I walked slowly along the main street and looked around. The dominant feature of the town was the chapel of Arkay which rose right beside the river that divided Cheydinhal in half. It was surrounded by tidy, half-timbered houses, most of which sported a small, well tended front garden. At the corner ahead of me, a primly dressed Dunmer woman was chatting amiably with one of the town guards. All in all, Cheydinhal seemed to be one of those pretty, respectable neighbourhoods where a runaway sheep would provide enough talk for a week.
I ignored the old beggar who had set up shop next to the river and crossed the bridge. Lachance had told me to look for an abandoned house near the eastern gate, and instinct told me that it would be most unwise to ask one of the locals for directions. Besides, everything in this town looked so neat and well cared for that an uninhabited and probably slightly dilapidated building would stick out like a sore thumb.
As it turned out, I was not far from the truth. I walked around the corner of the chapel and my eyes immediately fell upon a rather small house between two larger ones. The iron gate that had once closed off the front garden had been torn from its hinges and lay across the garden path. The path itself was almost choked with weeds. The rest of the garden looked little better, with a thicket of brambles nearly hiding the small well in one corner. Plaster was peeling from the house's walls, and some of the timber showed deep cracks. Most of the windows were broken and had been roughly nailed over with wooden boards. The front door was the only feature which seemed in halfway decent repair.
I looked around carefully, but nobody was to be seen. Dusk was falling already, and I estimated that it would be dark within an hour. After checking once more that there was really nobody watching me, I boldly stepped to the front door to examine the lock.
To my surprise, the door was unlocked. I quickly discarded my original plan to wait for darkness. There was still not a soul in sight, so I opened the door and slipped through.
As I had expected, the interior lay in near darkness. What little light filtered through the gaps between the boards and the broken windows revealed a fairly large room. Broken furniture lay scattered on the dirty floor, moldy tapestries gave off a musty, unpleasant odour, and a thick layer of dust covered everything. I could dimly make out a staircase which ascended to the second floor. Beneath it a door presumably led to the basement. A faint but visible track of footprints led from the entrance to this door; the rest of the dust appeared to have been undisturbed for years. The house, it seemed, was uninhabited, but not unused.
Since Lachance had told me to enter the cellar, I ignored the stairs for the moment and instead tried the door. Like the front door, it was unlocked. Behind it, some mercifully solid-looking stone steps led down into total darkness. I concentrated briefly. A quick wave of my hand, and the darkness dissolved. My magically gained night vision showed me everything in a bright blue tint, which was always slightly irritating, but it had the advantage of being completely inconspicuous. More than once this spell had saved me from discovery where a torch or a conventional light spell would inevitably have led to disaster.
Carefully I descended the stairs and found myself in a low, empty room. It had probably been used as a storage room, for a few half rotted crates and barrels were still lying about, most of them broken. I looked briefly around, but the only noticeable feature was a large hole in the wall directly opposite the stairs.
I ducked and stepped through the hole into the roughly hewn corridor behind. A few moments later my spell ran out, but I found that I could now see without it, for a faint reddish glow came from behind the bend ahead, dimly illuminating this part of the corridor. I could not be entirely sure whether or not it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that the air around me had grown distinctly colder and somewhat clammy. Somewhere, water was dripping, the drops echoing unnaturally loudly in the silence of the cellar. And ever so faintly there was another sound: a soft whisper, wordless and shifting like a breeze, although the air around me was totally still and unmoving. I halted and listened carefully, but every time I was almost certain I could make out words, the whispering faded a little and I was unable to discern more.
I am usually not easily scared, but I confess that I almost turned and ran. It was no wonder nobody bothered to lock the doors - the coldly oppressive air and unnerving atmosphere were enough to keep the curious away. I, however, was here by invitation, so I pulled myself together and slowly walked around the bend towards the reddish light.
The glow emanated from a massive door at the end of the corridor. It looked so unlike any other door I had ever seen that I stopped abruptly to stare at it. At a glance I could not even say from what material it had been built, but it looked incredibly ancient. A closer look revealed that it was coated with metal, probably bronze, but the surface was so tarnished that it was impossible to be certain. A strange relief had been worked into it. A tall woman stood in profile on the left side. To the right, several smaller figures stood at her feet, hands raised in prayer or supplication. The woman's hands were raised as well, the left one holding a dagger. In the palm of the right one, another small figure was sitting. Above the whole scene shone the outline of a large skull, on the forehead of which a handprint stood like a sun.
Even in the dim light I noticed a few dark spots on the floor in front of the door. They were obviously old and long dried, and in the poor light it was hard to be sure, but they might have been bloodstains. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, then stepped up to the door and touched the handprint.
"What is the colour of night?"
I almost jumped out of my skin as the hoarse, whispering voice spoke right next to my ear. It sounded slightly breathless, as if even these few slowly spoken words exhausted it. With difficulty I recalled Lachance's instructions and answered.
"Sanguine, my brother."
The door swung open noiselessly, and the disembodied voice breathed, "Welcome home..." before fading away.
My knees shook a little as I crossed the threshold. Beyond the door stretched a large, vaulted room with broad pillars supporting the low ceiling. Slightly faded tapestries hung from them, and thick rugs covered parts of the flagstone floor. Between two pillars in front of me stood a slender figure, obviously waiting for me. As I hesitantly approached, it quickly came to meet me.
"Greetings! Greetings! I am Ocheeva, mistress of this Sanctuary. Lucien has told me all about you. Let me welcome you to the Dark Brotherhood!"
I blinked in surprise at the Argonian in front of me. How long had Lachance been watching me, to be able to tell her "all" about me? I had no time to wonder, though, as Ocheeva took both my hands in hers and pressed them warmly. "So, you are Gwenvarys? It is always a pleasure to welcome a new Dark Sister into our ranks. Truly, the Night Mother smiles upon her trusted daughters." I distinctly remembered not telling Lachance my name, but it did not really surprise me that she knew it.
"You stand now in our Sanctuary. May it serve as your new home, a place of comfort and security whenever the need arises." She seemed genuinely pleased to see me, and her whole manner was so warm and affectionate that I found myself instinctively liking her. Her behaviour was most certainly not what I would have expected from a high ranking assassin.
While I was trying to think of something suitable to say, she took my arm and drew me further into the room. It was more of a hallway, with two massive doors set deep into the walls to my left and right. In three of the corners comfortable-looking chairs had been grouped around tables, upon one of which stood a shallow silver bowl filled with fruit. Several lamps scattered throughout the room provided a warm light. The fourth corner had been almost completely walled off, save for an irregular hole which opened into a vertical shaft. I did a quick mental calculation and concluded that the shaft had to be the well I had noticed outside in the garden. Having seen the sanctuary's main entrance, however, I doubted that this back door was easily accessible from above.
Ocheeva stopped near one of the tables. "Have a look around, meet your new Brothers and Sisters and make yourself at home. When you're ready for work, go and speak with Vicente Valtieri. He handles all assignments for new family members."
She took a bundle that had been lying on the table and handed it to me. "But before you go, please accept this gift from your new family. A unique set of armour, lighter than normal leather and black as the Void." I weighed the bundle in my hands. It was indeed light as a feather. The leather felt soft as velvet, but at the same time much tougher than its weight would have suggested.
"Thank you, both for the gift and your welcome", I said a bit awkwardly. "Is there anything else I need to know about this place?"
She thought for a moment, then indicated the door to my right. "The living quarters are over there. Just go in, find a bed and deposit your things in an empty chest. You may find some of the others inside, or over there in the training area." She waved towards the other door. "Should you need me, my room is down the hall. And Vicente should be in his quarters downstairs."
I thanked her again and hoisted my pack. Ocheeva smiled at me - at least I thought she did. With lizard-folk, it is usually hard to tell. "Go with Sithis, my dear, and do not hesitate to see me if you need anything." With an elegant swish of her tail she turned and walked swiftly towards her room.
My pack slung over my shoulder and my new armour under my arm I went to explore the living quarters. They turned out to be another spacious room, elegantly furnished in dark wood. Several simple, but clean beds stood along the walls. Each was accompanied by a sturdy chest. Another part of the room held a small kitchen area, a dining table with matching, high-backed chairs and two large cupboards. A smaller table with two armchairs stood a little apart.
A young woman was lounging in one of the armchairs, reading a book and absently nibbling on an apple. She was slender and delicate, with shoulder length fair hair, pale skin and light grey eyes. Her colouring was light enough to proclaim her a Nord, but when she spoke, her Breton accent was unmistakable.
Hearing me enter, she quickly looked up from her book. "So you have arrived!" She put the book down, rose and hurried towards me. "Here, let me help you with that." She took my pack from me and carried it to one of the beds. "This one is unused at the moment. Just put your things in the chest here." She put my pack down and beamed at me. "I'm so happy to see you, I'm forgetting my manners. I'm Antoinetta Marie." She held out a hand, and I shook it. "And you're Gwenvarys, of course. Welcome to the sanctuary, dear Sister! Have you met the others already?"
"Only Ocheeva", I replied, slightly taken aback by her carefree chatter.
"The rest of us are probably around somewhere", she said, waving indifferently towards the door. "I'd stay away from M'raaj-Dar if I were you. He seems to be in an even fouler mood than usual today. The others are okay, though, and I'm sure they'll be just as glad to meet you as I am."
"Lachance appears to have advertised my arrival rather thoroughly", I remarked drily.
"Oh, yes, he has spoken highly of you", she said, obviously impervious to my irony. "It's really a pity he doesn't come here more often."
I shot her a curious glance. "You seem quite taken with him", I observed cautiously.
Her smile gave way to a serious expression. "I will always think of him as my saviour", she said softly. "When he found me, I was living in a gutter, an inch away from death. I owe him everything." Her face quickly lit up again. "And now I have a home and a family, and all the love I could wish for. The Night Mother provides well for her children, you'll see."
I nodded thoughtfully and laid the new armour on my bed. I was fairly certain it was magical, and decided to try it on at once. Antoinetta Marie was wearing a similar set, just like Ocheeva, and it probably was a good idea to try and blend in. Quickly I shed my slightly worn leathers and donned the new set. I was not the least bit surprised to see that it fit me perfectly.
Antoinetta actually clapped her hands in delight. "Wonderful", she exclaimed. "You'll fit right in, I'm sure. Have you been to see Vicente yet?"
I shook my head. "Ocheeva told me to get settled in first. I will seek him out now."
She smiled happily. "Do that, dear Sister. And if there's anything you need, just ask, okay?"
I smiled back. "Of course." I waved at her and left the living quarters in search for Vicente Valtieri.
Upon my return to the hallway I nearly bumped into another black-clad figure. I muttered a hasty apology and stepped aside, but he flashed me a toothy smile. "Ah, there you are. Welcome, dear Sister."
Another Argonian stood before me, this one male and more powerfully muscled than Ocheeva. As far as I could tell, he was looking at me in a quite friendly fashion. "May you find yourself at home here, in the loving embrace of our Lady the Night Mother. I am Teinaava, and I am glad to finally meet you."
"Thank you", I said. "I must admit I am a little surprised that everybody here seems to have been eagerly awaiting my arrival."
He chuckled softly. "Oh, but we have, dear Sister, we have. It has been a while since a new family member joined us here." He looked at me appraisingly. "In fact, I can't remember a Dunmer living here before, which is strange, since Cheydinhal has such a large dark elven population."
I smiled slightly. "Well, at least I shall be able to blend with the locals."
"True", he agreed amiably. "So, is there anything you need? Any questions? This must all be new and strange for you, isn't it?"
I hesitated. "Actually... yes, I have questions. Quite a few of them, I fear. Some of the things I have heard make no sense to me as yet."
He patted my arm. "That's quite natural. Ask away, I'll do my best to answer."
I frowned in thought. "Just who is Sithis?" I asked tentatively. "About the Night Mother I have heard rumours, at least, but about him I know nothing save a few cryptic remarks Lachance made."
Teinaava nodded gravely. "Sithis isn't easy to describe. He is our Dread Father, and his terrible love gave birth to the dark brotherhood so long ago. The Night Mother, our Unholy Matron, is his bride, and she guides our actions, just as Sithis once guided hers."
This answer left me only marginally less bewildered than I had been before, so I decided not to press the issue. I had just arrived here, after all, and perhaps things would make more sense once I had been here for a while.
"Thank you, Brother", I said politely. "I should go now - Ocheeva told me to see Vicente Valtieri, and I was on my way to do so when I ran into you."
"Literally", he grinned. "I shall see you later, then. May you always walk in the shadow of Sithis, dear Sister." He nodded good-naturedly at me and disappeared into the living quarters.
Shaking my head slightly in bemusement, I slowly walked down the halls towards the stairs Ocheeva had indicated. They ended before another massive double door. I knocked tentatively, but I could not imagine that anyone on the other side would be able to hear a thing. I cautiously started to open the door, but had underestimated the ease with which the heavy wing swung open. I managed to catch it just in time before it crashed noisily against the wall.
Beyond the door lay a rather small room which was sparsely furnished in the same dark wood as the living area. A man was standing at a desk with his back to me. He was dressed in a simple black shirt, black trousers and soft boots. His thick, dark brown hair was bound in a ponytail which hung between his shoulders. At the sound of the door opening, he turned to face me.
It took every ounce of self control I had to keep me from gasping aloud. Standing before me was - a vampire.