Skyrim Story - Of Dawn And Dark: Part 5: The Soul Cairn
The stone stairs spiraled downward from the portal that hung low in the sky. Each step seemed to float in the air with no visible supports as they walked down toward the ground. The Soul Cairn was the furthest thing from Tamriel that Derbana has seen.
The gray desert was filled with withering plants and craggy boulders lifting up through the sand. The most disturbing part of this place was the abundance of tall gravestones and the purple wisps that seemed to glide around aimlessly. Eerie black stone buildings dotted the landscape here and there, mostly towers standing black against the storming purple sky. The largest of these was in the distance with twin pillars of light, one coming from each spire.
When they touched the ground, Derbana looked at the massive graveyard that was the Soul Cairn. Serana stepped forward in astonishment of this place.
“It's just as my mother described in her journal. I'm...speechless.”
The scene around Derbana blurred as her eyes rolled up into her head and she lost her balance, falling on her knees. Serana heard the shifting of her companion's armor and saw her there.
“Derbana...” She helped her back to her feet, “Are you feeling all right?”
“I'm just...a little dizzy.” Derbana held her head.
“As I told you before, you'll be weaker here than you normally would be elsewhere. The first few minutes will be the hardest, it should ease somewhat as we move along.”
“Your mother...is she there?” Her hand shook as she pointed to the twin pillars of light.
“That would be the first place to start. Can you walk?”
Derbana nodded, “Yes, I'll be fine. We should just keep to the road.”
With Serana nearby, they made their way slowly across the desert landscape. Derbana raised her eyes to see a warrior with crossed arms leaning against a black wall.
“Can it really be true?”
Serana raised her head, “Hm?”
“All these people sent here...through Soul Gems...even me who used them to enchant my armor...if I'd only known...”
After a moment to think, Serana nodded, “You are right, it is a tragedy that the innocent are sent here...but remember that you sent those who weren't innocent. A few bandits' souls sent to this place for your enchantments. With all the pain and harm they caused, is this not a fitting punishment?”
“Except this isn't punishment...this is Oblivion.”
Serana knew she wasn't going to make her feel any better and they kept walking down the dirt road. Just as Serana said, Derbana started feeling better as the minutes passed and was able to walk on her own in time.
Several black skeletons emerged from the gray sands and raised their ancient weapons high. It didn't take the two long to finish them off as they dissolved into a puddle of black goo. With the battle ended, Derbana sheathed her blade.
“Excuse me.” said a male voice.
In a flash of light, the sword was pointed an inch from the man's face. It was the ghost of a warrior. He was the same as the other souls sent here. Noticing his peaceful intent, Derbana's sword went back into its scabbard as she stood up straight.
“What do you want?”
“Have you seen him? My horse, Arvak, he doesn't deserve to be here. If you find him please, bring him back to me?”
“Look, we don't have time to chase around a horse. We've got better things we need to do.” Serana spoke.
“If we find him, we'll bring him back to you, but we can't make any promises.” Derbana said and started walking away.
The ghost warrior breathed a small sigh as the two women left him behind and continued following the road. The black stone structure they were heading toward got closer, however it provided little comfort as lightning struck around them randomly, not knowing if they could dodge them. In addition to this, there was the threat of the undead creatures that wandered around here. According to Valerica's journal, the black skeletons were called bonemen, there were other creatures here too complete with illustrations. The mistmen looked a lot like shades and wrathmen like skeletal draugr.
They encountered a few of these creatures along the path. Derbana blocking a wrathman's halberd with her raised shield in one hand as she stabbed him with her sword in the other. Though they were slightly different, they shared the same death rattle as the draugr.
“There...” Derbana said as she kicked the dead undead off her sword, “That's the last of them.”
“For now, at least. I can see the entrance and...” She narrowed her eyes, “Mother?”
Serana ran ahead, “Mother!”
Up the steps, she ran fast to greet her mother, but instead greeted a purple wall of energy cutting them off. After removing herself from the wall. Valerica walked forward.
“Maker...it can't be. Serana?”
“Is it really you? I can't believe it!” She pushed her hand against the wall, lighting brighter whenever her hand touched, “How do we get inside? We have to talk.”
“Serana? What are you doing here? Where's your father?” The mother didn't share her daughter's enthusiasm, quite opposite in fact.
“He doesn't know we're here. I don't have time to explain.”
Valerica worried, “I must have failed. 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.”
It was now Derbana was noticed, “Wait a moment...you brought a stranger here? Have you lost your mind? You, come forward. I would speak with you.”
Derbana stepped out from the side and stood next to Serana.
“So, how has it come to pass that a vampire hunter is in the company of my daughter? It pains me to think you'd travel with Serana under the guise of her protector in an effort to hunt me down.”
“This is no ruse. I want to keep her safe especially from Harkon.”
“Coming from one who murders vampires as a trade, I find it hard to believe your intentions are noble. Serana has sacrificed everything to prevent Harkon from completing the prophecy. I would have expected her to explain that to you.”
“That's why we're here for the Elder Scroll.”
“You think I'd have the audacity to place my own daughter in the tomb for the protection of the Elder Scroll alone? The scrolls are merely a means to an end.” She looked at Serana, “The key to the Tyranny of the Sun is Serana herself.”
“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.' as it is written.”
“And Serana, how does she fit into all this?”
Valerica took a moment to compose herself and paced around, “Like myself, Serana was a human once. We were devout followers of Lord Molag Bal.”
Derbana shivered at the name as memories played back before her.
“Could you help me investigate this abandoned house?” “This is no ordinary Daedra!” “The door's locked, there's...there's no way out!” “Yes, I see now...it's either kill or be killed. Die!” The Vigilant of Stendarr who asked her for help had turned on her through Molag Bal's influence and she had no choice.
Derbana shook her head, making the memories stop as fast as they arrived. While she took a moment to breathe, Valerica continued.
“Tradition dictates the females be offered to Molag Bal on his summoning day. Few survive the ordeal. Those that do emerge as a pure-blooded vampire. We call such confluences, the 'Daughters of Coldharbour'.”
“The prophecy 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 as far from her as possible.”
“Are you saying...” Derbana looked at Serana, “Harkon means to kill her?”
“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.”
Jerthar's vision came to her mind, this is what all that meant.
Derbana stared ahead, determined, “I would never allow that to happen.”
“And how exactly do you plan on stopping him?”
“I'll kill Harkon. I promised myself I would.”
Valerica crossed her arms, “If you believe that, then you're a bigger fool than I originally suspected. Don't you think I weighed that option before I enacted my plans?”
“Serana believes in me, why won't you?”
“Serana?” She turned to her daughter, “This stranger aligns herself with those that would hunt you down and slay you like an animal, yet, I should entrust you to her?”
Serana glared at her mother, “This 'stranger' has done more for me in the brief time I've known her than you've done in centuries!”
“How dare you! I gave up everything I cared about to protect you from that fanatic you call a father!”
“Yes, he's a fanatic...he's changed, but he's still my father. Why can't you understand how that makes me feel?”
“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? You never asked me if hiding me in that tomb was the best course of action, you just expected me to follow you blindly. Both of you were obsessed with your own paths. Your motivations might have been different, but in the end, I'm still just a pawn to you, too. I want us to be a family again. But I don't know if we can even have that. Maybe we don't deserve that kind of happiness. Maybe it isn't for us.”
Derbana turned away, her thoughts drifting to Breezehome, the warm hearth, and her kind, loving husband sitting by the fire, “Sondas...”
Serana stood firm, “But we have to stop him. Before he goes too far. And to do that, we need the Elder Scroll.”
Valerica went silent for a moment before speaking, “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 back to Derbana, 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. The Elder Scroll I have has been kept safely secured ever since I was imprisoned here by the Ideal Masters. Fortunately, you're in a position to breach the barrier that surrounds these ruins.”
“Now we're getting somewhere, how do we destroy this thing?”
“Find the tallest of the rocky spires surrounding these ruins. At their bases, the barrier's energy is being drawn from the 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.”
“Wait, just one more word of warning. 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 will undoubtedly intervene if you're perceived as a threat. Be careful, and keep my daughter safe.”
Derbana nodded and they headed toward the east to the nearest location of the first tower. Like the twin spires of Valerica's prison, the three towers shone a pillar of purple-white light into the sky. As they drew close to the tower, a strange chanting carried across the wind.
“Wait, what's that?” Derbana asked and headed toward the strange sound.
Passing over rocks and sand, there was an altar in the near distance with six ghosts encircling it as if performing a ritual. When the two got close, the ghost convulsed in pain as their ethereal form changed to those of mistmen. With the danger clear, Derbana drew her weapon and raised her shield as Serana readied her spells. Again the denizens of the Soul Cairn were no for them as they walked away with barely any injury.
“What were they doing here?” Serana asked.
Derbana shrugged and noticed the item in the center of the altar. On a pedestal was a blue horse's skull. Taking it in hand, Derbana gazed at it and then heard a voice shout in exclaim.
“Arvak! You found him!” The ghost warrior from before ran over to them with a happy smile. Derbana offered him the skull and he took it, “He's free! Thank you so much! Here, I'll teach you how to call him.”
Derbana felt a new spell flowing into her. The ghost warrior still smiling as he started to fade from the Soul Cairn.
“Such a good horse.” Were his last words before he vanished, free of the Cairn's influence.
Serana patted Derbana on the shoulder, “You worried about the people sent here. Thanks to you, there's one less person stuck here this day.”
Derbana smiled and held the spell in her hands, casting it on the ground in front of her. A spherical portal opened up where she had cast and there stood a purple skeletal horse whose eyes glowed with white light and smoked with purple flames, the same type of flame that burned as the mane and tail. Climbing on top of Arvak, Derbana grabbed hold of a large bone spike that jutted between the shoulders and used it as the reins. Serana hopped on behind her and they galloped to the first tower hanging high in the air.
“How are we supposed to get up there?” Serana asked.
“Just have a little faith in me, you'll see.”
What Derbana said turned out to be true, a few bonemen and a wrathman stood guard on a black stone square platform of about twenty feet. In the shadow of the tower, they dismounted Arvak and hid behind a nearby mound. Derbana pulled out her bow and lined up her first shot, the wrathman roared into the wind until the arrow hit him in the neck. As the bonemen looked around to see their attacker, the others fell just as quickly.
Passing over the dead, they saw the strange purple glyph inside a half foot tall well. Ever being the seasoned adventurer, Derbana stepped into the well and the same black goo that made the bonemen shot up around her, covering her entire body and then she was gone. When she opened her eyes, she was on the floating tower, looking over the edge. She could barely make out Serana due to the height and the mist. She made out the blackness covering Serana and looked back to where she first appeared. The darkness rose up and then fell down, revealing Serana bit-by-bit.
The two stood on the lowest platform of the tower, each platform of the tower was connected by stairs going along the outside. There was no resistance until they reached the top where the Keeper was waiting for them. It wear a full set of dragonplate armor and held a dragonbone battleaxe in both hands, its head was made shadow with two blue eyes glaring at the intruders.
Shouting in guttural tongue, it raised the axe overhead and brought it down, both Derbana and Serana went to the sides as the battleaxe chipped the stone. Derbana swung her sword and it sparked off the armor. The Keeper turned to her and sweeped her with the brunt of the axe shaft. Falling on her back, the wind knocked out of her and she struggled to get back up. Acting quickly, Serana used her drain spell with a lightning bolt from the other hand. The Keeper gripped his axe and turned to her.
“Derbana! Do you have a plan?”
“My sword and his armor are made from the same material, I can't cut through it.”
“And my magic doesn't seem to be slowing him down. We need to think of something fast.”
The Keeper swung his axe across, but Serana duck-rolled underneath it. Derbana has little time, getting back to her feet, she scanned his armor looking for the weak points.
“Hey!” She shouted, getting the Keeper's attention, “Come, face me!”
The Keeper cursing in his garbled speech, he charged Derbana who readied for his blow, an overhead strike. He threw down the axe and she stepped it, blocking the shaft. Her shield arm trembled with the weight of his weapon, her face caught in grimace as she did so. The axe blade lowered slowly toward her shoulder. Without a moment to lose, Derbana brought her sword down diagonally in front of her, slashing off the Keeper's left hand at the wrist.
Screaming in pain, the Keeper backed away as Derbana readied for the next strike. Throwing his entire body into it, he heaved the axe single-handed. The clumsy move was easy to dodge and Derbana went in to sever the other hand at the elbow. Bringing her sword through his side, the weaker plating gave way as it dig deep into his torso. And then she pulled her blade out and swung her whole body around, cleaving his head in two. Lifeless at last, the Keeper fell to its knees and fell on his front.
With no time to celebrate, they made their way to the two remaining towers. Using Arvak's swift legs, they were able to traverse the landscape with ease. Knowing the trick to the Keeper's armor, they were easily dispatched and the barrier surrounding Valerica's prison was no more.
Though she didn't show it, Valerica was happy to see the barrier gone and even more so when the sight of her daughter and Derbana came into view on the back of Arvak. Dismounting the skeletal horse, Derbana gave him a petting before he disappeared.
“You managed to destroy all three Keepers?” Valerica asked, “Very impressive.”
“May we have the scroll now?”
“Yes, please follow me.” She gestured to the twin doors behind her, “Keep watch for Durnehviir. With the prison's barrier down, he's almost certain to investigate.”
The trio walked through the doors. Inside this palace was a large open courtyard with the same permeating mists as on the outside and the tall eerie gravestones dotting the place. Derbana drew her bow and notched the first arrow, having fought dragons before. Valerica strode ahead of them, going directly toward the scroll while the two defenders followed close behind.
An unholy shriek filled the air and the unmistakable flapping of dragon wings, Derbana looked around the skies and spotted Durnehviir, a massive dragon landing on the back wall of the courtyard. He raised his head and uttered a shout that came as a blue wisp from his throat, it soared into the air and split into six ways, diving into separate bone piles. Immediately, several bonemen came out from where the wisps landed. Derbana let her arrow fly into the chest of Durnehviir who roared before taking flight.
She pulled another arrow and quickly destroyed a rising boneman before drawing another. Serana fired two lightning bolts and shattered two more.
“I'll take care of the little guys, you take Durnehviir.” Serana shouted.
Just then, Durnehviir landed right in front of Derbana, knocking her off her feet. This close, she could see all the details and why he was feared. Fighting a normal dragon was hard enough, but his undead body was constantly decaying as small piece of smile dripped off him, pooling beneath his shadow.
The momentary hesitation wore off as Durnehviir pulled his head back, baring his teeth. She rolled out of the way as he bit into the earth. Rolling onto her feet, she cut him across the face. He reprised by turning around and swiping her with his tail, but she ducked. Following up with his attack, he reared his head around and tried biting her again. However there was no time to evade, but managed to get her shield to block his mouth.
Durnehviir grimaced, but persisted and increased the pressure. Seeing her shield buckling, Derbana narrowed her eyes and brought her sword as far of its reach as she could, stabbing up. Durnehviir froze, the sword pierced through the underside of his skull into his brain. Releasing his jaw, Derbana freed her arm and backed away.
The dragon fell to the ground dead. But she felt no different like the other dragons, she didn't feel the soul leave it. Instead a purple flame rose up from the ground, burning Durnehviir from the inside out until only the outer skeleton remained and the purple flame burned it away from head-to-tail.
The remaining bonemen just fell apart as they ran and turned into the black goo. Derbana sheathed her blade and joined back with Serana who was looking for her mother who had just casually strolled through the battlefield, now standing on the east alcove of the courtyard, looking surprised.
“Forgive my astonishment, but I never thought I'd witness the death of that dragon.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
“Volumes written on Durnehviir allege that he can't be slain by normal means. It appears they were mistaken. Unless...the soul of a dragon is as resilient as its owner's scaly hide. It's possible that your killing blow has merely displaced Durnehviir's physical form while he reconstitutes himself.”
“And how long will that take?”
“Minutes? Hours? Years? I can't even begin to guess. I suggest we don't wait around to find out. Now, let's get you the Elder Scroll and you can be on your way.”
Valerica turned to the back of the alcove. On the left was an alchemy laboratory with potions and ingredients strewn on the ledge. On the right were piles of books on various subjects. On the back of the ledge was a thin long wood box, just big enough for an Elder Scroll. Valerica opened it and presented the scroll to Derbana, who took it in hand.
Serana watched as her companion placed the Elder Scroll into her backpack, "That's it. That's the last scroll. Come on, let's take it to Dexion.”
Before they could leave, Derbana had to ask something important.
"Can you help get my soul back?”
Valerica smiled, “So my daughter applied some of the lessons I taught about necromancy, did she? Don't worry, I think I can help you."
"Good, I could use all the help I can get."
Valerica explained, “Your soul essence was trapped inside a gem. When you and Serana enter 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."
"Any idea where it could be?"
"There's an offering altar not terribly far from here. I'm willing to bet that the gem you looking for is there. Is there anything else? Could be your last chance."
"So you're staying here?"
Valerica nodded, "I have no choice. As I told you before, I'm a Daughter of Coldharbour. If I return to Tamriel, that increases Harkon's likelihood of bringing the Tyranny of the Sun to fruition."
"We'll return for you when we can."
"I appreciate your concern for me, but Serana is all that I care about. You must keep her safe at all costs. Remember that Harkon isn't 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 I have left."
"I promise to keep Serana safe." Derbana turned to her vampire friend, "It's time to go."
With a simple nod, the two left the courtyard behind them and through the twin doors. Valerica silently wished them luck. As they ran down the stone heading toward the gray sands, an incredible sight did appear before them.
As they approach the steps leading down, an enormous purple flame blazed the destroyed tower base in front of them. Derbana and Serana froze, readying their weapons at the sight of Durnehviir revived. He was perched on the tower base like a gargoyle, looking at the two women who fought him minutes ago. But he looked more like a real dragon than his decaying form.
"Stay your weapons. I would speak with you, Qahnaariin.”
"We thought you were dead."
"Cursed, not dead. Due to exist in this form for eternity. Trapped between laas and dinok, between life and death."
"Why are we speaking?"
"I believe in civility among seasoned warriors, and I find your ear worthy of my words. My claws have rendered the flesh of innumerable foes, but I have never once been felled on the field of battle. I'd therefore honor-name you 'Qahnaariin', or Vanquisher in your tongue."
Derbana side-glanced at her shield before looking into his eyes, "I found it equally worthy."
"Your words to me great honor. My desire to speak with you was born from the result of our battle, Qahnaariin. I merely wish to respectfully ask a favor of you."
"What kind of a favor?"
"For countless years I've roamed the Soul Cairn, in unattended service to the Ideal Masters. Before this, I roamed the skies above Tamriel. I desire to return there."
Derbana asked, "What prevents you from returning?"
"I fear that my time here is taking its toll upon me. I share a bond with this dreaded place. If I ventured far from the Soul Cairn, my strength would begin to wane until I was no more."
"How can I help?"
"I will place my name with you and grant you the right to call my name from Tamriel. Do me this simple honor and I will fight at your side as your Grah-Zeymahzin, your Ally, and teach you my Thu'um.”
Derbana raised an eyebrow, "Just call your name in Tamriel? That's it?"
"Trivial in your mind, perhaps. For me, it would mean a great deal. I don't require an answer, Qahnaariin. Simply speak my name to the heavens when you feel the time is right.”
Durnehviir pulled back his head as if to breathe fire. But there was no flame, only the familiar energy of the Words of Power coursing toward her. She absorbed them as she'd had done any Word and felt his energy swirling inside her. Spending some of the dragon soul energy stored within her, she mastered the three Words she was just given.
"I only hope that you allow me the precious moments of time there through your call."
With a small smile, Durnehviir unfurled his mighty wings and flew into the stormy skies without another word.
Serana walked alongside, “Come on, let's go home."
Derbana doubled over in pain, but quickly recompose herself, "Not just yet, there's one last thing we need to do here."
The place Valerica mentioned was out of their way heading back to Tamriel, but the empty feeling that Derbana felt in her soul was close to becoming unbearable. They arrived at the place in a few minutes on the back of their faithful steed Arvak. At first glance, the building that housed her soul essence looked completely enclosed. Dashing up the stairs, Derbana entered through the open doorway and found it to be a small labyrinth.
"Serana, stay close to me."
As they made their way through the labyrinth, Serana would leave a small scar on the stone with a lightning bolt indicating that path led to a dead end. After about a half an hour, the two stood next to a familiar purple well. Jumping inside, Derbana felt the black goo rise up her body again. The numbing cold soon dissipated as the goo fell down once more.
Opening her eyes, she found herself on top of the building they were just in. The center of the roof was a raised platform up several dozen steps, Derbana reach the top where a small flat sarcophagus stood in the center with four small stone pillars at each of its corners. When she opened it, there was only a small black gem.
Just as Valerica said, she touched it and it dissolved into energy that that swam along her arm and went inside the middle of her torso. Instantly the empty feeling was no more, she felt inner peace swell inside her once again. With a small sigh of relief, she smiled.
With that last little errand, the two adventurers left the building behind. Summoning Arvak, they mounted and galloped at full speed toward the portal entrance. Through the many way towers and the great black wall that divided the Soul Cairn, they were happy to see the floating stone steps that spiraled upward through the purple portal that leads back to Tamriel.
Dismounting Arvak, they proceeded up the steps and through the portal, they were standing inside Valerica's Study. Never before has it been happy to see such a place, knowing that they were back home in Tamriel instead of Oblivion. Going up to the second floor, they followed the wall heading down toward the first floor of the study. Right in front of them was a door that they haven't opened yet.
Serana rubbed her chin, "if you ask me, this is the quickest way out. I'm just not so sure where in the Castle this will lead us."
Derbana opened the door and was greeted with falling snow, "Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is this does lead us outside." She and Serana walked outside, "The bad news is that is a long way down."
The door had led them to a bridge that had once connected to the Castle, but had eroded away. Now there seemed to be no way of getting down. Serana look over the edge and grimaced.
"So what now?"
Derbana scanned around the area and found the highest point to land on. Stepping over the railing, she held a firm grip to it before letting herself down and letting the railing go. She gripped the bottom of the pathway and slid herself to the tower wall. Sliding her fingers into the weakened mortar, she soon found the grip to hold onto. Slowly scaling down the wall this way, her feet soon met the solid ground of the tallest jutting rock that hug the wall. Looking back up at Serana, Derbana held out her arms.
"Come on, jump!"
"You're kidding, right?”
Derbana's determined expression and catching gesture of her arms made serious her intent. Knowing to trust her, Serana stepped over the railing, holding onto it for dear life. Before jumping off and falling down right into Derbana's arms. With the two of them now on the highest rock, they both slowly scaled toward the ground.
They swam around the jutting rock formation that went into the sea until they spotted the boat they arrived on. Walking ashore, they boarded the small dock and cast the boat off into the water, heading back to mainland Skyrim. Though their adventures in the Soul Cairn were now behind them, the true battle against Harkon was far from over.
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