He said it in his waking voice — or as close to waking as counted now. Drai lifted his hand up to brush tears away, but his hand never met his face, because he had neither. Dying echoes of a reality no longer his.
The memory of Rakhulbi had been crying, but now it was frozen in time. Drai stared glumly into the face that had once been his — less tattooed and without the cragginess of an adult Dunmer, but still his. He wondered if anyone would have recognized him. Would… …? He could not remember her name. He let the thought go. Maybe it would never come back.
Others came in its place. Dark thoughts he couldn’t quite break into, to do with the terrible times after his mother’s death. His mental breakdown, the tribe’s accusations, the stoning… He shivered, feeling cold, though spirits felt no true temperature.
Then, after those times, the long silence from his ancestors. He had thought that if he were to die, at least he’d be able to see them again. But now he was here — dead? Half-dead? — and no one else was here but him.
He grasped Rakhulbi’s hands again. Like water to a man dying of thirst, he clung to the memories, painful as they were. It occurred to him he’d never see his mother again any other way, and even the fading memories of her skull-like face was better than nothing…
“I love you…”
Drai shut his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mother. All that time and I never really forgave you. I wanted to hate you. For stupid things… like leaving me, like letting those men hurt you, like never telling me about my father until it was too late to know him. And now it’s too late for all of it. To take back any of it.”
“I love you…”
“…I just want you here. I-I miss you. I missed you. I never could say it, but it was always true. I wish you were here. I wish you had spoken to me…”
“I love you…”
“I love you, too.”
The dying face of mother’s memory smiled back at him. “I know.”
It took Drai a few minutes to realize that wasn’t how the memory had gone. He looked up, and Rakhulbi was no longer there. Light was beginning to grow, dim and off-color, illuminating parts of a yurt. Drai looked around cautiously; the yurt was half-formed, as if it was a memory of a yurt rather than the real thing.
Or a spirit’s best attempt at recreating the real thing.
She was there. Standing now, healthy and hale. She opened his arms to him and he swept her up. Years had passed, and though the last time he had seen her she had been taller than him, now his adult weight and height out-matched hers.
It made no sense, being that they were both spirits, but at the moment, Drai didn’t care.
After a few moments simply holding each other, Drai drew back. “Why did you never come to me? Why only appear now?”
“Because, dear one, you never called for me.”
“But I did call!” Drai said indignantly. “Over and over. I even tried summoning you like a Temple heathen–“
“But you never meant it,” his mother gently admonished him. “Spirits know these things.”
Even in her lecturing tone, there was love. Drai choked. “I’m sorry. I was angry. I didn’t know what to do–“
“Shh,” said his mother. “I know. I have been watching you just the same.”
Drai flinched. “Then you know…”
“All of it,” said his mother, with a little quirked grin that had been uniquely hers. “It is not so bad. Things look different from the outside in.” She placed a gentle hand on his chest.
Drai stared numbly at the fringe of her sleeve. The stitches were exact, even while the rest of the yurt’s details were not. One could tell where a spirit’s cares had been in their life by what they remembered to put into their projections.
At a sudden thought, he looked down at himself. Perfect detail.
“I’m afraid most people think I’m a massive fetch up,” he said eventually.
His mother shrugged. “They are not you.”
“No, but with the power to hurt me greatly if I don’t agree with them…”
“Hm!” His mother laughed in the same way he did, closed-mouthed, like she were humming. “And are you broken, Rakhulbi-Sul? Each time you fell down, you got back up. That is what matters.”
“I’m not sure if getting up to fall down yet again is saying much…
“But each time you move a few steps farther forward. And now look at you! You’ve grown so much…” The fondness returned to her voice, and she placed a hand to his cheek.
Drai closed his eyes, drinking in the touch. “Mother…” he asked suddenly. “My soul…what happened? I am nowhere near my body, am I?”
“No, but your body is safe. The one you keep calling outlander is watching it.”
“Shizzal,” said Drai with pursed lips. “He would, I suppose. Mother, I–“
The words stuck in his throat. His mother looked at him sadly, and began to withdraw.
“Wait!” cried Drai desperately, grabbing for her hand. “Don’t leave me here! Not alone. Not again.”
His mother paused. “I never said I didn’t make mistakes with you, dear Rakhulbi.” She sighed, glancing at the yurt walls. As if brought into life by her gaze — and that probably WAS how it worked in the spirit world, Drai thought — they came more clearly into focus, patterns of Azura and the hero Nerevar etched into the hides with dark paint. Bedtime stories to fill a little child with hope, even while the world seemed dark and cold… “But I am not going to apologize. Not now. You have been stuck in the past, and you must learn to walk the future, free of my burdens.”
“What future?” said Drai numbly. “I am dying.”
His mother turned to him, raising an eyebrow. “Only if you believe it to be so. The spirit world is just as much what you project into it as the darkness that looks back into you. If you do not want to be lost…” She shivered, and placed a hand on the breastplate of the Nerevar painting. “…remember always that I love you, dear one. Always.”
She glanced at him and smiled, the same smile from years ago, the only light shining out of a dying face. But this time, the leave-taking was by her choice.
“I love you.”
The yurt faded away, leaving the boy, and Drai, and the uncomfortable notion that maybe, maybe it had only been a hopeful dream of his fading spirit. The disappointment was bitter, and he hung his head, the weight of the loss and fear closing in…
The Nerevar etching still hung in midair, bereft of the yurt wall, its paint like trails of ink in water. Drai touched it and found he could remember even more…