Isobel felt the pain before she fully became conscious, it actually helped pull her back into the land of the living. Every bruise, every broken and dislocated bone, every gory wound... they all seemed to celebrate her return, triumphantly aching and burning more and more as she stirred. She could feel a groan vibrate her vocal cords, and suddenly something was shaking her.
"Isobel! Isobel! Open your eyes! Look at me!"
Isobel forced her eyelids to lift, however, one of them was swollen tightly shut and the other still had to squint against the low firelight.
"Bless you, Lady of Shadows! She lives another day!" Karliah sighed from beside her. As Isobel's vision adjusted to her surroundings she was able to make out a cave, a few Dwarven water pipes zigzagged along the walls, but it was still very much just a regular, natural cave. The hearth was a simple dug out in the earth, a pitiful amount of kindling burning low within it cast a dim gleam on the empty potion vials strewn about them.
"Where... Where are we?" Isobel's tongue felt like a brick.
"You missed quite the escape. Honestly we have to thank Nocturnal we survived, the place had almost completely filled with water when a part of the cave collapsed and revealed a tunnel to the surface. That's more than just a lucky strike, it was a miracle."
"He's fine. The cave leads right out onto Lake Yolgrim, and Irkngthand is still nearby. He's gone there to fetch any supplies Mercer's workers may have had. We have no food, no blankets or tents, or anything left for healing... But we're all alive, and we have the Skeleton Key and both of the Eyes of the Falmer."
Karliah reached over past where Isobel lay and picked up a gem the likes of which Isobel had never seen in her life. It was a beautiful blossom-pink that almost seemed to emit its own light, with an elaborately symmetrical cut that Isobel doubted anyone currently alive could recreate. It was also larger that her head and looked to weigh about the same as an infant. And there were two of them.
The Guild was going to be rich.
"Gallus would be hysterical if he could see us holding these right now..." Karliah muttered, staring into the depth of the jewel as it cast faint beams of pink across her gray skin.
"Wait... Gallus's ashes..."
"They were in my pack, so yes, they were lost. In all honesty, Gallus would also be ecstatic that Irkngthand Sanctuary be his body's final resting place, so it isn't something to fret over by any means."
"And... the Skeleton Key?"
"Look in your hand."
Isobel hadn't even noticed she was holding something. An ornate key could be seen sticking out of the hand wounded by Mercer's sword, the black pommel on its handle was smeared with blood and adorned with blue swirls. As Isobel held the Daedric relic and looked into those whirls, she could feel something deep inside her shift into motion. Immediately she released the Key from her grip, not wanting a taste of whatever had drove Mercer to such degrees of treachery.
"Keep holding it." Karliah placed the Key back into Isobel's hand. "You were damn near dead, we put the Key in your pocket hoping it would bestow you some of the capabilities it gave Mercer. I don't know if you lived because of that or because you just got lucky, but you should keep holding it just to make sure it keeps your strength up."
Isobel looked down at her body, trying to get a gauge of what damage had been done. She could tell Karliah had managed to do some healing, all of her cuts had stopped bleeding and were coated in a thick salve. She could feel the greasy, herby mixture on her face as well, gingerly Isobel reached up and explored her distorted features.
"Your nose was broken, but I managed to realign it fairly well. Popped your shoulder back into place too while you were still unconscious, but that's going to be very sore the next while. Hopefully Brynjolf can find something for a sling. Just stop touching your face, you need keep that ointment on."
"How is your wound?"
"It will be a rough recovery, but I'll live." Karliah said simply, passing Isobel a heavy canteen. "Brynjolf is positively guilt-ridden though, it's hard to tell who is more wounded between us."
"Brynjolf killed Mercer... He was the one who actually did it." Isobel rasped before bringing the water to her parched lips.
"And he told me the only way he was able to do so was because you opened Mercer up for it." Karliah's expression was one of solemn gratitude.
"So I did alright then? Considering I only got thrown into all this because Mercer dragged me to Snow Veil?"
"You really want to do this now? Moments after you've woken up?"
"Yes, your discovery of the Nightingales was part of the reason I chose you." Karliah admitted. "Enthir was actually my first choice, since he knew the secret too and has been a friend for decades, but I'm sure you've learned how stubborn that mer is. And he's already had a enough run ins with Daedra to ever want to interact with them again, there was nothing I could say to change his mind."
"So I was your second choice."
"Yes, but I would not have made you a Nightingale if I believed you were unfit. You had proved yourself to me and earned my respect back in Winterhold. But understand that it was still a hard choice. I barely knew you, and I still cannot support what is going on between you and Brynjolf... I do not want a repeat of what happened with Gallus."
"Mercer killed Gallus. Not you."
"Falling in love with Gallus was wrong... It was a distraction that allowed the Sepulcher to be desecrated, and it likely cost him his life." Karliah recoiled slightly, looking back into the Eye.
It was hard to maintain any animosity towards Karliah, Isobel did understand her anxieties and frustrations, but why did something still not sit right? It took a few moments of raking her memory before Isobel recalled some of Mercer's words... how he was initiated as a Nightingale without really knowing what was going on. How Karliah was continuing that same pattern.
What was Karliah still keeping secret? What were Nocturnal's true intentions for them? Isobel was opening her mouth to pry Karliah further when she noticed the woman was on the verge of weeping.
"Hey now... What's wrong?" Isobel tried to shift to face her more, but her stiff body protested painfully.
"Nothing, don't... don't pay attention to me." Karliah tried desperately to keep her voice steady, her hitched breath causing her visible pain as she clutched her gory abdomen. "It's just... I can't believe it's over. Twenty-five years in exile and just like that... It's done."
Seeing Karliah outwardly emotional still heavily jarred Isobel, but before she could try to provide any comfort footsteps were heard echoing down the cavern walls. When Brynjolf appeared around the turn his eyes immediately looked at Isobel, and she was able to tell the exact moment he realized she was awake.
He dropped the heavy pack he was carrying to the ground, his Nightingale cape billowing behind him as he flew to Isobel's side. Brynjolf had some cuts and dirt on his face, and he looked exhausted, but his movement was still spry and desperate as he grasped Isobel's hand and brought it to his cheek. It was difficult smiling when she was still so swollen, but it was impossible not to while watching Brynjolf's choked relief. In fact watching the mix of elation and sadness in his misty eyes was what actually made her realize they had survived the worst of their journey.
Mercer was dead, and they were still alive. They actually had done it.
"Come on now Bryn, no need to get sentimental. It was just a few bumps and bruises."
"Oh of course lass, and surprisingly it still looks like you've got all your teeth." Brynjolf jested at Isobel's grin, albeit she could still sense his underlying sadness. "Thank the gods you're still breathing, I... I really didn't know..."
"We can thank Nocturnal, not the gods." Karliah corrected, any evidence of her previous emotions had already vanished without trace. It was concerning.
"Or I can thank you." Isobel squeezed Brynjolf's hand. "Mercer had me, if you weren't there that spell he cast would've taken me out."
"You did all the work and softened him up, I just finished him off."
"What Mercer used wasn't a spell." Karliah interjected. "It was one of the powers Nocturnal imbues upon a Nightingale."
New Nightingale information, what a surprise.
"And why didn't we know this before we faced him, Karliah?"
"There was one power for each of us, but when Mercer took the Skeleton Key he blocked Gallus and I myself from channeling into our abilities and instead must've usurped them for his own use. I had never seen him use anything other than his own power before, so I wasn't completely sure if he could in fact use ours. He was the Agent of Strife, able to send a tendril of pure darkness into the heart of another and causing great injury to them. At the same time, this tether bolstered Mercer's own life force, making him stronger."
"Well, that is exactly what it felt like." Isobel sighed and rested her head back, trying to ignore the throbbing aches in her body.
"It was the same way he killed Gallus. I watched it happen."
That was heavy. Both Isobel and Brynjolf fell into a pensive silence, their eyes staring distantly into nothing while they still clasped hands. Brynjolf especially looked distraught.
"What were the other powers?" Isobel urged the conversation further.
"I'll tell you. But first, did you find any food, Brynjolf?"
"A wee bit. As well as a few furs and firewood, they didn't have any potions though." Brynjolf moved back to his pack, drudging it towards the women. Inside was a meager amount of preserved foodstuffs, stock fish and dried venison and the like. They immediately dug into it, Isobel didn't even realized how starving she was until she swallowed the first few bites. Each chew brought agony into her face but she couldn't stop.
"Did you find anything that we can use to support Isobel's arm?" Karliah inquired again.
"Aye, although she's probably not going to like it." Brynjolf popped the last of his venison in his mouth before pilfering through his pack again. Finally he tossed a rancid pair of men's trousers to Karliah.
"Oh no, that's not happening." Isobel shook her head. The pants were crusty with gods knew what, and were pungent with the sour smell of sweat. The very last thing she wanted to think about was the type of man that wore them, let alone have it tied anywhere on her body.
"It'll be much easier for your shoulder to heal if you can carry your arm's weight in a sling..." Karliah explained patiently before awkwardly shifting over to Isobel's side.
"I'm not getting up anytime soon! My arm's weight is fine right now!" Isobel fussed with a mouthful of fish. "You can tie it on me when we leave, for now let's just lay around and learn about Nightingale powers."
Karliah eyed Isobel for a moment before sighing and tossing the filthy pants aside, it still took a bit for Brynjolf to stifle his chuckles.
"Gallus was the Agent of Stealth, a master of remaining unseen." Karliah started. "Agents of Stealth are able to manipulate the darkness and use it to their advantage. On moonlit nights or in darkened rooms, they literally become invisible. That is why Mercer was able to disappear into thin air so easily."
"And what power did you have?" Brynjolf asked as he stoked the fire with fresh wood.
"I was the Agent of Subterfuge. I used to be able to utilize shadow to cloud the judgement of those around me. By weaving the darkness to their will, I manipulated others into fighting for me. Mercer used this on you Brynjolf, he probably thought it was some poetic irony that I had to face a power I used to wield."
"So why don't we have those powers now that Mercer is dead?" Brynjolf questioned again, and Isobel watched Karliah intently.
"Because the Ebonmere is still sealed. You must remember that the Ebonmere is the conduit to Nocturnal's realm, the realm of Evergloam. The Twilight Sepulcher was simply constructed around it in order to shield it from those who would exploit its power. It's through the conduit that we're given our Nightingale abilities as well as Nocturnal's greatest gift, our luck. What she gains in return is a complete mystery."
Isobel didn't want to think that. About what Nocturnal may or may not have in store for them.
"Well, returning the Key sounds like a simple enough task after fighting a damn demigod." Isobel forced herself to relax, admiring the growing warmth of the fire.
"I'm afraid it's not that simple." Karliah said, and Isobel almost lost it. "When the Skeleton Key was stolen from the Twilight Sepulcher, our access to the inner sanctum was removed. The only way to reach it will be through the Pilgrim's Path."
"And what, pray tell, is the Pilgrim's Path?!"
"Even though Nocturnal doesn't desire worship in the traditional sense, the Twilight Sepulcher nevertheless propagated a small group of priests. Of course, they'd never come into direct contact with Nocturnal, but they insisted they had her favor." Karliah answered Isobel's irate question with an air of blasé indifference. Whether she was blatantly ignoring Isobel's frustration or actually didn't notice was unknown. What Isobel did know is that her trust in Karliah was continuously diminishing.
"As part of their 'duties,' the priests created all sorts of baseless rituals and ceremonies all on Nocturnal's behalf. This was very long ago so I never dealt with them myself, but from my understanding the priests weren't a threat to the Skeleton Key or the Ebonmere, so they were tolerated. One of their ceremonies involved the Pilgrim's Path, a so-called 'test of worthiness.' If a pilgrim was able to complete the path, it was said that they would 'become one with the shadows.' What that means is anyone's guess."
"Not that Nightingales have any more of a clue than the priests do."
Karliah blinked at Isobel's cantankerous grumble.
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Mercer said it himself. Gallus initiated him without really telling him what being a Nightingale entailed. You're doing the same thing to Brynjolf and I, everyday it's some new information about Nightingales we didn't know before we signed ourselves over. Is there anything else you haven't told us?!"
Karliah clenched her jaw, taking a few moments to mull over her words carefully before speaking.
"Let me be perfectly clear, Isobel. And I need you both to listen. Initiating Nightingales is risky. You're telling someone information that has remained covert throughout the ages, and they are not obligated to proceed with the Oath or keep quiet. You have to withhold some secrets until later, you can't relinquish everything up front. Furthermore, Nocturnal is the Daedric Prince of Shadow and Murk. She is the Unfathomable. Mystery is as essential to her being as madness is to Sheogorath, or lies and manipulation is to Mephala. Everything about Nocturnal is dark and shrouded, how she speaks, what she asks of us... it takes many people years to finally understand the simple fact that no one can ever understand Noctunal. Even Gallus finally understood the futility of trying to unravel her mysteries, I think the curiosity she commanded was part of why he loved her so much."
"He said the same thing about you." Brynjolf added, and Karliah cleared her throat loudly.
"Mercer," she continued as if Brynjolf hadn't said anything. "was proud and power-hungry above all else. When Gallus offered him the privilege of being one of Nocturnal's faithful, Mercer was more than willing to accept her gifts. But it took him a little longer to actually grasp that being a Nightingale also included eternal servitude."
"Why would Gallus choose him to be a Nightingale if he was so power-hungry?" Isobel pressed further, still not entirely satisfied.
"Because to Mercer power was money, and he could never have enough of it. Both Gallus and I mistook this as the ambitious drive of a exceptional thief, we didn't see how much deeper it went until it was too late. Mercer snapped not because Gallus kept the truth from him, or because he knows something about Nocturnal that you don't, or anything else. Mercer Frey wanted to be his own god. Stealing the Skeleton Key and destroying the Nightingale trinity was his own way to spit in the face of the mysterious Daedra that owned him, and to gain unlimited wealth and power."
"Was he always like that?" Brynjolf sat with his arms hugging his knees. "Was he always so... greedy?"
"Mercer did always feel disenfranchised... His family was excessively wealthy, but after a devastating scandal they lost everything. He went from riches to rags overnight. That's why we always shrugged off his ceaseless pursuit for coin, we thought it was just him overcompensating after what happened to him. I don't think we realized just how much it was corrupting him because it happened so slowly. There was a time in the old days when I could genuinely trust him with my life, where we could send each other into fits of laughter over a word or a look, or cry on each other's shoulder. I feel..." Karliah's voice closed off in a strangled huff. Isobel could see the tears in her eyes fighting to be let out as she fought just as fiercely to keep them in.
"I feel... Like I failed him as a partner. I can't help but wonder if there was something I could've done to help him. Before he became so..."
Karliah cracked. She attempted briefly to rush to her feet, probably to get away from her audience, but her delicate body wouldn't let her. Trapped, defeated, and exposed, that's exactly how Karliah held herself as she strained to seal everything inside. Her hand was lifeless and limp as Isobel grasped it.
"You need to let go of all this guilt." Isobel spoke sternly.
"You told me how. Solve et coagula. Dissolve and coagulate."
"It's not that simple."
"If I could do it, you can."
Karliah didn't retort, instead she slowly closed her eyes. Her brow furrowing, all of her focus and concentration being poured into something. And finally, she let go. Karliah allowed her lungs her heave and her tears to fall, she let her cries be loud and open as she dissolved into a cathartic puddle. Isobel continued to squeeze her hand tightly, and Karliah gripped back. Even Brynjolf moved to be beside her, wordlessly bracing her trembling shoulders.
Karliah wept until the fire went out, the darkness that shrouded them after seemed to soothe her and lull her into a heavy torpor. Isobel couldn't tell if Brynjolf was asleep or not, and she herself was in too much pain to be granted rest. And still, for the first time in forever, Isobel felt safe. As the three Nightingales huddled together in the dark, the Eyes of the Falmer peering at them from the shadows, peace seemed to wash over them. Even the Skeleton Key in Isobel's hand seemed to pacify and unfurl her weary mind.
Isobel was finally on the cusp of sleep when she recognized it, the invisible force in the air that seemed to reassure her in the cold dark.
It was the smell of spring.
A/N: Aayyyyy. Thanks for reading! I'm still fighting for time to write and the next chapter is only maybe half done, but I will upload it as soon as I can! Wish me writing speed and inspiration lol