Katja was beginning to feel as if the day had gone on long enough and she was ready for some firelight, hot food, and a warm bed with a still-warmer Anders in it. She suspected this was not going to go as she hoped, however. “Tell me about your home,” she prompted Serana.
“It’s on an island near Solitude,” the vampire replied. “Hopefully we can find a boat to take us there.” That sounded like a good idea. Taking a dip in the waters of the sea north of Solitude was a quick ticket to hypothermia, if the slaughterfish or horkers didn’t get you first.
Serana went on, “It’s my family home. Not the most welcoming place, but depending on who’s around, I’ll be safe there.” Katja noticed she didn’t say they would be safe there.
“Is there someone you don’t want to see?” she asked.
Serana replied, “My father and I don’t really get along.” After a moment she grimaced and added, “Ugh, saying it out loud makes it sound so… common. ‘Little girl who doesn’t get along with her father.’ Read that story a hundred times.”
Serana’s daddy issues aside, Katja didn’t like the sound of that. If Serana was a vampire, might not the rest of her family be vampires as well? Would Katja and Anders be welcomed to the family home as… dinner? Katja had a bravery of sorts, but she was never intrepid. Trepidation, in fact, was something of a byword. It was the sort of thing that made you think twice, then again, before stepping out into the abyss. A nice counterpoint to her occasional impulsiveness.
She sighed, then turned to Anders. “It looks like we’ve got to go there,” she told him. “Without Serana, we don’t really have anything to report.”
He eyed her thoughtfully. “Are you sure about this, Kat?” he asked. Several months in her company was long enough to convince him that his beloved led something of a charmed existence. Usually, he believed, she considered the dangers in a situation. And if she judged it worth the risks, everything had always turned out all right. He had no idea how often she was just winging it.
Fortunately there was enough ambient light in the near-blizzard to let her see the map. Serana’s ancestral home was, apparently, not that far from a spot on the north coast near Solitude where Katja had quested in the past; so the three of them soon found themselves standing there. It was broad daylight, and as lovely a day as one could hope for this far north. The sky was mostly blue, thronged with puffy white clouds, and not a trace of snow was falling.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Katja paused a moment to take stock of their weaponry before continuing. “Anders, how are those staffs you’re carrying holding out?” She had passed him some of the magical staffs they’d found in their quests, and he used a couple of them a lot. The Staff of Hevnorak provided a superior blast of power to his most formidable destruction spell, and could be used repeatedly without waiting for his Magicka to recharge. The Staff of the Fire Atronach called one of those lithe but deadly female figures from the planes of Oblivion to fight their enemies.
Both of these, it proved, were almost exhausted. Katja was carrying all of their supply of charged soul gems, since she was also carrying their only weapon with the ability to capture souls for the charging thereof. Anders handed her the depleted staffs and she recharged them, then passed them back to him. She felt a lot better, now, about walking into the ominous vampire den that was just visible a couple of miles to the north.
This done, Katja led them down a steep, snow-covered trail toward the shore. There was a mostly ruinous-looking stone fortress on a point of land ahead, but she decided she would prefer not to mix it up with whoever was occupying it. Instead, they sneaked around the shoreline to the west of it. Ahead, Katja thought she could make out a small wooden dock.
“That’s it, out there to the north,” Serana said. She was referring to a tower visible on a rocky island on the far side of a narrow strait. “We used to keep a boat around here to get there and back.”
“I think I know just where to find it,” Katja replied. Sure enough, as they approached the dock they found a small wooden boat tied up. The three climbed in and released the rope, then Anders unshipped some oars he found in the bottom of it and rowed them across the strait to the island.
In a few minutes the boat ground to a halt on a bleak shore covered in black gravel, and they climbed out over the bow. “This is your home?” Katja asked uncertainly.
Serana replied a bit sardonically, “This is it. Home sweet… castle.” A grimmer-looking castle Katja had seldom seen, though it had a less ominous feel than many an ancient Nord barrow she had visited.
Politely, she said “It’s impressive.”
“It’s something all right,” Serana responded. Katja was coming to like her, in an odd sort of way.
They made their way up a stone causeway leading to the front gates, flanked by low stone walls and studded with more of those gargoyles. Katja was sure they would be capable of coming to life and acting as guardians, if the need arose. As they got closer to the gates Serana said, “Hey, so… before we go in there…”
“What is it?” Katja asked her.
“I wanted to thank you for getting me this far. But after we get in there, I’m going to go my own way for a while. I know your friends would probably want to kill everything in here. I’m hoping you can show more control than that.”
Not slaughter your family on sight? I suppose I could manage that, Katja thought. Serena continued, “Once we’re inside, just keep quiet for a bit. Let me take the lead.”
At that point there was a cry from the gatehouse: “Lady Serana’s back! Open the gate!” The gate rolled up, and they were admitted to the entryway of Castle Volkihar. The watchman looked ordinary enough, no signs of vampiric tendencies.
Despite Serana’s admonitions Katja found herself in the lead as they came through the castle’s massive front doors. They were greeted in the entry hall by a handsome vampire who demanded “How dare you trespass here?!” Fortunately before things could go all to hell he spotted Serana, and immediately his attitude changed. Rushing to a balcony ahead of them he addressed what Katja assumed was a crowd gathered below: “My lord! Everyone! Serana has returned!”
Katja and Anders held back as Serana descended the stairs to the enormous dining hall. Immediately she was braced by a sinister-looking vampire that Katja guessed was her father, demanding to know if she’d brought the elder scroll. Was it hers, as she’d said, or his? Serana seemed a little annoyed and said “After all these years, that’s the first thing you ask me? Yes, I have the scroll.”
A woman seated at one of the tables flanking the hall cried out, “She has the scroll!” Katja had a bad feeling about this, and it was only getting worse. The tables were dotted with red objects that did not bear close inspection, and the enthusiasm with which these vampires were greeting the arrival of the elder scroll suggested it was something they had been eagerly seeking. She could not immediately think of any reason why their finding it would be good for the human population of Skyrim.
The man Katja assumed was Serana’s father said “Ah, if only your traitor mother were here, I would let her watch this reunion before putting her head on a spike.” She was beginning to see where Serana’s daddy issues might be coming from. He continued, “Now tell me, who is this stranger you have brought into our hall?”
Serana was standing up to him, Katja had to give her that. She said “This is my savior, the one who freed me.”
The Master Vampire demanded “I need to speak to you, stranger. Now.” Katja’s mouth felt dry and her skin clammy as she approached him. She didn’t think she and Anders stood a chance if this throng of vampires should attack them all at once.
The undead lord faced her, saying “For my daughter’s safe return, you have my gratitude. Tell me, what is your name?”
Grasping for any advantage in this confrontation, Katja replied “You first.” He didn’t take offense, merely replying “Very well. I am Harkon, lord of this court. By now, my daughter will have told you what we are.”
“You’re vampires,” she answered him.
“Not just vampires,” he responded. “We are among the oldest and most powerful vampires in Skyrim. For centuries we lived here, far from the cares of the world. All that ended when my wife betrayed me and stole away that which I valued most.” Katja absorbed this. So the increased vampire attacks were somehow related to Harkon’s marital problems?
“What happens now?” she asked him.
“You have done me a great service, and now you must be rewarded,” came the reply. “There is but one gift I can give that is equal in value to the elder scroll and my daughter. I offer you my blood. Take it, and you will walk as a lion among sheep. Men will tremble at your approach and you will never fear death again.” Or feel love, or joy, or any emotion that is human, Katja thought. She was appalled.
“And if I refuse your gift?” she asked.
The answer came like a death knell: “Then you will be prey, like all mortals. I will spare your life this once, but you will be banished from this hall. Perhaps you still need convincing? Behold the power!” At that, a cloud of black smoke surrounded the grim-looking but handsome man, and he transformed into a demonic figure. It had horns on its head, clawed hands and feet, and a pair of stubby wings with spikes at the joints that did not look as though they would be any use for flying – though they certainly appeared scary enough.
Ooh, Katja thought. I could turn into an ugly green monster? So tempting… “This is the power that I offer!” the transformed Lord Harkon declared. In his arrogance, he was no doubt unaware of what impression he was making on his audience. Hoping he was as good as his word, she spoke firmly. She was actually a little amazed that her voice did not tremble, considering she felt like she was this far away from pissing her armor.
“I don’t want to become a vampire. I refuse your gift,” she stated.
Harkon’s response was curt and to the point. “You are prey, like all mortals. I banish you!” Apparently his power went beyond just turning into an ugly green monster. In a transition reminiscent of fast-traveling, Katja and Anders found themselves standing on the shore beside the boat they’d ridden to the island. Serana was no longer with them, and Katja had a stab of remorse that she had not just overpowered the woman and taken the scroll from her. She had no idea what use it might be, but clearly this evil vampire lord and his minions wanted it. And now they had it.
They climbed back into the boat and rowed back to the jetty from which they’d obtained it, tying it up again before walking a few paces from the shore. Then Katja pulled out her map, and they soon found themselves in Coldspring Canyon. The map had its own ideas about what constituted an arrival point, and she was a little disappointed to find several hundred yards of winding travel through the darkness to reach the front steps of Fort Dawnguard.
She’d tucked her bow away while confronting Lord Harkon, not wishing to appear a threat. Now she ripped it off her back and Shouted “FUS-RO-DAH!” as she was suddenly confronted by the hideous countenance of a Master Vampire, who had already gotten inside her guard with his steel sword. Around her, members of the Dawnguard were fighting a party of vampire minions. Anders leapt into the fray with the staffs she’d recharged for him, and a couple of arrows she was able to put into the Master Vampire before he recovered from the Shout put him down for good.
Eyes wide, panting, and bleeding heavily, Katja staggered and Anders was at her side in a moment. The fighting was over, but she was severely injured. He yanked a couple of healing potions out of her pack. She now carried a small supply of more powerful ones for emergencies, and after downing these she’d recovered enough strength and presence of mind to use her Healing spell until she was once again restored to full health.
Katja realized that one of the combatants had been Isran himself, who was even now turning to go back into the castle. As she approached him he turned. “You’re back. Do you have good news for me?” Katja was taken aback.
“Not exactly,” she replied.
He gestured to the bodies of the vampires lying all around. “Look at this. I should have known it was only a matter of time before they found us. It’s the price we pay for openly recruiting. We’ll have to step up our defenses.”
Deciding she might as well get it over with, Katja told him “I have news. But I wouldn’t call it good.” Isran’s reply was dismissive.
“Of course. Why did I suppose differently. Fine, tell me what you know.” She related their trip through Dimhollow, the death of Tolan, the discovery of Serana and her elder scroll within the stone, and their experience at Castle Volkihar. When she had finished, Isran seemed to agree that she had done what she could.
“I suppose you’re lucky you’re not dead,” he said. “Or worse, one of them.” His face contorted. “By the Divines, this couldn’t get much worse. This is more than you and I can handle.”
Katja peered up at him. “So you’re just going to give up?”
“When did I say that?” he replied angrily. “We just need… we need help. If they’re bold enough to attack us here, then this may be bigger than I thought. I have good men here, but…” he trailed off. She suspected from his expression that he was revisiting unhappy memories.
He continued, “There are people I’ve met and worked with over the years. We need their skills, their talents, if we’re going to survive this. If you can find them, we might have a chance.”
Hmm, Katja wondered. And the reason you are not going to find them is… ? Aloud, she said “Where can I find the people we need?”
“Right to the point, aren’t you,” he replied. “I like that. Not like those fools in the order.” If only you knew, she thought, how much of the point I avoided mentioning…
It appeared that Isran was still formulating his plans even as they spoke. “We should keep it small,” he said. “Too many people, and we’ll draw unwanted attention to ourselves.” After a moment’s musing he added “I think we’ll want Sorine Jurard. Breton girl, whip-smart and good with tinkering. Fascination with the Dwemer. Weapons in particular. Last I knew, she was out in the Reach, convinced she was about to find the biggest dwarven ruins yet.”
“She’ll help us?” Katja interjected.
Isran replied “Might need a little convincing, but she should.”
Isran continued “You’ll also want to find Gunmar. Big brute of a Nord, hates vampires almost as much as I do. Got it into his head years back that his experience with animals would help. Trolls in particular, from what I hear. Last I knew he was out scouring Skyrim for more beasts to tame.” He concluded, “Bring the two of them back here, and we can get started on coming up with a plan.”
“I’ll do it,” Katja told him. “Starting tomorrow.”
She felt nearly ready to drop. It had been a long and momentous day, and she couldn’t remember when she had last eaten. She and Anders made their way inside the fortress and to the dining hall. There seemed to be more Dawnguard members around now than there had been however many hours ago that they were last here, and there was food to be had. They sat down at the table and devoured stew and bread rolls, washed down with ale.
Sagging at their benches, when they had satisfied their hunger they picked up their packs and went looking for someplace to sleep. The room they’d visited earlier now seemed to be set up as a dormitory; but Katja wanted a little privacy. They wandered through the castle and up a flight of stairs, where they found an unoccupied and empty stone chamber. That ought to be safe enough. If any more vampires attacked, she could hope they’d be stopped by the rest of the crew downstairs and would never find them up here.
They spread some fur bedrolls out on the stone, a couple beneath them for padding and another, opened out, to cover them as they removed their armor and tucked themselves in. Katja felt the tiniest spark of desire for Anders, no doubt a side effect of the healing potions she’d taken after the vampire attack. But at root she was exhausted, and he was even more so. He enfolded her in his arms and kissed her gently. In moments they had both fallen asleep.