A/N: This is the one in which I wrap up the Dark Brotherhood and Nightingale plotlines, as Delphine and Brynjolf lead the assault on Falkreath Sanctuary, and then it's time to return the Key. I warn you in advance, the Dark Brotherhood half's got an awful lot of blood in it, and while Astrid's death happens offpage, it is long, drawn-out and painful. OTOH, hardly anyone likes Astrid anyway, but there's always someone...
Summary: It's time for the Blades to do their job and protect their Dragonborn, and that involves striking at the heart of her most dangerous enemies, and while Cicero appreciates the chance for revenge, that doesn't mean he's not grieving. Meanwhile Karliah's finally able to let her grief go as the Nightingales visit the Twilight Sepulchre...
Silence in Falkreath. In the town, nothing. In the cemetery, just the wind in the leaves. And down the road, where a Black Door looked out over a black pond... silence too, but of a very different kind, as noiseless shadows flitted down.
"What is the music of life?"
"Silence, my brother."
"Thank you, lad."
One grey figure remained outside, keeping watch, while the others moved noiselessly inside, bows nocked, weapons drawn, one with magic ready to go.
Astrid heard the door open, and counted the number of assassins she had in Sanctuary. Not many, not since Gabriella and Arnbjorn had disappeared, and Veezara she knew hadn't made it. Killed by his quarry in Solitude, and at least she knew he was gone. Gabriella vanished in Markarth while on the Muiri contract, the very day before the big Forsworn jailbreak, and Astrid had a feeling she'd gone the same way Veezara had. And as for Arnbjorn...
She should have killed Cicero on the quiet, slipped into his bedroom and poisoned him, no one would have cared. As it is, he was out there somewhere and she knew he'd killed her husband. Arnbjorn would have calmed down eventually and come back or sent word if he was still alive to send it.
As it was, she had Festus, Babette and Nazir left to her, and they always called to her when coming in or out. They were all in tonight.
"Show yourself," Astrid snapped, drawing the Blade of Woe. "I don't know who you are or how you got in here, but you won't..."
A grey-armoured figure stepped into the light, pulling his cowl back to reveal a face Astrid knew, and she only relaxed her guard a little.
"Brynjolf," Astrid said coldly. "What are you doing here. Did Delvin tell you how to get in?"
"Not exactly," Brynjolf said calmly, too calmly. "You know, this is a very nice Sanctuary you have here. I love what you've done with the place. Be a shame if anything were to happen to it, wouldn't it, lass?"
The traditional words used to open up a protection scam or Guild debt collection. Astrid had to wonder what on earth Brynjolf was thinking. Were the Guild really so desperate as to run one on the Dark Brotherhood?
"Brynjolf, I hope this isn't a protection scam. I really don't need protecting from you. You want the Brotherhood's coin, you slit a few throats for me like everyone else. I know you've killed before."
"Aye, but only on my own terms, Astrid," said Brynjolf calmly. "No, it's not work I'm after. Only you see, a recent betrayal from inside has forced a necessary relocation on the Guild's part. We've had to move out of Riften for a while. We were hoping to get established in Solitude instead, even found a patron... only it appears you people have taken a contract against her. We're not exactly pleased about that."
A patron... female... in Solitude... with a contract against them. Astrid could only think of one person who that might be.
"Brynjolf, you don't mean to tell me you've asked Jarl Elisif to be your patron!" Astrid laughed. "The shining light of all that is good and pure, she who wields a holy sword of fire to burn out corruption – she's letting you operate in her city? Come on, Brynjolf, do you think me a fool?"
"No, lass," Brynjolf said, his voice strangely gentle, almost like he felt sorry for her. "You're a businesswoman, I know. Only this contract on Elisif, this is very bad for my business, you see. So what can we do to resolve this, hmm?"
"You want me to drop the contract," Astrid said, realising where this was going. "Brynjolf, what sort of message is that going to send out, hmm? The Brotherhood's reputation relies on being able to take down anyone, anywhere, no one being above our grasp. If we tell our client we're not killing her... what does that say about us, hmm? I'm sorry, Brynjolf, but the contract stays. It's a matter of honour, you see. You can find another patron, surely. I can even put you in touch with my client, once the job's done, I'm sure he'll be able to help you out."
"Honour," Brynjolf said, nodding in understanding. "Of course. I understand. Some things are about more than the coin. I get it."
A bowstring twanged and Astrid gasped as something thudded into her chest. She looked down to see the back of a Daedric arrow sticking out from just under her sternum, and she felt her vision start to blur. Legs giving away, she collapsed to the floor, unable to move.
"It was about honour for me too, lass," Brynjolf said softly as he knelt next to her. "All the coin in the world's no good if the dragons kill us all. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Astrid tried to scream, tried to move, tried to fight, but to no avail. Behind Brynjolf she could see a blonde Breton in grey armour that looked a bit like Guild armour except not quite (it had once belonged to Linwe of the Summerset Shadows, but Astrid wasn't to know that) patting a Dunmer in the same gear Brynjolf had on.
"Good shot, Karliah. Hope that potion works."
"It will," Karliah replied. "I intended it for Mercer – I just never got a chance to use it."
"Well, you have now," the Breton replied, drawing two slender curved swords. "Come on, let's get the other three – you with us, Bryn?"
"Coming," Brynjolf said, pulling his cowl back on and drawing his glass sword and matching dagger. "Let's do this."
He and the Breton ran off, with the Dunmer and a red-haired woman in strange steel armour that looked a cut above the usual mercenary fare in close pursuit, both with bows in hand, and behind them, a Forsworn woman casting mage armour and chasing after with fire blazing in her hands. And in their wake, another figure crept into view, slinking out of the shadows, an all too familiar face in a jester's motley.
"Hello defiler," Cicero cooed, vicious grin of triumph curving on his lips as he picked up the Blade of Woe and produced a long length of rope and a gag. "Cicero came back for Mother, look! Along with his lovely new friends who are going to carry out a much-needed Purification for him." He leaned closer, voice dropping to a whisper as his lips ghosted above her cheek. "But not you, oh no. You're Cicero's. Cicero will deal with you personally." With practised efficiency, Cicero secured the gag around her face and secured her wrists and ankles before taking her shoulders and hauling her off into the bedroom. Astrid tried to resist, tried to fight the paralytic poison... but it was no use. Cicero had her... and Astrid, for the first time in a long time, realised what it was to be truly afraid.
In the end, the job went without a hitch. The Redguard gave them some trouble, being able to fend off Delphine and Brynjolf simultaneously – but avoiding Karliah and Aela's arrows as well proved beyond even him.
The child vampire was actually a tougher prospect than any of them had thought – she'd pleaded for her life most convincingly, so convincingly even Brynjolf had almost believed her truly a Dark Brotherhood hostage. Right up until Eola, pre-warned by Cicero and able to cast Detect Life to verify this, had lobbed a fireball at her and shouted for them to move on to the others, she'd deal with this one. She had too, Babette wailing as she died as she realised too late that a childish form was only really effective on people with functioning consciences and parental instincts, and not Forsworn cannibal nightblades who knew a vampire when they saw one.
The old man had been last to die, his Destruction magic proving a bit of a problem and sending Brynjolf staggering back – but Delphine had all the magic resistance of her kind and had powered through to finish him off, Karliah and Aela pinning him down with their arrows, and then Eola had caught up from dealing with Babette and shocked him to death with her lightning spells.
It had all been commendably quick in the end, and Delphine had claimed the Brotherhood's ledgers, intending to find out who the client for the Elisif job had been, while Aela and Karliah had copied down the glyphs on the Word Wall to send to Elisif later. Eola had trotted off to give Cicero a hand with Astrid, and everyone else had agreed the pair of them were best left to it. So it was Delphine and Aela were making for Riverwood, Cicero and Eola had been left in the Sanctuary to loot the place, do whatever Cicero wanted doing with the Night Mother's coffin (left unharmed, the sole condition Cicero had insisted on, even being allowed to kill Astrid had only been a polite request), and Brynjolf and Karliah had met up with Sapphire and retreated. The Twilight Sepulchre wasn't far from here, and they did have a job to do.
"It's done then," Sapphire said, no emotion showing. Brynjolf nodded.
"Aye. It's done. I'm sorry, lass. Astrid wouldn't back down."
"No. She wouldn't," Sapphire said quietly, wiping a tear away. "But it's done now, I guess. No sense getting upset, not like I'd seen any of them in years. Not like any of them ever bothered getting in touch to see if I was all right after she kicked me out, eh?"
Brynjolf put an arm around Sapphire, and then Karliah was on her other side, arms around her waist.
"You've got us," Karliah said quietly. "I'll always be here if you need me, I promise."
"I know. Thanks," Sapphire whispered, glad of her Nightingales being there. Just business, that was all the Dark Brotherhood job had been, just removing something that was in the way. Except Sapphire still missed them all. But she'd never been the sentimental type and she preferred to focus on the future, not the past. "So where's this Sepulchre then?"
It wasn't far away, hidden up against the mountains at the end of a simple forest trail. Not much to look at from the outside, but the best treasure stores never were. Brynjolf and Sapphire headed for the entrance... only to stop on seeing Karliah hang back.
"You're not coming?" Sapphire asked, surprised.
"This whole thing was your idea, lass," Brynjolf pointed out. "You're the one who insisted the Key had to go back to Nocturnal, and now you're dropping out?"
"I can't do it, Bryn," Karliah said, shaking her head. "After what I've done... I can't face Nocturnal again, I just can't."
"Why, what did you do?" Sapphire asked, alarmed. "Karliah, if there's something else you haven't told us..."
"No, there isn't, at least I don't think so. But I broke my oath, Sapphire! I failed as a Nightingale! Gallus and I were so wrapped up in each other, we let Mercer destroy what we should have been protecting! How am I supposed to face Nocturnal after that?" Karliah cried.
Brynjolf looked at Sapphire. Sapphire looked at Brynjolf. It was said women were the naturally more empathetic ones – well, whoever said that had clearly never met Sapphire. All the same, Sapphire could be kind to people she trusted and cared about, and apparently Karliah was now one of them.
"Karliah, sweetie, it wasn't your fault," Sapphire sighed. "Mercer was cunning, Mercer was good at covering his tracks, we know that. And Gallus wasn't so in love with you he hadn't noticed anything – he was on to Mercer. He was this close to exposing him when Mercer killed him and framed you. None of it was your fault, honey."
"But I should have noticed, should have realised, Mercer was my friend!" Karliah cried. "And I never noticed a thing."
Brynjolf came to stand on Karliah's other side, an arm around her. "Lass, he was my Guild Master for twenty-five years, I was his second for a good seven years, and I never noticed a thing either. Mercer fooled the both of us. Don't blame yourself. The only one responsible for all this was Mercer himself. Now come on, lass, we're all Nightingales now. All in this together, right? We've come this far, don't think you're running out on us now."
Karliah hesitated then smiled, squeezing Sapphire's hand then Brynjolf's as he placed his hand over both of theirs.
"All right then. If you two come with me."
"We're with you," Sapphire promised. "Nightingales together."
"That we are," Brynjolf said quietly as the three of them approached the Sepulchre's entrance. "Shadows guide us."
The Sepulchre was as dark and dank as any Nord tomb – bones scattered around but the place was quiet.
"No one about," Brynjolf whispered. "Karliah, was it always like this?"
"I don't know," Karliah whispered back. "I never used to come this way. There was another portal in Nightingale Hall that took us straight to the conduit. We never needed to come this way. This was the Pilgrim's Path, a route devised by a cult to Nocturnal that used to operate out of here. They weren't Nightingales but they weren't doing any harm either so we let them stay. They're gone now, but their path remains. It was an ordeal, designed to test the faith of those who wished to commune with her."
"Ordeal?" Sapphire hissed. "You never said anything about an ordeal! What in Oblivion are we facing down here?"
"I don't know!" Karliah sighed. "I never used this path before. But the other ways in are shut and this is our only option. Come on, if I have to do this, so do you."
Sapphire didn't look happy but she followed anyway. The stone entrance appeared sealed... but there was a ghostly figure in Nightingale gear on guard outside.
"Who's that?" Sapphire asked. "He doesn't look familiar."
"I could swear I've seen him before," Brynjolf murmured as he emerged from the shadows, but it was Karliah who named him.
"Gallus," she whispered. "By the Shadows, Gallus!" She turned to run, only Brynjolf's timely intervention stopping her.
"I can't do this," she whispered. "I can't! What if he blames me, what if..."
"Karliah!" Brynjolf snapped, holding her as she fought to get free. "Karliah, he won't blame you, he loved you, come on. We're here, we won't let him hurt you."
"Yeah, if he blames you, he answers to me," Sapphire said firmly. "Come on, sweetie, let's go meet your ex."
Karliah let out a sob but calmed down, clutching Sapphire's arm as she let herself be led over to where Gallus was waiting.
"I don't recognise you, but I sense you're one of us. You all are – and Brynjolf, yes, I know you now. Karliah and I always thought you might be a good future prospect as a Nightingale. Glad to see you here. And... Shadows help me, Karliah, is that really you?"
Karliah pulled her cowl off, tears streaming down her cheeks as she nodded, hardly daring to look up at Gallus.
"It's me," she whispered. "Gallus, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..."
"Karliah," he whispered, pulling off his own cowl to reveal Imperial features, all the same ghostly pallor but Brynjolf remembered red hair and dark eyes from when Gallus had lived. Gallus had smiled a lot in life and he was smiling now, amazement and joy all over his face as spectral fingers traced Karliah's cheek. "You're alive! Thank the Shadows, I was so afraid Mercer had got you too."
Karliah shook her head. "I escaped. I've been in hiding all this time, waiting for the right moment to avenge you. I never got a chance until now. Gallus, I'm so sorry..."
"Not this again," Sapphire sighed. "Karliah, sweetie, it wasn't your fault. In fact if not for you, we'd never have found out what Mercer had done, we'd have assumed the Thalmor had taken the loot. He'd have got away with it."
"It's true," Brynjolf confirmed, patting Karliah on the back. "We'd never have done all this without her. As it is, while we've got a lot to do, we've got hope."
Gallus never took his eyes off Karliah, smiling proudly at her. "That's my girl," he whispered. "That's my little Nightingale. Saving the Guild. I'm so proud of you."
"It was Sapphire killed Mercer," Karliah said softly. "And I don't think we'd have got very far without Brynjolf either. As it is, we've got coin coming our way now. I just don't think it'll be enough."
"It's not," Gallus said, face turning serious. "Karliah, I need help. Mercer took the Key. The Ebonmere's shut off, our connection to Nocturnal is gone. The other Nightingales who guard this place, they've forgotten who they are. They're mindless ghosts, they'll kill anyone they encounter, Nightingale or not. And... if the conduit's not opened soon, I'll be sharing their fate. Karliah, please, you need to find the Key and return it."
Karliah reached into her pocket and produced the Key, her hands trembling. Gallus's face lit up as he saw it, the pride back.
"You got it back. Of course you did. Karliah my love, you're amazing."
"I'm bringing it back, Gallus," Karliah whispered. "For – for Nocturnal. And the Shadows. And the Guild."
"Karliah. You always did have such a noble heart for someone in our business. Thank you. I – suppose I'd better let you get on with it, hadn't I?" He stepped aside, the entrance opening as he did so.
"Do you know what we'll be facing?" Brynjolf asked. If anyone knew, Gallus might.
"No," Gallus admitted. "I've been trapped in here for twenty-five years myself. Every time I tried to go inside, the others attacked me. I didn't want to hurt my brothers and sisters so I've stayed out here. But there was a thief who tried, many years ago. His journal's over there, it might help."
Sapphire retrieved the journal and Karliah had fallen silent. Brynjolf edged closer to his former Guild Master, feeling his own guilt prick at him.
"I lost the Guild, Gallus," he admitted. "The Thalmor killed them all, and it was my fault for robbing their Embassy. The three of us are all that's left – Delvin made it too, but he was badly hurt. I don't know if he'll want to join us. I'm sorry, Gallus."
"Don't be," Gallus said gently. "We all know the risks. Brave of you to try robbing the Thalmor. Did it work? Well, you're not dead and they were angry enough to want retaliation so I assume so."
"I got in and out with what I was after," Brynjolf said, shrugging. "I'd say it went all right."
To his surprise, Gallus actually laughed. "Now that's a feat of thievery worth celebrating. Well done, Brynjolf! I have a feeling the Guild's in good hands. Don't waste time mourning the past. We're thieves, we work with what we've got. Do what we've always done, Brynjolf. Go to ground, rebuild in the shadows. It's what we do. Survive."
Brynjolf nodded, getting it. Gallus had always been like this, kind but not sentimental. He'd never been one to waste time brooding, just learning and moving on. One reason why everyone had liked him.
Sapphire returned with the journal and a nice looking ebony sword which she gave to Karliah.
"Are we ready then?" Sapphire said. "I have to tell you, this journal's not terribly helpful. It's very cryptic. Just a bunch of clues from some old mystic."
Of course it was. The whole thing had been that way from the outset. At least after this was done, they could all get back to thieving.
"Come on," Brynjolf sighed, taking the journal and replacing his cowl. "Let's get on with it. Nocturnal wants her Key back."
Gallus hadn't lied – the Nightingale guardians inside hadn't known friend from foe. There'd been sneaking when they could, fighting when they couldn't, and then there'd been the traps. First the room with light that burned. Then the shrine where they'd had to put the torches out to progress. Then the passage full of traps, avoided when Sapphire had spotted the alternative route and they'd used the Key to go that way.
And finally a black pit which Karliah thought led straight to the Ebonmere – but which had just led to the remains of the last one to end up here.
"You said this was the gateway to Nocturnal!" Sapphire shouted.
"I thought it was!" Karliah cried, near tears.
"Well, I don't see her!" Sapphire snapped. "And now we're stuck here, no one knows we're here, and we're all going to die. Thanks for nothing, Karliah."
"Lass, don't shout, she didn't know," Brynjolf sighed wearily. The last thing he needed was a fight on his hands. Karliah was stressed enough as it was. "What was in that journal again?"
"The journey is complete, the Empress's embrace awaits the fallen. Hesitate not if you wish to gift her your eternal devotion," Sapphire sighed, slumping to the floor. "So we jumped in and here we are, no Nocturnal."
"Did we hesitate too long?" Karliah whispered. "Was our faith not strong enough? Didn't we keep her terms?"
"If the portal's shut, maybe she can't," Brynjolf said broodily. "Dammit, we brought the Key all this way and it hasn't worked."
"The Key." Karliah sat up, realisation dawning. "Brynjolf, the Key, we have to use the Key!"
"Not stopping you," Sapphire shrugged. Karliah produced the Key and held it out and somehow it turned in her hands, reaching down to the floor which opened beneath them and they were falling, falling...
Brynjolf opened his eyes, looking about to see a dark chamber, empty portals on the various sides and in the middle, a dais with a lock in the middle.
"Is that it?" he whispered. "The Ebonmere?"
"That's it," Karliah breathed, Key in her hands as she approached. "Shall we?"
"Go on," Sapphire told her, getting to her feet on the other side of the room. "I don't see any other way out of here."
Karliah inserted the Key into the lock and turned it. There was a click and then the Key sank into the dais as it fell open. A whole flock of nightingale birds fluttered out and in the purple half-light, a dark-haired woman in very revealing black robes rose out of it, languid smile on her face.
"My my," Nocturnal drawled. "What do we have here? My champions three, my dark Trinity. It's about time. Or was it moments? One tends to lose track. So here you are, awaiting your rewards like good little thieves. A pat on the head, a kiss on the cheek? Except you fail to realise your actions were expected and represent nothing more than the fulfilment of your agreement."
"Does this mean we're not getting paid?" Sapphire muttered, only to have Nocturnal turn viciously on her.
"Oh don't worry, thief, you'll have your accolades. Your trinkets, your wealth," Nocturnal snapped. "You have after all performed your duties to the letter. Drink from the Ebonmere, and you will have your powers. You are my Nightingales now, after all, my Agents in the world. The Oath has been struck, the die cast and your fate lies in Evergloam now. Even you, Karliah, came good in the end."
Karliah actually did sob a little on hearing that. Nocturnal folded her arms and began to sink back into the Ebonmere.
"Farewell, my Nightingales. See to it the Key stays this time, won't you?"
The light faded and she was gone, but the swirling black lake remained. Sapphire was first to approach, staring into its depths.
"That it?" she asked. "We can go now?" All around them, the three portal arches flared into life, leading to who knew where. Karliah had taken her cowl off, drying her eyes.
"We can go," Karliah said quietly. "That portal takes you to the Sepulchre, that one to Nightingale Hall... and that one is only for the souls of the dead."
Brynjolf studiously avoided looking at the last one, moving nearer Karliah.
"So that was Nocturnal," he said, shivering at the memory. "She didn't sound pleased."
"She sounded indifferent at best," Sapphire snapped. "Is that seriously who we've sworn our souls to?"
"Yes," said Karliah, straightening up and pulling herself together. "Don't worry, she was pleased. That's just how she is. A scolding mother, pushing us to do our best, pushy on the outside but inside, content. I assure you, if she'd been angry, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"About these powers then," Brynjolf said, deciding to change the topic onto something less contentious. "If we're going to spend eternity in Evergloam, I want compensating."
Karliah rolled her eyes and explained about the three powers, of Shadow, Subterfuge and Strife and how by standing on the relevant moon symbol, you could choose one.
"Traditionally, we'd have a different one each for balance, but we can have the same one as another if we want. But we only get one each. That was what Mercer stole – with the Key, he had all three for himself and the rest of us were locked out. But now we can have them back if we want." So saying, she stepped on the symbol for the power of Shadow.
Sapphire wasted no time but selected the power of Strife. Leaving Brynjolf with Subterfuge. It would do, he supposed. He'd always been good at influencing people.
"Back to the Sepulchre then," Sapphire said, looking at Brynjolf.
"Back home," Brynjolf confirmed, but before he could head over to the portal, someone emerged out of it. Gallus strode into the Ebonmere, holding his arms out to Karliah, who went to him joyfully.
"Gallus, we did it!" Karliah cried. "We took the Key back!"
"So I see," Gallus laughed. "I knew you could do it. Well done, my love."
"Thank you," Karliah whispered. "Nocturnal forgave me! She said I came good in the end."
"Of course you did, I'd expect nothing less," Gallus said with a smile. "And now you've restored the conduit, I can finally move on. Nocturnal said my contract's been fulfilled. I can go to the Evergloam, be one with the Shadows at last."
Karliah looked proud, but also more than a little bit sad.
"Will I ever see you again?" she asked. Gallus nodded.
"Yes. Yes of course. When your count of days is done and your Oath fulfilled, you'll join me in the Evergloam and we'll embrace again. But in the mean time... Karliah, you mustn't mourn me any more. Don't blame yourself for anything that happened, I walked into that trap with my eyes open. None of it was your fault – in fact if you'd not followed in secret and seen the whole thing, been able to retrieve my journal and get it translated, no one would ever have known the truth. You avenged me and you've helped make it possible for the Guild and the Nightingales to rise again. So don't wallow in guilt any more."
"I won't," Karliah whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks but she was smiling through them. "I love you, Gallus."
"I love you too," Gallus murmured back. "And if loving you was a mistake, I'd make it again and again a thousand times over. But Karliah... you are young and your life will last centuries, Shadows willing. Don't mourn me all that time. Don't save yourself for me. Time has little meaning in Evergloam, but it will seem an eternity in Mundus. I don't want you to be lonely. You get out there and you let yourself love again. Maybe not just yet... but in time, you'll meet someone and I don't want you holding back on my account."
"Gallus!" Karliah cried, but he just smiled and kissed her on the forehead.
"Live your life, Karliah. Walk with the Shadows... and good luck. I'll be watching over you."
"Gallus," Karliah whispered... but he was gone, fading into the portal to Evergloam. Silence and then Sapphire was there, holding on to Karliah as she sagged in her arms.
"Are you alright?" Sapphire whispered. Karliah nodded, clinging on to Sapphire.
"I don't know. I can hardly believe it's all over," Karliah whispered. "The Key, Mercer, all of it. Now what?"
"Now," said Brynjolf, coming to put an arm around them both, "now we go home."
Back in the Reach after a long journey hauling all the Dark Brotherhood's loot back home. There'd been coin split between all of them, various alchemical and enchanting paraphernalia, even the smithing gear uprooted and now all installed at Sky Haven Temple. Eola could only be grateful Kaie had sorted out carriages and Forsworn to help out transporting it all. But perhaps the most important thing hadn't gone to Sky Haven Temple. No, the Night Mother's coffin was presently set up in Reachcliff Cave, a makeshift shrine created in the small room at the other end of the tunnel leading to the feasting area.
Cicero was on his knees before the coffin, sniffling quietly at the foot of the mummified corpse that was the Dark Brotherhood's patron goddess.
"Cicero is sorry, sweet Mother," he whispered. "Cicero failed you, sweet Mother! Oh but it had to be done, it had to be! They had strayed! No longer believed! Abandoned the old ways, abandoned you! They had to be purified! But now... but now Cicero will never find a Listener!"
The heartbreak in his voice tore at Eola's heart, not least because it had the potential to destroy him completely, and she wasn't having that.
"Cariad," she whispered. "Cicero cariad, come here." She knelt at his side, taking him in her arms, holding his hand and rubbing her fingers over Namira's Ring.
"You did what you had to do," she whispered. "There was no other way. She understands, honey."
"Then why won't she speak to me," Cicero snarled. "Why, when I have been a devoted son, a good boy, taken care of her, loved her, given up everything for her, why won't she speak to me? Namira spoke to me after one kill and what does my own Mother give me, hmm? Nothing!"
He gasped, shuddering in her arms as he clung on to her, breathing heavily. It was some minutes before he got himself under control.
"Cicero is sorry," he whispered. "Cicero didn't mean... Cicero isn't angry! Cicero is just... tired. So very tired. He's tried, he has! But he just can't find the Listener!"
Eola held on to him, feeling helpless as she tried to comfort him. But what could she say? There was very little she could say to make it all right. Only the Binding Words. But she didn't know what they were. The Night Mother wasn't saying them to her. If only she could find a Listener.
Well, maybe. If she kept an ear out for likely recruits. Kaie might know of a few devoutly murderous types in the Forsworn. She could bring them here, see if the Night Mother took a liking to anyone. Maybe her father could provide a few full-time priests to help maintain the place, welcome pilgrims, see if a Listener turned up from among any of them.
"Cicero," she whispered. "Cicero, maybe it wasn't all for nothing. I mean, maybe she kept quiet all this time because she needed to come to the Reach. Maybe one of the Forsworn is going to be your Listener, or perhaps it'll be one of Namira's faithful. After all, where else are you going to find a Listener, if there's no Sanctuaries left? Somewhere with lots of true-born murderers, that's where. If this plan of Da's goes without a hitch, he's going to end up with quite a few demobbed Forsworn tribesfolk who miss the fighting. Why wouldn't the Listener be one of them? We venerate Sithis too, don't forget. I imagine we could set up a little Shrine here, get Da to give us some priests, have the Night Mother available for Forsworn warriors to pray to. She might easily find one of them worthy."
Cicero perked up for the first time since they'd finished with Astrid.
"Really?" he whispered, drying his eyes. "You think the Forsworn might have a Listener in their ranks?"
"Quite possibly," Eola said, ruffling his hair, pleased to finally see a smile again. "Either way, they'll help keep her safe until she chooses someone. Don't worry, Cicero. We'll help you take care of her. It's not all down to you."
Cicero looked as if he was about to cry again, from happiness this time and then he was kissing her fiercely, pouring all of himself into it, and Eola wondered just how far he was going to go with this. She didn't have many limits but the Night Mother watching them during sex was a bit too far even for her. Fortunately it seemed Cicero was of the same mind.
"Cicero does not... there are not words... thank you!" he breathed as he broke off. "Cicero never thought... it never occurred to him there would be... another! He never thought he'd have help!"
"Anything you need, honey," Eola promised. "I'm sure Da will help."
Cicero clung on to her, lost for words. Eola stroked his hair and held him. Poor boy. Poor, damaged, broken boy. He'd lost his entire family, even if they'd mocked and abused him. Well didn't she know how that felt. But she'd got her father back and her sister, and her people had welcomed her home. She might even see her father King again in truth. Maybe Cicero would one day have a Dark Brotherhood again. But until that day came, she would do her best to make sure he was looked after and safe. Maybe Cicero was a psychotic murderer, a madman and a fool. But he was her madman and she'd love him until the end.
A/N: OK, Dark Brotherhood and Nightingale subplots largely done, although the characters will still make appearances, particularly if I need anything covert and subtle doing, or someone needs a good stabbing. I'm not planning to have the Night Mother call a Listener, certainly not in this fic, but I wanted to leave open the possibility of it happening eventually so as to keep Cicero reasonably stable and happy. And if anyone will happily collude in building a secret shrine to the Night Mother and keeping it open as a centre of pilgrimage, it's the Forsworn.
Next chapter, Elisif sets out in search of the Elder Scroll and Delphine moves on to the next stage of Operation Overthrow Ulfric. As an advance warning, I'm not going to cover Blackreach in a lot of detail so please don't expect me to linger on that. If you really love Blackreach and this is going to be disappointing, your best bet is to fire up the game and have your Dovahkiin take a wander through the place instead, it'll be a lot more satisfying...