Chapter Three: Welcome Home
In the last week or so, Arbelle and Gabriella had travelled through nearly half the province of Skyrim. Most likely a normal occurrence for Gabriella, but Arbelle hadn't travelled this much since she was a child, long before her stay in Riften's Ratway, which would no doubt go down as the lowest point of her life. After fleeing Windhelm, the two had cut west, but keeping to the Northern part of Skyrim. According to Gabriella, their destination was a Dark Brotherhood "sanctuary" near Dawnstar, which Arbelle surmised was a fancy word for hideout. This, she was told, would be her new home. Arbelle wasn't quite sure what to expect, and Gabriella seemed to revel in her little surprises, so she figured asking her would be pointless. She just hoped they were getting close, for the idea of a warm bed in a place she could call home had been a lost dream to her. Her life had taken such a strange turn, joining the Dark Brotherhood, but somehow it felt right. It was certainly better than starving to death, although she couldn't imagine her parents would approve if they were alive to see her. As for her sister, wherever she was, Arbelle wasn't sure what she would think. She could only hope that she was still alive somewhere, and one day they'd be reunited, one way or another.
Arbelle had stolen her own horse somewhere between Windhelm and Dawnstar, for horse theft seemed trivial after committing murder. Arbelle had never seen the town of Dawnstar before, and she wouldn't today either. Gabriella led Arbelle along the coastline, just mere feet from the cold waters of the Sea of Ghosts. They turned a corner, and as the wicked, infamous Black Door finally came into view, Arbelle knew right away they had arrived. It was magical, of that Arbelle was certain, but far beyond any mortal powers. No, there was an otherworldly aura to the door, yet not Daedric either. Something altogether different. The bloody hand design imprinted on the skull carving wasn't exactly subtle, and gave no illusions to the dark forces that crept inside.
"Isn't this a bit . . . obvious for a group of assassins?" Arbelle asked, already fearing discovery.
"The local Nords are very superstitious, and with the draugur infesting every crypt, I can certainly see why. The black door is a cursed legend, something that no sane person would ever go near," Gabriella claimed, dismounting her horse to approach the familiar, imposing stone door. "Besides, the door is magically sealed. Only someone with the passphrase can open it."
"Passphrase? But there's no one out here to tell a passphrase to," Arbelle noted, looking around area once more to be sure she wasn't mistaken.
Gabriella only snickered, as if amused by Arbelle's innocent ignorance.
"Just watch, sister," Gabriella said mysteriously, now standing directly in front of the ominous passage.
Arbelle jumped when the voice echoed from seemingly nowhere. An inhuman, chilling voice speaking from the Void itself.
"What is life's greatest illusion?"
"Innocence, my brother," Gabriella answered simply and without hesitation.
With that, the once sealed door swung ajar, now giving way to the unknown. Arbelle stared on in wonder, mystified by the supernatural entities entwined within the Dark Brotherhood.
"That phrase is the only way to open this door sister, so make sure to remember it."
"Who was that?" Arbelle asked, dismounting her own horse.
"I haven't the slightest idea, honestly. No one does. Perhaps Sithis himself, or perhaps an extension of his will. In the Dark Brotherhood, very little is clear as day."
"There's that name again, Sithis. Who is he?" Arbelle asked again, infinitely curious, and rightly so.
"I'm afraid that's a complicated question, and I'd rather not explain it out here. For now, just now that Sithis is our Dread Father. A silent, formless being that watches over all of us. He is not Daedra, nor is he Divine. There's a good amount of information on the subject inside, if you're interested in some light reading," Gabriella explained, leaving Arbelle with far more questions than answers.
"This all sounds so strange," Arbelle replied with an exasperated sigh.
Arbelle followed Gabriella through the door, bracing herself for whatever lied in wait.
"So, who's in charge here?"
"That would be me, actually. I've been the mistress of this sanctuary ever since we revived it a few weeks ago. This sanctuary is ancient, but we only started using it again rather recently."
"What? You?" Arbelle stopped in her tracks, looking even more dumbfounded than before.
Gabriella stopped as well, once again seeming amused.
"Don't look so shocked sister, I might take offense."
Gabriella had mentioned she was a member of the "Black Hand," whatever that was.
She would definitely have to do some research on all this whenever she got the chance. If she was going to be a member of this organization, she'd have to be a lot more educated than she was.
"That's right, you're already friends with the sanctuary's mistress. Aren't you the lucky one?" Gabriella smirked, turning around to continue onwards.
The two women stepped into the ancient stone halls, and Arbelle couldn't help but notice they seemed to be the only ones in there, at least from what she could see. The whole place was silent as the grave as well. Where was everybody?
"Now, the place is still a bit barren," Gabriella began, giving the place a good look over herself. "We only moved in a few weeks ago, and we're still getting the place set up. New banners, non-disintegrated furniture, beds that aren't a hundred years old, that kind of thing. It's a work in progress. Our old sanctuary in Falkreath was getting crowded, so four of us were sent here to re-establish ourselves in the North, so we could recruit even more to our numbers. You, Arbelle, are my very first recruit."
"Me? Really?" Arbelle repeated, feeling even more flattered than before. "So wait, there's only four of you here?"
"Well, five now, including you. I'm not sure if Babette or Festus are here at the moment, but uh, Cicero is always capering around, somewhere. Chances are you'll probably hear him before you see him."
"And why is that?" Arbelle inquired, raising an eyebrow to Gabriella's odd description.
"Let's just say Cicero is very . . . unique. He stands out, and in a group like ours, well, that certainly means quite a lot. Describing him would be in vain, you'd be better off just meeting him for yourself."
Gabriella and Arbelle continued deeper into the sanctuary, eventually coming to a small hall overlooking what appeared to be a dining hall, with metal bars separating the two areas as a sort of railing. Both areas, like the one before it, were devoid of life and activity, all except one tragically jubilant soul. The sound of his dancing shoes clamored down the hall as he sprang into the room, for he had heard the sound of someone entering, and of course the dear Night Mother needed tending to as well. When Arbelle first laid eyes on the strange little man, she couldn't help but be confused. What need did the Dark Brotherhood have for a jester? Gabriella let out a chuckle, clearly entertained by Arbelle's awed expression.
"Oh, Mistress! Hello! Hello!" Cicero greeted the Dunmer woman, approaching the pair that was more akin to a skip than a simple walk.
"Hello Cicero, I trust you and the Night Mother have been faring well since my departure?"
"Oh yes Mistress, very well! Very well indeed! It can get quite a bit lonely here at times, but Cicero is certainly no stranger to solitude!" Cicero claimed, a high-pitched, piercing laugh soon to follow.
To say Arbelle was baffled by Cicero would be something of an understatement. Ten seconds of knowing him, and she could tell that even a hatter would appear sane standing next to him. Between the constant cackling, cartoonish voice, and referring to himself in the third person, it was quite clear Cicero was not only a jester, but a madman as well. Arbelle couldn't help but wonder, was he truly once a jester that turned to assassination? Or simply a tortured soul long driven insane? If Arbelle had been condemned to the Ratway for very much longer, she supposed she might not be far behind in that respect.
"And who is this?" Cicero said, suddenly jerking his head in the direction of Arbelle, his wild, colorful eyes startling her a bit. "A new sister, perhaps? Oh, of course she is! What else could she be? Silly, silly Cicero!"
While the mad jester never failed to entertain Gabriella, she noticed Arbelle was left speechless in the face of the clown, feeling more than a bit uneasy. She honestly had no idea what to say or how to respond, and looked to Gabriella in pure desperation. Thankfully, Gabriella picked up on the mental plea.
"Indeed," Gabriella said, answering Cicero for her sister. "Cicero, this is Arbelle Fane. She's quite the talented Destruction mage, if not a bit limited in her spell choice. She should be a fine addition to the Brotherhood, and I must admit I've taken quite a liking to her. I hope you will as well."
Arbelle didn't bother mentioning that fireball was one of the only spells she knew, for she didn't want to expose herself as lacking. She'd be learning a plethora of new spells soon enough, of that she was sure. That is, if she lived long enough in this dangerous new lifestyle she had chosen, but Arbelle was no stranger to survival.
"Arbelle," Gabriella began, now turning her attention to her newest sister. "This delightful character is Cicero, who holds a very special position in our family. The Keeper of the Night Mother herself."
"The what of the who?" Arbelle asked, completely and utterly lost.
"Who is the Night Mother? Who is the Night Mother?" Cicero repeated, almost shouting, seemingly astounded at Arbelle's ignorance.
"Go easy on her, Cicero. She just got here. You can't expect her to be as knowledgeable as yourself already," Gabriella turned to Arbelle once more. "The Night Mother is our Unholy Matron, and the Bride of Sithis. It is from her ancient womb that the Dark Brotherhood was born, and to this day, she guides our family from the Void."
Arbelle didn't know how to reply to something so outlandish sounding, but she wasn't about to doubt Gabriella or her claims. If the Daedra and the Divines could exist, then Sithis and the Night Mother certainly could as well. Still, she hadn't realized the Dark Brotherhood was such a religious organization. She was under the impression it was more akin to the Thieves Guild, but so far it seemed more like a sinister cult that killed in the name of their otherworldly masters. She felt like a fish out of water, being so ignorant and in such an unfamiliar place. She'd have to do some reading, for she had not only joined a new organization, but a new religion as well. She had never been the religious type, but it appeared that was about to change.
"Cicero is in charge of tending to the Night Mother, keeping her in the most pristine of conditions. A prestigious role, to be certain," Gabriella quickly summarized, doing her best not to speak of the more tedious nature of Cicero's position, for he was no longer able to carry out contracts.
"Wait, the Night Mother is here?" Arbelle asked, for they described her as a goddess or spirit, not a physical being in the mortal world.
"Oh yes, yes she is! She's right over here! Come and see!" Cicero claimed enthusiastically, suddenly taking Arbelle by the hand and leading her in another direction.
Arbelle was clearly uncomfortable, but she didn't want to upset the madman. Besides, she'd be lying if she said she wasn't curious. Was the Night Mother some living goddess? What supernatural powers did she possess? Gabriella followed after the two to make sure Cicero didn't go too far. He did have a tendency to do that. Cicero didn't have to bring Arbelle far, as the Night Mother was just around the corner. Upon seeing the enormous, ominous coffin and its contents, Arbelle came to a startling revelation. The Night Mother was an ancient, decomposed corpse, nearly skeletal in nature, and it was only through constant preservation efforts that she even looked that well. Arbelle refrained from voicing her initial disgust, but the look on her face was unmistakable.
"Behold, the Unholy Matron!" Cicero exclaimed, presenting her as some sort of esteemed trophy. "Decades ago, most members of the Brotherhood would go their entire lives without seeing her, so consider yourself lucky, dearest sister!"
"Why not?" Arbelle asked as Gabriella approached from behind.
"The Night Mother used to have a resting place in Cyrodill, but then the Empire fell into chaos after the Great War. The Night Mother's resting place was defiled and destroyed, but the Night Mother herself was saved. Until we can find a new home for her, she must join us at our sanctuaries," Gabriella explained, using information she had gained from Cicero himself. "She used to be at our sanctuary in Falkreath, but . . . well, let's just say Cicero and the mistress over there, Astrid, don't exactly get along, to say the least. Wherever Cicero goes, the Night Mother goes as well, so here she is."
"I see," Arbelle said, still trying to take this all in. "So . . . she just sits here? I can't imagine she does much, she is a corpse after all."
"Oh no, no! The Night Mother does much more than that! Her word is our command!" Cicero claimed, only confusing Arbelle further.
"Her word? She can speak?"
"Yes! But not to me, or you, or anyone! Except the Listener! The Night Mother speaks only to the Listener!"
Arbelle, again, just stared blankly at Cicero, until Gabriella spoke up.
"The Listener is the highest ranking member of our family, and the only one the Night Mother speaks to. Similar to how a Daedric Prince sometimes speaks to their disciples."
Arbelle was clearly overwhelmed by this influx of information, and while the giddy Cicero was oblivious, Gabriella could tell the young assassin needed a break to collect her thoughts.
"Alright Cicero, I think that's enough education for now. Let our new sister settle in before bombarding her again," Gabriella said, leading Arbelle away from the coffin. "Farewell for now, brother."
"Oh yes, goodbye! Goodbye!" Cicero called out to them, before turning to the Night Mother to resume his duties.
"He's an absolute lunatic," Arbelle claimed as she was led away, albeit softly so only Gabriella could hear.
"Oh yes, he is quite mad, but I must admit, I find him quite endearing, and there's not a more loyal soul in all the Dark Brotherhood. But enough about Cicero, you'll have plenty of time to get to know him later."
Arbelle and Gabriella left the joyous jester behind, venturing further into the sanctuary. Past the barren grand dining table and the ominous painted glass window, and down the hall, until they reached the bedchamber, by far the location Arbelle was most interested in. She was consumed with relief just upon seeing an actual bed, as it had quite literally been years since she slept in one.
"Here we are. The beds aren't assigned, so whenever you're tired, just pick the closest bed."
And Arbelle was ready to do just that. She was just about to fall into a bed, but Gabriella wasn't quite finished.
"One more thing before you rest, sister."
Arbelle let out an exasperated sigh, but turned to face Gabriella. The way Arbelle saw it, she was eternally in Gabriella's debt for providing her with this opportunity, and the last thing she wanted to do was appear ungrateful.
"It's important to remember that while we are assassins and murderers, we still have rules. Strict ones, as a matter of fact, and strict adherence to them is paramount to our continued survival. Until recently, these rules had been largely abandoned, but since the assassination of the Emperor and our resurgence, we have begun a return to the old ways," Gabriella affirmed, sounding quite thankful of that fact. "The rules, known as the Five Tenets, are posted throughout the walls of the Sanctuary. Be sure to familiarize yourself with them as soon as possible. Violation of any of them will result in immediate suspension from the Dark Brotherhood, and the only way back in is through a particularly dangerous trial, so keep that in mind."
"Got it," Arbelle said with an understanding nod.
"Alright, that's it, at least for now. Come find me when you wake up, and we can discuss your first real assignment. I've got plenty of work. Plenty of souls that need to be sent to Sithis, but that's for later. For now, sweet dreams sister. I'll see you in the morning."
With that, Gabriella finally departed, heading back in the direction she came. The exhausted Arbelle breathed a sigh of relief, almost falling into whatever bed was closest. The bed itself was average at best, but to Arbelle it may as well have been a cloud. Despite being in a den of professional assassins, she could finally rest without fear of being killed in her sleep. Against all odds, she had persevered, and escaped her fate in the depths of the Ratway. No longer would she be a filthy, desperate beggar, never knowing when her next meal would be. Finally, she had a home once more. A place to live, develop her magical prowess, and most of all, an opportunity to reveal those responsible for the destruction of her life, and not only take their lives, but everything they held dear. She wanted revenge on those who had wronged her, and if she had to watch the whole world burn to make it happen, she would do it gladly.