The Key was heavier than he remembered, its tines bone-cold against his fingertips. He'd carried it for so long—he'd only been apart from it for a few weeks, but it felt foreign, the wrong weight in his hand, wrong size, wrong texture. He knew why, but the knowledge couldn't, didn’t, wouldn’t change the feeling.
Same as ever, he had explanations without solutions. Did it help to understand, to know the reasons his skin recoiled from the metal? Mercer looked up, and Rath was gone.
It was Tirdas. Just over three days, then, until she'd need to make a choice. He hoped it wasn't too long. Pulling a small notebook from his chest pocket, Mercer made a mark.
The waterfall outside the Sepulcher roared underneath the music of the forest. From where he stood in the middle of the road, his mind already saw the dizzying height, felt the water fast and violent as it tumbled down the cliffs. He'd never been back, but he was there now, barely thirty years old, alone and full to bursting with fury and reckless determination. And he was there again, now, alongside Gallus with sword in hand, years before, on a night of frantic, frightening loss. He was there now for the first time, two dark figures beside him, making a choice as naive as so many others he’d made and would make, choosing over and over, agreeing to things he knew would bring all three of them to ruin.
He was there now, now, and it smelled like moss and wildflowers and wet, ancient rock. The ornate metal door still gleamed black before him, but the stream beside him ran clear. There was no blood here today, almost never blood here, and still it was perpetually night, the stream always dark with the lives that fell beneath his and Gallus’s blades. They’d gained nothing.
It was his fourth visit, the fourth time he’d stood in this small alcove and listened to the water and steeled himself to enter. It was the second time the dead awaited him inside. It was the first time he could choose to walk away.
It wasn’t the only option, but of course it was.
Darkness like a shroud enveloped him as the door closed against the day, the arcing, hollow echo of his footsteps the only thing betraying the shape of the chamber. Ahead of him, a glowing specter had been roused by the sound and had fixed its attention toward the entry. He was right there, just waiting, and Mercer felt his face twist with something like disgust.
Mercer’s steps fell closer, and the figure said, “Are you lost?”
It was almost a real blow, the way it struck Mercer in the chest and forced the air from his lungs.
“No,” Mercer said. “I am most certainly not lost.”
The figure’s shoulders, previously tight with vigilance, loosened. “It’s true, then.” His voice was the same but for its unaccountable echo, the way it bent to just-slightly different physics than Mercer’s.
“Hello, old friend.” Mercer closed the last of the distance between them and studied the figure before him. Even obscured by his armor, Mercer knew Gallus was still young and broad and strong, still looked the part of a dashing knight.
Gallus’s voice fell casually, just like it always had, comfortable and calm. “You were always special, Mercer. Gifted. Strange. Did I overlook something? Are you more important than I knew?”
“No.” Mercer huffed and shook his head. “No, I’m not special. I’m just lucky and persistent.”
“Cruel for you to speak to me of luck, especially here.”
“I never said it was good luck.” Mercer lifted his right hand and showed the Key, lit softly by the glow of Gallus’s form. “I brought something.”
“What about the girl? The Dragonborn?”
“Hardly a girl. She gave it back to me.” Mercer shrugged. “It’s been a strange week for everyone.”
Gallus nodded, but made no move to take the Key. “I can feel it. There’s something deeply wrong. Something that should have left me broken, but I’m here talking to you as easily as ever.” Mercer couldn’t see Gallus’s expression, couldn’t see his eyes, but he could feel the familiar stern gaze fixed on his face. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Not to sound too self-centered, but I think I’m the only thing here keeping you sane.”
Gallus shook his head and sighed. “The Key cannot be returned while you live.”
“I’d wager you don’t understand exactly how persistent I am.”
“I understand you, Mercer.”
Mercer was in this chamber, then, the second time, wrapped in darkness, scrambling, shouting to Gallus across the room, shouting to their missing third for a reply. She’d gotten here first, had been here gods knew how long, and somehow they hadn’t seen her. They’d fought a small army, and they’d chased the trail of blood through the heavy door and into the pitch black temple, and Mercer shouted her name and was met with nothing but his own voice. She wasn’t responding, and how would they find her in the shadows? Mercer lit a torch, threw magelight, called for her to please, say something, and there was nothing and she was nowhere until a wretched sound from Gallus carried across the vaulted ceiling, carried past the room and deep into Mercer’s muscles, made him run toward something he furiously did not want to see.
Mercer’s thumb passed up and down the Key, now, over and over, and he swallowed. “We belonged to her,” he said, quiet, somber.
Gallus was patient. “You’re right.” He made a gentle gesture with one ghostly hand, a questioning rising of his palm. “It always confused me, the way you didn’t see that as a problem.”
Heat curled at Mercer’s collar. “Don’t do this, not now.”
He was in this chamber, then, the third time, alone, steps soundless, no light to reflect his presence. He wasn’t thinking clearly, but it made his plans that much more precise, their execution that much more crucial, building his own clarity against the tumult outside. Things he’d learned, things that had been done, gears turning outside his view, outside his control, irrevocably changing his life without ever consulting him, without even the thought of asking, as if he’d never understand. It was Gallus, it was Maven—it hardly mattered. It would be Mercer now, he’d do something irrevocable, he’d be above reproach or explanation. He’d do something stupid, eyes wide open, and he’d do it all the godsdamned way.
“Perhaps we should end this conversation,” Gallus said, still unshakably cool and even, but Mercer could hear the shadow of bitterness begin its creep. “You’ve apparently come here to return the Key, gods know why. I’ve informed you that this cannot be done. You have a few options now, but none of them require speaking with me further.”
Mercer was in an icy ruin, waiting for his Guildmaster to show up and scold him, to tell him lies, to try to coax his new power from his hands.
“I don’t blame you, Gallus.” It was low and serious, but he knew he was being cruel, and he let the sharpness spill from the edges of his words.
Gallus stayed silent for several long moments. Mercer could almost hear him analyzing the bait, deciding whether to take it. “You’ve always had nerve, Mercer. That was the gamble I’d made, I knew. Eyes open, and all that. But you surely know that I don’t blame myself, either. Too many moving parts. I did what I thought was right.”
Mercer gritted his teeth and nodded. “So did I.”
“We have nothing useful to say to each other, I think. We were never supposed to speak, not like this.”
Squeezing the Key, Mercer said, “You’re right. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“And what will you do now?”
Mercer sighed and walked past Gallus, calling over his shoulder as he passed into more darkness. “I’ll keep being here anyway.”