The rain finally stopped sometime during the night, soaking into the ground enough that by morning all that remained of that perfect storm was the mud. Ginna and Brynjolf rose early enough that they were on the road north by seven, and standing at the crossroads where they were set to part ways just before noon.
They dismounted from their horses and stood near the road signs together, each looking down the roads they couldn’t travel side-by-side before finally looking to each other. “You will think about it, won’t you?”
“I’m thinking about it right now,” she told him, lowering her eyes to the snow-covered ground beneath her feet. “It’s all I’ve thought about since yesterday.”
“Then making a decision shouldn’t be difficult.” He reached out to lift her chin, drawing her gaze up to meet with his.
“I’ve already decided in my heart,” she said. “Maybe that’s crazy, I don’t know.”
“Aye,” he agreed. “Maybe it is, but even so…”
“Even so,” she nodded. “I’ve never known anyone like you, Brynjolf. I’ve never felt comfortable or safe… but when I’m with you… I don’t know. And just when my life couldn’t get any more complicated, there you were.”
“Here I am.” He smiled, and bent to kiss her, a slow, lingering kiss that made her breath catch in her chest. Heart racing, warmth rushing to her face, she never wanted that kiss to end. For a moment his hand rested on her cheek when he drew back, the smile fading from his face. “Be careful, lass. Come back to me, all right?”
“Aye,” she promised. “Eyes open,” she said, turning to mount her steed.
“Walk with the shadows,” he answered.
Ginna didn’t look back after she rode away; she couldn’t. For some reason it hurt too much to see him riding in the opposite direction, and not beside her and she hated the way she felt. Vulnerable, weak, as if the depth of their last few conversations had somehow doomed them both and she would never see him again. Several times, she had to lift her arm to swipe at the tears that burned in her eyes; she hated those too. She’d never cried over a man before in her life, no matter how much they’d all hurt her, and the worst part about it was that Brynjolf hadn’t done anything to hurt her and there she was blubbering like a child.
Love. It was a fool’s emotion, and yet no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t stop feeling it.
She rode hard, all the way to Windhelm, where she stopped to make camp for the night. It was bitter cold, the biting wind nipping at her cheeks, slipping through every gap in her leather armor and freezing her to the bone, and though she was exhausted, she didn’t linger long. It was dawn by the time she reached Snow Veil Sanctum and Mercer was already there, huddled in his armor and cursing under his breath.
“Good, you’re finally here.”
“Bad weather in Riften yesterday morning,” she explained, climbing off her horse. “Roads were washed out.”
She thought she saw his lip curl into a sneer. “Glad I left when I did then. Gave me time to scout the ruins.”
“Did you find anything?”
“I’m fairly certain Karliah is still inside.”
Ginna drew her pack from the back of the horse and opened the flap, digging inside for her emerald so she could put it in her pocket. “You saw her?” Even feeling among the stones Brynjolf had given her, it wasn’t there. She drew them out to have a look, and then remembered she’d tucked it into her pants pocket while she and Rune were in Solitude. Maybe it was still there. Dropping the others into the pouch, she dug into her empty pocket and felt panic start to grip her. She checked all her pockets, even the ones she never put things in unless she really needed to, but it was nowhere to be found.
Had she lost it? Had it fallen out of her pocket in the house? Either way, not having it with her felt like a bad omen, but Mercer didn’t even seem to notice her panic and she didn’t think sharing her superstition with him was a good idea. It was too late to turn back now.
“No, I found her horse. Don’t worry, I’ve taken care of it. She won’t be using it to escape.”
“Right, good,” she swallowed hard against her rising trepidation.
“Let’s get moving,” he said. “I want to catch her inside while she’s distracted. You take lead.”
“You want me to take the lead?” Her brow furrowed in confusion. Mercer didn’t seem the type to let someone else lead and it threw her off even more.
“I’m sorry, I thought I was under the impression I was in charge.”
“Which is why I thought you’d take the lead,” she shot back.
“Your little defiance act might work with Brynjolf, but I’m immune to it. You’re leading and I’m following. Does that seem clear to you?”
“Fine,” she sighed. “Understood.”
Ginna started up the lip of the tomb and he edge in behind her, saying, “Just make certain you keep your eyes open. Karliah is sharp as a blade. The last thing I need is you blundering into a trap and alerting her that we’re here.”
“I’m not stupid, Mercer,” she huffed over her shoulder as she jaunted down the stairs.
“That remains to be seen,” he mumbled.
Maybe she hadn’t been in a whole lot of Nordic crypts in her lifetime, but she was still good at what she did. She knew the value of light feet, silence, shadow, and all three of those elements applied no matter the situation. On the other hand, she still found herself wishing she knew more about the situation, that she understood the motivation a little better. Brynjolf was right, sometimes there was no other explanation than insanity, but it all felt like it went much, much deeper than that.
“Mercer, tell me something,” she started, taking the stairs more slowly. “How did Gallus die?”
He drew in a deep breath, chest puffing up at her back before he exhaled, the warmth of his breath fluttering through the hair on the back of her neck. “Twenty-five years ago, Gallus told me to meet him here, but he wouldn’t say why. When I arrived, he stepped from the shadows, but before he could utter a single word an arrow pierced his throat. I started to draw my blade, but then a second arrow came from the darkness and found its mark in my chest.”
“So Karliah took on both of you alone?” They’d arrived just outside the ruins, the lock on the door daunting as Ginna bent to study it. She’d never seen a lock like that in her life, and wasn’t sure she’d be able to crack it.
“Karliah was a master marksman and her greatest weapon was the element of surprise. I was lucky… she missed my heart by mere inches. I staggered away from the ruins and my vision began to blur. It was only then that I realized that bitch had poisoned her arrows.”
“The last thing I saw was Karliah dumping his body into an opening atop the ruins. An unceremonious end for a remarkable man.” He was quiet for a moment, almost thoughtful and then, “To this day I regret letting her escape. Even if it meant I had to die trying, I owed Gallus that much.”
Ginna only nodded, returning her attention back to the door. It still didn’t tell her much, didn’t give her much in the way of reason to go on and she had a feeling Mercer didn’t have the answers she was looking for either. Or if he did, he wasn’t sharing them. It just felt like there was so much more to the story he wasn’t letting on. Maybe she just wasn’t asking the right questions.
“They say these ancient Nordic burial mounds are sometimes impenetrable.” He slipped in behind her and leaned over her shoulder to have a look. “This one doesn’t look too difficult, stand back.” Ginna moved out of the way to give him a crack at it. “Quite simple, really. I don’t know what all the fuss is about these locks. All it takes is a bit of know-how and a lot of skill.” He worked his pick into the mechanism, twisting and turning until the gears inside began to shift. He stood back to admire his own handy work with a smirk. “That should do it. After you.”
Ginna watched the locks fall away, and when she reached for the door it swung open with ease, the dense and acrid stench of old death wafting out to greet them as they stepped through.
“Ugh,” Mercer groane at her back. “The stench in here,” he complained. “This place smells of death. Be on your guard.”
“For what, exactly?”
“Draugr, traps, both.”
“The walking dead,” he explained. “Dangerous and foul as any creature you’ve ever met.”
“You mean zombies?”
In Cyrodiil, sometimes the Emperor imported the long-dead warriors of Skyrim to do battle with the gladiators in the arena. The first such display she’d seen had been as a girl, when Severus sent her and Brutus in to mingle among the bloodthirsty gamblers to pick pockets. While Brutus stood mesmerized, Ginna had nearly thrown up after watching a zombie tear a well-seasoned warrior limb from limb before turning his bloodied, gaping maw to leer at the crowd. She’d had nightmares for almost a month after that.
“Yes, like zombies. Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.”
“Yes sir,” she mumbled under her breath, delving deeper into the catacombs.
Her first encounter with the draugr did little to strengthen her resolve against the hordes that followed. Dehydrated, ancient skin shriveled over strong bone, rotting teeth and wide, lidless eyes; the nightmares were certainly going to come back, she decided as they hacked and slashed their way through the walking dead and tried desperately to avoid the traps Karliah had reset for them in every single room of that old crypt. Heavy, spiked doors that swung after them when Mercer triggered the pressure plate, bone-chimes set to wake the dead. No matter how quietly they snuck, it seemed there was always one more monster just around the corner waiting to destroy them.
But Ginna kept her guard up, and though she’d never admit as much to him, Mercer was a pretty good swordsman. He was fast and deadly, dual-wielding his blades, but he knew his own skill just a little too well. He never shut up, constantly touting his own greatness, taunting the dead when they fell to his blades as if they actually cared that he’d bested them.
It felt like hours passed as they wound their way through the never ending traps and corridors, battling the draugr and nursing the occasional wound from a trap one of them set off. Ginna was starting to think Karliah wasn’t even inside Snow Veil Sanctum anymore, and when they came to a puzzle door that required a claw to open it, she felt her arms drop at her sides in defeat.
“Without a claw, there’s no way we’re getting through that door.”
“That’s a common misconception,” Mercer informed her, nudging her out of the way. “Karliah most likely did away with the claw, which means we’re on our own. Fortunately, these old Nordic puzzle doors have a weakness if you know how to exploit it. Quite simple, really.” He put his back between her and the door, working the keyhole in the center so she couldn’t see what he was doing. Sneaky bastard, she thought, shaking her head when he stepped back, the rings spinning free and the heavy stone gate dropping down, spilling dust and debris into the air. “Karliah’s close,” he informed her. “I’m certain of it. Now let’s keep moving.”
Mercer lingered behind her, waiting for her to pass into the crypt. Ginna paused, turning her head to look inside, up the long set of stairs that led into a brightly lit sarcophagus. She took a step and then it hit her, an arrow in the shoulder, sinking deep into her flesh, but it wasn’t pain from the arrow she felt. It was the dizziness, the world in front of her wavering and flashing like a storm as she fell in slow motion to the ground.
So… this was it? This was how she died.
She should have known the minute she realized her emerald wasn’t with her; she had known it, had felt doom grip her in its grasp. And Rune had warned her in Solitude. Though he probably hadn’t even realized how right he’d been when he’d said that telling Gulum-Ei who she was was practically an invitation for Brutus to come after her.
The conversation she had with Brynjolf… I have no intention of dying tomorrow… Not as if running into the Temple of Mara and getting married would have saved her, but they would have had that one night. Gods. She’d promised to come back to him, promised they would start their partnership when she came back from this job.
She was paralyzed. Footsteps moved past her. Mercer stalking toward the stairs up ahead. For a moment everything went dark, her eyelids so heavy she could barely keep them open, but she managed to fight it long enough to see a sleek shadow descend those stairs. A woman with a bow in her hand, a full quiver of arrows on her back. She dropped into a fighter’s stance, ready to pounce.
“Do you honestly think your arrow will reach me before my blade finds your heart?” Mercer drew his own blades, lifting them in challenge.
“Give me a reason to try,” a soft voice answered.
“You’re a clever girl, Karliah. Buying Goldenglow Estate and funding Honningbrew Meadery was inspired.”
“To ensure an enemy’s defeat, you must first undermine his allies,” she said in that same calm, melodic tone. “It was the first lesson Gallus taught us.”
“You always were a quick study.”
“Not quick enough,” she lamented. “Otherwise Gallus would still be alive.”
Ginna was confused, her mind spinning and dancing around their exchange, trying to make sense of it all, but failing miserably.
“Gallus had his wealth and he had you. All he had to do was look the other way.”
“Did you forget the oaths we took as Nightingales?” There was a slight hitch in her voice then. “Did you expect him to simply ignore your methods?”
“Enough of this mindless banter.” Mercer’s bellow echoed through the crypt and made Ginna’s throbbing head pound. “Come, Karliah. It’s time for you and Gallus to become reunited.”
Mercer… It was Mercer. It had always been Mercer. He’d killed Brynjolf’s family, Gallus and then he’d framed Karliah. All that time he’d acted so noble, caring for Brynjolf, training and feeding a young boy’s hate until it festered in his soul, when all along he’d been the one who’d destroyed everything.
There was a bright flash of light and then she was gone, but her voice lingered. “I’m no fool, Mercer. Crossing blades with you would be a death sentence. But I can promise the next time we meet, it will be your undoing.”
Mercer lingered for a moment and then he sheathed his blades. He turned toward Ginna and began stalking slowly toward her, swaggering with confidence as he approached. He hovered over her, staring down at her with his head cocked, eyes gleaming with spite.
“How interesting.” His grin was pure hate. “It seems Gallus’s history has repeated itself. Karliah has provided me the means to be rid of you and this ancient tomb becomes your final resting place. Your friends in Cyrodiil will compensate me nicely. Everything is coming up in my favor, but with Lady Luck always on my side, I expected no less.”
Ginna couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.
“But you know what intrigues me the most?” he asked, leaning down to look into her eyes. “The fact that all this was possible because of you.” Mercer drew his blade, the malice twisting his face. “Farewell, Ginna. I’ll be certain to give Brynjolf your regards.”
The blade went in quick; it was cold as a scream in the darkness, but Ginna only lay there feeling her own warmth spilling out into a puddle beneath her body. Mercer stood over her a moment, watching her die. Eyelids growing heavier, heavier, breath becoming shorter, life slipping, dripping away. Mercer turned his back on her, the sound of his footsteps the last thing she would ever hear.
But her last thoughts would be of Brynjolf. The warmth of his arms around her, the sound of his laughter, his voice carrying her off to sleep, the feel of his lips brushing softly against hers.
At least she’d had it for a moment. Love. Beautiful, comfortable, familiar, warm, safe… Perfect.
And then her world went dark.