Being so near Aventus and not helping him was almost enough to drive Ginna insane. They’d set up watch in a copse of trees about seventy-five yards from the cave and she could hear his muffled protests, and though they bothered her immensely, they sounded more like someone who was angry than in pain. Someone who was giving his captor a long round of second thoughts about just who he’d kidnapped.
And then she got scared again. What if the fire of Aventus’s spirit pushed Brutus overboard and he harmed him before they could get there to save him? Some part of her really wanted to believe Brutus would never hurt a child, that inside he himself was still the same awkward and confused little boy she’d grown up with, but even that little boy had been cruel in the worst ways imaginable. She had more scars from her brother than she could recount, mental and physical.
Karliah settled into the treetops just outside the cave, instructing Ginna to sit with the Key and try to relax, but she was beginning to feel like she didn’t know how to relax. Every muscle in her body was tensed and tightened, and not even the exhaustion she felt was enough to push her into that frame of mind. She just wanted to get in there and save their boy before jamming her dagger into Brutus’s throat before making a clean getaway.
She’d taken out the Skeleton Key before she sat down, its energy resonating in her tight grip in slow pulses that seemed to whisper let yourself go, but letting go of herself felt foolish. Giving in to its power was what drove Mercer into a state of power-hungry, murderous madness that ended in death for so many people; she didn’t want to die, but more than that she didn’t want to hurt the people she loved either.
Opening her fingers, she looked down at the Key in her palm and watched the thick, bulbous base glow iridescent green against her skin. She’d seen it glow that way before, but never so bright and the calming effect it had on her senses was almost otherworldly as the energy it put out ebbed away the toxic flow of tension and despair.
Maybe Karliah was right and communing with the Skeleton Key would be easy; that frightened her even more. She didn’t want to be like Mercer, but for a fleeting flash she remembered her dream of Nocturnal, their Lady of Shadows’ indignation as she scoffed, “I grow weary of you telling me all the things you are not. You say you are no warrior, and yet you wield a blade when need be. You say you’re no assassin, and yet the blade you wield glistens with the blood of those who stood in your way. Since you seem to have no concept of your own identity, I will tell you who you are. You are my agent, Ginna of Cyrodiil, and you will carry out my will.”
“Do you need anything, lass?” Brynjolf squatted down in front of her and brought a hand out to sweep the hair off her forehead. The soothing sound of his voice startled her from her fixation and snapped her attention back to the moment.
She closed her fingers around the key and looked up at him. “A moment’s peace from the voices in my head would be nice,” she admitted with an uneasy laugh.
His hand slipped down her cheek, cupping her face gently and just holding it for a moment. “Aye,” he agreed, the corners of his bow-shaped mouth curled upward briefly. “A moment’s peace would be bliss right about now, wouldn’t it though?”
“It really would.” They’d been fools to believe taking care of Mercer would at least temporarily suspend the chaos. Disorder had brought them together, and as much as some part of her longed for a break from it, for a single moment to just sit with her husband and enjoy him without fearing for their very lives, she knew that would never be possible for them.
“Until I can give you that, would you settle for a kiss?”
Ginna smiled up at him, the dim light of the moon flashing just enough that she could actually see the brilliance of his eyes. She nodded and he lowered his lips into hers. Mouth opening slightly, fingers pressing gently into her chin to draw her upward, she opened herself to him and savored the taste of his kiss, the soft velvet of his slow tongue drawing across hers as his other hand slipped behind her neck to pull her in closer.
Brynjolf’s kiss was a moment of peace, she realized, a flicker of calm and clarity that steadied the frayed edges of her every nerve and made the tightened muscle in her body relax against the tree she’d propped herself up against. Funny, she considered, since not a single second of their life together had been anything but chaos since they’d met, but when they were together in moments like that she felt like she could do anything.
She lifted her hand to rest against his cheek, the prickling stubble there tickling her palm. He pulled back, that peace lingering when he nuzzled the tip of his nose against hers. “I’ve got you, love.”
He withdrew, standing again but lingering to stare down at her for just a moment before he drew his hood back up to cover his face. She could see only his eyes, but it was enough. They kept her calm, reminded her that what she was about to do wasn’t just necessary, it was Nocturnal’s will. She waited until he took position in front of her, the shadow of his black cape fluttering silently in the wind, and then she opened her hand again to look down at the Key.
The green pattern that decorated the base glowed more intensely, as if whatever spirit possessed it knew she was preparing to yield some part of herself, the part it had been calling for since the very moment she’d pried the cold metal from Mercer’s tight, dead fingers. Even in death he’d refused to let go and as the walls of Irkngthand began to crumble and cave in around her she’d almost had to lob off his hand just to get out alive.
Was that how it would end for her one day?
No, she wouldn’t let that happen. She couldn’t. She had other people in her life depending on her and no matter how much that key murmured in her ear about all the wonderful things they could do together, she couldn’t keep it. Once the job was done she was returning it to the Sepulcher; she didn’t care what else Nocturnal wanted her to do.
The design on the handle pulsed, the rhythm slowly attuning to her heartbeat. Thump-thump, thump-thump. She could feel it in the palm of her hand, as if the object she held possessed a life all its own, or maybe it was drawing from the essence of her life. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Growing stronger with every rush of blood through her heart. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Absorbing some part of her.
No, it whispered in the dark recesses of her mind. It had been speaking to her for months, a distinctly male voice that sounded so much like her father at times it broke her heart. We are already one. We have been one since you slipped into your first shadow to hide your secret deeds from the prying eyes of others. I have always been yours, just as you have always been mine.
She wondered if it said those kinds of things to Mercer as it drove him mad with greed.
Only you, it breathed in answer. Just as only I know your true potential, Ginna.
Her true potential lay within the interior of other peoples’ pockets. How hard could it be to guess that? Everyone knew that about her.
But there you are wrong. There is potential in the pockets of others, yes, but you are the unseen shadow, the spirit who passes through locked doors with no key, through walls with no portal.
But any thief who considered herself worthy of the title could do those things as well.
Yes, but in this lifetime you are the one they call Ghost. Come with me.
She wasn’t even sure if she blinked, but one minute she could just make out the vague outline of Brynjolf’s shadow at the edge of her line of vision and the next an ethereal shade in Nightingale armor stood above her, a gloved, outstretched hand reaching for her.
Panic seized her. Her heartbeat sped up and the shade before her pulsed and flickered with its rhythm. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
He didn’t move, didn’t even acknowledge the sound of her voice when she spoke.
He cannot hear you. We have stepped outside the boundaries of time. Come, there is much I need to show you and very little time.
She regarded the hand before her and then tentatively reached for it, a strangled gasp catching in her throat when she realized she could see through her own ghostly hand. “What is this?”
It needn’t answer. She knew what it was—her potential reaching out to claim her.
Stretching her fingers outward, the shade clutched her hand and drew her spirit from her body. For the first time in months she felt light, untouched by the heavy troubles that weighed upon her heart and soul, and as she glanced back over her shoulder at her own body she realized she should be terrified by the notion that there was nothing tying her to the vessel that housed her now wandering spirit.
Be not afraid, your spirit has walked the lands of Mundus in this manner for thousands of years, wearing many faces, many skins. It is in your nature to wander through the very fabric of time.
“Who are you?”
This does not matter. All that matters is that I am yours. I have always been yours and I have been waiting many centuries for you to claim me again so I can remind you of who you are.
She supposed the logical question then was, “Who am I?”
Come with me and all will be revealed.
She followed through the strange shadows of the world around her, completely unseen out in the open. When they passed near the tree in which Karliah had positioned herself, she could see the elven thief as clearly as if she were in plain sight, but Karliah could not see her. They passed through the trees together and came to the entrance of the cave. She could hear Aventus whimpering, the distinct sound of Brutus’s footsteps as he paced. He’d always been a pacer, a contemplator working out every little scheme and trouble through the deliberate hush of his own footfall.
“They are close,” he muttered to himself. “So close I can feel her near, almost smell her on the wind. It’s only a matter of time before she catches up with me, Father.”
Her first thought was madness. He was talking to Severus as if the man still lived, still walked with them. Is that who Rune overheard him speaking to? He truly had been touched by Sheogorath’s hand.
“She is closer than you think, my son.”
If Ginna had been in her body, every hair would have stood up when she heard that disembodied voice. Deep, distinguished, powerful. It chilled her to her very core. It was not the voice of the man who raised him, but someone… no, something else. Something not of their plane of existence.
“Let her come then,” he murmured. “Let her come and I will crush her, but first I will destroy everything she loves and make her watch.”
“Yes,” the disembodied voice agreed. “But you must use caution, Brutus. Just as you have been gifted, so has she. Her mother’s blood runs strong in her veins.”
What did a Cyrodiilian whore have to do with anything? She turned toward the shade beside her for clarity, but her guide did not return her gaze.
“She does not know that, Father. You said yourself that she was unaware. All this time, all that power and she has no idea. Even if she did know, she would probably throw it away. She always was a fool.”
“But for how long, my son? You must move quickly. Kill the child, invoke her wrath and she will follow wherever you go. Lead Nocturnal’s child to the Shrine of Boethiah, spill her blood upon the altar with my razor and bring us closer to freedom.”
Brutus drew the blade from his belt and held it up to inspect its wicked gleam within the fire’s light. “It will be done, my master.”
You must act now, Daughter of Twilight. Draw upon your mother’s power, bend the shadowed fragments of time to your will and spare the child.
Daughter of Twilight? None of what she’d overheard made any sense. The disembodied voice had called her Nocturnal’s child, but how could Nocturnal be her mother? She was a Daedric Princess and she had never heard of any instances of the Daedra mating, and if they had it certainly would not be with mankind not with mankind. Men were beneath the Daedra, inferior and weak… and her father had been one of the weakest, most pathetic men the world had to offer.
No… Nocturnal wouldn’t lower herself… Why would she? Surely it must be some kind of mistake.
There is not time to reason with the truth. Time will yield to your will, but only for so long. Save the child and take him to your mother’s hall. All will be revealed if you can do this.
“I don’t know how to stop time.”
How else could you walk through walls? That power is within you. It has always been within you. Will it, Ginna, and save your child, before it’s too late.
The sound of Brutus’s pacing drew her attention back to him. He held the razor in his hand, Mehrunes Razor, and Dagon had called him son. It was too much for her to process, but the golden glint of fire’s light across the steely blade was like a jolt of truth. She didn’t need to process it; not now, not yet. She needed to take advantage of the moment she’d stolen and get Aventus out of there before it was too late.
Stop time… stop time. How else could she walk through walls, it said. How else could she be a ghost?
“Shadows hide and protect me,” she muttered the same blessing she’d spoken before every job she’d ever performed, and when she closed her eyes it was done.
Brutus stood suspended in time, his foot half-raised in step, the blade still glinting in the blurred fabric of paused time. Ginna moved through that moment with ease, arriving to kneel over the frightened child. She didn’t even take time to untie him, just hoisted his heavy weight from the ground and threw him over her shoulder. She palmed her Gallus’s sword in her free hand and headed toward Brutus.
She hadn’t been that close to him since he’d sent her off to Skyrim in order to frame her. Had he known then what he was doing? Was it all part of some plan he’d been devising all his life? She wanted answers, but more than that she wanted to watch him bleed out in pain on the floor of that cave. And yet a part of her wanted more than even that. She wanted to watch him suffer more deeply than she ever had at his hands, but what did he have worth taking away other than his life?
She lifted the blade, but the shade reached a hand out to stop her.
No, Ginna. Time is running out. Get to safety. Get the child home. Your blade will taste his blood before the end.
She hesitated, the stopped moment giving her a boost of courage. “He has to die.”
Yes, he does, but not tonight. Go, you must go before the moment catches up to itself again.
She knelt over Aventus and gathered him into her arms. He started to struggle, but it was a slow movement she easily managed. Hoisting him over her shoulder like a heavy sack of potatoes, she started to walk toward the exit and then time shifted again. One second she was standing in the cave, Aventus’s weight pressing down on the shoulder Mercer had run his blade through and the next she was forced back into her body, leaning against the tree she’d propped up against. She still had Aventus in her arms, though she couldn’t even begin to understand how.
Ginna gasped and he whimpered, both sounds turning Brynjolf around so quick he was a blur of shadow and stealth.
“By the Eight!”
“My sentiments exactly, but there isn’t time to explain.” Even if there had been, she wouldn’t know where to start. “We need to get Karliah and get out of here, quickly.”
“I don’t think he’s hurt. Go, fetch Karliah, Bryn. I’ll take care of our boy.”
He didn’t hesitate, though she could tell he wanted to. He sprinted in the direction of the trees Karliah perched in, and Ginna worked through the tight binds that held Aventus stiff. The boy tried desperately not to squirm, some part of him calmed by her presence, but she could see he was clearly still shaken.
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispered, slipping her dagger through the knotted rope and tugging upright until his bonds fell away. “You’re going to be all right, I promise.”
“Mama,” he whispered, awe gripping his tone when she tugged the damp gag from his mouth.
“Did he hurt you?”
“Only a little,” he shook his head. “I think I hurt him more.”
Reaching up she tousled his hair with pride. “That’s my good boy.”
“Who was that man?” he asked. “Why does he want to hurt you?”
“I’ll tell you more about him once we’re safe. Once your da returns, we’ll need to run.”
“How did you find me, Mama?”
She smiled softly and cradled him close for a moment, pressing her lips to his forehead. “Because I’m your ma, Aventus. No matter where you are, I will always find you.”
He hugged her, squeezing so tight she almost couldn’t breathe, but their reunion was short lived as Brynjolf and Karliah came rushing into their shadowed hideout.
“Ginna,” Karliah muttered in astonishment. “How… The Key did this?”
“There’s no time to explain. It’s only a matter of time before Brutus realizes what I’ve done and he’ll be right behind us. We need to get Aventus back to Nightingale Hall. It’s the only place he’ll be safe.” And the only place she would find the answers she herself needed in order to process everything she’d learned in that brief flicker of stopped time.
“Can you run, my boy?” Brynjolf asked, holding a hand out to help him to his feet.
“I think so.”
“We’ll have to be quick. If you get too tired to run anymore, say the word and I’ll carry you.” He offered the same hand to Ginna, drawing her to stand. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Come on, let’s go.”
Brynjolf and Karliah were staring at her in the strangest way, but there wasn’t time to feel uncomfortable. Reaching down she took Aventus’s hand inside hers and the four of them slipped into the night, hidden and protected by the shadow of her mother’s pitch black cloak.