The air shifted in the altar room as soon as the gate dropped heavily into place and separated her from her friends. Rolling slowly up the rampart toward her, the ball of blue-black light began to flicker and hum. It flashed and sparked until the energy fizzled out and a stunning woman dressed in next to nothing walked toward her, her bare feet slapping the stone beneath them with every step.
She shouldn’t have been amazed by that feat, but something about it took her breath away. Nocturnal was pure power and darkness, the very essence of shadow, misdirection and illusion and she’d chosen to reveal herself. A part of her felt humbled, as if she should drop to her knees before her matron and kiss her feet.
Lowering the hood of her golden-embroidered pitch cloak around her shoulders and shaking loose the ebony tresses of her flowing hair, she lifted a hand through it and smoothed it away from her face. Her skin was as pale as moonlight in that dark sea of waving black hair. She was breathtaking, more beautiful than any human woman Ginna had ever seen, and her beauty had very little to do with the fact that she was nearly naked.
A silent flare of jealousy actually made her glad Brynjolf wasn’t there. He probably wouldn’t have been able to pick his jaw up off the floor after viewing that ample dose of cleavage.
As if she’d read her thoughts, Nocturnal threw back her head and laughed, a bone-chilling sound that echoed off the stone walls around them and made Ginna’s blood run cold. As she drew her head back down, the light caught in her eyes and Ginna felt her breath choke in her throat. She knew those eyes; they’d been staring back at her all her life. Not only were they the same sharp, almond shape and brilliant ice-blue color, but even the shape of their brow was almost identical. Her gaze followed down Nocturnal’s face, the sharp chisel of her high cheekbones, the swell of her pouty mouth…
It didn’t mean anything.
Her mother had been a Cyrodiilian whore; that was what her father said, and while Nocturnal’s cloak was certainly about as revealing as some of the prostitutes she’d seen in the streets of the Imperial City, she highly doubted the esteemed Mistress of Shadows would present herself to any man in the guise of a streetwalker.
Besides, her father hadn’t exactly been Prince Charming. A Nord sailor whose interests lie in drinking, gambling and wenching, he used to drag her into taverns and make her watch him cheat at dice until a brawl broke out. He’d been a horrible man, a man more suitable for some pock-marked whore than the graceful wisp of shadow standing in front of her.
“You’re right on that account.” Nocturnal laughed again, proving that she could hear everything going through Ginna’s mind, which made her more than just a little uncomfortable. “The man who sired you was crass and vulgar, but he wasn’t always that pathetic, broken shell of a man. He was handsome, almost as pretty as your roguish little playmate, and he was pure fire in the bedroom, but he didn’t have the strength to endure me. My love destroyed his mind and spirit.”
Ginna hadn’t seen her father in over twenty years, but her memories of the man certainly didn’t paint him handsomely. He’d been tall, a pillar of angry curses and regret who never failed to make her feel like she was nothing, nay, less than nothing, and the mere thought of him being anything to anyone in the bedroom made her queasy.
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
Once again, Nocturnal laughed. They were standing so close to each other now that she lifted a hand to Ginna’s face, gentle fingers tracing along the curve of her cheek and down to her chin as she tilted her face upward to take her in. “I chose him for obvious aesthetic reasons. You are stunning, my child, and far more clever than he ever was.”
So many times she’d thought of the woman who’d carried her in her womb, expelled her into the world and then left her on her drunken father’s doorstep. She would almost rather have learned her mother had been a whore.
“Couldn’t you have chosen someone who actually wanted to be a father? He was an awful man.” She jerked away. “Or better yet, if you chose to breed why didn’t you just raise me yourself?”
“My realm is no place for a child, and besides I did choose someone who wanted to be a father. You think it was coincidence that you were raised by the Grey Fox of House Dareloth? I have watched over every moment of your life, guided you, protected you. It was I who steered Severus in your direction when you were small, even though the irony of raising you beside the son of my enemy was never lost on me. I should have known then it was only a matter of time before Dagon interfered and pit his spawn against mine in some dramatic effort to rise to power again. You were meant to be the Queen of Shadows in Cyrodiil, a ruler unlike House Dareloth has seen in an age or more, my girl, but as you have so often done throughout your life, you disappointed me.”
Her hand dropped to her side and then she turned to walk down the platform toward the central circle where she’d hovered only moments before above the Nightingale symbol on the floor.
“You’ve disappointed me so severely I wished many times that I’d never given birth to you.” Mother or not, she shouldn’t have cared what the being in front of her thought, but she did. It hurt to hear her own mother had spent the majority of her life wishing she’d never been born, even if she’d spent most of that life already thinking her mother felt that way. “Turning your mentor’s guild over to Brutus Arenicci, Ginna? Giving him power over you?” She hissed displeasure and then spun back to face her with sharply narrowed eyes. “Your father gifted you with more than that pretty golden hair and face of his. It would seem you inherited his weakness of will as well.”
“Weakness?” She had started down the ramp, but she stopped, turning her back on Nocturnal and staring at the wall behind the triad of platforms above the altar. “That so-called weakness you refer to probably saved my life. I may not have known it at the time, but I know now. If I’d taken over the Guild in Cyrodiil I would have met the same poisonous end our father did.”
“Ah,” she mused. “Perhaps it is true what your kind says about hindsight then, but what are you going to do about it him now? Brutus Arenicci cannot go unpunished for his crimes against my faction or my blood. He is as arrogant as the Prince who sired him and equally hungry for power.”
“On that we agree,” she answered, turning back to look down at Nocturnal again. She was staring up the ramp at her, those mesmerizing blue eyes watching, waiting. For what? She couldn’t guess. “I wanted to kill him last night, but the time wasn’t right. Even the Key said…”
“When will the time be right, Ginna? When you hold all you claim to love dying in your arms? He’s taken everything you ever loved from you. Your father, your home, your family. Will you let him take your mate, your children? Will he destroy this new family you’ve come to love, leaving you utterly alone before you take up the gauntlet and put an end to him?”
“What am I supposed to do?” There was weakness in her voice, the kind of weakness that would have inspired a normal mother to react with comfort, kindness, support, but Nocturnal was no woman, she wasn’t normal in any way, shape or form.
“Stop sniveling and fight for what’s yours,” she snapped, the cold power in her voice as sharp as a razor’s edge that cut to the very heart of Ginna’s soul. “You are the very essence of Night and Shadow, of cunning and stealth. My immortal blood runs through your veins, and all the power I have to give is at your disposal. Lead Brutus Arenicci to the Shrine of Boethiah and spill his blood, my daughter.”
“If you’re so powerful, why don’t you stand against Mehrunes Dagon?”
For a moment Nocturnal recoiled, as if she’d been slapped.
“It is Dagon guiding Brutus Arenicci’s hand, pushing him to open some portal so your kind can walk freely on this plane again. Or is that what you want too, Nocturnal? Freedom? For your champion to open the portal with the blood of your rival so you can cross over first?”
She didn’t answer, but narrowed a venomous, steely gaze over her daughter.
“I will not be a pawn in whatever game you play with Dagon, Mother.”
“If Mehrunes Dagon breeches the boundaries of your world, absolute chaos will rule and you… everything you live for, everything you love will die.”
“And you?” she crossed her arms stiffly over her sore breasts and ignored the pain of their tenderness. “What will happen if I allow you to breech the boundaries? Eternal night? Rise of the Rogues? A world steeped in illusion and darkness?”
“Would such a world be so bad?” Nocturnal stalked toward her again, her gait steeped in righteous confidence. “A world in which you would be a queen, my child. A host of servants at your beck and call, every luxury, every pretty thing you could possibly want to possess, more riches than you’ve ever dreamed, all of it yours for the taking. Your unborn child will be first in line to rule a new Era.”
She swallowed hard against the tight constriction in her throat. As a little girl she’d daydreamed herself some stolen princess of the Aldmeri Dominion, that one day her real family would find her and set her upon a throne of power. She’d dreamed up so many innocent ways to torment Brutus from her throne, of tormenting her real father by making him a slave who had to carry pitchers of clean water from the well and wash her feet three times a day.
She caught a flicker of a smile on Nocturnal’s lips, as if she were spying on that memory.
Shaking her head, she cast her gaze to the floor. As tempting as that was, as often as Brynjolf liked to tease her about being spoiled, she was no dark tyrant and she could never trample the masses for power. Maven Black-Briar would be so disenchanted if she ever overheard the words she was about to speak.
“I’m sorry, Mother. I’ve spent my whole life disappointing you, so I’m sure this will come as no surprise. You will probably punish me for denying your wishes, but I am what you made me and I have no desire to be a queen,” she confessed. “I like this world just the way it is and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep it that way.”
Nocturnal ruminated over that thought for a moment, her face a blank slate of emotion Ginna couldn’t read. “Very well then,” she conceded almost humbly. “To keep your world as it is the son of Mehrunes Dagon will still have to die, or else he will destroy your precious little illusion of the way things should be. Like you, he can be wounded, but only a weapon forged by a Daedric Prince holds the power to kill him.”
“Wait a minute,” she held her hand up. “Are you saying I can’t die?”
“No,” she said. “I’m saying only a weapon forged by one of my brethren can kill you. Mehrunes Razor, the Mace of Molag Bal, Mephala’s Ebony Blade… The list goes on and on.”
“But aside from that… Say I took an arrow to the heart…”
“Unless that arrow were shot from my Bow of Shadows, then you would suffer immensely until it healed, but it would not kill you. Remember when Mercer Frey stabbed you? A wound like that would have killed an ordinary human, even with Karliah’s skill with poisons and potions. But speaking of my bow, your father was last in possession of it, a gift to my lover and a weapon fitting for one of your particular talents. Seek him out and take it from him, that is assuming he didn’t sell it years ago in some dark alleyway for a pint of mead.”
“My father?” She swallowed hard again. “I haven’t seen him in over twenty years.”
“Then it’s time for a little reunion, don’t you think?” She wanted to protest, but one quick look from her mother was enough to silence the desire.
“I wouldn’t even know where to start. Severus ran him out of Cyrodiil years ago.”
“He was a sailor. Perhaps it’s time to start combing the ports of this frigid wasteland he called home.”
The very notion of seeing that man again made her stomach churn with nausea and anxiety, but not half as much as the idea of turning the world over to the Daedra so they could rule it.
“I may not like the choices you make, but I can overlook your noble human need to be a hero, Ginna. I’d blame your father’s weak blood, but it was Severus who instilled morality and integrity in you. He brags incessantly of you, you know. His prodigy of the shadows, his noble little thief.”
“Severus,” she lifted a hopeful gaze to find Nocturnal’s eyes. “Is he…”
“He serves me in the Evergloam now, but perhaps he could be of some use to you in your endeavors,” she sighed. “All right,” she decided, as if Ginna had propositioned her. “I will grant you the power to summon him from the Evergloam.” Leaning forward, Nocturnal lifted her finger to Ginna’s chest. She moved aside the leather of her armor and traced a quick symbol into the skin over her heart. A moment’s pain burned in the place her fingertip touched, and then it subsided as she stepped back again.
“I can summon him?”
“Once each day to stand beside you in times of need, or to offer you guidance and council. Use these gifts wisely, child, and triumph over our enemy. He is coming for you, and he will not stop until everyone you love is dead.”
Just like that, Nocturnal was gone and Ginna was left alone in the chamber feeling more disoriented and confused about everything than she had been before they summoned their Lady of Shadows for guidance and answers. She paused before she reached the gateway that led back into the hall, realizing Nocturnal hadn’t even told her how to summon Severus to her.
Rolling her eyes, she would figure it out. She’d do anything to see her father again, and not the one Nocturnal was sending her to find either.
Sighing, she reached for the chain that released the gate and stepped back into the hall to find Brynjolf and Karliah to tell them what she’d learned.