Shizzal’s hands shook as he descended the steps of Iliath. The young Dunmer wanted to punch something. He also wanted to find a deep well to hide in. What he ended up doing instead was pacing, up and down the stairs, ’round and ’round the Ordinator training field, until his feet were sore and his mind no less calmer than before.
Shizzal wasn’t exactly angry. It was one of several emotions swirling inside, including embarrassment and a kind of reckless excitement he usually got before taking on a major heist. He hadn’t dared challenge Grand Ordinator Tidras up front of the other priests (he wasn’t sure he dared challenge him ever, if he was being honest with himself), but he wasn’t about to back down so easily, either.
Ashlanders had been harrying the outer villages, and the Temple’s Ordinators had been called to respond. Shizzal had offered to help, on account of his experience with the sword and with Ashlanders, but Tidras had turned him away as useless. The priests had no place in combat, he maintained, and Shizzal would be at best a hindrance, and at worst, a heretic.
Tidras seemed to love using that word.
“But I felt it,” Shizzal muttered to himself — or to a certain god that may have been listening. “The others keep saying to find my path, and I know what that path is now. You gave me your blessing, Vivec, and I can still feel that power inside me.” He pressed a hand to his torso, just below the ribs.
“You want the Ashlanders reformed?” He stopped, flinging the question out to the sky, where the sun was steadily sinking to the western horizon. “Then why are you making it so bloody difficult for me to help?”
Vivec didn’t answer of course, and Shizzal stopped to let a group of Ordinators march past. They didn’t belong to any regiment that he recognized: perhaps a platoon from Mournhold or even from far-off Vvardenfell. They carried weapons and packs, and were dressed in the lighter chitin armor usually given to those who made long patrols in the Ashlands.
Something Cithal said earlier suddenly popped into his head, and Shizzal ran to catch up with the regiment’s captain.
“Going out to hunt bandits?” he called out.
“No,” said the captain, pausing to look at him. “There’s been reports of Ashlander raiders to the east. Something about a new cult. We’re going to investigate.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Shizzal. When the captain eyed him doubtfully, he added, “I can heal. I need the practice.”
The captain just rolled his eyes. “Very well, dress-mer. If you can keep up, you can come.” He turned back to the other Ordinators, who had halted while he was having the conversation with Shizzal. “What are all you louts waiting for? Get moving! You march in the back, priest.”
Beaming to himself, Shizzal fell into line with the others. He felt better now, for he was doing something useful. He ran over in his head all he had gleaned from the healing books in the library, hoping it would be enough. Unlike some of the other “dress-mer”, as the Ordinators liked to refer to the noncombatant priests as, he couldn’t yet use any magic.
Determinedly, Shizzal looked to the head of the line, imagining the Grand Commander striding along up there rather than the captain. He had Vivec’s blessing; he was sure of it. What could go wrong?
The Ordinator regiment had found the Ashlander bandits all right. And the Ashlanders had not been happy to see them.
The regiment was currently bivouacked out on the sloping ridge of a canyon in the ashlands. The ground rocked as the Ashlanders’ destruction magic pummeled the slope around them, and the Ordinators returned fire in fitful bursts. Shizzal mostly ducked and covered, attracting the ire of the Ordinators as much as he attracted errant arrows from the Ashlanders.
“You came to practice, so practice! Grab a bow and make yourself useful,” the captain had snarled when he had once again found Shizzal standing in a place he shouldn’t have. Shizzal had meekly followed the order, and he now crouched close to the edge of the canyon, Ordinators on either side of him.
“Come on, lads!” called the captain. ” I want to see those dust-bags shot pricklier than my grandmother’s pincushion!”
Another blast hit the side of the canyon. One of the mer beside Shizzal screeched as the rock face disintegrated beneath him, tugging him down into a rolling avalanche of stone and ash. Shizzal shuddered.
“Easy now! Hold your position!” cried the captain. “Get ready to return fire! On my mark…now!”
Shizzal pulled back with the rest and let fly. He had never been a very good shot, and the arrow went wide, bounding off the rocks on the other side of the canyon harmlessly. Cursing, Shizzal nocked another and drew back.
“Draw melee!” shouted the captain. “Forward rank, charge! Let those heathens know the fury of the Tribunal!”
Before him and beside him, Ordinators tossed aside their bows and drew their swords. They leapt down the canyon cliffs like goats, surging across the river at the bottom and back up the other side. The fireballs abruptly stopped, and squinting through the rising ash, Shizzal could just see the Ashlanders retreating back behind a copse of dead trees on the other side.
“Back rank, follow them in and finish the job!” shouted the captain again. “That means you too, dress-mer!”
Shizzal tugged his twin swords from their scabbards and bolted off after the other Ordinators. His long robes fouled him up however, and he ended up tumbling down the slope, rolling into the river. The water was shockingly cold, and Shizzal sprung up, gasping, to wade to the bank like a half-drowned skeever. The current tugged at his clothes and he struggled to pull himself out at the farther end.
By the time he gotten up and rearranged the damn robes, the skirmish was over. Ordinators were picking through the dead and helping wounded to their feet.
“Priest!” came the captain’s harsh voice. “Over here, now!”
Shizzal hurried over. The captain was standing over a wounded Dunmer who had taken a spear to the gut. The Ordinator held his hands to his stomach, wheezing in pain.
“If you can heal, then heal,” commanded the captain tensely, and he pushed Shizzal roughly towards the mer.
Shizzal gulped, fighting back panic. The wound was bad, but he thought he remembered a page out of the healing book that dealt with something similar. He knelt down beside the Ordinator, putting a hand to the wound. In return, the Ordinator wretched up a cough, spewing blood. The force of his breath sent more gore from his gut, and he groaned in pain.
“What are you waiting for, dress-mer?” said the captain. “Heal him! My own men are out of magicka.”
“I’m trying!” Shizzal cried out, but the book of healing was growing blurry in his mind. He put one hand on top the other over the wound, pushing hard and praying for the bleeding to stop. The Ordinator coughed again, and Shizzal tried to ignore the entrails and other unidentifiable masses oozing past his hands. The Ordinator’s eyes fixed on his, going glassy.
“Damnit, work!” said Shizzal. He reached inside himself, trying to find the center of magicka as the book’s author had instructed. “Oh, come on… Vivec, please!”
Another Dunmer knelt on the other side of the Ordinator to administer what healing she could, but the Ordinator was fast fading. After several minutes of their combined efforts, his breath caught, and did not start back up again.
“It was a good try,” said other healer after a long pause. “He was just too far gone.”
“I don’t understand,” murmured Shizzal, swallowing. He sat back, staring at the dead body. “He gave me the magic. I felt it when I prayed. He gave it to me…”
“Nevermind that now,” snapped the captain, his own voice heavy with anger and grief. “Those cultists are still out there on their guars. We need to move to a defensible position now, or we’ll be caught in this dead end canyon.”
The Ordinators immediately fell into line behind him. The healer strayed with Shizzal, looping an arm under his and pulling him to his feet.
“Fortunes of war,” she said, patting his arm briskly. “You get used to it.”
“I never want to get used to this,” Shizzal answered. He rubbed his torso, just under the ribs, but the warm glow he felt from his god was gone.
“They’ll come down around that spur of rock before we can get our archers in place,” the captain was saying. “Unless you lily-livers can hustle, we’ll need to post spearmen here and here to cover our rear…”
Shizzal wasn’t listening. He didn’t mean to, but his failure kept running over and over in his head. He had been so sure he had been granted the gift of healing by Vivec. He had felt the warmth spreading through him when he had prayed.
But apparently not. Apparently not.
“I’m placing you here, priest,” said the captain. “…are you listening to me, dress-mer?”
Shizzal blinked and looked down at the makeshift map the captain had constructed out of twigs and pebbles. The position the captain had placed him in was far back in the canyon. It was a position of support, but Shizzal knew as well as the captain knew that his support wouldn’t be needed.
He couldn’t heal. All he could do was fight with the others, and not very well, with the priest robe fouling his movements and his swords’ reach being no match for Ashlander spears. The captain had placed him there to keep him out of the way.
Shizzal didn’t have time to dwell on it. The whole regiment stirred when the eerie wailing battlecries of the Mephalans echoed down the canyon. “To your positions now!” bellowed the captain, and Shizzal and the others scrambled to obey.
Shizzal found himself a nice little nook, where even his red robes would be hard to see in the fading light. A trio of Ordinators formed a tight triangle around him. As the Ashlanders approached, Shizzal couldn’t help but think of Tidras’ words earlier that day:
“We don’t need no fetchin’ support from you. The Ordinators are self sufficient. We are the hands and you are the voice. Stay and hide behind the Archcanon’s skirts, where you belong!”
The Ordinators around him braced as Ashlanders leaked past the forward ranks. Numbly, Shizzal watched, pulling a throwing knife from his robe and twiddling it between his fingers. Knives weren’t an easy thing to throw in the thick of a battle, and several opportunities slipped away before he could take them.
One of the Ordinators next to him cried out as a heavy oaken maul crashed down on his left shoulder. Without thinking, Shizzal spun and threw. His knife bounced off the Ashlander’s heavy weapon, and with a leer, the painted mer leaped towards him instead.
Shizzal’s hands went up. The maul descended. “Nice knowing you, Vivec,” Shizzal murmured wanly.
Something warm and hot rushed through his blood then, starting in his core and radiating outward. Red lightning sprung from Shizzal’s fingers, arcing from him to the wounded Ordinator, then to the Ashlander. The Ordinator cried out again, but in surprise rather than pain, as the Ashlander spasmed and dropped her weapon with an ugly howl of agony. The Ordinator jumped to his feet and crushed the Ashlander’s head in with the cultist’s own maul.
“Nice!” he said to Shizzal. “Do it again, would you? Here comes another!”
But the lightning wouldn’t “do” again, no matter how much Shizzal waved his arms about and called to Vivec and the Three. Instead, red sparks still crackled around the dying Ashlander, pulsing and leaping from body to body each time it flared. It seemed to invigorate the Ordinators, while the Ashlanders screamed at its touch and steadily backed away.
“Surely Vivec has blessed you,” said the Ordinator as he kicked another Ashlander to the ground. “I’ve seen the Path performed before, but not like that. Haha, look! It just used Rilmar to bridge to another one of the s’wits!”
“Bridge,” said Shizzal suddenly, a thought clicking into place as he watched the magic jump from one mer to another. “Wait, what did you say?”
“Eh?” said the Ordinator, for he was already in the thick of another battle. “I said thanks for the support, dress-mer!”
“Support,” breathed Shizzal. “Not support…a bridge! My powerwas never meant to be the Ordinators’ protection against the Ashlanders, but a bridge between the two–!”
He glanced up just in time for his head not to be taken off by a wild swing of an approaching Ashlander. Shizzal ducked beneath the cultist’s blade, jabbing his throwing knife deep into her gut. Hot blood washed over his fingers and splattered his face as he wrenched the blade out. He grimaced as the Ashlander slid to the ground.
“Dress-mer! Get your tailbone up here and get out of there!” shouted the captain from above. “They’re closing in from the other side!”
“Not yet!” shouted Shizzal in return, though he doubted the captain could hear him over the battle. It was time to do things his own way, and that was the way of the rogue-priest he was. He sidestepped as another Ashlander came at him, turning on his feet so he was back to back with the surprised mer. Like a strange dance, he and the Ashlander traded steps, the Ashlander turning to face him and Shizzal turning to stay behind him. The dance ended abruptly as the captain stuck his spear through the Ashlander hard enough to lift him off the ground by a few feet, feet dangling.
“Would you stop fetching around?” snapped the captain. “I didn’t bring you on this patrol to play nanny to your incompetence!”
“Course you didn’t,” Shizzal said brightly. “And I didn’t come here to be dead weight. Look alive, mate!”
The captain ducked, out of instinct, as Shizzal tossed a flash pellet over the mer’s shoulder. The ball of clay made a popping sound as it hit the ground and then exploded into billowing clouds of smoke and light. Shizzal dropped and rolled, out of the clutching hands of the incensed captain, and back behind the melee. He popped up behind Ashlander lines, glancing around.
He was thinking hard now, trying to remember what Drai had told him about Ashlander raiding parties. They were likely led by a gulakhan, who would be in the thick of the melee by now and out of Shizzal’s reach. But often they would also bring along a young farseer, a clairvoyant who helped keep the Ashlanders organized and provide the backbone of magical support to their warriors…
Gazing about the canyon’s ridges, Shizzal spotted her. She was busy casting flame spells down into the feuding warriors below, each ball of fire lighting up the Mephalan war-paint on her face. Shizzal crept up the hill, but the farseer’s attention was so fixed on the battlefield he imagined he could have strode up to her and waved without ever being noticed.
She certainly noticed when he whipped the garrote around her throat, cutting off her air and preventing her from finding breath for her spells. Shizzal didn’t tighten the lethal wire however, using her frantic gasping as the time he needed to tie her hands together. He dragged her down off the hill, away from the battle.
“Now,” he said, drawing on all his impersonation skills, trying to imagine himself as Tidras or Xalorn with one of their ruthless stares. “I’m going to talk, and YOU are going to listen.”
Shizzal had to give the woman credit for her courage when she spat at him, the saliva containing more than a little blood. He wiped the spit away.
“If you do exactly as I say,” he growled, curling his mouth around a menacing Morrowind accent, “We can get both your and my kin out of this battle, and no more people have to die today.”
“Heretic,” snarled the farseer. “Zeketah wants your head!”
“Heretics? I prefer to think of it as brothers and sisters in doubt,” said Shizzal with a sudden grin. He was betting on the farseer to stare at the off-kilter remark, and she obligingly did so. Shizzal took the opportunity to bow his head to her, murmuring the words Drai had taught him long ago for an ancient Ashlander greeting of respect. The farseer looked more and more surprised, and she lowered her hands.
“I know I may look like a Temple mer,” said Shizzal. “But you have to trust me. Call a retreat and don’t return, and I’ll keep the Ordinators from following you. I have an idea. Deal?”
The farseer’s eyes widened, but she didn’t exactly have any other choice. Below her, the Ashlanders were being slaughtered.
Without warning, the Ashlanders pulled out of the combat with the regiment. The Ordinators paused, expecting a feint. The Ashlanders didn’t swing their charge round, only scrabbling deeper into the canyon like scribs fleeing from a suddenly ignited torch.
“Get out your bows,” said the captain, striding up and down the uneasy ranks. “Get ready to fire, on my mark.”
The Ashlanders retreated all the way back up the canyon, regrouping at its mouth before they turned back. The soft sibilant hiss of a chanting farseer echoed down to them, and the Ordinators tensed.
“Nock and draw,” said the captain, raising his voice. “A second round to whoever bags that farseer! Hurry!”
The farseer’s voice rose in a wailing, hoarse howl. The water of the river danced in a warning vibration.
A string of blasts, each in quick succession to the other, rippled down the canyon walls. Puffs of smoke and light lit up the night sky, blinding and deafening the Ordinators, covering them with a deluge of water from the disturbed river.
“That was no spell,” said one of the Ordinators, voice wavering. “What new devilry is this?”
“Forward rank, draw shields and brace!” shouted the captain frantically. The Ordinators rushed to obey, climbing up the banks on either side of the river. But beyond the clank and rustle of the Ordinators setting their shields in a protective barricade, there was no other sound. The river stilled, and the smoke began to clear.
Out of the gloom, a single figure could be seen making its way back to the Ordinators’ position. It suddenly tripped and went down into the water, sodden robes fouling up its legs.
“Priest!” cried the captain in sudden realization–and anger. “What the fetch did you do? The Ashlanders used your smoke bombs for cover!”
“Yes,” said Shizzal after he spat out a good deal of river water. “They used it to retreat. We’re safe now, sir.”
The captain waited until Shizzal climbed out of the river and had rearranged his robes into some semblance of order before stalking up to him. “You’ve endangered all our lives,” he said in a threatening growl. “We have no idea where the Ashlanders are thanks to your stupid little trick. They could come at us from any direction!”
“They won’t,” said Shizzal. “I spoke with one of them. They don’t want to fight us. They’ve been pushed into this by another of the tribes — thee Tengri, infiltrated by Mephalan cultists? They’re heading home now. That’s preferable, isn’t it? Don’t you think enough blood’s been spilled tonight?”
“Traitor! Fool!” bellowed the captain, and he backhanded Shizzal hard enough to send him reeling to the ground. “I will have you executed for this!”
“No, you won’t,” said Shizzal, slowly getting back to his feet and wiping blood from his face. It hurt more than he cared to admit, but it was the wrong time to show weakness. He fixed his gaze on the captain’s eye-slits. “What I did got our patrol out of this death trap without any further fighting and may have even gotten us an ally against the real Mephalan cultists. I can’t h-heal for scuttle, sera, but I can still save the lives of your men.”
The captain’s hand flashed forward and seized Shizzal by the throat, lifting him off the ground. Shizzal gagged and closed his eyes, fully expecting his life to end there and then. But presently, he felt himself lowered back down. As his feet came under him, the vice grip of the captain loosened enough for him to breathe.
“I will not kill a brother of the faith,” growled the captain in a low voice. “But I will not let you join our patrol again. Turn and leave, and Tribunal help you get home. You have shamed yourself today, Brother.”
Shizzal swallowed hard as the captain called the regiment to order. He glanced back the other way, where a cloud of ash against Secunda marked the path of the retreating Ashlanders. He recalled the farseer’s worrying remarks about Mephala and some Zeketah and he wondered…
The Ordinators silently filed past him, most of them refusing to look at him. The Ordinator he had rescued from the wrong end of a maul stopped briefly, however. “Still a damn good spell,” he told Shizzal in a whisper. “You should work on that.”
“Yeah,” said Shizzal. “Thanks.” When he refused to say more, the Ordinator shrugged and moved on.
When the Ordinators had crested the hill, Shizzal finally turned to leave. “Nice pile of camel dung you’ve landed yourself in, Shizz. First fetching it up with the Grand Commander, and now with this patrol.” He looked back down at his hand, the one he had shot the red lightning from earlier. He frowned at his fingers and concentrated, but as before, not so much as a spark graced his fingertips.
But, as if in answer, he felt the same familiar glow somewhere around his middle. It pulsed three times before fading. “I guess I’ll have to trust you’re with me, old man,” said Shizzal with a sigh, and his mouth tightened. “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to join the Ordination, OR give up my thieving. It’s just not who I am.
“Not a healer, and not an Ordinator. But a bridge? Fetch. So much guar shite.” So muttering, Shizzal picked his own path up the canyon’s side, heading home to Ebonheart.