A/N This chapter is really long. I probably should have combined some of it with the chapter before, but I didn't.
Arsha had expected many things when she had entered the Sepulchre, she was dealing with a daedric prince after all, but seeing the ghost of the former Guild Master had not been on that list. At first, Arsha hadn't been sure who the faintly glowing figure was. Brynjolf, however, had recognized his old mentor immediately. After she had informed Gallus of Mercer's death and why they were here, she had stepped away to allow the mentor some time with his former student.
Now, she was standing over a pile of bones, reading through a journal that Gallus had mentioned might be helpful to them. It was obvious she and Brynjolf would be facing at least five different 'tests'. Arsha sighed and pocketed the small journal before turning back to where Brynjolf and Gallus were still talking.
Looking at them, it was easy to see the respect and love that Brynjolf had for his former mentor. From the little Brynjolf had told her about his time as Gallus's student combined with what she could see in their interactions now, it was obvious to Arsha that their relationship was far closer to that of a father and son than a mentor and his pupil.
Arsha walked over to the pair, bowing slightly to Gallus before turning to Brynjolf. "We should hurry," she said softly. "If the Skeleton Key isn't returned soon, Gallus may join the rest of the shades in madness."
Gallus nodded. "The girl is right, Brynjolf; I can feel my power steadily draining away. I'm not sure how much longer I can hold on to this world."
"Then let's go return the thing." Brynjolf sent Gallus a sad smile. "Shadows guide you, Guild Master."
"And you, Brynjolf." Gallus's form shimmered slightly before vanishing. Hopefully, the man would be able to retain his sense of self long enough for them to return the Key.
Arsha turned to Brynjolf, only to find that the man was gazing at her with thoughtful eyes. She thought about asking but decided against it. Instead, she pulled out the journal she had found and handed it to him. "I found this on the body of some bandit who was trying to survive the Pilgrim's Path," she explained. "It describes five different tests we'll have to face."
Brynjolf read through the journal quickly and handed it back. "It's a bit cryptic, but I suppose it's better than nothing. I don't like the sound of these sentinels, though," he said. "Do you think those could be the guardians that Gallus told us about, the ones who've forgotten who they are?"
Arsha nodded. "Keep your weapons close. If I've learned anything, it's the fact that nothing is ever easy with Daedric Princes."
Brynjolf grinned slightly at that. It was barely even a shadow of his former grin, the one she had loved so much, but it was better than nothing. "Lead the way," he said, his amused expression lingering for a few more moments before fading.
Arsha tore her gaze away from his face, berating herself as she did so. She couldn't afford to be distracted right now, especially not by him. She would be leaving Skyrim as soon as this was over, and all this would do is make leaving even harder for her. Shaking her head once again, Arsha, strode forward and pushed open the door that would lead them to the Pilgrim's Path.
They had barely made it through a single hallway when the ghosts attacked them. Arsha was ready for them, however, and felled one with two arrows in the chest. Brynjolf drew his daggers in a swift movement and engaged one of the ghosts, sending it back to the void in a matter of seconds.
They continued to fight their way through the Sepulchre. Arsha had to admit that fighting beside Brynjolf felt good. The man had always been an excellent bladesman, and she admired the way he danced between the shades as they tried and failed to hit him. The corners of her mouth turned up in a slight grin as she spun past a strike that only narrowly missed her. Brynjolf caught her eye from across the room, and once again that shadow of a grin appeared on his face.
The sentinel Arsha was fighting brought his ghostly blade rushing down towards her with deadly force, and her attention was drawn away from Brynjolf and back to her own fight. This sentinel must have been a warrior in his past life, as his attacks were far more precise than most of the other ghosts' attacks had been. Even in the depths of a madness that had robbed him of all other memories, the man remembered how to fight.
Arsha ended the battle when she stepped inside of one of the ghost's blows and rammed a dagger into his neck. The sentinel seemed to sigh as he died, his remains turning to nothing more than a shadowy pool of ectoplasm. Arsha's focus was ripped from the scene, however, when a harsh cry sounded from across the room.
Whipping around, Arsha saw that two of the sentinels had trapped Brynjolf in a corner, and while the thief was weaving and dancing away from the blades to the best of his ability, he was outnumbered and overwhelmed. Without giving herself time to think, Arsha Shouted, "Wuld!"
She rushed over the stone floor at an inhuman speed, coming to a stop just behind the sentinels. The ghosts didn't even have time to turn around before they both had a dagger buried in the base of their necks. She watched them dissolve with hard eyes before sheathing her daggers and looking over at Brynjolf. The man was looking at her, emotions swirling in his eyes. Instead of the fear she had seen in those beautiful emerald eyes the last time she had Shouted, however, there was something...else.
Brynjolf opened his mouth, and to her surprise, his words were ones of curiosity. "That Shout you used, what was it?"
Arsha was taken aback by the question, and it took her a moment before her voice was able to respond. "Wuld. The word is the first in a Shout called Whirlwind Sprint," she explained. "I can use it to travel very quickly over short distances. It's very helpful for reaching ledges and such in caves and dungeons." Brynjolf didn't say anything in reply, but Arsha could tell that he was thinking hard about something. She thought about asking, but instead, she pointed to the ugly cut on Brynjolf's arm where one of the ghosts had managed to hit him.
"I could heal that for you," she said, uncertainty coloring her voice. Brynjolf hadn't reacted negatively to her healing last time, but she didn't want to break whatever fragile truce this was between the two of them.
Thankfully, the man nodded, and Arsha held out her hands, a warm, golden light pulsing in her palms. Her hands hovered over the wound, and she poured her magic into the cut. A few seconds later, the wound had healed completely, leaving no sign that it had ever existed.
Brynjolf looked at his arm, wonder obvious in his expression. Eventually, he looked up at Arsha. "Thank you, lass." At his words, Arsha felt her heart lurch in her chest. He hadn't called her that since-since she had told him the truth about who she was. It was nothing more than a slip of his tongue, she knew. That didn't stop her from loving the sound of his accented voice as it rolled over the word, though.
Shaking her head fiercely, Arsha turned and led the way deeper into the Sepulchre.
Brynjolf followed Arsha, but his mind was elsewhere. She had Shouted, and it hadn't been one of pain. Logically, Brynjolf knew that there were plenty of peaceful Shouts that the old Greybeards had likely taught her, and yet it had still come as somewhat of a shock to him. A Shout that wasn't used to inflict pain. A part of him wondered if Arsha had chosen that Shout on purpose, just to show him that she could be the Dragonborn without causing pain.
Eventually, Brynjolf was drawn out of his thoughts when Arsha held up her hand, halting him in his tracks. There was a large door in front of them, likely leading to the next trial they would face. By the Divines, this seemed like a waste of time. If Nocturnal wanted her Key back so badly, why didn't she just teleport them to the Inner Sanctum?
Arsha broke his train of thought when she said something in the Dragon Language. "Laas Yah Nir." It was a Shout, obviously, but she had whispered the words instead of the usual yell, and the Shout didn't seem to have done anything. Before he could ask, however, Arsha spoke, answering his silent question.
"The Shout is called Aura Whisper, it allows me to see the auras of life forms, living and dead, even through walls. There aren't any in this next room. Whatever is on the other side of this door, it isn't more sentinels."
Brynjolf nodded. "What did the book say? Something about 'Beholden to the murk yet contentious of the glow'? What does that mean?"
Arsha shrugged ever so slightly. "I don't know," she admitted. Then she pushed open the door and strode through.
The room they had entered was closer to a cavern in size. It seemed to contain a series of paths, with light illuminating a few of the walkways, and others left in complete darkness. Beside him, Arsha let out a slight 'ah' of understanding.
"Stick to the shadows," she commanded, her voice quiet. "The light will harm us." Brynjolf didn't even question the command, instead of falling in behind Arsha as she led the way through the cavernous room. They had just reached the first platform when Arsha stopped abruptly, causing Brynjolf to nearly run into her.
"What is it?" he asked, peering around Arsha's shoulder into the gloom. It was difficult to make much out in the darkness; he had almost missed a couple of stairs on the way to the platform.
"Tripwires," was Arsha's short response. Brynjolf looked at the ground just ahead of them, and sure enough, a taut wire was stretched just in front of another flight of steps. Carefully, the two thieves stepped over the wire and continued on, always staying within the safety of the shadows.
Before too long, Brynjolf and Arsha were standing in front of another door on the other side of the large chamber. Once again, Arsha Shouted three words of power, the ones that allowed her to detect life forms. After a moment of hesitation, she shook her head. "There's no one on the other side," she said. Brynjolf nodded and gestured for Arsha to lead the way.
Before long, they found themselves at a dead end in front of a statue of Nocturnal. A dead bandit lay at the base of the statue, surrounded by gemstones and gold. Two torches cast a flickering light over the scene. Brynjolf thought about taking the gemstones, but Arsha was already shaking her head.
"Don't trust Daedric Princes. Nothing is free," she warned, before walking around the statue in search of some kind of secret entrance or something that could get them out of this room.
For a few minutes, Brynjolf looked over the room. Something seemed off about the space, but he couldn't decide what it was. If he were a Daedric Prince of thieves, shadows, and luck, what would he want his shrine to look like? At first, the train of thought got him nowhere, but then his eyes fell on the torches that had been placed on either side of the statue. On instinct, Brynjolf walked over to one, and sure enough, he found a chain next to it. He pulled it, and the light went out. After he did the same to the other torch, a door rumbled open behind the statue.
Arsha stood from where she had been examining the body of the bandit. Her golden eyes glimmered slightly, even in the dark, and Brynjolf could practically hear the slight surprise in her gaze. He chuckled slightly. "All I did was give the goddess what she wanted, darkness." Arsha shook her head and stepped through the door, but Brynjolf could hear the faint laugh that escaped her. Strangely, the sound made him smile.
They stopped in a room with two different doors. Brynjolf, who had decided by this point that it was best to let Arsha lead the way, watched as Arsha glanced between the two. He had a feeling that if she hadn't been wearing her mask, he would have been able to see a small frown on her golden lips. After several moments, she strode forward and tried the handle of the door in front of her. It turned, but she didn't open the door. Then she tried the other door; the handle didn't budge. Arsha nodded to herself and pulled a few lockpicks and a small knife from one of the many pockets of her armor and began to pick the lock.
Brynjolf walked over to her side and watched her work for a few moments before asking, "Why the locked door? As a thief, I'm all for opening doors that most people prefer stay closed, but isn't that a little risky in a temple to a Daedric Prince?"
"It could be," Arsha replied without looking up from the lock. "But I doubt it. The journal mentioned taking an indirect path. I figured a locked door is more indirect than an unlocked one." As she finished her sentence, the lock in front of her opened with a soft click. She looked up at Brynjolf and then pushed the door open, carefully stepping inside.
Brynjolf followed her but quickly came to a stop as he realized what they were facing. In front of the two Nightingales was what appeared to be a deep well, although there was no water in it. At the bottom, Brynjolf could barely make out what appeared to be skeletal remains and a tattered journal.
"What do we do now, la—". Before Brynjolf could finish the sentence, Arsha jumped into the well. Leaning over the edge, Brynjolf saw her rising from the crouch she had landed in.
"Jump down," she called up to him, gesturing for him to join her. "This is the next trial, and I think I know what to do."
Brynjolf wanted to argue that 'I think' wasn't exactly reassuring, but he couldn't deny the fact that the woman had been right about the rest of the temple so far. With a heavy sigh, Brynjolf jumped into the well, landing next to Arsha with a hard thud.
"Okay, I'm down here, now what?" he asked. There was no way out that he could see, and judging by the skeleton whose skull he had almost landed on, there wasn't one. Maybe he should have stayed up there…
Before he could question his decision too much, however, Arsha pulled out the Skeleton Key from her bag. "The Key can open any door, right?" she asked. Brynjolf nodded. "Good." With that, Arsha knelt down and shoved the key into the stone ground beneath their feet and the floor vanished.
Arsha climbed to her feet, a slight grin on her face. She hadn't been certain that that would work. They had landed in a dark room, the center of which seemed to pulse slowly with a purple light. The Ebonmere, the portal to Nocturnal's realm of Oblivion.
Stepping slowly, Arsha walked over to the portal and, after a moment's hesitation, inserted the Key into the small keyhole in the center. Immediately, the light began to pulse slower and then the shadows of the room seemed to gather, coalescing into a humanoid form. Nocturnal.
Arsha immediately dropped to one knee in a bow. Even when she had been at the height of her power during her reign of terror, she had always known better than to show defiance to the Daedric Princes. They were a temperamental group, and one never knew what it was that could send them over the edge. Next to her, Brynjolf copied her movements.
"My, my. What do we have here?" Nocturnal asked, her voice rich and humming with power. Arsha had to work to keep her gaze on the floor. "It's been a number of years since I've set foot on your world. Or perhaps it's been moments. One tends to lose track." The goddess trailed off for a few moments, and Arsha felt Brynjolf fidget nervously next to her.
"So... once again the Key has been stolen and a "champion" returns it to the Sepulcher, this time with a helper. Mmm, how interesting." Nocturnal shifted her gaze from Arsha to Brynjolf.
"Now that Ebonmere has been restored, you stand before me awaiting your accolades; a pat on your head... a kiss on your cheek. What you fail to realize is your actions were expected and represent nothing more than the fulfillment of your agreement. Don't mistake my tone for displeasure, after all, you've obediently performed your duties to the letter." Brynjolf didn't reply, but Arsha could tell that the man was relieved. "But we both know this has little to do with honor and oaths and loyalty. It's about the reward; the prize. Fear not. You'll have your trinkets, your desire for power, your hunger for wealth." Nocturnal's voice trailed off once again, and she turned her attention back to Arsha.
"You, you are different from most of my champions. Better suited, perhaps," she mused, and Arsha could feel the Daedric Prince's eyes examining her soul. "You know what it means to live in a web of mystery and shadow. You have lived in my realm for a long time, Arsha Loreaen."
Outwardly, Arsha didn't react, but on the inside she was curious. None of the other Daedric Princes had ever called her by her name. Most of them hadn't even bothered to use her title of Dragonborn. They either didn't know or didn't care who she was as long as she did their bidding. Nocturnal, however, was different. Why?
Nocturnal's voice drew Arsha from her thoughts. "I bid you both rise and drink deeply from the Ebonmere," the goddess said, gesturing to the swirling pool behind her. "For this is where the Agent of Nocturnal is born. The Oath has been struck, the die has been cast and your fate awaits you in the Evergloam. Farewell, Nightingale. See to it the Key stays this time, won't you?" With those final words, Nocturnal disappeared, fading back into shadow once more.
For a few long moments, Arsha and Brynjolf simply gazed at each other. It was done. The Skeleton Key had been returned and the Guild's luck would once again be back to the way it used to be. Then, Brynjolf let out a laugh, deep and hearty. The sound yanked at Arsha's heartstrings, twisting them in a painfully tight knot. She hadn't heard that sound in what felt like ages.
After almost a solid minute, Brynjolf's laugh faded into chuckles and he wiped the tears from his eyes. After he had regained enough breath to speak he said, "The Guild will be back on its feet in no time now! After years of watching helplessly as the contracts became fewer and farther between and the vendors packed up their shops for greener pastures, it's finally over." Brynjolf locked eyes with Arsha, still smiling widely. "Thank you, lass. Thank you."
Arsha's eyes widened and she took a hasty step back, shaking her head. "You don't have to thank me. You never have to thank me, Brynjolf," Arsha's voice lowered to nothing more than a whisper and she looked away. "Not after what I've done."
For a moment, Brynjolf's grin seemed frozen on his face, and Arsha could tell that for just a few seconds, he had forgotten who she truly was and the things that she had done to him. Then, his face fell, his lips pressed together in a serious line. The triumph that had been palpable in the air around them vanished like morning dew on a hot day, replaced with a thick tension that lay over the room like a fog.
"Karliah said you plan to leave Skyrim," Brynjolf stated, his voice carefully empty as he folded his arms in front of his chest.
Arsha nodded. "I do," she confirmed. "I can't stay here." She was certain of that now. Being near Brynjolf hurt too much; it was too easy for her to lose herself in his laugh and his voice and his eyes. No, it was far better that she leave.
Arsha frowned. That wasn't a question she had expected. Wasn't it obvious? "I hurt you, Brynjolf, more than anyone else ever has. If I stayed, I would only end up hurting you again."
"Aye, you did. But you've had plenty of chances to do that again already. If you wanted to hurt me, you could've done it already."
Divines! Why was he making this harder for her? "I don't want to hurt you, Brynjolf. I don't!" Arsha insisted, her feet carrying her a step closer to him as she spoke. "But I that darkness is still inside of me, and I can't be certain that it won't bubble to the surface again."
Brynjolf stepped closer. "But you were good once. It wasn't an evil woman who saved the world from Alduin or destroyed the Thalmor. It was a woman who cared about Skyrim and her people," he insisted, his voice low but full of a startling conviction.
Arsha had to break eye contact. She looked away, towards the floor of the Inner Sanctum. "Why are you making this harder for me?" she asked in a whisper. "I wish I could yell at you, scream at you and storm away. It would be so much easier that way. But I can't. I can't say that I hate you when I—" she cut off.
"When you what? Lass, look at me," Brynjolf commanded, his voice no louder than hers had been. Arsha obeyed, looking into his green eyes and finding more emotions swirling in those depths than she could decipher. "You told me you would answer any question I asked honestly."
A few tears leaked from Arsha's eyes, and she blinked the rest back, taking a deep breath before saying, "I can't say that I hate you when I love you so much that it hurts." The tears were coming to quickly now for her to stop them. "I wish for your sake that I didn't, but I do. I'm sorry." She tore her gaze from his, looking down at the floor once again.
For several long moments, Brynjolf said nothing. "Then come back with me. Come back to the Guild."
At that, Arsha's head snapped up. "Why? Why would you want me back there? How could I stay when I can see the pain in your eyes when you gaze too long into Vekel's fire or someone laughs just a little too loudly? How could I stay knowing that my presence would only make it all so much worse?" she asked, her anger making the words come out strong and fierce in the quiet room.
"Aye, you broke me, lass," Brynjolf admitted, taking another step closer. They were only a few inches apart now. "You broke me, but you also helped to put me back together. Those months you spent with the Guild were some of the best of my life." He smiled slightly. "I had planned on asking you on a date the day you got back from the East Empire Company. Did you know that? Then Mercer swept you away to Snowveil."
Brynjolf's expression clouded. "When he told me that you were dead, it was as if the world had been pulled out from under me. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't believe that you were gone, I didn't want to believe. Then, you came back, and it was like a missing piece of me was restored. I could smile again, even in the face of Mercer's betrayal."
"Why tell me this, Bryn?" Arsha asked. Her voice was hoarse from her tears.
"Because," he responded, stepping even closer until their noses were almost touching. "Because those memories are more powerful than the ones I have of those six days I spent as your prisoner." He moved to push down her hood and mask, and Arsha didn't stop him.
"For the longest time, I pictured the Dragonborn as a monster, unfeeling and inhuman. But then I met you as Arsha, and I got to know you. I learned the way your head tilts to the side and your eyes sparkle when you're amused. I learned the way you would jump to the aid of any member of the Guild once we became your family. I learned the way you would fight to get us back on our feet. Then, you took off your mask, and the two images I had created crashed together and I didn't know what to think."
Brynjolf wiped a few tears from Arsha's cheeks, his fingers gentle as the glided across her skin. "Now I know what I think."
"And what is that?" Arsha asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
"I know that I fell in love with a woman who is beautiful, powerful, and more complex than any bard's story could ever portray," Brynjolf replied, a soft smile on his lips. "A woman with a dark past that haunts her, a past that has helped to shape her into a better person. A woman who has worked for years to atone for her sins."
"And yet, I will never be able to," Arsha said bitterly. "My sins are too great. They have tainted me beyond any power to cleanse. Please, let me leave before they stain you too."
Brynjolf looked at her with searching eyes. "Do you really want to leave?"
Arsha hung her head. She should say yes. Brynjolf would let her go if she did, she was certain of it. She would be freeing them both from so much pain and sadness. And yet, her mouth wouldn't form the word. "No," she whispered. "I don't."
Brynjolf tilted her chin up with his fingers until their eyes met once more. "Then stay. Stay and take up your mantle as Guildmaster. Stay, and we can pick up our broken pieces together. Stay, lass."
At that final word, Arsha's remaining threads of resolve snapped. She melted into Brynjolf's arms, and the man held her tight to his chest as if he was afraid to let her go. "Thank you, Bryn," she whispered into the thief's shoulder.
Brynjolf pulled back, looking her in the eyes once again. Instead of replying, however, he kissed her. It was slow and gentle; they both knew how fragile the other was. They were broken, yes, but maybe together, they could become whole.
Eventually, they broke apart, needing air. Brynjolf grinned at Arsha, a proper grin, not the shadows she had seen earlier. "I love you, lass," he said. In response, Arsha kissed him again, pulling him close to her, craving his warmth.
A/N Finally, there is happiness once more!