Selene, Brynjolf, and Karliah sat around the dining table in Nightingale Hall as Brynjolf told them his idea. “What are the two things that are most important to Maven? Wealth and power. What if we take those away from her? Selene has the ear of half the jarls in the province. We could use that influence, along with some carefully planted evidence, to drag Maven’s name through the mud. At the same time, we make it so that she can’t produce her mead. We’ve already taken Goldenglow out of the equation, and she’s begun importing honey. If we sabotage her supply lines, possibly start a couple of fires at the meaderies here and in Whiterun, suddenly she has no revenue.”
“Surely she has other investments,” Karliah suggested.
“Aye, and a quick sweep of her home and office will give us the ammunition we need to sabotage those ventures as well.”
Karliah pursed her lips as she thought about Brynjolf’s proposal. “It might work,” she supposed, “if you’re planning a long con. Maven has enough power to crush any opposition easily and quickly. The only way to successfully bring her down in such a manner would be to build our own influence and resources until they were sufficient to overpower hers. Such an effort would take years, and all the while, she continues to build her power base as well.”
“No, we need something short-term,” Selene remarked.
“For someone with that much power, I think quick and dirty is best.”
“I believe if we just kill her, there could be consequences to the Guild,” Brynjolf argued. “Sibbi Black-Briar won’t just accept that his mother has been murdered. He’ll hunt down whoever did it and won’t stop until they’ve paid dearly. Whatever we do, we’ll have to cover our tracks perfectly.”
“Go to Irknthamz,” Karliah said, “and let us all think on it while you’re away.”
“Karliah, don’t do something without us,” Selene warned her.
“No, my friend, I’ll wait until you’ve come back. But even if we do this quickly, we’ll want to think it through and plan for every contingency.”
* * *
Irknthamz was small for a Dwemer ruin, at least on the outside. It was at the top of a small hill near a Forsworn redoubt, and Selene and Brynjolf briefly considered clearing out the encampment before going into the ruin. They had brought horses—one for each of them and an additional one to use as a pack mule in anticipation of taking home a considerable amount of spoils—and leaving them outside was a risk. Fortunately, the entrance to the ruin was like a small cave and they were able to tie the horses up inside. The animals were still at risk, but much less so than if they had been left outside and vulnerable to the weather and enemies.
As they walked up a ramp to leave the first chamber, they heard the telltale rattle of chaurus. Selene groaned. “I was hoping that since Mercer had planned on using this place as his home, he’d cleared out all the Falmer and chaurus.”
“Ah, but sneaking by them turns them into instant guards. To get to him and his wealth, an enemy would first have to get past them.”
“Not a problem for us, but I see your point.”
When they found the chaurus, there were three of them in a pit, one of them as big as a war horse. They shot them from the surface, then proceeded past a hut and a couple of dead Falmer into a narrow passage. After a while, the tunnel opened up into a room bearing the appearance of a conventional dwarven ruin, and this is where they discovered the first Falmer. Two of them attacked as soon as Selene and Brynjolf entered the room, but they were sluggish, almost as if they had been drugged. They died easily, and as the Nightingales started to explore the room, Brynjolf almost collided with another one. It was a female, and she simply stood there, staring at him. He waved a hand in front of her face, and she blinked but didn’t move. Brynjolf shrugged and swung his sword, decapitating her. “Hardly seems fair,” he muttered.
“But we can’t leave them alive behind us.”
“I know, I know.”
An alchemy lab and arcane enchanter stood in the room, but there wasn’t much of real value, just some Dwemer parts, metal ingots, and ingredients on an alchemy table. Brynjolf started to pick up a root he had never seen before, but Selene put a hand out to stop him.
“Don’t!” she cried urgently. “That’s jarrin root. One bite of that will kill you. You don’t even want the oil on your fingers.”
Brynjolf jerked his hand away as if it had been burned. “Ah! Important safety tip. Don’t touch the jarrin root. Thanks, lass.”
She scratched him under the chin. “Don’t mention it. I do want to keep it, though.” She dug in her pack for a bandage, and she picked the root up and wrapped it in the bandage. “This is valuable stuff, extremely rare.”
There were brass doors on either end of the long hall. One could not be opened from their side, so they tried the other one, which opened onto a short hallway. A tripwire was set only an inch from the floor, and Selene didn’t see it. She stepped on it and it broke, starting up a spinning blade that ran up and down the next slope. They hugged the wall and managed to slip past it, only to find three dwarven spheres and more traps in the following hallways, including a line of pressure plates that stretched from wall to wall.
“Something tells me we’re on the right track,” Brynjolf remarked as they stepped over the plates.
They came upon a recess that contained four chests and a lever mounted on a large, stone table. The chests, which had locks of varying degrees of difficulty, afforded several hundred gold pieces, a few gems and pieces of jewelry, and a glass helmet.
“I see a problem here,” Selene mused as she held the helmet in her hands. “I never saw the vault, but I’m assuming you had a lot of weapons and armor stored there, no?”
“We brought horses so we could carry it back to Riften, but how are we going to get it all from the ruin to the horses?”
Brynjolf furrowed his brow. “Valid point. All right, we take the smaller items—gold, gems, jewels—and leave the larger ones, unless we know for sure it’s of great value. Hopefully the ruin won’t be very big, but we can also backtrack and store what we have with the horses if we have to. It’s inconvenient, but it’ll work as a contingency plan.”
“You know if something happens to those horses, I’m going to be very put out.”
“The last time you had a horse was before the Skeleton Key was returned. Our luck will hold this time.”
They stuffed the gold and jewels into their pockets and pulled the lever on the table—after Selene carefully stepped out of the recess, remembering a time when she had gotten trapped in just such a room by pulling a lever. A portcullis did not drop down to close off the little room, however, and the lever opened a set of brass doors at the end of the corridor.
They found a couple of Falmer in the next room, but they were the last they encountered. From there on, they only had to deal with the mechanical guardians and traps, of which there were many. There was also a lot of treasure. Chests were stashed all over the place, and they all contained hordes of gold and gems. They opened door after door and collected their loot until they finally came upon a room that showed signs of recent use. It was a dining room containing barrels of food and Black-Briar mead, a table set for two, and a dwarven sphere guardian, which Selene dispatched. Two doors led out of the room. One opened onto a bathroom with two stone tubs; one of them had warm water in it, and the other was covered in blood.
Selene pointed to the other door and whispered, “We’re not alone.”
Brynjolf nodded, and they readied their weapons before opening the next door. What they found, they couldn’t have predicted.
It was a large, plush bedroom with furs on the bed, shelves and dressers around the room, several chests, a safe, and Mercer Frey.
The blue spirit stood near one of the dressers, his body a little more solid than a conventional ghost. When he heard them come in, he turned swiftly and drew his sword—the same one Selene had taken from his body when she’d killed him. “Ha, I knew you’d come!” he snarled as he attacked Brynjolf. The sword hit, and although Brynjolf didn’t bleed, a red haze washed over his body and he stumbled. He recovered before Selene could come to his rescue or Mercer could attack again and swung Chillrend as hard as he could. Mercer Frey perished, his essence melting into a pool of glowing ectoplasm.
“I didn’t expect to see his ghost here,” Brynjolf muttered as he put his sword away. “How can his ghost be here and not where you killed him?”
“That wasn’t a ghost. It was a shade. Sort of a copy of his spirit. I don’t know how it works, but it’s more substantial than a ghost and there could be more than one.”
“Lovely.” He reached down and rummaged through the items the shade had dropped. “I don’t get it. He wasn’t corporeal. How did he have all this stuff on him?” He handed Selene the sword, which seemed as real as the one she’d displayed in her house as a trophy, then he picked up a safe key, a handful of gems, and a note, which he unfolded and read.
Mercer, a pleasure doing business with you as always. Your payment is in the usual spot in the cave near Bonestrewn Crest. I
“Bonestrewn Crest,” Selene read over his shoulder. “Perhaps this isn’t all there is.”
“I did expect more,” he admitted. “We go there next, then.”
They searched the bedroom, and there was more of the same loot in the chests and safe, in addition to some valuable scrolls and a few stamina potions and draughts of vigor.
“Maybe he was planning to run away with Maven,” Selene suggested.
“Ugh, I don’t even want to think about that!”
“Mercer wasn’t a bad looking man.”
“No, but the thought of him and Maven…let’s just change the subject, all right?”
Selene browsed the books on a bookshelf, leafing through the pages in case Mercer had hidden any clues within them. There was nothing there, but she couldn’t help noting his taste in books was fairly specific. They were nonfiction and remained within the categories of the Thieves Guild and Nightingales, the Dwemer and Falmer, and Morrowind and the Dunmer. He had several volumes on each subject and pretty much nothing else except for a copy of The Lusty Argonian Maid.
By the time they worked their way through the rest of the ruin, they needed the horses. Even with only gold and gems, they still had too much to carry back to Riften on their own, to say nothing of the fact that they planned on stopping at the cave near Bonestrewn Crest on their way back.
Solitude was only a few miles out of the way, so they went there for a night’s rest. Selene called in a favor with Falk Firebeard and was able to ship most of their take from Irknthamz back to Riften.
As they lay in each other’s arms that night, Brynjolf couldn’t help laughing. “When I first met you, I had a feeling you would be valuable to the Guild, but I didn’t expect anything like what you pulled off today. We just sent several thousand septims’ worth of stolen goods to Riften in an official crate from the jarl with armed guards! What amazes me the most was that the steward didn’t even ask questions.”
“Falk is a true friend. Besides, he knows how things are. I adore Elisif, but she’s little more than a figurehead. Falk runs the hold. He didn’t have to ask questions; he knew exactly what was in that crate. He also knows what you and I do and that there’s no fighting such an organization. Better to have friends in low places.”
“And in high places,” he said as he kissed the top of her head.
* * *
A dragon impeded their access to the cave at Bonestrewn Crest, and Brynjolf actually got to fight this one. He ducked beneath its head as it snapped at him and drove his sword into its neck as Selene pelted it with flaming arrows from the side. She could smell Brynjolf’s fear, but he didn’t let it get in the way, and he didn’t stop fighting until the dragon flopped to the ground in its death throes.
When the dragon was dead and its soul absorbed, they found the cave entrance. It was at the bottom of the hill, directly under the word wall, but it was so well hidden that Selene hadn’t noticed it the first time she had been there. The horses wouldn’t fit through the cave opening, so they had to find a place to tie them up outside and just hope nobody killed them or ran off with them.
When the winding tunnel opened onto a high, wide chamber, Selene realized Bonestrewn Crest was hollow. Two high arches graced the room, which was a mixture of Nordic ruin and Aalto volcanic rock. Far above, an opening to the outside world let sunlight through. Selene started through the doorway into the large room and squealed in surprise as Brynjolf suddenly picked her up and pulled her back.
“What in the void?”
He pointed to the floor to show her where two pressure plates had been set across the doorway. “It’s Mercer,” he reminded her. “There’s no telling how many traps he’s set. Just be careful and watch the floor.”
They carefully searched the first chamber and found a strongbox hidden within a mammoth skeleton and a chest tucked into a fallen log. Two draugr patrolled in front of an iron door. Just like the Falmer in Irknthamz, the draugr didn’t move with their normal speed, and they took them out easily.
As expected, the ruin was heavily trapped and crawling with lethargic draugr. They stepped around or accidentally tripped dozens of bear traps, bone chimes, and pressure plates. They also found lots of urns and chests and collected a good haul of gold and gems. Everything was laid out perfectly, and the treasure was distributed evenly. As they emptied a chest in a room stocked with urns and bookshelves containing tomes about the Guild and the Dunmer, Selene stopped and gave Brynjolf a pensive look. “I know the crypt was here before Mercer ever found it, but it seems as though he went through and placed the treasure and the draugr at strategic spots.”
“Like he was setting up his own ruin so he could play ‘adventurer.’”
“Perhaps he was. Mercer traveled a lot, but he didn’t always tell me where he was going. Sometimes he’d be gone for weeks at a time with little more than an occasional letter to let us know he was still alive. I always wondered what he was doing. Seeing all this, I can’t help but think I was better off not knowing.”
They stepped into a chamber and bumped a set of bone chimes hanging from the ceiling, then fought the draugr who burst from their sarcophagi. These were more…lively…than the others they had encountered, and they had more trouble. Brynjolf took a blade to his side, and the wound was deep enough that after the draugr were dead, they had to stop and stitch him up.
“I was just starting to think this was too easy,” he commented as Selene sewed the gash closed and he sipped at a healing potion.
“You call all those traps and draugr easy?”
“Aye, I do. Selene, we’ve come, what, maybe a mile into this place? This is the first injury we’ve had of any kind. Don’t you think that’s a little too convenient?”
“Oh, great, now you’ve jinxed us.”
When she finished, Brynjolf put his cuirass back on and picked up his weapons and pack, and they went through the next door. The tunnel inclined sharply toward an iron door perhaps fifty yards away, and the entire floor was spread with fuel oil. At the bottom of the slope lay a burned corpse.
“Don’t drop your bow, lass.”
“Wait, let me try something. Step back.” They backed up, and she nocked an arrow, which she shot at the oil in the hope of burning it up before they walked into the tunnel. It didn’t catch.
“Don’t you have a Shout that makes you breathe fire?”
“Aye, but we don’t know what’s behind that door. I’d just as soon not alert anyone to our presence.”
There was no easy way around it; they were going to have to walk up the long, oily incline. Brynjolf went first, and they moved slowly and deliberately, watching their step and planting their feet carefully so as not to slip. They reached a slight plateau about halfway up, and Brynjolf stepped up from the slope. By the time he noticed the well-concealed pressure plate it was too late, and his foot landed. First there was the telltale click, and then a jet of blue flame shot straight up into the air. Before he had the time to say, “Oh, shit,” the slope ignited.
“Run!” he cried, grabbing for Selene’s hand, and they scrambled up the slope. The heat was practically unbearable, her skin stung as flames licked at her from all sides, and the scent of burning hair reached her nostrils. Brynjolf cried out in pain as his legs and back blazed. As soon as they reached the top, he threw himself to the floor and began rolling back and forth to smother the flames. Selene did the same, and when everything seemed to be extinguished, she reached back to see if she had any hair left.
“It still looks beautiful,” Brynjolf said tiredly as he sat up and gingerly pulled his cuirass off. “It’s just a couple of inches shorter now.”
Selene crawled over to her husband and helped him out of his cuirass to survey the damage to his back. It was red and blistered, but there were no serious burns. “The armor must have protected you from the worst of the flames.”
“It surely doesn’t feel like it. My legs feel like they’re still on fire.”
“Take your pants off, too.”
“Love, I don’t think this is the time or place,” he drawled with a mischievous grin.
“What about you?” he asked as he stripped to his loin cloth, flinching as he peeled the leather away from his backside and legs.
“About the same, I think.” She undressed, gasping as a thousand hot needles poked at her skin.
“Do you have enough of that healing salve for both of us?”
“I think so. Hopefully we won’t run into anything else before we get out of this gods-forsaken place. We’re not far from Windhelm; we can go to the temple there. Jora will fix us up.”
“I thought you wanted to avoid Windhelm.”
“We need healing worse than I need to stay out of Windhelm. Besides, what are the chances I’m going to run into Ulfric Stormcloak? It’s not like he just leaves the palace and strolls around outside.”
She dug in her pack and found the healing poultice, which she smeared on Brynjolf’s back and legs, and then he did the same for her. While the damage wasn’t serious, it was too widespread to bandage. Putting their armor back on was painful, but they had no choice. They couldn’t very well navigate the ruin in their small clothes.
The door at the top of the slope led to a hall of stories that was laid end to end with bear traps. The only thing to interrupt the stream of bear traps was a fire rune in the middle of the floor. Brynjolf breathed a frustrated sigh. “With every step I take, I hate Mercer Frey even more.”
“To Oblivion with not alerting enemies. I’ve got this. Stand back there.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to step into the rune.”
“No, I don’t think so!”
“Bryn, trust me. I have a Shout.”
He stared at her for a long moment before stepping farther back in the room.
Selene gathered her will and her breath, whispered, “Kynareth, please let this work,” and Shouted, ”FEIM!” The sensation of not being quite there washed over her, and she stepped into the rune. It exploded with a loud bang, and Selene braced herself for the pain, but there was none. Flames roared around her for only a second, and then they were gone and she was no worse for wear.
“Brilliant!” Brynjolf exclaimed as he hobbled up in obvious pain.
“Except that now, whatever is on the other side of that door knows we’re here.”
“The door’s trapped, too.” He pointed to a mechanism that was visible all the way back where they stood.
“I don’t care. I’m done with this place.” She marched up to the door, stepping around bear traps as she reached them, and set about disarming the trap. It was difficult, a wire strung in a complicated weave and connected to a battery of deadly spikes set on a spring. She carefully unwound the wire until it was free from the mechanism, then stepped back and sighed with relief.
“This is it,” Brynjolf murmured, staring grimly at the door. “It has to be.”
They were right. The door opened onto a square room with doors and grated recesses around the entire perimeter. In the center of the room was a desk flanked by two safes. Standing behind the desk was another ethereal blue figure.
“You won’t escape me!” Mercer Frey’s shade growled as he drew his sword and stepped around the desk.
Selene drew her sword and advanced, thrusting the blade at his abdomen. He dodged to the right and came around with his sword, but she blocked, turned completely around and sliced through his midsection. The shade oozed to the floor.
“At least they’re easy to kill,” she mused.
“Aye but that word—‘they’re’—doesn’t instill me with a lot of comfort, lass.”
Selene picked up a note the shade had dropped and read.
“‘K’ for ‘Karliah,’” she thought aloud.
“Blackmoor. I assume that means Fort Blackmoor.”
Selene looked up at him with a smile. “We have to know. You understand that, right?”
“Of course, I do. After we clear this place out, we go to Windhelm, heal up, and then go to Fort Blackmoor.” With a giggle, Selene leaned over and kissed him. “What could you possibly laughing about?”
“Oh, come on, Brynjolf, admit it. We’re searching for buried treasure, following clues, fighting monsters together. Don’t tell me you’re not enjoying this.”
“You’re amazing, do you know that?”
“So you’re not enjoying this?”
He gave her a small, bemused smile and caressed her cheek. “I could do without the Falmer, and the draugr, and the traps, and getting burned to a crisp; but aye, I have to admit I love being here with you. Perhaps when we retire from the Guild, we can take up adventuring fulltime.”
Selene kissed him again, then glanced around the room. “What do you say we find out what’s in those safes and behind all those doors, and then we get out of here?”
“Sounds like a fine idea.”
After retrieving several thousand gold pieces and enough gems and jewels to allow them to retire right then, they left the cave and loaded up their horses, which still stood where they had left them. Although it was a risk, they changed out of the protection of their armor and into looser clothing, but with blisters on their backside, riding the horses would still be a lesson in torture. Thus, they led the animals out of the Aalto and up the road toward Windhelm.
As the city came into view and the Palace of the Kings loomed over it, Selene groaned inwardly. They were injured and needed a healer, but she didn’t like Windhelm anymore. While she had once been happy there, it represented a time in her life that was dead and gone, but the past didn’t always stay in the past where she wanted it. Brynjolf knew about Ulfric and understood her reasons for not wanting to see him. Dredging up old feelings wouldn’t be good for any of them. But something nagged at her, a tickle at the back of her mind, that said it was going to happen whether she wanted it to or not.
A/N: The dungeons in this chapter came from the Following Mercer Frey mod, which can be found here: http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/29946. Thanks to rubypele for allowing me to use it.