Skyrim Day 079 – A Timeless Prison of Souls (Part 2)

From Traversing Tamriel

7 Sun’s Dusk, 4E201
Relaxed all day and did nothing of note…two things which I cannot recall the previous utterance of, at least together.
Hidden behind the fireplace was a large laboratory with a raised section against one side overlooking a terraced circular depression in the floor. Candles had been placed around it and they were, again, lit.

Serana entered behind me and just about squealed with joy. She starting babbling about how her mother was deeply into necromancy (as I thought all vampires were) and that this hidden chamber had to be her laboratory.

I could not disagree with the last part. There was not a single section of wall unoccupied by a table or bookshelf and ingredients lay scattered all over the place. Serana felt that there would be notes or a journal describing her mother’s work hidden for her eyes only, so we started searching the room from the entranceway, she to the balcony to the left and I to the right.

She shouted the names of ingredients as she searched the tables, enthusing about how clever Valerica had been. I found this odd, the two of them had not seen one another in, if Serana is to believed, over a thousand years. If I manage to live one-thousand years I imagine I will not retain much attachment to anyone alive today. Already I cannot recall the nature of my own upbringing, my time in Cyrodiil prior to the Oblivion Crisis, nor any clear memories of Morrowind, though I occasionally have uncertain flashbacks.

I found Valerica’s journal while her daughter was busy enthusing over the laboratory. I read it quickly, then called Serana over. The journal opened on 27th Last Seed, year unmentioned. Valerica lamented that had been reduced to a mere annoyance in the eyes of Harkon. In response she dedicated her time to her studies, the next day’s journal entry announcing a breakthrough in her research.

She had found a way to attune a portal to a place she called the ‘Soul Cairn’, but only for a few seconds. Help had been provided, for she mentioned a group she called the ‘Ideal Masters’, but the help was largely in riddles and she had been left on her own to discover how to sustain the portal longer than a few seconds.

More time had passed, the next entry was 3 Hearthfire. Valerica was able to keep the portal open via a mixture of bone meal, void salts, soul gem shards, and her own blood. Having secured her way out, the journal concludes with her rushing off to Dimhollow Crypt with Serana, her evidently not mentioning the inter-planar portal to her daughter on the way.

Her daughter gamely ignored being left out and explained that her mother had theorized that trapping souls with black soul gems sent them to the ‘Soul Cairn’, where the ‘Ideal Masters’ rewarded the necromancer responsible with powerful enchantments and spells. Where animal souls, the only I have ever experimented with, go, was neither a concern of Serana nor Valerica.

But it was into this Cairn we had to go if we were to retrieve the final Elder Scroll. Crushed bone meal, void salts, and shards of soul gems were easy to find in the laboratory, but a sample of Valerica’s blood was out of our reach. I suggested we try Serana’s and she agreed…no doubt realizing we had no other choice.

Serana followed her mother’s instructions and, with her own blood, successfully opened the portal once again. When I attempted to descend the stairs however I found myself quickly growing weaker with each step. Shaken, I retreated back to the balcony, instantly feeling far better.

Serana explained that the Soul Cairn was attempting to force a toll on me: my life. Naturally, those within the Cairn are devoid of it and whatever method the Cairn was using to extract mine went beyond what Dagoth Ur had blessed me with so long ago.

There were two solutions to this problem, neither of which I liked. The first was to be “turned” into a vampire by a bite from Serana. The thought is amusing afterwards, a Nord Vampire trying to bite through a mouthful of fur, but I emphatically denied it as a possibility, perhaps a bit much, for Serana seemed insulted.

The second was little better: Serana would use a soul gem shard to partially (I have never heard of such a thing before!) capture my soul, enough hopefully to pay the portal’s toll. This was only slightly more appealing than vampirism, but there seemed no other way to gain entrance…so I agreed.

She cast her spell, pointed the shard at me and…not much happened. Save for a slight feeling of emptiness and feeling like a bad case of ‘Bone Break’ fever I felt fine. Serana suspected something in the Cairn would reverse the effect, but that was just a guess. Having done whatever had been done, I descended the staircase once again and into a world of darkness.

It was not worse than what I remember of the plane of Oblivion. The Soul Cairn was a black place, poorly lit by a purple sky shot through with lightning and what may have been souls or magicka energy.

Above us was the underside of our portal: a circle of Nothing surrounded by swirling energy. Helpfully, our portal deposited us at the top of a floating staircase. While descending I noticed that there was something missing: air. That is not to say there was no wind, no breeze. There was simply no air at all. I found I was not breathing, nor was Serana, and that we did not need to, not in the Cairn. Our voices still carried, somehow, but the sound arrived poorly, as if we were thousands of feet away instead of a dozen. It made the rest of our time at the Cairn an even more miserable experience.

Ethereal forms wandered the blighted landscape, some appeared to be resigned, but lucid, others unaware of where they were or what had happened. One soul we passed still had her bow strapped to her back, but could only ask us where her ship had sailed to. Another soul was lounging against a ruined wall, advised us not to spend too much time in the Cairn. It is hard to say which of the two were worse off.

The place felt wrong. It was not that the Cairn was a place of death, it was not. It was a place of nothing, neither life nor death. Serana must have felt it too, for she muttered that she just wanted to find her mother and be gone as quickly as possible as we left another confused soul behind us.

The Cairn was separated into two halves by a large, crumbling wall, us on one side, a large, ruined castle forever collapsing upwards into the sky on the other. Serana and I agreed that her mother would likely be found there or nearby.

While on our way Serana stopped to investigate a throne that had four beams of light shining from it. A decrepit skeleton in battered armor was slumped upon it, but as we approached it roused from its slumber and grabbed a two-handed axe from behind its throne. I suppose we should not have been surprised by now, but we were.

Our foe was no more difficult than a powerful Draugr. Serana and I employed our usual strategy of me distracting the enemy while she fired magicka into its back. Simple, but effective.

We passed a partially-buried skeleton of a Dragon along the path to the castle, making me wonder if it had been possible to trap the soul of a Dragon normally, instead of…whatever I seem to do when one dies.

A morose soul sitting along the path warned us of a Dragon he named ‘Durnehviir’, but Dragons are usually noisy, proud creatures and there was no evidence of a Dragon living in the Cairn. I assumed the soul was stuck in his past life and moved on.

The castle was still impressive as it crumbled forever into the clouds. A chest at the foot of the front balcony contained rare Ebony plate armor, but I chose to leave it due to the weight, over Serana’s objections.

A shimmering barrier surrounded the castle just inside the balcony where Valerica waited, trapped.

She was less happy to see her daughter than I expected her to be. She instead seemed more concerned about my intentions and despite my protests refused to believe I had anything but the extermination of all vampires in my heart. After pointless back-and-forth with the frustrated woman Serana jumped in, pointing out that I had done more to help her in the past week than her own mother had done within the past one thousand years. Harsh, but true.

What followed was an angry exchange of domestic concerns spoken across an impassable barrier of magicka, a greater concern, I thought, than their family history. Tempers soothed after several minutes and discussion turned to the present. Valerica suspected the barrier was maintained by three guardians she called the ‘Keepers’. Dispatching all three would bring down the barrier, allowing Valerica her freedom and us access to the Elder Scroll she secreted away.
She also warned us of the Dragon ‘Durnehviir’, a guardian of the Cairn. The trapped soul from earlier had been speaking the truth. However, after defeating a dozen or so Dragons in Skyrim it was difficult to feel concerned about another one, even in the Cairn.
Tracking down the Keepers was easier than I thought it would be: each occupied a throne roofed by the beams of light that caught Serana’s attention earlier and neither of the two remaining Keepers were any more difficult than the first. The castle’s barrier disappeared upon the banishment of the third Keeper and we hurried back to Valerica.

Durnehviir was already waiting for us at the courtyard. Serana and I spread out as usual and, much to my surprise, Valerica did as well. Against two vampires and a Khajiit the Dragon had little chance.
Durnehviir’s remains burst into purple flames upon his death, but no soul came streaming out of the blaze…which makes sense, considering we were in the place souls go anyway. With the castle’s guardian temporarily banished (same as the Keepers, I suppose) Valerica’s cache was free to us.
Other than the Elder Scroll there was not much: a few potions and some books. I gave Serana the Scroll and we prepared to leave, assuming Valerica would be following.
But she declined. Returning to Tamriel would mean Lord Harkon would have two sources of the blood he required for his ritual, a risk Valerica was not willing to take. Her harsh demeanor had softened and she only asked that I keep her daughter, the only thing she values any longer, safe from her father. I agreed and we parted ways. Serana stayed behind to speak privately with her mother, I was to wait at our portal for her.
And so I left the courtyard and came face-to-face with the increasingly-physical form of Durnehviir perched over the balcony.

But it was not vengeance the beast sought, only conversation. He named me ‘Qahnaarin’, Vanquisher in Common. Durnehviir had never been defeated during his long time in the Cairn, though I wonder if having the experience of Dragon-fighting in Tamriel is what made the difference. 

Our conversation was brief. He had reformed in my path to ask a favor of me: freedom, albeit temporary. Through the utterance of his name, combined with my desire to see it done, I would be able to summon Durnehviir to Tamriel for a short time as, I was promised, a valuable ally in battle. Alas for him, the summoning would soon send him back to the Cairn, but I would be able to call upon him after some rest.

I agreed, for I cannot see how any creature or any one person deserved an eternity in the Cairn. 

I was also given the tale of how he had come to the Cairn. Long ago, before the Dragon Wars, Dragons fought each other over tiny scraps of territory. So many Dragons, so little land. While the others were tearing each other apart with tooth and claw Durnehviir sought power via what we know today as necromancy. 

A deal was struck with the mysterious ‘Ideal Masters’: accept unmatched power from Beyond, but in exchange, serve the Masters in death until the one that will be known as ‘Valerica’ dies. It was a harsh deal, Valerica was probably not even alive in Durnehviir’s time and he had no way of knowing she was essentially immortal. He agreed to the deal only to find himself trapped in the Cairn guarding a woman whose life would never naturally end.

He wished me a long life, unknowingly playing a second joke on himself, and flew off. Valerica still remained in the Cairn and he still had to guard her…from what, I do not know. Leaving, I suppose.

Serana had not come out yet, so I continued to the portal and waited for her there. She said nothing as she caught up and nothing as we arrived back on Tamriel.

It was late in the afternoon by the time we were back on the shore of Skyrim and well into the night when we stumbled into Solitude. An inquiry to the gate’s guard revealed it to be 6 Sun’s Dusk, a full two days since leaving Winterhold. We spent 7 Sun’s Dusk recuperating and planning our trip back east, as well as my writing all this down.

There is a great deal more at stake here than a simple revival of a vampire family, but Serana has been quiet since speaking with her mother. I feel I can trust her enough not to pry into her personal affairs, but she will have to start talking again eventually. 

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