For a faction that focuses on contract killing and conspiracy, the Dark Brotherhood is the last place one would expect to find quests that really resonate with the player. We’re introduced to characters—clients, targets, and assassins alike—and we can sympathize with them. We can see why most of our clients want their targets dead. We can see that our targets are not simply targets, but are people with their own lives. Our fellow Dark Brothers and Dark Sisters each have their own stories that brought them to Astrid’s Sanctuary. It is perhaps the most well crafted faction in all of Skyrim.
We join the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim by investigating a rumor that Aventus in Windhelm wants someone dead. After killing Grelod in Riften, we’re abducted by Astrid and forced to pay for the stolen contract in blood. From there, we’re as good as in with the Brotherhood, having been given access to the last remaining Sanctuary in all of Tamriel.
The funny thing about killing people is that their relatives tend to want revenge. In Oblivion, Lucien Lachance killed Mathieu Bellamont‘s mother; Bellamont joined the Dark Brotherhood and rose to the rank of Speaker in the Black Hand, which is the Brotherhood’s leadership structure. From there, Bellamont conspired to destroy the Brotherhood by using the player as his instrument. The Black Hand is aware of this betrayal from within, and suspects Lachance to be the mastermind of this treachery; the Black Hand kills Lachance.
In Skyrim, we’re going to find out what happens when you kill the wrong person.
Whispers in the Dark
Astrid does not care for Cicero or the Night Mother. Her Sanctuary has survived all these years by abandoning the Five Tenets. She considers the Brotherhood her family, and her only rule is “respect the family.” The Night Mother’s presence threatens Astrid’s position as leader of the Sanctuary.
Not only that, but Cicero is kind of crazy. He sneaks into the room with the Night Mother and locks the doors, and can be overheard talking to someone. Astrid doesn’t trust him, thinking he is conspiring against her. Ennodius Papius was paranoid, and look where that got him. If I recall, Ennodius died when an arrow pierced his femoral artery—I aimed a little too high.1
Anyway, it just turns out that Cicero is talking to the Night Mother, but she doesn’t respond to him because he is just the Keeper and not the Listener. You know who the Listener is? It’s probably the person who has to suffer through all of the dialogue in this game. Probably the person who Astrid said is a really good listener, and likes that about them.
I have to hand it to Bethesda. The reveal that the player is the Night Mother’s next Listener is really well done. There are plenty of hints that there is something special about the player and their ability to listen, but it’s downplayed instead of telegraphed as obvious foreshadowing. It’s something that you can look back on and say, “Wow, I really should have seen this coming.” On top of that, when the Night Mother actually speaks to the player it is a very creepy revelation. Kudos, Bethesda.2
After being revealed to be the Listener, Astrid (Nazir, really) has us go kill vampires and terribards.3 While we’re off dicking around, she considers the contract given to us by the Night Mother. She told us not to take the contract because she’s “still the leader of this family;” this is a direct violation of the first and third Tenets of old.
Astrid ultimately agrees to take the contract, and then we’re off to Volunruud, which is north of Whiterun—kind of funny, considering that we found Cicero on the side of the road directly east of these ruins—to make contact with Amaund Motierre. Motierre wants the emperor assassinated. To cover the costs of this contract, he hands us an amulet (which vendors for 1,000 gold). We deliver this to Delvin Mallory in Riften, who appraises it and says it belongs to a member of the Elder Council. He hands us a letter of credit to bring to Astrid worth 15,000 gold. With the contract accepted and paid for, we have officially entered conspiracy territory.
The sequence of these events could be better. Having Astrid express concern and deliberating before accepting the Night Mother’s contract does a very good job of showing us that she feels threatened. However, once we tell her that we’re going to be killing the Emperor, she is a bit speechless but otherwise just hops right on board. That said, if she were to blindly accept the contract and then deliberate about killing the Emperor, then we would see that there is something obstructing this goal. It would show us that she is onboard with the revitalization of the Brotherhood, but has to deal with a conflicting issue, which I’ll talk more about later.
However, with the ordering reversed, it would set up a scenario where Astrid shows herself to not be a very good leader, that she dives head first into the unknown and then thinks about it while she falls. Even though it would give us a look at her inner conflict, this is not the better solution. The best solution would be to have her deliberate both before and after contacting Motierre; deliberation before contact shows us conflict between herself and the Night Mother, while deliberation after contact shows us conflict between her and some unknown entity.
The first stage of this plan is to kill Vittoria Vici, who is the cousin of Titus Mede II, and to do so at her own wedding. Exploring Skyrim before this event, we can find a traveling caravan near Riften, bearing gifts for the wedding. They never arrive. Additionally, Vici talks about the wedding all the time before this quest is started. This wedding is supposed to be a big deal, is what I’m saying. Vici’s death is supposed to force the Emperor’s hand and cause him to come to Skyrim to smooth things over. To Astrid’s credit, a riot does ensue following Vici’s death in Solitude.
Vici’s wedding is guarded by the Penitus Oculatus, which are the Emperor’s bodyguards. The leader of the Penitus Oculatus is Commander Maro. The second stage of the plan is to kill his son, Gaius Maro, and plant an incriminating note on his person. The note says that Gaius is a Stormcloak conspirator and plainly names that the Emperor is going to be murdered. The idea is to demoralize Commander Maro while also giving the Emperor the illusion that the conspiracy has already been neutralized.
The Gourmet is an elusive chef, having a secret unknown identity. He’s famous for his book Uncommon Taste, and his staple dish, ‘potage le magnifique.’ The Gourmet has been arranged to cook for the Emperor during his stay, and will have been given a ‘writ of passage’ which is to confirm The Gourmet’s identity. The third stage of this plan is to assume the secret identity of The Gourmet. Luckily, Festus Krex has obtained a signed copy of Uncommon Taste which belongs to Anton Virane, a chef in Markarth. The plan is to question Virane (and kill him) to reveal The Gourmet’s identity, then hunt down and kill The Gourmet himself. Balagog gro-Nolob is an Orc permanently staying at the Nightgate Inn, and he’s The Gourmet.
The final stage of the plan is to enter Castle Solitude and cook ‘potage le magnifique’ with a special root Astrid has obtained. Jarrin Root is extremely rare and extremely deadly. It’s our special ingredient for this meal. Not only that, but Astrid pulled a bunch of strings and has arranged for a safe escape after we’ve killed the Emperor. After killing the Emperor, we exit onto a bridge with low, impassable railings. It looks vaguely reminiscent of a railroad track, actually.
Commander Maro congratulates us on killing one of the Emperor’s body doubles. He’s actually surprised at how easily we did it. Regardless, this is an ambush because someone in the Brotherhood tipped him off!
- What’s just below the femur? ↩
- We’re ignoring that the Champion of Cyrodiil ended up becoming the Listener at the end of the Oblivion, because that was poorly executed. Let’s call Skyrim’s Brotherhood a mulligan. ↩
- A bard so bad that Astrid had to draw lots just to see which client’s contract gets honored. When we confront him, we can try to intimidate him by asking him to “sing a song of fear and death.” He actually complies and busts out this improvised little song: “Shadows creep, and… and phantoms leap! A man got… he got scared. And demons dared! To um… visit upon him all which they feared!” ↩