It wasn’t much different from what they had just come through. Rather than some magic portal, they might simply have turned a bend in the underground labyrinth they’d been traversing before meeting Gelebor. “That… wasn’t as unpleasant as I thought it would be,” Serana remarked. “Kind of soothing, actually. I feel a little warmer, now.”
There was a subtle change in their surroundings. The corridor immediately before them was dimly lit by a few glowing plants, but nothing else. There were a few points of illumination ahead, but large stretches between were so dark she could make out nothing. A thousand enemies could be lurking in that darkness, and Katja would be leading her followers right into their clutches. Reluctantly slinging her bow over her back, she enabled the Candlelight spell with her right hand and her best Destruction spell, Chain Lightning, with the left. With her lowly abilities in Destruction magic this would be like a bee sting to the average adversary; but it was better than nothing.
Casting Candlelight, Katja released a coruscating globe of light about the size of her head from her hand. Shimmering, it rose above them like a cork bobbing to the surface of a pool, riding at ceiling level in these close corridors and rising slightly higher when they were in larger chambers. Its brilliant white light cast deep shadows, so it was still not the best light – but better than a torch.
They had not gone very far along the corridor they’d begun in, when they came across an oddly familiar-looking organic object lying along one side of the corridor. It was oblong and armored in overlapping chitinous plates, looking like a chaurus but gray rather than shiny black and lacking a head or legs. Then as they approached closer it suddenly ripped up the middle, and in a spray of disgusting yellow and green ichor a thing like an enormous wasp emerged. The object had been a gigantic pupa!
Katja’s active mind had led her into close observations of many natural phenomena, and she had witnessed butterflies emerging from their chrysalises on several occasions. That was a slow process, the newly transformed creature taking an hour or more to pump fluid into the veins of its wings and unfold them to the point where they could be used for flight. How could this… thing burst out flying in half a second? That question would have to remain unanswered for the time being, as the creature was the size of an eagle and it was attacking them.
Finding her blasts of Destruction magic to be about as useful as flailing at it with a feather, Katja pulled out her bow and put a couple of flaming arrows into it. Meanwhile her companions, much more powerful mages than she, had already weakened it and it shortly fell to the ground – only moments since its “birth.”
Panting slightly more from adrenaline than from actual exertion Katja asked Anders, “Any idea what that was?” He, too, was breathing a little harder than usual. “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never seen one before. The chaurus we’re familiar with is actually the larval stage. They live for years like that. But if you give them long enough, they pupate and then emerge as the flying adult form we just saw. Amazing!”
“So…” Katja said, trying to work this out. Both she and Anders were fascinated by the natural world. “All those egg clusters we’ve encountered must have been laid by adults. But we never saw any of those adults before now?”
“As I heard it explained,” he replied, “they die as soon as they’ve mated and laid eggs. Then the eggs take a long time to hatch, so the bodies of the adults must have deteriorated by then. Or more probably, they were scavenged by the Falmer for their chitin and probably some of their natural poisons, as well.”
“Aha,” she said. Dismissing that line of inquiry she said, “Well, I guess we’d better be getting on. Keep a sharp eye out for those pupae.” With that Katja shot another Candlelight beacon ceiling-ward and led them on their way. After traversing the dark passageways for another few minutes, encountering hostile Falmer and more of the chaurus pupae, they came to a section of corridor with a couple of chains hanging from the ceiling, and some totemic symbols mounted on wooden stakes driven into the floor.
“Hmmm,” Serana said. “Pull chains and traps. Be careful here. Whatever’s on the other side of this, the Falmer wanted to keep it there.”
“Good point,” Katja replied; but she gingerly pulled one of the chains, causing a section of wall to rumble out of their way. Proceeding cautiously, they soon came into an area that caused both Katja and Anders to breathe in sharply and look at one another. “Blackreach!” they said almost in unison. The caverns had opened out, and were illuminated by some of the same giant glowing mushrooms they’d seen in that far-underground, not-quite-abandoned, Dwemer city while they were searching for the Dragon Scroll several months before.
That was a place neither of them ever wanted to visit again; but despite the similarities, and an unfamiliar flower that Katja discovered the hard way was poisonous just to breathe near, this place seemed less ominous somehow. Pools of water were here and there, and they began to see some unfamiliar wildlife. One animal was clearly a predator, and Katja performed a preemptive strike on it with her bow.
They all clustered around the corpse. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Katja asked Anders. He shook his head, his eyes agleam. Not counting her, few things got him more excited than the opportunity to learn something new. He bent to study it.
“It looks a lot like a saber cat,” he said, examining the two enormous fangs and sharp claws, “though its fur is a lot shorter and it’s a little smaller. But the main difference is these markings.”
The markings were beautiful, rows of pale-colored spots against a background that, in this light at least, looked to be a medium shade of brown. They walked on, and in a while came to the corpse of a deer-like animal that had presumably been killed by the cat. It, too, resembled more familiar forms of Skyrim but was smaller and also had that pattern of spots and stripes running through its coat.
Surprised not to have been attacked by any more Falmer or chaurus, the trio now found themselves within sight of another of those odd-looking buildings in the near distance. It seemed to glow with a light of its own. “I think that’s another wayshrine up there,” Serana said. “Here we go.” Clearly, she was getting increasingly anxious for this quest to be done with. Katja had a thin, creeping doubt. Was her vampire friend really intent on halting the prophecy… or fulfilling it?
The spectral figure of a Prelate of Auri-El welcomed them, and asked if they were Initiates seeking illumination. You betcha, Katja thought, and replied simply, “Yes.”
“Welcome, Initiate,” the ghost replied. “This is the Wayshrine of Illumination. Are you prepared to honor the mantras of Auri-El and fill your vessel with His enlightenment?” I’d rather fill my “vessel” with a hot load of Anders’ cum, she thought irreverently. There was something about religious mumbo-jumbo that set her off, it seemed.
After her respectful and reverential reply, the spirit continued, “Then behold Auri-El’s gift, my child. May it light your path as you seek tranquility within the Inner Sanctum.” Or murder and possession of awesomely powerful magic weapons, Katja added mentally. She shook herself. These guys were harmless enough, pathetic really. Why did they trigger such hostility in her?
The Prelate performed the ritual required to raise the wayshrine to its full height, and the three walked in through the open front door. Katja once again dipped her ewer, careful not to spill any of its contents. She had hung it from a loop on her armor so she still had both hands free for her bow, but as its contents increased it was becoming an ever-growing nuisance.
Once that was done, a portal on the opposite side of the wayshrine became visible, shimmering slightly as though through a pane of warped glass. Katja touched it with her gloved hand and it opened to them. She was a little disappointed to find still more of the cave system, with its glowing flowers and rock formations, awaiting them on the other side. Would they be stuck in here forever?
But no. After going around a few bends they saw actual daylight ahead, and emerged into a mist-shrouded vale, surrounded on all sides by rocks. Tall mountains loomed in the distance. Patches of the flowers they’d seen in the cavern were growing on some of the rocks, and they could see some of those oddly-marked deer grazing further down the valley.
“This is incredible,” Serana said with a touch of awe in her voice. “It’s like a whole other world.” Perhaps, despite her vampiric nature, she was finding it as much of a relief as Katja did to leave the dark caverns behind. Katja locked eyes with Anders and she knew that he, too, was glad to be out in the open air. Over the months of their relationship they had become almost telepathic, at times.
Light in the vale was gray and misty, and not long after they’d climbed down the rocks to the valley floor Katja spotted another of the saber cat-like predators. It seemed not to have really seen them yet, and she brought it down with a stealthy shot from her bow. The glowing flowers they had seen in the cavern were growing here and there in the open air as well, causing Katja to wonder how such a thing could be possible. Might a plant that thrived in darkness also welcome the sun?
Ahead of them were some stone ruins, and a standing arch with another visible beyond it. A more obvious path, Katja could not imagine. But there were also paths going up hillsides to the left and right. Better to do a little exploring before taking the one most clearly marked. She led them to the north up a slope, and after reaching its summit and winding down amidst trees, bushes, and snowdrifts, they found another wayshrine.
A heavy snow was falling as Katja approached the spectral custodian. Before engaging him in speech, she took off her pack and dug out her snow cat cloak. Ah, that was better. “Welcome, Initiate. You’ve found the Wayshrine of Sight,” the ghostly figure of the prelate declared. The two of them exchanged the ritual responses and the prelate performed whatever magic or supplication it was that allowed the wayshrine to rise up out of the ground into its opened state.
Katja stepped inside and dipped her ewer carefully in the basin. It was now about half full, and it was getting harder and harder to dip it without spilling its contents. What a nonsensical ritual! She noticed after doing so that images of previously visited shrines were visible, shimmering as behind wavy glass, in two of the wayshrine’s sides. Seemingly you could always use one to visit others you had already been to. A pity you couldn’t use it to get to the rest of them as well!
They returned down the hillside and this time Katja bowed to inevitability and took the path that led through the arches. They found a mountain pass infested with Frostbite spiders, and the three of them were forced into furious action for a few moments until all of the hostile creatures were dead. Katja had to set the ewer down for a moment, propping it upright in a snowbank, so she could use her bow. Furthermore, she was poisoned as one of the monsters sank its fangs into her and had to resort to some potions before they were ready to continue. Anders was solicitous but respected her abilities well enough not to be overly protective.
After passing the spiders they found themselves in a river valley. As they approached the shore Katja looked right and left, and spotted another wayshrine sitting beside the river’s banks to the south of them. They hurried down there. This stop on their journey proved to be the Wayshrine of Learning; but the names did not appear to reflect any differences between one wayshrine and another. The Prelates had no wisdom to impart – and neither did the shrines, their locations, or the water contained in their basins. Beginning to feel the strain, Katja was hard put to contain her annoyance at the pointlessness of the entire enterprise.
After performing the ritual there, Katja stepped out and looked around. Across the partially frozen river in the valley below them, she could see a path winding up the opposite bank that looked promising. Before crossing, though, she reached into her pack for some bread and cheese and handed some to Anders as well, along with some water to wash it down with. This stage of their anti-vampire campaign, alas, was turning into another one of those marathons with no sex, little food, and sleep only a remote possibility.
Katja was acutely aware of how dangerous that could be. Well, not the no-sex part. Even as good as Anders looked in that armor, being half-starved and nearly exhausted had a way of keeping her lusts to a manageable level. But they were all, with the possible exception of Serana (whose powers she still did not fully understand), losing their edge as time went on without rest and proper food. This could mean the difference between them defeating their enemies or the other way around.
The three proceeded up the hill, and Katja spotted some ore deposits. Despite her growing tiredness the lure of minerals she rarely had a chance to mine drew her aside. Moving on after that, they hiked up to the top of the slope on the river’s southern bank. They found themselves looking at a broad frozen lake, the water from it spilling out in waterfalls at two places along its northern edge. At the far end, Katja thought she could see the next wayshrine.
Not trusting the ice, Katja led them along the rocky southern shore. She didn’t need to add hypothermia or drowning to the list of perils they faced. They had made it successfully almost to the western end, when there was a crashing noise and suddenly a dragon burst into the sky, erupting from the ice of the lake! What the??! A second dragon joined the first moments later. No time to make sense of it. As Anders hurled lightning spells at the circling, hostile dragons and Serana put her vampiric staff into use, Katja pulled out her Dragonbane bow and began tracking their enemies, finding her mark and using the Dragonrend Shout when the opportunity presented itself.
In what was probably less than two minutes but seemed like hours the two mysterious dragons had crashed to the frozen lake surface, lifeless. Katja was wide-eyed and gasping for breath, not yet recovered from the adrenaline surge that had rushed through her at the appearance of their unlooked-for foes. It took another few moments for her to calm down and go examine the corpses. These dragons looked different, somehow, from others she’d seen. But their flesh ignited and fell away as their souls were captured by The Dragonborn, the same as any other dragon. They seemed to be carrying the usual sort of dragon loot, too. At least she got her arrows back.
Now breathing normally once again, Katja asked “Anders, have you ever heard of dragons living under lake ice?”
His eyebrows were knitted as he replied, “I can’t imagine how they could. Dragons breathe air. Unless maybe this species has auxiliary gills or something…” As the flesh was now gone, there was no opportunity for a forensic examination.
Katja realized, as she thought about it, that dragons had only come back to Skyrim a week or two before she and Anders first met. Not likely he’d have picked up any real knowledge of them she didn’t have herself, unless ancient folklore counted. She knew folklore usually had a grain of truth; but the bulk of it was an alloy of speculation and embroidery. Everybody loves a good story.
The threat now eliminated, the party picked their way to shore and walked up the path to the next wayshrine. This, the spectral Prelate told Katja, was the Wayshrine of Resolution. Katja went through the ritual formulas with him, increasingly eager to be finished with this quest. Four down, only one more to go! On leaving this wayshrine, they climbed a snowy hill to the west and soon found themselves in a sort of outdoor labyrinth – complete with Falmer and chaurus.
This was something outside of Katja’s experience. Falmer and chaurus were creatures of the dark, denizens of the deep places where Dwemer had once lived. She had never seen either of them dwelling above ground, but here they were. A network of canyons seemed to be filled with Falmer dwellings, almost… villages. Most of the yurts looked as if the inhabitants had just stepped out on an errand. Not that there weren’t plenty of living inhabitants, but they surprised none in the act of daily living. All they encountered were gloomlurkers and mages and regular Falmer citizens, all of them creeping silently along on the alert for intruders.
Exploring each bridge and walkway searching for the path to the final wayshrine, Katja found surprising amounts of treasure in the huts and on the bodies of their fallen attackers. Gold and gems weren’t much in evidence, but valuable weapons and armor abounded. How could these isolated people amass such wealth, and what did they do with it? It wasn’t as if the villages featured a corner store.
After the third or fourth time she and her party had encountered and killed Falmer guardians, Katja sighed. She’d been half-hoping they would find a Falmer rookery, a village where these descendants of the snow elves might be caught acting… human. Raising babies, chattering around a fire, carrying out the activities of ordinary life. They found places where Falmer were apparently doing alchemy, creating the poisons they used on their weaponry. Places where that weaponry was created. Food caches, cookfires, hides ready for tanning. But if this sprawling network of canyons was a village, it was a village without life beyond guards.
And she and her party were lost. Supposed to be the Mighty Leader, Katja realized that she had no idea whether she had been up this particular ramp, over that stone bridge before. Were they travelling in circles? She was too tired to think, and a glance at Anders told her that he was carrying on by main force of will. There were circles under his eyes, and his expression was haggard. Enough!