“This!” He growled, throwing the hood of his robes back to reveal the long, mussed fire of his bright red hair. “This is why I wanted you to stay in Solitude.”
Brynjolf jerked a hard look over his shoulder at Ginna, avoiding eye contact with her and focusing on Vipir, as if the slight distance of his gaze would be enough to put a damper on the obvious flare of his temper. In the last three months he’d turned from easily jealous and riled to downright obsessive when it came to her. She knew he meant well; he was just concerned for their unborn baby, but she could still handle herself when she had to.
Right then she had to.
“This place is dangerous. These people are insane. If you are in any way exposed to whatever it is they’re carrying…”
He swallowed whatever words he’d been planning to say after that and turned back toward the Dwemer ruins rising from beyond the copse of trees they’d taken refuge in. She could tell just from the pained expression he wore he was desperately trying to hold back the rage swelling inside him. His cheeks reddened with aggravation, hidden only by the loose lock of bright red hair that had slipped from the ponytail he’d tied at the nape of his neck.
“Yes,” she sighed, crossing her arms over her chest and cocking her head to the left. “We’ve already established the numerous atrocities I could possibly suffer if the servants of Peyrite vomit their nasty green ooze all over me.”
Arching her eyes skyward, her stare lingered for a moment on a host of cumulous clouds rolling in from the west. From that angle they looked like flowering trees on the twilight horizon, which reminded her of the gardens in Cyrodiil and brought a heavy longing for home down upon her soul. That should have brought her a sense of peace, but it only made her long for less troublesome times. Even her memories of Cyrodiil were tainted now, the mere thought of her childhood reminding her that Brutus Arenicci had been a thorn in her side from the moment Severus had taken her into his guild. They’d been only children, her eight and Brutus ten, but even then he’d made her life a living hell.
“You need to take this more seriously, Gin.” Brynjolf finally squared his shoulders and turned around to face her.
She dropped her arms at her sides and lowered her head to look at him. He was exhausted. Carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders just trying to keep her alive. They hadn’t seen Brutus Arenicci since he’d put his blade in Karliah three months earlier, which was not to say they weren’t still looking, still cautious and vengeful of heart.
He was still out there. Somewhere. It was only a matter of time before their paths crossed again, and this time they needed to be ready.
“You think I’m not taking this seriously, Brynjolf? We are way ahead of the game here.”
“Ahead of the game?”
Rune cleared his throat on Ginna’s right and shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
“We have seven of the eighteen Daedric artifacts, lass. How does that put us ahead of the game?”
“Because Brutus only has seven, and after we get Spellbreaker, we will be one ahead of him.”
“Seven that we know of, Gin. Just because he’s fallen off the map this last two months doesn’t mean he’s not still out there looking, just like we are. And besides, I don’t even know how these artifacts are going to help us in the end anyway.”
“They’ll protect us.”
“The Wabbajack?” he scoffed. “The madness of Sheogorath is going to protect us?”
“A chicken is so much easier to kill than a man and you know it.”
“See, this is what I’m talking about.” He huffed and reached up to grab the folded fabric of his priest’s hood. “You are not taking this seriously at all.” He yanked the hood back up over his head and turned away from her. “There are lives at stake, Ginna, more than just your own. We’ve lost a very important one already. We can’t afford to lose anyone else on account of your recklessness.”
Those words were like a slap in the face.
He knew how much it pained her to even think of Karliah. After everything their elven mentor and friend had been through, the freedom she’d finally attained had been yanked away from her before she could even enjoy it. At night whenever Ginna’s emotions got the best of her while she tried to sleep, she listened to Brynjolf’s sleeping breath and tried to tell herself that at least Karliah was finally with Gallus.
“You know what,” she started, every fiber in her body trembling with unspoken heartache and rage, “you’re right. My recklessness is going to get you all killed, so I’ll take care of these afflicted and you can just go home. Go on,” she shoved past Brynjolf, the bone of her shoulder crashing into his bicep. “All four of you, back to Riften. This is my fight anyway. And besides, I don’t think I could stand anymore guilt or suffering the loss of anyone else I care about, so just go home.”
“Ginna, he didn’t mean…”
Rune barely finished his sentence before Brynolof grabbed her wrist while she was still within reach and jerked her back around to face him. She yanked her hand from his grip with a temperamental growl that was strong enough to provoke him two steps backward.
“Stop. Whatever martyr’s game you’re playing, lass, just stop.” His brilliant green eyes narrowed, the bridge of his nose wrinkling softly in emphasis of his frustration with her. “It wasn’t your fault, what happened to Karliah. We’ve all got to stop blaming ourselves. It’s getting us nowhere.”
“The only thing getting us nowhere right now is the fact that we’re all just standing here when there is a perfectly good temple in need of sacking,” she hissed, straightening her arms in the billowing sleeves of her acolyte’s robe. The hilt of the dagger hidden within her bracer felt cold against her skin, and for a moment she tried to ignore the shudder that moved through her. Whenever they brought up Karliah she felt cold, as if the very spirit of the woman herself had walked right through her body. “Our child is protected by Nocturnal’s embrace, and you know it. Now just stop looking for ways to hold me back from these tasks, and let’s go already.”
For a moment he winced, his head tilting a little sideways as if she’d slapped him, rather than gave him a swift tongue lashing. His eyes narrowed into two long slits, the bridge of his nose wrinkling and the bow-shape of his lips thinning as he pursed them tighter together. “You are going to be the death of me, Ginna,” he muttered.
He couldn’t possibly know how painful it was to hear him say those words, how likely that possibility really was in the grand scheme of things. She softened completely, every muscle in her body loosening with sorrow as she reached for his hand and curled her fingers around his. “Don’t say that, Bryn, please. Don’t ever say that.”
Brynjolf softened then too, his free hand slipping in along the curve of her tight waist to draw her closer to his body. She laid her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, fighting back the warm tears that rimmed her lashes. “I’m so sorry, love,” he whispered into her hair before resting a kiss against her temple.
“Oh for crying out loud,” Sapphire moaned. “The two of you have spent more time kissing and making up on this mission than we’ve spent doing anything else. Can we just get into that temple already and get this shield, or am I going to go in there by myself?”
“The lass has a point.” Her husband chuckled softly, his fingertip tucking a loose lock of Ginna’s hair behind her ear before he took a step back and surveyed their three companions. “Ginna, we’re gonna need all the help we can get in there. Maybe you should call upon Severus.”
She nodded once as she withdrew from his touch and turned toward the temple to avoid the pressure of their staring eyes. It took a moment for her to center herself completely, for the layers of weariness and stress to melt away so she could commune with her guildfather’s spectral essence and bring him forth in the world to fight beside them. Looking long into the distance, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes, visualizing the man who had brought her up.
She always saw him standing in the garden of House Dareloth, the wisps his long, black hair and shadowy cloak fluttering in the breeze as cherry blossom petals drifted on the wind to litter the thick carpet of grass like spring snow. And then she could smell those blossoms, their rich fragrance stoking the fires of nostalgia until she her longing for it overpowered the moment and nearly brought her to her knees. The little girl in that memory reached out to take his hand, his warm fingers curling around hers and squeezing them.
“You have summoned me, my daughter of shadows.” The mere sound of his voice was almost enough to bring her to tears, and when she opened her eyes to find his wispy, surreal essence standing pale and bluish-grey in front of her, a single warm droplet trickled down her cheek.
“Father,” she swallowed the stiff ache in her throat and held her shoulders back with pride. “We infiltrate Bthardamz in search of Peyrite’s shield. The Eighth artifcact in our collection.”
She nodded, tilting her head to study the spectral reminder of the man who had given her life meaning and purpose, who made her the very woman she was through loving guidance and strict attention. “Will you scout ahead and report back the numbers while we prepare?”
“As you wish, daughter.” He turned without moving, the essence of his ethereal body fluidly gliding into the shadows and making his way to the temple.
The five of them were silent, the tension of the task ahead of them building to near breaking point, but it was not a long wait. Severus returned after only a few minutes and reported that there were four of Peyrite’s servants lingering outside the doors, and then noting, “The halls of that Dwemer ruin are tangled and dark. We must take caution,” he advised, “moving as a single shadow together and fighting as one.”
“Would it not be better to separate?” she asked. “Take out the afflicted on by one using stealth and shadow that can only be drawn upon when not hindered by the company of others.”
Severus may have been little more than a shade, but the hard narrowing of his once dark eyes did not lost their effect. “Have you learned nothing these last months, Ginna? Nothing of the value of your brethren?”
“I won’t lie,” Brynjolf grinned. “I grow more and more fond of you with each summoning, Severus.”
Ginna’s narrowed her eyes in unspoken derision and turned them toward her lover with scorn. The corner of his mouth twitched higher, the scar that adorned his left cheek disappearing into the shadows of stubble that darkened his cheeks and jaw.
“These tasks were designed by the Daedra, the most self-serving beings in all of creation, to train single champions to serve their selfish whims,” Severus went on, “to deprive those who would seek the artifacts of not just companionship, but the presence of mind to act outside the frame of one’s own personal gain. We are thieves, yes,” he paused to let her think on that, “one of the most self-serving trades known to man in the eyes of those who do not know our values. The bond of family that holds us all together as a guild, the code of honor that make us stronger than any other faction. We are brothers and sisters, Ginna. We achieve higher gain as a group, and when the time comes to face Peyrite’s champion, he will fall easily against six, but one will be little challenge to him. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Father,” she nodded, glancing back over her shoulder at her family behind her. “We move together,” she said, “as one.”
Sapphire’s crossed arms dropped to her sides, and the corner of Vipir’s mouth twitched with intrigue at the prospect of moving forward. Rune offered a tentative smile, a wink to let her know that he was with her until the end, but Brynjolf’s face had become a determined, but unreadable wall. He did not meet with her eyes, but lowered a hand to curl around the hilt of the ebony shortsword that hung at his belt. His focus would not waver, his eyes would not shine for her until every lost drop of blood had been spilled and she stood safely before him.
“Let’s do this thing,” he said stiffly, taking the first step toward the Dwemer ruin he hoped would not become their tomb.
The five thieves followed, raising their hoods and becoming one with the shadows leading to Bthardamz.
The Afflicted, they soon learned, were fierce, dedicated followers, the green, contaminated ooze they spewed forth bubbling and steaming at their feet like acid, but they stayed together, disposing of their enemies as they wound silently through the confusing hallways and tunnels leading through the three levels of the ancient city.
They were a deadly force, the six of them working stealthily together, watching each other’s backs, protecting one another’s fronts. The only thing missing, she thought, when after hours of searching and battle they met with a blazing blast of fire magic, was Marcurio. Thoughts of the mage she’d once called friend and protector distracted her as she drew back her bow, the arrow she launched missing the mark when Orchendor sent a volley of ice spikes raining down on them before disappearing and reappearing on the upper level of the arcaneum. That spike struck Severus and sent him back to the spirit world with an echoing promise of vengeful return, but the constraints of her mother’s summoning spell would not allow her to bring him forth again until the morrow.
Marcurio would have made quick work of Peyrite’s champion mage, who relied on his swift ability to disappear from sight so often it was nigh on impossible to keep track of him. Sadly, she had not heard from her friend in months, and though she didn’t want to believe it, Brynjolf kept telling her the insufferable Imperial was more than likely dead, and despite her promise to make sure his remains were laid to rest, they simply did not have time to pursue the most annoying man in the world just to set her mind at ease.
She tucked another arrow into the sinewy string of the Nightingale bow Karliah had given her after they’d finished off Mercer Frey in the crumbling temple below Irkngthand and closed her eyes as she drew back.
“Shadows guide my arrow,” she whispered, a shudder moving through her as she recalled the number of times she’d heard Karliah say those words during their brief time together. Ginna opened her eyes and let the arrow fly, the feather whirling seamlessly through the air and sinking beautifully into the old mage’s skull with a deafening thunk. The fire magic he wielded between ice spikes sputtered and died as his body slunked forward to the floor in a puddle of stained black robes.
The ruins were silent then, save for the collected exhale of her companions’ breath. The fading scent of fire was the only thing that lingered of the mage, the hovering presence of magical ozone stiff, but dissipating.
“Well,” Sapphire began, sheathing her blades and taking a step toward the body, “that went well.”
“Where do we find the artifact?” Vipir followed her, his hand rising to rest on her shoulder and jerking her gently backward before she could get too close to the dead mage. “Careful,” he warned, “we don’t wish to leave this place infected with their disease.”
“I don’t think he was infected,” Ginna noted, brushing past the both of them and kneeling over the body. “The infection was his means of control over Peyrite’s followers,” she surmised, patting her hands over his filthy robes and finding an assortment of fascinating odds and ends making their way into her palm. “Here, Sapphire, catch.” Ginna tossed a heavy blue stone toward the girl, who swiftly caught it in her hand, fingers unclenching to draw her inspection.
“Very nice,” she cooed, slipping the sapphire into one of her many pockets.
“Anything else worth noting?” Brynjolf knelt down across from her, reaching out to take a key from her hand. “What do you think this unlocks?”
“Our exit from this place, I hope. Here, Rune,” she handed two pieces of jewelry to her friend, both of them enchanted. “Hang onto these. Maybe they’re worth something.”
“You got it, Ginna.”
“The artifact?” Vipir repeated. “Where do we find it?”
“Not here,” Brynjolf shook his head. “The champion does not have it.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
“We return to the shrine,” Brynjolf decided. “Summon Peyrite again and tell him we have done his will.”
“Back to the shrine it is then.” Ginna pushed off her haunches, ignoring the low, throbbing ache in her spine. “Perhaps the Kesh will allow us to rest there for the night.”
“I would rather sleep in a Forsworn encampment,” Sapphire muttered under her breath.
“Be careful what you wish for, little one,” Vipir quirked an eyebrow at her, and followed as Ginna started up the stairs that would lead them back out into the open air. “We have been fortunate enough to escape Forsworn notice in these parts. I’d like to keep it that way.”