Selene lay on her side with her eyes closed, enjoying the heady, floating sensation from the potion Jora had given her. The priestess and her husband Lortheim had taken her and Brynjolf in at the temple of Talos and treated their burns. Brynjolf lay face down on the cot next to hers, naked and covered with a light sheet, sound asleep. His back, buttocks, and the backs of his legs were covered with blisters and cracked, peeling skin. He had been in quite a bit of pain, so Lortheim had given him something to knock him out.
They would rest and heal for a few days before getting back on the road and heading to Fort Blackmoor. Since they found the note from Karliah on Mercer’s remains, their quest had become less about the loot and more about answers. Karliah had kept something from them, and before they confronted her, they needed to find out what happened at the fort.
As she lay there wondering about Karliah and Mercer, a familiar scent filled her nostrils, and her heart began to flutter. She had been right; there really was no avoiding Ulfric Stormcloak in his city. She opened her eyes to find him standing in the doorway. “Did Jora tell you I was here?”
“Lortheim.” He came into the room, pulled a chair up next to her cot, and sat down. “He said you were injured. What happened?”
“A trap in a ruin.” He looked over at Brynjolf, and she said, “It’s not as bad as it looks. They said he probably won’t even scar from it.”
She shook her head in response. “Not too bad. I’ll have to cut my hair, though. A lot of it got burned off.”
“I heard you’d married. Is that him?”
“Aye. His name is Brynjolf.”
Ulfric cocked an eyebrow. “You married the leader of the Thieves Guild?”
“You know him?”
“I know of him. I can’t say I approve of your choice.”
“I didn’t ask for your approval.”
Her comment stung, and his scent and the pained look in his eyes showed it.
He reached out and took her hand. “I’ll go so you can rest, but I wanted to see…I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“He makes me happy, Ulfric.”
“I would have made you queen.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
Ulfric nodded his understanding and got up to go. “Should you need me, you know where I am.”
“The same for you; that hasn’t changed.”
“You think that means we can talk him into sending our stuff to Riften like Falk did?” Brynjolf mumbled drowsily without opening his eyes.
“What was that?” Ulfric asked.
Selene shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. He’s pretty strung out on pain potions.”
“Be good to her, thief, or I will hear of it.”
“With all due respect, my jarl, go fuck yourself.”
Selene cringed. She couldn’t imagine Ulfric putting up with such disrespect, especially from Brynjolf, but fortunately, he didn’t react. He simply picked up her hand and kissed it. “Goodbye, my love.”
“I will be good to you, you know,” Brynjolf muttered when he was gone. “Bastard didn’t have to threaten me, either.”
Selene chuckled softly and closed her eyes.
* * *
After three days and nights of rest and healing, Selene and Brynjolf left for Whiterun to store their take from Bonestrewn Cave. They spent some time socializing with the Companions at Jorrvaskr and then stayed the night at Breezehome before heading out to Fort Blackmoor the next morning. The ruined fort was only a couple hours’ ride from Whiterun, and they arrived just after noon. It was small as forts went, with one tower and not much else. Three burned-out houses stood between the fort and the road. The place was hopping when they arrived; they walked right into a fight between a bandit clan and several Stormcloak soldiers. They helped the soldiers out, and in a matter of minutes, the bandits were all dead. Unfortunately, so was one of the Stormcloaks. Selene studied the soldier’s face, but she didn’t know him.
“Go with Talos, brother,” she whispered as his comrades picked up his body respectfully to carry him home.
“All that will have probably alerted anybody who’s inside,” said Brynjolf. “If there is anybody.”
“Most forts like this have a runoff or sewer entrance. Let’s go around the side and see what we can find.”
They tied the horses up inside one of the houses and searched the perimeter of the fort. They found the entrance they were looking for near the back, where a grate opened off of a small pond that was crawling with mudcrabs. They must have killed ten of them before climbing through the grate, only to come upon half a dozen more when they emerged inside. A slope led up to a shelf where a bedroll lay next to a warm fire.
“Perhaps we’ll have living people instead of undead and machines,” Selene mused.
The cave led to a cistern that was also overrun with vermin; this time it was skeevers. Selene cringed as she swung her sword at the creatures. When the skeevers were all dead, they followed a slope leading up to another grate, this one bearing the “danger” shadowmark. Brynjolf pulled the grate open, and they crawled through a short tunnel into a jail. The room was unoccupied, and the pair browsed through a handful of chests to find some gems and a couple hundred gold pieces.
They went up another slope and stepped over a tripwire to enter a barracks patrolled by five skeletons. The skeletons only lasted a few seconds. Each bed in the barracks had a chest at the foot, and though it was pretty evident they weren’t going to find the bounty here that they had in the last two places, they did come out with several hundred gold pieces and some jewelry. The next hallway had a pressure plate and a swinging door bearing dozens of deadly spikes. The plate wasn’t large or well hidden, and they stepped around it easily.
As they approached the next door, they heard voices. Selene stuck her head through the doorway and assessed the situation. It was a two-level room, and they were on the bottom level at the foot of a flight of stone stairs. Above were a few skeletons and a handful of mages, at least one of them with an image of a skull emblazoned on her robes.
“Necromancers,” she whispered.
“Do you think they’re Mercer’s? Perhaps he was trying to find a way to live forever.”
“Possibly. Or they could have just taken up residence here. It’s been more than twenty-five years, after all.”
“Either way, they have to go.”
“Aye. I want to try to get up the stairs before they detect us, though. Fighting them all from down here is just going to get us killed.”
“You want to go first, or shall I?”
“I’ll go.” She crept slowly through the door and started up the stairs, Brynjolf following close behind. She could only see one of the necromancers at the moment; the others had all moved away from this end of the room. Just as she was nearing the top level, though, one of them wandered onto the landing with a skeleton following him. Selene and Brynjolf froze until the mage moved past the stairs and stood at a table puttering with some ingredients. They stole the rest of the way up the stairs, and Selene snuck up behind the mage and slit his throat just as Brynjolf drove his sword through the skeleton’s ribcage.
The necromancer choked and gagged as he perished, making enough noise to alert the others. A skeleton came tottering up another set of stairs while mages hurled spells at them. The dead mage at Selene’s feet sparkled, got up, and started thrusting his dagger at her. She stabbed him again, and he fell into a pile of ash.
“You shouldn’t have to kill somebody more than once!” she barked.
“Son of a—” Brynjolf cried as a firebolt connected with his back. Selene drew her bow and shot the necromancer, who was hurling flames at them from across the room. Bryn dashed across a small footbridge to fight another, while Selene aimed her bow and took out a third. When they were all dead, her husband walked back across the bridge to her.
“Are you hurt?” she asked him as she inspected his back. His armor was no more damaged than it had been before they had entered the fort.
“No, but I confess I had a brief moment of panic there.”
The top level was actually two balconies above the main floor, which was blocked in the middle by toppled stonework. They got a few gold pieces off of the necromancers and a magical bow from a table, and two chests afforded some gold; but at this point, the loot didn’t matter to Selene. She wanted to get through the place and find out if the fort’s occupants just happened to be necromancers or if Mercer Frey really was trying to come back from the dead. She shuddered at the thought that someone might have gone into Irkngthand and retrieved Mercer’s body from the flooded cavern, and that it was lying somewhere in Fort Blackmoor’s tower, waiting to be reanimated—or had already been reanimated.
They entered the tower next, and as they ascended each level they killed more necromancers and skeletons, sustaining minor injuries and looting a moderate amount of gold and jewelry. In one of the rooms near the top, a necromancer worked near a throne, and another paged through a book next to a large bookcase. Brynjolf took the reader, and Selene sent an arrow into the back of the mage near the throne.
“What was that?” Mercer’s voice called.
Selene’s heart skipped a beat. No, it was not happening. They were not going to find Mercer’s reanimated corpse in this tower!
“It’s just another shade,” Brynjolf assured her as though he could read her mind.
“I hope you’re right.”
At the top of the next flight of stairs, a pressure plate blocked the final tower door. Selene reached across the pressure plate and opened the door to find a lush bedroom containing the ubiquitous arcane enchanter, alchemy table, and bookcase. Selene whispered thanks to Nocturnal when they found that Brynjolf had been right and only Mercer’s shade was present. He sat on the bed, looking forlornly at an amulet of Mara and diamond ring that sat on the nightstand. When he noticed them, he didn’t attack; he simply stood up and faced them.
“Go ahead,” he said, spreading his arms out to the sides. “I don’t want to be here.”
Brynjolf accommodated him, swinging his sword and sending the shade into a pool of ectoplasm.
All the loot they hadn’t found in the rest of the fort was stored in this room. Two safes and a chest gave hundreds of gold pieces, handfuls of gems and jewelry, and another valuable bow. The shade carried a large sack of gold, a few gems, and yet another note.
Brynjolf opened the note and read, then closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Where are we going now?” Selene muttered sardonically.
“This is a letter from Maven, pointing us to a mine in The Rift, but I need a break.”
“Let’s go home, then.”
* * *
Though the cistern looked pretty much the same as always, Selene and Brynjolf barely recognized the Ragged Flagon. Vekel had added some appointments to the tavern, including some decorative banners and rugs, better dishware, and even a round card table big enough to seat eight or ten people. Vipir, Rune, Thrynn, and Karliah sat at the table with tankards of mead, stacks of gold, and a deck of cards. Vipir’s pile of coin was significantly larger than the others’.
“What’s the game, my friends?” Brynjolf asked.
“Aces and eights,” said Thrynn, “and Vipir’s cheating.”
“I’m not cheating! I’m just having a run of good luck, that’s all.”
Selene looked over her Vipir’s shoulder at his cards. He had a full house—aces and eights. “Are you sure you’re not cheating?” She wrapped her arms around her childhood friend for a hug.
“As Nocturnal is my witness,” he promised, throwing an arm around her waist. “And you know the best part? He dealt me this hand, just as it is.”
“Maybe Thrynn just needs to shuffle better.”
Thrynn called for cards, and Karliah asked for two.
“One for me,” said Rune.
Thrynn glared over at Vipir. “How many cards?”
“None. I’m good.”
“Son of a bitch! I fold.” He threw his cards down, and Rune and Karliah followed suit. Vipir gave a wicked laugh as he swept the pot over and added it to the pile in front of him.
Brynjolf placed a hand on Karliah’s shoulder. “When you get some time, can we have a word?”
“Of course. Rune, deal me out of this one.” She got up from her chair, squeezed Rune’s hand and exchanged a meaningful look with him, and then followed Selene and Brynjolf out of the Flagon.
They went to Honeyside, where Selene poured wine for the three of them, and they sat down at the kitchen table. “You cut your hair,” Karliah noticed.
“Not voluntarily. It got burned off in Bonestrewn Cave. We got caught in a pretty nasty fire trap.”
“Sweet Nocturnal! Were you hurt?”
“Both of us, but nothing life threatening. Spent a couple of days with the healers in Windhelm.”
“Aye, and I got to meet Selene’s ex-lover,” Brynjolf quipped.
“Hurling curses at him in an intoxicated state don’t actually count as meeting, my love. Speaking of lovers, what was that I saw between you and Rune, Karliah?”
Selene didn’t know centuries-old dark elves could blush.
“Nothing yet, not really. It’s just a flirtation. But it feels good to have someone look at me that way again. I suppose I favor Imperials.” She took a sip of her wine. “It’s good to see you home. Things have been going extremely well here. The thieves have been busy, and coin is rolling in. Vipir wasn’t joking when he said he was having a lucky streak, and it’s not just with poker. He single-handedly pulled off a heist a fortnight ago that brought in ten thousand septims’ worth of goods and coin. And we were astounded by the sheer volume of wealth you sent from Irknthamz.”
“We brought quite a bit back with us, too, along with a clue as to where he might have stashed even more of it.”
“It grates on me whenever I think too hard about it,” Brynjolf grumbled. “We knew he had been stealing from the Guild for years, but we had no idea the extent of it.”
“Fortunately, he had a penchant for gems, so there wasn’t a lot of heavy equipment. What there was, we left there. We had enough to carry as it was.” She exchanged a glance with Brynjolf, who nodded. “We found something else while we were there,” she said pointedly.
“Hopefully nothing, but we believe you’ve kept something important from us.”
Karliah shook her head. “No, I’ve told you everything.”
Brynjolf unfolded the note they had found in Bonestrewn Cave and handed it to her. “Are you sure about that?”
Karliah’s eyes widened, and she gasped, not as if she had been caught in a lie but as though she remembered something that had slipped her mind.
“Mercer left shades behind,” said Selene. “One of them had that note on him. The one at Fort Blackmoor was sitting next to an amulet of Mara and a wedding ring.” She pulled the amulet and ring from her pocket and handed them to her.
The elf took the jewels, set the ring on the table, and traced her fingers over the amulet sentimentally. “I can’t believe he kept it.”
“So you’re not surprised,” Brynjolf guessed.
“No. I didn’t keep this from you intentionally; we were just so focused on the events at hand, this slipped my mind. I had never dwelled on it too much to begin with. There wasn’t anything between Mercer and myself, but I knew how he felt. I would catch him watching me, or he would tell me I looked beautiful, even when I was just wearing the Thieves Guild armor. We had a single, awkward kiss one rainy night when we were out on a job. Mercer was different then. He was creative, full of energy, even idealistic. But my interests lay elsewhere, and Mercer couldn’t see that.
“We cleared a rival guild out of Fort Blackmoor, and Gallus was considering making it a secondary base for the Guild. Mercer spent quite a bit of time there, cleaning the place up, making contacts, preparing to hire thieves. One afternoon when he was in Riften, I found a note from Mercer on my bunk, asking me to go to the fort with him. There was no explanation, just the request. This note was my reply. He would only tell me it was a surprise. We were partners, fellow Nightingales, and trusted friends, so I didn’t question him further. I simply told Gallus where we were going and followed Mercer to the fort.
“When we arrived, I was speechless. He had converted one of the tower rooms into an apartment and furnished it with me in mind. Books I liked were on the shelves; an alchemy lab was stocked with ingredients for my favorite potions; he had even invested in some incense I like—a very expensive blend from Elsweyr. He invited me to sit by the fireplace, and he poured a cup of fine wine from Morrowind for me to sip while he built a fire. He had spared no expense, put forth monumental effort, and everything was perfect.”
“Mercer being romantic,” Brynjolf mused. “I can’t imagine that, and I even saw the room.”
“It was actually very sweet—he was very sweet. We sipped wine and chatted about mundane things, but the change in his manner was impossible to miss. Mercer was nervous, and I was beginning to understand why. After a couple of drinks, he went to a drawer and retrieved an amulet of Mara, which he placed around his neck. He knelt at my feet, professed his love, and asked me to be bound with him in marriage. He wanted to run the Fort Blackmoor branch with me at his side.”
“Just out of the blue like that?” Selene asked.
“Well, it wasn’t entirely out of the blue. I knew he was attracted to me. But yes, the proposal was a surprise.”
“You said no, I take it.”
Karliah nodded. “By this time, I had already fallen for Gallus. We had been together for a few weeks, but Mercer didn’t know about it because he had been away. Saying no was bad enough, but when he found out I had chosen Gallus over him, he was devastated. He jerked the amulet from his neck and threw it across the room, railing at me about leading him on. I didn’t think I had led him on, but now I’m not so sure. I certainly didn’t discourage him.
“He told me to leave, screamed at me to get out. I was reluctant to leave him, afraid he would do something to hurt himself, but he assured me that he liked himself too well to do anything like that. I returned to the Guild alone, and we didn’t see him for nearly a month. When he came back, he was different. He was cold, bitter, and determined to put all his energy into gaining more wealth.
“A couple of years went by before Gallus started to suspect Mercer was stealing from the Guild. We got wind that he might be stashing some of what he stole in Snow-Veil Sanctum, and we followed him. You know what happened there.”
“So Mercer turned sour, took the Skeleton Key, and stole from the Guild all those years because you rejected him?” Brynjolf asked incredulously.
“I’ve often blamed myself for his change. Had I chosen him over Gallus, perhaps he wouldn’t have betrayed the Guild.”
“I thought the Skeleton Key had corrupted him,” Selene said.
“Perhaps it did. Perhaps it called to him from the Twilight Sepulcher. It does disappear from the Sepulcher from time to time. It’s one reason we are committed to defending it. Sometimes I think it wants to be stolen.”
“But you can’t blame yourself for Mercer. We’re all responsible for our own actions, Karliah.”
“Perhaps you’re right, although it’s hard to convince ourselves of that sometimes.” She took a sip of wine and put on her best smile. “So. Are you off again to follow the next clue?”
Brynjolf shook his head. “Not just yet. I think it’s time we get our house in order and take care of loose ends.”
Selene chuckled. “I bet Maven never thought of herself as a loose end.”
“Not to mention that our armor needs a lot of work. How does one repair Nightingale armor, exactly?”
“I did some research while you were away,” Karliah mentioned, “and I believe I have a rough idea of a plan that will take Maven out of our lives forever and at the same time prevent our implication in her death.”
The batted ideas back and forth for hours, and late into the night Selene sat back with a satisfied smile. They could do this.
“What’s the best way to get over fear of the dark?” Farkas would say. “Be the scariest thing in it.”
Until now, Selene and Brynjolf had both thought Maven was the scariest thing. But if they pulled this off, they would hold the record for scary.
A/N: The dungeon in this chapter came from the Following Mercer Frey mod, which can be found here: http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/29946. Thanks to rubypele for allowing me to use it.