Pain. At first, icy shivers along the nerve cells. And then, an explosion of heat that scorched the eyes and parched the mouth. All through those terrible hours, voices endlessly whispering like the breath of the world. Wood creaked. Cool dampness on the forehead. All through this time, his shoulder shrieked and yowled like a wild ancestor. He lay inert, his voice sometimes adding to the cacophony of ambient sounds. Sometimes he screamed when the shoulder pain spiked. Sometimes he moaned when the pain declined to something he could manage to breathe through.
Time seeped through the crevices of his awareness, crackled through his sensate moments. Many hours or many generations after the pain ensued, he pushed himself through layers of consciousness until he fell into himself within the quiet of a rainy day. He opened his eyes. Narrowing his eyes, he blinked against the light filtering in through the open window. He could smell sickness and blood. He sighed and looked about the room.
The prayer hall. Near the back of the prayer area the sick and dying were tended to. He wondered which he was.
Pallets were arranged in three sets of two. He was the only sick one there. He lay on the outer pallet in the middle row. On the floor next to his bed was a glazed bowl filled with bloody water and a cloth. Next to the bowl of bloody water was a decanter and a mug. There was a small, glazed incense holder with incense burning. The sweet, green scent of herbs filled the large hut. It was used, he guessed wearily, to mask the smell of sickness. He lifted a hand into the air, where it hung, trembling, its black claws gleaming in the light. He dropped the hand and gazed at the congregation area near the front of the hall. No one was there.
He made to stand but he was weak as a newborn kit. His throat and mouth were a desert. His tongue felt swollen.
Slowly events began to return to him: the murder, the pursuit into the jungle, the encounter with the strange black beast. He had touched it, plunged his dagger into the animal’s neck, and, still, he wondered if he had not dreamed it. He shivered and grew overly warm again.
He heard the scrape of claws along the floorboards just outside the entrance to the prayer hall. He turned his gaze up to see who entered.
“Ah, you awaken,” oun D’jir murmured.
“Thirsty,” he whispered.
oun D’jir nodded and poured water from the decanter into the mug. He sat at the edge of the pallet and fed aun Sjir’phal the water.
aun Sjir’phal drank slowly until he could not drink anymore. Then he turned his face away and oun D’jir set his head down.
“What day is it?” aun Sjir’phal asked.
“It has been ol-stok ehn olta,” the High Priest replied.
aun Sjir’phal gasped. “That cannot be!”
oun D’jir huffed a soft laugh. “I assure you, it is. It has taken three oun Shi’ehli to pull you from the edge of your death. Your shoulder wound infected.”
aun Sjir’phal grunted. “I thank you, for your assistance, High Priest.”
oun D’jir snorted. “We are beyond niceties, aun Sjir’phal. I have scrubbed out your shoulder, drained it twice, washed it and sewed it, wrapped it in bandages and rebandaged it. I have bathed your body many times and changed your bedclothes. I believe we are married now.”
aun Sjir’phal’s tail puffed out.
oun D’jir noticed and snorted and patted him on the stomach. “Don’t mind me, aun Deuil. I am teasing you.”
aun Sjir’phal swallowed. “I would marry you, oun Shi’ehl.”
oun D’jir’s ears swiveled.
“Can you stand, aun Sjir’phal?” the High Priest asked. “It would behoove you to stand.”
“I tried,” he replied. “Seems I need assistance.”
oun D’jir sighed but nodded. “Come.”
The oun Shi’ehl pulled aun Sjir’phal’s arm over his shoulder.
“Up!” oun D’jir said and the world tilted.
aun Sjir’phal parted his feet and panted. He his stomach roiled. He gazed down at himself and his tail puffed again. He was as naked as the day he was born. A glance at the oun Shi’ehl had him huffing with laughter.
“I see what you mean that we are married,” he said, his tail round and fluffy with his embarrassment.
oun D’jir nodded his head and began to drag him around the prayer hall until his legs grew steadier. He began to pull his weight, placing one foot in front of the other. oun D’jir led him several times around the prayer hall until he was panting with effort. Then the High Priest led him back to the pallet, where he set him down.
“Drink more water, aun Deuil.” oun D’jir murmured and handed him a mug.
aun Sjir’phal emptied the mug and handed it back.
“Now, we must talk,” oun D’jir said and sat cross legged across from him. “You have left the village leaderless by your illness. You must appoint a substitute.”
“You,” aun Sjir’phal replied. “You are the religious leader.”
oun D’jir put up a hand. “Let us not repeat the past. I am content to shepherd the God’s people, but not politically.”
aun Sjir’phal cocked his head. “Then whom do you suggest?”
oun D’jir sighed. “I suggest you choose from those aun Deuili who led the rebellion on the arks. We have four who survived: aun P’ata’lyh, aun Pasia’h, aun Eristhos, aun Katoh’l.”
“I know them all, though only two are friends. The second two I know through inter-ark communication.”
oun D’jir nodded. “Then I would suggest you pick one who is not your friend. If you do something, or intend something, that is not of value to the village, your friends might balk at opposing you. But a stranger won’t.”
“Yes, I see,” aun Sjir’phal said. “Do you have a suggestion?”
“aun Erithos is young and brave. You will balance each other out. He minds well and respect his elders.”
aun Sjir’phal bowed. “Then I bow to your wisdom, oun D’jir.”
oun D’jir cocked his head. “Now…about this encounter with a strange beast – I sent teams of aun Deuili to seek a carcass, but none found anything in the area aun P’ata’lyh said you encountered it.”
“Perhaps it was eaten by scavengers,” he told the priest.
“Except that you don’t believe that,” the priest retorted sharply. “I think you encountered the God in one of his manifestations. What was it trying to say to you?”
aun Sjir’phal huffed with disbelief. “I don’t know. It merely lay down and looked at me. You are telling me I stabbed the God!”
“Calm yourself,” oun D’jir murmured. “You didn’t see the God. You saw a predator.”
“I’m not so sure any of it happened.”
oun D’jir cocked his head. “The other two said it happened. A great, black beast of great beauty, they said. Like our ancestors.”
aun Sjir’phal shook himself. “And oun Ei’dhar?”
“He will deal with the God also, in his own time,” the High Priest replied. “Being without the People, the Sha’jeen…that is a worst fate than death.”
aun Sjir’phal shivered. “Ye.” He took a deep, bracing breath. “And the kits?”
oun D’jir’s mouth quirked. “Growing and strong, aun Deuil. Will you unite with me in matrimony?”
“I didn’t think you wanted me,” aun Sjir’phal said.
oun D’jir huffed a laugh. “That is before I realized you are God-touched. I would have my future kits to be God-touched by both parents.”
There was a commotion at the entrance to the prayer hall.
aun Sjir’phal covered himself with his bedclothes.
Five young oun Shi’ehli hurried in, the front youngster carried a tray.
The smell of cooked meat hit aun Sjir’phal almost right away. His mouth flooded with saliva. He barely looked at the newcomers. The young leader handed oun D’jir the tray.
oun D’jir set the tray on the floor.
aun Sjir’phal swallowed the saliva in his mouth and took a few deep breaths.
“Come,” oun D’jir said. “Eat.”
He handed aun Sjir’phal a bowel of meat. It smelled wild, with a hint of grasses and grain.
He picked up a chunk and bit into it. It tasted clean and healthy. He took the health of the animal into his own body. The meat was tender and sweet. He ate until the bowl was empty.
He handed it back to oun D’jir and bowed.
“My gratitude, High Priest.”
It was then he noticed the five recent arrivals were sitting at the High Priest’s back. They were looking at him with curiosity, amusement and a trace of sexual hunger.
He shifted under their gazes.
“We wish to know about the God,” one of the oun Shi’ehli said.
“Introduce yourself, oun Shi’ehl!” the High Priest said.
The young oun Shi’ehl huffed a laugh. “Pardon. I am oun Shamisj, honored to have been the first chosen priest for the High Priest.”
aun Sjir’phal ran his eyes over the beautiful youngster. He smelled healthy and seemed strong.
“I didn’t know it was the God,” he told the young oun Shi’ehl.
The oun Shi’ehli tittered.
“I am oun Belihe,” said another. “We know this. Tell us how it looked.”
“Tell us what it did!” another demanded.
So aun Sjir’phal talked until weariness drove him to lie down and oun D’jir chased the others out.
“I will be back, aun Sjir’phal,” the High Priest said.
aun Sjir’phal watched as he picked the bowl of bloody water and left.
In the wake of oun D’jir’s departure, aun Sjir’phal lay with his eyes closed. The ambient sounds were like a song: the popping and shifting of the prayer hall, the distant sounds of pounding as others continued to build their homes. The patter of rain had thinned but it still added to the symphony of sounds.
He heard the shift of a foot and thought oun D’jir had returned. Then he smelled blood and his eyes flew open.
There, not more than several feet from where he lay, stood the monster cat he had stabbed. Even though he could smell blood, he saw none on the animal’s neck or fur. The animal sat, front paws together, watching him with icy blue eyes. Once in a while, one or both of the ears would flick or swivel.
aun Sjir’phal came up on an elbow. The beast growled.
“I would prostrate myself, my God,” aun Sjir’phal told the being.
The animal flicked its left ear and cocked its head.
“You are the God,” aun Sjir’phal said and finished sitting up.
The animal growled, showing inches-long yellow canines. It rose onto all its paws and padded, head down, towards aun Sjir’phal. aun Sjir’phal shivered and swallowed. He made himself sit quietly as the animal walked around him. It came close and snuffed along aun Sjir’phal’s mane.
aun Sjir’phal smelled it: It was a strong, gamey odor with hints of mud and grasses. He could feel the animal shuffing in his ear then rubbing the top of its head under aun Sjir’phal’s chin.
After the beast was done, it returned to its place across from aun Sjir’phal.
“Now what?” he asked it.
The animal yawned and flattened its ears.
“I don’t have the wisdom to decipher this vision,” aun Sjir’phal told the creature. “I am a mere soldier.”
The animal rose and walked to the door of the prayer hall. It then walked up to the front of the hall where the High Priest and his priests sat during sermons.
The animal gave a yowl and then it started lopping, and then running, towards aun Sjir’phal. aun Sjir’phal did not even have the wherewithal to scream. He watched helplessly as the beast barreled down upon him, leaping at the final moment and shrinking as it flew through the air until it was no larger than a weeks-old kit. aun Sjir’phal prepared for the collision, but the animal seemed to dissolve into aun Sjir’phal. Fire caught along the skin where the creature had entered him. Suddenly, all aun Sjir’phal could smell was the jungle, the rain, the sawdust of the prayer hall. He rose suddenly, blindly, his hands shaking violently. The ambient sounds of the village seemed faraway. His skin felt dry and tight against his bones. The shaking grew worse until he fell backwards onto his back. The back of his head cracked on the floor.
He felt hands on him and urgent calls in a language he did not understand. He was shivering so hard, his teeth were clacking in his mouth and he could taste blood. Occasionally, the back of his head banged against the floor. His anxiety seemed a tinny thing, a distant urgency. Suddenly, all worries fell from him. He saw strange bright colors beneath his eyelids. He gasped at this. The shaking stopped and he felt himself to be sprawled on the ground. Slowly, the ambient noises grew louder, and he began to fall into himself once more. He blinked against the bright afternoon sunlight. Four oun Shi’ehli sat around him. Their tails were puffed up and the whites of their eyes showed. He could smell their distress – sour and musky at once.
“aun Sjir’phal,” oun D’jir barked. “What happened?”
aun Sjir’phal glanced at each priest, gauging if they could be trusted.
“Speak!” oun D’jir demanded.
“Help me sit,” aun Sjir’phal murmured. “Please.”
It took the four smaller oun Shi’ehli to help him sit. He scrunched his nose at the odor of sickness clinging to him.
“The beast came to visit me again,” he told them. “It…it ran at me and jumped into me and my body absorbed him.”
In the ensuing shocked silence, the priests looked at each other, their eyes bright with questions.
“Clarify,” one of the younger priests said.
He huffed a laugh. “Clarify? Clarify what I do not pretend to understand? With all due respect, how do you suppose I do that?”
Their ears flattened.
oun D’jir turned to him. “The beast became part of you? Is that why you were having a fit?”
aun Sjir’phal stiffened. “Fit?”
“Just so,” oun D’jir replied. “I will pray on this and see what the God gives me. You get back to your pallet.”
aun Sjir’phal rose, pulling the sheet around him. “I am going to the watering hole to bathe.”
oun D’jir’s ears flattened. He glared at aun Sjir’phal. “Very well. Then you will allow oun Belihe and oun Kelzi to accompany you. Won’t you?”
aun Sjir’phal gazed into the High Priest’s eyes and the fight went out of him. “Of course.”
oun D’jir rose, arranging his robes around him. “Very well. Hurry then. It is close to sunset.”
Wrapping the sheet around him more securely, aun Sjir’phal followed the two youngsters into the bright afternoon. Clouds filled the horizon with another storm. aun Sjir’phal struggled to breathe the thick, soupy air. The ocean as dark and still as glass. They walked through the bustling village, garnering a few curious stares. aun Sjir’phal met no one’s eyes. He strode as quickly as his sick body would allow him. His muscles still trembled and hot-cold shivers rushed along the nerve endings. By the time they were in the jungle, he was leaning against trees, slowing down considerably. Hundreds of Sha’jeen coming to and from the watering hole trampled the vegetation to the ground and allowed for a pathway. It was slightly cooler under the jungle canopy, although the thick heat of the air did not lessen. He was panting. Every time he leaned against a tree, he wanted to fall at its feet and sleep and never wake. But he pushed himself while the young priests chattered animatedly behind him.
He made it to the watering hole, doffed the sheet and jumped into the icy green water. He gasped in shock at the icy water. He alighted to the bottom, watching the bubbles escaping from his nose and breaking on the surface. The water was always cold, fed by cataracts that originated in a wide, deep river. There was talk of building boats and traveling down the river to see how far they could go and what they could find.
His lungs were beginning to burn. Pushing himself up from the mossy bottom, he broke the surface with a gasp.
The priestlings were still gossiping, heads together, as they sat on a boulder at the edge of the pool. He flicked an ear and turned away.
Careful to reserve his energy, he swam to the opposite shore and then back. His shoulder no longer hurt in the icy water. He pulled the bandage of and threw it to where his sheet lay on the mossy ground.
The priestlings were done gossiping and were now watching him avidly, with flicking tails.
“Let us go back, aun Sjir’phal,” one of them called.
He wanted to play with them, frighten them, take his time, but weariness was filling his muscles with warm sand. He grunted and left the pool, reaching for the bandage, wringing it out, and then wrapping his sheet around his body. He followed the priestlings mutely, leaning on trees along the path. By the time they made it to the village, he was trembling violently and unsure he could make it back to the prayer hall. The priestlings grew farther and farther away as aun Sjir’phal slowed down more and more. The distance to the prayer hall seemed to double and then triple until he stood at the mouth of a long tunnel. Finally, feet from the door into the prayer hall, he stopped.
He could hear the voices of the people as they settled in for the night. He smelled cooking fires and the strange smells of foods they now consumed. After a time, he continued, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.
Up ahead, oun D’jir stood at the door. He stepped down to the ground, hurrying over and sliding his shoulder under aun Sjir’phal’s arm. He pulled aun Sjir’phal along as if aun Sjir’phal was a kit. aun Sjir’phal grunted in surprise. They made it to the door and through it to the back of the prayer hall. oun D’jir led him to his pallet and helped him to sit.
Another priest handed aun Sjir’phal a bowl of meat. Despite a lack of appetite, he forced himself to eat.
The priests sat around him as he ate.
“You will undergo a guided vision,” oun D’jir told him.
He huffed in amusement, wishing they would leave him alone. “I’m no priest.”
“Nevertheless,” oun D’jir replied. “You will take the sacred herbs and you will undergo the process. I will be here with you.”
He bowed. “Ye, High Priest.”
“Oh–the herbs can send you a vision or they can kill you,” oun D’jir replied, watching him carefully.
aun Sjir’phal looked into the clear blue eyes of the beautiful High Priest. “As a soldier, I have always been prepared to die.”
oun D’jir’s eyes widened and he inclined his head. “In five days then, aun Sjir’phal.”
aun Sjir’phal gave a nod. “So be it.”
He handed the half-empty bowl of meat to the nearest priest. “If you will excuse me, I will rest now.”
Muttering, they rose and vacated the prayer hall. oun D’jir tarried.
aun Sjir’phal looked at him steadily.
“You have no fear?” the High Priest asked.
“If I had fear, I would not be able to remain in the village as an aun Deuil. Fear is my own weight to carry.”
“You already speak as a priest.”
“You sound impressed,” aun Sjir’phal pointed out and huffed his humor.
oun D’jir shrugged. “You have impressed me, ye. I am merely mortal, aun Sjir’phal.” He rose smoothly. “What is to become of you if you have a vision. There is no precedent.”
It was then that aun Sjir’phal felt the first niggling of fear.