In all the mayhem, no one realized just how close they’d gotten to Mercer until those doors opened, streams of pale light illuminating the most glorious statue Ginna had ever seen. The echoing clink of hammer on stone drew their attention to the shoulder of that statue where Mercer Frey was hard at work wrenching free the largest gemstone any of them had ever laid eyes on. There was a second one poking out of the heavy satchel draped across his back; both eyes glistened like glorious snowflakes in full moonlight and for a moment all Ginna could think about was getting her hands on those stones.
Beautiful, so beautiful, and there would be no problem finding a buyer if she could just get to them. The profit from just one of them alone would be more than enough to help get the Guild back on its feet. And with the other, well… they’d be set for life. Neither her, nor Brynjolf would ever have to run another heist or con unless they wanted to. That house in Markarth was as good as hers. All she had to do was get those jewels.
Then her gaze returned to Mercer, the heart in her chest thumping with the rage of betrayal. That man had tried to kill her. No, he hadn’t just tried; he’d killed her, run his bladed through her and left her for dead in Snow Veil Sanctum. He’d turned the only man she’d ever trusted, ever loved against her with lies and all so he could make those precious beauties his. He needed to die. Her right foot moved forward almost with her notice and then Karliah gripped her arm and squeezed, holding her in place.
“He’s here,” she murmured, her voice a choking whisper that sounded lodged in her tight throat. “And he hasn’t seen us yet. Brynjolf, guard the door.”
“Aye, lass,” he nodded, ducking back into the shadows near the door. “Nothing’s getting by me.”
Her small fingers pressed hard, and Ginna realized when she felt her flesh begin to bruise beneath her armor that Karliah didn’t even know her own strength. “Ginna, climb down that ledge and see if you can…”
“Karliah,” Mercer’s voice rang through the chamber. “When will you ever learn you can’t get the drop on me?” There was a strange flash and for a moment he flickered, disappearing as the chamber trembled and then reappearing several feet away from where he’d been when last she saw him.
Ginna was already climbing down the ledge when it happened; the force of the earth’s shaking sent her stumbling down the stairs. She righted herself, even as the chamber continued to quake, great heavy stones dropping from the ceiling above and smashing to the ground just near her feet. Bits of broken rock and dust spattered against her shins, but she didn’t feel it. The only thing she felt was her boiling lust for vengeance. Mercer raced down the statue’s extended arm, arriving at the landing just feet away from her. It was a stone book in its arms, and he’d perched upon it with his arms crossed. There were three dead Falmer at his feet, their sightless eyes staring up in what appeared to be reverence at that glorious statue.
She started to reach for the bow on her back, but there was no time.
“I should have known,” he mused, his cold eyes squinting down at her like an unspoken curse. All along it had been hatred in his eyes whenever he looked upon her. Loathing strong enough to consume a man. How had she not seen it? “When Brynjolf brought you before me I could feel a sudden shift in the wind. And at that moment I knew it would end with one of us at the end of a blade.”
“You had your chance to kill me, Mercer, now it’s my turn to return the favor.” In all her life she’d never taken pleasure from killing; it was an occasional necessity, not something she was ever proud of. Killing Mercer, however, was going to bring her so much joy. She was almost ashamed for recognizing that. “Give me the Skeleton Key.”
“What has Karliah been filling your head with? Tales of thieves with honor? Oaths rife with falsehoods and broken promises?” He scoffed just a little when he asked her those questions, seemingly waiting for her to answer. When she said nothing, he went on. “Nocturnal doesn’t give a damn about you, or the Key and she certainly doesn’t care about anything having to do with the Guild.”
“It’s not about Nocturnal, Mercer,” she seethed. “This is personal. You owe me a debt and I’m here to collect.”
“Revenge, is it? Have you learned nothing in this trade of ours?” he questioned. “It doesn’t matter who brought you up, who trained you or what values your mentor claimed to have instilled within you. Open your eyes, little Ghost and realize how little my actions differ from yours. Both of us lie, cheat and steal to further our own end.”
“That may be so, but the difference is, I still have honor, Mercer.”
“Honor?” He threw back his head and laughed. “Is that the liars’ song they sing in Cyrodiil? It must be. Gallus was always going on about honor among thieves, but it’s clear that you’re as much as fool as he was. You’ll never see the Skeleton Key as I do. As an instrument of limitless wealth and power. Instead you’ve chosen to fall over your own foolish code.”
“If anyone falls, it will be you.”
“Then the die is cast and once again my blade will taste Nightingale blood.”
Ginna drew her blade, Gallus’s blade, ignoring the sound of Brynjolf and Karliah’s protests from the landing behind her. Her lover called out to her to wait, lest she get herself killed and there was a flashing moment when she remembered they had promised to kill him together. Then her fury drove her forward, down the last few stairs and up the ramp as Mercer called out, “Karliah, I’ll deal with you later, after I rid myself of your irksome companions. In the meantime, perhaps you and Brynjolf should get reacquainted. He’s got a real temper, that one… In fact, I might not have to deal with you at all by the time he’s through.”
“Wait!” Brynjolf cried out. “What’s happening? I–I can’t stop it!”
“Fight it, Brynjolf!” Karliah begged. “He’s taken control of your rage. Don’t let him! You have to fight it! You’re stronger than he is. Nocturnal, please cloak us in the protection of your shadows.”
For a moment, Ginna was torn, her gaze drawn back over her shoulder to the landing where Brynjolf had drawn his blades to attack Karliah. How? Was the potential of the Skeleton Key truly so dark that Nocturnal would give whoever held it the power to control the very people around him? Brynjolf struggled against his own arms, the swinging blades in his hands lashing out at Karliah as he ground his teeth and cried out in protest.
“Brynjolf!” she called out, forgetting about Mercer for a moment and edging her way back toward him.
“Stay back, Ginna! I’ll never forgive myself if I hurt you,” he warned. “Just go! Kill him! Kill him before he destroys us all!”
“I can’t just leave you.”
“Please, lass.” The desperation in his voice broke her heart. “You’ve got to kill him!”
The clash of blades on the landing above distracted her and in a flash Mercer appeared behind her, the hilt of his Dwarven blade slamming into her shoulder so hard she stumbled forward to her knees. Palms skidding across the stone, the rage was back, mingling with her hatred as she spun around quick and swept her leg out to knock him off his feet. She caught him, and he fell, but when he landed he disappeared. From somewhere behind her, she heard the scramble of loose stone beneath foot.
Mercer bellowed a spiteful promise. “I’ll spit on your corpse!”
Ginna listened to the way the words echoed off the walls, reverberating back to give his position away. She was already on her feet again, racing out to match blades with him and staggering him with a heavy blow that teetered his unsteady footing on the edge. But Mercer was quick, maybe even quicker than her and whatever power Nocturnal had granted him made it almost impossible for her to keep track of him. Every time she thought she had him, he disappeared once more, reappearing just over his shoulder and giving her barely enough time to block the downward arc of his sword.
“Nocturnal, please,” she muttered under her breath. “Give me the strength to do your bidding and I swear I will make you proud to call me your Sentinel.”
They were near the edge again, Mercer rushing at her, but Ginna reached down inside herself and drew from the well of hatred and betrayal that ran deeper than she could have ever dreamed. It swelled up like an erupting volcano and with a mighty battle-cry, she rushed at him, blade slicing across the chest of his armor as her free hand shoved. Mercer’s eyes widened with unspoken horror, crumbling stone giving way beneath his feet. Arms flailing, mouth agape, Mercer Frey reached for her as he toppled over the edge, but his slippery fingers lost their grip and Ginna clutched tight to the structure to keep from falling to her death.
His sword hit the ground first, a clatter of dwarven metal on stone and then Mercer crumpled with a thud, rolling several feet down the incline. He didn’t struggle; he didn’t voluntarily move at all and she knew the fall had killed him. The sanctuary shook and trembled again, but Mercer’s fall had not been nearly heavy enough to cause the structure to rumble the way it was. Something else was happening. The sanctuary was about to collapse in upon itself, but her work still wasn’t finished.
She raced down the statue to the landing where Mercer had fallen and for a moment she just hovered over his dead body, a part of her still not quite convinced that he was dead. She drew her blade again, Gallus’s blade, and pierced it through his chest. Blood flowered from the wound as she withdrew, but Mercer didn’t move. He’d been dead when he hit the ground.
“Ginna!” Brynjolf called from above. “Are you all right, lass?”
“Did you get the Key, Ginna?” Karliah followed, leaning down over the ledge. The ruins trembled once more, heavy chunk of stone dislodging from the ceiling and falling to dust on the ground. And then there was water, a slow pour rolling in from the lake above through the broken pipes that spanned the ceiling.
“Ginna!” He bellowed again, a worried edge in his tone that she hadn’t answered.
“I’m okay,” she shook off the stunned haze and drew her stare toward the landing to meet with his.
“Grab the Key, Ginna and the eyes and let’s go! Brynjolf, the door.”
“No luck there, lass!” he bellowed back. “Something must have fallen on the other side of the door because it isn’t moving.”
“We have to find another way out of here before this place fills with water.”
Kneeling down beside Mercer’s body, Ginna yanked the satchel from him and opened it to look inside. She reached in and lifted one of the statue’s eyes, peering down to see the other shining up at her from the depths of the bag like a light in the darkness. She lowered the stone back inside and rooted around until her hand grasped the Skeleton Key. Drawing it out into the light, she felt its power; a strange surge rippled through her, into her fingers, up the length of her arm and straight to her heart. Eyes closed, it was as if she could hear Nocturnal whispering inside her soul, a chorus of strange urges for her to explore her own potential.
She shuddered, stunned with chills of intrigue and delight and then she shook them off when Brynjolf arrived beside her, grabbing her by the shoulder of her armor and drawing her quickly up the stairs that wound around the statue. The Key had dropped back into the Satchel and the sudden movement brought her back to her senses. For the first time she realized the immediate danger they were in when she glanced back over her shoulder and saw the water rushing higher and higher.
“We need to find a way out, lass, or it’s the end of us. All of us.”
That stunning revelation startled her to action. “I didn’t come all this way to die.”
“Good.” Even though she couldn’t see his face, she could almost see him smiling. “Neither did I.”
Karliah appeared behind them, pushing them faster up the stairs. The water was seeping into Ginna’s boots, quickly lapping at her shins, her knees, crawling up her thighs and hovering about her waist. They were at the top and Karliah was gesturing toward the broken pipes. “Up there,” the other woman said. “It looks like an opening into a cave. When the water rises, try to swim. It’s our only hope of escape.”
Ginna could barely hear what she was saying over the furious rush of gushing water threatening to drown them, but she followed Karliah’s lead even after it rose up just under her chin. Drawing a deep breath into her lungs, she prepared to hold it just in time. Ducking under, she pushed with her legs to try and stay above water but it was filling in too quickly and within seconds it had pulled them all under. The heavy weight of the Eyes of the Falmer on her back was almost more than she could carry as she stretched and kicked her legs, arms pushing downward to lift her through the water.
It was almost impossible to see under water, the murky filth of crumbling stone and silt swirling about with their movement, but a hand reached for hers, tugging hard and drawing her toward a faint hint of blue light. He pushed her up first and as soon as she found her footing and climbed out, Ginna lowered her hand into the water for him to grab onto. He outweighed her by several stone, but the thought of losing him sent adrenaline surging through her and she pulled until he rose gasping into the cave.
“I like a good swim just as much as the next guy, but this is ridiculous,” he said, reaching up to lower the hood of his cloak around his shoulders. Streams of wet red hair clung to his cheeks still dripping, and when he shook his head a spray of droplets whizzed through the air. Ginna had never been so happy to see another person’s face in her life, and upon realizing that it was over… really over, she felt all the tension in her body melt away.
“My love,” she whispered, emotion replacing the tension, gripping her hard in its grasp. She threw herself at him, arms circling around him as he reached up to lower the hood of her own cloak so he could see her face. He was kissing her, eager, furious kisses across her brow and her cheeks until at long last he came to her lips and drew her in so deep she wasn’t sure for a moment where she began and he ended.
“We did it,” he murmured when he finally drew back to look down into her eyes. “Mercer’s dead.”
“Aye,” she blinked furiously to hold back the tears she could feel swelling and burning in her eyes. “It’s over.” Ginna hadn’t even realized just how emotionally satisfying and draining it would be, but inside she felt lighter than she had since she’d first come to Skyrim months before. Was the curse broken? Were they truly free?
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”