One of the reasons Marcurio liked Riften was the mild weather. There wasn’t a place in Skyrim that even came close to the familiar warmth and comfort of Cyrodiil, but at least Riften wasn’t a frozen wasteland of despair. Its misery came from other more corrupt sources, but Riften possessed a self-induced gloom a man could easily ignore on account of his teeth not rattling inside his skull against the cold. Mostly it just rained in Riften, and the chilled damp wreaked havoc on arthritic joints, but the bite of freezing wind blowing in off the Sea of Ghosts got into a man’s marrow and made him ache in ways that confirmed there wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to take the edge off.
As they walked the icy paving stones into the city the air cut through his robes like frozen daggers intent on carving through his skin, and when the suspicious guard passed them by the heat of his torch felt like an infernal blast. He wanted to grab that torch and stuff it inside his cloak until the very fabric leaped and danced across his skin, but somehow he didn’t think setting himself ablaze would really do much good. The cold of The Pale was a cruel mistress and her winds laughed in the face of fire.
“Erandur usually sleeps at the Windpeak Inn,” Onóra informed him with a soft laugh. “Though I doubt he does much sleeping. No one here sleeps, and those who do pay a heavy toll for that foolishness.”
“All right, thank you.” He stopped at the bottom of the stairs leading into the tavern and turned to look at her. “I guess this is where we part ways then.”
He wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a flash of sadness in her eyes when he said those words. “I guess it is.”
“Thank you for traveling with me, Onóra. If I happen to live through this task, perhaps we’ll see each other again.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed. “After all, you still owe me a story about my sister’s death.”
“Yes,” he swallowed hard against the rising ache in his throat. He’d managed to avoid conversation of Anariel, following Enthir’s advice in hopes that he could learn more about who she was.
Oddly she hadn’t pressed him nearly as hard as he expected her to for information, especially considering how he’d dangled it in front of her to convince her to travel with him in the first place. She seemed strangely at peace with her sister’s death and some of the things she’d said about Anariel over the last couple days left him feeling even more unnerved by the situation. She was a strange woman, nothing like her sister at all, save for their identical appearance, and he wanted to know everything there was to know about her.
“I suppose I do owe you that story,” he agreed. “I shall have to tell you if we are fortunate enough to meet again.”
“I…” She started and then stopped herself from speaking, looking down at the gloved hands folded at her waist. “I own property just south of the city. If… if you do happen to make it through this madness alive come and find me there.”
Marcurio tilted his head curiously and then nodded. “Well, all right then.” It was a strange bit of motivation, but he felt like he had an extra survival incentive. He wanted to see her again, to sit with her and really talk about things that had left him feeling forlorn and empty inside for so long. For reasons that went well beyond his understanding, he felt like the gods had brought them face to face for a reason. “Goodbye, Onóra.”
He stepped up onto the porch and pushed through the doors of the Windpeak Inn, glancing back at her one last time before they closed behind him. It was blissfully warm inside the inn, the massive hearth blazing with the most wonderful fire and no one standing around it to absorb its heat. He felt immediately drawn to it. Stripping off his gloves and holding his hands out, he scanned the desolate interior, his gaze immediately meeting with the inn’s scowling, distrustful proprietor.
“We’ve got warm beds and hot food, traveler. Which of those are you after?”
“Hot food would be a gods-send right about now. What’s on the menu?”
“Day old bread and last night’s stew,” the man told him.
“I’ll have both,” he nodded gratefully. “And Cyrodiilic brandy if you’ve got it.”
“We’ve got mead and ale.”
“Mead it is then,” he said, withdrawing his hands from the raging warmth and starting toward the counter. “And information if you’re willing to share. I’m looking for a priest.”
“The only priest here is Mara’s fool,” the man said suspiciously. “Erandur, they call him, and he sleeps in the room over there.”
“Is he here now?”
“That kind of information doesn’t come free,” the man grumbled.
“Will ten Septims loosen your tongue?”
“Make it twenty-five and I might be willing to answer your questions.”
He dug into his coin purse and fingered the Septims there. He had less than two-hundred gold pieces left, and no certainty about when next he might find paying work to fatten his purse. Maramal had promised him payment if he returned from the task, but that was a big if from the sounds of things. Then again, if he was going to die, what need had he for money? He drew out twenty-five gold pieces and stacked them in five short piles on the counter in front of the man, then he added an extra seven Septims for his supper before lifting his gaze over the innkeeper.
“Thirty-two, for the information and the food.”
Sliding them greedily across the bar, he dropped them into his own purse and then nodded toward the door on the left. He pulled a draft of mead from the barrel on the bar and pushed it toward him. “Erandur is in there now, praying more likely than sleeping. Only fools sleep in Dawnstar.”
“So I’ve heard,” he said, reaching for the mug and gulping a hefty swallow he immediately regretted. By Nord standards, the swill in that mug could barely be considered mead. Bitter and harsh, it left an aftertaste in his mouth and began to burn in his guts almost immediately. “I hear you’ve been suffering some nightmare curse up here.”
“Aye,” the man nodded. “Ain’t a man in this town who’s brave enough to fall asleep for more than a few minutes at a time for fear the dreams will claim him.”
“I’ve been sent by the Temple of Mara to investigate.”
Cackling laughter escaped the innkeeper, echoing through the silent tavern and raising gooseflesh over Marcurio’s skin. “You?” he managed to ask between roars of amusement. Pointing a crooked finger across the bar he added, “You’re going to save us from Vaermina’s curse? Gods whatever have we done to deserve your scorn?”
Marcurio took offense to the man’s sarcasm, but before he could comment a Dunmer priest in golden robes peeked his head out from the door on the left. Curious red eyes scanned the room before he stepped into it. “Thoring, the hour is late and while I understand sleep is not an option, a little peace would be appreciated. Mara is more like to hear my prayers for salvation if I don’t have to compete with the sound of your madness.”
“There’s your man,” Thoring told Marcurio through wheezing fits of laughter, pointing to the priest. “Erandur, your champion has come from the temple.”
“My… champion?” the priest started toward him then, his face alight with unspoken hope as he approached. “You? Have you come from Maramal in Riften?”
“Yes,” he answered, leveling his annoyance with unmitigated pride. “My skill with destruction magic is unmatched in all of Skyrim, and he believed I would be perfect to assist you in ridding Dawnstar’s citizens from the curse of their nightmares.”
“Oh Mara Bless you, young man,” he cried, clapping his hands together. “Come, come with me and I will tell you of the darkness we must face together.”
Marcurio grabbed the awful mug of mead and followed the priest across the tavern to a shadowy corner near the door. They sat down facing one another and for a few moments Erandur wrung his hands together on the tabletop while trying to find the courage to speak of the curse that had befallen his town. The dry sound of his skin rubbing rivaled the crackle of the fire, and for a while Marcurio just watched his nervous movement.
“I don’t know how much Maramal’s told you, my son, but the entire town is being plagued by horrible nightmares. The people here are in serious danger and I’m afraid there’s very little I can do about it.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Marcurio assured him. “Though I admit it all seems a little silly. They’re only dreams, after all. How dangerous could they be?”
“Oh, they are more than just mere dreams, young man. They are manifestations created by the Daedric Lord, Vaermina.” He paused to allow the severity of that admission to sink in. “She has an awful hunger for our memories and in return she leaves behind nightmares, not unlike a cough marks a serious illness.”
“Wait a minute, you said manifestations.” He shook his head in an effort to make sense of what the man was saying. “Are you telling me these nightmares are… real?”
“Very real, I’m afraid.”
“You mean like monsters?”
“Monsters,” Erandur repeated. “Shades, curses, torturous visions made real while the people sleep, so none dare give in to that precious comfort for fear of bringing untold evil to the land, but men cannot live without rest and the madness of resistance has made murderous creatures of them all. One by one they turn on each other, and if I cannot end her terrible influence over these people I fear the damage will become permanent.”
“Damage? Are you saying the people of Dawnstar will become monsters?”
“Aye,” he nodded slowly. “Many of them already have.”
Marcurio was no coward, not by a longshot, but for the first time in a very long time his overconfidence failed him. The tight ache in his throat made it feel like he was choking when he swallowed against it, and when he looked down at his mead he understood fully why the priest in Riften had very little hope for success in regards to this mission.
“Please tell me you have some kind of plan here?”
“I need to return to the source of the problem, to Nightcaller Temple.”
“What do you mean return? Have you been there before?”
“Look,” the priest glanced over his shoulder, toward the bar where Thoring scowled. He stared at them with untold malice, a madness in his eyes unlike any Marcurio had ever seen before. “I’ve already said too much, young man. If anyone were to overhear our conversation it could start a panic. I would simply ask that for now you trust me and help me put an end to Dawnstar’s nightmares.”
Trust; a fool’s greatest ally.
Marcurio silently cursed Maramal for how little he’d told him before sending him into that madness, but more than that he cursed himself for coming into blindly. Maramal told him Erandur would explain it all, and he’d warned him of the dangers he would face, even telling him there was a very real possibility he might not make it back alive. All the way from Riften he’d been tossing that notion around almost flippantly, barely believing the job could be even half as bad as Maramal made it out.
But now he was scared.
As if Erandur read the lines of distress in his face, he reached across the table and put a hand on Marcurio’s shoulder. “I understand how frightening this must all sound, and you have every right to be afraid, but please… There is no one else. If you won’t help me, Dawnstar is doomed and it is only a matter of time before Vaermina’s curse spreads beyond The Pale, into all of Skyrim.”
All of Skyrim… He thought of the people of Riften then, his friends at the College of Winterhold, Onóra… He barely even knew her, and yet the mere thought of her suffering in any way made him feel helpless. He’d lost her sister to the darkness. He couldn’t allow an even more hideous curse to claim her before he even had a chance to know her.
Another twinge of unspoken fear shuddered through him. He didn’t trust the man sitting across from him and he didn’t like that he was only telling him part of the story, but he’d promised Maramal he would do this. People could say whatever they wanted about him, but Marcurio of Cyrodiil never went back on a promise.
“All right,” Marcurio said. “I don’t trust you, but I will help you.”
“Wonderful.” There was such joyful relief in the Dunmer’s face. “My Lady Mara will be so pleased.”
“Your Lady Mara better be filling up a hefty bag of coin to pay me for this,” he shook his head.
“Nightcaller Temple is only a short walk from Dawnstar. Come,” he rose from his seat, “we must hurry.”