Onóra walked through the frigid wind for almost another forty minutes until she came upon her secluded home just south of the city. It was just far enough away that she didn’t worry the townsfolk’s madness would touch her, but the fact that it was within Dawnstar’s limits still made her prey to Vaermina’s curse whenever she slept in her own bed. She could handle the nightmares. They’d cursed her all her life. She was used to them.
She’d come to own Heljarchen Hall through a rather bizarre set of circumstances. An old adventurer who’d hired her to take care of his unfaithful wife and her lover two years earlier had left her the property in his will after he’d died fighting back a dragon attacking the city. The Jarl’s Courier had approached her with the documents as she was leaving Markarth, the detailed letter from Skald the Elder admitting he wasn’t keen on transferring the property over to someone he’d never heard of. Unfortunately for the Jarl, Vingard had been a well-respected Thane of Dawnstar and denying the man his final wishes was out of the question. Skald’s only requirement for her keeping the property was a hefty yearly tax she was relatively sure no one else in the hold was forced to pay, but she paid it anyway.
The mead hall was a vast and lonely space filled with rooms she barely even entered, much less used, but she liked the place. It had a certain elegance and Nord charm that took a bit of getting used to, but more than that it was the first place she’d called home for longer than a few months since she was a little girl.
Jamming her key into the lock, she pushed open the front door and felt the familiar calm of coming home wash over her. She liked to tell herself she could walk away from Heljarchen Hall and Dawnstar any time she wanted to, but in truth she really didn’t want to.
She unslung her travel gear and tugged off her hood, tossing it all onto the table before kneeling in front of the hearth to start a fire. While sparking the kindling, she thought about Marcurio, wondered how he was fairing with Erandur… if she would ever see him again.
She didn’t know why she even cared. Much as she’d done with the city of Dawnstar, she wanted to believe she could just walk away from him without looking back, but something about the man intrigued her. The notion of him putting her sister out of her vampiric misery, maybe, or the confident way he seemed to boast about everything from his sexual prowess to his skill with magic.
The fact that their only connection to each other was her dead sister should have put her off the man. She’d never had any interest in Anariel’s castoffs, and few of the men in her sister’s past had been far from Onóra’s tastes, but there was something about Marcurio that made him different than the other men in Anariel’s history. Despite his overwhelming confidence, he was dreadfully insecure and even though he liked to act tough he had a gentle heart. The kind of heart that wouldn’t be safe in hands like hers, and yet she wanted to hold it anyway.
Knowing his only attraction to her probably lay within the truth that she was identical in appearance to the woman he’d once loved should have been enough to end her own intrigue. If he ever knew who she really was, the dark voices that spoke to her, he’d run screaming in the opposite direction.
And yet she still hoped he made it back from whatever task Mara’s priests were setting him to, and that he came looking for her when all was said and done. Maybe he wouldn’t mind that she murdered people for a living. After all, one of his dearest friends was a thief and he didn’t seem to have too much trouble swallowing that. Maybe he could overlook her occupation and into her heart to see she was just a woman—a lonely woman with an empty heart who needed love just as much as anyone else, or at the very least a warm body to curl up to in the dark from time to time.
Once the fire was roaring, she slipped out of her travel clothes and into something more comfortable and then she settled down in front of the heart to melt the chill from her bones and fill her belly with bread and cheese.
A slow grin drew at her lips as she gave in to thoughts of the Imperial mage again. Beneath those loose robes of his he was olive-skinned perfection, lean, beautiful muscle that simply begged for appreciation and worship. She didn’t have to see it to know; she noticed it every time the wind whipped those robes closer to his frame. She didn’t know what was worse, that it was true or that he knew it.
She wondered if he was even half as well-endowed as his incessant bragging suggested. The few Imperial men she’d known intimately over the years had been average at best, but most of them had even more bizarre fetishes than Ondolemar. What kind of strange fixations did Marcurio have? Was he into weird things like melted wax, bondage, pain?
On the other hand, even if he wasn’t well-endowed or prone to strange fetishes, she imagined he was quite a giver, a man who knew exactly how to please a woman in every conceivable fashion before he dared to please himself. She liked a man who understood that it took more than a kiss and a few quick thrusts to get a woman fired up.
Stretching her neck until the stiffness cracked, she pushed those thoughts away. Maybe she would find out just what he was like one day, but for the moment it did not good thinking about it. The hour was late and she was road weary. After lowering a few more logs onto the fire, she retired to her bedroom, climbing into bed and burrowing down into the heavy quilt until she found comfort.
She listened to the wind railing through the eaves, the old house settling, boards groaning like monsters. Normally the sounds didn’t bother her. She was one of the monsters in the night, she had nothing to be afraid of, but for some reason her own isolation unsettled her more than usual. She turned onto her other side, facing the wall and watching the glow of the hearth sneaking in through the cracks in the door, dancing along the wall in leaps of orange and flickering yellow shadow.
She didn’t know how long she laid there, listening to the night, drifting closer to the edge of sleep before a loud thud jolted her from that restful place. She lifted her head off the pillow and attuned every one of her senses and within moments that thud was followed by the distinct, hollow thump of footsteps creaking across the floorboards in one of the rooms upstairs she never went into.
She clutched the dagger she always slept with and cursed her loneliness, the empty feeling that came with knowing even if someone had broken into her house and come to kill her, she was on her own.
Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath and refused to give into fear as she listened to those footsteps moving across the ceiling above her head. She followed the sound of their movement with her eyes and then one by one they thudded down the stairs, heavy, armored boots that rattled with every step. There was no fear in those boots, no hesitation as if the prowler feared they might wake her and for a moment that actually scared her.
Just as quickly as the alarm came, she pushed it away again. Fear had no place in her psyche; it never had, never would because the moment she let fear get the best of her everything she’d done, the ghost of every man and woman she’d ever killed would come whirling into her life to torment her and an assassin had no room for regret.
Fear made her reckless, foolish, a trembling target practically begging to be offed.
She drew her dagger from the sheath and swung her legs quietly over the edge of the bed. Her feet touched the floor without sound, but when she applied her weight to stand the floorboards creaked beneath her and the intruder stopped. Listened for sounds of her movement to betray her position. She cursed under her breath and started slowly toward the door and reaching into the display case on the table that lined the wall beside it. There was an enchanted Elven sword inside and she flipped it open quickly, curling her hand around the handle and drawing it from the velvet nest it rested upon.
Edging toward the door, she positioned herself at the ready but what charged through the wall without breaking the boards startled her so badly she actually dropped both blades and tumbled backward when the shade rushed at her and tackled her to the floor. Both shoulders hit hard and her spine twisted painfully but neither of those things hurt half as much as the ethereal set of eyes staring back at her.
“Hello, Onóra.” The shade snarled and grinned, lips parting to reveal a pair of sharp, predatory fangs. “It’s been a long time,” she laughed, the cold sound carving through Onóra’s soul. “Miss me?”
Swallowing hard against her terror, she shook her head. “No. This can’t be…”
She shook her head, disbelief mingling with terror and a thousand thoughts bordering between madness and certain betrayal. Marcurio had set her up somehow. Had led her to believe her sister was dead, but clearly he had never run the stake through Anariel’s heart as he’d claimed to his friend at the Windpeak Inn. He’d led Anariel right to her, and now she was going to die.
“You…you’re dead,” she whispered, still too stunned to struggle against the ghost’s weight atop her body. Her tongue felt heavy in her mouth when she spoke, as if she might choke on it if she said too many words. “I felt you die.”
“Yes,” she grinned once more, her tongue slipping across the razor’s edge of her own fang. “I am dead. I’ve been dead for a long time, but I missed you so much, my dear, sweet sister.”
“So you’ve been out there? All this time?”
“Oh no,” she said slowly. “Only recently resurrected. You see, you’ve been feeding her power with all those dark and painful memories of yours and Vaermina wanted to reward you for those gifts with a little gift she was sure you’d appreciate.”
“Vaermina?” So it wasn’t real. She almost breathed relief, more over the fact that Marcurio hadn’t betrayed her than she ever could have dreamed. “So this is a dream? A nightmare?”
“A dream?” Anariel shook her head. “No, no, no, my darling. Vaermina agrees with our dear mother. We should have stuck together. Nothing bad would have ever happened to us. But now we can be together again, forever this time and we can be the ones who make the bad things happen.”
Strong hands fell onto her shoulders, gripping tight and pinning her to the floor and then she drew back her head, opening her jaw wide before descending in a fury to feed.
Part of her thought she should at least struggle, fight her off, but she was so confused, conflicted between the notion that her sister was actually there with her and the fact that at long last they shared a common bond more binding than the broken soul the gods had stretched between them. They were both killers. At last her sister would understand her.
The pierce of her teeth through Onóra’s flesh was a nightmare made real, but even more painful was the dredging of her life force from her body. Tears blurred her vision, her chest tightening before she began to sob—suspended between overwhelming joy and terror, she relaxed and let her sister drink from her darkness.
She could feel every ounce of her stamina and will draining away until she was too weak to struggle, too weak to scream. And just when she thought she was dangling at the end of her own life, Anariel drew back to look at her, long drops of blood dripping down her chin as she smiled. She was no longer a shade, but flesh again and made strong by the blood she’d just taken.
“Welcome to the night, sweet sister.”
Lifting her hand, the flare of magicka stifled the air and then she held her hand down toward Onóra to transfer the disease of her blood into her sister’s weakened body. She didn’t fight it, but embraced it and as it tainted her body she swore she heard Sithis laughing in celebration somewhere inside her.