As expected, Sandril towered over me. The Altmer mage was handsome—I think most Altmer men are, really—with silvery hair, hazel eyes, and a haughty manner. For all that he was a bit arrogant, he was actually very helpful. He sympathized with Vallanil’s plight and was glad to help his friend, although he let me know in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t an easy task to undertake.
“I hope you understand the difficulty of opening a portal at such a distance,” he complained.
“Well, if you think I’m asking too much—”
“No, no. Besides, you’re not the one asking. Vallanil is.”
“Nice to know you’d be there for me if I came to you for help,” I muttered.
Sandril sighed. “My apologies, Gwenyth. Of course I would help you. I have no call to complain about such a portal when it is well within the purview of my ability. Stand next to me, please. If I open the portal too close to you, it will be unpleasant.”
I stood closer to the mage, and he squinted his eyes in concentration and uttered an incantation. A white-glowing portal opened a few yards away, and Sandril nodded with satisfaction. “This should put you in Rivenspire, hopefully right outside Vallanil’s front door.”
“How long do I have?”
“It will stay open until you return. Take care while you are in Covenant territory. There are plenty of Bosmer in High Rock and they are not likely to believe you’re an Aldmeri spy, but there’s no point in taking chances.”
I laid a hand on his arm. “Thank you, Sandril.”
“Go now,” he said softly.
And so I stepped through the portal.
He was right: I came through just outside the massive front door of an imposing castle. The surrounding area was stark, with much of the vegetation dead or dying. It stood at one end of a small village, and another castle rose up at the other end. Neither house was like anything in Dominion territory. They were made of stone, with high walls, pitched roofs, and blocky towers. Compared to Altmer castles and Bosmer treehouses, they were quite ugly. But I wasn’t here to critique the architecture.
A rope hung to the right of the door—a bellpull, I assumed—and I pulled it. I could indeed hear a bell inside the house, and after a few moments, a man came to the door. He was a healthy, mortal Breton in his mid-forties. He raised an eyebrow with surprise when he saw me.
“May I help you?” he asked me.
“Is this Stormbringer Manor?” I asked.
“I’m looking for Countess Amelia. Is she here?”
“And you are . . .?”
“I have a message from her husband.”
The Breton laughed coldly. “I’m sure that is quite impossible. Now, if there is nothing else, the countess has little time for anonymous strangers. Good day.”
“No, I’m serious. I’ve been to Coldharbour. He’s alive and is trying to get word to the countess.”
He stopped in the middle of closing the door and stared at me for a long moment, then sighed. “Well, I’m afraid the countess is not here. She left shortly after the count disappeared and has not returned.”
Damn it. “Any idea where she could have gone?”
“You might inquire with the nobility. She was a mercenary before she married the count, and she often worked for the nobles and royals. She hinted that she might go back to her old ways, so it is likely that she has been in touch with one or more of them, possibly even High King Emeric himself.”
High King Emeric? Visiting that castle would be an adventure. I didn’t think I was up to it. “Thank you for your help.”
“I hope you’re telling the truth, miss. The count is well loved here,” he added in parting with less stiffness and formality. It made me think a little more highly of him.
I checked with the residents of the neighboring castle, but they said basically the same thing as Vallanil’s servant. What’s more, their lord had fallen to the exact same fate. He had taken the original artifact to Coldharbour after making a deal with Molag Bal. He’d had no expectation of returning. But a piece of the shattered artifact had turned up in Rivenspire, and Vallanil had taken it to Coldharbour without such a deal and with every hope that he would come back. The retainer I spoke to—a Bosmer, no less, and a vampire—said Vallanil and her master were like brothers and both had preached benevolence and peaceful coexistence with mortals. Although both had actually gone to Coldharbour on their own volition, she believed someone had cursed them.
The Bosmer vampire asked if I had seen her master in Coldharbour and was saddened when I told her no. It makes me wonder what happened to him. If he wasn’t in the Orchard with the rest of the vampires, where was he? Did his pact with Molag Bal curse him to spend eternity in the Halls of Torment or the Lightless Oubliette? And why hadn’t Vallanil spoken of him when I was there?
I didn’t know what to do next. Having never been to High Rock—well, anywhere in Covenant territory—I had no clue where to start. Thus, in the hope that Sandril might have ideas, I went back to Auridon.
* * *
It seems like my life has become one big portal. In the past few weeks, Sandril has sent me through nearly a dozen, taking me all over High Rock and the Alik’r Desert, but there was no sign of Countess Amelia Stormbringer anywhere. I’ve barely taken a break since I left Coldharbour, so today I decided to go hunting.
Auridon is fairly urban, and there aren’t a lot of woods in which to hunt, but I managed to track a deer. And then, right in the middle of what little forest there was, I came upon a portal.
“Really?” I groaned. I was so sick of looking at portals. I just wanted to snag a deer, take some venison back to the Mages Guild for dinner, and then get some sleep. But this one looked different from Sandril’s. The color and quality of the light was off, definitely not one of his making. I reached in my pocket and touched the letter, which I never let out of my possession.
I’ve never been big on fate. While I did believe some things happened for a reason, for the most part it was just chance. But that was before I stepped through that portal to Coldharbour. I mean, where did the thing come from to start with? It just opened up in front of me. Maybe it was meant for me after all. Vallanil swore he hadn’t put it there, but stepping through it had allowed me to meet him and put me on a quest to find his wife. But what were the chances she was behind this doorway? I mean, really.
For some crazy reason, though, something in the back of my mind told me she was on the other side. This was the way to the countess. Ignoring every warning signal going off in my head, I stepped through.
The portal opened onto a huge, lushly appointed hall. A dinner table big enough to seat twenty stood to one side, and an enormous fireplace took the place of an entire wall on the other side of the room. A sitting area with half a dozen couches and a handful of chairs and tables rested in the center. Several corridors opened off of the hall, and a doorway by the dining area led to a brightly lit kitchen.
As big as the hall was, however, it was nearly empty. A lone woman lounged on one of the couches, reading a book. She was pretty, with short red hair, which she tucked behind one ear.
According to Vallanil, Amelia had short red hair. No. It couldn’t be this easy.
Easy? Who was I kidding? It hadn’t been easy. I’d been all over High Rock in the past few weeks. I was exhausted. It was time somebody cut me a break. And if this was her, that’s exactly what happened. Somebody wanted me to find Amelia Stormbringer. It wasn’t coincidence, and it might not have even been fate. Somebody was helping.
The woman looked up at me and raised her eyebrows. “Well, what have we here?”
I stepped closer to her, and that’s when I noticed her eyes. She was a vampire. “There was a portal,” I said.
“And you just stepped through without knowing where it would go?”
“I do that. I’m looking for someone. You wouldn’t happen to know Countess Amelia Stormbringer, would you?”
“No,” she said slowly, but she was lying and I knew it. “What do you want with her?”
“It’s you, isn’t it? You’re Amelia.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You stepped through the wrong portal, little one.”
“He called me that too.”
“Vallanil. I have a message for you.”
With that, her red eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “W-what did you say?”
“I’ve been to Coldharbour. He’s alive, Countess.” I pulled the letter out of my pocket and held it out to her.
“No, it’s not possible,” she said, even as she was reaching for the letter. She opened it, read, and burst into tears.
I sat on the sofa and rested a comforting hand on her arm. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sorry?” she sobbed. “He’s alive! You’ve nothing to be sorry about. How did you come to this?”
With a shrug, I said, “I have a thing about stepping through portals. One of them put me in Coldharbour. Vallanil saved my life, and he and his coven took care of me for a while until he found a way to send me back.”
Her cries became laughter. “Have you read this?”
“It tells me exactly where and how to find him. I just need to figure out how to get to Coldharbour.”
“I know a mage who might help you with that.”
Another vampire stepped out of the kitchen, a Bosmer like me, with a mug in one hand and a wine glass in the other. “What have we here?” she asked, repeating the countess as she handed her the goblet.
“Did I step into a vampire’s castle?” I asked impulsively.
“Aye, you did,” said Amelia, “and you probably shouldn’t stay.”
“If it’s dangerous, I understand, but I . . . I’m so curious. Vallanil told me a lot, and I—well, I want to know more. I want to learn about your kind.”
The other vampire smiled. “Stepped through the portal, did you? It happens; we get strays occasionally. Amelia, who is your friend?”
“I’m sorry,” the countess said sheepishly, “I don’t even know your name.”
“I am Yvonneleia,” said the other vampire. “I think we can teach you a few things.”
I sit now in my room in the Mages Guild, with a wealth of knowledge swimming around in my head. Amelia—who insisted that I stop calling her “Countess”—and Yvonneleia told me so much, as did some of the others who entered the hall as the hour grew later. There weren’t only vampires at this castle; there were mortals too. And werewolves. Werewolves! They also gave me an invitation to come back any time I want and learn more about their kind. I think I will.
* * *
Sandril wasn’t able to help Amelia. He tried time and again, but he couldn’t get a portal to Coldharbour to open for him. He said he would keep trying, but after a while, Amelia decided to leave the clan and set out on her own quest to reach Coldharbour. She told me she would go home to Rivenspire first, and set up a base of operations there. That way, if Sandril or I found something, we could get in touch with her. She hugged me tightly before she left and said I was a dear friend. Since I can get to Rivenspire pretty much whenever I want now, I told her I would likely go visit her just to keep in touch. She seemed to like that. I got the impression that even in a castle with so many of her kind, Amelia is very lonely. She has friends here, but she isn’t really close to anyone, except for maybe Yvonneleia. And now she’s leaving even that. I do so hope she finds what she’s looking for.
* * *
It turns out that learning about vampirism from a coven that is not allowed to feed is very different from one that is free. I’ve seen some grisly things in the past fortnight, but nothing was enough to scare me away. In fact, just the opposite.
The coven is called Clan Shar’Matar, and there are maybe twenty of them. They treat the mortals who live here as family members, practically equals, and they have really taken me under their wing. In fact, I spend most of my days and nights at the castle, often sleeping on one of the couches, and everyone assures me that I’m safe here.
Yvonneleia has offered to turn me if and when I am ready, and I’m seriously thinking of taking her up on it. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and I find that I want to gain that knowledge firsthand. I don’t want history and lore, and I don’t want a second-hand account of someone’s experiences. I want to know what it’s like, really know what it’s like, how it feels to feed, the taste, the emotions, the power, the intimacy with my prey. I want to know what it feels like to burst into mist form and float away, to be stronger, faster, stealthier. I’m really starting to want to be a vampire.
I just adore Yvonneleia. She said I could call her “Mother” after I am turned, which we both find hilarious, because she’s actually about twenty years younger than me. I worried about losing my mortal mother, but although she advised against it, Yvonneleia said I could still see her and Da if I wanted. I think I will tell them what I’m doing. They’ve always been open-minded. Da doesn’t even follow the Green Pact anymore. Becoming a vampire can’t be as shocking as that.
I’m sure Rai will be another story, though. My lover is so straight-laced. I’ve often wondered what he saw in me at all, especially when he would call me a “wild child.” How is he going to take this? Will he leave me? I don’t even want to think about that. We’ve been together since we were twelve years old. What would I do without him? And if he forced me to make a choice, what would I do? I mean, this is a life decision I’m talking about.
Clan Shar’Matar has a number of portals that open all over Tamriel, and one of them goes to Grahtwood. Thus, tomorrow I’ll take a deep, cleansing breath and step through it. I just pray to Y’ffre—should I be praying to Y’ffre about this? And if not, who?—that Rai will accept my decision.