In Which the Dragonborn Continues to Aid the Dawnguard

So far i’m finding that the plot for Dawnguard does not lend itself well to pausing and coming back to it later, the way Skyrim’s main plotline does. This may be because Serana is a required follower for a good chunk of this storyline, and if she’s immediately on hand urging you to do the next necessary thing, it does not seem narratively appropriate to blip back to Whiterun to hunt or craft or sell things!

Which means: I’ve made pretty fast progress through the main quests of this storyline. As of last night it looks like I have only three quests left in the main Dawnguard plot, though there are apparently side quests I could also do? We’ll have to see if the opportunity to do those arises.

Highlights and details behind the fold!

Highlights

  • While looking for Gunmar, killed another random Dragon who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that the Dragonborn took out Alduin, so settle the fuck down already, won’t you?
  • Recruited Gunmar for the Dawnguard after helping him hunt a bear
  • Recruited Sorine for the Dawnguard after persuading her to leave off hunting for a Dwemer gyro
  • Returned to Fort Dawnguard to report to Isran, and discovered that Serana had shown up looking for me, over Isran’s vehement objections, and he barely kept from killing her on the spot
  • Learned from Serana that we needed to find someone to read her Elder Scroll, a Moth Priest
  • And ever so conveniently, one was in Skyrim right now, though Isran was disinclined to spare anyone to help search–which meant Serana and I had to do it
  • Serana suggested the College of Winterhold as a place to look, and ever so conveniently, I am the Arch-Mage, so I went to the college to check in with Urag about this
  • On the way into the college, got jumped by an Ancient Dragon, who apparently also hadn’t gotten the aforementioned memo; Serana and I killed it, and I had to go to the top of the Hall of Countenance to get its bones
  • Amusingly, Serana did not at any point issue the usual “holy crap you absorbed its soul” line; I should think that “oh yeah by the way I’m the Dragonborn” might be a thing to discuss with her at some point? But apparently not
  • Urag pointed us off to Dragon Bridge to see if we could catch up with the Moth Priest
  • When we got to Dragon Bridge, we got ambushed by vampires; also learned from an Imperial Soldier that the priest had headed south with an escort
  • We followed the trail south and found that the priest’s party had been attacked, oh dear; dead vampire had a note with orders pointing to a convenient nearby hideout
  • Snuck into the hideout, and fought our way through to the part where we had to rescue the priest; this was made slightly more complicated by how the head vampire of the hideout had actually enthralled him, so he temporarily fought against us, but we were able to break him out of it
  • The priest gratefully agreed to go straight to Fort Dawnguard and help us out by reading the Scroll; he told us though that we needed two more
  • One of the needed Scrolls, conveniently, was the one I happened to have, so we only really needed one more
  • Serana again pulled me aside for conversation and shared that she thought she knew where to find the other Scroll–with her mother
  • So we had to break back into her family castle, via the back way, to find her mother’s secret courtyard and laboratory for clues about where she might be
  • As you’d expect for the bowels of a castle owned by vampires, this was a pretty gruesome dungeon crawl
  • Found a secret portal in the secret laboratory, which turned out to be a portal to the Soul Cairn, where souls trapped by soul gems go after they’re used to power up enchantments
  • I could not actually enter the portal, and Serana presented me with a choice: either she could make me a vampire, or we could temporarily trap a bit of my own soul in a soul gem by way of “payment” to get me through the portal; I went with option B
  • The Soul Cairn reminded me of Blackreach, but in a blasted and dead kind of way
  • While we hunted for Serana’s mother Valerica, got a side quest when a soul asked me to find his lost horse Arvak, which required me to recover the horse’s skull
  • We found Valerica, who had some heated argument with her daughter until she grudgingly agreed to help me, and she told us we’d have to kill three Keepers before the barrier around her prison could be lowered and we could come in
  • We killed the Keepers–and this was the first time I’d actually seen any other character in this game wearing dragonbone gear and wielding dragonbone weapons!
  • I also found the horse skull
  • Returned to Valerica, who led us to where she had the Scroll, but also warned us of a dragon guardian called Durnehviir, who was very likely to come attack us, and who did in fact do so; also, Valerica told me we’d need to find the Soul Gem that had my soul fragment in it to return me to my usual strength
  • I “killed” the dragon, only to discover shortly thereafter that he probably wasn’t actually dead, and would be reconstituting himself in some unknown amount of time, so Serana and I had to hightail it back to Tamriel; Valerica declined to come with us because having her in Tamriel was dangerous
  • Durnehviir did in fact quickly reconstitute himself, and stopped me on the way to getting back to the portal out, paying respect to how I’d bested him in battle and calling me “Vanquisher”; he asked for the favor of summoning him occasionally in Tamriel so that he could experience the skies there once more, though he could never permanently return since he’d been in the Soul Cairn for too long; I agreed to this, though I may have triggered a bug with getting all three words of his summon Shout too quickly?
  • I returned Arvak’s skull to his rider, who taught me how to call Arvak if I needed to, and asked me to take care of his horse; aw <3
  • Found the Soul Gem with my soul bit in it, and recovered it
  • Made it back to the portal, after fighting assorted bonemen and mistmen with Serana, and saved at that point to end the session

Serana

Okay yeah, so as I said above, I’m burning through this plot a lot more quickly than I did the main storyline. It’s not really lending itself well to being a thing I can do in bits and pieces. And a big part of this is Serana.

I quite like her as a character, and the game certainly seems to expect you to, even though she’s a vampire and all. In fact, the game seems to hint very strongly that you could even consider her as a love interest if you want, because you get this interaction with her when you ask her what she knows about Elder Scrolls:

Serana: “I mean… as much as anyone. Not a lot. You’d figure a couple hundred years locked away with one would have given me some insights, but no. Turns out you don’t learn much from just sleeping with something.”

You: “Are you saying you want to learn more about me?”

I hit that line right there and went O RLY? And okay yeah fine I’m not sure if this was the actual game intent, but that sure as hell reads like flirting to me!

Now, I didn’t actually take that dialogue option–partly because I feel like Alarrah, being married now, probably would be less inclined to flirt with any other women. But I did look up what Serana’s response to that would have been, and it’s also clear that if you want to consider Serana as a potential love interest, any such interest would be unrequited–Serana doesn’t flirt back, and later on if you ask her to marry you, she’ll decline.

All of which adds up to me building at least a bit of a headcanon as to why Alarrah commits to helping Serana. Not only because of the urgency surrounding keeping a vampire lord from using an Elder Scroll to blot out the sun (because yeah that seems like a very, very bad thing to happen), but also because I think Serana reminds Alarrah of Lydia. She’s a dark-haired Nord, and she even sounds and behaves a bit like Lydia. Enough that I had to look up and confirm that Serana did not in fact have the same voice actress!

This also, I think, plays into other dialogue options the game gives you when talking to Serana. Like the very first sign in the game at all of backstory for the Dragonborn–when Serana asks you about your own family, after she’d told you about hers. The game presents you with several options:

  1. Your parents are dead and you miss them
  2. Your parents are good people and you look forward to seeing them again
  3. Your parents are not on good terms with you, and you note it’s better for all parties concerned if it stays that way
  4. You never knew your parents and grew up alone

I went with the last of these options, just for giggles. Though I was tempted to do option 3, and I may do that for another character, just with the idea of the character’s parents being Thalmor supporters and fuck that noise. ;D

Overall though, Serana is clearly critical as a follower for most of this plot. And if she’s following you and throwing you a lot of lines about “we need to do the thing”, then this really rachets up the narrative urgency. It doesn’t seem appropriate to just fuck off to Whiterun in between doing the things! Even if I miss my wife and kid, and even if I’m running overloaded in the inventory and really need to sell some stuff.

And oh yes–I also find her family backstory intriguing. It sets up that there are two overall types of vampires in Skyrim, the usual ones who get vampirism from contracting Sanguinare Vampiris–and special “pure-blooded” vampires who get their status directly from the Daedra Molag Bal. Turns out Serana’s entire family were Daedra worshippers, and received their vampirism from Molag Bal as part of expected ritual practice.

Now, Molag Bal is one of the Daedra I was specifically not interested in; his quest is an unpleasant one and requires you to beat the shit out of an old priest, as I’ve written before. He’s clearly one of the more unsavory Daedra, and one of the reasons why a lot of people in this setting swear up and down that the Daedra are evil.

Yet here we have this family of Serana’s who clearly worshipped them, and Serana herself doesn’t seem to interpret her vampirism as any kind of a curse, as she willingly accepted the gift along with her mother. But Serana is clearly not evil or domineering. Likewise, her mother, while obsessive and somewhat selfish, is not willing to go along with her husband’s plan to blot out the sun even if her motives are self-serving–she doesn’t want the entirety of Tamriel making war on vampires.

So Serana and Valerica are getting a lot of interesting character development here, and I’m finding them among the strongest and most enjoyable things about this plot.

Recruiting Gunmar and Sorine

Recruiting Isran’s two old colleagues was reasonably easy; I just had to find them and persuade them. The most interesting part of doing this was just getting their impressions of Isran, who is clearly a man on a mission and doesn’t have many fucks to give if he’s an asshole to everybody around him while he carries that mission out.

Which he did in fact do on camera once I returned to report in, and watched him throw concentrated sunlight on all three of us to make sure we weren’t vampires before he was willing to talk to us. Once he gave the others their initial orders, he then told me that he and I were going to go find out why a vampire had come looking for me.

Which was, of course, Serana. Who came bearing her Elder Scroll and her initial warnings of what her father intended to do with it. Isran was extremely hostile to her, and barely kept from killing her on the spot. Only at my urging did he allow her to stay in the fort, and then only after warning us both that if she so much as laid a finger on anybody in the place, I’d be held responsible.

Searching for the Moth Priest

With that kind of a welcome, it’s not terribly surprising that Serana proceeded to focus on me to work on getting the job done. Our next task was to find a Moth Priest who could read her Elder Scroll. Isran grudgingly revealed that such a priest had in fact been recently sighted in Skyrim, but he refused to lend anyone to aid in the search. So of course Serana and I had to do it.

Serana’s best guess as to how to figure out where a Moth Priest would be was to ask the College of Winterhold.

And conveniently enough, I’m the Arch-Mage, so this seemed like a logical thing to do. Though I’m also amused that my status as Arch-Mage also didn’t come up in this discussion at all, either as part of the planning or when I actually got there and walked right into the place. I would have thought Serana might at least ask if I had any familiarity with the college at all!

(From a game mechanics perspective I wonder if, like this plot showing no acknowledgment of the character being the Dragonborn at all (much less whether you’ve defeated Alduin), was an on-purpose thing maybe to leave open the possibility of doing this plot before either becoming Arch-Mage or defeating Alduin. And I suppose also that it would have meant recording a couple extra voice lines for Serana? She’s got a lot of them, so maybe throwing a couple more on there was not in the scope of the budget.)

So off we went to the college. I decided to fast travel straight there for once–and was rewarded for my haste by having an Ancient Dragon show up as soon as we arrived at the college entrance. Serana and I took it out. And, like the last time I fought a dragon at the college entrance, it wound up landing on top of the Hall of Countenance to die. I ran up there to get its soul and its various bones and scales and loot, and then proceeded to the Arcaneum to talk to Urag.

Apparently in-character I was in a hurry or perhaps not in a mood to deal with Urag’s usual grouchiness, because I had only one dialogue prompt when Urag asked me what I wanted a Moth Priest for. It was a rather snippy “my business is my own, just tell me” kind of line, too. Urag seemed a little startled by this, but readily told me the priest had already come to the college and he had proceeded on to Dragon Bridge, and if I hurried I could catch up with him.

Off then to Dragon Bridge! We got ambushed by vampires pretty much as soon as we showed up, but nothing we couldn’t handle. One of them infected me with Sanguinare Vampiris, but that also was nothing a potion of Cure Disease couldn’t handle. (And while Serana did not remark on this, I expect that in character she could not have missed that I was armed with potions to cleanse myself after vampire attack.)

One of the Imperial soldiers patrolling the hamlet told me he’d seen the Moth Priest passing through (though he hadn’t realized the old man was a Moth Priest), and that his party had headed south across the bridge. Serana and I followed the trail, discovering soon enough that the priest’s party had been attacked. We found an overturned cart with some corpses around it, one of which was a dead vampire with a note that had orders on it conveniently referring to a hideout not far away.

The search continued, therefore, at that hideout. There, the most interesting plot point was that the Moth Priest, Dexion Evicus, got enthralled by the boss vampire in the place just as we were getting there. And even though we killed said boss vampire, Evicus tried to fight with us a bit in his thralled state, ranting about us having killed his master.

Fortunately for Evicus, the plot required him to stay around, so we didn’t actually have to kill him. We just had to get him to a point of yielding, as the stress of the battle broke the thrall. The old gent was quite grateful for his rescue and readily agreed to meet us at Fort Dawnguard so he could help us with the Elder Scroll.

Once we reported back to Fort Dawnguard, he was able to read Serana’s Scroll and get a few more details about the prophecy that motivated Harkon–but he also informed us we’d need two other Scrolls to get everything we needed to know.

Conveniently enough, one of the needed Scrolls was the one I already had thanks to having had to defeat Alduin. Again, I feel like this should actually have come up in the narrative! But there was no acknowledgment of this in any of the dialogue prompts I was given, just an immediate conclusion of the quest item for fetching the Elder Scroll (Dragon).

This left only one other Scroll we had to get. And given that she was less than inclined to talk to Isran (for generally understandable reasons), Serana pulled me aside for further conversation and informed me she had an idea about where that other scroll might be: with her mother.

Which therefore required figuring out where her mother might be. Serana liked the idea that Valerica might in fact have hidden herself at the family castle–or that at least there might be clues in Valerica’s hidden courtyard and surrounding rooms.

And that meant having to go back to Castle Volkihar.

Sneaking back into Castle Volkihar

Since we couldn’t go in the front way (for obvious reasons), we had to sneak in. Serana, happily, knew of a little-used back entrance. So we just had to get in through that entrance, fighting our way through assorted skeletons (which were more powerful than usual and actually looked more like draugr), a feral vampire (who had apparently been banished into these depths, according to her journal), a giant frostbite spider, and gargoyles.

The gargoyles were the most interesting thing to fight, partly because I hadn’t killed many gargoyles before, and partly because of discovering that killing them made them drop gems and bits of ore. Cool.

And, not terribly surprisingly for back chambers of a castle owned by vampires, this particular crawl was fairly gruesome. There were bones all over the place, of various levels of gore.

It actually took a while to make it to the final target room: Serana’s laboratory. There were various levers that had to be found and flipped. There was a candlestick that had to be turned to open a secret door to more passageways to follow. There was a large moondial puzzle in the courtyard itself, that had to be triggered by adding three missing pieces back to it.

And then there was the portal we discovered in the laboratory, which had to be triggered by finding three special ingredients to add to a receptacle, along with Serana’s blood.

Like the portal to Sovngarde, this one was the sort of portal you had to walk down into. Unlike the portal to Sovngarde, this one looked a little more ominous!

Portal to the Soul Cairn
Portal to the Soul Cairn

Also, I couldn’t actually enter it on the first try. At which point Serana apologized and told me the portal wouldn’t accept me–and I had only two options for how to proceed.

  1. Let her turn me into a vampire.
  2. Let her trap a part of my soul in a soul gem, to be offered to the portal as the price of my entry.

I went with option two, because still not interested in being a vampire even if Serana was a lot less obnoxious about her offer than her father. Notably, Serana was specifically supportive about this entire question and stressed that no matter which option I chose, she wouldn’t think any less of me.

So I got her to soul trap a bit of me, which knocked my Health, Magicka, and Stamina all down somewhat. However, this only meant all of them were at 230 rather than 270, and… well, not a significant difference. I didn’t notice it impacting my gameplay at all while we were in the Soul Cairn.

And with that done, we headed in.

Searching for Valerica in the Soul Cairn

Like Blackreach, the Soul Cairn had this spooky and ethereal vibe about it. Unlike Blackreach, however, this place also looked blasted and post-apocalyptic. Not to mention dead. At least Blackreach was a cavern with living things in it, while this place was inhabited by trapped souls–and various undead-like minions we had to fight, as well.

The Soul Cairn
The Soul Cairn

Finding Valerica took a little bit of wandering. On the way, I found an unnamed soul (it presented itself to me only as “Soul”) who clearly had been a Nord once, but whose only concern at this point was finding his horse Arvak. Who had presumably died along with him. I agreed to find said horse.

Serana and I wound up having to fight three different types of undead-like creatures in this place: bonemen, mistmen, and wrathmen, which all seemed to be variants on the usual skeletons the game presents you.

At the Boneyard, we were met by Valerica, and I witnessed a rather tense reunion between mother and daughter. Valerica was not thrilled that her daughter was in the company of a vampire hunter, not to mention that Serana was risking her father getting hold of the Elder Scroll. But Serana let her have it for being obsessive and selfish and never giving her any option in the matter, either. Which actually got Valerica to back down.

And even though she didn’t necessarily trust me, she became willing to deal with me specifically because her daughter clearly believed in me. She told us that yes, she had the Elder Scroll we were looking for. But before she could actually let us into the Boneyard so she could hand it over, we had to bring down the barrier that protected the place. This required us to kill three Keepers.

The wiki pointed out that I’d be able to recover Arvak’s skull due east of the place where we’d find Valerica, so once we had our initial conversation with her and had to run off to kill the Keepers, I also took the time to get the horse skull.

Killing the Keepers was notable for how this was the first time at any point in this game that I’d fought anything also wearing dragonbone gear and wielding dragonbone weapons. It also underscored for me that I actually don’t like the look of the full dragonbone plate armor–because it mostly just looks like bones. Which is creepy!

On the Keepers, though, it kind of worked. Because they too were creepy.

I didn’t take any of the armor they were wearing, because a) creepy, and b) if i really want any dragon gear I can make it myself at this point. But I totally took the dragonbone arrows one of the Keepers had.

Once we killed the Keepers and got the barrier down, we were able to return to Valerica. Who was stunned we’d actually pulled it off, and who readily agreed to turn over her Elder Scroll. As we proceeded to it, she warned us though that we had one more possible peril: a dragon called Durnehviir, who functioned as a powerful guardian of the Boneyard and who would very likely take notice of our interference.

And by ‘notice’, I mean, ‘umbrage’.

Fighting Durnehviir and leaving the Soul Cairn

Nor was Valerica wrong. Durnehviir showed up to fight us, and while he was challenging as any dragon, I’m pretty damned good at killing dragons at this point. So we were able to take him out after a few rounds.

Notably, his corpse didn’t disintegrate the same way other dragon corpses did. It just… disappeared.

And Valerica theorized that the dragon might not actually be dead, and might just need to reconstitute himself. But since she had no idea how long that would take, we still couldn’t dally. She got us to the Scroll and let me take it. And she also advised me that if I wanted to restore myself to normal and get the missing bit of my soul back, I’d have to recover the special soul gem it was contained in.

Also, she told us she would not be accompanying us back to Tamriel. This was out of an abundance of caution–because like her daughter, she was considered “a daughter of Coldharbour” and could therefore be a pawn in Harkon’s plan to blot out the sun. I told her we’d come back for her. She told me to protect her daughter.

When we tried to go on our way, we discovered that Durnehviir had in fact reconstituted–but now he wasn’t hostile. He paid his respects to me as the first creature who’d ever bested him in battle, and he dubbed me “Qahnaarin”, which meant “Vanquisher”. He also told me his backstory as to how he’d gotten into the Soul Cairn to begin with (a dragon who got involved in necromancy and struck a deal with the Ideal Masters, only to be deceived by them in turn), and confessed that he’d been in the Soul Cairn for too long to ever be able to permanently leave it… but he craved a chance to see Tamriel again.

So he asked me the boon of calling his name a few times when I returned to Tamriel, just so that he could at least temporarily pop over and see Tamriel once more. I agreed to do this.

(However, I am not entirely sure the flow for this was bug-free. He was supposed to teach me the words of the Shout that would summon him, and I got all three of those words at once–but I also had an unfulfilled quest for learning the first word of that Shout still in my quest list. I think it was because I hadn’t spoken to him in the correct order or something. I’ll need to follow up on this once I get a chance to come back for Valerica.)

Serana and I had to fight a few more baddies on the way out, but I also had the opportunity to take the skull of Arvak back to his owner. Said soul was very happy to see it, and taught me how to summon Arvak’s soul if I needed him. And he asked me to look after his horse. Aw. <3

Once all our business was done, we finally made it back to the stairs up to the portal in Valerica’s lab. And there, I stopped and saved for the night.

Next time

Need to check back in at Fort Dawnguard, and if the opportunity arises, see whether I can do a few of the side quests this plotline is supposed to let me do!

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