5E 20, 21 Sun’s Height
Selene was in a place of shadow, and she could barely see two feet in front of her face, but she was as comfortable as if she were in her own home. She would find her way with her sense of smell, and the Shadows would guide and protect her. But tonight, it seemed they were more interested in speaking with her than keeping her hidden.
“Selene,” the Shadows whispered repeatedly.
She tried to make her way through the darkness, but they called her name insistently, some of them tugging gently on her arm or cape. “What?” she demanded finally.
“Come to us. Embrace the Shadows. Embrace Nocturnal. Seek her out in the Hall.”
She opened her eyes to find her husband lying next to her, watching her. “You were talking in your sleep,” said Brynjolf.
“What did I say?”
“Just ‘what?’ I assume the Shadows were talking to you too?”
“Aye. I guess Nocturnal wants to speak with us. But I don’t want to leave.” She kissed him, then sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. They were in their usual room in the Palace of the Kings, where they had come immediately upon learning Rowan and Ben had been captured in Coldharbour. It had been Nocturnal who had told them, her summons beating Dolff’s letter by more than a day, and they had been waiting for news ever since. It was all they could do not to go rushing toward Castle Volkihar, and now Nocturnal wanted them to go back to Nightingale Hall for a conference. This couldn’t be good news.
And then there was Dolff, who wasn’t himself. The lad didn’t sleep, and he not only seemed exhausted but a little . . . off. He didn’t show the blatant signs of dementia that his father had displayed, but the Coat of Storms was clearly affecting his mental state and Selene hated to leave him.
But she still went to him the next morning and told him they were going.
“Now?” he protested. “I thought you were concerned.”
“I am concerned, Jarl; you know that. But Nocturnal wouldn’t have summoned us unless it was urgent. Very likely, it has to do with Rowan and Ben. I wish she would talk to us here, but she insists on summoning us to Nightingale Hall. We’ll use Odahviing and will be back as soon as possible.”
“Fine. Go. See if I care.”
The young jarl sighed and swiped a hand down his face wearily. The boy was only eighteen years old, but he looked forty, with ashen skin and dark circles under his careworn eyes. “I’m sorry, Selene,” he said softly. “I’m not . . . feeling well today, and it’s affecting my mood.”
“I understand. We’ll hurry, I promise.”
“If they get back before you do, I’ll send word.”
Selene and Brynjolf left, and she summoned Odahviing just outside of town. He took them to Riften, bidding them to simply call again when they needed to go back. Sometimes Selene worried that the great red dragon resented them using him for such a purpose, but when she mentioned it, he simply waved her concerns off.
They picked Karliah up from the Cistern and headed for the concealed den the Nightingales called home. “What does she want?” Karliah asked.
“Well, it has to be about Rowan and Ben,” Brynjolf speculated. “If there was trouble at the Twilight Sepulcher, the Shadows would have sent us there. But they said to come here and speak with her.”
“I hope it’s not bad news.”
“So do we,” said Selene as they opened the door to Nightingale Hall.
They made their way through the cave to the chamber with three high platforms surrounding a central summoning circle. When they were all in place, Selene raised her arms and called to the Daedric Prince.
“Nocturnal, Mistress of Shadow, we have come to answer your summons. Appear before us.”
The room around them darkened a bit, and a haze of blue light filled the air over the summoning circle, coalescing into the shape of a woman. “You got here quickly,” Nocturnal murmured. “Having a pet dragon does have its advantages.”
“Please, my lady,” said Brynjolf, “what do you want of us?”
“What, no niceties? No pleasantries? You are slipping, Brynjolf.”
“We are simply worried about our children.”
“Oh, that. Your children are fine,” she said casually, waving a dismissive hand. “They are on their way back to Windhelm now.”
Warm relief flooded through Selene, and she could smell Brynjolf’s relief as well.
“But that is not why I summoned you. I have instructions for you. After we discussed the Coat of Storms recently, I had a conversation with Mephala. She is a stubborn bitch, but I was able to wrest the information you need to destroy the collection. You know how this works, however. Such information cannot be given for nothing.”
Brynjolf sighed with frustration. “And what would you have from us?”
* * *
5E 20, 24 Sun’s Height
The party arrived at the Palace of the Kings at nearly two o’clock in the morning, and Rowan expected the great hall to be deserted except for the guards, but Dolff sat at the long table, looking through some papers. As soon as he saw her, he climbed out from the bench and ran for her, and she dropped her bow and knapsack and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him hungrily.
“Thank the gods you’re home safe,” he whispered when he withdrew. “I was beginning to think I’d never see you again.” He looked at the group standing behind her, raising an eyebrow when he saw Ben. “So you did it, eh? I had a feeling you might.”
“Aye, I wasn’t sure how you would take it.”
Dolff shrugged. “I don’t like it, but it has always been your choice. But if you’re to stay that way and be my court mage, we’ll have to set some ground rules.”
“Hello, Jarl. I was hoping to stay with Ben awhile.”
With that, Dolff smiled and looked back over at Ben. “Does this mean you’re out of the ‘girl of the month’ club?”
“With all due respect, my esteemed jarl, bite me.”
Dolff chuckled. His eyes went to Coranil and Kaaley, who stood just behind Ben and Serana. “Thank you. For bringing them home safe.”
“There is no need for thanks,” said Coranil.
“But there is. You went into Coldharbour, aye?”
“Yes, as did Serana.”
Dolff nodded his thanks to Serana and turned back to Rowan, resting his forehead against hers. “It’s late,” he said. “What do you say we retire for the night, and I’ll debrief you all in the morning? And Ben, you and I can sit down and figure out what we’re going to do about . . . this.”
“Fine,” said Ben.
Rowan picked up her bow and knapsack, and they all went to their regular rooms. As soon as their bedroom door was closed, Dolff took her in his arms and kissed her hotly, possessively. Rowan moaned and started removing her armor. They made love without a word, clinging to each other, renewing their bond, until they finally lay together in the firelight, spent.
“I missed you so much,” said Dolff as Rowan lay in the crook of his shoulder, playing with the sparse hairs on his chest.
“I missed you too. There were times when I thought I would never see you again, and others when I thought if I did see you again, you wouldn’t want me.”
“Now, why wouldn’t I want you?”
She propped up on a shoulder and looked him in the eye. “Ben wasn’t the only one who became a vampire while we were gone,” she confessed.
“What?” he said, sitting up suddenly. “You became a . . . but you’re not now.”
Rowan sat up with him. “No. There is a cure, and the wizard who had the cure was in Morthal, right on the way home. I didn’t want you to see me like that. I was gaunt, and my eyes were yellow like Ben’s, and I knew how you felt about it.”
“And you . . . fed? On people?”
“I had to, Dolff, but it’s not like I went out and hunted innocents. I just took what I needed and did most of my feeding from blood potions.”
“I don’t know what to say about that.” Rowan reached out to touch his hand, but he pulled it away.
“Dolff, please don’t. Serana said it was the best way to ensure that we’d be safe in Coldharbour.”
“But you weren’t safe.”
“No, we were captured anyway, true. But had we not been vampires, we would have died at the hands of our captors. Dolff, they tortured us, and we wouldn’t have survived if we’d been human. And frankly, it’s shallow of me, I know, but their tortures left no scarring.” He just stared into her eyes, and Rowan sighed. “I figured you would react this way, but not after I was cured. Please don’t pull away from me.”
“I . . . just need some time. I’m going to sleep now. Goodnight, Rowan.” With that, he turned over and closed his eyes.
Rowan lay down with her back to him and wept, heavy sobs that took her breath away and hot tears that soaked her pillow. After all that, the trip to Coldharbour, the sword, the cure, trying so desperately to get back to him as quickly as possible, and he spurned her. She felt betrayed, alone, and for just a moment, she wished she hadn’t been cured. She had only done it for him, anyway, and if he was going to reject her anyway, she shouldn’t have bothered.
But after a while, Dolff turned over and threw his arm over her. She grasped it and held it tightly. “I love you,” he whispered. “I’m sorry for my behavior.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t. You’re everything to me, Ro. You know that. This was just a shock. But I’m sorry I made you cry. No man should make his woman weep like that.”
She turned over and snuggled into his arms, crying even harder. He stroked her hair and whispered words of comfort, and she finally calmed down. With Dolff still stroking her hair, she drifted off to sleep. She didn’t sleep long, though, before she awoke screaming from a nightmare. He just continued to hold her and whisper softly to her, and she went back to sleep without much fuss.
Rowan awoke the next morning to find Dolff up and dressed, sitting at his desk, and reading a letter. “Morning,” she called from the bed.
He came over and sat down next to her, kissing her softly. “Morning. How’d you sleep?”
“After the nightmare, not so bad. You?”
“I don’t sleep much these days,” he admitted. “I believe the Coat of Storms is beginning to take its toll.”
With that, she noticed the circles under his eyes. She must have been really tired last night, because she hadn’t even noticed that he looked exhausted. “Dolff, no.”
“I don’t always feel it, but sometimes I feel myself . . . slipping away. I’ll catch myself staring off into space, and Kira will tell me I’ve been like that for hours. My temper hasn’t been all that great, either.”
“Well, your temper was never all that great,” she teased.
“Rowan, we have to find a way to destroy the collection.”
“You have no idea. We’ll tell you all about Stormthorn during the debriefing.”
“Rowan . . . what did they do to you?”
“I don’t think you really want to know that.”
“You can’t keep it to yourself. It’s not good for you.”
“You’re right, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.”
“I’ll be here when you are. How could you stand it?”
“Well, Ben and I were there for each other, and that helped. I also thought a lot about Coranil and what he went through.”
“You didn’t think about me?”
“Of course I did, usually when it was quiet. Unfortunately, when I thought of you, it was with a sense of hopelessness. I came to accept pretty quickly that I was never going to see you again.”
“You just gave up?”
“I didn’t think anyone would save us. I knew you would try, but I didn’t expect you to succeed. It was really easy to lose hope in that place.”
“Love, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right. We’re home safe now, and we have work to do. But first, I’d like some breakfast and a bath.”
“We’ll plan on meeting this afternoon. What sort of schedule do Ben and Serana live on?”
“Afternoon should work fine. They usually go to bed sometime in the early morning and then sleep till mid-afternoon. But like you and me, Ben doesn’t sleep much, anyway.”
“I’ll send Kira up, and she can get you a bath started. Get cleaned up, then come to the great hall for some breakfast.” He paused for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry about last night, love.”
“It’s all right, Dolff. I know what I said was a shock. Now, go. Go be the jarl.”
He leaned in and kissed her, then got up and left the room.
* * *
They all gathered in the conference room for the debriefing later that afternoon, with Stormthorn resting in the center of the table.
“So what does it do?” Dolff asked.
“It emits a ring of magic that lays waste to everything in its path,” Ben replied. “One strike and it destroyed the village where we were held captive.”
“By the Nine,” Dolff gasped. “Were any of you injured?”
“Kaaley suffered a minor concussion, but the rest of us were fine. Rowan and I had used it before and knew what it could do. When I was about to use it, I told everyone to hit the deck, and I think it prevented a lot of injuries. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let us start from the beginning.”
Rowan, Ben, and Serana told him the first part of the story, and then Coranil and Kaaley chipped in with the rest as Dolff listened intently, intrigued by the trek to the cemetery and the dungeon delving. Ben was just as reticent as Rowan was with details of the torture, and Dolff didn’t press them. He reached out and held her hand, then looked between Serana, Coranil, and Kaaley. “Thank you again for saving them. How is it that Serana didn’t turn you two as well?”
“Do you really want to know that?” Kaaley asked.
“Aye, I do.”
“We had to feed them.”
“Oh,” he said uncomfortably.
“They had been there for weeks,” Coranil told him, “and it was Serana’s assumption that they would be too weak to leave without being fed. Also, Kaaley and I are older and more experienced, and the village was only a five-minute walk from the portal. It was in and out, very quickly.”
“And the Dremora?”
“Turns out they die just as easily as man and mer,” Kaaley quipped. “The bitch who did the torturing was the toughest of them all, but she underestimated me. I was like a foot shorter than she was, and she saw this cute, little pixie whose bark was worse than her bite. And then I bit her. She seemed altogether amazed when I sent her head flying across the room.”
“So other than Rowan and Ben, and Kaaley’s concussion, were there any injuries?”
“Minor ones,” said Serana. “A few scrapes and bruises, but the trip back through the portal rendered us unconscious for several days, and everyone was healed by the time we awoke.”
“Physically, anyway,” Dolff muttered.
Ben shook his head. “Nightmares are to be expected, but we’re fine,” he said coolly.
Rowan didn’t contradict her brother, but there were times when she was anything but fine.
“Anything to add?” Dolff asked. The room was silent for a moment, and he said, “So how do we destroy this collection?”
“I will go back to the college,” said Coranil, “and see if the orc has turned up anything new. Otherwise, I am at a loss.”
There was a knock at the door, and Selene stuck her head in. “We might be able to help with that,” she said.
Rowan and Ben got up and went to their parents as they stepped in the room, hugging them warmly. Brynjolf and Selene looked their children over for injuries.
“Daddy, you know this was days ago, right?” Rowan said as Brynjolf studied her face.
“Still. Got to make sure.”
“Oh, my, look at your eyes,” Selene said to Ben.
“I hope it’s okay.”
“Doesn’t bother me; you know that. It’s just a surprise. Blanche and Farkas will be interested, of course. Serana did it, I assume?”
Selene looked down at the pretty vampire who sat next to Ben. “Hello, Serana. Good to see you.”
“You too, Selene.”
“What have you learned?” Dolff asked.
“Before we go into it,” Brynjolf said, “I’m afraid we need to speak to our children in private.”
Brynjolf took Rowan’s hand, and he and Selene led her and Ben to their room, where they all sat down near the fire.
“We were summoned by Nocturnal,” she responded. “When we spoke to her, she told us she can tell us how to destroy the Coat of Storms.”
Rowan’s heart hammered in her chest, and her eyes widened. “She can? Fantastic! What did she say?”
“She wants payment first,” Brynjolf grumbled.
“Well, what does she want?”
Selene reached over and took Ben’s hand, and Brynjolf did the same with Rowan. “She wants something from you two,” Selene said. “She wants you to become Nightingales.”
That was it? Rowan had been expecting something more . . . traumatic.
“Really?” Ben replied with interest. “But I thought there were only three of you.”
“She said it didn’t have to be a trinity. Apparently there have been as many as ten or fifteen at one time in years past. Now, she knows you’re Dragonborn, and we reminded her that concessions must be made for the Dragonborn, so she agreed to hold your period of service to twenty-five years after you die. When you’ve fulfilled your contract, you’ll be free to go on to whichever afterlife you choose, whether it be to become one with the shadows like other Nightingales, move on to Sovngarde, or to . . . wherever it is that vampires go when they die.”
Rowan and Ben regarded each other gravely, then looked back at their parents. “What should we do?” Rowan asked.
“This isn’t a decision we can make for you, little one,” her father said. “It’s your soul we’re talking about. That should be your choice alone.”
“But if we don’t do this, we have no idea how to destroy the Coat of Storms.”
“Not necessarily,” Ben told her. “We can keep looking.”
“The upside to all this is that you will receive extra powers,” Brynjolf remarked. “There are three types of Agents of Nocturnal. You’ll be allowed to choose one, and they come in very handy, I assure you. We’ve discussed the Skeleton Key and how it contributes to a thief’s luck. I’ve always felt that we Nightingales had even better luck than normal thieves.”
“But you know we’re not really thieves anymore, Daddy,” said Rowan.
His eyes gleaming, he said, “You keep telling yourself that, little one. Besides, being an Agent of Nocturnal isn’t all about thievery. You work as an operative for the jarl, and that can also come in handy.”
“What would our duties be?” Ben asked.
“You would be bound to Nocturnal for twenty-five years after your death, as we said. Also, any time during your life when the Twilight Sepulcher or Skeleton Key is in danger, you’ll be called upon to defend them. That’s it, really.”
“I’m in,” Ben said without hesitation.
Rowan shrugged. “If it’ll help us destroy the Coat of Storms and save Dolff, I’m in too.”
“I don’t think you’ll regret it,” said Selene.
“Considering that I think vampires go to Coldharbour when they die,” said Ben, “you’re probably right.”
“I hate to drag you away as soon as you come home, but I know time is of the essence. We should go as soon as possible.”
Rowan sighed. “Poor Dolff. Poor me.”
“I feel your pain, little one, and depending on what Nocturnal tells us, it may still not be over. But you’ll be together in time.”
“He asked me to marry him.”
Brynjolf smiled sadly and squeezed her hand. “My baby girl, all grown up,” he said, barely above a whisper.
“And destined to be Queen,” Selene threw in.
“Oh, Mama, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!”
“I’m your mother; I’m allowed to think that way.”
Ben stood up. “We’d better get back to the conference room and let Dolff know.”
Rowan squeezed her daddy’s hand again and got up to follow the others back to the conference room to tell Dolff she was going to have to leave him again.