Where the end began.
Alora trudged up the mountain, her leg muscles burning. It had taken her four days to arrive at Snow Veil Sanctum. Four long days of harsh winds, snowstorms, and little warmth, not to mention several encounters with the local snow bear population. Mercer had left a day before her in order to scope out the ruin. Of this, she was glad; a three-day trip with only Mercer for company seemed a rather daunting prospect.
Finally, she reached the top of the summit. Her legs were wobbly, so she sat down for a moment to rest.
"Good, you're finally here," said a cold voice. Startled, she looked up and saw Mercer walking toward her. "Come on. There's no time to waste."
"Well, then make time!" Alora snapped. "I just hiked up a mountain, I'm tired, and I'm going to sit for five minutes."
The Guildmaster looked at her with an expression of both surprise and irritation. He likely wasn't used to being told off, and her remark had caught him off guard. "Five minutes," he said at last.
While she took the time to massage her aching muscles and drink water, Mercer informed her of what he had discovered.
"I've scouted the ruins and I'm certain Karliah is still inside," he said. "I found her horse. Don't worry, I've taken care of it...she won't be using it to escape." He crossed his arms impatiently. "Hurry up, would you?"
Reluctantly, Alora stood, tucking away her water flask. She didn't like the way he talked to her, as if she were his to order about. She didn't like it one bit. Still, she had to show some level of respect. He was her Guildmaster, albeit a brusque one.
"If you're done lollygagging, let's head inside. Take the lead," he said.
"You want me to lead? Why?"
"I'm sorry, I was under the impression that I was in charge," Mercer scoffed. "You're leading and I'm following. Does that seem clear to you?"
Alora glowered at him. I hope you get eaten by skeevers. "...Understood."
"Good. Just make certain you keep your eyes open. Karliah is sharp as a blade," he said. "The last thing I need is you blundering into a trap and warning her that we're here."
Filthy, disease-ridden skeevers.
"Anyway, I've had enough of this unnecessary chatting. We need to keep going." He pointed to a staircase spiraling downward. "There's the entrance. Let's move."
Alora readied her bow. With lumbering footsteps, she trekked through the snow and down the stairs, only to find that the entryway was sealed. Inspecting the door, she noticed that that there was no normal lock, and therefore no means of picking it open.
Mercer stepped forward. "Hang on. This one doesn't look too difficult." He motioned for Alora to move away. "Quite simple really, I don't know what the fuss is about these ancient Nordic burial mounds being so impenetrable. All it takes is a bit of know-how and a lot of skill...there, that should do it."
Alora watched in stunned silence as the strange locks slid open. "How did you...?"
"Never mind it," Mercer said gruffly. "I've been picking doors open all my life. Let's go."
I'll have to question him later, Alora thought. If we get out of here alive.
Inside the sanctum, it was eerily quiet. Torches on sconces lined the walls. A foul odor assaulted Alora's nose, causing her eyes to water briefly.
"The stench in here...this place smells of death. Be on your guard," Mercer said quietly.
They crept through the winding halls without encountering anything, and she was starting to wonder if this was some kind of joke when she heard them.
"Draugr," Mercer whispered. Their slow, heavy footsteps were easily discernible. Alora had only fought a handful of draugr in her life, but the smell of the sanctum should have been enough to warn her of what lie ahead. Squinting, she could see three of them in the distance.
Nocking an arrow, she pulled back the bowstring. With a twang, the arrow flew and embedded itself in the skull of one. It fell with a groan.
The other two draugr drew their weapons, looking around frantically for the location of their attacker. Alora loosed another arrow, killing a second. Mercer went after the last, slashing at it with reputable swordsmanship.
"Slipping past these draugr must have been all too easy for her," Mercer said, pulling his sword from the enemy's body. "Child's play."
And so they surged forward. Every so often they would have to pause and kill more draugr, or sidestep a trap Karliah had set. They both gained a few nicks and bruises, but were otherwise unscathed. Mercer got the brunt of the injuries, as he was the one who went into close combat while Alora shot from afar.
Everything was relatively uneventful until they reached a wide, circular room. Draugr lined the walls, waiting to be awakened by the slightest noise. The floor, Alora noticed, was slick with multicolored oil.
"Fire traps," Mercer whispered, pointing to lamps hanging from the ceiling. "There's no way we'll be able to sneak past the draugr with all this oil on the floor...hm. I think we can use the traps to our advantage." He bent his lips into a cold smile.
She knew what he was thinking. And the prospect scared her to death.
"I'll wake the draugr," he said. "At the opportune moment...shoot the lamps down."
Alora's hands tightened around her bow. How could she refuse? There was no other way. "I...understand."
Mercer nodded. Stepping into the room, he drew his sword and loudly clanged it against his dagger, resulting in an obnoxious ringing sound. It echoed across the room and bounced off the walls.
Draugr jerked to life. Alora's heart thumped wildly, knowing that in mere seconds her worst fear was about to be realized. With trembling fingers, she nocked an arrow, aimed for the lamps, and released.
The lamps broke, and an explosion resounded through the sanctum. Orange tongues of flame licked up the oil, setting the entire room ablaze. Draugr groaned and shrieked as their bones turned to dust. Alora screamed and ducked for cover, Mercer following closely behind.
It only took minutes for the fire to burn up all the oil, but to Alora it felt like years. All the while she was bombarded with memories of bandits sending her house up in flames, of her parents being burned alive, of being taken captive—
"Come on. It's over." Mercer grabbed her by the shoulders, helping her up. "Stop cowering like a child."
It was only an oil fire, she told herself. Only an oil fire. Reaching for her water flask, she sipped carefully, trying to calm the shaking in her limbs. I really need to learn how to face fire with courage...
For awhile, she was slow with her movements, but gradually regained her resolve. Mercer's impatience with her was obvious, but he refrained from making any more snide comments.
"Do you think she expected us to make it this far?" Alora asked.
"Yes," said Mercer. "However, I don't think she expected me to bring someone with me...so at least we're somewhat ahead of her."
They continued moving through the sanctum, slowly and silently. More draugr had to be brought down and more traps avoided. Much to Alora's relief, they didn't encounter any more oil lamp setups.
At long last, they arrived at a great golden door. This door, like the entrance to the sanctum, had no ordinary lock. Instead, there was a large indentation in the shape of a dragon's claw.
"Ah, it's one of the infamous Nordic puzzle doors. Without the matching claw, they're normally impossible to open. And since I'm certain Karliah already did away with it, we're on our own." Mercer waved Alora back and went to work on the door. "Fortunately, these doors have a weakness if you know how to exploit it. Quite simple, really." Sure enough, the Guildmaster had the puzzle unlocked within minutes. The door slid down slowly. "Karliah's close, I'm positive...let's keep moving."
Alora's heart quickened its pace. "I'm ready. Let's kill the damn traitor." She promised Brynjolf she would kill her, and by the Nine, she would. Bow in hand, she stepped through the door.
A sudden, intense pain pierced her side. Green sparks danced in her eyes and, with an anguished cry, she slumped to the ground.
"Do you honestly think your arrow will reach me before my blade finds your heart?"
Alora slowly opened her eyes. All she could feel was pain, pain, and more pain. She tried to sit up, only to find that she couldn't move at all.
"Give me a reason to try."
She blinked several times. In the distance, she could barely make out two figures. A man and a woman. Both looked ready to pounce, and neither were willing to make the first move.
"You're a clever girl, Karliah. Buying Goldenglow Estate and funding Honningbrew Meadery was inspired."
Karliah! If only she could move, Alora would loose an arrow at her that very second. Mercer, she realized, would have to handle her on his own.
"'To ensure an enemy's defeat, you must first undermine his allies.' It was the first lesson Gallus taught us."
"You always were a quick study," Mercer remarked.
"Not quick enough, otherwise Gallus would still be alive."
"Gallus had his wealth and he had you. All he had to do was look the other way."
No! Alora thought, her eyes wide with shock. It can't be true...
"Did you forget the Oath we took as Nightingales?" Karliah said, her voice rising. "Did you expect him to simply ignore your methods?"
"Enough of this mindless banter!" Mercer shouted, drawing his sword. "Come, Karliah. It's time for you and Gallus to become reunited!"
Alora stared in astonishment as Karliah brought a potion to her lips, sipped, and turned invisible. "I'm no fool, Mercer," she said. "Crossing blades with you would be a death sentence. But I can promise that next time we meet, it will be your undoing." And she was gone.
Mercer sheathed his sword with a disconcerting calmness. Helplessly, Alora watched him saunter over to where she lay, bleeding and paralyzed.
"How interesting," he remarked. "It appears Gallus's history has repeated itself."
If she could move, she would have gutted him. She would have cut his throat. And she would have felt no trace of remorse. Mercer was a traitor, a liar, and a murderer, and he deserved to die like one.
"Karliah has provided me with the means to be rid of you, and this ancient tomb becomes your final resting place," he said with a smirk. "But you know what intrigues me the most? The fact that this was all possible because of you." He unsheathed his sword with narrowed eyes. "Farewell, Swiftknife. I'll be sure to give Brynjolf your regards."
"Bryn..." The word left her lips in a whisper as Mercer's blade entered the soft flesh of her stomach. Her eyes closed, and she tumbled into darkness.