Onóra began to stir from the darkness, every joint and muscle in her body aching as she lifted her head from the cold stone floor to look around the dark interior of the shack. There was movement somewhere in the room, bodies stirring, fear pulsing through the blood… the blood. Yes, blood; there was a longing within her for its sweet taste upon her tongue, but real memory for why it was there.
Her blurred sight immediately focused on the slow pendulum swing of a single booted leg dangling from an empty shelf above her. Shaking her head, she tried to disperse the fogginess from her throbbing skull, her trembling hand reaching up to stroke across her brow.
“Sleep well?” a cool voice echoed inside her head. No, it was coming from outside, from the body attached to the leg swinging from the bookshelf to her right.
“Who… where am I?”
“Does it matter?” she asked. “You’re warm, dry and still very much alive… well, sort of, anyway. They say your kind aren’t really alive anymore, but that’s beside the point, and it’s more than I can say for poor Grelod, hmm?”
“Grelod?” she repeated that name, her reeling mind spanning back several thoughts until she grasped its meaning. “You… you know about that?”
“Half of Skyrim knows. Old woman gets butchered in her own orphanage? Things like that tend to get around,” she mused thoughtfully, that leg still swinging back and forth like the long arm of a clock ticking away the minutes. “Oh, but don’t misunderstand. I’m not criticizing. It was a good kill. Old crone had it coming, from what I gather, and you managed to save a bunch of urchins to boot. Bravo!” she began to clap her hands, the sharp slap of flesh on flesh battering inside Onóra’s skull. “But… there is a slight problem.
Onóra said nothing, only stared up at the masked assassin on the book shelf with rising curiosity and dread.
“You see, that little Aretino boy was looking for the Dark Brotherhood. For me and my associates. Grelod the Kind was, by all rights, a Dark Brotherhood contract. A kill… that you stole. A kill you must repay.”
“You… you want me to murder someone else?” Narrowing her wary gaze, the bloodlust inside her was rising to the surface, fueled by her own fear and the very distinct air of terror lingering in that broken down shack. “Who?”
“Well now, funny you should ask.”
She was so casual, so relaxed and there was a brief moment during which Onóra wanted desperately to hope up onto that book shelf and put a dagger in her eye, to show her she wasn’t dealing with some amateur that killed one haggardly old woman on a whim. She’d been killing for hundreds of years, had seen assassin’s guilds rise and fall and rise again, all in the name of Sithis and the Night Mother.
“If you turn around, you’ll notice my guests.” Prompted by that statement, Onóra turned a shaky head over her left shoulder, finally discovering the source of fear that triggered some need inside her to feed. “I’ve collected them from… well, that’s not really important. The here and now. That’s what really matters. You see, there’s a contract out on one of them, and that person can’t leave this room alive. But which one? Go on, see if you can figure it out.”
Retracting her gaze, she stared up at the assassin on the ledge for a long moment, wishing she had the ability to project her thoughts into the mind of others. She would show her the river of blood she’d left in her wake, the mountain of dead bodies that piled up behind her wherever she went.
Beneath her mask, the assassin was smiling; Onóra could see it in her eyes. “Make your choice,” she urged. “Make your kill. I just want to observe… and admire.”
She said nothing, only stared.
“Mm, the silence,” the assassin crooned. “The mystery is almost more than I can stand. Who will it be? Who will you kill? Well? Get to it then. Pick your guest and shed their blood, send that poor fool to the Void, and once you’re done I’ll give you the key to this shack and we’ll both be on our way.”
Rising on shaking legs, Onóra turned slowly toward the three bodies bound and kneeling in a row at her back. Two men, one of them Khajiit, flanking a lone woman in a dirtied yellow gown. It took her a minute to will her legs to be strong beneath her. Normally she walked with confident silence, but the weakness she felt made her feet clumsy and the sound of her footsteps alerted the captives to her coming.
“Get these binds off me, now!” The woman commanded.
Ignoring her she stalked toward the man on her left and as soon as she approached he began to blubber. “Is this about that raid last week? I told Holgrim there was no honor in killing sleeping men, but he wouldn’t listen. Please, it wasn’t my fault, I swear to you!” She said nothing, only stood above him with her head tilted thoughtfully as she listened to his fear, to the pulse of blood pounding through his veins. She wanted to drink that fear, swallow it into her soul and let it placate the longing within. “I’m just a soldier. Sure, people died, but war is war, right? Please, I don’t want to die.”
He’d barely finished his plea when the woman in the center called out. “Cowards! How dare you do this to me? Stealing a woman from her home! For shame! For shame! If you’re going to kill me, just do it already!” Onóra took a step toward her, drawn to the fire of her rage just as she’d been drawn to the soldier’s fear. She wanted to consume that fire, drink it down like a shot of whiskey and feel it burning through her blood. “With Mara as my witness, if I didn’t have this hood on right now I would spit right in your face.”
She was still ranting and raving when Onóra stepped right, lingering quietly in front of the Khajiit. “Whoever you are, clearly we got off on the wrong foot.” His tail twitched and swished behind him on the dirty floor, a definite sign of fear. “Ah, but no worries. This is not the first time I’ve been bagged and dragged, but I always survive, for I am Vasha, Vasha the Great. Obtainer of goods, taker of lives and defiler of daughters. Have you not heard of me?” he asked, giving pause for a moment, though she did not answer. “Perhaps I will have my people carve my name into your corpse as a reminder.”
“Ooh,” a familiar voice spoke up over her shoulder, but it was not the assassin. It was Anariel, her ghastly shade lingering in the shadows. “They’re all so feisty, little sister, but don’t let them fool you. Every one of them deserves to die by your hand. Kill them.” Her whisper was as real as the wind upon her face. “Bathe in their blood and sate your growing hunger.”
The hunger… Yes, Onóra could feel it burning inside her like fire, and the only thing that would quell that fire was the taste of blood.
She’d been drugged and bound, carried away from her own madness and into that strange, abandoned shack in the woods to be punished for her crimes against the Dark Brotherhood. She had no weapons but her own hands…
“And your teeth,” Anariel whispered. “Tear them to pieces, Onóra. Drink from them.”
“When I get out of here, I will hunt you down and rip out your heart with my bare hands,” the woman screamed.
Pacing back and forth between the three, she slipped behind them and stalked the floor, the sound of her footsteps driving their unspoken fears to boiling point. The woman raged and screamed for vengeance, the soldier whimpered and pleaded for freedom, the Khajiit challenged her to try him, promising to give her a fight she wouldn’t soon forget from her grave.
The woman’s screams were more than she could bear, reverberating within the hollow cavern of her throbbing skull like dying banshees on the wind. Stopping behind her, she reached down with a swift jerk and tugged that arrogant woman’s head to the side, her neck snapping in her hands just before she dove in to feast upon the thick, savory spray of salted copper between her lips. She gulped down life, drinking it inside herself until she could feel it fueling and feeding some waking monster within, and when she was finished she moved back to the Khajiit, knelt in front of him and tore into the fur of his tight throat with her teeth.
She drank them all, their blood spray washing over her until she was drenched and slick with death and her spectral sister’s laughter was the only thing she could hear until her benefactor hopped down from where she’d perched in the corner and began stalking toward her like a cat.
“Well, well, aren’t we the overachiever,” she cackled, clapping her hands with slow appreciation. “Three possibilities, three victims… must have been one of them, right? So why take chances? Nice, very nice, my friend, and the fact that you’re a night walker… even better. Vampires make exceptional assassins, all those hidden skills so few even realize are there, but I think the thing I respect the most is that you did what you were told, no questions, nor remorse.”
“I’m not a vampire,” Onóra said.
“No? Is there another word for what you do that I’ve not been made aware of? Nevertheless, whatever you are, I respect you.”
“Then I’m free to go?”
“Of course, after all, a promise is a promise and you’ve repaid your debt in full. Here,” she held out here hand and dropped a key into Onóra’s open palm. “The key to the shack, but why stop there? I say we take our relationship to the next level.”
“What do you mean?”
“I would like to officially extend an invitation for you to join my family,” she said. “The Dark Brotherhood.”
The Dark Brotherhood. All her life Onóra had been just one step ahead of them, a private contractor answering the call of the Night Mother. She’d seen it rise and fall and rise again more times than she could count, but she’d never wanted anything to do with it, never wanted to align herself or share her special relationship with Sithis and the Night Mother with anyone else.
“If you’re worried about persecution, we don’t judge in my family. We don’t care if you’re a vampire or a werewolf, an elf or a cat. The only thing we care about is that you’ll kill without question to please the Dread Lord. But of course, I wouldn’t expect you to make a decision right away. Such a commitment takes thought and time to process, so take your time.”
“I am not a vampire,” Onóra murmured again.
The assassin ignored her. “In the southwest reaches of Skyrim, in the Pine Forest, you’ll find the entrance to our sanctuary. It’s just beneath the road, hidden from view. When questioned by the Black Door, answer with the correct passphrase, Silence, my brother. Then you’re in and a new life begins.”
“A new life,” she snorted laughter, the salted-copper smell of blood filling her nostrils, slick on her tastebuds. What was to stop her from devouring that smug little assassin right then and there, of ripping her apart like some savage beast and swallowing the savory offering of her blood?
No, a voice whispered inside her mind. Not her sister’s voice, but another, a familiar, smoky voice that rasped like dry old leaves rustling in the cold winter wind. The time is not right, my daughter.
“I do hope you’ll join us,” the assassin said, her eyes scanning across the field of blood and carnage Onóra’s savage attack had left behind.
“You… you never even told me your name.”
“No,” she cooed thoughtfully. “I didn’t, Onóra.” She put extra emphasis on that bit of power she had over her, and then she walked away, leaving her alone inside the abandoned shack with the rampant chaos of her own thoughts screaming inside her mind.
She could say she wasn’t a vampire as many times as she liked, but the truth was in the taste of blood still lingering on her tongue. She’d felt the change come over her, the insatiable lust for someone else’s life force raging in her veins, and all the power that came with answering its call.
“She seems nice,” Anariel whispered thoughtfully, stepping out of the shadows and taking on corporeal form again. She was so real Onóra could reach out and touch her, feel the cold reality of her flesh beneath her hand, and yet she was just a memory. A dark snippet of her past that she’d begrudgingly carried the weight of for far too long. It was time to let her go, to unclench her fingers from a past she couldn’t change and move forward… into a new life. “I think you should follow her home and eat her for breakfast.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh yes,” she cackled maniacally. “Very much.”
“Then I will do the opposite of what you’d like me to do,” she decided, “and there’s nothing you can do about that, sister, because you’re dead. Maybe you forgot, maybe Vaermina empowered my memories of you with just enough hate to give you life again, but Marcurio killed you, and maybe it was the right thing to do. You see,” she paused, standing on wobbly legs and scanning the interior of the shack again. “You see, I’m nothing like you. You would have made a horrible vampire, but me… I see beauty in the darkness and this curse you’ve given me? I call it a gift.”
With every word she spoke, Anariel began to fade, along with the power of memory and nightmare that had brought her into the world with such strength in the first place. Vaermina may have held enough sway there to make her real, to actualize the curse Anariel had transferred to her sister’s blood, but they were no longer in Dawnstar, no longer at the center of her power, and for the first time in her life Onóra didn’t care about the past.
She saw the future; a new life, the assassin had called it, a family who would accept her for what she was, encourage her dark gifts and embrace her.
There was a dirty old mattress in the corner, stained with old blood and gods only knew what else, but the sun was rising just outside the windows and Onóra was tired, more tired than she’d ever been. She stalked toward that mattress, intent on curling up in its filth and letting sleep claim her.
“What are you doing?” Anariel, who was all but invisible, lingered at the edge of the mattress after she laid down, a desperate sense of helplessness in her voice. “You can’t just ignore me.”
“Oh, but I can,” Onora tucked her hands beneath her cheek and drew her long legs up into the bed. “And I will. You are nothing to me anymore, Anariel. I am finished with you.”
She didn’t know why, but she knew she’d be safe there in the abandoned shack where she’d tasted her first blood. Only the dead lingered within that little cabin, and none of them could hurt her, not anymore.