The warmth had barely returned to Marcurio’s blood before they headed out of the Windpeak Inn and into the blizzard screaming through the eerily silent town. They turned left outside the tavern and treaded the icy incline leading up the mountainside with nothing more than a magelight and torch to light the way.
Several times his boots gave way to the slippery slope, grasping hands plunging into the snow so often to keep from sliding down the hillside he swore the joints in his fingers were frozen solid. The only recourse was to summon his fire magicka to keep them from stiffening beyond the point of practical use. He’d never understand how the Nords of Skyrim walked around half-naked.
“Tell me, young man, what do you know of Vaermina?”
All mages who studied at Arcane University were required at least two courses in Daedric lore, and though he’d never admit it to anyone, Marcurio had snoozed through both of those courses, only picking up enough information to barely skirt by when it came time for the written exams at the end of term. He knew basics, at best, their names, their realms, their power, but he couldn’t write a valid paper on any of them and for a moment he felt ashamed.
“She’s one of the seventeen Daedric lords. She thrives on the repercussions of psychological torture and madness, and the essence of our memories empowers her.”
“Yes,” Erandur agreed, continuing the steep climb while he spoke. “She resides in a strange realm known as Quagmire, a nightmarish land where reality shifts upon itself in seemingly impossible ways. From her citadel at the center she reaches forth to collect our memories, leaving nothing in return apart from visions of horror and despair.”
“Sounds like a lovely woman,” he quipped. “I have a ton of less than savory memories she’s more than welcome to. In fact, I offer them to her freely because I’m tired of carrying them around. There’s enough tragedy and darkness inside my head to placate her. Maybe it’ll help us get past her defenses.”
“This is no laughing matter. No one knows what she does with the memories she steals. Perhaps she collects them for display like works of art in a nonsensical art gallery, or maybe she fuels her darkness with them in hopes that one day she will grow strong enough to cross over into this realm for good. Whatever the case may be her intentions are far from benevolent.”
Abashed, Marcurio said nothing else for the remainder of the frozen journey. He kept his head down against the biting crystals of ice, shielding his face with the arch of his hood as he dug his boots into the ground over and again until they reached the distant temple at the top of the mountain. By the time they stopped outside the doors on the stone landing in front of Nightcaller Temple, Marcurio could barely feel his face and he swore the hairs inside his nose were frozen stiff.
Erandur held up his torch and surveyed him with brilliant red eyes that seemed to glow almost malevolently against the fire’s light. “I do not know if Maramal sent me a man capable of the tasks that lay ahead, but I have nothing left now but hope. I must warn you that what we face together will be no simple chore. There is a very strong likelihood that what we are about to endure will haunt you for the rest of your days, assuming we even make it out alive.”
“You’re not endearing me to this cause, old man. I think it’s time you tell me all the facts about what we’re up against, and I mean every detail, or I walk and you’re on your own.”
There was an inkling of defeat in the elf’s face, the aged lines beside both eyes wrinkling with sorrow just before he hung his head to contemplate the situation.
“Before we enter I must warn you about the dangers that could be lurking within.”
“You mean, dangers other than Vaermina?”
Ignoring his question, the priest went on. “Years ago this temple was raided by an Orc war party seeking revenge. They were being plagued by nightmares just like the people of Dawnstar and sought to stop the madness before it could overpower their tribe completely.”
“Did they succeed?”
“No, far from it, in fact. Despite their worship and placation of the Daedric lord, the Priests of Vaermina knew they could never defeat the Orcs, and so they released what is known as the Miasma, putting everyone, including themselves, to sleep.”
“It is a gas created by the priests for their rituals. It puts the affected into a deep sleep because the rituals would sometimes last for months, or even years and the Miasma was designed to slow down the aging process.”
“Well, that sounds safe.”
“Again, I feel the need to remind you that this is no laughing matter, my son. The Miasma is very dangerous. The longer an individual is exposed to the gases, the more the mind can become damaged.”
“What do you mean, damaged?”
“Those who’ve been under the effect of it for an extended period of time have been known to lose their minds. In some cases, a few never even woke at all.”
“Well,” he mused confidently, “I lost my mind about seven years ago, so I think I can handle whatever Vaermina has to throw at me.” But his confidence was a vague shell and nothing more. As the overwhelming possibility of death loomed closer, Marcurio began to wonder if he shouldn’t have charged Maramal more for the job. Not that he could spend all that gold if he were dead, but at least he’d feel like his life was worth more than a few measly Septims.
“Madness is no trifling matter, young man. Believe me, I’ve seen it tear apart even the best of men and I need to know that your focus is strong, that you are capable of helping me see this darkness to an end. If you cannot, I must know now so I can find another mage powerful enough to assist me.”
“Oh, I can do this,” he puffed out his chest. “In fact, I get the feeling I’m the only one who could pull off something of this magnitude, so if you’ll lead the way we can get this little party started.”
“Very well,” he conceded. “Once we get inside everything will become clear. Please, follow me.”
The cobwebbed interior of Nightcaller temple sent chills of unrest rippling through him. A strange darkness clung to the air, rife with foreboding and gloom unlike any he’d ever felt before. Scanning the dark room, there was evidence the priest had been there recently, including a shrine to Mara, which Erandur paused in front of.
“Will you accept Mara’s blessings with me before we begin?”
Gulping down his apprehension, Marcurio took three steps toward the shrine and nodded. He’d never exactly been a devout follower of the Eight Divines, but he definitely believed in them. How could he not? He’d seen their presence in every aspect of his life, just as he’d witnessed the Daedra plucking at the very strings to unravel the fabric of existence every chance they got.
If whatever they were heading into were as bad as the priest suggested, he could use all the blessings he could get his hands on.
Reaching for his hand, Erandur squeezed his fingers gently and lifted both their arms toward the shrine. “Lady Mara, bless and keep us. Shine your light and love upon us this night,” he said with unwavering devotion. “Grant us inner peace and fortitude so we might prevail against the darkness that lies ahead and continue to spread word of your divine grace throughout the world.” They held their hands toward the shrine in silent meditation upon those words and then Marcurio felt the immediate warmth of her blessing flood through him. It tingled and warmed the chill from his bones, freed the tension from his body and granted him a sense of peace he couldn’t remember having ever experienced in his life.
Erandur reached down to pluck an Amulet of Mara from the altar. He turned toward the mage and lifted it over his head, lowering it to rest against his heart. “Mara is with us, my son.”
He resisted the urge to mutter, “I hope so,” and instead simply nodded, prompting Erandur to pat him on the shoulder before backing away from the shrine.
The temple was blocked by an intricately carved door in the likeness of Vaermina. Eyes closed in peaceful dream, she held a small chest over her heart in which she collected the memories of her victims. Flanked by snarling serpents, just looking at that portal made Marcurio’s skin crawl, and for a moment he wanted to reach out and stop the man beside him from unlocking the gate holding her at bay and unleashing the full capacity of her darkness upon the world.
He used fire to dissolve the earthly structure, creating a glowing blue portal leading into the temple. Marcurio hesitated after Erandur passed through the portal, every hair on his body prickling with fear as the evil trapped within the temple pulsed and hummed all around them, as if reveling in the prospect of freedom.
The elven priest turned back to look at him, offering nothing more than, “Now is not the time to lose heart, my boy. Come. This way.”
Following through the portal, he swore the bones in his legs turned to gel, trembling beneath him so fiercely that every step he took required great concentration. The interior was so dark he could barely see, even with his magelight, and the iridescence radiating from the caged structure overlooking the lower level of the temple below provided even less in the way of visual security.
“Now I can show you the source of the nightmares.” Erandur paused in front of the bars and Marcurio fell in beside him, craning his neck to see all the way to the bottom where a shrine to Vaermina was surrounded by a beautiful ring of red, glowing flame. “Behold,” he said. “The Skull of Corruption, the source of Dawnstar’s woes.” He allowed the doomful spectrum to resonate for a moment. “We must reach the inner sanctum and destroy it. Come, there is no time to lose.”
They descended the spiral staircase, which was even more poorly lit that the upper level. Only the distant glow of the doorway at the end of the hall provided light for them and Marcurio nearly tripped over the first set of bodies stirring on the stone floor beneath his feet. He backed off instantly, summoning his magelight with his right hand and sending an ice spike into the belly of a rising Orc warrior.
Erandur sprang to action, blasting the other warrior with powerful doses of shock magic, the smell of which mingled with decades of old dust and burning cobwebs. They were weak and sluggish, making them both easy targets and it took less time than it normally might have had they been at full-capacity. Charging past their dead bodies, Erandur stopped when he reached the doorway and threw up his arms in defeat.
“Damn it! The priests must have activated this barrier when the Miasma was released.”
Marcurio stepped toward the barrier and felt it immediately zap out to drain his magicka. “Ow!” he backed off. “This looks difficult to breach.”
“Impossible, actually. Hmm,” he drew toward the corner and lifted a hand into the hair on his chin while he thought. “There may be a way to bypass the barrier, but I must check the library and confirm it can be done.”
“All right, where’s the library?”
“Follow me,” he headed toward the stairs they’d just come down. “It’s just up here. I still have the key.”
“You have the key to the library?” He hesitated in following, his mind wrapping around the obvious notion that there was more to the story than Erandur had told him. “You seem to know an awful lot about this place.”
The elf drew in a deep breath, both shoulders sagging when he released it. “I suppose there’s no point in concealing the truth any longer. My knowledge of this temple comes from personal experience. Many years ago, I was a priest of Vaermina.”
Marcurio took a step back. “I knew it! You’re a liar. I could feel it the minute you came up to me in the tavern. You were doing more than holding something back…”
“Look, what would you have me say? Sorry for following the misguided teachings of a mad divine? Sorry for stealing memories from children?”
“This is your doing somehow, isn’t it? You brought this on.”
“In that you are wrong, though my crimes are nearly just as unforgivable.” Lowering his hood around his shoulders, the eerie blue illumination from the door made his face appear almost sinister. “When the Orcs attacked, I was only concerned with myself. I fled Nightcaller Temple.” His large eyes narrowed with grief and self-loathing. “Left my brothers and sisters behind to die.”
“Wow,” Marcurio scoffed. He’d done a lot of stupid things in his life, killing Anariel the stupidest of them all, but at least he’d adhered to her wishes, given her the peace she so desperately begged from him. “Men can say what they want about me and I can shrug it off, but you… you’re nothing but a coward.”
“Don’t you think I know that? I have spent the last few decades living in regret and seeking redemption from Mara. By her benevolence, I will right my wrongs.”
“Well, you can do it alone,” he brushed past him and started up the stairs. “Whatever Vaermina has planned for you, you deserve it.”
“And the people of Dawnstar?” Erandur called after him. “Do they deserve to suffer for my crimes? Do the people of Tamriel deserve the darkness and woe that will certainly fall across the land if I should fail in this endeavor because you left me to do it alone?”
He stopped in mid-step, lifted his hand to the wall beside him and lowered his head.
“I cannot do this by myself, young man. Please,” he begged. “Set aside your contempt for my actions and assist me in righting my wrongs. You don’t have to like me, and I’m not asking you to forgive my crimes, but if you have any love for the people of this world you’ll help me see this through.”
The breath he drew was quick, barely enough to fill his lungs. When he put it that way, it was impossible to refuse. He couldn’t just walk away knowing that the people he cared about would suffer because of one priest’s arrogant selfishness. He had to be a bigger man, a better man than the one who’d brought him to Nightcaller Temple.
“Fine,” he conceded without looking back. “I’ll help you.”
“Thank you.” Erandur started toward him, joining him on the stairs. “You’re a good man, Marcurio.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” he shrugged the touch of the other man’s hand from his shoulder. “I expect more compensation than I agreed to when Maramal assigned me this task. If he’d told me the details I would never have agreed to do this in the first place at the price he offered to pay. I want five grand.”
“Five thousand gold Septims won’t be easy to come by, but I will do whatever I can to see that you get it should we succeed.”
“Oh, we’re gonna succeed all right. There’s no way in hell I’m dying for you, or anyone else. Now where’s this library? We’ve got work to do.”
“Right this way, follow me.”