Drai Sees a Ghost
The wind swept back and forth across the Ashlands, sculpting the ash into great spirals in the sky and kicking it back into Shizzal’s face. He spat it out, grimacing at the taste, and closed the small yurt’s flap a little tighter. He could do nothing for the opening in the roof that let the campfire’s smoke out, and he sat down again, frowning up at it.
“So who are these gods you keep praying to, Drai?” he asked at a break in the howling wind. “I hear one’s named Mephala?”
Drai opened one eye, giving Shizzal a long suffering look from across the fire. The Ashlander had his knees folded and his hands pressed together, one hand covering his fist in a style very unlike the palm-to-palm prayers Shizzal knew from Hammerfell.
Shizzal shrugged apologetically at his expression. “Just asking! You’ve been crouched there for a while now. I got the hint pretty quick you don’t serve Tall Papa or the Eight Divines or any of them out here, so I was wondering. Who do you worship?”
“The Daedra, mostly,” said Drai distractedly, frowning in puzzlement. The date had been correct, as had the positioning and the offerings. Still they did not answer. “The ancestors as well. Who are the Daedra, if you go back far enough.”
“Really?” Shizzal’s eyes went wide, and a sudden look of consternation crossed his face. “Oh. Well. I guess that’s why no one out west likes us, if Dunmer are the spawn of devils.”
Drai raised his eyebrow at him. “The Daedra are not evil, outlander. They simply are. Do you call fire evil? It can burn down your yurt, but it can also warm you and cook your food. The Daedra are like this. They are power that we can use, or that can be used against us.”
“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” said Shizzal uneasily. “But you said ancestors. You mean like your mother and father, or your grandparents?”
“Yes, if they have passed on,” said Drai. He paused. “They are much…kinder to us than the Daedra are. More helpful.” At least, they are when they answer, he thought to himself, but did not say it out loud.
“Amazing!” said Shizzal. “But I don’t know my ancestors. I certainly doubt they ever watched over me! I told you that: how I grew up an orphan, ya?”
“That and many other things,” said Drai dryly, but he smiled when Shizzal took it for a joke and grinned. “Do not doubt, outlander. Though you are foreign, you are Dunmer, and your kin still smile on you. Think. Was there ever a time events seemed to come together in your favor, to work out by coincidence?”
“I do have a lot of luck,” said Shizzal hesitantly. “I’m not dead yet, after all.”
Drai nodded. “Some would say that is the doing of the ancestors.”
“Some, but not you?” said Shizzal slyly, catching on to Drai’s careful caveat.
“Many times we make our own fortunes,” answered Drai, looking away.
Shizzal didn’t press, but leaned back on one palm, shifting so he was half-lying down in the ash on the yurt’s floor. His other hand unconsciously drifted to a small pouch tied on his belt, fingering the flash pellets inside. “I remember one time I thought I was just lucky,” he began slowly, “but after what you said, I’m wondering. Maybe it was all tied together after all.”
“One may never know,” answered Drai. The sunlight glowing in the yurt’s wall faded as the day died, the inside of the tent cooling and darkening. Drai shivered, suddenly glad for mortal company.
Shizzal was still talking, if mostly to himself. “I don’t know why, but it seemed to start with this execution I once saw. It was of a Dunmer, who were rare in my hometown, so I guess it just caught my eye…”
Drai closed his eyes. He thought he heard something in that muffled wind, like a voice, but not of the spirits he had been calling on. Shizzal had settled into a comfortable narrative by now, but Drai wasn’t really listening. He had his ears peeled instead for the narrative of the Ashlands: of the spirits that had died to its harsh climate, that stalked it looking for remnants of their past. One was coming closer now, as if interested by the outlander’s story. Drai’s skin began to crawl.
The hood was pulled from his face, and Thyadras took a breath of the sharp sea air. He looked around at the crowd gathered below the hangman’s platform, feeling a small glow of satisfaction at his infamy among these people, if not the situation such infamy had landed him in.
He didn’t see Nidalave in that crowd, though he did not have much time to look. He closed his eyes and prayed she didn’t see him, either.
“Thyadras Asurani, Captain of the Sea Kayotes and notorious criminal,” the herald was calling out over the crowd’s heads. “This Dunmer, finally caught by the skill of Lord Hakar Hasami, has been brought up on many charges. Breaking and entering, assault, burglary, attempted murder…”
“Get on with it, you ol’ windbag,” growled Thyadras under his breath. “Attempted murder? Is that the best way you could pretty up my capture, Hasami?”
“…piracy, privateering without a contract, accepting contracts found illegal under the law, harassment of nobility, rape of a nobleman’s lawfully wedded wife…”
“Still sore about your ex, I see,” muttered Thyadras. He closed his eyes as the droning of the herald went on.
“…has been found guilty of all charges, under the eyes of Julianos and the Eight Divines. The mer’s sentence as stands: to be hung by the neck until dead.”
As the executioner pushed him into the center of the platform and laid the rough rope about his neck, Thyadras scanned the crowd again. Hasami wasn’t there, hadn’t even bothered to come out and honor his rival’s death. Disappointment and anger twisted in him like a violent snake, and Thyadras took several deep breaths. He wanted to enjoy his last moments, not be consumed by thoughts of revenge.
Behind him, a drummer began beating out a solemn knell, and a deep throated priest began singing the death rites. The crowd murmured among itself in anticipation, as up on the platform, all went silent.
Thyadras felt his stomach flip over. Surely this wasn’t the end. Where were the gods and their divine forgiveness? Where was the daring rescue by his friends and family? Where was his wife? He wanted to hold her one last time, sing to the growing life in her belly…
The executioner stepped back and jiggled the hangman’s lever. The trapdoor under Thyadras’s feet shuddered, but did not give way. The crowd stirred, a few of the more bloodthirsty punching their fists into the air and chanting words Thyadras could no longer hear.
He was thinking of his son. Not counting Hasami’s deviled up illusion, the last time he had seen the boy Shizzal had barely been able to toddle. Did he really look anything like the illusion Hasami had conjured up? Or was he now older? Younger? Even still alive?
“Who’s that?” came a child’s voice from the sidelines, as if summoned up by Thyadras’ imaginings. The Sea Kayote’s eyes flared open, but the child was outside his field of vision.
“Just a common criminal, getting what common criminals deserve,” answered a smug voice that Thyadras knew all too well. “Cover your eyes, son,” said Hasami. “This isn’t something you need to see.”
Thyadras twisted about to call out the traitorous bastard, to get a glimpse of that whom he knew had to be Shizzal. But then the executioner flipped the lever, with a dramatic flourish in response to the eager crowd. The world fell out from under him, and Thyadras fell with it.
He thought he had it now, the thread of a restless soul, laid to rest too soon. It was like a piece of lace fluttering on the wind outside the yurt, that Drai could reach out and catch. Shizzal abruptly stopped talking when Drai stood up, peering at the guar-hide walls. The dim firelight hid it from the outlander, but Drai’s eyes were rolled back up in his head, seeing nothing but what the Sight was showing him.
“Is it the nix-hounds again?” Shizzal asked hesitantly. The wind blasted through the cliffs outside, letting out a sound like a shriek. Shizzal tensed and cocked his head to listen, but after hearing nothing out of the ordinary, he frowned at the Ashlander in puzzlement.
Drai ignored him, speaking so softly Shizzal couldn’t make the words out. “What is it? I can sense you, spirit, and you are not of this land… What is your purpose here?”
“…coming…warn…foolish, my son…“
Drai frowned as he puzzled out the voice in the stream of so many others, all buffeting him in the space between worlds. “Son? You are looking for your son, spirit?”
Shizzal caught the last few words and glanced at Drai sharply, but Drai didn’t see. To his vision, the yurt and the fire did not exist, and the land beyond was formless and blurry, outlined by sharp images of the ghosts of mer and other creatures picking through the ash-blasted rocks. One such mer loomed up before him, but in the fierce wind of the spirit’s world, Drai could barely make out its form.
“Not him…you…this dangerous game you play…“
“We are not kin. I’m sorry, but I’m not the mer you seek,” said Drai, though the hair on the back of his neck prickled. In reality, he had no way of knowing if the spirit was his kin, for his immediate ancestors had never answered his calls. Only those more distant to his bloodline would answer him, and they were rarely interested in their immediate surroundings.
In contrast, this spirit was quite plainly staring at him, glancing back now and then at the outlander behind him. Its form began to stabilize, crystallizing in a heavily tattooed face, a nose ring dangling from its nares.
Drai swallowed, bringing moisture into his dry mouth. “I am not sure what you want, spirit. I can help fulfill your dying wish, so that you may then rest in peace…”
“I’m in plenty of peace already!” snapped the spirit, its voice now as clear to Drai as its form. “I’m not here for myself, ya ashfaced heathen. Treacherous waters you’re sailing, Ashlander, and you will pull us all into it if you’re not careful!”
“I recognize you,” said Drai suddenly. “From the outlander’s story. You are the hanged Dunmer?”
Shizzal was huddled close to the fire by this time. He couldn’t follow Drai’s muttered conversation, only watching him now to make sure the strange Ashlander didn’t collapse into a full-on fit.
“Heathen,” said the spirit. “The others, your kin, do not answer? And the poor little ashface wonders why? This is why, fool! Healing one who should have died, refusing to release his soul to its rightful master…”
“I did what I had to,” Drai protested. “I would let no stranger fall to that cursed fate.”
“And for his sake, I am grateful…but making deals with Daedra as you do…! You must choose between old rivals and your heritage some day, ashface. That one had no choice. Through my actions I gave him none. But you? You have all the choice! Heed these lessons, heathen, so you don’t repeat my mistakes!“
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Drai coldly, put off balance by the reference to his mixed heritage, House Dunmer and Ashlander. “You are a spirit. You were killed violently and are stuck in the past, following your lost orphan around. It is time for you to let go, and leave the living to their lives. I so command you now, spirit, begone!” Drai began the steps, moving his hands through the complicated gestures of the incantation. Like a nervous scuttler, Shizzal sprung out of his way, watching Drai warily.
“Stupid ashface,” said the spirit. “I’m going. That one can take care of himself, but his sibling cannot! Your foolishness will choose doom for them both.“
The spirit reached out and touched Drai’s face then, ripping the Sight from him like a masquerade dancer might rip the mask from her partner. The real world with its color and brilliance sprang into his eyes. Dizzy by the change, Drai swayed in place.
A gentle hand touched his shoulder. “What was that?” Shizzal asked in a low voice, like he was afraid of disturbing a hushed tomb. “Are you all right, mate?”
Drai blinked his bleariness away. “Trances,” he mumbled as way of explanation. “A…an affliction of mine, from birth. They always pass in time.”
Shizzal let go as Drai staggered back to the fire and sat himself down next to it. He was shivering and wrappd his arms about his knees. Hesitantly, Shizzal took a blanket from his bedroll and pulled it about the Ashlander.
“Thanks,” murmured Drai.
“Hey, no problem, mate. Looks like we’re both a little out of today, aren’t we?”
Drai didn’t answer. Shizzal sat down beside him, and despite himself, Drai turned towards him. “You are the first who hasn’t turned away when you learned of my fits.”
“Why? Should I?” asked Shizzal, looking at Drai oddly. Then he grinned. “If it’s something I’ve learned, people turn on each other for the stupidest reasons. So you walk around and make weird gestures at the sky sometimes. I could think of a lot of other afflictions that are more concerning then that!”
“You are stupid, outlander,” said Drai flatly, then surprised himself when he laughed. Shizzal grinned back. “But that is…that is fine.”
“Well I’m glad you think so!” said Shizzal with a laugh. “And maybe one day you’ll tell me more about these ancestor gods of yours, ya?”
“Hm! Maybe. When I come to a better understanding of them myself.” Drai looked up at the gap in the yurt’s ceiling. He shivered, and Shizzal nudged him. When Drai didn’t respond, Shizzal shrugged and launched into another story, figuring that would help distract the Ashlander from his gloom-and-doom, if nothing else. The sun went down and the wind still wailed, but the yurt was an island of peace, for a little while at least.