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Saturday, May 30, 2015

XVIII - Snow Veil Sanctuary

Merill was still trying to wrap her head around Paarthurnax’s existence as she clambered down the mountain to Ivarstead once more. It was midday and cloudy when she shouldered open the door to the inn and found Silronwe and Nalimir, sitting quietly at a corner table. Silronwe had a small stone mortar and pestle before her and was grinding something wet and red while Nalimir leaned back in his seat, reading.

“Mer!” Nalimir exclaimed, quickly lowering his book as she approached. She could only imagine how she looked – wind-burned and tired with her hair in a tangled mop. “We were getting worried, you’d been gone for ages.” Merill sat, heavily, at the table, her sore limbs protesting. The climb to the Throat of the World had taken a greater toll on her muscles than she’d imagined.
“I’m all right,” she told them doggedly, reaching across the table for Nalimir’s stein and turning it over, disappointed with the lack of drink. Silronwe lowered her pestle, cleaning it off with a rag. Whatever she’d been grinding in the mortar let off a sweet, sticky sort of smell. “I met the leader of the Greybeards,” she told them, and their eyes widened.
“Who’s their leader?” Silronwe asked at once. Merill gave a halfhearted grin despite herself.
“A dragon. Named Paarthurnax.” For a moment, they only stared at her in disbelief.
“The leader of those grim monks up on the mountain is a dragon?” Nalimir exclaimed.
“Gods, Nali, keep your voice down, would you?” Merill hissed, glancing around the bar to be sure no one had heard.
“I don’t think the people of Ivarstead would like to know their sacred mountain is home to one of the things that destroyed Helgen,” Silronwe commented softly.
“They’re not things,” Merill said defensively, and their looks of confusion only deepened.
“I thought Alduin was trying to destroy the world,” Nalimir pointed out. “Was that wrong?”
“Alduin’s just one,” Merill replied tersely. “And besides,” she added, leaning back and crossing her arms. “Paarthurnax wants to help me.” She launched into an explanation then, telling them all Arngeir had told her about Dragonrend and Paarthurnax’s suggestion to find an Elder Scroll.
“I wish I’d known that we’d be needing one about five years ago,” Silronwe commented lightly. “I looked at one last time I was in the Imperial City, one of the only ones left in the library there.”
“I thought you went blind if you looked at an Elder Scroll?” Nalimir asked.
“I didn’t read it,” she went on, going to scoop the red mash out of her mortar and into a small glass bottle sitting by her elbow. “Just looked at it. I really just wanted to look around inside the library, but I convinced the moth priests to let me poke around in the chamber where they kept the scrolls.” Arngeir had had little to say about it when Merill asked him, merely commenting that the Greybeards only wanted to protect their leader. He hadn’t had any idea about where to find an Elder Scroll.
“I don’t suppose the one in Cyrodiil is still there?” Merill asked. It was a long shot – the Imperial City was nearly a month’s journey on foot, from what she’d heard from the traders that came through Falkreath when they were young. She imagined they didn’t have that sort of time.
“Probably not,” Silronwe replied. “The Library was still in bad shape from the War when I was there last, just the one Scroll left. And if it was still there, I don’t imagine they’d be keen to let us take it.”
“Any ideas, then?”
Before either of them could answer, someone suddenly appeared beside their table, breathing heavily, his grubby face red from the cold outside. Merill cast him a sharp glare.
“What do you want, boy?” she snapped, and he hastily whipped a bit of parchment from his cloak.
“Just a delivery,” he breathed, dropping the letter on the table before turning and sprinting out the door again.
“The couriers here are extraordinarily well-organized,” Silronwe commented, amused, as the Merill ripped open the dark purple seal and flipped the parchment open.

Found K. Informants checked out. Meet me alone at Snow Veil Sanctum as soon as you get this. We’ll take her out for good.


“Mercer’s found Karliah,” she told Nalimir. “He wants me to help get her.” Nalimir looked troubled.
“Why’s he interested in you all of a sudden?”
“Dunno,” she replied, standing. “But I should get going. He sounded urgent.”
“We can work on finding that Elder Scroll,” Silronwe suggested, sweeping her alchemy materials into her bag and slinging it over her shoulder. “And Nalimir can explain to me who this Karliah is on the way.”
As they walked along the White River, the air grew sharper and the skies churned darker. Gradually their boots began to fall in thick snow rather than orange grass, and heavy flakes began to spiral down from the sky, blanketing and softening the world around it. The roads were quiet, nearly empty. They talked a little, but Merill’s mind was racing with the words she’d shared with Paarthurnax. Every time she closed her eyes, she remembered sitting in the snow, feeling that dragon blood course like fire through her veins.
Snow Veil Sanctum was just to the northeast of Windhelm, an old barrow in the slopes off the mountains that were thick with snow. The moons were out now, making the snow glitter as the three crunched through it, their breath rising from their mouths like smoke. As the spires of the sanctum became visible through the drifting snow, Merill noticed a small campsite beneath a tree with a cold pit fire and a dead horse collapsed upon the ground, its throat freshly slit.
“This’ll be him,” she said, shaking the snow off her hood and glancing around for Mercer. “You two get going, I’ll meet you back in Riften once we’re done.”
“Hopefully we’ll have found something,” Silronwe said, glancing around at the dark, snowy valley. Nalimir briefly rested a hand upon her shoulder.
“Be careful, Mer,” he muttered, then they were gone, vanishing into the snow to the north, leaving Merill alone beside the bloody-throated horse. She glanced toward the ruin and saw Mercer there, studying the old spires of the barrow. Merill jogged over, her breath cold and sharp in her throat.
“Mercer,” she said, and he turned.
“Good,” he said gruffly, standing and patting snow off his gloves. “You’re finally here. I’ve scouted the ruins and I’m certain Karliah is still inside.”
“Was that her horse?” Merill asked, jerking her thumb toward the campsite.
“She won’t be using it to escape,” Mercer said simply.
“Let’s get moving, then. I want to catch her inside while she’s distracted. Take the lead.”
“You want me to lead?” Merill repeated, puzzled.
“I’m in charge here,” Mercer snarled, sliding his blade into its sheath. “If I tell you to lead, you lead. Clear?” Merill gave him a curt nod and climbed up the icy stone and into the pit that served as the barrow’s entrance. The door was trapped, but Mercer made quick work of it and they proceeded inside. Karliah had certainly set traps for them, but between the two of them, they were easy to bypass. Several draugr guarded the dark passages, but Merill found they were easy to sneak by or take down without alerting the others.
“Can you tell me about Karliah?” Merill said at one point, after she had disabled a nasty swinging spike trap.
“She was a stubborn Dunmer,” Mercer replied gruffly, yanking his blade out of a draugr corpse. “Always had to do everything her way. But she was also the best, bringing in more coin a month than some thieves heist in a year.” He gave her a dark look as he sheathed his blade. “Reminds me of you, actually. Hell of an archer.” Mercer nodded, and Merill continued, climbing over a small rockfall that had partly blocked the passage. “Gallus – urgh – trusted her too much,” he continued as he climbed over after her. “Let her get too close.”
“Why did she kill him?” Merill asked, sidestepping to avoid a string of bone-chimes set up to wake the draugr around the room.
“Greed, jealousy, spite…who can say what drove her to such an iniquitous act,” Mercer spat. “One thing’s certain – I intend to find out before she draws her last breath. Ah, look. One of the infamous Nordic puzzle doors.” Mercer stepped forward, running his hands over the iron rings on the door. “Fortunately, they’re easy to…ah,” he grunted, jamming a lockpick into one of the rings. “…exploit if you know their weakness. There,” he said, and the door began to crank open. “After you,” he said, tucking the lockpick away.
“Wait,” Merill said, and Mercer gave her a sharp look. She shook the memory of Brynjolf’s words away. “I think you owe me an explanation.”
“I don’t owe you anything,” Mercer said shortly, but Merill pressed on.
“How did Gallus die?” He crossed his arms, giving her a sour look.
“Twenty-five years ago I was standing outside these very ruins. Gallus told me to meet him here, but he wouldn’t say why. When I arrived, Gallus stepped out of the shadows, and before he could say a word an arrow pierced his throat. Before I could even draw my blade, her second arrow found its mark in my chest.
“Karliah’s a master marksman and her greatest weapon is the element of surprise. I was lucky – she missed my heart by a finger’s-width.” Sounds familiar, Merill thought bitterly. “I staggered away from the ruins and realized that the bitch had poisoned her arrows.”
“And Gallus?”
“The last thing I saw was Karliah dumping his body into an opening atop the ruins.” He shook his head. “An unceremonious end for a remarkable man. To this day I’ve regretted allowing her to escape, even if it meant I had died trying. I owed Gallus that much. Now I’m done answering your questions. Let’s go.”
“No,” Merill snarled, throwing out her arm to stop him. “No, there’s more to it than that.”
“There isn’t,” Mercer said coldly.
“How stupid do you think I am?” Merill retorted. “You haven’t been straight with me since the day I joined this guild. There’s something else going on here, and you’re sure as hell going to tell me before we leave. I don’t like walking into things blind.”
“If you think I’m going to start taking orders from an ugly cunt that’s only been in the guild for two months, you’ll be disappointed,” he snarled, and Merill resisted the urge to crack her fist across his jaw. “You think you’re so special, that the guild has improved so much since you joined, that we’d be dead without you, don’t you?”
“I don’t –”
“I have news for you, girl,” Mercer growled, seizing Merill’s jerkin and pulling her so close she could smell the onions and cheap ale on his breath. “There are hundreds of girls like you in Skyrim that I can easily replace you with, and if you cross me one more time I won’t hesitate to do it. Now draw your damn bow and get the hell through that door.” He shoved her away, and Merill forced herself not to react, to pull her bow from her back and nock an arrow. You may be a good thief, girl, but that doesn’t mean anything if you can’t learn to cooperate.
Forcing herself to calm her rage, Merill stepped carefully into the next chamber, pulling her bowstring taut. She had only taken a few steps when she heard the familiar whisper of fletching whisking through the air, and then there was a sharp sting in her chest and everything began to blur. She felt her hands on her bow go limp, and heard her arrow hit the ceiling and clatter to the ground as her knees hit the stone. No, she thought numbly as the feeling left her limbs. No, I can’t die like this, not in this hole … Her thoughts were suddenly filled with Brelin, burning in their cabin as she watched, horrified, from the brush. He should have died old, at peace in the woods. The chamber around her began to darken, and Merill watched, unable to move but inwardly seething with pain, as Mercer Frey stepped forward, blade drawn to confront a lithe figure that had stepped from the shadows.
“Do you honestly think you arrow will reach me before my blade finds your heart?” she heard him say, his voice strangely distorted.
“Give me a reason to try,” the new figure said, a woman.
“You’re a clever girl, Karliah,” she heard Mercer say. “Buying Goldenglow Estate and funding Honningbrew Meadery was inspired.”
“To ensure an enemy’s defeat, you must first undermine his allies,” Karliah replied. “It was the first lesson Gallus taught us.”
“You were always a quick study.”
“Not quick enough. Otherwise Gallus would still be alive.”
“Gallus had his wealth and he had you. All he had to do was look the other way.” Even through the poison, Merill struggled to make sense of what was happening. She could feel her brain shutting down, but she forced herself to listen. So Mercer had killed Gallus. Of course.
“Did you forget the Oath we took as Nightingales? Did you expect him to simply ignore your methods?”
“Enough of this mindless banter!” Mercer shouted, and Merill heard his blade tap stone. “Come, Karliah. It’s time for you and Gallus to be reunited!”
“I’m no fool, Mercer,” Karliah said, and Merill wasn’t sure if it was the poison or not, but Karliah seemed to vanish. “Crossing blades with you would be a death sentence. But I can promise that the next time we meet, it will be your undoing.” Mercer sheathed his blade, and Merill saw his head turn to look straight at her, collapsed and immobile upon the ground. She tried to make a sound as he approached, letting the tip of his blade drag along the stone floor.
“How interesting,” he said darkly. “It appears Gallus’s history has repeated itself. Karliah has provided me with the means to be rid of you, and this ancient tomb becomes your final resting place.” Merill willed her body to move, using every force of mind she could muster to fight the poison slowly seeping into her blood. Fen. Fen. Fen. Krif dinok. Bo ronaaz. Krif dinok. “But do you know what intrigues me the most?” Mercer said, kneeling and turning his head so their faces were a finger’s-width apart. “The fact that this was all possible because of you.” He smiled a terrible, oily grin. “So thank you, Merill, for all your help. And thank you for following my orders even when you didn’t trust me. Should have followed your instincts, I suppose.” He straightened up and rested the point of his blade on Merill’s gut. Her skin was numb, but she could feel the sharpness through the poison.
“I know how much Nalimir cares for you. I’ll be certain to give him your regards.”
Then Merill felt a dull pain in her abdomen and watched as Mercer walked away, her blood dripping from his sword onto the stone. Blackness welled up on the edges of her vision, turning red, and soon all was dark, the only sound being the heartbeat in her ears.

I can see Brelin again, Merill thought, then even the heartbeat faded.

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