5E 20, 16 Sun’s Height
Ben came awake slowly, afraid to open his eyes, fearing that the rescue had just been a happy dream. The thirst was still there, but it wasn’t as urgent, and the scents were different. He smelled the stale air of an old castle, seawater, human blood, and her. He was warm, wearing trousers and covered by a soft blanket, and gentle fingers combed through his long hair. A hand to his chest indicated that all the wounds Ergyu had inflicted were gone. There wasn’t even any scarring. Then again, perhaps he was still dreaming. Well, if he was, he was going to embrace this dream for as long as he could. He opened his eyes to see Serana lying next to him, smiling.
“Evening,” she said softly.
He reached for her and kissed her, drinking her in, relishing the heat of her body. She had fed, and she was warmer than he was now. “I never thought I’d hold you again,” he whispered as he withdrew. “I’m so sorry.”
“I hated you for a while. For turning me into a vampire and sending me to that place.”
“Had I not turned you, you would have died of thirst long ago. At least as a vampire, the thirst wouldn’t kill you.”
“I know that. And it was irrational. I don’t hate you; I love you. Gods, I love you so much.”
“You need to feed,” she said, avoiding a response.
It stung, but he would deal with it. At least she was in his arms.
She nodded to someone behind him, and he turned to see a young woman, a human wearing the mismatched armor of a bandit, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. The woman came to him and sat down on the bed, baring her throat. “Drink,” she said. Ben hesitated for a moment, but she said, “It’s all right. You won’t hurt me.”
He sat up and took her in his arms, cradling her head gently as he bit into her throat. He moaned as he drank, the warm, sweet blood energizing him.
“Oh,” the thrall gasped.
Serana put a hand on his shoulder. “That’s enough,” she said. “You don’t need more, and you don’t want to kill her.”
Ben found it easier to pull away than he would have thought, and he felt compelled to say something to the thrall. “Thank you.”
She smiled at him. “I’m here to serve.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it.”
“You can go,” Serana told her, and the human got up and left the room. She stroked his cheek, chuckling.
“Thanking a thrall. You know she has no choice in the matter.”
“Somehow that makes me want to thank her even more. Are the others up?”
“Yes, you’re the last one.”
“Why was I out so long?”
“Oh, you weren’t out much longer than the others. We all awoke at different times today. Rowan woke up only an hour or so ago.”
“We should go see them; we have a lot to talk about.”
Ben got up, put on a tunic and boots, and tied his hair back; and then he and Serana made their way to Coranil and Kaaley’s room, where they lounged on the bed holding hands while Rowan sat in a comfortable chair by the fireplace.
“Come in,” said Coranil. “We were just discussing our next move.”
Serana sat down next to Rowan, and Ben went to his sister and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. “How are you?” he asked.
“Still shaken, but I’m better than I was. You?”
“The same. I was afraid the rescue and coming back here were all a dream.”
“So was I. But we’re safe now.”
He chuckled. “Ro, we haven’t been safe since you left to join the Companions and I went to the college.”
With a shrug, she said, “I guess you’re right. Okay, we’re safe for now. How’s that?”
“I’ll give you that.” He sat down at the end of the bed. “So what is our next move?”
“I want to go to Morthal. I have to admit it’s tempting to stay this way, but I want to go home and marry Dolff, and I don’t think he would wed a vampire.”
“I understand. I do want to stay a vampire, though. I like it.”
“I figured you did,” Rowan told him. “It won’t change things between us; you know that.”
“What do you think?” he asked Coranil.
“I am not used to it yet. Ask me in a few days.”
Kaaley chuckled. “I don’t think I’ll mind after I get used to your eyes.”
Ben got up and walked over to a mirror, which hung on the wall above a wash basin, peering at himself. “Huh,” he grunted. “Even after seeing Rowan, I hadn’t thought about the way I looked. It will take some getting used to.”
“I will miss your blue eyes,” Serana murmured.
He turned back to her. “But is this all right?”
“Of course it is.”
Going back to the bed and sitting down, he said, “All right, Morthal, then Windhelm. And we have to destroy that sword.”
“I am not certain it can be destroyed,” said Coranil. “We have all the pieces of the Coat of Storms, so it is more likely, but all accounts have said Stormthorn is indestructible.”
“Well, if we can’t destroy it, we have to bury it where no one can ever find it.”
“Agreed. The other pieces of the collection have power, but I have never seen anything like what you did with that sword.”
“So we prepare today,” said Kaaley, “and leave tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow at sunset, if you two don’t mind traveling at night,” Rowan remarked. “I’m ready to get moving, but I don’t relish walking to Morthal in the sunlight.”
They spent the evening preparing for their trip, sharpening blades, making potions, and packing food for Kaaley and Coranil; and Ben fell into bed with Serana in the early morning hours.
Making love with Serana as a human had been great, but as a vampire, it was infinitely more intense. Her scent, her taste, her tightness—gods, she was so tight—and the way she whimpered his name made him crazy, and he cried out to the gods and clung to her as he rode the wave of a climax that seemed to last forever. When it was over, he was loath to let her go. They would leave in a few hours, and this might be the last time he got to hold her like this for a long time, if ever. He lay on top of her for the longest time, kissing her lips and throat as she held him close, but eventually they had to separate. He turned over, and she laid her head on his chest.
Serana didn’t say anything for a while, and Ben thought she might have fallen asleep, but then she swallowed hard and he felt something wet drip on his chest. She was crying.
“I know,” he whispered, stroking her hair.
She propped up on her elbows and looked into his eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Stay,” she said. “Stay here with me.”
But he couldn’t. He had to finish this mission. “Go with me,” he pleaded.
Serana stared at him for a long moment, then smiled and said, “I will.”
“You will?” he asked with surprise.
“I believe I would follow you anywhere. I’ll need to get word to Blanche, but Orthjolf is perfectly capable of running Castle V—”
Ben raised his head and kissed her possessively, pressing his hand behind her head. He almost couldn’t believe it. She might not have said the words, but with this, he knew she loved him.
* * *
The next day at sunset, the vampires fed from the thralls one last time, and then Serana handed the reins of Castle Volkihar to Orthjolf and the five of them crossed the Sea of Ghosts to the small dock behind the burned-out ruin that was once Northwatch Keep. Rowan was so anxious to get home that it was all she could do to keep from running. Their horses were stabled in Solitude, and they wouldn’t get there before morning. Then they had to rest, and they still had to stop in Morthal for her cure. Although she was finally heading in his direction, Dolff seemed farther away than ever.
They rested in Solitude, although Rowan didn’t sleep much and doubted Ben did, either. She had terrible nightmares where she could feel the pain of Ergyu’s hot blade as it carved designs into her body. Another Dremora stood back and watched critically, telling Ergyu she wasn’t creative enough and giving her advice on all sorts of torments she could inflict on Rowan, abuses and violations that made her tremble in terror just thinking about them. After waking up with a scream in her throat for the third time, she got out of bed and went downstairs to the tavern. Although blood was what she craved, it turned out she still liked mead too. She wondered how easy it would be to get drunk and if passing out from too much mead was even possible. Maybe she wouldn’t have nightmares that way.
They started out the next evening, sleeping on the road one day—or trying to sleep through the nightmares—while Coranil and Kaaley kept watch. Kaaley commented that she and Coranil were getting their days and nights mixed up, but the elves didn’t really seem to mind. In fact, the Bosmer and Serana talked a lot and were quickly becoming fast friends. Coranil was handling their vampirism better than Rowan could have hoped. He did mention that he was glad she was getting cured, he didn’t judge Ben or try to talk him into the cure; he just honored his choice. She couldn’t help wondering if Dolff would be so accepting.
They arrived in Morthal several hours after midnight, and Ben led them to Falion’s house and knocked on the door. An aging Redguard with piercing gray eyes opened it and regarded the group. “What can I do for you?” he asked, not inviting them in.
Rowan stepped forward. “I hear you know a lot about vampires.”
“I know many things,” he said, looking back and forth between Rowan, Ben, and Serana. “I have studied things beyond the range of most humans, traveled the planes of Oblivion, and seen things one should not see. And I know enough to see a vampire when others would see a woman.”
“Do you know how to cure one?” she asked.
“Indeed I do. I have helped many vampires looking for a cure. But you will need to kill someone. The ritual requires a filled black soul gem.”
Rowan dug into her pack and produced a gem Vingalmo had given her. “Will this do?”
“Yes, it will.” He looked over at Ben and Serana. “Do you wish to be cured as well?”
“No, we don’t,” Ben replied.
“Then I would recommend that you stay here. The elves may accompany us if they wish, but it will be more dangerous for the two of you.”
“Is it dangerous for Rowan?”
“There is always danger when dealing with the forces of Aetherium and Oblivion,” Falion told him. “Now—Rowan, is it?—if you will come with me to the summoning stones outside of town, we should arrive just before sunrise, when I will banish the creature you have become.”
“Banish her?” Ben echoed.
“Semantics,” Falion told him. “I expel the vampire and leave the shell for her human soul to return to her body. Your sister will not be banished to Oblivion, I assure you.”
“How did you know she was my sister?”
Ben looked dubious—in fact, he looked terrified—but Coranil said, “We shall make sure she is safe, my friend.”
Rowan wrapped her arms around Ben’s neck and held him close.
“I can’t lose you, Ro. Not after all we’ve been through.”
“I’ll be fine, baby brother. After Coldharbour, this will be nothing.”
“We should go now to be certain we have enough time,” said Falion. “You two can wait inside.”
Ben and Serana stepped inside Falion’s house, and Rowan and the elves followed the mage through town and across the swamps.
“Did you say you were in Coldharbour?” Falion asked as they walked. “I have been in several planes of Oblivion, but I’ve never been to Coldharbour. What was it like?”
“Trust me, Falion, you don’t want to go there. The undead, the Daedra, the . . . it was a bad place.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why did you go there?”
“We were looking for an artifact.”
“And was it worth the trip?”
“You ask too many questions, Redguard,” Coranil sneered.
“Just making conversation, I assure you, elf. You have nothing to fear from me.”
“The artifact we brought back will likely save someone’s life,” said Rowan, “so aye, I hope it was worth it. But please try to understand Coranil’s touchiness. The trip was hard on all of us.”
They finally arrived at the summoning stones, a ring of monoliths surrounding a circle of flat rock. Falion told Coranil and Kaaley to stay back and bade Rowan to stand in the center of the circle. He held the soul gem high and raised his head to speak.
“I call upon the realms of Oblivion, the home of those who are not our ancestors. Answer my plea! As in death there is new life, in Oblivion, there is a beginning for that which has ended. I call forth that power. Accept the soul we offer! As the sun ends the night, end the darkness of this soul and return life to the creature you see before you!”
Rowan’s head spun, and the next thing she knew, she was lying on the ground with Coranil and Kaaley kneeling next to her. She felt different, more like herself, and her senses seemed to have returned to normal.
“The ritual is complete,” said the Redguard, who stood nearby.
“Thank you, Falion.”
The mage nodded. “Should you need my services again, you know where to find me.”
“What about payment?”
“There’s no payment for this, child,” Falion said kindly. “Just go and live your life. That is payment enough.”
“Are you all right?” Coranil asked her.
“Aye, I’m fine. I’m hungry. Some eggs and cheese sound really good right now.”
Kaaley chuckled, and Coranil smiled and held his hand out to help her up. Rowan pulled herself up and said, “Let’s go back and get Ben and Serana. I want to go home.”