The moons were obscured by heavy clouds as Ben crept around the corner of Highmoon Hall in Morthal. It had been a while since he’d had a theft job, and he was really enjoying himself, appreciative that the shadows were making things easier for him. He had been annoyed about the mission at first, but now that he was on the job, he was almost glad about how events had turned.
He, Rowan, and Dolff had arrived at the Shrine to Peryite three days ago, where they had met a Khajiit named Kesh the Clean. They had asked about the Spellbreaker shield, but Kesh had said that the only way they could obtain it would be to ask Peryite himself, a task that was more complicated than it sounded.
“To commune with my lord, we must have the incense,” he had said in his thick accent. Of course, he didn’t have any on hand, so he sent them to find the components: a deathbell flower, a silver ingot, a flawless ruby, and some vampire dust.
They had gone to Solitude in search of the items, and the flower and ingot had been easy; they had just visited Beirand the blacksmith and Vivienne, the alchemist. Vivienne had provided the deathbell but was out of vampire dust. Gulum-Ei, the Thieves Guild’s fence in Solitude, had been in possession of a flawless ruby, but he might as well have asked for their first-born children in payment. He’d wanted 500 septims for the damned thing!
“You can’t pick these up just anywhere, you know,” he had sneered, refusing to negotiate the price.
Rowan had leaned in and given him her best sweet talk, but the slimy bastard seemed to be immune to her charms. “I’ll tell you what,” he said after Dolff had threatened to skin him alive, something that did have an effect. “There is a certain necklace I’ve been trying to get my hands on. It belongs to the Jarl of Hjaalmarch. Interestingly enough, it also contains a flawless ruby. Bring me that necklace, and you can have the gem.”
“My ma’s gonna have your arse for this; you know that,” said Ben.
“Maybe she will, maybe she won’t. She knows how this business works. I would have thought by now, you would too. You don’t get something for nothing.”
Ben figured a trip to steal a necklace really only required one of them, so he offered to go alone, leaving Rowan and Dolff in Solitude for some alone time, to keep an eye on Gulum-Ei to make sure he didn’t sell the gem to someone else, and also because as the High King’s son, it was his duty to pay the jarl a visit. Now here Ben was, invisible thanks to a potion just in case the clouds parted and uncovered the moonlight, sneaking up behind a guard and slipping silently into the jarl’s longhouse.
At roughly two in the morning, no one was in the main room of the building, and Ben skulked through the shadows to the jarl’s bedroom with no trouble. Gulum-Ei had said he’d heard the jarl kept her jewelry in a lockbox in her room. Ben found the lockbox easily enough, but it had a master lock that did not want to open. After he broke three picks, the jarl, who was sleeping nearby with her husband, stirred and mumbled, “Huh?”
Ben crouched in the corner and waited for her to drift back to sleep; then he picked up the lockbox and carried it out of the room. He was tempted just to leave with the whole thing, but he couldn’t be certain the necklace was actually in the box and he didn’t want to get outside and find out he had to come back in. When he was in the main hall, he set the box on a table and started working on the lock again. He finally got it open, and the necklace was there, along with several other pieces of jewelry. He pocketed everything, closed the box, and put it back on the jarl’s dresser. Then he snuck out and disappeared into the woods behind Highmoon Hall.
He was on his way into the swamp when he remembered Morthal had an alchemist. He still had several hours before dawn, so he decided to break into the shop and see if they had any vampire dust. Ben went back up to the rear of Highmoon Hall and drank another invisibility potion, then made his way across the road to the Thaumaturgist’s Hut.
The lock was simple, and Ben got inside without breaking any picks. Unfortunately, he stepped into a room that wasn’t empty.
The alchemist, an attractive woman in her mid-forties named Lami, was standing behind the counter, writing in a ledger. “Stop!” she cried, pointing her quill at him. “Get out now, or I’ll call the guards!”
“Please don’t do that,” Ben pleaded, hoping he draw upon some of Rowan’s superhuman charm. He put on a terrified expression and swallowed hard. “I need help, and I’ll gladly pay. It’s urgent. Desperate.”
“Hey, I’ve seen you before.”
“Aye, I come in from time to time for potions, but this time I just couldn’t wait till you opened. I’m so sorry. I . . . I don’t normally do this, but like I said, I’m desperate.”
The alchemist continued to glare at him, but finally sighed and said, “Fine. What do you need?”
“I need some vampire dust.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any vampire dust. You might check with Falion, the wizard. But don’t break into his house! He’s usually up all night. Just knock on the door.”
Ben gave a long-suffering sigh and tried to look as dejected as possible. He wondered if he could manage to whip up a tear or two. “Okay. Well, thanks anyway. And thanks for not calling the guards on me. I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
Lami’s expression softened, and she came out from behind the counter and reached for him, taking his face in her hands. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right. What’s your name?”
“You make yourself comfortable here, Ben, and I’ll go to Falion’s for you.”
“How do I know this isn’t a trick?” he asked suspiciously. “You could be bringing the guards here, and I can’t afford to go to jail. I just can’t.”
“Shh, shh. I’m not going to turn you in. It’s okay.” She looked him in the eye and smiled.
Ben reached up and covered her hand with his. “Thank you,” he said, barely above a whisper. “I’ll just wait here.”
Lami put on a shawl and left the shop, and Ben browsed. Either this charm stuff really worked, or he was totally screwed. He would just have to wait and see whether she came back with vampire dust or guards.
As it turned out, she came back with neither. “I’m afraid he didn’t have any vampire dust,” she said as she hung her shawl on a hook by the door.
“Damn it,” he muttered, now genuinely worried about what he was going to do.
“Did you check with Vivienne in Solitude?”
“Aye, and she didn’t have any, either. I don’t have time to go all the way to Markarth or Whiterun.”
She came to him and took his hands in hers. “Well, we’ll think of something. In the meantime, it’s late, and I was thinking of turning in.”
Ben nodded his understanding. “I’ll go, then, let you get some sleep.”
“Or you could stay.” She gazed up at him seductively.
For just a moment, Ben was taken aback. He broke into an alchemy shop, got caught, and the owner made no bones about the fact that she wanted to sleep with him? It was like something out of a bad erotic novel. “Is this why you didn’t call the guards?” he asked.
“If you say no, I still won’t call the guards. But my husband is dead, you’re very handsome, and . . . I’m lonely.”
Well, far be it from him to deny a lady some comfort when she was lonely. He bent his head and pressed his lips against hers. Lami opened her mouth to his, and Ben kissed her deeply, his hands playing over her curves. He pulled back after a moment and whispered, “Is your room upstairs?”
“Mm-hmm. Since my husband died, I rarely go back to our house. Come with me.” She took his hand and led him upstairs.
Lami was experienced and enthusiastic, and Ben joked that he had trouble keeping up with her. After hours of lovemaking, they finally lay in each other’s arms, out of breath and covered in sweat. He planned on just dozing for a while, but he sank into a deep sleep and didn’t wake until nearly midday. Lami was up as well, just getting dressed.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning. You know, you’re only half-dressed. Shouldn’t be much trouble to get undressed and come back to bed.”
She came over and sat down, leaning in to kiss him. “I wish I could, but I’m already late getting the shop open.”
Ben groaned and pulled her down on top of him. “Aww, are you sure about that?”
Lami giggled, something that should have sounded out of place for a woman her age, but she actually managed to sound cute. “All right, now, let me go. Some of us have to work for a living.”
“What? I work.”
She got up and tugged at the laces of her dress to tighten them. “Do you honestly expect me to believe you broke in here with the intention of paying for anything you took?”
“And you’re telling me you think being a thief isn’t hard work? Anyway, believe it or not, I’m not a thief. At least, not these days. I’m a Companion. I really do need the vampire dust and thought I couldn’t wait till morning.”
“Well, I’m glad you changed your mind.” After she was finished dressing, she sat back down on the bed. “I have an idea where you can get some vampire dust.”
“From a vampire.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t like killing vampires. I know too many of them personally.”
“You what?” She leaned back, out of his reach.
“Hey, come back here,” he protested, reaching for her. “It’s not that big a deal. Most vampires don’t even kill humans, you know.”
Lami settled into his arms and said, “So I’ve heard, but they just seem so . . . I don’t know . . . dead.”
“Have you met any?”
“Well . . . no.”
“Because they really don’t seem all that dead.”
“Perhaps you wouldn’t have to kill them. I know they have a castle just north of Haafingar. Maybe you could just ask them.”
Ben gaped at her, but his expression quickly turned to a smile. “You know what, Lami? That idea’s actually not half bad. I don’t know how my fellow Companions will feel about it, but it might be worth a try.”
“Now. Get dressed and get out of here,” she prodded playfully. “We both have a busy day ahead.”
“That’s it? You’re just going to use me and toss me aside? I feel like such a whore.”
With a giggle, she leaned in and kissed him. “You can come back any time you want, lover.”
* * *
“You want to do what, now?” Rowan asked her brother incredulously. They sat at a table in the Winking Skeever, each with tankards of mead and empty plates in front of them. She rolled the flawless ruby Gulum-Ei had just handed over absently between her fingers and regarded Ben as if he had grown horns. She had to have heard him wrong.
“I want to go to Castle Volkihar and ask them for some vampire dust,” he repeated.
“Did you hit your head while you were gone?”
“No, listen, it makes perfect sense. Although we don’t really know the Volkihar vampires personally, they serve Blanche, so we should be fine.”
“Aye, but Blanche is on the opposite side of Skyrim,” Dolff reminded him. “You can’t count on that to save us.”
“Ben, you get vampire dust from dead vampires,” said Rowan. “What makes you think they’re just going to have a bunch of it lying around?”
“What makes you think they’re not? Vampires do die, you know.”
A look of pure delight suddenly crossed Rowan’s face, and she laughed. “Wait a minute—I know why you want to go to Castle Volkihar. You want to see Serana!”
“No, that’s not—well, I did think—look, having her there only makes it safer for us. She’s close friends with Blanche, and she knows us. Besides, if we don’t go there, we’re going to have to traipse all over Skyrim looking for it.”
“If they don’t have it, we’ll have to do it anyway.”
“But maybe they can tell us where to find some.”
Rowan looked at Ben for a long moment. She had to admit it did make a kind of weird sense, but it was still risky. Ben had just never been afraid of vampires. He couldn’t imagine that stepping into Castle Volkihar might be suicidal.
“This is insane!” Dolff cried. He turned to Rowan. “And you’re actually considering it, aren’t you?”
With a shrug, she replied, “Doesn’t hurt to think about it.”
“Oh, sweet Talos,” he murmured, rubbing his eyes. “Has anyone ever told you two that you have a death wish?”
“Come on, Dolff,” said Ben. “Where’s your sense of adventure? What have we got to lose?”
“A lot of blood, that’s what.”
“Look, it’s late, and I didn’t get any sleep last night. Let’s turn in, and you guys just think about it. We can talk more over breakfast.”
“Fine.” Dolff got up and paid Corpulus Vinius, the tavern owner, for their dinner and two rooms for the night, and they all headed upstairs.
“Think about it,” Ben said before ducking into his room.
Rowan followed Dolff into their room and shut and locked the door.
“I can’t believe you’re actually thinking of doing this,” he said as he sat on the bed and stretched his legs out.
She sat down and faced him, draping herself over his legs. “I can’t believe you’re not. Dolff, we’ve walked into dangerous situations before, and it never gave you pause. Is it because they’re vampires?”
“Aye, it’s because they’re vampires. You two might know a whole clan of them, but I don’t. I don’t know what to expect when we walk in there, but I do know we’ll be grossly outnumbered, and I don’t know how they’ll react to three humans just barging in and asking for pieces of them. That’s what we’d be doing, you know. You said it yourself: vampire dust comes from dead vampires. How would you feel if somebody came to your house and asked for pieces of Ben?”
“You’re overreacting again.”
“I’m just trying to make you understand.”
Rowan laid her head on his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her. She snuggled down in his arms and said, “I do understand, and you’re right, but I think Ben is right too. I’m not saying we would be totally safe walking in there, but I don’t think they would just kill us. Especially if Serana is there. She knows us. I mean, Ben used to ask her to marry him whenever she was in Riften.”
“And what if she’s not there?”
“I would be surprised if anybody just attacked before they knew why we were there. When we let them know we’re Blanche’s niece and nephew, we should be all right.”
“But we can’t know for sure.”
She sat back up and smiled at him. “That’s what makes it an adventure. Don’t worry, love. I’ll protect you.”
He caressed her cheek. “We’ll protect each other.”
“So you’re in?”
“I’m in. Talos help me, I’m in. But just know that it’s against my better judgment.”
* * *
They left on horseback the next morning, and they arrived at Northwatch Keep just before sunset. They checked the fort while they were there, and there appeared to have been no recent Thalmor activity. The inside was burned out and totally deserted. When they were certain the Thalmor had evacuated the fort, they went to the small dock around back and boarded a dinghy for Castle Volkihar.
As Ben rowed toward the imposing keep, which lay about a mile offshore, he was filled with all sorts of emotions: fear, anxiety, anticipation, and no small amount of lust. He couldn’t lie to Rowan; she knew that part of the reason he wanted to come here was to see Serana. He had been in love with her since he was a child, even though she had never done more than smile warmly and pat him on the head. Things were different now, though. He wasn’t the gaga little boy trailing around behind her anymore. He was a grown man, a warrior out on his own, and he was on an important quest for the High King of Skyrim.
Who am I kidding? he thought to himself. Of course I’m still that gaga little boy. That’s all she’s ever going to see.
They arrived at the island, and Dolff tied the boat up to the pier; then they ascended the ramp to the entrance. Half a dozen gargoyles stood perfectly still as they passed, but Ben could feel their stony eyes watching them, looking for signs of a threat.
When they arrived at the gate, a figure stepped out of the shadows. He was human, a Nord wearing studded armor, probably a thrall. “State your business,” he commanded officiously.
“We’re here to see Serana,” Ben replied.
The thrall placed his hand on his sword and looked them over critically, then peered at the landscape behind them as if he were looking for others who might be hiding. Ben thought it was a wasted effort because, really, where was there to hide? The guy had probably watched them paddle all the way from the mainland.
The thrall finally folded his arms and said, “And who shall I say is calling?”
“Ben and Rowan Stormblade from Riften. We’re Blanche’s niece and nephew.”
“Who’s the other one?”
“Our traveling companion, Dagur Ice-Shield.” Ben might not think there was any real danger, but there was no point broadcasting that they had the son of the High King with them.
“Wait here.” He opened the front gate and a heavy door beyond it, and then slipped inside. After a few moments, he stepped out and held the door for them. “Come in. Lady Serana will be with you shortly.”
They stepped into an antechamber with a couple of benches and a gargoyle on either side of the room. It was dark and forbidding, and the light filtering in from the great hall beyond did little to warm the ambiance.
After a moment, an Altmer vampire stepped into the anteroom. “So. You’re here for Serana, eh? What do you want with her?”
“With all due respect,” said Rowan, “it’s none of your concern.”
The vampire laughed mirthlessly and reached out, taking her chin in his hand roughly. “You’re a brave one, aren’t you? Do you realize how easy it would be for me to crush you?”
“Do you realize how easy it would be for Blanche to crush you if she found out you’d harmed us?” Rowan retorted boldly, although Ben could hear the fear in her voice. The vampire probably could too.
“And what makes you think she would ever find out?”
“Because I would tell her,” Serana said from the doorway. “Come on, Vingalmo, stop taunting our guests.” She stepped into the anteroom and approached, glaring at the elf until he shrugged and backed out of the room. “My apologies for that,” she told them. “Don’t worry, he’s our only problem child. The others wouldn’t dream of harming you. Now, let me look at you.”
She started with Rowan, hugging her, talking about how beautiful she had grown, and then she looked up at Ben. His breath caught in his throat when she met his eyes. She never changed, and she looked just like she had when he was younger. She was so beautiful, so perfect, without a single blemish on her milky-white skin. Small braids draped over her silky hair, and even the glowing yellow of her eyes didn’t detract from the wonder that was Serana.
“You’re tall, like your father,” she said as she reached for him. He wrapped his arms around her and sniffed her hair as she hugged him. It was as soft as a wisp and smelled like juniper berries. When she pulled back, she said, “If I’d known you’d grow up to be so handsome, I might have said yes to all those marriage proposals when you were ten.”
“The offer still stands,” he said huskily.
She chuckled and patted him on the hand. Damn it.
“And this is Dagur?” she asked, reaching out to him.
“Hello, Serana,” Dolff said, shaking her hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Come with me,” she instructed, and she led them out of the anteroom and down a flight of stairs into a great hall that was lined with long tables. A throne stood at one end of the room, and several balconies overlooked the hall from above. A few vampires sat around, some sipping from golden goblets and one drinking from an Altmer who lay whimpering on the table.
“Um, Serana?” Rowan began. “The elf on the table—”
“Is Thalmor. They have been inhabiting Northwatch Keep until just recently, when a fire destroyed it. It kept us in thralls and cattle for quite a while, though. Even without them, Skyrim has so many undesirables, we rarely go without.”
Ben couldn’t help noticing all the color had drained from Dolff’s face. “It’s Blanche’s rule,” he explained. “They don’t harm innocents. Bandits, rogue mages, Thalmor infiltrators, and anyone who tries to invade the castle are fair game.”
“When did you take that one?” Dolff asked Serana.
“It’s been about a fortnight. After the fire, plenty of ships came and went, and we managed to pick through them. I sent a letter to Windhelm, advising of the Thalmor activity here. I don’t know if the High King ever got it.”
“I’m sure he did.”
Serana stopped and looked back at Dolff. “How do you know?”
“Maybe not that letter,” Rowan said, “but he knew about the Thalmor. We were the ones who started the fire.”
“Really! My, you two have grown up. Come in here.” She led them into a side room with a desk, three chairs, and hundreds of books. “Have a seat and tell me what I can do for you. I know you didn’t just stop by for a visit.”
Rowan and Dolff sat down, but Ben motioned for Serana to sit in the third chair. She sat down and looked up at him expectantly.
“We have sort of a radical request,” he began. “We need to get some vampire dust.”
Serana didn’t bat an eye. “Sure, I can help you with that. How much do you need?”
“What, that’s it? Don’t you want to know why we need it?”
“Not really. I figure if you want me to know, you’ll tell me. Wait here.” She got up and patted Ben’s arm as she left the room.
Ben sat down, and after a moment, a deathhound padded into the room. It was a dog only in the most basic sense of the word, obviously undead, with patchy black skin stretched over protruding bones, no fur, glowing red eyes, and at least a million sharp teeth. It sniffed at them, growled a bit, and then laid its head in Rowan’s lap.
“Well, hi, there,” she cooed. “What’s your name, sweetie?” She scratched the deathhound behind the ears and sing-songed about what a pretty puppy it was. The creature reached out and licked her hand, and she said, “D’aww, I’m glad to meet you too!”
Poor Dolff just tried not to watch. He studied the spines of the books closely, as though he were really interested in the titles. Ben felt sorry for his friend. The elf chained to the table was a little much for him to take, and he had expected it. But this was far beyond Dolff’s comfort zone, and they all knew it.
“Maybe we should have left you back in Solitude, eh?” Ben remarked.
“I wouldn’t have let you come alone; you know that. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine; you’re scared out of your wits.”
“But there’s apparently nothing to be scared of, right? It’s my problem, not yours.”
“It’s okay, love,” Rowan said in the high-pitched voice she was using to speak to the deathhound. “I promised I would protect you, didn’t I? We’ll be out of here soon, no worse for wear. Won’t we? That’s right, isn’t it? ’Cause you’re a good puppy, and you’re not gonna hurt him, are you? Aye, I know.”
The deathhound whined and licked Rowan’s face. Dolff cringed.
There was a commotion out in the main hall, and Ben craned his neck to see what was going on. Serana was arguing with Vingalmo, the Altmer vampire.
“You’re going to let these random humans come in here and take the dust of our brothers, just like that? This is beneath even you, Serana.”
“They’re not random, Vingalmo. I’ve known them since they were children. Besides, you use vampire dust as an alchemical ingredient yourself. Why do you care if they take some?”
“I’ll never understand your fascination with these . . . humans. They’re no more than cattle. At least the Thalmor were worth feeding on.”
Serana sighed and rolled her eyes. “Oh, for Divines’ sake, do we have to have this same discussion every time you get a bee in your bonnet? I’m helping my friends, and this is the last we’re going to discuss it. Now, go off to your laboratory and play with your toys.”
Vingalmo turned away, grumbling and swearing, and Serana came back into the side room.
“Did we get you in trouble?” Rowan asked in her high-pitched doggie voice.
“No, no. Vingalmo doesn’t like the new ways, but he adheres to them well enough. He just likes to complain about it. I see you’ve made a friend. This is CuSith.”
“Well, hello, CuSith. I’ve enjoyed loving on you today.”
Ben stood up, and Serana handed him a fairly large sack of vampire dust. “I didn’t know how much you needed.”
“We’re not really sure, either. Can we pay you for this?”
“No, nonsense! We have a bunch of it lying around.”
Rowan chuckled, and Serana gave her a sideways glance, but neither spoke.
“I hate to just take it and go,” said Ben, “but we have to get back to our mission, and I think Dagur has had about all he can stand.”
Serana rested a hand on Dolff’s shoulder. “I’m sorry if we shocked you,” she said gently.
“I’m fine,” was Dolff’s curt reply.
“Let me walk you to the door.” Serana led them through the hall and upstairs to the antechamber, where she squeezed Dolff’s arm and hugged Rowan. Then she turned to Ben. “It was so good to see you, Ben. I hope I—”
Ben didn’t know what possessed him, but he impulsively reached for the vampire and covered her mouth with his. He fully expected her to pull back and slap him, bite him, or at least struggle in some way, but she wrapped her arms around his waist, opened her mouth and accepted his tongue with a soft moan. The kiss was breathtaking and must have lasted for a week, but it still wasn’t long enough for Ben. When she pulled away, he reluctantly let her go, although he held onto one arm.
“I, uh—oh, my,” she mumbled.
“Right back at you,” Ben whispered, fighting a monumental battle to keep from reaching for her again.
She turned back to Rowan and Dolff, who waited nearby. “You, um, take care of yourselves, and if you need anything else, you know where to find me.”
“Does that include me?” Ben asked her.
“It—oh, yes.” She pulled out of his reach and gave him an uneasy smile. “Goodnight, Ben.”
Ben practically skipped as he followed Rowan and Dolff down the slope to the jetty. “All right, lads and lasses, what’s next?”
“Well, as soon as you come down from the Throat of the World,” Rowan quipped, “we’ll head back to the Shrine to Peryite and let Kesh make ‘zee incense.’”
With a joyous chuckle, Ben said, “That may be awhile.”
“Is there a woman in the world that doesn’t fall prey to your, ahem, charms?” Dolff asked.
“Mara is the goddess of love. Maybe I’m the god.”
“I think you’re closer to Dibella.”
“He’s going to be unbearable for a while,” Rowan mused.
Ben didn’t care. Let them tease him. Nothing was going to ruin this day.