Getting the ashes for his ritual had been the easy part. Steeling himself to give in to the Sight’s premonitions proved much more difficult. And always, the cult was watching him, asking why he delayed with their plans.
Drai sat cross-legged, in a little clearing between two spurs of the ashy mountains dividing Deshaan and the Stonefalls. Even up here, Drai was aware of the cult’s lurking eyes. What acrobatics the trailing cultist had to make to follow him up here while also keeping out of sight, Drai couldn’t imagine. But he chewed more over the fact there was a follower at all, rather than how they managed it. The hate and distrust growing in Tengri, in the Ashlanders’ faces when they looked upon him, were jarring to him. Stabs of fear shot through him several times a day, and for once he did not dream, being unable to reach the deep sleep it required.
He wondered how he could get out of this one; how he could make it up to Zeketah and the rest of the cult. It occurred to him they would hate and distrust him no matter what he did.
The wind this high up was cold, sent eddies of ash spiraling down to the Ashlands floor far below.
There was freedom in that observation.
Quite clearly, as if seeing the scene play out before his eyes on the windswept ashfalls, Drai saw himself as a young Dunmer holding his first spear, trailing the gulakhan’s hunting party as the hunting party trailed a marauding alit. They had been up on the northern slopes of Dagoth Ur, where the rocks were treacherous. Drai had stepped on a boulder not well anchored to the cliff, and had slid down the mountain slope with it with a terrified cry. The rocks and ash half-buried him at the base of the cliff, and it took three of the other hunters to climb down and pull him out.
“Too often you step like a House Dunmer!” the gulakhan had scolded him once he had clambered back onto the ridge with his rescuers. “How easy it would be to knock you off your feet when you are rooted so with each step! You must be fluid, Rakhulbi-Sul, like the wind. Not slow and stupid, like a plodding horse beast with feet made out of stones.”
Drai had hung his head in shame that day, and he had resolved to become lighter of step, though he continued to only feel clumsy and slow. In the training spars with the other warriors, he still tended to plant in one location, as the younger warriors danced around him, poking at him from every angle with their practice sticks. He would try to chase after them and would inevitably fall short, breath hissing like a painful rasp in his throat.
How the scene reminded him of his current plight, as a Seer to the Mephalan Cult. He imagined the young warriors replaced with the faces of Taargus and Zeketah, spinning about him this way and that, intent on killing him, moving just always out of his reach.
Drai stood up. The image of the gulakhan standing over the shamed teenager flickered away, as the gulakhan’s ghost turned to face him, as real as the wind tugging on Drai’s hair.
“Have you come to learn?” asked the mer’s ghost.
“I am ready to be taught, honorable gulakhan,” Drai returned with the proper respect, clasping his hands and bowing his head.
“Then take a forward lunge,” said the spirit. The cadence of his voice, though blurred and wispy with the travel across time, still carried some of the old bite of the warrior kena he had been. His form flickered and reappeared beside Drai; he could sense ithe spirit like a cold fire, but if he turned to look, the gulakhan was not there.
It was a question of whether it ever was.
But still the spirit called out to him through his thoughts, and Drai turned them into his motions. He felt the warrior kena; he became the warrior kena, moving his feet and cutting with his hands through the air, crouching low and springing high in carefully controlled shifts of his weight and pops of his tendons. A meditative dance, but with lethal intent. Each time he lashed out into empty air, he pictured a hateful cultist there, absorbing the blow.
But each one laughed shrilly and dissolved before he could hit it. Drai moved quicker, feeling the hiss of air start again in his chest; gritting his teeth, he ignored it. He would not drop out of the chase this time — he could be quicker, more agile on his feet. Sweat dripped in eyes, stinging salt; his flying kick came up too short and too low. He stumbled and went down on his knees.
“What are you doing, little ‘Sul?”
Drai shivered and turned; the voice was too strong this time to doubt. Even though he was grown now, and the warrior kena was long dead, the gulakhan’s voice still held the same power over him as it had when he was the awkward little child grasping the broken spearhaft after his fall down the mountain.
“I am trying to incorporate your lesson, honorable kena,” Drai managed stiffly.
“Being dead gives one many perspectives,” the warrior kena answered after a period of silence long enough to make Drai cringe. “And perhaps one of those was that I was wrong about you, Rakhulbi. You are Ashlander, but you are also House Dunmer. You have both the wind and the stone in your blood. Perhaps that is the true meaning of what it means to be Velothi, adapting not just to one’s surroundings, but to one’s strengths as well.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
The gulakhan shook his head and strode forward. He touched Drai’s chest with one finger; although the movement was forceful, all Drai felt was a flicker like wind across his face. “Stop being what you are not, ‘Sul. Root in who you are, but leap like the air when the world tosses you. Whether you come down like the wind or come down like the stone, others will take notice, and tremble. That is my ken.”
The warrior kena’s spirit faded away then, leaving Drai blinking. He was aware again of the lurking eyes of the cult, and he wondered what they had seen of the exchange. Just as quickly, he realized he didn’t care.
He began the meditative form again, but this time didn’t move so fast. When he struck, he pictured the wind pulling him about, and when he shifted his weight, he pictured the nested stones under his feet pushing back. The slow movements opened his air ways, the rasp in his throat disappearing.
Drai meditated, and he did not just picture the honorable kena; he was the kena, and his body moved as if it there was no other thing he could be The hate and distrust clouding around him — belonging to him — began to fall away.
He found faith again in the ashes and, he hoped, a plan to finally do the destructive Mephalan cult in.