“I don’t believe there would be anything arbitrary about it, regardless of how he described it,” Tauryon speculated as they trudged through the sand towards their horses.
“Absolutely not,” Rei agreed. “He seemed angrier at her than at you or even Sabrael.”
“Because she was the one capable of separating us.”
Rei opened his knapsack and pulled out the clothes he’d packed along with his leathers. They wouldn’t be a perfect fit, but they had a better chance than the clothes he’d given Sabrael when they’d first met. He’d found a pair of older silk bottoms that were too short for him now, and a brightly colored kaftan his father had brought back from a trip to Sentinel.
“Here, love,” he said, holding them out to his kirin. “Try these on. They won’t be perfect, but it’s better than walking about exposed.”
Sabrael took the pants first, studying them curiously. “I’ve never had to wear clothes before,” he said.
“You were wearing a loincloth when I first met you.”
“Four hundred years is a long time. I could have made something, I suppose, especially if I thought you might be upset at me being naked.”
“Well, as far as I’m concerned that’s not something you ever have to worry about.”
Sabrael blushed and smiled before slipping into the outfit. The pants were a couple of inches too long, but it wasn’t too bad, and the kaftan could close around him comfortably.
“Will you be okay away from your lagoon?” Rei asked.
“I should be fine for a while,” he answered, “just as long as I can get to water when I need to. It doesn’t necessarily have to be here.”
Rei helped Sabrael onto Gambit’s back and hoisted himself up after, wrapping his left arm around his kirin’s waist. He smiled at the comfort and excitement he felt from him.
“So what do you propose?” Tauryon asked.
Rei thought hard. Vile was certainly incensed at Callie’s presence, but was there some connection to be made? He didn’t know anything about her. Would she be in a place with other mages?
“Do you think maybe she and the Star are together?” Sabrael asked.
“Surely not,” Rei answered. “That would be too great a risk, don’t you think, Tauryon?”
Tauryon considered, pursing his lips slightly. “Well, it would fit his personality to punish someone threatening him with the thing he was being threatened with.”
“I suppose so. If that’s the case, we have even less time to lose than we thought.”
“We still don’t know where she is,” Tauryon said.
“The shrine. We’ll check there first.”
“I’m sure this whole journey is leading towards a trap,” Rei said, “one that Clavicus has invested a lot of anger in. When he’s like this, it’s more important to him that the lesson is learned than that it be subtle, and it’s not about what side I choose. He likes to pretend that’s not the case, and perhaps others buy into it, but I think sometimes he forgets how long I’ve been watching him.”
“Even if it is a trap,” Sabrael said, “if she’s in trouble we can’t just leave her.”
“Quite so,” Tauryon agreed. “Lead on, Rei Ginsei.”
Rei squeezed Sabrael and kissed his cheek as he looked back. “Are you ready, my beauty?”
“Always with you,” he smiled. Rei felt his nerves, but there was courage there, too. More than Tauryon, Sabrael seemed closer to the way Rei knew him in their own time, as if somehow he’d just picked up where he left off, even if he had no memory of his growing bravery. Of course, he hadn’t done anything personally to terrify him this time, which probably helped.
The little makeshift shrine was down the coast, farther north, tucked away in an alcove Rei could hide with brush when he was away. It faced in the direction of Vile’s star, which rose low in the sky in the mornings of the summer months. As they drew nearer, strange, muffled sounds drifted to them on the wind, slowly becoming clearer as a woman’s screams of pain, dampened by something intended to keep her quiet and hidden from concerned wanderers.
Sabrael had been right. On top of the little altar made of flat rocks, the Black Star stood upright on two of its tendrils, and just behind it was Callie, hovering an inch above the ground and bound tightly from head to toe with magic straps, not unlike Tauryon’s. She cried out desperately against a strap that covered her mouth, but her eyes were closed, and Rei wasn’t even sure she knew they were there.
Almost imperceptible wisps of indigo light were drawn from her and into the Star. It was taking her soul in a deliberately slow and cruel way. Rei felt it was interesting how his master’s knowledge of soul gems and their manipulation grew when it suited him, though he wasn’t sure why he was in any way surprised. He thought of how painful soul removal was when it was quick, and he couldn’t imagine the agony Callie must have been experiencing.
Rei leapt from his horse as quickly as he could and drew his swords. He wasn’t sure what they could accomplish. If they could damage it, that would be wonderful, but perhaps just knocking it away would disrupt its draw. Neither seemed to be in the stars, however. As he ran towards the Star, he raised his swords above his head and brought them heavily down onto their target, only to be met with a magical barrier that deflected their strike and sent Rei reeling backwards.
“Rei!” He heard Sabrael squeak, nearly falling off Gambit’s back in his hurry to reach his side. “Are you okay?”
“I should’ve known that wasn’t going to work out,” he said. “Tauryon?”
He realized that at some point during his fall, Tauryon had run to the Star and was now stretching his fingers uncertainly over it.
“Do you think you can dispel it?” Rei asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I swing a sword and shock things, and as we’ve seen, one of those is absolutely useless.”
“You do more than just shock things,” Rei said. “You do brilliant things with alteration magic!”
“You think so?”
“Yes! I never said it, but you were always amazing. Surely you can think of something?”
Tauryon took a deep breath and turned his attention back to the Star. His eyes darted left and right as he thought, until a sudden spark flashed in them, and he bent to quickly scoop some sand into his palm. “Watch your eyes,” he warned.
Rei took a step back as his friend turned his head away and slowly let the sand he’d picked up pour over the Star. Luckily, the sand was light enough that it wasn’t repelled by the barrier, and instead slid down the sides of an invisible sphere.
“Excellent,” Tauryon said quietly.
“Is that good?”
“Maybe. It’s better than if it were an abstract perimeter that just materialized when something came close. You two go find something the size of the star. A rock, driftwood, anything.”
“What will that do?” Sabrael asked.
“Just do it!” Tauryon said. “Quickly!”
Rei sprinted off as best as he could in the sand and ran around to the back of the shrine’s nook where the grass line began. There was some dead wood up here, some rocks, but none quite the size of the Star. His heart was pounding as he ran here and there, coming up empty every time he thought he’d found something useful.
“I found something!” he heard Sabrael’s voice calling faintly from the shore.
Rei ran back down to the shrine, and Sabrael reached them shortly, triumphantly presenting Tauryon with a beautiful conch shell.
“The shape’s a bit difficult,” Tauryon said (Rei felt his pique raise as Sabrael’s face drooped), “but I’ll make it work.”
“See that you do,” Rei said. Tauryon looked askance at him and swallowed.
His friend placed the shell on the shrine next to the star, and, closing his eyes in concentration, made both slowly phase into each other until finally the conch was inside the barrier in place of the Star.
“How did you do that?” Sabrael asked.
“Well, it’s alteration, isn’t it? I altered their matter. I don’t know for sure, but it seemed to me Vile might sense the barrier becoming empty, hence the replacement item. If that’s the case, hopefully he’s not aware of the weight or dimensions.”
“Meanwhile, we need to stop the soul trap!” Rei snapped.
He looked around and grabbed a stone that lay against the foot of the altar. Perhaps his magic was beyond rusty, and perhaps brute force was all he knew anymore, but it often got the job done. He raised the stone and smashed it against the Star over and over until finally he saw the cracks starting to appear. Eventually the draw began to slow, and finally reverse, as the Star was destroyed in earnest.
As Callie took a sharp breath and hung slack against her bindings, sobbing, Rei looked at the artifact he’d worked so hard to obtain and repair. This wasn’t just an obstacle; this was a way for Vile to ensure his vestige remained within Rei’s being. He didn’t know what would happen at the coast by Dusk, but it was going to be hideous.
When he looked up, Tauryon had dispelled Callie’s bonds and caught her as she fell. She threw her arms around his neck and cried against his shoulder.
They all stood in silence while she recovered enough to stand, wiping her nose with her forearm. For the first time, she looked up properly and squinted at her savior.
“Tauryon?” she asked.
“I’m a bit younger than you, erm, know me.”
She looked over at Rei, and it took her a bit longer. “You must be Rei Ginsei, then.”
“What happened? You asked about the terms of a bargain and then I was here. Gods, I don’t know how long that was going on…it was so awful..”
“Clavicus sent us all back to the time of our youth on the Isle of Summerset,” Rei explained. “Being that you weren’t alive at the time, and that he sees you as a significant threat, he put you here at the shrine to him that I built and did something to the Black Star which enabled it to slowly steal your soul while you were alive.”
“And you broke it,” she said. “Thank you. All of you.”
“What now?” Tauryon asked. “Should we head to Dusk as you said?”
Rei shook his head. “The sun’s setting, and I don’t know about you all but I’m tired and hungry.”
“What’s in Dusk?” Callie asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” Rei answered. “All I do know is that once I found you all, once I’ve made the choice to separate from Clavicus, we’re all supposed to head to a place on the coast to the southwest. I don’t harbor any delusions of graceful goodbyes between me and my master. I can only hope that I can keep you all safe. Seeing as we have a little time, I think our best course for now is to ride on to Sunhold and find a place to stay there. Drink, have some food. Enjoy ourselves before…”
Warm arms were around his waist and Sabrael’s head pressed against his chest. “It’ll turn out okay,” he said. “You’ll see.”
“I’m sorry for this,” he said again. “I’m sorry I never listened to you in the beginning, Tauryon. And Callie; you may have heard stories, but you didn’t know me until today. I don’t know how I could ever make up for what you just went through.”
“Tauryon asked me to help him with a daedra problem,” she chuckled. “If I wasn’t prepared to accept the risks I’d have chosen a different field of study.”
Rei smiled weakly and turned his eyes away.
“Finding a room sounds like a wonderful plan,” Tauryon said once the silence had grown too awkward. “Callie, you’re welcome to ride with me, if you like.”
Rei sighed as Tauryon helped the weak mage over to his animal. Stepping toward the altar, he picked up the newly-broken Star and turned it over his his hands.
“We all make mistakes,” a small voice said behind him, and he closed his eyes.
“There’s mistakes, and then there’s what I did. If only I could have looked just two feet past my own nose, perhaps I could have seen the forest. Perhaps I never would have awakened the need that set me on this path.”
“You’re trying to make it right,” Sabrael said. “You’re trying to protect us. You could just as easily go back to Vile, couldn’t you? Wouldn’t it be the easier route?”
Sabrael didn’t know what that route entailed, but he was right. He didn’t know for sure about Callie, but Sabrael would be an easy kill, and Tauryon had never once beaten him in sport. Vile might keep him under lock and key forever after, and their relationship would never be the same, but it was the easy route. The one that would allow him complacency.
Easy or not, however, the price was too great, and the idea of simply being a mate to Sabrael, to be with him as long as his mortal life would allow, had lodged itself firmly in his heart.
“Thank you, Sabrael,” he said.
“Are you coming?” Tauryon called.
“How are you doing?” he asked his kirin as he held up a hand towards Tauryon.
“I’m alright. Tomorrow when we set out I think I’d rather swim the rest of the way. This is as long as I’ve ever been out of the water and in this form.”
“Would a bath help, in the meantime?”
Sabrael giggled and raised up on his toes, and Rei bent down and kissed him on the lips.
After packing the Star away and mounting up, he and Tauryon goaded their steeds into a canter towards Sunhold. It wasn’t as brilliant as Alinor, but it was beautiful in its own way. The sun had fully disappeared by the time they reached the city’s island via a short ferry ride. After boarding the horses, the party strolled the streets where people were still out and about, socializing and running last-minute errands. The smell of meals being prepared in private residences drifted from chimneys and made Rei’s stomach rumble.
They’d reached their favorite inn, the Charming Sload, none too quickly, and Rei had almost forgotten his familiarity. As soon as he stepped through the door, he heard the barkeep call his name.
“Celedaen!” Falonril crowed. “How long’s it been? Brought a whole party in tonight, I see. Evening, Tauryon!”
He and Tauryon nodded and headed over to the bar. “Have you got the big room available?” he asked.
“For all four of you?” Falonril asked, his face the perfect image of lecherous curiosity.
“For me and my partner, here. If they’re available, Tauryon and our associate Calenya will be wanting the other two finer rooms. I’ll be paying.”
“I can pay for my own room,” Tauryon protested lazily.
“Nonsense. I’ve dragged you into this, and it’s only fair I bear financial responsibility as well.”
“Please,” Rei answered before turning to the tavern at-large and whistling loudly through his fingers. Silence descended amongst the myriad Altmeri patrons as they turned towards him. “Next round’s on me, whatever your poison!”
A loud cheer was his answer, and he smirked.
“I’ll start your usual tab, I suppose?” Falonril offered. “Find a seat, and I’ll send someone over. Let you know when your baths are ready, too.”
“Thanks, Falonril,” Rei answered.
As soon as they found an empty table, Rei found he wasn’t very much in the mood to eat or drink, anymore. He pulled Sabrael into his lap and enjoyed the way his kirin leaned against him and loved him. There was fear in him, as there ought to have been, but it was overshadowed by love, by happiness.
Rei shared a pot of green tea with him and a plate of sashimi, and though this was meant to be a sort of last hurrah, nobody said much of anything. They were all tired and scared. Finally someone came to inform them that their baths were drawn, and they retired to their rooms.
“I’m so glad we’re alone now,” Sabrael sighed, turning back as Rei closed the door and falling into his arms. “I feel like you can be all mine now.”
“I’ll always be all yours,” he said softly, leaning down to kiss him and to slide the silk kaftan off his shoulders.
“Oh, Rei, I always thought of this. Even imagining it was almost more than I could take…”
“I can feel how badly you need me.”
“And I can feel how badly you need me,” Sabrael giggled.
The multiple meanings of “need” converged in his heart suddenly, like carts crashing on the road. With a dry sob, Rei fell to his knees and pulled his kirin to him and leaned his head against the soft skin of his stomach.
“Rei, don’t,” Sabrael cooed, stroking his hair. “I know things are bad. I know everything might end. I don’t know about anyone else, though, and it doesn’t matter.”
“Because you’re making an effort to set things right. And…And if I have to die tomorrow-“
“Don’t say that…”
“I’d at least die knowing that you loved me, too.”
“I do love you, Sabrael,” Rei said, “and if I weren’t so weak, maybe this all could’ve been avoided.”
“Maybe. Maybe it was bound to happen. Regardless, we have this time together, don’t we?”
Rei looked up and sighed. “I’ve never asked anyone this, not expressly, but…”
“Make love to me? Please?”
Sabrael bit his lower lip as a thrill shot through him and then through Rei. “I’d love to,” he said, “but you’re probably gonna have to help, at least a little. I don’t know much of anything about it.”
“Shall we get in the bath, first?”
Sabrael nodded excitedly as he slipped his pants down to the floor. As Rei followed suit, though, he felt a strong mixture of excitement, nervousness, and self-consciousness flow from his kirin.
“It’s so big,” he said. “Am I too small?”
“Don’t be silly,” Rei smiled. “You have the most perfect cock, Sabrael, and it’s very good at making me come.”
“Do you feel how close I am just thinking about it?”
Sabrael sighed with his eyes closed. Rei smiled and strode over to the tub, an ornate vessel deep and long enough for any Altmer, plus some room to spare for an amorous partner. Carefully he dipped his left foot in and, satisfied of its proper temperature, slid all the way in, up to his chin.
Sabrael followed and tested the water with his hand. “How should I get in?” he asked. “I don’t really know how to make love.”
Rei laughed quietly. “All making love means is showing your partner physically how much you love them. There’s no right or wrong way, my beauty.”
“I’ll get in this way, then,” Sabrael smiled, bolstered. Carefully he slipped into the water, lying with his chest against Rei’s.
“Perfect,” Rei said quietly as he let Sabrael take his lips.
Delicate fingers, creating tantalizing motion trails in the water, slid over his balls, and he moaned quietly, moving his hands down Sabrael’s back and grasping his wonderfully round buttocks. As Sabrael’s lips left his, Rei leaned his head away to offer his neck. As soft lips pressed against his skin, his cock was enveloped in warmth and worked gently up and down along the first couple of inches.
“Oh, yes,” he sighed.
“You’re so very hard. It feels like you’re hurting.”
“You’re the only person who can send me straight into blue balls without even touching me.”
“I don’t mean to,” Sabrael said.
“Shh, beauty. It’s your passion working on mine. It’s beautiful and means that relief is going to be that much better.”
Sabrael breathed a sigh of relief, and Rei once again felt the flood of his desire.
“Right now just feeling you might send me over the brink.”
“I can say the same.”
“I want you to fuck me,” Rei whispered.
“How do I do that?”
“There’s a bottle of oil on that tray right there. Hand it to me, and get up on your knees so your cock is above the water.”
Sabrael quickly obeyed, but before opening the bottle, Rei flexed his core and brought his head forward to gently fellate the hard little branch that was his kirin’s member. Both hands were on the back of his head as Sabrael began thrusting, his passion spiking and curling Rei’s toes, but as hard as he was throbbing, Rei pulled away, planting one final kiss on the tip of Sabrael’s cock.
“Oh, wow,” Sabrael shuddered, smiling.
Rei grinned before pouring some of the oil into his palm. Very carefully he coated Sabrael’s member, paying attention to the way he shook and twitched.
“Now,” he said, raising his knees, “I want you to lower yourself onto me just like before, but guide your cock so that it presses against my hole.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Rei chuckled. “The thought’s a bit unappealing even after you’ve done it a while.”
“I mean, won’t it hurt?”
“Only to start.”
Sabrael bit his lip as he maneuvered himself in the limited space of the tub. Rei held the hand Sabrael was using to guide himself and helped him find his way until the plump, soft head pressed against him.
“Will it work?” Sabrael asked.
“Just rock back and forth against me gently until you feel me open, and then…”
It didn’t take Sabrael long, and soon Rei experienced the dual sensation of being filled and being squeezed. He pulled Sabrael down on top of him, kissing him deeply as his kirin thrust slowly and deliberately. He was too small to reach his prostate, but that hardly mattered. His kirin’s warm belly against his rod was exquisite, and Sabrael’s experience twining with his own was beyond transcendent.
Sabrael’s face pressed into his neck as his thrusts grew quicker and erratic. Rei felt the knot of ecstasy pull tight one last time before the overtight bands reached the apex of their tension, that split second during which Rei squeezed Sabrael to him, heard his kirin’s muffled cry, before snapping, letting loose all the joy and passion that had been building since first meeting Sabrael in the sea. Looking down, he saw the milky cloud of his seed as it dispersed into the water, and he squeezed Sabrael’s sides with his thighs as the little daedra pushed into him hard and fast, his cock pulsing and straining as he shared Rei’s orgasm.
“Oh, Rei, I can’t stop,” he gasped.
“Spend yourself, my beauty,” Rei said, stroking his hair. “I just want you to feel good.”
Sabrael didn’t quite come down, and the second time was so intense, Rei was surprised to feel himself coming again. It wasn’t as strong, but it was no less wonderful, loosening his muscles and relieving the residual ache of hormones.
Finally Sabrael took a long, shuddering breath as he slipped out, and Rei held him close, stroking his hair.
“I should have told you I get pretty excited,” Sabrael said sheepishly.
“It’s nothing I didn’t know. I love the way you can do that; not many men can.”
Sabrael smiled, and Rei kissed him gently, absorbing the happiness and reassurance that exuded from him. He was growing steadily more uneasy as the hours continued to slip by, but neither his optimism nor his faith faltered.
“We should clean up as best we can and get some sleep, I think,” Rei said. “As much as I wish tomorrow didn’t have to come.”
“I know you know I’m scared,” Sabrael said, “but I know you’ll try your best, and I know you’re going to try for us.”
“As hard as I can.”
Rei didn’t sleep much. He tried to keep still while Sabrael nestled against him, not fast asleep, but asleep nonetheless. He wasn’t sure when he’d finally dozed off, but it had to have been late, as when he was roused by a loud knocking on the door, his head was fuzzy and he was more disoriented than if he had gotten more than a few hours’ rest.
He hadn’t packed pajamas, and so he grabbed a towel and held it over his genitals for modesty before opening the door and peering around it. Tauryon was on the other side, looking about as good as Rei felt.
“Sorry to wake you,” he said. “We gave you an hour and figured we’d best get this over with.”
“We?” he asked groggily.
“Callie and I. She’s been awake all night, I think. She was sitting in the tavern when I came down.”
“I’m sorry to have made you wait,” Rei said. “I only got to sleep probably a few hours ago.”
Tauryon looked around him, and Rei turned to see what he was looking at. Sabrael was still asleep.
“I don’t know what caused this change,” Tauryon said. “If it was Sabrael’s influence. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little jealous.”
“His ability to soften you. I wish it could’ve been me. I wish I had had the spine.”
“Well, if your reaction to me in the…the present…was any indication, you may have just turned me in.”
“Maybe,” he smiled.
“I did love you,” Rei said. “Maybe not in the way you wanted or needed, but in my own broken way. You were the friend I’d always wanted. I don’t suppose I ever even told you that.”
“I don’t know if any of us will remember this if we manage to make it through, but in case we don’t, I want you to know that I’m proud of the work you’ve put into this ordeal.”
Rei felt his lips pull immediately into a properly joyful smile, and he leaned forward and took Tauryon’s lips in a long, grateful kiss.
There was a new spark in his old friend’s eyes when they parted. “You should get dressed,” he said eventually. “We need to at least try to think of possibilities.”
Rei nodded. “Be down in a minute.”
Even when he slept “lightly”, Sabrael was difficult to awaken. Rei leaned over him and nuzzled his neck, resisting the urge to wrap himself around the little sleeping form and go back to sleep for however long fate deemed appropriate. Fate was kind, though, and Sabrael woke without too much trouble.
“We have to,” Sabrael said sleepily.
“You’re so frightened, and you’re fighting so hard against what lies ahead. I wish we could just stay here, too.”
Rei took a deep breath that was hampered by the tightness of his throat. He accepted his kirin’s kiss, and nothing more was said as Sabrael put his kaftan and too-long pants back on, and as Rei pulled on his leather armor.
“You’re here!” Callie grinned as they took seats at the table she and Tauryon had claimed in the tavern. “Excellent.”
“You seem awfully chipper for someone who’s been awake all night,” Rei said.
“Oh, I’m used to all-nighters. I don’t think I slept a full night since joining the Mages Guild, and that was forty years ago.”
“Presumably you haven’t also been having your soul siphoned while you’re alive,” Tauryon said.
“I’m exhausted, don’t get me wrong, and the cheerfulness is partially veneer, but thankfully I have two knights in shining armor. Tauryon asked me to help you, Rei, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m very glad you’ve remained committed.”
Rei smiled self-consciously as he availed himself of the tea sitting on a warmer in the middle of the table. He prepared a cup for Sabrael first before settling back with his own.
“I know this isn’t ideal,” he said slowly, “and I understand why, but what are the chances and consequences of trying to break free of his will?”
“Well, most importantly, the illusion would collapse with us inside it.”
“What if I managed to maintain it?”
Callie laughed. “There’s no way.”
“None at all? When Umbra broke free, its power grew in the absence of Clavicus’ will dampening it.”
“This is the magic of one of the more powerful Princes, Rei,” Callie explained. “You’re an Altmer, first and foremost, but I couldn’t expect you to levitate that teapot without practice. Taking on the burden of maintaining an illusion of this magnitude would be monumental at the best of times, but unless there’s something you’re not telling me, I don’t know that you would know how, in the first place.”
Rei looked down at the table, and he was relieved to feel Sabrael lean against him. “There has to be a way out. He’s not going to let me go.”
Callie and Tauryon nodded.
“We at least can count on the fact that Vile’s hands are somewhat tied,” Callie said. “Not tightly, but they are.”
“What do you mean?” Sabrael asked.
“Rei Ginsei is valuable to him on a very basic level. Vile can’t kill him; that much scholars have established concerning his appendages. It appears – and please do correct me if I’m wrong; I might be an expert, but there’s no substitute for first-hand experience – that once Vile imparts part of his vestige to something, he can’t take it back.”
“That’s indeed the case,” Rei said.
“Vile therefore finds himself in a dilemma if Rei holds to his convictions. He wields the threat of destruction should something happen to Rei’s vestige fragment, but it’s a double-edged sword.”
“We’d die, but Vile would be left without his plaything and weakened, on top of it,” Tauryon said, looking thoughtfully at the table.
“To a very great extent,” Callie said. “Thinking on it, a stalemate might be the best we can hope for, and that’s assuming he stops the clock.”
“Clavicus needs to be dealt with,” Rei said. His fingers had curled up as his hand rested on the table and his nails dug into his palm. His resolve was strengthening, but it was slow. “There is no doubt he will renege on his bargain, and no matter what I do, if he is not in some way neutralized, you three will die.”
Sabrael’s arms wrapped around his bicep. His fear had been growing steadily, and it nestled in Rei’s stomach as his hands began to shake. How many times had he barked at his kirin for making his hands shake?
“What about Azura?” Sabrael asked.
“What about her?”
“Maybe she could help.”
Rei looked over at Callie.
“I said before that change is her domain and that it’s likely she’s been observing this the whole time. I don’t know what she could do in this circumstance, but she is merciful and appreciates those who are properly contrite. That she hasn’t taken revenge on you speaks to her knowing something about the future that we don’t…or else this is her punishment for the Star debacle.”
“Wonderful,” Rei sighed.
“People give Vile a lot of credit for being tricksy, but Azura can certainly work her own special brand of punishment.”
Rei looked askance at the mage, who suddenly realized what she was saying and looked away quickly, cheeks flushed.
“How would I go about praying?” he asked. “I never paid her much attention before a few weeks ago.”
“Well, conditions aren’t ideal,” Callie answered, “but if you clear your mind and open yourself to the change around you, she will hear.”
“And what if she doesn’t?”
“All you can do is try,” Tauryon said. “Failure isn’t shameful if you gave it your all. I know that’s not what you were taught, but it’s the truth.”
Rei pulled Sabrael to him so he could kiss his forehead before rising from his chair and walking back upstairs to the room. He looked around as he shut the door behind him, smiling slightly. He’d had many a drunken fling in this very room, this room richly appointed with expensive rugs, the canopy bed, paintings. One last time, he was allowed to visit his fondest places, and in one of his very fondest, he’d made love with his precious Sabrael.
Vile’s tack was a good one, he had to admit. This was so much better than his island. He could perhaps have Tauryon exactly as he was with no memory of this. No worries. No conflicts. He could hunt forever.
Shaking his head, he took the broken Star from his knapsack and placed it on the bed. He wasn’t sure why, but it seemed somehow appropriate, if a little backwards. He knelt on the floor before it and, with his elbows on the mattress on either side of it, he buried his fingers in his hair.
He might rather keep his daedric appearance, though, if he were to stay. It had become part of his identity, after all…
Rei squinted his eyes shut against the unwanted thoughts and tried to do what Callie had said.
“Azura,” he said, letting his mind relax as best as he could, trying to let the words come to him on their own, “Queen of the Night Sky, please hear the prayer of a low and penitent wretch. I was dismissive of your priestess, openly defiant of your wishes, and further wished to use your corrupted treasure at the whims of my master, Clavicus Vile.
“I accept the changes this has brought about in my life. I accept the very real possibility that you had planned for this, and I would accept your decision to turn me aside and leave me to a fate well-deserved and at the hands of a wrathful Prince. I need you now, my Queen, and I prostrate myself that you might have mercy, if not on me, then on my friends and my love, who are unwilling and undeserving prisoners of my misdeeds.
“I renounce Clavicus Vile. I cannot take back the things I did in his name, but I can – and will – promise to change my path, and, if you would have me, pledge my allegiance to you and be your humble servant. I felt your draw that brought me to Skyrim. That you would have chosen me as your champion indicates to me that you had hope for me. Please, my Queen, give me one last chance. Protect my friends, if nothing else.”
Rei continued to kneel by the bed for a while, though he wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. Vile had never directly answered him in the early days when he only prayed, and he hadn’t done anything to displease him. He pressed his lips together before using the mattress to push himself up. The only thing he could do was wait and see.
Time was bearing down, and the party could waste no more time in the inn. Sabrael, much to Rei’s worry, chose – as he had said – to swim along the coast to reach their destination, and at Rei’s suggestion, he and Tauryon and Callie would take the long way to Dusk, riding parallel to Sabrael’s path. The day had started beautifully sunny, but as they drew nearer the sky grew steadily darker and the wind picked up, blowing from the southeast and into their faces, slowing their pace. The sea grew restless, and though he felt no unusual upset from his kirin, he couldn’t help but add another worry to the pile.
The closer they grew to Dusk, the more Rei wondered if they’d missed the spot. They had been directly southwest for a while, but he’d seen no sign that Vile was waiting for them. He pulled on Gambit’s reins and slowed him to a stop, and Tauryon, Callie holding tightly to his chest, followed suit.
“Do you think it was a trick?” Tauryon called over the rising wind. “Could he just be wasting our time?”
Rei shook his head. “I’d imagine he’s out to make us nervous. These sorts of storms don’t happen this time of year, you know that.”
“Early sou’easters aren’t unheard-of.”
“It’s too coincidental for me.”
As if on cue, a tall, sinewy creature materialized from nothing in front of them, walking in a deliberate and slightly willowy way, placing one foot carefully in front of the other. He was clad head-to-toe in his finest gold jewelry; delicate chains adorned his feet and hands, and a solid gold cuff wrapped around his upper left arm. Rei knew it well. He had its mate, though he hadn’t thought much of it as it had been given to him early in their relationship. In daedric script, the engraving around it read: “My beloved is mine.” Rei’s read: “I am my beloved’s.”
“I see you’ve noticed my cuff,” Vile called. “It occurred to me, Rei Ginsei, that I hadn’t seen you wear yours in quite a while. I’d have written it off as detachment, but once you regained your soul and said all those lovely things to me, I figured surely you’d dig it out of whatever storage you kept it in.”
Rei dismounted and walked towards his hopefully former master. His heart pounded at Vile’s beauty; the pull of his vestige was strong, but he persevered and stood fast before the Prince. “I don’t wear things whose engravings I don’t agree with.”
Vile snorted. “It’s just as well. After doing some thinking, I’m not sure I want to take you back. At least, not in the way I’d promised. I have a nice, cold cell just for you. I can keep my power while you rot for eternity, thinking of what you did to me.”
“Do with me what you will, Clavicus, just let my friends go.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because their only crime was trying to help me.”
“It’s a shame that you see it that way,” Vile said. “The way I see it, they broke my prized possession. Did your mother never tell you it was bad manners to break another boy’s toy?”
“If I’m just a toy,” Rei countered, “then I’m replaceable, and these people don’t need to die for whatever it is you think they’ve done!”
“You’re not replaceable! You have my heart!”
“Whose fault is that!?”
Vile pulled back a little in astonishment. “Why am I not surprised the indiscriminate murderer is just an ungrateful piece of garbage at his core?”
A gout of rage broke through the conflict and the fear. It coiled the springs that were Rei’s biceps, and drove his hands forward and into Vile’s shoulders, almost knocking him onto his backside.
“You miserable little cur,” Vile spat. “Is this how you want to do this?”
“Why not?” Rei answered, taking a step forward and pushing him again. “Are you afraid of me?”
“I’m tired of you, is what I am. I’m tired of you, and I’m tired of this circus, and before I end this song and dance, I’m going to do something about that seahorse.”
“You leave him alone!” Rei barked, lunging forward again.
This time Vile hopped back and raised a hand, effortlessly sending a ball of fire into Rei’s chest. It was powerful enough that it knocked the wind from his chest and caused him to lose his balance. He saw Tauryon and Callie fall from their shared steed and run towards him. Hands were suddenly slapping at him, and finally he felt Tauryon roll him over onto his stomach to starve the flames which had been thankfully reluctant to catch on his leather armor.
In the meantime, though, Clavicus had turned to face the sea, holding his arms just out in front of him, palms facing inward. The sea began to swell, and Rei drew his swords without thinking and ran over to the Prince, crossing his forearms with the intent to slash deeply in opposite directions. If nothing else, it would put at least a few of his plans on hold.
But just like the star as it swallowed Callie’s soul, as soon as his swords closed in, a powerful force field sent him flying back.
“You’re so precious,” Vile crowed. “Remember when you said you’d die for me? Now perhaps you shall, at least in some fashion.”
The loud, fuzzy sound of exploding water made Rei and his friends huddle back away from the sea, and as soon as he could properly open his eyes against the spray, Rei saw a gigantic tentacle – several of them, in fact – rising above the water, its end coiled around something long.
Rei knew what it was, but as if to dispel any hope that it wasn’t, the shrill scream of an equine animal rose above the noise of the wind and the waves, and all at once, a fear and desperation so great they weakened his legs filled his heart. Sabrael had been, so far, calm enough that Rei could easily ignore it, but now his kirin’s despair was all he could feel.
“Sabrael!” he cried, running towards the break. “Let him go, Clavicus! Just take me with you and let him go!”
“I doubt it,” Vile answered, idly flicking the claws on one hand with the thumb. “That thing out there? Little trick I stole from Hermaeus Mora. It’s draining his life force, you see. Slowly, though. Quite slowly. You can try to save him if you like, but I doubt you’d succeed considering your childish fear of the sea. And, just a friendly reminder: apart from insolent little vermin with part of my vestige inside them, if one were to die inside this illusion, they’re gone forever. Even little water daedra.”
Rage gripped Rei’s heart so hard he thought it might actually burst. He threw himself again at his former master, only to be knocked back again.
“Because that worked so well the first time, didn’t it?” Vile smirked.
Rei set his jaw and looked back out to the sea where Sabrael, in his natural form, screamed and writhed in the swaying tentacle that held him. He was in so much pain, and though he kept trying to tell himself that he’d waded out into the lagoon with no problem, his feet were like lead. This wasn’t the lagoon. Angry waves crashed into the shore, worsened by the limbs that curled and swayed offshore.
“I’ll get him Rei, don’t worry,” Tauryon said quickly, pulling at one of his boots.
“No! He’s my Sabrael!”
“You can’t swim!”
“I have to try!”
“It’s a moot point,” Vile interjected. In an instant, a small, barbed caged sprung up around Tauryon and Callie. “Someone’s going to die today. Perhaps more than one. The tide’s due in soon.”
And, just like that, Vile was gone.
Rei reached out to grab the bars of the cage holding his friends and pulled his hands away as they were stung hard by the barbs. Painful, red welts rose on his palms.
“Don’t worry about us,” Callie said. “Between us, I’m sure Tauryon and I can get out of here. Do whatever you can to get Sabrael.”
Rei looked to Tauryon.
“Go, quickly. And don’t thrash! Dive under the waves, do you understand? Don’t try to swim through them.”
Sabrael’s terror and his own fear were knotted together, and he felt like he might vomit. “I can’t, Tauryon!”
“You can! Kick your legs, hands in front, like this, and pull them back to your sides, like this. Just don’t panic.”
“You can do it, Rei. People don’t fear you for no reason. You’re strong, and you’re brave!”
Rei nodded and took a deep breath, letting his anger be the needle that got between the knots of dual fear and loosening them. Vile had counted on him being afraid. But it wasn’t going to happen. He would drown a thousand times before letting his kirin come to harm.
As quickly as he could, he pulled his boots off, shed his swords and their harness, his top, and grabbed the dagger he’d packed with everything else. When his feet touched the packed sand, he balked with every wave that broke. Sabrael’s screams were clearer, his pain more acute. Rei swayed back and forth on his feet, breathing hard, before launching himself into the water. The waves were strong and threatened to knock him over before he was in deep enough to try and swim.
“I’m coming, Sabrael!” he called. “Just feel how much I love you! You’ll be okay!”
Almost immediately he felt a small easement in his kirin’s fear and a spike in his hope. He tried to mirror the emotions and intensify them. It seemed to work, both of them working on their optimism to build each other up, so much that by the time the water was up to his waist, Rei launched himself forward and down into the water, not giving a second thought to the fear that threatened to keep him back.
He tried to do what Tauryon instructed, to reach his hands in front, and them pull them back in an arc towards his sides. It took a lot of effort against the waves until he remembered he was supposed to be diving under them.He wasn’t sure about any of that, but even so, as he saw a new one approaching, he thought of seeing Sabrael swim, and wondered if he could take cues from him. He pictured himself a long, serpentine creature and, with the next wave only a few feet away, he imagined his body following an arc. He clumsily swam a bit under water, and when he surfaced, he saw the wave was behind him!
He smiled excitedly and continued on until finally he was within spitting distance of the giant tenatacle.
“Rei!” he heard in his head. “Rei, please, it hurts!”
“I know, my beauty, I’ll get you free!”
Rei unsheathed the dagger from his belt and bit down on it as he swam the short remaining distance. Once he reached the sickly purple-white appendage, he jammed his dagger through the thick skin. A gout of black, foul-smelling ichor sprayed onto his face and chest while the tentacle began to thrash. Sabrael’s fear peaked as he screeched in that horrifying way Rei imagined only equine beasts could ever muster.
Sabrael was higher up than he’d realized, and even water couldn’t cushion all falls. Rei put the dagger’s blade back in his mouth and glommed onto the smooth side of the tentacle. It was, of course, wet, but as opposed to the slimy surface he’d expected, the skin was actually quite rough, allowing him to shimmy slowly along its length. Every now and again, he’d stab the creature, trying to weaken it, sometimes perforating it along its top side. Indeed, long before he’d reached the top, his journey was becoming ever more perilous, as the tentacle swayed and thrashed.
As the climb wore on, his kirin was growing weaker.
“Hang on, Sabrael, please,” he called. “I’m almost there.”
“I’ll be okay,” the voice in his head, now fainter than it usually was, assured him.
Finally, at this point trying very hard to avoid the suckers now that he’d reached the thinner part of the tentacle, Rei reached the coil where Sabrael was hanging limp.
“Sabrael, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to fall.”
“You’ll fall with me?” he asked weakly.
“Yes, of course!”
He waited a moment to see if Sabrael would say anything else, but nothing came. His emotions were fading fast.
“Fuck you, Clavicus,” Rei spat as he brought the blade down into the flesh once again. The creature snapped itself back and forth, But Rei held fast, stabbing it over and over, half blinded by tears and almost unaware of what was happening, until there was a lurch, and he saw Sabrael’s limp form falling to the ocean.
“No, Sabrael, please,” he said before thoughtlessly jumping from the collapsing tentacle.
The fall was quick, until he hit water. The force pushed him down, and when he dared open his eyes, he found himself surrounded by dreary cobalt with a sparkling and turbulent grey sky. To his left he saw Sabrael, sagging on either end like a ragdoll. Rei clumsily pulled himself through the water and wrapped one arm around his kirin’s broad back, with Sabrael’s leg awkwardly around his shoulder.
In his natural form, Sabrael was big, heavy, and his long tail made things even more difficult. Rei strained to get them both above water, but for having only just figured out how to move in the water, he wasn’t very strong, and every time it looked like they were about to breach the surface, a wave would come along and gently push them back down.
It was too much. The exertion of climbing that thrashing tentacle, the strain of trying to swim in turbulent water, and then again with a heavy creature on his back. His arm and shoulder muscles cried in agony, his lungs were on fire, and without thinking, as if his brain had decided all was well, he exhaled which, to his terror, invited an inhale. It was happening all over again, except this time there would be no Sabrael to save him, and his one chance to repay that favor was gone.
Bright colors streaked around them, and Rei felt warm. He closed his eyes as gravity left him and he was allowed to simply fly.
“Rei!” a woman was calling from a distance. “Rei, what’s happening, are you okay? Is Sabrael okay?”
“Rei, wake up!” a male voice joined in.
Suddenly he gagged and began coughing, and he felt an odd, blunt object nudge his shoulder so that he was on his side when he vomited sea water. It kept coming, along with things he thought would have been digested by now. When he felt secure in the knowledge that it was over, he pushed himself up on shaking arms and realized, first, that the water here was a lot deeper than it had been, and that the thing that had nudged him was the greenish-brown muzzle of a much bigger and intimidating kelpie than Sabrael ever could have been.
“Thank you,” Rei said. “Thank you for saving us.”
The kelpie only snorted at him.
“We only came for Sabrael,” another kelpie said. She was delicately-built, yellow with beautiful orange markings. “We would have left you to die if he hadn’t expressed to us his love for you in the past.”
Rei swallowed. “Is he…”
“He is not long,” the yellow kelpie said. “My mate and I will be by his side when he goes into the place of rebirth. You should tend to your friends yonder, for you have none here.”
Rei’s heart plummeted into his stomach and shattered there. The water was rising, and he knew he needed to help Tauryon and Callie, even if they said they could handle themselves, but he couldn’t move. The two kelpies flanked Sabrael’s limp form and laid their heads on his body.
“No!” he shouted and ran over to kneel in the water beside Sabrael’s head. He picked it up and laid it in his lap and held it as he hunched over it protectively. “No, he can’t die, he won’t! I love you too much, Sabrael, you can’t go!”
“You need to leave,” the male growled. “You did this to him, and now you must let him go with what dignity he retains.”
“I didn’t do this!”
“Every kelpie knows to let land-walkers be. For every land-walker a kelpie allowed himself to save, there’s a kelpie in a tiny tank for study, or a kelpie’s head in some land-walker’s home.”
“But I loved him!” Rei protested. “I never wanted him hurt…”
“Is that so? Why do I sense a lie?”
Rei suddenly remembered, lost in the elation of renewed love, his promise to Vile. “That was different,” he said. “I was blinded by service to my old master.”
“Hmph. Be that as it may, our Sabrael is beyond help. Let us provide him solace while you tend to the living.”
“Who are you, anyway,” Rei asked, “to tell me I have no business with my love?”
“I am his brother,” he said in clipped tones. “Phanuel. That is my mate, Neriah. Now, please. We are not violent, but, unlike my precious brother, I’m not afraid of it. Let us, as his family, mourn him in peace.”
Rei finally stepped back, barely able to see for his tears. It was his fault. The water was up to his calves, now, and he made himself turn and splash as quickly as he could through the water and to his friends’ cage. By the time he got there, he was hyperventilating.
“Rei,” Callie said.
“It’s fine,” he gasped. “It’s fine, how can I help, what can I do?”
“The bars are pliable,” Tauryon said. “We think so, anyway. We can’t grab onto any part of them to see for sure.”
“The spaces where there aren’t visible barbs? They must be covered in much tinier ones. And while it’s not lethal – in small amounts, anyway – they’re poisonous, much worse than the bigger ones you’d grabbed onto.”
Rei drew back as Tauryon held up his swollen and angry hand. Welts where his skin had touched the bars lined his fingers.
Rei took a long, deep breath, trying as hard as he could to stay collected. His friends were counting on him. Mourning could come later. “So what makes you think they’re pliable?”
“How do you think this happened?” Tauryon snorted.
“We need gloves,” Callie said, “although that seems far too simple.”
Rei ran to find Gambit who, being free, had begun to flee the tide. He wasn’t too hard to find, thankfully, and he pulled out his armored leather gloves from his knapsack before running back to the cage. The water was up to his knees, and he cursed more loudly than he normally would have as he tried to wrestle the gloves onto his damp, tacky hands.
Finally, they were on, and he grabbed two of the bars. The larger barbs pierced the leather like butter, and the pain of the tiny ones spread through his hands, but he pulled nonetheless, pulled until his head hurt. The bars were pliable, but coupled with pain, it wasn’t an easy feat to bend them.
“Rei!” Callie’s voice suddenly pierced his concentration. “Rei, stop, you look like you’re running fever!”
He was pretty dizzy, and he let Callie grab his hands and turn the palms up. The leather had been torn and gouged, and it was clear that his hands were swelling against the unyielding fabric.
“There has to be some way,” he said. “Sea grass pods! They’re all over!”
“I don’t know how you plan on implementing them,” Tauryon said, “but we’d need a lot of them. We don’t have time!”
Rei jumped at a sudden flicker of hope, and he looked back at the family of kelpies who were stolidly resting while the water consumed them. Sabrael’s tail twitched. It did more than twitch! It flopped.
A deep, joyful breath of relief filled his lungs, and he eagerly turned back to Tauryon and Callie with renewed resolve. “Alright, if these can pierce my gloves, we’ll need a pry bar.”
He turned and saw Sabrael in his humanoid form, hobbling as quickly as he could in the waist-deep water towards him. His brother and sister-in-law were in the process of turning, themselves, and were clumsily trying to make their way over to him to stop him.
But it was too late. Rei scooped him up and held him tightly. “Oh, Sabrael, I thought you were dead…”
“Almost,” Sabrael giggled tiredly. “I guess it takes more than that. But we need to help Callie and Tauryon.”
“We need a pry bar, something metal and strong.”
“My swords are glass; they won’t hold up to this.”
“Sabrael, why concern yourselves with these land-walkers?” Neriah asked.
“They don’t deserve to die this way!” he said. “And they’re good people. I know you blame him, but Rei tried to save me, and these two in the cage, Clavicus Vile put them there, just like he put me in that monster’s grasp! They’re not his disciples, he just did it to be mean!”
Neriah and Phanuel looked at each other questioningly.
“The water’s up to their chests, Phanuel!” Sabrael pleaded. “They haven’t done anything to us!”
“Neriah?” Phanuel asked.
Neriah, an impossibly tall and willowy woman with bright orange hair waded over to the cage and raised her arms, twisting them at the wrists so that her palms faced each other, her fingers curved to create a large sphere of air. The water around them began to swirl, slowly at first, then faster and faster until a circle of dry land surrounded them.
“Your swords, land-walker,” Phanuel said, “where are they?”
Rei hadn’t thought about the fact that they would have been underwater. Quickly he looked around until he saw one just on the edge of Neriah’s inverted whirlpool. He put Sabrael down and ran over to retrieve it, a difficult prospect with his hands swollen inside his gloves.
“Stand as far back in that cage as you can,” Phanuel said. “I will try not to catch you in this spell, but I make no promises.”
Callie and Tauryon embraced in an effort to make themselves tiny, and Phanuel raised a palm facing towards the bars. A fine jet of white ice shot from his palm and covered the half of the cage Callie and Tauryon weren’t occupying, leaving the bars sparkling and white.
Rei didn’t need to be told what to do. As soon as Phanuel finished his spell, Rei swung his weapon as best he could with both hands. The bars fell down into pieces, and he continued to hit them until all the affected bars were destroyed.
“Go!” Neriah called. “I can’t hold this forever!”
Callie and Tauryon bolted from their former prison and ran north, away from the coast. Rei picked up his weakened kirin and followed suit, and soon they were joined by Phanuel and Neriah.
Rei put Sabrael down and slid to the ground with his back against a tree. He spread his legs as Sabrael moved to lay along his torso. “How are you alive?” he asked. “Really?”
“Luck, I guess,” he said. “You cut me free I think not too long before I completely passed out. If my brother and sister weren’t nearby things might have been different.”
“I couldn’t feel you or anything.”
“I could feel you, though,” Sabrael said. “I could feel how sad you were and upset, and how worthless you were feeling.”
“I guess you didn’t die if you still had my soul.”
Sabrael giggled. “No necromancy here.”
Rei smiled and leaned down to return his kirin’s kiss. His kirin who pushed himself upright and pressed Rei’s head back against the tree.
“Now’s probably not the best time, my little exhibitionist,” Rei grinned.
“I’m just happy to be with you,” Sabrael answered.
“Perhaps we misjudged you,” Neriah said.
“I still think-” Phanuel began before a deafening thunderclap interrupted him.
“Apparently I didn’t make plans for every contingency,” Clavicus Vile shouted as he appeared amidst the group, levitating ominously before them. “I should have known when I captured this moment that there would be other seahorses! And you, how are you still alive?”
“It doesn’t matter. We are done, here. Rei Ginsei, you will wait in your cage for me to return, As for the rest of you-“
All of a sudden, in answer to the thunder’s call, there was a flash of light and an explosion of rose petals that fell from the sky. As Rei looked up, his heart stopped at the sight of utter beauty, a being bearing the appearance of the Chimer and clad in flowing robes. Vile turned his gaze upward as well, shielding his eyes.
“Stop this foolishness, Clavicus,” Azura commanded. “This creature lives because I willed it so, and so these people you’ve trapped in time shall live, as well.”
“You’d best stay out of this, Azura!” Vile warned. “I have no qualms going to war should you take this from me!”
“You petty thing. Of all of us, you’re always the one to feel slighted, always the one to have a tantrum, and always the one to act without realizing he doesn’t have all the cards he thinks he does.”
“What are you talking about, you glorified fortune-teller?”
“I’m talking of this…”
A pain worse than any Rei had ever felt in his life concentrated itself in his chest. It felt like his skin was being slowly ripped from his muscle. Sabrael scrabbled backward as he was pulled forward from the tree, screaming in agony and clutching his chest.
“You’re killing him!” Sabrael cried.
“Lord Azura, please,” he heard Tauryon beg, “he was repentant!”
Rei writhed, tears pouring from his eyes as he continued to scream at the ever-deepening pain.
“No…” he heard Vile say. “No, not my treasure! Not my heart! You gormless bitch, you’ve ruined everything!”
Suddenly there was no pain. There was no pull. Rei looked at his former master. He was still painfully beautiful, but he had no desire to fall into his arms or to hold him as he doubled over in his own pain.
“You miserable wretch,” he growled in Rei’s direction. “Had I known you’d gone to such lengths…No matter. I have strength enough to return home. The rest of you can rot!”
As soon as Vile was gone, the illusion around them began to fail. Sabrael’s family began to fade, the forest around them flickered.
“Oh, Rei,” Sabrael said, clinging to him once more. His fear was running all through him, but he wrapped his arms around him and held him fast. In a moment, Callie and Tauryon joined him and all huddled together.
“I’m so sorry,” Rei said. “I’m so sorry…”
“Silly mortal,” Azura said humorously. “Isn’t it you who often says to have some faith?”
Suddenly the illusion, which had only been deteriorating, disappeared altogether, and after a brief moment of hovering in a field of nothingness, they found themselves once more in Tauryon’s guest bedroom.
Rei and his friends looked around cautiously, their protective huddle loosening. He looked over to see Tauryon was his present self, handsome in his age. Sabrael was back in his linen pajama pants, and he himself in his silk ones. He swallowed in embarrassment as he smelled the essence he’d spilled onto them just prior to Vile’s visit. If anyone else noticed, they were polite not to say anything. When he looked down at his hands, he saw his claws had returned.
“Is it over?” Tauryon asked. “Did we make it?”
“Thanks to your friend,” a dusky voice answered. Azura herself appeared in the doorway and walked slowly in. “Rei Ginsei, you had so many paths to take, and I must say you chose the one I didn’t think was very likely.”
“My Queen,” he said, gently nudging Sabrael to one side so that he could leave the bed and kneel before the Prince. “I’m not worthy of your forgiveness.”
“When a mortal proves me wrong in such a way as you have, I feel it’s only fair. A gift for you.”
Azura held out her hands and presented a gleaming ruby in the shape of a heart.
“Clavicus,” he breathed. “That’s the vestige I had inside me.”
“Indeed it is. What would you have me do with it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you could keep it yourself. A souvenir, if you will, albeit a very tempting one. I could send it back to him…”
“Get rid of it,” Rei said quickly. “Hide it from me and from him.”
“A wise decision,” she smiled, disappearing the gem with a wave of her hand. “You are not free of him, however. He will, in whatever way he’s able, try to seek his revenge.”
“I will be ready.”
“I know you will be. Now, get your rest, all of you. Rei Ginsei, to seal your commitment to me, return to my shrine in Winterhold with my Star. Aranea will be waiting.”
“Thank you, my Queen. As you say.”
In a second, she was gone, and nobody said anything for a while.
“How do you feel?” Tauryon asked behind him.
“I feel,” he began, realizing he hadn’t really thought about it since the pain of having the vestige ripped out of him. He laughed quietly before saying, “I feel like a thorn’s been removed.”
“It was like I said,” Callie said. He could hear her smile.
Rei turned. “I know I’ve said this a thousand times, but-“
“I won’t say I’m pleased with all this,” Tauryon said, “but I accept your apology. It was nice being young for a spell. And I meant what I said in the inn. I’m proud of you.”
“I hope I can make all this up to you. And you, Callie. And of course, to you, my love.”
Sabrael smiled and slid off the bed to hold him.
“I’m with Tauryon,” Callie said, “but it gave me new material. How many people can say they’ve been through an ordeal like this and lived?”
“I’m serious, though. Anything I can do, I will.”
“Well, I suppose if you have any new adventures with daedra, I could always use a new correspondent.”
“I’m not eager to repeat any of this anytime soon, but it’s a deal.”
“Just take care of Sabrael,” Tauryon said. “Love him as best as you can.”
Rei looked down at his little kirin, who looked back adoringly.
“Marry me?” he asked.
Sabrael giggled. “What?”
“Marry me!” Rei grinned. “I’ll get you a proper ring, and everything. Any one you like.”
“Do you think they’ll marry daedra?”
“If they won’t, we’ll have our own ceremony.”
“Yes, Rei,” he laughed, throwing his arms around Rei’s neck. “Yes, yes, yes!”
Rei squeezed Sabrael close and leaned his head against him. “I love you so much, Sabrael. But I have to tell you, I can’t change overnight. I know my temper will get the best of me, I know my bloodlust hasn’t gone anywhere, but I will do everything I can to overcome those things.”
“That’s all I ask,” Sabrael smiled.
Rei smiled back. “First thing’s first, though.”
“Not before we all take a well-deserved nap, at the very least,” Tauryon suggested.
As Sabrael climbed back onto the bed and Callie left to curl up on the sofa in the common area, Rei put a hand on Tauryon’s shoulder and held him back.
“When I disappeared,” he said quietly, “my mother didn’t harass you or your mother, did she?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I overheard her talking with her gossip group. She said your mother was responsible for the rumors that had been going around about me, amongst some rather ugly things about you.”
“Well, yes. Threatening letters promising to ruin us, telling people about how horrible we were, that sort of thing. We knew nothing would come of it, and nothing did, but…”
Rei nodded. “If I’d known the depth of her dislike, Tauryon, I’d have stayed, even if it meant being locked away.”
“You can’t be held responsible for her actions. She lost her son, and she did the only thing she felt she knew how to do.”
“Plus, at the time, I really don’t think you would have.”
“Fair enough,” Rei conceded, feeling his cheeks warm.
Tauryon smiled slightly and leaned forward. Rei took his lips, and they embraced. He laughed in spite of himself as he felt Sabrael’s libido flare a a bit.
“What’s funny?” Tauryon asked.
“Would you perhaps like to share a bed with me and Sabrael?”
Tauryon looked back and forth between them, a smile slowly growing. “I think I can be convinced.”
The ride back to Winterhold was long and tiresome. A blanket wrapped around both Rei and Sabrael kept them warm as they hugged the coast, covered with snow and filled with icebergs that glinted blue in the sunlight. Rei was already missing Summerset, the scar of nostalgia having been ripped open. But still, there was beauty in this place, a reminder in its starkness that all one needed was the willingness to embrace serenity.
When they could see the statue towering in the distance, Rei goaded Baku into a canter, sticking as closely as he could to the flattened paths made by travelers and wildlife. Finally he stood before the massive wall of stairs, taking a deep breath and smiling. He could feel cleansing, and as Sabrael took his hand, he felt a new energy.
“Ah, so you did return,” the priestess Aranea smiled. “My mistress Azura has never yet lied.”
“I’ve returned at her behest,” Rei said. “I’ve brought the Star, although it’s been corrupted and broken…several times.”
“No matter,” Aranea said. “The Queen of the Night Sky can purify that which she deems worthy.”
Rei returned her knowing smile as she placed the Black Star on the altar.
“She would have you speak,” Aranea said, backing respectfully away.
“What would you ask of me, my Queen?” Rei asked.
“You have done well, little mortal,” she answered. “To say that I am pleased with your transformation would be an understatement. For all your thrashing and fighting against the change around you, in the end, you understood the importance of tractability and, more importantly, the importance of humility.
“And now you present my artifact. It was found broken and corrupted, was repaired by you for nefarious purposes, and, in the end, destroyed once more to save your friend from a hideous fate. Behold, now, my power.”
A light emanated from the Star, and Rei took a step back, shielding his eyes. The cracks in the gem began to close before it began to change its apparent composition, until, finally, its color changed from a sickly dark purple into a brilliant, shimmering light blue.
“Take it, my champion. Use it in my name.”
“You would give it back, after all I’ve done?”
“You made a promise to me, and I believe you.”
Rei bowed deeply. “I will do my best not to disappoint.”
“I know you will,” Azura said. “But now there’s the matter of your corruption. I’m sure you would prefer to have your proper appearance and name?”
“No, my Mistress,” Rei answered quickly and firmly. “They’re reminders of my folly.”
“One could say such reminders breed nostalgia.”
“I’ll admit part of my attachment is because I’m rather used to it after four centuries, but who I was, Celedaen, he’s dead and gone. I am Rei Ginsei, recreated through your mercy.”
“So be it, my champion.”
Rei picked up the restored Star and turned it over in his hands. “What would you have me do, now?” he asked.
“Skyrim will have use for you,” she said enigmatically. “Wander, Rei Ginsei, as you have always done, and you will find your calling.”
“Okay,” he nodded. “You don’t have orders, I mean…”
“Fate shall always run its course,” she answered. “You will find service to me is much different than what you’ve been used to.”
“I think I could get used to it,” he smiled.
~End, Book I~
It’s D’s theme, but I figure it fits…also I’m pretty sure if Rei Ginsei had a theme it wouldn’t be very pretty.