Down the hatch, I though as another drink slushed its way down my throat. The mead was unfortunately weak, but the Argonian Bloodwine more than made up for that. It was a lovely blend of what I enjoyed about Black Marsh with a hint of foreign meddling. My tolerance of the drink was plenty high, which to many would be concerning, even to Nords. But even I had my limits.
Just wasn’t coming anywhere close to them.
The trio that sat beside me, Serana, Sorine and Gunmar, had grown several times that as I spoke. As soon as past contracts and confrontations escaped my lips it drew people in like Thalmor Justiciers on Talos worshippers. It was kind of fun to regale on memories past and exploits alike.
“And with some simple tracking I found my next sack of coin outside an Aylied ruin near Kvatch.” Another slug of mead to whet my gullet. “They were spectacular, by the way. The ruins. Ancient runes carved into the stone, elegant figures etched into place. Puts the Ancient Nords and Akaviri morels to shame.”
“Incredible,” Sorine exclaimed. “Authentic Aylied ruins? So close?”
“Kvatch isn’t exactly a walk from Skyrim’s southern border you know,” Gunmar answered.
“Agh, you get my meaning,” she waved a hand at him. “Maybe I’ll take a trip there myself someday…”
“Perhaps someday,” he patted her shoulder. “But not anytime soon I’m afraid.”
The red-haired Nord laughed the last bit. He was a touch drunk and I knew that stage well. His thinking was down and so was his inhibition. Lots of shit was going to be funny for the man. For how long? Around an hour or two, my professional guess.
“And if you were a bit tipsier, Gunmar, I’d throw you into the husky pen and let them do the talking for me.”
“That sounds… odd to a foreign ear like my own,” Serana winced.
Sorine blushed lightly and gritted her teeth, thinking of an attempt to save or correct herself. Too bad she was slow, the moment had passed.
I rolled my eyes while others laughed. “Worse things have happened, right Sorine?” She knew what I was speaking about, thank the Gods.
The Breton shuddered. “I hate spiders. Hate Nimhe but at least she’s dead.”
“You say that like she was a creature of minor importance,” I chuckled.
“True and it may be the only time I save your scaly hide!”
Oh, people pounced on that like a cat does a fat mouse.
“That’s rich!” Durak cried taking a long swig.
“Someone one-upped you?! Ouch to your reputation Xane!” Agmaer laughed.
“You? Who stared my father in the eye? By the Blood,” Serana smirked. “Losing your ego?”
“By Stendarr what happened?” Lights asked, apparently taking an interest.
I could easily win this back. Or fuck up immensely.
“Funny Sorine,” I replied with confidence after everyone quieted down. “If you recall, this one was only needing saving after he pushed you out of the way from a cannonball of web.”
“Yeah well I still dealt the killing blow,” she stated pressing a finger to her chin.
Fighting tooth and nail it appears. All for the upper hand. I’m beginning to respect you Sorine, I mused. “Indeed you did, and kudos for the feat of shooting Nimhe through the maw.”
“Damn!” Gunmar exclaimed now suddenly less drunk. “And what kind of spider was this Nimhe?”
I chuckled and reached into the small bag on my hip, withdrawing a small notebook. “I actually have all that written down. Along with a drawing of her.” Thumbing through I made doubly sure to not show Harkon’s other form or other private notes. The large arachnid revealed herself, an entire page dedicated to her representation. “Here we are. All you could want to know about a dead payment.”
They all were in shock, except for Sorine. It wasn’t the information but the drawing itself. I made it like every other picture within the pages: as life-like as possible. Made it easier to look for possible, and know known, weak points.
“You draw like an artisan!” the red Nord proclaimed, his drink sloshing in his grasp.
“A rough, tough and gruff badass bounty hunter and yet you can draw?” Durak asked at first but it quickly turned into a small grin. “Impressive.”
“Didn’t peg you for an artist,” Serana spoke.
“There is more to this one than the surface alone,” I shrugged with a knowing smirk, using her quote against her.
“So there is. Wonder what else will break through your iron grasp to keep it hidden.”
“But what made Nimhe so special?” Agmaer raised his near platinum eyebrows.
“She was a genetically altered Frostbite Spider. Compliments of Calcelmo.”
“Genetically altered?” Celann repeated with a strange look. “How? Why?”
Sorine shrugged and answered her comrade. “You’d have to ask that mage for those answers; he didn’t give us any. Wanted her dead in exchange for the crossbow schematics. A good trade, considering the trouble.”
“Win some, loose some. In this case I say we won Sorine,” I chuckled.
“Very true Xian,” she smiled in agreement.
The notebook had since found its way into Lights’ claws and had since flipped through a page or two. “Hey! No peeking at private matters!”
“I was simply looking,” he insisted staring me in the eye. Swiping it back, the lizard spoke again. “But what in Oblivion was that I was looking at?”
“What are you talking about?” I inquired with a quizzical look.
“That thing that look like a man with wings.”
Oh thank the Gods, there are two things he could be speaking about. Either Harkon’s Vampire Lord Form or a Dramon. “Which one? There are a couple.”
“The being with a crown.”
Of course… Maybe I could somewhat tell the truth? I didn’t want to say the answer outright because of the present company. She’d probably be straight out attacked because she is his daughter. Their ability to transform had to be hereditary. Something I’d have to ask her later.
“A type of vampire that I confronted in a previous contract,” I admitted. “Tough fight, to be sure but obviously you can see who won.” I chanced a quick glance to Serana; her expression was unreadable.
“I would say so,” Celann remarked looking at the beast of a night crawler. “This thing looks like something from my worst nightmares!” The Breton shivered for effect. For everything the man had done and gone through, dreams appeared to shake him.
“Forget the vampire,” Lights stated, smiling devilishly and swiped the book back before I could do a thing. “We have Xian’s own notebook with everything about him!”
My eyes flashed open and my teeth became bared. “Hand it over little demon or I won’t miss!”
He ignored my warning and read something very personal.
“ZUN!!” The shockwave of sound boomed in the small area, momentarily causing all to cover their ears. The notebook flew from the snake’s hand and landed in a heap by a corner. Within seconds my hand was around the scruff of his collar and an arrow under his chin. “You were on thin ice with me before,” I hissed. “You’re about to drown!”
“That’s enough now!” The low, rumbling voice of my favorite Redguard came through masking the mumbling of the others. “Enough gawking at pretty pictures of spiders and other cretins. Xian. Vampire. Over here now.” He stood in the hallway with the fire basking his features in a warm glow, a stark contrast to his demeanor.
“Fine,” I answered, dropping the lizard to the seat and grabbed the notebook. “Show n’ tells over.”
“You alright?” Sorine asked with a worried look.
“I’m fine.” My answer came out in a growl. What I hated more than anything was when someone decided that they are the exemption to the rule of reading my personal notes. Or my mother’s song.
“Shall we?” Serana asked me to try and take my mind off things. “We both know he’ll just grow more impatient every passing second.”
Picking up the notebook and putting it away I sighed. “Yeah, alright.”
The both of us left the table and followed Isran to the main room once again. The sun still shined brightly overhead, casting its warm, benevolent light onto the rune covered circle beneath our feet. Shadows were all but gone.
“Got what you needed in, and out, of your system Xian?” Isran grunted.
“You could say that.” I needed another drink, dammit.
“And what about it?”
“Ask her yourself. Do not try to talk through me.”
The Redguard rolled his eyes. “Get enough drink then vampire?”
“I suppose.” Serana shrugged at her own answer. “Would have liked to have something stronger but someone drank the Bloodwine all on his own.”
My tail swished lightly while I chuckled involuntarily. Seemed she was still trying to take my mind off Lights.
“Whatever. I don’t care,” he interjected with a shaking hand. “You need to head out before I change my mind.”
“Wha- the fuck for?” I stammered.
“It’s a vampire. Just because I will tolerate it among my group does not mean its time is limited when with us.”
“That is the shittiest reason to try and force me out of a conversation,” my friend barked. “Insecure around people like me?”
“No,” he growled. “Bloodthirsty.”
We both frowned at him, showing our displeasure.
“Agh, fine,” Serana exaggerated, much to my amusement. “We’ll leave.”
“Good. But first Xian and I have some matters to attend to.” She rolled her orange eyes, knowing what the man wanted. However the vampire stayed put. “Now!” he bellowed, pointing a finger in a random direction. She groaned and walked towards a dark corner.
“Sure know your way with people Isran,” I mused crossing my arms.
“That vampire is no person. It is a monstrosity.” His hate for vampires was starting to get old relatively quick. And why? I had no idea but a gut feeling told me it was due to Serana’s presence.
“We all get it; you hate vampires like there is no tomorrow. Even this one doesn’t spew that much disdain.”
“Believe it or not, Argonian, I don’t care about your opinion on my hatred for vampires or my methods! It’s what keeps me strong.”
“Mhm, but what happens when that well runs dry?” I asked. If his hatred was gone then so would his strength.
Isran smirked. “It hasn’t for years Xian. Many long years.”
“I see.” I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. Things were getting to me too easily for some reason. “What did you want?”
“Two things. One: bring the Moth Priest to this place. His skills of reading Elder Scrolls can help us decipher what’s written on the one that creature has.”
“Fine, I’ll try and be persuasive about it. And the second thing?”
“Your payments.” I instantly lit up like a candle wick. Isran chuckled knowingly. “Knew that’d get your attention quicker than anything. It’s upstairs in the chest. I assume you know where it is located.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. There was only two chests on the upper level and one was at the foot is Isran’s bed. Obviously my gold wasn’t in that one. The second chest was in a hallway leading to the roof of the fort. “About time I might add.”
“I know exactly what you’re thinking Xian. Your interest and all that. Every bit is in there.”
I was surprised and fought my urge to show it. “Hope so. My lively-hood, you know.” Was I joking with the Redguard? By the Gods I was!
“Yes I do understand, whether you want to believe it or not.” He rubbed his woolly beard and sighed. “I overheard the commotion with Lights. Again. What happened this time?”
“Refused to hand over my notebook. And began reading private matters.”
“I see. I’ll see that the paladin is reprimanded accordingly and make sure he learns from his mistakes. However, if you two come to blows again I’ll make you both regret your actions!”
“Whatever. The fucker’s begging to have some of his claws cut off.”
“You do that to one of our team and-”
“Except I’m not a member of you Dawnguard Isran! Remember?” I shot back before walking away. “I’m nothing more than a hireling to you people.”
That’s all I was, all I ever would be to anyone. A hireling. A bounty hunter. I didn’t care if anyone thought of me as Dragonborn, despite being one. I forever would be a bounty hunter over being Dragonborn. Not everyone agreed, but they weren’t me. The clink of coin was all it took to grab my attention.
“Coming?” I asked approaching Serana.
“For the payments and leaving this place?” she replied slyly.
“Yes.” That vampirism really elevated her senses to hear Isran and myself.
“To get out of his company, take me away. Anywhere.”
I nodded my understanding and motioned for her to follow. The silence going up the stairs was almost peaceful only for it to be interrupted by Isran yelling at Lights.
“Am I going to have to put you under surveillance twenty-four hours a day Lights?! Just so I can make sure you and your lizard brother stop fucking with each other?!” His fist, I assumed, hit something hard followed by several things clanging together.
“N-No! No Isran!” he cried back.
“Another fuck up like that will get you with more than just a verbal warning like some damn toddler! It’ll be lashes boy!”
Music to my ears.
“I need to hear that shit,” I laughed joyously.
“I can tell. You’re smiling from… ah, gill to gill,” she tried.
“My ears are difficult to locate but once found they’re hard to miss from then on.” I pointed to a small indention on the side of my head. “Right there. Parallel to the other side.”
“Ahh. Yeah not going to miss them from now on,” she laughed.
“Told you so.” The chest came into view as we navigated our way through the hallway. It sat on its own, placed against a barren wall. Dust fell from the nooks and crannies with every step we took. “By an old, dust infested wall… Why do I feel that’s symbolic?”
Serana shrugged. “No damn idea Xian. You’re probably overthinking it.”
“Perhaps,” I agreed. Kneeling and opening the container my heart soared. Two heavy looking bags sat in a row accompanied by a smaller third. The interest! It had to be.
“My Gods. He actually gave on his word!” My voice was filled with glee, the smile adding to it. “The two jobs plus interest for making me wait. Perfect!”
Serana stared wide eyed and curious. “Just how much did that man give you?!”
“Two thousand a job. Plus extra depending on distance and danger.”
“By the Blood! What in Bal’s name do you use the coin on?”
“Repairs and orders on armor and arrow supplies. I prefer putting the projectiles together myself. Makes me feel secure on their make.”
“I guess that makes sense. And supplies are that expensive?”
“Ebony was pricy before the war of succession. Remember that little bit of information?” I cocked an eyebrow at the woman. “War causes prices to fly high, making everything harder to get ahold of. People have to raise costs on food, water and lodging to make ends meet.”
“Alright, I recall that. You said it was the Empire and Stormcloaks fighting it correct?” I nodded. “Do you have a preference for who you’d like to win?”
“The Empire,” I replied without missing a beat. “Fuck the Stormcloaks. All those idiot Nords wish to do is break away from Cyrodiil and make Skyrim an independent kingdom.” I glowered at the floor, the golden shine of coin suddenly less appealing. “And kick out any who are not a Nord.”
“That’s ridiculous!” The incredulous in her voice was evident. Very evident. “Wouldn’t the other races be up in arms against such a regulation?”
“They could try, but in Windhelm, the Stormcloaks place of power, my people aren’t even allowed in the city walls. Hatchlings forced to be kids and grow in the cold, ice and snow of the docks.”
“But that’s insane! Why don’t they try to get some of the people on their side?”
I sighed heavily, almost in a defeated nature. “Because every Nord there would rather have their city burn than help a non Nord. They don’t give a damn about us individually and I say fuck them.” I looked her in the eyes. “I avoid that ancient city like one of the plagues my people released on the Dunmer years ago.”
Serana blinked struggling a little to learn something about the new world she was thrust into. “I had no idea.”
“You were in a sarcophagus for thousands of years.” I exhaled and popped my neck. “All those examples, plus many more, are just a few reasons I wish for the Empire to succeed in this shitty, pointless, pathetic excuse of a war.”
An awkward silence permeated in the air around us. Time slowed to a crawl as nothing was said for what felt like several long minutes.
“Well, come on, cheer up,” Serana broke the quiet with a smile, trying to change the subject to a more pleasant, brighter one. “You have coin to count and spend or save or whatever! How much do you have in there anyhow?”
Lifting up both of the heavy bags in each hand it felt that they weighed around the same, or roughly close. Two thousand each, give or take a few hundred perhaps. Taking the third I could instantly tell it was at least half the volume of the others. “Somewhere around five thousand gold.”
“Son of a bitch! Proud of yourself, aren’t you?” She then proceeded to do the most unexpected thing.
She patted my head.
My eyes widened in shock and disbelief, which the vampiric Nord thankfully could not see. I had absolutely no idea how to react or what to say. My heat started to beat faster with every movement as her hand glided through my feathers only to fall back onto her hip.
“U-um…” I tried, shaking my head clear of any delusions or anything similar.
“Xian?” she asked innocently. “You look bewildered. Everything alright?”
“Y-yeah, yeah yeah. This one is fine,” I replied a bit slowly, hesitantly even. What in the name of the Hist do I do now?!
“Soo… you going to answer me on what you’re going to celebrate with your near five thousand gold reward?”
Oh thank the Gods an excuse to get my mind away from… whatever the fuck just happened!
“Unfortunately no. Besides,” I stood up, “what would I spend it on to celebrate with?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A tavern whore?”
“I told you back in Solitude I don’t do that shit anymore.” I pointed a clawed finger her way.
“I know,” she laughed. “Just wanted to see how you’d react.”
Why did I suddenly regret everything?
“Sorry, couldn’t resist,” she giggled almost melodiously.
“I… see.” I answered her with a bit of a gloomy expression. Why I had such a one was unknown.
“Xian come on, I was only trying to put you in good spirits.” She started to lead me back the way we came, the bags of coin in hand. “It’s so strange to see you in a gray mood. The reason was simply so you’d smile or something close to it. What with all the death threats you given out so far.”
This woman was really something, trying to make me feel better. If strange at the same time. My silver eyes peered into her orange. There were full of mischief and seriousness at the same time. A unique combination that spelt out dread for me.
“Not my fault that ass of a lizard keeps putting himself in situations that involve me.”
“Any more outbursts like those that put you in a sour mood I’m going to make you regret that decision.”
“…You’re going to be a thorn in my side the entire time we’re traveling, aren’t you?”
“Gods dammit,” I said, lightly smiling before reaching, and opening, the large wooden doors of Fort Dawnguard.