A Blade In the Dark
When brothers wage war come unfurled!
Alduin, Bane of Kings,
ancient shadow unbound,
With a hunger to swallow the world.
Pain was the first thing she was aware of. Her head felt like it was filled with lead and head throbbed where she'd been struck. Her muscles and joints were stiff. Lydia opened her eyes, only to find she couldn't see. She panicked for a moment before realizing it was because the room was dark. She tried to raise her hand to feel the wound on her head, but struggled against restraints she couldn't see. "Oh, look, you're finally awake," a voice nearby said, its tone was sickeningly sweet.
Light blinded her as a torch was lit, and then she could see the face of the Altmer that had spoken, his voice was light and cheerful, "Now I have some questions to ask you, if you don't mind?" She said nothing, so he continued, "I'm looking for your boss, the Dragonborn? Do you know where he is?"
"No." It was the truth. It had been... she didn't even know how long it had been since he'd left for the mountain.
The Elf tsked, "Are you sure? He left and didn't tell you, his housecarl, where he was going?"
"I'll ask one more time, if you don't answer we will have to use other... methods. Where is the Dragonborn?"
"I. Don't. Know."
"Too bad, guards, get the fire rod."
When she was finally dumped mercilessly on the cold stone floor of a cell she hated that fire rod with her entire being. Her body was burned and bruised. The guards, nor their rod, had been kind. The guards even more so. Shivering from the pain she managed to move slowly to lean against the wall. She would not cry. She was stronger than that. Even during their torture, even as the guards... had her... she did not cry out. She was a Nord. She'd show them what a true Nord was. What they could stand. That they would never give up.
She was startled as she heard a sound from the back corner of the cell, "Hello?" she managed to rasp. Soon a shape stood and walked slowly toward her and sat beside her. It was another Nord. He was tall and muscular, and dressed in the similar rags as she was; only his were more filthy. He had a strong face, light brown hair, blue eyes, and beard.
He looked at her kindly, "Are you all right?" he asked softly.
She laughed, even though it hurt, "I've had better days."
He nodded, "Here," he said, offering her something. She took it, noticing that it was a piece of stale bread, "Not exactly home cooking, but it's better than nothing." She thanked him and took a bite. He stared at the wall wistfully. "I don't know how long I've been here. My wife was here with me for a small time, but they took her away. I don't know where."
"Where are you from?"
"Whiterun," she answered in between bites.
"I'm from Riverwood."
She finished the last bit of the bread, "My name is Lydia."
He offered her his hand, she shook it, "Good to meet you Lydia. I'm Hod."
The Ratway smelled of dead things, piss, ****, and more piss. At least, that was Delphine's first impression of the meeting place. A week ago she'd been contacted by a foot pad of the Thieves Guild about her... job offer. They wanted to conduct a meeting with her, in the Riften Ratway of all places. She did not like this at all, but it had, after all, been her fault for hiring the Guild in the first place. But who else could infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy? She knew of no one they wouldn't already recognize, and it wasn't like she could just waltz in there. No, that would have to be the job of a thief for hire. Though the thought of hiring a Guild of footpads, cut purses, and criminals made the bile rise in her stomach. She knew she couldn't trust these people as far as she could throw them, even though she bet that was pretty far.
She was skittish, suspicious of every shadow and every dark place, and there were a lot of those in the Ratway. The location was the Guild's choice; it was common knowledge that the Ratway, Oblivion, that all of Riften was their turf. It was even rumored that they had their hands in the Jarl's pockets. So here she was, in the dark, piss smelling sewers beneath the city, waiting for some contact that she was half hoping wouldn't show. She stood in a small alcove near the entrance. Her hand rested nervously on the hilt of her sword.
She heard a sound in the darkness to her right, she drew her sword, and nervously swung, letting out a sigh when the metal tinged as it hit the stone wall. She cursed, then jumped when she heard a voice behind her, "Congratulations," a male voice said, "you managed to kill a particularly dangerous bit of masonry. You should be proud." A man stepped forward from the shadows. He was dressed from head to boots in a strange black armor. She tried to focus on him, but it was like the armor drew the shadows in, obscuring him from her sight. His face was concealed behind a hood and mask, causing his deep, smooth, voice to be muffled slightly. A black bow and a quiver of arrows rested on his back, and a sword and multiple daggers at his waist.
Frustrated she turned her blade around so that the tip resting mere inches away from his neck, "Watch or tongue or you might share the same fate as the wall," she cursed.
He raised his hands in mock surrender, "I truly fear for my life then, m'lady." Sighing she sheathed her blade, the sound echoed against the hollowed hall. Delphine couldn't see his face, but she knew he was smiling. Mockingly he bowed, "Greetings, you are awaiting a Guild contact I presume?" she nodded, "Then I am he."
She scowled, "Show your face then."
"That would be," he seemed to search for the word, it was hard to read his emotions when she couldn't see his face, "... unwise."
Her hand rested on her blade again, "It would be unwise not to."
He chuckled, "You're quiet the charmer, Blade, but I think it would be safer if you didn't see my face. Know this, I am the one that completed your contract with the Guild. I know the information you sought, and only I know it. Kill me and the information disappears, and I doubt you would be able to retrieve it yourself if I were to be... incapacitated."
Delphine let out a string of curses, "Fine, then. What news, then?"
She watched as he reached over and took a torch from the wall. He opened his hand and, muttering a word, lit it with magic. A magic user, then, she noted for later. The light from the torch made the shadows dance against the walls. The man gestured forward, "Walk with me, and talk with me."
The started down the tunnel, Delphine following the stranger's lead. "The job was successful," he began, but his voice was low, "mostly. We lost a good agent in the process. He wasn't a Guild member, but a useful tool and he will be difficult to replace."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
He paused, slightly, "Thank you, but he knew what he was getting into. Anyways," he stopped at a crossroad. After a moments pause he continued down the left path, "We have the information, and then some. The Thalmor know very much of you. I apologize if my curiosity got the better of me; in that I read all I could. They know you are hiding in Skyrim, but I think you knew that already. They know your friend is too. They've been taking in prisoners, questioning and often torturing them for answers."
Delphine let out a fresh string of curses. People were getting hurt, people who probably didn't even know anything about her whereabouts. "Recently, they got a break, a prisoner they captured from here in Riften let loose that a strange and very cautious old man by a certain name lives here, deep within the Ratway." He stopped as they had reached a old wooden door with multiple locks. He raised his torch high, "I am escorting you to him."
It made no sense, why would a Guild of hired cut purses help her so much, "Why not just tell me the information and leave?"
He paused in thought, "Because, you are not the only one who is unhappy with the Empire's current situation with the Thalmor and the Dominion," he said slowly. "And I want to make sure you get there safely. The bowels of the Riften Ratway are more dangerous than any draugr infested ruin. If you want to get out of here alive, you'll need me with you."
"Why? I can handle myself," she protested.
He shook his hooded head, "They know me here. Trust me, at least for now. No harm will come to you in the Ratway whilst I am here. Believe me in that. No one here would dare lay a finger on me." He pulled a ring of keys from his belt and began unlocking the door. Who was this man that he supposedly demanded so much respect? The door opened and Delphine followed the stranger inside. When the door closed behind them it slammed loudly, making her shudder. The stranger held his torch high. If it was possible the torch made the place seem even darker. He began to walk with purpose, his black boots splashing through the occasional puddle. In the shadows she felt eyes upon them, the eyes of the outrageously poor, the forgotten, the mad, the hermits, and maybe even ghosts. Her guide kept a brisk pace, moving so fast that Delphine struggled to keep up with his long strides.
They reached what seemed like an alcove. Her guide held up his hand to pause her. He waved his torch around wildly, "Voldrik!" he called, From the shadows crawled the smallest man Delphine had ever seen. He stood less than four feet tall, his head was bald, and one eye was bigger than the other. He waddled to the stranger, a smiled on his wicked little face revealed one sole tooth in the front,
"Nightingale," the man rasped as he bowed, which seemed unnecessary for a man of his stature, "been a while."
"That it has my friend," the guide reached into his pack and pulled out not a coin purse, but a bag filled with bread, "here, I need some information, and I can pay, as you can see."
The small man, Voldrik, was almost drooling at the sight of the bag, "What you need Nightingale? Information? Blood? Both?" There was that word again, Nightingale. She had heard the name before, in old legends. They were supposed to be demons of the night, sworn to the service of the daedra Nocturnal. Surely this stranger wasn't?
Her guide chuckled lightly, "Information will suffice."
The little man nodded, "What needs tellin'?
"I'm looking for a man. There's probably others looking for him too. Has anyone other than me come by looking for someone?"
The dwarf nodded, "Yup, a whole troop of them. Was lookin' for that crazy old man that's hiding in one of the old holds. I sent them the other wayabouts."
Delphine stepped forward, "How long ago?"
The dwarf looked up at her with a scowl, "I ain't talkin' to no lady."
The 'Nightingale' turned to Delphine, "Sorry," he turned back to the dwarf, "Voldric, she's a client. Be nice. Now, how long ago."
The dwarf shrugged, "I sent them a long way back. Maybe ten minutes ago."
"****," Delphine cursed, "the Thalmor are here?"
"They already had the info, we're lucky we are here to intercept them," the Nightingale said quickly. He turned to the dwarf, "Thank you, here, for your loyalty to the Guild," he handed him the entire bag of bread.
The dwarf smiled a one toothed grin, "Thanks, this will feed quite a few bellies." At that he waddled off back into the shadows.
Once he was gone the Nightingale turned to Delphine, "Let's move, we need to beat them to Esbern." She nodded and followed as he resumed his brisk pace. She was amazed by how swiftly he navigated the dark passages. They moved and turned so many times she lost track. When she stopped it took a moment for her to realize that they were standing before a large reinforced wood door, "This is where he should be. Try getting him to open the door."
She walked too the door, and pounded on it, but there was no answer. "Esbern!" she called, pounding again, "It's me, open the damned door."
There was the sound of shuffling, then a familiar voice called out, "Go away you pointy eared bastards, or I'll roast you like a suckled pig!"
"Excuse me," Delphine cursed, "you rotten old bag of wind open the bloody door, it's me!"
"YES!" she heard the Nightingale chuckle beside her, she wanted to smack him beside his hooded head.
"What in the name of Oblivion- How do I know it's you?"
"Open the door and maybe you'll recognize my boot up your ass!"
"Hold on, hold on," the man on the other side murmured, exasperated, "I'm opening the door." For three minutes they waited as they listened to numerous clicks, bangs, and the sounds of chains, as they waited for the doors to open. When the door finally stood open a hand grabbed Delphine and pulled her in; like a shadow the Guild man followed.
Delphine looked at her old friend's face. Age and a life of hiding hadn't treated him well. He'd lost his hair, and weighed much less than she remembered, but still, he was Esbern, the only other Blade left. She embraced him, "Esbern," she said warmly.
"Delphine," he said, then he held her at arm's length, "I thought I'd never see you again."
Than Esbern looked at the Guild man who'd led her here, and his face turned white, "What in blazes is he doing with you!" he cried, pointing at the stranger.
"He's from the Thieves Guild," Delphine explained, "he led me to you."
Esbern shook his head, "Then he lied, he's not Guild."
The stranger held up a hand, "I am a member of the Guild. In fact," he explained, "I'm the Guildmaster."
Delphine raised her brow, "You? The Guildmaster?"
He shrugged, "Who else to complete your little Embassy job but the best?"
Esbern looked at Delphine curiously, "Embassy job? No matter, I've seen his armor before, when the Thalmor hired the Dark Brotherhood to chase me in Whiterun. He's Dark Brotherhood!"
At that Delphine drew her blade with such speed that the stranger didn't have time to respond. This time her blade rested on his neck. She reached with her free hand and ripped off his hood; something she'd been wanting to do since she had meet him. He was young, she noticed. Not out of his thirties, with black hair and green eyes. He was smiling, a bright row of perfectly white teeth, "Dark Brotherhood?" she yelled at him. He stood, his face unchanged and showing no emotion, "Explain yourself!"
He stared at her, "I am both. I am the Guildmaster of the Thieves Guild, but I am also the Listener of the Dark Brotherhood. I am also a Nightingale of Nocturnal."
Delphine's sword pressed against his neck, drawing a small amount of blood, "You bastards attacked my friend."
"The Dragonborn?" the man said nonchalantly, "I know. You managed to kill one of our better assassins that night."
"You bastard," she growled, "you set me up! Am I one of your little contracts? Is that why you wanted to lead me here?"
"A contract is a contract, we do not decide who we kill. We get a contract and we do the deed," he said softly, "but no, I was here on Guild business."
"Well, I don't care who's 'business' you were on," she said sternly, "you're dead." She drew back her sword to make the killing blow.
"WAIT!" he cried, "I can help you!"
She cursed herself, but she paused, "How?"
"There's still a contract out for your friend, the Dragonborn. I'm the Listener. I'm their leader. If I say the contract is null, then they won't pursue him, or you, since there's a contract out for you as well since you killed Azra'nir. Besides, if you kill me the Guild will be after you too. I will help you. I want to!"
"Why in the name of the Divines would you help us?"
His face grew dark, now she could see how he could be the leader of the Dark Brotherhood, "Because I hate the damn Thalmor as much as you do. I know you're a Blade, I know he's a Blade, and I know there's a Dragonborn. If anyone is going to stop those knife eared bastards it's you. I can help. I've got more gold than I know what to do with. I've got eyes and ears in every major hold in Skyrim; Riften, Windhelm, Whiterun, Markarth, Solitude, they're all in my pocket."
"How can I trust you?"
He dipped his head, "I didn't have a choice to join the Family. I had to. I accidentally killed a contract, it was join them or die. When the Night Mother started to talk to me and no one else I couldn't leave. She chose me."
She lowered her sword, "Who are your gods, Imperial?"
He shook his head, "Once, the Divines, but I am sworn to Nocturnal, and maybe Sithis."
"Swear by Nocturnal then," Delphine ordered.
"I swear, by my honor as a Servant of Nocturnal, to help you in whatever way I can to stop the Thalmor, and help the Dragonborn. My name is Cato Aventus."
Esbern nodded, "He swore, Delphine, let him go."
Still cursing herself for not swinging she stepped away, "We need to move, they're in the Ratway."
They opened the door and started walking through the tunnels," There's a hidden entrance to the Cistern here somewhere, a ladder going up. We need to find it."
That's when they heard the shouts, "They went this way!" one called.
"Damn it!" Delphine cursed.
Cato searched, "There!" he called, pointing to a small metal ladder. "That leads to the Guild! Make them seal the door behind you! Quick! Get up! If they question tell them..." he paused, "Tell them, tell Karliah or Brynjolf 'eyes open and walk with the Shadows' if they threaten you. Now GO!"
"What about you?"
He turned to face the rest of the hall, "I'll hold them off. GO!"
She wasn't about to argue. Esbern started up the ladder, she followed. She caught a glimpse of Cato as he slipped into shadows. Then she heard the screams of the Thalmor men. She didn't know who to pity.