Whispered Screams

A Black Hand note appears, and the Void stirs. Sithis was cheated when his prophet's corpse was destroyed and the Daedric Prince Mephala stole an entire Dark Brotherhood sanctuary of souls. The one who betrayed her Dread Father is still somewhere in Tamriel, and she has no intention of facing those who she once called her Dark Family.

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6. Blood and Shadow

We ditched Evermore for Riften in a fortnight, crossing through the Reach instead of going by sea. The scars from Count Lefanu’s bite were almost gone when we reached Riften’s main gates, and all questions about the Flyer had been answered on the way.

At least until one of the Guild ran up to us as we entered the city. “Where the bloody Oblivion were you two? Never mind, come on, it’s Queen!” Lullaby snapped, seizing us both by the wrist.

Queen…that’s the Redguard one. The one who practices the Dibellan Arts. “What happened to her?” I asked.

“You’re the one going to explain it, you should know.” Lullaby replied, dragging me down the secret entrance to the Cistern and over to the Redguard wrapped in a fur cloak. Her thin, light braids were dishevelled, and a fresh, deep cut ran vertically down the bridge of her nose, still leaking blood.

“Queen?”

“You!” She snapped. “You could at least have told us the Dark Brotherhood were after one of their own!”

I swore, feeling the eyes of the Skyrim Thieves’ Guild upon me. The Black Hand on my armour seemed to glow through the robes I’d flung on, marking me as guilty by association.

No time for guilt though, this is serious. I can make up for it later. “Queen, first tell me what happened.” At least she didn’t shy away from my hand on her shoulder, instead leaning into my touch like a little kid. “I’ve fought them before, I can and will fight them again. Just tell me what happened so I know what I’m up against.”

She shook all over, eyes wide enough to be almost completely black. “The guards chased them off but they’re still in the Rift. Dark Brotherhood assassin. I was outside Yenni-la’s Bunkhouse when they came up to me, asking if I was the one who worshipped Dibella. I said yes, and he…he grabbed me by the throat and pinned me to the wall. Squeezed too tight for me to scream. Brought out this elven style war axe and held it so it was going right down the middle of my face. I thought he was gonna kill me!”

Violent, rough, likes to scare their victims…yeesh, there’s at least one in each Sanctuary classed as a right nasty piece of work, but this one sounds like the worst. “Hawk, take my gold and buy her something strong! Easy, calm down now. It’s ok, you’re safe down here.” I slipped my arms around her, pulling the Redguard to her feet in my arms. “Can you tell me anything else?”

“Mm-hm! He asked me where you were. The Dark Elf with the bow who wears the armour of Sithis. I said you’d gone off somewhere with Hawk…and he growled. Said to give you this message. ‘If that one spoke, she’d get an axe buried right in her pretty little face. If this one doesn’t, the same fate awaits her. Sound familiar, Savil Felaano?’ I thought he was actually gonna ram that axe of his right between my eyes! I managed to scream. He fled but...I think he’s still in the Rift somewhere!”

She squealed, and I felt the air grow colder. As if the Void itself were leaking in. Bury an axe right in her pretty little face…so the assassin knew Camena. Or he at least heard of her betrothed and his favourite threat to his child bride. Sick Altmer bastard had it coming, that’s for sure, but the only way that assassin could of known about his threats would be if he was close to the late First Emissary Calion Charmaine and knew what he did to Camena.

“This next part is really important. Queen, what did he look like? What race was he? Anything distinct about him that I could use to track him down?”

“Khajiit, but not one of the merchant Khajiits. He had reddish brown fur that wasn’t very thick, amber eyes, a kind of mottled black pattern on his face, black fur tufts, and he’s got these gold rings in his ears on both sides. Lots of them. He wore plain black clothes, like mourner’s clothes, and he had an elven war axe.”

Didn’t sound like any Khajiit I knew, that was for sure. “I can’t promise anything, but I will try my level best to track him down. Where did this happen again?”

“Around the corner from the Bunkhouse. Near Honeyside.”

Right…not the most out-of-the-way place in Riften. Must be a bold assassin, like a berserker or chaos killer. Usually it’s the big ones like Nords and Orcs that kill that way, not agile, stealthy Khajiit.

“If I’m not back in an hour, send the strongest thief with the biggest axe in the guild.” I let her go, taking my shrouded cowl out and slipping it on, tugging the hood of the priestess’ robes over the top.

“Wait, no! It’s not safe!”

“That’s why I’m doing it. If he was Dark Brotherhood, he’d have left our calling card behind. Find that, you got the prints of his paws, you got identification.”

“Silence, no!”

I dashed back out of the secret exit, climbing up into the Riften graveyard and ducking through the arches of the Benevolence. Sun was at its peak in the midday sky, Riften market was busy with trade and city life, and the purple-sashed guards were making their rounds.

Perfect. There may be a few assassins in the Dark Brotherhood that go out in the day, but none are stupid enough to actually murder a target in the middle of a busy city in broad daylight.

“What do you think you’re doing!?” A Breton lady hissed behind me, grabbing me by the shoulder. “Thought your kind were all about stealth and secrecy!”

Maim had followed me out of the fake grave, tracking behind me. “The Dark Brotherhood is, but I’m not exactly a daughter of Sithis and the Night Mother’s immaculate union anymore.”

“Go out dressed like that underneath a set of priestess robes and people will think you are.”

“I couldn’t give the sparking salts of a flame atronach what anyone else thinks. This is no time to pretend to fit in, Maim. Queen was attacked by a Dark Brotherhood assassin and by the sound of it, she was lucky to get away. We never give up, Maim. Not at all. Other members of the Thieves’ Guild will carry on being attacked, and maybe even killed, until they’ve got me.”

“I thought the Dark Brotherhood specialised in precision and secrecy when they commit a murder.”

I pulled the hood over my face a little further, tucking one of the edges and tucking it on the point of my ear to make a cowl. “Usually we do, but not in this case, Maim. When taking out a former member of the Dark Brotherhood, like myself, the remaining Dark Brothers and Sisters aim to make an example of them and all they associate with.”

I leaned on the wooden railings, looking over the Riften market. The canal down below was as pungent as always, causing nobles to wrinkle their noses as they looked down at us common folk and lawbreakers. Some Dunmer girl, probably about fifteen or sixteen, was being backed up against the wall of the Bee and Barb by the meat stall by a group of Nord lads about the same age. One held her wrists behind her back, letting his mates poke and prod at the faint stripes on her face and arms like the patterns in Khajiit fur. One of the big ones was chanting and jeering, yelling to hold her in place as he chucked a bucket of cow’s milk over her. “Saucer of milk for the kitty cat!” He yelled as she broke free, bolting for the Riften gates crying and dripping with her clothes clinging to her.

Another innocent one. “The Dark Brotherhood does not stop until the target is dead and those around them have learned not to get in between a Dark Child and their target. Queen got lucky, but the rest of the Guild might not. I gotta nip this in the bud before they get even bolder and actually assassinate one of the Guild. Lullaby? Feline? Carmjalla? Blitz? You? Your brother? Could be anyone.”

“And you think putting yourself at risk is gonna stop them? Silence, like it or not, you can’t just up and disappear. Not on the Guild, and not on my brother.”

“I have no intention of disappearing. At least not yet.”

The Bunkhouse even looked gross from the outside, ramshackle and falling apart with nothing but mould holding it together. On the corner nearest to Honeyside was where Queen said, right? So…about here. In full view of the pawn shop, smith, and one of the doors to the Bee and Barb. Strange…no assassin would dare eliminating a target in such a clear place, let alone harass and interrogate them.

Unless they wanted to get a message out. ‘The Dark Brotherhood is here to stay’ or ‘Savil Felaano will die by our hand’ perhaps. Send a message and try to scare me into making a mistake.

“Silence, look, go back to the Cistern. It’s not safe up here on the streets. See, that proves it!” Maim spotted it before I did. The Black Hand imprinted on the wood, the little smears of blood just beneath. So Queen was right, her attacker was one of my old lot.

“You’re worth more than me, Maim. This is serious.” Queen said it was a Khajiit, and if they did the Black Hand then they must have black ink still in the fur on their paws. If it’s like the Black Hands I’ve left before, that ink will have dripped, somewhere like…

“Silence, no!” Maim still pursued me as I crouched down into sneaking, following the sparse splatters of blood making their way behind the Bunkhouse. Dark smears went up the back wall of the building, probably from the assassin escaping, vanishing from the Bunkhouse wall and reappearing as a black splatter atop the stone wall surrounding the city.

Well at least he’s not in Riften, so that’s something, but Skyrim definitely wasn’t safe any longer. Dawnstar was out of bounds in case that Sanctuary had become repopulated. Windhelm was definitely out of bounds to my kind even with Ulfric Stormcloak in the Void. Solitude and Morthal were where we fled from in the first place. Falkreath was too close to two borders, allowing foreign assassins easy access. Markarth wasn’t the best idea after the…’business trip’ to the House of Dibella, and Whiterun…

No, not after the Bronze-Heart twins. I’m not going anywhere near where they called home. “Maim…do you know any places out of Skyrim that could be safe? Like a ruin or Dwemer city that could be cleared out?”

“No, and I doubt my brother would let you go dungeon-delving on your own. Why?”

“Skyrim isn’t safe any longer.”

“What about the Cistern?”

“I broke in there when I first met your brother, remember? If I can do it, so can another assassin. That and the Dark Brotherhood has elite killers in their ranks. Not ones like me, but ones trained from birth. Shadowscales, fully-grown children of Dark Sisters and Dark Brothers that grew up with poisoned daggers instead of dolls, you name it. I’m not a professional, but others are.”

Still she kept following me as I slipped out of the main gate, tracking the black mark as it slid down from the stable roof and onto the grass, dripping ink all the way down to the shore of Lake Honrich. Probably dived in to wash it off or to make good his escape. “Maim, how long ago was Queen attacked?”

“Couple of days. If you don’t get back to the Cistern, you’ll be next.”

Couple of days is long enough for any footprints he left in the wet mud to have been washed away. That is if he did leave any at all, as the professionals often don’t. “How long have the Khajiits been here?”

“Arrived yesterday.” She grabbed my wrist. “They wouldn’t know anything, so don’t go all twenty-one questions on them.”

I guess not. That and they seemed a little preoccupied. The girl those Nords had soaked in milk was amongst them, sobbing onto the shoulders of a grey-furred Khajiit with the same markings on his furry face. Can only be her father…poor girl has mixed heritage. Bet that wasn’t the first time she’s been through the ‘saucer of milk for the kitty’ routine.

“Silence, come on! They wouldn’t know anything!”

I let Maim tug me back into the city. “All this risk-taking won’t get you anywhere, you know.”

“Hiding out waiting for the Dark Brotherhood to come and find me won’t either. This is serious, Maim. An innocent person got attacked while I was tracking down someone…important, with your brother. What’s next? We don’t give up until the contract is complete and the target’s dead in a ditch, and I’m not ready to leave this world for the Void just yet.”

If I even get admitted to the Void when my time comes. Maf- No! The…the ‘Clan Mother Cat’ may decide to add my soul to her little collection of Summerstrider Oasis Sanctuary members. Keeping her Champion – if you can call me that, some Champion I was – for her own amusement would be exactly the kind of thing she’d do.

“Deliberately going out looking for Dark Brotherhood assassins when you know people care about you is far worse than hiding out. For one who says they’re not ready to die yet, you sure go looking for lethal situations to put yourself in a whole lot.”

She let go of my wrist once we slipped under the passage behind the Benevolence. “It’s bad enough dragging my brother with you to Gods-know where in Tamriel. The bloody Oblivion are you and him up to anyway?”

If we can get leads on a second one, gathering champions of the Daedric Princes. “It would take too long to explain.”

“Well try to.”

“You won’t like it one bit. Hawk didn’t.”

She gave up as we entered the Cistern and I made my way back to Queen. “Trail’s gone cold, but he’s definitely left the city.” I replied, earning a hug and a sigh of relief from the shaken thief.

“You reckon he’ll come back?”

“I doubt it, but if he does it’ll be a while. We know to let things settle down before trying again.”

Satisfied, she hugged me once more. “Carmjalla’s got to know we’re under attack here. Gods, last time something this serious happened, her father was in charge…well, in charge-ish.”

Carmjalla…she was the one who trusted me. Seemed almost welcoming of the Dark Brotherhood. Didn’t she say the Guild used to have ties with my- their family?

“I’ll go talk to her.”

“Thank you, Silence. You’re not all bad, you assassins. I mean, yeah you kill people for a living, but underneath that you’re not all bad.”

Same could be said of the Guild. Who says there’s no honour amongst thieves? “You’re not so bad yourself either. Now go and relax some. That Khajiit won’t be back for a long time.”

At least he shouldn’t be. Could be a reckless one that doesn’t give a damn about waiting for it to quieten down before striking again. Sometimes you get ones like that, and they’re usually the ones that turn out to be a right nasty piece of work, even by Dark Brotherhood standards.

I left the shaken Redguard with her fellow thieves, searching for Carmjalla and overhearing a pretty heated argument. Seems like Maim had accosted her brother and was giving him a tongue lashing for keeping secrets.

“If you’re going off Gods-know-where for whatever reason, I think your family has a right to know why.”

He sighed, and revealed all. “Look, you're gonna think I'm mad for saying this, but I'm gonna give it to you straight. Something out there is piss-drunk mad at us. Savil knows who and what it is, and she knows it's beyond her, you, me, and Oblivion, even the entire Guild! But we have an idea. We need a hiding place, about the size of the Flagon and Cistern combined. One which can hide a real variety of people.”

“Vincinere, are you sure about this?”

“I'm positive, Maim. You're the best infiltrator and scout we've got. If anyone can find a place like that, it's you.”

“What are you gonna use it for?”

“Savil has this...well, it's only a theory right now. The Daedra have powers far beyond us, but the thing we pissed off is beyond the Daedra. It’s beyond Prince Hircine, it’s beyond Prince Mephala, and it’s beyond Prince Molag Bal as individuals. Yet not all the Daedric Princes at once. Savil knows it’s too dangerous to get all the Princes, but if we can get their followers, maybe build an army with them...”

“You're mad!”

“I'll be livid if this thing we're against kills us all.”

“What are you even up against?”

“The entire Dark Brotherhood. From the common murderers, through the Black Hand, through the Night Mother, all the way up to Sithis himself.”

“ARE YOU FU-

“Ellin, shh!”

-CKING SERIOUS!?”

“It sounds mad-

“You're telling me!”

-but hear me out. What's more powerful than an elite cult of murderers and cut-throats than all the Princes?”

“You can't seriously mean all of them. Some of them hate each other.”

“That can be dealt with later. Point is, we need a hiding place, like a home base, for these servants of the Princes.”

“But the Daedra only gift their approval to those who earn it.”

“We've both earned the approval of a Prince each.”

“Bullshit.”

“It's not bullshit.”

“Prove it then.”

“With pleasure.” He drew Boethiah’s golden katana from its sheath at his belt, letting the blade catch alight as he handed it to her. “Read the inscription then if you don’t believe me. Go on, read it if you can understand the language.”

She just stood, open mouthed, black eyes travelling down the burning katana blade to the golden serpent forming the hand guard. At first I thought she was simply lost for words, but eventually she gasped, her voice taking on a dark and sombre tone. “Where oh where did you get this? Second thought, don't answer - I don't wanna know. That's...”

“Goldbrand. From Boethiah’s own hand. Savil has her own artefact, but I don't want to reveal the surprise over what it is. Technically she has two, but retrieving that thing can get a little complicated and I’m not exactly the best person to ask about Dunmer burial practices.”

“This is real, isn't it? All of it. You going Daedra Champion-hunting and Sithis being pissed off at her. No bullshitting?”

“No bullshitting.”

“Whoa...you got any ideas where to start?”

“Well...Savil did tell me about certain worshippers of certain Princes. Our Guild should have ties to one, as do one Great House from her race. We found one already, goes by the name of Count Elasaid Lefanu. Yet the rest of the lines have gone dead. If we start with her ties then see where we go from there, we should do it. All we need is a hidden place.”

“I'll see what I can find. I think...it's just over the Morrowind border. Really old stronghold sort of place. Got a name too. ‘Miramerkhan.’ Midaural says it means ‘leader of thieves’ so it’s pretty appropriate. Abandoned though.”

“Abandoned is good. Some of them…let’s just say I don’t think a sociopathic, manipulative vampire lord with the Queen of Evermore wrapped around his little finger is the worst that Daedra worship has to offer.”

Gods damn it, Hawk, did you have to give away everything? The fact I, not we, pissed off the Dark Brotherhood is bad enough. Gathering Daedra worshippers is even worse, and the vampire lord sociopath is just the icing on the sweetroll.

Yet she was his sister. His flesh-and-blood family. I had no right to try withholding him from them, nor dominate his life. A partner should be a bonus, not a burden, and not a requirement either.

“You seem troubled, lass.”

Carmjalla sat alone just past the secret door behind the cabinet, pushing septims onto a grid map of Skyrim, covering cities and villages with stacks of gold. “Care t’talk? I don’t know as much about the ol’ Brother’ood as Delvin and Vex, but I know enough to listen.”

The less she knew, the better. “I…I did something wrong back in Anequina, and it’s coming back to me. To the whole Guild.”

She flipped a few septims over her shoulder at the old bartender as I sat down, taking two Black-Briar meads from him and pouring them into steel tankards. “Guilt does no good when it’s allowed to devour and get fat. Go on, let it out. No secrets between thieves, just around them.”

If only you knew some secrets are best kept from thieves. “Let’s say someone angered a really powerful…thing. And there was only one potential way of stopping this really powerful thing, but it was really complicated and required a lot of people. Loved ones and friends offered to help, and their help was needed, but they were putting themselves at risk by getting involved. Are they doing the right thing by letting innocent allies get involved, as it’ll be over quicker, instead of going it alone?”

Carmjalla took out a small purse of carved stones, scattering them over the map. “Do they know what they’re getting into by involving themselves?” She purred.

I don’t even know what I’m getting into myself. “Not exactly.”

“Well what are we getting into, lass?” She smiled, taking a flat pebble with an arrow carved in it and placing it atop Markarth’s coin stack.

Suppose the Khajiit’s outta the bag. “The Dark Brotherhood. I angered them back in Anequina, and they’ve just caught up to me. Now they’re starting on the Thieves’ Guild too. Oblivion, Queen got attacked by one of the family. It’s all my fault…and I’m trying to put it right, but the only method I have for putting it right may be even more dangerous.”

“I wondered why you’d stopped wearing that armour of yours. Dear Silence, we hold no ill feeling to you for staying with us. If the young Vincinere Mallory has accepted you as his partner, then we accept you as family, and family looks out for each other.” She paused, taking a sip of mead as she placed a sparkly chunk of gold ore and a carved musical note in the middle with Whiterun. “At least you’re making an effort t’put things right. You got a next step, or are you lost?”

More lost than you realise. The map’s been torn, the compass got smashed, the sextant’s bent, and there’s not a star to be seen. “I got one Daedric champion. Two if you include Hawk,” and three if you include myself, “but the leads have gone cold. Problem with Daedra worshippers in these troubled days is that they’re mostly in hiding.”

Carmjalla paused, humming to herself as she took four carved stones – a cat, an exclamation mark, a black bird, and a set of full, red lips – and grouped them together by Solitude’s coin stack. “Looking for Daedric champions isn’t that hard if you know where to go. Who have you found already?”

“His name is Count Elasaid Lefanu, a Dunmer vampire and devotee of Prince Molag Bal.”

The stone in her fingers slipped free, clattering onto the map and revealing a broken arm carved into it. “You haven’t found Nocturnal’s champion yet, have you?”

“No, not yet.”

Carmjalla’s shaking fingers moved the stone up to a road between Riften and the Morrowind border. “I think I may be able t’be some help then, lass. Our little birds have tracked down another potential Nightingale for the Trinity.”

Nightingale? “What’s a Nightingale?”

She smiled, looking me up and down, before taking a chunk of black onyx from her pocket. Placing it on the map, she lined it up with a flat stone carved with a brown bird of prey, moving them both to the west of the map in Falkreath Hold. “They’d be better at telling you than I would, lass. Take Hawk with you to the Twilight Sepulcher west of Falkreath, and say you’re here t’find the third Nightingale. Don’t worry, the two survivors are friendly. You may find you got royal connections to one.”

West of Falkreath…that wasn’t too far. We could get there and back by sunset, and the Dark Brotherhood prefers to attack at night. “Thanks…this is the only lead we have now.”

“Don’t you worry, lass. We got your back. Family don’t let you down.”

True…very true. Hell, my kind should know that better than any other. Our family, our ancestors, guard us from beyond the mortal chill. Even if my own ancestors are probably looking at me with shame, anger, and regret. I’ve done the Felaano name wrong, but now I’m gonna do it right.

I thanked her and headed back into the Cistern just as my Hawk emerged from the training room. “Wondered where you headed off to. You gonna be ok staying down here?”

If I was planning to, then yes. “Change of plan. Carmjalla gave me a lead on another Daedric champion.”

“Wait, what? You only just got back from finding one!”

“Exactly, and I don’t intend to sit around for weeks at a time between finding them. Come on, let’s go!”

“Whoa now!” He grabbed my wrist, holding me back. “If we’re going off across the freaking continent, can’t we at least do it tomorrow?”

“We’re not going across the continent, we’re just headed to Falkreath. If we go now, we’ll be back by sunset.”

He paused, seemingly musing it over. “Fine but don’t wear that armour of yours.”

“Why not?”

“Let’s just say the Dark Brotherhood isn’t exactly welcome in Falkreath and leave it at that.”

He took my hand and followed me up the ladder to the trick grave outside Mara’s Benevolence, peeking through the gap for any guards before pulling the chain and making it slide back. “You know where in Falkreath we’re going?”

“Carmjalla mentioned a ‘Twilight Sepulcher’ somewhere.”

A faint smile played on the corner of his mouth. “Knew it was only a matter of time before Carmjalla roped someone in to reform the little birds. At least this one’s somewhat safe…well, safe by Daedric standards.”

So he knew. That’s good, at least we wouldn’t be going in blind like the last time. “You mean the Nightingales, right?”

“That’s them. Mortal servants of Nocturnal, kinda serving as her warriors, kinda serving as her guards. The two surviving ones of the Trinity can tell you better.”

“Surviving? What happened to the other one?”

“Age and Skyrim and both cruel mistresses, but still we go down on bended knee before them.”

He climbed up onto the Riften carriage, offering a hand to pull me up. “If you’re ok with the wild forests, I know a shortcut.”

Forests…as long as the trees don’t start walking and send swarms of bees flying at us, I’m good. “Sure, as long as we’re back by sunset. Oh, I warned Carmjalla about the “first champion” by the way, so she knows.”

“Better she know now than get surprised later on.” He handed over some gold to the driver, pulling me onto his lap as the carriage started moving. “No return journey from Falkreath, you know. We gotta walk back. You ok with that?”

“I’m more than ok.” I’m from Morrowind but Elsweyr-born, I’m made for long walks. This will be nothing.

* * *

It was approaching mid-afternoon when we arrived in Falkreath, the air cooling down and the buttery sunlight nowhere near as intense. As we entered, the road ran flat under a wooden gate, past a lumber mill slicing logs and perfuming the air with pine sap, and a sprawling, cross-shaped manor with ravens perched on its thatched roof.

“So this is the dead town?” I asked, shouldering my quiver as the carriage driver flicked the reins and began heading on. Some L-shaped manor sat ahead, sweating off the earlier heat.

“If you mean the graveyard of heroes, yes. Biggest graveyard in all of Skyrim, and it’s a stop on the way both to Hammerfell and Cyrodiil. Not exactly the dead town if it’s got so much going on.” Hawk replied.

I rolled my eyes. “Pfft, whatever. This place just feels…dead.”

“And you’d know all about the feel of death. Come on, west is this way. It’s a pretty decent walk…unless you’re ok with that forest shortcut I told you about.”

“Sure, why not.” I let his gloved hand take my bare one, the delicate loops on the pads of his fingers brushing against my palm. He smiled behind his blonde waves as my thumb brushed the back of my hand, leading me past a small farm and down a well-beaten path to a graveyard full of tombstones. A stone hut with a thatched roof lay flanked by purple shrines of eight-pointed stars, and the sunlight caught on old swords and shields impaling the graves and leaning on the tombstones.

Must be the Hall of the Dead. Nords are so weird about their dead, claiming a Nord is remembered by their dead then sticking the body in the earth to rot, as Arkay or whoever will carry their soul to what’s-his-name in their afterlife, Sovngarde. If that behemoth of an axe-man greets all dead Nords the way he greeted me, I think I’ll stick with…well, wherever. Not the Void though. Or the Spiral Skein.

“Hey, if there’s a handprint thingy on something, it means it’s tied to you-know-what, right?”

Depends on what kind of handprint. “Mostly, why?”

“There’s some graves back out the way here with that handprint on it.”

He let go of my hand, weaving past a few stone tombstones to four stone-covered mounds. Fang-like rocks were headstones, marked with a Black Hand with short epitaphs carved in.

“Here lies…Veezara. The last Shadowscale, cut down in battle with the Penitus Oculatus, Fourth Era Two-oh-One.” I muttered, leaning over the four graves. Veezara…that was the Argonian, laughing at the two women. The younger one with flowers who hated this Muiri person, and the older, red-eyed one who drank poison after…wait, was one of them her daughter?

“Friga and Nilsine, names mean anything to you?” I asked, looking over my shoulder at my Breton thief.

“The Shatter-Shield twins? Yeesh, nasty bit of business that. Both were murdered and their mother committed suicide after both her daughters died. I think their father’s begging on the streets now. Sad tale really, but that’s Windhelm for you.”

And they say Riften’s the wretched hive of Skyrim. “I saw them both. The assassinated daughter and their mother. When I…you know. I saw all of their victims, and the assassins.”

“Wait, you saw them?”

I ignored him, moving to the next grave. “Here lies Gabriella. Second-sighted and six-sensed, she predicted her death at the hands of the Penitus Oculatus, Fourth Era Two-oh-One.” I read, looking back at him. “She was Dunmer, like me, wore shrouded robes, and she didn’t fear death. I saw her too, with another mage. They watched this old bitch who ran an orphanage relive her death over and over again.”

“The one in Riften? I heard about her, Grelod the Kind. They found child-height shackles in a room with huge chains and smashed glass on the floor, and some of the kids said the old hag liked locking them in there until they got tired, fell out of the shackles, and landed on the glass.”

Looks like the wicked hagraven of the Rift got what was coming to her. “And they say my- that family is the embodiment of all evil. We only take out those with contracts on them. Someone had to want them dead, and there’s usually a good reason behind it all.”

I moved onto the next grave, leaning over the headstone. “Here lies Arnbjorn. The blood of Beast within his veins came forth and he ripped through the Penitus Oculatus before his wounds took him, Fourth Era Two-oh-One. Arnbjorn…that was the werewolf. He watched that woman get crushed to death on her wedding day, over and over again.”

“Vittoria Vici, I’ve heard of that too. She was Emperor Titus Mede’s cousin. An Imperial marrying a Stormcloak supporter. Eh, if you-know-what didn’t murder her, I’d bet her husband would have.”

If the Stormcloak I had the…displeasure of meeting once is anything to go by, I bet he would have too. “When I…you-know, the werewolf said his wife betrayed the sanctuary. So is…” I leaned over to the last grave. “Here lies Astrid. Mistress of the Falkreath Sanctuary, her ways were not the true ways, and so she became the Black Sacrament. Fourth Era Two-oh-One. Yeah, that’s her.”

That was one of the ones said to be in a trinity of lies with me. Astrid, me, and someone else called Bellamont. And yet they buried her with the rest of the fallen, unlike the fallen merryman in Dawnstar. Selective respect for the dead, no wonder the Skyrim branch fell into disarray.

“So is there a Sanctuary here or something?”

“Should be.” I replied. Must be a small one though, and if it got betrayed like what happened when I…well it would be sealed. Of course the Black Door would still work but the actual halls would be empty. That could be useful.

“Remind me, search around Falkreath after we find this Twilight place.”

“Thought you wanted to avoid them.”

“I do. Falkreath was betrayed, so the Sanctuary should be sealed up or at least abandoned. All anyone needs is the password to get past the Black Door, and I worked out the one for Dawnstar on the spot. It can be an emergency shelter.”

“Or a really big mistake. Come on, we gotta head west, it’s past some old roadside ruins and deep into the forest, past a fort full of bandits.”

“Target practice then.” I chuckled, taking his hand and following him through the forest, over a mound of exposed rock before diving with him into a shallow pool full of black, icky water. Dripping from the knees down, we ran together across a cobbled road and straight into the forest on the other side, between pine trees and over the springy, needle-covered earth.

“Stay low here.” He hissed, dropping into a crouch and peering through a clump of pines. “See that ruin there?” He whispered, pointing at it.

I joined him in a stealthy crouch, spotting the moss-covered dome. “What about it?”

“Don’t go there if you don’t want Kyne flaying you alive.” He replied, taking my hand and resuming the run through the woods. Kyne…oh, Khenarthi! Must be a spriggan grove then, and the walking trees are defending Mother Nature. Definitely not going there.

“Thanks for the warning.” I replied, straightening up and picking my way through the forest. I suppose the fringes of Elsweyr’s great Tenmar Forest were similar to this. Just got different creatures in them; no monkeys and jungle queens, just bears and-

I dropped into a crouch, spotting them through the trees as I drew my bow. “Get back here!” I hissed, nocking an arrow and taking aim. I’d seen the results of their hunts before, and I wasn’t going to end up in the pit of a wolf’s stomach. Drawing back the string, I held my breath, counting one, two, three-

The arrow struck it in the ribs, sending it keeling over with a yelp as the bushes moved. N’chow, got a pack of them! They ran like hyenas, zig-zagging back and forth with wet, leathery noses in the air.

I drew another arrow and struck one in the guts, causing it to bolt. That one’ll be dead in a few hours, no point chasing it. The third and fourth had already shot off into the woods, but the fifth must be like the alpha or something, hunching back on its haunches and baring its teeth as I drew another arrow.

Sneak’s useless now, just get it down. I straightened up and pulled back the string, striking the wolf right through the throat. It would be dead in minutes…hmm, no point pelting it, screw it.

“The Oblivion was that for?” Hawk asked, as I let the wolf bolt.

“Would you rather it saw us and the pack went after us?”

“Wolves are scared of fire though. They wouldn’t have attacked us.”

He guided me down a worn path in the earth, drifting over the wet earth without leaving footprints. “Twilight Sepulcher’s just up here. I doubt Lady Nocturnal will be summoned, but the two surviving Nightingales should be standing guard. Don’t worry, they know me so won’t attack us.” He pointed up the worn path as it snaked up through the forest.

“You been here before then?”

“Many times, since I was a kid. Ever since the third Nightingale disappeared years ago, the two survivors have been searching for a replacement. Apparently they’ve widened their search to some of the more dangerous provinces. You know, ones that don’t take kindly to people like us.”

An assassin and a thief. So Alinor, the two states of Elsweyr, Cyrodiil, and Valenwood. Great, so the heart of Thalmor-ville.

“You’ll have to watch your back then. Thalmor don’t like the races of men.”

“And Windhelm doesn’t like the Dunmer people. So we’re both not exactly welcome in places.”

If only you knew, my dear thief. I’d tell you all about getting caught in Windhelm if we had the time.

“Here it is. See the bird carved on the rock there? That’s the Nightingale. You see that anywhere, then you know there’s a Nightingale hideout nearby, or they’re defending the place.”

Well the Nordic doors weren’t an even bigger clue? “And they’re just through here?”

“Not quite. You’ll see the final step.”

He wasn’t kidding. The ripples of blue coming from the portal cast arcs of lightening atop the stone steps, battling the burning braziers for control of the room’s colour. A billion footsteps had worn down the stone steps on the way up, carving prints in that never failed to fit my every step perfectly. Even my own breathing sounded deafening here, violating the silence that just wanted to settle down.

“Don’t worry.” He muttered, a gloved hand on my shoulders. “I got you. If I’m right, she should be on guard about now.”

He led me through the blue portal to a circular room with the phases of the moon on the floor and a well of more rippling blue in the middle. Brown and black feathers littered the floor, and the darkness here was almost oppressive.

“You should know better than to sneak up on me and bring an outsider, Vincinere.” She phased from the darkness, wrapped in a kind of hooded ebony armour that allowed just the glints of her eyes and the ash grey tips of her fingers to be seen. Perched on the full moon, the tips of her bow poked over her back like wings as she reached for an arrow.

“Easy Karliah, she’s with me. We heard you’ve tracked down a potential third Nightingale.”

She paused, hand still reaching. “You heard correctly. Brynjolf got the tracking reports just last week. Stubborn old git was planning to go off to Alinor himself.”

Alinor…either the capital city, or the whole province. Either way, bad news for a man-race to go to a mer-supremacist land.

“Not surprised. Carmjalla’s got that stubborn side too. Who are we looking for?”

“His name is Arontar. Altmer, young and hot-headed but never reckless. Haunts the coinpurses and jewellery vaults of Dusk’s rich and influential. He’ll likely find you first.”

Built to be a Nightingale then. “You sure he’ll join you? If he’s young and headstrong, he might not.”

“It’s an offer no thief can refuse. Especially not another who honours Nocturnal.”

She then peeled away the carved mask, flashing me a smug grin and a wink of her purple eyes. “Brynjolf told me all about what you need this ideal Nightingale for. His daughter learned all. Vincinere, take her to Dusk. The south-easternmost city on Alinor’s largest island. That’s where Arontar’s taken to stalking.”

“Alinor may be a bit of a problem though.”

“I’ll be watching. I assume your companion knows the quickest way to Alinor. The Altmer prefer to go through Elsweyr to head North these days.”

Karliah fastened the ebony piece back in place, dusting her gloves off. “Brynjolf can guard for now, maybe bring his daughter. The Guild is used to self-reliance.”

Then she vanished as if turning invisible, fading and shrinking into herself so nothing but a tiny, brown bird perched on the half moon. Glossy black feathers seemed to be randomly growing from its mottled brown wings, and it twittered as it took off and flittered back through the blue portal.

“Was that a Nightingale?” I asked, following him out of the Twilight Sepulcher.

“Oh yeah, Nocturnal rewards the most loyal and long-serving with the ability to become nightingales and blend into the shadows. The longer they serve, the more the nightingales turn into crows. So, I take it we’re heading back through Elsweyr?”

Through Thalmor-ville to Thalmor-metropolis. Great. “I guess so. We’ll stop back at the Guild then leave in the morning. Land route only.” Last thing I need is a repeat of the voyage around High Rock.

“You know the route best, you guide me. You are my tour guide.”

This ain’t no tour, and it ain’t no repeat of meeting the family. “Guess I am. It’ll be nightfall before we get back, best set off in the morning.”

Alinor during the day is bad enough. During the night is worse.

* * *

It was kicking-out time at the Bee and Barb when we returned, bathed in moonlight from the twin full moons. Some Imperial woman was shrieking after the two Argonian bartenders, her hand caught in her black hair and her scale-related insults slurred. Two guards had grabbed a drunk by the ankles, vomit chunks leaking from under his matted braids and smearing against the stone paths as they dragged him down to the jail to sleep it off. Atop the roof of Honorhall, two black shapes perched with full pockets, waiting before leaping onto the wooden railings then down onto the canal walkways below.

Night made for trouble, especially in a place like Riften. “Don’t feel like the Ratway’s safe tonight. Come on, graveyard.” He hissed, taking my hand and guiding me around the back of Riften’s richer homes. The graveyard tonight seemed brighter, as if people had left candlelit offerings in the hope they wouldn’t get stolen, and the moons were glowing red and white above.

“Alright, coast’s clear, Savil-”

“Oi, soot-skin!”

I looked up as the dull weight smashed into my temple, knocking me into the stone archway as the ache reverberated through my skull like a bell in a church tower. “Hey, get off her!”

“Go to the Void, Mallory! The ashborn will take you there.”

There was a loud yelp and a thud, before something heavy and blunt slammed into my gut, crunching me against the stone again and again up my chest as I slid down, until with a sickening crack it struck me in the face.

“Looks like they don’t bleed shit, Junnar!”

“That’s just one place, might elsewhere.”

Through the throbbing in my face, I peered through and got a face of dirt as fat hands grabbed the back of my head and wedged me into the loose earth. The rough granite of a gravestone scraped my cheek until it stung, and the air was forced out of my lungs as a bare foot pressed into my back.

“Get off her!”

“Shut up, Mallory!” Another thwack and the foot pressed deeper into my back as a hand grabbed my hair again and slammed the side of my head again and again into the gravestone-

“He said, let her go.”

The air turned cold as whoever that was spoke, and my attacker let go of my hair. “Another one? Gods, these grave-stinkers breed like skeevers. Mjeki, you take him!”

The loose ground of the grave was hardening under me, clinging to the wet blood dripping into my eye. “That won’t be necessary I don’t think.” They spoke again, and someone else screamed. A deep, guttural scream, like they were being choked.

I pulled myself up onto my knees and elbows, peering through a bloody haze at a Nord levitating about two feet from the ground in a star shape. Invisible hands seemed to have him around the neck, and the Dwarven warhammer resting against his thigh slid to the ground with a clunk. Three canine figures sank their teeth into various parts of his anatomy as the shadowed figure in the background held up the unfortunate Nord by his throat, and the companions he’d brought with him had scattered, shrieking like terrified girls. Warm arms had seized hold of me as I leaned the burning side of my face against the rough, cool marble, holding back the bile rising in my throat.

“If you want to get a lady to bleed, this is how you do it.” He hissed, before a spurt of blood erupted from the Nord’s neck and he cried out in pain. Flailing and spasming, he fell to the floor like a limp ragdoll, struggling and choking as the dogs set upon him and started tearing in.

“V-Vincinere…” I groaned, a searing pain in my core and back as I eased myself into sitting up, thought better of it, then flopped out of the warm embrace and into the reddening mud.

“I’m here, hold on, baby. Who in the bloody- Vampire!”

He hauled me up over one shoulder, reaching for Goldbrand as my head swam and my stomach churned. A vampire in Riften? Oh…oh, that’s right! “Easy…” I groaned. “…h-he’s with me.”

Hawk paused, Goldbrand drawn out and burning in his hand. “Baby, you got the living starlight kicked out of you, you’re not thinking straight.”

“I am!” I snapped, then regretted it as a torrent of blood spurted from my nose. “H-He’s the champion…I told him to come to Riften…”

“Indeed.” Count Lefanu purred over the barks of those dogs of his, death hounds or whatever they’re called. “The unfortunate Miss Silence over your arm must have neglected to tell you of my coming. Now I suggest you get her to safety before those wretches dare to show their faces again.”

He paused, keeping Goldbrand out as he turned to the secret entrance. “Follow me.” He replied, pushing in the button and hauling me down to the grate. “Gods damn that Mjeki!”

Mjeki…that was the Nord, the one who I flashed the Black Hand at! He must have come to get vengeance on the…what was it, “soot-skin” that laughed at Hawk’s comeback for his racism. Brought a gang too.

Hawk was muttering to himself as he carried me down the ladder, leaping off onto the damp stone and dragging me over to the desk in the corner. “Ellin better have pulled through, not just because of those skeever-scats.” He muttered, sweeping all the junk off the desk in one move and laying me atop it.

“Hawk, what happened?”

“Mjeki is what, Blitz. He got himself a nice new Dwarven warhammer and a little gang to back him up. Ambushed us by the graveyard passage, held me back, and beat the Nine Divines out of her.”

“How many?”

“About five or six. Go get Maim and Carmjalla, they’ll want to know about this, and the first Daedric champion.”

“Daedric champion? You got one the- Vampire! Burn it!”

I looked up from the desk, my stomach heaving like the sea. “Leave him!” I snapped, as a fat glob of blood fell from my nose and splattered the wet stone floor.

“Blitz, sheathe it! He saved us.”

I groaned and rolled off the desk as the black-haired Imperial sheathed a short, black dagger. “Carmjalla’s going to throw a bitch fit about this, you know.”

“I don’t care…” I winced, falling onto my hands and knees by one of the side water channels. “He’s a Daedric champion, he saved my life, so we’re cool.”

And with that, I leaned forward and threw up what little I’d eaten that day, dripping blood from my nose and above my eye as I did so.

“Easy, killer, don’t throw up all your insides now.” Hawk muttered, taking my hair and holding it back. “Gods, I’m gonna kill that bastard, Mjeki!”

“I cannot say I blame you, thief. Only the lowest would dare attack an outnumbered foe.” The vampire purred, gliding over the stone walkway towards me, death hounds in tow.

“You don’t know Mjeki. Bastard hates elves, not unlike him to attack them either. And they say we’re the bad ones down here.”

He let go of my hair as I finished throwing up, hauling me back up to lay on my side on the desk. “I’m gonna kill that human trash.” He spat, as he began pressing his cool fingers down the burning side of my face. “Suppose I owe you one. For taking out one of Mjeki’s gang members. Put yourself at risk when you didn’t have to.”

“Isn’t that what a soldier in this…army, does?” He flicked a speck of dust off the spiked, brushed bronze pauldron of his armour. “Pray tell, who else will I be battling alongside?”

“So far, you’re our first…Lord, right? Lord Lefanu?”

“Elasaid Lefanu, Count of Evermore. I was told by Silence there to search for any thieves, and-”

He was cut off as some woman screamed, the echo bouncing off the walls and drilling into my skull. “Vampire!” They shrieked. “To arms, to arms, Guild!”

Gods above, maybe telling Count Lefanu to come looking for Riften’s thieves was a bad idea. “He’s with me…agh, son of a bitch!” I groaned, struggling to move my head as it decided it preferred laying where it did.

“I don’t care, get that monster out of here!” She shrieked, earning herself a low, long hiss from the Count.

“Carmjalla, he saved Savil’s life from Mjeki’s elf-beating party. He stays.”

Carmjalla…oh yeah, she shuddered when I mentioned vampires.  “Count Lefanu stays…he stays with me.”

Perhaps the vampire wasn’t the best one to get first.

“You are so lucky the Dawnguard aren’t best pleased with us.” Carmjalla spat, her footsteps drawing nearer and rattling inside my head before cool fingers felt my forehead. “You’re burning up, Miss Felaano. Mjeki did a number on you.”

“When I arrived there was six of them. Some bare-fisted, some clutching hammers. One was beating her head into the cold earth of a grave.”

Carmjalla snorted, blanking Count Lefanu. “Vincinere, you know where the healing potions are kept. Maim, what was that place you found, lass? Take Savil out to it once she’s healed up. Riften’s not even safe for thieves no more.”

“Miramerkhan? Fine but I take Fangs and these too.”

The cool lip of a bottle pressed my lips as I forced myself to sit up, the fruity-sweet contents slipping down as I looked over. Carmjalla had formed a kind of barrier in front of me, her tree trunk waist an attempt at blocking off the vampire looking over at Maim with a cold glint in the golden glow of his eyes. She either didn’t notice the look directed her way, or didn’t give a damn, as she’d crouched down to pet one of the three death hounds down its bony back. “Are these yours?” She asked, holding a hand out for its hollow nose to lean into.

The pale, blonde maiden petting the vicious, fanged beast without a care in the world. There was some sort of surreal art in that, probably hanging in what was left of the Castle Lefanu ballroom. “Of course, Thief. They have entrusted themselves to me.”

“Even better. Come on, got plenty of darkness left and I ain’t going back alone to Miramerkhan. Carmjalla thinks Riften’s dangerous, she ain’t nipped over the Morrowind border.”

She stood up and took the vampire by his leather gauntlet, pulling him off towards the secret graveyard entrance with three, loping death hounds in hot pursuit.Gods damn it, must be concussed or something.

“You saw that too, right?”

Maybe not. “Yeah, what about it, love?”

“Just making sure. I heard the seductive power of vampires was strong, but not that strong. My sister doesn’t go off alone with the guys in the guild, let alone a stranger that happens to be a vampire. Did he use those seductive gifts on you too? Is that typical of the undead?”

“You got seduced by a vampire before, remember, and you did not act like that. There is no typical undead, Hawk. They’re as individual as us living ones.”

“Even so, I don’t like it. I know she maimed a guy for life before, but if that vampire lays so much as a finger on her, I don’t give a shit if he’s the only Champion of Molag Bal for five hundred eras, I’ll kill him myself.”

He gripped tight on my shoulder as he said it, softening his hold as he looked upon me. “Maim will be fine, Count Lefanu’s the kind to attack the second he sees any decent prey.”

“I don’t like it one bit.”

“She’ll be fine. You said yourself she maimed a guy before. Count Lefanu is a little…easier to cripple shall we say.”

“Mmh…” He bit his lip. “I still don’t like it.”

“Well I…” I couldn’t say I trust him. Trusting a vampire is possible, but saying it about this one was a pretty big lie. “I know she can take care of herself. Trust me on this one.”

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