They threw me in with rough hands. The cold stones of the cell rose up to bite me, and their hard bones forced the air from my lungs with a groan as my head cracked against them. I remained there, dazed, for a few moments until I heard the sound of the iron gate of the prison cell clang shut behind me, and a wave of panic rushed through me. I quelled it and lifted my head, spitting out the blood from my wounded mouth as I began to rise.
“Stay quiet here, thief, and there’ll be no trouble,” said the Imperial just beyond the bars — my jailor — his voice thick with contempt. “They’ll feed you before the day’s out.”
“Wait,” I said around the blood. “I’m innocent.” There was a disgusted huff, and then he turned and began to stride away with the sound of jangling keys and armoured footsteps. I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled to the bars. “Wait!” I cried again, grasping them with my calloused, delicate hands. “You have no right to put me in here! I’m innocent! Innocent!” My jailor did not reply. Brittle laughter rose up from the cell across from mine, and I tore my green, Bosmeri eyes from the retreating Imperial to set them on the Dunmer lounging against the far wall of his cage.
"Well now, a pretty little Wood Elf. You're a little far from the forest, huh?" His voice grated like rusted iron. "Looks like your days of woodland frolicking have come to a tragic end. To go from gladed realm of Valenwood to a rat-infested hole like this… how very sad."
He looked to me anything but sad, flashing me a yellow-toothed grin at which I scowled in return. I ignored him and looked to the bars beneath my hands, giving them a shake to ascertain their strength, more out of habit than actual hope. They rattled, but held firm. With a frustrated sigh, I turned away. The bleak, barrenness of the cell greeted me. The Dunmer laughed again.
Through the tiny, barred window on the far wall, sunlight streamed in brilliantly. It was late afternoon outside, but no later than the fourth hour — my capture and arrest had been pitifully brief. To my right, on the longer, eastern wall, there was set a rough wooden table with a clay pitcher and small mug, with a low stool to match. I stood at the top of two worn, uneven stairs. There was a pile of straw in the far right corner — for bedding or refuse I wasn't sure — and to my left, manacles bolted into the wall. In the dim light of the flickering torches outside my cell, they glistened dully with the rust coloured remains of old blood. There were bones beneath it. I swallowed, and then scowled at my fear.
"Those walls must feel like they're closing in on you, eh Wood Elf?" I glanced back at the Dunmer. He had his hands curled around the bars of his prison now, his face pressed up against the cold iron as he watched me.
"Shut your mouth, Dunmer," I said. "No one wants to smell your fetid breath."
He gave a cackle.
"Oh, I doubt you can smell me from there, Wood Elf, at least not over your own fear. Ever been in the Imperial Prison before?"
I sneered and turned away, lining the backs of my heals up against the bars of the gate.
"I make it a habit to avoid incarceration as much as possible," I replied. Despite my less than legitimate past, I had managed to evade most of the prisons in Cyrodiil. Even when I had been marked for a cell, I'd been able to pay off the guards — or have one of my associates in the Thieves Guild do it for me. It was just my luck to be caught in the final act of giving up my shady lifestyle and thrown into prison when I had neither lockpicks nor Septims on my side.
Stepping forward from the gate, I counted off the paces it took to cross the room: ten. Ten paces. I repeated the process, only this time going across my cell. Five. A ten by five room to spend the rest of my life in. Theft, embezzlement, forgery, pickpocketing, counterfeiting, burglary, conspiracy to commit theft, grand larceny, tax evasion, slander, fraud, perfidy, and impertinence, those were my crimes. Alone, they would not be enough to sentence me for a lifetime, but coupled with my possession of the recognizable grey cowl of the Grey Fox and the Imperial Watch's suspicion of my involvement in illicit activities… if the Guild didn't come or couldn't get me out, it was indeed a small home and grave.
"I'm going to enjoy this. Watching you go mad, that is," the Dunmer said, breaking into my thoughts. I turned to look at him, my eyes narrowed in dislike. "Soon you'll be screaming and ranting and begging, and the guards will come and cut your throat just to get some peace and quiet." His voice began to rise. "You think you're safe in here? You think you'll ever get out? Wrong. You're going to die here, Wood Elf! Die!"
I stared at him a moment, willing my anger and annoyance to fall in check.
"I think we got off on the wrong foot, here," I said, offering a somewhat strained smile. "So Let's start again. You stay quiet, and when I escape I don't take a detour to give you a second mouth like you think the guards will give me."
The Dunmer cackled.
"'When you escape', that's rich!" He gave another laugh. "You'll never escape the Imperial Prison. You're here for life." He paused to flash me his yellow toothed grin. "Although, one of the guards owes me a favour, you know. I could get us put in the same cell. A life in prison doesn't have to be such a bad thing. We could have some fun. And since you're in the business of giving people mouths…" He made a crude gesture towards his groin.
"Disgusting," I said, repulsed, and turned away from him. He continued to snigger away from behind his bars. I ignored him, giving the cell my attention once more. Nothing. With a sigh I moved to the table and settled myself on the stool, resigning myself to a long wait.
I stood in darkness, and he stared at me.
"You have failed again," he said, the corners of his lips turning up in a smile that never reached his eyes. "Were you always this negligent, dear Sister?"
"And what would you have me do?" I questioned in a voice thick with guilt and anger. I shuddered and struggled to hold down the growing lump in my throat. "I can't change what has happened. I can only live with it. There's no place for you in my life anymore. Stop haunting me."
The cruel smile on his face grew wider, and dark amusement flashed in his eyes as he took a step towards me. The black, hooded robes enshrouding him billowed around his feet, writhing and reaching for me like living things. I shrank away.
"You know what you must do," he said. "Sithis calls you, Aranwen. He calls for the blood of my murderers. Will you not give it to him, our dread father?"
"No," I answered. "I'm not Aranwen anymore. I have no father."
"You are no-one."
"Better to be no-one than a murderer."
"But you are a murderer, No-One." The twisting shadows of his robes lunged for me, wrapping around my legs and forcing me to my knees. I cried out and broke my fall with my hands, realizing with horror that it wasn't his robes that gripped me, but cold, rotting fingers. Faces appeared beneath me, beneath the darkness that rippled like dark water, and I recognized them. How could I not? I'd murdered them at Water's Edge not long ago.
I sucked in a breath and tried to break free. No, not this! I never wanted this!
"Never kill anyone on the job. This isn't the Dark Brotherhood." I looked up at the robed man only to realize I had been wrong. The darkness covering his face was not a hood, but a cowl, his dark robes only shadowed leather armour.
"I didn't, I never wanted—"
"We are thieves," the man said forcibly, cutting me off. "But we're not murderers. Why kill them?"
I choked back a frustrated sob, struggling against my undead keepers as they coiled stinking fingers around my arms and bound me tighter still.
"Please," I begged as decaying arms encircled my waist. "Please believe me. I never wanted to. I never meant to!" More figures were rising from the darkness beneath me, all rotting, all staring at me accusingly out of dead eyes. "Please, Corvus. Please!" The mouth beneath the cowl frowned.
"I am not Corvus," it said, and then a hand lifted to remove the cowl. I gave a wail, cringing away, not wanting to see the face in front of me. It knelt down before me, took my chin in delicate fingers, and forced me to meet its eyes. My eyes. My face. The creature behind the mask was me.
"You can never escape me," the other me said, a cruel smile on her face, her eyes cold. "I am always with you, always waiting to finish the work you've deserted. There is no escape from the grasp of Sithis. One day you will learn this and find joy."
"No! Not again! Never!" I cried, despairing defiance rising within me.
"No?" The other me cocked her head to the side, studying me like a curious child. "Then what is this, I wonder?" She gestured to the bodies around me, and then they rose with cries like tearing metal and crashed down upon me, beating and biting and suffocating me, until all turned to black.