Chapter 14

I always loved running... it was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs. ~Jesse Owens

Song: Runaway, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

A thin shower of dust cascaded around me as a stone fell loose, a dull thump echoing a dozen feet below me. I took a deep breath and hooked my hand higher, using the dark space where the brick used to be as a foothold. Something small with many legs tickled across my toes. I ground my foot against the wall and continued climbing, not daring to look down. I was climbing—I was on my own territory, familiar ground, but even so, I had no wish to see the dark fall below me. Many minutes of hard, painful climbing continued in the chill winter night. When I reached the top I threw first a hand, an elbow, and then my arm over the stone wall and levered myself up.

After taking a few deep breaths, I jumped off the wall and landed on the roof of a house. The icy wood creaked under my bare feet as I dashed across the roof and slid to a stop within view of the front city gate, where a torch glowed in front of a twisted statue. I whipped my bow off my back and hooked my elbows over a pointed bit of the house where a window faced away from me, holding myself steady with my knees. The reddish fletching brushed my cheek as I took careful aim at a green-clothed Bosmer with a glowing torch—a large splotch of light in the middle of the darkness. My eye was sharp, and my fingers itched with anticipation. It was almost too easy.

It felt good to hunt.

A quiet twanging sang in my ear as my arrow shot off. It struck its mark true, as it always did. Even from where I was perched, laying on the roof, I could see the thin shaft sticking from the elf's forehead, directly in the temple. The man staggered, rocking back and forth, before falling forward on his face. I hissed in victory and leapt to my feet, staying low as I sprinted back to the wall and swung myself over. Going down was far easier than climbing up, and soon I was flying off through the forest, strange shadows dancing from leaves in the pale moonlight. The Bravil guards would never catch me. I would make it to the next dead drop, easily avoiding any repercussions of my last several contracts, as I had up to—

A snarling, surprised yell tore from me as I hurtled face-first to the ground. I flung out my arms and caught myself before swinging my knife, Sufferthorn gleaming subtly in the moonlit woods. I made the mistake of not wildly waving my knife for a moment, as there was no one to swing at, but immediately regretted it as a hand grabbed my collar and painfully slammed me into a nearby tree.

"I thought I could stop you! What madness has claimed you? By Sithis, what have you done?" A voice almost roared. I instinctively flinched away, my slightly sensitive hearing not used to such abuse. "You have betrayed me, you have betrayed the Dark Brotherhood! I am here to end your miserable life, to—"

My head snapped forward, and my forehead connected sharply with that of my attacker. The cloaked man stumbled back, obviously not expecting such an assault, and I stepped forward several paces as well. "I have not the slightest idea what you are going on about, but I can assure you that . . . shit. Lachance! What the name of Sithis are you doing?"

Lucien frowned. "You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

I tried not to lose my temper. "Very good. Now, what is this about betrayal?"

The assassin began pacing, gesturing to me occasionally as he spoke. "Your first dead drop contract, you carried that out, killed Celedaen. After that, you eliminated the Draconis family, as ordered. Then, your dead drops went unvisited, your targets ignored. Instead, you have been systematically killing off all the members of the Black Hand! J'Ghasta, Shaleez, Alval Uvani, Havilstein Hoar-Blood - Speakers and Silencers all. And Ungolim, the Listener himself! The surviving members of the Black Hand know that you're innocent. They believe I am the traitor." He stopped paced to stare evenly at me. "Go now to your next dead drop. Wait for the traitor to deliver the orders and confront him. After he has been dealt with, meet me at Applewatch, the farm where you killed the Draconis woman. It should be safe."

"This is . . ." I blinked and fell back a step as the information sank in. "This is your fault!"

"Mine!" The anger was back in Lucien's voice. "This is no-one's fault but the traitor!"

"You should have suspected something, kept watch on the dead drops earlier!"

"You think I had time to do that, with the Black Hand hunting me like a beast?"

"You had time to find me now, did you not? This is the kind of time you could have used to find the traitor much sooner!" Before I could think on what I was doing I was throwing punches. "Now the Brotherhood has become undone!" One of my fists connected with Lachance's shoulder, hard enough that my knuckles spiked with pain.

Something burned on my face and I reeled back, holding a hand to my cheek and glaring at Lucien. I was not surprised that he had struck me, but yet I tightened my grip on Sufferthorn, and noticed Lucien tensely resting a hand on the pommel of his sword. My teeth were bared, my lips pulled back in an instinctive snarl. There was a moment of icy silence in the shadowed forest. After another second we lunged at each other again in unison; I hissed as a hand clamped around my wrist, and my dagger dropped to the ground. My back scraped against the tree trunk again; my hand was pinned next to me. Furious, I swung my free hand up, but was again stopped. I was almost about to resort to using my forehead as a weapon again when something crushed almost painfully against my mouth, stopping me.

Several seconds passed before I realized what was happening. A few actual, genuine emotions passed through my person, most, if not all, being different variations of rage—although I knew that there was little emotion in the kiss, that it was just some strange assertion of power. My hands were pinned; I was unable to push Lucien away, and with a mental start, I realized that I may not have done so if I had the power to. The thought irritated me, like an itch I could not scratch. It irritated me to the point that I brought my knee up sharply, feeling it connect with something soft. Lucien doubled over, his grip on my hands loosening. I ripped my hands away and lashed out, leaving three parallel marks on the Speaker's face.

I then wasted no time in turning and running.

[…][…][…]

Anvil was the same as I had last seen it; it still reeked of saltwater and ale, was still swarming with sailors. I weaved through the city in high afternoon, staying as discreet as possible in such broad daylight. I found the location of the dead drop, by a large statue of a mermaid inside the city walls. Remembering Lucien's orders, I ducked behind a collection of barrels and crates, and waited. The cool wind from the sea rushed past me, stirring my knotted hair slightly. I watched the yellow sun rise to its peak, and then begin its slow descent to the walled horizon. Both apples were eaten and I was almost starting to bore when a Bosmer broke off the main road and started toward the barrels I was hiding near.

I stepped from behind the barrels as he approached and, quickly looking to be sure I was not watched, dealt a sharp kick to the side of the man's knee. He yelled and turned to me, but far too late. My elbow connected violently with his chest, forcing him to stumble back. I swept a leg under both of his and the Mer crashed to the ground. He fumbled for the pathetic dagger at his belt as I fell onto him, forced his chin up with my hand and pressed the knife to his windpipe.

"Traitor!" I hissed and pressed the knife closer. A strip of blood ran down the metal.

"No, wait! Wait, please! I'm... I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do anything wrong! It was the robed man! He... he paid me to put those things in the barrel! I don't know his name, and his face was in shadow. He called to me yesterday as I walked by the lighthouse. I think he lives there! Or he did, anyway. He told me he was leaving Anvil." He reached, with some difficulty, into a pouch at his hip and procured a familiar-looking envelope. "I'm sorry, but that's all I know!" Leaving one hand to keep the knife where it was, I unfolded the envelope and read over it.

"Tell me where he lives or I will cut you open." I snarled, jamming the papers into my own bag and making a small cut on the throat of the Bosmer.

"Ah! No, please! The lighthouse! Just outside the city walls! I think the robed man lives there! In . . . in the cellar! I don't know what goes on down there, but there's a horrible smell coming from underneath that door. It's like... something died inside! Listen, that's all I know, really! Maybe Ulfgar Fog-Eye can tell you more. He's the lighthouse keeper, and probably rented out the cellar. Talk... talk to Ulfgar. He's sure to have the key to the cellar. You know, if... if you want to get down there! Now please, just let me go!" He quivered in fear when I left Sufferthorn on his neck. In truth, I was merely considering whether to keep him alive or not. The conclusion was a fairly easy one to make.

The knife clattered to the bottom of my bag as I stood, shoving the limp body of the Mer into the pool around the mermaid with my foot. Damn Boiche talked too much. I quickly left the scene and the city, making my way to the towering lighthouse in the bay. I kept my distance from any and all guardsman that passed near me, knowing the Bosmer's body would soon be discovered. The door to the lighthouse creaked as I pushed it open and closed it firmly behind me. A frowning Nord man turned at my entrance.

"Ulfgar Fog-Eye?" I demanded, reaching into my bag.

"Aye, I'm Ulfgar Fog-Eye, master of the Anvil lighthouse—ah!" My sword pressed against his fat throat.

"The key to the cellar, now!" I spat, pressing the sword closer, much like I had done with the Bosmer.

"What? What's the meaning of this? I don't want no trouble! Here, take the damn key!" He reached into his pocket and tossed the little sliver of metal at my feet. I chose mercy, and upon letting my sword up Fog-Eye sprinted out of the lighthouse. Hoping he did not call on the guard, I snatched up the key and descended into the cellar.

The second I set foot in the dim underground, I was greeted by a ferocious snarling. In the light of yellow, dripping candles I could make out the shape of a dog, tearing across the room. Kicking seemed to work rather well with dogs, as they conveniently seemed to be about knee-high, so I stayed with that strategy. A grotesque clicking echoed in the silent room as the hound's teeth clacked together, its jaw smashed up by my swinging foot. It was cut off mid-whine by my silver sword, stabbed straight down through the neck. I pulled out the bloody blade and waited for further provocation, but there did not seem to be anyone else in the cellar. I was alone.

With the distraction of the rabid dog out of the way, I took a better look at my surroundings. The room was lit by candles of varying sizes; some were clustered around a large object on a silver plate. I took several steps into the room and immediately fell back, throwing a hand over my nose and mouth. The smell was that of rotting meat and disease, clouding the cellar like a poisonous fog. Now I saw the bodies, and body parts, and pools of blood. I was unable to tell if the parts were man, Mer, or beast, but clearly they had been there a significant amount of time—enough to begin rotting, at least. Smears, handprints, and small puddles of blood added an especially morbid touch to the room. Still holding my nose shut, I approached the shape on the table surrounded by candles, and was slightly disturbed when I discovered that it was a decaying head. Her mouth was partially agape and drooling, teeth black and skin melting away. Small locks of greasy black hair still clung to the balding scalp, held there by a chipped gold head-band. Even as I stared, one of her glassy eyes began to slowly slide out of the drooping socket. Spatters of rust-colored blood were dried around the candles and severed head.

Turning from the repulsive sight, I unlocked the other door in the cellar. The first thing that caught my eye as I walked in was a journal, looking out of place amongst the further sprays of blood and metal tools and knives. I picked up the little book, noticing the worn cover and yellowing pages; this was a loved the book. I quickly skipped from page to page, reading quickly. Crazed ramblings, certainly, and terrible accusations against the Dark Brotherhood, one assassin in particular.

I saw Lucien Lachance yesterday. He was in the Sanctuary talking with Ocheeva. He was right there! So close I could have severed his spine in less than a heartbeat!

He was not part of the Sanctuary. I had made sure of that fact, at least. He had certainly visited in the past month, however. I racked my memory, trying to remember if there were any strange guests. The occasional Speaker or fellow Silencer, but no-one of specific significance. I felt a small, tiny amount of regret for not paying more attention. As I read, I noticed an unnerving obsession the traitor had with Lucien. It was almost more than an obsession. Killing Lachance seemed to be the life goal of this . . . person. Destroying the entire Brotherhood played a worryingly large role as well; the traitor talked of actually killing the Night Mother herself as retribution for his own mother's death.

I pocketed the crazed journal and, finding no more evidence, began to walk back out when the decapitated head caught my eye once more. I may come to regret it, but . . . this head had a special place here. It could genuinely disturb the traitor should I show it to him—or her—and easily weed out the innocent from the guilty. Swallowing any disgust I might have had, I picked up the head by the lank hair and lowered the soggy thing into my bag, quickly rescuing my map. As I ascended the ladder to the lighthouse, I realized that the head must be that of the traitor's mother, something that certainly did not raise my opinion of the damned person.

I had seen Applewatch already, something my map took into account by allowing me to travel directly there. The sun was setting when I arrived, much like the first time I had paid the farm a visit. Snow covered the ground now, turning the farm and the miles of land around it into an inhospitable stretch of tundra. The entire northern part of the province looked this way, affected by winter more than anywhere else. My feet sank several inches into the frozen water, a feeling that I greatly enjoyed. I reached out my hand to open the thin door to Applewatch, but stopped a hairsbreadth from the wood. My nostrils flared. Something did not smell right—literally. A too-familiar stink tainted the air if the wind blew just right . . . brushing it off as a paranoid imagination, I took a quick draught from my bottle before walking into the farm. The stench was instantly, strongly apparent. Exactly the smell I had experienced not long ago in the cellar of the lighthouse: that of rotting flesh and death.

A body, twisted and mutilated, hung upside-down not three strides from the door. There was nothing to describe the horror of a man, Mer, beast . . . whatever it had been in life. Pieces of flesh had been torn away from the body. Bone glinted through in many places. A mouth was open in a silent scream, blood still dripping down the nose and head to pool on the ground. No teeth were present. The only way I was, with increasing outrage, able to recognize the body was the set of three thin lines across one pallid cheek on the body—exactly those I had delivered to one Lucien Lachance.

It was time to run again.

[…][…][…]

Red footprints spread out into the snow, melting the cold crystals. Sun glinted brightly off the white and dark green branches of pines. Dark, sharp stones were only partially covered by the inches of snow, leaving plenty of room for me to further cut my feet. I stared ahead of me, up the massive hill, north. A rock cut rather deep into my right heel; I did not even flinch. My foot was slightly warm and left considerably more liquid prints, but other than that I paid it little attention. The thing was just one half of the mechanism used to push me another step. I had not stopped walking for two days straight. No sleep. Very little food. It was my sojourn to Cyrodiil once again . . . just involving a different province.

My night at Applewatch was my last in anything considered civilization. I stayed only long enough to hear an explanation before running. I did not look back. I felt no regret. My past self was back; my self before Cyrodiil, my self before the Dark Brotherhood. It felt good, impossibly good, to be who I was once more. Caring for anything had led me far astray. Caring for the Brotherhood made me furious, caring for Nulem made me sad, and . . . that is why I never let myself care for anyone else.

I needed food now. I did not stop walking, simply grabbed my bow, nocked it and continued on, swerving to and fro, no longer in a straight line north. Prey would fall across my path sooner or later. Adrenaline, momentary but sweet, fueled my body onward. Tiny, animal prints in the snow caught my eye, and I turned sharply left, following the tracks. If I stayed optimistic, which was unlikely, I would reach the border of Skyrim by the end of the day. I sucked in a sharp breath, blew it out my nose in a white fog, and smiled. I grinned until the wind turned my teeth to icy bits and my cheeks burned and I could hardly see.

It felt good to hunt.

[…][…][…]

So that's it! Short, sweet and to the point. I suppose this was just me getting it out of my system…but whatever, that can answer any and all inconsistencies. Farewell, and thanks!