Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 12

12: Crimson Scars

“Do you remember, in Castle Anvil, that odd man in commoner clothing sitting in the Great Hall?” Viper asked him one afternoon as he was washing mugs.

He thought back and nodded. “Yes. He kept giving her wistful looks when he thought no one was paying attention. And who would to the average commoner beyond ensuring they weren’t there to steal the silver? But I sense a mystery is about to unfold,” he said, setting a mug to drain and grabbing another.

Viper snorted softly. “Fine, so I poked around a little. We have to find our own amusements at times.”

He hummed. “What did you find?”

“His mind is—not blocked—fogged. There’s something veiling part of it. But I got enough to know he’s strongly connected to the Thieves Guild.”

Sora looked up. “The guild that every guard in existence swears doesn’t exist? And the Gray Fox is just a myth, of course.”

“Of course,” Viper said agreeably.

“So you stalked him around, I assume,” he said, setting another mug aside to dry.

“He uses an abandoned house in Anvil as his home, but he also heads to the Imperial City to see a fellow by the name of Armand Christophe, and a Khajiit woman in Bravil by the name of S’Krivva. They’re both doyen for the Thieves Guild—and before you ask, that simply means they’re the primary contact for thieves for special jobs.”

His brow went up. “Special jobs?”

“Any thief’s usual business is stealing items and selling them through whichever fences they’re aware of. But every so often a special job comes in and gets farmed out by a doyen to a guild member they think will handle it well. They also handle promotions, but I’m uncertain why a title matters if you’re pulling in enough to feed yourself, put a roof over your head, and maybe a bit on the side for luxuries.”

He shrugged. “What I’m getting from this is that you want to join the Thieves Guild to figure out the mystery behind this man.”

Viper fidgeted slightly.

Sora eyed his Mist in disbelief as his intuition kicked in. “You want me to join the Thieves Guild.”

“At least see the man again,” Viper replied. “Look at him with your intuition, not your eyes.”

Sora was inclined to go along with it simply because Viper so rarely asked for anything. The quirk of his Mist’s mouth was the equivalent of puppy dog eyes on anyone else, so he huffed and nodded. “All right. We can plan a trip to Anvil. Kiri will just have to keep Filigrana running. Renato is a good thief and he’d insist on going anyway. Hm…”

“Val.”

“He is pretty sneaky. Well, it’s not like we have one of the other customers in here every day, or even every week, so…”

*

They went to Anvil ostensibly to purchase a home there. A man dressed in middle-class clothing at The Count’s Arms, one Velwyn Benirus, had a manor for sale. Sora vaguely remembered him from a previous visit.

“That manor is still for sale if you’re interested, Velwyn said when he inquired. “It’s my grandfather’s house, Benirus Manor. I could let you have it for a modest sum. I have to sell it soon, as I have pressing matters elsewhere. You’re welcome to take a look at it. It’s located across the street from the chapel.”

A convenient location for the religiously-inclined, if nothing else. But the people in town seemed to think there was something wrong with the place, haunted, perhaps. The proprietor of The Count’s Arms swore he had heard screams coming from inside at night.

“Once you buy, you get the key to the front door and the deed of ownership,” Velwyn said, causing Sora to abort an eye roll at the sheer level of Captain Obvious going on. “That’s the deal. Would you like to buy it now? Five thousand gold is all it’ll take.”

If nothing else, purchasing a home in the city meant having a place for people to get away to, should it be needful, so he forked over the coin.

“Excellent! Here’s the key to the front door and the deed of ownership. I hope you enjoy your new home. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must attend to those pressing matters I spoke of earlier. Good day.” Velwyn scurried off at an indecorous pace.

The manor looked a bit run down from the outside. Sora could see dead vines going up the sides and the interior was more than a little in need of work, though there was plenty of furniture in place. Some of it was broken, and those pieces could be scrapped. The odd thing was a large symbol on one wall down in the cellar.

“Right. It’s a bit late, so let’s get something to eat from the inn, then break out the sleeping bags. Not sure I want to use that bed upstairs,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “We can cloak up in the morning and go to the castle to see if our mystery man is there. If not, we can try slipping into that abandoned house.”

He’d not been asleep for very long when he was woken abruptly by ghost floating toward him with the intent to kill. Once those were all dealt with he said, “Great. Let’s set the tent up out back. We can worry about ghosts later on.”

The next morning they ambled over to the castle and Sora leaned against a wall as he eyed the mysterious stranger. His intuition was not meant for what he was trying to do. It was like playing Twenty Questions with himself. He eventually narrowed it down to the man being cursed or under an enchantment. He was definitely involved with the Thieves Guild, and most likely the leader of it if his intuition was to be believed—and he always believed.

Back at the manor he said, “I think he’s the Gray Fox. But there’s some kind of curse or enchantment involved that’s—well, it’s messing up his identity.”

“I recall,” Val said slowly, “that more than one person has gossiped about how the Countess’s husband disappeared about a decade ago. And that the beggars are the eyes and ears of the Gray Fox.”

“So we have places to start looking,” Renato said. “I think we should stop back at our castle. Get some disguise items. Because I don’t think any of us want to be known as thieves.”

“Hey, what’s this?” Val said from over near the corner where a vase had been knocked off a cupboard. “It’s a skeletal hand and some parchment.”

Sora accepted the parchment and unrolled it so they could all read.

2 Sun’s Dawn 3E335

The people of Anvil are worms! How dare they criticize what they don’t understand! I shall have my vengeance in a form they cannot possibly imagine. I shall use the souls of the departed to prolong my own life. The Tome is very specific. I must have more bodies … yes … more bodies.

 

11 Sun’s Dawn 3E335

I must protect myself from those meddlers. They shall not interfere in my designs. I have constructed a room in the basement of this manor. It is there I will inter my corporeal self and I will transcend this plane of existence. Only a true-blooded Benirus may open the portal, so if I fail, however unlikely that may be, a descendant may attempt to follow in my footsteps to carry on the true way. To make sure our secret is safe, I have harnessed the spirits of those whose bodies I have defiled to forever guard that place.

 

15 Sun’s Dawn 3E335

The fools think I don’t hear them speaking? I can hear their rumor and innuendo. They intend to meddle in powers they can barely comprehend. They call me an old fool and shun me. The young dare each other to step one foot in my yard. I have become the stuff of old wives tales and campfire stories. They dismiss me as an oddity. But soon they will see. When all of Anvil lies in waste around me, when their corpses litter the streets and their blood dampens the earth … only then will my true power be known and feared.

“Wonderful,” Renato said. “We’ll have to figure out where the guy went. We can’t very well use this place as a retreat if we’re to be woken up by ghosts every damn night.”

“Let’s ask at The Count’s Arms,” Val said, casting a second look at the hand cradled by a broken pot.

“As soon as you bought the place, he pretty much up and left,” a man at the inn said. “I hear tell he’s making his way to the Imperial City.”

On their way out of town Sora said, “Fine. We’ll stop at home to get those disguises, then head to the Imperial City. We can consider both issues there, though the manor can wait until we have a reason to go back to Anvil.”

*
Wanted
The Gray Fox

Wanted for theft, embezzlement, forgery, pickpocketing, counterfeiting, burglary, conspiracy to commit theft, grand larceny, tax evasion, slander, fraud, perfidy, and impertinence.

Description: wears a gray cloak that conceals his appearance. Presumed male and Colovian. Height between 5 and 6 feet. Normal weight. Hair and eye colour unknown.

Any citizen with information should contact the Imperial Watch.

Watch Captain Hieronymus Lex

“If the beggars are his eyes and ears…”

Val pointed off to the side where a man in ragged clothing stood. Sora could hear even at that distance the requests for just a coin. He wandered that way, his family drifting in that general direction after him, and asked about the Gray Fox.

“Are you looking for him?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I want to work with him.”

The beggar eyed his clothing for a moment, his expression dubious. Sora threaded into him long enough to alter his disposition temporarily, and the man said quietly, “I think I trust you enough to tell you this secret. To learn more about the Gray Fox, go to the Garden of Dareloth at midnight. Look in the Waterfront District. I can say no more.”

Investigation of the Waterfront Distract revealed a bunch of houses that appeared to be barely standing, and they were all on the exterior side of the Imperial Trading Company arc of offices and warehouses. The wood was weathered to grey by the influence of the elements and there were only eight of them. Only one of those had a “garden” by any stretch of the word’s definition. Interestingly, there was a door on the side where ships docked, but it was boarded up tight.

“We three should probably hide,” Viper said as they stood at the water’s edge beyond the shacks. “If all four of us descend on whatever is about to happen…”

“Well, that roof is right there handily,” Renato said. “We’d be close enough to intervene if necessary.”

Sora sighed and nodded.

As midnight approached he was joined by two others, a female elf and an Argonian. The final person to arrive was wearing leather armor and carried a torch. ‘Not exactly stealthy,’ he thought, then approached the man when neither of the other two did anything.

“Do I know you?”

“One of the beggars pointed me this way.”

“You say a beggar told you to seek me out? Good enough for me, then. The beggars are the eyes and ears of the Gray Fox. He is the King of Thieves in Cyrodiil. You could think of him as our guildmaster, although he would deny that title.”

“So how do I join up?” he asked.

The man looked around, then said, “Everyone seems to be here. Let’s begin. Each of you is seeking membership in the Thieves Guild. It is not a myth. We are followers of the Gray Fox, and I am Armand Christophe, his doyen. Merely by finding me, you have passed the first test. It’s unusual for us to have three potential recruits at the same time. Rather than the normal test of skill, I’m going to make this a contest.”

“That’s not fair!” the Argonian said, cluing Sora into the fact that it was male.

Armand ignored the outburst and glanced to the elf. “Methredhel, you know the rules. However, for Amusei and the newcomer, let me state them clearly. Whoever brings me the diary of Amantius Allectus, without killing him, will be invited into the guild.”

“Hah!” Methredhel cried, thrusting a fist into the air. “I’ll have it before sunrise!”

Sora wondered why it was she knew the rules and was not yet already a member of the guild. Had she tried previously and failed?

“It’s somewhere in the Imperial City,” Armand continued. “The beggars will help you locate it, for a price. And, I can sell you lockpicks if you need any. One more thing. You cannot kill each other during this trial. We may be thieves, but we’re not murderers.”

Methredhel took off at a run—she either knew where she was going or was terribly eager—and Amusei also hastened away. Sora stepped out of the garden and woke a beggar sleeping on a pallet to ask him about the target.

Ten septims got him, “He lives in the Temple District, on the far east side. You have a map?”

Sora memorized the route to where the beggar had marked and took off running, cloaking himself along the way. He passed Methredhel, who had slowed down to a fast walk, and found the door he needed easily enough. Renato would normally pick locks for the group, but Sora had learned a fair amount himself along the way, and the lock gave easily beneath his probing.

Inside he scanned the room, then hastened over to a desk along the far wall; inside was a diary. He checked the contents to see that it was the correct book, then swiftly exited the house and returned to the Garden of Dareloth slowly enough that he could read the thing.

I’ve planted the seeds of the Drinkers. Soon I shall know if my theories hold true.

The first shoots have appeared. I must make sure to continue the precise schedule of nutrient solutions.

Small Drinker fronds are clearly visible. This is a critical time in their development. I’m almost out of rat blood. I’ll have to catch some more of the filthy beggars.

The young plants are juveniles now. I can see them waving as if in a breeze, although the air in my cellar is as still as death.

I’m having a hard time catching any more cats. I may have to start using dogs. The damn Drinker plants have a voracious appetite.

One of them cut me today. I’ll have to be more careful.

My creations are refusing to feed. As an experiment I offered a drop of my own blood, which one of them drank greedily. The other Drinkers are beginning to wither.

I collected a bucket of human blood from the healers. I had to pay her an exorbitant amount to keep her tongue still. The Drinkers are doing much better. Am I doing the right thing? The benefit of these plants to all of Cyrodiil is beyond doubt, but the price may be too high.

It is one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I have destroyed my notes for how to hybridize Drinkers. I set the trays on the roof where the sun could strike them. An hour after sunrise they were all dead. My attempt to create a hybrid of vampire and plant has failed. They were just too dangerous.

Two parts grave dust, one part ash salts. Mix with human blood. Expose to two hours of moonlight each night.

‘Okay,’ he thought. ‘The people of this world are fucking crazy.’ He snapped the journal shut and tucked it away, then began jogging again to return to the doyen and hand it over.

“Yes … you might do,” Armand said. “Congratulations! You have returned with the diary and earned the right to join the Thieves Guild. You now owe your loyalty to our guildmaster, the Gray Fox.”

‘Not in this lifetime,’ he thought.

“He has three rules you must follow. First, never steal from another member of the guild. Second, never kill anyone on the job. This is not the Dark Brotherhood. Animals and monsters can be slain if necessary. Third, don’t steal from the poor. The peasants and beggars are under the personal protection of the Gray Fox, particularly here on the Waterfront.”

“What about … handling stolen goods?”

“The best fences are only available to the higher rank Thieves Guild members,” Armand said. “For you, for now, you can seek out Ongar in Bruma. He doesn’t have much money, but he’s the only place you can sell hot property as a new member of the guild. Also, if you get hit with a fine because someone saw you stealing, you can come talk to me and we can work it so that you’d only have to pay half.”

“So … I have ‘official’ sanction to steal, and support for fines, information sources. Basically, a mostly solo profession.”

Armand nodded. “Well, sometimes the guild gets a special commission. You know. Guaranteed pay to ‘acquire’ certain items for special clients. You should check in with your doyen every once in a while to see if there are any commission jobs available. But right now, you need more experience before I can offer you any. When you’ve contributed to the guild coffers by selling stolen items to Ongar, I might have something for you. Come back then.”

Sora nodded and slowly walked away. He was rejoined by his family part way back to the city. It wasn’t until after they were crowded into one of the rooms they’d rented that he said, “So…”

“Viper and I can go knock over that jewelry shop,” Renato volunteered. “Should have plenty of portable items to take to Bruma.”

“How does a fence even know that something is stolen?” he mused. “Do the beggars have that good of a network that they can make sure all the fences know when a big heist goes down? Forget the thefts,” he said. “We’ll just nail every bandit we see on the way to Bruma, dump all their stuff onto a pack horse or in the tent, and I’ll ‘convince’ this Ongar person that everything I offer is stolen goods.”

Renato shrugged. “Sure.”

*

Val was still snickering when they made it back to the Imperial City. The people of Bruma had erected a statue of Sora next to the North Gate with an inscription of, “The Savior of Bruma. Singlehandedly fought off the hordes of Oblivion, entered their Great Gate and cast down the dread Siege Machine in ruin. Erected by the Grateful Citizens of Bruma, 3E 433.” For some reason the statue had him brandishing a dagger and wearing a shield.

Around midnight he waited in the Garden of Dareloth and Armand strolled in a bit later. “I’m glad you stopped by. I have a … situation that you might be able to help with. The Gray Fox has asked me to take care of a problem, and I’m putting you on it.”

He nodded.

“Hieronymus Lex actually collected taxes from everyone living here on the Waterfront!” Armand said, scandalized. “The people of the Waterfront are very poor. Traditionally, the city hasn’t collected taxes from them, even though by law they could. The money the city would collect would barely cover the cost of collecting. The Gray Fox doesn’t want to let this injustice stand. It’s a matter of principle. Your job is to recover those taxes. Are you up for it?”

He nodded again.

“Good. Find out where he’s keeping the taxes and bring them to me. I’ll also need the tax records of what each citizen paid so we can return it.”

A beggar told him the coin was being kept at the top of the South Watchtower. With the Chameleon ring from Lorenzo getting both wasn’t an issue. He returned to the garden and handed the records over, along with the measly fifty-three septims.

“Ah! The Gray Fox will be very pleased. We’ll make sure this gets back to the people. Can you believe that fool even bothered to collect this paltry sum!?” Armand scowled, then said, “I think it’s time to promote you to Footpad. Congratulations on your new guild rank.”

Because they had “fenced” quite a lot of goods with Ongar, more so than they should have been able to considering just how little money the fellow had to buy with (Viper had meddled with the man’s mind to make him think he was paying out when in reality he was simply offering a hand empty of coin), Sora asked if there were any other special jobs available.

Armand nodded. “Yes, actually. The guild has received a ‘request’ to obtain a unique statuette. It’s a bust of Llathasa Indarys, the recently slain Countess of Cheydinhal.”

He remembered at least one person gossiping that it might have been her husband who had arranged for her death.

“You will be paid a modest sum. Do you want this job?” When Sora nodded Armand continued, “Excellent. Bring it back to me once you have it.”

*

He stopped the first beggar he saw in Cheydinhal and asked about the bust. After handing over fifteen septims to her she said, “Count Indarys recently commissioned a bust of Llathasa. They say the elves carved it. He put it near her tomb in the Chapel Undercroft. He also posted a guard so that her tomb wouldn’t be disturbed. Used to be anyone could visit her, but now it’s off limits to the public.” She looked around for a moment, then said, “There’s a rumor going around that the undercroft may be haunted.”

A quick trip into the Chapel of Arkay, down into the undercroft, and past a guard was the bust, so he snatched it and retreated outside, then gathered up his family and headed back to the Imperial City. He barely made it across the bridge to the waterfront when he heard, “Everybody needs a copy of the Black Horse Courier!”

But before he could inquire, one of the Imperial Watch stalked up and demanded, “Can you tell me where Armand Cristophe is hiding?”

The hawker took a step back. “No, sir. Please don’t hurt me.”

The soldier glared and stalked off, and the hawker turned, saw Sora, and shoved a scroll in his hands. “One copy of the Black Horse Courier coming up. Gray Fox steals taxes!”

Once near the shacks, with an idea to talk to one of the beggars regarding Armand, Sora was stopped by Methredhel. “Thank goodness I found you. I assume you know that Hieronymus Lex has issued an arrest warrant for Armand Christophe. He’s in hiding, of course. Armand has been accused of stealing the bust of Llathasa Indarys from Cheydinhal. They say Count Indarys himself filed the charges.”

He sighed. “Well, what am I supposed to do with the thing, then?”

Methredhel’s eyes went wide. “There never was a client who commissioned the guild to steal it. Armand used you to flush out an informant who infiltrated the guild.”

Sora frowned. “An informant? Who?”

“Myvryna Arano,” Methredhel replied. “Now Armand needs your help to neutralize her. You’re going to pin the theft on her. She lives here in the Waterfront. Over there, in that shack,” she said, and pointed it out. “Plant the bust in her cupboard. Make sure she doesn’t see you, of course. Then go tell Hieronymus Lex that she’s the thief. He probably won’t believe you, so you may have to persuade him. Hopefully he’ll at least go check it out.”

“Right.” It was still day, but that shouldn’t matter if things went right. He wandered off over to a tree so he could whisper to his family. “I’m going to use my ring. If Viper would cover the door opening twice…”

Viper nodded.

Five minutes later he and Viper were back under that tree and visible again. “I see Lex over there looking all scowly. Be back in a minute.”

He shot out a web as he walked toward the man, inducing a sense of trust, then caught his attention.

“What do you want? Can’t you see I’m in the middle of an investigation?”

Sora furrowed his brow and tried to look nervous. “I saw something.”

“Well? What is it? Get on with it, man!”

“I saw that bust people been talking about.”

“You know where it’s hidden?” Lex asked in surprise.

“Aye,” he said with a nod, then looked over at the shack. “In there. The elf woman, Arano. She were carrying it.”

“…Are you sure? That can’t be right. She’s my—I mean, she doesn’t seem the type.”

“Saw it, sir, before the door closed all the way. She put it in cupboard there.”

“I don’t believe you,” Lex said angrily, “but I’ll have to check it out anyway. If you’re right, there will be hell to pay. You’ll have to come along with me.” He strode off and Sora followed meekly enough.

Inside the shack Lex went to the cupboard and practically ripped the door open. “You were right. The bust is here and Myvryna is guilty.” He grabbed the bust and stalked over to the Dunmer woman. “This citizen is accusing you of stealing the bust of Llathasa from Cheydinhal. I even found the bust in your cabinet. What do you have to say?”

“Fool!” she cried. “You’ve just exposed me to the Thieves Guild. That ‘citizen’ is actually the guild member hired to do the theft!”

“I have no further use for you,” Lex replied. “If what I heard is true, you are the thief. If what you say is true, the Gray Fox knows you’re my informant! Either way, it’s over. You didn’t really think I’d trust the likes of you for very long?”

“But I’ve been loyal to you! I’ve reported everything that Armand has done. You can’t just toss me aside like a soiled cloth!”

“Yes, I can. You are under arrest for the theft of the bust of Llathasa Indarys, Countess of Cheydinhal. Come with me.”

Sora watched as Lex escorted the woman away, then headed for the tree. “So much for that. But we still have hours to waste before I can report in.”

“Let’s go shopping, then,” Val suggested.

Much later Armand was back at his usual spot in the dead of night. “With your help I uncovered the informant who had compromised the Thieves Guild. I know I used you in this matter with the bust, but I couldn’t be certain that you weren’t working with Myvryna. Here is the reward you were promised. Even though the bust is gone, you’ve earned it. I’m also promoting you to the guild rank of Bandit, which will let you use Dar Jee of Leyawiin as a fence. Good work!”

Sora pocketed the sack of coins. Being used as a cat’s paw was annoying, but ultimately unharmful. “Any other jobs?”

Armand shook his head. “Sadly, I don’t have anything for you. I only work with the less experienced guild members. You should go see S’Krivva in Bravil from now on.”

“I will do so.”

*

S’Krivva turned out to be a Khajiit, though the name was a hint.

“Ah, you are the new thief. I am your new doyen,” she said. “Bravil itself presents little scope for an ambitious member of our guild. Perhaps you may find the castle entertaining. Little else.”

And wasn’t that accurate. Bravil was the poorest of the cities, and it showed in just how run down most everything was. “Armand said you’d be the one to speak to now about potential special jobs.”

“Yes,” she said with a nod. “And I happen to have a request from the widow of a former fence in Leyawiin. As your new doyen, I am asking you to help her. A street scavenger made off with a ring that the widow Ahdarji values highly. She is offering a reward. The guild frowns on freelance thieves. Are you willing to go to Leyawiin, find the ring, and get it back to Ahdarji?”

“Yes.”

“This is good. Go to Leyawiin. Speak with Ahdarji and help her find the ring.”

Ahdarji lived on the west side of Leyawiin, according to a beggar there, and was fond of both the Five Claws Lodge (for midday meals) and the Three Sisters’ Inn (in the evenings). He found her outside, in the rain (he shuddered to think how that went along with fur).

“Why does the prey approach me?” she asked.

“I’m here about the ring that went missing,” he said quietly.

“Yes,” she said, and scowled. “A filthy Argonian stole my precious ring. It was a gift from my mate. It has … sentimental value. I will pay well.”

The way she said “sentimental” meant it was anything but, but he nodded agreeably anyway.

“The stupid lizard hunts with the name Amusei. Find him, find my ring. Make him suffer! Kill him and I will be pleased.”

“The guild doesn’t kill,” he said firmly.

She scowled again. “Stupid guild rules! He is only an Argonian. He is less than human, and much less than Khajiit. If you must spare him, at least make him suffer. So many greenskins here. They smell, do they not? Ahdarji won’t drink the water, no. The Argonians swim in it.”

He found a beggar and forked over ten septims to find out that Amusei was languishing in prison after having tried to scam the Countess. He had obviously taken to being a freelance thief after not getting in the night Sora had, whereas Methredhel had probably pestered Armand until she either won a challenge or did some job to finally prove her skill.

He slipped past the guard on duty in the castle dungeon and found Amusei.

“What do you want?”

“How’d you end up in here?” he asked.

“The Thieves Guild refused to take me, so I came here. Leyawiin is my home. It is where I was raised. I went to the Imperial City in hopes of joining the Thieves Guild. Now I am forced to live as a freelance thief.”

“I see.” It sounded more like he just gave up to Sora. “What’s all this about Ahdarji’s ring?”

“Why should I tell you where it is?” Amusei retorted. “Here I sit in Leyawiin’s dungeon while you are free. What will you do for Amusei if I tell you?”

He considered that for a moment. “How about I give you a lockpick? You could free yourself.”

Amusei’s eyes opened wide. “You’d do that for me? Maybe you guild types aren’t so bad after all. Okay. It’s a deal. Give me a lockpick and I’ll tell you about the ring.”

He fished one out and handed it over.

“Sunlit freedom!” Amusei cried as he secreted it away. “Yes, I stole that ring from Ahdarji. When I went to sell it, the fence told me it was too hot for him. He showed me an inscription on the inside, ‘To Alessia.’ That had to be the Countess of Leyawiin. The damn ring was stolen property! Well, I figured I would ransom it back to the Countess. Except she tricked me. I was arrested for theft, and she kept the ring. The Countess rarely leaves the castle. Good luck getting it back.”

Sora hastened off and looked for another beggar, who mentioned that the Countess’s handmaiden, Hildara Mothril, would know where the ring was kept. Sora had figured to simply stroll in invisibly and take the thing, but it never hurt to check with an additional source.

“You should know that there are other secrets in that castle,” the beggar added as Sora was preparing to leave.

“Oh?”

“I’ve heard of a torture chamber. They say that Count Marius interrogates Argonian immigrants from Black Marsh. The servants whisper that the Argonians are dragged into the basement and never seen again. You should stay out of there, just in case.”

“Good to know,” he muttered. In any videogame he'd ever played, being told to stay away from some place meant you would inevitably be going there, so... He stopped to speak with Ahdarji and catch her up on things.

She made a disgusted sound. “Stupid lizard. Ahdarji uses the ring much more wisely. I use it to collect and sell information. That ring can be used to read private messages the Count writes. Get me that ring. Steal it from Alessia Caro if necessary. I will pay double!”

A retreat to the area off to the south of the Mages Guild provided some privacy to talk. “This town is nuts,” he said. “I knew there were racists here because of that one job we did, but…”

“It’s tempting to pay a little visit to the Count and Countess,” Viper said, “and give them some interesting dreams to suffer through.”

Sora shrugged. “For a country that talks of accepting all races, seeing this is … disheartening.”

Viper nodded, the corners of his mouth quirking up for a moment. Sora had no doubt that he and Kiri would get together at some point and plan out a campaign of hell to unleash upon the rulers of Leyawiin.

The handmaiden was easily induced to spill secrets once Sora located her. “Countess Caro is so relieved to have the ring back. It’s been missing for many years. She wears it constantly. Well, not all the time,” the woman amended. “I mean, she puts it in her jewelry box for baths and at night. No proper lady would wear her jewelry to bed.”

Another nudge with his web produced a hushed, “The Countess has a secret passage somewhere in the basement that leads to her private quarters. That’s where the torture chamber is. Sometimes I can hear the screams of the prisoners when I’m in my chambers.”

He nodded to Viper as he turned to leave. Viper caught up several minutes later and said, “Taken care of.”

That night, around midnight, he snuck into the castle and down into the basement. One wall had a suspicious section that looked like the outline of a door, so he searched around until he spotted a lever in a barrel with no top. A quick pull revealed the doorway. Another lever inside allowed him to close the door in case any guard wandered in.

The room down the hallway and through a locked door had blood all over the place, not to mention implements of torture. What really creeped Sora out was the fork and knife on the blood-covered table. Beyond that was another locked door, another hidden door with convenient levers on either side, and a final locked door that led into an area that somewhat resembled Sora’s own quarters at Battlehorn Castle.

He watched the guards for a bit, slipping on a set of glasses enchanted with Detect Life, then hastened over to the door to the bedroom and picked the lock. The Countess was asleep, and thankfully the tumblers of the lock on her jewelry box were quiet as he manipulated them. He grabbed the ring and took a quick look at a scrap of paper in there as well—

…of night. The Elder Scrolls themselves can pierce the veil. They offer a view of the flux of Time itself. The prophet who reads the scroll sees one version of what might be. Another prophet might have a different vision with equal veracity. The price for insight is the reader’s sight. He is struck blind and…

—then retreated back through the secret passages to the basement, then back outside, taking care to cover his tracks by closing all the doors again. Locking the normal ones was beyond his talents, however, but perhaps whoever used them next would simply insert their key and not notice anything off.

He found Ahdarji at her home early the next morning and handed over the ring.

“My ring! All thanks to the claws of the Clan Mother. You have recovered it. Is the slimy Argonian dead? Did he suffer long?” she asked hopefully, then handed over a pouch of coin. “You have earned the reward. The Thieves Guild was always good to Ahdarji’s dearest mate. I am grateful that the memory is still honored.”

S’Krivva was duly informed that the job was completed—it was on the way north, anyway—and she said, “Good work. You are truly an asset to the guild. I will make sure the Gray Fox himself hears about this. I am promoting you to Prowler. Congratulations. Also, Amusei sends his regards.”

The Argonian had made good use of that lockpick, then.

“While you are here, I have a small problem that you may be able to help with. The guild will even pay a reward. That buffoon, Hieronymus Lex, has invaded the Imperial City Waterfront. Imperial Watch guards from all over the city prowl the streets.”

“Again?”

“Lex has vowed not to leave until the Gray Fox is in custody. The Fox is safe, but the Thieves Guild cannot do business like this. The poor of the Waterfront are kindred to the Gray Fox, and will not betray him. However, cubs soon get hungry. Soon someone will break. Many guild members could be jailed. Find Methredhel in the Imperial City. She is coordinating the guild’s response.”

*

A passing beggar was “donated” to in order to find out that Methredhel was hiding out in the Talos Plaza District, in a house owned by a Dynari Amnis. The beggar helpfully pointed it out on Sora’s map, so off they went. Viper and Val waited outside. Renato put on his Chameleon ring and followed him in, just in case.

“It’s good to see you,” Methredhel said on seeing Sora, “but these are foul times for us. Armand is under house arrest, again. Our business in the Waterfront is totally shut down. We need to get Lex to lift his siege, and I have put together a plan.”

He blinked slowly and nodded. “Which is?”

“You and four other operatives will stage high-profile thefts, all at the same time. Hopefully that will force Lex to reassign the guards. Your target is the Arcane University. We’ve had our eye on Hrormir’s Staff for some time, but have been waiting for the wizards to be distracted. This is the perfect time. Will you help us?”

He nodded.

“I knew the Gray Fox could count on you. The staff is in the Arch-Mage’s room. He sleeps between one and seven in the morning. Take this note,” she said, holding one out for him to take. “Leave it in his nightstand. Bring me the staff when you get it.”

Outside and some distance away he murmured, “It’s amazing how high up she’s gotten in so little time if she’s planning out multiple heists. Why are we doing this again?”

“I’m going to assume you don’t mean what she just asked us to do,” Val commented.

He rolled his eyes. “We have yet to get any closer to the Gray Fox.”

“So impatient,” Renato scolded. “You rise up a bit more and who knows? If not, we’ll figure out some other way to unmask the mystery.”

“Right. Let’s go find a nice spot for the tent and I’ll make us dinner.”

Once the tent was set up outside the city and Sora was hard at work cooking, Viper said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll just go get the staff now and be back by the time you’re ready to serve.”

He nodded and handed over the note from Methredhel. Viper came back approximately a half hour later and joined in on the meal, a simple enough stir fry. Once everything was cleaned up with some propagated bottled water, Sora accepted the staff from Viper and went to deliver it. An invisible Renato accompanied him inside again while Val and Viper kept an eye on things outside.

“Excellent,” Methredhel said as he offered her the staff. “Yours is the last item on the list. Now we just wait for the powers that be to pull the plug on Lex’s siege. But…”

“But?”

“I want you to spy on Lex. Make sure you get close enough to overhear any conversations. Sooner or later they’ll order him to return the guards to their original posts. When that happens, come and tell me.”

A trip out to the Waterfront District showed that not only was Lex out and active, but so were numerous guards. A Dremora showed up some time later and made straight for Lex. It handed over a small scroll and left just as abruptly as it had come.

“So, the mages send a foul daedra to deliver a simple note when an honest footman would have done. How typical,” Lex said sourly. He opened the scroll and read it, then tossed it to the ground. “All right, men! We’ve been ordered back to our posts. I smell the dirty hand of the Gray Fox behind this.”

The note, which Sora grabbed once the guards had cleared away, read:

Hieronymus Lex,

Your vendetta against the Gray Fox has cost the Arcane University dearly. You commandeered the guards patrolling our property. In their absence, someone stole a valuable artifact from the University. We demand that you return all guards to their posts immediately. If you do not do this, we will be forced to bring the matter to the attention of your superior.

Raminus Polus

The Arcane University

Methredhel had one last task for the evening when he reported back to her. “As a sign of good faith, the Thieves Guild needs to return Hrormir’s Icestaff to the Arcane University. However, the wizards are not to be trusted. I’m sure they’re watching for us to put it back where you got it.”

‘Why would they assume we’d return it?’ he wondered.

“They’d have no qualms about killing you once they had it back. Instead, I want you to put the staff into Ontus Vanin’s safe chest. He keeps one in his home. Ontus is a former University researcher.”

“And then you pay me?” he asked dryly.

“Greedy bastard, aren’t you,” she said laughingly. “I like that in a thief. You’ll have to see S’Krivva about that. I’m just running the scam.” She pulled a map out and tapped a quill on the spot where Vanin lived, then handed back the staff.

Outside and down the street, away from any guards, Renato grabbed the staff and took off, vanishing along the way.

“He didn’t even say where to meet,” Sora complained. “Let’s go back to where we set up the tent earlier.”

When he awoke Renato was plastered against his back, one hand wrapped around his wrist. His Sun had a habit of being possessive in his sleep. He carefully turned around in Renato’s arms and, mindful of the other two people sleeping, pressed his lips to his Sun’s. “Hey,” he whispered.

“I know,” Renato muttered, answering the unstated comment. “But I just followed our link back to you.”

He smiled and gave Renato another soft kiss. “A little warning would be nice next time, but it’s good to know you figured out how to use the link like that.”

“Well, imagine if someone kidnapped you.”

Sora snorted. “Right. Will you teach the others how to do that?”

“Kidnap you?” Renato said with a roguish grin. “Let’s return home for a while, okay? The pay from the job can wait a bit. I’ll teach the others how I can use the link like a GPS straight to you. We all love you in our own ways, so I’m sure—”

“Deep affection,” Val objected, sitting up from his bedroll. “Like brothers!”

Sora laughed. “Are you saying it’s not possible to love your family?”

“…Well, no,” Val said slowly.

“If you people aren’t going to be quiet,” Viper said grumpily, “I guess I’ll be getting up, too.”

“I’ll make breakfast, then,” he said. “We’ll head home for a bit, then get back on track with this whole thief thing.”

*

“What can a humble doyen do for a sly thief?” S’Krivva said after he found her at home. “News from Methredhel has reached me that Hieronymus Lex has left the Waterfront and that you did your part well.” She handed over a pouch of coin. “I am promoting you to Cat Burglar, which means you can use Luciana Galena of Bravil as a fence. Now, on to other matters. I have need of a very special book, the Lost Histories of Tamriel. The cat burglar Theranis was sent hunting in Skingrad for it. However, he has not been seen since. The Gray Fox himself hunts for this book. I need you to find Theranis and help him to bring back the book. If he is unwilling or unable, bring back the book yourself. Are you agreeable?”

“Sure.”

“That is good. Go to Skingrad. The trail starts there.”

“Westward, ho,” he muttered to his family.

A beggar in Skingrad was happy to say, after a stack of coins somehow found its way into his hand, “Here’s what I know. Theranis was drinking in the Two Sisters Lodge. He was bragging about stealing something from the castle.”

Sora groaned.

“Unfortunately, Captain Dion was also in the Two Sisters Lodge. Heard everything. He arrested Theranis and hauled him off to the dungeons.”

Off in a quiet spot Viper said, “We can’t all go. Four of us piling into the dungeons is a bit much.”

“No, but we can guard the way back,” Val said.

“All right. Renato, come on.”

Down in the dungeons he found a white-haired Nord who said, “Are you here to rescue me?”

Sora paused, then shrugged. “Sure.”

“Just unlock the door. A couple of hours after you’re gone, it’ll be quiet again and I can sneak out.”

Before he did that he asked about Theranis.

“You mean the thief? He was in the big cell with that Argonian. They were always whispering to each other. The Pale Lady took him days ago.”

A foreboding feeling tiptoed up his spine. “The Pale Lady?”

“Every few days she comes for one of us. Some return, some don’t. Those that are taken three times never return. This was Theranis’s third time.”

‘What the hell is Hassildor doing in secret? Is he using people arrested for petty crimes as a blood source?’ “Where does she take them?”

“I don’t know,” the Nord replied. “She took the Argonian less than an hour ago, though. He put up quite a struggle. He was bleeding all over the place.”

Sora looked down the hall and saw blood leading up to the end of it. There was an unlit sconce down there and it reminded him of the way to the grotto at Battlehorn. He picked the lock on the cell, nodded at the man, and walked off to give the sconce a pull.

A passage was revealed and the trail of blood continued along it. He waited until Renato had whispered past him to close it in case a guard came down on his rounds. The passage led into the wine cellar of the castle, though yet another “hidden” door was involved.

The blood led to the center-most wine cask. He sensed Renato moving off to the side, then a faint grating noise, and then the cask in front of him opened up to reveal yet another passage. There was a Dunmer lady in there with white hair and wearing fine clothes. A body was off to the side, and a cell to the right. An Argonian was inside, still alive. Bottles of what looked like blood were here and there.

He shot a web into the presumed Pale Lady to keep her pacified and walked right past her—she could still smell him he supposed—and whispered to Amusei, “Hey. Why do I keep finding you in prison cells?”

“We need to get to safety,” Amusei said after he dashed over to the bars. “I am so glad you are here to save me from the vampire! Those cretin Skingrad guards caught me stealing a fish and locked me up.”

‘You couldn’t just, you know, fish one out of the river or lake? You can breathe underwater without enchantments…’

“You have saved my life, again. You are a true friend. I will not forget this. I’ve decided to join the Thieves Guild. No more jails for me!”

“Is the guy over there Theranis?”

“Theranis? How did you know about him? He was my cellmate. At least until the Pale Lady took him away.”

He sighed softly. “Did he ever mention a book?”

“No, but he did give me a message about a treasure to deliver to the Thieves Guild if I was ever to get out. After the first time Theranis was taken by the Pale Lady, he knew he was going to die.”

He fetched out a lockpick and set about working on the lock.

“Soon as we’re out of the castle I’ll tell you all that I know,” Amusei promised.

The lock clicked, so he swung the door open. Amusei stared at the Pale Lady in confusion, then shrugged and started for the exit. It was not until they were halfway down the path toward town that Amusei said, “He told me to give this message to any member of the Thieves Guild who asked about him or a book: ‘Look under the bush near the well, behind Nerastarel’s house.’ I was going to take it for myself, but I owe you a great debt. You should take it.”

The book was duly found and Sora cracked it open to see what the fuss was about.

In an earlier volume I discussed the vagaries and influences of the Aedric prophesies, more commonly known as the Elder Scrolls. Readers wanting to know the history behind the highly inappropriate appellation ‘Aedric’ can refer to chapters 23 through 27 of my previous work for a full explanation as well as the incompetencies of my good comrade Therin of Mournhold, who named them thus.

The influences of the archivally historic Elder Scrolls cannot be understated. Once a prophecy contained in an Elder Scroll is enacted in Tamriel, the text of the parchment becomes fixed. All readers ingest the same divine message. It becomes an historical document declaring the unequivocal truth of a past event. Scholars, even those as dim-witted as Therin of Mournhold, cannot argue the bias of the writer, like he has with my earlier works. Not even magic can affect the word written upon those ancient pages.

“That seems pointless,” he commented, “but whatever, I guess. The job was to find it and bring it back.”

*

He handed over the book to S’Krivva. “Theranis is dead, unfortunately.”

“Dead?” she said as she accepted the book. “I grieve for him. But at least the book has been retrieved. The Gray Fox has sought this book for many years.” She set the book aside and fetched out a coin pouch to hand over. “Here is your payment.”

He unloaded a bunch of gear taken from dead bandits and marauders onto the fence in Bravil and left town. “Let’s do something else for a bit.”

“What about that manor you bought?” Renato said. “We still have to track down that Benirus fellow in the Imperial City.”

“Yeah.” The trek north was nothing special. They were attacked by the usual bandits, bears, and the occasional enterprising mudcrab that wandered too far away from water. All the spoils were packed away in the tent to be later sold off as “stolen” if the need arose. Though considering just how much they had fenced already… The disguises came off along the way, also.

A man on the street dressed in fine clothes told him, “Yes, he arrived in town not too long ago. I believe he’s staying at The King and Queen Tavern, in the Elven Gardens District.”

“Ah, I know the place. Luther Broad’s is right there, too.”

The man nodded. “That’s right.”

“Thank you.” They departed and ended up inside the inn in question. Benirus was there having lunch.

Sora walked over and stared.

Benirus felt it, for he looked up and his eyes widened. “I’m surprised to see you all the way out here in the Imperial City.”

‘This one obviously never listened to all the gossip about the great hero, then,’ he thought. “Funny thing about that manor you sold me. It’s haunted. And I found the most interesting scrap from a diary in there, one that mentioned only a blood member of the Benirus family could open that seal in the basement.”

“So you think I’m responsible?” Benirus said, then adopted a shamed look. “I suppose you’re right, as the manor used to belong to my grandfather, Lorgren Benirus. I knew there was a curse on that place, which is why I sold it to you so cheap. I suppose I should’ve warned you, but I had to get out of Anvil. My family said I could move here to the Imperial City once all our loose ends were tied down. The manor was one of those loose ends. I fear my own greed got the better of my judgment. I hope you weren’t hurt badly in that horrible place. I suppose I assumed you’d be able to lift the curse and be done with it.”

“Obviously not,” he said dryly.

“Lorgren Benirus was a strange old man, always dabbling and experimenting with magic,” Benirus said scornfully. “He was mostly harmless, until the fateful day he came across a tome bearing the evil magic of necromancy. He became obsessed and decided that by using necromancy, he could prolong his own life. The dark arts contained in the tome called for him to dig up the recently deceased in the nearby crypts under the cathedral.

“When it was discovered that he did this, the Mages Guild called for a quick meeting to decide what to do. It only took minutes to decide. Led by a young upstart named Carahil, the Mages Guild stormed Benirus Manor and slew Lorgren. However, amid the chaos, his body vanished. Because of this, the people of Anvil concluded the manor must be cursed. You are the first person to set foot inside in a long time.”

“This history is good to know,” he said, “but the curse isn’t going anywhere unless you help by opening that seal.” He accepted Val’s find from him and showed it to Benirus.

Benirus read through it and sighed. “You’re right. According to the diary entry, it seems that I’m the only one who can open the secret door in the manor. And I can’t help feeling slightly guilty selling you the place under these circumstances. I’ll meet you in Anvil at The Count’s Arms. From there we’ll try to lift the curse together.” He got up from his unfinished lunch and went to see the proprietor about supplies for his journey.

Sora eyed the man and murmured, “Naturally, we will follow him the entire way to ensure he’s not going to pull a fast one. I don’t care if he runs once the seal is down. He’d probably only get in the way at that point if he stayed.”

“With a possible lich down there?” Val said. “I bet. Or whimper in the corner with a small puddle forming under him. He probably followed one of the Imperial Watch from city to city just to avoid any fighting.”

“Or he has a family heirloom that grants invisibility or Chameleon to avoid that sort of thing,” Viper said. “Either way, I’ll put a tag on him to be sure.”

*

Benirus was faithful to his word and made the trip to Anvil straight away, only stopping in Skingrad for the night before moving on again in the morning. They trailed him to The Count’s Arms and entered not long after he did.

“I was half expecting you not to show up,” Benirus said once Sora approached. “Are you ready to go to the manor?”

“Yes. Let’s go.”

“Then let’s get this over with. I don’t relish the thought of spending too long inside of the manor. Follow me.”

‘Because I have no idea where the house I purchased is,’ he thought, but he followed along anyway. Benirus seemed determined to walk as slowly as possible, but Sora humored him. After a torturously long walk they arrived and entered the manor house.

“Okay, you lead from here,” Benirus said. “Hopefully we can make it to the basement without too much fighting. This place makes me … uneasy.”

Sora nodded and said, “Just don’t get in the way if any ghosts pop up, all right? We’ll handle them.” Oddly, none appeared during the trek down into the cellar and to the room with the seal.

Benirus went over to it and began to do something Sora couldn’t figure out. He didn’t care, so long as the seal was removed. “I hope that whatever’s behind this will truly lift the curse,” he said a bit distantly. “I’d hate to risk harm for nothing. As soon as this opens, I’m leaving.”

A minute later the place started shaking, dust from cobwebs raining down from above, and a door began to open in the wall. Benirus stepped back, paused a moment, then turned and fled, saying, “I fear I can no longer assist you here. I’ll wait for you at The Count’s Arms.”

Val nodded. “That’s him out of the way. Looks pretty creepy inside, though.”

Sora approached. There were smaller seals on the walls, a large one on the floor right before a bier that held what looked to be a skeleton, a table along one wall, and a desk on the other. He walked in cautiously; when he was almost to the bier he heard a raspy voice resound in the room and bounce off the stone walls.

“I am Lorgren Benirus, and I desire the chance to atone for my sins. The things I’ve done to the people of Anvil, the horrible, unspeakable acts I’ve committed demand repentance. Carahil was justified. Slaying me was the only way to stop the madness. I have accepted that fate.”

‘Then why would there still be ghosts attacking people in here?’ he wondered.

“Now, so I may make my final peace with the Nine, please rejoin my hand to my body. Only then, when I am complete, will this eternal nightmare end.”

Sora retreated back to the cellar and then upstairs.

“This is a trick, right?” Val said.

Renato nodded. “Of course it is. We put that hand in place and I bet he rises up and tries to kill us.”

“But if we don’t, we won’t then be able to defeat him,” Viper said, “and this house would remain useless.”

“He seemed pretty lucid,” Sora commented. “That makes me wonder if he’ll be susceptible to your illusions, Viper. And, Renato, the fire of your flames. I mean, all the undead in the movies have a fire weakness, so…”

Renato snorted. “All else failing, Val can bulk up and smash him into paste.”

“Right,” Val said with a nod, then bent down to pick up the skeletal hand. “I’m gonna need a bath after this, though.” He shuddered and held the thing away from his body.

“All right. Let’s go kill us a dead guy.”

Val put the hand in place on the bier and stepped back to scrub at his hand with a spare bit of cloth.

That same voice sounded. “It never fails to amuse me how easy mortal man is to manipulate. You’ve assisted me in completing the very thing Carahil’s cabal sought to prevent all those years ago … my ascension to immortality. Last time I clashed with mortals, I underestimated their power. I shall not repeat that mistake twice.”

The skeleton on the bier fleshed out some and rose swiftly. It went down just as swiftly when Renato used Chaos Shot. “Don’t think those illusions will be necessary,” he said smugly.

Viper rolled his eyes and turned away to leave.

Upstairs they were in for a surprise. The manor had, dare he think it, magically righted itself. The windows let in bright light, furniture was upright and unbroken, and the bed upstairs was actually something Sora would consider sleeping in—with new bedding first.

They trooped off to The Count’s Arms to see Benirus one last time.

“I’m sorry for running away like that, but fear got the best of me. I’m glad you talked me into coming with you. Now that the curse has been lifted, I feel like I’ve taken care of my family’s unfinished business. Excellent work. May the manor give you many years of happiness. I’m now off to the Imperial City once more. Farewell!”

“Can we go home now for a while?” Val asked. “The real one?”