“Next in line!”
It was a constant cycle of tinnitus. The healer’s voice rang out in that Altmer tenor. Boots, metal or leather, scuffed up Akatosh’s floor. A step forward, exhale. Staccato murmurs and the white noise of chaos simmering outside. An involuntary wince. The occasional coughing fit. Can’t help but count the heads before my turn.
Less than fifty.
The healer’s hands in a constant loop between going for another potion of blue liquid and an intricate series of hand movements. A somatic component, as it had been explained to me by an enthusiast. Back at the academy I made a friend, Varos, who kept threating to transfer over to the Battlemage program whenever we got latrine duty. He came from some wizarding clan back east, if I remember correctly, but I guess had a falling out to end up in the Imperial City with no better prospects than the Legion. One time in an attempt to clean faster he cast some spell to teleport the majority of the shit in the pot elsewhere. Didn’t take long to figure out where when we heard the general’s eruption of swears. It wasn’t long after that that I never saw Varos again. Not sure if he quit or finally got that transfer after all.
Stendarr, I hope that dark elf chose the former.
“Next in line!”
Less than forty now.
Its Legion policy to never remove your uniform when on duty. Duty. Duty called that I tear my cloak into Gods know how many shreds in order to keep the blood in of a civilian I found. When another first responder found a child, couldn’t have been older than 10, with her leg crushed under a fallen pillar of marble and had no choice but to use his sword, I couldn’t help but put that coak to better use. After that it seemed more appropriate to prioritize speed over protection. I can justify it to my commander, too. Around the same time, those gates started to close up and the Daedra got less and less numerous as more of us rushed in to the district.
Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be reprimanded too hard.
“Next in line.”
About twenty, now.
I leaned my head back. The scene would have been absolutely beautiful if not completely clouded by the smoke. Through it I could just make out the night sky, stars and planets shining brighter than I could ever remember, as if a message to us that the Gods were watching and protecting.
Why does the divine intervention always come after the tragedy?
Five. She’s getting tired.
The shattered ceiling of the temple framed the newly formed statue immaculately. I guess it would, right? Akatosh is king in all things he does, and we should give thanks that we survived such a catostrophe. I mean, thousands are dead, civilization has all but come to a halt over the last year, governance has never been more in shambles…but at least He took the time to make sure he left behind a reminder of his greatness, right?
You know, against that smokey, starry sky, it almost has me convinced.
Finally. I’m next.
Adrenaline is wearing down now. Aches start. Shivers set in. Skin feels cold against the sparks fluttering down. There was one assignment I was given, patrol in the Jerrals. Gods, what a shit assignment. Only positive was the comforts of Olav’s Tap once our patrol looped back around after ten days. Bless those Nords. It wasn’t too long after my excursion that they toned it down, started letting the Legion Forresters have more free reign with that type of wilderness. Guess they got too many complaints. Maybe I should start submitting those more frequently.
After feeling the hellfire today, I’m tempted to transfer to the Forresters. But I know I’d never forget this day.
The high elf has lost her voice and gestures to approach.
Never got used to the feeling of restorative magic. Its numbing, so that when your bones reattach and your sinews stich back together you don’t pass out, and I almost fall over every time. It also makes you feel like you’re drowning since you can’t feel yourself breathing. I just close my eyes and wait for it to pass.
And wait. And wait. And wait. It never comes.
Open the eyes.
She’s passed out.
Can’t blame her. I’ve been in line for over two hours and she’s long since run out of potions. Some other priests take her away and say that a new healer will be here momentarily.
I don’t wait. I walk out, taking my cough with me. Can’t bare to be in this temple any longer. Can’t stand to stand in the dragon’s shadow for another second.
I try not to breathe too hard. Kynareth seems to have left.
I try not to listen to the cries of broken families and ruined lives.
I try not to think about all the people that I wasn’t able to use my cloak to save.
I just walk.
Across the Rumare.
I was right. The sky does look absolutely beautiful.
It didn’t take long to scare off the mudcrabs. They’ve mostly stopped coming around to this particular spot on the bank of the Rumare, just south of the Wawnet. About a year ago I started to spend the dawns after getting relieved of the night watch here, soaking in the dew and letting the sun hit my back, illuminating the riverbank, then the walls, then White-Gold itself as I sipped at a cheap wine. The warmth inside followed by the warmth outside made me feel so secure in the law, the Empire, Tamriel.
Maybe I was just compensating for a lack of warmth at home.
I’m not sure how long I sat. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember when the invasion started. Was it almost dawn or barely midnight? I don’t care. Just let me sit here until I can’t sit anymore. Then I’ll transition to lying down. Yeah, that fits. A legionaire who can’t even protect his people, working for a lineage that no longer exists? Made obsolete at 35. Oh, to be divine. The best job security. A definite purpose. Praise whether you do good, do bad, or do absolutely nothing at all.
“Room for one more?”
My lungs nearly exploded. I had been keeping the cough mostly in check since I never got that healing spell cast on me and I was too busy pouting on my walk out of the city to try and pick up a potion. Market district probably inaccessible in all this chaos, anyway.
The voice didn’t wait for an answer or even for my coughing fit to get under control. Just walked up next to me and sat, legs outstretched towards the river, the waves passing under their red and black boots. The metalwork on them, if you could even call it ‘work’, was layers on layers of what looked like bloodstained ebony, with what could only be described as an impractical number of spikes.
“You like them?” The voice said, with an aura of pride so thick I was worried that I was committing a secondhand sin. “Picked them up from one of those nasty brutes in there. Well, there were three of them, actually, but I only have the two legs, y’know? Anyway, these guys come running at my friend and I from around the corner in the Temple district, right? Now my friend, he’s actually on his way from an important ceremony, like /REALLY/ important, right? So of course, he can’t get any blood on him and he’s in no state to fight, not that he’s ever really good at it in the first place. Anyhow, I actually just so happened to have left my nicest sword on my horse, so I’m starting to sweat a little bit as these two ugly bastards close the distance. That’s when I noticed a piece of stone right in front of me…”
Coughing under control now. I look towards the voice. As much as their words irritate me, their presence does the opposite. Not a calming personality per se, but…something else. Not magical, as we had been trained to recognize when a perp would try to influence us (although almost every other legionaire I knew wouldn’t keep up with the training), and that wasn’t what was going on. I sort of felt obligated to engage, like an invisble tug at the ear. Maybe it was my lack of warmth.
It wore off quickly. I could forgive the intrusion. I could forgive the way they ended all their sentences as a question.
But the levity…
“…and once the third one FINALLY stopped breathing, it turns out my friend’s clothes were already covered in ash anyway! But, at least I got these nice kicks out of it.” Pauses for the first time since sitting down. I return their monologue with silence. Not worth engaging. Besides, this time I didn’t even have my cheap wine.
“So, any plans for the next interregnum?”
Eyes closed. Did they really just say that? Must be the ringing in my ears. No one is this tactless.
“I don’t really have any prospects anymore. I kind of peaked this last year, if I’m being honest. Met a lot of people, went from job to job. But now, with the sorry state of the empire…”
“I’m thinking its time for greener pastures. And island somewhere, maybe. Nice and sunny, away from all this dirt.”
“By the way, take it from me: avoid Vvardenfell. From what I’ve heard, things aren’t going too hot over there. One destroyed capital is plenty, if you ask m-“
Couldn’t take it anymore. Closed fist to the jaw. A stumble before standing, reading myself for the counter attack.
But nothing came. They readjusted themselves up with a surprised expression. No anger in those eyes, just a mild shock. Probably a foolish move to pick a fight with someone who so casually fights Dremora, but I don’t care. I need this. My frustration reached a boiling point and my impotence earlier today combined with this stranger’s laughs at my people were too much. If they cut me down, so be it. I’ll join Emperor Septim before the night’s over.
“Well, it’s not the first time. There was a time once in the Imperial prison when this Dunmer in the same cell block as me took issue with-“
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Right now, I’d say it’s a bruise on my good side.”
“Do you take any opportunity that you can to tell a story? Are you that used to being the center of attention?”
They looked a bit embarassed. “Hey man, stories are more important than you give them credit for. The universe is just one big story, if you couldn’t tell.”
“Oh, and I suppose you’re the main character of the universe, are you?”
“Well, maybe for this year. In another, five, ten, two hundred, who knows?”
I can’t take this anymore. Fists unclench, hands drop to my sides. Tears welling. I didn’t know if I was actually mad at this person anymore or if I just had to let it all out.
“Is…is everything just one big joke to you?!” I started screaming. “Really?! Thousands of people were just killed or worse by soldiers from Oblivion and you’re cracking jokes about your loot?! You’re worried about getting blood on your rich friend’s suit?!” Voice cracking. Tears flowing. Won’t stop me. “What…what is WRONG with you?? Be you not a citizen of the Empire? Your home…ALL of our homes…they’re gone…”
I pause for a second to catch my breath and try to reign in the sobbing. Gets caught in the throat. A wonderful feeling. They’re biting their lower lip, clearly uncomfortable.
I’m on my knees now. I don’t know when I feel to them. Maybe it was my body mirroring my spirit.
Eyes closed now. If I was lucky they’d never open.
“I couldn’t even save that child…”
I have to give them credit. If I had stumbled across a disgraced man breaking down in the mud of the Rumare, I most likely would have ignored them. Maybe they felt partially responsible, but they held me up by the shoulder and passed me a waterskin and stayed silent. Now that I was beginning to calm down, the feelings of mortification set in. Did I really just throw a tantrum at a civilian? Oh, Gods. I’m still technically on duty. Let’s take abandonment of post and add on disorderly conduct.
“L-listen,” I stammer out, trying desperately to get the lump out of my throat and my professional voice back. “I want to apologize. My conduct was not called for, especially in a time like this.” I wasn’t just covering my ass; I really did feel bad. This one didn’t seem the type to be bothered by some minor assault, but I felt duty-bound to make amends.
“If it makes you feel any better,” they said, carefully. “You don’t have to worry about this affecting your job security.”
I paused. I wasn’t wearing any uniform. How did they…
They nodded in the direction of the city, eyes fixated on the spires of smoke rising from the ruins. “I mean, in the short term, they’re going to need every spare hand they can get to stabilize things. But after that…you may not have an employer, soon.”
I wiped the last of tear residue from my eyes and nose. “You don’t seem that faithful in the future of the Empire,” I said, without thinking.
They raised their eyebrows and shot me a look of one that couldn’t believe what they just heard. “Me?” They scoffed. “You were the one wailing in the dirt about how the Empire is over.”
Hell, they were right. Your perspective shifts dramatically after a good cry. I looked down in shame and didn’t respond. They twiddled with their cloak for a few minutes and the silence began festering. I opened my mouth to break it but they turned suddenly to face me.
“Before I looted these boots off of those Dremora, I had just come from Green Emperor Way. There was a family, a mother and two sons, kneeling at a gravestone there. When the invasion began, I saw too late that one of those Daedric bastards was charging towards them.” They spit, speaking with a tone of voice wholly different from the light-hearted person I had punched not twenty minutes ago. “I killed him, of course, and managed to get the two sons into White-Gold tower where they had begun to shepherd in civilians.” They closed their eyes and their voice faltered.
They began to walk towards me with the softest steps I’ve ever seen. The mud and grass beneath their boots barely made a sound, with an absence that made them seem otherworldly. “In the archway into the Temple district, there was a man standing in shock at the destruction around him. I called out as we ran towards him, begging him to move, to get back to the palace,” Another pause. “It collapsed on him. Dead instantly. No restoration spell for five tons of stone caving in your skull.”
They were right in my face now, the first time and last time I ever got a good look at their face. The expression sitting there was indescribable. Every emotion was at play, with eyes of depression counteracted by a brow of acceptance and the mouth an arc of one who has seen many friends die.
“I apologize for my frivolity, I really do. That’s just how I cope, alright? I make jokes to recover. I pretend to be the center of the universe because if I am, then all of the loss I’ve ever experienced has an actual meaning, right? The truth is…” His eyes closed with a sorrow I can’t even imagine. “That friend I was protecting? He died anyway. Gave his life to protect his fellow countrymen, same as I’m sure countless of your fellow men-at-arms did. And for what? The Empire has taken many blows in the thousands of years of its history, but this time…” The most powerful sigh I’ve ever experienced. It made my body tremble just at the emotion of that exhale.
I was in shock. Said nothing. Processing what I was hearing. How could I have been so selfish?
“But hey!” Their eyes snapped open wide accompanied by a huge smile. “If you love your Empire so much, then I would love to see you prove me wrong. After all of this…nowhere to go but up, right?” A pat on the shoulder and they started walking away, away from the city. Into the rising sun. I stuttered for a second and whirled around.
The sun blinded me, and once I got accustomed to the light, they were gone. At the moment I didn’t think about it too much. It wasn’t until later that I realized that after that pat, my cough was gone. Guess he knew a little bit about restoration after all. I turned back around to the Imperial City, the outerwalls now beginning to illuminate. My eyes wandered up the wall, following the still billowing plumes of smoke encircling White-Gold. Up.
I start the walk back north to the Wawnet.
Nowhere to go but up.“Boethiah” | Illustration by BeeWinter, DeviantArt