In silence the three of them packed their camp and headed further north, into the mountains above Irkngthand. The sun was barely rising when they scaled the icy slick and treacherous rock face before carefully dropping down in front of the golden doors that led into the old ruins. Ginna leaned over the edge, catching a glimpse of movement below; bandits patrolled the ground, but silence and shadow kept them hidden.
Karliah went first, pushing through the doors with Ginna and Brynjolf at her back. The dull, gas lighting that never seemed to die out in those old ruins lent an eerie, greenish glow to the interior chamber of the Arcanex, which quickly exposed the mayhem Mercer had left in his wake. “Mercer’s been here,” Karliah announced, scanning the room as the doors closed behind them. “I hope we’re not too late.”
Ginna stepped up behind her, Brynjolf looming over her left shoulder to survey the damage. Bodies littered the interior chamber; five bandits left dead in their bedrolls, slippery spatters of red painting the walls and floor. For a moment Ginna wondered if he’d come into those ruins with an entire army.
Brynjolf released an exasperated breath behind his hooded mask. “If he caught them in their sleep, maybe it hasn’t been long since he’s been here. The sun’s only just now coming up.”
“Then we need to make haste. We can’t afford to waste a single moment if he’s already been here for hours.”
“I know it’s probably pointless, but we should check these bodies, make sure there aren’t any necessary keys Mercer was foolish enough to leave behind,” Ginna suggested.
They split up, searching through the dead for keys, but found nothing of consequence. Ginna had never taken issue with searching the dead before, but something about rifling through the pockets of those bandits gave her chills. Maybe it was just knowing it had been Mercer’s blade that saw them to their end, that he was just a breath away from one last battle. Whatever it was, it made her nervous and when she stood up to glance over at Brynjolf, she could see nothing but his eyes behind his hood and the same emotional trepidation was in them.
“Nothing,” he held up empty hands.
“Me either,” she said.
“We should go.” Karliah’s tone was frantic, though Ginna could tell she was trying desperately to hide it. She had waited too long, come too far to lose track of Mercer now. “We can’t let him get too far ahead of us. We have to catch up to him before it’s toolate.”
“We will catch him,” Brynjolf promised, but even he didn’t sound sure.
They climbed the stairs and headed right, around dismembered mechanical spiders and through winding chaos that eventually led into a spiraling fire that felt impossible to slip around. More than once, Ginna felt Brynjolf pushing her aside to take the heat of nearby flames sweeping closer, the smell of singed fabric burning in her nostrils when she inhaled. Spiders met them at every turn and Dwarven Guardians looking for a fight.
Ginna wondered how Mercer had gotten past them all without a fight, but the closer they drew to the lift, the more dismembered spiders and battered Guardians they found. Entering the lift, Brynjolf knelt to activate the lever that would lower them into the ruins and Karliah said softly, “We should tread carefully. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mercer’s left behind a few surprises for us.”
“I can’t wait to get my hands around that bastard’s neck.” Brynjolf moved back to stand beside Ginna, his presence a comfort that quelled the trembling nervousness in the pit of her anxious gut.
Even her instincts hadn’t warned her that Mercer Frey would be so dangerous. They’d alerted her that something wasn’t quite right about him, but she’d never imagined the full extent of peril that lay hidden behind his cold, calculating eyes. Had he not put his blade through her and betrayed her to Brynjolf, Ginna might have found herself admiring the level of skill he obviously possessed. On the other hand, knowing that skill had been gifted to him by Nocturnal removed the sliver of respect she could feel tingling in her mind. Without Nocturnal, she imagined Mercer wouldn’t be much at all. It was a shame Nocturnal didn’t seem to care one way or the other how he drew from the powers she’d extended to him. All she wanted was her bloody Skeleton Key.
The lift brought them down into stairwell that opened to a swinging ball-spike trap no one was standing close enough to the door to even feel the breeze from.
“Surprise,” Ginna mumbled under her breath, her eyes rolling beneath her hood. “He’s going to have to do a lot better than that to throw me off my game.”
“Aye, love,” Brynjolf agreed. “But let’s not get too complacent. The last thing we want is to think we’ve got him figured out. That’s when the knife will come out of the darkness.”
Karliah slipped through the doors, kicking aside piles of scattered dwarven spider parts and surveying the small room they’d come into. It led through a caged walkway with a tempting lock to Ginna’s left, and loathe as she was to pass up an opportunity for Dwemer treasure, she passed it by and headed straight into the open room at the end of the hall.
That room was locked behind bars, imprisoning them for the moment, but Karliah spotted a hint of movement down below and rushed to lean against the bars, gripping them tight in her hands. “Wait a moment,” she gasped. “What is that?”
Brynjolf and Ginna stepped up on either side of her, watching the darkness for signs of its shifting. “What do you see?”
“It’s Mercer,” she tightened her fingers around the cage that held them in and then let go to reach for her bow. “Look, down there.” Ginna followed the line of her finger, spying the flutter in the dark shadows in the room just feet away, but completely out of reach. At least they were close, she told herself. “We have to find a way to get down there, and quickly.”
“I’m on it, lass,” Brynjolf assured her, drawing his blade and his lockpick before rushing across the bars. “Damn it!” he cursed. “There’s no way through!”
“He’s toying with us,” Karliah whispered. “He wants us to follow him.”
“We can’t bloody well follow if we don’t know how to get down there.”
“Bryn, Karliah, over here.” Ginna had followed the back wall to an exit. Both of her companions rushed over to join her, following through the curving corridors and crumbled structure until they came into an open room that looked similar to the one they’d seen Mercer in.
“Look at the size of this place,” Brynjolf marveled. “Have you ever seen anything like it in your life, lass?”
“I can’t say that I have,” Karliah mused. “Imagine the riches hidden within these walls.”
“The temptation of exploring those riches is almost more than I can bear,” Ginna admitted.
“Keep focused, lass. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for exploration once Mercer’s been disposed of.”
Crawling silently through the ruins, they came upon strange dwellings, crude structures that reeked of strange must and poison. Ginna was just leaning in to inspect one of them when she heard Brynjolf draw his blade behind her. She spun, tugging the Nightingale blade Karliah had given her out of her scabbard and darting in the direction of the skirmish.
The creature he was fighting was unlike any she’d ever laid eyes on. Twisted, grey-skinned and almost elven in appearance, its blind eyes needed to vision to guide the fury of its vengeful, poisoned blade in battle. Falmer…
“Brynjolf,” she called out, but no sooner had the words left her lips than did a host of those ugly creatures crawl up the stairs, arrows whizzing all around them, blades flashing in the dull light of the ruins as the three of them battled their way through. When the last one fell at her feet, Ginna gasped to catch her breath, spinning around quickly to find her mate. “Bryn?”
“I’m here, lass. Are you all right?”
“I have a feeling those are only the first of many we will face before we reach Mercer.”
“Good, I could use some practice before I turn my blades on Mercer.”
Ginna kept quiet, not wanting to remind him that overconfidence was not the avenue to take just then. Brynjolf seemed to thrive on ego, and maybe a little ego would keep them all from sinking into despair. They kept moving, analyzing the locked door below before studying the upper level again only to discover the levers waiting to lift the gate. Karliah lingered near the gate with her bow drawn and ready for enemies, while Ginna and Brynjolf hiked back upstairs to release the levers.
It took several attempts to time it properly and finally open the gateway, which led through crumbling pillars into a wide open area littered with Falmer. Standing in the entryway, Brynjolf surveyed the room, leaning back to cross his arms. “Looks like we can take the low road or the high road across this chamber. What do you say, lass?”
Even the low murmur of his voice had alerted the Falmer, who had turned their sightless eyes in their direction. “Let’s take the high road,” Ginna decided. “And try to keep as far away from those Falmer as possible.”
“Aye,” he agreed.
They high road wasn’t any less treacherous than the low road, they discovered, battling their way through the Falmer and drawing attention from the ground floor below. Barely twenty-feet across the road, the entire ruins began to tremble, and Ginna hunched down the brace herself, grateful for the feeling of Brynjolf’s hand reaching for hers. After the ground steadied again, small bits of stone still raining for several minutes, they made their way carefully through until they came to a platform climbing spiraling up to a door.
Beyond that golden door lay bear traps, waiting to catch them off their guard and Ginna, who was starting to feel the exhaustion of the last few weeks catching up to her, nearly stepped in one herself. Signs of Mercer were everywhere, from the trail of blood and dead Falmer, to the empty chests he had obviously gone to great lengths to fill his pockets from.
Heading out through the gateway on the opposite side of the room, Brynjolf stepped back and held his arms out to hold them behind him. “Shor’s bones, look at that monstrosity.”
Ginna followed his gaze toward the massive Dwemer construct lingering in an ancient doorway. “What is that thing?”
“It’s a Dwarven Centurion,” Karliah gasped. “Very tough and very deadly.”
“Do we take it on, or sneak around it?” Brynjolf questioned.
“I say we sneak around,” Ginna suggested.
“I agree,” Karliah nodded.
They had to deal with the Falmer before sneaking past the Centurion. From the shadows, all three of them strung their bows, loosing silent arrows through the darkness and tilting the odds in their favor. When the Falmer were little more than slack puddles of blood and bone on the ground, the three Nightingales crept silently past the Centurion. They followed the passage down to another landing, swarming with Falmer and frostbite spiders, which had always given Ginna the creeps. Spiders shouldn’t be so large, but Brynjolf and Karliah made quick work of them, while Ginna unleashed a host of arrows from the path to thin out the Falmers’ numbers.
Glancing up from the doorway, Karliah shuddered. “This was where we saw Mercer before.”
“Then we’ve got to be getting close,” Brynjolf noted, glancing toward the door.
“I hope we’re not too late,” the elf fretted, and Ginna could almost see her chewing at her bottom lip beneath her hood.
“Have faith, Karliah.” Ginna reached out to touch the other woman’s arm. “We are here to do Nocturnal’s will.”
“You’re right,” she said with a slow nod. “Our Lady of Shadows will guide us.”
But it didn’t much feel like Nocturnal was on their side when they entered the Slave Pens. “Ugh,” Brynjolf groaned. “That stench. This place reeks of Falmer.”
“This must be their hive,” Karliah deducted. “We’ll need to keep silent if we want to keep from drawing their attention.”
After slipping past two dwarven spiders, they crept down into an old torture chamber, long-forgotten evidence of the unspeakable deeds that had once occurred there still staining the floors and devices used to torment the Falmer. There were two of them waiting in the shadows below, but Brynjolf, who’d taken the lead for a moment, gestured to a spinning blade trap lever, which Karliah jerked downward without hesitation. Ginna couldn’t watch those spinning nightmares rise and whirl like blood-spattered pinwheels of death, so she turned her gaze downward and closed her eyes until the whistling spin of blades disappeared with a loud clunking groan.
What was left of the Falmer painted the walls, the stench of death mingling with blood and nearly making her squeamish, but she managed to keep from vomiting as the three of them tiptoed through the carnage and came out into a bed of firetraps that caught Ginna off her guard and sent her tumbling forward to her knees with a start just a breath away from the flames.
Brynjolf was at her side before the fire stopped sputtering, inspecting her with eyes she could barely see behind that mask. “Are you all right, lass?”
“I’m fine,” she shook her head. “It just startled me, is all.”
Up ahead, Karliah had snuck forward to scope out the situation, returning just as Brynjolf was helping her to her feet. “Were you hurt?” she asked.
“I’m all right.”
“Good, we’ll need everyone in top shape. We’re getting closer, I can feel it. There’s a nasty Falmer nest just up ahead. We can either slip through it, or face them head on. Either way, I don’t care, so long as we get to Mercer.”
“I say we take our chances trying to sneak around,” Brynjolf suggested.
Once everyone was agreed, they set forth again, blending almost perfectly into the shadows. At least twice, Ginna was literally just a hair away from the enemy and only the Chaurus Reaper in the pit seemed to draw the Falmer’s attention long enough for her to slip past with a hidden exhale of relief.
“I can hear water rushing through these pipes,” Karliah whispered, gesturing to the set of ancient pipework running beside them. “We must be beneath a lake.”
They worked through those pipes, sticking to the shadows until they came out in another extension of their hive. “Keep as quiet as you can,” she told them. “The Falmer may be blind, but they can still hear us.”
Ginna only nodded, following Karliah along the well-worn and darkened path. As she glanced up to spy a group of Falmer milling around their Shaman, she shuddered just a little. They were hideous beings, wretched, filthy beasts and it was hard for her to imagine they’d ever been elves. Elves were beautiful, even the Dunmer, and there were some who claimed the Snow Elves were once the most beautiful of all, but darkness, hate and betrayal had twisted them; body, mind and soul.
They terrified her and when she felt Brynjolf moving in close behind her, she wished they were anywhere but Irkngthand together. Standing on a mountaintop watching dragons circle overhead… sleeping in that musty old cave just outside of Markarth… somewhere, anywhere that provided even just an illusion of safety. She wanted to reach back and grab his hand, hold him near and beg him to promise it was all going to be okay.
Fear… an emotion she hadn’t allowed to dominate her since she was a little girl barely old enough to think for herself. She shuddered inside her armor, and as if he felt the rising trepidation, Brynjolf’s hand rested for a moment on her hip as they paused to overlook the landing down below. One by one, they dropped down and stealthily moved through the Falmer unnoticed until they came to a bizarre gateway that led to a set of stairs and a golden door.
She was grateful to have the two of them with her before passing through that door, as the sound of the gate’s movement alerted the enemy to their presence and a swarm of angry Falmer attacked.
Arrows rained down upon them from all sides. The Shadowlurkers shot out long streams of lightning, but Brynjolf spun in to stagger him from behind, knocking the creature to his knees and allowing Ginna to finish him off with a quick drop of her Nightingale blade. Karliah rolled through quickly, firing arrow after arrow until the three of them were safely down the stairs and pushing hard against that golden door.