Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 13

13: This Heartbeat

“The esteemed cat burglar honors me,” S’Krivva said in greeting. “It is well you have come. Hieronymus Lex must be eliminated once and for all. The Gray Fox has asked that you do this personally. It is a most delicate matter.’

“We don’t kill, so there must be some other plan in mind.”

“Countess Umbranox of Anvil is hunting for a new captain of her guard. The Legion Commander of the Imperial Watch sent her a list of candidates. The Gray Fox wants this list replaced with one that highly recommends Hieronymus Lex. From Anvil he can do little harm to the guild.”

He nodded. “And the letter?”

“It is currently in the steward Dairhill’s desk. She has lied to Lady Umbranox, telling her that the letter has yet to arrive. For reasons unknown to this one, the Gray Fox has extended his protection to the Umbranox family and Lady Umbranox in particular.”

‘If they are one and the same, the amount of time that “stranger” spends gazing wistfully at her suggests love, or obsession.’

“While Lex is a problem for the guild, his unwavering loyalty and resolve make him the perfect protector for Lady Umbranox.”

“It’s obvious to me that forgery will likely be necessary.”

“Yes,” she said. “You will have to track down one with such skill on your own. I don’t know of any in Bravil. With the forged letter in hand, sneak into the Legion Commander’s office in the Imperial City Prison and seal it with his seal. Dairhill cannot be trusted. You must deliver the letter to Lady Umbranox in person. Will you accept this commission?”

He nodded. Perhaps after this he could get that much closer to the Gray Fox and unravel the mystery Viper was so keen on.

“That is good. Remember, this is a mission of stealth, not blood. Your payment will be higher than normal to cover the expense of the forgery.”

*

It was a simple enough matter to sneak into the steward’s room at Castle Anvil and appropriate the letter. He tracked down a beggar in town and asked about someone skilled in forgery and, after a donation of fifteen septims, was informed, “Look for a man known only as the Stranger. He lives here in Anvil, near the Mages Guild. He’s out and about in the morning, so I would wait until afternoon or evening to go visit him.”

They actually saw the Stranger not far away, but he was already almost to Castle Anvil. A peek inside showed that he was mooning over the Countess again, so they left and waited near the Mages Guild for him to emerge and, hopefully, enter the abandoned house. He had a fair amount to say once they followed him inside.

“Do I know you?”

“Possibly,” he replied. “Who are you?”

“I am the Stranger. That is all you need to know. That, and I am not to be trifled with.”

“I see. And the Gray Fox?”

“Everyone wants to know about the Gray Fox,” the Stranger said scornfully. “Gray Fox this, Gray Fox that. He’s just a man, not a Daedric Lord. I’ve heard it all. They say he’s immortal because he’s led the Thieves Guild for over three hundred years. No one has ever seen his face because he always wears that gray cowl. Oh, and speaking of the Gray Cowl, did you know he stole it from Nocturnal herself? You’d think he was Saint Nerevar the way they talk about him.”

“I see,” he repeated. “I’ve been reliably informed that you can help me. I have a letter of recommendation I need altered, appropriately forged. I was told you could handle that.”

When the man looked interested he fetched out the list and offered it up. The Stranger read it and nodded. “I can do the forgery, but to what?”

“The top recommendation needs to be Hieronymus Lex.”

The Stranger hummed. “Yes, it can be done. I can change it to give Lex the highest recommendation. I’ll need a full day to properly forge this letter. Return then. And of course I will expect payment in full at that time.”

He nodded and retreated downstairs so he could exit. Once far enough away Viper became visible once more. “So we have a day to waste. Let’s restock the tent, then go clear out some of the bandits in the area, make things a bit safer for travelers.”

*

The first thing out of the Stranger’s mouth was, “Do you have my fee?”

“You never even told me what it was,” he pointed out.

“Oh? Five hundred drakes,” the man said, looking slightly chagrined.

Pocket change to Sora and his family, never mind that they would get it back, and there was always more to be had just selling off the spoils from dead bandits. He made up fifty stacks of ten septims and placed them on the table.

The Stranger eyed the process carefully, then nodded and pulled out a piece of parchment. “Here is the new List of Candidates. Hieronymus Lex has a glowing recommendation.”

Sora accepted it, glanced at it, and tucked it away. “Thank you.”

They made the trip to the Imperial City and Viper took the list long enough to slip into the prison and use the Imperial Legion Commander’s seal on it, then they spent the night just outside the city, in their tent.

“I wonder if Kiri can warp here without destroying everything around him,” he mused while he cooked.

“What are you talking about?” Renato said.

“I guess it never came up. In my original dimension he could warp around like the Vindice, but unlike them, the area around him was destroyed at his departure point. It’s not that I have a problem with getting exercise, it’s just annoying going to Anvil, then here, then back, all in so short a time. I’ll have to remember to ask him about it when we go home next is all.”

They rolled into Anvil and straight to the castle; the Stranger was seated on a bench again, watching. The Countess was still holding court hours, so Sora approached with the list in hand. “Your Grace, I have come to deliver the recommendation list for your new guard captain.”

“Odd,” she replied. “Normally these missives are handled by my steward, Dairhill. Let me see that.”

He let her take the list.

She read through it and hummed. “Hieronymus Lex looks like the best choice. I was about to give the position to Dairhill’s cousin. Well, I have the orders right here. I’ll fill in his name and you can deliver it to Captain Lex,” she said, taking a moment to dip a quill into an ink pot and write on the orders. “Thank you, courier. My steward will tip you,” she added as she waved the orders around to dry the ink, then rolled it up and handed it to him.

He had no intention of speaking with the steward. She’d probably stiff him on the amount as payback for her cousin not getting the job.

Lex was found at The Bloated Float on the Waterfront and, amusingly enough, Methredhel was also spending the evening there drinking. Sora went up the steps to the balcony where a door to the outside was, as Lex was seated on a bench there, and offered him the orders from Countess Umbranox.

Lex set down his tankard and read the parchment. “I’ve been reassigned!? This is outrageous! The Gray Fox had a hand in this, I know it.” Lex sighed and sipped from his tankard. “I am bound by duty and honor to obey this order. After all these years, he has finally won. Maybe fate will be kind and deliver him to me in Anvil.”

Sora nearly huffed a laugh. ‘If what we suspect is true, he will be, you just won’t ever realize it.’

“I’ll leave at once for Anvil.” Lex got up, edged past them, and headed down the stairs.

Methredhel grinned at him as he passed her on the way out, and they spent the night outside the city again before heading to Bravil to see S’Krivva.

“Well done, hunter!” she said. “Hieronymus Lex will no longer be a thorn in the paw of the Thieves Guild. The Gray Fox shows his gratitude. You are being promoted to Shadowfoot, and may now use Orrin of Castle Anvil as a fence.” She handed over a fairly heavy pouch—a later check would reveal it held one thousand septims—and added, “There are rumors that the Gray Fox himself may call on you soon. Wait for contact from him. Keep the guild fences busy.”

*

The road to Anvil provided plenty of bandits to relieve of their gear, so they had plenty to pawn off on Orrin at Castle Anvil as “stolen” goods.

“Ah, I see you work with the Gray Fox,” Orrin said when he brought up the subject. “Remember, act casual, like we haven’t done anything illegal.”

Sora’s mouth twitched as he started producing his items. But once he’d unloaded everything and pocketed the cash, they camped outside town for the night, then started the journey to the Imperial City. Chests in the tent were again filled with the spoils of battle, but they spent the night in the city itself, at the Bloated Float Inn.

That turned out to be a minor mistake.

Sora woke up and was annoyed to realize the ship was rocking and creaking, unlike the placid stillness it had when he had gone to sleep, and his stomach was protesting mildly at the motion.

“We’re at sea?” Renato said uncertainly as he released Sora’s wrist and sat up.

They both got up, checked their things, and Sora opened the door, only to see someone dressed in leather armor blocking the way to the door up to the tavern deck.

Viper and Val emerged from the other room looking confused, and the sound of the second door opening alerted the person standing in the way.

“Hey! Who in Oblivion are you? You don’t look like one of the Blackwater Brigands! Four of you!” The man readied his sword only to die when Val altered the size of the sword, causing the man to fall over from the sudden weight and impale himself.

“Sad,” he said, shaking his head.

Renato rifled through the man’s clothing and came up with a piece of parchment, a few measly septims, and a key.

Lynch,

Your instructions are to make your way to the bottom deck of the ship and secure all of the rooms there. Make sure you don’t disturb Minx. She’s to be left alone to do her assignment. Remember, after the ship is scuttled, we’ll meet back in Bravil in three days. Make sure you destroy this note after you memorize it.

S

“Did I miss some gossip or something?” he asked rhetorically, then tried using the key on the locked room at the end of the “hall”. Inside was an Orc.

“Thank you for freeing me. I’m Graman gro-Marad, the Bloated Float’s bouncer and helmsman. I’ve been locked here in the storage room for hours. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but not long ago, a gang of thieves calling themselves The Blackwater Brigands stormed the ship. They took myself and Ormil, the Float’s owner, hostage and put the ship to sea. I have no idea what they’re after. If you can get me safely to the top deck, I can steer the Float home. But I’m not budging until the coast is clear. I’m used to dealing with drunken louts, not a gang of well-armed thieves.”

Sora nodded and headed through the door leading to the stairs up to the tavern deck. There was a woman up there, and she obviously heard the door opening, for she said, as she started to turn, “Ho there! Where do you think you’re going? Selene’s not going to like this one bit. I wasn’t to be dis—” She saw who was standing there and whipped out her sword.

After she was dead, Sora rifled through her pockets for a measly five septims and a key. Given that the bouncer wanted a free path to the top deck, he bypassed the room behind the counter and went up to the door above it, where Lex had been seated when he’d delivered the transfer orders.

“Wha—?” said a dark-haired man out there. “What are you doing up here? They find the Golden Galleon yet? I don’t know who you people are, but if you’re dead, it’ll mean fewer people to split the treasure with!”

He had a key on him and four septims. ‘Not very wealthy for bandits,’ he thought.

Back inside Graman had ventured up from the inn deck. “Sounds like the coast is clear,” he said, “so I’ll make my way up to the ship’s wheel. But I’m not moving this hulk an inch until Ormil is safe. Be cautious. Their leader sounds dangerous.” He nodded and headed up the stairs.

The key opened the proprietor’s cabin. Inside was Ormil and a woman. “How’d you get in here?” she demanded.

“I got the key from the fellow at the ship’s wheel.”

“Wrath? I told him to guard the wheel and not talk to anybody. Who are you?”

He realized at that point that she could not see his family behind him since he was standing in the doorway blocking the view. “I’m just the ship’s cook.”

“There’s no cook on board the Bloated Float!” she said angrily. “How dare you try and make a fool of me! After I deal with you, I’ll feed your body to the slaughterfish!”

She died.

“Oh thank goodness!” Ormil cried as he stared at the body. “That horrid woman kept threatening me! Said if I didn’t come up with the loot she’d throw me to the slaughterfish.”

“Why were they even here?” he asked.

Ormil looked rueful. “Well, I’m afraid all of this was my fault. They hijacked the Bloated Float because of me. Business has been waning of late, so I invented a story. I fashioned a tale about a ‘Golden Galleon’ that the previous owner hid within this very vessel. It was to be a statuette made completely of gold. At the time, the idea was quite clever, I thought. I figured the lore would draw more curiosity seekers and adventurers looking for the treasure. What could the harm be if while they were here, they bought a drink or two? My business has increased quite a bit since I leaked the story.

“Well, obviously, I was mistaken. It was a terrible idea. I’m just glad that no innocents were hurt; I wouldn’t want to have their blood on my hands. Anyway, sorry to ramble. You better get below now and rest until we arrive safely at the Imperial City docks. I’m glad that you were on board to help rid me of them. If you hadn’t been here … I don’t even want to think about it… I’ll turn over her body and the bodies of her compatriots when we arrive. Don’t let it trouble you, friend.”

Sora stared for a moment, then nodded and turned around. The rooms were cramped, but a little more rest wouldn’t go amiss. Ormil handed over four hundred fifty septims after he awoke as reward money.

Methredhel found them as they emerged back out into the Waterfront. “I have a message for you from the Gray Fox,” she said in a hushed tone. “He has a task for you. Meet him at Helvius Cecia’s house in Bruma.” She ran off, not giving him a chance to ask any questions.

Val started snickering. “We can visit the statue again.”

“I will end you,” Sora said under his breath. “Maybe we could sneak over to it in the middle of the night and…”

“And what?” Renato said. “Paint graffiti on it? Maybe a nice Snidely Whiplash mustache?”

“I still don’t get why I was depicted with a dagger and shield. As if I’d ever use either in a fight!”

“You look more heroic that way,” Viper said. “Though really, they should have gone with a sword. And perhaps armor. I guess they prefer their heroes to look like fighters and not mages?”

He heaved a sigh. “Let’s get going. We can eat on the way.”

*

The Gray Fox was downstairs in the building a beggar directed them to. He was wearing dark, worn leather armor and a gray cowl that concealed everything but his eyes, mouth, and chin. The cowl itself had blue Daedric runes running down the center strip.

“I see you got my message.”

‘Funny how he has the exact same eyes as the Stranger,’ he thought, and nodded.

“I have need of your special gifts,” the Gray Fox said. “There is an item, hidden away in a remote monastery. I need you to go get it for me.”

‘And I have to wonder why you are incapable of doing it yourself,’ he thought. ‘Or is that you want to be able to rush back to Anvil at a moment’s notice?’

“The monastery is extensive and well guarded, so you should make sure to be well prepared. Should you succeed, I will pay you well for your services.”

He nodded again.

“Capital!” the Gray Fox cried. “The monastery is called the Temple of the Ancestor Moths. It is where retired, blind Moth Priests go to wait out the rest of their days. I will mark the location on your map. Look for it in the far northeast of Cyrodiil, beyond Cheydinhal.”

Sora fetched his out and offered it. The Gray Fox ticked a spot with a quill and handed it back.

“I need you to acquire Savilla’s Stone. It is a large crystal with special properties that I need to gain … advantage. Remember, do not shed innocent blood. However, there is no bloodprice for slaying the stone’s guardians, human or inhuman. When I receive word that Savilla’s Stone is missing, I will be waiting for you.”

“You won’t have to wait long,” he said, then departed.

“So basically, we take the northeast gate in Cheydinal as we did when looking for the Mythic Dawn,” Renato said, “but keep mostly north rather than veering off toward the lake.”

“Looks that way,” he replied, studying the map. “A road appears to lead straight to it.”

“He had the same feel,” Viper said. “Can’t for the life of me figure out his name—or more accurately, something is blocking me—but that’s the Stranger.”

“Confirmation is always good,” he replied. “We’re on the right track, then. I expect all of this is leading up to a way to break the curse, so he can return to his original life.”

“Something moderately familiar,” Val said. “Minus the misleading hero statue.”

*

The Temple of the Ancestor Moths was part way up the mountains and snow lay everywhere. A bit of investigation showed that of the three buildings, only one was likely to be their target. The chapel held nothing of interest and the other building was a simple enough hut with bed space. The final building was a crypt.

It was fairly standard in layout as compared to the undercrofts Sora had been in, but this one had a door leading deeper, into an area with several of blindfolded monks. He and his family skulked by after putting on rings with Night Eye enchantments and eventually ended up in the next section, which had a large room with many beds in it. It, too, was utterly dark, which made sense.

Deeper in was an area that had no monks, but it did have traps. There were trip-wires, spikes in the floor, and some wraiths roaming around. As with anything else, they picked a wall—left again—and followed it so as not to get turned around.

The door that led them to opened into a vast cavern that was roughly square in shape. The center was almost a storey below their entrance, with steps leading down to a dais. He could, should he choose, walk all the way around the room on his level, but there seemed to be little point. He could see hints of tunnels to either side, but the stone they were after was on that dais, guarded by a blindfolded priest and something that looked like a dark Welkynd stone.

Viper touched his arm and signaled for them to wait, then drifted away to make the rounds. When he got back he leaned in to whisper right into Sora’s ear, “We grab the stone and go right. The tunnel over there leads to a ladder I expect will take us back up to the surface. If we’d spotted it in the first place…”

Sora nodded, then turned to whisper in Renato’s ear. “You’re the fastest. Dash down, grab the stone, and then we go through the right tunnel.”

Renato nodded and, once Val was filled in, dashed off. They made for the tunnel and were all shortly up a ladder to the outside. Down the path and well out of sight of the temple they set up the tent and Sora started on a meal.

“That was so boring,” Renato complained. “A bunch of tiptoeing around in total darkness. Being a guilded thief is just…”

“It’s only temporary,” Val said, giving Renato a frown.

“That reminds me,” Viper said, and fished around in his cloak. “I found a parchment in there. I have no idea why, since those monks cannot read.” He handed it to Sora.

They crowded around as he opened it.

The Gray Cowl of Nocturnal shrouds the wearer’s face in shadow. No light or magic of detection can penetrate its depths. To look upon Nocturnal’s face without the cowl is to view the depths of the void. A man would lose his mind to see it.

Recently it has come to light that the Gray Cowl has gone missing. This must be at the whim of Nocturnal, for she could reclaim it easily. The Lady of Shadows has seen fit to reveal that a curse is laid upon the Gray Cowl. Whosoever wears it shall be lost in the shadows. His true nature shall be unknown to all who meet him. His identity shall be struck from all records and histories. Memory will hide in the shadows, refusing to record the name of the owner to any who meet him. He shall be known by the cowl and only by the cowl.

I am directing a triad of Moth priests to investigate this tale. They shall determine the truth or falseness of the story. They shall determine the present whereabouts of the Gray Cowl, be it in Tamriel, Oblivion, or beyond. All curses can be broken, even those laid by Nocturnal. The triad shall determine how this curse may be lifted so that the Moth priests may safely wield the Gray Cowl.

“Why on Earth would they want to use it?” he said. “I can understand the idea of the challenge of lifting the curse from it, but…”

“But it definitely explains what happened to the Stranger,” Viper said. “I doubt he’s actually three hundred years old, however.”

“So, what… Maybe the thing gets handed down to the next, chosen leader?”

Viper shrugged. “Very possibly. But I have to wonder if any of them went to this much trouble to try to figure out a way to break the curse. I have to believe that’s what he wants, else he wouldn’t spend all that time at Castle Anvil, nor get someone like Lex to guard the place.”

“Lex being there could be in case he’s not successful,” Renato pointed out.

“True.”

“It’s also tweaking the man’s nose, even if he’s never aware of it,” he said.

“Wait a minute,” Val said, and looked at Sora in concern. “If he’s really trying to break the curse so he can get back to his original life, he’s probably going to want to hand off the cowl.”

“And I’m the one doing jobs for him now,” he said softly. “Oh.”

Renato shook his head. “Even if that did happen, you could just never wear the damn thing and hand it off to someone else. If the curse gets broken at least no one’s identity would be in danger. Let’s deliver the stone to him back in Bruma. If it looks like you might end up being tapped as the next guildmaster we can have a family meeting to decide what to do.”

“Yes. Because I have enough to do normally without running a guild on the side.”

*

“I hear the monks were most … hospitable. My sources tell me that Savilla’s Stone has gone missing. Do you have it with you?”

He removed it from a pouch hanging from his belt and handed it over.

“Capital! Now I can see past the palace defenses. It’s a good thing the emperor didn’t know they had this stone. He would have had it destroyed, or taken it from them and kept it under lock and key in the palace. When I have learned what I need to know, I will call for you again. Let us leave Helvius’s house now. He has served me well and deserves his peace.”

“Wait,” he said, and pulled out the note Viper had found. “What’s this about, then? You’re reaching for the same goal, of a sort?”

The Gray Fox took the parchment and scanned it, then handed it back and laughed bitterly. “I suppose there is no hiding it from you. No hiding. What a joke! My whole life is hiding. Everything in that document is true. My identity cannot be known. In fact I just told you my true name twice, but I bet you don’t remember it. You and I have even met before, when I was not wearing the cowl. To your clouded memory he and I are two different people. My own family doesn’t even know me. I would give much to be rid of the Gray Cowl and its curse.”

He nodded and departed, satisfied that Viper’s theory was correct.

*

During a trip to the Imperial City a week later he spotted Amusei wandering around, obviously looking for someone, so he and his family ducked into a convenient alley to toss on their disguises before emerging from the other side and continuing on. That the path he chose brought them past Amusei a bit later on was purely coincidental.

“It is good to see you again!” Amusei said after Sora was spotted and the Argonian hastened over. “I have a message for you from the Gray Fox. He has a task for you, and says to meet him at Malintus Ancrus’s house in Chorrol.”

“I take it you joined the guild, then?”

“Yes, I did,” Amusei said with a nod. “After you saved me in Castle Skingrad, I vowed to join. I was having no luck on my own. Now I am running errands for the Gray Fox himself. I owe you much for your help. See you!” Amusei raced off down the street and around a corner.

“At least we’ll be near home again,” Val said.

Malintus’s house was down in the “slums” of Chorrol, which made a certain sort of sense. The Gray Fox jumped straight into things again without so much as a greeting. “I have need of your services once more. My work with Savilla’s Stone has revealed that I need something special for my plans. It’s a small item in the possession of a powerful court wizard. Will you do this for me? I will pay you well.”

“What object?”

“Capital!” the Gray Fox said, taking that as agreement. “Bring me the Arrow of Extrication. It has a key-shaped head. Bravil’s court wizard, Fathis Aren, recently acquired this unique item. You may kill Fathis if necessary, but not in the castle. My spy network will tell me when you have it. Return here with the arrow when you do. Now we should get out of Malintus’s house before we wear out our welcome.”

*

“Fathis is also the wizard in the tower outside of town,” a Bravil beggar told him. “He keeps his most treasured items there, not in the castle. Only Fathis can open the door to the tower, but there is supposed to be a secret passage somewhere in the castle that takes him to his tower.”

He thanked her and walked away. “Viper? We’ll set up the tent outside the city walls.”

“On it,” Viper replied, then vanished.

Why bother to sneak into the castle and find a secret passage when one of their number could fly?

Viper joined them about an hour later, a key-shaped arrowhead in hand. “This was all he had. I searched everywhere around him. He was so busy with his alchemy that he probably wouldn’t have noticed if I’d stampeded wild elephants through there.”

He shrugged. “I’m sure it’s only the head that’s important. I suppose any old shaft would do.”

Renato smirked. “I certainly hope not, tesoro.”

He eyed his Sun in confusion, then blushed. “Ren!”

Val started snickering and leaned against Viper, who bore with it stoically.

*

When he arrived back at Malintus’s house he heard, “I have been waiting,” before he even got the door shut.

“The only thing there was the arrow’s head,” he replied, holding it out.

“Hm,” the Gray Fox said, taking it. “I had hoped for the whole arrow, but that is not your fault. I will have to have it repaired. This arrowhead advances my plan to… Never mind. I may have need of you again in the near future, if my plans hold. Here is your reward,” he said, handing over a pouch of coin. “I am also promoting you to Master Thief in the Thieves Guild. Fathis Ules of the Imperial City will be available to you now as a fence.”

Since they were so close to home, once Sora left his meeting they ducked off into the wilderness to remove their disguises and head west to Battlehorn Castle and Filigrana for a while.

*

Amusei found him again in the Imperial City when they took a trip to pick up a few things. As soon as Sora spotted the Argonian busily searching for someone he and his family ducked away to put on their disguises again, all so he could coincidentally cross paths with him.

“I have another message from the Gray Fox. You must be very important!” Amusei said, a bit awestruck. “Another meeting. Please travel to Ganredhel’s house in Cheydinhal.”

“Why Cheydinhal?” he muttered. “He’s all over the damn place with these meetings.”

Ganredhel’s house was a nice one, but then Cheydinhal was a pretty place. The owner had two dogs that roamed around inside restlessly while their master waited outside.

“Come, we have much to discuss,” the Gray Fox said as Sora approached the table and chairs by the roaring fireplace. “Further use of Savilla’s Stone has revealed that I need another special item to move forward with my plans. I need the boots of Springheel Jak. He is a famous thief that died some three hundred years ago. Legend has it that he was buried with his boots on. Find out where he’s buried and bring me back those boots. Will you do this for me? It pays well.”

He nodded.

“Capital! The Earl of Imbel is the only descendant of his line that I have been able to locate. His name is Jakben, and he lives somewhere in the Imperial City. There might be a clue in the earl’s house.”

He nodded again and departed before the Gray Fox could trot out his usual line about not overstaying their welcome. Hopefully this quest to break the curse was almost done with, because it was easy to feel annoyance at the constant treks around the country. Though, sometimes saving the life—or identity?—of a man was as important as the world, he supposed.

The Earl of Imbel’s house was in Talos Plaza, on the inner wall. His informant mentioned that the man was “odd” and that he only went out after dark. Sora understood exactly what that meant when he called on the man and saw his eyes and teeth; he was a vampire.

“What do you want?” Jakben said fearfully when Sora approached. “I’ll do anything you ask!”

If the man was honestly that worried about visitors, why had he left his front door unlocked, or had his manservant answer a knock?

“I wanted to inquire about a legend I ran across, regarding a man called Springheel Jak, supposedly in your line.”

“Take everything, just spare me!” Jakben cried and cowered away.

Sora’s brow went up in disbelief. “Just tell me what you know about him.”

“The family crypts are under the house. They give me the creeps. I have the key. Take it. Just don’t hurt me!”

A key was shoved into his hand before Jakben dashed away. He went up a set of stairs and through a trap door, saying, “I’m—I’m still alive!”

“That was fucked,” Renato whispered.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Viper whispered from the other side.

Sora watched as the trap door eased open again for no visible reason, closed, and then opened again a minute or so later.

“Found something of interest,” Viper whispered, “but let’s look at it down in the basement.”

A piece of parchment was shoved in his hand after they were down there and Sora looked it over. One thing stood out after he read: The Imbel family traces lineage strictly through the male line of heirs, as any right-thinking nobility would. Therefore this family genealogy does not record the inconsequential female offspring.

None of the names on it were Jakben. None of them were Jak, either.

He tucked it away and nodded. The door to the crypts clicked open moments later—Renato at work. Inside he spotted what looked like a vampire so he slipped his Chameleon ring on. There were passages to the left and right of his position, and a door almost directly ahead. He bypassed the vampire and headed for the door.

Renato and the others followed their links to him and the lock clicked open a few moments later. Inside was a tunnel that almost immediately turned left. Straight on after the turn it dead-ended, but the way right led to another locked door, beyond which was a stone coffin.

For some strange reason there was a set of clothes and a weapon in there, but no skeleton. He grabbed the only other thing in there, a diary, and cracked it open to read.

I knew a man who was a great thief. He dared steal from Nocturnal herself! How odd that I cannot seem to recall his name. I think we were friends, but I’m not certain. In three days I will venture into Taren’s crypt. Graverobbing alone is dangerous. Maybe I should try to find a partner. Didn’t I once know a great thief?

I begin this second entry in the second volume of my diary on a momentous day. Actually it is night, the night when my second life begins. It will be forever night for me. I have become one of the children of the night, a son to mother wolf and brother to the bat. I am nosferatu, a vampyre. Tonight is the first night of the rest of eternity.

I rediscovered this diary today. It has been thirteen years since I last wrote in it. With an eternity before, and the blood hunger ever pulsing in my veins, there is little urgency for diaries, or much of anything. Amiela is calling to me. I must go.

Has it really been eighty-nine years since I last wrote? The pages are getting fragile. I have rediscovered purpose, though it took nearly a century. I have finally gained some measure of control over the blood frenzy. I think I will try to establish a life among the living in one of their great cities.

I had forgotten about this diary. I won’t bother to calculate how many decades it has been since I last wrote in it. The cattle of this city know me as Jakben, Earl of Imbel. Centuries ago I knew myself as Springheel Jak, the famous thief. I seem to recall having a famous partner, but his name escapes me. No matter. I have grown beyond friends and partners. I rule the night here in the city.

No sooner had he closed it and shoved it into a pocket did Jakben slam into the room, fully armored, and wielding a sword. “Where is he?” he hissed.

Sora shot a web into the man and induced sleep, and watched as Jakben crumpled to the dirt floor. A few moments later he could hear rustling sounds, and a pair of boots appeared briefly.

“Let’s go,” he heard Renato whisper.

Outside they regrouped visibly and made their way out of the city. “Let’s just head to Cheydinhal, or at least camp out on the other side of the lake. I’m not sure how long he’ll be asleep. I pumped a lot of sedatives into him, but one of his vampire friends might manage to wake him up early.”

“Let’s avoid the normal route, then,” Renato said. “We’ll circle the city and web-walk across near where you emerged after your little prison stint. We can set up the tent at those ruins. And on a side note, in addition to the boots, I scored quite a hefty pouch of coins off that guy.”

He chuckled and started jogging.

*

“I assume you found Springheel Jak’s tomb.”

He nodded. “His diary mentions knowing a thief who stole from Nocturnal herself, the Gray Fox, I must presume.”

“Ah, it seems you have stumbled over a bit of history that few in the Thieves Guild ever discover. I am not the first Gray Fox. That master thief died sometime shortly after stealing the Gray Cowl and receiving Nocturnal’s curse. However, another thief in the guild picked up the cowl and assumed his identity and the curse. No one in the guild knew it was a different person. Over the centuries there have been dozens of Gray Foxes. To the rest of the world he seems immortal and unchanging. I am hoping to be the last.”

Confirmation, then. Sora produced the boots and offered them.

The Gray Fox accepted them and said, “I am truly indebted to you. If all goes well, I may call upon you for one last task. The danger will be great, but the reward will be greater. For now, here is your reward.” The usual pouch of coin was handed over. “Let us leave Ganredhel’s house and go our separate ways. We have overstayed our welcome.”

*

“I have another message from the Gray Fox,” Amusei said once Sora slipped into his disguise and wandered by to be waylaid. “He requests a meeting. Please travel to Othrelos’s house in the Imperial City Elven Gardens.”

He nodded. At least he would not have to travel far for that one.

“May shadow hide you,” Amusei said in parting before loping away.

A brief detour to find out where Othrelos lived and they were off. The Gray Fox was seated at the table on the ground floor, but said as soon as he noticed Sora, “Are you ready for one last great heist?”

“Sure,” he replied. ‘And I hope this does it.’

“This is the big one. This is the heist that will be written about and talked about for decades to come. We are going to steal one of the Elder Scrolls from the Imperial Palace. Are you ready for this challenge?”

‘Aren’t those the things that make you go blind?’ he thought. ‘Or crazy?’ Nevertheless, he nodded.

“This is for glory, not for money. Our names will become legend. I also have a personal need for this particular scroll.”

‘Considering that I think I have yet to even give a name… And what is this “we” part?’

“As for your compensation, I ask you to trust me. If my plan works, you will get a reward worth far more than mere money. Will you do it?”

He nodded, thinking, ‘I already got that reward, friend. I got my life back.’

“Capital! I have worked for eleven years planning this heist. Savilla’s Stone provided the last bit of information I needed. The Elder Scrolls are kept in the Imperial Palace behind a door that cannot be breached. Savilla’s Stone has revealed a path around this door. You will have to travel the Old Way. Once used as an escape route for Imperial Emperors, it has been forgotten for centuries.”

He wondered about that, considering what had happened to him.

“To unseal the entrance, you must sneak into the basement of the palace and activate the Glass of Time, whatever that is.”

“And then?”

“It will open the way to the real entrance, in the Imperial sewers. Here is the key for the gate to that section of the sewers. I picked the pocket of Ocato himself to get it.”

“What is this … ‘Old Way’?”

“My scrying with Savilla’s Stone has provided clues, but not the details. I know the tools you’ll need there, but not the obstacles themselves. The boots of Springheel Jak will allow you to leap to an unreachable place. They will also protect you from a long fall. The Arrow of Extrication is the only way to unlock the final door. Take them both.”

Sora accepted both arrow and boots and tucked them away.

“Once you are inside the palace itself, you need to find the reading room. The blind priests will deliver a scroll to you there.”

He allowed his confusion to show.

“I arranged for the notable Celia Camoran to want to read a particular Elder Scroll. Don’t ask how. However, she will be … unavoidably detained. You will take her place. Do not speak to the priests. They are blindfolded and will not realize it isn’t her unless you speak. As the guildmaster, I am waiving the bloodprice for anyone you kill during this heist. However, I can’t stop the Watch from putting a price on your head.”

‘Camoran?’ he thought. ‘I wonder if there's any relation…’ He nodded. “Glass of Time, sewers, arrow…”

“I have written it all down for you in this scroll,” the Gray Fox said, and slid the one resting on the table toward him. “I’ve chosen you because you are the best. Good luck.”

Sora took the scroll and departed. He and his family took a brisk walk to an inn and got rooms, then headed upstairs to talk.

“Okay, I have to assume we’re not slipping in through the front door due to a lock even he can’t pick,” Val said, “something possibly augmented with magic.”

He nodded. “I would assume so. Because otherwise this is a ridiculously convoluted plan.”

“I honestly can’t see all four of us going,” Viper said slowly. “And if something goes wrong and a long drop is required, well…”

Renato sighed. “Yeah, I get it. I’ll wait here.”

Viper and Val eyed each other, and Val bowed out rather than play his Undying card. “Viper can float and fly, so…”

The corners of Viper’s mouth quirked up slightly. “I promise you I will be exceptional in my care of our beloved Sky.”

“I know you will,” Renato said. “Just do the usual cloaking routine, use the rings if necessary.”

“Just don’t read the stupid scroll,” Val said.

Sora gave him a confused look. “Why on Earth would I do that? After what Lorenzo dug up in those books of his I’d rather avoid even thinking about doing so. No. We get this scroll, get it to our friend, and hopefully he’s able to break the curse. It would be nice, I admit, to see someone succeed at that kind of thing.”

“Makes you wonder what’s happening back on Earth,” Val said softly. “We don’t really talk about it, but…”

“We did rather cheat fate when we accepted that offer,” he said, “but we were also—we have no idea how much longer we’d have lived. I can only hope that Xanxus and the Varia manage to figure out what we never could. And maybe if they do, and get to know Byakuran, or someone who can transfer information across dimensions, that the knowledge will be disseminated around so that…”

Viper and Renato nodded, but Val suddenly snickered. “A chibi Xanxus would be a sight to see!”

“I only got to see Squalo in that dream, but he was adorable,” he said with a grin. “Not as adorable as all of you were, but…”

*

Just to check, because he had to, Sora went to the door leading to the stairs going up at the palace and found that, indeed, he was unable to pick the thing. That being so, he and Viper skulked off to the door leading to the basement and he picked that one open instead. There was a single guard down there patrolling the perimeter, but he was easily avoided.

The Glass of Time turned out to be a simply enormous hourglass with pink sand in it. Sora exchanged a bewildered look with Viper and activated it, and then skulked back out. His intuition led them to the Arboretum District. There was a grate-covered well near the entrance to the Arena District that led down into the sewers, which they used, and he let his intuition guide them along until they came to a room with something that somewhat resembled a manhole cover.

The next level down featured a door at the end of the hall, but it wasn’t one he had the skill to pick open, so they headed south instead, through a door he could manage to open. They avoided the various undead creeping around and emerged into an Ayleid ruin, which reminded him that the entire palace complex was originally an Ayleid palace, taken over by the humans after they overthrew their oppressors.

The first thing he noticed was a gleam of blue on the walkway surrounding the area he emerged into. There was another one on the opposite side. Viper flew up to one of them to push it and Sora slipped on the Boots of Springheel Jak and jumped to the other one. That opened the way to continue deeper into the ruins.

The next place of interest was a massive room with a walkway that bisected it and a raised area at the far end that had three statues on it. The two smaller ones looked like armored elves, but the central one was massive and from the waist up. The door at the back was sealed, of course.

He looted the Welkynd stones he found as they investigated, strongly considered just phasing through the barriers that protected the center of the walkway, and found two more of those funny blocks they could push. Activating those opened the barriers and allowed him to stand on the raised square directly across from the massive central statue.

Doing so caused it to rotate and expose a faint blue glow.

“Oh hell. I’m going to have to shoot from here?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Viper said. “Give me the arrow. You stay on that platform, and I’ll go jam it into place.”

“An excellent plan,” he said, and handed it over.

Viper nodded and floated away briskly, coming to a hover next to the keyhole, then slammed the arrow into place.

Sora was more than a little surprised when the two smaller statues came to life. Were they Ayleid who’d been frozen in place for centuries? He jumped down and raced forward, up the stairs, and got a quick look before going through the now open path with Viper. They certainly looked like elves to him, some kind of variant of Altmer.

Through the door he saw four guards sleeping; they had emerged into a rather swanky barracks. They skulked off to the door and exited, then began the journey ever upward. Given how late it was there were very few guards present, and even if they didn’t have the ability to be invisible, there were shadowy alcoves every so often on each floor to hide in if necessary.

When they reached the floor that had blindfolded monks roaming around he went through the first door he reached. Off to his left was a seated monk behind metal grating. Behind him a little was a lever. In front of them was a door, but his attempts to pick it open met with failure.

Viper touched him on the shoulder and pointed at the lever, then floated away. He came back into view a minute later and pulled the lever, then vanished again back into the gloom. Once Viper was back with him he tried the door again; it gave under his hand, so he opened it and stepped inside.

Monks were in the central chamber. Some were reading, others were moving about with surety despite their blindness. He spotted a solitary chair at the table in the center—oddly enough, the table itself resembled a wayshrine minus the columns and with a fire at the center—so he took a seat.

Shortly thereafter a monk came down the staircase that spiraled around the interior and stopped near his chair. “Celia Camoran, I present to you the Elder Scroll you requested.” He placed it on the table and departed back upstairs.

Sora snatched the thing and headed for the door, only to find it was locked again. Viper tugged on his sleeve and pointed upward. He shrugged and headed for the stairs. Another door was present there, which they took. The door at the end of the circular hallway led to yet more stairs, and ended in a suite. Half the circle was a sitting area and half was a bedroom.

Not seeing any immediate way out he closed his eyes and leaned hard on his intuition; it led him to the fireplace. The bottom was not solid rock, but instead had a metal grating to allow ash to drop down rather than build up. It moved easily out of the way.

He double-checked to make sure he was wearing those boots, shared a look with Viper, then jumped in. The Gray Fox’s words about a long fall came to mind as he dropped like a stone down several storeys to land back in the sewers.

Viper floated down a minute later and landed gently. “So much for those boots,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” he whispered back. They had absorbed the impact and disintegrated, and saved his hide from being splattered like an egg. He found his usual boots and slipped those on, then got his head wrapped around which way to go. “I have the funny feeling that was Chancellor Ocato’s rooms we went through.”

They stopped in at the inn first, so that Renato and Val would know they were all right. The two were playing cards, but abandoned the game the second Sora and Viper entered the room.

“Just have to deliver it now,” he said as Renato checked him over.

“It can wait until morning,” Renato said firmly.

He shook his head. “No, I’d rather this thing be out of my hands as quickly as possible. Come with me for the delivery, then we’ll rest, all right?”

Renato frowned, but nodded. “Fine.”

The Gray Fox was just where Sora had left him. He quickly handed produced the scroll and held it out.

“You have the scroll? I can hardly believe it!” the Gray Fox said. “The odds were clearly against you. Capital job! Capital! I have spent years learning how to translate this scroll,” he said as he took it. “Even so, I will need a while to decipher what I have sought so desperately.”

“I wish you luck.”

“I have not forgotten you or your loyal service to the Thieves Guild. You’ll just have to trust me. Give this ring—” The Gray Fox slipped one out of a fold in his armor and handed it over. “—to Countess Umbranox in Anvil. Say nothing about me to her. I need to know how she reacts to it. It may provoke anger or tears. If she asks, just tell her a stranger wanted her to have it. Then report back to me on her reaction.”

He nodded. “As you say.”

Viper and Val were still awake when they got back, but quickly packed off to the other room to get some sleep. Sora dearly wished he could do more than use a rough cloth to wipe himself down from a basin, but it would have to do for the time being. Sewer trips were not his favorite activity.

“We’re going home for a bit,” Renato said from behind him.

“Yes. The Countess can wait a day or two. And besides, I figure we should stake out the castle anyway once we get there, to see how long it takes before he’s done. I fully expect he’ll be right there waiting to see her reaction personally. You’ll notice he never said a word about where to report on that, and I doubt he meant for me to come all the way back here.”

*

A crier for the Black Horse Courier was happy to shove a scroll into his hands on their way out of the city, so he stopped long enough to read it.

Palace Break-In?

The Legion Centurion in command of the Palace Guard was charged with dereliction of duty. Although the Council has officially denied the stories of a palace break-in, the rumors persist. Muddled accounts of the events and principles range from a madman intent on spit-polishing the Emperor’s shoes to a master thief stealing one of the legendary Elder Scrolls.

The Palace Guard has made no arrests in connection with the break-in. However, the Watch has been making peculiar inquiries all around the city. The Guard and the Legion are in complete agreement on one matter at least … neither the fictitious Thieves Guild nor its mythical leader, the Gray Fox, could have been in any way involved. Although rumor has long insisted that the Thieves Guild has been a significant factor in Imperial City criminal activities, representatives of the Guard and Legion insist that even the mythical Gray Fox would never dare to break into the Imperial Palace.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, “legendary, and yet unnamed.”

*

When they first arrived in Anvil the Stranger was not to be found in his usual spot on a bench in the Great Hall of Castle Anvil, so they checked back daily until he was. It was only then that Sora approached the Countess with the ring handy.

“Yes? What is it?”

Sora wordlessly offered her the ring.

She took it and examined it closely. “This ring belonged to my husband! He has been missing for over ten years now. For some reason, his name and face escape me at the moment.” Her expression hardened. “How did you get it? Do you know his whereabouts? Why are you showing it to me?”

“It’s a gift from a stranger.”

“My husband’s wedding ring! I never thought to see it again. What I wouldn’t give to see him once more,” she said wistfully.

A sound made him look back.

The Stranger had gotten up and was headed toward them, but he was dressed in armor and wearing the cowl. When he reached the dais he went down on one knee briefly, then stood and thrust a hand into the air. “By the power of the Elder Scrolls I name Emer Dareloth as the true thief of Nocturnal’s Cowl.” Some strange magical aura spiraled around him briefly, then dissipated.

“You’re the Gray Fox!” the Countess cried. “I’ve been betrayed!”

“I am the Gray Fox, but you have not been betrayed.”

“But…”

Sora and his family slowly edged away from the drama unfolding in front of them.

“I am also your missing husband, Corvus,” the Gray Fox said, bowing his head briefly. He then removed the cowl.

“Corvus! Is it really you? For years I’ve waited for word from you. Why did you hide from me?”

“Over a decade ago I inherited this cowl from the former guildmaster of the Thieves Guild. I became the new guildmaster, but I also received its curse. ‘Whoever wears Nocturnal’s cowl shall have his name stricken from history.’ Once I donned the cowl, no one in all of Tamriel could recognize me. With the cowl I became the Gray Fox. Without it, I was a stranger, even to you.”

“You mean you were unable to return?”

“I stood right next to you, and you didn’t even know it. I cried out to you, ‘Here I am! It’s me, Corvus!’ but you looked at me, confused.”

The Countess took a half step back. “You have broken my heart for a second time. I cannot let the infamous criminal mastermind, the Gray Fox, become the Count of Anvil. If you try to announce yourself as Corvus, I will deny you. I will deny you before the Elder Council if I have to.”

“I guessed you would say these terrible things to me. That is why I brought my friend along. From this moment forward, I renounce my life of crime forever. I am passing the Gray Cowl of the Thieves Guild to its new guildmaster.”

Sora’s eyes widened. ‘Damn it, I knew this was going to happen.’

Corvus turned to him and took a few steps forward. “The Gray Cowl is yours now. You are the new guildmaster of the Thieves Guild. You will find that history has been altered this day. Such is the power of Nocturnal’s curse that lifting it can alter time itself. If Emer Dareloth had not stolen Nocturnal’s Cowl, the Thieves Guild would never have fallen on such hard times.

“Because of the curse, he was unable to operate in the normal world of business and society. He could only act as the guild’s figurehead. That has been undone. If you go to the Imperial City, you will find that the Thieves Guild has a guild hall on the site of the ruins of Dareloth.” Corvus shoved the cowl into his hands, then returned to his wife.

Sora sighed and made for the exit, shoving the cowl into his pack.

*

“So let me get this straight,” Lal said. “Because you helped this guy break the curse, you got saddled with being the new guildmaster to a bunch of people you have no interest in, and a cowl you’d prefer to lose down a well or something.”

“About that, yes.”

“I have an idea.”

He eyed her suspiciously. “And that would be?”

“Give me the cowl, and I’ll go whip the lot of them into shape.”

“I could help!” Rio volunteered.

“I have a better idea,” he countered. “I go check out this guild hall he spoke of, find Armand sleeping, and put the cowl on him. Let him figure it out. It’s not an organization you can whip into shape or institute mandatory training sessions for. That’d be like taking over a band of marauders and teaching them how to be more effective at trying to kill us when we travel.”

Lal scowled at him.

“You could always find Nocturnal’s Shrine here in Cyrodiil and leave the cowl there,” Kiri suggested.

“…That’s not a bad idea,” he said, giving his brother a smile. “I still think I should probably check out the guild hall, though, just to make certain there’s nothing peculiar there before my thief persona disappears without a trace.”

Lal and Rio when along with him and Renato for that trip. The Garden of Dareloth suddenly sported a door back there where before there had been nothing. Inside was a set of steps down into a basement where several sleeping pallets were, and another set of stairs led up into the house, which was fairly swanky.

The top level was taken up with a bedroom, presumably for the guildmaster—Corvus had stuck a key to the cowl that opened the door. Savilla’s Stone was there on the top of the desk, and he wondered if he should leave it there or anonymously deliver it to the palace, or leave it someplace where it might never be found. A stone that could scry out just about anything? Not something a person would want to leave just anywhere.

He grabbed it and tucked it away. The sensible thing to do, perhaps, was to just put it back where he’d stolen it from, at the Temple of the Ancestor Moths. And now that he knew a shortcut to get back down there…

Once he found the shrine and visited the temple again, it would be back to business as usual.