Cicero perked up at the familiar voice of the Listener and rushed up the stairwell eager to be the first to welcome the Listener and their new sister back to the Dawnstar Sanctuary.
"Listener! Back at last! Back at last!" the jester laughed as he pulled the Argonian into a loving embrace. The Imperial pulled away and could not wipe the grin off his face. "Now that the sanctuary is your true home, we will be seeing you much more now!"
"Yes," KaNack said softly as he turned his head to smile at the petite Dunmer backing her way down the stairs and took her hand. "Now that Brelyna is here, there is nothing keeping me from returning to Dawnstar."
"My lady!" the fool exclaimed as he bowed politely to her. "You are most welcome to the sanctuary!" His golden eyes suddenly got a dark look to them. "Even if you did almost kill the Listener."
The Dark Elf tensed for a moment, but jumped back in surprise when the Fool of Hearts grasped her by the shoulder, once again smiling at her lovingly. "Although, who here has not tried to kill the Listener at one time or another? Cicero certainly has!" the Keeper laughed.
"Yes," the Dark Brotherhood leader sighed with a shake of his head. "Cicero, will you do me a favor and fetch that old scroll from the desk in my room?"
"Oh, of course Listener! Humble Cicero lives to serve!" The merry man scampered back down the stairs and into the tunnel that led to the residential chambers in the sanctuary.
Brelyna looked over at her husband and a thin eyebrow rose in confusion.
"Cicero tried to kill you? I thought he was your best friend."
"He is. It was just one time and I've long since forgiven him. Water under the bridge and all that," the Argonian insisted as he held the mage close to his side and led her through one of the passages in the sanctuary. The Dunmer looked sadly up at the reptile as she ran her gray slender fingers along his bare head.
"I wish I could have done something about that horn. I am sure that eventually the feathers will grow back, love." She forced herself to smile. "Baldness does not suit you."
"Charming as always, Brelyna," the caster snickered.
The Spectral Assassin trailed behind the two, keeping a steady pace as he thought about meeting that was about to take place in the Dawnstar Sanctuary.
"I assume you are having the Keeper retrieve that damned scroll for a reason?" the ghost started quietly. "Now that you know the truth, Listener; are you prepared to share your and Vytalas' fates with the family?"
"I think it is for the best if they are told, Buddy," the mage said as he rested his head against Brelyna's. "Everyone here has just gone through a very rough couple of months, especially Vy. They need to know what to expect if the worse happens so that they are not left worrying and confused."
When the three entered the meeting room, all of the assassins were seated into their respectful places. KaNack felt his heart sink when he saw the empty chair next to Dro'marash that had always been where Shaleez had resided. The Morag Tong had taken the Listener's apprentice from him; but in the end, the female mage had been avenged.
"Allow your spouse to take my seat, Listener," Lucien insisted as he made his way over to a corner of the chamber and leaned against the wall. He was no longer an official member of the Dark Brotherhood and had no right to sit with the others.
Brelyna was led over to the table and her husband helped her into the seat that for years had been specifically reserved for the Spectral Assassin. All of the assassins turned in their seats and looked expectantly over at the spirit, curious as to why he was isolating himself from all of them.
"Lucien!" snapped the Keeper. "What are you doing all the way over there? We can't get started without the kindly specter!"
"This is the price I have to pay for my insolence, Keeper," Lachance said as he crossed his arms and looked to the side of the cavern. "I am a representative of the Dark Brotherhood no longer. My place is not with you."
"Lachance, you ass!" Nazir barked as he slammed his fist on the table and scowled over at the spirit. "What do you mean you're not one of us?!" The Redguard rose from his seat and gestured to the surrounding assassins. "One bad decision does not exempt you from all the good you have done over the years!"
"You kept us in line when the Listener too busy to do so," added Kaie as she smiled over at the Speaker.
"You taught us the thrill of the hunt. How to become true assassins and not mere killers," Vytalas said with a shrug of his shoulders.
"You were always there to share your wisdom that you had gathered over the centuries," Babette commented as her dark eyes twinkled. "You may not be as old as me, but your input has proved invaluable on more than one occasion."
"For the last decade you've helped me bring this guild back to life and played a major part in the reformation of the Black Hand!" the Dark Brotherhood leader said as he gestured to Shaleez's empty seat. "My friend, you will always have a place here with us. You can be humble, but that does not mean you have to exclude yourself from your family."
Lachance mumbled under his breath before slowly approaching the table and taking a seat next to the Khajiit.
"Dro is honored to be sitting next to you," the cat purred quietly at the spirit. "
"Now that Buddy is done with his melodrama," the reptile started with a grin, causing the ghost to shoot him a dangerous look, "it's time to get down to business." KaNack rested his hand on Brelyna's as he smiled down at her.
"As you all are well aware, my wife knows all about us and the secret of the Dawnstar Sanctuary now. This is knowledge that does not belong to one who is outside of the Dark Brotherhood's circle." The mage held his hands out in front of the surrounding assassins as he continued to address them. "I propose to have Brelyna live amongst our unique family."
A scowl crossed over Nazir's face as he glanced over at Babette to see what she felt about the suggestion. The unchild appeared completely indifferent to the plan of accepting the Dunmer into their home.
"Brelyna is a master in the art of restoration magic and will be a most valuable asset to our guild. Since she is willing to stay in the sanctuary, she will be able to tend to the wounded when I am not present to do so." He beamed down at the Mer proudly. "My wife is a grand healer and has proven that her abilities are capable of treating even the most severe of injuries. She is not going to be an official 'sister' since she will not be taking part in collecting souls for Sithis, but I trust and love her as much as any of you."
"The Mer does not embrace Sithis, Listener," the Redguard began darkly. "She also made it quite clear what she thinks about us and what we do. How do we know that somewhere along the line she won't let her conscious get the best of her and sabotage the Dark Brotherhood from the inside out?"
"Brelyna has already had that opportunity, Nazir," KaNack explained as he rested his palms flat on the table. "I could have been allowed to bleed to death in the ruins of Silverdrift Lair, but she pulled me back from the brink of death. I could easily have been deprived of the proper care I needed to survive my stay at the Nightgate Inn, but once again, Brelyna shared her restoration and healing knowledge and tended to me until my strength had returned." The Argonian's brow furrowed. "She could have called me out in front of the jarl of Solitude, General Tullius, and a number of Imperial loyalists which would lead to me being arrested and executed. She didn't though; my wife remained faithful to me."
"As that meddling fool explained to me quite thoroughly, Nazir," the she-elf started gently as she leaned over to smile at the Keeper. "The Dark Brotherhood aren't villains, you kill the villains." The Dunmer folded her hands together and gazed down upon them sadly. "One of your own willingly sacrificed herself to try and protect a close friend of mine; that is not a deed performed by an evil person."
"No, it's not," the Redguard grumbled, not losing the unpleasant expression on his face.
"KaNack has opened my eyes, and now I see you the way he does. A loving family and a guild that delivers justice when there is none is to be had." The Mer chuckled quietly. "You're vigilantes."
"We're devoted servants to our deity," Nazir corrected her as he leaned back in his seat. "We kill whomever the Night Mother instructs us to; regardless of whom they are or what they've done. Do you understand, Brelyna?" the Speaker growled. He wanted to make sure that the Mer knew exactly what took place in the Dark Brotherhood, less her sudden realization could lead to her betraying them all like Astrid did.
"Yes, you're killers," the Dark Elf hissed as she glared at the old assassin. "You think I'm blind to that? You don't kill to hurt people though! You don't kill merely to make others suffer!"
KaNack sat back down in his seat and pulled his wife into a gentle embrace, knowing that the events in Winterhold were still haunting her. She clutched the robes in tight fists and hid her face in his shroud as the tears came once more.
"Those people killed Onmund because everyone loved him! He was killed because they knew that his death would hurt so many people! My best friend now has to live the rest of her extended life without the man she loves because the Morag Tong wanted to make an impression on Skyrim! That's nothing short of cruel!"
Brelyna turned her head to scowl at Nazir. "Yes, I know that you murder people, assassin. This experience has taught me though that you aren't the enemy. Skyrim needs you to keep it safe. Without the Dark Brotherhood, malicious people like Othrelos would continue to roam the land spreading pain and misery in their wake." The she-elf gently pulled away from the Listener and shook her head. "I wouldn't betray you and your family, Nazir. I will not deprive Tamriel of the unsung heroes and protectors of its people."
"Well spoken, my dear," Babette remarked as a smile crossed her lips. "Yes, I believe you do truly understand just who we are and what we do." The vampire raised a small hand in the air. "I am in favor of accepting Brelyna into our home."
"As do I!" the archer proclaimed as he held his arm up as well. "I would be proud to have her by our side."
"Is there anyone here who would object to her remaining in this sanctuary?" the Black Hand leader asked, looking specifically in the Redguard's direction. "If any still have their doubts, now is the time to speak their minds."
The Redguard grumbled and crossed his arms as he continued to scowl in the Dark Elf's direction. He had seen just how much destruction could be caused by one rogue member of a sanctuary and found it difficult to bring himself to trust an outsider, regardless of her relationship to the Listener.
"Are you willing to accept Sithis as your deity?" the man asked her stiffly.
"Julianos is my deity!" she hissed viciously at him. "I will be loyal to you, but the Dread Father is not whom my faith resides with."
"This is blasphemous," the Keeper growled under his breath as he leaned towards his friend. "She is coming into our home, but does not embrace Sithis. Can we allow this?"
"Give her time," the reptile whispered back to the Imperial. "We can't expect her to embrace Him overnight." The mage stood up from his chair and shot the Redguard a dangerous look. "Nazir, are you unwilling to accept Brelyna into our sanctuary?"
"Does it matter what I think, KaNack?" the older assassin asked bitterly. "You already were going to make her one of us, don't humor us by making it look like we had a say."
"Humor you?" A smirk crawled up the Argonian's face. "You are the only one here who seems to have a problem with Brelyna, old man. You are right in that at this point it does not matter what you say; still, I'd prefer if the decision was unanimous."
"Come now, Nazir!" Dro'marash snapped as he glared over at the Speaker. "Brelyna is our leader's wife and has kept him from death! We should allow her into our home!"
"Trying to replace your fallen sister, Dro?" the Speaker stated coldly. "You think substituting her with another mage is the best course of action?"
"NAZIR!" the Listener roared wrathfully causing the Redguard to shrink back in his chair. "You dare to have the audacity to say something like that?!" The reptile's eyes narrowed in fury. "You don't want to like Brelyna being here, that's your decision. I'll be damned if I will let you speak of Shaleez as though she could just simply be replaced!" The mage let out a growl of disgust as bared his teeth in a snarl. "You should be ashamed of yourself."
The older assassin lowered his head slightly to avoid the venomous looks he was receiving from the brothers and sisters lining the table. "I apologize," he muttered quietly. "I spoke out of line and there is no excuse." Nazir forced himself to make eye contact with the Listener. "You've never accepted anyone in this sanctuary who has not been functional asset to it. If you believe that your spouse will be loyal and true to the Dark Brotherhood, then I have faith in your judgment."
"It's decided then," KaNack announced as he left his seat and began to pace in front of the length of the table. "Brelyna will be welcomed into our home and live amongst us. Rather than be sent out on contacts, she will act as our sanctuary's healer and train those who wish to better their skills in the Arcane Arts."
The Listener's head dropped suddenly as he got a saddened look in his eyes. "There is still one more matter that we need to discuss as a family." The reptile stepped forward and rested his hands on the table so that he was standing next to Vytalas. "As you all know, Lucien Lachance has returned to us from the Void. You may also have noticed that the spirit's personality is not quite the way he once was."
"Yes, I've been meaning to ask you about that," Kaie said as she looked over at the Spectral Assassin in concern. "Why are you acting like you don't belong here with us. You've always been so proud and, dare I say, arrogant about your place in this sanctuary."
"Lachance has come back, but not as the Spirit of the Dark Brotherhood," KaNack explained with difficulty. "I can summon him before us because of my conjuring abilities, not because of my ties with the Void."
"Dro does not understand," the Khajiit said as his ears folded back against his head. The cat looked over at the spirit next to him and could see the expression of shame on the ghost's face. "If he is not the Spirit of the Dark Brotherhood, than who is he?"
"I'm his familiar," the Spectral Assassin answered simply. "I have all my abilities, but that honorable title is no longer mine to bear."
"Cicero, the scroll please," KaNack commanded as he held out a clawed hand.
The Keeper reached into his satchel and removed the rolled parchment. He had to stand on the seat of his chair and lean forward in order for the Listener to be able to reach the offered item. "Cicero was rather curious as to why you wanted this. He thought that this was the kindly specter's blank summons," the jester commented as he allowed himself to drop back down onto the cushion of his seat.
"Yes, it was blank," responded the Listened. "Was."
He laid the spool of parchment on the table and unrolled it for all to see. All the assassins leaned forward, shocked at the sight before them. The scroll was no longer bare; instead had been inscribed in what appeared to be fresh blood. Vytalas, being the closest, quickly scanned over the document.
"The Spirit of the Dark Brotherhood?" he muttered. "A Spectral Mage?!"
"KaNack, what in Oblivion is this?" Nazir barked in frustration. "What exactly does this mean?"
"Isn't it obvious?" the Listener asked as he returned to his seat next to Brelyna and took her hand in his. "When Lucien stepped down from his role, Sithis chose another to take his place." He looked at his wife sadly. "I am to be the Spirit of the Dark Brotherhood. Part of my soul had been attached to that document."
"This makes no sense to Dro!" the feline hissed as he turned to glare at the ghostly Speaker sitting next to him. "How can the Listener be the Spirit of the Dark Brotherhood is he is still here?"
"You can thank Buddy for that," the mage answered as he looked back at his guardian with a smile. "Had he not returned, I would not have survived my encounter with Othrelos." The Dark Brotherhood leader winced as he thought about the torture he had endured at the hands of the warlock. It was after he had been broken beyond almost all repair that KaNack truly understood what Lucien had to go through in order to prove himself to their deity.
"It had been arranged for me to meet my end in that tomb, but Lachance somehow managed to convince the Dread Father to allow him to come back and he's the reason I'm still breathing."
"This means that the Listener was meant to die that night?" cried Cicero in horror. The Imperial shook his head as he grabbed handfuls of his auburn hair. "No! No, Sithis would not be so cruel as to take the Listener from us! He wouldn't send the Listener to his death when he has served so faithfully!"
"My dear friend." The caster rested a hand on the Keeper's back to try and calm the distraught jester. "We cannot question the desires of the Dread Father. He does not make decisions lightly and everything happens for a reason." Turning to the Spectral Assassin, a smile crossed the reptile's lips. "Don't be sad, Cicero. I am not the Spirit of the Dark Brotherhood yet."
Rising from his seat, the Listener once again began to pace before the seated assassins. "Sithis sent Lucien back to watch over me until my time finally does come to an end." Nazir was astounded at how at peace the Dark Brotherhood leader seemed to be at this realization. "When I fall, the rest of my soul will become attached to that scroll and I will take Lachance's place as the representative of the Dark Brotherhood. It's an honor like no other."
"NO!" shrieked Cicero as he slammed both fists on the table. "No! It took Cicero fifteen years to find the Listener! Fifteen! What will happen when you go?!" The merry man groaned miserably as he rested his head on the table. "Finding the Listener will be hard! Very hard! Poor Cicero does not even know if he will live long enough to be there to search! Even if I do live long enough, I will not be of any help! Not at all!"
KaNack let out a soft laugh as he motioned the Keeper to calm himself. "Cicero, my faithful Keeper! We all must accept the fact that successors must be chosen! You will need to start training another if we wish the Night Mother to remain a part of how the Dark Brotherhood finds out about performed Black Sacraments."
"Cicero's successor?" the jester growled as he scowled towards the red and black mage. "It will not be easy for the Fool of Hearts to find one worthy of tending to Mother." The Imperial sat up straight and adjusted the cap on his head. "You are right though, Cicero will not live forever and Mother must have a Keeper."
"What of the Listener though?" Kaie asked as she looked at the other assassins in concern. "How will we be able to find the next Listener?"
"He's closer than you think," KaNack answered solemnly as he rested his hands on Vytalas' shoulders. The Dark Elf swallowed and felt his entire body become stiff. "Vytalas the Listener, just sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?"
"Me?!" the elf exclaimed as he spun around in his seat, his red eyes wide with disbelief. "I'm the next Listener? This has to be some kind of mistake! I'm just a simple assassin!" He gestured towards his head. "How can I be a Listener with one damn ear?!"
"One, you can still hear just fine, Vy," the Argonian stated as he folded his arms. "Two, she speaks in your head. It would not make difference if you were deaf. You'd still be able to hear the Night Mother's voice."
The Breton reached over to wrap her arms around her lover and rested her head against his chest.
"I'm so proud of you, Vy! I knew you were to become something special! You are one of the most loyal, strong and fearless people I have ever met! You're going to be a fantastic leader to the Brotherhood!"
"And you will have a former Listener there to be by your side and guide you," KaNack stated as he looked over at the Spectral Assassin with pride. "Lucien Lachance was there for me when I had been named leader and he never steered me the wrong way." Vytalas grunted as he felt a clawed hand ruffle his hair. "I won't either, Vy. Whenever you need me, I will always be there for you."
The mage tapped the scroll before moving away from the stunned archer. "I know this is a lot for you to take in, Vytalas. However, someday my time will come to an end and when that happens I want you to be ready and know what you have to do."
"How long exactly do I have?" the elf asked as he leaned forward to read the new bloody scripture on the scroll. "How much time do I have to prepare before I have to take in all this responsibility."
"Honestly, I have no idea," the caster answered as he began to slowly circle the large table. "It is only when I die that I become the new spirit, no specific date was given." The Argonian paused when he was behind the Spectral Assassin.
Lachance growled in frustration as the reptile suddenly pounced onto him from behind and wrapped his arms around the specter's neck. "It all depends on how long Buddy here is willing to keep me from dying!"
"Get off me!" Lucien barked in frustration, starting to sound once more like his normal no-nonsense self. The spirit began snarling as KaNack pulled him out of his seat and started to wrestle with the annoyed specter. "Listener!"
"I will serve you well, Vytalas!" the Argonian laughed as he refused to release his grip on his spiritual guide. "Lachance here has taught me everything he knows and look at how well I turned out!"
"That's supposed to be encouraging?!" Babette exclaimed as she watched her leader continue to fight with the Spectral Assassin in confusion. "KaNack, what in Oblivion are you doing?!"
"He's not going to let you live much longer if you keep that up!" Nazir exclaimed, not sure what the mage was trying to prove.
KaNack yelped as the spirit finally managed to squirm out of his grasp and snatched a hold of the caster's arm twisting it painfully. The reptile took a knee, but had an amused grin plastered on his face as the furious ghost glared down at him.
"Insolent whelp!" Lachance shouted. "Did you really think a mage could outmaneuver an assassin?"
"No!" the Listener laughed loudly, not at all fazed by the spirit's anger. "I couldn't stand seeing everyone so damn sad though! I had to do something!"
Lucien released his grip on his caster's arm and took a few cautious steps backwards. KaNack brushed himself off and smiled at the faces that were no longer masked with concern but with shock. "You are all acting like I'm already dead. Yes, as much as I hate to believe in destiny, it is my fate to eventually become bound to that scroll." He once again began to circle the table.
"I still have a lot of work to do for the Dark Brotherhood. I'm not going to let a little thing like this blind me to my duties." He held his head up proudly. "Don't see this as a death sentence for me, I certainly don't. All this represents is a new and exciting adventure for me to undertake once Sithis feels that it is time for new blood to take over the leadership of this family."
KaNack finally returned to his chair and sat down taking his wife's hand in his and kissing it.
"Lucien told me that there is no such thing as 'goodbye' in the Dark Brotherhood and I believe that is the truth. We are a part of one another through love, friendship and loyalty. That connection will always be there even if we are not living on the same plane of existence. So long as we remain true and never allow our faith to waver, our family will remain strong." The Listener let out a sigh as he gazed longingly at the loved ones surrounding him. "If we believe in each we will never be alone." He nodded his head sadly. "Yes, never alone."
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Thank you all, this is easily the most popular of the fics I have written. Thank you so much for all the wonderful reviews and comments during this process. My next project is "The Winterhold Five" which will cover the mages services in the Imperial Legion, which has been hinted at throughout this story.
Odds are that The Winterhold Five will be my last long fic unless I get inspired. However it is likely that I may continue with short stories to cover the minor adventures of our favorite red and black Argonian.
Huge thanks to Heiwako for being my proofreader!
Thanks again to the readers for all your support :)