stupid one at that."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it." Serana let the spell fade away and sheathed her dagger. Her fangs retracted.

The mortal leaned towards her, head cocked to the side. "Can all vampires do that? The ones I've encountered always flashed their fangs when they talk. They usually lisp too. You don't, except with your fangs out just now."

"As I said, I'm not your average vampire. Anyway, if you're not going to kill me – or at least try to – what are you going to do with me?"

The mortal stared blankly at her for a long moment, her heartbeats filling the silence. "Good question. I have no idea. How about we get out of this cave-come-vampire crypt-come-Nordic ruin?"

"If I swear to you that the Scroll isn't going to be misused, will you be my guide? I really want to get back home. Please?"

The mortal dropped her head into her hand, covering what little showed of her face. "You'll forgive me if I don't trust a vampire or her word, no matter how friendly she seems."

"Look, if the vampires you've killed in here were looking for me, bigger things are going on. I won't let the Scroll be misused, but they want to. Help me get home, and I'll know what I need to do. Besides, depending who's home it'll be safe there."

"Why wouldn't it be safe there? If there's the slightest possibility that it won't be, why in the name of Sithis would I take you and your Scroll there?" That was exasperated mortal again. It was amusing, really.

Serana abruptly registered what her exasperated mortal had said and raised an eyebrow. Surely it wasn't normal for mortals to swear by the Void, or by the Dread Father? But then it had admittedly been a long time since she'd fraternised with mortals. Maybe they all worshipped Sithis these days. Whatever these days were.

"Because you're dying to know what's going on with me and my Scroll."

The mortal snarled, "Fucking vampire! You're going to be one of those people who are infuriatingly right all the time, aren't you? Fine. I'll guide you home. Don't make me regret it."

"You'd be wrong, mortal." She'd have seen her parental estrangement coming if she was always right… "Come to think of it, what's your name?"

"I'm your guide, not your new best friend. You don't need to know it."

"I've got to call you something!"

"Call me whatever you want, I don't care."

"Oh? All right, then. Which do you prefer: Mortal or Morsel?"

The mortal leaned away from her, eyeing her warily. "Eating your guide won't help you get home, you know."

Serana smiled, enjoying the way the mortal's heart skipped a beat when her fangs protruded. She sheathed them with the next heartbeat. "Don't worry, I don't really think of you that way. Or I don't want to, at least. I'd rather call you by your name. Who you are, not what you are. Is that all right?"

"I… Well, if you put it that way…" The mortal's voice sounded shaken, for some strange reason, although she tried to hide it behind indifference. Failing miserably, at least to Serana's vampiric senses. "It's Sithia."

"Pleased to meet you," Serana said. Finally she had a name! No more having to think of her saviour from the unthinkable as 'the mortal'. Now if only she could have a face to go with her name… And such an unusual name, unless it meant the cult of Sithis really was a thing now. "Is that a common name these days? To be named in honour of the Dread Father?"

"No, it's not. I know what it sounds like, and it's exactly that. My mother was part of a… questionable cult. I was born into it. Anyway, now you know, let's get out of here. Do you have any idea where to go?"

"I… No." Serana looked around the cavern helplessly. The only familiar things were the concentric ring of steps down to the – the monolith – surrounded by braziers flickering with cold purple flames. Nothing else. She didn't even know which way her mother had brought her in, and her scent was long gone. "Someone really got carried away with building arches since I was locked away. This place looks completely different."

"Is that why you need a guide? You think things out there have changed just as much?"

"Even if they haven't, I don't know the way home."

"What did you do, blunder all of your way here with your eyes closed?"

A suitable retort died on Serana's lips, her head snapping towards a strange sound.

Crunch.

"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

There it was again, louder this time. Crack.

Then Serana saw them. The statues lurking in the shadows across the bridge behind Sithia, where mortal eyes couldn't see them. Gargoyles.

'Damn it, Mother! Just because I remember how to fight doesn't mean I want to with your own creations!'

Two of them. Their façade as statues shattered completely as Sithia spun and took a step towards them.

She drew her sword and almost dropped it when one of the gargoyles charged into sight. "What in Oblivion?"

Serana pelted it with shards of ice, vaguely registering the chill from the ice in her palms. It staggered to a halt, just in time for Sithia to lunge at it. Her blade pierced its eye socket, and it collapsed, tearing the sword from her hand in the process.

The second gargoyle roared and rushed towards them, wings spread, claws outstretched. Sithia cursed and flung herself back, the fell glow of conjuration forming in her hand.

Serana already had a handful from that same school of magic. She clenched her fist, the purple light flicking to the dead gargoyle and sinking into its eye sockets. She smiled as the glow crisscrossed that stony skin.

'Done and done.'

The undead gargoyle reared up into the path of the second, knocking it down into the moat surrounding the artificial island they stood on. It sank into the dark depths like the stone it was made from.

Startled, the magic died in Sithia's hand. She approached the dead gargoyle. It looked placidly back at her.

"Didn't I just kill you?" Sithia reached up and tugged her sword out of its head. She looked back over her shoulder at Serana. "You could have warned me! I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a vampire dabbles in necromancy."

"Dabbles?" Serana huffed. "I'm capable of far more than…" She stumbled, her vision blurring for a moment. Her gargoyle collapsed into a pile of rubble, as her hold faltered long enough for the unruly Daedra animating it to slip back into Coldharbour.

Sithia caught her arm. "What's wrong?"

Serana blinked at her, trying to force tired eyes to stay open. "Need to feed."

"I guess it has been a long time… Can vampires die of thirst?"

"No. We shut down, sleep. I do, anyway."

"Except when someone living gets close enough for you to pounce, eh? Haven't you slept enough already?" Sithia steered her over to perch on something. One of the braziers, judging by the gentle tickle of the cold fire. "Well, I'm not about to feed myself to you. Will a stamina potion work?"

"No. Not on undead. Same with healing. Check the dead vampires for potions – a blood potion." Serana's arm flopped in the direction of her dead kin.

"So you really do have bottled blood… But I'm afraid you're out of luck. They don't have any potions, I already took anything of value from them. Can you eat the dead? Vampires, their human thrall?"

Serana whimpered at the thought. No matter how thirsty she was, it had to be fresh blood. A potion of blood was different, kept fresh and warm through enchantment.

She looked pleadingly up at Sithia. "Can I feed from you?"

"No!" she snapped, and heaved a sigh when Serana flinched. "I suppose I should be grateful you asked and didn't try to take."

Serana closed her eyes and groaned. "The thrall, if I must. Dead taste so stale."

Sithia's heartbeat moved away, and returned with the sound of something – someone – dragged across the floor. And dropped at her feet.

Serana slid off the brazier and straddled the thrall's body. It was a struggle to get her fangs to budge, and even more so to bite into that cold neck. Cooling, thick, clotting blood. No flow. No heat. No life. No satisfaction. She grimaced and forced herself to swallow.

Ugh, he'd already been fed from recently too. Clearly his owners hadn't bothered with blood potions when they had a willing – if enslaved – mortal to feed from. The only thing that could be worse was drinking from one of her dead thinner blooded kin.

She tried to think of something other than the revolting bitter taste of dead pain and fear. Unfortunately dwelling on Sithia's scent only made it worse. The thought of finding out if she tasted as good as she smelled, feeling the beat of her heart in the most intimate way possible for a vampire… She was standing so close, too. It would be so easy!

But no, eating her guide home would be frowned upon.

She gulped down as much foul blood as she could make herself, then pulled away, shuddering. "Ugh. That was my worst meal ever." Not remotely satiating either this time, no precious fleeting relief from her burning thirst.

Judging by the glint in Sithia's eyes, she was amused. Damn mortal. Not letting her feed on her, and smelling so tasty. It just wasn't fair.

"It seems to have done you some good. Presuming your eyes are supposed to glow like the embers of a fire, anyway."

"Yes, they are. Can we please get out of here? I could quite happily never sleep again, but I'll need to feed again sooner or later. Especially if we need to fight past anything else. Why don't we go back the way you came?"

"Because I don't want to go all the way back when there might be a shortcut up there—" Sithia pointed in the direction the gargoyles had come from. "—through this Nordic ruin you vampires built your crypt in. There's been one to the entrance or a back door in the other ruins I've had to explore. I'd be amazed if this particular one doesn't run right through the mountain. Certainly feels like it's gone on long enough."

"Well, all right. But are you sure you want to go where more gargoyles might be lurking?"

Sithia responded by walking towards what had been a gargoyle. "What is wrong with you vampires? Ugly statues coming to life, creepy undead dogs with a freezing bite… It's no wonder people don't like you much, you know," she grumbled, kicking at the rubble as she walked over it.

"It's not really any different to having spellcaster traps and guard dogs. Gargoyles are magical constructs, my mother will have created those ones." Serana stepped over the remains of her dead gargoyle.

Sithia stopped and looked back at her, her gaze for once softened. In fact it looked an awful lot like sympathy. Similarly, her voice was not quite as harsh. "Is she the one who locked you away? She really must hate you to have her pet rocks try to kill you after shutting you away with that fear of yours."

"It's not like that." 'I hope.' "They can't be controlled. They're animated by particularly unruly Daedra. I told you, she did it to protect me."

"Your mother entombed you for centuries. To protect you. That reminds me of a story I read once. Except it was a tower, the girl was blonde and had far longer hair. But it had the same 'mother knows best' theme. What was she protecting you and that Scroll from? Those other vampires?"

"Get me home and I'll tell you what I know."

Sithia shrugged. "Worth a try. By the way…"

"What now?"

"If you were trying for stylish war paint, dirt isn't the best medium." Sithia touched her cowl over her forehead.

Serana looked down at her hands. Sure enough, there were traces of grime from catching herself on the dusty floor of the cavern. She groaned. Really not the first impression she wanted to make. She coated her hands with a layer of ice, let it melt and take away the dirt in the process, and repeated it with a hand laid on her forehead.

"Huh. First time I've seen destruction magic used for cleaning."

"Just because it's called 'destruction' doesn't mean that's the only use for it."

As Sithia set off again, Serana realised that she couldn't hear her footsteps. Those boots had to be enchanted, Sithia didn't have the magicka reserves to cast Muffle all the time. Like called to like – she could feel the deep well of magicka in the mortal, but it was a drop in the ocean compared to her own. Although… there was something strange about Sithia's power. Something almost wild about it. Something inhuman. But not Daedric – she would know. Like called to like with that as well.

After they passed under an ancient broad stone archway with a crudely carved head, Serana glanced back. The route they'd just taken looked familiar. Retracing her own steps? She couldn't be sure. At the time she'd been hurried through the roughly hewn stone passageways as fast as two vampires could walk.

The rest of their trek through the dimly lit and dusty corridors into a cavernous chamber was uneventful. Apart from the draugr and skeletons, but they weren't much of a threat to a vampire, or to a vampire hunter, judging by the ease with which Sithia was cutting through them. Just as slow and gullible as they'd always been.

"What's happened since this empire of yours was founded?"

"Oh, the usual." Sithia ducked a draugr's powerful-but-slow blow, and sliced through the exposed tendons in its arms. The draugr dropped the axe, the cold blue glow in its eye sockets flickering in confusion. A shard of ice courtesy of Serana put it out of its misery.

"Founding emperor died, ascended to godhood. His heirs eventually descended into petty squabbles over the succession, which wreaked havoc over the entire empire. Things settled down in time for the last Septim emperor and his legitimate heirs to be assassinated about two hundred years ago, leaving his bastard son to save the world from a Daedric invasion, dying in the act."

"…What?" Serana almost missed the skeleton creaking its way towards her. Her Ice Spike struck it with a glancing blow, but even that was enough to knock its skull off. "Godhood?" She wondered about the Daedric invasion too, but those weren't unheard of. A man becoming a god, though?

"The Ninth Divine, Talos. Tiber Septim as a man. He was Dragonborn, as were the rest of his dynasty."

"The elves must love that, a god younger than some of them are." Younger than she was too. It was a strange feeling to be older than a god. Not that she'd believe this Talos really was a god until she saw one of his shrines bestow a blessing, and that would have to be from a distance.

"Oh, yes. Especially the Altmer. It's been the cause of two wars so far, one of which ended in a truce leading to this ongoing one. You've woken to interesting times. A rebellion in Skyrim against the Empire, and the dragons are coming back to life."

'Very funny, see how gullible the ancient vampire is.' The thing about the hero-god of Mankind she might have swallowed. Dragons on top of that? She wasn't stupid. Everyone knew most of them had died in the Dragon War, and their dry bones couldn't be brought back to life. Her mother had tried. Her father had uncovered another pointless prophecy, something about a World-Eater waking up and turning a wheel on the last Dragonborn, but that was about as likely as vampires ending the Tyranny of the Sun.

"Is that all of them?" Sithia looked around. "What about that one?" She pointed at a enthroned draugr overlooking the sacrificial fire pit below, its horned helmet resembling a crown.

It looked dead enough, but then draugr were masters at playing dead. Serana closed her eyes, concentrating. "It's a live one." She could feel the concentration of magic around it, the malevolent watchfulness just waiting for anything to come near it. Wait, something wasn't right. That was no ordinary draugr…

By the time she opened her eyes, Sithia was already creeping over to it. For a moment it looked like it wouldn't even wake up before her blade put it to sleep for good. Then those ghostly blue eyes flared up, and it took a deep rattling breath.

"ZUN HAAL VIIK!"

Weapon hand defeat…

Before Serana had time to wonder what the Shout meant by that, it ripped the sword from Sithia's hand and sent her tumbling down the steps.

The draugr stood, Ebony greatsword raised. Serana's Ice Spikes failed to penetrate its armour, but knocked it back against the throne. That gave Sithia time to roll to her feet, draw her dagger and pounce. The draugr fell slack, that small Ebony blade buried up to the hilt under its chin.

"Teamwork, right there."

Sithia pulled her dagger free and wiped off the blackish blood on the truly dead draugr's skin. "I have to admit it's handy to have a pet vampire. Especially one who's good in a fight."

"You're pretty good yourself." She retrieved Sithia's sword and handed it back to her. "Although you're lucky I'm good enough at spellcasting not to hit you by accident. You're unpredictable – I don't recognise your fighting style."

Sithia sheathed her sword and picked up the draugr's sword, weighing it in her hands. She let it clatter down onto the steps. Too heavy, probably. "I was trained to kill, not to fight."

No doubt thanks to her upbringing in a dubious cult.

She watched as Sithia wandered over to a curved wall with some sort of inscription. Dragon Language. Incredible – a word wall!

Much as she wanted to get moving and finally get out of this damn cave, she understood Sithia's fascination with it. She walked over to inspect it herself. It wasn't every day that she got to read that language outside of books. It was a pity her mother hadn't spared time for them to see it all those years ago.

Sithia was running her fingers across the last inscribed word. "Lah," she whispered.

Magicka.

Serana raised her eyebrows. This mortal kept surprising her. "You know Dovahzul? And at your age? I'm impressed."

"I'm not fluent. I just know a few words. I have no idea what the rest of it says."

Serana ran her hand over the carved dashes and dots, translating each word as she touched it. "Lungerd raised this stone in memory of her husband, Thorgrima, keeper of the crimson flame, and lord of Magicka."

"When did you learn Dragon Tongue?"

"I've been around for a while. A girl has to do something to keep boredom away."

"Including learning foreign languages, apparently."

"It comes in useful when you like to read as much as I do. I can't wait to get my hands on all of the books I must have missed."

"Eager to leave, are we?"

"Absolutely." There was a door up the stairs behind that last draugr's throne. Serana shoved it open. Her breath caught. Finally. She'd never been more glad to see sunlight.

Sithia caught her arm. "What are you doing?!"

"Being in sunlight will be better than a moment longer in this cave." Nordic ruin or not, it was still a cave, right down to the ragged gap in the rock that served as the back door.

"Do you want to burst into flames, or have you forgotten what happens?"

Serana smirked. "Don't worry, I already said that I'm not your average vampire. And even your average Skyrim vampire doesn't burn in sunlight. That's what Cyrodiilic vampires do. It's just unpleasant for me." She shrugged off Sithia's hand and hurried outside, pulling her hood up.

She regretted it the moment she stepped into the light. It was like running into a wall. Every breath hurt, and her exposed skin stung. Her head ached despite the shade provided by her cloak. Not the usual dull ache either, this time it was blinding and sharp.

So bright. Sunlight was bad enough for that, but when the ground was carpeted in snow? She'd have to walk around with her eyes shut for this to be bearable.

Still, it was worth the pain for the exhilaration of fresh air on her skin, the rush of the bracing wind! The scent of the pine trees, and something else… what was it? She longed for the moons to rise. Her senses were worse than a human's in sunlight. Probably. She couldn't really remember.

"Serana! Get back in the cave!"

She turned to look at Sithia as she rushed out. "I told you, it's just unpleasant—"

"Get back in the fucking cave, you stupid vampire!"

Serana bristled. Angry words died on her lips when a shadow blotted out the sun. A roar unlike anything she'd ever heard split the air. She looked up.

'By the blood…'

There wasn't any wind. Just the beat of those enormous wings.

She couldn't move. Not to speak. Not to breathe. Not to ready her magic. Certainly not to run.

The only fear that came close to the one she'd faced back in Dimhollow, the fear all vampires shared: eternity cut short by consuming flames.

'Please don't be a fire-breathing dragon.'

"YOL—"

Fire.

"—TOOR—"

Inferno…


AN: I should perhaps mention that I may be a little addicted to cliffies. But I don't think that one is too bad. This would be an awfully short story if I killed the protagonists off at the beginning.

So, what do you think of the story so far, and of Serana and her pretty stupid Dragonborn? I had quite a lot of fun writing this. I hope it's fun to read.

Coming up next: Serana's first dragon fight, the journey home and her first meeting with her father in a very long time.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Sithia Dragonborn

Serana braced herself. This was going to hurt. A lot. Maybe even kill her instantly if dragon's fire was hot enough.

"WULD!"

A sharp crack split the air. Something barrelled into her, knocking her—

She skidded to a halt, spluttering on snow. She spat out a mouthful and swiped snowflakes out of her eyes.

…Whirlwind…

"—SHUL!"

Sun.

Serana cringed. Flames crackled, blending with the dragon's enraged roar. She forced herself to stop trembling like a leaf. Yes, she'd had a narrow escape from that fire, but it was nowhere near her, thanks to…

'Sithia?!'

Serana twisted around to see her sprinting back towards the dragon, feet impossibly quiet in the snow, drawing her sword.

Serana struggled to her feet and raised her hands, her magic coalescing as familiar shards of ice. She hurled them at the dragon, a follow up melting away when the spells glanced off that scaly green hide. She'd have to try to hit weak points. Those eyes, burning with intelligence crueller than any vampire?

"FUS RO DAH!"

A wall of force slammed into the dragon. It crashed to the ground, snow erupting into the air.

Serana stared. Incredible. This mortal, her Voice more powerful than one of the dov, or at least that particular dovah. Maybe it had caught those wings at just the right angle, but it was still the most impressive thing Serana had ever seen in all her years. All her centuries.

Sithia faltered and doubled over, gasping for air.

Too powerful for her own good. Had she'd Shouted too much in such a short space of time for her body to cope with? If so, that was Serana's fault.

Guilt a heavy weight in her heart, Serana started to hurry over to her, her feet crunching in the snow, when Sithia groaned and straightened up. She staggered over to the dragon as it raised its head. It snapped at her, mouth big enough and teeth sharp enough to easily bite her in two – if it could.

Sithia sidestepped it and thrust her sword into its exposed throat, somehow finding a weak point between those tough scales. The dragon gurgled. Crimson blood trickled from its jaws.

Sithia let go of her sword and threw herself back as it collapsed. She tripped over and sprawled on the ground, panting. She reached up and pulled down her mask, breath misting the air with each wheezing exhalation. Golden light spread from her hands, streaming around her body to flow into her throat until it faded away. She'd definitely over-Shouted, then.

Crackling drew Serana's attention back to the dragon. Burning from the inside, the dragon's scaly skin flaked away, flesh dissolving into ash, and the blackened bones collapsed into the snow. But it was the blinding light streaming from the dragon into Sithia that made her gasp. She briefly shone as bright as the sun, although it didn't hurt to look at her unlike with the sun itself.

That explained what Sithia's strange power was, if the Shouting hadn't already implied it. Dovahkiin… A dragon on the inside. Aedric, not Daedric. Yet somehow it didn't hurt to be near her, not as proximity did to other Aedric influences like their shrines. The same with that dragon before it was killed by her pet dragon slayer. Dragons were far enough removed from the Aedra, maybe?

Sithia climbed to her feet and stumbled over to the dragon's skull. She pushed at it, muscles straining. It only wobbled slightly.

"Svaan tiid. Svaan tiid zu'u saan dii zahkriil. Nil kun nii!"

Every time. Every time I lose my sword. Void take it!

Serana stared. If that was not fluent, Sithia had a very strange idea of fluency. She shook her head and walked over to heave the dragon's skull up. Sithia's sword lay under it, blade snapped.

Sithia groaned. "Svaan—" She cleared her throat, snarling in the process. "Every fucking time! That takes longer to wear off every time too. I'll be stuck speaking dragon in the end, just like most of the sodding Greybeards."

So her temporary fluency in Dovahzul was a side effect of stealing a dragon's soul. Interesting…

"Something you forgot to mention, Dragonborn?"

Serana caught a brief glimpse of Sithia's face before she pulled up her mask. She met Serana's fascinated gaze with a furious glare.

"I have a name, you know. Dragonborn is what I am, it's not who I am. And no, I didn't forget to tell you. I'm not the only one withholding things here. Besides, would you have believed me? I'm not exactly the Nordic hero of legend."

"If you'd demonstrated your Thu'um—"

"Fuck you. Everyone and their dog demands that! I'm so fucking fed up of having to prove it, and even more so of the way it changes how everyone looks at me. As if I've turned into someone else. Something else. I'm still the same person I was before you knew I slay dragons and steal their souls better than I can do anything else. And the way you all instantly forget my name… How would you like it if everyone called you Vampire?"

"I'm sorry."

"Forget it. The sooner I get you home the better. One less person to look at me as if I'm no longer human."

'What I am, not who I am…' Back in Dimhollow, that was the exact reason she'd given for wanting to know Sithia's name. No wonder Sithia had seemed shaken; it had struck a chord. It had been exactly what she wanted to hear, and then Serana had ruined it within the same hour. She had to fix this. Somehow.

"Sithia, wait." Serana stepped in the way as she tried to stalk past, gently but firmly gripping her shoulders. "I understand. That's the same way mortals look at me if they realise that no one alive has eyes like mine or skin this pale and cold. And they're right. I'm not human, and haven't been for… for a very long time." 'Who knows how long by now.' "And you're not entirely human, you know. Dovah sil ahrk dovah sos. Human in body, but dragon in blood and soul."

"So the legend says, but if that's really true about the blood why didn't you notice something was different about me before you even opened your eyes?"

"I didn't exactly have anything to compare it to! Besides, everyone has their own unique flavour, even within family and race. Even a single person's blood varies depending on age, illness, emotions… I can tell a lot about someone through a single taste."

"Oh?" Sithia looked a little uneasy, but interested. "What does my blood tell you?" She stepped back and pulled her right gauntlet off, drew her dagger and cut it across her palm. A quick burst of golden light flared up as she healed it, and she held the bloodied Ebony out.

Serana caught a drop of the blood dripping from the blade on a fingertip, brought it to her lips and sucked it into her mouth. She inhaled sharply, eyes flying wide open. The urge to feed hit hard, to experience that richest taste combined with the warmth and freshness direct from the source.

She staggered back and closed her eyes as she fought for control, clamping her mouth shut until her fangs retracted back into their sheaths.

"Well?"

"Give me a minute," she said, her voice strained. "And don't stand so close. That was… your blood is… I can't even begin to describe it. Nothing compares to it." She sighed. "Whoever I drink next is going to taste so bland."

"Overpowering, huh? Guess you won't be getting to know anything about me that way."

"I didn't say that." Serana narrowed her eyes at her, frowning in concentration. "You're in the prime of your life, what is that for humans now… Twenty, thirty years old?"

"Thirty. At least, that's what I am. Other people might peak earlier or later." Sithia raised an eyebrow and scoffed, "But you could tell that just from looking at my face while you had the chance."

So she wanted proof. Fine, Serana could arrange that. "You've recently recovered from Bone Break Fever. And… you might want to take a cure disease potion if you have one, or hope that there's a shrine close enough. Or you'll be a creature of the night within three days."

"Damn it, you mean…"

"Yes, you've been infected by one of my kin. Recently, or I'd have been able to smell it. Taste reveals so much more."

"I thought I was just tired... Damn it. So that's what that weird sickly red spell was." She rummaged through her pack, but her hand was empty when it emerged. "Fuck. I don't have any potions to cure diseases. Hopefully I can buy one in Dawnstar, or find a shrine or a priest there." Sithia straightened up and looked back at Serana. Nervously. Odd, what was that about? "Anything else? You said something about emotions."

Ah. So Sithia had realised too late that her blood might reveal more than she wanted it to.

"That I did. Fear is bitter. That's why I prefer a willing meal, or at least sleeping – so long as my meal isn't in the grips of a nightmare. Yours isn't remotely bitter, though it could be sweeter. Holding onto that much anger isn't good for your heart, you know."

"Yes, yes, I know. But I think it comes with the territory of being Dragonborn. I've not met a dragon yet that wasn't angry. Is that all you know? My anger management issues drown anything else out?"

"Pretty much."

Sithia's relief was given away when her shoulders relaxed. She turned away, walking back towards the cave.

Serana smiled. There was something else that anger couldn't hide. Something very interesting. Amusing. Flattering, too. The mighty vampire hunting Dragonborn, attracted to someone she really shouldn't be. But it was hardly the mortal's fault. Another benefit of being a pure-blooded vampire: it preserved her looks from mortality instead of detracting from them as with half-bloods or even thinner blooded.

Seducing her would make it so much easier to keep her around, and so much easier to persuade her to let her feed from time to time. And it would be no hardship, that's for sure. Serana let her eyes wander up and down Sithia's body, lingering on the curves that leather armour did nothing to hide. No, no hardship at all. A pleasure.

It would be even easier to try to make a thrall of her, but she'd never liked to do that to mortals, preferring to befriend them. That way she could have intelligent conversation as well as blood. Until her father inevitably found out and gave her a choice of turning or killing her pet. That wouldn't happen this time.

Serana felt a twinge of guilt for her less than honourable intentions. She owed Sithia so much – her freedom, her life, guiding her home – and this really wasn't the best way to repay her. But it wasn't taking advantage of her. Not exactly. Despite the fact that she'd only just met Sithia, she already cared about her. The irony… Sithia herself had said that she was not her new best friend. Yet despite that she was the closest thing Serana had to a friend.

Wait. Sithia wasn't inspecting the damage the dragon's fire breath had done.

"We only just got out of that cave and you want to go back inside?"

"Not particularly, but in case you haven't noticed, I'm currently lacking a sword." With that, Sithia disappeared back inside Dimhollow. Serana reluctantly followed her, lingering as close as she could to the entrance while she watched Sithia roam around the sacrificial chamber inspecting the draugr and skeletons' weapons.

She returned with a notched ancient Nordic sword, scowling at it. "I'll need to get a better sword in Dawnstar. How many dragon bones and scales can you carry? I'll need to trade them if I want something that might survive the next dragon. Ebony, maybe."

"That last draugr had an Ebony—"

"Apart from the fact that it's too heavy, I've never used a greatsword before. Shorter blades are my speciality."

"Like swords?"

"Daggers. I had to train myself how to use a sword instead after killing my first dragon. I can manage to slay a dragon with a dagger, but it gets me far too close to those teeth for comfort."

Going back outside the cave, the agony of sunlight exposure hit Serana anew. She staggered, throwing an arm across her eyes to shield them from that horrible glare. In theory her hood should have been enough. In practice? Not at all.

"Can we please wait until dusk? I'm sorry, I can't travel when it's like this. Not until I can feed from someone living, it'll be just about bearable if I can do that."

"Fine." Sithia took her arm and guided her back inside the cave, away from the tyranny of the sun.


"What's it like to absorb a dragon's soul?"

Sithia looked up sharply at Serana's question. Her eyes glinted mischievously in the Magelight she'd cast as it grew darker inside the cave. "Better than sex."

If the mortal was trying to embarrass her, she'd have to do better than that. "Like feeding can be for vampires, then."

Sithia's heart skipped a beat.

Serana looked over at her, concerned. Sithia was pressed against the wall of the cave, as far away as she could get without fleeing outside. "What's wrong?"

"Should I be worried?"

"Why would you be?"

"If feeding is that good to you, and I happen to be the tastiest morsel you've ever met?" Sithia's fingers strayed to the hilt of her dagger. "Oh, no reason."

Serana laced her fingers together and made sure her fangs stayed put in their sheaths. "I told you, I prefer a willing meal. And I need a guide home, remember? Eating you wouldn't help me get there."

"What's stopping you from enthralling me and getting a guide and a meal in one convenient package?"

"Even if I wanted to – and I don't, never cared for having a thrall – I doubt it'd work on you any more than it would on a dragon."

"And when I get you home, then what'll stop you from turning me into a snack?"

Of course her new pet would have to be paranoid… "I know I'm asking a lot, but please, trust me. Betraying you like that would be a pretty horrible way to repay you for freeing me, saving me from dragon fire and getting me home."

"By the Nine, this is probably the stupidest thing I've ever done… But for some reason I can't just point you in the right direction, even if I gave you a map." Sithia shook her head. She added in a mutter at the edge of Serana's hearing: "Always had a weakness for a pretty face."

Serana suppressed a smile. So the mighty Dragonborn wasn't in denial about her attraction. Good to know. This should make it even easier to get that willing meal…


After the sun finally set, Sithia tapped her on the shoulder as Serana made a move to get outside, the moonlight calling out to her.

Serana whimpered at having to wait. Patience had never been her strong suit. "What is it?"

"You haven't told me where we're going."

"I told you, I don't—"

"How am I meant to get you home when I don't know where your home is?"

"Oh." Now she felt stupid, but at least it was also pretty stupid of Sithia not to ask until now. "It's on an island near Solitude. At least it was. I doubt either of my parents would move away from there, though. If they're still alive – well, undead – one of them should be there."

There was a rustle of parchment as Sithia dug her map out from her pack.

Serana turned to watch as Sithia unfolded the map and poked the island nearest Solitude. "Here?"

Serana stared at the map. It was drawn in ink, except for a blood red 'x' that must be marking where they stood. An intake of breath revealed that it was a drop of Sithia's own blood. She watched, fascinated, as the blood flowed to the island Sithia had touched, leaving a thin red line. Showing the route to get there…

"Yes, I have an enchanted map. A map I'm trying to use to see where we need to go. Where is – or was – your home?"

"Sorry. It's, well, it's not on your map."

"That's impossible, this map has every part of Skyrim on it."

"My family's island isn't part of Skyrim. It's here." Serana reached over to tap the map. No trail of blood spread to it. She poked it again. "Why isn't it working?"

Sithia swatted her hand away and tapped that spot on the map twice. That line of blood traced the route to it.

"It's keyed to you, isn't it?"

"Obviously."

"It's fantastic! Did you make it?"

"I'm no enchanter. It was a gift from a very appreciative court wizard. He's fascinated by dragons, and gave me this in exchange for a sample of my blood as payment. He needed some for the map anyway, so it was the best deal I've ever made." She folded the map up and shoved it back into her pack.

Serana darted outside. She sighed happily as the moonlight caressed her skin for the first time in centuries.

Sithia's heartbeat was the only indication of her presence, her movements magically muffled. That and her breathing, Serana mused, as she heard Sithia's breath catch.

She turned to look at her and found the mortal staring at her, transfixed. Oh, right. Serana had been told before by her proud parents that her beauty was at its best by the light of the moons, even before she became a vampire. Her physical charms certainly had their benefits… although at times it was a very mixed blessing, considering that they were a small part of what earned her and her parents a Daedric Prince's favour. Catching the eye of the most powerful mortal in existence was an unexpected bonus.

Serana clicked her fingers, and smirked when Sithia blinked. She looked away, a blush spreading across what little of her face was exposed.

Serana took pity on the flustered Dragonborn, walking over to the remains of the dragon and collecting as many bones and scales as she was willing to carry.

"Come on, let's go. We won't get to Dawnstar tonight, but I want to get as far as we can."


They travelled as far as they could along the snow blanketed road before the sunrise made Serana stop in her tracks. She hissed and pulled her hood up. It was a relief when Sithia got her tent up to shield her from the sun, although it was surreal to watch her pull it from her knapsack. No wonder she'd wanted Serana to carry all of the dragon remains. That pack had to be enchanted, but Serana had already suspected that – it should have been overflowing from the stamina potions Sithia had been steadily consuming all night.

"Aren't you going to sleep?"

Sithia pointedly retrieved another of the sickly green potions instead.

'Damn it.' That was a painful reminder that Sithia didn't trust her. Especially not after she'd stupidly revealed how delicious her blood was.

Serana laid a hand over the bottle when Sithia moved to uncork it. "Don't. I may not be quite the alchemist my mother is—" At least she hoped 'is' was still the case… "—but I know that an overdose of those could kill you."

"I know my limits. And I know too many of these are bad for my health. I need them sometimes anyway, especially if I get tired and need to stay sharp." Sithia met her gaze, eyes just as hard as when they'd met. "Let me put this in no uncertain terms: I'm not about to sleep around you. Especially not when I know how tasty you find my blood."

"I've told you, I prefer a willing meal."

"Yes, but you said it yourself that's because fear tastes bitter. Thing is, I'm not afraid of you."

"I need you to get me home, remember? I'm not about to drain you dry."

"So you say, but what's to stop you from taking any chance you can? Just to have a little bit. And then you might get carried away."

"Look, I'm perfectly in control of my bloodlust. Please, just trust me. Don't do this to yourself. At least rest in Dawnstar when we get there. I won't try anything anyway, but I certainly won't around other people. Feeding is a private thing, you know. It's almost as intimate as turning someone, or can be when done gently."

Sithia shoved her hand away and drained the bottle. She tossed it aside. "I know what I'm doing. I know to stop when I start seeing double, and that won't happen for a few days yet. Besides, I need to use these things to travel at night."

"Then we travel during the day. I won't risk this – won't risk you."

"You just want my blood to taste at its best. Doing this protects me better."

Serana clenched her fists, nails digging into her palms as she resisted the urge to scream. "What can I do to prove that you can trust me?"

"Absolutely nothing."

"Sithia..." She tried and failed to stifle the whine in her voice. "What is your problem with me? I thought..." Her shoulders slumped. "Never mind."

"That I like you? That's precisely the problem. I like you too much. I can't trust you because I can't trust myself."

Well, that was a relief and a bitter blow at the same time. But she could work with that. "I swear to you that I won't feed from you unless you invite me to of your own free will."

"I'm sorry, I can't—"

"I swear it by the blood of my ancestors." Serana drew her Elven dagger and sliced it across her palm, letting the deep crimson blood spill onto the snow. She looked down at the cut when it failed to close. Oh, damn it, she should have waited until nightfall to make that promise. It wouldn't heal so long as she was in the sun, unless she fed. And she'd just sworn not to do that with the only source of blood at hand. The tent didn't provide enough shade, the light still penetrated the cloth too much for her own good.

Sithia sighed heavily. "Oh, all right." Finally. She must have felt the magic behind Serana's oath. If she broke it there would be some kind of serious consequence. Exactly what she didn't know, as she'd never broken a blood oath, but it would be unpleasant. Rather more unpleasant than a minor wound that wouldn't heal for hours yet.

Sithia pulled out some strips of cloth and crouched beside Serana to bandage her hand. "Stupid vampire. Wait until you can heal yourself before you pull something that dramatic again."

As embarrassing as it was to be chastised, especially by a mortal so much younger than she was, it felt good to know that Sithia cared.

"Thank you. Are you going to get some rest now?"

Sithia pulled her bedroll from her pack. "Yes, provided you don't take that dagger to yourself again."

"I don't intend to make a habit of it. Sleep well."


The rest of their journey to Dawnstar was uneventful, unhindered by the beautiful Skyrim weather. They did come across a giant camp, but the single sleepy resident was easily handled. Sithia hamstrung the poor thing while Serana pounced when he collapsed. Unfortunately giant blood was worse than that of a skooma addict, but still more palatable than that dead thrall. She'd be able to tolerate sunlight now, sparing Sithia from using quite so many of those horrible potions.

The Tower of Dawn loomed on the horizon. At first Serana thought it looked much the same as it did from the times she'd seen it when sailing past on the way to Winterhold, and the one time she went ashore with her mother to get to Dimhollow. But… No. It was a ruin, a large chunk of it bitten out by time.

Serana bit her lip and looked over at Sithia. She wanted to ask exactly how much time had passed, but she was afraid of the answer now.

Sithia spoke up as though she could feel Serana's eyes on her. "Before we reach civilisation, I should mention that the name I tend to go by is 'Cynthia'. So when we're among innocent citizens, try to remember to call me that. It's close enough that people probably won't notice if you forget, though."

"Why tell me your real name?" It certainly hadn't been because she trusted her.

"I figured a vampire wouldn't judge me for it. At least not one wearing a choker like yours."

"Choker?"

"The metal thing around your neck with the ugly face on it. Forgotten you're wearing it?"

Serana's hand flew to her neck and she grimaced. 'If only…' "Oh, that. And no, I don't judge you or your parents for worshipping Sithis."

"Good. By the way, how do you take that off?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because it looks uncomfortable."

"It is, considering that it's silver." Sithia's eyes widened briefly before they narrowed in concern, so Serana hastened to add, "Don't worry, it doesn't really hurt me. It would have to penetrate the skin for that. The ache from my thirst is worse."

"Good, but still, why in the name of Sithis would you wear it?"

"You're assuming I wear it by choice." Serana looked away. This was getting far too close to a topic she wanted to avoid. "It was a gift, and I can't take it off. Besides, that cowl of yours looks uncomfortable too."

"It's a lot more comfortable than my head would be without it. In case you haven't noticed, it's winter in Skyrim, and not all of us have a Nordic vampire's immunity to cold. Every single piece of my armour is enchanted so I don't feel it quite so badly."

That didn't explain why she'd kept the cowl on back in Dimhollow. Surely she didn't think it would protect her neck from a determined vampire?

"I guess I'll have to wait until we're somewhere warmer so I can see what you look like."

"You've already seen my face."

"Briefly. Too briefly."

"Why are you so interested anyway?"

"Because I'm interested in you. Getting to know you, I mean." Serana paused, frowning. There was something bothering her about Sithia's name. "What you said about people forgetting your name once they know what you are… Why does it bother you so much when it's not your real name they're—"

Sithia growled. "It may not be my true name but it's the closest thing I have to it. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many people have used my real name – that's including you! At this point, Cynthia might as well be my actual name. Just… drop it, okay?"

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologise! You aren't the problem with that any more. You know better. You can't apologise for anyone else." Sithia dug a cloak out from her pack, crossing over to Serana to wrap it around the Scroll. "There. Anyone who can use magic will still feel its presence, but it might not attract so much attention now."

"Thank—Wait, what's that?"

This time Sithia heard it too, her head turning in the direction of the distant roar echoing from Dawnstar.

"Dragon. Wait here!" Sithia started sprinting along the snowy road.

Serana dropped her armful of dead dragon and hurried after her.

"I said wait there, you stupid vampire!" Sithia shouted back over her shoulder.

Serana drew level with her. Sithia could run fast for a mortal, but she couldn't outrun a vampire before dawn. "I'm not leaving you to face a dragon alone!"

"Don't be a fucking idiot," Sithia panted. "I can kill dragons in my sleep. Stay back!"

"No, I can help you. For all you know this one might be a frost breather. You need me – that sword is almost blunt."

"Fine, just don't get yourself—"

The dragon soared above them, swooping around for another pass, blue scales shimmering in the light of the imminent sunrise. "FO KRAH DIIN!"

The blizzard of ice streaming from the dragon's gaping maw came with a brief moment of relief. As a pure-blooded Volkihar vampire, ice was her element. Fear came fast on the heels of that relief. Sithia was directly in the path of the frost breath. Enchanted armour or not, that extreme burst of cold might well kill her.

Serana moved as fast as only a vampire could, shoving her Dragonborn out of danger. The shock of the cold stole her breath away, but it couldn't hurt her. She raised her hands and sent a burst of lightning and an Ice Spike at the dragon as it swept overhead.

The ice coating her hair, exposed skin and armour broke away as she moved, jumping up to grab the dragon's tail. Serana swung herself up onto its spiny back, digging her dagger under its scales and tearing herself an opening. She reached inside, snapped the nearest rib and plunged the Elven blade inside as far as she could reach.

The dragon screamed and plummeted into a snowdrift. Serana held on grimly. This would be so embarrassing if the dragon rolled over and crushed her.

Her unorthodox mount shuddered and fell limp. From near its head, Sithia cursed.

Serana blinked. She hadn't noticed Sithia's approach. She pulled her arm out of the dragon's side, plastered in hot dragon blood. She absently sucked her hand and bracer clean, savouring the rich flavour that almost matched Sithia's, and moved close enough to see Sithia tug her sword out of the dragon's eye socket. The blade had broken, leaving her holding its hilt.

Just like Serana's first dragon, the second burned from within, the pure light of its soul flowing into Sithia.

"Nil kun nii," Sithia muttered, and tossed the remains of the draugr sword aside. She brushed off the snow coating her armour. From the coverage, it seemed that Serana had managed to shove her into a snowdrift. She finally pulled that damn cowl off to shake the snow out of it, dropped it onto her pack and started picking it out of her hair.

Dark hair, every bit as dark as her eyebrows, and even darker than Serana's own. It was kept braided back out of the way except for two loose forelocks framing her face. An angular face with high cheekbones and a narrow chin, her skin almost as pale as Serana's but still with the warmth of life. That explained why it was so obvious when she blushed, poor thing. She'd be pretty if not for the harsh lines etched into her skin from too much scowling and too little smiling.

Except her lips finally curled into a smile, softening her features and transforming them from potentially pretty to breathtaking beauty.

'Like it or not, you're going to smile far more often if I have anything to do with it, and at least lose the mask even if you have to keep that damn cowl.'

"Geblaan?"

…Complete? What could she possibly mean by that? Oh. Right, finished.

"Sorry," Serana muttered.

Sithia cleared her throat and coughed as the influence of her stolen dragon soul wore off. "You were staring."

"I was half expecting scars. I didn't have time to notice any earlier."

"Those are on my body." Sithia's eyes widened as though she suddenly realised what she had let slip. She squeaked – such a funny, pathetic little sound to escape the big bad Dragonborn – her cheeks burning as she looked away. She snatched up her cowl and tugged it back on, together with the mask.

One day, Serana promised herself, she was going to steal that oh-so-frustrating thing and make sure Sithia couldn't hide herself with it ever again.

"Dragonborn!" The first of Dawnstar's guards had appeared, with what looked like the whole town following him. Including a gaunt old man wearing fine clothes and a silver circlet set with sapphires, who shoved past his guard and seized Serana's hand. Fortunately he went for the one that was still warm from being buried in the dragon, so he didn't notice she was far too cold to be alive.

"Dawnstar owes you a debt, Dragonborn."

Serana looked helplessly at Sithia.

Sithia groaned and dropped her head into her hands. "She's not the Dragonborn. I am."

"You? But you're not a Nord!"

"My Jarl," the nearest guard murmured, "Rumour has it that the Dragonborn is an Imperial woman."

"I see. Well, prove it."

Serana winced. She could feel Sithia seething beside her. This was not going to end well…


AN: Jarl Skald the Elder may or may not regret that demand. What do you think Sithia will do? What do you think of the chapter in general – the dragon fights, how Serana and Sithia are getting along so far, everything else… How am I doing?

Dovahzul translations from thuum dot org and a bit of grammatical stuff from the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages. I've probably made mistakes. If so, then I guess that means Sithia's speaking like a dragon can be a bit scrambled by the death of the dragon whose soul she just snaffled. And that Serana isn't quite as fluent as she thinks she is.

Coming up next: a night in Dawnstar and a lot of rowing to get home. Hopefully meeting up with daddy dear too, provided the chapter ends where it's supposed to.

Edited to correct a few errors. Please tell me if you spot any, as they drive me crazy when I spot them with later rereading.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Home Sweet Castle

"IIZ!"

The Jarl toppled over, encased in ice. Sithia stalked past him, the crowd scattering like spooked rabbits to allow her through. They clustered back together, staring from their frozen Jarl to the infuriated Dragonborn storming away towards their hometown.

Serana knelt down beside the old man, forcing her fingers through the ice. Much as he deserved what he got, it wouldn't help Sithia at all to accidentally kill the Jarl of the Pale. He gasped for air once Serana had broken through enough of it.

Watching his face contort, undoubtedly about to erupt in humiliated rage, Serana concentrated. She hoped there were no mages in the crowd, or someone might feel what she was doing.

"I'm disappointed, my Jarl. I'd heard so much about you, the most upstanding Nord in Skyrim, and this is how you treat the chosen one of Akatosh?"

The Jarl's face went slack for a moment as the illusion magic behind her voice ensnared him. She held her breath, hoping that she hadn't overdone it. It would be a little obvious if the most powerful man in the Hold started following her around begging to serve her every whim.

"I… You're right, you're right, I'm terribly sorry. We owe her so much. I must apologise." He scrambled up, the last of the ice cracking away. He stumbled after Sithia. "Dragonborn! I am sorry."

Sithia halted. She stood rigid, fists clenched at her side.

"You have saved my home – our home – from ruin. Anything we can give you, anything at all, name it, and we will. Within reason. I am honoured to name you Thane of the Pale."

Serana blinked. Sithia's reaction to that highest of honours for a commoner was to swear viciously. Too quietly for the Jarl or anyone other than a vampire – or maybe a werewolf – to hear.

Sithia turned and nodded stiffly. "Thank you, my Jarl. All I need is a new sword, a bed for the night – beds for the night, rather – food, and transport to Solitude and beyond."

She left off the cure disease potion. Serana would have to remind her about that in private, unless Sithia had intentionally not mentioned it because she didn't want to draw attention to the idea of vampirism.

"Rustleif, Thoring, Harlaug! Do whatever the Dragonborn asks. I am sure she will reimburse you for your help."

Anything except pay for what the damn Dragonborn needed, it seemed. At least there was an entire dragon skeleton that Sithia could lay claim to. Pity they had no idea there would be a dragon here, as that would have saved her from lugging around the bones and scales all the way from Dimhollow. At least it meant she didn't have to go back to collect them.

"Drop by the Windpeak Inn, and I will provide hearty food, hot water and warm beds for you both. On the house." At least the innkeeper, a red-haired Nord, was suitably grateful.

"Follow me, Dragonborn, my finest sword is yours." It sounded like the blacksmith was equally grateful too, unless he meant it'd be hers after she paid for it.

"Come see me when you're ready to leave, ladies. My boat is moored over there." The ferryman pointed across the bay, to where the only rowboat around was rocking in the gentle ebb and flow of the tide. Sithia probably couldn't make it out. Serana very soon wouldn't be able to either, as the sun was cresting over the rocky hills to the east.

They followed the blacksmith to his forge, his snow white hair catching the light of the sun so badly that Serana couldn't bear to look at him. She looked away, noticing the minimal damage to the buildings, although several showed signs of something big perching on them. Including the inn. No wonder the innkeeper was so grateful. The dragon must have been about to tear the place down when it felt Sithia's approach.

"Rustleif, I hope you're going to do what I'm thinking." The Redguard who'd caught up with them looped her arm through the blacksmith's. His wife, judging by their matching gold rings. More than that, his pregnant wife – Serana could hear that little heartbeat within her.

"Of course. We're doing well enough to be able to afford to give a sword away to someone who really deserves it. Like you, Dragonborn. In fact, take everything you need, Skyrim owes you a great deal."

"At least take a bone and a scale from that dragon!"

"I am honoured, Dragonborn, but I refuse to let you pay when my countrymen owe you so much more."

The Redguard kissed her husband's cheek and disappeared inside their house, murmuring her thanks to Sithia on the way past.

"I've already been made a Thane twice over now, and got a free house in Whiterun out of it!"

Serana leaned close. "Don't argue too much, we might need those bones and scales to pay for a boat ride to my home." If not for that damn cowl, her breath would be brushing against Sithia's skin. That enchanted leather robbed her of what would undoubtedly be an interesting reaction.

"Ferrymen never charge more than fifty septims, I've got that much to spare."

"They're going to ask for a lot more to go anywhere near my home. It's not only twice as far as Solitude, it's where trespassers don't return from."

"Then we might have to walk from Solitude. I doubt the ferryman will accept payment in heavy bones and scales, no matter how valuable they are."

"We could buy a horse." Hopefully Serana would be able to enthral it if she had to. She'd never tried with animals, and living ones tended to object violently to her.

"In my experience they die within an hour. Usually horribly."

"A horse could get us a good bit of the way in that hour."

"It'd be a very expensive hour! Even if I had the gold, I'm tired of being the reason horses die. Maybe a carriage driver would go out of his way if bribed enough…"

The blacksmith cleared his throat. "I couldn't help but overhear, but if Harlaug is a true Nord, he should go out of his way to help you. For free, although you might need to shame him into it. He's a stubborn bastard, but a prideful one."

"Thanks, but I'd prefer to avoid that. He needs to earn a living just as you do, so I'll make sure you get a bone and scale."

That probably meant Sithia wouldn't let her enthral the ferryman into taking them all the way to her home. It'd be worth a try, though.

"This is my best sword. Not my own work, I'm afraid. This is beyond me." The blacksmith held out a glass sword, the beautiful shimmering green length almost as long as Sithia was tall.

Predictably, Sithia's brows were drawn down into a scowl. "Your stock has something to be desired. I've never handled a greatsword before. I don't have time to learn, not when there might be a dragon to slay tomorrow."

"This is Dawnstar, Dragonborn. The only place more remote is Winterhold, and they haven't had a blacksmith for a very long time."

Serana frowned. What did he mean by that? She knew Winterhold as a thriving city, the last port before Morrowind for the sailors who didn't care to go inland to Windhelm. It had been her home during her apprenticeship at the College. She'd loved it as much as she hated the gilded cage of her parental home. She looked up at the crumbling Tower of Dawn and swallowed hard. Would she find Winterhold just as crumbly?

"It's iron and steel I work with, you're lucky I have anything stronger. If you can't handle the greatsword, I forge fine steel swords."

"It was a Skyforge steel sword that didn't survive slaying that dragon."

Strictly speaking that wasn't true, but the blacksmith was already all but worshipping the ground Sithia stood on. If he knew she'd slain two dragons in as many days, he'd be kissing her boots. Or maybe even proposing to her. Despite his pretty and pregnant wife, he kept eyeing Sithia's chest. Wait, not her breasts, but the amulet resting just above them. Serana's eyes flinched away from it, no wonder she hadn't noticed it until now. Was that an Amulet of Mara? Maybe the blacksmith was just innocently wondering who the lucky bastard was that would marry the Dragonborn. Serana made a mental note to ask her about that, when the time seemed right.

"Tell you what, take two of my finest steel swords. That should keep you going until you reach Solitude even if you slay a dragon a day."


Serana watched Sithia adjust her new swords, sheathed side by side on her right hip. Her gaze inevitably slipped to linger on Sithia's curvy backside before she managed to drag her eyes up to head level. Her fingers itched with the urge to pull that damn cowl down. It was something she increasingly suffered from whenever she saw it. She needed a distraction or she really would try to steal it.

"Do you want me to go back to the dragon and collect what I can?"

"Not yet. It's just as well you dropped what you had, as it would've drawn the wrong sort of attention for you to be carrying so much more than any mortal should manage. We should go before talking to the ferryman to get as much as I'd be able to carry, which shouldn't raise eyebrows. I should've thought of that earlier. Sorry."

"Stupid Dragonborn," Serana breathed. Fortunately Sithia didn't hear her, or chose to ignore it. Serana suspected it was the former, as Sithia's gaze was fixed on the inn ahead.


"Welcome to the Windpeak Inn, Dragonborn. Karita, play something in her honour while I finish getting the food ready."

The pretty young redhead in revealing clothing – the innkeeper's daughter judging by their scents – started to tap out a rhythm on her drums. Almost in time with Sithia's heartbeat, come to think of it.

"Our hero, our hero, claims a warrior's heart.
I tell you, I tell you, the Dragonborn comes.
With a Voice wielding power of the ancient Nord art.
Believe, believe, the Dragonborn comes."

As the song continued, everyone in the town seemed to come out of the woodwork, clapping, cheering and singing along. Sithia sat down at the closest bench. Her head met the wood with a quiet thunk, and she groaned. No one else seemed to notice, all eyes on the bard. Serana sat down next to her and patted her on the back. Poor Dragonborn. If all of Skyrim knew this song, no wonder everyone forgot her name.

"It's an end to the evil, of all Skyrim's foes.
Beware, beware, the Dragonborn comes.
For the darkness has passed, and the legend yet grows.
You'll know, You'll know the Dragonborn's come."

Serana was humming along by the end of it. It was a catchy tune. Sithia sat up and gave her a filthy look. It was impressive that a mortal actually heard a hum despite that racket.

The innkeeper returned bearing a two bowls of stew balanced on one arm, and two bottles of mead clutched in the other hand.

"Thanks, but keep that mead for yourself. Got any milk?"

There was a moment of shocked silence. Serana could almost hear their jaws dropping. Towards the back of the crowd, someone muttered: "The Dragonborn, a milk-drinker?" He yelped as someone elbowed or kicked him. Or both, there were at least two impacts Serana heard.

"I… Yes, Dragonborn. One moment."

The bemused innkeeper set down a jug of milk. "You don't care for mead?"

"I avoid all alcohol after an incident with drugged wine. Milk is far more difficult to taint." Sithia tugged her mask down and tucked in. Serana joined her, wishing that it was blood she was swallowing.

"Maybe milk would actually help us… You see, we all suffer from nightmares every night. The same nightmare. But don't worry, you'll both be fine. Travellers don't seem to get them." That explained why everyone looked so tired, dark shadows under their bloodshot eyes. It also might explain the Jarl's attitude, but Serana suspected that might be giving him too much credit.

"I have plenty of my own," Sithia murmured. Serana looked sharply at her. If Sithia had regular nightmares, she must be overdue for one, as she hadn't had one on the road to Dawnstar. What memories could haunt her dreams? She wanted to ask, but Sithia had spoken quietly enough that she hadn't intended it to be heard.

"Excuse me, Dragonborn." An old woman sat down on the other side of Sithia.

"What is it?"

"My name is Frida. I'm the apothecary. I'd like to pay you as much as I can spare for the remains of that dragon." She set down five bulging coin purses. "Five hundred gold for the head of that dragon."

"Deal." Sithia scooped the coin purses into her knapsack. "Will you need help to collect the skull?"

"Don't worry about me, I can rope my customers into helping me. Especially the ones who want their special tonic to keep coming. Powdered dragon bone should give it quite the kick."

Serana snorted and glanced around the crowd still filling the inn. Every man present was trying not to look interested in what the apothecary had just said.

'Wait. By the blood, what is that?' Serana stared. It was an elf, but like no elf she'd ever seen, dressed in hooded robes. His skin was as grey as an Altmer's was gold, and his eyes were blood red.

"Sithia, what is that elf?" she hissed, for Sithia's ears alone. She couldn't risk attracting any more attention. It was probably already obvious that she'd never seen an elf like that before.

Sithia turned to look. "A Dark Elf. Dunmer, as they prefer. They were once the Chimer. I hear they were cursed into looking like that by Azura. Something about betraying and murdering her favourite champion."

Well, that was an object lesson in why it was a pretty bad idea to anger a Daedric Prince, even one who wasn't considered particularly malevolent.

"Looks like he's a priest. I'd better have a quiet word with him about you know what."

Serana stayed where she was while Sithia wandered over to the Dunmer. She could bear the presence of priests when they were away from their temples or shrines, but he might well realise what she was and what she carried, hidden under Sithia's cloak.

"My daughter, what can this humble priest of Mara do for you?" The Dunmer had a gravelly voice. Had Azura cursed that too?

"Just a blessing. With all the dragons I come across, my restoration skills need every boost I can get."

The Dunmer laid a grey skinned hand on Sithia's head. "Mara bless you, child." Serana flinched as the priest bestowed his Divine's blessing, purging the vampiric infection from Sithia. That was almost as bad as being too close to a shrine. At least the burning sensation faded away with the warm golden light.

As Sithia turned away, the priest opened his mouth. He closed it again, grimacing. He muttered to himself, too quietly for anyone else to catch except Serana: "No, that would be wrong. She's already given enough to the people of Dawnstar. I cannot ask that of her. Not now. After she's rested, maybe."

She'd have to make sure they left before this Dunmer could corner Sithia in the morning. Whatever he wanted to ask, it would be something that would delay their journey. Whatever it was would have to wait. It couldn't be that urgent or he'd ask Sithia right now.

"Ladies, the washbasins are ready. Those rooms are yours for the rest of the day, and for the night." He pointed at the adjoining doorways across the hall. They lacked doors, but seemed to have curtains for what passed for privacy here.

"Thank you." Sithia turned to her, adding, "See you in a while." With that Sithia went into the room on the right, drawing the curtain behind her. As soon as those enchanted boots were off, Serana could hear the rest of that leather armour being removed and dropped to the floor. Then the splash of water.

Serana's mouth went dry – well, drier – imagining that lithe body naked and wet. Right. Time to subject Sithia to this tension. At least there was no need to remain out here to make sure no one peeked – with so many people around, including a priest, they wouldn't dare.

"Thank you," Serana said to the innkeeper, speaking loudly enough that Sithia should overhear. "If there's one drawback to my garments, it's that the dust of travel gets in places I'd rather it didn't."

The innkeeper's eyes dropped down to her exposed cleavage. He couldn't help himself, poor man. "You're welcome," he choked, his cheeks redder than his hair.

She walked into the room on the left, a satisfied smile curving her lips at the sudden silence from the room on the other side of the dividing wall. Silence except for unsteady breathing and a heart beating a little faster than normal. It was tempting to climb up that timber wall to peek over the top of it, but it'd be far more satisfying to get that delectable morsel to reveal herself of her own free will. Soon. Not now, but soon.


Spending the rest of the day reading about this most recent Oblivion Crisis was interesting, but the proximity to Sithia was distracting. Especially when Serana's eyes kept being drawn to those tantalising glimpses of silvery white scars disappearing under Sithia's shirt. She hadn't put her armour back on after washing off the dust and dirt of travel, instead dressing in casual clothes. That damn cowl was finally removed for more than just a few minutes!

Her armour was still within reach though, kept very close at hand as Sithia was making some small repairs to it, stitching together small cuts and tears with enchanted thread. Just as tough as the leather with a matching enchantment, Sithia had told her.

"Not stronger?"

"No, or the leather would split instead, which wouldn't exactly be ideal for armour."

Part of the problem with the book was that it included the fact that the Third Era had lasted over four hundred years, and that they were now in the Fourth Era. That made her wonder how long the rest of the First Era had lasted, and the entire Second Era. Just how much had she missed? She'd slept for centuries if not millennia.

It was also worrying to read about the fate of the last Dragonborns before Sithia – they all suffered violent deaths, and the last three not including this heroic Martin were assassinated. Was that Sithia's fate?

"Sithia?"

"Hmm?" Sithia glanced up at her. "What?"

"You said it had been two hundred years since all this happened?" Serana tapped the book.

"Something like that. It's about the two hundredth year of the Fourth Era. Maybe the two hundred and first. Or second, by now. Don't ask what month or day of the week it is. I don't know for sure, and I don't care."

"How can you not care? What about your birthday?"

"I don't know the day, just that it was sometime during Evening Star."

"The Thief?" Serana hoped she'd managed to mask what she was really feeling, that she sounded surprised rather than hurt.

"Yes, what of it?"

"I…" Damn it. Those born under the Thief were luckier than others, but that luck eventually ran out. Sithia was already in her prime, and a Thief tended to die young. She really, really didn't like the thought of Sithia's death, especially not when it might be all too soon. "I'm technically a Thief too, it's when I became a vampire." Molag Bal's Summoning Day being what it was…

She really needed a distraction from these disturbing thoughts. Serana let the book fall shut, a finger keeping her place. "What was this incident you mentioned with the drugged wine?"

"Ever woken up naked in the dark, dank hold of a slaving ship bound for Black Marsh? I don't recommend it." Sithia paused, rethreading her needle. She smirked. "That Argonian gang certainly wouldn't, if any had lived to tell the tale."

"When was this?"

"Let me think…" It took a few stitches for her to answer. "About fifteen years ago, now."

"Fifteen… You were fifteen? A little young to be drinking, weren't you? Whatever did your mother say?"

Sithia's lips thinned. "Nothing."

"She didn't find out?"

"Didn't know or didn't care. Pick one," she spat bitterly. "I suspect she didn't care. She's the reason I have no idea what day I was born on. Rasha was furious, though."

"Rasha?" She'd mentioned that name once before, back in Dimhollow.

"The Khajiit who raised me. Closest thing I had to a father figure."

"At least you know he cares, then."

Sithia's finger slipped. She hissed and yanked the needle out of her finger.

Serana's eyes flicked between the bloodied needle and the tiny wound. She licked her lips. So very tempting to ask if she could have another little taste of that delicious blood…

Sithia sucked her finger into her mouth. Serana whimpered. To be that finger… Wait. What? No, to have that bloodied finger between her own lips.

A flicker of healing magic later, and the wound was gone by the time Sithia's finger slipped from her lips.

"Let's leave the past in the past for now, shall we?"

Serana nodded, suppressing the urge to ask after this Khajiit and Sithia's apparently uncaring mother. She could understand not wanting to talk about things. She just hoped those things Sithia would rather not talk about weren't as mentally scarring as her own.


That night, in their separate rooms, Serana could hear Sithia sleeping, her heartbeat steady and breathing slow. Then her heart was suddenly racing, her breathing ragged, and Serana could hear her tossing and turning. Nightmare?

"No…" Sithia cried out, her voice strangled with fear and rage, and slurred with sleep. "Mother, don't—No! NIID!" Her lapse into Dovahzul was accompanied by her Thu'um. Serana could hear startled voices. The last thing Sithia would want was to wake up to fearful and gawping idiots.

Serana jumped up, catching hold of the top of the dividing wall. She hauled herself up and dropped down the other side. Time to wake up her Dragonborn before anyone else could intrude.

All things considered, it was just as well that she did, because Sithia reacted badly.

One moment her hand was gently shaking Sithia's shoulder, the next she was on the floor, seeing stars from the sudden jarring impact. Sithia straddled her, eyes wild. Her dagger glanced off the silver collar. Serana hissed as the blade cut into the flesh under her jaw, drawing blood.

Sithia froze, eyes wide, face a mask of horror in the flickering candlelight. She pulled the dagger away, dropped it, and brought her shaking hands down, golden light spilling from them. It wouldn't take, curving away from Serana's deathly pale skin.

"Serana—"

"It's fine." Her ancient blood kicked in with the blessing of the night, sealing the wound and leaving her skin unmarked.

"Void take me, I'm so sorry."

"Are you all right?"

Sithia shook her head. "I think I'm the one who should be asking that." She scrambled off Serana and perched on the edge of her bed.

Serana took the offered hand and pulled herself up to sit next to her, close enough for their thighs to touch. "It's fine, really. I should've thought to make sure your dagger was out of reach." A flick of her fingers and a touch of magic called said dagger to her hand. She eyed the blood coating the Ebony. Her own blood. "I've tasted yours. Care to taste mine? If you've ever tasted a Daedra heart, my blood has a similar kick to it, except even more so."

"I'm not a vampire," Sithia snapped. Yet despite the vehement denial, she didn't take her eyes off her bloodied dagger. Oh yes, she'd definitely tasted Daedric flesh, or she wouldn't look quite so hungry and wary at the same time. If those hearts weren't so expensive and rare, they'd be a far bigger problem than skooma.

"No, but you are curious. Aren't you?"

Sithia raised her eyes to meet Serana's gaze. She took her dagger back and rammed it into the furs covering the bed. When she yanked it back out, the blade was wiped clean. She set the dagger down on the bedside table and looked back at Serana, her lips set in a grim line. "If I did everything I wanted to, Tamriel would be in peril."

Serana fingered the blood left on her skin under her jaw, tilting her head to expose it to Sithia. "Sure I can't tempt you?"

A sound not unlike a whimper escaped Sithia.

Serana took pity on her and crossed over to the washbasin to remove the temptation.

Sithia sighed. Was that in relief or disappointment? Tempting as it was to ask, Serana had toyed with her pet Dragonborn enough for the night.

"Sleep. Unless you want to talk about whatever your nightmare was?" Maybe this way she'd find out a little more about Sithia's past…

Sithia shuddered. "No." She swung her legs up onto the bed and lay back. She reached for the furs kicked to the bottom of the bed. Serana beat her to them and threw them over her. "Thanks."

Well, so much for learning more about her Dragonborn. Another time. The amount Sithia had already opened up to her was promising.

Awkward silence descended, not remotely alleviated by Sithia's rapid heartbeats.

"Do you want me to leave?"

No response, not even eye contact. Damn it. She'd embarrassed Sithia too much. Serana looked up the dividing wall. She'd better go back over it, or she might attract unwanted attention.

Sithia's hand caught her wrist. "No. You can stay. Provided that chair is comfy enough for you, that is."

Serana swallowed the urge to say something about the bed looking far cosier. That would be coming on far too strongly for the poor mortal. She sat down and blew out the candle.

"…Have I mentioned how weird it is that your eyes glow in the dark?"

Serana took the hint and closed her eyes. "Go to sleep, Sithia."


The ferryman was every bit as stubborn as the blacksmith had warned.

"The island with the ruined castle? Don't you know that place is cursed? I'll take you as far as I can, but I'm not hanging around and it'll cost you extra. Five hundred gold."

Serana leaned close to speak to Sithia alone. "I could, you know…"

"Enthral him?" Sithia muttered back. "Tempting, but no. We are asking him to go out of his way, and to a place that quite rightly terrifies him." She turned back to the ferryman. "Three hundred gold."

"Four hundred, and that's my last offer, and only because you killed that dragon."

"Deal." Sithia handed him four of the bulging coin purses.

The ferryman's stubbornness didn't end there. He refused Serana's offer to enchant the oars. "No magic on my boat! 'Sides, got to earn my gold. You can row while I sleep if you're in such a rush that you don't want to stop overnight, but no magic!"

They rowed non-stop. Serana ignored the ferryman and enchanted the oars whenever he slept. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him…

Sithia tried to stay awake at night to keep her company, but inevitably ended up snoring in the bottom of the boat, her head cushioned on Serana's lap. A blood oath had never been more tested. Serana tried to take the edge off the temptation by feeding from the ferryman in his sleep, but it only made her long all the more for the source of richest blood right next to her. Right on her lap, when Sithia was sleeping too.

Sithia only had a nightmare once, and Serana woke her up as soon as her heart started racing. If she ended up Shouting in her sleep, she might have broken a hole in the hull or capsized them. A dip in the Sea of Ghosts wouldn't have hurt Serana, but it might have endangered the ferryman, with only a Nord's resistance to cold, and certainly would not have been good for Sithia, even with her armour at least as resistant as the ferryman's skin – it couldn't help her if freezing cold water got between her and the enchanted leather, after all.

It was a relief and a disappointment when they reached their destination five days later – there would be no reason for Sithia to use her as a pillow now. The uncharacteristically fine weather held, with no delays from storms, nor any snow, nor even rain. Just as well, as there was no cabin on the small boat.

The ferryman started rowing away the moment their feet touched the muddy shore. He'd either been holding back, or he could row a lot faster with the boat unladen, because he soon disappeared into the mist.

The jetty her father had ordered built was still around, but half of it had fallen into the sea, and the remainder was rotting. The rowboat moored beside it was in better shape, fortunately. Serana started off rowing, then persuaded the oars to continue by themselves. They glowed purple, and would remain so until the spell ended. Back in the ferryman's boat, she'd kept a careful ear open for the telltale signs of him waking up so she could end the spell, leaving him blissfully unaware.

After an hour the enchantment started to fade, but by then the castle was looming out of the mist, and the shore of the island was within sight.

"You didn't mention the part where you live in a castle, Princess."

Serana winced and turned to look at Sithia. Her attempt at a glare was probably far too plaintive. "Please don't call me that. I don't care to be called 'Lady Serana' either. 'Princess' is even worse."

"All right… Princess." Sithia was smirking. Serana didn't need to see her mouth to know. "Seriously, Serana, you could have mentioned the castle when you said not all vampires are cave dwellers."

"I know, I just didn't want you to think I was some damsel in distress. Bad enough that I had to be freed without seeming that privileged and helpless."

"Don't worry, helpless is one thing you're not. You needed a guide, not a protector, except from that first dragon and sometimes yourself, stupid vampire. Besides, if you really did belong in a story like that, you'd have needed kissing to wake you up." Sithia's gaze dropped down to her lips.

Serana smiled. Irresistible. "I'd definitely have preferred that to waking up at swordpoint. I don't suppose we can start over?"

Sithia's eyes widened. She briefly lifted her eyes to meet Serana's before looking away, like a deer with a hunter. What little skin was visible was flushing. "…You just want me to take my cowl off."

"Foiled," Serana muttered. She'd get that kiss. Soon. Then she'd easily get that willing meal. Just a little persuasion, and Sithia would be begging her to feed.

The boat ran aground, the oars shuddering as the spell faded.

"Well, here we are. Home sweet… castle." Serana tied the boat to the jetty under the shadow of the watchtower. The harsh cries of bone hawks split the oppressively still air. She looked up the bridge stretching up to the castle and started walking towards it. Hopefully her mother was home, but if she was, she'd be so furious to see Serana when she clearly didn't think the situation was resolved. If her father was there instead… Well. She'd find out if he'd missed her at all, if he'd realised what his obsession had cost him. If he regretted it. If he wanted his family back. If—

Sithia slipped ahead of her and stood in her way, arms folded, eyes cold and hard. "Before we head up there, let's hear it. What's the deal with you and your Scroll?"


AN: Sithia is not going to be a happy Dragonborn when she hears what Serana has to say, is she?

Coming up next: the truth about the Elder Scroll and her father's obsession. Provided Sithia doesn't object violently, try to kill her and take the Scroll, or knock her out and row them both back to Skyrim, Serana will get to see her father at last.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Prophecy, Insanity and Stupidity

'Damn it.' Serana was so close, the castle just a few hundred paces away. Yet so far… Sithia would never let her go up there once she knew. She might even object violently. But after everything she'd done, she deserved the truth. Maybe the truth could wait a little longer, though.

"I'm not home quite yet—"

"Close enough. Whoever is home, they're not going to want you to be spilling secrets to a stranger. Not if they have any sense." So much for persuading her to let the truth wait.

Sithia took her arm and led her towards the watchtower. "Let's get out of this." Snow was steadily falling as it nearly always did this far north.

Sithia perched on the lowest step spiralling up into the higher levels of the watchtower. She tugged Serana down to sit next to her. She reached over to grip Serana's hand, the enchanted leather gauntlet thrumming against her skin, and squeezed her hand until Serana met her gaze.

"If you want me to trust you, you'd better start talking. Tell me what's going on."

"I won't know until I get inside—"

"Then you can tell me what you know, starting with why your mother locked you away with that Scroll."

Serana looked away. This was not going to end well. The promising friendship that had been blossoming with Sithia was doomed. If by some miracle it wasn't, she would still fall in Sithia's esteem. Damn it! It'd be so much harder to seduce her after this.

Sithia squeezed her hand again. "Trust me. I can help you."

Serana's shoulders slumped. "All right. You've helped me this far. And I do need all the help I can get. It all started when my father came across a prophecy a Moth Priest had recorded from an Elder Scroll. This Scroll."

Sithia's hand slipped away. She'd probably never want to touch her again after this.

"And this prophecy is?"

"The Tyranny of the Sun. Something about vampires not needing to fear the sun anymore by controlling it. If my father can do that, he'll take over the world."

"And how would he do that?"

Serana shrugged. "I don't know. It was only a fragment of the prophecy he found. He needs this Scroll to be read by someone who won't go mad in the process so he can find out what he needs to do. Anyway, my mother and I didn't feel like inviting a war with everyone in Tamriel who'd object to eternal darkness falling. After she fell out with my father trying to get him to see sense, she had me sealed away with it."

Serana held her breath and braced herself for Sithia's reaction. She fearfully raised her eyes to look again at her mortal.

Head propped up on her hands, elbows on her knees, Sithia stared blankly at her.

"Say something!"

Sithia slowly shook her head. "…I'm just trying to understand how in Oblivion you thought this was a good idea."

Serana cringed.

"What were you thinking?" Sithia got to her feet and paced back and forth. "Bringing that here, when it's almost certainly your crazy father in there." She gestured in the direction of the castle, then jabbed a finger at Serana. "When that Scroll is what he needs to bring about this insane prophecy, if he's found a means to safely read it without going crazier."

"He might not be there—"

"If your mother's home, she'd have come for you if the situation had been resolved. Wouldn't she?"

"She…" Serana swallowed, a heavy lump in her throat. "She might have died stopping him."

Sithia stopped dead and frowned down at her. "A falling out, you said. You didn't mention he'd want to kill her."

"What can I say? He's not a good person, even by vampire standards."

"I'm sorry. Hopefully your father hasn't killed her for taking you and his precious Scroll away from him." Sithia shoved her cowl down and ran a hand through her hair. "But do this, and you're almost certainly giving him what he wants when your mother did so much to keep it from him. This is the stupidest idea I've ever heard."

"I know, I know, I just… Even if he is the one here, I need to know if there's any chance he's changed. If absence has made the heart grow fonder, if he's realised what his obsession cost him."

"I can understand that, but is it worth the risk of letting him blot out the sun?"

"I… No." Serana lowered her head, eyes on the ground, grateful that her cheeks couldn't flush with the shame burning in her blood. She felt so selfish for even thinking of it, let alone coming this close to trying. Especially after all her mother's efforts to keep the Scroll safely away from her father.

Sithia put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Hey, we could still find out. We leave the Scroll down here just in case it's daddy dear." She looked around, presumably for a hiding place.

"He's not going to believe my mother left me without it."

Sithia brought her other hand down, and she shook Serana slightly. "Tell him she took it with her!" That was very much exasperated mortal.

"He won't believe it. He knows she'd never risk keeping both Scrolls in one place."

Sithia fingers dug into her as her grip tightened. "Wait, what? Both Scrolls?"

"Oh, I forgot to mention that part. Sorry. The prophecy is contained in at least two Scrolls, which my father managed to get his hands on. Mother thought he was getting far too close to his goal when he found that second Scroll, so she fled with both of them, leaving one with me in Dimhollow. It's why he'll kill her if he finds her. If he found her." 'Please be safe, Mother.'

"So you might be taking him the last thing he needs to plunge us all into darkness and all out war." Sithia let go of her, and dragged a hand down her face. She looked down at her wearily. "Tell him she didn't trust you with it. Tell him anything, just don't bring him the Scroll."

"He won't—"

"Serana. I'll be there with you. I'll help convince him."

"Fine. I'm not happy about this; leaving an Elder Scroll lying around is asking for trouble."

Sithia snorted. "Maybe, but taking it up there is worse if the crazy lord of the castle is at home."

"I know. Unless he really has changed, he is crazy. I just wish he hadn't driven my mother crazy with him and pushed us all apart." Serana knocked on the steps, hoping that there was a space inside just right for hiding an Elder Scroll. But no, they were solid rock. "Any idea where to put it?"

Sithia looked out of the narrow slit serving as a window. "I do indeed. How about in the boat, in my knapsack?"

"All right. I guess that would be best, just in case we have to escape in a hurry."


That damn masked cowl was pulled back up the moment they emerged from the watchtower.

"Must you?"

"This again?" Sithia rolled her eyes. "Yes, I do need my cowl on."

"At least leave the mask off. Guessing what your expression is with only your eyes to go by? It gets old fast."

"I'll do that when you don't don your hood."

"That's not the same, I need it with the sun."

"Right. Which explains that." Sithia gestured at her exposed cleavage.

Serana crossed her arms. If she wasn't so annoyed, she'd be amused by the way Sithia's eyes were drawn down when the pressure of her arms on her cuirass exposed a little more of her cleavage. Despite her frustration, it was always satisfying to watch Sithia flush and look away, although it only added to her disappointment that she could see so little of her face. What was the point in making her blush when she couldn't properly enjoy it?

"I'll admit it stings a bit, but it's my head I really need to keep covered."

"Then why don't you adjust your cloak, or wear something else?"

"Because it distracts me a bit from my thirst." That and revealing or not, it was the only thing that remained intact whenever she had to resort to her other form. She'd learned that the hard way. "I need my hood. Do you really need that mask?"

"In this perpetual winter? Yes, I fucking do."

"Fuck you and your damn cowl," Serana muttered, too quietly for Sithia to hear. Her parents would be horrified by such foul language escaping her lips. Sithia was clearly a terrible influence, and one she very much hoped would stick around.

Serana pulled the strap over her head and hefted the cloak-wrapped Scroll in her arms. She shoved it inside Sithia's pack and set it down in the boat, which rocked in the water with the sudden increase in weight. "By the way, why didn't you have me put it in your pack before we reached Dawnstar?"

"Because I wouldn't be able to move, not without ditching some of the junk in my pack. And that junk is treasure to me."

"You stupid Dra—" Serana swallowed the rest of that word when Sithia inhaled sharply, hurt flickering in her eyes. "You stupid… Sithia. I'm sorry. I do know better than to call you by what you are."

"I know. It just… It hurts sometimes." Sithia looked away to glare up at the castle. "So, how am I stupid?"

"I could have carried your pack. I'm not limited by weight, which you must have known when you got me to carry all of those dragon bones and scales."

"Okay, so that was pretty stupid, but it was also stupid not to suggest putting everything in my enchanted knapsack and volunteering to carry it!"

"Yes, all right, can we agree that we're both equally stupid and—"

"Fuck!"

Serana stared. Had Sithia really just propositioned her, if extremely crudely?

"Is your father a mage?"

Apparently not. Or was she worried her father would find out through some obscure spell what they'd been up to? Well, he would know, as would every vampire in there, but not through magic. While vampiric sense of smell wasn't as powerful as lycanthropic, it was more than good enough to tell if scents were mingling. And of course make a pretty good guess as to why.

But if she was wrong about Sithia's intentions, she'd probably mortify them both if she assumed too much. "I doubt it's how he thinks of himself, but he can use a few spells. Mostly alteration and conjuration. Unless he's bothered to learn more in my absence. Why?"

"Because I can still feel the Scroll on you, and I don't think of myself as a mage either. That indescribable aura has rubbed off on you."

Oh. Fuck indeed, just not the fun sort. "Then we'll have to risk it." Serana tugged the Scroll out of Sithia's knapsack, unwrapped it and slung it across her back again.

"Or we could be sensible for once and get out of here."

Serana looked up at the castle and back at Sithia. Pleadingly.

"Oh, all right. Let's get this over with. If he manages to blot the sun out because of this, 'I told you so' is the least you deserve."

'Stupid vampire' was left unsaid, but Serana heard it as clearly as if it had been shouted. Much to her annoyance, she couldn't really argue with that. Her mother would be furious. But she wasn't here, and Serana had to know if there was any chance they could be a family again.

As they started walking up the bridge, Sithia hissed, "This is insane. Remind me why I'm not killing you and taking that Scroll far away from here."

"Because you like me too much?"

Sithia sighed explosively. "Apparently." She warily tapped one of the gargoyles guarding the bridge. It stayed dormant. If Sithia's sword was drawn, it would have been a different story.

"This isn't going to get me drained dry or worse, enthralled, is it?"

"Not if I have anything to do with it. But presuming he's there, my father will want to reward you. If by some miracle it's my mother instead, she'll be too busy expressing her disappointment with me."

"What sort of reward will your father have in mind?"

"Not my hand in marriage, that's for sure."

Sithia choked and punched her arm. Hard enough that she noticed, not hard enough that it really hurt.

Serana laughed, and sobered as she thought about what he might do. "Knowing him, he'll offer to turn you."

"Would he kill me if I refused his generous offer?"

"No, he'd just banish you. If you suddenly want to be a vampire, say so now, as it'd be a lot safer for you if I do it. Not many mortals survived my father's attempts. I doubt he's learned to be gentle in his old age."

Serana was ambushed by mixed feelings at the thought of Sithia asking to be turned. As a vampire, Sithia's blood wouldn't be the same, but Serana's own blood in her fledgling mingled with the dovah sos? That would still be an intoxicating mix. It would also mean Sithia would potentially live forever, just like her. Mortality wouldn't part them…

"Thanks, but I have enough issues with self control without adding bloodlust to that." Well, that was disappointing, but hardly surprising. A vampire hunter, even a part-time one, wouldn't want to become what she hunted.

The portcullis was down, blocking the entrance to the castle.

The thrall serving as the gatekeeper struck the studded wooden barrier with his axe. "You're not welcome—Lady Serana?" He staggered back, his heart stuttering. He looked up to the murder hole above and cupped his hands over his mouth. "Open the gate, Lady Serana is back!"

The portcullis shuddered and slowly rose up into the slot high above.

The gatekeeper stepped aside and bowed deeply. "Welcome home, milady."

Sithia coughed, poorly masking a word: "Princess."

Serana rolled her eyes and stifled a smile. Sithia's irreverence was exactly what she needed now, really. She pulled the door open. It creaked, something her mother would never have allowed. Her father was definitely home, then. With the door open, she could smell him too, with no trace of her mother. His scent was similar to her mother's in potency, but not quite as pure. For all that he boasted of his ancient blood, he was technically a half-blood, if one blessed by Molag Bal to have powers even greater than a Daughter of Coldharbour.

Maybe the difference in his blood was part of the why things started to fall apart with her parents. Her mother had to have been able to feel it, the constant whisper in her blood that she was superior to him. If her father had felt that through their bond, he must have hated that and grown to hate her mother too.

They stepped inside, the door creaking shut behind them. One of her father's lackeys, an Altmer of all things, stormed up to them. "How dare you… trespass… here…" He stared at Serana, eyes flicking between her face and the Scroll jutting over her shoulder. "Serana? Is that truly you?" He didn't wait for an answer, instead hurrying into the great hall, leaning over the banister, crying, "My lord! Everyone! Serana has returned!"

Serana raised an eyebrow. Going by his scent, her father had actually been the one to turn him. Since when had her father allowed an Altmer to receive his gift? Anyone taller than him had always been fed to the death hounds. Maybe her father really had changed…

She followed the Altmer onto the balcony overlooking the great hall, pausing there while he went down into the hall itself. Sithia's footsteps behind her were silent, but her heartbeat was reassuringly close.

Her father's court stared up at her, all exclaiming in wonder at her return and at the sight of the Scroll. Well, all of them apart from two gorging themselves on groaning cattle laid out on the tables. One of the hapless mortals gurgled and fell slack. The vampire, a Redguard, pulled away and beckoned for a replacement. He finally looked up when one failed to arrive and joined his kin in gaping at her. The other feeding vampire carried on regardless. That close to a bleeding mortal, Serana couldn't even tell whether it was male or female, only that it was not an elf, as there were no pointed ears to be seen.

There were a lot of unfamiliar faces. They had all been Nords the last time she was here. Now there was that Altmer, two of those cursed Dunmer, and a Bosmer. She could smell the ancient blood in all of them, only strong enough in a few to have been turned by her father. Those few included the elves, except for the one clutching the broom. She couldn't smell her mother's blood in any of the court – having been turned by her must have been a death sentence, as her father would have purged the court of anyone connected with her mother after she fled.

None of her own fledglings were there, but that was hardly surprising. Unlike her mother, she'd never been interested in ruling over the court. That meant those she'd turned had no interest in hanging around for the petty infighting, especially as their loyalty was to her, not her father. Presuming her father hadn't killed them as he had her mother's fledglings. She hoped not, they deserved better than that.

Her father was conspicuous by his absence, his throne empty. The Altmer took a seat on the high table, next to a bearded Nord who glowered at the elf. Rival advisors of her father, then.

She finally caught sight of her father, in the family portrait behind the high table. He'd repainted it to leave out her mother, changing the composition. Wait… Serana's breath caught. She was depicted standing on her father's right. The place that had always been reserved for the son he'd never had. Maybe he really had realised what he'd lost.

A movement caught her eye on the opposite balcony, as her father strode into view. She hoped he might pause and exchange a longing glance with her, but no. He didn't even look at her.

By the time she descended into the hall her father stood before the dais, arms spread in welcome. "My long-lost daughter returns at last."

His eyes immediately slipped from her face to linger hungrily on the top of the Scroll poking over her shoulder. With that her hope that he'd changed back into the father she loved died a painful death. His next words twisted the knife further. "I trust you have my Elder Scroll?"

His commanding voice echoed in the silent hall, his court holding their breath and all eyes on the touching reunion before them. Serana grit her teeth and closed the distance to stand just out of her father's reach. If by some miracle he decided to embrace her, he'd have to put some more effort into it.

Sithia stepped forward beside her, shoulder deliberately brushing against hers in silent support. "No, she's just carrying a replica around. I trust you have eyes? Why ask the question when you already know the answer? Or is that really the only thing you can think of the first time you've seen your daughter in centuries?"

Her father's lips thinned. He glared down at Sithia. "Of course I'm delighted to see my daughter. I do not need to say the words aloud, mortal. If her traitor mother were here, I would even let her watch this reunion before putting her head on a spike."

Serana flinched, and Sithia stiffened. "And I thought I had parental issues," she muttered.

Her father looked back at Serana. "Who is this stranger you have brought into our midst?" He shot a disapproving glance at Sithia. If she didn't give him the reason to be grateful to her latest pet, he might take exception and break the laws of hospitality. Not that he ever really followed them.

"My saviour who freed me, Sithia." Serana turned to Sithia and gestured at her father. "Harkon, my father."

"Lord of this court," he added, irritation colouring his voice for a moment. He'd always hated it whenever she forgot to mention his precious title to anyone she introduced to him.

He smiled at Sithia, his eyes cold. "Then I have you to thank for the return of my Scroll. And my daughter."

Serana flinched. Damn it… She really was an afterthought to him.

"Reveal yourself. I wish to behold the face of such a worthy mortal."

Sithia hesitated, but fortunately didn't try her father's lack of patience. She pulled both mask and cowl down.

Her father inclined his head in what passed for a bow from him. "Charmed. Now, your reward for returning my most valuable possession to me. And Serana, of course."

Yet again, an afterthought. 'Father, please, give me a sign that you care. That you missed me.'

"Why is this Elder Scroll so important to you?"

Her father stroked his beard, eyeing Sithia thoughtfully. "Ordinarily I would not reveal this to an outsider, and especially not a mortal. But you deserve to know the truth for the service you have done me. Consider it part of your reward."

He started to pace up and down, his cloak spreading like wings behind him with every turn.

"I was once a mighty king. My realm was vast, my power over my subjects absolute, but still death threatened to claim me as I grew older and fell ill. The Lord Molag Bal granted me immortality, and my wife and daughter, as his most faithful and powerful followers." He puffed out his chest. He was ridiculously proud of such a degrading ritual, but then he never mentioned that part to anyone. Probably not even himself. Maybe he thought he'd forget it if he ignored it. Serana doubted that worked any better for him than it did for her. The touch of Molag Bal was not something that could be forgotten. Ever.

"But immortality was not enough, for the sun restricts us just as it does our thinner blooded kin. We do not burn, but we are weakened. I searched long and hard for a way to end the tyranny of the sun, and eventually came across a prophecy. The secret to fulfilling it is contained in my Elder Scroll." He gestured at Serana. At her Scroll.

"A Scroll that my wife stole from me. She will pay dearly for that betrayal. But she has failed in her attempt to thwart my cause. Now that I have my Scroll back, all I need is a Moth Priest to read it, and then…" He stopped pacing and reached out to Sithia, who leaned away from him. "Eternal night will fall. This alarms you, mortal, but it need not. I offer you my blood. Take it and you will join us, rulers of the vampiric future that awaits."

Damn it. Even if he had missed her, his obsession still consumed him. Even more so, something she hadn't thought possible.

Nothing else for it now.

"Well, mortal? Sithia, what say you?"

"…You're insane."

"Explain," he snapped, folding his arms across his chest. His glowing orange eyes flashed brighter in his anger.

"Seriously? You don't see the problem?" Sithia pinched the bridge of her nose, exhaled slowly and looked steadily over at Serana's crazy father. "If you manage to put the sun out, you'll doom us all. Plants will die without the sun, animals will die without plants, and then man and mer die too. That leaves vampires to go bloodstarved and feral, presuming that man and mer don't kill you all first before they die."

"For those who lack the power, perhaps they will starve." Her father shrugged. "But Magelight will ensure our cattle survive. The other mortals are no match for us. Now, make your choice. Are you with us or against us?" He grinned, fangs unsheathed. "Perhaps I can convince you. Behold the power!"

Her father grunted, doubling over. Shadows covered him from head to toe, congealing and exploded in a shower of blood as he straightened up, transformed into his so-called true form.

'More like behold the monstrosity.' Serana grimaced and looked away. It was truly ugly. She hated using it, how it made her look but most of all for the way it made her feel. She wished she never had to use it, but sometimes she had no choice. Maybe it felt different for her father. Why else would he love it as much as he seemed to? From his court's lack of reaction, they were used to seeing it.

Sithia staggered back, eyes wide. Judging by the accusing glare she shot at Serana, she would have appreciated a warning about that. "No thanks. I don't trust you not to turn me into a snack instead. That and becoming an overgrown bat-woman hybrid isn't on my to do list."

Her father bared his teeth, hissing with displeasure. "Then you are prey. I will spare your life this once, but you are banished."

"I'll show myself out." Sithia turned to leave.

"You dare turn your back on me?" Her father's ragged wings beat, lifting his clawed feet off the floor, sickly red light flickering under them.

Sithia didn't turn back, instead starting to walk away. "Am I supposed to say formal goodbyes on being banished? Kiss your boots – sorry, claws – for the privilege? Come on, Serana, let's go. Unless you want to stay with these lunatics?"

Serana winced. Damn it. Her father did not allow 'guests' who insulted him to leave under their own power.

Harkon growled and raised a hand, claws glowing purple.

'I'm sorry, Sithia. You're about to suffer the worst hangover you've ever had, without the pleasure of drinking to earn it.' Worse, she couldn't even warn her. There wasn't time.

Too late, Sithia turned back. She must have sensed the magic building behind her.

"Begone!"

The moment the spell left her monstrous father's claws, Serana wrapped her arms around Sithia, letting the banishment portal drag her through Oblivion with her Dragonborn.


AN: So, was anyone expecting that? This does follow the Dawnguard questline, but with a few differences. That was one of them.

Coming up next: Harkon's displeasure makes itself known.

Chapter Text

Interlude: Like Mother, Like Daughter

The sickly purple glow engulfed the mortal, and temporarily concealed Serana as she made a futile attempt to keep her pet. If this Sithia was fortunate, she would emerge at the dock by the watchtower. If not, then she would suffer a slow death and for eternity in Coldharbour. She deserved such a fate for giving only insults when he offered immortality and power beyond measure.

His daughter would not be pleased, but she had to understand that no one was permitted to insult him without paying the price. That her pet left his hall alive was the most she could ask of him.

Now with that unpleasantness behind them, he would retire with his daughter to his chambers where he would greet her more fondly, away from the prying eyes of his court.

The orb of the portal faded away, taking the mortal with it.

'No…'

Not just the mortal. Serana. Gone.

Harkon dropped heavily to the floor, cracking the flagstones under his claws, eyes fixed on the empty space where his daughter had been.

Garan cautiously cleared his throat. "Perhaps two of the newer members of the court would like to escort Lady Serana back inside once she has said her goodbyes to her mortal saviour?"

"Allow me, my lord!" Stalf and Salonia chorused.

Harkon blinked and forced himself to focus. Any more delay would be seen as weakness. He looked at the volunteers, who were glaring at each other. The rivalry of their masters continued with them. It would have been amusing at any other time, but not now. Not with Serana slipping away from him with every moment that passed.

"Yes, yes, go." He ached to rush to the dock himself, to correct his mistake with the mortal and bring Serana back. But the lord of the castle did not do such things when he had servants to do his bidding.

Harkon forced himself to stand still, arms crossed and eyes closed. He must appear patient and calm. Dignified, above all else.

Stalf and Salonia would return soon with his daughter, maybe even with the mortal if Serana could not bear to be parted from her. She would be turned by force if necessary.

What was taking them so long? He forced himself to be still, to keep his claws from tapping out his impatience upon the floor.

Finally the gatekeeper hurried inside, his aged heart racing, bringing with him the bitter stench of fear. It was too much to hope for that it was only at beholding the true form of a vampire lord.

"Milord, I…"

Harkon clenched a fist, gripping the thrall telekinetically and lifting him off his feet. "Where is my daughter?"

He loosened his grip enough so that the pathetic mortal could speak.

"Gone," the gatekeeper sobbed.

"And those I sent to escort her?"

"Dead, milord. Impaled by ice, both of them."

Vingalmo and Orthjolf hissed at the news of their progeny's demise.

Harkon crushed the unfortunate gatekeeper's throat and drained him into a dry husk, the blood feeding his rising bloodlust. He let the body drop.

His daughter, gone. His Scroll, gone. Betrayed!

He spun, and hurled the high table off the dais, uncaring that it scattered the flesh of cattle and spilled goblets of blood everywhere.

His throne was next, the intricately carved gilded wood splintering against the flagstones.

He hissed at the sight of his portrait. Of Serana. Her mother's daughter after all. Valerica had taken her from him just as she had taken his Scrolls. Everything he treasured, lost.

"You are dead to me!" he roared, and lashed out with his claws. With that single blow, Serana was torn from his side, the portrait ruined. Just as his hopes and dreams of Serana's return had been ripped apart.

Worse than her mother, she had betrayed him for a mere mortal.

"I'll make you wish you had never been born, my darling," he snarled.

Harkon turned to his assembled court. Useless, every one of them, standing staring like cattle. "Get out! Find her and her mortal pet. Bring them to me, alive. Serana is not to be permanently damaged – that is my right. Do what you will to her pet, so long as she remains alive, for she is to be brought here so that I may kill her while my daughter watches, helpless." His face contorted in what passed for a smile in his true form.

"If I find any of you within these walls without news before my traitor daughter is returned to me, I'll strip the flesh from your bones. Do not keep me waiting. Go!"

As one, his court fled like startled deer.

Harkon dissolved into a swarm of bats, all the myriad parts of him joined by the heat of his rage. He reformed seconds later in Serana's chambers. With another swipe of his claws, that once treasured painting and the headboard of the bed behind it exploded in a shower of splinters and scraps of canvas.

Her ridiculous potted plant at the foot of her bed was next, drained to a shrivelled, blackened husk.

His eyes roamed around for the next of Serana's belongings to bear the brunt of his fury. Blood red magic throbbed in his clawed hands. An equally red haze overtook his vision. When it cleared, he stood in his pathetic human-like form.

The doorway to Serana's room was before him, blocked by rubble, joining Valerica's in ruin. He staggered away, to his own chambers. Away from the reminders of his wife and daughter and their treachery.

He sank down into his second throne and watched the flames dance in the fireplace until they died, the firewood collapsing into ash. Just as his hopes had.

Detecting no other presence in his domain, he allowed his grief to consume him. Harkon fell forward onto his knees and wept bitter tears, the blood trickling down his gaunt cheeks.

"Serana…"

She would pay dearly for this betrayal, and Valerica even more so for poisoning his daughter against him. As for Serana's mortal pet, she was a dead woman walking.

Let them run. They could not hide from him. He would find them, and he would kill them. They would beg for death before the end, then their souls would serve Lord Molag Bal, suffering in Coldharbour.


AN: Harkon is very much not a happy vampire. It's probably not going to end well the next time he sees his darling daughter.

Coming up next: Serana and Sithia on the road to Fort Dawnguard.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Touching on Daedra and Aedra

Serana felt the cold first, biting bone deep even through her twofold Nordic and vampiric immunity. Far above, the sky burned with fires matching her eyes. The castle around them stood in ruins. Screams of tortured souls split the air. Above all of that was the overpowering stench of Coldharbour, of rotting bodies followed by sweet flowers and then the rot again.

Sithia fell limp in her arms. Serana held on grimly. Some mortals banished like this got snatched away by the denizens of Coldharbour. She wouldn't let that happen to Sithia. She glared at an approaching Daedroth, who flinched away, lowering that elongated reptilian head in submission. Being a Daughter of Coldharbour here had its benefits, as the only thing that would dare threaten one with the resident Daedric Prince's blood in her veins was—

"Back for more, Serana? And what's this, an offering for me?"

Molag Bal Himself. Looming behind her, a dark shadow in her peripheral vision.

Serana couldn't move, not even to breathe. Sheer terror paralysed her. Just as well, as they might have been trapped in Oblivion if she'd moved at all. Her father's portal reformed just as those claws reached for her, running through her hair.

They collapsed onto the rocky ground by the jetty. Serana clutched at her head, whimpering.

That voice… It haunted her nightmares. Commanding her to scream. To beg Him to stop.

His touch… His claws rending her flesh, tearing her apart, His scales—

No. She didn't have time to fall apart, not now, not here. Serana forced herself to stop breathing, silencing those shuddering, half-sobbing gasping breaths. Her body still shivered from the chill of Coldharbour. She pushed herself up off the ground, picking Sithia back up, cradling her in her arms.

Serana stumbled over to the boat and stepped into it, almost falling overboard when it rocked in the water. She set Sithia down and fumbled with the oars. Her hands shook, and the splitting headache from passing through Coldharbour made it difficult to focus her magic. At least she wasn't as badly affected as Sithia seemed to be – a crumpled heap of groaning Dragonborn in the bottom of the boat.

Serana forced herself to move faster, gritting her teeth as her head throbbed with every slow beat of her heart. There wasn't much time, especially if her father thought to banish one of his lackeys.

Maybe she should have waited to slip away on her own, but this way she didn't need to steal the Scroll. Her father would probably have kept it with him at all times, even in his coffin. And there was the fact that Sithia might well not have made it out of Coldharbour with that Daedroth ready to grab her.

In the distance, the doors banged open, and two of her father's minions raced down the bridge. Serana concentrated, forcing past the pain until the oars glowed purple. She took her hands off them as they started rowing on their own. She raised her hands, frost coating her palms. A moment later both vampires collapsed, each with a shard of ice between the eyes.

Exhausted, Serana almost collapsed on top of Sithia, her vision blurred. When she looked up, for a moment she thought she was seeing things. But no, there really was another rowboat on the other side of the jetty. She forced herself to focus her magic again, gritting her teeth, the cold purple fire of conjuration dancing across her hands. It darted over to the other boat, surrounded it with a glowing purple sphere, then both portal and boat vanished. Hopefully it wouldn't land on Molag Bal in Coldharbour, or she really would be in deep trouble.

"What… what happened?"

Serana raised her eyebrows. Impressive. Sithia had only been out of it for a few minutes. In her experiments most mortals didn't wake for hours after banishment through Oblivion. She still felt guilty about the few that didn't make it out at all. At least they were cattle who were doomed to die soon anyway, but dying in Coldharbour was not something she'd wish on anyone.

"S'rana?"

Perhaps it'd be better to wait until Sithia was less groggy to explain properly… "My father banished you, so I tagged along. By the way, you can call me Rana if you want to."

Sithia took the hand Serana offered and sat up. She pulled her damn cowl up, but for once left the mask down. "Your dad's a rude bastard. And no thanks, I happen to like your full name. I can even manage to say it most of the time, Serana."

Serana had to admit, if only to herself, that she liked the way her name rolled off Sithia's tongue, especially in that lilting accent she sometimes slipped into when sufficiently emotional.

Sithia looked back at the castle, fading away into the mist. "Why are we running?"

"We're outnumbered, or didn't you notice? Even if it was just my father, we'd have no chance against him. He's a lot stronger than I am. Couldn't you feel it?"

"Yes, almost like being in the presence of a Daedric Prince." Yet Sithia still intentionally got on his bad side… Serana sighed. With such a dangerous lack of common sense, it was impressive that Sithia had survived to reach the prime of her life. She needed a keeper, someone to make sure her recklessness didn't get her killed.

"Exactly, that's Molag Bal's blessing." His reward for giving his Lord two Daughters of Coldharbour… "How would you—" Serana shook her head. "Never mind, tell me about your dealings with Daedra later. We don't have a lot of time, we've got to get out of here. Any idea where we can go?"

Sithia steepled her fingers and stared out over the water, eyes narrowed. "Riften. I need to return to the Dawnguard to warn them. About your father, his lackeys, where the castle is, about that prophecy…"

"They're the group of vampire hunters you're part of?"

"Whatever gave it away?" Sithia drawled.

"Guarding the dawn from vampires. How original. Yet all too accurate with this prophecy. I think we both agree that we need to stop my father."

"Yes, but what can we do besides keep your Scroll away from him? You said he's too powerful to defeat even without his minions in the equation."

"The Scroll will have something, I'm sure of it." Serana reached over her shoulder to touch it, her skin tingling with the otherworldly aura.

Sithia inhaled sharply. "Wait, you mean getting the Scroll read, don't you? Is that really such a good idea when it's just what your crazy dad needs to get his prophecy fulfilled?"

"I know it sounds as crazy as he is, but I don't think we have any choice. We need to stop him, and we can't keep running forever. We can't hide either, he'd find us eventually. He's got nothing but time."

Sithia dropped her head into her hands. "So to stop him we need to risk everything. Wonderful. What's life without a little risk?" She looked up, grinning, a mad light in her eyes. All things considered, it was just as well her Dragonborn's sanity was questionable. Anyone sane would have tried to kill her and take the Scroll long ago.

"Let's do this. But how? Neither of us can read it."

"I know who can." Serana had heard about it over and over at the dinner table after her father discovered the damn prophecy. "We need to find a Moth Priest."

"…Aren't they all in Cyrodiil, in the White-Gold Tower?"

"So I've read. We can get to Cyrodiil from Riften, can't we?"

"Yes, but it might be worth asking around just in case anyone has seen one in Skyrim. I can imagine they might travel to do research at the College of Winterhold. But that'll have to wait until I've warned the Dawnguard."

"Wouldn't Winterhold be on the way to Riften?"

Sithia got her map out and tapped the marker for a castle to the east of Riften. The line of blood ran around the coast to Solitude, then inland, winding its way to Whiterun, then skirting Windhelm Hold down to Riften. "No, it's not. Bad things happen when I ignore the route this enchantment shows."

"Looks like we're meant to row back to Solitude, then."

Sithia nodded, but pointed at the map. "Yes, but we're to go inland for a bit. Presumably to lay a false trail for our pursuers to follow." She studied the route for a few heartbeats, then tucked the map away.

"Makes sense. It'll give us a chance to do something to confuse our scents."

"Do you use those creepy dogs for that, or are vampires like werewolves?"

"Any vampire can smell things out better than death hounds can," Serana scoffed. "And don't ever compare me to a werewolf again. It's quite insulting."

"What do you have against werewolves?"

"They smell terrible, even when they look human. Imagine a dog who's lived all its life in a tannery, never washing, then double it." She wrinkled her nose and shuddered at the memory of the stench. "Every werewolf I've met has lacked control too. The only vampires who deserve to be compared to those creatures are feral."

"I see. Sorry, I had no idea."

"Now you know better." Their boat finally reached Icewater Jetty. "Let's go. I'm not about to carry the boat around, so I'll enchant it to row itself along the shore. We'll have to move fast to catch up with it before it wears off and it drifts away."

Serana shouldered Sithia's pack after tucking the Scroll away inside it. She wasn't about to leave either on the boat, not when there was a very real risk they wouldn't be able to get back on it.

Their route inland took them through the pine trees to the nearby castle. From the jetty it had looked ruined, but despite the crumbled tower facing them, Altmer in gleaming Elven armour patrolled the ramparts on the walls. As they drew closer, Sithia saw them too.

"Thalmor," Sithia snarled, voice almost unrecognisable. She pulled her mask up.

"Is that a new word for Altmer?"

"All Thalmor are Altmer, but not all Altmer are Thalmor. They are the Altmer who persecute Talos worshippers. They capture innocents and torture them until they confess, even if there's nothing to confess to." She'd lapsed into that lilting accent again, but it was choked with pure hatred. She presumably worshipped this Talos too, except that didn't make sense, not with her name. Unless she'd converted? But if she had, she surely wouldn't still swear by the Void and Sithis…

Serana was about to ask about that when Sithia spoke again. "You really want to know why I use a masked cowl? It's not just about the cold. I'm wanted by the Thalmor. Killed too many of them to be allowed to live."

"That's why you go by Cynthia, isn't it?"

"That and Sithia does draw the wrong sort of attention from most people."

"Why do you hate them so much?"

"I hate all torturers, and Thalmor torturers most of all."

That definitely sounded personal. Had Sithia lost someone she loved to Thalmor torture?

"How much time do we have?" Sithia sounded more like herself again, although her voice still trembled with rage. Was this the anger that always burned in her blood, brought to the surface by the sight of its cause?

"We should have a head start because I made sure to deprive them of the other boat, but we don't have time to kill these Thalmor. I'm sorry." Serana put a hand on Sithia's shoulder. Her rigid shoulder. She'd be so stiff if she couldn't do something to relax her Dragonborn. But what? Maybe…

"We could run through the enclosure. My father's servants might well kill these elves for us, especially if they're hungry." Serana chuckled. "Not that there's any 'if' about it. Vampires are always thirsty."

"Tempting, but they'll have prisoners in that keep. While death would be a merciful and welcome release for them, they don't deserve to be vampire food in the process."

"And we don't have time to put them out of their misery. I'm sorry."

"I've told you, you can't apologise for other people. The Thalmor are the ones who should be sorry, not that they ever are."

"You do realise that those vampires might kill them all anyway?"

"If they do, it's not on my conscience." Sithia added under her breath, "There's more than enough on that already."

"We've all done things we regret," Serana murmured, resisting the urge to ask what was weighing down Sithia's conscience.

They crept past the palisade, Sithia unable to resist stabbing the lone guard by the gates. Serana was equally unable to resist draining him dry before the stab wound could kill him.

"Mmm, now that I don't regret. Been a long time since I tasted Altmer, although still so bland compared to you."

Once they were out of sight of the Thalmor stronghold, Sithia paused, checking her map. "How are you going to confuse our pursuers?"

"You're not going to like it."

"…This involves bleeding, doesn't it?"

Serana attempted to look suitably sorry. It wasn't easy, not when she knew she'd soon be experiencing the sweet temptation of Sithia's spilled blood. "They won't be able to smell anything else for a while. Your blood is something else."

Sithia groaned and removed her right gauntlet. "Let's get this over with."


They caught up with the rowboat just as it started to drift away. Serana had to swim out to retrieve it, and sat in sullen silence until the cold wind dried her off. It brought a snowstorm within an hour, blanketing them both and the boat in snow. They had to shovel it out with their hands, as it wouldn't help them if it got too deep, or worse, melted.

"Beautiful weather, at least it'll make it harder for my father's lackeys."

"At least you don't feel it! I swear you complain about snow as much as you do about the sun."

"Actually I do feel it, so that little swim I had getting this boat? It wasn't pleasant. It just doesn't hurt me." Her annoyance faltered at the sight of Sithia, her eyes closed and hugging herself, shivering. "Are you all right?"

Sithia cracked her eyes open to briefly glance at her before they closed again. "For now, yes. There's a limit to what the enchantments on my armour can do. It resists the cold, it doesn't give me your immunity to it."

That was worrying. She'd have to keep a careful eye on her mortal. At least she'd have no problems staying awake to do so for the next few days, not after drinking that Altmer.

They reached Solitude's docks four days later, slowed by the storm. If not for the enchanted oars steering them clear of rocks, they'd have been delayed much longer, as they'd have had to walk and stop for rest on the way.

Hopefully now that she wasn't so cold, Sithia would be a bit more talkative, as she'd barely said a word since they got in the boat. Serana had been starting to wonder if she'd said or done something wrong, but judging by how often she'd had to wake Sithia from her nightmares – more than once every night – the Thalmor were likely the problem.

Then again, maybe she had said something wrong, as she'd tried to get Sithia to talk about those nightmares. She hadn't said anything since refusing to.

"I'm sorry."

Sithia paused on the road up to Solitude to frown back at her. "What for?"

"For whatever I did. Not leaving the subject of your nightmares well enough alone in this case."

"Serana, while I don't want to talk about it, I didn't mind your asking. It's…" She looked away awkwardly, clearing her throat. "It's good to know you care."

"Oh, good. I thought I must have done something to offend you, and that was the only thing I could think of."

"I'm sorry I made you think you had. It wasn't… I can't explain it, not now. It's not you. It's me."

"Now it sounds like you're breaking up with me." Serana sighed theatrically and laid a hand over her exposed chest. "My heart, how will I ever recover?"

"Oh, shut the fuck up." Sithia stormed ahead.

Serana grinned. That was more like it. Her grumpy Dragonborn was back. With any luck, the brooding one from their journey here wouldn't be back any time soon.


Serana had never been to Solitude. She'd only ever seen it in the distance from onboard the ship on the way to Winterhold. She'd marvelled at the size of the windmill, and the way the city extended over the great arch, nothing but sea below part of it.

Passing through the gates with Sithia, she caught a glimpse of the windmill over the rooftops, and of Castle Dour dominating the skyline, banners on the walls depicting a wolf's head against a crimson background. There had to be a story behind that. She'd have to ask Sithia, presuming she knew. Maybe that was something only a native of Skyrim would.

She almost walked into Sithia, who suddenly stopped, staring to the right. A large crowd had gathered, what looked like most of the people of Solitude. On the platform they were all watching, a helmetless, bearded guard had just nudged a prisoner into kneeling over a block. The executioner raised his axe and—

Serana blinked. Odd. Her fangs hadn't budged. Normally she'd have struggled to keep them sheathed with that much blood spilled. She stared at it, mystified. The dead man hadn't been afraid, so his blood smelled fine. Just not remotely appealing.

Then again… Her eyes were drawn to Sithia. With the finest blood so tantalisingly close, no wonder she wasn't interested in inferior sources. She'd only drunk that Thalmor because he was conveniently within reach.

"Justice!"

"Down with Ulfric, killer of kings!"

The shouts of the onlookers were a little too loud for Serana's sensitive hearing, this close to them.

Sithia remained staring at the condemned man's body after the last of the crowd witnessing the execution wandered away.

Serana nudged her. "You all right?"

"I'm fine." She didn't sound it, her voice almost as choked up as it had been around the Thalmor. Hopefully the brooding Sithia wasn't about to make an unwelcome return… If she did, at least it seemed possible to irritate her back into grumpiness.

"If you say so."

"Really, I am. That could've been me, that's all."

"What? You mean—"

"My warm welcome to Skyrim, not so long ago. A dragon interrupted when my head was on the block." Sithia turned and headed towards the first building inside the city walls, leaving Serana to look between her and the dead man.

It wasn't hard to believe that Sithia had done something to almost get herself executed. Probably something connected to those Thalmor. Whatever it was, that was one dragon she needed to thank, provided Sithia hadn't killed it back then.

Serana hurried after Sithia when she paused outside, waiting for her to catch up before she disappeared inside the Winking Skeever, as it called itself on the sign hanging outside it. Complete with a carved skeever. Charming. Presumably the inn.

The door opened to the warmth of the inn, and the resident bard singing her heart out about driving stormcloaks out with blood and steel. Whatever stormcloaks were. Something one of the crowd had shouted after the execution was repeated in song: down with this Ulfric King-Killer, and that they'd drink and sing on the day of his death.

Asking Sithia about that out here might draw unwelcome attention, as it sounded like the sort of thing everyone in Skyrim would know about.

Sithia returned from speaking to the innkeeper, clutching two keys. "Come on, he'll be bringing food to my room. Hot water for us too, whenever we want it."


"Do you know about this king killer they were singing about?"

Sithia swallowed the last of her stew and pushed the bowl aside, picking up her jug of milk and sipping from it. "Ulfric Stormcloak and his little rebellion. I have to sympathise with his reasons for it. The current civil war is because the Empire was forced to outlaw worship of Talos thanks to the Thalmor. He was a Nord, so Nords like Ulfric and his Stormcloaks really don't like that ban. Even the ones fighting for Empire probably only fight because it's His empire they're trying to save."

"Of course it would all come back to religion. What conflict doesn't? The Aedra and Daedra have a lot to answer for." This finally gave her an opening to ask something she'd been wondering about ever since she noticed the amulet Sithia wore. "Is that an Amulet of Mara?"

Sithia choked on her milk, and swiped a hand across her mouth, eyes wide. "Seriously? What is it with you Nords and ridiculously short courtships? We only met just over a week ago and… I didn't even know vampires could marry."

If she was capable of blushing, Serana's cheeks would have been crimson. "No! No, I'm not—I mean, you're great, really, but—" She cleared her throat. "I was asking because I haven't seen one since before I became a vampire. And vampires can't marry in the conventional way, even if we deserved to. I certainly couldn't ever ask for a blessing like that. My parents are only married because they already were as mortals."

Sithia relaxed and drank some more of her milk. "Makes sense. Can you even go inside a temple?"

"I can't imagine wanting to. It's uncomfortable to even see them, and shrines are just as bad. Amulets are only painful to the touch, they won't make me burst into flames or anything."

"I wasn't thinking of finding out, don't worry. And I'm not on the lookout for marriage, I actually wear it for the restoration boost." Sithia tapped her amulet. "Although if many more people I barely know express interest, I'm going to switch to my Amulet of Talos."

If this Talos had functioning amulets that would mean he really was a god… That Sithia had one might mean that she actually did worship him after all, so it would probably be best not to raise her doubts about his godhood.

"Why don't you wear it under your armour if you don't want proposals?"

"Don't you think I've tried? Turns out an Amulet of Mara is enchanted to be visible all the time. I've used an invisibility potion and it's still been there. I have to take it off if I don't want it to give me away."

Invisibility… Damn it. Like any ancient vampire, Serana could make herself invisible at will, provided she concentrated and nothing broke that concentration. It was something she preferred to do instead of resorting to her monstrous form, but as long as the Scroll's ethereal presence stuck to her, any mage would be able to feel her presence.

It might even make it easier for their pursuers to find them. Damn it. Fuck it! She had to get rid of it. But how?

Sithia would have no idea or she'd have suggested something back when they were trying to hide the Scroll instead of taking it up to her father's castle.

Wait…

Sithia's amulet. Serana wouldn't be able to wear it herself, and it wasn't powerful enough to overshadow the Elder Scroll's aura anyway, but a shrine?

Well, it seemed that she would be eating her words tonight. Because Serana suddenly could imagine wanting to go inside a temple. Although 'want' wasn't quite right. No, it was 'need'.

Damn it. This was not going to be pleasant.

"Where are you going?"

Serana paused by the door. "Out." If she told Sithia exactly what she was about to do, she'd either talk her out of it or insist on going with her. This had to be done, though, and Sithia needed her rest.

"Oh, right, you need to feed. Happy hunting."

She would need to feed. Before and after this. Going inside a temple while at her most vulnerable to sunlight and fire would be a pretty bad idea.

Of course, all of this was a very bad idea. Insane, actually.

The innkeeper gave her directions to the temple, and mentioned that it was always open. Hopefully no one else would be there for a little late night worshipping when she went, as it'd be a little obvious that something wasn't right.

Serana found herself a patrolling guard to snack on. The other alternative, a sleeping beggar reeking of skooma, didn't smell remotely appealing. Not that the guard did when compared to Sithia, but then no one did. At least he'd only had a bit of mead a little too recently. He'd be in trouble for sleeping on the job if one of his comrades found him, as she'd left him slumped against a wall, unconscious from the blood loss.

She broke into Angeline's Aromatics, the alchemist's shop next door to the inn, to see about appropriating an invisibility potion. She might need one in the temple if anyone was around – there was no way she'd be able to concentrate enough to use her own power after touching a shrine. There was no such potion to be found, but a rummage through the shelves turned up some vampire dust and nirnroot, so she made her own. Hopefully she wouldn't need to use it, as it would taste horrible, containing the remains of her own kind.

Pocketing the potion, Serana made her way outside and up the zigzagging path to the castle. The temple was across the castle courtyard, walled in with its own smaller courtyard set up for a wedding. A high status wedding, judging by the thrones set up for bride and groom. Then again, if Skyrim was anything like it had been, most weddings took place at the temple of Mara, wherever that was now. This was the temple of all Divines, which presumably meant that Solitude was currently Skyrim's capital. Windhelm had been, back when she'd been mortal.

Serana forced herself to walk over to the double doors. She wanted nothing more than to turn back and get out of here. She reluctantly reached over to push the doors open. She snatched her hand back, hissing. The hallowed wood stung her skin. That was worse than sunlight.

She braced herself. It'd be even worse inside. She shouldered the door open. And promptly doubled over, biting back a cry of pain. She could barely see. It was almost like staring into the sun, the very air blinding bright. She couldn't hear anything other than her own sluggish heartbeat.

Serana fumbled for the potion. There might be a priest or priestess inside and she'd have no idea until she blundered into them. She took half of it. The silver lining to being in this horrible place was that all of her senses were deadened. She couldn't taste the potion at all. She held up her hand. From what little she could see, it had vanished from sight.

She stumbled further inside, arms outstretched. All but blind, she needed to feel her way to the shrines. She still bumped into the benches, wincing at the contact with wood radiating with Aedric worship. It got worse and worse with every step, although she could actually see the shrines now, shining white-hot. Throwing her arm across her closed eyes didn't help, it still seared through.

Serana forced herself to stagger over to the shrine that burned brightest. A dragon swallowing a sword. Akatosh, greatest of the Aedra. Face turned away, arm still attempting to shield her eyes, she blindly reached out.

Her world exploded in agony.

Awareness slowly returned. From where she lay on the polished stone floor, she couldn't see or hear anything. She felt only pain. Everything ached, and her hand… it burned. Her throat felt raw. Thirst – she needed to feed, to heal – but also as if she'd been screaming. She needed to get out of here before anyone investigated. Serana downed the last of the invisibility potion and crawled away.

Once outside, her senses slowly recovered. First hearing, then sight, and finally smell. She sniffed. Something was sickeningly sweet… burning flesh. She looked down at her hand.

"Ouch!"

Akatosh's head was seared onto her palm, the burn still smoking. Despite the blessing of the night in her ancient blood, it wasn't healing. She needed to feed. Problem being that she wasn't in any shape to hunt, even that beggar was beyond her at the moment. She'd never make it that far.

Serana struggled to her feet and limped back to the inn. She had just enough power left to make sure the guards ignored her, and to ensure anyone still awake in the inn wouldn't take any notice of her.

Persuading Sithia's door to unlock took too much out of her. She twisted the doorknob and fell inside. She lay gasping on the floorboards for a moment and crawled forwards, kicking the door shut. She pulled herself over to the bed and up onto shaky legs.

Sithia slept restlessly, whimpering and muttering. Another nightmare, although at least this one wasn't bad enough for her Thu'um to play up.

Serana had just enough presence of mind left to remember to retrieve Sithia's dagger and set it down out of her reach. She gently shook her Dragonborn awake.

Sithia reached for where her dagger had been, aborting the movement when her eyes focused on Serana.

"Serana?" She glanced at the window. "Still night… What's—"

"Can you feel it?"

Sithia rubbed at her eyes and yawned. "Feel what? Can't it wait until—"

"The Scroll, can you feel it on me?"

"Of course I can—Wait." She pushed herself up on her elbows. "I can't. How…"

"It worked. Good." Serana finally let herself collapse.


AN: So, who thinks Serana is a pretty stupid vampire?

Coming up next: a revealing and frustrating night in Whiterun.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: Frustrated in Whiterun

Blood trickling into her mouth brought Serana back to life. Undeath, even. Incomparably rich and powerful blood. Dragon blood. Sithia's blood, bringing with it the heat of that ever present anger, and the bittersweet tang of worry and a sharp tingle of frustration.

Serana cracked her eyes open. She was lying flat on her back on the bed. That was so sweet… Sithia cared enough to get her more comfortable.

Sithia sat beside her, perched on the edge of the bed, wrist held to Serana's mouth. Serana looked to the bedside table and saw the bloodied Ebony dagger set down. Sithia had cut herself to nurse her vampire back to health. Not many mortals would do that for a vampire, not without being enthralled.

Serana fought against the impulse to close her lips around the wound and actively feed. The warning ache in her veins at the thought made it easier, a reminder of her blood oath. Sithia hadn't given her permission, only allowing her blood to drip into Serana's mouth.

"Stupid vampire," Sithia muttered. She held Serana's hand, eyes fixed on her palm. "I don't need to ask what you did. To get burned like that… Been groping a shrine of Akatosh, have we?"

Sithia pulled her wrist away. Serana swallowed the last of the blood and watched sadly, craving more, as her mortal healed the self-inflicted cut.

The golden light faded away. Sithia turned back to frown down at her. "What I don't understand is why the fuck you'd do that after what you said about temples and shrines. Do you have a thing for pain?"

"No, I don't." Serana inspected her hand, marvelling at the unmarked skin. Sithia's blood was something else indeed. She'd been expecting to bear that scar for the rest of her days – potentially all eternity. "I had to touch the shrine to get rid of the Scroll's aura."

Sithia shook her head and raised her eyes to the ceiling. She sighed before returning her gaze to Serana. "Yeah, I gathered that much from what you said before you collapsed on top of me. I still don't understand why you had to do it."

"So mages don't feel me coming from a mile away. That could have got us both killed, especially with my father hunting us. You're welcome."

"Stupid vampire," Sithia breathed. "You do realise that it's only in close proximity that aura can be felt in? By the time any mages feel it they'd already have seen you."

Serana's fangs pricked her lips. Yes, she'd been stupid, but being looked down on like that by a mortal was maddening. Though a very special mortal, Sithia was still a merest fraction of her age.

"It was worth it," Serana snapped. "I didn't do it just for our safety, I did it for myself too. I can resort to that monstrous form like my father, but I prefer to just disappear if I can." Restored to health, it was easy to call upon the power in her blood and let the shadows hide her.

"That is a neat trick." Sithia reached out to touch what she could no longer see.

Well, that was forward of her Dragonborn. Unintentionally so, but that would only make this so much more fun… "You might want to move your hand."

"It's so weird to hear your voice when I can't see you. At least I can feel you. Why do I want to move it? This feels like leather, not your skin." She shifted her fingers, no doubt trying to figure out what part of Serana she was touching.

"Let me put it this way, if not for my cuirass you'd be groping me."

Sithia's eyes widened. She snatched her hand away as if it'd been burned. "Sorry!"

Serana laughed, enjoying the flush spreading across Sithia's cheeks. "I really don't mind." She contemplated removing her cuirass and guiding Sithia's hand back to explore properly, but that might be considered to be playing with her food. Besides, it'd be more fun for both of them if she were visible. Seducing her Dragonborn was really not something she should be doing when dividing her attention with maintaining invisibility.

She released her mental grip on the shadows and sat up. That brought her very close to Sithia. Close enough that she need only turn her head to kiss her. Before she could do more than brush their noses together Sithia jerked back, blushing harder than ever.

Her skittish Dragonborn fell off the bed, jumped to her feet and paused only long enough to grab her dagger. "I need my sleep even if you don't. See you in the morning." She fled, wrenching the door open. It banged shut behind her.

'Damn it.' Serana flopped back on the bed and glared up at the ceiling. At this rate she wouldn't manage to seduce her way to a proper feed before they reached Riften. Then again, maybe she'd have better luck on the road.

She rolled over, reaching for the pack to dig out Sithia's map. Their route was still marked on it, so she traced that line with a finger, from Solitude all the way to Riften and beyond. To her disappointment, while she could smell Sithia's blood, it didn't come off on her finger. It was tempting to try to lick it off directly, but she wasn't that desperate. Not yet, anyway.

She wasn't sure how long it would take them to walk to Riften, but they'd be on the road for quite some time. If they walked as fast as they rowed, Whiterun was at least a week's journey away including rest stops, maybe even two in bad weather. Their route definitely went into the city and back out again. If she didn't manage to persuade Sithia to let her have a nibble before they got there, she'd be losing her touch.

One way or another, she'd at least be well on her way to seducing herself a willing meal by the time they reached the next Hold capital.


As it turned out, they didn't walk to Whiterun. Sithia hired a carriage instead. That made it pretty much impossible to get closer to her Dragonborn, especially as the carriage driver never seemed to stop singing or humming Ragnar the Red. Not even in his sleep whenever they stopped to camp overnight. It was getting increasingly tempting to rip his head off like Matilda had cut off Ragnar's.

The two inns they passed along the way didn't have any free rooms, so they had to stay outside under canvas. Well, Sithia and their driver did. Serana didn't sleep, gazing up at the moons and stars, and at the breathtaking sight of the aurora sometimes dancing overhead. She kept an ear out for any trouble too, but there weren't even any bandits blundering around, let alone her father's underlings. Only goats and the distant trumpeting of mammoths.

The second inn at least had good food, which meant that the farmer Serana fed from tasted better than he had any right to. Still not a patch of Sithia, of course, but his blood had a certain tingle to it. Daedric, actually, which would explain the inexplicably fertile land around Rorikstead. The contrast between it and the inhospitable tundra of Whiterun Hold was striking, especially at the steady trot of the horse pulling the carriage.

Mountains loomed ever larger on the horizon, the Throat of the World most of all. The highest peak in Tamriel. This was the closest Serana had ever been to it. She hadn't even been able to see it from the far north of Skyrim.

"One day I'd love to make the pilgrimage up the Seven Thousand Steps. To see High Hrothgar, maybe even get to meet the Greybeards… and the view out across Tamriel." She'd have to wait until night to enjoy that, as sunlight would leave her struggling to see at all.

Sithia grunted from her seat across from her in the back of the carriage. "The view is something, I'll give it that much. But climbing up all of those steps? It's not worth it. Especially not having to do it twice. High Hrothgar is nothing special either. As for the Greybeards… They would like me spend the rest of my days meditating with them. The Way of the Voice is not for me. Far too boring. At least they don't try to order me around, unlike someone else I can think of."

"Whoa there!" The carriage driver reined his horse in so he could safely turn to look, gaping at Sithia. "…You've been up there? Met the Greybeards? What, are you the Dragonborn or something?"

"There's an extra fifty gold in it for you if you don't say another word."

"You are, aren't you? Can you show me—"

Sithia lunged and slapped her hand across the driver's mouth. His cry of pain was muffled. "I Shout and it'll spook the horse. Now, you're going to drive on to Whiterun. You're also going to be quiet, or I'll forget about not scaring the poor horse and demonstrate a Shout on you."

She released the driver. He cringed away from her and shook the reins to send the horse trotting along the road again.

Serana sighed happily. "That's my grumpy Dragonborn," she murmured.

"What was that?"

"Nothing." Serana kept a straight face, only allowing a smile to tug at her lips when Sithia looked away to glower up at the Throat of the World. Tempting as it was to repeat herself so mortal ears could hear what she'd said, she suspected Sithia wouldn't appreciate the implication that she belonged to Serana. Certainly not where anyone else could overhear. Maybe she'd risk it in private…


Whiterun was visible from far off across the wide open plains of the tundra. Built sloping up a hill, with the Jarl's palace perched on top, the city was within sight for the last two days. They arrived at the stables at dusk and made their way up the winding road through the outer walls.

"It's been too quiet."

"No attacks, you mean?"

Sithia nodded. "It feels like the calm before a storm."

That was troubling Serana too. Unless her father had surrounded himself with incompetent sycophants, their pursuers couldn't be too far behind. "Our vampire friends will catch up eventually. We need to be most careful in the wild, it's why I didn't sleep at all on the way here. They won't attack settlements, not in force. They wouldn't want to frighten the herd too much."

They arrived at the main gates just in time to see them slam shut with the distinctive thud of the bar dropping behind them.

Two guards approached bearing flaming torches.

"Halt! City's closed for the night. Vampire attacks won't be happening on my watch."

Serana kept her distance. If she got too close, the guards might notice her glowing eyes and deathly pallor. She readied her illusion magic just in case she had to persuade them that she was not a threat.

"Not again…" Sithia groaned. She pulled down her mask and stormed up to the guard. "You know me. Open the gates."

"You might be an imposter, one of those damn mages using a spell to look like the Jarl's Thane."

Serana blinked and almost lost her grasp on her spell. Damn mages? Since when did Nords not respect magic? Back when she studied in Winterhold, mages were revered. Was this why the ferryman insisted on no magic in his boat?

"And my armour?"

"Stolen it. Or that's a spell too."

Sithia exchanged an exasperated glance with Serana. "Shall we skip straight to the part where you want to see a Shout?"

The guard nodded eagerly. "Well, go on. It's the only way we can be sure you're who you claim to be."

"Fuck you. FEIM!"

Sithia went decidedly ghostly, and proceeded to walk through both the guard and the gates.

The guard squealed and jumped into the arms of his stunned comrade. "She—She Shouted herself into a ghost! You can get her to Shout next time, I'm never doing that again. Never!"

The gates shuddered as the bar lifted and they were pushed open by a reassuringly solid and human Sithia, her mask pulled back up again.

Serana hurried past the guards while they were too distracted to take a closer look at her. It'd take her quite a while to gather her wits for mind tricks after a surprise like that. Destruction or conjuration she could do in her sleep. Not so with illusion.

She paused just inside the gates. Whiterun was the most open city she had ever seen, lots of space between the buildings winding up towards the Jarl's palace.

Sithia tapped her on the shoulder, leaning close to mutter, "What was that you said about vampire attacks on settlements drawing too much attention?"

"It'll still only be a couple of vampires at a time. They wouldn't risk attacking in numbers great enough to be a real threat." Serana stopped and stared at her Dragonborn. "Sithia…"

"What?"

"You're kind of paler than a human should be." Serana reached over to touch what little of her forehead was visible. "You're cold. Not as cold as me, but too cold for a live one."

"Don't worry, I'm fine. It's that Shout. I actually touch the Void when I use it, and the chill takes a while to wear off. Give me another minute and I'll be back to normal."

"What does it feel like? To touch the Void, I mean."

"About how you'd expect. Cold, and empty. I feel nothing while I'm Ethereal. I don't like it one bit, but it works well for freaking guards out. It also made it a lot quicker for me to get down from High Hrothgar the second time."

Sithia turned away and walked on, towards the second building on the right. A modest sized house. She stopped outside it and looked back. "Something wrong?"

Serana shook her head and closed the distance between them. "Oh, nothing much. Just you implying that you fell down the highest mountain in Tamriel."

"Jumped, actually. Nothing can hurt me while I'm Ethereal like that. Perfect for surviving long drops."

"You're unbelievable."

Sithia bowed, and gestured towards the house beside them. "Welcome to my humble home. Best perk of being a Thane. Go on inside and make yourself comfortable."

"I remember you mentioning the house to that blacksmith in Dawnstar. But wouldn't a real perk be a room up in that palace?"

"Dragonsreach? I had an invitation for that, but turned it down."

"Too grand?"

"That and I didn't fancy the Jarl enough to take him up on the offer of sharing his bed. Sorry, Princess, you're stuck with me and Breezehome."

"Don't call me that! And I'm fine with your home. It's charming, really. Cosy."

"Certainly a change from your castle back home. I'll be back in a few minutes after I buy a few supplies from the market. Bread, salted meat, dried fruit, carrots – I'm running low on all of them."

Serana watched Sithia walk away, then opened the door and stepped inside, turning to push the door shut behind her. She froze, hand on the door. She wasn't alone. She could hear the heartbeats of two mortals close by, and hear their breathing. The closer heart was smaller and beat faster. It was also fast approaching, bare feet slapping on the flagstones.

Serana spun to face the intruders in Sithia's home, hand on the hilt of her dagger.

A small girl tackled her, hugging her legs.

"Mama! You're home!"

By the blood, Sithia was a mother?

"Who are you?"

Serana looked up. The stern demand came from a young Nord woman, as dark haired as Serana herself. A woman clad in steel armour, a gold ring on her forefinger catching the firelight. A married woman in Sithia's home, not an intruder.

Sithia, married…

Serana clamped her mouth shut as her fangs made themselves known in a hot flash of furious jealousy – why hadn't Sithia told her? She'd never have flirted with a married woman. She was better than that.

The girl realised something was wrong and looked up. "Oh! Sorry! I thought…"

"Lucia, get behind me." The woman drew her sword. "Whoever you are, I warn you, I'll defend this home with my life."

The door opened again before Serana could do more than glare at her rival.

"Market's closed already, I'll have to—"

"Mama! You're home!" The girl – Lucia – released Serana and pounced on her mother. Except…

Sithia's heart skipped a beat and she fell back against the door as it swung shut, eyes wide with… Was that really terror? The mighty Dragonborn, scared of a little girl? Sithia recovered quickly as Lucia started giggling.

"The look on her face, did you see it, Mama?" She bounced over to her mother.

"Yes, I saw, now get behind me." The other woman looked to Sithia, sword pointing at Serana. "Do you—"

"Lydia!" Sithia tore her cowl off, face contorted in fury. "She's with me. And when I said this house was yours as much as mine, I did not mean for you to take in every little lost soul!"

Serana looked between them. What was going on here?

"I'm sorry, my Thane. She needed a parent and a home, though, and no one else seemed to even see her."

'Oh.' The last of her jealousy drained away. 'A housecarl. Of course…'

"Fine, but you're responsible for her! That includes her sick jokes."

"Sorry, my Thane." The housecarl and her adopted daughter chorused, and both hung their heads. The smiles on their faces rather detracted from the show of shame.

Sithia gave them a filthy look and stormed past, heading for a door almost hidden behind the stairs.

"Oh dear," Lydia murmured. "My Thane, there's something else I have—"

Sithia threw the door open and stopped in her tracks. "What have you done to my alchemy station, you stupid Nord?!"

Lydia cringed. "You never used it!"

"Why would I bother to have one set up if I wasn't ever going to use it? And… Where in the name of every Daedra are my ingredients? You didn't…" Sithia fell against doorframe and groaned.

"They were spoiled, I could tell by the stench. And they scared Lucia."

"Daedra hearts are meant to stink, you fucking idiot!" Sithia grabbed hold of two handfuls of her hair and let out a strangled scream.

Lydia clapped her hands over Lucia's ears. "Language, my Thane!"

"Void take you. Get out of my sight and take the girl with you. Come back tomorrow, I'll be on my way then."

"I… Yes, my Thane. I'm sorry. Come on, Lucia, let's go on a quest to see if Hulda has a room to spare. A night in the Bannered Mare, that'll be fun!"

Despite her mother's efforts to make their exile sound like an adventure, Lucia burst into tears. Sithia grimaced but didn't relent. She did at least get the girl's dolly from the former alchemy annex and tossed it to her, so she wasn't completely heartless.

Serana watched the door close after them, the girl's sniffling fading away. "Wasn't that a little harsh? You did tell Lydia it was her home too, after all."

"Don't start." Sithia stalked over to the hearth and tugged her gauntlets off to warm her hands over the fire. "I haven't thrown them out onto the street, and I'm the one ultimately paying for the brat to stay here anyway. Who do you think pays Lydia's allowance? She's the reason why I have to get all the loot I can carry wherever I go. That's why I try not to become thane of any more Holds, because I can barely afford one housecarl, let alone nine of the leeches. With any luck Skald will have forgotten about giving me one. If I'd had a choice, I wouldn't be a thane at all."

"How did you become one?"

"Pretty much the same as with Dawnstar. I made the mistake of killing my first dragon not far from here. Jarl Balgruuf wanted to reward me for saving his city, but I reckon he really wanted to brag about having the Dragonborn as his Thane. He certainly didn't mention the honour until after he heard from his damn bodyguard about my absorbing its soul. I suspect it's why he propositioned me too, so he could boast that he'd fucked the Dragonborn."

Serana didn't doubt that was the Jarl's ulterior motive there, but there was also the fact that Sithia was quite the conquest anyway, with her physical charms alone.

"At least I got a free house out of it even if I've probably paid more than its value for the dubious pleasure of having a housecarl sit around all day eating bread. And for her to adopt the local street urchin and rip out my alchemy station and throw out all of my ingredients including five Daedra hearts, because I always wanted a child's bedroom instead, apparently."

"I didn't know you were an alchemist. What other hidden talents do you have?"

"It's part of the talents you already know about, actually. I'm good at killing things and healing things. That's it."

Sithia fetched a bucket of water and used a pair of tongs to pick up some pebbles from the hearth, dropping them in the bucket until the water was steaming.

"Why are you afraid of children?"

"I hate children," Sithia said, dipping a finger into the water to test the temperature. She dropped one last heated stone in it. "Without exception. And they know! They swarm and they pounce, just like Lydia's girl did. And they all look the same! Children are evil, Daedra in disguise."

"Now you're just being ridiculous. You were a child once. So was I. A very, very long time ago."

"Not like them. There's a Redguard brat here in Whiterun. If you see her, you'll see what I mean. She's the worst of them. Look at her hands."

"What's wrong with her hands?"

"She's swapped them with something else. Someone else, and not a Redguard. I think she's some sort of experiment with necromancy, a child made out of several dead children. Like a patchwork doll."

Serana raised an eyebrow. Sithia's sanity – or lack thereof – worried her sometimes. "You'd sense the magical aura. You're a mage too, you must feel it when you're around a fellow mage or their handiwork. A bit like you could feel the Elder Scroll."

"I'm telling you there's something wrong about her!"

"Sure there is. You're being paranoid."

"You'll see," Sithia said darkly. "Another thing about children in general is their fawning parents keep shoving them at me, demanding I bless them with a kiss to protect them from dragons. I'd sooner kiss a troll! Do me a favour and never have children."

"Vampires can't, not female ones anyway. We don't age. We don't change. Even if I was inclined that way, it's impossible for me to get pregnant."

"Inclined… You mean…"

"You know exactly what I mean," Serana purred, delighting in Sithia's shiver when she reached over caress her cheek and jaw, and the hitch in her breathing when she stroked her thumb across her lips.

It would be so very simple to seduce her. If she stole a kiss right now, that would probably do it. She leaned down and—

Sithia shoved her away. "Don't."

Not so simple after all, then. Damn it. "You want this, I know you do, I tasted it in your blood!"

"Yes, I do. But you don't want me, you want my blood." Sithia laid her fingers over Serana's lips, silencing the protest on the tip of her tongue. "Don't deny it. Don't you fucking dare. I will not be used. Not by you or anyone else."

Sithia grabbed the bucket and stalked upstairs, spilling some water as she went.

Serana followed her into her bedroom and laid a hand on her shoulder. Sithia tensed at the gentle touch.

"It's not just your blood. Let me prove it."

Sithia shrugged her hand off and put the bucket down on the table in the corner. She growled, brushing crumbs off the wood. "Fucking housecarl, why can't she eat her bread in her own room?"

"Sithia, please, listen to me." Serana reached for her again.

Sithia slapped her hand away, face set in a stony mask, eyes stormy with mingled hurt and fury. "You can prove it by taking your fucking time. I don't do casual. Make any moves before I'm convinced and I'll fus ro dah you into next week." Fortunately she wasn't actually Shouting, or she might have blasted Serana through the roof.

Sithia turned away, her back to Serana. She reached back over her shoulder, fingers closing around the ties threading together a join in her armour. She pulled the string, unlacing the leather and revealing a glimpse of the pale skin beneath.

"Do you want me to leave?"

Sithia paused, but resumed stripping off her armour, hands shaking slightly. "No. I think you should know exactly what it is you claim to want, if it's really not just my blood."

She let the upper half of her armour drop onto a chair, exposing her back… and the myriad silvery white scars crisscrossing her skin.

It was the branding that caught Serana's eye. A hand, fingers and thumb spread out, stretching between her shoulder blades. Clearly a symbol of something, but what?

"What does that signify?" Serana couldn't resist running a finger over the raised and darkened skin.

Sithia stiffened at her touch but didn't object verbally or worse, violently. "It's a… permanent reminder of my mother's questionable cult."

Serana looked again at the brand. Made by someone's right hand, larger than her own, although with long slim fingers like hers. Someone had pressed a hand against her back and used destruction magic to… She winced in sympathy at the excruciating pain it must have caused.

"Wouldn't a tattoo have been less painful?"

"Considerably. I wouldn't recommend brandings, not that I need to tell you that after your encounter with Akatosh's shrine. Although a tattoo is still painful." Sithia turned to face her, jaw set and a defiant light in her eyes, hands covering her breasts and pointing to the small tattoo between them in the process: a skull wearing a cowl and crown, covering its teeth with a skeletal hand.

Sithia spread her arms. "Like what you see?"

Those silvery white scars covered her skin, even cutting across her breasts. If they'd all been inflicted at the same time, she'd surely be dead from the blood loss.

Serana raised her eyes to meet Sithia's glare. "Yes, actually. Very much so. I think you're beautiful, scars and all."

Sithia blinked. Her lips parted, face slack with shock. She blinked again, and looked sidelong at Serana. "You're either lying, or you were dropped on your head as a child."

"I swear I'll never lie to you. By the blood of my ancestors." Serana drew her dagger and in the same smooth motion made it a blood oath. This time the wound healed as quickly as it had been made. "You're beautiful to me."

Sithia stared at her, speechless for several pounding heartbeats. "…You really were knocked silly as a child. Or was it being turned that did it?" Her voice was every bit as shaken as she looked.

"Will you believe me now that it's not just your blood?" Serana stepped forward and took her by her shoulders. Sithia's breath caught, her head tilting up to meet Serana's as she leant down.

Sithia's fingers came between them just before their lips touched. She stepped back, bumping into the table, the water sloshing about in the bucket. "I can believe that you lust after more than my blood. But as I said, I don't do casual." She lowered her hand from Serana's lips, and braced her hands against the table. "Kiss me before I invite you to, and you'll taste my Voice."

"I don't know, that sounds worth the risk." Serana took another step forward until she pressed against Sithia, pinning her against the table. Her laughter died in her throat at the flicker of fear in Sithia's eyes. "I'm sorry." She drew away, guilt a leaden weight in her heart. "I would never hurt you. I hope you can believe that."

"Not intentionally, no. Give me time, that's all I ask."

"You have it. I don't exactly lack time. I'll be downstairs, raiding your bookshelf." Serana left Sithia to make use of her bucket of warm water in private, and shut the door behind her. She slumped against it.

She'd wanted to stay, so very much. But she couldn't. Sithia naked was too tempting, and she'd end up coaxing her into bed.

She'd also end up begging Sithia to let her turn her. Because as a mortal, and a Thief at that, Sithia didn't have much time at all, especially not to an ancient vampire.

That and even if her self control had been up to the challenge, that flash of fear… Serana had a horrible feeling that she knew that fear all too well herself. She'd felt that recently, in Coldharbour. The thought that someone had done that to Sithia, that some faceless bastard hadn't taken no for an answer—

Her fangs descended. She needed to take the edge off her rising bloodlust. She had to go, before she burst back inside, begging Sithia to let her feed. Damn it, she'd need to drain someone dry at this rate. Preferably whoever had touched Sithia like that, but chances were he was already dead, at Sithia's hand. If not, then she'd hunt him down and make him suffer before the end.


AN: Serana is one frustrated and angry vampire. I wouldn't want to meet her while she's in that mood, and I certainly wouldn't want to be her next meal. Sithia's dark past is rearing its ugly head. No prizes for guessing what Sithia's branding is, but it'll take some familiarity with Oblivion's Dark Brotherhood to recognise her tattoo.

Coming up next: Fort Dawnguard! Another dragon to slay! And we might meet someone Sithia hates if I manage to get that far and the chapter doesn't get out of control like this one did – it was supposed to end when they reached Fort Dawnguard.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: To Fort Dawnguard

It didn't take long for Serana to find someone to use as a substitute for the meal she really wanted. A pretty poor substitute at that, but the only thing that would come close to matching Sithia was a dragon. All things considered it was just as well one of those wasn't available.

Dinner was provided in the form of a Breton man, slick dark hair tied back. He was drunk, reeking of wine, staggering after a young Nord woman hurrying away from him.

Serana followed them. She watched the man catch up with the woman, shoving her against the wall of an house near the city walls.

The Breton buried a hand in the woman's short hair, and leaned in to steal a kiss. "Everything's for sale, Ysolda. Except for what I can get for free."

Ysolda grimaced and turned her face away. "Get away from me, Belethor!" She brought her knee up.

Belethor groaned, and fell over when Ysolda shoved him away. She bolted to the door of the house, unlocked it – hands impressively steady despite the unwanted attentions of the man – and slipped inside, slamming the door behind her. The lock clicked.

"By the Eight…" Belethor gasped. He lay there in the dust cradling his groin. After a minute or so he shakily picked himself up from the ground, and stumbled to the door. He hammered on it with a fist. "Ysolda! You'll pay for attacking the goods!"

"Go away!" Ysolda's voice was muffled, but still clearly audible even to mortal ears.

Belethor started to ram the door with his shoulders.

Before the racket drew the attention of the guards, Serana stepped in. She wrapped an arm around Belethor's throat and tightened her grip until he fell slack against her, a few heartbeats later. She carried her prey around to the back of the house. Isolated and out of sight of anyone around. A perfect spot for clandestine feeding.

Serana crouched down and tucked in. Definitely not her best meal ever, but at least he was only slightly bitter from fear. She hadn't given him time to feel much other than surprise and that little spike of fright. Tasting his pain and lust second-hand wasn't terribly pleasant, but everything was dulled by the alcohol in his blood. She drank until it took the edge off her frustration, and let Belethor fall to the ground, his heartbeat weak and faltering.

She didn't particularly care if he didn't wake up. Being drunk was no excuse, if not for Ysolda being able to take care of herself… Skyrim would be better off without scum like him. It was tempting to make sure he didn't survive, but he wasn't worth the effort. Let his precious Divines decide if he deserved to live or die.

Serana straightened up and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. Her mother always hated it when she did that – hardly ladylike, after all – but her mother wasn't there. She licked the traces of blood off her hand, grimacing at the taste. Contact with air didn't improve Belethor.

She wandered back to Breezehome, and browsed the bookshelf near the hearth. There was a pile of gold coins and a note on the top shelf, as well as books. Serana picked up a coin, examining it. They'd changed since the last time she'd handled any. The head of a bearded man on one side, presumably Talos or one of his descendants, and a stylised dragon on the reverse, wings forming a diamond. She set it down and picked up the scrap of parchment partly buried under the coins.

It took a moment to decipher the messy scrawl. Sithia's handwriting was terrible. Clearly whoever taught her to write hadn't been concerned with setting the sort of example Serana's mother had.

'Lydia – leave these septims alone! Souvenirs from a Nordic ruin. They were sealed inside it since long before the time of Talos. You explain what the fuck they were doing there to my satisfaction and you can have them.'

Serana raised her eyebrows. These coins – septims – must have some magic to them. Except if they did it must have worn off or the shining metal would have hummed against her skin. Hmm… Maybe it was Cyrodiilic Luck at work. Well, Imperial Luck now that Cyrodiil was the seat of an empire. She'd read about it, how the natives of Cyrodiil found gold in any container that might hold valuables.

She retrieved a quill and added her theory to the note, signing it with her name. It might win her some gold, not that she needed it with Sithia around. It might also give Sithia an idea of what handwriting should be.

She turned her attention to the books and picked out a tome that sounded like it should be a romance, one of her guilty pleasures. 'A Kiss, Sweet Mother.' She flipped it open and started to read.

"Oh," she muttered. "Definitely not a romance." Why did Sithia have a book about how to summon the Dark Brotherhood? That became obvious as Serana read further. It mentioned Sithis. Hardly surprising – the Dread Father was all about death, so a bunch of assassins were likely to revere him. Did that mean this questionable cult of Sithia's mother was the Dark Brotherhood? This book was a souvenir of that in addition to that barbaric branding seared onto Sithia's back?

She could ask, but Serana had her doubts that it was something Sithia would be willing to talk about. The past seemed like a pretty touchy subject with her Dragonborn, especially where it concerned her parents. It was doubtless connected to whatever weighed on Sithia's conscience too. Added to the fact that she'd been trained to kill… It would be kinder not to bring it up, really.

Serana returned to her reading. "A contract bound in blood… Sounds tasty, although I doubt it means a meal for a vampire." The rest of the book was blank. Perhaps it was intended to record these contracts? Something else to ask Sithia about, in the event she ever opened up enough to—

"Elenwen!" The strangled scream shattered the silence.

Serana looked up at the floorboards forming the ceiling, abruptly realising that heartbeat was racing. Another nightmare. The worst yet.

Serana cursed herself. If she hadn't been so focused on her reading, she could have woken Sithia before it got this bad. She hurried upstairs and burst through the bedroom door. She skidded to a halt by the bed, reaching down to grip Sithia's shoulders. She gently shook her.

Sithia cried out again. "No! I won't, you can't, don't…" She sat bolt upright, struggling out of Serana's grip. "Elenwen," she whimpered, eyes snapping open. She looked around, wild eyed, before she focused on Serana. Her shoulders slumped as a shuddering sigh of relief escaped her.

"Oh, thank Sithis, just a dream." Her voice was raw, her body shivering. Serana wanted to wrap her arms around her, but touching her Dragonborn would only make those shivers worse. She hadn't been standing close enough to the fire for it to warm her enough.

Maybe she could help her verbally if she couldn't physically… "Who's Elenwen?"

"Don't!" Sithia jerked as though struck by a shock spell. "Don't say her name. I never want to talk about her. Ever."

"I'm sorry. It… it might help—"

"Drop it. What would help me is for her never to be brought up again."

"Is it to do with your mother?"

"No," she snapped.

"The Thalmor?"

Sithia flinched. "I said drop it!"

Serana held up her hands. "All right, I'm sorry, I'm only—"

"I know you're trying to help, but you're also curious. I'm not a puzzle for you to figure out," Sithia ground out between clenched teeth, glowering up at her. "And you can't help me. Not with this."

"I'm sorry."

"I know. Just leave me alone."

Serana sighed. She gave Sithia's tense shoulder a tentative pat, and reluctantly left her hugging her knees. Whoever Elenwen was, it was definitely to do with the Thalmor. Maybe she was the one Sithia had loved and lost to Thalmor torture?


The next morning, Sithia didn't say a word about anything that occurred the night before. She didn't really say anything beyond an unintelligible grunt when she caught sight of Serana sitting by the bookshelf. Her grumpy Dragonborn was at her worst – or was that best? – when lacking in sleep.

Sithia wandered over to join her after helping herself to some of the stew that had been kept warm in the pot by the fire. "Imperial what?" Sithia waved the note at her.

"Luck. If what I read is true, it's a racial ability like my Nordic resistance to cold."

"First I've heard of it, but it would explain a lot. Okay, you win." Sithia swept the gold into a leather pouch and handed it over. "Don't spend it all in one place."

Serana caught it and tossed it up and down, smiling at the satisfying clink of shiny gold.

"Better let Lydia know she's a loser, then we head out." Sithia scribbled something on the note before retrieving her cowl. Apparently it was too much to hope that she'd feel safe enough to leave it off in her current hometown.

Sithia paused after she opened the door, looking back at Serana. "Unless you want to read your way through my bookshelf some more?"

"Tempting, but I'd rather see the sights of Whiterun." Serana flipped her hood up. It was overcast at the moment, but that could change suddenly.


Experience the sounds of Whiterun too, Serana mused, perched on the wall of the well in the middle of the market square. She regretted her decision to come with Sithia once the sun came out, and with the more she heard of some fanatical ravings about the love of Talos. They came from the next district uphill, presumably near the shrine she could feel even from here.

After her close encounter with Akatosh's shrine, she didn't want to go up there to explore Whiterun further. Finding Jorrvaskr, the legendary home of Ysgramor's Companions, and the Skyforge, and maybe seeing the Jarl's palace up close wasn't enough for her to venture any closer to an Aedric influence.

Sithia nudged her. "Want to come with me, or do you want to listen to Heimskr screech some more?"

Serana slid off her seat and on to her feet. "I could quite happily never hear him say another word about the mighty Talos. Is this a Stormcloak controlled city?"

"Neutral. Balgruuf has so far managed to avoid choosing a side."

"Then the Thalmor can't come here?"

"Not that I've seen, but rumour has it they're behind the disappearance of a Stormcloak sympathiser. The master blacksmith's son."

"Do you believe it?" That would definitely explain why she had her cowl up.

"I can believe they're capable of it." Choked up with dark emotion, Sithia lapsed into her Khajiiti influenced accent.

"But wouldn't they have taken Heimskr too?"

Sithia nodded. "That makes me suspect that priest is not what he seems. I avoid him because of that. He's also a crazy creep who keeps trying to get too close for comfort. Either because I'm Dragonborn like Talos, or because he's working for the Thalmor and trying to unmask me."

Sithia cleared her throat, her voice back to normal. "But I haven't dealt with him as I would a Thalmor spy because I might be just paranoid, and that's no reason to kill a man who might be innocent. However tempting it can be when he screams the same old thing over and over again."

Her attention focused on Sithia, and always aware of that strong heartbeat by her side, Serana didn't notice the rapidly approaching weaker heartbeat until it almost ran into her.

"I'm not afraid of you, even if you are my elder!"

Serana looked down at the belligerent girl glaring up at her.

The kid's eyes widened. She must've noticed Serana's unusual eyes. Serana smiled, deliberately unsheathing her fangs. She'd give this girl something to be afraid of.

The girl whimpered, raising her hands to instinctively shield herself.

Serana stared at the child's hands, her menacing grin faltering. The girl turned tail and ran away.

"That was Braith. See what I mean?"

"I… You're right, there's something very wrong with her hands. As pale as a Nord's when she's a Redguard. I've no idea what's going on there, I couldn't feel any magic at work. Maybe it's some kind of illness?"

Sithia snorted. "Yeah, a very strange disease nobody has ever heard of. Whatever's at work there, we don't have time to investigate."

"Or the inclination." Serana was curious about it, but she'd lose no sleep if she never found out the truth behind the mystery of Braith the brat's hands. Well, it wouldn't keep her awake if she ever felt like sleeping again after Dimhollow.

"That too."

"My Thane?"

Sithia yelped, jumping away from the little girl who had spoken, and clung to Serana.

The girl giggled. It was the one evicted last night, what was her name? Lucy? No, Lucia. That was it.

"What the fuck do you want, kid?" Sithia must have abruptly realised her tough tone was at odds with the way she held onto Serana, as she let go and crossed her arms.

Serana shook her head and tried not to laugh. 'You're not fooling anyone!' Thanks to the people standing around staring, word would inevitably get around that the big bad Dragonborn was terrified of children.

"Mama says that's a very bad word. She won't let me say it. Why do you get to?"

"Because no one gets to tell me what to do. What is it? I'm a busy woman. Speak up or fuck off, I don't care which. Actually, I do care… Run back to your uptight mother."

Lucia ignored her command. "I wanted to give you this. To thank you for not making my new mama give me up." She pushed something into Sithia's hands and scampered off.

'Your words may be tough, but your actions speak otherwise. The kid is right, you could have demanded that of Lydia as your housecarl.' Serana stifled her smile and peered down at the present. "A sweet roll? That kid is so swee—"

Sithia elbowed her. "Shut up. It's probably poisoned."

"Now you really are being paranoid. If you don't want it…"

Sithia handed the sticky cake over. "Be my guest. Not as if you can be poisoned, after all."

Serana devoured the sweet roll. Sithia's loss – it wasn't tainted. Being immune to poison didn't mean she wouldn't be able to taste it.

"Since when do vampires eat and drink normal stuff?" Sithia said, too quietly for anyone else to overhear.

"You've seen me do both before. I can still enjoy conventional food and drink, it just doesn't sustain me anymore."

"I must have been too busy feeding myself… to…" Sithia trailed off, eyes fixed on Serana's fingers as she licked the stickiness off.

Serana couldn't resist licking her lips, and delighted in the resulting whimper. That was for her ears alone, too quiet for man or mer to hear.

"Finished?"

Sithia looked up, startled. "What?" Her voice was an octave higher than usual, and the glimpse of her skin under that cowl was flushed.

Serana struggled to keep a straight face. "Shopping. Have you finished?"

"Oh, right. Just one last thing, I should be able to get it here." Sithia almost walked into the door of the shop when it failed to open. "Locked… Is that lazy bastard still asleep?"

A guard spoke up from where he leant against a nearby wall. "Didn't you hear? Belethor has been found dead. Vampire attack, it looks like. Night watch should be ashamed, letting that happen under their very noses."

"Couldn't happen to a nicer man!" At least Sithia hadn't liked Belethor, then… That would have been awkward. "I suppose it's too much to hope for that Nazeem has turned up dead too. Definitely too much to hope that Olfrid's big mouth has finally bragged about his precious clan for the last time, I suppose?"

"Dragonborn! Don't speak ill of the dead. And don't speak so loudly, don't want the Battle-Borns to hear you."

Sithia chuckled. "Why not? What are they going to do, haunt me? As for the Battle-Borns, they can kiss my—"

"Let's go, shall we?" Serana hooked her arm through Sithia's and led her off towards the gates. "You really do need a keeper. If the Battle-Borns are an important family around here, you don't want to antagonise them."

"Why not? It might get me out of being a Thane."

"Maybe, but that might also cost you Breezehome if you do something stupid enough for the Jarl to strip you of your title."

"Oh, right. I guess you have a point. Speaking of points…" Sithia glanced at her lips again, then levelled a piercing glare at Serana before returning her eyes to the path. "Hungry last night, were we? Or have your father's cronies found us?"

Ah. Was Sithia about to condemn her, despite her apparent dislike of the dead man? Serana hoped not, but she wouldn't lie. Couldn't, too, after the oath she'd sworn last night. "That was me. I'd have mentioned it if I could smell other vampires had been around."

"Damn it, Serana, couldn't you have gone for another of Whiterun's annoyances? I need to buy another knapsack, and Belethor would have sold one."

"Wait, you don't care that I killed a man, you're just angry that it's inconvenient?"

Sithia laughed, a mirthless, bitter chuckle. "I don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to killing people. That and I imagine he deserved what he got, I don't think you're the type to kill innocents."

For a moment she heard their screams. Saw their faces. Tasted the ghost of their bitter terror. All the lives she'd taken, back when she was a slave to her bloodlust. Men. Women. Even—No. She couldn't think of them. That wasn't her, not anymore. That was the monster. She couldn't bring back those slaughtered families – she'd tried so hard, too, advancing her necromancy to the limits of her ability… All she could do was make sure her inner monster stayed locked away. No more innocents would die at her fangs.

"Not if I can help it," Serana muttered, once she could trust her voice. "He did deserve it. And I'm happy to carry your knapsack for you. You don't need to buy another."

"I can believe he did. But I'm going alone to warn the Dawnguard, and that means leaving you and my enchanted knapsack in Riften. It's a long enough trek from there for me to need some supplies with me, and my armour doesn't exactly have pockets. Oh, wait! I have an idea."

Serana couldn't resist looking her up and down as she led the way back the Breezehome. "I noticed. Not a lot of room for anything but you in there."

Sithia closed the door on the outside world. "I could say the same to you."

Serana breathed a sigh of relief at being out of the sun. She pushed her hood back and shook her hair out. "I do have pockets, actually."

Sithia stared at her, eyes trailing down to her boots and back up again. Most of the way back up, as she didn't quite manage to get past her exposed cleavage.

Serana brought a hand into Sithia's line of sight and waved upwards. Those grey eyes widened and shot up to meet Serana's amused gaze.

Sithia looked away, flushing. "Where are these pockets?"

"That would be telling." Serana smiled and leaned close. "If you really want to know, you'll have to find them."

"Temptress," Sithia muttered. "It'll take more than that for you to get me to feel you up."

"What will it take?"

"You really want to know?" Sithia tugged her cowl down, a slight smile playing on her lips.

"Oh yes," Serana hissed. Was she finally about to get somewhere with her Dragonborn?

Sithia beckoned Serana closer. Hardly able to believe her luck, Serana closed the gap between them until she could feel the heat of Sithia's body through that leather armour.

Sithia reached up and pulled her head down, an arm looped around her neck. She brushed Serana's hair out of the way with her free hand and moved closer yet. Sithia's warm lips brushed against her ear.

"That's for me to know and you to guess." Sithia pulled away, that smile twisting into a smirk, a spark of mischief in her eyes. She turned away, heading upstairs.

"Tease!"

Sithia turned at the top of the stairs and winked at her. "Two can play at that game, Princess."

Serana growled. That fucking title… and that damn mortal testing her promise to give her time to the limit.

Sithia disappeared into a room on the left. She emerged carrying a knapsack.

"Is that your housecarl's?"

"Yeah. I'm… borrowing it."

"Stealing it?"

Sithia shrugged. "Same difference."


The journey to Riften was uneventful. Almost a week long carriage drive in non-stop drizzle. Sithia resorted to pitching her tent in the back of the carriage so they weren't always wet and miserable, just even more bored as it limited the view. Conversation wasn't really an option thanks to their nosy driver. At least this one didn't sing all the time. He just talked. A lot.

Well, the journey was uneventful apart from the assassin. Sithia took her down with contemptuous ease, slitting her throat. An Argonian female, clad in armour similar to Sithia's, except most of the leather was dyed the colour of drying blood.

On helping Sithia search the body, Serana discovered that the armour was also buckled together at the side instead of laced at the back.

Sithia kicked the corpse off the back of the carriage after they'd taken anything of interest. Including a note revealing that it was no random attack.

As instructed, you are to eliminate Cynthia Dragonborn by any means necessary. The Black Sacrament has been performed – somebody wants this poor fool dead.

We've already received payment for the contract. Failure is not an option.

-Astrid

Sithia folded the note back up and tucked it away in her knapsack.

"You collect things like that?"

"A girl's got to have a hobby. It'll also remind me that I have a bone to pick with this Astrid."

"The Black Sacrament… that was a Dark Brotherhood assassin?"

"I don't need to ask what book of mine you've been reading, do I? Yeah, that was what passes for an assassin around here." She looked back at the crumpled body on the road behind them and muttered, "Amateur."

Serana wanted to take that opportunity to ask those burning questions about Sithia's past and her connection to the Dark Brotherhood, but their driver made it impossible. Of course, chances were that Sithia would have told her to drop it anyway.


The only other remotely interesting thing that happened on the boring trek was an encounter with what currently passed for bandits in Skyrim.

"Whoa there," their driver called, reining in the horse.

"Why're we stopping?" Sithia demanded.

"Bandits," Serana said, peering at the men on the road ahead, clad in ragged armour and wielding rusty weapons. They stood in the shadow of two ancient towers spanning a ravine. "At least I assume that's what they are."

"Aye, the bandits of Valtheim Towers. I asked Jarl Balgruuf to deal with them, but has he? No! Clearly the road to Windhelm isn't a priority for him. Makes it harder for Ulfric to court him."

Serana exchanged an incredulous glance with Sithia. Did he really mean… "It makes it harder for Ulfric to try to get Balgruuf to support his rebellion?"

"Aye, and… You didn't hear it from me, but they say Ulfric will do anything or anyone to win this stupid war. Anyway, these bandits, they demand a toll. Two hundred gold. Each, if we're unlucky. I hope you ladies have enough to cover that, or they'll take your lives as payment. Although... young and pretty..." The carriage driver inhaled, whistling between his teeth. "They might just take you as payment even if you have the gold. We'd better turn back and take the route through the Helgen pass."

"I've got a better idea than adding at least another fucking week to this trip." Sithia jumped down and drew her sword. "I kill them all and take their gold."

Serana followed her. "No, we'll kill them. I'm not just a pretty face." She curled her lip at the driver in passing.

"Look boys, fresh meat," one of the bandits said to his equally filthy friend. Serana could smell the stale stench of their unwashed bodies and sweaty fur armour.

It was a disappointingly short and easy fight. The bandits tried to run after Sithia cut down the first before he had time to do more than raise his axe. Ice spikes to the back stopped them in their tracks. While Sithia ransacked the towers – and exterminated the bandits lurking inside judging by the screams and begging – Serana put any bandits not instantly iced to death out of their misery.

"FUS RO DAH!" The Shout was followed by a piercing scream and a distant splash, and breathless laughter.

Sithia emerged from the tower after a few minutes, wiping the blood off her sword with a rag. Her knapsack bulged with her ill-gotten gains. "That was fun, I hope we meet some more bandits to play with."

Unfortunately they didn't. But watching them slaughter those excuses for bandits did have the benefit of making the carriage driver fall into nervous silence for the rest of their ride. They still couldn't talk freely, though, knowing he was listening.


They slept under canvas the whole way. For some reason Sithia insisted they didn't stop anywhere near Windhelm – she even bribed the driver to make sure he carried on without calling at the stables. Serana only saw it from the distance. Ysgramor's city. For something that was supposedly Skyrim's royal city, Solitude and Whiterun looked much more impressive. Oh, Windhelm's walls were tall and imposing, and the Palace of the Kings loomed high beyond them, but… Much as she hated it, her father's castle was bigger. Maybe Windhelm would look more like the legendary City of Kings from her books if she ever had the chance to explore inside.

The rest of Eastmarch was dreary, although maybe that was down to the miserable weather. The rain finally stopped just before they reached Riften. The Rift was a sight for sore eyes even in the wet. Gorgeous. The colours! Up in the far north of Skyrim there were only pine trees. Here, though, there were trees with broad leaves, and yellow leaves at that. Their trunks were ghostly white, especially in the light of the moons. Not as pale as her own skin or snow, but somehow warm where those were cold. What were they, beech? Birch? Serana wished she'd paid more attention to the illustrations in a book about trees of Tamriel.

The scent of the earth and these trees was wonderful. Even in the rain. Maybe especially in the rain.

The only bad thing about the Rift was Riften itself. Even from the outside it was a shadow of the city she'd read about. She could smell the stagnant water from where they stood by the stables.

Sithia straightened up and shouldered her pack. She'd exchanged the shiny things taken from the dead bandits for some potions and food from the knapsack Serana carried.

"I should be back within a day or so. Two at the most." Sithia hesitated, then held out her map. "Only come to find me if I stop moving for longer than a rest stop. Don't bother if the blood dries. It'll mean I'm dead."

"What? Dead? No, if there's any chance of… I'll come—"

"I'll be fine. You won't be – there's too many in the Dawnguard for us to fight off if they decide to shoot first and ask questions later. Especially as they're armed with crossbows."

Serana reluctantly took the map. "What's a crossbow?"

"Like a mechanical bow that fires short arrows. More powerful than a normal bow, and I think the bolts might go faster. Slow reload, though. They based them on a Dwemer contraption. In fact, they hired me to find it for them." Sithia scowled. "I never want to go into another Dwemer ruin again."

"Ruin? What happened to the Dwemer?"

"No one knows. They disappeared around the same time as the Chimer became the Dunmer. I've no idea if the two are connected. All I do know is that there's nothing left in their cities except death. Traps, their automatons… and worse."

"Children?" Her attempt to lighten the mood and make Sithia smile failed miserably.

Sithia closed her eyes and shuddered. "There are worse things than children in the depths of Dwarven ruins. Fortunately I shouldn't meet them here in the Rift. Or anywhere on the surface, come to that. See you soon."

Serana watched her walk away. She looked down at the map. The thought of sitting around in Riften's inn, unable to look away from that red cross… Of seeing it suddenly stop moving, and that deep crimson drying to dead red-brown, of Sithia somewhere out there all alone and dying—

'No.'

She pocketed the map and ducked out of sight of the guards, the Redguard stable boy and the carriage drivers. Ordinarily she could use her lesser vampiric powers to persuade people to ignore her, but that didn't work if they were too focused on her, and it wouldn't work at all on someone like Sithia.

Time to disappear. Serana let the shadows embrace her. Unlike a thin blooded vampire, or even a half-blood, she could remain invisible all the time if she had the concentration to spare. She would have to rely on her sight and hearing, as the scent of the Rift was far too distracting. Not breathing felt so wrong and uncomfortable, but it was bearable. At least the senses she could still use were her most powerful anyway, except for taste, and she didn't exactly use that for anything except feeding. Ugh, the thought of going around licking everything like a stupid werewolf!

The other problem with invisibility was that it didn't muffle her footsteps. Splitting her attention between clinging to the shadows, keeping her eyes and ears open for trouble, and avoiding leaves and twigs underfoot, yet still walking fast enough to keep up with Sithia? Downright painful. A headache soon throbbed behind her temples with every step she took.

It was a relief when Sithia paused to have a little rest. Serana's headache faded away. She watched as Sithia sat on a fallen tree, the skeleton of an unfortunate woodcutter trapped underneath it. She gnawed on a carrot from her knapsack and gulped down some water.

That headache returned with a vengeance at the sight of Sithia pulling out a green potion. Damn it, she should have watched exactly what potions Sithia was transferring to her appropriated knapsack.

'You stupid Dragonborn! Sleep, don't start using those instead again!'

Serana wanted nothing more than to slap that potion out of her hand. Unfortunately that would reveal her presence and provoke an argument she could really do without when plagued with a splitting headache.

Flattering as it was to suspect that Sithia only wanted to get back to her as soon as possible, Serana would rather she didn't do that at the expense of her health. While just a day using those things wouldn't do any harm, what if she started using them whenever she could get away with it? The danger with stamina potions was that they were addictive. Not as bad as skooma, but also worse in that they'd kill you much sooner. The rush of energy… It was intoxicating.

Serana remembered that much from her time at the College of Winterhold. She also remembered that it ended with her in the care of a healer for a week, and her mother taking her back home for good. That was probably a factor in why her mother had suddenly changed her mind about waiting until Serana was a bit older to go through that ritual, although her father's turn for the worse with his illness was the main reason.

She'd have to confiscate Sithia's hoard of those damn potions. Just not right now, as that would be as much of a giveaway as keeping her from drinking that slow poison.

It was maddening, watching Sithia steadily consume those potions and discard the bottles, littering her path to wherever the Dawnguard were based. Serana picked up the bottles – they could be refilled with something better for Sithia, so she stashed them in the bottomless knapsack. The enchantment fortunately prevented any sound escaping from collisions between the contents.

After spending most of the day walking briskly, Sithia ducked into a cave, the entrance flanked by two flaming braziers. Serana followed her and emerged into a canyon, the predominately deciduous flora of the Rift outnumbered with the pines Serana was used to. The air was colder here, with an icy waterfall leading down from the mountains between Skyrim and Morrowind.

Serana didn't have much time to take in the sights, because Sithia was already walking up the path towards… a castle? It was perhaps around the same size of her father's, but less imposing, the shape very different. All curves while Castle Volkihar was so angular.

The Dawnguard's security measures were not terribly impressive – two palisades, but with gates open wide enough for a gargoyle to charge through with its wings spread. In fact, the Dawnguard's guarding of their home was impressively terrible, with no sign of anyone manning their defences, not even a heartbeat let alone a challenge from a sentry.

As they drew closer to the castle, Serana finally heard signs of life. Rapid heartbeats and laboured breathing. A fight? Had something or someone got past their shoddy security?

Then Serana saw it, up by the entrance to the castle. A dragon. Dead. Crumpled, wings spread flat on the ground. Not one slain by Sithia, or it would be a charred skeleton. How convenient – Sithia was in for a treat, a dragon soul for the taking without needing to slay the dragon for it. Although knowing Sithia, she'd actually be disappointed.

Then she heard it. The rush of wind. Wait, no. Not wind. Wing beats.

On the path ahead, Sithia paused. She drew her sword and spun on her heel. Her eyes widened.

Serana turned. She looked up, straight into the gaping maw of a great big black dragon.

'No!'

Serana used that burst of panic to move faster than she ever had before, tackling Sithia to the ground.

No dragon would eat her Dragonborn. Not without going through her first.

The jaws snapped shut.


AN: Cliffie, what cliffie? Sorry about that, the chapter went out of control again thanks to a certain pair who just wouldn't shut up. That meant finding somewhere to split the chapter, and that was it. I hope I'll be able to get the next chapter finished rather sooner than this one – I hope this was worth the wait.

Coming up next: Presuming Alduin doesn't have a vampire and Dragonborn sandwich for dinner, there's bonding over a dragon fight coming up with the Dawnguard, and the tale of the great Moth Priest hunt gets underway.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Dragons and the Dawnguard

Sharp teeth crashed together right overhead.

Serana flinched. Pressed against her from head to toe, Sithia tensed.

Those massive wings beat again, like thunder this close, the rush of air pushing them against the ground.

The dragon roared, the ground trembling. No doubt disappointed at going empty mouthed. The thunderous wings beat once more, further away. Closer to the castle.

Serana pushed herself up on her elbows and looked up. The big black dragon wheeled around, but only to perch atop the castle, the ramparts crumbling beneath its claws. So close to the dead dragon, it was clear that the live one was at least half as big again. Maybe even twice the size.

Underneath her, Sithia groaned. "Serana?"

Serana glanced down. Her invisibility had faded the moment she tackled Sithia. Probably the moment she saw the dragon, her panic shattering her concentration.

"I told you to—Fuck it, no time. Let me up!" Even as Sithia said the words, Serana rolled off her and up onto her feet. She reached down to help Sithia up. Judging by her wheezing, she needed it.

Sithia glowed with golden light for a moment, centring over her ribs. Damn it, tackling her had actually injured her. Still, Serana couldn't regret it. She'd had no time to be gentle. Better bruised and winded than dead.

"Stay here, don't get any closer to Fort Dawnguard!" Sithia pushed Serana behind her and started running, impressively fast considering how breathless she sounded. "Fight fair, you fucking great big black bastard!"

If the dragon heard Sithia, it ignored her. It also ignored the attempts by the assembled Dawnguard to bring it down, their crossbow bolts rebounding from those thick spiny scales. Instead, its attention was fixed on its dead kin.

It opened its jaws and Shouted, "SLEN TIID VO!"

Flesh… time… against… 'What?'

Serana almost lost her footing as she ran after Sithia. She could feel the power from across the valley. The dead dragon glowed much like Sithia herself did when absorbing a dragon's soul. When the light faded, the mortal wounds were gone. It reared up, wings spread, knocking back the attacking Dawnguard.

Dragon necromancy… Amazing. Simply amazing. Even a necromancer of her mother's calibre couldn't—

Serana mentally slapped herself. Admiring the enemy could wait until after they'd been dealt with!

"Alduin, thuri!" The resurrected dragon greeted its saviour and overlord.

Serana shook her head. Dragons and their names. That big black one had to be male, surely no self-respecting female would have a name like that. Al-Du-In. Destroyer, devourer, master.

"Kaali mir, krii daar joorre." Serana easily caught the gist of Alduin's command to his underling: kill them.

Alduin turned his massive head, glowing red eyes narrowing as he looked down at Sithia, still too distant to do anything but run headlong into danger.

"Drem yol lok, Dovahkiin." With that mocking greeting, he took off, sending chunks of stone flying down as he soared away into the twilight.

Serana gasped in relief. Fighting two dragons at once was not something Serana wanted to try, even with a pet Dragonborn at her side. And one of those dragons with Alduin's great size and skills in necromantic Thu'um? The resurrected dragon alone was bad enough.

Serana clenched her teeth as she split her attention between running and focusing her magic. She'd need to aim for the dragon's eyes…

"WULD—" Crack. "—NAH KEST!"

One moment Sithia was within arm's reach, the next she was right behind the dragon.

It twisted around to face her, mouth full of an unfortunate Dawnguard.

Serana took the chance to hurl a shard of ice. The dragon blinked, the ice spike rebounding from the scaly eyelid. It grunted, shaking its head.

Sithia jumped up onto its wing, then leapt onto its head, sword thrust down.

Snap.

Sithia tumbled off the dragon's head, her sword blade still buried in it. She rolled to her feet as the dragon collapsed. Flames crackled, scales flaking away, bones blackening. The blinding light of its soul flowed into Sithia.

Serana took advantage of the distraction of glowing Dragonborn to call on the shadows to hide herself again. Hopefully none of the assembled Dawnguard had noticed her.

"Nil kun nii!" Sithia tossed away the hilt of yet another broken sword. Just as well she had that spare courtesy of the Dawnstar blacksmith… Serana made a mental note to remind her to buy another in Riften, as it seemed Sithia hadn't been exaggerating about losing a sword every time she slayed a dragon.

Serana started to walk towards Sithia. If the Dawnguard objected violently to their news, she needed to be close—

Wait. A horrible scent made her stop in her tracks. One of the Dawnguard was a werewolf. She could only hope that lycanthropic sense of smell was weaker than vampiric when not in wolf form.

An ageing Redguard stepped forward, bringing the stench of dirty dog closer. He crouched beside the dragon's skull and touched the body still impaled by sharp teeth. He shook his head. Dead. That gave Serana hope that his senses were currently almost as weak as a human's. She could hear the lack of heartbeat and breathing, after all.

He stood and beckoned to the men and women behind him. "Get something to lever these jaws open. Durak's dead, but he deserves better than to be buried inside a dragon."

One of the women darted inside the castle, saying something about one of her inventions being just right.

This Redguard was presumably the leader of the Dawnguard. That he was a werewolf might explain why he hated vampires so much. He turned to Sithia. "Dragonborn. Didn't expect it to be you. Explains why it took so long for you to come. We sent the courier two weeks ago."

"Fos dremahiik?"

What… courier? No, what messenger.

"I don't speak dragon, Cynthia. Why didn't you tell me?"

Sithia kicked the skeletal dragon's wing, a stream of Dovahzul passing her lips too quickly for Serana to grasp the meaning. Judging by the way it eventually switched to swearing in Tamrielic, she wouldn't have known those particular words anyway. 'Fuck' had not been part of the vocabulary she'd learned.

Sithia cleared her throat. "You're vampire hunters, not dragon hunters. It wasn't relevant."

"Wasn't relevant? You shouldn't be risked against those bloodsuckers when you're the only thing between us and the dragons. That big black one does that all the time! Anyone else brings down a dragon, and that big black dragon Shouts them back to life. It's done that twice with that one alone." He pointed at the dragon's bones. "That's why I sent for the Dragonborn."

"I'll be the judge of that, Isran. The vampire menace is even bigger than you suspected. We need to talk."

A gust of wind brushed past Serana, far gentler than the rush of air from Alduin's wings. Unfortunately it meant that the werewolf was downwind of her.

Isran's nostrils flared and his nose wrinkled. He growled. Damn it, so much for invisibility, the dog had finally smelled her. He snatched a crossbow from the man next to him and raised it. His eyes roved around, settling directly on Serana despite not being able to see her. He fired.

Serana only just managed to dodge the bolt. It scratched her cheek, the minor wound healing immediately now that the sun had set. Her invisibility ended, concentration shot.

Sithia looked over her shoulder, eyes narrowing as they focused on Serana's bloodied cheek. She turned back to the Dawnguard even as they raised their crossbows. Her shoulders rose as she inhaled deeply. "FUS RO!"

The blast of unrelenting force threw the Dawnguard back, some falling to the ground, some staggering, some falling to their knees. Several dropped their weapons.

By the time they recovered, Sithia stood in front of Serana, sword drawn.

"Hold!" Isran marched forward, pulling his warhammer free of the harness on his back. "Stand aside, Dragonborn."

Sithia sheathed her sword, but only to grab the shaft of Isran's weapon. "You can stand down, she's a friend."

"It's a vampire! Have you lost your mind?" He glared at her. "You must have, because you're not a thrall, I can tell that much."

"She's not like the others, and we need her."

Serana wiped the blood off her face, licking it off the back of her hand. She had to force her fangs back into their sheaths. The taste of her own blood made it so much harder to resist her bloodlust. She pushed it back, concentrating on what she had to do. Serana set her knapsack down and reached into it. She hoped that she wasn't risking having to touch a shrine again doing this…

Isran tugged at his warhammer, but Sithia held on, kicking him when he tried to lift her off her feet. He cursed and stopped struggling. "We don't need any vampire! The only good vampire is a dead vampire! Can't you see, it—" He stared at Serana, or rather at the Scroll she held up. "Stendarr preserve us… Is that an Elder Scroll it has?"

"That is why we need her. These vampires that are attacking, they're Volkihars, which is why they're stronger. And their leader, Harkon, he—"

Serana spoke up. The truth might as well come from her, after all. "He's my father, and he wants to use this Scroll to find out what he needs to do to fulfil a prophecy that will end the Tyranny of the Sun." She put the Scroll away.

"You expect me to believe that, you bloodsucking fiend?"

"I expect you to let me try to help Sithia deal with it, and you'd better hope that we can or you'll see exactly how real the threat is." Serana barely managed to resist the temptation to add an insult referring to his lycanthropy. Chances were his men didn't know, and revealing that might destroy the Dawnguard. Much as she didn't like vampire hunters, Skyrim needed them. Besides, someone had to be mature around here, and it might as well be her. The lone elf – not including the surviving Orc as Orsimer didn't live long enough – looked to be young, and even if she wasn't, Serana was still centuries older than a Bosmer could be.

"Fine, the vampire can live or whatever passes for it as a walking corpse, but you're responsible for it!" Isran finally lowered his warhammer. Sithia let go, allowing him to sheath it.

He jabbed a finger at Serana. "You hear me? You touch any of my men, and your friend here pays for it, Dragonborn or not."

Serana brushed his hand aside. She had no wish to have a finger in her face, especially one that smelled so foul. "Don't worry, I'll behave myself. Although it's funny that Sithia's in more danger from you and your Dawnguard than she is from me. I've never threatened her. You, on the other hand?"

Isran's calculating look at Sithia and the frowns of some of his underlings made Serana wince. Damn it… She'd slipped up and used Sithia's real name. And at least some of the Dawnguard had noticed.

"All right, show's over." Isran clapped his hands and turned to his people. "Celann, get the night watch organised, the rest of you get some rest. Gunmar, give Sorine a hand when she comes back with whatever contraption she's getting. We'll get the dragon's skeleton out of the way in the morning. Well, what are you waiting for? Get moving!"

Once most of the Dawnguard trailed away into the castle, Isran looked back at them. "Come inside if you need any supplies, Sithia, but the vampire stays out here."

Sithia crossed her arms. "No thanks. I'll get whatever I need in Riften. The food's fresher there anyway."

"Suit yourself. What are you going to do about this threat? Assuming it's real." Isran curled his lip at Serana and attempted to look down on her. It didn't work terribly well, considering Serana was a little taller than him.

"We're going to find a Moth Priest to get this Scroll read so we can find out what we need to do to stop Harkon. We'll need somewhere safe for the Moth Priest to stay, though."

Isran stroked his greying beard. "If you find him, I'll see to it that he'll stay out of the hands of these vampires. We definitely need to make sure they can't read that Scroll if this unholy prophecy is real."

"I was hoping you'd say that." Sithia beckoned to Serana. "Come on, let's go. We've got a Moth Priest to hunt down."

Isran's large hand came down on Sithia's shoulder. "A word, Dragonborn."

"I have a name. You even know my real one now, too. Use it. Or do you want me to call you Wer—"

Isran clapped a hand over her mouth. "Fine, Sithia. A word." He led Sithia down the path and through a gap in a fence until they were out of Serana's sight and theoretically out of earshot of anyone else. Anyone human. Either he didn't know the enemy as well as he should – specifically the extent of vampiric hearing – or he wanted Serana to overhear.

"First off, how do you know about that?" Isran hissed.

"I've killed a werewolf before. You have the same silver eyes. That and you smell of dirty dog even to me, and Serana happened to mention what werewolves smell like to her on the way here."

"How do you know that's not because I've been spending time with the dogs here? I train them."

"Then you should've claimed that instead of asking me how I knew. Because I didn't, not for sure. Some of the Companions smell like you and have eyes like yours, so maybe—"

"They do? Then you should be wary around them. Just because I've got my inner monster under control doesn't mean they have. Eyes like mine aren't natural, not any more than that vampire's."

"Really? Interesting… Anyway, what else do you have to say?"

"Watch yourself out there with that leech. It's been sent to spy, kill, or worse, turn us. I just know it." He probably did know Serana could hear them, then. Doubtless an attempt to intimidate her by 'proving' he was on to her. Serana resisted the urge to shake her head. She was being watched by the bearded Breton, presumably Celann, and his friends picked out for the night watch. She smiled at them, which quickly faded when she received suspicious glares in return.

She looked back at the fence when she heard Sithia laugh, wishing she could see the only friendly face around. Not that she'd be able to see much of it with Sithia's cowl up.

"If she'd been sent to kill us, we'd already be dead. Do you really think she hasn't had the opportunity? She could've picked us off one by one while we were distracted by the dragon. As for me, she's already saved my life today. She's helping us! The Scroll—"

"That's a ploy to win our trust."

"Harkon would think you and your Dawnguard an annoyance, not a threat worth risking his Scroll and daughter to be rid of. Besides, I saw their meeting. Serana isn't about to do anything for him."

"That's what they want you to think! At the very least it'll try to kill you and kidnap the Moth Priest once you find him."

"You're paranoid. I'll be fine, and you'll see that she's on our side when we get back with the Moth Priest." Sithia emerged from behind the fence and waved Serana over.

Isran followed her, shaking his head. "You're going to get yourself killed. Well, I tried. Go and find your priest and be careful. I don't trust that bloodsucker, and you shouldn't either. Take a horse – Don't shake your head at me, I insist. I can't let you stay overnight, not with that vampire around, but I can help you get to Riften and a bed there sooner."


They paused outside the cave entrance to the Dawnguard's stronghold, their horse munching on some grass.

Sithia held out her hand. "Give me my map, I need to check the route. Retracing my steps might not be the path to take."

Serana reached down into the lower cloak hanging from her belt and pulled the map from the pocket hidden there.

"Oh. So that's where your pockets are."

"Disappointed?" Serana handed the map over, wishing that Sithia's gauntlets weren't in the way. She could've caressed Sithia's hand if not for them. So much for smooth moves like that when Sithia was clad head to toe in enchanted leather.

Sithia rolled her eyes. "You wish." She unfolded her map, examining it in the light of one of the braziers.

Their horse nuzzled up to Serana, whickering in her ear, warm grassy breath tickling her skin. She patted his soft nose and gently pushed his head away. She might have overdone persuading him not to be afraid of her. Unlike carriage horses, she had to be able to ride this one.

Sithia handed the map back to her. "You might as well carry it. It'll be more accessible in your pocket than in my knapsack."

Serana pocketed it.

She gave Sithia a boost up onto the horse and jumped up behind her, arms sliding around her waist. She smiled at the hitch in Sithia's breathing as she pressed against her, and delighted in the warmth of Sithia's body against her. She rested her chin on Sithia's shoulder, smile fading as she thought of the Dawnguard's hostile reactions to her slip of the tongue.

"I'm sorry," Serana murmured.

"Oh? Good, maybe you'll listen to me next time I tell you not to follow me, or at least stay invisible."

"You'd be Alduin's dinner if I'd stayed in Riften." She tightened her arms around Sithia at the thought.

"Need to breathe, Serana!"

Serana muttered another apology and loosened her grip.

"That's better. And thanks for that, by the way. Being dragon food wouldn't have improved my day. Alduin… that's the big black dragon's name?"

"According to that resurrected dragon, yes. And I actually meant I'm sorry about forgetting to call you Cynthia."

Sithia shook her head, the leather of her cowl brushing against Serana. "Doesn't matter. I doubt the Dawnguard are considered important enough yet for there to be any Thalmor spies among them. Isran and some of the others may be former Vigilants, but they need me too much to let my having been part of a dark cult get in the way."

"Vigilants?"

"The Vigilants of Stendarr. They were founded after the Oblivion Crisis to try to keep one from ever happening again by exterminating Daedra worshippers. Oh, and vampires, werewolves and necromancers. Let's just say that their patron god may be merciful, but they leave any mercy up to him. Or they did, a vampire attack pretty much wiped out the Vigil in Skyrim a month or so ago."

Serana chuckled. "So that's two strikes against me."

"Vampire and necromancer, right?"

"Would've been three strikes, but I stopped worshipping Daedra shortly before I became a vampire." No sane Daughter of Coldharbour could possibly emerge from that ritual still a devotee of Molag Bal…

"I suspect they'd want to exterminate me too. Sithis is neither Aedra nor Daedra, but I doubt they regard him as any better than a Daedric Prince. Hmm…"

"What is it?"

"I wonder if being a werewolf is the real reason why Isran left the Vigilants… If they'd discovered it, he'd be dead."

"Maybe." They rode on in silence for a while – apart from heartbeats, breathing, and their horse's hoofbeats on the worn stones of the road.

The horse needed a name, really. But what? It was a Dawnguard horse, and at least some of the Dawnguard were former Vigilants, so… Perfect. Now to find out what Sithia thought without making it too obvious that she was seeking approval. "I wonder how long it'll take Sten to reach Riften."

"Sten? Who—Oh no, you mean the horse." Sithia groaned. "Damn it, Serana! They die all the sooner if you care enough to name them."

Sure enough, poor Sten died within the hour. He collapsed, heart stuttering until it stopped beating. Shock spells did nothing to revive him, only making his muscles twitch spasmodically.

Serana gave him an apologetic pat. Even if his premature demise had nothing to do with being named, she had to wonder if enthralling him was responsible. A human or elf's black soul could take it. A lesser creature's white soul, though?

Then again, it might have something to do with the weight of her knapsack. She could take it. But a poor horse didn't have a vampire's strength.

Damn it. Either way, it was probably her fault.

Still, no reason to walk when they could still ride.


AN: I reckon it's really Isran's fault for insisting Sithia take the poor horse.

What did you think of the dragon fight and their little chat with Isran?

Dovahzul from thuum dot org and the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages.

Coming up next: A vampire, her Dragonborn and a Blade meet in the Bee and Barb.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: Plotting in the Bee and Barb

They reached Riften shortly before midnight, making very good time thanks to a horse that couldn't tire. Sten was left to collapse into ash in the undergrowth, just out of sight of the guards flanking the gates. Night time only made it even clearer to Serana how neglected the city walls were, covered in moss and green slime.

That the guards were corrupt didn't help with Serana's unfavourable impression of the Hold capital. They tried to demand two hundred gold as a visitor's tax before they would open the gates. That was not exactly the best thing to try with a grumpy Dragonborn wanting nothing more than a night's rest in a cosy inn rather than under canvas.

"FUS RO DAH!"

The gates burst open, the bar holding them shut snapped. The gates themselves had definitely seen better days now, hanging off their hinges, cracked and splintered.

The guards waved them through, stuttering apologies and cringing away from Sithia as she stormed past. Shocked inhabitants of Riften peered out of windows, some with eyes bleary with sleep, woken by the Dragonborn's Voice.

"One of these days they won't let you get away with that sort of thing," Serana murmured as they neared the inn. She immediately regretted speaking as it meant breathing in the stagnant reek of the canal below.

"That would require them to grow some backbone." Sithia sounded disappointed. Did she actually want to get into trouble? Knowing her, she probably did.


There were two good things about Riften: the Bee and Barb inn, and Black-Briar mead. Serana sipped from her tankard of the mead while she watched the courteous Argonian waiter attempt to persuade Sithia to try one of his speciality drinks as a nightcap. He finally admitted defeat and fetched a jug of milk for her.

Serana glanced up as the inn's doors opened. A short woman came in, bringing with her traces of a delicious scent. Not the woman herself – she was about as tasty as the average Breton. No, it was on her leather armour. Dragon blood. Not as good as Sithia's, sitting with her back to the newcomer, but close, despite being dry.

The Breton pushed her hood back, exposing long blonde hair. She looked around, hand on the hilt of a sword sheathed at her side. Her eyes narrowed as they fixed on Sithia. She stalked over, rounding the corner of the table until she saw Sithia's face, exposed so she could drink.

Sithia looked up at her and choked on her milk.

The Breton helpfully gave her a slap on the back. "Dragonborn. You're one hard woman to track down. If not for your Shouting I'd probably have missed you again." Her weary scowl matched Sithia's in ferocity.

Sithia groaned. Serana couldn't blame her – yet another person who called her by what she was. At least this one didn't seem to be in awe of her.

"Fuck off, Delphine!"

Delphine ignored her, grabbing her arm and holding on through Sithia's attempt to shrug her off. "Come with me. We need to talk. Privately."

"Let go!"

Serana looked around at the late night drinkers idly watching Sithia struggle. Serana could easily break Delphine's grip on her Dragonborn, but it might attract too much attention if she did. The moment Sithia was hurt and not just annoyed, though…

"Give me your word you'll follow me first," Delphine said, adjusting her grip again.

"Fuck you." Sithia glared up at her. "Fine, I'll come, but not alone."

Delphine glanced at Serana, lips pressed together and eyes narrowed. "I guess that's the best I'll get."

Delphine tossed the Argonian innkeeper a coin purse, and led the way upstairs and into the nearest empty room. She shut the door after them.

Delphine drew her sword, an unusual narrow blade, thinner and straighter than any Serana had seen before. "Now, Dragonborn, care to tell me what you're doing with a vampire?"

"No, I wouldn't. Put that away right now. I trust Serana, and that's all you need to know."

"I can believe her self control can be trusted. Not even you would be stupid enough to hang around a vampire who couldn't contain her bloodlust. But how do you know she's not a Thalmor agent?" Delphine pointed the sword at Serana, the tip a hand's breadth from her nose.

Sithia grabbed Delphine's wrist, forcing her to lower the blade. "She's not. Kind of hard to be considering she's been locked away for far longer than the Thalmor have been around."

"How can you be sure they didn't set that up?"

Sithia snorted. "Do you really think they'd have left an Elder Scroll with her?"

Delphine opened her mouth, closed it again and stared. "An Elder Scroll? Really? Not even I can imagine they would go that far."

Serana pulled the Scroll out of the knapsack for the second time that night.

"All right, I believe you." Delphine sheathed her sword. Her lips twitched and she chuckled.

"What's so funny?" Sithia grumbled.

"I saw a Moth Priest pass through a couple of days ago, heading north. Most likely for the College of Winterhold. He'd pull out his beard if he knew he'd missed this."

Serana exchanged a glance with Sithia. "Hopefully we'll catch up with him before my father's hunters do."

"You're looking for a Moth Priest?"

"None of your business," Sithia snapped.

Delphine crossed her arms. "All right then, what happened to meeting me in Riverwood? That's my business, and it should be yours too."

"I never agreed to meet you there. I told you, the Thalmor aren't behind this," Sithia mirrored Delphine's stance. "You saw that big black dragon at Kynesgrove, he's the one raising the others from the dead. If the Thalmor were controlling him, they'd have conquered Tamriel by now."

"And I told you we still had to investigate. If the Thalmor aren't behind it, then they'll know who is. Their spying network is second to none, unfortunately for the Blades."

Serana made a mental note to ask Sithia what the Blades were. Judging by the context not swords, and not things that did well in a fight against the Thalmor.

"Spying on man and mer is one thing. On that dragon?" Sithia laughed shortly. "I think not. The only thing I'm interested in doing to the Thalmor is killing them."

"Then you'll have the opportunity to do that if you go along with my plan."

Sithia sighed. "Fine, let's hear it."

"I need you to go to a party at the Thalmor Embassy and sneak away from it to find out what they know. You should clean up well enough to look the part, and your dragon blood makes people feel like they're in the presence of nobility even if you can't act ladylike to save your life."

"No."

"You'd have to restrain yourself from killing the top brass, I know, but the guards and interrogators would be fair game." Delphine raised her hands. The placatory gesture only made Sithia scowl more.

"It's not that I won't, it's that I can't! You're not the only one on the Thalmor kill list."

"A disguise—"

"Won't work. The Thalmor will have set up rune traps to catch their most wanted. I happen to be one of them, and being caught once in one of those traps was more than enough."

"Damn it. I can't go, you can't go, my informant at the embassy isn't cut out for this… I need to rethink this."

Serana raised a hand. "Send me."

Delphine frowned at her. "You think you've got what it takes?"

"I can blend in with the high and mighty if I have to; I was born into nobility. Royalty, if you believe my father, but he was never crowned as a king. As for sneaking away…" Serana reached for the shadows and spoke again once she'd vanished from sight. "Being a vampire has its advantages."

"Right then. You'll do."

Serana let her invisibility fade away on seeing Delphine's grim smile.

The Breton looked her up and down. "You don't even need to change clothes, you already look the part. Elenwen should be convinced."

"Elenwen?" Sithia's voice was so choked it was almost unrecognisable. "What does she have to do with it?"

"You know her? She's the Thalmor ambassador."

So this Elenwen was not someone Sithia had loved and lost, but one of the Thalmor.

"She's been promoted… No." Sithia grabbed Serana's shoulders. "Not you. There has to be another way."

Serana frowned. Sithia's grip tightened almost painfully, and her heart was beating faster in her agitation. Was that fear? Of what, this Thalmor who haunted her nightmares? Or for Serana and what she needed to do?

"I thought you trusted her," Delphine said, looking between them.

"I do. But I also know what the Thalmor do to their prisoners. If they catch you… No. We'll think of something else."

Serana had a very nasty feeling that Sithia's knowledge came from personal experience. If so, she definitely wanted to make Elenwen's acquaintance. "I'll be fine. You know I'm stronger than I look, and you have some idea of what I'm capable of if all else fails. You saw my father do it. Besides, they'd have to catch me first."

"If they do, forget the mission and kill them all if you have to." Sithia let go and stepped back.

"Don't get caught," Delphine said. "Use that invisibility first. We have to find out what they know. We also need a meeting point. My inn in Riverwood?"

Sithia shook her head. "No need. You have my map. Keep it and yourself safe."

Delphine raised an eyebrow. "Show me this map."

Serana glanced at Sithia, who reluctantly nodded, so she got the map out and showed it to Delphine.

"Interesting. Haven't seen an enchanted map like that since the fall of Cloud Ruler Temple. Make sure you don't lose it, it'd be a disaster if it fell into Thalmor hands."

Serana put the map away again and looked at Sithia. "What about you?"

"I'll be fine if I stick to the roads."

"And I know Skyrim like a native," Delphine stated.

"Good, you two will be able to find your way to Winterhold and this Moth Priest."

"Fuck, no! I'm not going anywhere with her."

Serana laid a hand on her Dragonborn's shoulder. "Sithia, I'm sorry, but we have to find that Moth Priest before my father can. You heard what he said about needing one. We don't have time to waste. You need to do this while I find out what the Thalmor know about dragons. And you can't do it alone. You'll need to take the Scroll – I can hardly take it with me to this party, and we can't leave it here. You'll also need someone to keep watch while you sleep."

Sithia's shoulders slumped. "Fuck it. I hate it when you're right."

"It's getting late. We'll need to make the best of daylight tomorrow. Later on today, even." Delphine turned to Serana. "You can travel in daylight, can't you?"

"It's not pleasant, but so long as I've fed recently it's bearable."

"Then be sure to feed tonight. Try not to kill anyone, though, unless you happen to run into Thalmor."

"Is that likely?"

"I'd hope they wouldn't dare show their faces in a Stormcloak Hold," Delphine said. "But Maven Black-Briar has the true power around here, not the Jarl. I wouldn't be surprised if she attends Elenwen's parties." She looked over at Sithia. "Right, I take it you've hired a room of your own?"

"Yes, and I'm not about to share it with you," Sithia snapped.

"I wasn't about to ask. Goodnight."


They took breakfast upstairs, behind closed doors so that Delphine could go over the plan she'd come up with overnight. Well, Sithia and Delphine had breakfast, Serana had already drank her fill while they slept: an Imperial man attempting to sneak around the deserted marketplace, his knapsack jingling with every step he took. She'd relieved him of his haul of shiny gems and coin purses, and some lockpicks. That probably spared him a jail sentence when a patrolling guard inevitably tripped over him.

"I'll hire a courier to send word to Malborn, my inside man at the Thalmor Embassy, to meet you in Solitude with your invitation to the party. You'll have to make your own way there after we split up once we reach Windhelm. We'll stay there overnight, then—"

Sithia shook her head and held up a hand. "We can't stop in Windhelm."

Delphine groaned. "What did you do?"

"I may or may not have killed the brother of Ulfric Stormcloak's right hand man. Accidentally." Sithia nonchalantly inspected her gauntlets.

So that's why Sithia had insisted that they press on when their carriage driver got to Windhelm's stables…

"Really." Delphine raised a sceptical brow. "An accident? Do you do anything by accident?"

"Sometimes. The stupid Nord challenged me to a brawl when I called him on being a racist bastard. It didn't end well for him. He harassed a Dunmer woman for the last time."

Delphine whistled. "Galmar must have wanted your head for that."

"On first name terms with the Stormcloaks? I guess that doesn't surprise me. You Talos worshippers tend to stick together."

"What happened?"

"I knocked him out, he fell down the steps outside the inn and broke his neck. Not my fault he couldn't choose a safer place to pick a fight. The guards tried to put me under arrest after informing me who I'd killed. I may have cut a couple of them down when I escaped so… They might try to kill me on sight if I set foot in Windhelm. And guards seem to know when they see someone with a bounty even if they can't see their face, so keeping my cowl on won't work."

Delphine dropped her head into her hands. "Is there anyone in Skyrim you haven't made an enemy of?"

Sithia hummed thoughtfully and stroked her chin. "The Companions, the Thieves Guild and the College of Mages. And I don't have a bounty in the other Holds. Yet. So I'm still working on it. All Skyrim will be my foes in the end!"

Delphine groaned again, and muttered under her breath, "All this time I've been looking for a Dragonborn to guide and guard, and she turns out to be insane. Esbern told me that it's no coincidence some of the Septims were mad. Should've believed him."

So Sithia's dragon blood was responsible for her questionable sanity? That made a lot of sense. Dragon blood and soul in the body of a human… It was a wonder if any Dragonborn was sane, really.

Of course, looking at the dark satisfaction in Sithia's eyes and the smirk playing on her lips, it was entirely possible that she was messing with Delphine. Still, everything Serana had seen her do and heard her say pointed towards the fact that her Dragonborn was not entirely stable. And that she definitely needed to be supervised, especially when in a Hold capital. At least Delphine knew what to look out for now, as Serana wouldn't be there in Winterhold if they didn't manage to find the Moth Priest before he—

Wait.

"…Elenwen…" Serana turned her head. The voice – a woman's – came from downstairs, and dripped with condescension. Her fangs ached to silence it.

"…at the Thalmor Embassy. They don't invite just anyone. The Snow-Shods and other Stormcloak sympathisers don't know what they're missing. You don't have to like someone to enjoy the advantages of associating with them, or indeed to partake in their fine wine and cooking."

"Are you taking a guest this time?" The Argonian innkeeper sounded weary. Either fed up with the braggart, or she was lacking in sleep. Probably both.

"I could. But I don't know of anyone who deserves such an opportunity. Not even you, Hemming." Those dulcet tones lowered so that only this Hemming and an eavesdropping vampire could hear. "Not after you failed to keep Sibbi under control. You brought the Black-Briar name into disrepute just as he did. For that, my son, you deserve some public humiliation."

So that was Maven Black-Briar…

Serana stood and made her way to the door. Even if it meant parting ways with Sithia right now, she had to take the chance to get this over with sooner rather than later. There was no guarantee Malborn would be able to get her name on this next party's guest list. This way she could get herself invited rather than risk having to wait for another to be held. All she needed was to have a private word with Maven Black-Briar. She'd enthral this mortal if she had to, but all it should take was a few illusion enlaced words, like with Dawnstar's Jarl.

"Where are you going?" Sithia grabbed her arm.

Serana blinked. She must have been distracted, not to have noticed Sithia's heart beating right behind her.

"Don't leave me alone with her before you have to!" Sithia whispered, hands tightening around her arm. Clinging to her.

Serana winced. Knowing that Sithia wanted her to stick around would have made her feel warm inside in any other situation. Now she only felt the cold weight of guilt. "I do have to."

She sighed and continued loudly enough for Delphine to hear, "Maven Black-Briar is down there right now, bragging about this party. I'm nothing if not persuasive, so I'm going to take this chance. Malborn won't be needed. I'll find you when I've found out what the Thalmor know. Good luck with the great Moth Priest hunt."

Serana lowered her voice again, speaking only to Sithia. "Be careful, don't get yourself killed. I can't be there."

"I've survived perfectly well without you for thirty years, you know."

"And I've saved your life at least twice already! Promise me you won't drink any stamina potions while I'm not around."

"I'll be fine." Sithia looked away and reluctantly added, "And I won't drink any except in an emergency."

"You'd better be. That emergency had better not be getting this Moth Priest hunt over with as quickly as you can."

"Foiled," Sithia muttered. "Can you blame me? An adventure with Delphine isn't exactly my idea of fun."

Serana pried Sithia's hands away, gripping one to squeeze gently in the process. "Sorry I'm leaving you alone with Delphine, try not to kill her."

Sithia huffed. "I can think of worse things than Delphine's company."

"Oh, good. You only don't like her, it's not that you hate her."

Sithia's smile was twisted. "I do hate her, and I believe the feeling's mutual. No, I was thinking of what you've got coming your way. If you pull off what you're planning, you're about to spend however long it takes to get between Riften and the Thalmor Embassy in the company of Maven Black-Briar. Then you'll get to meet my old friends the Thalmor. Elenwen's the worst of the lot. Do me a favour and kill them all."

"I'll see what I can do." This party was not going to end well. At least not for Elenwen.


AN: I'm not sure who to feel most sorry for in terms of putting up with the travelling companion from Oblivion: Serana, Sithia or Delphine. It's not going to be pleasant for any of them.

Coming up next: Prepare to meet Serana's darker side.

Chapter Text

Interlude: Diplomatic Nightmare

Warning: Things get darker here. The perceived superiority of the Thalmor unfortunately has consequences. Nothing explicit, but just a heads up that there are mentions of torture and rape.


First Emissary Elenwen sat down at her desk. While Ondolemar visited from Markarth, she had taken the opportunity to leave him to coordinate preparations for the party, with Third Emissary Rulindil to assist him. Once the guests arrived it would be her duty to act as the gracious hostess once more.

As Rulindil kept requesting her expertise in his interrogations, her task for the evening was to annotate the dossier from her finest work for his benefit. It was such a pity that she lacked the time to educate him in person, but duty sadly took priority.

Still, it would be a pleasure to revisit this particular dossier once more, although as the author she was intimately familiar with it. Her proudest achievement and most shameful failure in one.

Breaking a Dark Brotherhood assassin, and failing to re-educate her in time to prevent her escape, when the unthinkable happened. When all subjects were released or killed during a raid on the Thalmor Embassy in Cyrodiil. Despite their best efforts, they still did not know who was responsible for that outrage.

Fortunately for Elenwen's career prospects, her superiors had admitted there was nothing she could have done to prevent it, for she had not been on duty at the time of the raid.

Elenwen ran her fingers over the soft leather cover of the dossier and flicked it open. She readied her inkpot and quill. She would treat this as a little pre-party entertainment for herself, relaxation in preparation for a night in the company of Maven Black-Briar and other obnoxious fools.

She cleared her throat and started to read to herself, basking in the melodic tones of her own voice. "Thalmor Dossier on the Dark Brotherhood assassin, Sithia Dupre. To be killed on sight. Female Imperial in her early thirties."

Elenwen tapped the next section with her inkless quill. "Your background, my dear Sithia. Part Breton, perhaps a quarter, as indicated by your family name and your partial resistance to magic. Not that it helped you, it merely required the usage of more magicka to deal with you. I had plenty at my disposal, as I am sure you remember.

"You came into my keeping when captured by the bodyguards of the Second Emissary to Cyrodiil after his assassination on 17th Last Seed, 4E 189. You were a prize – the first Dark Brotherhood assassin to be captured alive. Invaluable for any information that could be extracted through questioning."

Elenwen dipped her quill in the ink, unable to resist smiling as she revisited her fondest memories. She continued reading, this time what she wrote, her quill scratching across the paper.

"Rulindil, she was the most challenging subject it has been my pleasure to break. Your preferred method of Manual Uncoiling did not succeed with her. Marking her as a Dark Brotherhood assassin was more effective, and could work wonders for you. Simply press one's hand to the subject's back and sear the handprint into the skin with the most basic fire and shock spells combined."

Sithia's agonised scream had been music to her ears, just as the whisper of ink applied to paper was now in describing her success to her adoring fan.

"Putting her in her place continued the process, I cannot recommend the technique highly enough. It is most satisfying when the subject's pride is broken by their own body betraying them."

Indeed, that Sithia was forced to enjoy it only made it worse for the sweet young thing in Elenwen's custody.

"Still, despite her humiliation at my hands, she did not break. The Penultimate Cut finally loosened her tongue. A difficult technique to master, and a last resort for stubborn subjects. They all break in the end."

The moment that Sithia's resistance crumbled was the most satisfying yet for Elenwen. Nothing surpassed her conquest of such a formidable adversary.

"Interrogation revealed that Sithia is the daughter of the late Alisanne Dupre, eliminated by Thalmor wizards' mage fire under the cover of the 4E 188 Bravil skooma riots. Our suspicions were proven correct, that Alisanne was the last Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, and Rasha the last Speaker. Sithia was not only the daughter of the Listener but the last Silencer, Rasha's elite assassin to serve his every whim.

"Unfortunately her role as Rasha's servant meant the information she possessed about the remaining Brotherhood was limited, as Rasha kept her separate from his Sanctuary. She could not name any other assassins, and could only guess that their last Cyrodiilic Sanctuary was located near Rasha's home in Cheydinhal.

"It was decided that an elite assassin was of use to the Aldmeri Dominion, and re-education commenced, starting with the misinformation that her confession about Rasha allowed us to find and eliminate him.

"Let that be a lesson, Rulindil, that it's possible to break a subject even after they have broken enough to confess. It seems that Rasha was more than her master, as the guilt of her perceived betrayal destroyed her."

Elenwen had to smile again in fond remembrance of the deadened look in Sithia's grey eyes as she slumped, shackled to the wall. Her smile faded into a frown as she reached the shameful part of the dossier.

"Re-education was incomplete when she escaped during the raid on the Thalmor Embassy in Imperial City in Last Seed 4E 190, a year to the day after her capture."

Escape was not quite the correct word, as Sithia had been incapable of even moving under her own power. No, she had been rescued. But by whom? Not the Dark Brotherhood, for no one remained alive that knew of her existence. The mystery consumed Elenwen ever since.

She set her quill down. She had no more to add for Rulindil's benefit. Still, she would finish the tragic tale, as perhaps it would reveal something she had overlooked. Something that would allow her to find dearest Sithia.

"After recovering from her time spent under this interrogator's care, Sithia killed every Thalmor she could. It is not certain how many she murdered, but it is thought that she is responsible for the deaths of most Justiciars killed within Cyrodiil in that decade. She is known to have murdered Bruma's Justiciar at the end of Sun's Height, 4E 201, for she was caught by the city guard."

Elenwen shook her head at the incompetence of those guards. "Sithia escaped the city prison before a Thalmor execution squad could arrive, and made her way through the Pale Pass into Skyrim. She was recaptured when she had the misfortune to run into the Imperials escorting Ulfric Stormcloak to Helgen after his surrender at the Darkwater Crossing ambush. She escaped execution when the dragon attacked, and is currently at large in Skyrim. Recognising her may prove challenging. An accurate likeness has been included on her wanted notices. When captured she kept her face concealed, therefore it is almost certain that she does so now."

The original sketch used for the notices was tucked into the dossier. Elenwen stroked her fingers over those familiar angular features. The Mer blood in her Breton ancestry was clearly at work there, tragically watered down so that her ears did not have the slightest point to them. Her skin was almost as pale as a Snow Elf's, back before her proud cousins were corrupted into the abominations lurking in the deepest, darkest holes of this savage and uncivilised backwater of a province.

Elenwen set the dossier aside and retrieved her map of Skyrim. She laid a fingertip on the red ink encircling Helgen. Already preparing to travel to Skyrim to take up her post as First Emissary, she had been the one to lead the execution squad. Following Sithia through the pass, Elenwen found her quarry in the same cart as Ulfric. Two of her favourite subjects right next to each other. Ulfric gagged and Sithia unconscious, blood matting her hair from where she had been rendered insensate.

Elenwen had ridden on ahead to Helgen to meet with General Tullius. A most frustrating meeting, for she had been unable to persuade Tullius to release Sithia and Ulfric into her care. She had at least managed to get him to agree to execute Sithia first; she was too dangerous to be left alive. She'd cut the lives of too many Altmer short. Most regrettable, for she could have been re-educated into such a prized tool…

A few more days under Elenwen's tutelage, and the outcome would have been so very different. Dearest Sithia would have killed her own would-be rescuers.

"So close… Oblivion take that dragon." When Elenwen found out who was responsible for the return of the dragons, they would suffer greatly.

Helgen had been the last confirmed sighting. The executioner's axe had apparently been raised above Sithia's head when the dragon attacked. Elenwen had not stayed to observe it, unable to bring herself to watch Sithia's pretty little head part company from her shoulders.

"Where are you hiding?" Elenwen tapped her finger on the dashed red line encircling Whiterun. An unconfirmed sighting of an Imperial woman matching Sithia's description. The Dragonborn Thane, but their agent had not seen her face, only hearing of what she looked like from the Jarl's guards.

That this Cynthia usually kept her face hidden was suspicious, but it was not unheard of. Still, this Dragonborn would have to be investigated. Sithia must be using an alias, and hiding her face, too, or Thalmor agents would have found her. Heimskr had so far proved unsuccessful in getting close enough to unmask the Dragonborn, despite the fact that she reportedly made use of the shrine of the false Divine whenever she was in Whiterun.

"We will meet again," Elenwen promised herself. "A pity you will have to be eliminated. Perhaps we could enjoy one last session… I'll look forward to it. For you can run but you cannot hide. No matter how many Thalmor you kill, we will overwhelm even your skills. Then you will pay for the lives of the Mer you dared cut short."

A throat was cleared nearby. Elenwen looked up to see Rulindil lingering in the doorway. "First Emissary, the guests are arriving. Some of them appear to be running rather late. Razelan again, of course, but also Maven Black-Briar."

It would doubtless be too much to hope for that dreadful woman to fail to arrive at all.

"Her delay appears to be due to the fact that she is bringing a guest this time. A Lady Serana." Most likely one of Maven's many sycophants.

Elenwen sighed. "Thank you, Rulindil. See to it that the invitations are examined before you return to your work here. I would be most displeased if more re-education was necessary after the incident with the false Divine's cultist intruding last time."

"It would be my pleasure." Rulindil bowed and hurried away.

Elenwen shook her head. She appreciated such enthusiasm, of course, but must he be so servile? If only Ondolemar would show some personal interest in her. She might well have to settle for Rulindil. That would be humiliating, for no matter how pleasing he was to her eye or how superiorly bred, he was still two ranks below her.

Still, at least Rulindil understood and facilitated her need for occasional playthings. It was such a pleasure to put men and women in their place, be they Breton, Imperial, Redguard or Nord, or even her lesser Mer cousins, the Bosmer and Dunmer. She had no interest in Orsimer. Her playthings had to possess beauty, or important information – or both – and Orcs knew nothing and were an offence to behold. It was just a pity that none of her conquests had so far matched dearest Sithia.

Perhaps she should entertain her next guest in the interrogation chamber, but then re-education would be necessary if that guest was to be released. Illusion spells could only do so much to erase traumatic memories.

Now, to perform her onerous duties as a host. If only she could put that obnoxious Black-Briar woman in her place… Unfortunately such an influential ally was too valuable.


Maven Black-Briar nodded stiffly at her. "Such a pleasure as always, Elenwen, we shall speak later, I'm sure."

Elenwen's smile didn't reach her eyes. "Indeed. I cannot wait."

Maven walked past, her nose in the air as usual. It would eventually be Elenwen's pleasure to teach her that she was no Mer's equal, let alone their superior. Unfortunately that would have to wait until the Second War was fought and won, and all lesser races put in their rightful place as servants of the Aldmeri Dominion.

She turned to Maven's guest, a young Nord woman wearing flattering garments blending armour and fine clothing. Her dark hair was braided to encircle her head, but largely left down to frame her face. In fact, her braids were reminiscent of a crown. Fitting for such a regal beauty.

"I don't believe we've met. I am Elenwen, Thalmor Ambassador to Skyrim. And you are?"

The young woman smiled, her eyes a striking green in the soft candlelight illuminating the embassy. "Serana Volkihar."

Volkihar… where had she heard that name before. Wait. That book about the vampire hunter—

This Serana reached out and took her hand. Her skin was so cold… A vamp—

"I'm so pleased to meet you at last. I've heard so much about you."

What had she been thinking of? Elenwen couldn't quite recall. Serana had a lovely voice. Quite mesmerising.

"All good, I hope. Please, tell me about yourself. You have me at quite a disadvantage. I feel that I should know more about such a charming young woman." And so much more civilised than the average Nordic savage. A fellow mage too, Elenwen could feel the raw power emanating from her. Serana must have Breton blood, for no mere Nord could possess such a deep well of magicka.

There was the telltale slight glow of illusion magic at work, which might explain why Serana's features were unquestionably Nordic with no trace of Breton. But then didn't anyone with a passing knowledge of the school use it to look their absolute best for a party? Or indeed for everyday usage, like Elenwen herself.

Every passing moment spent in Serana's company made her feel she was in the presence of a kindred spirit. An individual with a beauty surpassed only by her own. In fact…

"I know it's shockingly forward of me, but I would love to get to know you far better. Just the two of us. Allow me to perform my tiresome duties as a host to my other guests, and I'll join you. Here, take this, show it to one of my guards and have him escort you to my Solar." She took off her ring of office and slipped it into Serana's hand.

"I look forward to it," Serana purred. For a brief moment, Elenwen found that predatory smile unsettling. But it passed as Serana stroked her thumb over the back of Elenwen's hand. A matching smile spread across Elenwen's own superior features.

"Then we understand each other. I'll be with you soon." She turned her hand to grip Serana's, caressing that cold, soft skin. She would see to it that this beautiful creature warmed up. It would be Elenwen's pleasure to have her tied to her bed, awaiting her arrival. Rulindil would prepare her latest plaything for her, as always. Within the hour Serana would be subject to her tender mercies. It would make dealing with Maven so much more tolerable knowing what awaited.

She would have Ondolemar take over as host after performing the minimum of her duties. It was high time she took the opportunity to enjoy herself.


Elenwen managed to slip into her Solar after half an hour, leaving a reluctant Ondolemar in charge of the party. The moment she set foot inside it was clear that something was wrong.

It was dark, the candles extinguished. Elenwen snapped her fingers, sending a Magelight to float above her head. Her breath misted the air, and she shivered in the inexplicable chill in her sanctuary.

"Serana?" Her voice echoed, fading to oppressive silence.

"Rulindil?" Unless he was in the interrogation chamber below, something was very wrong indeed, for his devotion to her surpassed even his dedication to his work.

Where were her guards? There should be at least one patrolling in here, and another in the chamber below.

Then she saw it. A trickle of blood leading up the darkened stairs, glistening in the Magelight.

Finally she remembered where she had heard of the name 'Volkihar'. In 'Immortal Blood'. She also recalled the cold touch of Serana's hand, and what she had realised before her mind was enspelled to forget it.

'Vampire…'

Elenwen did not hesitate beyond a single fearful humiliating whimper. She turned back to the door to the courtyard. Her breath caught. It was frozen shut. By the time she could melt that anything could have happened to her. She was an interrogator and then a diplomat, not a battlemage! She might stand a chance against a common vampire, but a Volkihar?

She hurried to the nearest door to the interrogation chamber. She gasped in relief at finding it still locked. Elenwen frantically pulled the key from her pocket, fumbled with the lock and darted inside. She slammed the door shut and locked it. She slumped against it, trembling.

Elenwen stiffened, suddenly painfully aware of the other door into the Solar, on the opposite side of the chamber. What if it wasn't locked?

"Rulindil? Guard?"

No answer… Elenwen waited until she did not tremble quite so much before moving. She cursed herself for not studying enough alteration magic. Without Detect Life at her disposal she would have to venture further in. Without Detect Dead, she had no way of knowing if the vampire lurked in the shadows.

This time she found the guard. Dead. Neck snapped, helmeted head at an unnatural angle. The subject Rulindil had been working on was similarly slumped in his shackles, put out of his misery.

Elenwen swallowed hard, forcing her breathing to slow. She hurried over to the chest next to the dead subject's cell. The lid was ajar.

'No…'

Esbern's dossier – so valuable to the dragon investigation – was gone.

Elenwen hurried to the trapdoor. Used to dispose of the remains of those subjects who were of no further use, it led to a cave, a secret exit. Locked. She tried every key in her possession to no avail, then searched the dead guard. Nothing.

She steeled herself and returned upstairs, flames flickering in her hands as she attempted to ready her magic.

Elenwen stopped in her tracks. Her desk… Empty. Sithia's dossier, gone. Similarly, Delphine and Ulfric's dossiers were also missing from the chest beside her desk.

She broke into a sprint, hurrying upstairs, almost slipping on the blood staining them. If she could reach her bedroom, she could use her escape passage. No one else knew of it, and it was too well hidden for even a vampire to find.

Elenwen cried out at the sight that awaited her.

Poor Rulindil, his throat torn open, pinned to her bed with a shard of ice through his heart. Such a handsome Mer, treated like a mere butterfly in her own collection.

And on the headboard of her bed, secured by an Elven dagger buried up to the hilt, was the sketch from Sithia's dossier.

Written in an unfamiliar graceful hand was an ominous threat. Elenwen traced the words with a shaking finger. 'You will pay for touching her.'

"The ultimate price," Serana snarled from behind her, voice almost unrecognisable, distorted with rage and… lisping?

A jolt of primal fear coursed through Elenwen. She spun, frantically focusing her magic until the flames roared to life.

Hands coated in ice reached through the fire to close around hers.

Elenwen screamed, blindsided with agony.

When she recovered enough to see, cheeks wet with tears, she flinched away from the sight of her mangled fingers and crushed palms. She'd never be able to use magic again. Restoration had limits; she was beyond them.

A hand closed around her collar, effortlessly lifting her off her feet in a display of terrifying strength.

Elenwen stared down, trembling from head to toe. Serana was illuminated in the Magelight still floating overhead. That beautiful face contorted into the stuff of nightmares, fangs bared, both upper and lower. Her exposed skin was covered in blood, including her face – around her mouth and her cheeks. Mer blood… Rulindil's blood. Her eyes glowed with the fires of Oblivion, the illusion of her mortal eyes abandoned.

"You're fortunate that I won't sink to your level. You'd break far sooner than Sithia did. Unfortunately for you, I'm always thirsty, and Altmer is always tasty. Like spiced wine but sweeter. Or more bitter in your case. Fear, you know, it taints the blood. Can't be helped." She grinned, fully exposing her razor sharp teeth. "The things I do for my Dragonborn…"

'Dragonborn? Sithia—'

Terror interrupted her train of thought as the vampire dropped her and caught her in her arms. Those fangs tore into her throat as the abomination bit down savagely.

A humiliating whimper escaped Elenwen as the vampire drained her life away. Her heart stuttered, her sight fading. She was cold, so cold. Just like this pitiful excuse of a province.

The last experience of her long life – cut tragically short before her time – was the distant impact with the floor as the vampire discarded her body.

'Not… like… this… so… undignified.'

When Elenwen next opened her eyes, she found herself in the ruins of her bedchamber. She reached for her throat and felt smooth skin. Felt. She stared down at her hands. Intact, unharmed… and ghostly. Elenwen looked again at her surroundings. This was not Aetherius, her rightful afterlife.

A dark shadow approached, looming over her. A man. Wait, was that a tail?

"So my Daughter sends me another soul. She might kill no more victims if she knew they belong to me. So ironic that she loathes rapists when she unknowingly gave you to me, but then my Serana might have made an exception for you." The bestial man chuckled. "Such inspired work of yours with the last Dragonborn. It pleased me."

So this Cynthia Dragonborn was indeed Sithia, as Serana had implied…

"Who dares address me with no introduction?" Elenwen's voice trembled despite herself. She knew the answer, of course. How could she not?

Malevolent laughter assaulted her ears. Sharp claws snatched her up.

"I am your Lord and Master, Molag Bal. Welcome to Coldharbour!"

Elenwen screamed.


AN: While I do think Elenwen deserves to suffer for her treatment of her prisoners, eternity in Coldharbour isn't something I'd wish on anyone. Nor is a personal welcome from the resident Daedric Prince.

Serana would probably never kill again if she did know where the souls of her victims end up.

Coming up next: Serana catches up with her Dragonborn. They need to talk.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Shadows of the Past

Serana grimaced at the bitter taste of Elenwen's terror lingering in her mouth. She spat out the dregs of it, and swiped a hand across her lips. She looked down at the Thalmor's discarded body, face frozen in a rictus of pain and horror.

‘May you rot in Oblivion.’ A monster like that didn't deserve conventional Altmer afterlife in Aetherius with the Eight… If the Aedra allowed that, they really were no better than Daedra.

Serana growled at the thought. She trembled with the burn of the rage in her blood, her skin prickling with the instinct to give in to the bloodlust and unleash her inner monster. Ever since reading that dossier, she'd been so close to transforming accidentally. She hadn't been so enraged in… Ever. Her lower set of fangs had never come out before. Not in her human form.

Killing Elenwen should have taken the edge off, should have banished the spectre of the monster. It hadn't.

‘Don’t lose control, don’t lose control…’

Serana closed her eyes and stopped breathing. Ordinarily deep breaths would help calm her down, but not with so much blood spilt so close.

‘I am not that monster, not any more, I won’t transform…’

The rest of those Thalmor deserved to die, but the guests? From what Maven mentioned on the way to the embassy, some of them were making nice with the Thalmor out of necessity, not choice. Even Maven probably didn't deserve death, despite the fact that she'd been so very tempted to drain her dry before they'd even left Riften. Not because she smelled particularly tempting – even without Sithia around, everyone was so bland in comparison – but because the Black-Briar matriarch was the most irritating and obnoxious person she'd ever had the displeasure to meet.

If she slaughtered every Thalmor around, she'd lose herself to the bloodlust. She'd snap out of it, the only living thing in the embassy. If she could be called 'living', anyway.

She finally managed to force her fangs to retract. She had to get out of here. Before it was too late.

Serana turned to the bed, ignoring the dead occupant pinned to it, her eyes on the sketch of Sithia. She reached for it – no matter the source, it was a good likeness of the one who meant so much to her – only to stop short. Her hand was covered in blood. Vile Thalmor blood. She didn't want that on anything, least of all something of Sithia.

She covered her exposed skin with a layer of ice, let it melt and take away the blood. She quickly dried her hands off on her leggings, snatched the sketch and pocketed it. She left her own dagger buried in the headboard. It was quicker to loot Elenwen's from her cooling corpse. It shouldn't need sharpening either.

She picked up the knapsack she was 'borrowing' from the Altmer she'd just killed. She glanced inside it to check all four dossiers were still there. Esbern's. Delphine's. Ulfric Stormcloak's. Sithia’s.

Serana clenched her teeth. Her fangs came far too close to unsheathing again. All of them. Time to go, before she did something she'd regret.

She shouldered the knapsack and hurried away without a backward glance at her victims. She only regretted that they didn't suffer nearly enough before the end.

Serana barely resisted the temptation to leave the way she'd arrived. If she went near any more Thalmor when this on edge…

‘No. I will not be that monster. Never again.’

She headed down into the torture chamber, and unlocked the trapdoor using a key she'd found on the dead guard. She spared a glance for the dead prisoner. She did regret that, but putting him out of his misery was the best she could do for him.

Seeing him like that, slumped in defeat, held up only by the shackles bolted to the wall… The Thalmor had done that to Sithia. She'd almost given in to the bloodlust. Breaking the prisoner and the guard's necks had been all she could do. Silencing their heartbeats in an instant had made it a little easier to keep herself under control.

She opened the trapdoor and jumped down, letting it fall shut after her. She landed on an Imperial woman's corpse, emaciated body covered with wounds still wet with blood. For a torturous moment she saw Sithia lying there instead.

Serana scrambled back. She frantically dug the map out of her pocket, a shuddering sigh escaping her at the scent and sight of the fresh blood, the crimson 'x' lingering in the wilderness of Winterhold. Alive. Far from here. Hopefully safe. She reluctantly looked away, to where Riften was marked. Much as she wanted to catch up with Sithia, she couldn't delay. From what Esbern's dossier said, the Thalmor were already searching for him and his dragon expertise there. She had to find him first.

Serana hissed through her teeth. Without Sithia's touch to wake the enchantment, she had to figure out for herself what route to take. She ran a finger over solid black lines of the roads. It would probably be safest to retrace the path Maven's carriage had taken. She'd only get hopelessly lost if she tried to take a shortcut through the wilderness. If she kept herself well fed, she'd be able to run all night, every night, making far better time than if she hired a carriage.

She folded up the map and tucked it away. She'd better find her way out of this cave. She had to make the most of what remained of the night. Sunlight wouldn't bother her too much after eating so well, but it would slow her down. She'd get tired just as a mortal would.

Despite the foul air around the pathetic remains of the Thalmor's victims, Serana could feel a slight breeze. There was definitely a way out somewhere. A step forward brought her within earshot of a heartbeat. Slower and bigger than a human's. She edged closer, and—

‘Ugh!’

Wonderful. As if rotting flesh wasn't already revolting enough, it was compounded by the distinctive reek of troll.

She saw it now. A frost troll, lying sprawled on the dusty floor of the cave. All three eyes were shut, and it snored softly. She crept past it. Trolls tasted horrible, as bad as they smelled. Even if that wasn't the case, the poor thing didn't deserve to die just because it was unfortunate enough to meet her on a particularly bad night.

She emerged from the cave into sweet, fresh air. Serana inhaled deeply, ridding herself of the last of the cave's stench. She stepped forward onto a snow-strewn road. Hopefully this was the road to Solitude, or she was about to get lost.


It wasn't the road to Solitude. But it didn't matter, because she managed to find her way to Dragon Bridge, after passing by a Shrine to Meridia. Serana kept her distance. As a vampire and a necromancer, she wouldn't exactly be popular with that Daedric Prince.

After feeding from a guard to keep her strength up for the day ahead, she hurried over the ancient bridge, under the carved dragon heads. No matter how many times she saw it – three times now – she marvelled that it was still standing after so long. It had already been ancient back when she was human. Not that she'd ever seen it back then, thanks to her mother almost never letting her out of her sight.

Sunrise slowed her down a lot. Her recent meal meant that the sunlight didn't sting much, but her muscles soon ached even with a mere walking pace. She had to stop regularly to give her tired legs a chance to recover.

To kill time while she rested, Serana got the map out. Mostly to reassure herself that Sithia was still alive, and to torment herself with the delicious scent of that enchanted drop of blood. Her Dragonborn had finally moved closer to Winterhold's southern border with the Pale. If she'd been delayed by a snowstorm, it must have passed.

She also reread the dossiers. Delphine's, which made Serana reluctantly respect the obnoxious Breton. She had to admire someone like that, who could survive three of the Thalmor's assassination attempts, kill so many of them, and hide from them for so long.

Ulfric Stormcloak's. The poor bastard was someone else who had been tortured by Elenwen, and was considered to be an asset by the Thalmor, if an uncooperative one. His dossier might be useful later for blackmail purposes, maybe to get him to pardon Sithia if they ever needed to visit Windhelm without being attacked on sight. Hopefully she could avoid doing that, though, as she'd feel bad about using that information against another of Elenwen's victims.

Esbern's, with the information Delphine sent her to find. That the Thalmor weren't responsible for the dragons, but they knew who might know more – this Esbern, the Blades' loremaster. Hopefully she'd find him before the Thalmor did, or it would be very difficult to rescue him. They'd surely tighten their security with Elenwen's murder, maybe even take all captives out of Skyrim.

Not Sithia's, though. That dossier was etched into her mind, and not something she ever wanted to read again. The first time had been bad enough. She swiped at her eyes, dashing away the tears before they could fall. It wouldn't do for any other travellers around to see her crying tears of blood – she couldn't rely on her invisibility if she was too upset to maintain her grasp on the concealing shadows.

The thought of her Sithia suffering like that at Elenwen's hands… Serana took a deep, ragged breath, fists clenched. She wished she'd thought to resurrect that despicable torturer and make her pay the ultimate price all over again.

As for the other revelations of that dossier… It didn't surprise her that Sithia had been an assassin. She'd had her suspicions about that ever since reading about the Dark Brotherhood. It didn't change anything, not even if Sithia was still an assassin. Except… that wasn't quite true. Serana would be disappointed – it'd mean Sithia wasn't who Serana thought she was.

But it still wouldn't stop her from caring about her Dragonborn. Serana was no hypocrite, or at least tried not to be. She'd never killed for gold, but she had for blood. Including innocents.

Unless she was completely wrong about Sithia, she also had regrets about those she'd killed. Just as Serana herself did about the blood of those innocents on her hands. Well, fangs.

What did change things was the sickening details of the torture Elenwen put Sithia through. Some of it was unclear, like exactly what the 'penultimate cut' was, but 'put in her place'… Serana hadn't needed to read the rest of Elenwen's annotation to know what that meant.

It explained a lot. Sithia's fear back in Breezehome when Serana had pinned her against the table. That was probably reacting to being trapped, and to the feeling of Serana's clothed body against her bare skin… Chances were that had triggered Sithia's nightmare about Elenwen that night.

At least the news of Elenwen's death should help with the aftermath of those dreams, although it almost certainly wouldn't banish them entirely. The scars from a year in the hands of that torturer would be etched too deeply into Sithia's psyche.

Serana dug the sketch out of her pocket, caressing Sithia's features with a finger. She'd wanted to get to know her Dragonborn better, but… Not this way. It should've been by Sithia opening up enough to tell her. Once she gave Sithia her dossier – and she would, she couldn't keep this hidden – it would change things. Probably for the worse. Maybe even ruin their friendship.

Serana folded up the sketch and tucked it away. Her legs still ached a bit, but it was time for another unpleasant walk in the sun. Anything to distract her from her miserable thoughts about what awaited her when she next saw Sithia.

Dusk brought with it the blessing of the night, and she easily reached Rorikstead, paused long enough to snack on another guard, and ran on towards Whiterun and beyond.


Four nights later she reached the Rift. It felt much longer, between her worrying about the impending mess with Sithia, and her impatience to get this quest to find Esbern over with. The sooner she did that, the sooner she'd get back to Sithia. Despite dreading it, she wanted nothing more than to see her, and not just the sketch of her.

She'd caught hints of Sithia's scent on the road over the past day, growing ever stronger. A glance at the map confirmed what she already knew: she'd cross Sithia's path before she reached Riften. The 'x' marking her spot rested in Shor's Stone, mere hours ahead. She'd reach it before dawn.

Serana cupped her chin, deep in thought. What to do… Her finger rested on the enchanted drop of Sithia's blood, the parchment shielded from the drizzle with her cloak. Sithia was tantalisingly close. Esbern was supposedly in Riften, hopefully still out of the Thalmor's clutches. Could she afford the delay?

She bit her lip – fangs safely retracted – and shook her head. She pocketed the map. She couldn't pass so close to Sithia without seeing her. Even if it meant Esbern and the Thalmor slipped through her fingers. Besides, Delphine might have a better idea about where Esbern might be hiding in Riften.


In the inn – which looked more like a house adapted for the purpose – Delphine sat by the fire, the only mortal awake in the village. Either she was a very early riser, or she was an insomniac. She slowly lowered her sword, drawn the moment Serana opened the door.

"There you are. What happened with the Thalmor?"

Serana smiled, flashing her fangs. "They'll need to find a new First Emissary and interrogator."

"Elenwen's dead? Good. What did you learn, are they behind the dragons?"

"They're not, but they have a lead to find out more." Serana reached into her pack and handed over Esbern's dossier. She'd keep the rest to herself, including Delphine's.

"If you're looking for the Dragonborn, she's still sleeping, like most people in Shor's Stone." Delphine jerked a thumb at a room on the left, a curtain draped across the doorway. She'd already flipped open the dossier, leaning close to it to read it in the firelight.

Serana didn't actually need to be pointed towards Sithia – even if she couldn't pick out that strong heartbeat no matter how many other mortals were around, she could smell her from a mile away.

She held the curtain up enough to duck under it, then let it fall closed after her.

Sithia slept restlessly, in the grip of one of the nightmares. By the look of the shadows under her eyes, her sleep must have been plagued by them even more than usual in Serana's absence.

Serana took off her damp cloak, tossing it over the chair, on top of Sithia's armour. Her Dragonborn only slept in it when she had to. It was a pity that the safety she clearly felt here didn't extend to her dreams.

"Elenwen," Sithia whimpered, on the edge of Serana's hearing. She could finally help her with that particular demon.

Serana perched on the edge of the bed and knocked Sithia's dagger out of reach. The danger of waking Sithia from a nightmare wasn't something she could safely forget. That done, she gently shook Sithia awake.

Sithia sat bolt upright with a choked cry, her eyes wild. They fixed on Serana, and slid shut, her shoulders slumping as a shuddering sigh escaped her.

"You're back." Sithia threw her arms around Serana in a tight embrace.

Serana hugged her back. A dull knife twisted in her heart at the thought that she'd soon be pushed away once Sithia saw her damn dossier.

Or even before, as Sithia soon pushed herself back, but at least kept her hands on Serana's shoulders. She looked her up and down. "And in one piece. Good. I was…" Her grip tightened. "Worried."

"Elenwen can't hurt anyone ever again. I made very sure of that."

Sithia frowned. "Wait, you mean…"

"I was thirsty and so very angry. It didn't end well for her."

Sithia's tense shoulders relaxed. She shook her head slowly, eyes unfocused, as though staring through Serana. "I wanted so much to kill her myself… I hope she suffered before that end." Sithia's voice trembled. She sniffled, swiping at her eyes.

"Not enough for what she did to you."

Sithia stiffened and inhaled sharply. Her wide eyes snapped to Serana's. "What she… How do you know about what she did to me? Elenwen brags – bragged – about that sort of thing at parties?" Her nails briefly dug into Serana's shoulders before she snatched her hands away. Serana would have preferred the physical pain over the agonising thought that Sithia would never want to touch her again.

Sithia's knuckles whitened as her fists clenched. Her heart beat faster in her agitation. “What do you know?”

Serana set the knapsack down and pulled out Sithia's dossier. She handed it over and held her breath while Sithia read through it, brows and lips drawn down into a thunderous scowl. Her eyes narrowed more with every word she read.

Sithia's hands were shaking by the time she snapped the slim volume shut. Serana flinched, almost falling off the bed, as fire leapt from Sithia's palms. The flames consumed the paper, the leather blackening and cracking. They watched the dossier burn until the ashes dropped between Sithia's fingers onto the floor.

Sithia took a ragged breath, hissing through clenched teeth. "You know. I can't…" She shook her head, face contorting into a pained grimace, the lines etched into her skin deepening. "I don't…" An incoherent snarl escaped her. She swung her legs out of bed, almost kicking Serana in the process. She tugged her boots on and stormed off, sweeping the curtain out of her way.

Her heart a leaden weight in the grip of her dismay, Serana hurried after her, reaching out. "Wait, I—"

Sithia shrugged off her hand the moment it touched her shoulder. “Don’t follow me.” Her voice trembled with barely suppressed rage. "Stay inside! I don't want to hurt you."

Hand still outstretched, Serana watched helplessly as Sithia stalked outside, the door slamming shut after her.

"STRUN!"

Serana clutched her aching head as the loudest Shout she'd heard yet split the air.

Thunder rumbled directly overhead, heavy rain hammering against the thatched roof. Lightning cracked again and again, the flashes of light blinding through the gaps around the door.

"Talos guard me," Delphine breathed from behind her.

Confused and fearful cries rang out. Sithia's Storm Call had woken everyone within earshot, so probably all of Skyrim.

Serana sniffed. Something was sickly sweet… burnt flesh. An icy fist closed around her heart with the realisation that she couldn't hear Sithia's heartbeat for the pounding rain.

‘Sithia…’ Serana rushed over to the door and wrenched it open. She gasped in relief at the sight of Sithia's sodden form sprinting through the torrential downpour to some crumpled bodies. Serana blinked. Amidst smouldering Elven armour and smoking dark robes, a man crouched, hands clasped awkwardly over his head.

Sithia reached the miraculous survivor and pulled him to his feet, dragging him to the inn and inside. A drenched elderly Nord man, his grey beard darkened with the wet.

"Esbern?" Delphine gasped. She darted forward, and cut his bound hands loose. She embraced him.

Serana shook her head. They didn't need the information she'd found at the Thalmor Embassy now. Still, it wasn't a wasted trip, not when it meant she killed Elenwen. Besides, the Thalmor might have escaped with Esbern as their prisoner if she hadn't returned with news provoking Sithia's… outburst.

"You Talos worshippers really do all know each other," Sithia rasped. She coughed, grimacing, and clutched at her throat. Golden light flickered in her hand and sank into her neck. "My Storm Call fried that Thalmor patrol. Talos must've been watching over you, old man, I think that lightning strikes everyone out in the open around me. Unless it only goes for my enemies…"

Once Delphine released him, Esbern turned to Sithia and lowered his head respectfully. "Dragonborn. My thanks for rescuing me from the clutches of the Thalmor. I dread to think what would have happened if they succeeded in dragging me to their torture chamber." He shuddered briefly, then raised his head and smiled. "To know that you really do exist… I finally have hope that we are not doomed."

"Doomed?" Delphine echoed, frowning. "What do you mean? The dragons?"

“The dragon," Esbern said. "Alduin the World-Eater. Don't you see, the prophecy has come to pass."

"What prophecy?" Sithia exchanged a weary glance with Serana at the mention of yet another prophecy to deal with.

"Allow me to dry us first, and I will share what I know." Fire danced in Esbern's hands. Serana cringed away as leapt through the air. It swirled around Sithia and then Esbern, miraculously not setting either them or their clothes alight. By the time it died away, they were both dry.

Esbern cleared his throat. "Now, the prophecy of the Dragonborn is something which I have told you of before, Delphine, although you probably do not remember it. You always paid more attention to your blademaster than your loremasters. Perhaps it is as well, or you would—"

"Esbern!" Delphine swatted at him.

"What's that? Oh, the prophecy." He cleared his throat.

"When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world,
When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped,
When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles,
When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne, and the White Tower falls,
When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding,
The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn."

With that last part, Serana's eyes widened. She'd heard that before, a fragment her father had come across in his obsessive search for a different prophecy.

"The end times are at hand. The World-Eater brings back his brethren. He will devour Nirn unless he is stopped." Esbern rested a hand on Sithia's shoulder. "You are our only hope, the Last Dragonborn."

"No pressure," Sithia muttered. "Exactly how am I meant to do that? Alduin's not any old dragon. I've never managed to get close enough to fight him. He has a nasty habit of perching out of reach or taking to the air. Even if I wasn't a terrible shot, arrows just bounce off his scaly hide."

Esbern patted her shoulder. "We will help you. I know of an Akaviri stronghold that may contain the knowledge you need."

"Oh, good. Well, if you don't mind, I need a bit of time alone to come to terms with this." Sithia slowly backed away until she hit the wall, and slid along it until she could duck into her room.

Serana hesitated for a heartbeat, torn between respecting Sithia's wish for isolation, and the need to make sure she was all right after all of that crushing weight was dropped on her shoulders. The weight of the world…

She left Delphine and Esbern to their muttered conversation about their Dragonborn and hurried over to Sithia's room. She pulled the curtain closed behind her.

Sat on the bed, Sithia didn't look surprised to see her, and didn't object violently to her presence either. Far from it, actually, as she beckoned her over.

"Are you all right?"

"More or less. I already knew I'm the ultimate dragon slayer. Figures that I'd have to be the one to slay the ultimate dragon." She lowered her voice. "I just really needed to get away from them and the way they were looking at me. Like I'm a weapon, not a person. That and…" She grimaced. "We need to talk."

Sithia patted the bed next to her and waited until Serana had joined her. "You know far more about me than I ever wanted anyone to know."

"I'm sor—"

Sithia laid her fingers over Serana's lips. "Don't. Apologise. I'd have done the same thing, reading that damn dossier. Besides, if you hadn't read it… Elenwen might still be alive." She sighed. "Ask whatever you want to. You must have questions after reading that. It's not something I ever wanted to talk about, but it seems the Thalmor are forcing my hand."

‘Damn it.’ She'd wanted to get to know her Dragonborn better, but not like this! "I won't force you to talk if you don't want to. I killed her for you, but you don't owe me anything."

"I pay my debts. Deny it all you want, but I owe you. I may have been cheated of killing her myself, but it means a lot that you did that for me."

"I'd do anything for you." Serana whispered, laying a hand over Sithia's. "I care about you. Haven't you noticed that yet?"

Sithia looked away, rubbing at the back of her neck, her cheeks flushed. She cleared her throat. "You'd kill for me, that much is clear. And, uh, I'd do the same for you." She met Serana's earnest gaze again. "Until I get the chance to do that, the least I can do is give you some answers. So, ask."

What could she bring herself to ask? Not something too painful like… ‘What’s the Penultimate Cut?’

Sithia winced. "Void take me, you don't pull your punches!"

‘What? Oh, no…’ She’d managed to think aloud. ‘Fuck!’

"It's not that hard to guess. You've seen my scars. Those on my chest, anyway. My lower half is covered with them too, but I'm not about to show you right now."

"I was hoping it was something else." That meant… By the blood, most of Sithia's scars were inflicted at the same time? It must mean that the next cut would have killed her. Being brought so close to the release of death… and having it taken away. No wonder Elenwen's annotation mentioned that they all break in the end.

"Not all of them are from that torture. Just most of them. I… I'm sorry, I can't talk about this."

"I'm sorry."

"What did I say about apologising?"

"I brought it up. I shouldn't have. I didn't mean to, really!"

"Better that you ask me and not Delphine. She might well know exactly how Thalmor operate, including the definitions of their terminology. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if she were listening in right now."

Serana glanced towards the curtain. "She's talking to Esbern. I haven't met a human yet who can have a conversation while listening into another." The reunited Blades had moved on from discussing the questionable sanity of their Dragonborn to comparing notes on how best to play hide and seek with the Thalmor.

"Oh, right. Your hearing is inhumanly good. I keep forgetting about that." Sithia looked away, blushing harder. She must have remembered muttering something she thought had been private. "Ask me something else. Anything else."

"I don't have any—"

"Don't start lying to me now. You must have more questions than just about Thalmor torture methods. What about my… employment with the Dark Brotherhood. Doesn't that bother you?"

"I can't lie to you, remember?" Serana pointedly looked at the hand she'd sworn that blood oath with. "I already suspected that a bunch of Sithis worshippers were murderers."

"Assassins. Plain old murderers don't necessarily do it for money."

"You're not an assassin anymore. Are you?" Unless she was completely wrong about her, Sithia was not the same person she had been when at the mercy of the Thalmor. Something had changed her. Right?

Sithia snorted. "I think you'd have noticed if I was. That I'm not a remorseless killer now is something you can thank the Thalmor for. If not for them, I'd still happily be murdering my way through life." A mirthless smile curved her lips.

"What happened?"

"You know the Thalmor broke me. What happened after that… I guess you could say Talos put me back together. His priest did, anyway." Raw pain flickered across her face, twisting her smile into a grimace. "Talos worshippers rescued me and got their very own Thalmor killer out of it."

Sithia closed her eyes. She covered her face with her hands. Her breathing was unsteady, and her shoulders shook.

Serana tentatively laid a hand on Sithia's back. She tensed but didn't shrug Serana off.

"You're a killer. Not just of Thalmor, you have the blood of the deserving and undeserving on your hands. Innocents."

"Yes," Sithia said, her voice a broken sob.

"You regret those deaths, though. They weigh on your conscience. You don't kill innocents if you can help it. Right?"

Sithia nodded jerkily.

"Then reading that, finding out about your past… It doesn't change how I feel about you. You're… I lo—"

'I can't love her, not yet! We've only known each other for what, a month, and we've been apart for at least half as long again.'

Serana winced. It was probably embarrassingly obvious what she'd almost said. "I care about you."

Sithia lowered her hands, her eyes bloodshot and cheeks wet. She swiped a hand across them and sniffed. Her voice was hoarse when she spoke, almost like she had a cold. "You really don't think less of me for my past?"

"Of course not. You think far too highly of me if you thought I would. No mortal's past, no matter how dark, can compare with mine. I might seem like a good person now – at least by vampire standards – but before I learned control…" Serana shuddered. In her mind's eye, she saw their faces, heard the echoes of their screams, and tasted the ghost of their bitter terror. The innocents she'd killed.

"Isran had it right. I was a bloodsucking fiend." Her voice trembled, but she was at least dry eyed and not about to scare Sithia with tears of blood. "I'm a Daughter of Coldharbour. I earned this gift direct from Molag Bal. Deep down inside, I'm nothing more than a being of purest evil. Don't fool yourself, you're a saint in comparison to me. That's why Aedric influences hurt me – I'm a walking piece of Oblivion."

"I don't care." Sithia gripped her shoulders. "That may be what you are, but it's not who you are." Her eyes narrowed. "Actually, on second thoughts… I do care. If you weren't a vampire, we would never have met. And Elen—" Her voice caught on the name. "Elenwen would still be alive."

Sithia's frown deepened, and she glared at Serana. "Stop looking at me like that," she snapped. "Don't you dare pity me! I'm still the same person I was before you found out that Elenwen… That she…" Sithia looked away, face burning.

Serana reached out to cup her chin, gently but firmly making her meet her eyes again. "Compassion isn't pity. Out of the two of us, I'm the one who should be ashamed about that sort of thing. I told you that I earned my vampirism direct from the Father of all of my kind. To do that, I went through a degrading ritual. You can probably guess what was involved. Do…" Serana swallowed hard. "Do you think less of me for that?"

Sithia grabbed Serana's wrist, pulling her hand away from her face. Serana's heart sank. Of course she wouldn't want Serana's tainting touch, not after learning that she'd been defiled—

Sithia's fingers slid up to intertwine with hers. Serana stared at their clasped hands. That… that wasn't the act of someone disgusted with her.

"Of you? No. Of Molag Bal? Absolutely. I'd kill Him for that if I could."

“Are you insane?” Serana hissed. "Don't threaten a powerful Daedric Lord!"

Sithia smirked. "I've badmouthed half of the Daedric Princes already. Most of them to what passes for their faces. What's one more?"

Serana closed her eyes and heaved an exasperated sigh. "I'm amazed you're still alive."

"I haven't crossed Nocturnal… yet. That might explain why my luck hasn't run out. Anyway, never mind me, what about you?" She gave Serana's hand a gentle squeeze. "That can't be the sort of thing you can ever get over."

"It was a very long time ago. I'd probably have issues if I were interested in men, but as I'm not, I don't have to face that fear. It's very different with a woman." Serana stroked her thumb over Sithia's. "That's what concerns me with you. That Elenwen… I'm sorry. I'd never have come on so strongly if I'd known."

“Don’t apologise. I want you to wait because I don't do casual, not because I'm still traumatised. I've had intimate relationships since then. It was over a decade ago that Elenwen… hurt me, as you put it. It's in the past. I'm not broken anymore. You don't need to treat me like I'm fragile."

Serana raised an eyebrow. Even without the fact that Sithia still felt ashamed of what Elenwen did to her, she had those recurring nightmares about her torturer. That proved she was still deeply hurt. Maybe even permanently damaged. Whatever the case, Serana wouldn't pin her against anything again if she could help it. She hadn't imagined that flicker of fear back in Breezehome, after all.

Sithia growled. "Oh, fuck off! Yes, I still have nightmares about it, but I don't let myself think about it in my waking hours if I can help it." Her lip curled. "I'm not fragile! Maybe you need reminding that I'm angry, not broken."

"What do you mean?" Serana's eyes slipped to the curve of Sithia's neck, to the flickering of the heartbeat pumping that indomitable dragon blood.

"Feed on me, my stupid vampire."


AN: I hope this chapter was worth the wait. It took far longer than I hoped it would. The next chapter should be coming sooner if all goes well.

In game, there's no inn in Shor's Stone. But as I'm expanding the size of Skyrim with travel times, I might as well put an inn where there isn't one too. The other option for where Serana would catch up with Sithia was Riften, and it's better for innocent bystanders that our grumpy Dragonborn wasn't in a city when she had her little tantrum.

Serana is about to get lucky, at least when it comes to her long awaited willing meal.

Coming up next: An intimate feeding session, and the reading of Serana's Elder Scroll.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Blood and Intimacy

"What?"

Sithia stroked her thumb over Serana's hand, her skin tingling in its wake. "You heard me. Feed on me. Why hesitate? I know you want to."

Serana swallowed hard, her mouth watering. She licked her lips, her throat burning more than ever. "I do, but I don't want to feel like I'm forcing you into this. You don't owe me anything."

"Oh, I owe you, but you know perfectly well that's not why I'm doing this. Go on, before I change my mind."

"No. I won't, not if this is something you'll regret."

"I won't. I trust you. Get on with it." Sithia beckoned to her.

Serana shifted her grip on Sithia's hand and bent down to bring her mouth to her wrist.

Sithia's other hand caught her chin. Serana let go and straightened up, sure that Sithia had changed her mind. She resisted the urge to look away, as that would make her disappointment far too obvious.

Sithia raised an eyebrow. She tilted her head, and brought her newly freed hand up to trail her fingers over the exposed skin of her neck. "Wouldn't you prefer here?"

Serana's fangs descended, her eyes fixed on that smooth skin, watching the delicate movement of Sithia's pulse, and listening intently to every beat of her heart. To experience that richest taste combined with the warmth and freshness direct from the source… And a rather more intimate one than Sithia's wrist.

Sithia smirked. "I thought so." She tugged the collar of her casual clothes out of the way and beckoned to Serana.

She gripped Sithia's upper arms, and leant down until her lips brushed the startling warmth of Sithia's skin. She gently bit into her neck, retracted her fangs and sealed her lips around the wound. She lathed the bite with her tongue, savouring the heat of Sithia's ever present anger – Wait.

She frowned. If she concentrated, she could catch a glimpse of whoever evoked her morsel's emotions. It was how she knew Sithia was attracted to her, and not anyone else. Elenwen's face loomed large her mind's eye, but… faceless shadows clad in Thalmor robes surrounded her. What else had the Thalmor done to her? Something worse, something more behind the ice of deep lingering pain paradoxically feeding the fire of Sithia's anger.

'Who else do I need to kill?'

Serana shook away the thought before it could trigger her fangs, instead focusing on the incomparable hot blood welling up into her mouth.

She tasted more now. Bittersweet grim satisfaction… from killing those Thalmor in the storm she'd unleashed?

Sithia's breath caught, and the steady rhythm of her heart thudded faster. Serana felt it in the most intimate way possible for a vampire, flowing through her lips and caressing her tongue. Bringing with it more of Sithia's emotions. The fire of her attraction mingled with—

'By… the… blood.'

Serana groaned. Her eyes drifted shut.

Sweet.

Spicy.

Delicious.

Intense tingling on her tongue.

The heady, musky scent combined with the taste.

Lust. Arousal.

Serana sucked hard, swallowing mouthful after mouthful of the best blood to ever pass her lips. She distantly heard Sithia whimper. Serana revelled in that power over her Dragonborn, until Sithia's heart skipped a beat. A jolt of panic broke through Serana's intoxication. If she wasn't careful, if she kept this up too long… She was taking too much, too fast.

For a torturous moment she struggled to rein in her bloodlust. She forced herself to stop sucking, to resist the temptation brought with every beat of Sithia's pounding heart. She had to be gentle, to savour it, to let the blood trickle into her mouth. Not gulp it down like she had every other meal recently.

Serana opened her eyes and blinked. Consumed by the intoxicating taste, she hadn't even noticed pinning Sithia to the bed. Propped up on her forearms, her body rested against the firm warmth of her mortal's, their legs entangled. Sithia moaned deep in her throat, and bucked her hips.

From where they clutched at her back, Sithia's hands slipped down to grip her backside. She pulled Serana closer still, grinding against her.

Serana raised her leg, providing a little more friction for Sithia. Giving a little back to her was only fair… Especially when it made her taste so fucking good. The intense flavour deepened with every beat of Sithia's racing heart and every desperate shift of her hips.

"S'rana!" Sithia cried out, shuddering. She fell limp, chest heaving as she panted.

Serana groaned. Satiated Sithia tasted far too good. She swallowed one last mouthful of richest and sweetest blood. She lathed her tongue over the bite again, staunching the flow of blood this time, and kissed it before she finally drew away.

Sithia's eyes were closed, her heart still racing and breathing unsteady, lips parted as she gasped for air.

Serana licked the last of Sithia's finest blood from her lips, eyes fixed on Sithia's mouth. She ached with the urge to steal a kiss, to claim her. Unable to resist, she leant close, brushing their lips together.

Sithia's breath caught and her eyes flew open.

"Dragonborn!"

Serana jerked back and looked up.

Delphine had pushed the curtain inside and frowned down at them. "Interesting. You prefer women after all. Younger women, or at least those that look like it. You're stupider than I thought, too, sharing a bed with a vampire instead," she hissed, her voice low enough so that no one else in the inn should overhear.

Sithia's hands slipped to Serana's hips, her grip tightening. "No, I prefer Serana. And I happen to trust her completely. I can't say the same with you. Your keeping watch while I slept when camping on the road is as far as my trust in you goes."

Delphine grimaced. "I'm sorry to hear that. I really didn't start things off in the best way to get you to trust in me when we first met, but you must understand that I had no choice."

"I know, you had to be sure I wasn't a Thalmor agent."

Those blonde brows drew together in confusion. "Then why—"

Sithia bared her teeth in a feral snarl. "I don't trust you because you want to use me. Don't deny it, you want me to be your weapon against the dragons and the Thalmor. Just like everyone else except Serana wants to use me for something."

"She wants to use you for feeding from." Delphine pointedly eyed the drops of blood still seeping from Sithia's neck.

Sithia pressed her fingers to the wound and healed herself, skin glowing gold. "Only if I volunteer."

"Keep telling yourself that. Sleep with a vampire and you'll be lucky to wake up."

"Fuck off, Delphine. What do you want?"

"Esbern knows where we need to go. A place called Karthspire in the Reach, on the island in the Karth river. Even you can't miss it. There's an ancient Akaviri temple hidden there, with a wall carved with the secret of how Alduin was defeated last time." Delphine looked sceptical, but then she did about most things. "Are you ready to leave, or would you rather travel separately? I've got to get Esbern out of here in case there's any more Thalmor snooping around."

"Much as I'd love to spend more time in the pleasure of your company," Sithia drawled, voice dripping with insincerity. "I need to get Dexion somewhere safe." This Dexion was presumably the Moth Priest.

"Fine, so long as you go to Karthspire right after that. This vampire plot isn't as important as stopping the World-Eater. Your duty as Dragonborn must come first." With that, Delphine walked out.

Serana flicked the curtain closed with a wave of her hand, her magic gripping the coarse cloth. She turned back to Sithia, eyes wide, aghast. "Delphine tried to…?"

Sithia's lip curled. "She propositioned me, yes. For base fucking, pure hate sex. I told her I'd sooner fuck a dragon. Funnily enough, a dragon chose that moment to attack. He might have been bitterly disappointed when I killed him instead."

"Is that why you have a new sword?" Serana nodded towards a glass sword resting against the wall by the chair.

"Well spotted. Remind me to get a spare, will you? I have my suspicions that'll shatter in the next dragon." Sithia sighed. "Void take it."

"At this rate you're going to keep the blacksmiths in business even more than this civil war must."

Sithia stroked her chin thoughtfully. "There's got to be a sword out there that'll survive dragon slaying. I just need to find it. Anyway, we should get moving."

Serana took the hint and climbed off her.

Sithia stripped down to her smallclothes, making it even easier for Serana to smell the musk from her arousal. She couldn't help but breathe in deeply, her eyes wandering over Sithia's exposed skin, lingering on her curves… and the exposed scars. Sithia hadn't been exaggerating - they were all over her legs too.

Serana's fangs trembled in their sheaths. Elenwen didn't suffer nearly enough…

Sithia pulled her armour on, covering her myriad scars with enchanted leather. Serana stepped closer, reaching for the ties dangling from the open seam over Sithia's back.

She paused right before touching the leather strip. "May I?"

Sithia nodded, reaching back to pull some stray strands of hair out of the way, tucking them into her braids.

Serana laced her armour up, lingering longer than she needed to, making the most of their closeness. She reluctantly stepped back, away from the warmth of Sithia's body.

Sithia pulled her cowl on, but left the mask down. Serana would have to make the most of that too.

Sithia cleared her throat, rubbing at the back of her neck through that damn cowl. "When you said that feeding is better than sex, I had no idea you meant it could be that intimate for the meal as well."

"I had no idea it could be. My willing meals have enjoyed it before, but never that much. I can assure you that it wasn't remotely pleasant for Elenwen."

"I thought as much. After promising to give me time, you wouldn't have done that if you'd known what you'd do to me." The flicker of vulnerability in Sithia's eyes betrayed her moment of doubt.

"I would have warned you. I'm sorry, by the way." Serana cringed. It was so embarrassing, how far her prized self control had slipped. She'd managed to control how much she took – barely – but… She'd almost stolen a kiss, almost broken her promise. Delphine's interruption had been the only thing that stopped her.

Sithia pulled her mask up, cheeks burning. She started to turn away.

'Damn it.' Sithia couldn't think she regretted it. 'Far from it!'

"Don't hide from me." Serana caught her shoulders, and tugged the mask back down. She cupped Sithia's face in her hands. "What happened between us is nothing to be ashamed of. Something as good as that can't be wrong. It felt right to me, very much so. I'm sorry because I almost lost control, not because I regret it."

Or… Serana's undead heart froze in her chest at the thought that Sithia regretted it.

'No. Please, no.' Serana stifled a ragged sigh. "Do… do you?" She held her breath, dreading Sithia's answer.

Sithia frowned. "Do I what?" Understanding dawned. Her voice lapsed back into her lilting accent, just like it had with her strangled cry of Serana's name. "How could I? I've never… It's never been that good before. That was every bit as…" Her cheeks burned, but she didn't look away. "It was better than stealing a dragon soul. Without the annoyance of a broken sword to replace, which might explain it."

Serana couldn't help but smirk. Now that was impressive. That meant… By the blood, if she could persuade Sithia to let her turn her, it would be even better for both of them. Nothing was more intimate. Well, apart from whatever her parents had done to create their vampiric bond. If only her mother had told her how…

Sithia stifled a moan. "We have got to do that again."

Serana's smirk widened into a smile. It soon faded.

"What is it?"

"We can't do that just anywhere. It'd be far too distracting, I don't think I'd have noticed if Delphine blundered in while I was feeding. You're something else." Serana reached out and caressed Sithia's cheek.

Sithia's lips quirked in a slight smile. "Flatterer."

"Only when it's true." Serana leant close, her eyes drifting shut. Their noses brushed together, and their lips touched for a heartbeat.

Sithia gently pushed herself away, her hands on Serana's shoulders. She coughed and shifted uncomfortably. She looked away and held out her hand. "My map, please."

Serana dug it out of her pocket and handed it over.

Serana hissed between her teeth. At this rate she'd end up stealing a kiss and risk being rewarded with a Shout. It'd be worth it… But that would break her promise to give Sithia time. She'd already crossed the line, with that achingly sweet almost kiss after feeding. No, for now she'd wait for Sithia to make the first move. She'd rethink that only if the frustration got too torturous.

Another moment like that, though, and it might well be too much.


Important AN: This chapter is ending here rather than later on where I originally intended, because I feel the need to let my lovely reviewers and silent readers know what's going on sooner rather than later. And to not leave you with a fairly evil cliffie in the process.

It's already mentioned on my profile here, and buried in my Tumblog, but not all readers necessarily look at them.

It's why most replies for reviews since Chapter 10 posted have been delayed. I'll get back to you awesome reviewers as soon as I can.

I need to put Doom Driven on hiatus. I really don't want to, and I'll keep chapters coming as and when I can. I'm sorry about this.

A rather nasty health issue has reared its ugly head. Again. It's quite likely that it might be best to resort to surgery this time, once they figure out exactly what's wrong with me.

Coming up next whenever I can manage it: Serana meets Dexion the Moth Priest. To Fort Dawnguard again! And Isran is his paranoid bastardly self.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Travels with a Moth Priest

Serana resolutely moved her gaze from Sithia's lips to her hands, and watched as she unfolded her enchanted map.

Sithia traced her fingers over the parchment, smiling slightly as she almost caressed it. "You have no idea how much I've missed having this. You know how I said bad things happen when I ignore the route it gives? They also happen when I don't have it."

Serana frowned. She didn't like the sound of that. So much for Sithia being fine without the map if she stuck to the roads… What kind of trouble had found her Dragonborn in her absence? "What sort of bad things? Should I have left the map with you?"

"No, as it let you find me again after dealing with Elenwen. As for the bad things, I'll tell you later."

Serana raised an eyebrow. Later? More likely Sithia was avoiding the subject.

"Don't worry, they were more annoying than bad. We should get on our way, we've got to get Dexion to Fort Dawnguard and then go across the length of Skyrim to meet the Blades in the Reach. Wouldn't want to keep Delphine waiting too long, now, would we." Sithia's smirk faded. "Well, not Esbern. He's a bit old to be camping outside for long."

"So how are we getting to Fort Dawnguard?"

Sithia poked her map and traced the resulting line of blood. "Following the roads this time. Seems it knows we'll be using Dexion's carriage, it'll be far quicker than going on foot, especially at the pace he could manage. We'll be going by Riften. I'm not surprised, I need to collect everything I left there."

"Couldn't carry everything without me?" Serana asked. Leaving the Scroll in Sithia's safekeeping meant her pack would be too heavy for a mortal to manage with everything else in it, but surely Delphine could've picked up the slack.

"Delphine insisted on leaving everything that wasn't strictly essential. I think she just didn't want to be a pack mule." Sithia's eyes widened, and she shot Serana an apologetic look. "Er, not that you're one."

"Oh, I am, but only for you."

"And I appreciate it. I swear that Scroll weighs more than the rest of my junk put together."

"Shall I take it from here?"

Sithia shrugged. "Be my guest. If you're handling the luggage again, you might as well put whatever's in there in mine. I doubt that one expands." She pointed at the pack Serana had appropriated from the Thalmor.

"True." Serana reached into the pack and took out the remaining dossiers.

"More Thalmor dossiers? Whose are those?"

"Ulfric Stormcloak's and Delphine's. You're welcome to read them, but it sounds like it'd be better to do it on this Moth Priest's carriage."

"Should be interesting reading. But I'll read them when we next make camp, as I'll be driving the carriage."

Serana tucked the dossiers into Sithia's pack. After a moment's hesitation, she folded up the empty pack and stuffed it inside Sithia's. It might be useful in the event they had to separate again.

"Right," Sithia muttered, eyes on her map again. Memorising their route? "Should be simple enough." She folded the map back up and passed it to Serana. "Here, keep this in those handy pockets of yours."

Serana did as requested while Sithia picked up her new Glass sword and buckled it on, then handed Serana her cloak, still a little damp from the Rift's usual weather. She put it on, fastening the Volkihar brooch securely.

Serana turned to the doorway of Sithia's rented room, hearing the approaching heartbeats of two people. One of them cleared their throat and knocked on the wooden frame of the doorway. "Dragonborn, I wanted to say goodbye before I leave with Delphine. Are you decent?" Esbern's voice was slightly muffled by the curtain passing for the door.

"As much as I ever am," Sithia said, and swept the curtain aside.

Esbern stood beside Delphine, both of them wrapped up in cloaks and carrying knapsacks ready for their journey. He bowed. "Dragonborn, I am most indebted to you," he said quietly, clearly not intending to share this conversation with any other inhabitants of the inn. "I cannot thank you enough for—"

"I'd appreciate it if you Blades called me by my name," Sithia kept her voice low too, if with a far harder edge to it. "I don't think you know it yet, Esbern, as Delphine has never bothered to ask."

"I do know it, actually," Delphine said. "All part of doing my homework and finding out everything I could about you. I'm not deaf either; your vampire used it in Riften, and you've been trying to get the Moth Priest to stop calling you 'Dragonborn' too." She raised her chin, lips set in a mulish line. "But I'm not about to use your name. You're Dragonborn, and that's all that matters."

"Oh, Delphine, always so stubborn. And so rude," Esbern muttered under his breath. "Forgive me, Dragonborn. I should have asked this before now. What is your name?"

"Cynthia."

Judging by the knowing look in Delphine's eyes, the name she'd heard Serana use was not Sithia's taken name but her true name. Serana cursed under her breath. She had to get better at using 'Cynthia' in company.

Esbern took Sithia's hand and bent to kiss it. "Then I must thank you properly, Cynthia Dragonborn, for saving me from the Thalmor."

"It was a happy accident that your captors were passing when I called that storm up. And just Cynthia, please."

Esbern shook his head. "I'm sorry, Cynthia Dragonborn, but I cannot call you by your name alone. For there is no higher honour than to be Dragonborn as Talos was, especially when it means you may save us all. It would disrespect both Talos and Akatosh Himself to refer to you as if you were merely human."

Sithia heaved a sigh. "I suppose that's the best I'll get from a Blade." She exchanged a resigned look with Serana. Sithia's eyes lingered on her, an eyebrow raising as something occurred to her. "Come to think of it, you really owe some of that undying gratitude to my friend here, as her return with… news… is what provoked my storm calling."

Esbern turned to Serana. "My thanks, then, companion to the Dragonborn. Oh, where are my manners! What is your name, my dear?" If Delphine had mentioned her to him, she apparently hadn't included Serana's name either.

"Serana."

There was an awkward pause and Esbern's hand twitched as if he'd been about to reach for Serana's as he had for Sithia's. Hardly surprising he didn't want to touch a vampire. "Then I thank you, Serana."

"You're welcome. It may have been an accident, but it's one I'm glad happened. I wouldn't wish being a captive of the Thalmor on anyone."

"Indeed. I trust you will accompany Cynthia Dragonborn when she comes to find Sky Haven Temple with us?"

"Yes, if that's what the temple at Karthspire is called."

Esbern sighed. "Delphine, you didn't mention such an important detail as the name?"

"I gave them the details they need, like the location. I wasn't about to give them a history lesson."

"You did at least tell them that the knowledge we seek is carved upon Alduin's Wall?"

"Not by name, no," Sithia said.

Esbern pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. "Oh, Delphine. Just because you are not interested in history doesn't mean no one else is!"

"What can you tell us?" Serana asked. Even if Sithia wasn't interested, she was. History was one of things she'd read about to escape Castle Volkihar mentally even if she rarely could physically. Maybe Esbern would explain why there was an Akaviri temple in the Reach. The only thing she knew about Akavir was that it was a continent far to the east of Tamriel. She had yet to find a book about it.

Esbern smiled at her. "Oh, many things. I wish I still had my book, 'Annals of the Dragonguard', but I can remember most if not all of what it told. Just as well, it was destroyed in the fight I put up when the Thalmor caught me."

"Esbern," Delphine groaned. "The time."

"Just a moment Delphine, this will not take long." Esbern turned back to Serana. "The ancient Akaviri Dragonguard, the forerunners of the Blades, created Alduin's Wall in the late First Era."

So the Blades were once Akaviri… Did that mean Delphine's unusual sword was also of Akaviri origin? What little Sithia had told her about the Blades the night Delphine found them in Riften hadn't mentioned Akaviri, only that they'd once been the bodyguards of the Septim dynasty, and before that had hunted dragons.

"It sets down in stone all their accumulated dragonlore, all that they knew of Alduin and his return. Part history, part prophecy."

"Esbern…"

The old man ignored Delphine. "Despite being one of the wonders of the ancient world, its location was forgotten, but I found it again in one of the scraps I saved from the Blades' archives: Sky Haven Temple, an ancient Blades' sanctuary, hidden within the crags of—"

Delphine poked Esbern, interrupting his lecture. "We've got to go."

"Yes, yes." Esbern sighed. "It's just such a pity we must leave so soon. Ever since you mentioned finding this Moth Priest, I've been dying to compare notes with him. It's not often I have the chance to meet a fellow scholar, and thanks to the Thalmor I'm cheated of the opportunity. Perhaps another time…"

"Maybe you'll get to visit Fort Dawnguard while Dexion is kept safe there," Sithia said.

"I can hope. But first you must get him there, and we Blades must avoid any more Thalmor entanglements and get to Karthspire."

"Good luck. It might be an idea to avoid roads when you can," Sithia suggested. "We've already seen them in Holds where Thalmor shouldn't be."

'Holds, not Hold…' Was Sithia referring to more than just the Thalmor who'd kidnapped Esbern from Riften? Had they met Thalmor on the road to Winterhold?

"Don't worry, I'll get us there in one piece. We'll wait for you near Karthspire. And good luck to you too, knowing you, you'll need it," Delphine said.

Serana held up a hand. "Exactly where are we meeting? Even I know that island in the river Karth is a pretty big place, and I've never been to the Reach."

"The entrance to Sky Haven Temple should be on the eastern point of the island. We'll meet you there and find it together."

Esbern waved as Delphine dragged him out of the door. After it slammed shut behind them, Sithia walked across the inn to a curtained doorway opposite the room she'd used. Serana picked up the pack and followed her.

Sithia knocked on the doorframe. "Dexion?"

"Coming!" The curtain was pushed aside, revealing a bearded old man with his head shaved. A scar ran down from the corner of his left eye into his beard, going against Serana's expectations of a sheltered, studious priest. He'd clearly lived through some violence.

The Moth Priest brushed down his grey robes. "Following your, ah, wake up call, I decided might as well get up and ready to go on." He adjusted the sword strapped to his waist, drawing Serana's attention to it. It looked a lot like Delphine's. Was this Moth Priest also a Blade? Did that explain how he'd got his scar? She felt that he was a mage of sorts, but nowhere near as powerful as Esbern. Or Sithia, come to that.

"Dexion, this is Serana."

Dexion didn't offer his hand to shake, waving instead. "Well, hello there. As the Drag—"

"Stop right there," Sithia snapped. "For the last time, Moth Priest, I have a name. I suggest you use it."

Dexion cringed and hastily corrected himself. "As Cynthia said, I am Dexion Evicus, and I am a Moth Priest of the White-Gold Tower. So you are this friendly vampire I've heard so much about."

"Only good things, I hope."

"Oh yes, very much so. I gather you're very different to the vampire ruffians who tried to capture me in Winterhold."

Serana glanced at Sithia. Was that one of the bad things?

Dexion cleared his throat, bringing her attention back to him. "Furthermore, I hear you are the reason I have an Elder Scroll to read! We are rather short of them at the moment in the White-Gold Tower, you know. They all disappeared from our library the moment the White-Gold Concordat was signed."

"The what?"

"Ah, Cynthia mentioned that you were locked away with the Elder Scroll for quite a long time. The White-Gold Concordat is the peace treaty the Empire had to sign to bring the Great War with the Thalmor to an end."

"Could the Thalmor have stolen the Elder Scrolls from your library?"

"No, for they vanished right in front of my own eyes, you see. The Thalmor have powerful mages, it is true, but this was magic beyond even them. Besides, they were most interested in their mysterious disappearance, in a way that they wouldn't have been were they responsible."

"I see." Serana reached inside Sithia's pack to pull the Scroll out. Handling it briefly should be safe enough, she never wanted to rid herself of its lingering presence again. "Wait, speaking of Scrolls… You haven't read this one yet?"

Dexion eyed the Scroll hungrily. He reached out to touch it, almost as if he couldn't quite believe his eyes. "No, I'm afraid I haven't. The Drag—I mean, Cynthia thought I should be in a secure place first, which I presume is where we are going."

Sithia reached out to lay her hand over Serana's and shoved the Scroll back into the pack. "Not here. We can't risk its reading being overheard, and in case it results in our Moth Priest going blind, we need to be somewhere safe first." She turned to Dexion. "And yes, we're still heading for Fort Dawnguard. We're leaving as soon as your carriage is ready. Speaking of which, I'll check on the horse. You two get the luggage."

"I hope your storm did not frighten the poor thing too much," Dexion said.

"It's been through worse, it'll be fine." Like attacking vampires, apparently.

Sithia pulled her mask up and headed outside.

Dexion backed into his room and bent to pick up a knapsack beside the bed. Serana didn't follow him, as he clearly didn't want to turn his back on her, so likely didn't want to be too close to her either.

"I can take that too, if you like," Serana offered.

Dexion smiled, or what passed for it with a nervous twitch of his lips and beard. "Oh, no, that's quite all right, I can manage." He picked up the pack, groaning a little at the weight.

"If you say so."

Dexion raised his chin and tottered towards the door.

'Stubborn old man.' Serana sighed and led the way outside, guessing that Dexion wouldn't want her behind him.

Dawn was breaking, no sign left of Sithia's storm, not even any clouds. The sun was mercifully still hidden behind the towering distant mountains to the east. A chorus of bird song rang out, even more than usual in the Rift as the feathered population greeted the new day. Chickens clucked, one squawked, perhaps laying an egg. The local blacksmith was already at work, firing up his forge. The scorched corpses of the Thalmor killed by Sithia's storm still lay where it left them just north of the inn.

An equine scream split the air, sending birds scattering from the trees.

Crash.

Thud.

"…Ow…"

At Sithia's strangled wheeze of pain, Serana ran around the side of the inn to find her sprawled on the ground, gasping and hugging her ribs. The golden glow of healing magic surrounded her, sinking into her chest.

"Are you all right?" Serana knelt by Sithia's side.

Sithia nodded, still gasping for air.

In the stable beyond Sithia, doors thrown wide open, the horse reared, hooves flying, tossing its head. His head, judging by the equipment displayed.

"Oh dear, it seems the poor thing was spooked," Dexion said. He set his pack down on the carriage and approached the horse, hands raised, and making shushing noises.

Whatever other talents the Moth Priest had, being a horse whisperer was not one of them. The horse snorted, eyes wild, and Dexion narrowly avoided a kick. "Oh, my! Help!"

Serana pulled Sithia up and left her propped against the wall of inn while she got her breath back. Serana dumped the luggage on the carriage and walked over to the horse, stopping just out of reach of those hooves. She raised a hand, gathering magic in her palm, her eyes fixed on the horse. He blinked. By the time his eyes opened again, he was hers.

Serana stepped closer and patted the side of the horse's head. He whickered, leaning into her hand. He followed her to the carriage, backed into position, and let Sithia stagger over to get the reins and other things buckled into place.

Serana winced as she remembered watching Sithia ready a different horse she'd also had to enthral, one who ended up collapsing into ash.

Sithia climbed up into the driver's seat and picked up the reins. "Come on, you two, get on." She was still a little breathless after getting her comeuppance for spooking the horse, but not enough for Serana to worry. Well, not about her Dragonborn for once. The horse, though…

"What is it?" Sithia asked, frowning at Serana.

Serana shook her head. "I just hope it was the weight of the knapsack that doomed the last horse, not being enthralled."

"I still think naming that one that killed it," Sithia said. "So long as you don't do that, this one should be fine." She turned to Dexion. "Come on, old man. What's wrong?"

The wind changed direction, bringing with it the stench of Dexion's fear to Serana's nose. It wasn't pleasant. She held her breath.

Dexion stood where he'd fled to, on the other side of the carriage to Serana and the horse. "They tried to do that to me too. Enthralling," he said, his voice trembling. "Those… other vampires."

He was definitely scared of vampires, or at least their abilities. With that in mind, she clambered onto the carriage with Sithia sitting between her and the Moth Priest. The driver's seat was narrow enough that she felt the heat of Sithia's body pressed against her side.

"It's all right, Dexion, this vampire won't do that to you. She won't bite, either, unless you ask her very nicely." Sithia dropped her gentle tone with her next words: "Now get a move on, will you?"

Dexion finally got on, as far away from Serana as he could manage, in the back of the carriage with the rest of the baggage.

Sithia clicked her tongue and flicked the reins to set the horse going at a steady trot, following the paved road south.

"I'm sorry, Serana," Dexion said, in a small voice barely audible over the trundling of the carriage wheels. "I know you won't do anything to me. Cynthia trusts you, and I trust her judgement. How could I not, after she rescued me?"

Delphine must've kept her doubts to herself, then, for Dexion to have that much faith in Sithia's judgement. Especially where it concerned Serana herself.

"Rescued you… From these other vampires?" Her father's minions, no doubt. Unless a random bunch of them resident in Winterhold decided Dexion looked tasty. Serana glanced back at him. She couldn't see the attraction herself, but then again the tastiest morsel in all of Skyrim was sitting right next to her.

"Yes, indeed," Dexion said, his voice recovering as he warmed to his subject. "They arrived just in time – Cynthia and Delphine. Those vampires had just butchered my poor guards. My rescuers butchered the vampires in turn, or in the case of Cynthia, Shouted them into submission."

"So that's how you knew she was Dragonborn."

"That and it's not as if Delphine calls me anything else," Sithia grumbled. She flicked the reins, and the horse broke into a canter, the carriage swaying.

Serana laid a hand over Sithia's, and leant close to murmur to her, "I know how much you hate it, but take it out on Delphine, not the horse. Please? I'm already worried about how much the poor thing can take, and besides, we wouldn't want to risk Dexion tumbling out thanks to the joltier ride." She glanced back to see the old man grab one of the packs before it tumbled out.

Sithia sighed raggedly. "All right." She pulled on the reins and the horse slowed back to a trot.

Another sigh came from Dexion, this one in relief.

"Sorry. Anger management issues. With any luck we'll come across something soon… Something I can take it out on without feeling guilty. Where's a bandit when I need one?"

Serana narrowed her eyes as she caught sight of something on the road ahead, still mostly hidden by a rise in the land and the yellow leaves of the Rift's distinctive trees. Stone walls and towers, partly covered by something green. Moss?

As the carriage drew a little closer, Serana saw the stonework was crumbling away despite once being thick and imposing. A fort that had long ago seen better days. It straddled the road, two towers rising to the west and the encircling wall ending in a squat tower facing the eastern mountains.

At first glance it didn't look inhabited, but then Serana spotted a sentry standing over the arch where the road ran through the fort… and blockages on the road itself in front of the fort. Fences made of sharpened stakes tied together into a barricade. As no gate stood in the archway, perhaps this was a rather pricklier alternative.

Once they were close enough that Sithia had to be able to see it too, Serana asked, "What's that fort called?"

"Greenwall. I have no idea what it was called before the moss took over. What's that in the road?"

"Barricades. Whoever lives in that fort doesn't want anyone passing through."

"Oh dear, must we turn around?" Dexion asked.

"No, those barricades have to go. Either whoever holds that fort will move them, or I'll deal with them myself." By the gleam in Sithia's eyes, she hoped to Shout something to pieces. Serana stayed quiet about being able to shift them easily with her own vampiric strength - she'd hate to deprive her Dragonborn of fun.

"Who holds that fort? Might they be friendly?" Dexion asked.

"In this Hold? It'll be Stormcloaks or bandits. Anyway, Dexion, didn't you pass this way when you were heading north from Riften?"

"We didn't follow this road, my driver must have thought it best to avoid entanglements with Stormcloaks. He was provided by the Empire, after all."

Serana looked up at the sentry. He didn't look like he was wearing particularly distinctive armour, but she didn't have any idea what a Stormcloak wore. If they'd stopped in Windhelm, she might have a clue, but thanks to Sithia that hadn't happened. Come to think of that… "Are all Stormcloaks going to attack you on sight, or just the ones in Windhelm?"

"So far, just the Eastmarch guards. Can you see anyone up on the walls?"

"Just one sentry, on the archway over the road."

"What's he wearing?"

"Leather armour, I think."

"Could be a Stormcloak, they do wear leather. Is he wearing a blue surcoat?"

"No."

"I doubt he's a Stormcloak, then. I'll soon see for myself what this sentry is." Sithia flicked the reins to urge the horse up the slope to the fort. "Seems odd for just a single sentry to be out. I wonder… My Storm Call might've fried all the others. That could mean he's not an enemy, that the lightning spared him like it seemed to do with Esbern."

"Maybe." Serana wasn't about to suggest that she experiment by summoning another storm. Not while they were out in the open. "Or this sentry might be the only one brave enough to be outside after that."

"We'll see. Whoa there." Sithia pulled back on the reins, and the carriage rolled forward a little further before the horse halted just in front of the barricades.

"Hey!" The sentry called down, raising his bow and nocking an arrow. "You can't pass! This is a toll road, but after that freakish storm the Dragonborn summoned, no one else dares come out to shift the barricades. I'm afraid you two lovely ladies and your grandpa will have to go back."

"Toll road? Like the one that was at Valtheim Towers?"

"Every bit as unofficial, yeah." The sentry laughed. "Banditry has to pay somehow!"

"You're a bandit? Excellent, I'll deal with you the same way I dealt with the bandits of Valtheim Towers."

The sentry's ruddy face blanched. "You… Kynareth save me, you're the Dragonborn?"

Word must have spread about exactly how those bandits from Valtheim Towers had met their end, no doubt thanks to their talkative carriage driver.

Sithia inclined her head in a mocking bow. "My fame continues to spread. For once, I don't mind."

"Mercy!" His arrow clattered to the ramparts as nerveless fingers lost their grip. "That storm… it was Called from close by! My mates were right!" He dropped his bow and turned tail, disappearing from atop the archway. "It's the Dragonborn! Run for your lives!"

Sithia inhaled deeply, but held it before a Word of Power passed her lips. She turned to Serana. "Will Shouting spook the horse?"

"No, not while it's enthralled, not if I'm ready for it. Go ahead." Serana firmed her mental hold on the tether binding the horse to her will.

"FUS RO DAH!"

The wall of force shattered the barricades into splinters. The horse almost broke through her control, whinnying nervously. If she hadn't been prepared, he might have bolted. That would've been a rough ride. She had visions of Dexion and the luggage left on the road behind them.

Sithia slumped back against the carriage seat, breathing raggedly. Serana frowned. Perhaps it hadn't been the best idea to let her Shout so soon after having the breath kicked out of her by the horse.

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine." Sithia pushed herself upright and tightened her grip on the reins. She urged the horse onwards. As they passed under the archway, Serana caught the sickly sweet scent of burning flesh. She looked around the inside of the fort and caught sight of several bodies, still smouldering. Sithia's storm must have caught them out in the open just like the Thalmor.

Sithia brought the horse to another stop just in front of the second archway, opposite the first. Another barricade blocked their way beyond it.

"Help!" The sentry screamed. They briefly glimpsed him as he bolted inside the fort. The thick wooden door to the fort slammed shut behind him. A thud heralded a bar dropping into place.

Sithia jumped down and staggered towards the door. "Finally," she gasped. "Some bandits."

Serana followed, and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Wait, are you sure about this?"

"I said I'm fine! I'm not about to let you have all the fun." Sithia reached the door to the fort. She leant against the wall and knocked on the door.

There was unsurprisingly no answer, just the muffled racket of the bandits piling up what sounded like the entire contents of the fort against the door.

"That's not quite what I meant. If these bandits were in our way, then I might insist on dealing with them, but they're not. Do we really have time for this?" Serana glanced back to check on Dexion. He'd stretched forwards to grab the reins, making sure the horse stayed put. "I'm sure we could force our way inside, or you'd use that ghostly Shout the same way you did to get into Whiterun, but you need time to recover."

"Well, now I feel cheated," Sithia grumbled. "If this happens when fame makes bandits run away from me, I do mind."

"Come on, let's go. We can go bandit hunting another day."

"Oh, all right." Sithia reluctantly turned away from the door and returned to the carriage.

Serana eyed her carefully. While obviously disappointed, Sithia didn't look like she was struggling to contain herself, not like she had before Shouting down the barricades. Perhaps her inner dragon needed the release of Shouting every so often. What's more, Sithia herself knew of the need, given how she'd used the Storm Call.

But if Shouting helped Sithia get a grip on her anger, what had she done before she absorbed her first dragon soul? Or had the awakening of her inborn nature also worsened her anger management issues? Not that she'd ask about it, not with Dexion in earshot. It wouldn't do to risk shaking his confidence in Sithia's judgement, not when he was already scared of her pet vampire.

"I'll deal with these," Serana said, pointing at the second set of barricades. "You may be a dragon in blood and soul, but you have to remember that you're not in body."

"Fine," Sithia snapped. She swung herself up into the driver's seat, taking the reins from Dexion. "Hurry up and get rid of those, then."

Serana grabbed the nearest barricade and picked it up like an oversized, awkward club. She swatted the other barricades off the road, half her attention on what Sithia grumbled under her breath.

"Damn vampire has to be right… Stupid body. Anyone who says being Dragonborn is an honour has no idea what the fuck they're talking about. It's a fucking insult to injury. 'Hey, Dragonborn, it's your destiny to slay Alduin or the world will end. And no, you can't have the benefits that come with being a dragon. No Shouting whenever you want to. No flying wherever you want to.' "

Serana tossed the barricade-come-club aside and turned back to the carriage. Dexion was watching from behind Sithia, eyes wide, face pale. Brilliant. She'd managed to make him even more petrified of her. He apparently hadn't realised quite how strong vampires were.

She took a step towards the carriage. Dexion flinched, his heart racing. Serana hesitated.

"Hey, are you going to get on, or do I have to come to you?" Sithia didn't wait for an answer. She shook her head and set the carriage moving. She halted beside Serana to let her climb up beside her, and flicked the reins. The horse trotted on, hooves slightly muffled by the moss on the paving stones. The road through the fort matched the state of the walls.

Dexion's heart was still beating faster than could be healthy for it. She'd better do something about that. It wouldn't do for their Moth Priest to expire before he read the Scroll.

She couldn't control his fear like she had with the horse, as it would be painfully obvious to the Dawnguard if Dexion arrived enthralled. At least it would be to Isran, as he'd been able to tell that Sithia wasn't.

What she could do was to use a little illusion magic to set Dexion's mind at ease, much as she had with Elenwen when first meeting her. She'd give it a try with her voice first, and use the stronger magic involved with touch if she needed to. Unless her first impression of his magical abilities was mistaken, he relied more on his sword than on his magic.

Serana concentrated, gathering her magicka in her tongue rather than her hand. It didn't really matter what she said, but she might as well satisfy her curiosity. "So, Dexion, I was wondering about your sword. I've only seen one other like it. Where did you get it from?"

Dexion sighed as his heartbeat returned to normal. The stench of fear also faded away. Good, she didn't need to resort to a stronger spell.

"Ah, my Akaviri katana, used by the Blades before they were disbanded. In fact this one once belonged to the Champion of Cyrodiil, she left it in the Blades' keeping before she vanished."

An Akaviri katana… Serana turned the unfamiliar terminology over in her mind, memorising it. Not that it was important, it was just the sort of detail she liked to learn. It also meant Delphine's sword was indeed of Akaviri origin.

"Such a pity about the White-Gold Concordat resulting in the downfall of the Blades, their history is fascinating," Dexion continued.

That treaty must be what gave the Thalmor licence to hunt the Blades and other Talos worshippers down. On that note… "Wearing a distinctive sword like that must be asking for trouble with the Thalmor."

"Oh, yes, if not for my being a Moth Priest… The Thalmor spared me when my fellow priests complained to the Emperor. If only all suspected Blades had such influence at their disposal." Dexion's voice trembled. Serana glanced back at him and caught him swiping a tear away.

Dexion smiled sadly at her. "At least it seems there are still Blades out there. Like Delphine, with her sword and skills… I hope she manages to keep the Thalmor from finding her. It would be nothing short of a tragedy if they did, I won't breathe a word of it to them."

"If the influence of the Moth Priests and the Emperor is enough to keep you out of their hands, then be glad you'll never be tested on how well your word holds up to torture," Sithia said grimly.

'They all break in the end.' Serana winced as she unwillingly remembered Elenwen's addition to Sithia's dossier. If the Thalmor ever managed to get their hands on Dexion, chances were that he'd break rather sooner than Sithia had.

"Is that something on the road ahead?" Sithia's voice brought Serana out of her dark thoughts. She looked around and narrowed her eyes. The something was a body, clad in—

Serana hissed, eyes snapping shut as the sun emerged from behind the mountains. "It's a body, but I can't tell you more than that. Not in sunlight. My eyesight's no better than yours in this." She drew her hood up, something she'd neglected to do with the sun hidden. Her eyes shadowed, she slowly opened them, letting them adjust as much as they could to the brightness.

"I wondered what would happen in daylight," Dexion said. "You don't burn, not like Cyrodiil's vampires, but it has some negative effects on you, doesn't it?"

"It cripples some of my senses, and stings, but other than that it doesn't hurt me." Serana glanced at Sithia. After feeding on her, the sunlight stung less than when she'd fed on anyone else. Nothing like dragon blood to start the day! Being under the sun still wasn't pleasant, of course. "Most vampires sleep during the day to avoid the drawbacks."

"So that's why vampire attacks happen at night." Dexion sounded relieved, perhaps because he'd been afraid of another attack at any time.

Serana grimaced. That she was up and about under the blazing sun was proof enough that vampires of her clan might stage a raid during the day. Unlikely, with their inability to heal, but possible. Still, it'd be kinder not to point that out to Dexion. She wouldn't always be around to magically calm him down.

"Looks like someone did get cooked, although not by the sun," Sithia said, drawing Serana's attention back to the body in the road ahead, now close enough to be clearly visible even in the blazing sunlight. The blackened corpse of a man in equally charred leather armour, lying facedown. It was impossible to tell what race it was, as the ears were burnt off.

"Another victim of your storm," Serana stated.

"Whoa," Sithia called the horse to another halt. She jumped down to inspect the corpse. "I've got my suspicions this poor sod may have deserved it." She kicked it over, revealing the face. What was left of it looked too angular to be anything but an elf, but precisely what sort was still a mystery with the skin that sizzled.

"Who was he?" Dexion asked.

"Going by what's left of his armour, he was a Dark Brotherhood assassin," Sithia said.

Come to think of it, it did look similar to the armour that Argonian female had been wearing, if rather blacker thanks to the lightning strike, and shaped to closely fit the opposite gender.

"As for his name, no idea. It's not as if I can know by just looking at him. I'd need to find something with it on." Sithia crouched down to search the pockets, and found a singed piece of paper. She unfolded it. "He was definitely Dark Brotherhood. Still no name, but I can tell you that my storm seems to have picked him out because he was sent after me."

"Another one?"

"Another?" Dexion echoed Serana. "There must be an interesting story behind that."

"Not really." Sithia shoved the body into the ditch by the side of the road. "Someone's taken out a contract on me, and that's just the second idiot they've sent after me. The first was easy to deal with, and this one… I didn't have to lift a finger."

"Oh." Dexion hummed, deep in thought. "I wonder who would dare do such a thing, sending assassins after the Dragonborn."

Sithia clambered back into the driver's seat. She passed the note to Serana before picking up the reins. She clicked her tongue and flicked the reins. The horse trotted on.

"I've always been good at making enemies. There's a pretty long list by now of people who'd want me dead. Could be any of them."

Serana inspected the note.

Succeed where our Sister failed, we need to earn the payment we've already received. Eliminate Cynthia Dragonborn.

-Astrid

"Put that with the first one, will you?"

"All right, I'll add it to your collection of death threats when we stop in Riften." The pack was back with Dexion, and probably too heavy to get him to pass up. Serana pocketed the note for the time being.

"You collect death threats?" Dexion sounded every bit as bemused as Serana was about Sithia's strange hobby.

"I might as well. Besides, these particular death threats come with a name. If they annoy me enough, it gives me something to go on to hunt them down."

"You mean if they keep sending assassins after you?"

"Sort of. Next time they'd better send someone competent, or I'll be insulted. Anyway, Dexion, make yourself useful and get out some breakfast, before I get any more tempted to eat the horse. I'm hungry enough."

Dexion rummaged around in the packs and passed a small sack to Sithia, who handed the reins to Serana while she devoured the hunk of bread and cheese inside it.

"Would you like anything, Serana?" Dexion asked. "That is, if vampires can eat food. I'm afraid I don't know."

"Thanks, but I've already eaten," Serana said, just to see Sithia's reaction. To feel it, too, pressed right up against her, sitting so closely together on the carriage driver's seat.

Sithia choked. Serana patted her on the back. Perhaps it would've been a better idea to play with her Dragonborn when she wasn't in danger of choking.

"And yes, Dexion, vampires can eat normal food, but it'd be wasted - we don't need it, not like blood."

Sithia pulled a bottle from the sack and drained it, dealing with her coughing fit. She glared at Serana and snatched the reins back. "Behave," she growled quietly. "And don't look so innocent, the tone of your voice when you said that about already eating… making me choke. I just hope Dexion didn't catch it, you flirt."

"On the subject of blood," Dexion said, his voice pitched loudly enough that he'd probably overheard and was pretending he hadn't. "Is the blood of the Dragonborn really dragon blood?"

"It definitely is," Serana said. "Si—Cynthia satisfied my curiosity about that by letting me sample hers, and I've also tasted a dragon's."

"Sampled it, eh?" Sithia muttered. "Is that what you call it?"

Serana licked her lips. Sithia elbowed her.

"Fascinating!" Dexion said. "We Moth Priests don't know much about Dragonborns, but we are familiar with the prophecies concerning them, as illuminated by past readings of the Scrolls."

"Like that of the Last Dragonborn?" Serana wondered if Dexion had overheard Esbern's recitation.

"Indeed. In fact, Cynthia, should you ever come across the Scroll containing that prophecy, and any others that might apply to you… You could read them. Not many outside Moth Priests are aware that the subject of a Scroll can safely read it."

"Really?" Serana looked at the enchanted knapsack, thinking of the Scroll it contained. Of the other one, hopefully still with her mother… Had Valerica read the Scrolls stolen from her father? Was being a vampire enough to safely read Scrolls about the prophecy of ending the Tyranny of the Sun?

It would explain why her mother had decided that the Scrolls could not remain with her father. But if Valerica had read them, how had she known it was safe? Or had she been so consumed with thwarting her husband that she'd taken the risk? Then she'd have had to act in case Harkon took that same chance. He was certainly crazy enough.

"Safely?" Sithia sounded dubious. As she might when, like Serana, as far as she'd known, reading an Elder Scroll would have either blinded her or taken her sanity. Or both.

"Well, it is dangerous to try if unsure of the contents. Of course, considering the nature of Elder Scrolls, such knowledge is rarely safe to assume."

Distracted by thoughts of the Scrolls and her mother, Serana was vaguely aware of the carriage rolling onwards past the Rift's ghostly white trees, and of Dexion telling Sithia more about the Scrolls.

Even distracted, and with the added constant sting of the sunlight, she still caught the gist of what Dexion said. Apparently even Moth Priests didn't know much about Elder Scrolls, which might imply that their very nature resisted understanding. No one knew where they came from, who wrote them, or why reading them risked blindness even for those with the ability to do so. All Moth Priests eventually went blind, although not so many at the moment with their shortage of Elder Scrolls.

The road wound steadily upwards, flanked by rocky outcrops and more trees. A timber watchtower loomed ahead, the first of three. Good, that meant they were nearing Riften. The sun had climbed to its highest point, glaring down at her. Serana couldn't wait to get inside, even briefly.

They finally reached Riften's north gates soon after midday. Serana wondered if they'd repaired the south-east gates Sithia had Shouted down, the ones they'd be leaving from. They'd been gone long enough, surely, even for a city with as slovenly an atmosphere as Riften.

A guard barred the way. "Halt, are you intending to pass through the city? There's a tax you need to pay—"

"Shut up!" His partner pulled him back. "That's the Dragonborn! Let her through before she Shouts down another set of gates!"

"Oh shit… My apologies, Dragonborn, didn't recognise you. We'll get these open for you, please don't Shout."

The guards hurriedly opened the gates and stood well back, holding them wide enough for the carriage to pass inside.

"Spineless," Sithia muttered. "Absolutely spineless. Do any guards actually have backbone?"

"Don't complain too much, you don't really want to pay a tax just to get Dexion's carriage through Riften, do you?"

"Good point. Especially as most of my gold is inside Riften, it's part of what Delphine insisted we leave behind." Sithia kept her voice down, obviously not wanting to share that fact with any eavesdroppers.

They left the carriage near the Bee and Barb. Dexion hesitated and looked back at it. "Shouldn't someone stay with it? If half the things I've heard about Riften are true, it might not be there when we return."

"No," Sithia said. "We've left nothing worth taking on the carriage, and if the carriage itself gets stolen we'll hire a new one. The same goes for the horse, he's no prize stallion. Besides…" She chuckled. "You'd have to be insane to steal from the Dragonborn. Word will get around from the guards exactly who that belongs to."

Serana had never been more tempted to steal Sithia's masked cowl. But she had to resist, Sithia wore it for a reason. And there were people wandering around Riften. There was no way of knowing if any of them were Thalmor spies, and only Sithia had the right to take the risk of revealing her face. That meant Serana would always have to fight that cowl-stealing urge, unless they were alone.

As they walked inside the inn, Sithia added, "That's why I marked the chest I rented here as 'Property of the Dragonborn'. With an additional mark for any thieves who'd regard that as a challenge."

Serana followed Sithia into the basement, leaving Dexion to order food. The chest was untouched, apart from Sithia's scrawl painted on it, and the mark etched into the wood: a diamond with two interlocking circles.

"Rasha taught me about that mark, used by the Thieves Guild as a warning to keep hands off."

"What about independent thieves?"

"I doubt any would dare operate in Riften. It's where Skyrim's Thieves Guild is based, and they don't tolerate competition. Freelancers either end up joining or facedown in the canal. Although rumour has it that the Guild's not doing so well these days."

Sithia emptied the contents of the chest into her pack - mostly potions and bags of gold. Serana pulled the assassin's note from her pocket and slipped it in too while she remembered.

They didn't stay long in Riften, leaving within the hour, after having a bite to eat and drink, Serana keeping the mortals company to blend in. Sithia ventured out to see to the horse and buy some more supplies while Dexion sampled the exotic speciality drinks. Maybe consuming alcohol was part of the Moth Priest's preparations for reading the Scroll?

Despite not staying long, by the time they left the inn, dark clouds had shrouded the sun and it was raining. Serana stifled a smile. While it might be a relief from the sun for her, Sithia and Dexion didn't look happy. Dexion covered his shaven head with a hooded cloak, while Sithia adjusted her masked cowl. Serana pulled her hood up, much as rain made a welcome change from sun, she'd rather stay as dry as possible.

The carriage was still there, with their beast of burden. The horse lifted his head from a bucket at his feet, water dripping from his mouth, and neighed in greeting. Serana patted him on the nose before clambering up next to Sithia, dumping her pack in the back next to Dexion.

"Hey!"

Serana looked up at the angry shout. A female guard stepped into the road ahead, blocking their way, one hand held up.

"You can't leave your carriage unattended for that long, it blocks the road."

"We're just leaving." Sithia pointedly looked at the empty road across the canal, but didn't push her luck verbally with the guard, no doubt impatient to leave.

"Good. See that you don't do it again. I don't care if you're the Dragonborn, you can use the stables like everyone else."

"Understood. Can we be on our way now?"

The guard folded her arms. "I have more to say. I was one of the guards tasked with clearing up the mess and fixing the gates you Shouted down. It would be appreciated if you restrain yourself in future, Dragonborn. Do you have any idea how many splinters I got?"

"I'll bear that in mind, provided none of your comrades try to scam me with an entry tax in future."

The guard nodded and stepped aside. "I'll spread the word. Glad we got that cleared up."

"And I'm glad to finally see a guard with a spine, or at least what passes for one around here," Sithia muttered under her breath. She flicked the reins, urging the horse on.

It was a bit of a tight squeeze with the carriage, but they soon emerged onto the road leading south, leaving the stagnant reek of Riften behind them. It didn't smell any better in the rain, sadly.

The rain mercifully lessened to drizzle. It would have been a miserable ride to Fort Dawnguard if it hadn't, even for Serana. She actually preferred the sting of sunlight when rain trickled down inside her clothing, which it did after a while thanks to the outstanding design. Unfortunately nothing else had the enchantment which meant she wouldn't end up naked afterwards if she had to resort to her monstrous form.

The carriage trundled onwards downhill, approaching a ruined stone tower, almost hidden from view by the trees. Over the patter of the rain on foliage, Serana heard the murmur of voices, with the background beating of distant hearts.

"…call this shelter? You said we'd be camping in the tower, and there's no inside to this ruin!"

"Better than nothing, and stop complaining, it's not raining that hard."

"Not yet. Is there even anything worth guarding in that chest?"

"Some gold. There'll be more with the next caravan we raid."

'More bandits…'

"Hey, do you hear that? Sounds like there might be one coming from Riften."

One of them peered around the side of the tower, eyeing the carriage greedily, fingering his rusty sword.

Serana quickly thought it over. They surely had enough time to deal with these sorry specimens, especially as these had no fort to retreat into. Perhaps this might make it up to her disappointed Dragonborn?

Serana put a hand on Sithia's arm. "You might want to stop. I spy a bandit or two over there. Enjoy."

Sithia handed the reins to Serana and jumped down without even waiting for the carriage to stop. She drew her shiny new sword and advanced on the hapless bandits.

Serana brought the horse to a halt, and pulled her hood down. It meant getting damper, but this way she'd see and hear more. Just in case.

"Shouldn't you go with her?" Dexion asked.

"No bandit is a match for her at her best, and in a tower that small and ruined there can't be many of them." Three, to be precise, going by the heartbeats, but it was probably best not to remind Dexion how powerful vampiric senses were. "Besides, out in the wild like this, someone should stay with you."

"Oh, I see. I suppose you're right."

"That and Cynthia's recovered from having the breath kicked out her by now." Almost before Serana got the words out of her mouth, Sithia proved as much:

"FUS RO DAH!"

Even Dexion must have caught the sickening snap of bones breaking. Only two of the bandits survived their forcible encounter with the tower stone, and one of those was dying, heart faltering.

"It does sound like the Dragonborn is managing just fine on her own," Dexion said over the begging of one of the bandits.

Serana heard a sharp blade pierce flesh twice, and the bandits fell silent. Now only Sithia's heart beat within the remains of the tower. A rummage in the bandits' chest later, and Sithia sauntered back to the carriage with two bulging bags of gold.

Serana put her hood back up while Sithia added her plunder to her pack, then they were underway again.

The drizzle eventually stopped, although it kept dripping from the trees. Serana eyed the sky warily, but it thankfully remained overcast.

The rest of their journey was pretty uneventful. Well, apart from running across some of the local wildlife interested in making a meal of them, especially of their horse: first a bear, then a pack of wolves, and finally a big frostbite spider.

Dexion didn't even see them, having dozed off, snoring away in the back of the carriage. He was oblivious to Serana's spellcasting too, as she picked off each creature from where she sat next to Sithia. Each beast fell before it touched the horse, who just trotted onwards thanks to being enthralled, unafraid.

Sithia wasn't bothered by the bear or the wolves. The spider, on the other hand…

After it collapsed in a tangle of legs, myriad eyes pierced by an Ice Spike, Serana turned to stare at Sithia. Her heart was racing, and trembling hands clutched the reins.

"You're afraid of spiders?"

"Not of the normal ones like there are in Cyrodiil. Isn't everyone scared of ones that big?" Sithia shuddered, eyes avoiding the dead spider, dwarfing the bear dead on the road behind them.

"I'm not. Don't worry, I'll protect you from the nasty frostbite spiders." Serana managed to suppress her smile, but failed to keep the amusement out of her voice. The big bad Dragonborn, afraid of spiders.

Sithia glowered at her. "You wouldn't like them either if you had to burn your way out of their webs and almost got eaten by one even bigger than that one."

The thought of that sobered Serana. Any frostbite spiders they met would be sure to meet a very swift and spiky end. Nothing threatened the life of her Dragonborn if there was anything she could do to prevent it.

"It's bad enough coming across them underground without tripping over them outside," Sithia grumbled. "I'd hoped that having the map again would mean less of that, but apparently not."

"That's one of the bad things?" Would Sithia actually talk about them now?

"Oh, right. You wanted to know about the annoyances I encountered without my map. Frostbite spiders, obviously. Trolls. I'm not scared of trolls, but I do hate them. I've met far too many frost trolls in the coldest parts of this frigid province, and most of them on my Moth Priest hunt."

"Anything else?"

"There was that snowstorm. Being stuck in close proximity to Delphine until it died down wasn't fun. I wish you'd been there, even if it's no good huddling for warmth with a vampire."

"I'm sure it could've been worse. At least Delphine has a warm body!" Not that Serana cared to think of Delphine that close to Sithia, but better that than her freezing.

"Other than that, just a Thalmor patrol escorting a Nord prisoner. Not that I really think the chance to kill more Thalmor is a bad thing. Come to think of it…" Sithia paused, head tilting towards Dexion as if suddenly remembering he was there.

"He's asleep, been snoring softly since before we met the bear."

"At least he'll be spared nightmares about enormous spiders. Anyway, now that such a terrible tragedy has befallen their First Emissary, the Thalmor are going to be more active, trying to hunt down her killer. We'll be seeing more Thalmor patrols around."

"We'll deal with them." The same way Serana had dealt with Elenwen if she had anything to do with it. "So just spiders, trolls, a snowstorm and Thalmor?"

"I can't think of anything else. You already know about breaking another sword while slaying a dragon, and I figure that would've happened even with the map."

They continued over a stone bridge, also passing a signpost with the only destination pointing back the way they'd come towards Riften. Clearly whatever was at the eastern end of the road wasn't important enough to the Jarl of the Rift to be included.

Darkness had fallen by the time they reached the cave opening to the canyon leading to Fort Dawnguard, the sunset obscured by the clouds. It was a tight squeeze through the cave, the horse reluctant to go through until Serana got down and lead him through. Thanks to the enthralment, he'd follow her anywhere.

Once he was out of the cave and his ears no longer pressed flat against his head, Serana climbed back up beside Sithia. It was a bit of a bumpy ride through the narrow opening to the canyon, rock walls rising either side of them before it opened out into the valley.

Dexion woke up with a snort. "This road needs some maintenance. Are we nearly there?"

"Yes, this is Dayspring Canyon. Fort Dawnguard's at the end of it," Sithia told him.

"Oh, how beautiful!"

Serana looked back to see Dexion staring around in wonder at the icy waterfall coming down from the mountains. The wind picked up, blowing cold air in their faces, and bringing with it the scent of pine mingled with—

Vampires.


AN:

Sorry it's been so long without an update, health issues and life in general happened, followed by the joys of writer's block. Next chapter will be coming a lot sooner than this one did!

Coming up next: There's vampires to deal with, and Dexion finally gets to read an Elder Scroll.

Check out The Stalhrim Job, and The Final Cut, gift fics for me by the wonderful BrunetteAuthorette99! They feature Sithia wreaking havoc with Brunette's Dragonborn Kajsa, and her assassin Finverior. Sithia is not Dragonborn in Kajsa's universe, but she's still an infamous Thalmor killing assassin. Brunette's done a great job with Sithia.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Scroll Reading

"Stop!" Serana hissed.

Sithia reined in the horse, the carriage rolling to a halt soon after. "What is it?"

"Vampires." Serana carefully sniffed the cool night air. There were at least two, and one of them turned by her father. Hopefully there weren't more of them. Hopefully the entire Dawnguard hadn't become the very things they sought to destroy. It felt strange to care about what happened to vampire hunters, but they needed these ones to babysit their Moth Priest.

Serana jumped down. "Stay with Dexion."

Sithia tried to protest, but Serana ignored her, eyes closed, concentrating on slipping into the shadows. When Dexion gasped, she knew she'd succeeded. Sithia sighed.

Serana crept forwards. Wherever the vampires were, they were out of sight. Hiding, ready to ambush anyone heading for the Dawnguard? She'd have to rely on scent to track them down, as vampiric heartbeats were so much slower than those of mortals.

"Laas Yah Nir." Sithia's whisper was on the edge of Serana's hearing, laced with the power of her Thu'um.

Life… seek… hunt.

Serana almost lost her grip on her invisibility. What was Sithia doing? Serana turned on her heel. Sithia was fast closing the distance between them, footsteps muffled as always. Her eyes met Serana's, and she quirked a mocking eyebrow at her.

For a moment Serana thought she'd slipped up, that anyone could see her. A glance down at herself proved otherwise. Sithia's Shout must let her see anyone invisible, living or undead.

'Wait, can it be called a Shout when it's a Whisper?'

Sithia darted past Serana, heading straight for some thick bushes. She drew her sword. Two female vampires burst out in a cloud of leaves, their own weapons drawn. Yet instead of instantly attacking, they hesitated, nostrils flared.

Sithia didn't hesitate. She slipped past the guard of one of them and cut her down, dark blood glistening on sharp glass.

The other vampire tried to grab Sithia. Serana killed her before she laid a finger on Sithia, an Ice Spike piercing her throat.

Serana's grasp on her invisibility failed for real the moment she cast another spell, and she didn't bother to renew it. Sithia was sheathing her sword, and wouldn't be doing that if her Shout-Whisper-thing had detected anything else.

Serana caught up with Sithia, who was searching the corpses for anything valuable. Serana frowned down at the vampires, noting they were both Nords.

"Volkihars." Serana pointed at their distinctive belts, similar to her own. "My father's underlings." Except neither of them had been turned by her father. The ancient blood was too watered down, they must have been turned by one of his court.

Yet she'd definitely smelled one of her father's fledglings. Serana inhaled deeply. There it was again, faint traces this time. A male elf of some sort, it wasn't clear enough to narrow down precisely what kind of mer. He'd been here, certainly, but had made himself scarce.

Also troubling was the way the two dead vampires had behaved. The hesitation, presumably when they recognised Sithia's scent, then the attempt to capture. That meant her father must want them captured and brought to him alive. That wasn't remotely reassuring. Mercy was not in Harkon's nature; his minions would have killed them far quicker than he would.

"Are you happy now that you've seen some sign of your father's vampires?" Sithia asked.

"No, I'm not. Come on, we'd better get back to Dexion. Someone left him on his own when there's unfriendly vampires around."

Sithia carelessly waved her off. "Don't worry so much, we dealt with them."

"Not quite. I could smell a third had been around."

"If she was anywhere near I'd have been able to see her."

"Him. And I still don't like it."

"Between your nose and my Voice, we'll know if he comes back."

Dexion was nervously clutching his sword when they returned to the carriage. He sheathed it as they climbed up. "Thank you for dealing with those vampires. They were trying to ambush me again, weren't they?"

"Right on the Dawnguard's doorstep? I think it's more likely they were scouts here to watch the resident vampire hunters." Sithia shook the reins and the horse resumed trotting through the valley.

"It still bothers me," Serana muttered to Sithia.

"Laas Yah Nir." Sithia pointedly looked all around, even behind them, and shook her head. "There's only the Dawnguard sentries." She pointed at the palisades up ahead, which were clearly manned. Presumably that meant there was no attacking dragon this time.

"I meant it bothers me that we haven't seen any sign of our vampiric pursuers other than here. And as you pointed out to Dexion, they might be after the Dawnguard, not us. My father wouldn't keep people this incompetent in his court."

"Maybe that means they'll have the sense not to try anything else."

Serana raised an eyebrow. "That's a little optimistic for you. Are you feeling all right?"

"It's just possible that your father will have got the message."

"Message?" Serana folded her arms and gave Sithia a sidelong look. "What message?"

"I suppose I didn't mention it, did I? I sent one of his minions crawling back to him with it."

"This is about those vampires who had Dexion, isn't it. I thought he said you killed them all."

"No, I Shouted one of them out of the fight. A pathetic Bosmer. He saw all his friends were dead and begged for mercy."

"How did you know they were my father's vampires? Did this Bosmer confess?"

"Besides the fact they were trying to take a Moth Priest captive? They called me your pet, and asked me where you were. Said they had to find you before taking me back to Harkon, or he'd surely kill them for it." Sithia snorted. "They should've been more afraid of me, and of Delphine. I have to admit she's good with a sword, about as good as I am with a dagger. She killed at least half of those vampires, and knocked Dexion out, freeing him from his enthralment."

"And what was this message?"

"Something I suppose you might think a little too dramatic: 'Dragons are my prey, and you are nothing compared to them.' "

Serana dropped her head into her hands. "I'm sorry about this. Really, I am, but…" She raised her head and glared at Sithia. "You stupid Dragonborn! My father will want your head for that insult! This will only make him want to hunt you down more."

Sithia stiffened. Her eyes flashed with anger, and Serana braced herself for an outburst. Except it didn't come. The anger in Sithia's eyes faded, and she sheepishly admitted, "…I probably deserved that. You know how your father will react better than I do."

"I'm going to have words with Delphine when we get to Karthspire. For someone whose duty it is to guard and guide you, she's done a terrible job."

"If you want to slap her, be my guest. But to be fair, she did okay with guarding me. Guiding… not so much."

"Guarding you includes protecting you from yourself, not just keeping watch while you sleep!"

"Take it up with Delphine, then."

"Oh, I will."

"Now that's something to look forward to." Sithia sounded far too gleeful.

"Who says I'll do it when you're awake?"

"Spoilsport."

They'd reached the Dawnguard's fortifications. Apart from actually being manned, there were also some more wooden barricades like at Fort Greenwall. The gates were shut this time too. Serana wondered if they kept them closed all the time now, or just after dark.

"Who goes there?" One of the sentries called down, crossbow raised.

"It's me, you idiot," Sithia shouted back. "Remember, the reason you even have that contraption you're pointing at me?"

The sentry sighed and lowered his crossbow. "Dragonborn. All right, we'll let you in. Agmaer, go and tell Isran that Cynthia has returned with the expected guests."

Serana could hear this Agmaer hurry away even as the other sentries came down to open the gate and haul the barricades out of the way. Once the carriage was inside, she heard them dragging the defences back into place.

"That's not my horse." The Dawnguard's stable master stalked over, and he didn't look happy. "I gave you my finest stallion, and you bring back that nag?"

"Blame Isran, he's the one who wouldn't let me refuse one of your precious horses." Sithia pushed the reins into the stable master's hands and turned away. "Come on, Dexion, you have some reading to do."

They left the stable master sputtering impotently behind them, with the carriage and horse under his reluctant care. Serana patted the horse in passing, gently releasing him from enthralment. It was such a relief that he'd survived, as that meant poor Sten had been overloaded, doomed by the weight of Sithia's pack on top of two riders. A carriage with wheels bearing the load must have made all the difference.

As they continued on foot up to the castle, they met a young Nord man jogging down the path. He skidded to a halt and introduced himself as Agmaer, offering to carry their packs. He reminded Serana of an overeager puppy. It was tempting to hand over Sithia's pack just to see him collapse under it, but that would be cruel.

Dexion graciously accepted. It seemed his pride could take help from a young man, but not from an outwardly young woman. Unless it was her vampirism behind his refusal?

Isran stood waiting for them right outside the doors into his castle. It was just Serana's luck that she was downwind of him. She held her breath, and hoped she wouldn't have to speak. She'd rather not subject herself to the stench of werewolf if she could help it.

"Welcome to Fort Dawnguard," Isran said to Dexion, with what passed for civility for him.

"Thank you. I am Dexion Evicus, a Moth Priest of—"

"Isran. I lead the Dawnguard." He turned to Sithia. "I'm impressed you could find a Moth Priest so quickly." Isran grimaced as if it pained him to say the words, each torn begrudgingly from his mouth.

"Are you satisfied that Serana can be trusted now?"

"It could still be a trap." Yet Isran's eyes were maybe a little less suspicious as he glared at Serana.

Perhaps she could earn a little more trust… Serana resigned herself to breathing in dirty dog, and spoke up. "It's not. The vampires you should worry about are those we killed not far from your walls in the valley."

"More scouts? They don't manage to come through the barricades, not since we've strengthened them." Isran looked at Dexion and his face softened slightly. "You'll be safe enough here, old man."

Serana hated to say anything to contradict that, she really did, but… "We didn't find one of them. I could smell that he'd been there, and that he's powerful. He'd be capable of invisibility. I haven't sensed him since we killed his friends, but he might still be around somewhere, staying out of my range."

"And out of mine?" Sithia muttered, raising a sceptical eyebrow.

Isran folded his arms. "I noticed you last time, didn't I, despite you being invisible at the time. No vampire is getting past me."

Serana hesitated. She couldn't ask if there was another werewolf in the Dawnguard to keep watch when Isran wasn't around. Werewolves might scare Dexion as much as vampires for all she knew. "And when you sleep?"

"Sleep is for the weak."

Serana blinked. Well, that explained a lot about Isran.

Isran put his hand on Sithia's shoulder, leaning close to whisper, "Be on your guard at all times. Avoid sleep if you can…"

Sithia shrugged him off. Hopefully she wouldn't take any notice of Isran's advice; Skyrim really didn't need an even grumpier sleep deprived Dragonborn.

"Anyway, we have other ways of guarding Fort Dawnguard against vampires. Come inside and your pet vampire can tell us if your Moth Priest will be safe."

Now that was something, after Isran wouldn't let her inside his precious castle last time. Returning with Dexion must have convinced him that she could be trusted that much.

Isran opened the door and led them inside. Serana hung back, letting Sithia and Dexion go first. She hoped she wouldn't need to say anything else, for the reek of werewolf would be even worse within the enclosed space.

"This is a remarkable fortress," Dexion commented, looking around the entrance hall. "I have colleagues back home who would love to study this place in detail."

From where she stood just inside the door, Serana could see a circular room with an open skylight high above. The floor was mostly stone, except for two semi-circular metal grills over flowing water.

"What are you waiting for?" Isran impatiently beckoned them over to where he stood directly under the skylight.

Serana frowned as she walked forwards. Something wasn't right. It suddenly occurred to her that whatever these vampire deterrents were, they might not be good for her. Even as the thought crossed her mind, she stepped under the skylight. She briefly glimpsed something suspended just under the opening, a glint of metal and glass. There was a flash. Blinding light streamed down. For a moment it was like being under the midday sun. It stung, but didn't really hurt much.

Then the pain hit. Serana doubled over. It was like being in a temple, right next to a shrine. She couldn't see anything but white-hot burning light.

Her knees collapsed under her.

Someone caught her before she hit the hard stone floor. Distantly, Serana heard a familiar heartbeat. Sithia.

She was vaguely aware of being dragged back into the shadows. The burning agony remained, only slowly fading even with the renewed blessing of the night, her senses still deadened.

Something pressed against her lips. The soothing heat of smooth skin, and the pulsing of blood beneath it. Serana's fangs descended. She almost instinctively bit down.

'No!' She needed…

"Feed." Sithia's voice came as if from a great distance. Permission.

Serana latched on. The pain stopped, her senses quickly recovering as she swallowed a mouthful of her Dragonborn's delicious blood. Well, perhaps it wasn't at its most tasty, sharp with suspicion and hot with anger, unsurprisingly directed towards Isran.

She forced herself to stop feeding. This really wasn't the best place for it, especially as she tasted the spice of Sithia's building arousal.

Serana straightened up. Sithia lowered her wrist from Serana's mouth, the golden glow of healing magic briefly enveloping it.

"Thank you," Serana murmured.

"No problem." Sithia's breathing was a little unsteady, her face flushed, and her eyes darkened. Serana winced; it'd be all too easy for a werewolf like Isran to tell that Sithia was lusting after a vampire.

Sithia pulled her gauntlet back on, and strode towards Isran, into that horrible light. Serana stayed where she was. She couldn't do anything else. At least she could see perfectly well now, even what was under the skylight.

"Are you all right?" Dexion asked. He actually looked concerned, bless him, despite his fear of vampires.

"I'm fine, thanks for asking." Serana returned her gaze to where Sithia was confronting Isran.

Sithia grabbed Isran's beard to yank his head down to her level, her other hand pointing upwards. "Turn that off right now if you want to keep your beard."

"Let go!"

"Then turn whatever that is off!"

The blinding light abruptly ceased, leaving the chamber lit by the torches flaming on their sconces.

Sithia released Isran's beard. He rubbed his chin and glowered down at her. He looked up sharply when Serana took a hesitant step forwards.

"Stop! It comes on if there's anyone down here who shouldn't be. Wouldn't be much of a vampire trap otherwise. You should be happy, now we know for sure that it'll keep the bloodsuckers out, and your Moth Priest safe."

"Void take you. I should've known you meant to test your defences against vampires on Serana." Sithia gave Serana an apologetic look. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. Besides, Isran had a point. At least we know it works." Serana smiled at Isran. It didn't reach her eyes. "That said, a warning would have been nice."

"I warned you just now, didn't I?"

"Not what I meant," Serana muttered.

"How does it work?" Dexion asked.

Isran shook his head. "I don't trust the vampire enough to share that."

"It felt Aedric," Serana stated.

"I suppose Daedric spawn like you would know that," Isran spat. "All I'll say is that it's been made stronger since we learned you're Volkihar vampires. We know how ancient they can be."

"I'm just as ancient as my father. That trap would keep him out of here too."

Isran's eyes narrowed at her admission. Did he suspect what that meant? Serana hoped not. She didn't feel like having a werewolf look down on her even more if he knew what a Daughter of Coldharbour was.

"Good," Sithia said. "I see no reason why Dexion can't read the Scroll now." She turned to him. "Provided you're prepared, of course."

"Oh, most certainly!" Dexion rubbed his hands together. "Let's find out what secrets the Scroll can tell."

Sithia crossed back over to Serana, holding out her hands expectantly. Serana set the pack down and reached into it. She pulled out the Scroll and handed it over to Sithia. While Sithia strode over to Dexion, Serana glanced behind her. The door was still slightly ajar. She opened it wide enough to look outside, listening intently, sniffing again as she did so. Nothing. Wherever that missing vampire was, he shouldn't be able to hear Dexion. She closed the door.

When Serana turned back, she expected to see the Scroll in Dexion's hands. Instead Isran stood between Sithia and Dexion.

"Hold on, we don't want the vampire hearing this. If it's a spy, then the vampires won't even need to get their hands on the Moth Priest and the Scroll."

"Fuck that! I trust her more than any of you. She stays."

"If they put out the sun because of this, it's on your head." Isran reluctantly stepped aside.

"Yeah, whatever." Sithia pushed the Scroll into Dexion's hands. "Let's get this over with, I don't have all night."

Dexion looked slightly taken aback, perhaps by the lack of ceremony. He raised the Scroll, shifting his grip to hold it with one hand. His free hand fiddled with the mechanism holding it closed. He cleared his throat. "Now, if everyone will please stay quiet, I must concentrate."

Dexion pulled the Scroll open. Serana felt the ethereal presence grow stronger as he did. She looked away. It probably didn't count as reading a Scroll just to look at one from this distance, but she wasn't taking any chances with her sanity. She focused instead on Sithia. And bit back a groan, fighting the urge to run to her side and put her hands over Sithia's eyes. Unless Serana wanted to collapse under the Aedric trap again, she'd have to trust that Sithia had the sense to be looking at Dexion rather than the opened Scroll.

For a long moment there was silence, if that was the right word when it was weighted with such expectation that it felt like a roar.

"I see a vision before me, an image of a great bow." Dexion spoke slowly, almost as if every word took great effort to say. "I know this weapon! It is Auriel's Bow!"

Serana stiffened. That was it. That was the thing she'd somehow known the Scroll contained, the weapon they could use to stop her father. Even he wouldn't be able to withstand the power of a god. She just wished…

Dexion's voice drew Serana away from her bittersweet thoughts. "Now a voice whispers, saying 'Among the night's children, a dread lord will rise. In an age of strife, when dragons return to the realm of men, darkness will mingle with light and the night and day will be as one.' The voice fades."

Serana frowned. For all that sounded familiar, it wasn't exactly the same as the fragment of the prophecy her father had found. That had explicitly mentioned the Tyranny of the Sun, with no mention of the return of dragons. But then again, this being an Elder Scroll, the very embodiment of mystery, it wouldn't surprise Serana if it were entirely possible for the contents to vary a little. Unless that bit about the Tyranny of the Sun was in the Scroll her mother took?

"The words begin to shimmer and distort. But wait, there is more here." Dexion's words were even slower, his voice strained. "The secret of the Bow's power, and its location is written elsewhere. I think there is more to the prophecy, recorded in other Scrolls."

No doubt her mother's Scroll. Wait, Scrolls? So her father's prophecy really was contained in more than one other Scroll. Serana had wondered.

"Yes, I see them now… One contains the ancient secrets of the dragons, and the other speaks of the potency of ancient blood. My vision darkens, and I see no more."

Serana looked back at Dexion once she heard the gentle clink of the Scroll closing. He lowered his arms, blinking repeatedly, his cheeks damp. Tears from finally getting his hands on an Elder Scroll, or from the strain of reading it?

"To know the complete prophecy, we must have the other two Scrolls," Dexion swayed. He almost fell. Sithia took the Scroll before he dropped it on his sandalled feet, while Isran caught an arm, steadying him.

"I must rest now. The reading has made me weary."

"Come on, old man. You should get some sleep." Isran's words were almost tender. He led Dexion deeper into the castle, keeping a supportive hand on his elbow.

Sithia sighed. "Well, that wasn't quite what we were hoping for." She glared down at the Scroll in her hands.

Serana snorted. "What were you expecting, for the location of the other Scrolls or even the Bow to be revealed?"

The look Sithia gave her was equal parts exasperation and amusement. "It would have been nice."

"It would, wouldn't it. But it's a start. We're not quite as much in the dark as we were, and less so than my father. We also know what we can use to defeat him."

"Auriel's Bow," Sithia stated. "But isn't it almost certainly what he needs to bring about his prophecy too? That secret about the Bow's power…"

"That just means we need to get to the Bow first."

"It would have to be a bow," Sithia grumbled.

Serana frowned. It took her a moment to remember Sithia mentioning something about being a terrible shot only that morning. She opened her mouth to object, as surely it wasn't possible for Sithia to be that bad at archery when she was so gifted at killing?

Sithia spoke first. "Being Auriel's Bow, it's unlikely that you'll be able to use it instead, after what Akatosh's shrine did to you."

"That's precisely why it'll work against my father. Auriel is the elven version of Akatosh, after all, and he's a sun god in that form. We'll be using the power of the sun against my father, if we can find the Bow."

"And to do that we need to find these other Scrolls," Sithia said.

"We do, but Delphine's right. My father isn't quite the threat Alduin is, so finding the Scrolls will have to wait."

"True. That and we have no idea where the Scrolls are anyway, unless you suddenly know where your mother is?" Sithia didn't sound hopeful.

Serana could only shake her head.

"I guess we can be thinking of where to look while taking care of my Dragonborn duties." Sithia glared up at the skylight. "At least that fucking Aedric light trap should mean that Dexion and the Scroll are safe, which gives us time—"

"We're taking the Scroll. I'm not leaving it anywhere near the priest who is all my father needs to read it, no matter how secure this fort is." A nasty thought occurred to Serana, that while a vampire couldn't get past it, maybe a thrall could. Serana beckoned Sithia over, holding the pack open. Sithia didn't argue, dropping the Scroll inside and refastening her pack.

The heavy tramp of Isran's feet returned. His scowl deepened at seeing them standing so close together. "Your Moth Priest is sleeping."

"Good. Well, you must have something to say about what Dexion saw in the Scroll. Do you believe Serana now?"

"I heard a lot of vague nonsense," Isran scoffed. "You could interpret that a hundred different ways. Only thing that stood out for me was Auriel's Bow. That's a powerful weapon, and I sure as Oblivion don't want the vampires to get hold of it. The Moth Priest can stay here for now. As for the vampire, I still don't trust it, so keep it on a leash."

"Thanks," Sithia drawled. "But I'm not into bondage."

Isran's eyes narrowed. "No, but I've seen the way you look at that vampire, among other worse things… My senses are stronger than yours, remember."

What little Serana could see of Sithia's face flushed crimson.

Isran jabbed a finger at Sithia. "I've already checked your eyes. There's no trace of vampiric seduction, and you're definitely not a thrall. But that only makes it worse: you're lusting after a vampire of your own free will."

"That's none of your concern," Sithia snapped.

"It's everyone's concern if the Dragonborn ends up dead. Be on your guard. The vampire is using that attraction to soften you up for the kill, so it can drain you dry! You're already feeding it!"

Serana barely restrained herself from hissing. She hated it. Both what he was saying, and being talked about as if she wasn't there. But it wouldn't do any good for her to try to intervene. Knowing Isran it'd make things worse.

"You're wrong. Make sure Dexion stays safe. It's the other vampires that are the problem here, not Serana."

Isran grimaced. "You're leaving? Shouldn't you rest first? I'm prepared to let you stay overnight this time."

"No. You don't trust Serana, fine, but your lack of trust in me is insulting."

"I don't trust anyone that much."

"It's a wonder you have any allies, Isran." Sithia walked away, throwing the doors open. "Paranoid bastard," she muttered as she strode through them.

Serana paused before following Sithia out. "Isran?"

"What is it, bloodsucker?"

Serana was tempted to insult him in return, but there was no reason to sink to the dog's level. Not a good one, anyway. "Please say our farewells to Dexion."

"Fine. Now get out."

Serana bowed mockingly and hurried after Sithia. She found her waiting on the path, hand held out. For a moment Serana stared blankly.

Sithia raised an eyebrow. "I'd rather not meet any more trolls or frostbite spiders than absolutely necessary."

Serana reached into her pocket for the map and handed it over. "So how do we get to Karthspire?"

Sithia watched the line of blood trace their route. "Through Helgen pass, skirting around Falkreath. Seems you'll get to see the aftermath of a town left in ruins by Alduin." She sighed. "Not somewhere I ever wanted to revisit."

Of course… Sithia had been in Helgen at the time. While Alduin's attack meant that she escaped execution, it couldn't have been fun getting out of there alive. No wonder she was glaring down at her map.

"Should we go towards Whiterun instead?"

"Tempting, but ignoring the map's just asking for trouble, so Helgen it is."


They left on foot, as the stable master refused to let another horse be lost after what happened to the last one. Sithia didn't argue, no doubt out of guilt, and wouldn't steal Dexion's carriage.

"How about hiring a carriage from Riften?" Serana suggested.

"If we were meant to take it easy, the route on my map would have gone to Riften's stables." Sithia handed her map to Serana. She unfolded it to see for herself. It clearly skirted around Riften's walls, joining the road coming out of the west gate towards Helgen.

"So much for that," Serana grumbled.

"A little walking won't kill us, and it's cheaper. Come on, I want to get closer to Lake Honrich before we stop for the night."

They walked on as the moons climbed higher in the sky, and on as they began to sink towards the horizon. When Sithia began to stumble, Serana stepped in front of her and put her hands on her shoulders.

"Karthspire isn't going anywhere. You need to sleep."

Sithia tried to glare, which wasn't terribly effective when her eyes struggled to stay open.

"Sleep," Serana repeated firmly.

"Oh, all right."

They made camp by the side of the road. Sithia crawled into her tent and collapsed into an exhausted sleep. Serana kept watch. She still didn't feel any need to sleep after her little nap in Dimhollow, and once she did it would be during the day.

Once Sithia woke up the next morning, she had a quick wash in a nearby stream, and did a little light reading while breaking her fast. Perhaps she should have waited until later, as reading Ulfric and Delphine's dossiers put her off her food. She forced down a few more bites before giving up and stuffing half of the small loaf of bread she'd been eating back into her pack.

"Delphine's impressed me," Serana commented once Sithia set the dossiers aside, finished.

"Yes. It doesn't make me like her, but I have to respect her skills. It doesn't surprise me, though." Sithia tapped the leather cover of Delphine's dossier. "I've seen her in action. Evading the Thalmor and killing the squads after her is definitely something she's capable of."

"I thought I'd leave it up to you to decide what to do with them. It did occur to me that Ulfric's might be useful when it comes to clearing your Eastmarch bounty."

Sithia mulled it over, frowning slightly. "I'll give Delphine's to her when we meet up with the Blades. She might appreciate it." She returned it to her pack, drumming her fingers on Ulfric's as she gave it more thought. "I don't know. It's worth keeping Ulfric's. Like you say, if we ever need to go into Windhelm, it could come in very handy for blackmailing my way into a pardon. But I also hate the idea of using it against someone else tortured by Elenwen."

"I don't like it either. Perhaps only use it if we absolutely have to?"

"Yeah. Come on, we'd better get moving. Sitting around won't get us any closer to where we need to be."


After a long day's walk winding across the Rift, they made camp beside Lake Honrich. Sithia emptied a potion onto the campfire just before lighting it.

"What's that for?"

"To keep away any other bloodsuckers. You're rather better company than mosquitoes or midges would be."

Serana huffed. Her Dragonborn could be so charming. "Thanks, I think."


In the morning, they were about to set off when Serana hissed, raising her hood to block the glaring rays of the rising sun.

Sithia laid a hand on her arm, frowning up at her in concern. "Are you all right to travel in sunlight? It's been over a day since you last had any blood, and you didn't get much at Fort Dawnguard."

"If you're about to invite me to feed, don't. Much as I'd love to, it's not safe. You're too distracting."

"Feeding directly from me, maybe. It's definitely too distracting for me, no argument there." Sithia hadn't yet pulled her cowl up, so for once Serana could fully appreciate her blush. "But that's not what I had in mind. Distraction wasn't a problem in Solitude."

Serana thought back. Of course… After ridding herself of the Scroll's aura, Sithia had revived her from the consequences of touching Akatosh's shrine by feeding her. But not directly, instead cutting herself and letting the blood drip into Serana's mouth.

"Oh. That could work." Serana would just have to resist the temptation to latch on, unless she wanted her blood to boil, or whatever the dire consequences were for breaking a blood oath.

Sithia removed her right gauntlet and drew her dagger.

Serana knelt and took Sithia's hand in hers. "Easier this way. It's best if you're not reaching up."

"True." Sithia turned her wrist so that it was just above Serana's lips. One quick cut later and Serana caught the resulting trickle of blood in her mouth.

Delicious. Sweet, hot, and—

Wait. Bitter? That was regret.

Serana staunched the flow of blood with her fingertips. "Are you sure you're okay with this? Regret isn't what I ever want to be tasting from you. We don't have to do this."

Sithia blushed again. "I just wish it was safe to…"

Serana smiled. "So do I." She resumed her meal, and finished in three mouthfuls, staunching the wound again. The sunlight still stung, but it wasn't as bad now. "Done."

"Already? I'm sure you had more in Shor's Stone."

"That's because I got a bit carried away that time. Besides, I don't need much. Not from you, your blood really is something else."

Sithia healed herself, a flicker of golden light dancing from her right hand to her wrist. She turned her hand in Serana's grip, checking where the cut had been. Why she bothered Serana wasn't sure, as Sithia could heal minor injuries like that in her sleep.

"You missed a bit." Sithia pointed at the blood where the wound had been.

"That counts as feeding directly as far as my oath is concerned."

"Oh. Well, go ahead."

Serana gently pulled Sithia's wrist to her mouth, and did her best to tease Sithia with her tongue's caress. Pity it was just her wrist, as it wouldn't be as effective there compared to… other places.

Sithia's breath still caught, and the flush on her cheeks deepened. "That tickles. And I'm sure there's no blood left. Come on, get up."

Serana reluctantly released Sithia, rose to her feet and dusted her knees off. "Thank you."

"Got to take care of my vampire." Sithia pulled her gauntlet on and her cowl up. "Right. Time we weren't here. Helgen awaits."


AN: I do try to avoid or adapt exact dialogue from in game when I can, but it's tricky with something like Dexion's reading of the Elder Scroll.

Coming up next: Harkon objects about as violently as you'd expect to Sithia's message.

Chapter Text

Interlude: Harkon's Displeasure

Warning: No explicit detail, but there are mentions of rape, dubious consent and incest. This is thanks to Harkon remembering the degrading ritual in which he, Serana and Valerica became vampires. A ceremony which Serana mentions in game as a family activity that they all took part in. That had some disturbing implications.


Harkon stood before his shrine to Molag Bal, glaring down into the well of blood in the centre. His great enemy the sun had set far too many times now since he'd sent out his entire court to bring Serana and her pet back. Another day had passed, whiled away dozing in his coffin, and still nothing, no sign of his servants, or even news.

'Have I surrounded myself with fools?'

Worse, he'd killed all of the cattle in the castle in his anger at the delay. It hadn't been intentional, Harkon was merely too rough with feeding in his rage. He couldn't leave the castle to gather more cattle as he needed to await any of his court returning. Besides, it was servant's work to hunt like the beasts and thinner blooded.

Harkon sighed. His thirst was unbearable. He would have to drink from the shrine. From the bitter blood of terrified innocents, sacrificed so long ago, and ever-flowing from the altar he'd built for his Lord within the cathedral.

He lowered a goblet into the blood and brought it to his lips. Harkon paused, locking eyes with the wrought Ebony visage of Molag Bal. He raised the goblet in a toast. "To ending the Tyranny of the Sun!"

Unfortunately drinking from his Lord's shrine came with a high price. Harkon collapsed onto his knees, clutching at the edge of the fountain. What would it be this time? What vision would his Lord send him? He knew better than to hope for guidance in his time of need. Molag Bal would never give him that when cruelty could be inflicted instead.

The past ensnared Harkon's senses, taking him back as if he were experiencing it anew.

'No. Not that… Anything but that…'

The ritual.

His Lord, brutally taking his daughter in front of his horrified gaze.

"Do not look away, Harkon. Unless you want to die?"

Harkon swallowed hard. He watched, hardly daring to blink. He shuddered, sickened by his illness, but more so by the ritual. It dragged on for hours, although perhaps it was only minutes. A second was eternity in that ordeal.

Molag Bal laughed. "She's already dying. Pity, she'd be the loveliest of my Daughters if she survived." He caressed Serana's ashen skin with sharp claws. "But I haven't finished." Those claws dug in viciously, drawing blood.

Harkon almost closed his eyes, a fatal mistake if not for Valerica's intervention. His eyes widened at his wife's words, ragged with grief:

"Please, my Lord! Take me. Take me now!"

That surprised their Lord. So much that he stopped, and released Serana's dying body before it was too late. He placed a drop of his blood on her throat, blessing her with his gift as a Daughter of Coldharbour.

"You surprise me, Valerica. I've never been begged like that by one of my offerings, not to take them. Continue. But beg me to stop, and I will kill you all."

As Valerica did as he commanded, Molag Bal turned to him. "Harkon, consider your eyes your own again. You'll need them. Carry on where I left off. That's right, take your own daughter."

For the first time Harkon had been thankful for his illness. Weakened by it, he'd taken the Stallion's Potion to prepare for the ceremony. Without that he'd have been unable to perform his Lord Molag Bal's will. Even with it, it was difficult to be physically capable of it, to rise to the occasion, as it were. The travesty of taking his own daughter while his Lord took his wife.

Serana's bloodied, broken body was cooling under his, the drop of his Lord's blood on her throat smoking. Molten silver spread from it, snaking around her neck, rapidly cooling into a collar of ownership with Molag Bal's face glaring from it.

"Serana… Rise."

At Molag Bal's words, her eyes snapped open, glowing with the fires of Coldharbour. Her wounds healed, the ancient blood growing strong within her.

"Do as I command, Harkon. You will be rewarded. Serana, my Daughter… turn him as he takes you."

Her fangs penetrated his neck as he finally girded his loins and took what no father should have to. The only mercy was that Serana never seemed to remember that her own father was forced to wrong her as she sired him.

Valerica's last sight as his beloved mortal wife was what his Lord forced her to see. Her wide, horrified eyes locked with his as their daughter, newly arisen Daughter of Coldharbour, bestowed the blessing of the ancient blood on him.

Pleased, Molag Bal named Harkon His eternal champion and gave him power beyond His Daughters... His Lord had the newly turned Valerica share her own potent blood with him in a triumphant brutal kiss, their fangs piercing lips, blood mingling.

The waking nightmare of the past released him. Harkon was alone again, kneeling before the altar. He traced his lips, still stinging with the memory of long healed wounds.

Harkon revelled in the power it gave him, but that kiss was so cold. As everything was with Valerica after that, despite the eternal bond formed in that kiss, linking them so close they could feel each other's emotions almost as their own. That was why he would know if Valerica was on Nirn. That meant she must be hidden away in some plane of Oblivion. But where?

"Where are you, Valerica, my darling?" Harkon stroked his beard, lost in thought. "Where are you hiding? I would have felt your death. Instead I feel nothing. What blocks our bond, my love?"

In the distance a door creaked open. Harkon stood, and quickly brushed his knees off, listening intently. Only one set of footsteps disturbed the silence of his castle. They weren't heavy enough to be carrying anything either. Whichever of his court had returned empty handed, they had better be bringing news, and for their sake it had better be important. Otherwise he'd be making another sacrifice to Lord Molag Bal. After they went hunting for him first, of course, as that way he'd be spared the indignity of hunting. He didn't want to drink from the shrine ever again if he could avoid it.

"Lord Harkon?" From the shout he knew it was one of his Dunmer fledglings. They had gravelly voices unlike the others.

"In the cathedral," Harkon called back. He turned to the open door as his favourite fledgling walked through it. "Garan. I trust you have news? You would not be fool enough to return without."

"I do, my lord. Forgive me for not returning with your daughter and her pet, but I learned something that may impact on your orders concerning that."

Harkon folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Go on."

"Her pet is allied with the Dawnguard, vampire hunters based in the Rift. They have found a Moth Priest and shelter him in the Dawnguard's fort."

"Then my Scroll has been read? Why did you not bring the priest and the Scroll to me?"

"Even Serana cannot access the fort beyond the threshold, the Dawnguard's security measures drive any vampire back. They keep the Moth Priest inside, out of our reach. As for the reading… I did not overhear it myself, as I could not risk getting close enough to eavesdrop. If I was detected, I fear I would have been unable to return."

"Excuses, Garan? What use are you to me?" Harkon took a threatening step forwards, hands curling into fists.

Garan bowed his head. "Forgive me, my lord. I was alone. My companions were incapable of invisibility and had been slaughtered, either by the Dawnguard or by Serana and her pet. But staying hidden meant that I learned more…"

"Get to the point," Harkon snapped.

"I am, my lord, I am. I enthralled one of the Dawnguard and used her to learn about what the Moth Priest saw in the Scroll. There are two others - three Scrolls contain the entire prophecy. More importantly, it revealed the artefact the prophecy must concern: Auriel's Bow."

"The Bow of the Sun God… Can it be used to end the sun's tyranny?"

"I do not know, my lord, but it seems likely. What are your orders?"

Harkon cupped his chin, stroking his beard as he thought. He wanted his revenge, but couldn't abandon his quest. The Tyranny of the Sun must end.

"Should we hunt for the Scrolls and the Bow, my lord?"

"Yes, Garan. Half of my court are to search for my rightful possessions. But do not give up the hunt for my daughter and her pet. If I know Serana, she's kept the Scroll she stole from me. She won't have left it in the same place as the Moth Priest. Speaking of which, I want that priest."

"Ah. My lord, something else I learned from my thrall is that the Moth Priest is blind now. It's possible he might recover, though."

Harkon resisted the urge to tear at his beard. "Forget the priest, then. Unless he regains his sight. If not, we'll find another." Hopefully when he did get his hands on a Moth Priest again, this time he'd manage to enthral them. The last ones were too strong willed and died before they broke.

"Yes, my lord." Garan cleared his throat. "There was something else."

"What is it?"

"Serana's pet… She is proving far more difficult to capture than we anticipated. I learned why: she is the Dragonborn. The rumoured dragon attacks are very real."

"You are certain of this?" Come to think of it, it would explain the strange scent of the mortal. He'd been unable to identify her race by scent on meeting her, but had dismissed it at the time as being down to interbreeding.

"I witnessed her take a dragon's soul with my own eyes."

"So, this Sithia is the one the Greybeards called for." Their Shout for the Dovahkiin must have been heard all over Tamriel. It had shaken the foundations of his castle, disturbing his slumber months ago.

"Yes, my lord. The time of another prophecy is here, that of Alduin's return and the Last Dragonborn. What are your orders now?"

Harkon scowled. "This changes things," he reluctantly admitted. "Serana's pet is not to be permanently damaged either, not until she ends the threat of the World-Eater. Bring them to me, my daughter and her Dragonborn pet."

Exacting vengeance on his daughter might have to wait until Alduin no longer threatened his domain. This Sithia Dragonborn would slay Alduin for him if given the right incentive… a promise that Serana will survive his judgement of her treason, perhaps. A promise he would eventually break, of course, but Serana would survive until the World-Eater was slain. The more he thought about it, the more he liked it, despite the delay to his revenge. It might mean temporarily having his own pet Dragonborn. Such a soul could not be enthralled, after all.

Harkon looked sharply at Garan. "Was there anything else?"

"Her blood, my lord. It really is dragon blood. It was spilled to make it difficult for us to track them."

"I gift you with ancient blood, and you dare tell me such nonsense?" Harkon snarled. "I may not have hunted in an age, but I remember how. Spilt blood makes it easier!"

"Ordinarily, my lord, yes. But not this time. As I said, it was dragon blood, unlike any other, and overwhelmed our senses. Those who lack control were unable to resist the bloodlust, drawn off the hunt by nearby mortals, and even I struggled. They also took to the sea. The trail was cold by the time we found it again on land."

"I don't care how difficult it is. Find them. Bring them to me. Now, go." Thinking of hunting, though… "Oh, and one last thing: replenish the castle's cattle pens."

"Yes, my lord." Garan bowed. "It shall be done." He turned on his heel and left. The front door creaked shut behind him.

A slow smile spread across Harkon's face. Dragon blood, eh? Just a little longer, exercising the patience of a vampire, and he would regain his Scrolls and taste dragon blood.

The door creaked open again. Harkon's smile faded. Garan couldn't have returned with cattle already. Even his favourite wasn't that competent. Muffled sobbing reached his ears. No, not Garan. He was far too controlled to show such weakness.

"You call yourself a Volkihar?" Harkon shouted. "We are ice, we do not weep. Stop that pathetic nonsense and come before me."

The sobbing ended with a stifled whimper. There was a distinct lack of footsteps approaching.

"Come here. Now!"

Feet shuffled closer. Harkon wasn't surprised by the sight of the snivelling Bosmer appearing in the doorway. Ronthil. The runt. His cheeks still damp, although at least his eyes were now dry. Harkon curled his lip at another reminder that the ancient blood in Ronthil was watered down. Blood did not stain Ronthil's face, unlike when tears escaped Harkon. Not that they ever did in public.

"Speak," Harkon demanded. "You know the price for your flesh remaining on your bones, having returned empty handed."

Ronthil nodded. "Yes, news, my lord, your daughter's pet, she's Dragon—"

"Dragonborn. I know. Garan already shared this information with me. Didn't you see him leaving when you arrived?"

Ronthil shook his head, trembling.

"Interesting." If Ronthil hadn't seen Garan, then why had he been sobbing on arrival? If not the fear that his news had already been shared, then what?

Also of interest was the fact there hadn't been time for Garan to leave the island before Ronthil's arrival. No, there was something far more deliberate at work here. Garan had always been fond of his invisibility. And to use it now… Harkon smiled. The petty infighting of his court amused him. Garan had put Ronthil at quite the disadvantage just by ensuring he left unseen.

"Do you have anything else for me, Ronthil? You know what I'll do if not. I do not make idle threats."

Ronthil swallowed audibly. "My lord, please, I did return with news!"

Harkon started to close the distance between them with slow, menacing steps. "It's not news to me, Ronthil. Does that leave you with nothing?"

Ronthil's eyes were wide, the reek of terror pouring off him. Weakness. That was not tolerated in his court.

"Please, my lord!" Ronthil dropped to his knees, hands clasped. Begging. Unforgivable weakness, if entertaining. "I do… I have something. A message from Serana's pet. We tried to capture her, ten of us. She and another mortal killed them all, except me. Your daughter wasn't there."

Harkon paused, a single step from the runt. "So you were spared to bring me a message. Then share it. Do your duty, messenger."

"I… You won't like it, my lord."

Harkon bared his teeth, fangs descending. "Then you have nothing."

"No, please! It's this: 'Dragons are my prey.' And that you—we, I mean! We are nothing compared to them."

Once he had no need of her, Serana's pet would pay dearly for calling him nothing, and worse, implying that he was less than prey to her. First, though, there was someone very close at hand to suffer for returning with worse than nothing. Stripping the flesh from his bones was the least Ronthil deserved.

"You dare return to me with such an insult?" Harkon breathed. Ronthil flinched as though he'd shouted. He cringed when Harkon let his true form burst forth in a shower of blood.

Harkon's wings beat, lifting his clawed feet from the floor, a red glow flickering beneath them as he drew upon the power of a Vampire Lord. He raised a hand, claws grasping as the gesture brought the magic around Ronthil.

Ronthil dangled in the air, body rigid. Harkon loosened his hold just enough to allow the runt enough movement to speak. A little more begging might be satisfying.

"My lord, please!"

"Thank me, Ronthil."

"Oh, my lord, thank you! Thank you for sparing me, I'm sorry—"

"No, Ronthil."

"My lord?"

"Thank me for putting you out of your misery. You never deserved the ancient blood. Who dared give it to you?"

"My lord, no, please!"

"Then tell me."

"Feran, my lord, it was Feran Sadri!"

"Feran?" His alchemist should have had more sense. It would not go well for him when he returned. If he returned. Had he been one of the vampires slain by Serana's pet? Ronthil would know. "Where is he?"

"Dead. The Dragonborn…"

"I see." Disappointing, to be robbed of his revenge on his foolish fledgling. Something else that his future pet Dragonborn would answer for in the end. "You have outlived your usefulness to me, runt. Give Lord Molag Bal my regards."

The cathedral echoed with the music of Ronthil's screams until Harkon finally allowed his suffering to transfer to Coldharbour. As for his remains, Garmr and CuSith must be hungry.


AN: Poor Ronthil. It would have been far more merciful for Sithia to have killed him. Harkon is very much not a good person, even by vampire standards.

Coming up next: Serana sees the sights of Helgen, battles some bandits, and learns some more about Sithia's past. Then back on the road to Karthspire. Potential hazards en route which may or may not be encountered by Serana and her pet Dragonborn: bandits, Thalmor, Forsworn, bears, wolves and dragons.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: The Painful Past

They reached what was left of Helgen after nightfall, about five days after leaving Fort Dawnguard. It took a little longer than Sithia cared for, tramping through the snow in the pass under the shadow of the Throat of the World. Snowberries with occasional conifers and bare bushes replaced the rich vegetation of the Rift, and once they got down below the snow line more pine trees lined the path. They were now in Falkreath Hold, known for its evergreen forests.

Serana almost stumbled to a halt when she caught sight of Helgen. She'd been expecting devastation. Instead… "Doesn't Alduin breathe fire? The town walls are still standing. They don't look new."

Sithia squinted ahead. Without vampiric sight, she probably couldn't see them too well; especially in the dim light of the moons. "He does. But the walls were still there when I escaped. The damage was inside. I did wonder why Alduin spared them. Perhaps he liked having a captive audience."

They trudged closer. Serana pointed above the walls. "I see smoke. Not much, just a thin trail. Looks like a single fire. Could someone still be living here?"

"I can't imagine why anyone would want to. It's bad enough remembering when it was destroyed without being surrounded by the reminders of it."

"Maybe it's not survivors of the attack, but new inhabitants," Serana suggested. A few steps nearer Helgen and two stakes either side of the gate caught her eye. "Whoever they are, they have a questionable taste in decorations."

"Decorations?"

"By the gate. You'll see."

It wasn't a pretty sight. On the left, a stack of three bloodstained skulls. On the right, the impaled charred remains of a corpse.

Sithia drew her sword. "People who leave trophies like that around don't tend to be friendly." She pushed the gate open. It creaked loudly, breaking the silence of the night. Serana winced. They probably wouldn't be taking the inhabitants by surprise.

Sithia muttered a curse and kicked the gate, the impact muffled by her enchanted boots. She sighed and crept forwards. Serana followed. She caught her breath at her first sight of the ruins of Helgen.

Buildings razed to the ground, piles of rubble scattered all around, blackened splintery planks jutting out of them. Shattered walls, roofless houses, holes torn into stone towers. And a random fallen tree trunk… maybe it had been ripped up and dropped by Alduin. Strangely, not everything had been destroyed; a house beyond the wreckage looked intact. Perhaps spared to deepen the wound by reminding any survivors of what had been lost?

Serana's attention was drawn away by distant footsteps. As they came closer, they brought heartbeats with them into the range of her keen hearing. "We're about to have company," she whispered.

Sithia cursed. "Stupid gate! So much for sneaking up on them. It's been a long day, I'd hoped to deal with them without a fight."

"We can take them."

"I know. Hmm, especially if…" Sithia darted behind Serana, hands unfastening the pack and delving inside it.

"What are you doing?" Serana stumbled, thrown a little off balance. "At least let me take it off first!"

"No need, I've got it."

The pack shifted one last time on Serana's shoulders. Her eyes narrowed. She had a nasty feeling she knew what Sithia was doing. "Got what?"

Sithia gulped something down and tossed aside the bottle. It smashed on the cracked paving, splattering the sickly green dregs.

A stamina potion, damn her.

Before Serana could do more than open her mouth to object, their company arrived. There were four of them, clad in ragged fur armour, wielding the rusty weapons common to most bandits. Except for one of them, empty handed, her hands raised. Not to surrender but to cast. A mage.

"Now ain't this a surprise… fresh meat wandering into our home. Kill them!"

Sithia strode forward, shoulders rising as she inhaled deeply. "FUS RO DAH!"

A ward flared into being around the mage just before her friends were blasted through the ruins of a house behind them, silencing their heartbeats. The mage fell to her knees, magic flickering in her hands before it faded, a telltale that her magicka reserves were drained. Interesting… Perhaps Serana didn't need to fear dragon fire quite so much.

"Fuck, I hate it when that happens," Sithia grumbled. "Wards can take all the fun out of Shouting." She stormed over to the hapless bandit and cut off a plea for mercy. The mage collapsed, her head rolling to a halt in the rubble.

"It's the Dragonborn!" The yell was accompanied by more approaching footsteps.

Serana looked up, eyes tracking what she couldn't yet see. "There's more of them coming."

"Yeah, I hear them too. Great. That's my own fault for Shouting."

"At least these bandits aren't running away."

"Small mercies."

This time five bandits picked their way through the rubble. "Quickly! Before she can Shout again, kill her!"

Now that was nothing less than suicidal. If they somehow managed to kill the Dragonborn they'd all die when Alduin ate the world. Not that they'd succeed if Serana had anything to do with it. Time to teach them not to mess with a necromancer.

Two of the bandits Shouted to death climbed to their feet, a telltale purple glow crisscrossing their skin. They raised their weapons and advanced on their living comrades.

"Necromancer! Kill her!"

Serana readied another handful of conjuration magic. There was still one more relatively intact body, even if the decapitated mage wasn't so useful. She released the spell. It didn't take, the body collapsing into ash instead.

'Impossible.' She might not be quite the necromancer her mother was, but she could raise more than two undead at once!

Her right knee collapsed under her. Serana fell, pain coursing through her, with another jolt of agony when she hit the ground. She glanced down.

"Huh."

An arrow shaft protruded from her knee, complete with ragged feather fletching.

Sithia roared, an incoherent cry of fury.

Serana looked up, and regretted it when her vision swam. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. She cracked her eyes open again and saw Sithia rushing towards the bandits.

"Void take you all!"

The bandits were cursing, fighting the undead Serana had raised, giving time for Sithia to close the distance. A Bosmer archer was backing away and nocking an arrow. He must've been the one responsible for Serana's knee as none of the other bandits held bows.

Serana snarled. She forced away the pain fogging her mind, ice and lightning coalescing in her palms. She hurled one spell after the other into the archer. Sithia's sword reached him just afterwards.

"That'll teach you," Serana muttered.

The remaining bandits didn't last long, not with an enraged Dragonborn so close. Serana let the two she'd raised collapse into ash, turning her attention to her wound.

She gingerly touched the shaft. It really wasn't at the best angle to remove herself, and the way she could feel the wound tightening wasn't good. The blessing of the night was trying to heal her around the arrow.

Sithia knelt beside her, pushing her hands away from the arrow. "Let me. That looks nasty."

"I suppose you might have more experience than me when it comes to dealing with arrow wounds. I've never actually taken one out before."

"I do. A fair amount more than I ever wanted." Sithia removed her gauntlets and gently ran her hands around Serana's knee, including behind it. Presumably gauging how deeply the arrowhead penetrated. She firmly gripped the shaft.

"You don't break the shaft off?"

"That's done to make it easier to move with an arrow in you, and one in the knee cripples that anyway. Or it's done so that it can be pushed out instead of ripped out. But I'm not about to shove it through your knee. I'll be pulling this one out."

Serana gritted her teeth, bracing herself.

Sithia didn't immediately yank it out. "What happened? You froze, that's not like you."

"That was stupid of me, I know. I tried to raise a third bandit. I failed. That's nev—argh!"

Sithia inspected the bloodied arrow. "Good, still intact. You don't want bits of rusty arrow in your knee, or for me to have to go digging for them."

Serana stifled a whimper. "A little warning would've been nice!"

"In my experience it's less painful if you don't expect it."

"How can you not expect it if you removed your own arrows?"

"Even I need help sometimes." Sithia waved the arrow about. "Want to keep it?"

"You're the one with the hobby of collecting things like that, not me."

Sithia tossed aside the arrow. "Suit yourself." She put her gauntlets back on. "As for your necromantic failure… You summon minor Daedra to reanimate the bodies, right?"

"Yes. Do you know why it didn't work?"

"It's because Martin Septim sacrificed himself to seal away the ability to use Daedra to reanimate an undead army. Well, maybe not specifically to do that, but that's what happened when the covenant with Akatosh was renewed."

"Covenant?"

"You were locked away in Dimhollow before it was made between Alessia and Akatosh, and long before the Dragonborn emperors renewed that covenant. There's a barrier between Tamriel and Oblivion now."

"Oh, right. I remember reading about it now. I should've realised what it meant. But if there's a barrier, why can I still reanimate any corpses at all with Daedra?"

Sithia shook her head. "I don't know exactly how the barrier works, but it limits what can pass through it. How's the knee?"

Serana inspected the site of the wound. A little frost magic washed away the blood, revealing unmarked skin. "Good as new."

Sithia stood and offered Serana her hand. "Are you sure you're all right? Knees can be tricky things, there's plenty of guards out there who were adventurers before arrows to the knee changed their career."

"…I think that's a Nordic euphemism for marrying. Being a guard is a steadier career than adventuring. Anyway, the blessing of the night is powerful. Let me prove it." Serana took Sithia's hand and pulled herself up, flexing the joint. "See? It's fine."

"Perhaps you should take a few steps first."

Serana swept Sithia into a brief dance rather than walking normally. She halted with Sithia braced back over her arm at a dramatic angle.

"Happy?"

"Very funny. Come on, let me up. We'd better check we got all of the bandits, then find a good spot to camp for the night."

They wandered through the ruins, Sithia occasionally using her Shout-Whisper-thing before looking in all directions.

"Nothing."

"Agreed." No heartbeats save Sithia's and her own sluggish one.

Sithia pushed her cowl and mask down. She looked beyond weary, and… haunted?

"Sithia?"

"It's just… not a comfortable thought, that far worse than this devastation will happen to the entire world if I don't stop Alduin. This wall hidden at Karthspire had better have something."

"It will. The Aedra aren't known for their cruelty - surely they wouldn't make you Dragonborn if there was nothing you could do to stop him?"

"I'm not convinced Aedra have much to do with the likes of me being Dragonborn. Yes, Akatosh granted dragon blood as a blessing to his chosen, but it's also hereditary. There's been a few bad eggs in the Septim dynasty, and they were all Dragonborn."

"I think you don't give yourself enough credit. You're not a bad person."

Sithia looked away. "I'm not as bad as I was. I'm not sure that's saying—" Her eyes widened. "Well, fuck me. Of all the things that survived," she muttered.

"What?" Serana turned. "Oh. Is that…"

"The block my head was on when Alduin attacked? Yes." Sithia wandered over to it and bent down, running her fingers over the notched wood. "Still has bloodstains." She straightened up and took a ragged breath. "It was wet and warm from an impatient Stormcloak who hurried to his execution before his name was called."

Serana wrapped an arm around Sithia. "That's even worse than I thought. Seeing someone lose their head right before…" She shook her head. "Well, this is awkward. I'm going to have to thank Alduin when we next see him."

Sithia snorted. "I wouldn't worry about that. Certainly not considering what he did right after he interrupted my execution." She gestured at what was left of Helgen. "He also tried to roast me a few times that day. I think he knew I'm Dragonborn and just didn't want a pathetic mortal to be the one to kill me."

Serana flinched at the thought and tightened her arm around Sithia. Any vampire didn't like the idea of burning, and that extended to those she cared about.

Sithia gave her a brief squeeze back before she gently drew away. "Come on, that house looks like it might be sound enough to shelter in overnight."

The house wasn't quite as intact as it looked from the gates of Helgen, as a tree trunk had knocked a hole in the thatch. But apart from that the roof was still standing, and there was a bed inside: complete with pillows and furs.

While Sithia saw to the fire burning in the hearth, feeding it the wood handily piled up next to it, Serana dealt with the bodies. She briefly raised them two at a time and let them collapse into ash. It meant the stench of death wouldn't disturb either of them, or attract any hungry predators hoping for an easy meal.

When she returned to the house she found Sithia tucking into a stew one of the bandits must have made. She waited until Sithia had finished before raising something that had been puzzling her ever since she'd learned about it:

"I don't understand something. Your Thalmor dossier said you were caught by Imperials escorting captured Stormcloaks here. How did they manage that? You're, well, you're you."

"The damn Dragonborn, yes. But that was before I slew my first dragon. I couldn't Shout at the time. And you have to remember that I wasn't exactly at my best that day." Sithia sighed. "I hadn't slept or even rested in too long. I was fleeing a Thalmor execution squad, and came far too close to freezing when going through the Pale Pass. I didn't have this enchantment on my armour back then. My attention was on the road behind me, so I blundered straight into the Imperials. One blow to the head later, and the next thing I knew…"

"You saw that Stormcloak executed?"

Sithia shook her head. "Not quite. I woke up in the back of a carriage, my head on Ulfric fucking Stormcloak's shoulder. With a splitting headache too, and my hands were bound too tight for me to focus my magic. So I had the displeasure of suffering through the next hour from Oblivion before I could heal myself."

"How did you know it was Ulfric Stormcloak?"

"I recognised him from wanted posters in Cyrodiil, although they hadn't got his nose quite right. That and one of his Stormcloaks was aboard the carriage too and let his name slip."

"What did Ulfric have to say?"

Sithia snorted. "Nothing. They'd gagged him to keep him from Shouting."

"Ulfric can Shout?"

"He supposedly Shouted High King Torygg into pieces. I find it more likely that he Shouted him to the ground and used a sword. Even I can't Shout someone apart. Anyway, the thing is there was nothing to stop him from reaching up and pulling the gag out, even with his hands tied."

"Maybe he was trying not to get his men killed?"

"They were being taken to their executions," Sithia scoffed. "He'd already got them killed."

Serana sighed. "What did you do? I'm sure you did something to make it even harder to clear your Windhelm bounty."

Sithia tried to look innocent. "Nothing."

Serana raised an eyebrow.

"Nothing much."

Serana folded her arms.

"I kicked him and stamped on his foot. He deserved it! If not for him, I wouldn't have been caught crossing the border into this miserable province!" Sithia cleared her throat. "No offence."

"None taken. Parts of Skyrim can be pretty dreary, and you didn't have the best welcome to it."

"It was even worse than you know. When we arrived in Helgen, I saw Elenwen."

Serana stiffened. "Elenwen was there? Her commentary in your dossier didn't mention that."

"She was talking with the Imperial leader, General Tullius." Sithia shuddered. "She looked straight at me and smiled. The idea of being back in her hands again…"

Serana put an arm around her shoulders. "She's dead."

Sithia reached up to squeeze her hand. "I can never thank you enough for that."

"It's just a pity Alduin didn't eat her."

"She wasn't with Tullius when he came to oversee the executions. She must've left after getting him to agree to execute me. After the impatient Stormcloak lost his head, Tullius had a word with the captain, pointing at me. For a horrible moment I thought I'd been spared." Sithia nudged Serana. "Don't look at me like that. I didn't want to die, it's just… Better death than ending up at her complete lack of mercy again."

"She didn't suffer enough," Serana hissed.

Sithia's hand tightened on hers. "You'd have risked capture if you'd lingered. I much prefer having you here with me and Elenwen dead." She let her hand drop. "Anyway, Alduin landed on top of that tower overlooking the block when the axe was raised over my head. I'm lucky the headsman staggered so that it didn't come down on my neck."

"How did you escape with your hands tied?"

"Alduin set a lot of things on fire that day. I burned the bindings."

Serana twitched at the thought of flames enveloping her wrists. "Didn't that burn you too?"

"Yes, but I needed to heal myself anyway, what with the knock I'd taken to my head. Which made it harder to concentrate on the spell, but I've managed through worse pain before."

Serana almost asked what the worst had been, but changed her mind with a wince; what she could imagine was bad enough.

"As for how I escaped after that… I'm still not sure how I wasn't crushed or burned alive like so many others in that mad dash through burning buildings. Perhaps the most frightening thing was witnessing arrows bouncing off his scales, and the fireballs cast by Imperial Battlemages do no more than tickle him." Sithia's breath caught. "No. No, it was when he plucked up an archer and dropped him to plunge to his death right in front of me."

Great. Something else for her to dread happening to her Dragonborn. Thinking of nightmares like that, though… Serana looked doubtfully at the bed. "Are you sure you're going to be all right sleeping here?"

"And pass up sleeping in an actual bed for once? I'm used to dealing with nightmares. Helgen just provided a little variety." Sithia gently extricated herself from Serana, stood and stretched. "Besides, I'm tired enough that I shouldn't have a problem sleeping." She grimaced and muttered, "I hope."

Sithia crossed over to the bed, unbuckled her sword, and sat down to take off her boots. She tugged her cowl off but didn't remove her armour, merely unlacing it a little. Serana could hardly blame her for not feeling safe enough to do so. She started to lie back, but paused, propping herself up on an elbow.

"Care to feed directly?" Sithia tugged the neck of her armour down a little, deliberately baring her neck.

Serana wasn't even conscious of moving. Suddenly she was perched next to Sithia, fangs unsheathed.

Sithia blinked and chuckled. "I'll take that as a yes."

"Are you sure it's safe enough? This isn't the same as being in a settlement."

"Close enough. We're not camped on the road but behind walls."

One gentle bite later and Serana sealed her lips over the wound, fangs retracting. She closed her eyes, stifling a moan as tasty dovah sos filled her mouth. It was perhaps not at its tastiest, though, slightly bitter with the lingering memories haunting Sithia in this place. But to Serana's surprise the predominant emotion flavouring Sithia's blood was worry.

Not worry about Alduin, but about Serana herself.

Serana drew away, swallowing her mouthful of blood. "It was just a single arrow, and it only hit my knee. I'm fine."

"This time, yes. But what about next time we get attacked? And what if it's during the day? You can't heal in sunlight."

"That's not quite true. I can heal if I feed." Serana pointedly eyed the bite on Sithia's neck. Blood trickled from it, tempting her to latch on again. But that would distract them both from the topic at hand, and it did need discussing.

"To do that you need permission. Come to think of it… you can feed from me whenever you want."

Serana's eyes widened, and jerked her head up to meet Sithia's gaze. "Are you sure?"

Sithia nodded. "You've more than earned my trust by now. Besides, I don't like the thought of you needing to feed and me being unable to give you permission for whatever reason." She bit her lip. "But there's still a problem with healing that way. What if I'm not in a fit state to feed you?"

"I actually had feeding from our attackers in mind. It'd be too distracting for both of us to feed from you. But thank you." Her eyes dropped to Sithia's lips. The temptation to demonstrate her gratitude with a kiss was almost overwhelming. She leant closer. Sithia's lips parted as she inhaled sharply. Preparation for Shouting? Serana turned her head at the last moment and kissed her cheek instead. Still pushing her luck, but hopefully not too much.

"Living dangerously," Sithia purred. "I'll let it pass this time… I never mentioned my lips when it came to kissing me uninvited."

Considering Sithia had just invited her to feed at any time, it surely wouldn't take much for that other invitation to be forthcoming. Serana hoped.

"Anyway, feeding might still not work if these attackers are out of your reach. Archers, for instance." Sithia patted Serana's knee.

"There's a spell, one I believe you're familiar with. The one that infected you right before we met? Vampiric Drain. It's not as fast as feeding, but it would get me out of danger."

"It'd still be safer for you if we switch to travelling at night."

Serana folded her arms. "But not for you."

"I can take stamina—"

"I'd rather you didn't." It came out far frostier than Serana intended.

Sithia stiffened. "You're not trying to tell me what to do, are you?" The tone was conversational, but with a edge of steel to it.

"Sorry. It's just I'm far too familiar with the dangers of those things. I took too many once, back when I was human. I was at the College of Winterhold, and out from under my mother's watchful eye for once. I… overdid it."

"I see." Sithia relaxed. "Which is why you're so concerned about me when I take them. The thing is, you weren't supervised, were you? I was. Rasha trained me well. I only have them when I need to, and I know when to stop. What's more; I actually don't like the flavour of them, and don't care for the kick they give me. Sometimes I just don't have a choice, like right before fighting those bandits. I may be in my prime, but I'm getting older and feeling it. Even in my youth I had to use those things when working at night."

"If only you were a vampire," Serana muttered, too quietly for Sithia to hear.

"Besides, I might need them to stay sharp at night anyway. If you're right, then your father's minions are only hunting all the harder for us after my little message."

"There's still a limit. You can't travel at night all the time."

"I know. Because I can't take stamina potions every single night." Sithia sighed. "It seems we're at an impasse."

Thinking of potions… "There might be another solution. It's possible to bottle blood like a potion, although it needs some preparation and special bottles enchanted to keep the blood fresh." Not to mention warm. Cold blood just wasn't the same.

"Do you know the enchantment?"

"Yes, but I'll still need some soul gems."

Sithia pointed to her pack. "Help yourself. There should be some empty bottles you can use too."

"Thanks, I will when I'm next at an enchanting station. And I'm amazed there are any such bottles, the way you throw them away after drinking potions."

"Oh, I do, but someone has been picking up after me. I wonder who that could be," Sithia drawled.

"You're welcome."

"I suppose these blood potions are a solution, once you can make them. And it does mean you won't need to feed from anyone else."

Serana blinked. "Is that jealousy?"

Sithia flushed.

"It is!" Serana couldn't help grinning.

Sithia glared at her. "Would you like the idea of anyone else feeding from me?"

That wiped the smile off Serana's face. "No."

"Well, I don't like the idea of you feeding from anyone else either." Sithia touched the still bleeding bite on her neck. She held her fingers up, inspecting the bloodied tips. "Don't worry, I'm not about to feed any other vampires if I can help it."

"Glad to hear it. And you know there's no one else I'd rather feed from. No one else I've fed from since we met has enjoyed it either. I'm rather gentler with you."

"Good. But when you do have these potions, where we can… where it's safe, it'd be rather more enjoyable for both of us if you feed from me directly. Speaking of which, care to finish?" Sithia tapped her neck.

"In a moment. I just wanted to say that I think we're fine to travel during the day before I have blood potions. Besides, do we really have time to wait until tomorrow night to travel again?

Sithia glanced outside into the moonlit ruins, no doubt imagining Alduin wreaking such havoc elsewhere. "I don't like it, but you have a point." She beckoned to Serana.

Serana latched back on.


Tired and satiated, Sithia dropped off to sleep before she could heal herself. Serana lifted her head and licked her lips, eyeing the bite. She shook herself. No. She'd taken enough. Besides, that richest and sweetest blood would be muted by slumber now. That and she'd rather not feed from Sithia when she was sleeping. It should be when she was awake to enjoy it.

Serana sighed and retrieved a healing potion from Sithia's pack, tipping a bit onto her fingers to dab directly onto the wound. It closed, leaving the faintest scar. Clearly a potion wasn't a match for Sithia's spellcasting, but it would have to do.

Serana reached over to pull one of the furs on the bed over Sithia, tucking her in. That also made the scent a little weaker and less tempting. It had been so hard to resist doing more when feeding, to manually drive Sithia to release first… But no. That wasn't something she'd do without Sithia's consent, even if it wouldn't get her Shouted through the roof. She glanced up at the hole in the thatch. Well, through what was left of one around here.

Maybe next time she fed directly it could be from a satiated Sithia. To start feeding right at that moment, that spike of pleasure… Nothing tasted better. Either that or continue feeding a little longer after Sithia climaxed. Unfortunately it was just a little awkward to ask as things stood. But considering she already had permission to feed whenever she wanted mere days after first being allowed, it wouldn't be much longer before they were more… involved. Right?

It was just a pity that it was really only feeding whenever it was safe enough, not anytime and anywhere. Not to mention that she'd never be able to take as much as she wanted. She couldn't risk Sithia like that. Normally she limited herself to trying not to kill when she fed. With her Dragonborn she had to take less or it would weaken Sithia, magical healing or not.

Serana sighed. She needed a distraction. The hole left by the arrow in her leggings caught her eye. She'd never really cared for embroidery, but her mother's insistence that she learn should serve her well now. She retrieved Sithia's mending kit from her pack and threaded the needle. It took pricking herself a few times before she resigned herself to undressing, sitting there naked from the waist down. She hurriedly stitched together the hole. An attack like this would be so embarrassing.

Serana relaxed once she'd pulled her leggings and boots back on. She put the kit away and inspected her handiwork. It wasn't the neatest, but it'd do. Her mother could doubtless do better, wherever she was. Perhaps now was a good time to give some more thought to where on Nirn or in Oblivion she was hiding…

Well, not Nirn. Not with the bond her parents shared. Serana didn't know how they'd done it, but they could feel each other's emotions. That meant Harkon would be able to use that to track her mother down if she were anywhere on the same plane.

The problem with Oblivion, besides the obvious dangers of the denizens, was which of the myriad realms, and how to recreate the portal her mother must have used?

"Where are you?" Serana whispered.

"Somewhere safe, out of your father's reach. Someplace he would never search."

The last words her mother had said to her. Frustratingly cryptic. Yet maybe there was a clue there. Even within his own castle there was a place Harkon couldn't stand: the courtyard. He'd always found it too peaceful. While Valerica wouldn't be anywhere in the castle, she might have left something there that might give Serana some idea where to look. It was at least a start.

But for now Serana decided to say nothing to Sithia. Best not reveal that it looked like they'd have to go back to Castle Volkihar after that message enraged Harkon, not until they actually had to—

Serana hurried back to the bed. Sithia's heart was racing. A strangled whimper escaped her, and she thrashed around under the furs. It was time to wake up her Dragonborn before she Shouted down what was left of the roof. After moving her dagger out of reach, of course.

Serana perched on the edge of the bed and gently shook Sithia awake.

Sithia sat bolt upright with a strangled scream, hand flailing for where her dagger had been.

"You all right?" Serana sighed. "I knew it was a bad idea to camp here."

"No." Sithia shook her head, hugging her knees. "No, this was a different beheading. Besides, I can't escape my nightmares no matter where I go."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Want? No. But maybe I do need to." Sithia averted her gaze, looking instead at embers of the dying fire. "Elenwen broke me, but what I neglected to mention is that she wasn't responsible for the absolute worst the Thalmor did to me."

"What did they do? Kill someone close to you? A friend?"

Sithia's lips twisted. "More than that."

Serana winced, and wrapped an arm around her. "I'm sorry. Who was she?"

Sithia gave her a sidelong glance. "He. An Altmer."

Serana blinked. "He?"

"Yes, he. I like both. Do you have a problem with that?"

"I… No, I just had no idea."

"Man, mer, woman, beast-man, beast-woman… vampire…" Sithia looked pointedly at Serana. "I don't care. It's all the same to me."

"Just how many relationships have you had? If you don't mind my asking."

"Why? Afraid you have competition?"

"If I had competition, I think you'd have mentioned it by now. I want to know because I want to know you. Everything about you."

Sithia sighed, and continued in a resigned voice. "Three. A Khajiit, an Altmer, and a Redguard. But if I count everyone who has fucked me, add an Argonian or few, a Breton, a Nord and a Dunmer or two. And Elenwen."

There was a moment of horrified silence. "You said you don't do casual." Serana's voice shook.

"I did before…" Sithia grimaced. "Up until I was about nineteen. I don't now. Not by choice, and not when I'm sober."

"I'll kill them. Anyone who touched you without your consent."

Sithia opened her mouth, but cocked her head to the side and shrugged. "I suppose those times I was drunk makes my consent rather dubious. But you'll have difficulty killing them. Fucking me, whether I was willing or not, seems to be a death sentence. Maybe not instantly, but eventually. Come to think of it, you'd be better off if we don't get involved. I don't want to risk you."

Serana put her hands on Sithia's shoulders. "That's my risk to take. Besides, you're the mortal one here. I'm the one risking losing you to death."

"That's what I thought, that it was my beloved who would eventually be bereaved, until Tiber was killed. Being a young Altmer, he should have had centuries ahead of him."

"Tiber? Isn't that an Imperial name?"

"It is, but in this case it was a taken name."

"What happened?"

"I'll tell you, but no interruptions, please. The only way I can do this is to get it all out in one go—" Sithia's voice broke, and she took a ragged breath before continuing, "—or I won't be able to.

"Once upon a time there was a young Altmer, son of dissidents murdered by the Thalmor. He was rescued and recruited by the Blades, spies for the Mede Emperors, and bodyguards and spies of the Dragonborn Septim dynasty before that. He took the name Tiber as his own; after the mortal Talos, his newly discovered patron god. As an Altmer, Tiber had been raised to revere the Eight, not the Nine. But the Blades were the most devoted of Talos worshippers, and Tiber became one too.

"When the Great War broke out, Tiber fought valiantly against fanatics of his own race for the sake of his adopted family and friends. To no avail, for with the signing of the White-Gold Concordat the Blades were disbanded and hunted down. His friends and comrades killed, Tiber only survived because he blended in with the Thalmor, serving his friends by warning them of danger where he could.

"As a Thalmor guard Tiber witnessed many atrocities, and was forced to take part in them to maintain his cover. Murders of Talos worshippers, Blades and Altmer dissidents he could not warn in time… and torture of prisoners. Including a Dark Brotherhood assassin. He was responsible for ensuring she didn't die, for he wasn't only a guard but a talented healer.

"When the opportunity came, Tiber took the chance to orchestrate a daring raid, with the help of fellow Talos worshippers, those he served in secret as their priest."

'Priest?' Serana thought, remembering what Sithia had told her. She could guess where this was going. Tiber must be the priest who rescued Sithia from the Thalmor. The one who put her back together afterwards…

"They freed every prisoner in the Imperial City embassy, releasing those unable to be moved in time into Sovngarde or Aetherius, depending on the beliefs of the wretches.

"His friends did not want to give the assassin any help, not even release in death. Tiber spoke harshly to them, for they did not understand. He had committed atrocities too, he did not feel he was any better. Even if he hadn't, Tiber had witnessed everything Elenwen did, and did what little he could to care for the assassin afterwards without arousing suspicion.

" "No one deserves that, not even the worst of the Thalmor." With that, Tiber took the assassin in his arms and carried her out to freedom, after singeing his identification documents and ditching them in a pile of ash; remains of a guard.

"In hiding Tiber nursed the assassin back to health, her body recovered if bearing scars for the rest of her days. His friends still did not understand, for she was unresponsive. Alive, but dead inside. But Tiber didn't give up. He kept healing her, hands clasped to her head, spells gradually restoring what he could not see. For not all scars are physical.

"Magic has its limits, for only at the end of Evening Star, after four long months of caring for her when no one else would, did she finally speak:

" "Why the fuck do you bother?"

" "Because Talos gave me a chance, so he would surely give you a chance too. So you're an assassin, so what! Talos is the god of war, not of peace. He has no problem with killing. What he does have a problem with is those who persecute innocents, and especially those innocents that worship him. Gives him a bad reputation that he can't protect them, you know. But as with all Aedra, it is up to those worshippers to help themselves."

" "I worship neither Aedra nor Daedra."

" "I know, Sithia. I don't care. I still want you."

" "What?!"

" "To join me. Not… I mean, you're… You're beautiful and deadly and… and… and I think I could easily fall in love with you and not just in lust, but… I mean…"

" "Get to the point, you stupid Altmer."

" "Join me. Help me kill the Thalmor. As many as we can, before they kill us. There's too many of them for us to win, but we can take plenty of them with us before we die fighting."

" "I don't intend to die."

" "Nor do I. What do you say? Shall we kill together?"

"The assassin kissed the priest in reply. For she was in lust too. From that day on, they were truly inseparable. Killing Thalmor together by night, sleeping together by day.

"He taught her of the ways of Talos, of defending the innocent instead of preying on them. Raised to be a remorseless killer, the influence of her Altmer rescuer and his god changed her; cursing her with a conscience. For it was a curse at the time. The backlog of guilt for everything she'd done… It hurt worse than Elenwen's torture. Hunting Thalmor became her search for redemption, condemning them to the Void. Tiber was with her through it all, his faith both in her and in Talos aiding her spiritual healing as he'd done for her physical recovery.

"A year passed that way, as constant companions, until one day they spoke as one:

" "I love you. Be mine?"

"That formalised their relationship. Defined them together. They went from fucking to making love. So naturally.

"They talked of marriage. They grew overconfident. Their success blinded them to the danger. Tiber thought he had been wrong, that the Thalmor would never catch them after all. He thought they would have a future together, that their luck would hold. The only thing he feared was outliving her. He was still young for an Altmer. She was mostly Imperial, if with some Breton blood. Not enough to prolong her lifespan. Within fifty years, she would be old. Within seventy, almost certainly dead.

"Still, Tiber would rather to have loved and lost than never loved at all. He would take what he could get. Besides, even when death robbed him of her, their children should live longer.

"They had no happily ever after. The handsome priest was murdered by Thalmor Justiciars not even an hour after the wedding. There would be no half-Altmer children." Sithia closed her eyes, tears trickling down her cheeks.

Wait, Sithia had wanted children? Yet she clearly hated them now, if not outright feared. Serana bit her tongue. Now was really not the time to ask.

"The assassin survived the attack. Barely. The Thalmor had taken everything from her. But suicide wasn't her style. She spent the next decade hunting down and killing every Thalmor Justiciar she could instead. For a Justiciar had robbed her of the love of her life."

Did that mean… Was Sithia capable of loving anyone else? Serana swallowed hard against the tightness in her throat. "I'm sorry. I had no idea…"

"I've told you before, don't apologise for things that had nothing to do with you." Sithia's voice was back to its normal clipped harshness.

"I'm still sorry. I made you revisit—"

"You had no way of knowing what you were asking. Don't apologise, I'd already had the nightmare anyway. Besides, it's better that you know."

Hesitantly, Serana wrapped an arm around Sithia. She wasn't pushed away as she had feared. Instead Sithia leaned into her, turning to face her. That left barely any space between their lips. Serana fought against the almost irresistible impulse to close that gap, to claim a kiss.

Sithia's gaze slipped between Serana's eyes and lips. Her tongue darted out to wet her own lips. "Serana…"

Serana swallowed, hard, at the sheer amount of want in that single word.

It felt like Sithia was about to finally invite that kiss. Something she wanted so much, but not like this. It would be taking advantage of Sithia's grief, and she couldn't help but fear that Sithia would really be wanting Tiber, the one she'd loved and lost.

'No.' Not now.

Serana reached up to tenderly brush a stray hair from Sithia's cheek, and pulled her into a tight embrace, lips against Sithia's ear. "Let's go kill some Thalmor."

Sithia half-laughed, half-sobbed, "And they say that romance is dead." She shook her head. "Unfortunately, unless we run into a Thalmor patrol, we'll have to wait until we've taken care of my fucking duty to save the world."

"At least that's more likely now they'll be looking for me?"

"Hmph. Following the route on my map probably means we won't meet any of them. Oh well. Now's not the time to go looking for trouble."

"No, now's the time you tried to get some more sleep." Serana gently pulled away, but kept her hands on Sithia's shoulders.

Sithia stifled a yawn. "I suppose you're right," she grudgingly admitted. "If I can." She lay back down. Serana helped rearrange the furs and started to step back, reasoning that Sithia would surely want some space now.

Instead Sithia's hand shot out and caught her wrist. "Stay. Talk to me. The distraction might help. Besides, judging by the look on your face, you still have questions."

Serana sat back down and attempted to adopt a neutral expression. Not easy when curiosity came so naturally to her.

Sithia rolled her eyes. "Let me guess, you want to know why I hate children so much when I was going to have my own with Tiber."

"Well, yes. If you don't mind."

"It would've been different with my own, I think. And Skyrim's children are a mockery of what a child should be. I don't know what's wrong with them, but they aren't like kids I've seen anywhere else."

"I'll admit that Redguard with the pale hands is strange, but the other children I've seen around are normal."

"If you say so." Sithia looked away. "Perhaps part of it is that the only kids I've seen in Skyrim are around the age that my own would have been, if the Thalmor hadn't…"

Serana took Sithia's hand in both of her own. "I'm sorry."

Sithia sighed. "Again with the apologising for things out of your control!"

"Sorry." Serana felt her lips curling as she tried and failed to suppress a smile.

Sithia freed her hand to swat at her. "Anything else?"

"Well, I have been wondering why you don't use destruction magic in combat. You're clearly capable of it with how you destroyed that dossier."

Sithia pinched the bridge of her nose. "I could ask you why you avoid using fire magic."

"Most vampires do. Even when I was human I didn't actually know any. Frost and shock have always been my specialities."

"Interesting. I've always known the basic flames spell, that and healing."

"Maybe it's another racial variation?"

"Perhaps. But back to your question: don't you remember that damned dossier mentioning how my back was branded?"

Serana winced. "Sorry, I should have remembered that."

Sithia patted her hand. "Don't worry about it. Any other burning questions?"

"Not right now." It wasn't a lie, so Serana managed to say it with no consequence from the other blood oath she'd sworn. Because she couldn't help but wonder how healthy Sithia's relationship with Tiber was – his participation, however unwilling, in her torture, and her falling in love with one of her captors. At least it had been Tiber rather than Elenwen… But that wasn't really a topic she wanted to bring up with her Dragonborn. Not now, probably not ever.

Sithia nudged her. "Come on, distract me."

"I'm not sure asking questions is really helping you sleep."

"Then read to me. Please."

"You want a bedtime story?" Serana tried not to smile at that. The big bad Dragonborn, asking for a story like a child.

"Next you'll be complaining there's no book to read from."

"I don't need a book when I have a perfectly good memory," Serana muttered, mentally running through the stories she knew well enough that weren't too tragic. Definitely not Fjori and Holgeir. Hmm. Unless she modified it…

"Once upon a time there lived a huntress and a warlord, leaders of rival clans. They met in a duel rather than leaving the fight to their followers. The victor would claim the combined throne. Why waste life when both clans could be greater by merging? But as fate would have it they shared the throne, for they fought to a standstill. Sword broke axe, shield dulled blade. Truly equals, they fell in love as they'd won each other's respect.

"The clans combined. The huntress and warlord ruled in peace… until the warlord was poisoned by a jealous former suitor. Now the huntress hunted for a cure. She travelled far, crossing mountains and oceans, until she found the antidote. She returned in haste, snatching her warlord from the grip of Sovngarde before he could finish crossing from life.

"But the snake was still in their court, and poisoned the huntress this time, even as she poured the last of the antidote into the warlord's mouth." Serana gave in to the urge for a dramatic pause. "The warlord woke from his deathlike sleep and shared the antidote with his love in a desperate kiss, snatching her from death as she had done him."

"And they killed the snake," Sithia slurred, her eyes closed.

"Go to sleep, Sithia."

"Mmm." Sithia rolled over and her breathing slowed.

Serana stayed close for the rest of the night, to be on hand in case of more nightmares. But Vaermina had finished tormenting Sithia for the night, and she slept soundly until dawn broke.


They left Helgen on the road towards Falkreath, the gateway marked by another charming impaled burnt corpse and head. At least the lingering scent of charred flesh was soon taken away by the aroma of pine needles crushed underfoot, as the road took them through the forest. Ferns burst from the carpet of needles under the trees, beginning to show signs of new growth.

The day's travel was uneventful, apart from encountering a rickety wooden bridge over the road with a boulder trap suspended underneath it. The bandits didn't live long enough to trigger it, but Sithia didn't trust in their questionable construction skills and knocked the whole lot down with a blast of Unrelenting Force. They walked on, picking their way through the wreckage of splintered wood and smashed stone.

The road ran above Falkreath. Serana paused briefly to take in the view of the ancient Nordic ruin built into the mountain to the north. And of the Hold capital below, all buildings mostly timber and thatched roofs, smoke rising from many fireplaces. The Jarl's hall was of course the tallest building; three times the height of everything else.

"Come on, we can visit Falkreath at some other time." Sithia grabbed her hand and gently tugged her back into walking, down the slope to join the road leading out of the city.

"We're not stopping in Falkreath?"

"Only if we want to ignore my map. It's tempting, but…"

"Best not." Serana resigned herself to feeding indirectly the next morning. No matter how recently she'd had the intimacy of feeding properly she couldn't help wanting more. She sighed. Bottled blood wasn't going to be quite the same, even from Sithia. Whatever emotion her Dragonborn felt when the bottle was filled would be all Serana would get to taste. And that wouldn't be Sithia at her best - she'd hardly be doing it when… satisfied.

Hopefully they'd still manage a few stops safe enough for a direct feed, even with their need for haste. Sithia pulled on her hand again, leading her on into the growing gloom of twilight.


The next day their route took them around Lake Ilinalta. No dangers reared their ugly heads apart from slaughterfish in the shallows. They could hardly jump out of the water at them, so Serana refrained from taking potshots. Particularly as Sithia grumbled that they tasted foul anyway.

Serana also smelled vampires around a mill beside the lake, but they were only thin blooded, and Sithia told her they ran the mill. Presumably they kept their business separate from their meals, or they'd soon run out of customers.

Other than that the day was uneventful. The same could not be said of the third day after leaving Helgen. Not long after they set off they met a Nord couple, their clothing singed.

"It was a dragon! It happened so fast… One minute the dragon was there, the next it was gone. Everything was destroyed. We lost our home, our livestock... We barely have enough gold to get by."

Sithia dropped her head into her hands, dragging them down her face as she lifted it. "Look to your Jarl for compensation. I'm the Dragonborn, but I'm not made of money. Come to that, I'm not even paid for slaying dragons."

"You're the Dragonborn? Maybe… even if you can't spare any gold, could you slay that big black bastard?"

'Alduin.' Serana exchanged a look with Sithia.

"Him again…" Sithia muttered. "Perhaps this time I'll catch him. Where was he?"

"Our farm is maybe an hour down the road, and the dragon was heading north. Good luck!"

Serana paused long enough to give the farmers the gold she'd earned from satisfying Sithia's curiosity back in Whiterun. There was no guarantee they'd get anything from the Jarl, and judging by the extra faint heartbeat she could hear the wife was pregnant. That done, and their thanks following her, she hurried after her Dragonborn. Sithia had unsurprisingly quickened her pace.

Once she caught up, Sithia glanced at her before returning her gaze to the horizon and scowling. "I don't like this."

"Who would? But it must be even worse for you after Helgen."

"I'm actually puzzled about that. So far, Helgen's the only real settlement he's destroyed so far. Farms aren't the same."

"I suppose he's largely occupied with resurrecting his brethren."

"That is what he's been doing most of the times I've seen him." Sithia grimaced, and shook her head. She looked east, towards the sun. "But what I really don't like is that we might catch up to him in daylight. You don't have any blood potions yet, and he breathes fire!"

Serana slipped ahead to rest her hands on Sithia's shoulders.

Sithia almost walked into her, stumbling to a halt. "Damn it, Serana!"

"I'm not leaving you to fight him alone."

Sithia hissed through her teeth. "There isn't time to argue. Come if you must."

They rushed on, finding the burnt out farmhouse within the hour, but no other sign of Alduin.

After quickly walking on for a couple of hours, Sithia spoke up. "You hear that?"

Serana looked around. It didn't take long for her to pick up on what Sithia meant. "Eerie, isn't it?" It was deathly quiet. No birds sang in the tees. No deer or wolves ran through the ferns.

"It means we're on the right track. Everything lies low when dragons are around. Well, everything with any sense…"

Despite the signs Alduin had been around, they didn't catch sight of him until the sun was setting. The road was sloping down through the last of the pine forest, emerging onto the plain of Whiterun Hold, the tundra spreading out before them.

Serana heard the thunderous wingbeats even as she saw the familiar big black dragon, hovering over the slight hump of an ancient barrow beside the road.

"There!" Serana pointed.

Sithia broke into a run.

A pillar of light streamed up from the burial mound even as Alduin began his ritual. "Vuljotnaak, Ziil gro dovah ulse!"

Dark-Maw-Eat, your soul is bound to me for eternity!

Even sprinting headlong towards a fire breathing dragon, Serana still absently wondered how Alduin knew the dragon's name. From what she knew of the fall of the dragon cult no dragons witnessed the burials.

Sithia skidded to a halt at the edge of the dragon's grave, drawing a deep breath. "FUS RO DAH!"

The same Shout that had knocked a lesser dragon from the sky didn't make Alduin so much as blink.

That great horned head turned, and glowing red eyes glared. "Dovahkiin," he snarled. "I am Alduin, firstborn of Akatosh, and you dare speak first? Ignorant joor! The elder speaks first. Now behold how a true dovah should use their Voice!"

"Fuck," Sithia breathed.

"FUS RO DAH!"

The wall of force blasted them both off their feet.

A rush of air and stinging sunlight.

A sickening snap and splintering wood.

A choked cry of pain. Ragged, wheezing breathing. The mouthwatering scent of blood. Faltering heartbeats.


AN: Many thanks to Gaunty for betaing! Also thanks to glitchfarming for the idea that Ulfric could have pulled his gag out if he really wanted to.

Coming up next: Vampire versus dragon.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Tooth and Claw

Serana was barely aware of hitting the ground. She skidded to a dizzying stop, miraculously not hitting anything herself. Unlike Sithia. Serana's mind tormented her with the echoes of that sickening snap of breaking bone and splintering of shattered wood. That strangled cry of pain.

She rolled to her feet, wincing as new aches made themselves known. Her cloak had protected her from the worst of the bruising impact with the ground, but it still hurt to move. Serana gritted her teeth, forcing past the pain. Sithia was far worse off; Serana could smell her blood. A lot of it.

Dreading what she'd see, Serana looked to where that horrible sound came from, to where Sithia's strained heartbeat and ragged breathing still came. To what was left of a dead tree. Sithia lay in a crumpled heap under it in a spreading pool of blood.

"Fuck." Serana sprinted to Sithia's side, removing the pack and retrieving an armful of healing potions as she ran. She absently wished that tree had been one of the occasional pines… the foliage would have provided some cushioning.

She dropped to her knees besides Sithia, quickly removing the worst of the splinters piercing her. Sithia wouldn't be able to heal if she didn't. She tipped one of the potions directly on the wounds, almost missed, her hands trembling—

"SLEN TIID VO!" The ground shook, and Serana almost fell on top of Sithia, catching herself just in time. Serana glanced over and saw the burial mound had exploded, and an articulated dragon skeleton was crawling out of it, flesh and scales rapidly reforming. She needed to move fast.

Sithia's wounds were slowly closing, but potions were most effective when swallowed. Serana pulled Sithia's mask down. Serana flinched at the sight of her ashen face, skin almost white with blood loss. She uncorked the next potion and carefully tipped it into Sithia's mouth, massaging her throat so she'd swallow.

If only she could heal Sithia with a spell… Unfortunately healing had never been Serana's speciality. She wasn't even sure a vampire could heal a mortal with magic. Mortals certainly couldn't heal vampires.

Serana selected another potion, this one a duller red regenerative potion to help with the blood loss. She struggled to get Sithia to swallow it - maybe it tasted nastier?

Then Sithia's heart stopped beating.

"Don't you dare!" Serana snarled.

A jolt of shock magic to the chest set Sithia's heart beating again. Another couple of controlled bursts stabilised it. The temptation to turn her was almost overwhelming, but that was a last resort. Sithia didn't want to be turned, at least not yet.

After a couple more potions, Sithia was out of danger, her heartbeat and breathing steady. But still unconscious. Until she woke up, Serana would have to handle the dragons on her own. And it wasn't dusk yet. No blessing of the night to save her in this fight, and no blood potions yet either. She'd have to rely on Vampiric Drain or feeding. And feeding on Sithia at the moment… No. Not an option.

"Vuljotnaak, krii daar joorre."

"Geh, Thuri!"

Serana watched Alduin fly away, the wind from his wingbeats almost knocking her off her feet. Now that was a relief; she could handle the resurrected dragon alone. Probably. Alduin the World-Eater? Not a chance. He was neither Aedra nor Daedra but something just as powerful, if the stories were true.

She turned to the remaining dragon, whose pale green eyes flicked between her and her Dragonborn. Serana took a step forward, drawing his attention. "Hi fent ni haalvut ek!"

Vuljotnaak blinked. "So you speak my tongue, or try to. I shall not touch her? I shall eat you both for my thur, Alduin! Now, taste my Thu'um!"

'Be a frost breather, be a frost breather, please be a frost breather…'

"YOL—"

'Damn it.'

"—TOOR—"

Serana cast the strongest ward she could, hoping there'd be just enough time for it to charge up.

"—SHUL!"

Serana flinched, head turned away from the flames, eyes screwed tight shut. The ward held. Just. And by the time the fire finally flickered out, she felt dizzy. Even her formidable magicka reserves were drained after that. If the dragon Shouted again, she couldn't raise another ward. And if he tried to snap them up in his jaws, a ward wouldn't work anyway.

Serana closed her eyes. She reached deep inside, for that part of herself long locked away. The monster. She needed it now. She had to protect Sithia. No matter what. 'The things I do for you…'

But it wasn't coming. The monster still slumbered.

The dragon roared. Serana opened her eyes, saw him tensing for a charge, sharp teeth bared.

'Oh no, you don't! No eating my Dragonborn! Mine!'

Her fangs pricked her lips, unsheathed in her anger. Something shifted deep inside. Serana hunched over, embracing the rage. Shadows clouded her sight, covering her entire body. Her heart beat faster and faster, her teeth aching. Her skin prickled. Ice cold blood congealed all over her. Bones and muscles shifted, expanding in a single blinding second of agony even as she straightened up.

She screamed a wordless challenge back at the dragon, her ragged wings spread.

Vuljotnaak sat back on his haunches, head cocked to the side. Clearly he'd never seen a Volkihar before in all her glory. He shook his head, a strange purring growl escaping him. Was he… laughing at her?

"You call those wings, sivaas? Can you even fly?" He spread his own wings and launched upwards.

Serana snarled. He dare call her a beast and then mock her? She'd tear out his throat! When she could reach it. Her wings folded as she fumed. She couldn't fly. 'Not with these wings, anyway…'

Nor could she transform into a cloud of bats just yet. Her magicka was still recovering, faster than in her pathetic normal form, but still painfully slowly with a fire breathing dragon swooping around.

Serana darted back to her delicious mortal's side, taking her glass sword. It would do until she could cast spells again. Especially if the overgrown flying lizard flew low enough for her to jump up and hack away…

He swooped closer. Serana sprinted to a safe distance from her pet. Shit, he wasn't looking at her, but at—

"No! Mine! My prey! You can't have her!"

'Wait. Not prey. Not a pet either. More than that. Much more.' Serana snarled, squashing that weak inner voice. She couldn't afford to be distracted.

The dragon soared overhead, out of reach, flames streaming again from his gaping maw.

Serana leapt into the inferno instead, shielding her morsel. She hissed. The pathetic owner of her conscience still nagged at her. The weak Serana would be screaming. Couldn't she see she needed this monster's strength?

The flames scorched her for what felt like forever. Beyond the pain she felt the rush of her magic returning. Just in time… no fiery death for this vampire! She blasted the bastard dragon with blood magic, healing herself, and tossed aside the useless lump of molten glass the sword had been reduced to.

'Sorry Sithia.'

'Shut up! Busy!' Perhaps it was madness to talk to herself, even inside her thoughts, but that weak excuse for a vampire was so annoying!

'Then kill that beast already!' Her pathetic self had a point, much as it rankled her pride to admit it.

Serana glanced back at her precious mortal. "You make this look so easy…" As Dragonborn she'd have killed it by now. But then she was the ultimate dragon slayer. Currently covered in delicious dragon blood… Serana lapped at her claws, covered with the same blood, and hissed. Not enough. She took a step towards her prey—

'NO!'

Serana flinched. For a weakling that had been strong. And that weakling had a point. There would be no more tasty blood from her prize if she fed now… and there was another source of blood almost as good. She looked up, eyes finding and fixing on the dragon. She licked her fangs.

Vuljotnaak swept down again, the first word of Fire Breath leaving his mouth. Repeating the same trick as before… how unimaginative.

Serana's eyes narrowed in concentration. Humiliating as it was to admit, she was out of practice, all thanks to her weaker self's reluctance to use her true form. Her father would have killed this worm by now. The thought prickled her pride. Her skin prickled too. The second word of power left the dragon's lips (did dragons have lips? Serana pushed away the thought, she couldn't afford to be distracted, damn it!), and—

Everything splintered apart. She was many, a screeching cloud of bats. She kept her myriad parts together and flew straight up at the startled dragon, fluttering around behind his head. A moment of confused focus later, and she was one.

"SHU—" Vuljotnaak's outraged scream cut off his Shout.

Her claws and fangs tore at his scales, piercing them. She lapped hungrily at his blood.

The dragon roared. He tried to throw her off, even twisting to fly upside down. Serana slipped, claws scrabbling, her own excuses for wings flapping in an attempt to keep herself in place. She found a handhold, sharp claws piercing Vuljotnaak's eyes.

His agonised scream split the air, and he plummeted. Serana wrenched her hands free and lunged. She just avoided being crushed under Vuljotnaak as he ploughed into the ground, still upside down, instead landing on his throat.

Serana groaned at the crack of bone she felt deep inside as she hit hard scales. She snarled, biting at the scales beneath her until she tore open his windpipe. She feasted on hot dragon blood until her bones snapped back into place and the ache vanished.

Serana leapt away as the dragon burnt, his soul soaring straight through her. A gasp of relief escaped her. He hadn't landed on top of her prize. She turned to see the light of the soul sinking into Sithia where she lay just behind the dragon. She winced. That was far too close for comfort.

'Sithia? Where did that come from? No, let me stay free, let me be strong, you need me—'

Serana collapsed to her knees, gasping in relief, back in her true form. Her monstrous self safely locked away again, so deep inside she couldn't even hear that horrible twisted voice so like and unlike her own. Her heart no longer pounded, returned to its normal sluggish beating.

The bloodlust wasn't receding though. For a confused, panicked moment, Serana tried breathing deeply to calm herself down, but it only made it worse. The blood still surrounding Sithia caught her eye.

'Oh.' Serana held her breath. That did the trick, as she managed to sheathe her fangs. She shuddered. Her father's overuse of that form explained a lot about him. No wonder he was crazy, with the way he embraced it.

Sithia groaned. Serana wasn't even aware of crossing the distance between them. One moment she was the length of a dragon skeleton away from her, the next she was on her knees beside her Dragonborn.

Sithia's eyes cracked open, almost immediately scrunching closed again. "Nil kun nii…"

A golden glow formed in her hands before spreading. The advanced healing spell dealt with lingering splinters left in the wounds. Serana hadn't had time to remove them. She could see the golden glow surround some minute dark spots in the healed wounds until they vanished. That explained why healing spells were superior to potions…

Sithia blanched, her eyes snapping open, and sat bolt upright. "Alduin!"

Serana gently pushed her down. "He's gone. Just as well, I think we'd both be dead if he'd stayed."

Sithia looked at the dragon skeleton on top of the mound it had been buried in not long before. She cleared her throat, as the influence of the dragon soul wore off, releasing her from her temporary curse of speaking only Dovahzul. "Good job, dragon slayer."

Serana sighed. "You make it look so easy."

"Comes with being Dragonborn. Pity you're not one, you'd look the part of the Nordic hero of legend far more than I do."

Serana looked down at herself. Her enchanted Volkihar armour had survived her transformation, but she was plastered in dragon blood. Sithia's and the fallen dragon's. Her hands too. She licked a bit off a finger. Thanks to Sithia giving her permission to feed whenever, she was absolutely fine without explicit permission for this time, and not just because it was mingled with Vuljotnaak's. Serana grimaced. Pity it was cooling and tainted with the pain which must have knocked Sithia out. She used her melting frost magic trick instead.

"Is something wrong? You licked that Dawnstar dragon's blood off yourself. Why not mine?" Sithia looked bemused.

"Even your blood doesn't taste at its best when cooling, and a little bitter with pain at that."

Sithia plucked at her torn and bloodstained armour. "I suppose that means you won't be licking it off here either."

Serana snorted. "Certainly not. Delicious as your blood is, it's not so good when cold and dirty. But I can use the same frosty cleaning trick if you like. You might prefer to take it off first."

"I guess I need to anyway. Not much use as armour as it is."

Serana helped Sithia up, offering a hand to pull her up onto her feet. Sithia still staggered once Serana let go.

"Are you all right?" Serana caught her elbow to steady her.

Sithia nodded. "Even magic has its limits, that's all. I'll be fine to carry on after resting… and fixing my armour." She stripped off, hurriedly washing the blood off herself using a cloth and a water bottle, and threw on her casual clothes.

Serana cleaned Sithia's armour off and set it to dry next to the fire Sithia had started.

Serana also dealt with her own cloak, unclasping it to inspect it. It had somehow escaped too much damage from skidding along the ground after Alduin sent them both flying. The dirt coating it was stubborn, though, as her ice cleaning trick didn't remove it all. Serana sighed and set to work scrubbing it off.

"This is going to be more patch than armour by the time I'm finished," Sithia grumbled, already making good progress stitching it back together. She was slowed down a bit by the need to keep pausing to have a bite to eat, and to brush off the crumbs from the hunk of bread she devoured.

Serana kept watch, all too aware that Sithia was far more vulnerable in those casual clothes. And an obvious target in the dark, what with the fire and the hovering Magelight Sithia conjured after a while. She was tempted to offer to take over so Sithia could sleep, but in the wilderness like this she really needed to keep watch.

Sithia finally finished her repairs with the moons high overhead, and collapsed into her bedroll.

She awoke ravenous in the dim light before dawn, despite not having missed a meal. After her breakfast of bread that must have been getting stale, softened with a generous smear of honey, she turned to Serana. "Aren't you hungry?"

"No, I drank some of that dragon's blood before he burned."

Sithia raised an eyebrow. "Don't you need a boost for the day's travel ahead?"

"No thanks. I shouldn't take any blood after you lost so much."

Sithia heaved an exasperated sigh. "I'm fine, the potions and magic just needed a little time to work!"

"I'll ask for a boost when I need one, all right?"

"Stubborn vampire," Sithia muttered. "Leading a horse to water comes to mind…"

Serana laughed. "I'm your pack mule, not your horse. No riding me."

Sithia blushed and looked away, pulling up her cowl and its mask. Poor embarrassed Dragonborn, she'd clearly thought of riding Serana a little differently to a horse.

Serana smirked. "Ask nicely and I might just let you… although preferably not in sunlight."

"Flirt. Not before you get a certain invitation."

'Soon.'

"What was that?"

Oops. She'd muttered that instead of just thinking it. "Nothing."

"Uhuh." Sithia walked over to her pack and shouldered it. Her hand went to her side, attaching her dagger to her belt. She moved to her other side, only to come to a puzzled halt. "Serana, where's my sword?"

"Um." Serana's eyes picked out the lump of glass. Sithia followed her gaze.

"For the love of… Void take it, I lose swords to dragon fights even when it's not me fighting them!" Sithia sighed. "Never mind. I'd rather have the sword end up melted than you."

"Just my luck that it'd be a fire breather."

"Hate to break it to you, Serana, but I'd be amazed if any dragon isn't. All Shouts are just words in their own tongue, aren't they? How could any of them not know them all?"

"There's a difference between just speaking Dovahzul and using the Thu'um. But you do have a point." Serana shuddered. That any dragon they met could almost certainly roast her didn't make her feel better. Not when it meant she might have to release her monstrous side again.

Sithia double checked the route on her map, and led them onto the road where it soon forked. She took the one marked towards Markarth, the rising sun on their backs, shadows long before them.


AN: Many thanks to Gaunty for betaing, and for the chapter summary! This took rather longer to finish than I intended. Hopefully the next chapter won't get quite as delayed.

Coming up next: Sightseeing in the reach, including Alduin's Wall.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: Alduin's Wall

Serana had never seen a juniper tree until their journey took them into the Reach. The gnarled twisted trunks were so unlike the tall pines of the north, the berries clinging to the branches. She preferred the birches of the Rift even without being heartily sick of seeing this particular juniper tree. She glared at it. "We're lost."

"What?" Sithia looked up sharply. "Of course we're not. This is the route on the map, trust me."

"I swear I've seen that juniper tree before. And those crags."

Sithia gave her, the tree and the crags a very dirty look. "That's because they all look the same! Look, get the map out."

Serana did so. Sithia jabbed her finger at where her blood marked their position and their route. "See? We're closer to Karthspire than we were!"

Serana gave it a sceptical look. "Unless we keep it out all the time, I still don't believe it."

"It's too wet in this mist to do that. I don't want to risk damaging it."

Serana pocketed the map and walked over to the tree. She whipped out her dagger and cut their initials into the bark, whimsically adding a heart around them. "There. Now we'll see if we're really walking in circles."

Sithia shook her head, her eyes on Serana's inscription. She muttered something that sounded an awful lot like 'soppy vampire.' Serana shrugged and smiled - it was an improvement on 'stupid vampire,' and might even be true.

As they walked on Serana looked around warily. She felt it when they'd paused but it was even more intense when they were on the move. The hairs on the back of her neck raised as if someone were breathing down it. As if they were being watched, and by hostile eyes. Yet she heard no heartbeats beyond those of goats. She saw nothing either except said animals scampering away as soon as they spotted her. And more crags and juniper trees, of course.

But Serana had a feeling she didn't care to express to a surely sceptical Sithia: that the land itself was watching them. It felt twisted, much like the rocks, the very air thick and oppressive. Much like the castle at home. That felt oppressive with the paranoia and infighting of the vampires that dwelt within, not helped by the madness of its obsessed lord.

What had happened here? If it was like at home, then it was something the inhabitants had etched into the land itself through sheer emotion. Things like that could happen thanks to the magic within people, even those now long gone. Echoes left within their wake. Maybe Sithia knew, but Serana could do without being looked at as if she was as mad as her father. So asking wasn't something she wanted to do.

The question was whether it was just the hostility of the land she was feeling, or if they really were being watched from just out of Serana's sensory range. The sooner they left this wild, bleak place the better.

"Watch out for-for-sworn."

Serana blinked. "For what? Did you stutter?" That… didn't seem like Sithia.

Sithia gave her a sidelong look. "I don't stutter. The Forsworn. Native Reachmen, rebelling against the Nords. A civil war within a civil war. From what I hear, this has been brewing since Tiber Septim conquered the Reach."

For a moment Serana thought Sithia was talking about her late husband. Then the Septim part registered. "Tiber Septim… that's your Ninth Divine, right?"

"Talos, yes. The civil war started here, too, when the Jarl was overthrown and a Reach King briefly held the Mournful Throne. Jarl Hrolfdir and his son made a promise they couldn't keep to get that throne back."

"I thought you said the war against the Thalmor started it?"

Sithia's eyes narrowed at the mention of them. "The White-Gold Concordat. It's the same thing, really, as it's what the war left the Empire saddled with. Ulfric Stormcloak and his militia were promised free worship of Talos if he got rid of the Reach King. The Thalmor caught wind of it, and that was it. A couple of decades later, Ulfric had enough, challenged and killed the High King, and here we are. Brothers at war."

Maybe that was it. The bad feeling this place gave her was caused by the bitter resentful anger of this land's people. The Forsworn. That and if it was a rebellion by the Reachmen against their overlords, and then those overlords crushed it… It was surprising that her father hadn't decided to live out here with the rest of the hermits and fanatics. It would suit him perfectly: the Champion of Molag Bal in a land twisted by the struggle for domination between Reachmen and Nords.

They walked on in silence until Serana spotted a familiar looking tree. She darted over to it, spotted the carving, an 'I told you so!' on her lips, only to skid to a halt. The carving was different, done by another hand. And the heart…

"That's not a heart."

"Neither was the stylised thing you carved, really." Sithia wandered closer to have a look for herself. "That's a briarheart." She eyed the surroundings warily. "Forsworn have definitely been here. I just hope we don't run into a Briarheart."

"What's so bad about part of a plant?"

"It's what it's in that's the problem. The Hagravens take the heart out of a Forsworn and replace it with a briarheart."

Serana raised an eyebrow. "What's a Hagraven?"

"They didn't exist back before you were locked away?"

"If they did I never heard about them. I didn't exactly get out much, and there was certainly nothing about them in anything I read back then." She had to find more books about what she'd missed.

"They're what Forsworn Matriarchs become. Old woman mingled with bird. Their limbs end in birdlike clawed feet, including what should be hands, and their hair is… kind of feathery." Sithia shuddered. "They give me the creeps, and they're fond of throwing fireballs."

"Wonderful. I hope we don't meet them. You were saying Briarhearts are a problem?"

"Yes. A Briarheart comes back to life and doesn't seem to feel pain, yet isn't a mindless zombie. That makes it harder to kill than any of the other Forsworn, and considering they're all crazed fanatics? Yeah, fighting Briarhearts is not fun. It's why I tend to try to sneak up on them and eat the heart before they know what's happened." Sithia chuckled darkly. "The look of surprise on that previously blank face right before the body collapses…"

"My crazy Dragonborn," Serana muttered, eyeing Sithia and wondering again about her sanity.

Sithia huffed. "Not so crazy when it comes to knowing where we are! I told you so. Haven't seen that tree before, have you?"

"Yes, yes, you were right, happy now?"

"No. I hate travelling in the Reach almost as much as in the frozen north. I swear the place has a mind of its own and it hates outsiders. And it counts outsiders as anyone except the native Reachmen."

Oh. So maybe Sithia wouldn't think her vampire was losing her grasp on sanity with thinking the land itself was hostile. Not that Sithia was exactly the finest example of sanity… perhaps Serana should be worried about that. Were both of them losing it? Was she wrong about the feelings of inhabitants leaving echoes on places?

Sithia took Serana's hand and gently tugged it. "Come on, let's not be sitting goats for Forsworn arrows."


The rest of their journey to Karthspire was uneventful. Apart from a sabre cat Serana took down before it reached a disappointed Sithia.

"Spoilsport!"

"Sithia, you're using a dagger. I'd rather not let a cat that large get close enough for you to kill it."

"You used your bare hands!"

"So? If you tried that you wouldn't have been able to grab it by those oversized fangs and swing it over that precipice."

"I could've Shouted it off if you hadn't been in the way!"

"Let me have some of the fun, okay?"

Sithia subsided into grumbling under her breath about demanding vampires. She perked up again when they reached the Karth river, the resident mudcrabs snapping their pincers threateningly.

Serana picked them off with Ice Spikes before Sithia could even draw her dagger.

"Serana!"

"I'm not having a mudcrab pinch you. Those claws are sharp!"

A grumbling Sithia paused to harvest said crabs for potion ingredients.

They followed the river, past a signpost marked towards Karthwasten, Markarth and Solitude, and crossed a bridge over the Karth. Serana flinched away from the sight and aura of a shrine to Dibella beside it.

Once they crossed another bridge, Sithia pointed out the steep hill with sheer rock sides: the Karthspire. Or was it technically a small mountain? Nothing compared to the Throat or even smaller peaks. Serana remembered from the map that it was surrounded by the river, branching off into two until it joined up again beyond the Karthspire.

Beyond the bridge, the road deteriorated into a dirt track. There they found Esbern and Delphine camped beside the excuse for a road.

"Esbern." Sithia nodded at the old man and acknowledged his sullen companion with a far more grudging greeting, "Delphine. I thought we were meeting on the eastern side of the island?"

Esbern smiled, opening his mouth to speak only for Delphine to interrupt:

"We were, until we spotted the Forsworn camp there. The entrance must be on the far side of it. We didn't feel like tangling with a horde of madmen wearing animal skins, not with just the two of us."

"Let's get it over with, then. Although… maybe we should wait until after sunset." Sithia eyed the afternoon sun, and then Serana.

"It doesn't make sense to make it harder for most of you to fight just to make it more convenient for me."

"Convenient?! It'd be safer!" Sithia hissed, glaring at Serana.

"It's not as if they have a pet dragon! I'll be fine."

"You're impossible," Sithia muttered. "Have it your way." She sighed and turned back to Esbern and Delphine, both looking bemused. "We attack now."

"You don't need to rest first, Cynthia Dragonborn?"

"No," Sithia snapped. She gave Esbern an apologetic look as if she'd suddenly realised she'd been a little short with him when it was a perfectly reasonable question. "I don't care for camping out here in the open when there's what should be better shelter nearby."

"After you, then, Dragonborn," Delphine drawled, drawing her sword.

Sithia drew her dagger, frowned at it, and inexplicably sheathed it. Serana opened her mouth to ask what was wrong when purple light coalesced in Sithia's hands until she released the spells. Bound swords appeared in her hands. Serana blinked. Both hands…

"You can dual wield?" She must have sounded a little too surprised, judging by the sidelong look Sithia shot her.

"I was trained to use two daggers. But ebony daggers are expensive, and I prefer to use identical blades when wielding two - less danger of ending up thrown off balance. When I'm using a sword with weight to it I sometimes need a free hand to secure my grip or hit harder. Hence not dual wielding then."

With that Sithia started running off towards their destination. Serana sighed and followed suit. Of course Sithia would run headlong into danger… especially after conjuring swords that would vanish back into Oblivion after a while. Probably at the worst possible moment. Serana decided she had better stick close to her Dragonborn.

Serana soon heard the heartbeats of the Forsworn, at first on the edge of her hearing but quickly thudding louder as she closed the distance to them. It was difficult to count the hearts beating so close together but Serana hazarded a guess as almost twenty, with one of them beating faster yet too large to be a goat. Was that a Hagraven? She really couldn't blame Esbern and Delphine for waiting.

The camp came into view as they rounded a corner of the Karthspire, revealing crude animal hide tents on a wooden platform built over the river and ancient stone steps and pillars beyond. Stone that looked awfully familiar... Serana shook her head. That was some irony: these Forsworn claiming to be the natives when this camp was built on ancient Nordic ruins!

Serana mentally slapped herself; she could ponder on the structures after the Forsworn were dead and not when Sithia was quite possibly about to do something reckless. Like take on too many Forsworn by herself if Serana didn't stick to her like glue.

Forsworn lookouts called a warning before Serana and Esbern managed to deal with them, although Esbern's method of a fireball was a dead giveaway. Serana flinched at the fiery explosion and had to force herself to keep running towards it.

The Forsworn came swarming towards them, scantily clad in goat hide and raising crude weapons. Wood and stone or bone… which did admittedly look lethally sharp. Equally crude arrows whistled their way, a fraction slower than conventional arrows due to their forked barbed heads.

The thrum of a portal to Oblivion briefly came from behind. Serana spun on her heel, coming face to face with a storm atronach. As much as storm atronachs had faces. She almost impaled it with an Ice Spike before realising that its focus was on the Forsworn, and purple light was fading from Esbern's hand. Serana sighed. Couldn't the old man have mentioned that he could Summon atronachs?

Hopefully the Forsworn couldn't. Serana had a nasty suspicion that if they could it'd be a fire atronach just to make things hard—

Serana's eyes widened as she felt the heat. She dived aside. Too late. The spell exploded beside her, flames engulfing her.

Through the agony, her inner monster snarled at her. If she'd only let it loose she'd be fine. She'd be able to fight through this, not be crippled by a little bit of fire. Unable to do anything but screech in pain and try and fail to put it out by rolling on the ground. Pathetic!

Unable to smell anything but sickly sweet burnt flesh - her own!

Unable to see - did she even have eyes left to see with?

Hearing little through the pain, and what little she could she couldn't grasp through the…

Pain.

All she knew.

She felt a deep rumble through the ground right into her bones. Then more. Echoes?

The fire faded. The heat too, far more slowly, but soothed by… water?

Blood. The scent of it. Drowning everything out. Trickling into her mouth. The taste. Sweetest, richest blood. The heat of burning fury. Bittersweet worry.

The pain ebbed away. Serana blinked, opening her eyes. Oh good, she still had them. Or had regenerated them, anything was possible with Sithia's blood. She closed them right away when water fell into them. Heavy rain. Her clothing was soaked - that it had survived was hardly surprising, it had survived dragon fire in her other form after all.

Thunder rumbled right overhead, heralded by flashes Serana could see with her eyes shut. Hadn't the skies been clear, horrible bright sunshine?

"Stupid vampire," Sithia rasped. Healing magic brushed against Serana's skin, and when she next spoke Sithia's voice was back to normal. "I'll be fine, she said. Not as if they have a pet dragon, she said. Not as if they needed one, idiot! Next time we wait until dark."

"You Shouted?"

"This storm isn't natural, my dear stupid vampire. I'm surprised you didn't hear it, but I guess you were too busy burning to a crisp."

"All right, all right, we try to fight when night can heal me. Enough with calling me stupid."

"I'll say. Enough is enough. No more being stupid."

Serana sighed. She sat up, and a sheet of wet hair fell in front of her eyes.

Sithia laughed but helped push it back out of the way. "So that's what your hair looks like when down. I knew part of it had to be a lot longer to be put up in braids but it looks so strange… no offence. I'm amazed it regrew too."

It was no surprise to hear the fire had briefly taken her hair too. Hair was pretty flammable stuff after all, even more so than the rest of a vampire.

Serana winked. "Well, your blood is powerful stuff." She called on the one Alteration spell she knew, and her hair wound itself up into her customary crown style.

Sithia didn't look impressed; she must have witnessed magical hair styling before. She sounded even less impressed when she spoke: "You need to be more careful. And we need to get you those supplies of bottled blood. I can't always rely on Shouts to give me time to feed you."

Behind Sithia the Blades looked disapproving and suspicious. They clearly didn't approve of Sithia using her blood, blessing from Akatosh that it was.

"Cynthia Dragonborn, are you sure it is wise to use your blood? I am glad our friendly vampire's control seems to be enough to resist taking more than she's given, but…"

Sithia turned her head and glared back at him, an expression Serana could almost feel more than she could see. "Enough! My precious dragon blood is mine to give as I will."

Delphine huffed. "Stupid Dragonborn," she muttered. Esbern bowed, conceding the point, but the way he looked at Serana made it clear that he'd be watching her every bit as carefully and suspiciously as Delphine now.

The rain slowed and stopped, the clouds clearing unnaturally fast as Sithia's summoned storm faded away. The renewed sunlight made Serana hiss, but at least it didn't really hurt much - she had just fed after all!

Sithia pulled Serana up onto her feet.

Esbern cleared his throat. "I shall dry us off now. Please don't move, any of you."

Serana suppressed a whimper and a flinch as Esbern sent his fire magic whipping around them all. It helped that Sithia didn't let go until the flames subsided, leaving them mostly dry.

Serana's eyes widened as she took in the carnage around her. Scorched bodies. So many of the Forsworn, struck by lightning. A few bore sword cuts, but not many. One of the latter Forsworn had her head cleaved off. The way Sithia glared at it made Serana suspect it was the one who'd set her alight. And that Sithia's bound swords had beheaded the hapless Forsworn mage.

"You really weren't happy with them, were you?" Serana murmured.

"Of course not. They hurt you. Nearly killed you!" Sithia growled, a hint of her Voice behind it. "They're just lucky I didn't have time to make them suffer. Calling my storm was the quickest way - to deal with those vermin, and to put out the flames."

Serana had to smile. Her Dragonborn's protectiveness made her feel warm inside, and was flattering to boot. In this instance she had to admit she'd needed it. Without Sithia… she shuddered. Fiery death had been far too close an end for her. She shoved that horrible thought aside and focused on the dead Forsworn, now that it was safe to take a closer look at them. Not that those struck by lightning were particularly representative of their living state, but there were those few Delphine or Sithia must have felled by sword alone.

The headdresses were strange, even more so than the rest of Forsworn get up. Men and women wore different ones, with the men's far more impressive. It consisted of goat head skin topped with antlers, and saber cat canines protruding behind the eyes and down through the mouth, open to the neck of the wearer with their face hidden inside the gaping maw. Another set of canines lay on the Forsworn's collarbones.

Serana prodded a female Forsworn with her toe, shifting the body so she could examine the headdress. Just feathers with coils of… something braided around the head. It looked ridiculous to Serana, not intimidating in the slightest like the male version could be.

Her gaze shifted lower. All Forsworn seemed to have a thing for necklaces featuring claws or bird skulls, worn over their scantily clad bodies. It wasn't as if it was that warm in the Reach! Definitely madmen to dress like that in any of Skyrim's Holds, even Falkreath and the Rift could be distinctly chilly in winter. Completely mad here in the Reach with the cutting wind as sharp as the jagged outcrops of the crags.

Serana frowned. Something she'd thought had been just the wind wasn't. As it came close enough, her ears picked up wheezing breathing accompanied by a rapid heartbeat. A Forsworn to put out of their misery? But no… there was something strange about the heartbeat: a slower, more normal human tempo within the same body. She abruptly remembered what she'd heard amongst the Forsworn heartbeats before her far too close encounter with a fireball. A rapid heartbeat, too large to be goat's...

"Si-ynthia, I'm hearing a very weird heartbeat - fast and slower at the same time. And breathing as if the lungs are crippled. Over there." She pointed towards an unseen corner shielded by the Nordic ruins.

Sithia exchanged a dark, knowing look with the Blades. "Must be a Hagraven. They're always wheezing as if they can't get enough air. You stay here, Serana, remember what I said about fireballs." She banished her bound swords before they could fade away and immediately summoned them again.

Serana watched Sithia run over, feet disconcertingly silent of course with those enchanted boots of hers. Sithia rounded the corner and—

"WULD NAH KEST!" The Shout was broken by a crack, the last two words left where Sithia had been standing.

A startled squawk abruptly cut off, and something hit the ground and bounced. A head? Serana darted after Sithia and saw the Hagraven's body collapse, the head rolling to a stop. Serana blinked at the sight beyond to another gory spectacle: a giant's body sprawled on the ground, chest torn open and heart almost ripped out. Had the Hagraven been trying to turn it into an overgrown Briarheart?

Sithia wandered closer to it, banished her swords again and this time drew her dagger. She took hold of a giant toe. Serana watched, disgusted, as Sithia cut it off. Ew.

"Do I really have to carry those for you?" Serana reluctantly took the pack off, miraculously untouched by the fire - it must also be enchanted to resist that.

Sithia cut off the next toe and glanced back at her. "Come off it, there's far more disgusting things in my alchemy ingredients in there. How're giant's toes any worse than skeever tails? Or Daedra hearts come to that? You didn't seem revolted by the idea of those."

"Next you'll tell me there's spider eggs in here!" Serana held the pack away from herself, eyeing it as if it might start wriggling.

"Don't be daft, I wouldn't want to risk one hatching." Sithia shook her head. "Didn't you say your mother's an alchemist? I'm amazed you're squeamish when it comes to some reagents."

"Why do you think I'm not the alchemist she is? I had plenty of time to become one."

"You preferred necromancy, my dear contradictory vampire."

"...My mother's a more powerful necromancer than I am too."

"Why do I get the feeling you don't give yourself enough credit?" Sithia came over with an armful of giant toes.

Serana shuddered and opened the pack for Sithia to stash them inside. "She's more powerful than I am. That's all there is to it. Flattery will get you nowhere."

Sithia raised an eyebrow.

"All right, because it's you it'll get you somewhere. I suppose you want the feathers and claws from that Hagraven too."

"That I do! Thanks for reminding me."

"Me and my big mouth," Serana muttered, following Sithia to the feathery body. She held the pack open again, resigned to her lot in life: Sithia's keeper and pack mule.

Sithia shoved the last feather in and fastened the pack up again. She turned to the Blades where they stood, Esbern waiting patiently, Delphine... not. The surly little Breton had her arms crossed and foot tapping. Sithia smirked at her - Serana didn't need to see her mouth to know - before looking to Esbern.

"What are we looking for, Esbern? The entrance. I don't see anything that looks remotely Akaviri."

Esbern stroked his beard, brow furrowed. "I do not know. The book did not mention that, but I imagine it will be disguised. Look for a canyon or cave entrance into the Karthspire, perhaps covered with hanging moss."

They crossed the platforms over the river to the Karthspire side and hurried up a flight of stone steps. The only entrance was a cave, and not covered by any moss. In fact it was marked by an impaled goat's head next to a flaming torch mount on a small pillar. Serana could hear faint heartbeats inside. More Forsworn...

"Um. I don't think this temple of yours is secret any more, Esbern." Serana tried to break it to him gently.

"That is where you are wrong, companion of the Dragonborn. Serana." Esbern added her name as an apologetic afterthought. "The ancient Blades had many secrets and knew how to keep them. We should be careful. There's no telling what traps and wards they may have set."

They crept inside the cave and found a Forsworn camp, lit by fireplaces. A strange sickly sweet scent hung in the air, like a freshly washed corpse mingled with some sort of fragrant herb. A human corpse… were the Forsworn cannibals?

Serana could hear the inhabitant of the camp, a single heartbeat thudding away. Wait… she could see two shadows moving. Did the Forsworn practice necromancy and attempt to prevent the zombie from rotting? Wait… they did. Sort of. Those things where Hagravens replaced their hearts with briarhearts.

"Do Briarhearts have a pulse?" Serana muttered to Sithia.

"Can't say I've ever tried taking one. Why?"

"We have company, at least two, but I can only hear one heartbeat."

"Right. I'll sneak ahead and deal with them."

"Hey, I'm the one with invisibility, let me!"

"Oh all right, you did miss out on the fun earlier."

After a moment of concentration, Serana faded from sight. She had to pause a few times to avoid creaky floorboards but managed to make her way to the Briarheart with him only looking around with blank eyes. She considered crushing the briarheart but ripped it out instead. Sithia might want it for her alchemy supplies after all...

The Briarheart choked and collapsed. His companion cried out, abruptly choked off with a bubbling rasp, blood pouring from her cut throat. She fell to the floor, revealing Sithia behind, nonchalantly cleaning her bloodied dagger.

"I thought you said something about letting me deal with them."

"I got bored."

"Of course you did." Serana sighed, walking over to hand Sithia her bloodied prize. Serana eyed her hand distastefully afterwards. Cold, dead blood. Not remotely appetising even if it wasn't tainted by briarheart juice. She washed it off with some melting ice.

"This way," Delphine called, pointing deeper into the cave. The path was cut through the rock, spider webs blocking the way. The small variety thankfully for Sithia, easily brushed out of the way.

It opened out into a narrow cavern open to the sky, with stonework cut into the sides - large pillars, far squarer and neater than ancient Nordic style, and easily three times Serana's height. Serana breathed deeply, trying to detect any threats - she couldn't hear anything alive beyond the Blades and her Dragonborn, but there could be clues left by lingering scents. So far there was nothing beyond the smell of damp stone. The cobweb had been an old one, clearly the Forsworn didn't venture this way. Maybe Esbern was right and they wouldn't find Alduin's Wall shattered or covered with Forsworn graffiti…

A flight of steps led up to three small pillars, shorter than a man and three sided, with strange symbols in the centre. They stood on bases that looked like they might rotate. To the left across a dry moat was a drawbridge covered in ivy, held upright between two of the massive pillars. On closer inspection the surface of the large pillars were carved with the same motif, a man in strange clothes and a snake or something similarly sinuous above him.

"Yes, definitely early Akaviri stonework here," Esbern mused, brushing a hand over it almost tenderly.

Delphine grabbed his arm and pulled him over to the small pillars. "Come on, Esbern, we've got to get this bridge down. These pillars must have something to do with it. Any idea what to do with them?"

"Yes. These are Akaviri symbols," Esbern said. "Let's see… you have the symbol for 'King'… and 'Warrior'… And of course the symbol for 'Dragonborn'. Given that Sky Haven Temple was sealed against the return of the Dragonborn, I would try—"

Sithia inhaled deeply. Serana covered her ears, recognising the warning signs.

"FUS RO DAH!"

The bridge almost fell backwards, rocking on its hinges, stone groaning in protest. Pieces of ivy went flying as the bridge came crashing down across the moat.

"...A bit of warning first, Dragonborn? Or are you trying to deafen us?" Delphine rubbed at her ears, grimacing.

Sithia shrugged. "It worked."

Serana poked her. "By some miracle. I thought the entire place might come crashing down!"

"Eh, if this place was built for Dragonborns to return to it should've been built to withstand Shouts." Sithia tested the bridge, nudging it with her foot. "Seems solid enough."

"I'll go first, Dragonborn. We can't risk you breaking anything, much as you'd deserve it." Delphine shoved Sithia aside. Serana caught her shoulder before she could cross the bridge.

"Let me go," Delphine snarled, hand touching the hilt of her sword.

Serana steered Delphine aside before she did. "You're too light to test if that bridge will really hold under all of us."

Sithia cleared her throat. "Are you calling me fat?"

Serana blinked at her. "You're taller than Delphine, that's all. There's more of you."

Sithia laughed. "I know. Just messing with you. The bridge is fine. Besides, I can cross before it can collapse in the unlikely event that it does."

"Only if you let yourself recover before you Shout again." With that, Serana walked across the bridge. She didn't like the lack of barriers, but it was wide enough not to be in too much danger of falling. The stone beneath her didn't shift at all - sturdy stuff to survive Sithia's Thu'um and the heavy landing into place.

She waved the others across and they headed through another opening covered with webs, and up another passageway cut through the stone. It opened out into a chamber with the floor covered in tiles marked with the same symbols as on the rotating pillars.

Esbern held an arm across Sithia's chest before she could wander over. "Wait. We should be careful here. See these symbols on the floor?"

Delphine hummed thoughtfully. "Esbern's right. Looks like pressure plates."

The pillar with chain and handle hanging from it across the tiles did look rather like a trap even to Serana, so it probably wasn't just the Blades' paranoia at work.

"We'll cross once it's safe. Try keeping to the tiles—"

"FEIM!" Sithia walked straight through his restraining arm and across the tiles in her ghostly form. She pulled the handle, solidifying as she did. The tiles all depressed as one, clicking as they did.

"...Or you could do that." Esbern shook his head, looking a little put out at being interrupted again.

'Rude Dragonborn.' Serana shook her head, smiling despite herself.

Sithia walked across a few tiles without anything happening beyond them clicking down below her. She beckoned impatiently.

Esbern sighed. "It seems safe enough. I think we must be close to the entrance."

It was disconcerting for the tiles to sink down when stepped on, but then they were pressure plates after all! They hurried across all the same, just in case the trap reset.

The path took them across two narrow bridges high up the narrow cavern. Serana could see the drawbridge they'd already crossed below them when she paused to peer over the edge.

"Serana! C'mon." Sithia beckoned impatiently from where she stood beside two more of the large pillars, with another rock cut passage behind her, winding further up.

They emerged into another cavern, this one large and open to the sky, with an elaborate chest in the centre and a very large carved head set into the far wall, positioned like a door. As they drew closer to it Serana reckoned it must be twice her height.

"Wonderful! Remarkably well-preserved, too." For an old man Esbern sounded like a child on his birthday, darting over to touch the head. "Look here! You see how the ancient Blades revered Reman Cyrodiil. This whole place appears to be a shrine to Reman. He ended the Akaviri invasion under mysterious circumstances, you recall. After the so-called 'battle' of Pale Pass, the Akaviri went into his service. This was the foundation stone of the Second Empire."

A stone circle was carved into the rock in front of Reman's overgrown head.

Esbern looked at it. "Ah... here's the 'blood seal'. Another of the lost Akaviri arts. No doubt triggered by... well, blood." He turned to Sithia. "Your blood, Dragonborn."

"If you need some help drawing blood, let me know." Delphine sounded far too eager for Serana's liking.

"Thanks, but the only one who draws my blood other than me is Serana. Care to do the honours?" Sithia offered her hand to Serana.

Serana took her wrist and gently bit it, holding Sithia's gaze all the while. She resisted the temptation to feed - not in front of Delphine and Esbern! That was private, and Sithia would probably be mortified. Even with a mere bite, Sithia's breath caught.

As soon as Sithia's blood touched it, the circle glowed with light as if the sun were shining out of it.

"That's done it! Look, it's coming to life!" Delphine stepped back as the stone head fell backwards, on a hinge, exposing a passageway and another flight of steps.

"You did it! There's the entrance. After you, Dragonborn. You should have the honour of being the first to set foot in Sky Haven Temple." Delphine bowed to Sithia. It only had a hint of mockery to it.

"There's no telling what we might find inside!" Esbern rubbed his hands together.

Serana followed close behind Sithia. Just in case. The place did look as if it had been lost to the ages, but what if there was a feral vampire locked away in here?

Sithia almost walked into a door in the dark, blundering around as she was without bearing a torch like the Blades were. Serana grabbed her just in time, saving her Dragonborn's nose.

"Stupid door," Sithia grumbled, kicking it with a toe. Thankfully not hard enough to stub it.

"Hey, it's not the door's fault you can't see in the dark. It's a kind of pretty door, you know. It has stylised dragons carved on it." Come to think of it, those dragons were rather sinuous… perhaps that snake motif on the massive pillars was actually a dragon?

Sithia snapped her fingers, summoning a Magelight. She shoved the door open and stormed up more steps, too fast to let Serana linger to inspect the carvings lining the walls. She hurried after, despite only smelling musty stone. That door hadn't been opened in a very long time, and there was no trace of anything alive or undead. Good...

Serana heard Esbern's voice drifting up the stairs behind them:

"Fascinating! Original Akaviri bas-reliefs… almost entirely intact! Amazing... you can see how the Akaviri craftsmen were beginning to embrace the more flowing Nordic style…" His heart was racing with excitement. Serana hoped it wouldn't give out.

"We're here for Alduin's Wall, right, Esbern?" Delphine said, and judging by the dragging of feet was pulling Esbern away from the carvings.

"Yes, of course. We'll have more time to look around later, I suppose. Let's see what's up ahead."

Serana pushed down a twinge of irritation at Sithia rushing her too. It wasn't like Sithia had dragged her away, she'd simply gone at her normal impatient pace. It also wasn't like Serana couldn't look around later, while Sithia slept.

They emerged into another cavern, this one mostly enclosed except for a few shafts cut through the ceiling to the outside. Two more pillars held up the ceiling. Thanks to those holes, it smelled of damp stone if still musty.

The obvious route into the cavern was up a wide flight of stairs. Serana almost tripped over when Sithia went for a narrower set of stairs to the left. She sighed and followed. It brought them out onto the same platform as the main stairs but right next to an anteroom which Sithia seemed drawn to.

Serana glanced across the cavernous chamber to take in the long table and the carved wall beyond it, miraculously not covered by ivy. She ducked into the anteroom after Sithia to find her reaching for a sword similar to Delphine's. It rested on a wooden table, covered in dust. An Akaviri katana, according to Dexion. Sithia pulled her mask down to blow the dust off, holding her breath to ward off a coughing fit. Serana stopped breathing too until she waved the cloud of dust away.

The air thrummed with the magic of a powerful enchantment emanating from the sword. Sithia picked it up. The blade lit up, shock magic dancing along it.

Sithia gingerly touched the blade and yelped, snatching her hand away. "That's not just a shock enchantment."

"Shor's bones! Here it is!" Esbern's voice echoed across the chamber.

Sithia turned on her heel to see what Esbern had found, taking the blade with her.

Esbern stood by the wall at the end of the chamber. It had to be Alduin's Wall. It did seem to feature a dragon that looked much like Alduin. Or three dragons, rather, at each end of the Wall and in the middle.

Esbern reached out to gingerly and reverently touch the Wall, torch held up high. "Alduin's Wall... so well preserved... I've never seen a finer example of early Second Era Akaviri sculptural relief…"

Delphine cleared her throat. "Esbern. We need information, not a lecture on art history."

"Yes, yes. Let's see what we have…" Esbern walked along the Wall, examining it closely. "Isn't it amazing?" He looked around at them, beaming.

"I just want to know how to defeat Alduin," Sithia grumbled.

One of these days, Serana promised herself, she'd persuade Sithia that it was worth taking the time to appreciate things like art and history. Just not today.

"Ah. Of course." Esbern sighed. "Not everyone has an appreciation for the artistic wonders of the world. Let me see if I can find the right panel…" He wandered back to the middle of the Wall. "Here it is. Alduin's defeat is the centrepiece of the Wall." He pointed. "You see, here he is falling from the sky. The Nord Tongues - masters of the Voice - are arrayed against him."

"So, does it show how they defeated him? Isn't that why we're here?" Delphine… every bit as impatient as Sithia, without the excuse of having a dragon's blood and soul.

"Patience, my dear. The Akaviri were not a straightforward people. Everything is couched in allegory and mythic symbolism." Esbern said. "Yes, yes. This here, coming from the mouths of the Nord heroes - this is the Akaviri symbol for 'Shout'." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "But… there's no way to know what Shout is meant."

"You mean they used a Shout to defeat Alduin? You're sure?" Delphine's voice was as sharp as her blade.

"Hmm? Oh, yes. Presumably something rather specific to dragons, or even Alduin himself. Remember, this is where they recorded all they knew of Alduin and his return."

"So we're looking for a Shout then. Damn it." Delphine said. She turned to Sithia. "Have you ever heard of such a thing? A Shout that can knock a dragon out of the sky?"

"I wish. If I had, wouldn't I already have dealt with Alduin?"

Delphine's shoulders slumped. "I guess there's nothing for it. We'll have to ask the Greybeards for help. I hoped to avoid involving them in this, but we have no other choice."

Sithia gave her a strange look. "What do you have against the Greybeards?"

"If they had their way, you'd do nothing but sit up on their mountain with them and talk to the sky, or whatever it is they do. The Greybeards are so afraid of power that they won't use it. Think about it. Have they tried to stop the civil war, or done anything about Alduin?" Delphine snorted, and shook her head. "No. And they're afraid of you, of your power. Trust me, there's no need to be afraid. Think of Tiber Septim. Do you think he'd have founded the Empire if he'd listened to the Greybeards?"

Sithia rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, I'm not afraid of my own power."

"Good. The Greybeards can teach you a lot, but don't let them turn you away from your destiny. You're Dragonborn, and you're the only one who can stop Alduin. Don't forget it."

"As if I can when he keeps trying to eat me or raises dragons specifically to do so. I'd better see what Arngeir knows about this Shout."

"Right. Good thing they've already let you into their little cult. Not likely they'd help Esbern or me if we came calling." Delphine sounded almost jealous.

Sithia turned to Serana. "Well, you wanted to meet the Greybeards. Now you will. Just not right now. I need to sleep."

Esbern had managed to wrench his attention away from the Wall and was eyeing the blade in Sithia's hands. "Cynthia Dragonborn, do you mind if I examine that sword?"

"Knock yourself out." Sithia handed it over, hilt first.

Esbern touched the blade too, but didn't yelp or flinch away like Sithia had. He smiled, and handed the blade back to Sithia, bowing. "Cynthia Dragonborn, I present to you Dragonbane. This fabled Akaviri katana is enchanted to be especially deadly to dragons."

That enchantment explained why Sithia had yelped - she must count as a dragon.

Esbern was continuing: "And has slain many. In your hands I hope it will be the end of Alduin."

"It remains to be seen if it'll survive slaying a single dragon in my hands," Sithia muttered under her breath.

Esbern didn't hear her, turning back to his precious Wall. "Look, here. In the third panel. The prophecy which brought the Akaviri to Tamriel in the first place, in search of the Dragonborn." He pointed to some figures in distinctive armour. "Here are the Akaviri - the Blades - you see their distinctive longswords. Now they kneel, their ancient mission fulfilled, as the Last Dragonborn contends with Alduin at the end of time."

So Alduin was depicted three times… Serana had suspected as much. It didn't make much sense for Alduin's Wall to feature two other dragons.

The old man glanced around to see if his audience was listening. He didn't seem to mind that Sithia was wandering away, but scowled at his fellow Blade when he caught her yawning. "Are you paying attention, Delphine? You might learn something of your own history."

Delphine scowled right back. "I'm tired. You need to rest too. Come on, Esbern, let's see if we need to set up our bedrolls or if there's anything more comfortable in here."

"Later, Delphine, I cannot sleep yet. This masterpiece is too enthralling for that."

Delphine groaned. "That masterpiece will still be there in the morning!"

Serana left them to their bickering and followed her Dragonborn upstairs from the Wall and into a room off to the left. Sithia was inspecting some rather dusty beds and selected the one furthest from the hole cut in the ceiling to the outside, and closest to the fireplace. Serana helped her by dusting off the bed while Sithia saw to lighting the fire.

Sithia changed into her casual clothing and dozed off while waiting for a quick hot meal to cook. Serana reluctantly nudged her awake to eat it - Sithia needed the rest but she also needed the food, or she'd be even grumpier in the morning.

She tucked her Dragonborn into bed after she'd eaten, asleep almost before her head hit the pillow. Serana almost took a seat in a nearby chair when she registered one of the Blades coming closer. Delphine. Her heart was smaller, and that affected heartbeats. Esbern wasn't with her, she must have failed to persuade the old man to leave his prize.

Serana looked over to the doorway a moment before Delphine appeared, whose eyes narrowed at the sight of her so close to Sithia.

"A word," Delphine growled quietly. No please, of course.

Serana sighed and followed Delphine out of Sithia's earshot if only to avoid disturbing her sleep.

Delphine glared up at her, arms folded. "I'm watching you, vampire. I'm warning you, it's my duty to guard the Dragonborn, and I will—"

"Then we don't have a problem. At least not about me. I'm no threat to her. But you?" Serana stepped closer, looming over her. "You didn't do so well with guarding her in my absence."

Delphine didn't bat an eyelash, her lip curling. "She came back unharmed. I notice her armour has been patched since Shor's Stone, so you can't say the same."

"Define unharmed. You let her get herself into trouble with vampires. That message she sent back with the one she spared - it may well have grave consequences and I'll hold you responsible if it does. Watch yourself, Blade." With that, Serana stalked away.

She took the opportunity to wander around the temple, admiring the carvings, including a closer look at Alduin's Wall, and finding everything it had to offer. There was a rather dusty enchanting station, complete with a few soul gems, glowing beneath the dust with the souls within. No black soul gems… good. Serana always felt bad about using them after learning where the leftovers ended up. She shivered at the thought of the Soul Cairn.

Serana fished out some of the empty bottles from Sithia's pack and enchanted them ready to be filled with blood. She was no enchanter but she knew how to make sure bottles preserved blood and kept it warm. All that was left was for Sithia to fill them. Serana eyed the bottles… perhaps not all at once. It might weaken her poor Dragonborn too much.

Sithia emerged just after dawn, Serana feeling the sun come up despite being indoors. She came over to Serana, munching on her breakfast. She grumbled something that was probably 'good morning', or at least 'morning'.

She blinked at the bottles and cocked her head. "Those look like potion bottles."

Serana nodded. "They are. Yours."

"I thought I discarded them."

"And I picked them up again, litterbug. They're useful. I've enchanted these so they can be used for bottling blood for your peace of mind."

"Huh." Sithia picked up one of the bottles. "I'll do it now. Pity it can't be direct, the blood needs to go into the bottles before it goes inside you."

"I could start off feeding on you, if only so you don't taste of regret."

"I'd taste of frustration instead, you know what feeding does to me so you must know what stopping would do."

"Point." Serana sighed. "I guess it just can't be your blood at its tastiest."

"...I have an idea. Give me a while alone, and make sure the Blades come nowhere near me."

"What—"

Sithia put a finger over Serana's lips. "You'll figure it out." She smirked and sauntered off with an armful of bottles, away from where the Blades had eventually retired to sleep.

She reappeared maybe half an hour later, cheeks flushed and bottles filled. Her scent carried hints of… Oh. Oh. Yes, Serana had figured it out. She eyed the bottles hungrily. Sithia at her most delicious. She'd have to resist, though, those were for emergencies or when Sithia couldn't feed her directly.

Sithia held the bottles out. "Here. They'd be better off in your pockets rather than in the pack."

Serana took one of the potions. "My pockets have limits. They don't magically expand like your pack."

"Oh. I'm so used to it that I forget not every pack-like thing has the same enchantment." Sithia put the potions away and paused, hand still in the pack. She frowned. She pulled her hand out, and with it came a book. One of the dossiers. Delphine's.

"I suppose I should give her this. That or burn it." A red glow flickered in her hands for a moment as she almost gave into the temptation to do the latter. Perhaps Sithia really would have given in if Delphine hadn't walked out of the sleeping chamber at that moment. Sithia sighed and the promise of fire faded away.

"What's that?" Delphine strode over, eyeing the book.

Sithia handed it over. Delphine flicked it open, eyebrows raising as she swiftly read it. She snapped it closed and actually smiled at Sithia. "Thanks, Dragonborn. Interesting reading. I'll have to show Esbern."

Delphine shot a short glare at Serana, obviously realising who must have found the dossier and withheld it.

Delphine's attention returned to Sithia. "A word, Dragonborn. In private. Perhaps in that antechamber?" Delphine doubtless realised how much voices would echo in the main chamber and thought a smaller room would mean they wouldn't be overheard. Stupid Breton - it wasn't nearly far enough away to be out of Serana's hearing. Unless Delphine knew that and didn't care?

Sithia shook her head. "Whatever you have to say, you can say it here."

"Not where Esbern can hear it." Delphine glanced at the old man standing in the doorway of the room she'd come from. He cleared his throat and looked away, a blush rising in his cheeks. "He's already mortified enough at the thought of it."

Serana sighed. "Esbern, how about you give me a tour of the place?"

Esbern gave her a grateful smile and led her around all of the carvings, waxing lyrical about the Akaviri arts. Serana felt a little bad about not giving him her undivided attention: vampirism had granted her the ability to listen to more than one conversation at once, although she could only recall the gist of one while remembering all of the other.

'Sorry, Esbern, but I'm too busy listening in on Delphine and Sithia to pay proper attention.'

Serana didn't like what she overheard one bit, making it a strain to maintain an expression of polite interest for Esbern.

"I know it's not my place," Delphine was saying. "But you need to bear in mind that Tamriel needs more Dragonborns. You can't have them with the vampire. I'd suggest a fertility potion and a single encounter with a suitable willing man to father a strong child. Maybe one of the Companions."

"You're right," Sithia said flatly. Serana burned with raw hurt and jealousy for a brief moment before Sithia continued, "It's not your place. Besides, it's a moot point because I can't have children."

"Can't or won't?" Delphine pressed. "Look, I'm sorry about this. I'd be furious in your shoes. But you are our only chance of saving the Empire. You're the rightful Empress, and if you could have a child you'd found another dynasty of Dragonborn Emperors. The Empire needs this. So what is it? Is it a physical problem? Something might be possible, the Temple of Kynareth in Whiterun—"

"Empress? Me?! Are you out of your mind?" Sithia shook her head. "I'd be a tyrant. Anyway, it's a moot point. I can't start a dynasty. Can't. Won't. Same thing. It's because of the sins of my mother. I will not have a child."

"If you can't be a mother due to some scarring past experience at your mother's hands, we Blades could raise the child."

"I would be a terrible mother, that's true. But it isn't just that. I hoped I'd never get into this with you." Wood scraped against the flagstones. Sithia must have sat down heavily. "My mother was Alisanne Dupre. I don't know how much the Blades knew, but she was the Listener of the Dark Brotherhood. She performed some sort of ritual, and… the result is that I belong to Sithis, and any child of mine would be condemned to follow me into the Void."

That was a lie about her child, with what she'd said to Serana about Tiber and their plans for children. Serana wasn't about to let on - apart from anything else, she didn't want to support any plan for Sithia to sleep with anyone else, and especially not a werewolf.

"Talos preserve us, you're telling the truth." Delphine also collapsed into a chair, heralded by another screech of wood against stone. "I knew after hearing the vampire say your true name that you probably had links to the Dark Brotherhood, but I had no idea that it had such consequences."

Sithia sighed. "If Tamriel needs the dragon blood to continue, Akatosh will have to bestow it anew."

"How did He see fit to bestow it on Dark Brotherhood assassins?" So that was what Delphine sounded like when having a crisis of faith. Serana almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

"I suspect He didn't. It's hereditary. I encountered Potema the Wolf Queen's spirit recently, and she could feel the kinship between us. Maybe it was just the dragon blood she could feel, maybe I'm the descendant of some Septim bastard."

"I'd rather believe you to be descended from an illegitimate Septim than to believe Akatosh bestowed a blessing on the likes of you." Delphine cursed under her breath. "Once Blades would eliminate any member of the Dark Brotherhood they encountered. Not now, though."

"You mean they tried. They may have even succeeded sometimes, but only at great cost."

Delphine snorted. "Keep telling yourself that. One on one, maybe that would have been the case, but Blades worked together."

"So did the Brotherhood. I may have been isolated from anyone but my Speaker, but I knew that we did all we could to avenge a fallen Brother or Sister. Or to protect them. For all the good that did in the end. Thanks to the Thalmor. Something our organisations have in common - both brought low by them."

Delphine hummed in agreement. "Strange bedfellows now. Wait. Your Speaker? Isolated? You were a Silencer! No wonder you think Dark Brotherhood assassins were equal to Blades, because you were one of their elite!"

"Thanks, I think. But considering how many Blades were cut down by the Thalmor, I don't think your friends were any better than my Family."

"Family," Delphine spat. "You consider them family."

"Er. You did hear me say who my mother was, didn't you? I was born into it. And even those who joined the conventional way were all children of the Night Mother and Sithis. Adopted ones."

Delphine heaved a sigh. "Whatever you were or still are, you're our Dragonborn. That's all that matters. I'll just have to make sure Esbern doesn't put this in the histories he's writing. Your parentage will either have to be a mystery, or he'll have to make up something suitably heroic. Maybe say that you're descended from Talos himself." A slightly hysterical laugh escaped her. "That might even be the truth."

"Huh. It could be. Or more likely from his brother like most of the Septim line were."

"What?" Delphine sounded startled.

"For a Blade you don't know much about the Septim dynasty. You see, while I seem to have little interest in history that's only because I already know it."

Serana took back every exasperated thought she'd ever had about Sithia's apparent disinterest in history while Sithia added: "After the forty first year of the Third Era every Emperor or Empress descended from Tiber Septim's brother."

"...Pelagius. The first Pelagius was assassinated by the Dark Brotherhood before he fathered a legitimate child. You're the reason most of the Septims weren't direct descendants of Talos." Delphine paused at Sithia's sharp intake of breath and continued in a regretful tone: "Sorry. That's unfair. It was centuries before you were even born."

"I think you'll find it's the fault of the one who performed the Black Sacrament." Sithia's voice was distinctly frosty.

"And of the assassin who did the deed. But we can agree to disagree. Thanks for trusting me with this. You could have lied, said you were sterile."

"You'd only have dragged me to a healer to see if anything could be done," Sithia scoffed. "Make no mistake, I don't trust you. And you don't really trust me."

"You do make it very difficult to like you, you know that?" Delphine had never sounded more exasperated in Serana's admittedly limited experience.

"Don't care. I prefer to be feared than to be loved."

"Ugh. You're impossible." Another sigh escaped Delphine. "Well. We have a headquarters of a sort now. We'll rebuild the Blades. Someday."

"Good luck with that," Sithia said, insincerity dripping from her voice. "I have too much on my plate already without doing your job for you there. Speaking of which I should move. High Hrothgar won't come to me, much as I wish it would."

"Thanks," Delphine said, her tone quite the opposite as well. "We'll look around Sky Haven Temple and see what else the old Blades might have left for us. It's a better hideout than I could have hoped for. Talos guard you."

Sithia's footsteps heralded her approach for once - she didn't have her enchanted boots on. "Esbern. Much as I hate to deprive you of a willing audience, it's time for us to leave you."

Esbern inclined his head in a respectful bow. "Cynthia Dragonborn. It has been an honour. I only wish we could accompany you and perform our sworn duty to guide and guard you. Sadly we would not be welcome where you are going."

"...No offence, Esbern, but I wouldn't want your company anyway when it comes with Delphine."

"Ah. A pity. She is a fierce, brave and loyal warrior. Much like it seems you are, Dragonborn. Cynthia Dragonborn, I mean. Perhaps you are too similar to get along."

"Full offence, Esbern: Shut. Up. I'm nothing like that - that - HER." Sithia stalked off.

"Oh dear. She really doesn't like Delphine."

Serana shook her head. "No. She hates her, and the feeling appears to be mutual. Goodbye, Esbern, and thanks for the history lesson. The Akaviri were - are? - a fascinating culture."

She found Sithia already changed into her armour, apart from lacing it up. Serana stepped close and did it for her, 'accidentally' stealing a few caresses in the process.

"So, did you overhear? Delphine and her opinions about my childbearing duty."

"I did. I won't let on that you were lying, don't worry."

"I wasn't. I can't have children. It was different with Tiber - he was a priest of Talos and his blessing would hopefully have given our children the chance to escape the Void, if they trod the same path as their father." She sighed heavily. "Moot point anyway now."

Serana frowned. It occurred to her that if Delphine knew that, she'd suggest that Sithia find another priest to procreate with. But she wasn't about to even mention the possibility. Apart from her own personal feelings on the subject, it'd be completely tactless when the loss of Tiber was so painful.

"I was wondering about something," Serana said instead. "If Blades and Dark Brotherhood assassins are natural enemies, were you raised the same way?"

"No, because the Blades were disbanded before my time as Silencer. The Penitus Oculatus, however, were a different matter - they replaced the Blades as the Emperor's bodyguards after the last Septim sacrificed himself."

Sithia strapped on her new-yet-ancient-and-legendary sword and adjusted the way the scabbard rested against her leg. "Right. Let's be off. I want to see if there's another way off this glorified rock."

She headed up another staircase to three large doors next to each other and pushed one open.

"Uh, Sithia? There isn't one." Serana had already wandered out into the courtyard beyond during the night to admire the strange architecture of the Akaviri shelter things outside and bask in the moonlight. "Not a safe one, anyway."

Sithia ignored her and approached the edge of the courtyard platform, peering over it.

"Sithia. I already looked."

Sithia turned to Serana and grinned. A mad grin.

"Sithia, no." Serana darted forwards, hand outstretched to grab her. Too late.

"Catch me up. FEIM!" Insubstantial as a ghost, Sithia jumped.

Serana groaned. "I'm going to kill her. Stupid, stupid Dragonborn." She turned and hurried back through Sky Haven Temple, fuming. What if that Shout wore off before Sithia landed at the bottom? Was she going to find Sithia in a crumpled broken heap? Serana sprinted back the way they'd came, leaping across the pressure plates of the trap room too fast to trigger them, assuming they'd reset.

As it turned out, Sithia was nonchalantly leaning against the rock wall beside the entrance to the cave formerly inhabited by Forsworn.

Serana glared at her. "I hate that Shout. You take too many risks. What if it wore off too soon?"

Sithia smirked. "Relax. I know exactly how long that Shout lasts, and how many words I have to use to land safely. I used it to get down quickly from High Hrothgar, remember?" Her smirk slid off her face and she grimaced. "Oh, Void take me, I have to go back up there. Again. Up the Seven fucking Thousand Steps. For the third time."

"If you use that Shout to get down from there again, I'm going to kill you."

"I think I'd rather you kill me than have to climb up and down those sodding steps again." Sithia dug out her map. "I'm so very tempted to get a horse, but it wouldn't survive the climb. I know it. Let's see what path we're supposed to take…"

"Skyrim's horses are sturdy beasts. They can manage any mountain."

"Not what I meant. There's trolls and bears up there. I tried it with a horse last time and barely managed to jump clear when it panicked and bolted off a precipice."

"I could enthral it so that wouldn't happen."

"And if the weight of the pack kills it? No, Serana, let's spare the horses."

"All right." Serana shrugged. "I could carry you, you know."

"Not during the day, you couldn't. And it's dangerous up there, we can't afford the delay of you putting me down to fight. That and it's a little undignified."

"You and your pride," Serana muttered.

"Hey, I'm sparing you from being my horse in addition to pack mule."

"I volunteered. Your loss."

"How will I ever survive. Come on. Enough talk, and more walking."

Serana fell into step slightly behind Sithia. High Hrothgar awaited. And a no doubt spectacular view.


AN: Many thanks to Gaunty for betaing! Feels good to finally update this. Hopefully the next chapter will come with a far shorter gap between posting than this one.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Void Take These Steps

They arrived in Ivarstead after a week on the road, the map leading them on a safe path through the Rift. Too safe for Sithia's liking, who would have welcomed having Thalmor to kill or bandits to terrorise. Serana sympathised; in a strange way she would have welcomed having her father's vampires show themselves. At least that way she'd know where they were... She looked around in the growing dusk. Nothing stirred outside except villagers making their way home, some patrolling guards and their own feet. Well, Serana's feet; Sithia's were dragging slightly but silently thanks to that eerie muffle enchantment. Her Dragonborn was tired. Sunset had revived Serana, but she'd better persuade Sithia to rest before they tackled—

"Void take those steps. They can wait until tomorrow." Sithia glowered up at the mountain and veered towards the building with a sign swaying in the wind. "The Vilemyr Inn had better have a room."

Oh. No need to talk Sithia into stopping. Her loathing of the climb ahead did Serana's work for her there.

Fortunately the inn did have a room to spare, so the innkeeper was not confronted by an extremely grumpy Dragonborn. A surly Sithia ate a stew she grudgingly deemed adequate and retired to the room she'd rented, beckoning Serana after her and ignoring the innkeeper's raised eyebrows and flushing cheeks.

If only they really were getting up to what the innkeeper thought they were… sadly it wasn't even an invitation for a feeding session. Not that Serana expected one; she'd already had a blood potion that morning and didn't need more yet. Even if directly feeding might improve Sithia's mood there were other reasons not to. Like conserving Sithia's strength for the ascent ahead of them.

No, it was simply to be on hand in case Sithia had a nightmare. In fact, later that night Serana almost woke Sithia from a dream before she realised Sithia's scent wasn't tainted with fury or fear but enhanced by—

"S'rana…" Sithia gasped, hips bucking in her sleep.

'Oh! Definitely not a nightmare.'

It was so tempting to wake Sithia with a gentle bite and help her finish… But Serana drew back before her lips touched Sithia's neck. That really would get her Shouted through the wall, or roof at this angle. Besides the fact that Sithia might not appreciate being woken from a dream that good even by something that pleasurable, it wasn't right to do that. Yes, Sithia had given her permission to feed whenever she wanted, but that wasn't the same as feeding to get Sithia off when she wasn't awake to consent.

Serana sighed and shifted in her chair. It was going to be a long night unless Sithia stopped dreaming soon, and she couldn't wish that on her when it was a rare good dream. A very good dream, judging by Sithia's racing heartbeat, gasping breaths and low moans.


Despite her pleasant dreams, Sithia was every bit as grumpy when she woke up as when her head hit the pillow. Either it was the prospect of climbing up all those 'sodding' steps, or the realisation that it was just a dream… or both.

That said, there was a briefly less grumpy Dragonborn when she beckoned Serana over with a smirk. "Breakfast time. For you as well as me. It's daylight. You need it."

Serana got to the point of touching Sithia's neck with her lips when she paused and pulled away. "Are you sure? Maybe it's best if I drink a blood potion. There's a potentially dangerous path ahead up to High Hrothgar. I don't want to risk weakening you."

"You don't have that many potions. I'll be fine. You've never taken too much before."

"...All right." Serana wasn't about to protest too much. An opportunity to feed directly was all too rare.

Sithia's mood was only temporarily improved by Serana feeding. By the time they walked across the stone bridge leading up to the Seven Thousand Steps a deep scowl returned to Sithia's face. She glowered at the steps underfoot as they started the climb.

"What's that?" Serana pointed at an etched tablet standing on a plinth, somewhat protected from the biting wind by a carved shelter reminiscent of a hood. A pair of stylised dragon heads formed the base of the shelter.

"Hmm? Oh, that. Well, those. There's ten of them on the path. You'll be able to read them better than I can; they're in Dovahzul."

"Mind if I stop to read them?"

"So long as it's not for long in this weather," Sithia growled, glaring at the clouds threatening snow overhead.

"I can read fast." Serana approached the etching and traced the words with her fingers. She decided to read them aloud for Sithia's benefit. " 'Before the birth of men, the dragons ruled all Mundus. Their word was the Voice, and they spoke only for True Needs. For the Voice could blot out the sky and flood the land.' "

Sithia did look interested, although knowing her that was probably more to do with hearing about a Shout that could flood the land. "Sounds like the Greybeards' philosophy all right. They're all about only using Shouts when absolutely necessary and primarily for worshipping Kynareth. Oh wait, they call her Kyne. Come on, I don't want to stand around. It might not be snowing down here but it's still a cold wind."

Onwards and upwards, step by step. "I wonder if there's really seven thousand steps…"

"There's not. I counted the first time I climbed them. Obviously seven thousand steps would depend on the length of stride of the individual, so maybe there really are that many for someone out there, but actual carved steps? No. There's considerably less than seven thousand."

"They're pretty crumbly. Maybe there were seven thousand once?"

Sithia shrugged. "Maybe. Now if you don't mind I'd rather save my breath for the climb than talk about these stupid steps."

"We could talk about something else…"

"Save it for when we're not mountain climbing," Sithia panted, her eyes on the treacherous crumbling steps underfoot.

Serana's heart sank at the thought of hours of climbing up these hallowed steps without the usual joy of conversation with Sithia. As it happened, while Sithia wasn't feeling terribly talkative she did break the silence a bit when they stopped for regular short breaks. These allowed Sithia to get her breath back and have a bite to eat to keep her going, sometimes coinciding with more of the ten carved tablets for Serana to read to an increasingly impatient Sithia. Her poor Dragonborn needed the breaks but couldn't stop moving for long in the cutting wind howling down the mountain path.

It was a pity that the paths were treacherous enough to require eyes constantly on the ground when on the move, but at least the frequent stops meant that Serana had a chance to take in the breathtaking views. Sithia, however, barely glanced at the sight of Skyrim spread out below them. Her eyes were fixed on the heights of the Throat of the World above, brows drawn down into a thunderous scowl.

Sithia's scowl only deepened as deciduous trees gave way to pine and prickly snowberry bushes replaced leafy ones. Snow increased on the path until it blanketed the ground and partly buried the steps. At least the clouds remained merely ominous and didn't add to Sithia's displeasure. The constant scowling must be giving Sithia quite the headache. Serana sighed and resisted the urge to try to massage away the tension. Her undead hands would be as cold as their frigid surroundings and Sithia might not appreciate that on her skin.

Where snow really threatened to bury the steps, some dedicated travellers had piled up cairns to mark the path and set pillars on the side closest to the edge of the mountain. The chill bit deeper the higher they went, to the extent where Serana eyed Sithia with some concern.

"Are you all right?"

"Fine. If cold, tired and grumpy. And I don't want to hear a word out of you in protest about what I'm about to do; the occasion calls for it."

"What?" Serana's confusion lasted only as long as it took for Sithia to retrieve and down a stamina potion. She hurled the empty bottle off the side of the mountain. Serana heard a very faint smash, almost drowned out by the wind. "We could have reused that!"

"Don't care. We have plenty." Sithia stalked up the path with a bit more bounce in her step with the temporary boost given by the potion.

Serana resisted the urge to argue. She might have the breath to waste, thanks in part to the heavy cloud cover making the day relatively pleasant for a vampire, but Sithia didn't, not up here. And it was true. If any occasion called for stamina potions it was mountain climbing.

At least they hadn't run into any trouble. Yet. Serana didn't care for the strength of the wind one bit, it made it harder for her to hear any potential threats. She only heard an oncoming heartbeat when the owner of it was already in sight, fortunately just a pilgrim who warned them to watch out for wolves.

Except there were no wolves, only two frost trolls. She did at least have advanced warning of them, being downwind, their stench overpowered the cold freshness of the snow.

"Ugh!" Sithia tugged Dragonbane out of the troll Serana hadn't felled with a shock spell. "I hate trolls. I met one near the top of the steps last time, now they seem to be coming lower down the mountain."

"At least the wind will spare us from their stink, once we're upwind."

"...I'm going downwind."

Surely she'd misheard. But no. Sithia took a step back down the path.

"What?!" Serana stepped into Sithia's path, eyeing her in some concern. Had she snapped at last?

"That pilgrim said nothing about trolls. I'm going to murder him."

Yes, she'd snapped. But maybe not beyond hope of talking some sense into her. "You don't want to do that."

Sithia stopped just before she walked into Serana. "Only because it'd mean climbing more of this Void forsaken mountain."

"Come on. I see another tablet up there. I want to know more about the history of the Greybeards." The last couple of tablets had covered the start of the dragon war, with Kyne calling on Paarthurnax to help teach men to use the Voice. This Paarthurnax must have been either a dragon or a dragon priest with a name like that.

Sithia grudgingly dropped the topic of pilgrim murder and stomped up more of the steps she hated so very much.


Night was falling by the time they were in sight of High Hrothgar, with its square walls and icicles hanging from a window in the central tower. The latest tablet claimed that Jurgen Windcaller had built it but that couldn't be the work of a single man, unless he'd had some very powerful and specific Shouts at his disposal.

"Not far now. At last." Sithia yawned. "At least the climb was uneventful."

"...apart from the trolls. And that dragon." Serana shivered in remembrance. If not for the dragon attacking when their path cut through the rock they might have been Shouted off the mountain.

Sithia shrugged. "Relatively uneventful. My other climbs were worse."

"...I don't want to know, do I?"

"I almost got blown off the path by a snowstorm the first time, and the second I lost a sword over the edge of the path. I didn't try to retrieve it as I had a spare at that point. Just as well as there was no sign of it going up this time. Unless one of those pilgrims made off with it… Fine Elven blade it was, too," Sithia grumbled.

"At least you didn't lose one this time."

Sithia nodded and patted Dragonbane's hilt. "It lives to fight another dragon. Going by that dragon's screeches, I think it really does hurt them more than other swords."

"There's your reaction to touching the blade as proof of that."

"At least it's only the blade. The hilt doesn't sting me at all."

"Good. Thinking of swords… Who's that?" Serana pointed at the statue beside the path. It was of a bearded man in armour, sword held point down over a sinuous dragon.

"Talos. You didn't see the one in Whiterun?"

"Too close to a shrine." At least she guessed it had been a shrine of Talos, going by the proximity of the Aedric influence to where Heimskr had been ranting about the love of that god.

"Right. Well, that's the ninth tablet at his feet, so just as well this statue doesn't come with a shrine."

Serana darted over it to read it, brushing off some snow. " 'For years all silent, the Greybeards spoke one name. Tiber Septim, stripling then, was summoned to Hrothgar. They blessed and named him Dovahkiin.' "

"I'd like to know how they knew to call him, because as far as I know he didn't absorb any dragon souls. They only called for me after I took my first, and not by my name but for the Dovahkiin."

"Maybe they somehow sensed his presence in the same way they knew to call you? It says the spoke one name. Tiber Septim isn't a single name."

"Talos is. That would be the name he had as a stripling."

"Maybe the Greybeards know? You could ask."

"I could, but I have more important things to ask them. Like about this Shout." With that Sithia strode off.

Serana followed, only diverting to read the last tablet in the shadow of High Hrothgar while Sithia started up the steps into the tantalising shelter from the cutting wind.

" 'The Voice is worship. Follow the Inner path. Speak only in True Need.' Definitely not Sithia's philosophy…" Serana muttered. She hurried after Sithia, pausing at the foot of the steps to take in the view over Whiterun and the tundra far below. She also had a peek into a chest on a platform at the foot of the tower and found it full of sacks of what smelled like food.

"Come on, Serana!"

Serana joined her impatient Dragonborn at the heavy metal doors, incised with a stylised depiction of a Greybeard, wearing a robe with dragons facing each other. Sithia pushed open the doors and held them open barely long enough for Serana to follow.

It felt blissfully warm inside, thanks to flaming sconces and an elevated fire pit. Those intricate dragon motifs and stylised Greybeard heads were repeated on many of the walls. The floors were smooth flagstone, if a little cracked and worn with age.

"Arngeir?" Sithia called. She pulled her mask down and called for the Greybeard again. "Why do they never come when they're called?" she growled. She stalked off down a corridor to the left. Serana followed and they emerged into what must be the Greybeards' dormitory. The stone beds didn't look terribly comfortable, although they were covered with snug furs so maybe looks were deceiving.

Two of the Greybeards were sitting on stone chairs, unmoving apart from breathing. Meditating? They were aged men with fittingly grey beards, wearing identical hooded grey robes with similar motifs to the walls.

Sithia cleared her throat. "Arngeir."

One of them blinked and looked up at them. Arngeir, presumably. He stood, smoothing his beard as much as it could be when knotted. "Welcome back, Dragonborn."

Sithia didn't do more than sigh at being called what she was. Strange, considering how violently she sometimes objected to it elsewhere.

"Who is your friend?" He glanced at Serana, taking in her glowing eyes and pale skin with a knowing look, although his heart didn't skip a beat or speed up. Clearly vampires were not something Greybeards were afraid of.

"Serana. I hope she's as welcome here as I am."

"Of course, Dragonborn. A single companion is acceptable, provided she respects this temple to Kyne." Arngeir gave Serana a very stern look.

Serana could only hope that it was a temple in name only; that she'd find no shrine here… "Of course. A place of peace such as this most hallowed ground in Skyrim must remain so."

Arngeir nodded and returned his gaze to Sithia. "What can I do for you?"

"I need to learn the Shout used to defeat Alduin."

"Where did you learn of that? Who have you been talking to?" Arngeir spoke faster, his voice suddenly sharp.

Sithia was more than a little taken aback, staring at him. The Greybeards must have never spoken like that to her before. "Does it matter?"

"Yes. For matters of such gravity, we need to know where you stand. Or who you stand with."

Sithia frowned. "The Blades helped me find out about it. And I stand with protecting people from the threat dragons pose. That I get their souls in the process is a bonus."

"The Blades! Of course. They specialise in meddling in matters they barely understand. Their reckless arrogance knows no bounds. They have always sought to turn the Dragonborn from the path of wisdom." Arngeir crossed his arms. "Have you learned nothing from us? Would you simply be a tool in the hands of the Blades, to be used for their own purposes?"

Already grumpy, it didn't take much to bring Sithia's anger to the surface. "I am my own master. The Blades are helping me, I don't serve them," she snarled, teeth bared.

Arngeir's companion Greybeard stirred and cleared his throat. Arngeir glanced at him and quailed at the reproach he saw there.

Arngeir turned back to Sithia and raised his hands, palms outwards. Placating. "No, no, of course not. Forgive me, Dragonborn. I have been intemperate with you. But heed my warning - the Blades may say they serve the Dragonborn, but they do not. They never have."

"Trust me, I can't mistake them for servants. That they claim to be sworn to guide and guard me doesn't make them my housecarls."

"It does not." Arngeir nodded. "Their guidance would lead you away from the path of wisdom."

"So, can you teach me this Shout?"

"No. I cannot teach it to you because I do not know it. It is called 'Dragonrend', but its Words of Power are unknown to us. We do not regret this loss. Dragonrend holds no place within the Way of the Voice."

Sithia's frown looked more puzzled than angry for once. "I thought you knew all Words of Power."

"But not Dragonrend. The knowledge of that Shout was lost in the time before history began. Perhaps only its creators ever knew it."

"If the Shout is lost, how can I defeat Alduin?" Sithia had only once before sounded so dismayed in Serana's hearing; the incident with the dagger at her throat when she'd first woken her Dragonborn from a nightmare.

"Only Paarthurnax, the master of our order, can answer that question, if he so chooses."

Paarthurnax? Serana's eyes widened. The name from one of the tablets on the way up… for him to still be around since the dragon war he was surely a dragon, although maybe dragon priests were undead? Still, the name included 'overlord'. She found it highly unlikely dragon priests were allowed to use the term, except perhaps referring to their own minions. Regardless, Sithia needed to know, be he dragon or undead priest. She wasn't fluent in Dovahzul apart from temporarily after absorbing a dragon soul.

"Who is Paarthurnax?" Poor Sithia sounded so very tired. She'd have to make sure she rested before they went to speak to this Paarthurnax.

"He is our leader. He surpasses us all in his mastery of the Way of the Voice." As could be expected if Serana's theory was right...

"Why haven't I met him yet?"

"He lives in seclusion on the very peak of the mountain." Hmm. An undead Nord would manage that chill as well as a dragon. "He speaks to us only rarely, and never to outsiders. Being allowed to see him is a great privilege. You weren't ready. You still aren't ready. But thanks to the Blades, you now have questions that only Paarthurnax can answer."

"I need to speak with him, then." Sithia groaned. "I don't suppose he'll come down to me, either." Poor Sithia. The only thing worse than climbing up here to High Hrothgar was climbing all the way to the summit of the Throat of the World.

"Indeed not." Arngeir sighed heavily. "Come. We will teach you a Shout to open the way to Paarthurnax." He led them back into the atrium and up a flight of steps to a set of double doors with those same repeating motifs of dragon and Greybeard.

Before Arngeir pushed the doors open, Sithia spoke up:

"What's so bad about Dragonrend?"

Arngeir paused, his hand on the door. "It was created by those who had lived under the unimaginable cruelty of Alduin's Dragon Cult. Their whole lives were consumed with hatred for dragons, and they poured all their anger and hatred into this Shout."

Arngeir turned and laid his other hand on Sithia's shoulder. "When you learn a Shout, you take it into your very being. In a sense, you become the Shout. In order to learn and use this Shout, you will be taking this evil into yourself. If you learn this Shout from Paarthurnax, you will need to be careful or risk falling into darkness."

Sithia nodded grimly. "I have to learn it. There's no choice, unless I want Alduin to eat the world and everyone on it."

Arngeir sighed heavily. "Have you considered that Alduin was not meant to be defeated? Those who overthrew him in ancient times only postponed the day of reckoning, they did not stop it. If the world is meant to end, so be it. Let it end and be reborn."

Sithia shrugged off his hand. "I cannot stand by and let everyone and everything die if I can stop it. Besides, how do you know it will be reborn if it ends? I won't take that chance, and I don't want to die even if it will."

"Very well, Dragonborn. Follow me."

Arngeir led them out into the courtyard. Across it stood a high tower, and beyond it Serana saw an archway carved with another stylised dragon standing near it, up another flight of steps. High winds blew fog beyond the carven archway, cutting across what must be the path up to the summit of the Throat of the World. Such winds… Serana had never seen such powerful ones before, or heard the roar of them for that matter. They'd be blown off the mountain by them. Was that what Arngeir meant by Sithia not being ready to see Paarthurnax?

Arngeir pointed to the archway. "The path to Paarthurnax lies through this gate. I will show you how to open the way."

"Lok… Vah… Koor…" Arngeir whispered each word to the ground, and the flagstones cracked as they were engraved with each Word of Power. "I will grant you my understanding of Clear Skies. This is your final gift from us, Dragonborn. Use it well." He bowed, and light streamed from him to Sithia, almost like a dragon soul but gentler.

"Thanks. LOK VAH KOOR!"

Serana winced. That Shout was almost as loud as Storm Call and came accompanied by a rumble of ground shaking thunder. It had the opposite effect on the sky, of course, all clouds cleared. The rushing wind ahead died away, leaving their path clear. Impressive.

Arngeir showed no signs of discomfort. His ears weren't as sensitive and maybe the ability to Shout granted him some protection. "As you can see, Clear Skies will blow away the mist and winds, but only for a time. The path to Paarthurnax is perilous, not to be embarked upon lightly. Keep moving, stay focused on your goal, and you will reach the summit. Wind guide you."

Serana opened her mouth to query if it was really such a good idea for them to go up right now when Sithia took a single step forward and hummed thoughtfully. "I think that climbing up there can wait until morning."

Arngeir nodded. "Paarthurnax is not going anywhere. You may borrow my bed if you wish, Dragonborn, spending a night meditating will do me no harm."

"Thanks." With that, Sithia headed inside to rest and make some preparations for the climb ahead, switching her Amulet of Mara for her Amulet of Talos. The Greybeards all made themselves scarce, leaving their living quarters to Sithia.

"From what Arngeir said I'll be needing to use Clear Skies frequently."

"Why don't you wear both?" Serana asked.

"Gives me a headache. Don't know why. Maybe Mara and Talos don't get along terribly well or something, or the enchantments clash."

"Pity."

"At least it'll stop the random proposals of marriage."

Sithia also checked her stocks of frost resistance potions. "Just in case the enchantment on my armour isn't enough." She also counted out her stamina potions. Serana swallowed any protest. The climb looked all the steeper up to the summit. Her Dragonborn would need the boost even more. Thinking of Dragonborn...

"Have you already tried to stop them calling you 'Dragonborn'?"

"There's not a lot of point. They called me here as Dovahkiin. Literally. I'm surprised you didn't hear it while you were slumbering in Dimhollow, to be honest." Sithia shook her head. "Besides, most of them can't call me anything but Dovahkiin as they're stuck speaking Dovahzul. As for Arngeir… he only helps me because of what I am."

"So do the Blades."

"Yes, but they also claim to serve me. The Greybeards don't. They teach me."

"I guess. I just wish it could be different for you."

"It perhaps makes a difference that they could Shout back if I Shouted at them for it."

"Point. Get some rest. I want to ask Arngeir something."

"Good luck. I don't think he cares much for talking." Sithia settled onto the rock carved bed. As Serana wandered off to find Arngeir, she heard Sithia grumbling under her breath about the Greybeards and the Dwemer and their shared liking for stone furniture.

She found Arngeir kneeling on the flagstones in front of a blazing brazier, eyes half closed. Rude as it seemed to interrupt his meditating, it had to be done.

Serana cleared her throat. "You're sending the ultimate dragonslayer up to see your leader without warning her about what he is?"

Arngeir blinked, his eyes coming into focus on her face, alarmed. "How do you know—"

"Please. She might not be fluent in Dovahzul, but I am. Paar. Thur. Nax. Ambition. Overlord. Cruelty. If he's not a dragon or a dragon priest, I'm a rabbit."

"You know much, companion to the Dragonborn. How did you learn it? We certainly did not teach you."

"If you must know... I'm a vampire, as I think you've noticed, and I've been alive long enough to have taught myself Dovahzul from books. Don't worry, I can't Shout, the books don't include how to do that. But you should warn her about what Paarthurnax is."

"I cannot. We are sworn not to speak of it. All I can tell you is that he is not a dragon priest."

"He really is a dragon then…" Serana sighed. "I'll have to tell her if you can't." She walked back to Sithia's side to find her already sleeping despite the relative lack of comfort of the stone bed. The climb had really taken it out of her. Warning her about Paarthurnax could wait until morning. And maybe until they'd left the Greybeards behind; that would give Sithia's temper time to cool down before she saw Arngeir again. Provided Serana kept her from going back down just to give him a piece of her mind as with the pilgrim...


"The leader of the Greybeards is a dragon?!" Sithia stopped on the snowy path, eyes wide as she stared at Serana.

"Apparently. I thought I should warn you about what to expect."

"Fucking stupid old men! I'm the ultimate dragonslayer, and they don't think to warn me that their mysterious hermit of a leader is one of my prey. Thanks to you, I know not to attack him on sight."

"In their defence, Arngeir said they made an oath not to speak of it. He got around his word by confirming that he's not a dragon priest when I asked him last night."

"Hmph. And you didn't tell me until now." Sithia gave her an exasperated look. "Why not?"

"You needed to rest, and arguing with the Greybeards wouldn't help with that."

"And in the morning?"

"It is morning." Serana 'helpfully' pointed towards the sun glaring down overhead and pulled her hood closer. Averting her eyes from the nasty light didn't help much when it reflected off the snow-strewn ground.

"Oh, you." With that, Sithia subsided and resumed the climb. "I suppose I should be grateful you told me now. It should mean I don't end up fighting a dragon after this Void forsaken climb."

"Let's hope this Paarthurnax practices what he preaches, this Way of the Voice."

"At least they don't expect me to follow it. I couldn't. Boring!"

Every few minutes Sithia had to use that horribly loud Shout again, as the winds returned and brought with them a roiling dark fog, so oppressive that it dulled even Serana's senses. Serana kept a careful watch on Sithia to see when she was about to Shout, not that covering her ears really did much to help the resulting headache from the rumble of thunder right overhead. Or was that in the ground itself, Serana asked herself as she stumbled yet again with the next cry of Clear Skies.

"LOK VAH KOOR!"

Sithia groaned. Serana automatically reached out to steady Sithia and discovered that she wasn't entirely stable enough herself. Fortunately they ended up bracing each other rather than sliding down the snowy path in a heap.

Serana frowned, concerned. That groan had been pained. "Are you all right?"

"I just hate mountain climbing. And needing to Shout so often, even with this thing." She touched the amulet hanging from the neck. "I'm already short of breath from the height alone."

The air was a little thin, come to think of it. Not that it really affected Serana. Something Sithia must've realised, judging by the dirty look she shot Serana.

"Stamina potion, please. And another frost resistance one."

Serana got them out and handed them over, hand darting out to catch the discarded bottles once Sithia downed them.

Sithia pulled her mask back up, a necessity with the chill up there. "Come on. This mountain can't go up much higher. Can it?"

The path did seem to be levelling out a bit, but a look upwards revealed still more mountain looming overhead.

"Huh, do you see that? How is it still standing?" Sithia nudged Serana, who returned her eyes to the path ahead.

A narrow wooden footbridge crossed a chasm, with more of those impossibly high winds blowing across the gap.

"Must be a miracle. That or hanging on by a thread."

Serana barely covered her ears in time as Sithia Shouted the wind away.

"Sithia, are you sure it's safe?"

"No. Which is why I'm going to wait until I can Shout again if I need to."

Right, that damned ghostly Shout of hers. Although if it saved Sithia from a very nasty fall, Serana would take back everything she'd ever said about hating it.

Serana darted across to test it. The wood didn't even creak under her. Whoever made that bridge must have enchanted it for it to be that sturdy. She reached out and touched it and felt that telltale humming under her skin.

"I think it's fine! Definitely enchanted, and why else enchant a bridge?"

"Hmm." Sithia started to cross with rather more caution than Serana expected of her Dragonborn. She managed to keep that surprise from showing, though, thanks to being rather more intent on listening for any telltale sounds of breaking bridge. Again, no creaking wood or rope.

"That better hold on the way down," Sithia muttered under her breath, glaring briefly back at the bridge before scowling up at the remaining mountain top. "Come on. Let's get this over with."

The rest of the climb was pretty uneventful. No hostile dragon swooped down on them, but they did soon meet an ice wraith and frost troll in the growing fog. The troll took a one way trip down the mountain thanks to a blast of Unrelenting Force, smashing far below on the rock walls of the Throat of the World. The ice wraith was also caught in the Shout but soared back, hissing like an overgrown snake.

Serana dealt with the threat that ice spirit dealt by treating it as if it were a snake. Well, a snake if it tried to bite her Sithia. She didn't have anything against snakes that weren't a threat, after all.

"...Did you have to pull its teeth out quite that hard?"

"Are you seriously complaining? I stopped it from sinking those icy shards into you!"

"You shattered them! I can only use freshly ground ice wraith teeth in potions. Those are useless now."

"All right, all right, I'll try to be more careful if we meet another of those things." Serana huffed. "A little gratitude wouldn't hurt, you know."

"Gratitude?!" Sithia growled. "How about this: thank you ever so much for being overprotective. I can handle things like that wraith just fine, especially with a frost resistance potion inside me!"

"You're just grumpy your Shout didn't hurt it."

Sithia actually stifled a whine and threw her arms up. "It's just so unfair! At least the troll had the decency to become troll fat. That reminds me, I hope I can scrape it up on the way down. It shouldn't freeze, being a frost troll. Or remains thereof."

"Alchemist," Serana muttered. She wondered what her Mother would make of Sithia if they managed to find her. Would they get along, as two alchemists? Or would they see each other as rivals for valuable reagents?

Sithia pointed at the path ahead, to a gap between two boulders. "Oh look, another patch of inexplicably high winds to deal with. This mountain and its air flow is weird!" She inhaled deeply. Serana covered her ears just in time.

"LOK VAH KOOR!" The winds died down with one last ground shaking rumble of thunder. The fog also cleared, exposing the breathtaking view of the aurora, and eastern Skyrim spread out below them. The rest of the Throat loomed over them… not that there was really all that much left of it. They really were nearly there.

Serana frowned, squinting into the sunlight. There was something up ahead, although whatever it was, Sithia stood a better chance of making it out in this headache inducing light.

"What in the Void is a Word Wall doing up here?" Sithia murmured, before quickening her pace. No doubt drawn by the thought of another Word of Power in her arsenal. It also provided a spot of shade, so Serana was all for joining Sithia there.

"Void take it!"

"What's… wrong…" Serana trailed off as she stepped into the shade, her eyes finally shielded enough from the sun to make out the smooth stone. Completely smooth. No carvings.

"What's the point of taking the trouble to carve a Word Wall all the way up here in the most Void forsaken spot of Nirn and then leave it unfinished?!"

"Not to mention broken." Serana pointed at the left side of it, or rather where the left side should be. It was crumbled away as if Alduin himself had taken a few bites out of it.

"That I can understand, who in their right mind would want to come all the way up here to fix it? The resident dragon clearly lacks the means to do it. Speaking of, where—"

A roar from behind them heralded a dragon's arrival. They whirled to see a dragon soar over what was left of the summit of the Throat, which was more like a hill in height at this point, and land on the snowy plain before them. Sithia's hand touched the hilt of Dragonbane, doubtless ready to draw if it wasn't Paarthurnax or if he should prove hostile.

The dragon watched them, head cocking much like any curious creature. He was unlike any other dragon Serana had seen, mostly white, his wings ragged, and a broken horn under his jaw. His eyes showed his age even more than the wear and tear on his body, not glowing red like Alduin's but like the starry sky at night.

Serana couldn't resist a deep breath and had to stifle the urge to dart over to grab a snack. His scent was almost as good as Sithia's, maybe because he was so ancient; aged like a fine wine.

"Drem yol lok. Greetings, wunduniik." The dragon's eyes rested on Sithia, addressing her as the singular traveller here. Maybe dragons didn't count the undead as people? Dragons were supposedly fathered by Akatosh, highest of the Aedra, so maybe Paarthurnax disliked the Daedric essence in her? Serana shook her head, suppressing the urge to take offence. They needed his help.

"I am Paarthurnax. Who are you? What brings you to my strunmah... my mountain?" As he spoke he exposed his sharp teeth. Each word came slowly, as if carefully considered, possibly because he was having to speak in Tamrielic when he preferred to speak in his own tongue.

"I think you know who I am," Sithia stated, hand still on her sword hilt.

"Yes. Vahzah. You speak true, Dovahkiin. Forgive me. It has been long since I held tinvaak with a stranger. I gave in to the temptation to prolong our speech."

"Why live alone on this mountain if you love talking so much?"

"Evenaar bahlok. There are many hungers it is better to deny than to feed. Dreh ni nahkip. Discipline against the lesser aids in qahnaar... denial of the greater."

Serana briefly considered translating Paarthurnax's lapses into Dovahzul, but discarded the idea as quickly as it occurred to her. He was doing just fine getting his point across, and he might consider it rude for her to even offer to do so.

Paarthurnax shifted his wings and tilted his head. "Tell me. Why do you come here, volaan? Why do you intrude on my meditation?"

"I need to learn Dragonrend. Can you teach me?"

"Drem. Patience. There are formalities which must be observed, at the first meeting of two of the dov. By long tradition, the eldest speaks first."

Sithia flinched slightly, doubtless remembering what had happened after Alduin took offence at her violation of that tradition at their last encounter. She somehow managed not to draw her sword, surpassing Serana's expectations of her self control.

"Hear my Thu'um! Feel it in your bones. Match it, if you are Dovahkiin!" Paarthurnax turned to the bare, crumbling remains of the Word Wall behind Sithia and Serana, and Shouted: "YOL TOOR SHUL!"

Serana cringed as the flames bathed the wall, despite being well out of range, standing behind Sithia. When the fire died down, it left the Words of Power of his Shout on the Wall. Sithia's eyes lit up and she darted over to it, touching them and murmuring each one in turn. Brilliant. If Sithia didn't already know how to breathe fire, she would now. And wasn't that the stuff of nightmares, although perhaps a good thing considering the problem her father and his minions still posed.

"A gift, Dovahkiin. Understand Fire as the dov do." Much as it had with Arngeir earlier, the understanding flowed from dragon to Dragonborn, in a stream of light not unlike a dragon's soul.

"Now, show me what you can do. Greet me not as mortal, but as dovah!"

Serana looked away as Sithia inhaled deeply.

"YOL TOOR SHUL!"

Despite not seeing it, Serana still flinched as she heard the fire emerge from Sithia as if she were dragon in body, not just blood and soul.

She looked back in time to see the flames dying down on Paarthurnax's scaly face. It didn't even singe him. In fact, he sounded as if he enjoyed it:

"Aaah... yes! Sossedov los mul. The dragonblood runs strong in you. It is long since I had the pleasure of speech with one of my own kind." Paarthurnax paused to stretch his wings. "So. You have made your way here, to me. No easy task for a joor... mortal. Even for one of Dovah Sos. Dragonblood. What would you ask of me?"

Sithia crossed her arms, finally releasing her sword. "As I've already said, I need to learn Dragonrend."

"Ah. I've expected you. And your request. Prodah. You would not come all this way for tinvaak with an old dovah. No. You seek your weapon against Alduin."

"How did you know I was coming?"

"Alduin komeyt tiid. What else would you seek? Alduin and Dovahkiin return together. But I do not know the Thu'um you seek. Krosis. It cannot be known to me. Your kind - joorre, mortals - created it as a weapon against the dov... the dragons. Our hadrimme, our minds cannot even... comprehend its concepts."

Sithia stifled a frustrated snarl and threw up her hands. "How can I learn it, then?"

"Drem. All in good time. First, a question for you. Why do you want to learn this Thu'um?"

"I need to stop Alduin."

"Yes. Alduin... zeymah. The elder brother. Gifted, grasping and troublesome as is so often the case with firstborn. But why? Why must you stop Alduin?"

Sithia sighed, crossing her arms again. "…The prophecy says that only the Dragonborn can stop him."

"True... But qostiid - prophecy - tells what may be, not what should be. Qostiid sahlo aak. Just because you can do a thing, does not always mean you should."

Serana had to agree with Paarthurnax there. Everything with her father… prophecy was a very weak guide indeed. Sithia could stand to take a lesson from what Paarthurnax had said, too… her reckless Dragonborn. Doing something just because she could seemed to be her whole philosophy sometimes.

Paarthurnax continued: "Do you have no better reason for acting than destiny? Are you nothing but a plaything of dez... of fate?"

"Feels like it sometimes," Sithia muttered. "But I've always fought against destiny."

Serana frowned. What did she mean by that? Much as Serana wanted to know it would have to wait. Probably until Sithia told her without being asked, knowing her stubborn Dragonborn.

"And so, perhaps, your destiny will be fulfilled. Who can say? Dez motmahus. Even to the dov, who ride the currents of Time, destiny is elusive. Alduin believes that he will prevail, with good reason. Rok mul. And he is no fool. Ni mey, rinik gut nol. Far from it. He began as the wisest and most far-seeing of us all."

Then just maybe Alduin had lost his way, just like Harkon.

"But you have indulged my weakness for speech long enough. Krosis. Now I will answer your question. Do you know why I live here, at the peak of the Monahven - what you name Throat of the World?"

"I can't understand the appeal myself, but from observation of a few of your brethren's lairs… dragons like mountains. I suppose I might if I had wings."

Paarthurnax slowly nodded. "True. But few now remember that this was the very spot where Alduin was defeated by the ancient Tongues. Vahrukt unslaad... perhaps none but me now remember how he was defeated."

"Using the Dragonrend Shout, yes?"

Paarthurnax waggled his great head in something between a nod and shake. "Yes and no. Viik nuz ni kron. Alduin was not truly defeated, either. If he was, you would not be here today, seeking to... defeat him. The Nords of those days used the Dragonrend Shout to cripple Alduin. But this was not enough. Ok mulaag unslaad. It was the Kel - the Elder Scroll. They used it to... cast him adrift on the currents of Time."

Sithia blinked and exchanged a startled look with Serana. "Are you saying they sent Alduin forward in time?"

"Not intentionally. Some hoped he would be gone forever, forever lost. Meyye. I knew better. Tiid bo amativ. Time flows ever onward. One day he would surface. Which is why I have lived here. For thousands of mortal years I have waited. I knew where he would emerge but not when." No wonder Paarthurnax looked so ancient, he'd been here far longer than Serana had been sleeping away in Dimhollow - without the benefit of vampirism to keep him fresh.

Sithia heaved a sigh and started to pace. "How does any of this help me?"

"Tiid krent. Time was... shattered here because of what the ancient Nords did to Alduin. If you brought that Kel, that Elder Scroll back here... to the Tiid-Ahraan, the Time-Wound… With the Elder Scroll that was used to break Time, you may be able to... cast yourself back. To the other end of the break. You could learn Dragonrend from those who created it."

Come to think of it Serana could feel something strange up here. The overbearing sunlight glaring down overhead had distracted her. Clouds passing in front of it meant her headache receded enough to register the tickle of… something. Looking around carefully she spotted it. A disturbance in the wind blowing in front of the Word Wall, almost like the air above a fire.

"Nothing is certain with such things… But I believe the Scroll's bond with the Tiid-Ahraan will allow you a... a seeing, a vision of the moment of its creation. Then you will feel - know - Dragonrend, in the power of its first expression. You will see them... wuth fadonne... my friends - Hakon, Gormlaith, Felldir."

Sithia stopped pacing to frown up at him. "Who are they?"

"The first mortals that I taught the Thu'um - the first Tongues. The leaders of the rebellion against Alduin. They were mighty, in their day. Even to attempt to defeat Alduin... sahrot hunne. The Nords have had many heroes since, but none greater."

"They were Dragonborn?"

"Niid. No. They were Tongues, not Dovahkiin. The first of your kind served us, not fought us, until…" Paarthurnax briefly looked away. He shook his head. "Krosis. Miraak was dear to us once. He was lost to us long ago, before Alduin was banished."

"How could an Elder Scroll cast Alduin through time?" Sithia sounded disturbed by the thought, perhaps because of the one in her enchanted pack. Serana resisted the urge to point out that at least Sithia wasn't the one carrying it or had slept right next to it for however long. Paarthurnax was still talking, after all.

"Vomindok. I do not know. Perhaps in the very doing they erased the knowing of it from Time itself. The dov are children of Akatosh. Thus we are specially... attuned to the flow of Time. Perhaps also uniquely vulnerable. I warned them against such a rash action. Even I could not foresee its consequences. Nust ni hon. They would not listen."

"You were there?"

"Yes. There were a few of us that rebelled against Alduin's thur... his tyranny. We aided the humans in his overthrow. But they did not trust us. Ni ov. Their inner councils were kept hidden from us. I was far from here on the day of Alduin's downfall. But all dov felt the... sundering of Time itself."

Sithia resumed pacing. She paused again after a few steps as something occurred to her. "What does Dragonrend actually do?"

"I cannot tell you in detail. I never heard it used. Kogaan. It was the first Thu'um created solely by mortals. It was said to force a dragon to experience the concept of Mortality. A truly vonmindoraan... incomprehensible idea to the immortal dov."

Sithia nodded thoughtfully and took a few more steps. It seemed to be helping her think, because she soon asked something else: "You're the Master of the Greybeards. Do others come here to train?"

"I have taught the Way of the Voice for centuries and the Thu'um since long before that. But no, Dovahkiin. Others do not come here to train anymore. Saraan. You are the first in over a hundred years. I meditate on the Rotmulaag - the Words of Power. I counsel in their use. It is enough for me."

"You meditate on the Words? Like the Greybeards? Or do you have a different method, because Arngeir's just… I can't do it."

"Perhaps a dov can succeed where my disciples failed. Knowing a Word of Power is to take its meaning into yourself. Contemplate the meaning of a Rotmulaag. You will become closer to that Word, as it fills your inner self. Will I teach you, Dovahkiin? What Word calls you to deeper understanding?"

"…Yol."

Of course it would be that one, the one he'd just given Sithia. If Paarthurnax could teach Sithia to make that Shout even more powerful, Serana pitied the one to feel it. Even if it was her father. Especially if it was him.

Sithia walked closer to Paarthurnax, her eyes fixed on him with a burning focus as she took in his lecture. A disturbing lecture for Serana to hear, given its subject matter.

"In your tongue, the Word simply means 'Fire.' It is change given form. Power at its most primal. That is the true meaning of 'Yol.' Suleyk. Power. You have it, as do all dov. But power is inert without action and choice. Think of this as the fire builds in your su'um, in your breath. Su'um ahrk morah. What will you burn? What will you spare?"

"I can think of a few things." Sithia glanced back at Serana and smirked. Serana shivered - she swore a flame seemed to be burning in those stormy grey eyes, something which disturbed her yet also found perversely hot in the, er, other sense.

Sithia turned back to her dragon teacher. "Thanks, Paarthurnax. I have no idea how can I ever repay you for this, and the information about how I might learn Dragonrend."

"That you might learn from me is reward enough, Dovahkiin. You know what to seek now."

"An Elder Scroll. Convenient that we have one." Sithia beckoned to Serana.

Serana blinked. "What? You don't mean…"

"To read it? How else will we know if it's the right one or not?"

"In the unlikely event that it's the right one, it'd still be incredibly risky to do that! You said it yourself, mess with an Elder Scroll and at best you'll break yourself. At worst…"

Sithia shrugged. "So I have to risk breaking the world to save it."

"You are unbelievable."

Sithia held out her hands. "Unless you have a better idea?"

Serana slowly shook her head. They had a Scroll with them. They had to be sure it wasn't the right one. And how else to do it except by trial and error? It wasn't like the things were labelled with their contents! She reluctantly got the Scroll out.

"Come to think of it, I need to do something else first." Sithia stepped close. Her gaze slipped to Serana's lips. For a moment Serana thought that something else would finally be to invite a kiss. But no. Sithia's gaze slipped to her pack and she dug out another frost resistance potion and only bared her face to down it before pulling her mask back up quickly. Serana felt a brief flicker of hope when Sithia stepped closer still, only for her to take the Scroll.

Sithia walked over to the weird patch of air, and held the Scroll up ready to read.

"Dovahkiin, time does not shudder at that Kel's touch," Paarthurnax called, eyeing it sidelong.

Sithia shrugged as best as she could when holding up a heavy and unwieldy Elder Scroll. "I still need to be sure. What if time doesn't do that? You said you weren't there when the Scroll was read before."

Paarthurnax stretched his wings, perhaps a draconic version of a shrug. "Niid, no, I was not. Forgive me, Dovahkiin, I cannot tell you more."

Serana darted over to Sithia. There had to be something she could do… "Sithia, are you sure about this?"

Sithia raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure that I need to be sure. I'm not doing this for the fun of it. Duty calls. Wish me luck."

Serana closed the last of the distance between them and pulled that damn masked cowl down, not something she'd do if Sithia hadn't got a fresh dose of that potion inside her up here. She cupped Sithia's face in her hands. If this earned her a Shout, so be it. This might be her last chance if the Scroll claimed Sithia's sanity. What passed for it, anyway.

Sithia inhaled sharply, eyes wide.

Serana leant down, lips slanting across Sithia's, finally stealing a kiss.

The heat of Sithia's mouth was startling. It wasn't as hot as her blood, but it was very different to kissing a vampire. She'd never kissed a mortal before - not as a vampire, anyway. Brushing lips with Sithia wasn't the same, especially after feeding when her own lips were warmed from the hot dragon blood. Especially as Serana herself was at ambient temperature, and it was cold enough up on the highest peak in Tamriel to freeze off Dibella's tits. Maybe that was why Sithia hadn't invited her to do this? Should she stop? Apologise?

Except Sithia whimpered, and leaned into the kiss, her lips parting. Serana deepened the kiss, tongue stroking—

Something heavy landed on her feet. Pain blindsided Serana. She was dimly aware of Sithia crying out, breaking the kiss. Sithia fell back and sat down heavily in the snow. She snarled and shoved the Elder Scroll aside and off their boots.

"Sorry!"

"Damn it, Serana!" Sithia hissed between her teeth, clutching at her feet. "Fuck you and your shitty timing." Her hands glowed as she concentrated on healing herself. Serana winced. It hurt her too, but very briefly thanks to a quick drink from a blood potion. A taste of Sithia at her finest that only had her wanting more… Unfortunately they weren't alone.

Serana glanced behind her at Paarthurnax and saw him tactfully looking away. At least he was pretending nothing had happened, which was a bit less embarrassing than having a laughing dragon.

She turned back to Sithia and flinched at the glare waiting for her. The hard glint in Sithia's eyes softened a bit as the golden light faded away. It was difficult to appear suitably contrite when Sithia's gaze slipped down slightly to focus on Serana's lips and she licked her own. Maybe her lips were tingling too.

"There's a time and a place for that, you stupid vampire," Sithia snapped. "This isn't it." She pulled her cowl back over her hair and the mask up. She picked the Scroll up and stood.

"I'm sorry, I just… I had to. One less thing to regret never doing if it all goes horribly wrong."

"Try asking next time! Don't surprise me like that when I'm holding something as heavy as this fucking Scroll."

'Next time?' Serana had never felt quite so torn between hope and fear. That there would be a next time, and that this might be the first and last time. She wanted nothing more than to claim Sithia's lips again. But Sithia was right. Up here wasn't the right time for more than stealing a single kiss.

Sithia tugged open the Scroll. As soon as her eyes fell on it, she staggered and dropped the Scroll again - fortunately not on her toes this time - and fell to her knees.

Serana caught her before she fell flat on her face in the snow, dropping to her own knees to hold her close. "Are you all right?" She gently lifted Sithia's head to look into unfocused eyes.

"…I think so." Sithia sounded as dazed as she looked. She blinked and focused blearily on Serana. "Everything's a bit blurry, but it's passing. I can still see. I think I'm about as sane as I ever was, too."

"Oh, that's reassuring." Despite her sarcasm Serana pulled her into a tight embrace that she hoped got across how very relieved she was. She got up and pulled Sithia to her feet too, steadying her, holding her close for as long as she could, until Sithia stepped back. Serana still kept an arm around her, and Sithia at least didn't try to shrug her off.

"It was not the right Kel," Paarthurnax stated.

"No. Hopefully it's one of the others Dexion mentioned. He's a Moth Priest, they specialise in reading Elder Scrolls. He did mention one with the secrets of dragons, come to think of it. Maybe that's the one we need. But where is it?"

"Krosis. I know little of what has passed below in the long years I have lived here. You are likely better informed than I. Trust your instincts, Dovahkiin. Your blood will show you the way."

"Only if I can somehow find it on my map," Sithia grumbled under her breath, probably below what a dragon could hear as Paarthurnax didn't look confused. "Void take it. A wild goosechase to find at least two Elder Scrolls, because it'd be just my luck if this is another one in addition to the two to find Auriel's Bow." She sighed heavily. "Come on, back down the… mountain…" A horrified look crossed Sithia's face and she choked back a sob. "Oh no. Void take it! I have to climb back up here! At least once! And then down again! Oh no no no..." She started to laugh bitterly, almost crying, holding her head in her hands.

Serana slowly and soothingly stroked her back. There there. Poor Dragonborn.

After a few deep breaths, Sithia got herself back under control. She glanced up at Paarthurnax. "No offence, Paarthurnax, but I hate this mountain. Especially the climb."

Serana eyed Paarthurnax's ragged wings. She might have asked him for a lift down the mountain, but she wasn't sure about adding any more weight to his ability to fly. That and it seemed rude to ask.

"Dovah sos does not give you the wings of one," Paarthurnax observed. He didn't follow it up with an offer to carry them or at least Sithia down, so it seemed it was up to Serana. She wasn't about to let Sithia use Become Ethereal if there was anything she could do about it, and there was if she carried her Dragonborn down. The path should at least be clear now, Sithia would only need to Clear the Skies, with no trolls or ice wraiths to make it so Serana's hands needed to be free. Right?

"Well spotted. I'm very jealous of your wings, so kindly don't mention the fact that I can't fly ever again."

"Krosis, Dovahkiin." Paarthurnax looked about as sheepish as it was possible for a dragon to look.

Sithia stepped closer and gently touched Paarthurnax's scaly cheek. "Forgiven. Goodbye, Paarthurnax. Want me to bring you something when I return? I've no idea what you eat, but I could bring you some venison or something."

"I do not need to feed; basking in sunlight is enough for one of the dov. That you will return for more tinvaak is enough for this old dovah."

Sithia nodded. "I'd say I look forward to it but it means climbing back up here. See you when I hopefully have the right Scroll." She picked up the Scroll and returned it to the pack. Serana steadied herself against the abrupt increase in weight. That done, Sithia started walking away and beckoned Serana.

"Drem yol lok, Paarthurnax," Serana said, raising a hand in farewell.

Paarthurnax blinked at her. "Drem yol lok. Serana, geh? That is what the Dovahkiin called you. Though you are not dovahkiin, perhaps I might have tinvaak with you too next time. You do at least speak my tongue, although you do not feel like a Tongue to me."

"I'd like that." Serana barely resisted the temptation to ask if he could teach her, like he'd taught the Ancient Tongues. That would be presumptuous. Rude. She'd gladly take him up on it if he offered, if not for the fact that her place was with Sithia. And not learning how to use the Thu'um up here. Thinking of that… she hurried to catch up with her Dragonborn. Before she left her behind by using that ghostly Shout.

"Sithia, wait!"

Sithia's heavy sigh misted the air as she paused, foot tapping impatiently. "Hurry up."

"I might not have wings either but I could carry you down. At least as far as High Hrothgar, maybe beyond."

"Tempting but no. Besides, you'll need your hands free to cover your ears when I clear our path; don't think I missed you doing that on the way up."

"Point. I could put you down temporarily whenever you need to do that. Or maybe… I could carry you in your pack!"

"I'd suffocate. You don't put living things in enchanted packs, not if you want them to keep breathing."

"Oh. Best not, then. Um. How did you find that out?"

Sithia's eyes sparkled. Serana just knew she was smirking under that mask. "Trial and error. That or maybe the enchanter warned me."

Serana side eyed her. She really couldn't tell which was the truth. She decided she didn't want to know if something - or worse someone - had expired in the pack on her back.

"Anyway, thanks for the offer but no thanks. I don't trust this mountain. It seems to magically replenish its supplies of trolls and other nasties, as there's no other satisfying explanation for how quickly they come back."

Despite Sithia's paranoia there were no such nasties on the path down to High Hrothgar, and only those ridiculously high winds and dangerous fog to Shout away.

It felt so good to be warmed by the fire just inside High Hrothgar. Much as Serana didn't care for fire in general, like any sensible vampire, she did like the warmth a hearth provided. So did Sithia judging by the tempo of her heart and relaxed look on her face, cowl and mask pulled down to bask in the heat.

Serana's eyes slipped to Sithia's lips again. So tempting… But no. Their next kiss was Sithia's to instigate. Whenever that might be. Best think of something else, and not how soft those lips had felt under hers.

She cleared her throat. "I know where one of those Scrolls should be. With Valerica: my mother."

Sithia frowned at her. "Your mother? But you don't know where she is, right?"

"No, I don't. But I have an idea of where to start looking. You're not going to like it."

Sithia stifled a groan. "Let's hear it."

"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."

"Very helpful of her," Sithia drawled.

"I know, I know. The way she said it... 'someplace he would never search.' It was cryptic, yet she called attention to it. I couldn't imagine a single place my father would avoid looking. And he's had all this time, too. But then I remembered… There's a courtyard in the castle. I used to help my mother tend a garden there. All of the ingredients for our potions came from there. She used to say that my father couldn't stand the place. Too… peaceful. She started sending me away when things got worse between them. She must have been hiding something."

Sithia raised an eyebrow. "You think she's still in the castle? Isn't that pretty risky?"

"Oh, absolutely. But my mother's not a coward. That is… I don't think we'll actually trip over her there. But it's worth a look."

"You're right - I don't like it. But it does sound like something we should investigate. I guess we'll have to do it during the daytime, when your father and his cronies are most likely to be sleeping. I take it there's a way to get to this courtyard without using the front door?"

"There's an unused inlet on the northern side of the island that was used by the previous owners to bring supplies into the castle. An old escape tunnel from the castle exits there. I think that's our way in."

"It's certainly our only lead right now. Unless Arngeir knows something about Elder Scrolls." Sithia hummed thoughtfully. She reached over and took Serana's hand. "You're warming up nicely. Still cold compared to me, but far warmer than you were up there." She smirked. "Don't think you're safe."

"What?"

Sithia let go and stepped between Serana and the fire, inhaling deeply. "FUS!"

That pushed Serana back into the wall, pinning her there for a moment before she slid down it to sit on the floor. She stared up at Sithia, dazed. Her world spun for a few of Sithia's heartbeats. Despite not needing to breathe she felt a little winded. Thanks to the single word used she was at least not bruised.

"You kissed me. Without being invited. I wasn't about to Shout you off the Throat of the World, but I wasn't lying about tasting my Voice. Consequences, my dear stupid vampire. You can't escape them."

"Worth it," Serana gasped. After a few deep breaths she no longer felt quite so breathless.

Sithia smirked. "Glad to hear it." She held out a hand and pulled Serana up onto her feet. And into her arms. Sithia stretched up on tiptoe, arms looped behind Serana's neck, and claimed a kiss. Serana fell back against the wall, letting Sithia pin her there in a decidedly more pleasant way.

"This isn't going to get me Shouted through the wall, is it?" Serana murmured against her lips.

Sithia's lips curled into a smile. "Only if you ask nicely. I kissed you this time, I think that counts as permission."

"Oh, good."

"Now shut up and kiss me."

Serana gladly obliged. Except even as the heat of Sithia's tongue traced her lips she heard approaching footsteps and an accompanying heartbeat. Serana groaned and drew back, much as she wanted to allow the kiss to deepen.

Sithia looked torn between hurt and confusion. "Serana?" She sounded as much like a kicked puppy as possible for a grumpy Dragonborn.

"Sorry. I'd love to continue where we left off, but we're about to have company."

"Void take it," Sithia muttered. "Perfect timing." She glared in the direction of the nearing footsteps, presumably finally within her hearing.

Arngeir emerged from the corridor. "I heard your Voice, Dragonborn. Is all well?" He looked sharply between them, his gaze lingering suspiciously on Serana.

"Fine, thanks," Sithia bit out. "I felt like Shouting. I do that sometimes."

Arngeir looked rather less suspicious. "We do hear your Thu'um very regularly, even from the world below. Sometimes it drowns out the whispers from the Word Walls. I would remind you to use Shouts only in great need or in worship of the Divine Kyne, but that is our Way, not yours."

Sithia's glare turned rather more calculating, and she rubbed her hands together. "Speaking of Word Walls…"

"I am afraid not, Dragonborn." He shook his head. "As I said, your Voice deafens us to them."

Sithia huffed. "I can't not Shout. It helps me let off steam."

"Then you shall have to be content with those Shouts you know, or hope to come across any remaining Word Walls on your own," Arngeir said. "So... you spoke to Paarthurnax. The dragonblood burns bright within you. Did he tell you what you wanted to know? Did he teach you the Dragonrend Shout?"

"No, but he told me how to find out."

Arngeir pinched the bridge of his nose. "So be it. If he believes it is necessary for you to learn this... we will bow to his wisdom."

"I need the Elder Scroll the first Tongues used. Do you know where to find it?"

"We have never concerned ourselves with the Scrolls. The gods themselves would rightly fear to tamper with such things. As for where to find it... such blasphemies have always been the stock in trade of the mages of Winterhold. They may be able to tell you something about the Elder Scroll you seek." Arngeir's voice dripped with disapproval. His opinion of magic other than Shouts was all too clear. "Wind guide you." He clasped his hands and bowed his head before walking away.

Sithia sighed. "Pity Dexion didn't make it to Winterhold or he'd have been able to tell us if the mages have any idea."

"So where do we try first?" Serana couldn't help but hope that they could try to find her mother first. It had been so long. And even longer since her mother had done more than push her away. Maybe Valerica would regret that by now? Maybe—

"Let's see what my map says." Sithia held out her hand expectantly.

Serana dug it out and handed it over. Sithia unfolded it and poked the island where Castle Volkihar loomed in the mist. The blood trail didn't go anywhere near Winterhold. Another poke on Winterhold had the blood trail passing through Serana's former home.

"Our path is clear. Now. Where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?" Sithia smiled and handed the map back for Serana to pocket. That done, she stepped into Serana's arms even as they opened for her. She met Serana half way, stretching up on tiptoe even as Serana leant down, head angled to kiss without their noses clashing.

The third kiss was every bit as good as the first two. No. Wait. It was better; uninterrupted. This time they were free to deepen the kiss, for tongues to stroke together, breaking apart only for Sithia to catch her breath. Serana trailed kisses down her jawline to her neck, gently nipping the skin over her favoured feeding spot.

"Feed, damn you," Sithia gasped.

Serana's fangs descended. "As you wish," she lisped, and latched on.

Sithia held on tightly, breathing raggedly. She swayed, Serana following the motion to keep drawing that finest blood. Well, almost finest. Lust wasn't quite as good as satisfaction after all. Although… with the Greybeards around, was this really the time and place? Serana very reluctantly pulled away.

Sithia met her burning gaze, cheeks flushed, panting. Her hand snaked into her hair to cup the back of Serana's head, pulling her down to press their lips together.

Sithia fell back against the wall. Serana stepped closer, pressing her against it, hands either side of her head, deepening the kiss. Sharing the taste of Sithia's own blood. She didn't seem to mind it, giving every bit as good as she got.

Sithia's hands trailed down her back to cup her behind and ground against her. Serana broke off the kiss to return her mouth to Sithia's neck, latching on again. Wait, wasn't there something she was supposed to be doing? The delicious taste of her favourite meal soon washed the thought away. Whatever it was could wait.

Sithia gasped, head thumping back against the wall. Her hips shifted, rocking against her. Her breathing sped up until she was panting. She stifled a cry of Serana's name, shuddering. She fell slack.

Serana had to force herself to stop feeding. As always, a satiated Sithia tasted even better than a merely willing one.

Sithia stirred, supporting her own weight again. Her breathing gradually slowed down. She reached up to cup Serana's face in her hands, leaning up to kiss her. "Mmm. Should've done this sooner."

Serana resisted the urge to point out that had been entirely in Sithia's control. Instead she said, "You have me now. Whenever you want me."

"Hah. If only. If just feeding is too distracting when on the road, doing this as well is more so."

"Hey, I managed to stop us from embarrassing Arngeir!" Oh. That had been the thing. Just as well none of the Greybeards had come along while Serana had been feeding.

"True. Kisses are on the menu even when I'm not, then."

Serana couldn't help but grin at that.

They rested up before going back down those 'Void forsaken' steps. Sithia filled in the time with kisses, uncaring if it embarrassed any Greybeards wandering around their home.

"They're probably too busy meditating to notice what we're getting up to anyway!"

"I know I said whenever, but I have to draw the line with doing more than kisses." Serana's cheeks would have been burning if they could have.

"And that's fine. Your opinion matters to me. Everyone else can go jump off the Throat as far as I care. Ugh. Off. Down there. We have to do that soon."

"My offer for carrying you down still stands."

"That would only guarantee more trolls turning up. Distract me, will you?"

"Gladly," Serana purred, and cupped Sithia's face in her hands, turning it up for another kiss.

They needed to talk, of course. About where things stood now, of their expectations. But for now that could wait. There was a time and a place for everything, and now was for distracting her Dragonborn with her lips. And tongue. And maybe the odd graze of her teeth, nipping her Sithia right where it provoked the most delightful breathy gasps.

Finally, the feeling of Sithia's lips against hers. It was well worth the wait. The only problem was Serana couldn't get enough of her kisses, and they had so much still to do. Including finding Serana's mother. It suddenly occurred to her that if everything went according to plan, Sithia was going to meet Valerica. Her lover meeting her mother. And that realisation had Serana needing distraction. Perhaps another little feed wasn't out of the question…


AN: Many thanks to Gaunty for betaing!