There was never peace, not even when she closed her eyes. Not even when she slept. Even as a child, every moment was a plague. Her dreams were always nightmares, memories of two little girls clinging to one another amidst the panicked horde of faces already painted in Death’s artistic hand.
“Stay together,” their mother told them. “No matter what happens, you must always stay together. As long as you’re together, you will be safe.”
“Mama—” Onóra reached for her hand, clutching her slippery fingers to hold her near. Sobs hitched in her chest, choked her aching throat and made it hard for her to breathe and even harder to plead. “Don’t leave us, please.”
“I must find your father.” Heavy lids of dread lowered over her wide green eyes as she looked away from her daughters. She squeezed her mother’s hand tighter, yanking her back to stand with them. “I will come back for you,” a liar’s promise, and then she tugged her hand away. Ondelan was Nuniel’s everything, her soul, her breath, her life, but Onóra knew their father was dead; she’d felt him die the way she felt everything around her die. Her mother just didn’t want to believe it.
She lifted one hand each to their faces, staring between the mirrored blessing in front of her. You are a reflection of the love Ondelan and I share. Double blessed, we were when the Gods gifted you to us. She used to speak those words to them every night before tucking them into bed, before leaning in to brush her soft lips across their brows. In that moment she was saying them with nothing more than her eyes. Double blessed will you be as long as you stay together, my daughters. She knelt to kiss them both one last time.
Anariel didn’t cry. Her sister never cried; not even when they watched their mother disappear into the crowd of frightened faces, turning back only once to look upon them for the last time. She was their father’s little warrior and had been Onóra’s strength since the day they came into the world together. Clinging to Onóra’s lifeless body in the womb, it had been her furious cries of life that drew her fleeing soul back into her tiny body. She remembered it; she didn’t know how, she just did. From that moment on, Anariel became her protector, her champion. Onóra both loved and hated her for it.
“Don’t cry, Onóra,” her sister whispered. “Everything will be all right, just as Mother promised. She’ll return soon and she’ll have father with her. Together we’ll all leave this place and go home.” There was hope in her bright green eyes, shining and unshed tears she’d never cry, no matter how frightened she was inside.
Home. They were never going home again. Their home was ash and ruin. Their father was dead, soon their mother would follow. Everything they’d ever known and loved, their comfort and stability, their hopes and dreams, all of it torn from their desperate, clutching fingers by the Daedra and crushed before their watery eyes.
Outside explosions of battle magic quaked the ground beneath their feet. Terror rippled through the crowd of refugees who’d sought shelter within the tower. Bodies pushed and crushed the two small girls, backing them tighter against the wall until they had no choice but to cling to one another to conserve space.
The way her sister clung gave away Anariel’s terror, an emotion she’d always hidden with ease. She was their father’s daughter, bold and proud, but even her unyielding strength was starting to falter. Anariel whispered again, “It’s all right,” but Onóra knew even she didn’t believe her own words of comfort anymore.
Things were not all right, would never be all right again. The Daedra were coming for them, coming for them all. The tower would fall with them inside it, crushing them until they were little more than pulpy bone and clotted blood and from some cruel corner Sithis would celebrate, his laughter drawing them all to their end.
Everyone around her was already dead. She only had to look to see it, burned and blackened skin sliding away from their faces until naught was left but cracked and splintered bone, empty, incredulous eye sockets and wide mouths, agape with the terror of their own unexpected demise.
When Onóra blinked, the faces around her were normal again, but she still felt sick. Her stomach trembled and wrenched between painful nerves and nausea. Her head swam, the result of panicked breathing as she gasped for precious air. The reflected lights in the Crystal Tower were too bright; they hurt her stinging eyes, which she couldn’t stop blinking no matter how hard she tried. She hated that she couldn’t be strong like her sister, hated that she wasn’t brave, but Anariel did not see the things Onóra saw. Anariel couldn’t see death in everything around her, the flashing glimpses of inescapable doom and darkness everywhere she looked.
“It’s coming,” Onóra whispered, clutching her twin in her arms as the two of them huddled closer to the wall, hidden behind a host of frantic bodies bracing themselves for the end.
“Shh,” Anariel quieted her. “Close your eyes and know that I am with you, little sister. We will be together, always together. Just like Mother said.”
Amidst the chaos of the tower’s fall, shards and splinters of multi-colored light rained down upon them like some beautiful dream she couldn’t stop herself from watching, but in her nightmares the shards always cut her and her sister to ribbons and she woke with a strangled gasp in the darkness, clawing at her ever-seeing eyes to make that wretched vision stop.
Her eyes burned, hot with tears and stinging from the gouge of her own fingers. The night was still, save for the frantic gasp of her own breath, but underneath it she could hear the distant wail of a storm blowing in from the east. She lifted a trembling hand into the raven-black locks of her mussed hair and then dropped back into the feather-stuffed mattress behind her. A frustrated sigh deflated her chest and she curled onto her side, drawing her legs up tight.
No matter where she was, there was no escaping the memory, but since she’d come to Dawnstar the dreams had grown stronger and more frequent, the memories of a time so long ago she should have been able to let go, to forget.
She had to get out of Dawnstar. The place was cursed; a gift of nightmares from the wicked Deadric Prince, Vaermina. Onóra’s broken spirit walked the twisted, shadow plane of Quagmire every night she slept and long ago her father had said her waking vision came from the same dark place, but she knew better. She was an instrument of Death, daughter to Sithis and the Night Mother and not even Vaermina could truly touch her soul.
Outside, the wind keened louder, picking up intensity and speed until the shutters rattled. She doubted anyone in Dawnstar would sleep comfortably that night. Not with the dreams, not with the screaming wind. Half the town was mad already; the kind of insanity that always came with lack of sleep, and if someone didn’t stand to face Vaermina’s challenge soon, everyone in that town would die.
Onóra only had to look at them all to see their deaths anyway, the slow hand of time aging and transforming their faces right before her very eyes until everyone and everything she looked upon seemed to grin back her—a lipless, reaper’s smile in the skeletal remains of dwindling dust and bone.
A gift, her mother called it. A curse, her father’d said. Her sister had been the only one who’d never transformed before her, never revealed her death mask to Onóra. For the first one hundred and fifty-eight years of her life, Anariel’s face had been the only reflection of her own appearance Onóra could count on. The only time she’d ever seen her own face without the curse, a reflection of what she must surely look like alive, with skin and health and bright green eyes, beautiful black hair and smiling lips.
She only discovered just how identical their reflections had been when her sister finally met with Death, breaking that part of the curse. She’d felt it when it happened; a shift inside herself. A part of her died that day too, and when she’d looked into the glass and seen her own reflection unmarred by death for the first time in her life, she knew Anariel was gone. She didn’t know how her sister had died, would probably never know, and though it had been more than fifty years since last they’d spoken, every time she looked upon her own face now, she remembered and she grieved.
She should have been there.
No matter what happens, you must always stay together.
But they’d separated. Onóra’s darkness had finally driven a wedge between them, the unforgiveable acts she committed herself to carrying out in the name of Sithis enough to turn her sister away from her forever. She’d tried to hide it, but they were twins. They’d shared everything. Living quarters, work, friends… a soul.
As long as you’re together, you will be safe.
Maybe their mother had been right, their separation and distance bringing her sister to her end. Or perhaps, she mused, pulling the blankets up under her chin, nothing their mother ever told them had been true and it had just been Anariel’s time. Nevertheless, she missed her sister, still wished things had turned out differently.
Everyone met with Death in the end, everyone except for Onóra. She’d met Him when she was born, had walked beside Him all her life, seeing nothing but the end everywhere she looked. To close her eyes–impossible, to resist His calling a fool’s daydream, to carry out His sentence a blessing. His whispers in the dark guided her hand. She was the instrument of Sithis, whether she liked it or not and to kill was the only way to bring peace to the suffering of all those dying faces around her.
To kill was the only way Onóra felt like she herself could live, and all she’d ever wanted was to be alive.