To say he ever really thought of himself on the grand scale of hero would be a lie. Despite popular opinions of him, Marcurio preferred to stay out of the spotlight. The people in the spotlight were the ones who got themselves killed and as harsh as life in Skyrim tended to be, he liked living. That made the fact that he’d taken on the role of hero even harder to swallow—he really didn’t think he was coming out of Dawnstar alive.
For all intents and purposes he’d always been something of a sidekick, a mercenary thug who hired himself out to provide heroes with a buffer of magical energy to keep them safe while they handled the more important act of saving the world and, more often than not in the end, his hide. He’d spent years watching Anariel’s back and not just for the splendid view, though that certainly was a perk. Following her death there had been dozens upon dozens of other heroes who’d hired him for his formidable arcane power, but even Ginna had asked him to stand aside while she did the real dirty work. “I need your help,” she’d said. She did not say, “Marcurio, I need you to save the world for me,” or, “I’m going to stand back and let you do this, okay?”
And guess what? He’d always been fine with that. Being a mercenary kept his pockets lined, provided him with just enough adventure for him to feel like he was really living, and most importantly it aligned him with heroes who did everything in their power to keep him alive.
Erandur was no hero, and from where Marcurio was standing he knew someone else was going to have to step up. He still didn’t know what the man’s game was, but he certainly wasn’t playing with a full bag of dice, that was for sure. People who kept the kind of secrets that man was harboring were dangerous and it was only a matter of time before whatever mistakes he’d made in the past came back to bite them both on the backside.
Drawing from the well of alteration, he lowered a Stoneflesh spell over his robes and found himself wishing he’d taken Alteration just a little more seriously. Ironflesh would be fantastic, he realized when the Orcs inside the library began to stir; Ebonyflesh would be even better. He decided, as he dove into battle, wielding crackling bolts of chain lightning that spread to every moving body in the library but his own, that if he lived through Dawnstar’s waking nightmare, he would do something he should have done a long time ago, pay a visit to Master Tolfdir and up his Alteration skill. Because if there was one thing he’d learned about heroes in his years of playing the sidekick it was this: heroes almost always wound up dead.
Well, not him. No way. He wasn’t dying for anyone, especially not some crackpot priest of Mara with a guilty conscience.
From his vantage point as sidekick Marcurio had seen a lot of things, things that would have sent a lesser man screaming in the opposite direction, and most men wouldn’t believe a word of the stories he had to tell if he were to mention the things he’d seen in passing conversation. The fight for Vaermina’s Temple would become one of those unbelievable conversation pieces; he could feel it. The sleeping warriors rose slowly at first, still groggy from decades of sleep and the sluggishness of their movement made the first few easy targets, but the library was overrun and it wasn’t long before he found himself out of breath and drained of magicka.
Standing over the body of a dead Orsimer warrior, he hunched down and positioned his hands on his knees to catch his breath. A loose lock of hair escaped the neat queue at the nape of his neck and fell forward into his face. He reached up and tucked it behind his ear, then lifted his eyes to the priest.
“One would think waking from so long a nap would take the fire out of a man,” he mused.
Erandur barely noticed his attempt at humor. Muttering under his breath, he was already tugging burnt and ruined books off the shelves and trying to decipher the spines before dropping them into piles around the dead bodies at his feet. “Barring any more interruptions, perhaps we can locate the information I need.”
“And what information would that be?” That loose lock of hair fell into his face again and he huffed it from his cheek with an exasperated breath.
“We’re looking for a book of alchemical recipes called The Dreamstride. The tome bears the likeness of Vaermina on the cover…” he murmured, turning over his shoulder to begin looking at the books on the shelf behind him. “It should be here somewhere.”
“I’ll check the shelves around the balcony,” he decided, turning carefully around the bookcases to make sure there weren’t any sleeping warriors or wizards they might have missed. Once he was sure it was all clear, he headed up the stairs and began searching through the wreckage.
Book after ruined book, he actually found himself lamenting the state of that library. He’d been in a lot of ruins over the years, Dwarven, Elven, Nord and he’d seen firsthand what time and the elements could do to history. In most cases history was lost completely in places like that, and the library in Vaermina’s Temple was a pitiful example of centuries of knowledge dwindling into the chaos of mortal foolishness. It was the kind of mess that would make the blood run cold in old Urag gro-Shub’s crusty Orsimer veins, right before he promised to turn whoever’d done it to ash on the spot.
The building structure had given way in several places, making it damn near impossible to get from one side of the balcony to the other without crawling across a fallen archway like some kind of animal. And of course, the book he was looking for was on the other side of that crumbling, unstable arch, silently mocking him from an intricately carved bookstand covered in a layer of cobwebs so thick he’d be peeling them off his robes for weeks. Spiders… he shivered. It didn’t matter the size, he’d always hated the nasty little cretins.
Grumbling to himself, he grabbed the book, tucked it into his belt-pouch and crawled carefully back to more solid flooring. Several times he swore he heard stone crack beneath his weight, pebbles and dust raining down onto the floor below. He found himself muttering prayers again, thoughtless utterings of lost hope. Whether it was the prayers that saw him safely to the other side, or just plain dumb luck, he gratefully climbed off the archway and then hiked the stairs to find Erandur in the same place he’d been before he left. Rolling his eyes, he resisted the sudden urge he felt to ask if he was really going to have to do everything and then he cleared his throat. “I found it.”
“You did? Here, let me take a look at that.” Erandur reached for the book, and for a moment Marcurio considered not handing it over until he got a better explanation for the old priest’s crimes than cowardice, but at that point he really just wanted to get whatever they’d come to do over with. The moment quickly passed and he let go, allowing the book to fall into Erandur’s grip. Leaning back, he crossed his arms and watched the elf flip through the pages. “Hmm,” he quirked an eyebrow and licked the tip of his finger before turning to the next page. “This is interesting… Yes, yes, I see. Oh, Mara be praised. There is a way past the barrier and into the inner sanctum.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a relief,” he hesitated, the sarcasm in Marcurio’s voice clearly lost on him. “It involves a recipe for a liquid called Vaermina’s Torpor.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “The Torpor grants an ability the priests of Vaermina called The Dreamstride, in which they could travel in dreams through actual distances in the real world.”
“Wait a minute,” Marcurio started to reach for the book to see for himself. “Are you saying this Torpor will put you to sleep and allow you to travel through your dreams to the inner sanctum?”
“Yes… well, no,” Erandur shook his head. “Not me, I’m afraid. As a sworn priest of Mara the elixir won’t work for me.”
“Well, isn’t that convenient?” Marcurio swore his eyes arched toward the ceiling, in search of whatever god had decided he was meant to become the hero of Dawnstar. Surely they were hovering over him, smiling and laughing.
“The Torpor will only work for a priest of Vaermina or the unaffiliated.”
“Right.” He nodded slowly. “So you’re going to want me to drink some strange potion, that may or may not kill me…”
“I will not lie to you, my son, there could be some risk involved.”
“The last time the Torpor was used was several decades ago. I’ve personally never seen its effects, so I have no way of knowing what we can expect.”
“This just gets better and better by the minute.”
“I swear upon Lady Mara that I will do everything in my power to prevent any harm from befalling you, Marcurio.”
“And I’m supposed to just take your word for it? My Gods. This is madness. Absolute madness! There isn’t enough money in the world…”
“Please, Marcurio,” Erandur pleaded. “This can’t be about the money. Don’t you see? I cannot do this alone. If I could drink the Torpor, I would. You have to believe me. I want to make things right, for my brethren, for Dawnstar… for the people of Skyriml, but I can only do this if you help me.”
His lungs burned with the breath he held within them for far too long. He could feel his heartbeat thumping in his temples, his wrists, his neck. “Where do you even get this Torpor anyway? I don’t suppose someone just left a bottle of it lying around.”
“Perhaps they did. I believe there is a laboratory in the east wing of the temple. If we proceed there, maybe we can locate a sample, or at least find the ingredients required to make the mixture.”
“I can’t believe I’m going to do this,” he mumbled, more to himself than his companion, and he swore under his breath if Erandur even so much as clapped him on the back to tell him what a good man he was, he was going to roast him alive on the spot without a second thought.
Onóra could feel her heartbeat failing, an old war drum on the wind sounding out the final pulses of a life that was no more. In that dying moment she dreamed, her consciousness suspended between the fever of disease and the promise of death with no understanding of how she got there. Her sister was dead; she’d heard Marcurio retell the story at the inn, and yet she could feel Anariel with her, her cold hand clutching slack fingers, the whisper of her breath murmuring, “Feed her with your dark dreams, and soon you will rise anew in this world, a true child of the darkness.”
There was no fighting off the dreams, her state of mind faltering, bouncing back and forth between the memories of a frightened child and a desperate adult who knew the outcome of their trial. Their mother had left them to go and find their father, and together the twins clung to each other in a crowded tower waiting for the end of the world. She could smell the alchemical scent of magicka, the acrid stench of burning hair and flesh on the shifting wind, the stifling sulfur of The Void, a thousand bodies glistening with the sweat of fear.
Death awaited them all. The dark creator teetering on the edge of the Void awaiting the burst of souls that would fuel his never ending hunger.
“He’s coming,” little Onóra whispered, clutching her twin in her arms as the two of them edged closer to the wall, hidden behind a host of frantic bodies bracing themselves for the end.
“Not for you, he isn’t.” Anariel’s voice drenched the blanket comfort of her dreams, twisting the fabric of nightmare into something darker, something real, but she couldn’t shy away. “Death will never come for you, no matter how much you beg him to take you. I’ve made sure of that. I figured it was the least I could do to ensure your infinite suffering, but for now you go on, little sister. Keep dreaming, feed the dark mistress with your memories and sorrow until she grows strong enough to cross the threshold into this world, and when you wake you’ll be her champion.”
“No,” she struggled against her sister’s hands holding her down on the bed, but she was weak. So weak she could barely move.
“And why not?” Anariel laughed. “Life for everyone would be just as you always dreamed, Onóra,” she hissed like a broken steam pipe, the force of her breath hot and damp against Onóra’s cheek. “You always were partial to glorious darkness and death, or is it that you’re sad you won’t be the one tearing the world apart? That your sweet Sithis will fall beneath her power as she rises?”
Bracing herself as best she could in that strange frame of mind, she truly believed the words that next escaped her lips. “Sithis will never fall,” she murmured. “And he will never let me fall either. I am the hand in the darkness… I am his instrument.”
“You will grovel at Vaermina’s feet. Mark my words, and every time you feast upon the blood you will fall to your knees and thank her for this most glorious gift.”
“No!” she shook her head frantically. “This isn’t real. It’s just a dream. Just a dream.”
“Well, well, well,” another voice disrupted the space, that eerie state of mind that gripped her momentarily slipping away to provide just enough clarity for her to realize it was not her sister speaking. “Is that the sweet scent of madness I smell on the wind?”
She tried to strain herself against the heavy weight holding her down, a weight she could no longer see, but that felt as heavily as if a stone were perched upon her chest. “Who’s there?”
“I am the hand in the darkness,” the woman said. Her voice was relaxed, casual, almost arrogant in its repetition of the words Onóra had just said. Her squinting eyes could just barely make out the image of a blurred shadow in the doorway. That shadow stalked silently toward her like a cat on the prowl, the flickering lantern on the bedside table illuminating only the barest hint of red on black just before she arrived at Onóra’s bedside and hunkered down to inspect her. “Sweet Mother, I expected a challenge. You’ve made this far too easy for me.” That casual arrogance was all too familiar. A confident killer, one who’d shed enough blood to know what she was dealing with.
“What have we here?” Anariel perked up with unbridled excitement. “Another twist of the knife, dear sister? Oh, Vaermina will love this. The assassin punished by one of her own kind. What have you done to ire the fates, Onóra?”
“You probably thought we wouldn’t find you, but we know. We always know.”
“Who are you?”
“All in good time,” the killer promised, and then she lifted a cloth up over Onóra’s mouth, pinching her nose closed with her hand so she had no choice but to gasp and inhale the acrid stench of chemical sleep. “That’s right,” she laughed softly. “Go to sleep and dream your last, for when you wake we’ll have choices to make together, you and I.”
For the second time that night sweet darkness closed in over her like a warm blanket, and in the trickling shadows of internal night she heard laughter, but it was neither the killer, nor her sister cackling. The voices were crisp as two leaves on the wind, sharp as a blade slipping into the flesh. “Soon, my listener,” Sithis and the Night Mother whispered as one. “Soon we will be reunited, and you will truly become our instrument.”
And as the darkness claimed her, she was free from the dreams that haunted her, free from Vaermina’s cruelty and her sister’s hand. Suspended in the warmth of the Void, there was no pain, no fear, only the comforting absence of life.