A/N: Graphic violence and torture.
Ben didn’t know what day it was; he had lost all track of time. It didn’t really matter, though, because it was looking more and more like they would never go home again. Serana and the others had probably closed the portal by now, figuring he and Rowan were lost. Which, he guessed, they were. There wasn’t much left for them now except for overpowering thirst. At first, he had thought a lot about Serana, missing her, wishing he could hold her again; but as time went by, all he could think about was the dryness in his throat. He hated her a little bit now. She had made him this way, caused his desperate dependence on living blood, a sweet nectar he would likely never taste again. But she had only been trying to make them stronger; he knew that, and as much as he hated her, he loved her even more.
At least he and Rowan still had each other. They hadn’t taken that away yet. When they had first arrived, their captors had stripped them naked and deposited their weapons and armor in a room at the end of the cellblock, then placed them in cells opposite each other. They had spent a lot of time talking about escaping. Ben had figured if they could overpower their captors and get to their weapons—particularly Stormthorn—they could get out. But no one had even come onto the block since locking them up. They had been alone in these cells for days, growing weaker and thirstier, and he had begun to believe no one would ever come.
He was wrong.
A thick-bodied humanoid creature with a pinched face and long, pointed nose opened Ben’s cell door and pulled him out, banging on Rowan’s door when she protested. Ben was so weak that he stumbled and fell to his knees, but the creature didn’t care. He just dragged him along the floor to the room at the end of the hall, which turned out to be an interrogation chamber. A set of manacles was attached to the wall, and he cuffed Ben quickly and stepped back, nodding to the female Dremora who was just stepping into the room.
Ben recognized her as the one who had captured them. She had kicked Rowan in the head and ordered her servants to bring them to the keep and lock them in the cells. Her body was slinky and well proportioned, although her head and face were monstrous. She stood before him, hands on her waist and her hip cocked to the side in a suggestive pose, leering at him. “Hello there, little one. I see you have met my minion. Do not bother with his name; I do not even know it. I, however, am Ergyu. And you are . . . ?”
Ben snarled in response, and she reached out and cupped Ben’s face with her bony hand, noting his sunken cheeks. “Look, the poor thing is hungry. We must feed him.” She retrieved a cup of blood from a nearby table and placed it to his lips. Although he would have loved nothing better than to take a sip and spit it at her, he couldn’t resist the pull of the blood. He accepted the cup and took a gulp, but the rancid taste made him gag and sputter, spraying it all over Ergyu, who just laughed.
“Soul shriven blood,” she said. “It will keep you alive, if nothing else. But you may wish it did not.” She held the cup just out of his reach. “You want more?”
“No,” he replied, shaking his head.
“Are you certain?”
It may have tasted like troll dung, but its scent was enticing, and he was so thirsty that he couldn’t help craning his neck toward the cup. He thought she would tease him with it, but she generously held it to his lips and he drank greedily. Then he realized why she was so eager for him to drink it: instead of strengthening him, it weakened him, making his arms and legs feel like shoestrings.
The Daedra set the empty cup down and looked him over appreciatively, and while Ben was the last person to say he was modest, her ogling made him feel dirty. “You’re young, and so pretty. Our lord and master will love to have you as a pet. Or a slave—you never can tell what he will want. But before you go anywhere, you must tell me how you got to Coldharbour. He will want to know that.”
Ben refused to say a word. He just stared the Dremora in the eye boldly.
Ergyu gave him a toothy smile in return. “So you want to be tortured. Is that it? I was hoping you would say that.” She turned to the minion. “Put him on the rack.”
Ben fought furiously, but being weak to start with and then having drunk the soul shriven blood, he hardly had the strength to swing a fist. His legs barely held him up as the minion dragged him over to the rack, grabbed him by the waist and lifted him onto the apparatus. Ben kicked at him, but the creature clubbed him in the jaw with a meaty fist, dazing him long enough to bind his hands and feet in the manacles.
“Lovely thing, this piece,” Ergyu said, and Ben didn’t know if she was talking about him or the rack. She reached for the crank and gave it a quick turn, and although it pulled his limbs tight, it didn’t really hurt. “Feel that? That is nothing. Now. You will tell me how you got here, or I will spend the next hours making you taller.”
Ben swallowed hard, trembling with fear, but said nothing. Funny how having no heartbeat didn’t prevent the sensation of adrenaline flowing through his body, and now not having to breathe didn’t keep him from panting. Ergyu turned the crank again, stretching his body to its limits; but only after the third turn did he feel any real pain, and it was excruciating. He screamed as his shoulders dislocated and his ankles felt as though they were going to pop off.
Ergyu laughed. “Feels good, does it not? Anything you want to tell me?”
Ben kept quiet until the next turn of the crank. After that, he couldn’t have spoken if he had wanted to. All he could do was whimper in agony, furious with himself for showing weakness in front of this demon.
After a while, Ergyu got bored with the rack and turned to her minion. “Go get the other one and shackle her to the wall.” While she waited for her servant to bring Rowan, she walked sharply clawed fingers up Ben’s belly. “Who knew you would be so resilient? No matter. We have only just begun. Perhaps your lover will not be so quiet when she sees you on the rack.”
Ben spoke to Ergyu for the first time. “She’s my sister,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“All the better. Yes, I believe having you watch each other might just do it.”
The minion brought Rowan in, his arms threaded through hers and locked behind her head in a full nelson, but Rowan still kicked and fought like mad.
“When I get out of here, I’m gonna crush you,” his sister snarled. But she was weak too, and the creature—whatever he was, maybe a goblin or something; Ben couldn’t tell—managed to get her chained to the wall without much trouble. “Ben, are you all right?” she asked.
“Never better.” But he knew his tone of voice said otherwise.
“You let him go, you bitch!”
“So it’s Ben, eh?” said Ergyu. “Well, you may be quiet, but this one does love to talk. Perhaps her tongue will be easier to loosen than yours.”
She walked over to Rowan and took her face in her hands, leaning in seductively. “And you are just as pretty as your brother. I am certain our master will find all sorts of amusements for you.”
“What are you waiting for, then?” Rowan spat.
“You are going to tell me how you managed to get to Coldharbour.”
“No, I’m really not.”
“I was hoping you would say that,” she cooed, repeating what she had told Ben a while—a year?—ago. Ergyu turned to a brazier a few feet away and picked up a dagger that was sitting in the coals, its blade glowing with blue flames. She smiled at Rowan and held it close to her face. Rowan squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head. “Why close your eyes? Is this blade not lovely? I would imagine, though, that you might not find it so lovely if I boil your eyes out of their sockets.”
The minion cleared his throat.
“What!” Ergyu demanded.
“Our lord will not want them marked in such a way.”
She glared at the creature for a long moment, then sighed and turned back. “Alas, he is correct. I have good news for both of you. Your faces are safe.” With that, she jabbed the glowing blade into Rowan’s shoulder.
Rowan screamed, and Ben screamed for her, but Ergyu kept cutting. She sliced a trail several inches long across her breast as she shrieked. The smell of burning flesh invaded Ben’s nostrils, and he finally managed to hold his breath.
“How did you get here?” Ergyu repeated.
Ben thought of Coranil. He had said those same words the day they had rescued him, when he had thought Rowan was his torturer. Well, look how far they had come since then. He could certainly appreciate more what Coranil had gone through. It was too bad he’d never be able to tell him.
Over the next hours, Ergyu made more burning cuts to Ben’s and Rowan’s bodies, and she even stretched Ben a few more times while Rowan watched, pleading with her to stop. She finally did stop, regarded them both, and said, “Bored now. Take them back to their cells.”
The minion practically had to carry Ben back, because he could not stand. Once he was locked away and the door slammed, he lay down on the filthy hay and groaned.
“Ben, I’m so sorry,” Rowan said from across the hall, her voice heavy with tears.
“Not your fault, Ro. Stop crying. Don’t let them see you cry. Ever.”
“Easy for you to say. I’m the one who used the sword and caused the explosion. If they hadn’t heard that—”
“But you didn’t know what it would do.”
“Ben, sit up if you can. We have to figure a way to get out of here.”
He pulled himself to a sitting position and leaned against the bars of the cell door. “Who do you think you’re kidding, Ro? We’re not going anywhere. It’s always gonna be like this, and today is only the first day.”
“Our gear is still in that torture room. It’s all sitting in the corner. We can do this, Ben. Do not give up on me.”
“I’ll try not to,” he said with a forlorn sigh. But it was hard to have any kind of hope when his joints screamed and the marks on his skin burned agonizingly.
* * *
5E 20, 6 Sun’s Height
Serana paced in front of the arcane enchanter, the portal to Coldharbour churning above it. Something was wrong; she just knew it. Vingalmo said the trip should have taken two days, tops, and it had been twice that. She shouldn’t have let them go alone. Being Volkihar vampires would only protect them so much, especially with so little experience with their new gifts. She had told them about the Vampire Lord and Bats forms, but she doubted they would even use them. The concepts had seemed so foreign to them. Even though their mother was a werewolf, they couldn’t get their minds around shapeshifting. Vampirism aside, they were just so young. They hadn’t seen and done the things Serana had, and there was just no way to prepare for some of the things they might have encountered on the other side.
Fortunately, no one in Castle Volkihar had even suggested closing the portal, although Vingalmo worked day and night to figure out how to do so. Perhaps they knew she wouldn’t hear of closing it until Ben and Rowan were back on this side, so they didn’t bother. Orthjolf had insisted on a twenty-four-hour guard on the gate, but no one on the other side had even ventured near it, much less tried to come through.
But they couldn’t wait forever to close the portal; even Serana knew that. She was beginning to realize what had to be done. They would launch a rescue mission. She had to find out if Rowan and Ben were dead or alive, and if they were alive, she needed to get them back. She needed to get him back.
Orthjolf entered the lab, followed by Vingalmo. “No word?” the Nord asked.
“None.” She stopped and regarded them, holding her head up resolutely. “I’ve decided to go after them,” she announced.
“What? You can’t. It’s suicide.”
“I sent them in there. I have to do something.”
“If I remember correctly,” said Vingalmo, “you did not send them in there; the Jarl of Windhelm did.”
“You did what you could to protect them, Serana,” Orthjolf told her. “They knew what they were getting into.”
“That doesn’t mean they could handle it, or that we shouldn’t try to help them now. They’re my progeny; I won’t just abandon them. Maybe I can at least find out what happened to them. Vingalmo, you said there was a village nearby.”
“Yes, I did. I also mentioned that it was full of Dremora, did I not?”
“And what do you think those Dremora are doing if they’ve caught Ben and Rowan?”
“We’re not going to talk you out of this, are we?” Orthjolf grumbled. Serana shook her head, and he nodded. “Very well. When will you leave?”
“What? No, you need to prepare.”
“I have my dagger, my magic, and a supply of blood potions. I’m just doing recon at this point, Orthjolf. I need to get into that village and find out if they’re alive or dead. If they are alive, I know I can’t rescue them by myself. I’ll come back and send for help. If they’re dead . . . well, it won’t matter anyway.”
“Let’s not think about that right now. Just do what you have to do.”
She picked up her knapsack, which she had loaded a day ago, and slung it over her shoulder, then climbed up on the enchanter. “Don’t close the portal behind me,” she urged them.
“The way back will be safe,” Orthjolf promised.
Serana stepped through the portal and into the bluish gloom of Coldharbour. As soon as she entered the frigid realm, she picked up Ben and Rowan’s scents. They were strong, even after four days; it was a wonder no one had followed the scents and discovered the portal. It did make it easy to track them, however, and she found the village in mere minutes. A gigantic flesh atronach stood at the gate, but that didn’t stop her. She simply changed to her Bats form and flew over the wall. Three Dremora were standing at a soul gem sculpture in the center of the village, and Serana reformed to her human shape in the shadows behind a nearby building to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Ergyu had better be careful,” one of them was saying. “If she marks them too badly, our lord will not want them.”
Another threw up his arms in frustration. “Can we talk about something other than those accursed vampires?” he snarled.
“Calm yourself, Grekyen,” said the first. “You must admit that finding them has been very interesting. We needed something to break up the monotony.”
“It is interesting for Ergyu and the throngs of villagers who insist on discussing them at every opportunity. I, for one, have more important things to do.”
“No one said you must stay and listen,” the third Dremora, a female, said. “Go away and play with your poisons and potions.”
“Do not tell me what to do, Mograr.”
Serana rolled her eyes.
Grekyen turned on his heel and walked away, and the first Dremora said, “I thought he would never leave.”
“Has she marked them?” Mograr asked, turning the subject back to the vampires.
“She and her minions are careful, but accidents happen, do they not?”
“I cannot understand why she has not delivered them up to our lord already.”
“She wants to know how they got into Coldharbour.”
“Seems to me that our lord would rather have that information than see how pretty they are.”
The first Daedra shrugged. “Seems to me he would rather have both. Best not to give him an excuse to punish us. Besides, these two are brave, and I do not believe they will break. At least, not by the means Ergyu is using. As I said, she and her minions are careful, and not very creative.”
“Perhaps she is not expecting answers; perhaps she simply enjoys having two shiny new toys to play with.”
Damn it. They had Ben and Rowan, and they were torturing them. She had been right when she’d said she couldn’t rescue them alone. While she thought Grekyen’s estimation of throngs living in the village was exaggerated, she would still be badly outnumbered. No, she needed reinforcements, and she needed them soon.
She shifted to Bats form and took to the sky, flying first over the village to get a feel for the layout and any possible threats or shelters; then she flew all the way back to the portal. Orthjolf was waiting on the other side; she could see him. But as soon as she stepped through, she began to understand what Vingalmo had said about going back being more difficult than coming across. Instead of walking through a door, it was as if she were slogging through a mire that was at least a mile wide. She realized what it was, of course. Coldharbour was resisting. She wasn’t leaving so much as escaping, and Oblivion didn’t want her to go.
With a loud bang, she was suddenly launched into the world beyond and into Orthjolf’s arms. Her head spun, and a haze threatened to overtake her, but she managed to stay conscious long enough to say, “They’re alive. In the village. Send to Dolff for help.”
* * *
5E 20, 8 Sun’s Height
Dolff’s hand trembled as he opened the letter the messenger from Castle Volkihar had just delivered. The vampiric courier stood there, waiting for Dolff to read. It was in the common tongue instead of dragon language, being from one of the vampires who lived with Serana, but it was short and to the point.
Jarl Dolff Stormcloak,
Rowan and Ben have been taken prisoner by Dremora in Coldharbour. Need assistance to get them out.
Orthjolf of Volkihar
It was all Dolff could do not to go to his room, don his armor, and run to their rescue; but he knew that just wasn’t possible. He had responsibilities now that wouldn’t let him rush out the door to save his friends, and he was coming to learn that more every day. He felt helpless, impotent, and even with all those duties, he was still tempted to say, “screw it,” and go after them. But no, there was something else he could do, something—although he hated to admit it—even better than going himself.
He looked up at the messenger. “How fast can you get to Whiterun?” he asked.
* * *
5E 20, 13 Sun’s Height
“You did what?” Coranil demanded, standing in the lab of Castle Volkihar with Kaaley and Serana. He couldn’t believe what this vampire was telling him. The news that Rowan and Ben had been captured was bad enough, but after rushing to the keep to help rescue them, the first thing he got was more horrid news.
“I turned them,” said Serana. “Going in there as humans with, I’m sorry to say, very little experience, they wouldn’t have survived. They are excellent fighters, I know, but the creatures inside Coldharbour are not normal enemies.”
“It looks like they may not have survived anyway.”
Serana shook her head stubbornly. “No. I refuse to believe that. They were alive a few days ago, and they will be alive now.”
“Why did you not save them when you were there?”
“One Volkihar vampire against who knows how many Dremora and a flesh atronach? I would have gotten us all three killed, or worse. That’s why I sent for your help.”
Coranil looked down at Kaawenyth, who stood next to him with her arms folded. “She turned them into vampires!” he exclaimed, feeling as though he were a tattling child.
“Yes, she did,” said his tiny lover. “But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem is they were captured anyway, and now we need to go in and get them out. And we need to consider all our options.”
“I know that, but I—wait a moment, you are suggesting that she turn us as well!”
Kaawenyth shrugged. “Not suggesting it, really. But we have to consider it.”
“No, I will not consider it. Being stronger obviously did not help them. Also, as you pointed out, Serana, they are very young and inexperienced. Kaawenyth and I do not possess such handicap.”
“It’s probably better that I don’t turn you,” said Serana, “although you may not like my reasoning”
“And what reasoning is that?”
“When we find them, they’re going to be thirsty. Very thirsty, and blood potions won’t be enough. Someone will need to feed them living blood—your blood—of they likely won’t be able to walk out of there. You’re not sacrificing your lives, mind you, just a pint or so of blood, enough to kickstart the healing process. Blood potions will do after that, and we’ll take plenty.”
Part of Coranil wanted to be disgusted, but he found that the prospect of letting Rowan drink his blood wasn’t so bad—or Ben. One or the other.
“Healing process,” Kaawenyth echoed. “You think they’re being tortured.”
“Judging by what the Dremora I eavesdropped on said, I have no doubt. And it has been days.”
“We got here as fast as we could,” Kaawenyth shot back defensively.
“No, no, I understand. Honestly, I was surprised you got here as quickly as you did. But now that you’re here, time is of the essence.”
“Anything we should be aware of before we go?” Coranil asked.
“First of all, I’m going with you, and don’t try to talk me out of it. I should never have let them go in alone in the first place. Besides, I can show you exactly where they are.”
“How are you in a fight?”
“I’ve seen my share of combat and can hold my own. I won’t affect your stealth, either, because vampires live in shadow. Trust me, I’ll be much more of an asset than a liability.”
“There is a flesh atronach at the village gate. We’d best slip around him, perhaps go over the wall. It’s not that high, shouldn’t be a problem.”
“How’d you get in before?” Kaaley asked.
“I just flew over. I can change into a swarm of bats.”
“Hmm, can’t do that. Over the wall it is, then.”
“There is a keep in the center of the village, sort of a town hall. I can’t say for certain, but I’d wager they will be in there. When the two Dremora were talking, they kept pointing and motioning to the building. Plus, where else would you keep prisoners? Most of the rest of the structures were simple houses.”
She went to a side table that was covered with elaborately embellished red bottles and motioned for them to follow. “These are blood potions. Take as many as you can fit in your packs. You’ll still have to feed them from the vein, which you can do from your wrists, but when you start to feel lightheaded, have them switch to the potions.
“Now. Going through the portal will be easy, just like stepping through a door. But you can expect the trip back to be much more difficult. Oblivion pulls you, resists letting you go back. It’s rather traumatic. Do you have any questions?”
“Did they allow you to turn them voluntarily?” Coranil asked impulsively.
Serana laid a hand on his arm. “Yes, they did, Coranil. They knew full well what they were getting into, not only with vampirism but with what is on the other side of that gate. I swear to you I did not consciously do anything that would have let them come to harm.”
“If I find out otherwise, your life is forfeit.”
“I understand. But for now, you have to stop thinking of me as your enemy, because we’ll need each other while we’re in Coldharbour.”
“Very well. Let us go save our friends.”
* * *
For Rowan, time didn’t matter anymore. Most everything was just a haze at this point, either boredom and debilitating thirst or screaming pain. Both were torture. Somehow, she still managed to hang on, although she couldn’t say that about Ben. She didn’t know how long it had been before her brother had given up, but he had reached a point where he didn’t even fight anymore when the minions came to take them to the interrogation room. Sometimes Rowan didn’t bother fighting, either. They weren’t getting away, and in the end it would only mean more pain for them.
The longer they went without living blood, the weaker they got, and the more soul shriven blood they were fed—which they couldn’t resist because they were so thirsty—the sicker they got. Rowan had lost count of how many torture sessions Ergyu had put them through. Sometimes she was on the rack and Ben was chained to the wall, and other times it was vice versa. The Dremora never used magic, only the mundane implements she had on hand, but they were bad enough. Although she never touched their faces, she was fond of cutting them with the superheated dagger, which inflicted the pain of the blade and the heat, then cauterized the wound as it went. She also enjoyed setting the brazier at the foot of the rack and burning their feet. But the worst part hadn’t been the physical pain; it had been being forced to watch the other subjected to such agony.
When they had found Coranil, Rowan had wondered if she would ever be able to stand up to torture. If anyone had asked her, she’d have said no. But she hadn’t talked, and neither had Ben. Whenever they were alone in their cells, they pledged to each other solemnly, swearing on every Divine, every Daedra, and the lives of every relative and friend they had not to tell Ergyu where the portal was. Over and over, the Dremora had asked them one question: “How did you get here?” If there was any comfort in this abyss of hopelessness, it was knowing she hadn’t found the portal to Castle Volkihar. Divines only knew what would happen if the residents of Coldharbour found that gate. Every time she asked, and every time they swore, it made it a little easier to stay quiet.
Then again, she didn’t ask as often lately, and Rowan suspected she was less interested in getting information than in just hurting them. Ergyu liked to say, “Bored now,” just before she had the minion take them back to their cells. She wondered how long it would be before the Dremora decided she was bored enough to send them on to Molag Bal.
It was quiet now. Ben had been on the rack this time, and that was always worse. Sometimes Rowan thought Ergyu was intentionally rougher on Ben. Whether it was solely because she liked to hurt Ben or taunt Rowan more, she didn’t know, but whichever it was, Ben suffered much more than she did. But he never gave in. He screamed at the pain and pleaded with Ergyu to spare Rowan, but he never once asked her to stop hurting him, no matter how much she goaded him. Neither did Rowan, but she had to wonder how she would have held up if Ben hadn’t been there. She often thought his courage was what kept her from curling up in a ball and losing her mind completely. He was sleeping now—he always slept better than she did—and all Rowan had to do was think.
In times like this, only two thoughts played through her mind: blood and Dolff, in that order. She loved Dolff, and the thought of never seeing him again was a torment all on its own. But she was a vampire now, and she craved blood above all else. Her throat was so dry that she could barely swallow, and she wondered what would happen if she tried to bite the minion when he took her out of the cell for her next torture session. Would he even have living blood, or would it be rancid and incapacitating like that of the soul shriven? Most likely the latter. No, she was going to have to accept the fact that she would never taste living blood again and that she was going to die here as a vampire. And judging by the way the torture sessions went, she would probably have to watch Ben die before her.
If they did die, what would happen then? Would they become soul shriven? Rowan couldn’t see how living forever as a feral zombie would be any better or worse than living as a starving vampire.
It was probably better that they die here, though. Dolff would never have to know what she had done before coming to Coldharbour. She would never have to see the look of disappointment—or worse, disgust—on his face when he discovered she was a vampire. Before getting captured, she had planned on visiting this wizard—Falion, Ben had said his name was—who could cure her of vampirism. But it wasn’t a plan anymore; it wasn’t even a fantasy. She would spend eternity as a pet, a slave, a play toy, and she might as well get used to the notion.
Rowan suddenly realized it was quieter than normal. Even when nothing was going on, she could usually still hear the shuffling of the minions down the hall or ambient sounds from elsewhere within the keep. But an eerie silence had settled over everything—the silence of death.
This must be the time. Maybe they had finally contacted Molag Bal and he had come for them. But would he come himself or send his minions? Either way, there was no way the silence was a good thing.
She crawled toward the cell door. “Ben,” she whispered. “Ben!”
“Get up. Something’s going on.”
He opened his eyes and dragged himself to a sitting position. “What is it?”
Ben listened for a moment and shook his head. “I don’t hear anything. No, wait. It’s never this quiet.”
A soft footstep sounded just down the hall, and Rowan and Ben were immediately on alert. It wasn’t as if they could do anything anyway, but old habits died hard. Then there was another footfall, and someone stepped in the doorway and peered in at her. The person was backlit so she couldn’t see a face, but she knew that silhouette: incredibly tall, bald, pointy ears—well, one pointy ear, anyway.
“C-coranil?” she whispered.
Two more figures appeared behind him, and she heard Ben utter Serana’s name. One of them unlocked Ben’s cage and handed Coranil the key, and he unlocked Rowan’s cage and knelt before her. Without a word, Rowan threw her arms around his neck and sobbed, but she was too close to his throat and could smell and hear the blood coursing through his veins. She pulled back and stared at him with alarm.
Coranil held his wrist out to her. “It is all right,” he said softly. “I know.”
But just as she was about to bite him, Kaaley stepped into the cell. “Let me,” she pleaded. “You go help Serana with Ben.”
Coranil glared at Kaaley for a moment but then nodded and got up.
Kaaley sat down next to Rowan and presented her wrist. “Just don’t bleed me dry.”
Rowan wanted to say, “I’ll try not to,” but the scent and heat of the blood was too demanding. Kaaley gasped with pain as she tore into her wrist and drank ravenously, the warmth and energy washing through her and easing her aches and pains.
Kaaley stroked her hair. “I don’t know what scared Coranil more: when he found out you were captured here or when he found out you had turned into vampires. But he’s seen a lot, so he dealt with it. I couldn’t help that it gave me pause to see you sitting naked here, about to bite him. I’m petty; I can’t help it. Okay, that’s enough. I have blood potions for you from here . . . Rowan, let go.” She wrenched her arm away, startling Rowan, who had barely paid attention to what the elf had said.
“No worries. Here’s more.” She handed Rowan three blood potions, and she guzzled two of them before she started to feel stronger, more like herself.
“You don’t have to apologize for stepping in with Coranil. I understand.” She looked up to see Ben, Coranil, and Serana standing just outside the cell door. “We should probably find our armor,” she said mildly to Ben.
“It’s all still in the interrogation chamber. I always check when we go there.”
Rowan started to get up, and Coranil reached a hand out to help her. “Are you all right?”
“Better now. I think Ben was hurting worse than me today.”
“I’m good,” Ben said tersely. “I can walk, at least.”
Rowan and Ben led the others down the hall to the interrogation chamber, where they found Ergyu lying in a pool of blood. Her head was several feet away.
Ben spat on her.
“Your torturer?” Coranil presumed.
“You’re welcome,” Kaaley quipped.
“Thanks, Kaaley,” he said with a chuckle. He placed a hand on Coranil’s shoulder. “Thank you all. Cor, I never understood. I mean, I knew what you’d gone through and saw your wounds, but I just didn’t . . . imagine. Gods.”
Coranil covered Ben’s hand with his. “I hoped and prayed you would never understand. Let us just get you out of here. I believe we have cleared out this keep, but we still need to get through the village.”
Rowan and Ben dressed and equipped their weapons, Ben once again taking Stormthorn.
“Is that it?” Serana asked him, nodding to the sword.
“Aye, that’s it. And it packs a punch. Listen, if I tell you all to drop to the ground, do it. Don’t ask questions, don’t finish what you’re doing, just drop. Got it?”
“Got it,” said Serana. Coranil and Kaaley nodded.
“You know, using that thing is what got us in here,” Rowan reminded him.
“Well, now it’s gonna get us out.”
They followed Coranil silently through the keep and then out into the village, where they were instantly accosted by seven Dremora.
“Going somewhere?” one of them asked drily.
“Spread out,” Coranil barked, and the rest of them did as they were told, readying spells and weapons.
The Dremora did the same, and Rowan engaged the nearest one with her blades, just hoping her legs held out. But she never got the chance to test them.
“Drop!” Ben growled.
Rowan ducked a spell the Dremora flung at her and flattened herself to the ground just as Ben struck his opponent with Stormthorn. When she had done it, she had felt as though she were in the eye of a cyclone, safe in the calm while chaos raged around her. On the outside, it was overwhelming. Hot wind rushed over her with a cacophonous boom, and though she was lying flat, the force still managed to scoot her several yards. With a loud crash, the keep they had just left all but disintegrated, shards of wood, stone, mortar, and rubble flying everywhere. Rowan covered her head as debris fell all around her. A spherical object landed a few feet away, and Rowan recognized it as the head of the minion who had dragged them to and from the interrogation chamber.
When the wind died and the debris stopped falling, she raised her head to view utter devastation as far as she could see. All of the Daedra were dead or unconscious, all of the buildings in the village were destroyed, and her friends were in various stages of recovery. Serana was unconscious, and Ben was kneeling next to her, urging her to wake up and trying to force a blood potion down her throat. Coranil was up and about, and he was helping Kaaley to a sitting position and wrapping his arms around her in relief. When he was sure his lover was okay, he turned to Ben.
“Thank you for the warning,” he said wryly.
Serana coughed and sputtered blood as she awoke, and Ben helped her sit up. “Please tell me you’re okay,” he begged.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Good, because we probably don’t have a lot of time. These guys probably aren’t dead; they’re just knocked out. We’re only a few minutes from the portal, and we should get there as quickly as we can.”
“We think we have figured out how to close it,” said Serana. “Going back through will render us unconscious for a couple of days, but if all goes well, it will be closed by the time we awake.”
“Why will it knock us unconscious?” Kaaley asked.
“Remember that I told you going back wouldn’t be as easy as coming through. I don’t know exactly why it knocks us out, only that it does. Don’t worry; Orthjolf will send a message to Dolff telling him everyone is safe and then see that we’re well cared for.”
“Then, let’s do this!” the Bosmer said enthusiastically.
The north wall of the village had crumbled in the blast, and they climbed over the wreckage and headed into the woods, which were also torn up pretty badly. When they found the portal, Serana motioned to Rowan. “You go first,” she offered.
She looked at the others, including Ben, who nodded at her. “All right.” She reached out to the portal, and it felt warm and kind of soft, like a pillow. When she stepped through it, she almost felt like she were walking through a pillow, a thick, gooey one that sucked all the air out. But after the pain of the last few days or weeks (she still didn’t know how long it had been), the struggle to get back to Nirn was not so bad.
She finally burst through the portal and fell to the floor, bumping her head on the bannister, still not the worst pain she’d had recently. Orthjolf stood there, peering down at her. “Hey, Orth—” But she said no more. Her eyes closed and she descended into the dark quiet of unconsciousness.
That warning at the beginning was well deserved, phew! Glad they made it back safely, if not unharmed. Somehow I expected them to get stuck in Coldharbour, or that the portal would do more harm. How did Serana close it, in the end? And why did it stay open at all?
I couldn’t think of anything plausible for the portal, or anything that wouldn’t slow the story down, so I just decided to leave it a mystery. Vingalmo was actually the one who closed it, and it was some sort of spell or series of spells, but I just didn’t worry about details.