The Dragonborn Hunts

In Search of Valerica

They’d had a good rest on their return to Fort Dawnguard, and the day was yet young; so the three fast-travelled to the island on which Castle Volkihar stood within moments after stepping out the front door. They found it looking bleak, the sky gray and a light snow falling. There was no way to say what time of day it was; but at least there was also no sign of alarms being raised from the castle ahead of them.

Although Serana was the expert here, she seemed to want Katja to take the lead. Going into stealth mode, her bow at the ready, she set off around the castle to the left, picking her way across a rock-strewn shore as Anders and Serana followed behind her. After a short while, Serana told her “It’s right around this next bend,” and she redoubled her caution. Although this was supposed to be the secret, sneaky way into the castle Katja’s experiences in Skyrim had taught her you could never be too careful.

The “inlet” proved to be a massive stone construction of pools, staircases, balconies and bridges marching back toward the hillside on which the ominous castle sat. And along those balconies, armored skeletons paced on guard duty. Thinking that Serana might have mentioned there’d be guards, Katja drew her bow and began trying to pick off the sentries as they showed themselves. They had destruction magic, though, and the three intruders soon found themselves in a desperate fight as a half dozen or more of the undead warriors attacked them with a will.

Katja blew a few of them off their high perches with Unrelenting Force before finishing them off with arrow shots. Her current bow was enchanted with the power of Meridia, one of the more righteous Daedric princes, and it not only set them on fire but occasionally caused an explosion that would damage any other undead in the area. How this might affect Serana she didn’t know, but at the moment, fighting for her life, she didn’t really care.

Finally the three of them found themselves standing alone on the upper reaches of the stone ramparts, looking at a simple wooden door. Escape tunnel? Katja thought. This seemed more like an official part of the castle, if perhaps one forgotten and disused. On the other side of it they climbed a ramp and soon entered a labyrinth of stone passageways. Then after passing another door, they found themselves in a broad space with water in pools below and many Gothic arches holding up the ceiling above.

“The old water cistern,” Serana supplied. “On some days, this would smell just… be glad you weren’t here then.” Glad of the Native Guide, Katja continued leading them in what she could only hope was the right direction. There wasn’t much stink here now, just a sort of damp mustiness. They soon encountered death hounds patrolling the area, but Katja was able to bring them down with arrow shots from hiding long before they even realized the party was there.

The dark corridors were beyond creepy. Here and there, bone middens rose up to almost the height of a man. It was clear from the skulls scattered through these heaps that the bones were human. For several minutes, death hounds (soon dead hounds) and unmoving gargoyles were all they encountered. Then, rounding a corner, Katja put an arrow into a Death Hound only to realize a second later that it had been standing guard beside a curiously-dressed, shaven-headed woman who had been bent in concentration over an alchemy station.

The three of them, working in concert, killed her almost before she noticed them. Katja found a note on her person, apparently a fragment of her journal. It read “Not good enough to live in their stupid keep, am I? Stupid sods don’t realize I’ve moved into the undercroft and started taking control of their own death hounds. I’ll get my revenge.” Shaking her head, Katja pushed on and her companions followed.

“Take a left up here. This is one of those weird double-barreled security measures that my father put in when he got more paranoid,” spoke the Native Guide. They’d already encountered one gate switch at a far remove from the gate it operated. They continued through the maze, having to kill a small pack of the death hounds and a gigantic Frostbite spider before finding the next switch. Then they proceeded through the gate that had opened, and up a flight of stairs.

Serana said, “This leads out into the courtyard. Just head for the door.” Finally! Katja thought. She was really looking forward to being out of doors, even if the sky was gray and snow-filled. She pushed open a worn-looking wooden door, and they found themselves in a courtyard. But the place looked desolate, with scarcely a living thing to be seen.

“What happened to this place?” Serana said, sounding crushed. “Everything’s been torn down… the whole place looks… well, dead. It’s like we’re the first to set foot here in centuries.” Katja heard the sorrow in her voice. In her mind, she had been returning to the scene of happy childhood memories. Instead, she found this.

Serana walked around the space, looking around her. “I used to walk through here after evening meals,” she said sadly. “It was beautiful, once.” Again, Katja felt a stab of empathy. She could not really imagine what life must have been like for Serana; but she could feel the woman’s pain. She and Anders spread out, exploring the courtyard, and looking for any clues that might have been left behind by Serana’s mother.

The odd-looking construction in the center of the courtyard kept drawing her back. It looked like an enormous sundial, the gnomon rising some ten feet or more above the stone-paved courtyard. But instead of the usual markings denoting time of day based on the position of the shadow cast by the gnomon, there was a series of circles in which glistening, nacreous inserts seemed to represent the phases of the moon.

Serana was also staring at it with a puzzled expression on her face. As she realized Katja was beside her she looked up and said, “I’m telling you, there’s something strange with the moondial.” Moondial! So that’s what it was. Perhaps this was something you might expect from vampires?

“What’s so special about the moondial?” she asked Serana.

“Well,” Serana replied, “as far as I’m aware it’s the only one in existence.” Katja immediately felt excused for not having recognized it. Serana went on, “The previous owners of the castle had a sundial in the courtyard, and obviously that didn’t appeal to my mother. She persuaded an Elven artisan to make some improvements. You can see the plates show the phases of the moons, Masser and Secunda.”

The concept immediately excited Katja’s hunger for knowledge. “Does it work?” she asked.

“That’s the thing,” Serana said, “what’s the point of a moondial? I always wondered why she didn’t just have the whole thing ripped out. But she loved it. I don’t know. I guess it’s like having a piece of art, if you’re into that sort of thing.” Katja understood perfectly. She kind of liked it herself.

“You think it’s not right?” she asked. “What does it need done to it?”

“Hard to say,” Serana replied. “Maybe if we found the missing crests we could figure it out.” For the first time, Katja realized that there were gaps in the ring of circles surrounding the gnomon. It seemed as though some of the discs with pearly insets portraying moon phases – full, quarter, half – were not in their places.

“I’ll look around for them,” Katja told Serana. Then she began quartering the space, her eyes glued to the ground. They seemed to be safe enough here, so she slung her bow over her back and let her guard down a bit as she put all of her concentration into her search. In moments she was rewarded, finding one lying amid swamp vegetation near a small pool.

Pleased with her quick results, Katja carried it back to the moondial and walked the circle, examining what was there and extrapolating what was missing. “Aha, got you!” she cried as she gently deposited the disc she had found and it sank into place. Anders gave her a smile. She was doing it again, that relentless problem-solving thing his beloved had such a knack for.

He appointed himself “The One On Guard,” keeping an eye out for threats as Katja continued to explore the courtyard searching for more missing pieces of the moondial. She found another one almost completely hidden by rampant vegetation in a small garden area between two stone towers that stood on the far side of the courtyard. Then she beckoned to Anders to follow her.

There was one more missing disc, Katja thought. It had not been anywhere in the outside areas of the courtyard, so perhaps it was inside one of these towers. As she entered, Anders following, she discovered that they were much more extensive than she’d expected from their outside appearance – and they were occupied.

Katja soon found herself on a balcony overlooking a large room – and at least one of the now-familiar armored skeletons was standing on guard. She hit it with an arrow from hiding, but the attack only alerted it. Meanwhile, a second one had surged into motion. She left the first one to Anders as it came slowly up the stairs after them. He zapped it to oblivion with Destruction spells, while she took down the second with a rapid series of bowshots.

Now that the area was cleared of enemies, the two proceeded cautiously down the stairs and began exploring the room. Their caution was wise, because a gargoyle in one of the corners came to life as they approached it – and began attacking them.

Katja had noticed that, as with draugr, there seemed to be different levels of these demonic-looking creatures. The ones she had shot in the cavern where she’d rescued Serana had dropped immediately – this one did not. She was glad of Anders’ help as they attacked it from either side and brought it down before it could do much damage to either of them.

Panting slightly, Katja gave Anders a look of appreciation and continued her search of the room. There were a few items of value to be looted here and there, but not the disc she was seeking. They made their way out and up some exterior stairs to the next tower. There, after killing a few more skeletons, they found the last disc.

Excited, Katja hurried to lead Anders back to the courtyard and place the discs she had found in their correct locations. As soon as she had done so, there was a grinding noise of stone on stone and the area between the gnomon and the ring of moon phase discs began to sink into the ground – forming a spiral staircase similar to the one that had let them into Blackreach some months before.

The three looked at each other in triumph. Then, without any further discussion, they approached the newly-created staircase and began descending it. Serana, still in her role as Native Guide, had something to contribute at this juncture: “I’ve never been in those tunnels before, but I’d bet they run right under the courtyard and into the tower ruins.” In moments they found themselves before another plain-looking wooden door, and pushed through it into a part of Castle Volkihar that had not been used in generations.

Katja led her companions through a maze of corridors and stone staircases. Skeletal guardians and death hounds were frequent, but the three of them had little trouble disposing of them. Periodically, they encountered gates. Some of these were opened by a chain hanging nearby, and others required a detour to find the gate switch before they could be passed. “We’re getting close. I’m sure of it,” Serana said. But Katja thought that was likely wishful thinking. If Serana had never been in these tunnels before, how would she know?

While seeming labyrinthine, the corridors actually only offered one path. Many chambers were blocked off by fallen stones, walls collapsed untold centuries ago and never repaired. As only the undead “lived” here now, Katja supposed they did not care. Eventually they came to a long chamber with half a dozen of the ominous-looking gargoyles arrayed on stone platforms – three on either side. Nice décor, she thought, trying to suppress her feeling of dread with humor.

But her feeling of dread was well-founded. As she made her way down the length of the room, cracking sounds warned her that the enormous creatures were coming to life. Oh, shit! One or two of these at a time was bad enough, but six at once? Fortunately, after she had killed one with a rapid series of bowshots it rose again at once – glowing an eerie blue that told her Serana had resurrected it – and began attacking its fellows. This evened the odds considerably. Katja backed into a corner and rained arrows on the gargoyles as they attacked her companions. These must be considered “undead” by the Meridia enchantment, because in addition to the flames that erupted with each arrow strike there were frequent explosions.

In far less time than she would have thought possible, only Serana’s resurrected “zombie” still stood. All the rest of the gargoyles were lifeless on the floor. Katja raided their corpses and used her Healing Hands spell on Anders, who had taken some damage in the fight. They seemed to have reached a dead end. Now what?

“I don’t think we’ve reached the top yet,” Serana said. “I’d bet there’s some kind of secret passage around here.” Aha, Katja thought. Hadn’t considered that. She went down to the far end of the room, where she’d have expected to find a door. There was a fireplace there, but it looked as if it had never been used. She took some pieces of firewood out of it, perusing the back. Then she cast her eyes around, noticing an iron candle sconce on the wall to the left. It had no candle in it. She grasped it and it twisted, causing the stone at the rear of the fireplace to roll out of sight and reveal a door. Anders, feeling a lot better now than he had a few minutes ago, just glanced at her with love and admiration before following her through it.

The passage ahead of them led up some stairs, and to a wooden door. On the far side of that was a spacious room with a large circular indentation in the floor, formed of concentric stone rings and flanked by candles in iron stands. Balconies ran around three sides of the room, the ceiling supported by massive pointed arches. “This is it!” Serana exclaimed. “My mother’s laboratory.” There was no sign of the woman they’d been searching for, however.

Walking around and taking in the room and its contents, Serana seemed to be in awe. “I knew she was deep into necromancy. I mean, she taught me everything I know. But I had no idea she had a setup like this. Look at all this. She must have spent years collecting these components.” It was pretty impressive. A good-sized library was tucked into one corner of the room, and shelves with every imaginable alchemical ingredient lined the balcony walls.

The vampire woman stood examining the stone circle, musing. “I’m not sure about this circle,” she said, “but it’s obviously… something.” Then turning to Katja she added, “Let’s take a look around. There has to be something here that will tell us where my mother has gone.”

“What exactly are we looking for?” Katja asked her.

“My mother was meticulous about her research,” Serana replied. “If we can find her notes, there might be some hints there. I remember she used to keep a small journal. See if you can dig it up.”

Thinking such an item might be kept near where the research was being conducted, Katja went up the stairs and began searching the balcony areas and work tables. No sign of any books, though. She followed the balcony around the room and to a spot above the door they’d come in by, and stood looking down at the area of bookshelves. Serana was down there, looking at the books. But it was Katja who spotted one that seemed a lot smaller than the usual Skyrim tome.

Trotting back around and down the stairs again, Katja made a beeline for the library area and seized the small book she’d noticed. She didn’t really try to read it, just scanned the pages enough to convince her that this was the notebook Serana wanted to find. Then she took it across the room and told Serana, “I’ve found your mother’s notes.” “You did?” Serana responded eagerly. “Let me see them.”

Katja handed the slim volume over. One odd phrase had caught her eye as she’d flipped through it. She asked Serana, “What’s this ‘Soul Cairn’ that she mentions?”

Serana explained, “She had a theory about soul gems. That the souls inside of them don’t just vanish when they’re used… they end up in the Soul Cairn.”

“Why did she care where used souls went?” Katja asked, puzzled.

“The Soul Cairn is home to very powerful beings. Necromancers send them souls, and receive powers of their own in return,” came the reply. “My mother spent a lot of time trying to contact them directly, to travel to the Soul Cairn itself. That circle in the center of the room is definitely some type of portal. If I’m reading this right, there’s a formula here that should give us safe passage into the Soul Cairn.”

Katja thought this sounded as if the Soul Cairn was a pocket universe, or another plane of existence maybe. Perhaps like Sovngarde? “What do we need?” she asked. Reading from the notebook, Serana replied “A handful of soul gem shards, some finely-ground bone meal, a good bit of purified void salts… Oh… damn it…” “What’s wrong?” Katja asked her. Frowning, Serana said “We’re also going to need a sample of her blood. Which… if we could get that, we wouldn’t even be trying to do this in the first place.”

Thinking about this for a second, Katja pointed out “You share her blood.”

“Hmm. Not bad,” Serana said. “We’d better hope that’s good enough. Mistakes with these kinds of portals can be… gruesome.” Katja noticed Anders eyeing her with a certain amount of apprehension. He was as brave as any companion could be, but she knew he didn’t like to see her going into unknown peril.

“Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get started,” Serana commanded in a firm voice.

“Are all of those ingredients here?” Katja inquired.

“Oh, definitely. Mother would have plenty of those materials in her laboratory, you just need to find them.

“All right,” Katja said quietly and returned up the stairs to the balcony storage areas. While she was looking for the book earlier she’d spotted some likely-looking items.

A whole bookcase full of soul gems included some fragments, which she thought could be broken down finer. But then she spotted a bowl that actually contained soul gem shards in the size needed, and pocketed that instead. Rifling through the shelves on the far side of the room, she soon found small bowls containing regular bone meal and void salts. A more exhaustive search turned up bowls of the finely-ground meal and purified salts. Shortly, Katja returned to Serana and handed over the ingredients.

They were standing on a platform above the floor circle. Railings ran around two sides of it but it was open on the side facing the circle. To the left was a short carved pillar with a bronze bowl resting atop it, and Serana put the ingredients Katja had given her into this bowl. “The rest is up to me,” she said, sounding less than completely confident. If it turned out her blood was no substitute for her mother’s, what would happen?

Serana’s words echoed her thoughts, as she said “Are you ready to go? I’m not entirely sure what this thing is going to do when I add my blood.”

Trying to focus on the positive, Katja asked her “What will you do if we find your mother?”

“I’ve been asking myself the same thing since we came back to the castle,” Serana replied. “She was so sure of what we did to my father, I couldn’t help but go along with her. I never thought of the cost.”

Serana’s look of pain made Katja want to comfort her. “It sounds like she did everything for your sake,” she said soothingly.

“Possibly,” Serana said – still looking sad. “I guess even a vampire mother is still a mother. She worried about me. About all of us. But she wanted to get me as far away from my father as possible before he really went over the edge.”

“We won’t know until we find her,” Katja said.

“Yes… yes, you’re right,” Serana replied, trying to get a grip on herself. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t expect anyone to care how I felt about her. Thank you.” As was usually the case when things got a little too emotional, Katja felt slightly uncomfortable.

“Well,” she said, changing the subject, “let’s get that portal open.”

“All right,” Serana said. “Here goes.” She stepped toward the bowl and held a wrist to her mouth, using her fangs to penetrate the skin. As a few drops of her blood joined the other ingredients in the bowl, they all heard a grinding noise.

Beyond the platform, on the floor below them, the concentric stone circles began to spiral and drop down as an eerie, purplish-blue glow from below painted the walls and ceiling. Despite the confidence with which she’d approached the task, Serana seemed dumbstruck. Then, turning to Katja, she said “She actually did it… created a portal to the Soul Cairn. Incredible.”

Walking closer to the edge of the platform, Katja looked down. The portal looked like a pit of blue and pink fire, coruscating and shimmering. It reminded her a lot of the portal to Sovngarde, actually. There was too much light to see what lay beyond it. Sections of the stone floor had risen on their side of the circle, and were floating in midair – providing a staircase from the platform down into the glowing pit.

Nothing for it but to take the first step, Katja thought – and put her foot down. The floating stone yielded slightly but supported her weight, and she continued on down. Behind her Anders cried out “Kat! Wait…” But she was already on her way down inside. The steps grew narrower until she found herself standing on a circle of stone no more than a pace across; but then she seemed unable to go further. And it felt as if she were under attack! It was as if some force were attempting to suck the very soul from her body. With a gasp, she whirled and returned back up the stairs, passing Anders as she sprinted for the platform.

Anders was right on her heels. “Are you all right?” he asked, concern radiating from him as he put a hand on her arm. She was white as a sheet. Serana was still standing on the platform, also looking at Katja with concern. “That looked painful,” she said.

“It was,” Katja panted. “What happened?”

“Now that I think about it… I should have expected that. Sorry,” Serana said. She continued, “It’s hard to describe. The Soul Cairn is… well, hungry, for lack of a better word. It’s trying to take your life essence as payment.”

“For entering?” Katja asked, disbelieving. Not much point in going in if you could only do so at the cost of your life – and if so, how could Valerica have done it? “So… there’s no way in, then?” she finished.

“There might be,” Serana replied, “but I don’t think you’re going to like it. Vampires aren’t counted among the living. I could probably go through without a problem.” That explains Valerica, Katja thought. But how am I supposed to… oh.

“Are you saying that I need to become a vampire?” she asked. Serana gave a quirky smile. Despite their growing friendship, she understood that Katja did not hanker to join her “people.”

“Not your first choice, I’d guess,” she remarked.

No way in hell was Katja going to relinquish the immediacy of real life for the chance to spend an eternity undead. “There has to be another way,” she told Serana.

“Maybe,” came the reply. “We could just ‘pay the toll’ another way. It wants a soul, so we give it a soul. Yours.” Oh, swell.

“Wouldn’t that kill me?” Katja pointed out.

“My mother taught me a trick or two,” Serana explained. “I could partially soul trap you, and offer that gem to the Ideal Masters. It might be enough to satisfy them. It would make you a bit weaker when we travel through the Soul Cairn, but we might be able to fix that once we’re inside. Maybe.”

I’ll bet there’d be a way to get the gem back later, Katja thought. If anybody was good at wresting treasure from the hands of those who ought not to have it, it was her. She was so much stronger now than she had been a few months ago, stronger even than when she had defeated Alduin (the contributions of Anders, Wyll, and three heroes from antiquity being temporarily ignored for the purposes of argument). Surely a little weakening would be an acceptable price to pay for entry into the Soul Cairn and recovery of the elder scroll they needed?

Still, Katja needed to consider everything before deciding. She was aware of her own tendency to fly off impulsively without examining all the consequences of her actions, and it had bitten her on the ass more than once. “Those are my only options?” she asked Serana.

“I’m sorry,” her pale friend replied. “I wish I knew a better way, something that would be easier for you. Just know that… whatever path you choose, I won’t think any less of you. Sometimes things just have to be done.”

Anders took her hand as she pondered. She was sure he knew that she would never in a million years go with becoming a vampire. Her fellow humans were dear to her, even those she didn’t particularly like, and she could not bring herself to treat them as cattle. The choice here was between giving up a piece of her soul (temporarily, she hoped) in order to pursue this quest, or standing here with her thumb up her bum while they sent Serana in alone to face whatever challenges the Soul Cairn might present, as she searched for her mother.

It occurred to Katja that Valerica had presumably made this trip all by herself. But then, they didn’t know whether she’d survived it. Perhaps they were going to find a pile of dust. She looked Anders in the eyes. “I think we have to go,” she told him. “Hey, we may be getting a two-fer. The Masters may let both of us pass for the price of a soul gem with a little bit of me inside it.”

He looked stricken. “No, Kat! Don’t do it!” She pressed his hand, looking into his eyes warmly.

“It’ll be all right, love. Don’t we always triumph?” She had not lived long enough yet to realize that “up until now” wasn’t the same thing as “always”; and he had. But he fought back his anxiety and nodded to her. Somehow, he would protect her.

Katja turned to Serana, stating firmly “Soul trap me. I won’t feel right as a vampire.”

“Are you sure?” Serana asked. “I’m willing to do it, but you need to think it through. You’ll remain mortal, but you’ll find yourself weakened within the Soul Cairn.”

Katja had thought it through, and re-thinking it was only likely to erode the confidence she needed to follow through with what she thought of as her duty. “I’m ready,” she said firmly.

“I know this is difficult,” Serana said. Concern was etched on her features. “I hope you trust me. I’d never do anything that could hurt you.” Strangely, Katja found that her fears were eased. As unlikely as it seemed, she had come to think of Serana as a friend and had begun to trust her. Even so, too much talking about it was making her more uneasy by the minute.

“Let’s just get this over with,” she said.

“As you wish,” Serana replied. “I promise to make this as painless as possible,” she continued. “Hold still.” Katja froze as Serana made a gesture, and the air became full of swirling wisps of glowing purple energy. It was very similar to what she saw when using her Soul Trap bow to capture a soul, minus the thunderclap. And she felt an indescribable draining sensation. She was still herself, she could still think and talk and move around; but somehow it was if she had taken a step back from the world. And she felt a tiredness as if she had not slept for days.

“Let’s go,” Serana said, jerking Katja out of her reverie. “My mother must be waiting on the other side of that thing.” Katja prayed it was so. She was already beginning to regret her decision, and it would be crushing if it turned out to be for naught. The three of them descended the steps, this time passing that circular stone with no resistance; and found themselves gazing out over a hellish landscape.

18

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