The winding corridors and stairways led the mage and the priest of Mara through a tangle of fighting bodies. It was an interesting perspective on humanoid nature, and had he actual time to philosophize, Marcurio might have penned a few pages about the ongoing nature of hatred, how not even decades of sleep or the prospect of literally losing years from their lives was powerful enough to stifle the animosity between the orcs and the priests of Vaermina.
Embroiled in the middle of that decades’ old battle, the natural process of magicka regeneration was barely enough to keep the fireballs and jolts of lightning flowing from his fingertips and to make matters that much worse, his potions satchel was feeling lighter and lighter by the second. He was really starting to worry if the numbers didn’t thin out soon, he and the priest would be overwhelmed.
Bursting into the laboratory, he zapped an Orc as it was rising, driving it quickly to its knees, but the two priest that had been preparing their magic to take out the Orc turned their attention on him. He barely had enough time to replenish his stoneflesh spell and throw up a greater ward before a host of fireballs came burning straight at his magical shield.
“Oh for the love of the Eight!” he groaned as his ward began to fail. Without enough magicka to cast a few fireballs back at them, he’d have to rely on something he rarely even used, the enchanted dwarven shortsword hanging from his belt. Dropping his ward, he charged into battle with an angry cry that for a moment made him think of Ginna. The handful of times they’d been in actual combat together, she’d spun double-bladed into action, a dagger in one hand and a sword in the other.
He wished she was there fighting with him; she’d be a hell of a lot more useful than Erandur. Better yet, he wished he hadn’t so stupidly volunteered himself to try and find out more about Anariel’s sister. He could have followed her without accepting Maramal’s quest, so why hadn’t he?
Oh yeah, because he was an idiot. The things he did for unreciprocated love…
He swung his sword inward, connecting with the Orc’s upraised battle axe. Shocks from that block reverberated back through his wrists and into his forearms and he cursed between clenched teeth. “You will die this day!” he taunted, arcing the sword around in an attempt to get under the axe’s handle. The blade carved through bare, exposed flesh, and in a moment of arrogance he thought that would teach those idiot Orcs to run around half-naked.
The moment quickly passed, that particular Orc not exactly keen on the lesson Marcurio thought to teach him. As blood beaded across his open wound in thick red bulbs, the sight itself only seemed to spur his enemy into a deeper state of frenzy. He slammed the handle forward, colliding with the mage’s chest and staggering him backward. He stumbled over his own boots, and into the railing at his back, the Orc driving forward with battle axe raised over head as a snarling growl of terrifying proportions roared from his gaping mouth.
That roar was quickly cut off by a series of ice spikes exploding through his chest and torso, a spray of frost freezing across the front of Marcurio’s robes. The Orc collapsed dead atop him before sliding to the floor at his feet and leaving a nasty blood smear down the front of his robes. Glancing up as he caught his breath, Erandur nodded curtly in his direction and he stepped over the dead body to continue the journey to the temple laboratory.
By the time they reached the edge of the alchemy lab, Marcurio’s magicka had regenerated enough to give him the upper hand when two Orcs charged the stairs. His energy combined with Erandur’s, blasting the two of them backward and over the railings edge. They leaned over to inspect the scene, and content with the fact that neither got back up, Erandur brushed his hands together as if wiping away the dust and said, “Now that they’ve been dealt with, we need to find the Torpor.”
“Do you even know what it looks like?” Marcurio heard the distinct sound of his protective armor dissipating, and withheld raising it again. The lab beyond looked empty, and giving his magic a chance to regenerate was probably wise if there were bodies in there waiting to wake.
“If there is a mixture already created, it will be in a tall bottle with dark liquid. I’ll begin looking here in the upper level, if you’d be so kind as to take the lower level. As soon as you find it, bring it to me.”
“Right,” he nodded, leaning out to look down the stairs leading into the lower level. The floor was empty of sleeping bodies rising for vengeance. That was a plus, he thought, taking the steps one at a time.
They were so close to the source of power, he could hear it humming, feel its dark energy pressing against his flesh. Feet on the floor, he stalked toward a series of shelves and began sifting through alchemical ingredients and bottled poisons. A thick layer of dust coated everything, including the bottles, which made it almost impossible to tell what color the liquids inside were. He swiped his hand across several tall bottles, rattling off their contents on visual recognition alone: magicka potions, health potions, potions of regeneration. Potent stamina poison, magicka poison…
Of course it would be shelved among the poison.
Reaching out, he gripped the bottle and withdrew it from the shelf, the liquid contents splashing against the movement. He studied that bottle for a few moments, turning back over his shoulder and looking up the stairs where Erandur was waiting near a broken down alchemy lab the fires had gone out on decades before.
Marcurio started up the stairs, listening to the bottle slosh with every step and hating how fast the dread inside him was swelling. “I found the Torpor,” he announced, holding up the bottle for Erandur to inspect.
“I’m relieved you found a bottle intact,” he confessed. “The laboratory looks as though it was heavily ransacked by the Orcs.”
Scanning the cobwebbed ruins, the entire temple looked as if it had been ransacked in the melee. “Right, now what?”
“So… I’ve taken us this far, but you need to guide us the rest of the way.”
Marcurio glanced down at the bottle in his hand again, a nervous tension clenching in his gut.
“Drink,” Erandur urged.
“Here?” he balked. “Now?”
“Dawnstar’s fate rests in that bottle, and the longer we wait, the more opportunity we provide Vaermina to destroy the lives of those people. We cannot waste any more time, my son.”
He lifted the bottle up to inspect it more closely, a part of him wanting to smash it on the stone floor beneath his feet and tell that elf he was on his own. There was another part of him that, despite everything he’d thought earlier about heroes, wanted desperately to be the hero for once, to get the credit for doing something truly great. “What’s really going to happen to me when I drink this?”
“You will enter the Dreamstride. From there, I do not know.”
Of course he wouldn’t know, and even if he did, he’d probably be a fool to tell him the whole truth. He was already on the verge of telling him to shove his torpor where the sun didn’t shine.
“I understand your hesitation, but I promise you that it works. Go on, young man. The sooner you finish this, the sooner we can break the nightmare’s hold.”
He popped the cork, the echoing thunk of its removal preceding a soft splash of liquid as a drop of the torpor landed on the back of his hand. “Here goes nothing.” Lifting the bottle toward his nose, the first mistake he made was sniffing the acrid contents. The second mistake was throwing all caution to the wind and lifting the bottle to his lips. It was bitter and strangely dry on his tongue, gulping through the resistant muscles of his throat as he forced it down.
Everything around him began to immediately soften, even as the air around him grew thick and dense and the smell of blood and magic filled his nostrils. A bright yellow light burned his eyes, making his already fuzzy vision that much harder to control.
“The orcs have breached the inner-sanctum, Brother Veren,” a voice beside him called out in panic.
Marcurio turned his head in the direction of that voice, only to be prompted to look to his right again when the blurred acolyte in front of him responded. “We must hold. We cannot allow the skull to fall into their hands.”
“But no more than a handful of us remain, brother.”
He tried to shake the fuzziness from his head, to get a grip on the moment he was in, the familiarity of the building becoming strangely clear as he looked around.
“Then we have no choice. The Miasma must be released.”
“The Miasma? But brother…”
“We have no alternative. It is the will of Vaermina. And what about you, Brother Casimere?” The elf turned toward him expectantly. “Are you prepared to serve the will of Vaermina?”
“I’ve made my peace.” How strange to feel his own mouth move, to hear words escape him he hadn’t even spoken. He was within the mind another, would have to guide that mind through the Miasma and take control of the situation, but how?
“Then it is decided,” Brother Veren said. “Brother Casimere, you must activate the barrier and release the Miasma. Let nothing stop you.”
“It will be done.”
“Brother Thorek, we must remain behind and protect the skull… with our lives, if necessary.”
“Agreed,” Thorek solemnly replied. “To the death.”
The body he was within began to move at his command, running through the twisting hallways, barreling past fighting priests and orcs that barely even noticed he was there. He navigated the temple as if he knew ever corridor like the back of his own hand, skirting around battles as the smell of electricity entangled with the smoke of burning flesh and hair. His booted foot slipped through a puddle of blood on the floor, but he righted himself as he rounded the corner and raced through battle after battle as if he weren’t there at all.
His head was swimming, spinning in nauseating circles that promised to pitch him flat on his face the next time he had to think too hard about jumping over the bodies on the floor. Up the stairs, through the hallways, around the corner and he could just see the chain dangling from the wall, the chain that would release the Miasma. His shoulder slammed into an Orc’s arm as he was swinging it around to bring his hammer down to smash a priestess, and Marcurio bounced off the frame of the door, stumbling into the room. Clutching his shoulder, he limped toward the chain and with trembling hands he reached up to draw it down.
At first nothing happened. Bolts of shock magic coursed through the air as the Miasma released, stifling the cries of the embittered, the enraged, the dying. With a trembling hand, he reached through the paralyzing shock and grabbed the soul gem from its container, and the magic stopped. The raging screams of the dying echoed through that strange space in his head, and the horrid stench of death choked in his throat until he felt so nauseated he dropped to his knees and fell forward, just barely catching himself when his hands slapped upon the stone.
Lowering his head, the loose tendrils of hair that fell in around his face stunk of smoke as they tickled his nose. The smell was enough to make him wretch, his roiling stomach forcing the torpor back out as he splashed upon the stone in front of him.
He shook his head, trying to free himself from whatever grip it had on him, but he was spinning again, circling, falling, going down, down, down. The stone beneath his cheek was hard and cold, almost refreshing as the taste of bile edged at the back of his tongue. He’d spent a lot of days shaking off the hardships of a hangover, but the throbbing in his head combined with the swirling agony in his guts was worse than anything he’d ever purposely indulged in in his life.
“It… It worked. Mara be praised.” A warm hand clenched his shoulder, turning him onto his back. Marcurio watched through the blur of his own damp lashes as three Erandurs spun above him. “You’ve done it, my boy! It’s worked.”
“What… what happened?”
“You vanished after drinking the torpor and appeared on the other side. I’ve… I have never seen anything quite like it.”
“Are you mad?” he gasped, reaching an unsteady hand out to grasp at the elf’s robes so he could steady him within view. “I could have died.”
“But you did not. Oh, how I envy you, young man. I can only imagine the excitement of seeing history unfold through another’s eyes.”
“It was riveting,” he muttered sarcastically, dropping his head back onto the floor again and shoving the priest away.
“Sadly, I am resigned to just reading of its wonders through my research of the Skull.”
“I need a drink,” he groaned. “Water, whiskey, something to get this rancid taste out of my mouth.”
“Here,” Erandur held a water skin to his lips and Marcurio guzzled it down so quick he nearly choked and almost vomited it all back up again. It did little to dissolve the taste from his tongue, but after a few minutes he did start to feel more stable. “You must tell me all about your experience. Please.”
“I’ll tell you about it later,” he shoved the man aside and sat up, bracing himself against the rotating room around him. “We need to finish this so I can get as far away from this place and you as possible. Otherwise, there’s no telling what I might do to you.”
The old elf actually laughed, an appreciative chuckle that surprised and amused Marcurio more than he expected it to. “I knew Maramal sent the right men when he sent you. Come,” he helped him to his feet. “We are nearly finished with this task.”
“Mara be praised!”