The Soul Cairn
No, this is nothing like Sovngarde, Katja realized. That netherworld had been a paler cousin of Skyrim itself, as if lit by a different sun but basically the same landscape. This place… was something else. The sky was deep indigo shading to purple, with streaks of lightning slamming down from it here and there. On the horizon were jagged black stone towers, the tops of which seemed to be fragmenting and floating into space. And between the three travelers and that horizon, a desolate landscape of dirt and sand, scrubby thorn bushes, and dead trees was dotted here and there with ruined buildings.
As they reached the ground Serana spoke, echoing what Katja was thinking: “I feel terrible for the dead who end up here for eternity. Seems awful. Like they’re still suffering.” This was certainly no afterlife she would want to be consigned to. Not that Shor’s Hall in Sovngarde held a lot more appeal. Overall, Katja supposed she would rather just fade into nonexistence when her mortal life was ended. But she suspected that her own wishes would not affect the eventual outcome. Whatever awaited her when she died, that would be it.
Katja was immensely relieved to find that Anders was still with them. Evidently the Masters had accepted the soul gem with a part of her soul trapped within it as payment for both of them to journey here. Frankly, the place held so little appeal she felt the Masters ought to be paying them to visit instead of the other way around. From the stairway she had spotted several sketchy, blue-glowing figures she presumed were specters, and as the trio made their way along a broad dirt path she saw one close at hand, leaning up against a ruined wall.
It had the shape of a warrior, fully armored with a horned helm on its head and some long weapon slung on its back. When Katja approached it, it admonished her “Shhh. They’re watching us. Always watching.” Rebuffed, she continued down the path.
A little further along the ghost of an Elf in fancy robes was leaning on a low wall. “What day is it?” he asked. “What year? What era even?”
Pity welled in what was left of Katja’s soul. To be aware but trapped and utterly confused like this, for all of eternity? It didn’t bear consideration. As they continued following what looked like the Soul Cairn’s main trail, she noticed that the landscape offered other features besides ruined buildings, sand, and scrub brush. Periodically there were circles of stones in which pools of some gleaming substance welled. It looked like the molten metal in a smelter, but glowing white and purple – and cold. She had no idea what these were, but thought it wise to keep her distance.
There were also low ridges of rock rising above the sand, and she discovered on venturing close that these marked the presence of fissures through which souls rose and could be captured by the empty gems she carried. And there were some curious things she thought were probably plants, though they looked more like some kind of sea life. She plucked a few. Even missing a part of her soul and lost in a bizarre netherworld, Katja could not be kept from exploring and gathering anything that might possibly be an alchemical ingredient. Alchemy and its possibilities fascinated her.
Anders was deeply concerned about his beloved. Kat was moving okay, and she seemed to be herself – more or less. But what would the long-term effects of that insane soul-trap thing be? He was watching her like a hawk, alert for any signs that she might need his protection. He’d never quite analyzed why he felt so protective toward her, when a part of the powerful attraction he felt was because she was a woman who, most of the time, needed no protection. His usually excellent powers of critical thinking seemed to be disabled when it came to her. He was just too far gone.
So it was Serana who was holding up most of what passed for conversation as the three of them moved along, alert for danger and searching for a woman they only hoped would be found here. “You’d think a vampire would be right at home in this place,” she remarked. “You’d be wrong. Let’s just find my mother and get out of here, quickly.” Katja acknowledged her speech with only a nod, as she continued leading them down the trail. Flying bulbs of light trailing glowing tails could be seen here and there, reminding her too much of wisps. Wisps were hostile and dangerous but these, whatever they were, seemed to be neither. Nor were they helpful.
In a few minutes they came to the stone wall that had formed the horizon when they had first come down the steps through the portal. Katja climbed a steep staircase and found herself looking at another expanse of landscape much like the first; except that in the distance there was a hill with what looked like a castle perched atop it, flanked by tall towers. The stones at the tops of the towers were spinning in the air, floating as the steps of the portal had done. The trail led on.
Katja felt so tired! Anxiety kept her alert, but there was a dullness in her limbs, almost an aching. Oh, this had been a bad idea! But there was nothing for it but to keep on to the goal. They must find Valerica and obtain that elder scroll, so that they could learn what Harkon’s plans were and counter them. It all seemed impossible to her now, but she knew she had to keep moving.
Katja didn’t know why, but the clearly marked path leading to the castle on the horizon seemed to her the likeliest road. So she continued to follow it. If they knew how useless she felt, they would probably hold a conference to choose a new leader. Behind her Katja heard Serana exclaim, “Where did you come from?” and realized that they were under attack. Black skeletal warriors armed with ancient Nord weapons were arising from the ground on their right side, intent on destroying these interlopers!
Shaking herself into full attention, Katja pulled her bow and fired an arrow into the first one she saw. She felt as if she were walking underwater, but somehow managed to bring that one and another down as her companions, unimpaired, dealt with the rest. When all was quiet again she approached the spot where one of their enemies had fallen, and found a glistening mound of translucent black gelatin. This was like a darker version of the glowing blue ghostly remains she had found when killing specters in dungeons throughout Skyrim. And it yielded up a small amount of loot, too. That made her feel a little better!
The horizon drew nearer and in a few minutes they were close enough to the castle to see details. Those disintegrating towers were very unsettling! The stones at the tops of them orbited as if held by some force, but looked as though they might go flying off into space at any moment. Katja headed for the central section, between two of those towers, and on climbing a staircase found herself looking at a stone-paved courtyard at the back of which tall double doors stood, barring their way to the castle proper.
Something else was barring their way much closer at hand, though. Katja found herself stopped by an invisible barrier of some sort, that prevented her from walking any closer to the doors. As she was realizing this a woman appeared, standing a little this side of those unreachable doors; and just then Serana cried out, “Mother!”
The woman, startled, said “Maker… it can’t be. Serana?” I’ll be fucked, Katja thought. I hope… soon… We did it! Her relief at finding Valerica apparently alive and well, if trapped behind an invisible barrier, temporarily lifted the oppressive sense of fatigue that was dragging her down. Meanwhile the happy reunion was continuing.
“Is it really you?” Serana cried, overjoyed. “I can’t believe it! She continued, “How do we get inside? We have to talk.”
By now Valerica had come close to them on her side of the barrier, and Katja got a good look at her. She looked like a more mature version of Serana, same coloring… same orange-glowing vampire eyes. Her skin was smooth and completely unlined, yet there was about her a sense of age that went beyond crow’s feet or gray hair.
Valerica seemed very concerned that Serana’s presence here meant that her husband, Harkon, had defeated her efforts to hide from him. “No, Mother,” Serana assured her, “he doesn’t know we’re here. I don’t have time to explain.”
Valerica refused to be mollified, though. “I must have failed,” she said. “Harkon’s found a way to decipher the prophecy, hasn’t he?”
“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” Serana assured her. “We’re here to stop him… to make everything right.”
“Wait a moment…” Valerica said, as if noticing Katja for the first time. “You’ve brought a stranger here? Have you lost your mind?” Speaking to Katja then she continued, “You. Come forward. I would speak with you.” As if the woman’s words had penetrated straight down her spinal cord, Katja found herself stepping to the barrier.
Her voice dripping revulsion, Valerica asked “So how has it come to pass that a vampire hunter is in the company of my daughter?” Oops, Katja thought. Busted. “It pains me to think,” Valerica went on, “that you’d travel with Serana under the guise of her protector in an effort to hunt me down.”
“This is no ruse,” Katja assured her. “I want to keep her safe.”
“Coming from one who murders vampires as a trade, I find it hard to believe your intentions are noble,” Valerica declared coldly. “Serana has sacrificed everything to prevent Harkon from completing the prophecy,” she went on. “I would have expected her to explain that to you.”
“That’s why I’m here for the elder scroll,” Katja told her, hoping to sooth the woman’s ire.
It only seemed to inflame her. “You think I’d have the audacity to place my own daughter in that tomb for the protection of her elder scroll alone? The scrolls are merely a means to an end. The key to the Tyranny of the Sun is Serana herself.”
Tyranny of the Sun? Katja wondered. Aloud, she said “what do you mean?”
Valerica continued, “When I fled Castle Volkihar, I fled with two elder scrolls. The scroll I presume you found with Serana speaks of Auriel and his arcane weapon, Auriel’s Bow. The second scroll declares that ‘The Blood of Coldharbour’s Daughter will blind the eye of the Dragon.’”
Perplexed, Katja asked her “How does Serana fit in?”
Valerica explained, “Like myself, Serana was human once. We were devout followers of Molag Bal. Tradition dictates that females be offered to Molag Bal on his summoning day. Few survive the ordeal. Those that do emerge as pure-blooded vampires. We call such confluences the ‘Daughters of Coldharbour.’”
Ugh, Katja shuddered. Monstrous. That people were willing to give themselves over to the evil of a Daedric lord like Molag Bal in exchange for power, even give him their daughters for a chance of their achieving immortality, repelled her to her core. Disbelieving, she asked “Serana underwent this ritual willingly?”
“It was expected of her, just as it was expected of me,” Valerica replied coolly. She went on, “Being selected as an offering to Molag Bal is an honor. She wouldn’t have dared turn her back on that.”
Overcoming her revulsion, Katja found her relentless curiosity coming to the fore. “Coldharbour?” She asked.
“It’s what some call the domain of Molag Bal,” Valerica replied. “His place in Oblivion. Another thing the older vampire woman had said needed clarification.
“The Tyranny of the Sun requires Serana’s blood?”
“Now you’re beginning to see why I wanted to protect Serana, and why I’ve kept the other elder scroll away from her as long as possible,” Valerica answered.
Katja was trying to assemble her thoughts, to analyze the data she had and draw conclusions. But she was so tired. It felt as if her brain were not working right, and not in the good kind of way Wyll or Anders was able to produce. “Are you saying Harkon means to kill Serana?” she asked.
Valerica replied “If Harkon obtained Auriel’s Bow and Serana’s blood was used to taint the weapon, the Tyranny of the sun would be complete. In his eyes, she’d be dying for the good of all vampires.”
Taken aback, Katja told her “I would never allow that to happen!”
“And how exactly do you plan on stopping him?” Valerica retorted. Um, good point.
“I’ll need your help,” she pleaded.
Valerica was outraged. “Have you been listening to me? Like Serana, I’m a pure-blooded vampire. My presence on Tamriel is as much of a danger as hers.” Oh, right… But was Valerica’s the only viewpoint?
“What’s Serana’s opinion on this?” she asked.
“You care nothing for Serana or our plight,” the woman replied coldly. “Whether or not you’ve become one of us in order to survive the Soul Cairn, you’re still a vampire hunter at heart. You’re here because we’re abominations in your mind. Evil creatures that need to be destroyed.” Tired, so tired. Was there to be no end to Valerica’s preconceptions?
Mustering an effort of which she barely felt capable, Katja said desperately “Serana believes in me. Why won’t you?”
To Katja’s surprise and pleasure, Serana suddenly broke in on the conversation. “This ‘stranger’ has done more for me in the brief time I’ve known her than you’ve done in centuries!”
Valerica was taken aback. “How dare you!” she raged. “I gave up everything I cared about to protect you from that fanatic you call a father!”
“Yes,” Serana replied, “he’s a fanatic… he’s changed. But he’s still my father. Why can’t you understand how that makes me feel?”
Valerica sighed. “Oh, Serana. If you’d only open your eyes. The moment your father discovers your role in the prophecy, that he needs your blood, you’d be in terrible danger.”
“So to protect me you decided to shut me away from everything I cared about?” Serana accused. “You never asked me if hiding me in that tomb was the best course of action, you just expected me to follow you blindly.” Her chest heaving, emotions flowing, Serana continued “Both of you were so obsessed with your own paths. Your motivations might have been different, but in the end, I’m still just a pawn to you, too.” She cast her eyes down for a moment, then looked up to meet her mother’s gaze and said “I want us to be a family again. But I don’t know if we can ever have that. Maybe we don’t deserve that kind of happiness. Maybe it isn’t for us.”
After another moment, a look of determination crossed her face and Serana added, “But we have to stop him. Before he goes too far. And to do that, we need the elder scroll.” Valerica looked subdued, her anger crumbling before the emotional appeal of the daughter she had been separated from for so long.
Her voice fraught with regret she said, “I’m sorry, Serana. I didn’t know… I didn’t see. I’ve allowed my hatred of your father to estrange us for too long. Forgive me. If you want the elder scroll, it’s yours.”
Turning to Katja once more, Valerica said “Your intentions are still somewhat unclear to me. But for Serana’s sake, I’ll assist you in any way that I can.”
Breathing a mental sigh of relief, Katja asked her “Do you have the elder scroll with you?”
“Yes,” the older woman replied. “I’ve kept it safely secured here ever since I was imprisoned. Fortunately, you’re in a position to breach the barrier that surrounds these ruins.”
Katja suddenly realized the import of Valerica’s words. The invisible barrier was not something she had erected to protect herself from intruders. It was there to keep her from leaving. “What do we need to do?” she asked.
“You need to locate the tallest of the rocky spires that surround these ruins,” Valerica replied. “At their bases, the barrier’s energy is being drawn from unfortunate souls that have been exiled here. Destroy the Keepers that are tending them, and it should bring the barrier down.”
“We’ll return soon,” Katja promised her, turning to go.
“One more word of warning,” Valerica called after them. “There’s a dragon that calls itself Durnehviir roaming the Cairn. Be wary of him. The Ideal Masters have charged him with overseeing the Keepers, and he will undoubtedly intervene if you’re perceived as a threat.”
“Thank you,” Katja told her. “I have a lot of experience with dragons.” Presumably Valerica had been imprisoned here for years at the least, and would have no way of knowing that dragons had returned to Tamriel or that she, Katja, was the Dragonborn prophesied to defeat them.
As they turned to go Valerica added “Be careful, and keep my daughter safe.” Got it, Katja thought. But who’s going to keep me safe? After all of this, her fatigue was beginning to overcome her again. Well, if Anders couldn’t do it, who could? She paused at the top of stairs and looked around. A tower off to the left looked considerably taller than others, and bolts of lightning were sizzling between the sky above it and the ground around it. That looked pretty likely, so she led them off in that direction.