“I love you, too,” Selene told Brynjolf in response to his implied farewell, “but we’re going to get through this. Don’t give up on me now. Even with that blasted key, he’s just one person, and there are three of us. Mercer won’t leave this place alive.”
“I’m not so sure we will, either.”
“We will. We have to; I’ve got plans for you.”
Bryn kissed her forehead and, without letting go of her, reached out and took Karliah’s hand. Selene took the other.
“Eyes open, walk with the Shadows,” Karliah said softly. “Are you ready, my friends?”
Selene replaced her cowl and swung the doors inward onto a cavern housing the giant statue from Mercer’s drawing. It was easily fifty feet high and depicted an ancient snow elf—possibly a king, judging by the unusual crown he wore—seated cross-legged and holding an open book. The Falmer’s ancestor wasn’t twisted and bent; he was regal and handsome, a testament to the stature of the great race before the pain and tortures the dwarves had inflicted on them over Divines knew how many years. Mercer was clinging to the face, which was taller than he was, prying the right eye out of its socket. The left was already in the sack that sat on the figure’s collar, and the socket it came from, oddly enough, was dripping blood. A closer look, however, revealed the bodies of several dead Falmer littering the statue. The blood probably belonged to Mercer or one of them.
“He’s here, and he hasn’t seen us yet,” Karliah whispered. “Brynjolf, watch the door.”
“Aye, lass, nothing’s getting by me.”
“Selene, let’s climb down to that ledge and see if we can—”
“Karliah, when will you learn you can’t get the drop on me?” Mercer called.
The ground shook, and the platform Selene was standing on crumbled beneath her feet. She landed fifteen feet below, dropping Gallus’s sword, and rolled to a stop. Shaken but with no further injuries, she got up quickly and brushed herself off, then picked up the sword and sheathed it. She looked up at Mercer to find him peering down at her.
“I see you survived Snow Veil Sanctum. I knew you were special when Brynjolf first brought you to me. I also knew you would bring changes and that it would end with one of us at the end of a blade. What’s Karliah been filling your head with, little girl? I see you’re wearing the Nightingale armor, so she’s obviously introduced you to Nocturnal. Don’t tell me you believe the hype. Nocturnal doesn’t care about you or anything having to do with the Guild.”
“This isn’t about Nocturnal,” Brynjolf snarled from the ledge above. “This is personal.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Selene corrected him.
“What, the Skeleton Key?” Mercer scoffed. “Did Karliah tell you stories about thieves with honor, about Lady Luck, and how the key has to be returned or the Guild will perish altogether? It’s bullshit, Selene. Nocturnal doesn’t care about the key. And you need to open your pretty blue eyes and realize how little my actions differ from yours. Both of us lie, cheat, and steal to further our own ends. There’s no such thing as ‘honor among thieves.’”
“Wow, and I thought I was cynical. You’re wrong, Mercer.”
“Well, it’s clear that you’ll never see the key as I do. You can’t imagine the power this artifact wields. It’s a source of unlimited wealth and power.”
“And danger. And evil.”
“Or is that why you want it? To keep for yourself? No, instead, you’ve chosen to fall over your own foolish code of honor.”
“I won’t be the one to fall today.” She drew the sword.
“Is that Gallus’s sword? Trying to kill me with irony, eh? Karliah and Brynjolf, I’ll deal with you after I rid myself of your irksome companion. In the meantime, let me give you something to keep you busy.”
Above Selene, it sounded as though Brynjolf and Karliah were fighting each other, but she couldn’t see over the ledge to find out what was going on.
“What’s happening?” Brynjolf cried. “I can’t stop myself!”
“Damn you, Mercer!” Karliah roared. “Fight it, Brynjolf. He’s taken control of you.”
Mercer vanished, but it didn’t matter much to Selene. She couldn’t see him, but she could smell him, and it didn’t take long to pinpoint his location. He was bearing down on her quickly. When he was close enough, she swung her blade, and with a painful, “Oof!” he appeared before her, blood streaming down his arm. He returned the blow and connected with her side. Dizziness threatened to overtake her, and she swooned, trying not to pass out. The enchanted sword had drained life as well as blood, and it only compounded all the other minor injuries that were starting to take their toll. Mercer disappeared again and tried to back away, but Selene followed his scent and kept after him. Another tremor shook the cavern, and water started to stream in from the lake above. Selene ignored the water and stayed on Mercer until the invisibility wore off and he stopped in front of her.
“How do you do that?” he howled with frustration. “How could you see me?”
“I couldn’t see you; I could smell you.”
Above them, Karliah grunted in pain, and Brynjolf whined, “I’m sorry, lass!”
“Mercer, stop this,” Selene pleaded as she parried a thrust from his sword and swung back at him.
“Why would I do that? If they kill each other, I won’t have to worry about them. I can kill you and be on my way.”
“Mighty confident, aren’t we?”
“You’re nothing to me, Selene! Your death will come swiftly at my hands!”
“Keep telling yourself that right up until you die, Mercer.”
He swung at her and she ducked the blade, but it still caught her shoulder and she experienced the same dizziness as before. But Gallus’s sword drained life, too, and she made the next move count. She faked a swoon, and as Mercer was coming around for another blow, Selene stepped quickly to the right and plunged the blade into his abdomen. It went all the way through and pushed out the back with a spray of gore. Mercer’s eyes went cold and his jaw slackened. “Shadows, take me,” he groaned. When Selene removed the sword, all light left his eyes and he fell into the rising water.
Still a bit dizzy, Selene wiped the blood from Gallus’s sword and sheathed it. Water was streaming into the cavern in several locations, and Mercer’s body was already floating.
“Quick, Selene!” Karliah called. “Get the Skeleton Key and the eyes, and let’s get out of here!”
She caught hold of Mercer’s body and took the sack that held the Eyes of the Falmer, then searched his pockets until she found the key. “Got them. I’m on my way up.”
“The door is blocked, lass. We’ll have to find another way out.”
But there was no other way out. All other exits had been blocked or destroyed long ago. “Get to the top of the statue,” Selene said, “the highest place possible.” She climbed a set of stairs that led up the side, but there was no point. Brynjolf had been right in saying goodbye. They were going to drown in this cave with the giant, eyeless statue as the only witness. When Bryn reached her, he took her hand. There was no fear in his eyes, just sadness, and she leaned in to kiss him.
The lake was right above them. If there was only some way to break through the roof, maybe they could swim out…
More of the ceiling came down, and Karliah shouted, “Up there!” They followed her gaze to a large opening in the wall. “Perhaps it leads out of here.”
“We’ll have to wait until the water is high enough and then try to swim out,” said Brynjolf. “Give me the sack with the eyes, love.”
Selene gave him the heavy sack and a kiss, and then they waited. When the water finally rose and began to cover them, Selene shuddered. It was freezing. But there was nothing to do about it but endure. She squeezed Brynjolf’s hand one last time before letting go and starting to swim, and in only a few moments the water had lifted them up to the hole. One by one, they took deep breaths and swam into the opening. The tunnel went underwater for just a few yards before opening up into a chilly, but dry, cave. The Nightingales waded to the shore, then dropped to the ground and lay panting and shivering, cold, wet and exhausted.
As she rested, Selene tried to assess what had just happened. The ceiling had opened precisely when they needed it to, just as she had been wishing for it. Had it been luck, as Karliah had been telling her? Had it been Kynareth protecting her Dragonborn? Or had it been the Skeleton Key? Selene had the key in her pocket; maybe she made the ceiling cave in just by wishing for it. She reached into her pocket and drew out the key, lifting it up to inspect it. It was a pretty little thing, made of brass and bearing a pommel stone of onyx with a conch-shell pattern painted in a pleasant, sea green. A power emanated from the key not unlike that of other enchanted items, but this one was much stronger, and it was seductive. Holding it made Selene feel like she could do anything. And if what Karliah said was true, she pretty much could. Brynjolf was right: nobody should have that much power. There was no question; the Skeleton Key had to go back where it belonged.
After a few minutes, Karliah reached into her pack and brought out three frost-resist potions, handed one each to Selene and Brynjolf, and drank the third. The potion took the edge off the cold, and they finally got up and started to move around. Daylight streamed through an opening in the cave a short distance from their resting place, and Brynjolf went to inspect it.
“There’s an exit just around that corner,” he announced when he returned. “Smoke is rising in the distance; I think Nightgate Inn might be just over the hill from here. What do you say we head there, dry off, and warm up?”
“And lick our wounds,” Selene muttered.
“I think that’s a fine idea,” said Karliah.
“I do, too.”
They skirted around the north side of the lake and found a path leading up to the inn. Hadring, the innkeeper, rented them rooms, and although they had nothing dry to change into, just sitting by the fire with tankards of warm mead was a welcome relief.
“I’m beginning to think I’ll never be warm again,” Karliah groaned as she held her feet out to the fire. “You Nords have built-in cold resistance. I’ve never gotten used to the weather.”
Hadring approached them carrying a pile of clothing. “I found some extra things you might be able to wear,” he offered. He handed Karliah and Selene dresses and stockings, and he gave Brynjolf a tunic, trousers, and socks. “I can’t vouch for the fit, but at least they’ll do until your other things are dry. Other than the orc who rents the cellar room, there’s no one else here, so feel free to use the space near the fire pit to dry your belongings.”
“Thank you, Hadring,” Selene said, clasping his forearm and then racing to her room to change out of the wet leather as Brynjolf and Karliah slipped into their rooms to do the same. While she was in her room, she took the time to clean out her knapsack. There was very little in the pack that was vulnerable to water, so she didn’t lose much, just the map and a small journal she’d begun keeping. She hung the empty pack over the bedpost and took her armor, a change of clothes she had brought, and her bedroll out to the common room and hung them on chairs by the fire. She sat down next to her fellow Nightingales, who had done the same, and Bryn handed her a fresh mug of warm mead.
“I can’t believe it’s finally over,” Karliah remarked. “Twenty-five years, and just like that, it’s done.”
“One simple task and we can get back and deal with Maven,” Selene commented. “I want to return the Skeleton Key as quickly as possible.”
“I’m afraid it’s not simple. Before the Skeleton Key was stolen, we had a portal between Nightingale Hall and the inner sanctum and Ebonmere, but when Mercer took the key and the trinity was disbanded, our access was removed. The only way to get it back to its proper place will be through the Pilgrim’s Path.”
“What’s the Ebonmere again, and what’s the Pilgrim’s Path?” Brynjolf asked.
“The Ebonmere is the conduit between our world and Nocturnal’s realm of Evergloam, held open by the Skeleton Key. It has been in Skyrim longer than recorded history, and the sepulcher was built around it in order to shield it from those who would misuse its power. It’s through the Ebonmere that we get our luck. As for the Pilgrim’s Path, even though Nocturnal doesn’t desire worship in the traditional sense, the Twilight Sepulcher did have a small group of priests. They never came into contact with Nocturnal directly, but they insisted they had her favor.” She scowled with disdain. “They created all sorts of baseless rituals and ceremonies on her behalf, and one of them was the Pilgrim’s Path. It was a ‘test of worthiness.’ It was said that if a pilgrim could complete the path, they would live forever in twilight.”
“What in Oblivion does that mean?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Brynjolf.”
“Well, didn’t all that interfere with the Nightingales?”
Karliah shook her head. “The priests weren’t a threat to the Skeleton Key or the Ebonmere, so they were tolerated. Essentially, we stayed out of each other’s way. Thus, I’ve never taken the Pilgrim’s Path. I have no idea what you’ll go through, Selene.”
“What I’ll go through? What about you two?”
“Brynjolf needs to get back to the Guild to keep order while you’re away. As for me, I can’t bear to face Nocturnal after my failure to protect the key. Look, I’ve been a Nightingale for a very long time and have had many profitable years. But falling in love with Gallus was wrong. It was that distraction that allowed Mercer to desecrate the sepulcher and likely cost him his life.”
“Karliah, you can’t take the blame for Gallus’s death. Mercer is to blame, no one else. And how can you say falling for him was wrong? How can that ever be wrong?”
“I understand your sentiment, but until the Skeleton Key is replaced, I will never set foot inside that place again.”
Selene seethed. In a short time, the elf had become a dear and trusted friend, but with this, she proved once again that people would always disappoint. In that brief moment, she lost all respect for Karliah. Brynjolf stared at Karliah, not saying a word. Selene stood up. “Well, since I seem to be taking the last leg of the quest solely on my shoulders, I guess I’d better get some rest.”
“Selene—” Brynjolf began.
Selene put a hand up to stop him. “Don’t.” She set her tankard down on a table, then went to her room and slammed the door. The stress of the search for Mercer, the issue with Brynjolf over her being a werewolf, the feeling that Karliah was no better than everyone else in her life who had disappointed her, the pain of a dozen wounds, and complete exhaustion overwhelmed Selene, and she curled up on the bed and sobbed.
She didn’t even realize when Brynjolf entered the room; he was just there. He lay down next to her and took her in his arms, stroking her hair while she cried. She clung to him, slowly gaining strength from the closeness and the warmth of his body. When her tears were finally spent, she sniffled, wiped her eyes, and sat up. “I feel like such an idiot, crying like a baby.”
“Letting it all out will do you good.”
“I know I’m overreacting.”
“I don’t think you are. I understand Karliah’s fear, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s right. It’s cowardly, and I told her as much. I am going to the sepulcher with you. We can go to Riften first and talk to Delvin and Vex, and they can keep order while we’re away. And if I was a betting man, I’d wager you were dwelling on her comment that falling in love with Gallus was a mistake and wondering about us. What we have is not a mistake. I won’t abandon you, love. Ever.”
She lay back down and rested her head on his chest. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“Never. I just thought it better to keep my distance than say something I would regret.”
“I’ll remember that for next time. Bryn, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you I was a werewolf.”
“It’s all right, love. I understand that, too.”
“If it makes a difference, I’ll get the cure.”
“I wasn’t angry because you were a werewolf. I was angry because you kept it from me. If you don’t want to be cured, don’t do it for me. Your sense of smell actually turned out to be quite an asset, didn’t it?” He tapped her playfully on the nose. “Just don’t lie to me again.”
“I won’t. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Now, get some rest.”
* * *
Karliah awaited them in the common room the next morning. “I’d like to try explaining myself better,” she said to Selene, who sat down next to her.
“I think you explained it pretty well.”
“You can’t know what it’s like to walk in someone’s light and suddenly have it yanked away because of your own inadequacy.”
“Oh, I can’t? Karliah, we’ve all failed someone. In case you forgot, the first leg of this trip was tense because I had failed Brynjolf. But if we’re fortunate, that person forgives us, we learn from our mistake and move on. Nocturnal has already forgiven you for failing to protect the Skeleton Key, and you’re back in her favor. There’s no reason to fear going back.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Well, then, think about this,” Brynjolf said, pulling up a chair and joining them. “You got us into all this knowing full well you had no intention of going back to the sepulcher with the key. You lied, and you used us to do something you were too cowardly to do yourself. We’re all responsible for the key, and sending Selene off to the Twilight Sepulcher alone is a betrayal. I hate to say it after all the hard work you did to get reinstated in the Guild, but if we can’t trust you for something as important as this, I’m not sure I want you back in the Guild.”
“Brynjolf—” Selene began.
“No, Selene, he’s right. I apologize. I let my fears get in the way of a job that the three of us must do together. I will go to the Twilight Sepulcher with you if you’ll still have me.”
“Of course we’ll have you.”
“Aye, lass. It’s the way it should be.
“Very well, my friends. But know this: the thought of going back there is still almost too much to bear, so I’ll need lots of encouragement.”
“I think we can help you.”
She reached out and took their hands. “Eyes open…”
“Walk with the Shadows,” they answered.