Katja had tried her magic map since getting here and discovered that no, it didn’t work in this netherworld or pocket universe or whatever it was. She hadn’t really expected it to; but that certainly made it hard to find places she was looking for. It wasn’t as if there were friendly locals to ask directions of. Other than Valerica, everyone they had met since arriving here had either ignored them, spouted nonsense, or tried to kill them.
As they approached the tower Katja had targeted as the likely location of a Keeper, the trio were attacked by five of the hostile black skeletons. These were way harder to kill than the regular skeletons that had been patrolling Castle Volkihar. As tired as she felt, she was really glad of the assistance of Serana and Anders. The adversaries all reduced to puddles of gray slime, they continued their approach to the tower.
A throng of glowing blue specters surrounded it, though they seemed not to notice Katja and her companions. These were probably an indication she’d come to the right place, Katja surmised. They must be the “unfortunate souls” Valerica had mentioned, who were supplying energy to the barrier. But where was the Keeper? There was no sign of anybody out front, but the tower was tall. Looking around for a stairway, Katja instead saw a pool of glowing light that looked a lot like a portal. I wonder… she thought, and hopped up onto it.
Immediately she found herself shaking off globs of ectoplasm, and standing on a terrace high atop the tower. Katja crouched at once, her bow at the ready, and flattened herself against a nearby wall. She was very glad when Anders and Serana were quick to follow her lead. She wouldn’t care to be up here fighting the Keeper by herself in her weakened condition.
Peeking around the corner, Katja was astonished to see what looked like a bow and quiver floating in space, moving about as if held by an unseen warrior. Oh crap, the Keeper is invisible? How the hell do I aim at it? Extrapolating from the position of the thing’s weapons she fired a shot into what ought to be the center of its body – and struck home. But just the act of drawing her bow sapped her strength, and as she continued firing she soon felt as if she were about to faint. Meanwhile, the Keeper was returning fire and she was hit repeatedly at point blank range.
As Anders and Serana attacked with Destruction magic, Katja’s vision went black and she slumped to the stones. Her companions continued the furious fight until the Keeper was defeated, which was signaled by the weapons disappearing and a spot of ectoplasm appearing on the terrace. Anders immediately turned his attention to his lover. “Kat!” he cried, rushing to her side. She was already coming around, but seemed dazed. He didn’t think she was up to Healing herself, so he dug out some potions. After drinking a Potion of Extreme Healing and one of Stamina, she seemed fully recovered.
Still breathing hard, Katja heaved herself to her feet and gave Anders a brief kiss. “Thank you, love. Don’t know what I would do without you.” She was trying to make light of the whole business, but deep inside she was getting worried. She needed to get the rest of her soul back, and soon. From the tower top they had a good view of the surrounding territory, and in moments she had spotted another likely candidate off in the distance. They found another portal to return them to the ground, then set off in that direction.
Anders was in agony. Kat was not herself, and it had to be the partial soul-trapping that was to blame. The vibrant, youthful energy she had displayed since he had known her was missing, and he felt he needed to redouble his vigilance to protect her from harm.
For his evil plan, Lord Harkon needed the blood of a “Daughter of Coldharbour” in combination with the Bow of Auriel mentioned in the elder scroll prophecy they had recently heard read. If it meant his Kat might die trying to stop the prophecy by saving Serana, he would kill the vampire himself – and her mother, too, here where Lord Harkon would be unlikely to find them while their blood was still usable. That this was wrong, a violation of his principles of doing no harm to those who didn’t offer it, mattered not at all compared with his need to keep Kat alive and safe.
But Anders’ willingness to betray the trust the vampire women had extended to them was of no import. The damage had been done, a part of Kat’s soul had been stolen away and without Serana or Valerica, who might know how to get it back, they could not recover it. All he could do was be on his guard, ready to leap to her defense, until they could complete this mission and find that soul gem.
Even the effort required for walking the distance to the next tower, burdened as she was with armor and weapons, soon had Katja feeling like it was time for a rest. As she walked along, keeping a sharp eye out for flying skeletons and such, her mind was running over the potions in her pack. Clearly she’d better keep plenty of healing and stamina ones at hand. Was there anything else that might help? She wished now she’d kept some of the type of potion that would increase your store of stamina or magicka for a limited period of time. She’d never thought they were worth carrying, before.
There were no alchemy crafting stations here in this desolate wasteland, so making some was out. But what about ingredients? Eating individual alchemy ingredients would guide you to an understanding of their uses, and they did this by causing a slight version of the same effect a potion made with one would have. Eating too many at once could make you feel very odd.
This train of thought led her to recall that she’d plucked that strange-looking plant, or whatever it was. Another clump of the stuff was growing near a rocky outcrop just ahead. She picked a few of the leaves or stems or whatever they were (they looked like fibrous gray tubes) and put them into her mouth. As she chewed them up and swallowed (not going to make the top ten list of Skyrim delicacies, she would warrant), an amazing thing happened – she started feeling a lot better.
Eyes widening, she turned to her companions with a broad grin. “Anders! This stuff seems to counteract the weakening effects of being in the Soul Cairn!” she exclaimed. “Help me find some more of it!” The three took a few minutes’ detour as they searched the immediate area, plucking more of the strange growths.
The effects were short-lived, however. Within a minute or so Katja could feel the tiredness return. And as they had only managed to find a few specimens, she decided to hoard them for when they were really needed. She pushed on, heaving a sigh. As they approached the tower she had identified as their next target she saw a large group of glowing specters clustered around its doorway, and a short flight of steps leading upward.
Katja was being really cautious, and this time she was able to get a good view of the front of the place while still standing a distance away, partly hidden by a nearby building. As she studied it, she realized that at the top of the stairs in the central opening an enormous axe was floating in mid-air. Got you, she thought, drawing her bow. Her first arrow exploded in flames as it hit its target. The axe’s invisible wielder immediately began making its way toward her, the weapon swinging; but a few bolts of Destruction magic from her companions and five or six rapid-fire arrow shots dropped it before it ever reached them.
Now that’s the way to do it, Katja thought jubilantly. All that shooting had exhausted her, and she took a stamina potion so she could focus on the task ahead: finding the third tower. The tallest one she could see, with lightning striking around it, was once again a goodly hike from their current location. This one rose from a lower building that sprawled at its base.
Chewing some more of the husks for an energy boost as they approached, Katja was surprised to find their party attacked by three or four of the flying black half-skeletons and a fully armored walking one. Until now, each of the Keepers had had only inert specters for company – and there’d been no sign of the dragon yet. She was glad of that, at least.
The fight was furious, and before all of their attackers had been dispatched Katja was bleeding and nearly collapsing from exhaustion again. Cursing her casual decision to submit to the soul-trapping (not that becoming a vampire had even been in consideration), she dragged out some potions and chugged them down. She felt a brief frisson as they took effect, followed only a short time later by a return of that overriding fatigue that had oppressed her since they first arrived in the Soul Cairn.
There didn’t appear to be any places in this gods-forsaken netherworld to get a good night’s sleep, or to have an enjoyable sexual liaison. Which was probably just as well. For almost the first time in her adult life, the thought of sex had no appeal for Katja – she was just plain too tired. As for taking a nap, she really wished she could. But would she wake up from it?
Now that the attacking undead creatures had been destroyed, Katja peered ahead to the far side of the long room they were standing in. At the very back wall, she realized she was looking at a floating edged weapon of some sort. At this distance, it was hard to tell what it was; but she knew that must be the Keeper. Unlike the others, this one seemed to be wearing a cloak of some kind that rendered it visible to them. She turned and motioned silently to Anders and Serana, pointing ahead where their adversary waited. Then, drawing her bow, she struck it dead center. She was getting pretty good at figuring out where to aim on invisible foes.
Of course it immediately began rushing them, swinging its weapon. With both hands on her bow Katja had no time to eat more husks. And each time she drew that bow, she was getting weaker. Anders redoubled his efforts, pulling a massive warhammer and flailing at the shape within the floating cloak. His aim was good, and between that and the bolts of Destruction magic Serana brought to bear, the last of the Keepers soon went down.
And so did Katja. Once again the wounds inflicted by their enemy combined with the weakening effect of her soul deficit to topple her to the stones of the courtyard like a puppet with its strings cut. Pain lanced through Anders like a thunderbolt as he saw her collapse, and as soon as the Keeper had fallen as well he was at her side.
Her natural ability to recover from injuries was still operative, even if her stamina was impaired. A few moments after falling unconscious she was awake again, and after downing some more potions (good thing they had brought a generous supply!) she was back almost to normal. The tiredness remained, however. Now that the danger was gone there seemed to be no reason to consume any more of the husks; and Katja found herself remaining seated on the stones of the courtyard.
“The barrier should be gone now,” Serana said. “Let’s head back.”
“I just need to rest a little first,” Katja told her. She knew Serana was eager for a physical reunion with her mother, as well as for claiming the elder scroll and continuing their quest. But she was so tired. “I think if I have a little something to eat it might help.” She fumbled with her pack, looking for something.
Anders was kneeling at her side, pulling her close. “Here,” he said, handing her a sweet roll. It was a little stale, but it packed a fair amount of energy into a small package. Katja gulped it down, washing it down with a bottle of water he also provided.
“Thank you, love…” she said sleepily, feeling the food begin to do something within her. Her eyes seemed to be closing by themselves, and her consciousness drifted away on a cloud of fatigue.
Anders sat there on the hard stones, hugging his beloved to him as she slept sitting up. Serana looked a bit frustrated. “I guess this must be the result of the soul trap, huh?” she asked quietly.
“Looks like it,” he murmured. “We need to get that soul gem back.” Serana nodded, stifling her impatience. She really wanted to get back to Valerica, but she had to accept some responsibility for Katja’s problem. Up until this point, Katja had been a valiant savior as well as a true friend. Now, it seemed, they might need to cut her a little slack.
The two of them stayed there mostly silent, speaking only occasionally in subdued tones, for what seemed like a quarter of an hour or more. At that point, apparently as a result of the food she’d eaten, Katja recovered enough energy to awaken. Anders squeezed her to him as he sensed her stirring, and murmured in her ear “How are you doing?”
Alarm sent Katja’s brain on full alert for a moment, clearing the cobwebs. I fell asleep?! Shit. Shaking herself the rest of the way out of the stupor that had claimed her, she surged to her feet with a little help from Anders. “I’m sorry,” she told her companions. “This place is really taking it out of me.”
“We understand,” Serana assured her. “If you’re feeling better, let’s get back to Mother.”
Katja was tempted to eat some more of those husks, unappetizing as they were; but the effects would wear off in a minute or so and it hardly seemed worth the trouble. Instead, she just shouldered her bow and they stepped back out of the building in which they’d killed the last of the three Keepers. Spinning in a circle, she quickly oriented herself and set off at a fair pace toward the castle where they’d left Valerica.
Before long they had climbed the steps once again, and this time found the barrier gone. Valerica met them. “You managed to destroy all three Keepers?” she asked. “Very impressive.” After all that they had been through recently, Katja was not in a mood to appreciate praise.
“Are you able to give us the scroll now?” she asked. The reply was immediate.
“Yes. Please, follow me.”
As they began to follow Valerica toward the large double doors ahead of them, the woman warned “Keep watch for Durnehviir. With the prison’s barrier down, he’s almost certain to investigate.” By now Katja was half-doubting the existence of this dragon. If he was such a threat, why hadn’t he interfered while she and her team were destroying the Keepers?
Valerica led them through the doors, which gave out on a stairway leading to a broad courtyard with more buildings on the far side of it. And, oops – there was the dragon. It swooped in for a landing atop one of the buildings ahead of them. And it was huge. Struggling past her fatigue, Katja pulled out her dragon damage bow and prepared herself to deliver the Dragonrend shout. “Get ready,” she told her companions unnecessarily. They were already on full alert.
Katja fired an arrow into Durnehviir, then got a second one off before he took to the air and circled the courtyard. As he neared them she Shouted at him, causing him to spasm in midair as the force of it struck him. Heads up, oh mighty dov. Mortality heading your way at 2 o’clock! The three of them put their all into attacking him as he came spiraling in for a landing, and he did not rise again. In moments he lay dead. Piece o’ cake, Katja thought tiredly. After Valerica’s buildup she’d expected a lot worse.
As she approached the carcass, though, the usual flaking away of the dragon’s flesh was not accompanied by the sounds of his soul being absorbed. Nor was a skeleton left behind. He burned and shredded, and then… vanished. Nothing was there, not even a stain on the pavement. Katja stood there staring at the spot where the dragon had been, then shrugged. Whatever had become of him, he was gone for the moment and they could continue on their excursion to collect the scroll.
Valerica led them to an alcove in one of the far buildings, an open-sided room the size of a large closet. Within, various potions and alchemical ingredients stood on a counter in front of a long and ornate wooden box. “Forgive my astonishment,” she said, “but I never thought I’d witness the death of that dragon.”
“What makes you say that?” Katja asked her.
The elder vampire replied “Volumes written on Durnehviir allege that he can’t be slain by normal means. It appears they were mistaken.”
“Go on,” Katja urged her.
“The soul of a dragon is as resilient as its owner’s scaly hide,” Valerica stated. “It’s possible that your killing blow has merely displaced Durnehviir’s physical form while he reconstitutes himself.” Katja considered this. He wasn’t all that hard to defeat, but it might get tiresome if they had to do it every five minutes – especially in her weakened state.
“How long will that take?” she asked.
“Minutes, hours, days, years?” came the reply. “Who can say?”
Changing the subject, Valerica continued “Now, let’s get you the elder scroll and you can be on your way.” She stepped to the wooden case and opened it, so that Katja could lift it out and tuck it into her pack. Valerica told her “If there’s anything I can do before you depart, you must let me know.”
No thinking about that required. Katja immediately replied, “Can you help me get my soul back?”
Valerica seemed somewhat surprised. Evidently her vampiric powers did not extend to being able to tell at a glance what Katja’s situation was. She’d alluded earlier to thinking that perhaps Katja had become a vampire in order to travel here. “So my daughter applied some of the lessons I taught her about necromancy, did she?” the woman asked with a hint of parental pride in her voice. “Don’t worry,” she continued. “I think I can help you.”
“Good,” Katja said, relieved. “I could use all the help I can get.”
“Your soul essence was trapped inside a gem,” Valerica explained. “When you and Serana entered the Soul Cairn, it was ‘given’ to the Ideal Masters as payment. You simply need to retrieve the gem. The moment you touch it, your soul essence will be restored.” This sounded much easier than she’d feared!
“Any idea where it could be?” Katja asked.
“There’s an offering altar not terribly far from here,” Valerica replied. She gestured in a northwesterly direction, off beyond the courtyard and the buildings on the far side of it. “I’m willing to bet that the gem you’re looking for is there.” In a moment she added, “Is there anything else? It could be your last chance.”
“Thank you,” Katja told her. “That’s all I really wanted. You’re staying here?”
“I have no choice,” Valerica replied regretfully. “As I told you before, I’m a Daughter of Coldharbour. If I ever return to Tamriel, that increases Harkon’s likelihood of bringing the Tyranny of the Sun to fruition.” Katja had to admire the woman’s self-sacrifice. Alone in this hellish place for all eternity, just to save the people of Tamriel who did not share her vampire blood?
But maybe, once Harkon was defeated… “We’ll return for you when we can,” she told her.
“I appreciate your concern for me,” Valerica said, “but Serana is all that I care about. You must keep her safe at all costs. Remember that Harkon is not to be trusted. No matter what he promises, he’ll deceive you in order to get what he wants. And promise me you’ll keep my daughter safe. She’s the only thing of value that I have left.”
“I will,” Katja promised tiredly but sincerely. “Fare well, Valerica.”
With that she led her companions out across the courtyard and through the double doors, anxious to reach the altar that she hoped would hold her soul gem and restore her to her full self. As they came down the stairs on the far side, who should they find but Durnehviir. He was already fully restored to corporeal form and perched atop a short ruined building. But he was not threatening them.
Katja approached him cautiously, her bow at the ready. She was really, really getting tired of being in this place and wanted nothing so much as to retrieve the fragment of her soul and return to Tamriel. But this must be dealt with first. “Stay your weapons,” the dragon said. “I would speak with you, Qahnaarin.” That was a word of dragon tongue she had not heard before.
“I thought you were dead,” Katja told him – though she’d actually expected him to reappear after talking to Valerica on the subject.
“Cursed, not dead. Doomed to exist in this form for eternity,” came the ponderous reply. “Trapped between laas and dinok, between life and death.” Let’s get this over with, she thought, exhaustion scrabbling at the edges of her composure.
“Why are we speaking?” she asked rather shortly.
Durnehviir recalled her to her manners. “I believe in civility among seasoned warriors, and I find your ear worthy of my words.” He went on, “My claws have rended the flesh of innumerable foes, but I have never once been felled on the field of battle. I therefore honor-name you ’Qahnaarin,’ or Vanquisher in your tongue.”
Feeling touched, Katja replied “I found you equally worthy.” Though in fact, this dov was a total pushover compared with Alduin.
“Your words do me great honor,” he said. “My desire to speak with you was born from the result of our battle, Qahnaarin. I merely wish to respectfully ask a favor of you.”
Aha, Katja thought. Now we’re getting to the point… “What kind of a favor?” she asked.
“For countless years I’ve roamed the Soul Cairn,” Durnehviir replied, “in unintended service to the Ideal Masters. Before this, I roamed the skies above Tamriel. I desire to return there.”
“What’s stopping you?” Katja asked him. Her tiredness seemed to be growing with every moment spent in this conversation she could not escape from.
“I fear that my time here has taken its toll upon me,” he replied. “I share a bond with this dreaded place. If I ventured from the Soul Cairn, my strength would begin to wane until I was no more.”
Much as staying here seems to be doing to me, she thought. “How could I help?” she asked.
“I will place my name with you and grant you the right to call my name from Tamriel,” the dragon replied. “Do me this simple honor and I will fight at your side as your Grah-Zeymahzin, your Ally, and teach you my Thu’um.”
“Just call your name in Tamriel? That’s it?” Katja asked. It seemed little enough to ask.
“Trivial in your mind, perhaps” came the reply. “For me, it would mean a great deal. I don’t require an answer, Qahnaarin. Simply speak my name to the heavens when you feel the time is right.”
“Very well,” Katja replied. “We must leave you now.”
She led them off in the direction that Valerica had pointed, and soon saw a squat black building ahead. Above its roof an enormous, teardrop-shaped purple gem floated in air, pointing down toward a platform that might possibly be an altar. It was too far away to see details. Gathering her will and what strength she had left, Katja pushed on. She was doing her best to remain aware of her surroundings and alert for danger, but she needn’t have worried. Anders’ eyes constantly roamed the landscape, every sense attuned for threats.
They made it to the building, but it was not at first apparent how they were to get into it. As they were walking around it looking for an opening, they spotted one of the fully armored skeletons approaching. Katja put a couple of arrows into it and it fled. Just then she spotted stairs leading up into a doorway, so without bothering to pursue the undead guardian she entered the building and began searching for a way to the roof above.
The place was a labyrinth, and Katja was soon separated from her companions. Then she heard the sounds of a clash, and guessed that the skeleton must have returned. Anders and Serana can take care of it, she thought tiredly. In a far corner of the building she found another one of those small portals, and was soon deposited on the roof.
That gem looked ominous, and even this far away from it Katja could feel it sapping her health and energy. She gobbled a couple of the strange husks and immediately felt better. Also, alert enough to realize how stupid it had been to come up here by herself. What if the roof had been infested with flying skeletons – or something worse?
Luck was with her, and she was the only thing stirring up here. Katja approached the altar below the gem and found that it was a sort of stone chest. Opening it, she found a soul gem inside – and immediately, her full strength returned to her. What a rush! Despite the restoration of her soul she still felt profoundly tired. But it was an everyday sort of tired – not the bone-crushing exhaustion that had been bleeding her since they had arrived in this desolate place.
Feeling once more capable of carrying on normal activities with her brain in working order, Katja began looking around for another portal to take her back to the ground floor. None was in evidence, so she walked over to the edge and looked down. It wasn’t very far from here to the ground outside the walls; so she just hung over the parapet and dropped down with barely a jolt.
Moments later Anders and Serana joined her. Anders could tell immediately that she was back to being herself, though she did still look a little drawn and there were dark circles under her eyes. He approached and threw his arms around her, hugging her and planting a kiss on her forehead. She smiled up at him a little wanly. “I’m feeling much better now,” she told him.
“Let’s get out of here,” he replied.
“I second that,” said Serana.
Katja spun around until she spotted the long trail they’d come in on, and led them back onto it. They seem to have used up the supply of flying skeletons and other antagonists along this route, and had a relatively uneventful trip back to the portal. From this side it was an unmistakable landmark, two tall black stone pillars flanking a series of curved stone steps floating in space as they rose, looping, toward the circular pink-and-purple rift leading back to Tamriel. The three looked on it with relief, and began climbing the steps.