Chapter One: A Dark Sister is Born
Down in the darkest depths of Riften's Ratway lived a cursed soul in every sense of the phrase. Once a daughter of a proud, well-off family, now condemned to scraping, stealing, and begging just to survive. Orphaned at the age at a young age, the woman had not known happiness in many a year. Long enough that she had forgotten a time when desperation, spite, and resentment had not ruled her soul. Hatred at the world that had wronged her and thrown her away to rot, that had turned her into what she was. This woman's name was Arbelle Fane.
That anger, that undying hatred was what had kept her going so long, a faint, distant hope that one day she'd be able to exact her vengeance on her family's murderers, and the society that had long since abandoned her. That, and her magical pursuits. A talented destruction mage from birth, she was truly gifted, even for a Breton. The one blessing the Gods had given her, although her talent had done her little good without spell books to learn from, which of course were not free, nor were they a common sight to find lying around the cold, desolate halls of the Ratway.
When she was a child, Arbelle dreamed of becoming an esteemed mage in the College of Winterhold, achieving the same success her parents had before her. A dream that had once given her such hope and inspiration, but now only served to haunt her during the cold, sleepless nights. Lingering, painful thoughts of a better life, of what could have been. Guile had never been one of her gifts, nor had speechcraft, so the Thieves Guild had little use for her. Every once in a while she'd feed information to Vex or Mallory for a few septims, just to be shooed away moments later, cast back into filthy warrens like the rat they saw her as. All they saw was a lowlife, same as all the other insane ingrates and degenerates that swarmed that forsaken, stinking sewer. Not one of them saw her for what she truly was. The dark potential her hate-filled soul held. All they cared about was money, and Arbelle was useless in such matters, at least in regards to thievery. To other, even more sinister syndicates than the Thieves Guild, her magical gifts and hateful heart would be quite . . . invaluable.
One day, it was as if the Gods had finally done her a favor, albeit a small one. A few months prior, a paranoid, reclusive mage had moved into the Ratway, some stuck up Altmer. She didn't know his name, but then she didn't need to. No sane soul would ever willingly choose such a place as their home, so Arbelle deduced he was hiding from something, not that it was any concern of hers. Her only concern was his spell tomes she knew he was hoarding. She thought nothing of the risks, for she had nothing to lose and everything to gain. In that room lied power she had only dreamed of, power she was more than willing to risk her pathetic, desperate life for. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, one she did not intend to pass by.
Arbelle had been watching his door for hours, just waiting for him to finally leave, to make her move. Arbelle watched from the shadows as the Altmer mage's door fumbled about, before opening to reveal the elf himself, mumbling incoherently to himself. Of course, he turned to lock his door before leaving. That was just fine. Arbelle had never been any good at lock picking, but there was more than one way through a door made of wood. Arbelle made sure the haughty wizard was gone, until the faintest echo of his footsteps had faded. Only then did Arbelle emerge from her hiding spot, eagerly rushing to the locked door. Taking a long, deep breathe, she raised both hands, open-palmed, and began to concentrate.
"Gods, please, don't ruin this for me."
Bursts of fire and flame flowed from her hands, soon engulfing the door. It was among the weakest of Destruction spells, but for a task as simple as this, it would suffice. What she was doing wasn't exactly subtle, however. The longer this act went on for, the higher the possibility she'd get caught. Before long, the door was nothing more than crumbling, burning piece of timber. Arbelle threw all her weight against the weakened structure, fighting back the pain from the searing heat of her own flames. Arbelle breached the door, breaking through to the other side and crashing to the cold stone floor. Coughing and hacking, she brushed herself off and climbed to her feet, taking a quick look at the now ruined door. Still on its hinges and locked in place, but with a human sized hole straight through the middle. Arbelle knew she couldn't waste any time, for someone would definitely had heard all that.
Her adrenaline was going wild, as she knew what she was doing could very likely mean her death. A blatant act of desperation from a woman with nothing left to lose. Any spell she found would be useful, but above everything, she was looking for Destruction tomes. For once, it seemed the Gods, or perhaps, darker forces, had finally smiled upon her. Sitting on the mage's desk, in plain sight before her eyes, was such a tome. Arbelle went straight for it, unable to help herself as she opened the book and to scan its contents. She could barely contain herself, for it had been precisely was she was looking for. A fireball spellbook, the staple of any self-respecting Destruction mage. Due to her natural talents, simply reading the words on the page were enough for her to gain an understanding of the spell, but as it would turn out, she would get an opportunity to test it out sooner than she would have hoped.
"What in Oblivion is this?" came a voice of outrage, one that sent chills down the young Breton's spine.
She had been caught, and she knew it. Chances were, she was about to die. She turned to see the furious wizard, her eyes widening in terror when she realized he was not alone. Two elves in gold gleaming armor stood at his side, and it soon became clear to Arbelle who exactly this mage was, and what exactly she had gotten herself into. She had just stolen from a Thalmor agent, most likely undercover. Of course, it had to be too good to be true.
"You thieving little guttersnipe! You'll pay dearly for this, worm!" the wizard cried, as the two Thalmor soldiers began to advance on her, swords drawn.
Arbelle raised both hands, a ball of fire soon cackling in her palms. It all came to her so easily, learning a spell to her was like child's play. Simply skimming the tome was enough for her to gain a basic understanding and execution of the spell. Upon seeing the flames, the Thalmor soldiers stopped in their tracks, knowing what they meant. They both looked to the other nervously.
"You fool! A fireball at this distance will scorch everyone in this room, including yourself!" the wizard claimed, taking a cautious step back.
Arbelle knew this was likely a suicide mission. If this day were to be the day she was finally granted sweet release from her miserable life, then she accepted it. In fact, she welcomed it. At least she would go out with a bang, and take three of the Thalmor agents down with her. Not all can claim such a feat. If she was going to die, then this was the way she wanted to go. Little did she know, they were all being watched by a dark, unseen presence.
"So be it. Say your last prayers, elf. Today, we leave this world together."
Arbelle let loose the fireball, sending it hurdling at the Thalmor wizard. He raised a ward in desperate effort, but it was too little too late, the fiery force shattering his futile attempts at self-preservation and consuming his entire physical form. A flash of light from the impact blinded Arbelle, instinctively covering her face to shield her eyes as a wave of fire flooded the room in a hellish blaze. The last thing Arbelle remembered was the searing pain of her hands being scorched by the flames, before the force of the blast threw her to the ground and separated her from consciousness.
When Arbelle finally came to, she thought for sure she was dead. That this had to be the next world, and whatever it was, she welcomed it. She didn't care if it was a plane of Oblivion, for it could not have been worse than her previous existence. When she opened her eyes, and the world finally came into focus, she found herself staring up at the starry, tranquil sky. Sounds of wild nighttime animals and crickets flooded her senses, and the crisp cool mountain air washed over her face. Was this the Dreamsleeve she had heard her parents speak about all those years ago? Was this her afterlife? She certainly didn't feel dead. It wasn't long before the pain of her burnt hands returned, and she realized she was somehow very much alive. Not only that, but she was no longer in the Ratway, or even Riften. She did her best to sit up, trying to get any kind of grip on her whereabouts.
"Ah, you're finally awake. I was beginning to wonder if I had dragged you out of those tunnels for nothing," came an unseen, feminine voice.
Arbelle turned to the source of the voice, seeing a woman in black robes sitting by a cackling fire a few yards away. The light of the flames below illuminating her blue-gray skin and glowing red eyes, distinct features of a Dunmer. Arbelle had no idea who this woman was, where she came from, or what she wanted, and she was still understandably on edge.
"Are you with the Thalmor?"
The woman just laughed softly, clearly amused by such a question.
"You think we'd be having this conversation if I was with the Thalmor? No, the organization I represent is much more, shall we say, open-minded?"
It was around this time Arbelle realized her hands and other burned parts of her body had been bandaged, and from what she could feel, her face was miraculously spared from the blast. The Dunmer woman stood up, making her way over to the injured Breton. She reached into her robes, revealing a small, pink bottle.
"Here, drink this," the woman said, offering Arbelle the container. "A health potion will help with the pain."
"Can I trust you?" Arbelle asked, hoping for a sincere response.
"Dear, sweet girl, of course you can," the woman claimed, a warm, comforting smile appearing on her face. "I've saved your life, after all."
"Yes, I noticed," Arbelle said as she took the health potion from the woman. "Why?" Arbelle asked, before downing the concoction in one gulp.
"You don't sound too happy about it," the Dark Elf responded curiously, walking back to her place at the fire.
"Believe it or not, but I was actually looking forward to dying. Life hasn't exactly been kind to me. My life has been nothing but disaster after disaster," Arbelle said back with a sigh, now sitting up as the potion did its job repairing her wounds.
"Are you a member of the Thieves Guild?" came the woman's sudden question.
Arbelle gave the Dunmer a bit a suspicious look at such a question, but saw no reason to answer dishonestly. The woman had done her nothing but good so far, and at the moment, she was the only person she could trust. For all Arbelle knew, the Thalmor were after her, and whatever this woman was, it certainly wasn't Thalmor.
"No, I don't have the skills to be a thief. I'm a vagrant. A lowlife. A pathetic creature to be pitied and spat upon," Arbelle seethed, her anger now reawakening as well.
"Oh, but you are so much more than that. You are a force of destruction. An agent of death. You roasted that insufferable Altmer like a cooked piece of meat. You have quite the talent, my dear."
Arbelle's face went blank for a moment. She had actually forgotten. She turned to the Dark Elf, an incredulous look on her face.
"I . . . I really killed him?"
"Oh yes, and his little two cohorts. All dead, by your hand."
Arbelle wasn't sure how to react to the news, her eyes drifting away as she pondered her the magnitude of her actions. Did this make her . . . a murderer?
"Were they your first?"
"What?" Arbelle asked, not seeing her meaning.
"Your first kills, were they?"
"Uhh . . . yeah," Arbelle stumbled, clearly out of sorts. "I'm sorry, who are you?"
The Dunmer woman flashed Arbelle another strangely soothing smile before answering.
"Can I ask you your name first, my child?"
"Uh, Arbelle," she answered, rather hesitantly.
"Well Arbelle, my name is Gabriella. I represent the Dark Brotherhood."
The words didn't register to Arbelle at first, it was only after a few seconds had passed did her meaning sink in. Her eyes grew wide as she realized this woman was playing no jest.
"The, the guild of murderers? Who killed the Emperor? That Dark Brotherhood?"
"Well, we're hardly something I would call as impersonal as a 'guild,' but to answer your question, yes. That Dark Brotherhood."
Arbelle felt as if her tongue was caught in her throat, like she could barely speak. The Thieves Guild were one thing, she had been in their presence before, but the Dark Brotherhood? They were a different animal entirely. Their business was murder. Assassination. A coalition of homicidal maniacs and cutthroats. Suddenly, Arbelle felt very afraid for her life, even if she had welcomed death not long before.
"Well, what do you want with me? Obviously if you wanted to kill me, I'd be dead. So . . . what is this? Why'd you help me?"
"Well, I guess you could call me something of a . . . talent scout. And I have to say Arbelle, I'm very impressed with your display."
"What? Wait, are you saying . . . what I think you're saying?" Arbelle asked, for she was no fool.
"You strike me as a person with not much to live for, and nothing to lose, being forced to live in that terrible, dreadful place. How would you like a real home? A place where you're appreciated, even loved? We could make great use of someone with your natural talents, of that I am sure. I know this is rather sudden, but I'd like to offer you a place in our family," Gabriella continued, making her proposition all the clearer.
"Me? In the Dark Brotherhood?" Arbelle was struck, to say the least.
"Oh yes, I'm quite good at finding worthy additions to our family. It's a gift, and I sense something in you, Arbelle. I know you're angry, I know you're desperate, I know you're looking for a purpose in life. I've been there myself. I know how it is to be alone in the world."
She had heard whispers among the Thieves Guild that the Dark Brotherhood was recruiting more than they had in years prior, and were on a dramatic rise to prominence once more, but for her to be a member of an organization of murderers? The thought seemed insane, but she quickly remembered she'd rather be dead than go back to that cursed Ratway. Here someone was offering her a way out, a chance at a better life. On one hand, she'd be a fool not to accept. On the other, it was the Dark Brotherhood. One could not pick a more sinister path. She had done plenty of things she wasn't proud of, and she certainly would have joined the Thieves Guild if she had the skills for it, but being a professional thief and being a professional assassin seemed worlds apart. Although, she had to admit, killing those three was easy for her. Something as monumental as taking a life, and she had shown little to no hesitation. She hadn't even thought about it. It shouldn't have been that easy, but it was. Perhaps darkness had truly crept into her heart long ago. Not to mention, anything was better than going back to Riften.
"I understand if this is a bit . . . overwhelming." Gabriella admitted. "I know it's a lot to take in, and I can't tell you much unless you accept, but I promise you, all will be revealed and explained."
Arbelle stared deeply into Gabriella's red, Dunmer eyes, and strangely, even though she was speaking to an admitted murderer and cutthroat, she couldn't help but feel . . . relaxed. What reason did Gabriella have to lie to her? As odd as this all was, she saw nothing but sincerity in the assassin's eyes, and not only that, but even understanding. Like she knew all of Arbelle's pain without having been told, like Gabriella had seen it in her eyes. Arbelle couldn't believe she was about to do this, but something was telling her to take Gabriella at her word. To trust her. It's not like had some other viable alternative. It was either this, go back to Riften, or wander the wilderness until she starved to death or was killed by bandits or some wild animal. The more she thought about it, the more she realized the choice wasn't a hard one.
"Do you need time to think about it?" Gabriella asked rather courteously, "I certainly don't want you to rush to a—."
"No, I don't need any more time," Arbelle said, abruptly cutting off her savior.
Arbelle turned to look Gabriella in the eye, a certain confidence in her voice she hadn't felt in longer than she could possibly remember. Her path would be a dark one, but she had given up any hope of a normal, honest life long ago. If it was her destiny to be a murderer, to be an assassin, then so be it. She was ready.
"My answer is yes. I will join the Dark Brotherhood," Arbelle said, hardly able to believe the words that were leaving her mouth.
Upon hearing Arbelle's decision, a pleased, welcoming smile soon overtook Gabriella, not even attempting to hide the joy she felt.
"Oh sister, I promise you, you will not regret this."