A Nightingale’s Tale Fifteen – The Pilgrim’s Path

Chapter 15 - Skeleton Key 1

Delvin Mallory laughed with delight when the Nightingales stood before him and Brynjolf placed the Eyes of the Falmer on the table. “Ha-ha, those are beautiful! Bigger than I thought.”

“We thought we’d sell one and keep the other as a trophy,” Selene explained.

“Will do. I’ll put one on the shelf and talk to Tonilia about fencing the other.” He glanced from one to the other expectantly. “So it’s done?”

“It’s done,” Brynjolf assured him.

“Maven’s been asking questions.”

“What sort of questions?”

“Mostly of the ‘where’s Mercer’ sort. And ‘where’s Brynjolf?’”

“We’ll need to think of something to tell her before we leave again,” said Selene.

“Again? Where you off to now?”

“We can’t say, Delvin,” Karliah answered.

“Well, why not?”

Brynjolf leaned on the table and looked his friend in the eye. “Del, you know I wouldn’t keep anything from you unless it was absolutely necessary. All I can tell you is that all three of us have to go as soon as possible and we’ll probably be gone a couple of weeks.”

“Anything to do with that fancy new armor you’re sportin’?”

“Perhaps.”

“All right, then. Vex and I can hold the fort a little while longer.”

* * *

The trinity rested in the cistern for the night, and the next morning Selene and Karliah retreated to Nightingale Hall while Brynjolf dealt with Maven and replenished their travel supplies. He met them in the hall just after noon, loaded with arrows, potions, food, first aid supplies, and changes of clothing.

“Maven is very unhappy,” he told them as they packed their gear. “After Snow Veil Sanctum, Mercer barely had any contact with her. He told her Selene was dead, then he spoke to her once or twice with little more than a ‘hello,’ and he didn’t even tell her when he left town.”

“He was playing it close to the vest,” Selene observed.

“Aye, but it made me wonder just how involved she really was in the whole business.”

“He murdered his best friend; we can’t put betraying Maven past him. Still, we’ll find out for sure before we do anything rash. What did you tell her when she asked where he was?”

“I told her we didn’t know where he was either but that I had a lead on his location. She thinks I’m off looking for him. She also still thinks you’re dead, love.”

“What about me?” Karliah asked.

“Your name didn’t come up, so I don’t know what she knows. For the time being, I think it best that we leave you out of it entirely.”

“I concur.”

Selene closed the straps on her pack. “Now that we have that taken care of, let’s get going. This key makes me nervous.”

* * *

The Twilight Sepulcher was on the very western edge of Falkreath Hold, nestled in the mountain far off the main road and across a little stream. Brightly flaming braziers stood on either side of an iron door.

“Looks like somebody’s here,” Brynjolf remarked.

Karliah shook her head. “The flames never go out.”

Selene reached for the door, and it swung inward easily. As they stepped inside, she had the strangest sense of welcoming and warmth, as if she were coming home from a long journey. Then again, perhaps she was. A long, winding tunnel opened onto a huge, empty hall with a wide staircase going up the center. A ghost stood at the bottom of the stairs. When he saw them, he approached. Karliah’s scent went wild with emotion.

“Welcome, Nightingales,” he said in a clear voice.

“G-Gallus?” Karliah whispered.

“I haven’t heard that name in many—Karliah? I’m so glad to see you! I feared you had befallen the same fate as I and ended up a victim of Mercer’s betrayal.”

“No, my love, but I spent many years in exile.”

“As have I. I’ve defended the Sepulcher alone for what seems like an eternity. But you still live. You all live. Why have you come here?”

“We have the key, Gallus.”

“The Skeleton Key! I never thought I’d see it again. And what of Mercer Frey?”

“Dead,” Brynjolf said.

“Then it’s over and my death wasn’t in vain. I owe you a great deal, Nightingales, as does the Guild.”

“Mercer’s not here?” Karliah asked.

“No one, living or dead, has entered the Sepulcher in quite some time. I assumed there were no Nightingales after us.”

“Not until now. This is Selene and Brynjolf.”

Selene pulled the Skeleton Key from her pocket and held it out to the specter. “Take it, Gallus, and right all the wrongs.”

“Nothing would give me more pride, but I’m afraid it’s impossible. When the key was taken from the Ebonmere, the source of the Nightingale sentinels’ power was cut off. The others have wasted away until they’re shadows of their former selves. They no longer remember their purpose or their original identities. My spirit didn’t manifest itself here immediately after I died, so I wasn’t present when the Ebonmere was sealed. Still, ever since that day, I’ve felt myself…well…dying. The years without restoration of my power have taken their toll, and the damage can only be corrected by following the Pilgrim’s Path and replacing the key, a quest which I may not undertake.”

“It’s not only the damage here that needs to be corrected,” Karliah commented. “The Guild has suffered as well.”

“I’m not surprised. With the Ebonmere closed, I would imagine the Guild’s luck has run dry.”

Selene rolled her eyes. “You people are determined to make me start believing in luck, aren’t you?”

“No one is questioning your skill, lass,” Brynjolf assured her, “but luck does play a large part in a thief’s life.”

“Yes,” said Gallus, “and Nocturnal influences our luck. Think about your life as a thief and things that have happened to you—finding an extra lockpick just when you needed it; a guard who stubbed his toe and was moments late on his rounds, giving you the time you needed to get away. Our access to these bits of luck is what separates us from common bandits. There are a few who still call Nocturnal ‘Lady Luck’ and with good reason. Now think about the state the Guild is in and all the little things you might have heard—a pick breaking when it shouldn’t have, the clouds in the nighttime sky clearing at the wrong moment.”

“We should go,” Selene told the others stubbornly.

“Any idea what we’ll be facing?” Brynjolf asked Gallus.

“I’m afraid not. I’ve been a prisoner in this very chamber since I arrived. However, you might check the remains of the poor fellow next to the east wall. Perhaps his journal can help.”

Selene and Brynjolf went over to the east wall, where they found a skeleton and his journal. The journal said he and someone named Anders had posed as priests of Nocturnal in order to infiltrate the Sepulcher and get at the wealth located in the inner sanctum. He was given a mentor, who told him about five “tests” they would encounter the Pilgrim’s Path.

“We have the journal,” Selene told Karliah when they rejoined her and Gallus.

“Thank you, my love,” said Karliah.

“Good luck, Nightingales.”

Selene and Brynjolf ascended the stairs, and Karliah reluctantly left her lover behind and trailed after them. They followed a wide, stone corridor that wound down to an iron door.

“What’s the first test?” Brynjolf asked Selene before he opened the door.

“‘Shadows of their former selves, sentinels of the dark. They wander ever more and deal swift death to defilers.’ That’s obviously the Nightingale sentinels. We’ll to have to fight.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Karliah warned.

“I went to Ysgramor’s tomb once—well, more than once, but that’s not the point. My shield brother said the spirits of the original five hundred Companions would challenge us and we were supposed to fight them. They were challenging us to see if we were worthy. I would imagine that’s how the Nightingale sentinels are, too.”

“Or how they once were,” said Brynjolf. “If they don’t remember their purpose, we can’t predict how they’ll act.”

The door opened onto the balcony of a small room with two levels and many arched doorways, most of which were closed off. Two were open and led to a reading nook containing a few books and potions. A single sentinel ghost awaited them at the bottom of the stairs, and Selene took her out with one arrow. They continued out the other side past a weird, throne-like structure and through long, heavily trapped tunnels.

In a staircase so dark they could barely see in front of their faces, they had to fight two more sentinels. Selene defeated one, but not before she took a hit to her shoulder, an arrow penetrating and pushing through to the back. Uncharacteristically, she screamed.

As Karliah dispatched the other sentinel, Brynjolf went to Selene’s side. “Let’s take a look, love. There’s some light at the top of the stairs. Can you make it up?”

“Aye.” She followed him upstairs and sat on the floor beneath a torch, trying to control the panic that threatened to swell up within her. This wasn’t so bad; she’d had much worse. But the thought of the arrow going all the way through her body scared the daylights out of her. Hot tears welled in her eyes.

Brynjolf examined the wound and the arrow, Karliah looking over his shoulder. “That’s gonna leave a mark,” he mused. He pressed the flesh around the arrow gingerly. “See, this is what we’re on about. It looks like the arrow completely missed any bone. It’s all soft tissue. That’s hard to do in this part of the body. You know what that is? It’s luck.”

“It’s my burn shoulder.”

“Eh?”

“You’ve seen the scars.” She turned to Karliah. “I was burned several times on the same shoulder. And I think I was shot once before, too. I’ve lost track. This’ll be just one more scar to add to it. I’m imperfect.”

“No, you’re not, love. You’re absolute perfection in my eyes.”

Karliah handed Selene a healing potion. “Drink this.”

“You wouldn’t take one from me. You said it would dull your senses.” She took the potion and drank it anyway. Her head was beginning to swim.

“I’m gonna break the tip off in the back and pull the arrow out through the front,” Bryn explained. “You up for it?”

“No!” Her heart hammered, and she broke out in a cold sweat, her breath coming in shallow gasps. She didn’t know what was happening to her.

“Her lips are turning blue,” Karliah noticed.

“Get her another healing potion, and then be ready with something we can press onto the wounds. Selene, look at me, lass.” He placed a hand on each side of her face and looked her in the eye, but she still found it hard to focus on him. “You’re in shock. You’re gonna be okay, but not until I get that arrow out of your shoulder. Can you try to stay focused for just a moment?”

“Uh-huh.”

He lowered her to her floor, and she lay on her side with her head on Karliah’s bedroll and tried to slip into a meditative state. She kept telling herself, You’ve had worse. You’ve had worse. Brynjolf moved around behind her, and Karliah took her hand.

“Are you with me, love?” he asked.

“Just do it.”

A sharp pain rocketed through Selene’s shoulder and down her arm as Brynjolf snapped the tip off the arrow, and she squealed. Then she giggled. “I hope there aren’t any draugr to wake up,” she said woozily.

Karliah knelt next to her head with a wadded up bandage in one hand and one of Brynjolf’s shirts in the other, ready to press them against the holes in her shoulder when he pulled the arrow out. Bryn came around and knelt in front of her, brushing a lock of hair from her cheek.

“I’m sorry to be such a baby. This is not me. I’m usually much braver than—ow.”

He took hold of the arrow. “Just hold on, my love. It’ll all be over in a few seconds.” Before she even realized what he was doing, he yanked hard on the arrow and it slid through her shoulder. There was very little resistance, and he fell over backward.

“Huh. Didn’t even hurt.”

Karliah mashed the cloths onto each of the wounds and held the pressure for several minutes to staunch the bleeding. After it subsided, Brynjolf helped Selene remove her cuirass so they could treat the wounds. Karliah poured part of a healing potion into the hole and then stitched her up, and Bryn fed her a couple more potions. He kissed her forehead, and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she was snuggled up in her bedroll and he and Karliah were sitting across the hall.

Selene sat up quickly. “How long was I asleep?”

“About six hours,” Brynjolf replied.

“Great Talos! We don’t have time for that.”

“You were in shock, love. You weren’t going anywhere, and as you once said to me, I’d die before I left you here. I take it you feel better?”

She rubbed her shoulder. “I’m sore, but I’m ready to get moving.”

As Brynjolf packed up her bedroll, Selene read the journal entry regarding the next test, which they assumed was behind the iron door that waited just down the hall. “‘Above all they stand, beholden to the murk, yet contentious of the glow.’”

“‘They,’” Karliah repeated. “We may have to fight again.”

Selene tried drawing her bow but flinched. “Looks like I’m on sword duty,” she grumbled, shouldering the bow.

“If it’s a ranged attack, hang back and let me handle it.”

“Will do.”

Brynjolf opened the door, and they stepped into the scariest place Selene had ever seen. Several high platforms stood in a room so gloomy, they couldn’t judge how big it was. They could only see so far, because the floor seemed to drop off into a gray haze that may have been smoke, may have been fog, may have just been…nothing. The room was deathly silent. Nothing attacked as they crept into the room, so they kept moving. Farther in, they got a better look at their surroundings, and it appeared that a dark path that meandered over the platforms and between pools of light. In one of those pools was a well-preserved corpse. Brynjolf moved toward the body, but as soon as he stepped into the light, he gasped and dropped to the floor, wailing in agony.

“Brynjolf!” Selene cried, and she reached out to him. Where the light touched her arm, it felt like the flesh was melting from her bones and her blood was boiling. She shrieked and pulled her hand back, but slinking back in the shadow wasn’t going to save Brynjolf, so she braved the light again, grabbing his arm and pulling him out of the light. By the time he was safely in shadow, he was unconscious. Selene got a healing potion from her pack and forced some of it down his throat. After a moment, he began choking and coughing.

“Gods,” he panted as he lay with his head in her lap. “What in Oblivion was that? I’ve never felt pain like that.”

“‘Contentious of the glow,’” Karliah recalled.

Selene handed Brynjolf another healing potion. “Seems like we’re going through these potions pretty fast.”

“Aye, and this is only the second test.” He drank the potion. “I’m guessing we stay out of the light, no?”

As the light caused damage, the darkness seemed to heal, and Brynjolf recovered quickly. The light wasn’t the only danger the second trial had to offer, however. The path led up the stairs to a nearby platform, and a well-concealed tripwire was strung across the path. Karliah tripped it, and the Nightingales dove to the floor as poisoned darts flew overhead. They wound their way around the path, but it was slow going because they couldn’t see the floor beneath their feet in most places. They managed to find and step over four or five more tripwires. After what seemed like hours, a wide staircase finally led to the next iron door; but the path up the stairs narrowed so much, they could barely squeeze through without stepping into the light. At the top of the stairs, they all leaned against the door with great sighs of relief.

“Next one,” Selene said as she opened the journal. “‘Offer what she desires most, but reject the material. For her greatest want is that which cannot be seen, felt, or carried.’”

No one had any ideas about what the clue meant, so after a brief rest, they opened the door and stepped inside to see what awaited them. They navigated a dark corridor that housed several burial chambers holding skeletons but no draugr. A chest rested in one of the chambers, but by unspoken agreement they passed the chest by. There would be no looting in the Twilight Sepulcher. After a while, they came to a statue of Nocturnal, which stood in front of a closed stone doorway. Glowing braziers hung on the wall on either side of the statue, and a skeleton lay at the foot. An offering plate bore some coins and gems.

“I think I know this one,” Karliah perked up. “She may be the patron of thieves, but Nocturnal herself doesn’t desire gold or material things. Her greatest want is shadow.”

“Then we douse the fires,” said Brynjolf.

Behind each brazier they found a pull chain which, when pulled, extinguished the braziers. When the room was dark, the door behind the statue opened.

“‘Direct and yet indirect,’” Selene read as the trinity moved into a brightly lit, root-lined tunnel. “‘The path to salvation a route of cunning with fortune betraying the foolish.’”

They came to a fork in the tunnel. To the left was an iron door; to the right, a short hallway bearing two pressure plates and two deadly pendulum blades. Another door waited at the end of the hallway, taunting them.

“Let’s try the door on the left first,” Brynjolf suggested. “Maybe there’s something in there that can turn off those blades.”

The door had a difficult lock, but using the Skeleton Key, Selene was through it in seconds. It opened onto a hallway that ran parallel to the one with the pendulum trap. On the left was a two-level room with many books and artifacts, including a large coin purse resting on a pedestal. A sentinel ghost stood on the balcony opposite them with his bow at the ready. The Nightingales passed the room and the sentinel silently. The corridor veered to the right, and they came to an open area with two doors. By its position, they could assume the one on the right led to the trapped corridor. They went to the door on the left.

“Last door?” Brynjolf asked hopefully.

Selene looked in the journal. “‘The journey is complete. The Empress awaits the fallen. Hesitate not if you wish to gift her your eternal devotion.’ It also says something about ‘night is the new day’ and ‘ghost of the sun.’”

They opened the door to find a long, arched corridor similar to a hall of stories, but instead of a puzzle door, the portal at the end was made of wood, and it was unlocked. On the other side, a short flight of stairs led to a small doorway and a sheer drop. Selene looked through the opening to realize it was a well, and they were about halfway down. High above, the moonlight shone into the shaft, bathing it in a soft, white light.

“‘Ghost of the sun,’” she whispered.

“What was that?” Brynjolf asked.

“Some mages say the moons have no light of their own; they just reflect the light of the sun.” She looked down the shaft, muttering to herself. “‘The Empress awaits the fallen.’” Without looking back at her companions, Selene jumped into the shaft. She rolled when she reached the floor to soften the landing, but it didn’t do much to help her sore shoulder. “Shit!” she snarled.

“By the Eight, lass, what in the Void are you doing!”

“‘The Empress awaits the fallen. We’re supposed to jump into the shaft. Hesitate not, my fiery lover!”

“I think you’re still delirious from shock. Is that a skeleton lying next to you?”

“Trust me, damn it!”

With that, Brynjolf jumped into the well, hit the floor and rolled to a stop. Karliah followed shortly thereafter. Brynjolf inspected the skeleton and found a note lying next to it, which he picked up and read. “This must be Anders. He’s talking about conning the priests of Nocturnal and getting stuck down here.” He looked up at Selene expectantly. “What now?”

She smiled at him, reached into her pocket, and pulled out the Skeleton Key. As soon as it was in her hand, the floor disintegrated below them. It was a short drop, however, and a soft landing.

“The Ebonmere,” Karliah said.

“What, that?” The only thing in the room was a ring on the floor, about six feet in diameter, with a keyhole in the center. “I thought it’d be more elaborate.”

“Replace the key. You’ll see.”

Selene stepped into the circle and inserted the Skeleton Key into the lock. The floor rocked back and forth, knocking her off balance. She stumbled out of the circle as it dropped away, then rose up to become a pool with three talon-like formations around the rim. To go with the talons, three doorways opened up around the room, all with the same blue light that had manifested in Nightingale Hall when Nocturnal had appeared before them. The pool also had the blue light, but it was obscured by dozens of black birds who came flying up from below and ascended to the sky. Behind them rose Nocturnal herself.

She wore the same revealing robes most of the statues depicted, her delicate curves peeking out from beneath the fabric. Her face was attractive yet nondescript, and her eyes were ice cold. A nightingale perched on each out-held arm. The daedric prince looked down at the Nightingale Trinity.

“My, my, what have we here? My ‘champions’ return the Skeleton Key to the Twilight Sepulcher and stand before me awaiting a pat on your head, a kiss on your cheek, a reward for a job well done. What you fail to realize is you have done nothing more than was expected of you. Don’t mistake my tone for displeasure. After all, you obediently performed your duties to the letter. But we all know this has little to do with honor, oaths and loyalty, even for the Companion. It was about revenge, and it was about the reward. Well, fear not, because you will have your trinkets. I bid you drink deeply from the Ebonmere, for this is where the Agent of Nocturnal is born. Farewell, Nightingales. See to it that the key stays this time, won’t you?”

The birds came back down the well shaft and funneled into the Ebonmere, and Nocturnal sank along with them.

“That went very well,” Karliah said brightly. “She seemed quite pleased.”

“That was pleased?” Brynjolf responded incredulously.

Karliah shrugged. “It’s her way. Think of her as a scolding mother, outwardly sounding harsh but secretly content. Had she been displeased, this meeting would have gone very differently.”

“That’s it, then, after all those years of helplessly watching the Guild decline. It’s hard to believe it’s finally over.”

“Well, it’s not entirely over,” Selene reminded him. “We still have to find out how involved Maven was in all this. And I would love to discover where Mercer put all of the loot he took out of the vault.”

Bryn nodded his agreement. “Karliah, what’s this about an Agent of Nocturnal?”

“Technically, you’re already Agents of Nocturnal. All that’s left for you to do is choose your path. You’ll notice three circles at the base of the Ebonmere depicting the phases of the moon. When you stand on a circle, it will imbue you with powers befitting a Nightingale Agent. The crescent moon represents the Agent of Stealth, a master of remaining unseen. This agent can manipulate darkness, use it in their favor, and literally become invisible. The half-moon is for the Agent of Subterfuge, who uses shadow to cloud the judgment of those around him. This power allows the agent to manipulate others into doing their will—fight for them, steal for them, give over valuable items or information—not by force, but by persuasion. Very useful for an interrogator or a con artist. The full moon represents the Agent of Strife, who can send forth a tendril of pure darkness into the heart of another, causing them great injury to the victim and strengthening the agent’s own life force. The power is much like that a vampire would use—without the exchange of blood, of course.”

“Why can’t we be all three?” Selene asked.

“It’s Nocturnal’s way of maintaining balance. You can change your abilities if you wish, simply by returning to the Sepulcher and standing on a different circle.” Karliah smiled at them. “Only having known each of you for a few weeks, it might be presumptuous of me, but I believe I know what powers each of you will choose.”

Selene stepped on the crescent moon circle, and a slight tingle radiated through her body—nothing dramatic, just enough to let her know it was there. Brynjolf stepped on the half-moon circle, and Karliah chuckled.

“You were right then?” Brynjolf asked. Karliah nodded. “What about you?”

“I stepped on the crescent moon many years ago, and I have no desire to change.”

“Karliah,” a voice said from behind them. The Nightingales turned to see Gallus’s ghost standing there. “You have honored us all, Nightingales.”

“What will you do now, my love?”

“Nocturnal calls me to the Evergloam. My contract has been fulfilled.”

A tear fell down Karliah’s cheek and she reached for Gallus’s ghostly hand, but there was nothing solid to hold. “If I could only…”

“When your debt to Nocturnal is paid, we will embrace again.”

“Farewell, Gallus. Eyes open, walk with the shadows.”

“Goodbye, Karliah. Goodbye, Nightingales.”

Gallus stepped up to the Ebonmere and disappeared.

“Where’d he go?” Brynjolf asked.

“This is what happens to Nightingales when they have fulfilled their contract with Nocturnal. Gallus’s oath has been paid, and now his spirit becomes one with the Evergloam.”

“So he’s gone?”

“No, no, not gone. He’s become one with the shadows. This is the greatest honor a Nightingale can have, Brynjolf. When we say “walk with the shadows,” it’s not a metaphor. We’re asking those Nightingales who have passed on to protect us. It is believed that they literally guide our uncanny luck by placing their hands in ours.”

“That’s why the Ebonmere needed to be reopened,” Selene guessed.

“Yes. Without it, there’s no way Nocturnal would be able to allow them through.”

“So. What now?”

Karliah gave Selene a mischievous grin. “Crime. We’re thieves, after all. If we’re needed here, the shadows will summon us. The portal between Nightingale Hall and the Sepulcher has been restored. Use it whenever you wish.”

“Can we get back that way?” Brynjolf asked.

“I don’t see why not. As for me, I’m planning to make my home at Nightingale Hall. I know you have Honeyside, but remember that Nightingale Hall is your home, too, and I hope to see you both there often.” She led them to one of the doors bearing the blue mist. “Shall we go there now?”

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3 thoughts on “A Nightingale’s Tale Fifteen – The Pilgrim’s Path

  1. It’s unfortunate that the story isn’t structured so that ever chapter can’t open with Devlin laughing with delight. It was a nice image to come back to (coming back to your story, that is).

    Also, the whole Gallus thing makes me so sad. I know that it’s probably one of the more positive spins on death/afterlife (at least where a Daedra is concerned) and the promise of reuniting is there, but still.

    Like

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