The small glimpse of Coldharbour that Rowan and Ben had gotten through the portal had done little to prepare them for walking into it. It was an assault on the senses from the very beginning, and Rowan realized right away that being a vampire was going to be a great help. It was bitterly cold, more so than the harshest of Skyrim winters. The stench was oppressive, and even though a layer of white snow covered the ground, shadow still dominated over light. Being immune to the cold, not needing to breathe, and having excellent night vision came in very handy. The worst thing, though, was the sound of constant screaming that resonated through the air from all directions. Rowan’s vampiric senses could do nothing to filter that sound out.
They came through the portal in the woods, just as Vingalmo had predicted. The window faced a large rock, obscuring it from the north. The trees were sickly, with sparse leaves and thin moss hanging from their branches. Small mushrooms grew in little clusters at the base of some of the trees, their glowing caps reflecting off the snow. Jagged stalagmites jutted out of the ground at odd angles, making them look like wicked claws reaching up to snare hapless wanderers.
When she looked back through the portal, Rowan could see the warm, golden light of the castle, and it surprised her that nobody had found it and gone through. Then she got a look at the back side. From the south, the portal was totally invisible. Somehow Vingalmo had managed to place it in the most convenient of locations, at least as long as they could find it when they were ready to leave.
“Think we should leave something to mark our place?” Ben asked.
Rowan shook her head. “See that?” she said, pointing to a tree with a distinct limb swooping toward the ground. “We can use that as a marker, along with the boulder. If we leave something here, somebody might come to investigate and find the portal. At least the snow is packed tightly enough that our footprints shouldn’t be visible.”
The village was directly to the south, just past the tree line. A few dilapidated houses made of stone and wood were built along a cobblestone street lit by torches burning with blue flames. In the center, where a well would normally stand, was a sculpture made of iron and bluish crystals that looked like giant soul gems. Hanging in the sky was a construct that seemed to be made of the same material as the sculpture. The crystals in both structures glowed blue, illuminating the buildings in the village. A low stone wall surrounded the complex. The architecture was similar to that in Skyrim, but the dilapidated buildings were barely standing, held up only by the occasional wall of stone. A few individuals shuffled through the village, although none of them seemed to be in a hurry. Two of them stood at the gem sculpture, chanting.
“Let’s go around,” Ben whispered, and they headed east, skirting their way around the village.
About halfway around, they crossed a well-lit cobblestone road, taking great care not to alert a sentry that stood at the gate a hundred yards away. They had never seen a creature like the guard but figured it was some sort of atronach. It was as big as a house, with bulging arm muscles and a hump back. One of its arms was in the form of a spiked iron club, and the other ended in a burning torch with deadly spikes extending past the flames. Its feet were cloven, its face was a rictus of horror, and it didn’t appear to have any eyes. It must have picked up their scent, though, because it was suddenly on alert, sniffing the air and craning its neck toward them. They kept moving, though, and after a moment the atronach relaxed again.
The river was half a mile to the south of the village, easy to find because it glowed like the blue crystal constructs that dotted the sky. The constructs weren’t the only objects in the sky; small islands of stone were also scattered over the landscape, uneven cones of rock floating fifty or sixty feet in the air. The sky was a churning mass of storm clouds, and every once in a while, lightning would sizzle to the ground with a loud crash of thunder.
A flame atronach hovered over the river, directly in their path. It flitted and danced in the air merrily just like the ones back home, but it burned with blue flame.
“I’m sensing a theme here,” Ben whispered, calling frost spells to his hands.
Rowan aimed her bow and shot at the creature, and it screamed and flew toward them. Ben hurled a frost spell at the atronach, who retaliated with a burst of blue flame, which Ben dodged easily. It seemed that as vampires, they were faster in addition to their enhanced senses. Rowan shot another arrow and hit the atronach in the head, and it faltered but still managed to get off another blast of fire before Ben’s next spell dropped it. Rowan cried out in pain as the flames hit her and singed her face and neck, but she had the awareness to leap out of the way before the atronach exploded.
“Godsdammit,” she gasped as she gingerly touched the blisters on her face. “We should have thought of better fire protection gear.”
“I thought what we had was pretty good,” Ben countered as he brought healing magic to his hand and held it over her skin.
“We’re more susceptible to fire now. Maybe what we have isn’t enough.”
“Not to mention the fact that blue flame burns hotter than yellow.”
“Well, thank you for the science lesson, Sir Smarty Pants.”
Ben chuckled. “We’ll just have to be more careful.”
“Wow, I didn’t think that spell would work,” she said, pressing her hand against her newly healed cheek.
“It’s a Heal Undead spell. Serana had a book, thought it might come in handy.”
“And it did.”
“She gave me one to heal myself, too. Hopefully I won’t have to use it.”
They veered to the right and began hiking west along the riverbank, which was flanked by boulders and stalagmites. They were able to stay out of the water for the most part, but some of the rock formations were impassable, so they slogged upstream through the luminescent waves. Before long, they encountered another flame atronach, and they could see two more farther up the river. They took the lone creature down with minimal injuries and skirted around the rocks to sneak through the shadows and pass the other two. Just as they got past the atronachs, however, four people ambled toward them. They looked human, but their eyes were dead, their faces were deeply sunken, and bloody drool trickled from their snarling mouths. Rowan knew immediately that they were the feral soul shriven Serana had told them about. She aimed her bow and shot the nearest one, and he briefly fell to the ground, but he was quickly on his feet again, staggering toward her.
“Swords,” Ben barked. “Cut their heads off.”
Rowan dropped her bow and drew her swords, swinging them in a graceful but deadly dance as Ben drew his single blade and lopped the head off the soul shriven that had just reached him. She took her opponent down as well, and they had little trouble with the other two. But before they could even put their blades away, six more descended on them from across the river.
The next couple of hours were a constant battle. The soul shriven were easy to kill, but there were so many that Rowan and Ben could barely keep up. They took plenty of scrapes and bruises, and although their armor blocked most of the creatures’ sharp teeth, Ben shrieked in agony when one of them managed to get ahold of him and take a sizable chunk out of his neck. Rowan was on hand to quickly take it down, but neither of them had time for healing because they just kept coming. After a while, Ben started to falter.
“Try to get a blood potion down,” Rowan called to him. “I’ll cover you as best I can.”
She danced around him, blades flying, as he struggled to keep his sword at the ready while digging in his pack. He managed to get a potion out but was attacked as he was pulling the cork. Rowan swung around and skewered the creature just in time to spare Ben from another nasty bite and give him time to swallow the potion.
Revitalized by the blood, he shouted with vigor and took down another couple of soul shriven. The tide waned after that, and he had time to call up his healing magic and repair his wounded neck. He drank another blood potion and handed one to Rowan.
“Now’s a good time for this,” he told her. “Serana said we should drink them when we can to keep our strength up.”
Rowan took the potion and began to drink, relishing the sweet flavor and the rush of strength as it flushed through her body. It was nothing compared to the taste and effect of warm, living blood, but it was still enough to refresh her and renew her energy.
“That helped. Hey, speaking of Serana, what about you springing an ‘I love you’ on her just before you came through the portal? You love shocking her, don’t you?”
“Keeps her on her toes,” he replied smugly. “Maybe when we get back, she’ll tell me.”
“So do you think you would give up your wicked ways for her?”
“In a heartbeat. Well . . . you know what I mean.”
They fought a couple more flame atronachs, snuck past three more, and dealt with another tide of soul shriven before they finally saw the cemetery coming up on their right. It was closed off by a spiked iron fence, but the gate was unlocked. A few soul shriven wandered outside the fence on the far side of the graveyard, but even though they took note of Rowan and Ben and growled at them, they made no attempt to get inside.
The Bierce crypt was easy to find; there were only two such tombs in the cemetery. As they approached the door, Rowan noticed the slightest glint off of a thin wire. Her eyes followed the trail of the wire until they came to the trap. It was an intricate construction of webbing and springs attached to a spiked grid, which was set to swing down and impale the victim.
“I wonder where he got that,” Ben mused.
“Maybe inside. This is one serious trap; Vingalmo really knew what he was doing. You want to give it a shot, or should I?”
“Let me try.” He knelt down and studied the contraption closely. “It’s really intricate, but it’s more impressive than intimidating.”
As Rowan kept watch, Ben began the arduous task of carefully unlacing the wire from the springs. It took him the better part of an hour, but he finally pulled the wire free and detached it from the grid, which Rowan helped him lower to the ground.
“Ready to go inside?” she asked.
Ben shook his head. “Blood potions first.”
They each drank a potion before drawing their weapons and opening the door. They walked into a round antechamber with a couple of urns, both of them empty, and continued through a door on the opposite side of the room. It looked very much like Nordic ruins from Nirn, although there were no draugr and there was no treasure. In the first room, they encountered a single soul shriven, who died easily by Ben’s sword. They navigated a long, winding tunnel littered with bones, withered bodies, and spattered with blood until they finally came to the second room, in which six sarcophagi rested along the walls. One of them glowed with the glyphs of a lightning rune.
“Do you think it’s a good idea to use a Shout in here?”
“If we get soul shriven, we’ll deal with them. Better than getting shocked to death.” She drew a breath and let loose the Become Ethereal Shout, “Feim . . . zii gron!”
Rowan held up her hand and watched as it faded away until it was nothing but blue light. “Stand back,” she said; then she stepped up to the sarcophagus and placed a hand in the rune. She was instantly surrounded by purple lightning, popping and sizzling violently but doing her no harm. By the time the blue light faded and she became corporeal again, the lightning had dissipated. “Help me with this lid.”
Ben helped her push the heavy lid of the coffin back. Inside, wrapped in linen, lay Stormthorn. It was forged in the style of ancient Nordic swords and looked just like the drawing Ulfric had shown them. The sword radiated power, humming faintly and sending tingles up Rowan’s arms as she lifted it out of the sarcophagus. “Woah,” she uttered as she unwrapped it. “I think it likes me.”
She sighed. Here in the dark quiet of the crypt, with their prize in her hands, she thought of Dolff and how much he would have loved to be here. Navigating musty old dungeons was one of his favorite things to do, and Rowan figured he’d probably never get to do it again. She wondered if he would have agreed to become a vampire if he had come along and then thought, no way. Dolff was as courageous as any Nord warrior, but magic—even Ben’s magic—made him a bit nervous. Giving up his living essence to become a vampire would have been too much for him.
“You all right?” Ben asked her.
“Aye. I was just thinking about Dolff.”
“I miss him too—although I don’t think he would have consented to becoming a vampire for this quest.”
“I was thinking that exact thing.”
“You want to carry it?” he said, motioning to Stormthorn. “Give me one of your swords.”
She pulled one of her swords from its scabbard and handed it to Ben, then inserted Stormthorn into the sheath. “Let’s get out of here.”
They trekked back through the ruin and out the door, through the cemetery gate, and down to the river, where they turned east toward the portal. They snuck past the flame atronachs again but were accosted by a large group of soul shriven about halfway back.
Rowan drew her swords, and the moment Stormthorn entered her hand, the power pulsed through her arm. It hummed and vibrated, as if it were excited for the battle. It was as though it wanted to fight. She swung the sword as the first soul shriven reached her, and when it connected with the creature’s throat, the world seemed to explode. With a loud boom, hot wind arced out in a wide circle around her, knocking everything in its path back several yards and sending them crashing to the ground. Ben screamed as he went down along with the soul shriven.
“Ben!” Rowan cried, and went to help him up. But he didn’t move. None of the soul shriven moved, either, so she dropped the swords and knelt next to her brother, slapping his cheeks. “Come on, Ben, don’t do this. Wake up.”
She dug in her pack and retrieved a blood potion, uncorking it and pressing it to his lips. She poured some into his mouth, and he swallowed reflexively. After a moment, he reached up and took the potion from her hands, chugging the rest of it greedily.
“What in Oblivion was that?” he groaned when he finished drinking and sat up.
“Hey, do you remember that time in Bthardamz when you lost consciousness and we had to force healing potions down your throat? You weren’t supposed to do that anymore!”
“If I remember correctly, you did this to me. Gods, that sword is . . . scary.”
Rowan looked at the carnage spread out around them. Ben might be all right, but none of the soul shriven had moved since the explosion. “Uh, Ben, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll take my sword back and let you carry this one.”
“Oh, sure. She almost kills me, and then she tries to make me carry the sword.”
“Because you won’t use it.”
“You don’t have to use it, either, Ro.”
“I do better with two blades than with one; you know that. Come on, Ben.”
“Of course I’ll carry it,” he said with a smile. “I’m just teasing you.”
They traded swords and started out again, fighting the occasional flame atronach and group of soul shriven as they made their way back. Turning north at the village, they started to skirt around, but their way was blocked by the huge atronach sentry.
“What now?” Ben wondered aloud.
Rowan never got the chance to answer. She heard a loud TWANG, and suddenly her body was wrapped in a large net and she was being thrown to the ground. Ben cried out, and she figured he was in the same situation. She struggled to get free, but the net was tangled in her weapons, arms, and legs, and fighting only seemed to make it worse. The snow crunched with footsteps as several individuals approached.
“Well, well, what have we here?” said a woman’s voice.
“Looks like a couple of vampires,” said another. “Where do you think they came from?”
The first woman knelt down, and Rowan got a better look at her through the net. She wasn’t a woman; she was a Dremora, black-skinned, horned, and armored, and her eyes glinted in the bluish light of Coldharbour. The Dremora leaned close and sniffed at Rowan, then chuckled. “These are not just vampires. The scent of the living world is all over them. These vampires are from Nirn!”
Several voices laughed, and the Dremora who was speaking said, “How did you get here, little one? Are you the one who caused all the ruckus up the river a while ago? News travels fast, you know. No matter. I am certain we can think of something fun to do with you. Bring them!”
Someone reached for Rowan and grabbed her arms, but Rowan managed to swing a fist, catching her assailant in the face. Her fist crashed into horns, and she drew back in pain. The Dremora only chuckled and kicked her in the head. White light exploded behind Rowan’s eyes, and a black haze covered the world. She could hear Ben fighting, then a painful, “Oof,” as he was knocked out.
Can’t lose consciousness, she thought. We’ll die if I do. But it was no good. Her eyes wouldn’t stay open anymore, and she just faded away.