Selene got home an hour before sunrise and packed supplies for the journey, then ran over to the Scorched Hammer to borrow Balimund’s grindstone and sharpen Gallus’s sword. She wanted to use it instead of her own sword if she was to go head-to-head with Mercer. It felt like justice.
When she was ready to leave, she went out to the balcony with a mug of warm mead to wait for Bryn and Karliah. A deer meandered along the lakeshore, stopping occasionally to take a bite of grass. The sun was just rising, and though the townspeople were probably already up and around, they hadn’t come out of their houses yet and the city was still quiet, still peaceful. The only sounds were the chirps of a few morning birds, the occasional splash of a salmon jumping in the lake, and a boat bumping up against the dock it was moored to. Selene didn’t have many moments like this. There was always something to do, someone to fight, a dragon to kill, an item to steal—a lover to apologize to—too many things vying for her attention. It was nice to just be for a moment.
As if thinking about apologizing to Brynjolf had summoned him, he came through the house and stepped onto the balcony. He carried a knapsack and bedroll on his back, and Chillrend was at his belt. He pulled his hood off and sat down next to her.
“Karliah isn’t here yet?”
“No.” He didn’t say anything else, and after several minutes of uncomfortable silence, she asked, “So you’re not speaking to me now?”
“I’m not really sure what to say.” His voice was measured, emotionless, as if he barely knew her.
“Just tell me what’s on your mind. I’m a big girl, Brynjolf.”
Before he could answer, Karliah came around the corner of the house at the bottom of the stairs and climbed up to meet them. “Good morning, Nightingales,” she said. “Shall we go?”
Brynjolf was quiet for much of the first day, and Selene didn’t try to force anything on him. They had a job to do, and they would do it. For now, they would do what was necessary—they would get to Irkngthand and put an end to Mercer Frey. Then they could have it out. The easy camaraderie Selene shared with Karliah was contagious, however, and Bryn didn’t brood for long. They spent much of their travel time talking and telling stories, and sometime on the second day, Karliah asked the big question.
“What’s it like, being a werewolf?”
Selene waited for Brynjolf’s reaction, but he didn’t react. His scent didn’t even change. He simply waited for her answer.
“I hardly even know how to describe it. I’m stronger and faster in beast form. My sense of smell is greatly enhanced, even in human form, and that comes in very handy.”
“But what is it like? How does it make you feel?”
“It makes me feel…free. Normally, when I’m in beast form, I’m able to shed all the cares of my human life and just forget about them for a while. All that matters is the hunt. And the moons.”
“Does it hurt?” Brynjolf asked. “Changing to beast form, I mean.”
“Aye, but not as bad as you might think. Plus, I’m used to it.”
“When did it happen? When did you become a werewolf?”
“Two years ago on my birthday. Seems like so much longer.”
“So the Companions are werewolves, then?”
Selene stopped walking and gave him a harsh look. “Why would you assume that?” she asked defensively.
“Because you were with them two years ago. Besides, there were always rumors.” He started walking again, and she and Karliah followed. His scent still hadn’t changed. He wasn’t baiting her; he was just continuing the conversation Karliah had started, satisfying his curiosity, and hinting that he might not have been as surprised as he let on. The problem was the lack of emotion. It made Selene feel like a lab specimen. “Then again, if you can’t talk about it…”
Selene shrugged. “I probably shouldn’t, but I trust you both. Only Farkas, Aela, and I are werewolves. Vilkas was cured; the rest are dead.”
“Why was Vilkas cured?”
“He wants to go to Sovngarde when he dies instead of Hircine’s Hunting Grounds.”
“So there is a cure?” Still no change in emotion.
“Aye, there is. For a few, anyway.”
“If I want it.”
With that, he changed the subject.
The Nightingales had to deal with two troops of bandits, a wolf pack, and a dragon on the way to Irkngthand, and by the time they left the main road and headed down the last trail, the experience had solidified the trinity into a cohesive team. They would get even more experience before they entered the ruin, because Selene smelled more bandits on the way in.
Ducking behind a fallen turret, Selene told them what they were up against. “I picked up three distinct scents,” she whispered. “One is outside the gate; the other two are close by. That doesn’t mean there aren’t more of them I can’t smell farther in, though, so we should take care. I’ll let you know if I pick anyone else up.”
They made their way through a gauntlet of bandits, bear traps, and toppled stonework to get to the main entrance, only to find it blocked by ages-old rubble. Someone had built a network of footbridges across turrets and roofs, however, and they finally worked their way up to a secondary entrance. The small, bronze door opened onto a vestibule leading into an amphitheater. Several levels of benches and staircases surrounded a circular center stage, all of them littered with moss-covered stone and crushed columns. Some bandits had made camp on the stage, but they had been brutally slaughtered.
“Mercer,” Karliah hissed.
They traveled through the hall and out the other side, where they passed several dwarven spiders lying shattered on the floor. Selene thought of the spider control rod she had taken from the Dwemer museum and wondered if she should have kept it instead of selling it to Delvin. Having a pet spider doing her bidding could have been very beneficial. They navigated well-lit corridors and rooms full of ingenious traps, all the while serenaded by the clanging and hissing of machines that still operated for their long-dead masters. Their purpose was anyone’s guess, but the pistons still pumped, the mechanisms still turned, and steam still sprayed through the vents. They didn’t have any trouble until they came upon a room that contained three rotating pillars, each spewing jets of fire as they spun.
“How do we get past that?” Brynjolf grumbled.
“The fire jets are at chest level,” Selene noted. “We should be able to crawl under them.”
The heat was incredible, but they managed to crawl below the jets relatively unscathed. Once they were able to get to their feet again, they followed a rambling corridor until it came out onto a straight passage bearing an alchemy lab, which was surprisingly stocked with a few potions and fresh mushrooms. Karliah started to stow the potions in her bag, but she stopped and put them back.
“What is it?” Selene asked her.
“I decided I didn’t want to take the chance that Mercer had filled the bottles with poison and placed them here knowing I would pick them up.”
Down the hall, a mechanical spider popped out of its recess and came at them, but Selene dispatched it with an arrow before it got anywhere near them. Next to the alchemy lab, they found an elevator with a bear trap set at the entrance.
“Mercer has been here,” said Brynjolf. “You may have been right about the potions. We should tread carefully. There’s no telling what sorts of surprises he left for us.
The Nightingales stepped into the elevator, Brynjolf pulled the lever, and they descended for what seemed like miles into the depths of Irkngthand. They emerged onto an enclosed balcony overlooking a massive chamber. Selene moved up to the grating and peered out at the room, which contained impossibly high ceilings, a couple of levels of ramps and walkways, and some unwanted company.
“Falmer,” Selene sighed. “All dwarven ruins seem to have them.”
“Wait!” Karliah exclaimed. “There’s Mercer!”
Far below, Mercer Frey had just appeared through a bronze door and was sneaking up on one of the deformed snow elves.
“I’m on it.” Selene drew her bow, but the grate was too narrow to get a shot through.
Mercer looked up at them and saluted just as he reached around and slit the Falmer’s throat.
“He’s toying with us! I think he wants us to follow.”
“Then, let’s keep moving,” said Brynjolf.
They found a doorway at the end of the balcony and went on through the maze of corridors. They found large, gooey globs of speckled orbs stacked in a corner.
“What is that?” Brynjolf wondered.
“Chaurus eggs,” Selene replied. “Keep an eye out. They’re larger than you are with harder chitin than a mudcrab and big pincers, plus they spit poison. The Falmer keep them as pets. Them, skeevers, and frostbite spiders.”
“Perhaps someone should tell them a dog is a more amiable companion.”
By and by they entered another huge, multilevel chamber. This one was maybe a hundred feet high with what appeared to have once been large doorways set into the wall far above the main floor, possibly apartments or offices. There was a lot of tumbled stone as usual, but there was also a cage with an operational ballista in one corner.
“Look at the size of this place,” Brynjolf marveled. “Have you ever seen anything like it in your life?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Karliah responded. “Imagine the riches hidden within these walls!”
“They’re all like this,” said Selene. “I’ve been in a few of them, and they’re bigger than most cities I’ve been to. They’re filled with bronze, gems, weapons…we could be set for life just by looting one ruin. If we had a way to carry all we found, that is.”
They came in on the third level of the chamber, but there was no way to get farther up. The only way was down, and there was only one exit. It was closed off by a gate and guarded by two Falmer, which Selene and Karliah took out with their bows.
“Let’s look around for something that will open that gate,” Karliah recommended.
Selene found a lever on the top level next to the far wall of the chamber, and when she pulled it, the gate opened. By the time they reached the lower level, however, the gate had closed. “Well, that’s inconvenient.”
“Up there,” Brynjolf pointed. There was an identical lever on the other side. “Perhaps they both have to be pulled. You two operate the levers, and I’ll stay down here in case something comes through the gate once it’s opened.”
Selene and Karliah each went to a lever and pulled, and the gate stayed open. They joined Brynjolf on the lowest level. It looked as though a battle had taken place between some Falmer and dwarven sphere guardians; there were several of each lying dead on the ground. Selene was heading toward one of the spheres to check for soul gems when she heard the sound of a machine starting up and the familiar whir of the spinning blade trap. Before she had the chance to react, Brynjolf threw her to the floor, and the blade whipped over their heads.
Selene and Bryn crawled out from under the blade and saw to Karliah, who had sustained a deep gash in her shoulder.
“Gods, Karliah,” Selene muttered as she pulled away the Dunmer’s tattered armor and examined the wound, “any higher and that thing might have decapitated you.”
“See? Our luck’s changing already. We don’t have time to stitch me up. You said you had a healing spell; just use that.”
“All right, but it’s not very good.” She held her hand over Karliah’s bleeding shoulder and concentrated her magical energy. A white light appeared in her hand, and she passed it over the shoulder. It didn’t close the wound completely, but it did patch it enough to stop the bleeding. In the meantime, Brynjolf had found a healing poultice in Selene’s pack. He handed it to her, and she dabbed a bit onto the gash. Finally, she handed Karliah a healing potion. “Drink up. It’ll help with the pain.”
“And dull my senses. I’m fine, Selene.”
“You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you, lass?” Brynjolf quipped.
“I just know my limitations, and I haven’t reached them. Let’s get moving.”
Giving the trap a wide berth, they passed through the room and moved on. They fought a handful of Falmer in the next chamber, which was nearly as big as Riften. They all received scrapes and bruises in the fight but nothing to slow them down, and Selene wondered how Mercer had managed to get past the creatures. She was just about to say something about it when the ground shook violently, and a tower farther up the path collapsed into dust.
“The only reason he’d do that would be to block pursuit,” Karliah muttered.
“Mercer was able to knock that whole thing down?” Brynjolf croaked. “Gods!”
“It’s the key, Brynjolf. In his hands, there’s no telling what he’s capable of.”
“First, it seems he wants us to follow, and then he’s blocking our way,” said Selene. “I don’t get it.”
“Perhaps we were getting too close.”
The trinity found a long corridor where Mercer had set bear traps. They were easy to spot, and Selene had to wonder why he had even bothered. By stopping to set traps, he was only slowing himself down. The next enormous hall was, again, full of Falmer, and they fought their way through. Selene looked over at Brynjolf at one point and noticed a big smile on his face. He was taunting and teasing the Falmer he fought, and he let out a little cry of glee when he finally made the killing blow. He might like to say he was no warrior, but he was enjoying this battle. After they had killed all the Falmer, a skeever came running up out of nowhere and attacked Selene, biting a chunk out of her thigh before she even realized it was on her. Uncharacteristically startled, she squealed and swung her sword, but she missed. Bryn was suddenly right there with her, swinging Chillrend fiercely to decapitate the animal.
“My hero,” she cooed.
“Heh, that’s what you get when you cross the Guild!” he spat at the dead skeever.
Selene giggled. “Bryn, you’re so full of shit.” Karliah laughed, too, and Selene began to realize they were all enjoying themselves. They fought well together, and they had a good time doing it, despite the severity of their mission. It felt nearly the same as it did when she was with the Companions, but there was more to it, something more personal. They weren’t just shield-brother and –sisters; they were part of each other, and their proximity to each other made them all stronger. Selene could just imagine all the things the three of them could accomplish together.
Karliah pointed to the enclosed balcony on an upper level. “This is where we saw Mercer. We must be getting close.”
They went through bronze doors at the back of the hall, leaving the brightly lit Dwemer ruin and entering dank, musty caves. The stench was terrible.
“Ugh, this place reeks of Falmer,” Brynjolf groaned.
“Tell me about it,” Selene muttered.
“I probably don’t have any room to talk, eh? Must be loads worse for you.”
“It’s all right; I’m used to it.”
They came upon a large cave that was loaded with Falmer, and Karliah suggested sneaking through, but Selene shook her head. “Never leave an enemy alive behind you. Besides, I doubt even we could sneak through this nest. They may be blind, but their other senses make up for it.”
During the ensuing battle, Brynjolf finally got the opportunity to see one of the dreaded chaurus up close—too close, unfortunately, because it dug its pincers into his side before he could duck out of the way. It was Selene’s turn to save him, and she buried Gallus’s sword in its head just as Karliah was killing the last Falmer.
“My heroine,” he said with a grin, which quickly turned to a grimace. He sat down on a rock and searched his pack for a healing potion.
“Let me see that.” She lifted his cuirass to see the gash and dug in her pack for more of the poultice. He gasped with pain when she pressed the ointment onto the wound, which seemed to be turning green. She looked up at his face; a pallor had fallen over his features and a cold sweat was breaking on his brow. “How are you feeling?”
“A bit nauseated, if you want to know the truth.”
“Uh-huh.” She reached in her pack and found one of her precious poison cure potions. “You’ve been poisoned. I didn’t think their pincers had venom. Did it spit on you?”
Brynjolf shrugged. “It all happened pretty fast. Ugh!” He turned and dove from the rock, crawling away and throwing up on the ground nearby.
“It acts fast,” Karliah observed.
“Come on, Bryn, try to drink the potion. It’ll help.”
He came back to them and leaned against the rock, resting his head on it. He took the potion from Selene and forced it down, holding his hands over his mouth to try to keep it from coming back up. “We don’t have time for this,” he choked out after a moment.
“We’ll make time. You can’t fight Mercer like this anyway, and I’d die before leaving you here. Just give it a few minutes.”
While they waited for the potion to work, Selene took the time to stitch Karliah’s shoulder, which had begun to ooze, and then they looted the Falmer’s tents. They got a couple of soul gems and a few bottles of poison out of the venture. When Brynjolf started to feel better, they left the nest and passed into a long, winding tunnel with pipes running overhead, carrying water.
“We must be underneath a lake,” Karliah observed.
Selene pulled the map out of her pack and looked at the area. “There’s a lake a few miles north of the ruin, near Nightgate Inn. Do you think we’ve gone that far?”
“It’s so hard to tell; so many of the passages wind this way and that and take us up and down.”
“Let’s not talk about moving this way and that, shall we? I’m still a bit queasy.”
“Apologies, Bryn. But I suppose it’s possible.”
The damp rock and moss of the caves began to give way back to the bronze and stonework of the dwarven ruin, and they came upon a set of bronze doors with a bear trap set in front of them. Although Mercer’s scent had been faint throughout the trip, it was much stronger here. He was right behind these doors.
“He’s close,” she told them.
“Then this is it,” said Brynjolf. “We do this for Gallus and for the Guild.” Selene stepped around the bear trap and reached for the door handle, but Brynjolf caught her around the waist and pulled her to him. He lifted his cowl and hers. “I love you,” he whispered, and he placed a tender kiss on her lips.
Selene realized he wasn’t just making up with her. He was saying goodbye.