First off, I want to apologize profusely and earnestly for how long overdue this chapter has been. Secondly… I think this may be worth the wait because I am proud of how it has turned out, and I really hope that if you can forgive my failure as a timely author enough to read you will enjoy it! But first, onto the review responses…

Vicracto- I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Onasaki- Thank you so much! And yes, yes you do need to get an Oblivion fic up!

Pan- I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And, without giving too much about the coming chapter away, I'm sorry to say that Caelia doesn't die just yet… but next chapter, I swear it! I originally planned on killing her in this one but once it hit 21 pages I realized it was time to end it. And your continued interest and reviewing really means a lot to me, so I can't thank you enough!

Slickn'Smoov- Ahh, it's been an even longer time now! I'm truly sorry, and I hope you are still around to read and enjoy!

Brother Unbroken- Thank you! That means a lot.

Azura45- Awww, you're too kind! I hope you get to read this chapter.

No.136- I'm glad that you didn't miss the Necromancer mission- I was alittle apprehensive over skipping it, but I think it turned out for the best as well. And I'm also glad that you're enjoying the Lucien/Adrienne tension, and your perception into her killing of Matthias is impressive. I look forward to hearing what you think of this chapter, and thank you for the awesome review!

Hazza137- I'm so happy you've enjoyed it for this long, and I really hope that you have written a fanfic about the Brotherhood- there can never be enough! Good luck!

Undefined Soul- You're too kind, I'm really glad you enjoyed it!

Ossoona- Thank you! It means a lot.

Red Nightfall- Ooh, once again, sorry to say that Caelia has to wait for the next chapter. But I hope that you enjoy this one, and get excited for her death, because I have plans!

Neutral Ground- First off… wow. I've never received such an indepth (or long!) review. I appreciate the time and effort you put into it, but let me just address some of the things you brought up. I really like it when a main character has a connection with an animal, and having experienced this myself with horses, and many other creatures, I don't think it's fair to just make it into a "syndrome"… however, I see how it may annoy some. And the character flaw/too-cool-for-school thing… I really try to make Adrienne a character with flaws, who is not perfect and all powerful. But I do see your point along the lines of cheap devices- however, this is not something I'm going to take too seriously, for it is meant only to be enjoyed. I understand if it is not to your taste, and I certainly take what you have said into account- but something like the psychic pet syndrome is here to stay :P

Oiranana- I'm sorry I did not update soon… I hope that you are still interested, but regardless, thank you for the review!

Lionpawheart- I have most certainly not ditched it! I never will, no matter how long it takes to finish it. I'm sorry to make everyone wait so long, and I'm going to try and be more punctual with my updates. Anyways, thanks for the review, and I hope you enjoy!

Galadriel High Elf Breton- You're so sweet! I'm glad you enjoyed, thank you for the review, and let me knw what you think of the next one!

TsukiharaKitty- Awww! I can't tell you how much your continued interest and following of this story means to me. This review was what gave me the motivation to finally finish this damned chapter! I hope you enjoy, and know that I finished it because of you!

And so, without further ado, I give you the long overdue next chapter of A Listener's Tale!

Chapter Twenty-One: At the Heart of the Matter

When preparing the assassination of the cavewoman Sibylla Draconis, one thing that I did not think to factor in to my plans was the presence of a full-grown, extremely pissed-off grizzly bear. So it was quite an unpleasant surprise when I was faced with just that.

I mean, the gifting service letter had mentioned that the daughter was a bit… wild, but I had assumed (the letter was from the old woman's point of view, after all) that might mean Sibylla didn't eat with a napkin in her lap- or, heaven forbid, without any silverware at all! What I certainly did not expect to encounter was a cave-dwelling woman who just happened to have a pet grizzly bear. But that's exactly what I ended up with.

Since I did have rather low expectations for this kill, I was untroubled about the task ahead as Shadowmere and I made our journey down the Yellow Road on route to Muck Valley Cavern. In fact, my thoughts were not even focused on my next target; for instead I was harshly and mentally reprimanding myself, thinking of the kill I had committed not an hour past- the assassination of Matthias Draconis.

But what an execution it had been- the poor man had had no idea what was coming, making his shock almost as satisfying as the kill itself. Yet after my initial euphoria at this began ebb away, I started to feel uneasy. I knew that I had done wrong. I was not being careful- I was allowing my emotions and desires to come before reason and self-restraint. With another uncomfortable realization I knew that I had once again come very close to capture, just as I had been during my Adamus Phillida contract- even though I had sworn to myself that that would never happen again.

I sighed, ashamed of my loss of control. What was wrong with me? I had always prided myself in my command over my actions, over my kills. My face set in a foul expression, I brooded for a moment, trying hard not to think of my past successes in comparison to this failure... but I was failing miserably.

I mean, look at the Summitmist Manor assignment! My mind chastised me, forgetting any effort I had made to keep these thoughts at bay. I held back my lust and effectively eliminated five guests without event being suspected until the very end! And now I couldn't even wait five minutes to kill someone I had not even known long enough to hate… or at least, not hated as long as those guests, I amended with a smirk.

But my thoughts turned solemn- for it was with a certain grimness that I realized the reality of my situation- and how important it was becoming that I be far more cautious than I had been. Especially since, if things kept going on in the same careless way, I was well on my way to becoming what one may refer to as a high profile assassin- one who would be recognized in the streets merely by appearance. Not that it would mean much of a drastic change of lifestyle for myself, I thought with a sudden gloominess- but it certainly would affect my ability to fulfill contracts as easily.

Well, I might as well start my reassertion of control now, I thought- and so I spent the rest of my wild gallop towards the cave planning my assassination of Sibylla Draconis, plotting how she would die, if I would reveal myself, what weapons I would use- but it all depended on reaching Muck Valley before dawn. If I didn't, I would have to improvise...

But this part of my plan went well at least, for I felt a thrill rise up in my stomach as I could just barely make out the first rays of sunshine starting to peak out over the mountaintops when I arrived at the cave. I dismounted from Shadowmere's high back, immediately throwing myself into action. I would only have one chance for it to work, and I didn't want to waste it. I permitted myself time to take a quick, much needed sip from my canteen before starting up the side of the cavern's entrance, sending Shadowmere further up the path and out of sight with a click of my tongue.

My feet slid in the dewy moss as I scrambled up to the highest point that I could possibly reach, perching myself there on a damp rock right above the cave's decaying door. Rocks tumbled from the edge I stopped upon, but the ledge held strong and I adjusted myself into an advantageous position, bow in hand and dominant foot out. My muscles were sore from being stiff upon the back of a horse for so long, and so time seemed so drag by as I waited for my moment- the moment where I would strike, where I would make my kill.

My legs were groaning in protest as the minutes dragged on- I was seriously considering readjusting myself into a more comfortable (but less prepared) position when I finally heard a faint sound beneath me, just after the sun had peaked out over the mountaintops. I stiffened, instantly alert and a rush of exhilaration rushing through my body. I didn't have to wait long for something else- vibrations of movement echoed within the cave beneath me, my hypersensitive body feeling everything. My muscles in a heightened state of anticipation, I felt my movements' precision as I strung my bow and pulled the arrow back with an arm quivering in excitement. Bringing it level to my eye, I squinted and prepared to aim. I was going to kill…

The heavy rotting wooden door swung open and I could smell the cavewoman before I saw her. Resisting the urge to shoot her before she had even taken a step, I instead watched her enter the growing light. I saw that she had murky brown hair that was matted and frizzy from a lack of attention, and skin almost as dark as a Redguards' from layers upon layers of grime. I waited another moment, watching her consider her surroundings in an almost suspicious way. And suddenly I knew that she had sensed my presence; that she was going to turn any moment now and see me. So I did not waste any more time. It was now or never…

She had started to turn, her head looking over her right shoulder, when suddenly her body jerked forward, a hand going to her chest. I smiled- for I was quite sure that the arrow I had just imbedded into the back of her heart had gone straight through her body and pierced out from her front.

She started to crumple to the ground, her body rotating as she fell so she ended up landing roughly on her back. I watched with a dark pleasure as the arrow pushed even deeper into her lithe body when she hit the ground, her pain evident as her eyes drew shut tight in agony. A guttural cry escaped her chapped lips, and her breathing became raspy and forced. Another wail echoed from her, but even through the anguish she worked to open her eyes and frantically look around her- each movement a struggle, but she did not stop searching, urgently trying to locate her attacker, to understand what had just happened.

It did not take long to find me- I had not bothered to camouflage myself well, and after all I was just above her on the ledge- and as her eyes met mine I let out the breath I had been holding since my release of the arrow. In return to her horrorstruck gaze I gave a small smirk, in no way troubled by her discovery. I knew that she would be dead in minutes, either by bleeding out from the wound or the lethal poison that I had begun to tip my arrows with.

My smirk widened into a full smile, mood elated as I felt my bloodlust being satiated (for the time being, at least), and pleased that everything was going to plan- but I'd barely had time to stand up, my joints cracking stiffly at the effort, when things changed very quickly.

It started as a dull thumping- just an odd sensation touching softly against my sensitive feet. But this innocent pulsation quickly grew in intensity and just seconds later I looked down in horror as the ground vibrated in a strength much greater than Sibylla had created in her passing. I could see the very rock beneath my feet quivering from the turbulence, and with a sense of ominous fear I slowly peered over the edge of the cave mouth, my heart thudding in anticipation. I felt my breath catch up in my throat as I sighted what had created such a commotion- a massive, furry creature, larger than I could have ever imagined possible.

An instant later a wave of dread struck me as I came to the menacing realization that I was looking down at a full-grown grizzly bear.

I watched, my body frozen in an astonished stupor, as the bear lumbered out towards the dead woman. My aunt had read to me of these ferocious creatures in my youth, and I had always been fascinated by the drawings depicting bears mauling their enemies. I remembered that they were fiercely protective of their family and young, but if you let them be they would most likely ignore you…

And so I crouched down, making myself less conspicuous- but I had no intention of leaving the scene just yet. I continued to watch the bear, and quite unexpectedly a strange feeling washed over me. The size of this creature, the way I could see the strength in his thick muscles that rippled with every step, his thick claws pulling up dirt and grass; it made me suddenly and terribly aware of how utterly insignificant I was in the natural world- and it was quite an alarming wake up call to my self-worth. If I had to face this giant in battle, without the aid of my weapons, I knew I would be finished in seconds.

An odd sensation had descended upon me as I considered the beast from my vantage point. This thing was not human- this was a living, breathing creature that was completely innocent in its ignorance, unaware of what evil could be done. It only had the basic instincts; to kill for food, mate for reproduction, and to survive, by whatever means necessary…

I continued to watch the bear, my strange feeling only intensifying- and it became a feeling that I could not identify, could not explain. Was it a feeling of pity, or resentment, or anger? Or was it one of jealousy, of envy?

But whatever emotion I was experiencing, I knew that I had subconsciously prepared to watch the creature finish the job that I had started- but I was thrown even further into confusion when the bear nudged the woman in the arm, not devouring her as I had expected, but instead giving a guttural cry as it sniffed Sibylla's bleeding wound. She shifted, the pain evident in every move that she made, every breath that she took. I watched as the woman was still for a moment, as though gathering strength- and then in a sudden outburst of energy lifted her arms, one desperately gripping the bear's ear, as though she could not keep it up on her own accord- and the other was limply pointed upwards, and I felt a flash of horror as she unsteadily aimed her pointed finger at me.

She lingered there for a second, wavering in the effort, before her hand fell heavily to the ground. I waited for the bear to follow her gesture, but he was instead watching as Sibylla gave a final heaving breath, her back arching in her agony. But then the air grew chill and still as slowly her muscles relaxed, her body falling still as her soul finally found eternal peace from the endless suffering.

The bear cocked his head to the side when her hand fell and stood frozen in place; waiting, it seemed, for her to pat his matted fur once again. When she made no move to do so he lightly caressed her face, rubbing his long snout over her skin. Sibylla remained still while the bear seemed to grow more and more distressed- he gave a little cry and nudged her motionless form with more intensity, almost a sense of desperation in his movements. Despite his earnest efforts, Sibylla Draconis still did not move. The bear pulled back, now not touching the woman, just watching her lifeless form for one more moment in an almost distrustful and misbelieving manner. Her chest was not rising and falling in the rhythm of breath- the bear could not even hear the steady thump coming from within her bones.

And it was then that the beast finally seemed to understand what this meant, to accept the awful truth; that Sibylla was dead, gone forever, never to return. As this moment of comprehension was fully realized the creature gave a guttural cry that echoed far and wide with rage and sorrow- I felt it rattle my bones and shake my soul with the raw emotion, the primal power of that cry of anguish, and I was stunned by its effect upon me.

Somehow I could feel that this bear and this woman had been connected; that they had been friends, companions... and I had taken her from him. He was alone.

Just then, the bear seemed to remember Sibylla's last movement- her feeble point in my direction- and he turned about and sniffed the air, following her gesture with puzzled eyes for a second before spotting me. I had remained rooted in spot, my chest still has I held my breath in complete awe of the scene.

There was a brief silence where I met the bear's eyes, both of our bodies motionless- the moment stretched on and I could feel the hatred, the intense pain and betrayal, as the bear realized that I was the one who had committed this deed, this atrocity against him. And then his eyes turned fiery and I felt the awful heat burning into me as he let out another roar that was so full of malice, of anger, of intense grief and a desire for revenge that it shook my very soul- a roar that I'm sure could be heard for miles. The entire province shook with his rage, and this is finally what awoke me from my paralyzed state.

In a flash I had drawn another arrow from the leather quiver upon my back and strung it into my bow, darting forward to the edge of the little cliff above the cave. The bear had risen from his half kneeling position and was clawing the ground with paws that could have held my entire head in the palm, a low growl coming threateningly from his fanged snout. I drew the arrow back in the bow the furthest I could bear, my arm shaking from the strain as I lifted the bow to eye level and squinted, trying to find my aim. The grizzly rose up on his back legs, stretching to his full height (which was more than twice my size, I became quite suddenly and chillingly aware of) and let out another ferocious roar, spit flying out between his set of long, razor sharp fangs. In a burst of exhilaration I let my arrow fly, not daring to hold on to it any longer.

I watched with wide eyes as my arrow struck the beast just below my mark, imbedding deeply in the center of his ribcage. With a groan the bear fell forward, the ground quivering as he crashed to the forest floor. I had already drawn another arrow and directed at the bear's chest once again- but then I froze, watching as the bear tried to stand. His muscles gave out, instead dropping to his knees with hind legs trembling and another echoing crash. His breath was labored; no other sound coming from him- that agonizing roar was gone, echoing on only in my mind. Another moment passed and the bear made no more progress, and I slowly started to accept that my aim had been true- that the bear was going to die.

I lowered my weapon with shaking hands, adrenaline still beating strong through my veins. The bear had lowered his head, wheezing, and I thought I could hear the whisper of death rising. Suddenly my mouth felt dry, my body restless- and I wanted to forget this encounter that had so affected me, so shook my composure. So I forced myself to think of business, of my task- with a calming breath I remembered the strict schedule I had set to follow if the rest of my plan for the Draconis family was to unfold correctly. And so, foolishly confident, I made the dire mistake of turning my back on a bear.

I had not yet taken two steps back towards the path before the very air around me changed- a tension so thick I could nearly taste it, and the sounds behind me shifting from a pathetic wheezing to an ominous silence. I turned about wildly, alarm ringing throughout my body- and I was just able to take a sudden gasp of breath, duck, and tumble roughly down the side of the cave wall.

If I had waited just a second more I would have ended up just another headless corpse, unable to tell my story, for the moment I had let my guard down the bear had leapt wildly at me, his claws bearing outward and jaw spread wide, ready to rip whatever they first touched to shreds.

But my training and instincts kept me from this fate, and instead I tumbled just beneath of the reach of the hurtling bear and rolled clumsily off of the edge, landing heavily on the ground below. I felt my skin rip as it grated against the rock, and the soft flow of blood seeping through the torn membrane- but there was no pain. There was no time for pain- only for the fear. As I scrambled to my feet, fully aware of the blood dripping down from my knees and elbows, I will freely admit that I was terrified.

I heard the bear collide spectacularly with the rock, his momentous leap having missed its mark. I didn't even allow myself a second of self-congratulation at having so narrowly avoided death, for I knew that my evasion had only angered the creature more. And so with my heart beating a hole in my chest and the blood pumping so hard throughout my veins that I was sure they would explode, I started to run. I heard the bear behind me pushing himself off of the ground with a furious growl that made it quite clear that he had full intention of ending my life, and probably with as much pain as could be arranged.

My steps were frenzied and unsteady as I ran along the edge of the lake. The bear's anger was so overpowering- I could not hear anything over the pounding fury that was consuming my body, I could not think! I was running aimlessly, my thoughts illegible, no plan, no goal- only to run.

I was beginning to go uphill now, and I could feel my legs starting to strain at the efforts- and yet, I could still feel the bear's presence close behind, growing ever closer with every step. I imagined his large fangs and slobbery lips enclosing around my body, tearing my skin and slurping my own scarlet blood- and I felt my heart skip a beat, the notion of my own death causing my very heart to freeze in fear.

But I couldn't let my fear overwhelm me; my fear was so weak, so pathetic! With all the mental power I could muster I pushed my thoughts from the imminence of my own death and instead tried to think about survival, of life- and to live, I needed a plan. I was dodging in and out of trees now, the forest becoming denser around me. The bear was closing on me; I could hear the excitement, the sadistic joy, in his labored breathing that was growing ever nearer.

I forced myself to think rationally… I would have to do something- and fast- if I wanted to come out of this encounter alive. I looked wildly about, trying to find something that could help me in my dire situation, but in order to not stumble or slow my pace I could only see flashes of images, flying past before I could make much sense of them. I saw the tall grass, a small bird, a boulder, a tree, a… tree! A tall, many-branched tree that could be easily climbed…

Without a second thought I veered to my left, jumped up on a large rock and leapt into the tree, scrambling up into its branches. Bark peeled off beneath my shaking fingers, pointed branches scratching my body while sap clung to my skin with a syrupy stick- yet I noticed none of it, my mind focused on one thing. And that was the approaching bear.

The creature reached the base of my tree, immediately rising to his hind legs to swipe with thick paws at my dangling legs. A claw nicked the edge of my boot and I let out a shriek of fear, scuttling higher into the birch's branches. He pawed the air again, but safely out of reach of any of my limbs. I continued to climb higher as the beast let out a roar of frustration. I chanced a look down, and was met with the angry stare of a creature's primal bloodlust, flames in his eyes and death in his pupils. I was transfixed- and as I stared, he grew still, watching me as I watched him.

There was a silence, a dark sort of understanding passing between the creature and I. As the moment stretched on, the bear watching me calmly, his eyes now a black void- I was suddenly overwhelmed with the strange and completely irrational sense that he was going to turn around and leave- that the creature was going to relinquish his control and let me go unharmed.

But a moment later I was quite unprepared when the beast suddenly struck forward, pushing all of his body weight against the base of the tree in a violent tackle- the fire was back. My grip had loosened on my anchor branch, my feet balanced upon a thin and easily swayed stick- and with the force of the bear's attack the entire tree shook, my body thrown from its perch. I started to fall downwards, straight into the claws of the animal that desired nothing more then to tear me limb from limb.

However, the good thing about falling out of a tree is that there is normally something there to intercept your fall (now I don't say "cushion your fall" for a reason). I had dropped backwards, but my fall was cut short as my spine struck a lower branch almost instantly, my body recoiling in pain and shock. I fell another few feet before two more branches intercepted me, my skull cracking heavily on one and my ankle curling painfully around another. My world was spinning now, my head pounding- nothing was clear, I could do nothing- and I plummeted the last few feet to the ground, just feet from the bear.

When I hit the forest floor my breath was taken from my body, my skull throbbing painfully while my wrist landed awkwardly beneath my body. I couldn't think, my head was heavy, my thoughts and vision blurred. My chest heaved with agony as I tried to inhale, and I coughed and rolled over to my side. I lay for a second there, desperately trying to breathe, when something like a survivor's instinct kicked in- for quite suddenly my vision became clear. And I was looking straight into the face of the bloodthirsty bear, triumph in his scarlet eyes.

I rolled over to my back, trying to push myself away from the bear, pathetically unable to stand, to move- he had dropped down on four legs again, licking his lips in anticipation- I could feel his victory, my death, approaching- my life was going to end- everything I had done, every soul I had taken for Sithis, all of my future ambitions, coming down to this one, final moment here in the woods.

There was nothing I could do. I had no control over my future, my present- and for a brief second, I felt all resolve ebbing away, my body ready to accept death.

My mind's eye was desperately reliving my past, grasping at memories that soon be lost forever with the end of my life. I saw the face of my aunt with her rosy, chubby cheeks, grinning widely as she shared the latest gossip; I saw fire, my aunt's linen shop burning to the ground, taking her with it; than an old woman and her farm, tucked away in the cold of the North; and the faces of my family appeared, slowly swimming out of the darkness… Ocheeva, Gogron, Vicente, Teinaava… and Lucien. His mysterious, brooding expression, his dark eyes, defined features… I was failing him, here, now. Failing. I was so weak

But than someone's face entered my mind whose words had haunted my dreams for so many years… the man who had saved, and in doing so ultimately destroyed, my innocence. I would never forget what he had said to me, never. I saw it replay as though it were yesterday, "You can never lose control, never show limitation, never give in to weakness- for only the strong survive! And sometimes that's all you can do- just keep surviving… "

And then I knew I would never let this happen- that this defeat, this death, were not something I would allow. I would never sit back and let someone else control anything for me. I couldn't have it; I couldn't let my last moments be fully at the hands of another! I would not go out without a fight!

The bear was preparing to strike now, his claws drawn back and fangs open and ready to feast- I reached for my sword, drawing it in one swift motion and holding it before me, a mere twig in the path of the great creature, but rebellion it was nonetheless- I closed my eyes and waited for the end to come- but as I sat there with my eyes shut and my mind open, the moment passed- and death did not come.

There came a surprising, unexpected sound of something striking a body, and my eyes flew open in alarm to find that the bear has fallen back, his attack intercepted by something- I couldn't make out what it was, the light was dull in the thick wood and my vision was still woozy from my head bashing… but suddenly I heard the whinny of a horse, a great mare! I felt my soul lighten as I finally set my sight on Shadowmere, her dark coat glistening and red eyes flashing as she fell back from her vicious rear.

The bear turned back to face its unknown assailant, an indignant growl coming from behind his unsatisfied fangs. Shadowmere bucked her head forward threateningly, snorting in derision at his fury. He gave a glance back at me and seemed to decide I could be saved for later- and so he turned back to the horse, rising to his hind legs and roaring ferociously. Shadowmere immediately retaliated, rising up to her hind legs as well and swiping forward with her front hooves, striking with such speed and precision that the bear was thrown unsteadied before he had time to even register the attack.

As the bear was struggling to regain his balance, behind him I was rising to my feet, using my sword to push myself up. I was outraged at being dismissed so easily by the bear as easy prey- he thought I was weak enough to be let alone for a while before he could come back for the kill, huh? Well, we'll just see about that…

With a cry of indignation, fury and desperation, I used every bit of strength and balance that I had left in my battered and bruised body to raise my longsword above my head, taking a huge stride and putting all the force I could muster into sinking the blade downwards into the bear's exposed back. I pierced strong and deep, and I was sure I felt a bone crack in the bear's back, my hands clamped tight around the hilt.

The creature gave a great cry, his body recoiling in surprise and unexpected pain- but I barely had time to give a triumphant cry before something collided with my shoulder, sending my body flying sideways into the trunk of the tree I had just fallen from. My sword fell limply at my side as my body screamed out in protest- the bear had turned and swiped me with his great paw, his pain and fury at my attack echoed in the strike.

Now the bear seemed to have deemed me worthy of his attention, and started towards me, his great jaws open, ready to rip my neck open- in a last moment of desperation I grabbed my sword, brandishing it upwards like a spear just as I had moments before- but this time nothing interfered with the creature's attack, and his fangs were just above my skin now, just about to rip me open and feast on my blood- but at the last instant, where I felt his hot breath open my flesh, I pushed my blade upwards with the force of one who has nothing left to lose, straight up through his jaw, piercing bone and up into the soft flesh of his brain.

His eyes, so close to mine, had been so red and full of fire- but as I watched they almost instantly dulled, the flame extinguished and the whisper of death in the air. I was still holding my sword, panting with fear and effort, the bear's body collapsed just inches from my own. I was alive.

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If there were one place that didn't exist solely for the function of nefarious affairs that Lucien Lachance could still appreciate, well… that place would have to be the province of Skingrad. With its elegant stonework, spiraling towers and lush gardens the city appealed to his more refined tastes, developed from years of childhood as the son of a minor noble lord. The details of the city's past stretched back significantly farther and in more detail than other cities in Cyrodiil, and these stories were far more memorable and fascinating than most as well (at least in Lucien's rather macabre tastes). Each building had a history, every structure a sense of venerable character, the immense gardens enchanting as well as productive- Lucien knew of no better wine than that produced in the fields he was now gazing out over. In short, he had a certain fondness for the city, and its surrounding lands- and that may have affected his choice of meeting place with Adrienne.

His thoughts were not presently on the woman assassin, though her image had become a more and more frequent presence in his mind, unbidden as it was. In fact, his thoughts were not pleasant at all, despite his appreciation of the countryside. For his mind was set now on the Black Hand, and the most recent news he had received from those above him. It had come by courier, of course- for Sithis forbid that the Black Hand actually meet in person to discuss highly important and critical matters that had, in fact, already started to shake the foundation of the Brotherhood itself! No, our illustrious and astute Listener has deemed it prudent to exchange information only through letters…

Lucien let out a low snarl at his thoughts, glaring at countryside that would usually provide him with a far more agreeable feeling. He gave a snort of derision as his thoughts continued- Letters, which not only can be intercepted, but also take time to deliver- keeping the information contained within from those who need it most, for periods of time that could be critical! The contents of this newest letter had been kept quite for too long for Lucien to be comfortable- far too long, especially now when each moment that passed truly was vital.

For the information that Lucien had received had to do with a longstanding issue within the Brotherhood- something that had been working behind the shadows for longer then even he could have imagined. But the worst part about receiving this news was that he believed he had taken care of this matter. He believed he had sacrificed a great deal, and forced another to sacrifice everything, to do so. And now it seemed it was all for nothing.

With a sigh of disgust Lucien slipped his black-gloved hand into a hidden pocket in his dark robes, producing a tattered looking envelope with a dark scarlet seal. Once more he unfolded its contents, holding the weatherworn paper with care. He had received it this morning- as he had made his way out of the Imperial City a rather downtrodden looking Breton had approached him and passed the letter along. Lucien was fairly certain that the courier had appeared so ragged because he was almost certainly being overworked as of late, considering all the news that was being passed along.

As he read the hastily scrawled lines of (rather elementary-looking, Lucien scoffed) script, quotes jumped out from the page at him:

"…highest ranking member of the Bruma Sanctuary, next in line for Silencer, found slaughtered this past afternoon…in location only a Brotherhood member of high ranking could have had any knowledge of…there is no doubt that this was the work of the Traitor, despite our previous conviction that they had been eliminated in the Third Purification… further investigation will follow…"

The rest was unskillfully masked attempts to make the situation appear better than it was- but the Speaker could easily see through these games. The situation was, in fact, very dire. This Traitor had been working for only Sithis knew how long, for it seemed that with every new discovery that the reach of this deceiver had been stretched further back then imagined, and even now continued to evade their plans to eliminate him… or her? Lucien grimaced- the gender of the Traitor had not even been determined, that was how much they lacked in information!

And now it seemed that the targets of this figure were becoming higher in rank- before the victims had been nobodies, inconsequential within the Brotherhood's structure of power. Now, however, the Traitor was becoming bolder, more daring- and that worried Lucien, and, he was sure, the rest of the Black Hand. But this may also suggest, he amended, that fueled by his successes, the Traitor was more likely now to make a hasty and ill planned move- he was more likely to make a mistake.

The Speaker smiled darkly, for this was what he was waiting for. Once this infiltrator of all he held dear made his first blunder, his first misstep, it would all be over- even if Lucien had to handle it himself. In fact, he would prefer to take the matter into his own hands. The news that the Traitor was still alive had not been more harrowing for any within the Dark Brotherhood than Lucien- at least at this present time. For it meant that third Purification, the Purification of his Sanctuary members… of his family… had been for nothing. All the pain had been needless, all of the hardship for nothing.

He felt a second wave of anger spreading, but then he thought of Adrienne- and his fury deflated. His distress could be nothing compared to that which would be of his Silencer, the only one he had left from his carefully selected Sanctuary. And he had put her through this, he had made her perform this gruesome act, and therefore he was responsible for the greatest trauma she had ever endured, and most likely would ever endure…

But no- Lucien scolded himself. He was not to blame here- he had only been working as a messenger, an agent to carry out the decision of the entire Black Hand. He recalled that meeting as if it were yesterday, the meeting where the death of everyone within his Sanctuary had been deemed not only necessary, but imminent. With a harsh shock, he realized this event that had so drastically altered everything he knew had not occurred long ago, as it seemed to him- it had only been mere weeks since the execution of the third Purification.

He certainly hoped that the two Purifications that had occurred before in the Brotherhood's history had been decided on so rashly. The meeting itself had been hastily called- Lucien had received the surprising news that the Black Hand was actually going to meet in person just hours before the time had been set, and he'd barely been able to arrive promptly at the meeting place. It was strange; for he had grown used to the only interaction between the Black Hand being in written form, seeing as they had not met in person for the past year at the very least. His idealistic hope that things might finally be changing was quickly distinguished, however- for it was made quite apparent not long after arrival that the decision had already been made before the meeting began. And it was not the decision he was hoping for.

He grimly recalled Ungolim's words (spoken eloquently enough that Lucien was quite sure the Listener had been rattling off a previously prepared speech, and one that the little wood elf had most certainly not written himself). When the gravity of what the Listener was proposing had set in, there had been a shocked silence that lasted for several moments.

The first to speak had been a Speaker by the name of Arquen, an Altmer whore-turned assassin who always acted in a rash manner, never planning ahead or pondering a situation before taking action. And she, of course, supported the opinion of any who could bring her higher standing within the Brotherhood's rankings. So the conversation started badly, and slowly but surely became worse and worse.

Lucien was the only strong voice against the Purification- he knew there were more who felt his opinion was the right one, but their fear of those above them kept their voices all but silent- and so he was mostly overwhelmed by the loud and ignorant. However, he realized something that most there did not. The real influence that was running the meeting, the one who kept the focus and decision on the carrying out of the Purification, had been someone who was not a loud voice at all.

His name was Mattieu Bellamont, a young but talented Breton that had been one of Lucien's protégées for many years before his ascent to Speaker. Bellamont had not followed the path his mentor would have chosen for him, however- and Lucien was forced to accept that there was no hope when the Breton had shown himself to be a strong supporter of the Purification. Lucien watched with a bleak sensation of surrender as he saw the boy he had had such hope for worked carefully and firmly to sway those who had not already been weak-minded enough to be influenced by Ungolim's words. Bellamont's subtle manipulation had been quite impressive; Lucien had to admit, though it infuriated him to do so. He hoped the man, wherever he was, had read the same letter that Lucien now held crinkled in a tight fist, and was feeling shame and guilt for what he had brought about…

Shaking his head darkly, the Speaker of a family of two turned his thoughts back to the task at hand. He had written Adrienne's dead drop letter, detailing the specifics of their meeting, just after having finished her Draconis family note. He had no doubt in her ability to complete the task, and he chuckled to himself as he thought of the haste she was making- much more then he could have hoped for, in fact. He was quite sure that she would be retrieving the letter he was about to set before next dawn, if she kept her pace. So that would mean they could possibly be meeting within twenty-four hours…

There was a small smile upon his face as he entered the castle walls, the sun just nearly at its highest and warming his dark-clothed back. Before making his way to the well in the courtyard he couldn't help but stop and admire the splendor of Castle Skingrad- its tall, spiraling towers were a beauty to behold, with vines and flowers growing from between the stones to give it a tastefully old appearance. But Lucien's favorite part of the castle was the great bridge leading to the upper tier. Viewed from afar at night, with its torches brightly lit, the bridge was one of his favorite sights.

After appreciating the great Castle, he walked down the cobbled street to the center of the courtyard, where a stone well sat, bucket swaying expectantly from its rope. His eyes darted to the upper floor surrounding the well- there were two guards, each standing at their posts with a clear view of the courtyard. Lucien realized that he was quite suspicious looking with his dark robes and hood, and he certainly did not want to be seen lowering his parcel into the well- but he also certainly did not want to wait. So, with a smirk, he removed a ring from one of the many pockets hidden beneath his robes and slipped it onto his finger.

Once he was sure that everything he was carrying was hidden from view behind his invisible form, he stepped out into the light and strode swiftly towards the well, keeping his steps silent but quick. When he reached the bucket he stopped, looking towards the guards posted above him. He would wait until they looked away, and slip the parcel inside- because once the letter left the inside of his cloak it would become visible, and the last thing that Lucien wanted was for the Skingrad guards to see a floating package in the courtyard, for it would almost certainly raise an alarm.

Now, lowering the bucket while still invisible, that was a different story… a bucket lowering itself into the well would just scare them, and was all in good fun, he smirked.

So Lucien waited for several moments until the opportune time struck- one guard sneezed extravagantly while the other turned to open the door for a beautiful maiden exiting the room he was posted outside of- and the Speaker slipped the letter and money satchel inside the bucket, immediately beginning to lower it slowly but surely once he was sure it was secure. The guards did not seem to notice the action, at first, but as the rope started to make more noise, creaking with the effort of lowering the surprisingly heavy bucket, they turned their attention towards the well. Lucien smirked as unease steadily spread to their faces as they could clearly hear the bucket clanging up against the inner well walls as it was lowered, and saw the rope moving steadily downwards- all seemingly of its own accord.

When the Speaker felt the bucket touch the surface of water, he looped the rope off so it would fall no further and backed up, looking up at the guards. His smile widened as he saw their discomfort turn into fear- he watched as they exchanged looks, as though trying to confirm with the other that they were not crazy. With a silent chuckle, Lucien turned to leave the courtyard, confident that they would never look further into the incident in fear of seeming mad- but as he did so a sudden and overwhelming feeling stopped him in his tracks.
He swiveled on his heel, looking back from he had come, carefully scrutinizing the area- but it was still just the two guards, and no one else was in sight. But this feeling, it was so intense, so palpable! He looked down at where his body should be- so he was still invisible, he was sure of it- but his instinct was making it known that someone was watching him. And his instinct was what had gotten him this far in the dark and complex underworld of assassination… and he wasn't about to ignore it now.

With one last look over his shoulder, Lucien turned back towards the castle gate and skirted towards it, sliding along the walls and trying to stick to the shadows as much as possible. Once he exited the gates he immediately turned to the left, sliding along the wall until he reached the ledge leading off the side- which he dropped off of, falling the fifteen or so feet before hitting the ground agilely. His crouch was like that of a panther, and his eyes had turned from their usual dark to the almost amber of the great cat- keen and aware.

He glanced upwards- there didn't seem to be anyone behind him, but he wasn't taking any chances, and he certainly was not going to make it easy for anyone to follow him. For he was fairly convinced that this sensation was one he had felt many times before- a sensation that typically happened when someone set out to kill him. Normally it was another assassin from some smaller guild, or even a close friend or family member of one of his targets.

Afterall, Lucien Lachance was a rather well-known name in the assassin world, one tied to many impressive and notorious murders. So it did happen from time to time that someone would try to kill him, hoping that Lucien's glory would transfer to him or her as his killer. Thus far, however, each attempt the Speaker had taken care of with ease and grace- his favorite incident involving a bottle of wine, two wall tapestries and a red-hot fire poker.

But in this moment he had to admit that this sensation of being hunted was the most intense he had ever felt, and it would be a lie to say it did not bother or worry him. But Lucien was skilled in the art of the chase, and twenty minutes and several torn garments later he was making his way through the woods surrounding Skingrad, quite confident that he had lost his stalker.

Little did Lucien know that his follower had not been out for him… For when the two guards who had been on duty that day told of their experiences in the Skingrad Castle Courtyard, they spoke of the well bucket raising and lowering on its own accord not one, but two times that day.

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The first thing I was conscious of was the smell of peonies. A moment passed as I inhaled the sweet scent- then I became aware of the gentle lap of water against a soft shore. Birds in the trees. The soft hum of flies and bees buzzing around me. I tried to open my eyes, but I could see nothing yet. More sounds came- the soft neigh of a horse. The rustle of leaves in the wind. I let the smells envelope me, the sounds soothe me- another moment passed, and finally there was the sunshine, a red gleam pushing past my eyelids with almost irritating persistence.

My eyes opened slowly, adjusting to my surroundings little by little. I was laying facedown upon a patch of ground, dirt mixed with sand. I turned my head to the right, my muscles screaming in protest. I could see the water now- the lake. I must be back at the cave, I thought wearily. I turned to the left and saw the pink flowers that I had first smelt, and grazing in small patch of grass a little further back was Shadowmere. She turned about when I looked at her and gave a soft whinny.

Suddenly I recalled how I had gotten here- after the death of the bear, I had been so drained that I could barely stand. Shadowmere had helped me limp back to the shore of the lake outside the cave, where I had promptly collapsed on the ground and passed out. I looked up at the sky and saw that the sun was nearly at its highest point- so I must have been out for hours…

But it must have done me some good, because I felt that the pain in my head and basically entire body had abated, just a dull throbbing now as opposed to the debilitating agony it had been before. Yet one pain remained strong- and that was one in my right side, at the ribs. Rolling over to my left side carefully, I winced as I felt the stretch of torn skin on my right. I lifted my torn shirt up and started to roll it back, panting slightly in the anticipation and presence of great pain. I carefully drew it up past the wound, giving a sharp intake of breath when I sighted the cause.

The cut was deep, sliced downward across my outer right rib. It must have been from when the great bear had swiped me into the tree- his claw must have cut through without my even noticing at the time. It was still bleeding quite a lot, and I knew I would have to take care of it soon if I didn't want it to become a serious problem. All of my medicinal and alchemical supplies were in my shoulder bag, which I had left in my saddlebag upon Shadowmere's back.

I groaned, gave myself a moment of preparation, and then turned back to the horse and made a clicking noise with my tongue. She obediently trotted over, prancing in the long grass. She came up beside me, nudging her head against mine and nickering softly. I took a hold of her reins, the dark leather warm in my hands. Using them as leverage, I was just able to maneuver myself into a half standing position, and to untie the saddlebag. I started to carefully lower myself, wincing as I twisted my wound just slightly as I bent to the ground. I wanted nothing more then to get it over with, so it did not take me long to retrieve my shoulder bag, and the supplies I was searching for.

I made quick work of tending the wound, and drank a powerful health potion that I had created myself to finish the job. I lay back in the soft ground for a few moments, letting my remedies take effect. Relief was coursing through my body, the potion even helping to abate the soreness of my overstrained muscles. While I lay there I let my thoughts wander- and soon they settled on Shadowmere, who had returned to her grazing.

The horse and I had only been together for just over a week, but from our first ride we seemed to come to an understanding that I had never experienced with any other animal- and with few other humans. With even the slightest touch she would respond, speeding up, slowing down or turning on a whim of mine that I would sometimes barely recognize myself. And not just with riding did this instant insight apply- it seemed as though the mare could sense my moods and respond accordingly to them, be it a comforting nudge when I was upset or a whinny and dance when I was excited. I, in turn, could always tell how the horse was feeling through her movements and sounds. And I was already quite fond of her- it was nice to have a constant companion, I admitted to myself. For... I had become lonely, in the past weeks.

As much as I would try to hide it, to push the troublesome feeling away, I could not deny it now. Before... before, I had always had my family to return to, to share my joy in my contracts with, to laugh and pass time with... but not now. All I had was this horse... and Lucien, in a sense. At least you will be meeting with Lucien in person now, I told myself sternly, instead of all this dead drop nonsense. And stop your moping, this was your choice. I had had a choice, just as Vicente had said… A flash of pain shot through my heart at the thought of Vicente, duller than before but still present- but I pushed it away with an effort, determined to eliminate these weaknesses.

I had had a choice, and I had made it. This was my life now.

Deciding this train of thought was far too disheartening to continue, I turned my attention back to the healing process. Another moment and I was ready to stand, my thoughts starting to get back on task. I still had two victims to claim, and I wanted to finish this as quickly as possible. I pushed myself up off of the ground, my motions smoother and more fluid, the pain having faded away significantly even in that short amount of time. As I moved towards the horse, however, a pain in my stomach almost debilitated me once again. I was quite alarmed at first, but then I realized what its cause was- I was so hungry! I had not eaten in days, it seemed to my empty stomach.

Reasoning that I could wait to move on for a few moments, I reached into a saddlebag and grabbed an apple. Before I even had time to finish wiping off the dust from the apple's skin Shadowmere snorted indignantly, looking at me expectantly. With a roll of my eyes I held out the fruit on my palm. She reached out and delicately took it between her teeth, giving a grateful head toss before starting to chew noisily. Shaking my head with a small smile, I retrieved another apple and this time took a huge bite out of it myself. It's warm juices trickled down my chin, dripping pleasurably to the ground. As I bit into the heart of the apple, I suddenly remembered something else that I had to do before clearing out.

A dark and almost gleeful smile broke onto my lips as I looked up at the dead body of Sibylla and recalled my delicious plot- to take the heart of each Draconis family member…

I drew my dagger from its sheath, my heart fluttering and my face flushed slightly in excitement. I crouched down beside the body of Sibylla, my free hand hovering over her lifeless form, stroking the air just above her skin. It was already starting to get cold- I watched the flies buzzing mercilessly around her arrow wound, drinking the blood that had started to cake- it was so dark, so scarlet, and smelled so deliciously… but I could not appreciate the moment for too long, for a sense of urgency had descended upon me again- I had to keep moving.

After having carefully removed the arrow from the wound, I drew my dagger and cut out her heart, grinning sadistically at the hole through it that had come from my arrow. I wiped it as clean as I could before letting it slide into the front compartment of my shoulder bag, where I had moved the heart of Matthias. They made a delicious squelching sound as they rubbed together before settling into place. I retied the bag onto Shadowmere's side, who stood obediently as I tugged at the intricate knots, her scarlet eyes flashing. Realizing I had not yet thanked her formally for saving my life, I took her proud face in my hands and nuzzled her coarse mane.

"Thank you," I murmured softly, and she let out a soft neigh and her eyes softened as she rubbed my face softly back. It was amazing to see the changes the horse could take in personality- from a dark and demonic presence, hell bent on destroying and killing, to a soft and kind mare, nurturing and comforting her companion.

Shaking my head slightly, I took one last scan around the area before climbing astride Shadowmere's high back, nudging her forward. She responded eagerly, prancing ahead with an obvious enthusiasm to get moving. I looked up at the sky- it was just past noon now, maybe three-quarters past- but at this rate, I thought with a smile as the horse started to canter through the dense thicket, I should be arriving at the Drunken Dragon in under two hours. Two hours and I would make my next kill.

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Just over two hours later I was looking at the run down exterior of the Drunken Dragon Inn with a raised eyebrow and a scowl tugging at the corners of my lips. By Sithis, I could only imagine what sort of character Andy Draconis could be if this dump represented his life's dream

Shadowmere too seemed to share my opinion, for she let out a snort of derision after we'd finally crossed the bridge leading the shack they called an Inn, shaking her head and tossing her mane. I patted her neck softly, murmuring comforting words softly beneath my breath. I agreed completely, but I had work to do.

I reined her in behind the small fence and dismounted quickly, pulling her reins up and over her ears. I looped them lightly around the fence, giving the illusion that I had tied her up but knowing that it was quite unnecessary.

My first notion was to walk straight into the Inn and take care of business, so much so that my body was already turning towards the entrance- but common sense told me I should prepare myself before this execution. I suppressed my urge to barge in blade drawn and hack everyone to pieces, and instead took a step back and thought for a moment. I probably shouldn't draw too much suspicion to myself, and considering my recent kills it seemed like a good idea that I make an effort to kill the bartender unnoticed. The area did not seem like it had too many frequenters so I reasoned that if I was tactful I could probably get away with this without any problems.

I opened up one of my saddlebags and started rummaging through it until I felt my hand close around cold silver- my two throwing knives, which I had nicked from the counter of a nice weapon-smith in the Imperial City. Perfect to keep concealed at easy access, so I could slide them in and out for quick and stealthy kills- and also useful if my cover was blown. I slipped one each into a sleeve and smoothed out the wrinkles to hide their existence.

Next I pulled the Blade of Woe out from its' saddle sheath and pushed it under my belt- it was reasonable for a traveler on the roads to carry a weapon like this, I told myself, and I felt a strong connection to the blade. Finally, I slipped the Ring of Cruelty onto my right middle finger and pulled my long black hair into a ponytail, sliding loose strands that didn't make the cut behind my ear.

Feeling pretty confident that I was prepared, I took a deep breath and a step towards the door- but an indignant whinney came immediately from behind me, before I could even touch the door handle. I turned about quickly, perplexed by the call.

Shadowmere was looking at me expectantly, and I raised my eyebrow in confusion, searching for what she could possibly be referring to- and after a moment I looked down at myself and froze. My shirt was still torn nearly into tatters from the bear's attack, and there was dried blood caked all up the front of my body. Now I understood- thisoutfit certainly would not do well for my plans of stealth. I groaned and returned to my saddlebag, pulling out some thinner black linen pants and a dark green sleeveless shirt- I was headed to Leyawiin after all, and should prepare myself accordingly for the weather.

Once I had made sure there was nothing suspicious remaining on my person (I had changed into my new, clean outfit, wiped the streaks of blood from my cheek and slipped my throwing daggers into my boots instead of the now-absent sleeves), I walked slowly towards the door of the Inn, casting a look back at Shadowmere before entering that said "Do I pass inspection now?" The horse gave an approving nod, and so there was no other protest this time as I opened my hand grasped the handle and opened the heavy cast-iron door.

It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room, with only a half-lit candle chandelier in the back near the empty (and rather unnecessary) fireplace serving as light for the entire bar. There was a counter and stools, and a few tables and chairs scattered about to make the main room. There was a set of stairs leading up on my left to what I assumed were rooms and bed for travelers. I looked around the room more carefully, searching for my target and taking everything in- every piece of furniture, every utensil, every window- anything that could help or hinder me in my mission.

Finally I focused in on the man that stood behind the counter, cleaning glasses with a dirty rag. His face was shadows, so I could not be sure- but I felt it in my gut that this was my man. After carefully scanning the room I was sure that the only other occupant of the place was an Imperial Legion Officer sitting at the counter, large ale in hand. I couldn't be sure that there was no one upstairs, but by the state of the place I was confident that they didn't see too many customers. I could do this, and quietly too… I just needed to be careful.

So I took a breath, and stepped forward into the room. They both looked up as I came under the chandelier, and as soon as the man behind the counter raised and was illuminated under the light I knew, without any doubt, that he was in-fact Andreas, or Andy, Draconis. For his eyes were those of his mother's, less wrinkled and younger of course, but as soon as they met mine I flashed to his mother, the woman whose face I would never forget. It was quite unnerving at first, but as he spoke I drew myself from whatever place that memory could take me.

"Hello there miss, is there anything we could we help you with?" the son of my first kill asked with a polite smile, gesturing to the guard with his dishtowel.

"Yes- I was wondering if it would be possible to get a bed for the night. But first-" I said, coming down the steps and dropping myself down onto a stool, "-a glass of your finest wine!" I finished with a smile.

"Of course- on both accounts!" Andy said with a flourish, turning about and fishing through his supply of alcohol. I watched as he blew dust from the labels of bottles until the guard at my side spoke.

"So you need a bed for the night? You traveling far?" he asked good-naturedly.

"I've just come from Bruma and I'm on my way to Leyawiin, but I live in the Imperial City," I said, inventing wildly and easily. "I'm working as an apprentice to a jeweler who sends me all over Cyrodiil, checking and comparing other store's pricing on goods. It's an easy enough job for the wages, and I do enjoy to travel," I said with a shrug, taking the glass that Andy passed with to me with a grateful smile.

"It is nice to love what you do- this place here has been my dream for as long as I can remember, so everyday I work here is like something out of a fantasy," he said fondly, looking around the grubby room with pride in his eyes.

"It's a very fine establishment," I replied, making sure there was kindness in my voice. "And it is very important to love what you do, very important. I don't know how I would survive if I wasn't so passionate about my work," I continued, a small ironic smile on my lips that no one but me understood… at least for now.

"Well, anyone who's ever spent more than five minutes with Kev here knows how he feels about his line of work!" Andy laughed while swatting at the Legion Officer with his rag, who in turn ranked it from the bartender's hands and whipped it right back at him.

"What, you're not proud of the work you do?" I turned towards him as Andy scrambled to catch his rag, tilting my head inquisitively.

"Well, it's not that I'm not proud of my work, or even disinterested- it's just that I'm tired of all the corruption and dishonesty that goes on everywhere within the Legion, its just not right!" he exclaimed, but at the sight of Andy's expectant expression his fire died down, so he instead took a sip of his ale and spoke no more. There was a silence, but Andy flashed me a look that clearly said "But wait, there's more!" before speaking.

"Is that it Kev? What else?" he coaxed, a wicked grin on his rosy-cheeked face.

"Fine, fine, just don't mock me! It's also the fact that the hours are absolutely ridiculous, I never seem to be on duty on fair-weather days, I'm always filling out paperwork on little incidents that don't matter- "Oh no, Old Lady Gregorv lost her puppy! Last sighted: Saturday at noon, breed: retriever", etc. etc… And I have absolutely no free time to do what I want-"

Kev continued to rant while Andy leaned into me, pretending to nod along murming out of the corner of his mouth: "Now, I'm always asking him, if you have no free time, what do you call of the time you spend sitting here with me whining? But he normally doesn't react too well to that…" and he winked at me, before turning back with a look of almost mock attention towards Kev. I gave an appropriate quiet chuckle before doing the same.

"-and I'm stuck for at least the next two years because of the binding contract I signed when I first joined up. I mean, what in the name of the Nine is that anyway, a "binding contract"? How was I supposed to know what I wanted five, ten years from the day I signed that damned contract? It's a crazy, unjust system that they've got there, I'm telling ya, it's just-"

"Alright, alright!" Andy finally jumped in. "I didn't mean to start the whole works, I just wanted to let the lady know that not everyone is lucky enough to love their line of work! Sheesh…" he cried out, but there was a twinkle in his eye.

Kev lowered his head awkwardly, taking a drag from his ale before responding with an earnest expression.

"I'm sorry, miss, I just get a bit worked up about all that. It's a sore subject, see, and when it gets brought I tend to go on and on-"

"And on and on and on and… so on," finished Andy, laughing while giving the soldier a hearty clap on the shoulder.

"Yes, exactly," Kev said, smiling sheepishly.

I looked between both of them for a moment, as though marveling over the exchange I had just witnessed, and then let out an suitable hearty laugh. They soon joined in, and we had all made more progress on our drinks and joked back and forth for a time before the talk become more somber.

"It seems to me that the roads become more and more dangerous each time I set out to travel," I was saying. "Bandits and murderers everywhere!"

"There was been an huge leap in the crime rate in the past year- but not just in Leyawiin, my friend- it's all over Cyrodiil!" Andy informed me.

"It's true," Kev nodded solemnly. "Crime everywhere just seems to be getting worse- and I don't think all of it is to be blamed on the Oblivion Crisis and the murder of our Emperor, as the courier will try to lead us to believe! Plus, the rise is mostly in murder! Twice as many killings in the first half of this year than all of last year alone, my captain tells me…" I felt a proud smile appearing on my face and worked to smother it, turning it instead into a look of dismay and alarm as Kev continued. "Killers and assassins seem to be getting bolder and bolder, and we in the Legion just can't keep up with all the chaos…"

"It's true…" We all took sips from our drinks, a heavy silence setting in for a moment. I was wondering what else this Legion officer may know when Andy spoke up again.

"Speaking of bold assassins, Kev here, he was there the night of Adamus Phillida's murder! You know who he was, right?" Andy looked at me eagerly.

After an uncomfortable moment I responded. "Yes, of course- everyone knew of Adamus Phillida, he was quite the hero! I read about the killing in the Courier as well. Absolutely terrible." A sour taste had entered my mouth, but I worked hard to keep my face straight.

"It was indeed," Kev said, anger brewing beneath his words. "And if I ever get my hands on that whore that did it, oh by the Nine, I'd make her pay!"

"They're sure it was a woman?!" I asked, hoping the unease in my voice would be surprise to their ears.

"Yes," Kev growled. "Oooh, yes." My eyes widened as he talked. "They confirmed that she got to Phillida by seducing his good-for-nothing bodyguard, and after that had been done she drugged the bastard to keep him out of the way for the kill. Weak, pathetic, cheap…" he continued to mutter insults under his breath, and I found myself starting to become genuinely insulted. Rather than become angry, however, I decided to see if I could find out a bit more from this rather open officer.

"So… do they know anything else about her? Are they any closer to finding her, so Phillida's soul can finally be avenged?" I asked carefully.

"Well, to tell you the truth, there haven't really been any leads, despite what we in the Legion lead the public to believe. We know she's Dark Brotherhood, and have a vague description of her from a few sources, but they're not really helpful," he said moodily. "But there is one thing- there's rumor of a dark horse, black as night, with eyes that shine red like blood! It may have nothing to do with her, but this horse has been connected with several high-profile murders, and is said to be an omen of impending and painful death…"

I fidgeted a little in my seat, just as Andy let out a shiver of fear- I was thinking of Shadowmere standing in the open just outside the inn… Becoming more nervous with everything this Kev told me, I pressed on, hoping I wouldn't find out anything that should cause me more anxiety.

"Well, has she been connected with anything else? Any other murders or whatnot?" I questioned.

"There's dozens of things she could be responsible for, but no, nothing direct yet. But I'm just waiting for the day…"

"He's gonna kill her himself, Kev is! She'll die by his blade!" Andy laughed from behind the counter.

My internal sigh of relief, and Kev's attempt at a comeback, were both cut short when a loud sound came from outside the inn, followed by an indecipherable shout. We all stopped what we were doing and listened as the sound drew closer- we could now tell it was frenzied footsteps. Another shout came, and then the door to the inn banged open.

It was an Imperial Courier, his riding clothes loose around his thin body, and he was breathing heavily. Kev didn't even have time to reach for his sword (naturally I already had a throwing knife in my palm) before the man delivered his message.

"The Horse of Death is outside!" Everyone froze, and I felt my heart freeze and my blood run cold. "It's there, I swear it, its red eyes could be seen from miles away! The Horse of Death!" he shouted, looking at us in horror.

"What are you talking about, my good man? You must be mad!" Andy was the first to reply, his voice flustered.

"It's there, I swear it- I'm not mad! It's just sitting there, plain as day…"

There was a short silence where everyone the room breathed hard, the courier so much so that he seemed incapable of speech for a moment.

"It doesn't make any sense," Andy said slowly, but there was the feel of wavering conviction in his voice now. "I mean, there hasn't been any guests here, minus old Kev, for near a week! Well, except for…"

He turned towards me, and everyone's eyes followed his. There was a silence, where the comprehension of what that must mean set in on everyone's faces. That there could be no other possible explanation. That I must have brought of Horse of Death. That I must be a killer.

Well, I guess it was time for improvisation.

Before anyone had the chance to move I had flicked my throwing dagger at the courier still standing in the doorway, and not even waiting to watch it hit my target I swiveled back towards Kev. His hand was at his sword, he was starting to pull it from its scabbard- but I leapt from my stool and pushed the sword forcefully back into its sheath while my other hand went to the Blade of Woe at my side, pulling it from my belt and slicing across Kev's throat in the blink of an eye. An instant later blood was spurting from the open wound in all directions, spraying up to the low ceiling, soaking me with the scarlet liquid and spewing all over half of Andy's face.

He let out a shout of horror and disgust, raising shaking hands to his face, wet with his friend's blood. I stepped back out of the flow of blood, watching as Kev's body finally slumped to the floor. I looked back at Andy and saw that he had also fallen to the floor, into a small puddle of blood that formed beneath him, slipping and sliding in the pool while whimpering in horror…

Deciding I could ignore him for a moment I turned back towards the door, and saw with a certain satisfaction that the courier lay lifeless on the ground, my throwing knife stuck dead center between his eyes. Perfect.

I looked back to the mess that Kev had created and stood over the bar counter, watching as Andy pushed himself into a corner, desperately trying to move away from the pool of blood. Looking around at the scene again, I shook my head sardonically. So much for subtlety… but no matter- now it was time to finish it…

In one easy motion I leapt up over the counter, landing with a soft splash in the sticky warm blood of Kev. Andy gave a small shriek, pushing himself away and scrambling for something in the shelf above his head. I took a step closer but drew back when he found what he was looking for- a small, rusty iron dagger that he waved about wildly, shouting hysterically. I gave a dark smile at his efforts, and waited for just a moment before I leapt forward quick as a panther and knocked the dagger aside, letting it slide far out of his reach. He watched it go with horror-struck eyes, and I laughed darkly at him.

"How… how could you? Who-who are you?!" he sputtered, pushing back against the wood behind him as through trying to burrow away, to escape me. I laughed harder as I gripped the Blade of Woe in my right hand, advancing on him with no second thought, no hesitation. I watched as he saw the determination in my eyes- as he felt my purpose, my resolve.

"Please, no, please don't kill me!" he exclaimed as I took another step closer. "What are you doing… why?!"

I was just another step away now, so close- I could smell his fear, it was infectious, his desperation, the disbelief that this could really be happening, here, now… I loved it. I soaked in his terror as I was taking the final step now, my dagger poised, my blood pumping hard in my own veins, a dull pounding in my ears as all else was cancelled out except for the elation of a kill- nothing could stop me, nothing- but then;

"Please, have mercy!"

At these words, everything froze. My step, my thought, my breath, maybe even my heart- in that second, it all stopped. Mercy?

Andy was panting on the ground, his eyes just barely open as he watched my stillness cautiously, incredulously… hopefully.

But I was not seeing him now. Instead I saw Ocheeva, bent over the body of her dead twin, her disbelief tormenting- I saw M'raaj Dar, his fear at my attack too real- I saw Vicente, the hope in his eyes as he gave me a choice… but then the grim acceptance as I chose the path I thought I had to make- and then I saw Nels, the poor Nord drunkard, as he asked me so long ago to make it end quick, to have mercy… and I had given him mercy.

But not the others. Those who had deserved it more than any I had been unable to grant it to. And now this useless creature, cowering beneath me, was asking for it.

"Mercy?" My voice was ice. "What, my dear Andy, would you make you think that you are worthy of mercy?"

"I-I… I-" he sputtered, the blood of Kev spilling off of his soaked lips.

"I-I-I-what?!" I demanded, eyes flashing fire. His own eyes were wide, looking up at me pathetically, weakly, miserably- he was not strong, he was not brave, he was not even intelligent- he was nothing!

"That's right, Andy." I bent down, my face inches from his own, my eyes winterfrost. "You are not worthy."

He gasped, sobbing between breaths. I shook my head disgustedly, and stood back up to my full height.

"Besides, there have been many before who have deserved mercy far more than you, and I did not give it to them. You, you are weak, pathetic, cowering in your little corner… no. I will not show you mercy." I slipped my dagger back into its sheath, and then leaned forward to take his hand in mine.

"I will kill you, just as I killed your brother-" and in one fluid motion I snapped my wrist forward, bringing his hand with mine. All four fingers cracked and bent in ways they should not while he screamed in pain. I took his other hand.

"Just as I killed your sister-" I snapped the fingers in this hand as well, letting his arms fall and watching as he cradled the limp hands against his body. I needed more…

"Just as I killed Adamus Phillida-" I swung upwards with the base of my palm and struck the underside of his nose, feeling the satisfying crunch of bone crumbling beneath my hand. He gasped, his horror not just from the pain anymore.

Breathing hard, I watched his feeble shudders of pain, how he looked up at me with such betrayal- and his eyes were suddenly not his anymore, they were those of Teinaava, my fallen brother, who had looked at me in that same way… it wasn't fair!

And in a burst of anger, grief, and something else I should not admit, I struck forwards again.

"Just as I killed… my family-" I choked out as I kicked in each of his knees with ferocity I had never felt before, his legs snapping back in unnatural angles.

There was liquid on my face that was not blood as I saw him fall to his side, screaming in agony. His arm was flailing at his side, out of his control- I stamped his elbow, his arm bending and cracking back, before becoming still. A new cry rose from him, greater than all before, and he tried to roll to his side- but I pushed him back up to face me, lowering my own face to inches from his as I said-

"Just as I killed your mother, so long ago-" I smiled at his bloody, incredulous face as I reached down and punched him straight in the middle of his chest, where the two ribs met. I felt a bone crack beneath my strike, and his eyes widened as his breath stopped, sucked back into his chest. He looked at me in horror and complete agony, and I could feel that he wished it would end. His eyes had that look of acceptance, of the final realization that it was over, he would die, and he wanted not more pain. The look told me that he wanted it to be over- to be over for good. But no, I would not give him that satisfaction, not yet…

Now I kicked him once again, this time straight up and in between his legs- but he did not even cry out, and I saw as he struggled to breathe but nothing would come in, only escaping his chest, and whenever he tried to refill his emptying lungs it was just gasps of nothing, a weak strangled sound emanating from his insides. I did not have long now. It was going to be over soon…

"And just… as I will kill… your sister!" I finished, letting loose a flood of attacks, punching into his left kidney, his right kidney, his jaw, his eyes, his spine- anything I could hit I hit, but always at the points that I knew would cause the most pain, the most torture, here in his final seconds….

I was kneeling now, drenched in the blood of Kev- and now of Andy, the warm scarlet pouring down my face and body, soaking me to my very core, seeping through my skin and restoring my own life's liquid as I took his. I could feel his death coming, it was very near, he would not last much longer- but I kept striking, kept crying out, kept taking, kept showing that I did not have mercy, that I was pitiless, ruthless… and that I was not going to stop. Not for anything, not for anyone.

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Three days later, when two travelers stopped at the Drunken Dragon Inn looking for a soft bed and warm food, they found a scene they swore was one out of nightmares. Blood still dripping everywhere from ceiling to floor, two dead Legion officers, the smell of the decay, the buzz of flies- and a corpse behind the counter beaten to such a bloody pulp that it had become utterly unidentifiable. If it had not been for the sawed out heart, officials may never have been able to be completely sure that it was, in fact, the body of Andreas Draconis.

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In a place far away, where peace and tranquility were the prevailing atmosphere, Lucien Lachance sat idly for the first time in what seemed like weeks. He had arrived at Shadeleaf Copse not long after he'd lost his tracker, and had quickly found somewhere to set camp while waiting for Adrienne. After a quick survey of the land he had climbed up the hill to the North of the pool and made use of a huge boulder at its crest, large enough to conceal a small tent and fire from below. The best part of the spot was that it still offered a view of the reason he appreciated this place.

Jutting out of the small pool below him was a large rock, sticking straight up into the sky, standing alone, defiant- at first seeming to destroy the beauty of this place, but in Lucien's eyes that rebellious stone worked only to enhance the location's splendor, making the landscape all the more magnificent.

The feelings that this setting evoked were what had caused Lucien to choose this as his meeting place with Adrienne. It was perfect- isolated, dark, and beautiful, concepts that he was sure his Silencer would be able to appreciate, and understand. This could be among the many things they needed to discuss, and although he would never admit, Lucien was rather apprehensive about her arrival. It was past twilight now, and the Speaker was sure he would be seeing Adrienne this coming morning.

Trying to turn his thoughts to more immediate ones than the impending meeting, he focused on tending to his small campfire, pushing sticks aside to make the flame stronger and warmer. It was starting to get chilly in the nights, he thought as he tightened his cloak about him and pulled his hood down further over his face.

As he was doing so a small but lethal ember suddenly sprung out from the flames with a crack and landed dangerously close to his saddlebag, which he'd left on the ground near the fire earlier. In a quick motion he smothered the little red-hot coal with a handful of dirt, and then moved his saddlebag further away from the fire and into the tent, hoping to keep it safe from any more stray sparks for the night- for he had important things in that bag.

As he did so, the very parcel he was thinking of unraveled a bit, letting a small back petal slide to the ground. With concern, Lucien opened the saddlebag and took out the parcel, gently but fully unwrapping the thin deer hide.

He inspected its contents with steady alchemist hands for a moment before he knelt back, giving a satisfied sigh. There was only one petal missing. He wrapped up the parcel once again, just as gently- careful nto keep the blossom inside in as pristine condition as he was confident it was now.

For Lucien had brought something to give to Adrienne when she arrived besides the customary 500 septim reward she would be expecting. He placed the parcel back into the saddlebag and smiled as he rubbed the single escaped black petal between his gloved fingers. It was so delicate, so beautiful, but so dangerous… if ingested, the nectar from a Black Rose could cause paralysis- or even death, if prepared correctly, as Lucien well knew.

"So fitting…" he murmured, a dark smile at his lips. "So perfect…"

And he hoped it would remain so; he could guess that the rare flower would stay in this unspoiled condition for at least a day longer before it would start to wilt and decay… but Lucien Lachance was quite confident that his beloved dark Silencer would come to claim her gift long before he would have to worry about that.