The day of aun Sjir’phal’s vision came quickly. He felt sick with anticipation but also strangely calm. He had not eaten for two days and would not eat for a third. There would be bitter emetics and laxatives and, of course, lectures from the High Priest.
“You must come before the God pure and empty,” oun D’jir had explained.
aun Sjir’phal looked around his empty hut. It was a round, single-room home, thatched with dried grasses and wide palm fronds, the dried grasses woven to anchor the palm leaves in place. The walls were mud and sand. The skeleton of the hut was made form pliable young wood. The single door had a thick, stiff curtain woven from the long, strong vines that grew in the jungle. There were no windows, but aun Sjir’phal was used to that. The ark in which he had been born and raised had had no windows in the sleeping quarters. Only the High Priest had had that luxury. At least the rain and wind were kept out.
The center of the hut had a firepit cut into the earthen floor, an airing hole gaped from the apex of the roof. Someone had built a fire in the pit and it offered a baleful orange glow as it crackled cheerfully.
He owned nothing, save a pallet and sheets to cover himself. He would have to barter for clothing. The leather uniform which he had worn ever since leaving the ark was now torn at the shoulder and permanently stained with blood.
He wore one of oun D’jir’s discarded robes. He looked down at himself and shook his head, grunting his disgust. The robes barely fit but still hid his physique. He was a soldier, judged by his physical presence as well as his prowess. Besides, what business had a soldier to wear a priest’s robes?
There was a scratch at the door.
“Enter!” he called.
The door was pushed to one side and aun P’ata’lyh and aun Pasia’h ducked inside.
aun Sjir’phal made to stand.
“Ne!” aun P’ata’lyh cried. “Stay seated.”
They sat crosslegged on the earthen floor before his pallet.
aun Sjir’phal squirmed under their thoughtful scrutiny.
“Do not fidget,” aun Pasia’h said with a hint of humor. “It is only that you represent great change for the people, ean sk’oi.”
aun Sjir’phal hissed, his tail whipping around and slapping the wall at his back.
“Don’t call me that!”
Neither aun Deuili seemed startled nor intimidated by his outburst.
aun Pasia’h had an amused gleam in his eyes. “You are going to undergo a vision, something no aun Deuili has ever done. You were visited by the God in the form of an ancestor. Your plans for a rebellion released us from the shackles of the old ways. How are we to address you?”
“It has ever been as if we were born to the same litter,” aun Sjir’phal stated firmly. “Why are you changing now? I view you no differently.”
“And that, my friend, is why you are worthy of the title ean sk’oi,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured with reverence.
aun Sjir’phal clasped his shaking hands on his lap. His rough palms were cold.
“aun Sjir’phal,” aun Pasia’h said. “We will drop the reverence but know we hold you in high regard.”
aun Sjir’phal inclined his head. “I am grateful for your honesty. Now speak of more mundane subjects.”
“Very well. When are you marrying the High Priest?” aun P’ata’lyh asked.
“If I survive this vision,” aun Sjir’phal replied. “Then I will ask him once more.” He glanced at his friends. “And how are you marriages going?”
aun Pasia’h huffed and made himself big. “oun Enobia carries my kits!”
aun Sjir’phal held his hand out and his friend clasped his forearm. “That is wonderful news. Blessed God Ie’teina.”
“Blessed God,” the other two murmured.
“And you, aun P’ata’lyh?” aun Sjir’phal asked.
“No kits yet,” he replied, his tail tightly around his waist. “But my marriage is most satisfying. oun Zerta is beautiful and had a litter on the ark.”
“I will pray for you,” aun Sjir’phal promised him.
His friend bent at the waist and his tail unwound. “Thank you.”
When his friend straightened, aun Sjir’phal huffed a laugh. “I would not want a young oun Shi’ehli for spouse. I don’t know how you both marry them and keep them satisfied.”
His friends hissed their laughter and nodded, preening.
There was a scratch at the door.
The door cover was pushed to one side and oun D’jir ducked inside. Behind him came two young priests and six voluble kits in arms.
This was the first time aun Sjir’phal had seen the kits. His friends rose and helped him to stand. Then they bowed to aun D’jir, who waved them to sit.
“Sit, both of you,” he ordered his priests.
The two priests sat on the floor, the kits on their laps.
“We were just leaving, High Priest,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured with reverence and bowed to him.
They bid farewell to aun Sjir’phal and hurried out.
“Your friends are unstable,” oun D’jir told him.
aun Sjir’phal huffed a laugh. “They are nervous around you, High Priest.”
“A High Priest should be accessible to the people,” oun D’jir replied, his tail was erratically waving behing him.
He picked up one of his kits and set him on aun Sjir’phal’s lap. The small one glanced up at the aun Deuil with wide green eyes.
“What is your name?” aun Sjir’phal cooed awkwardly.
“That is why I am here,” oun D’jir told him. “They all need names.”
aun Sjir’phal picked up the wee one. It’s small body was already covered with a fine downy fur. His tiny ears were flat. He was a fat little thing, he thought. Too early to tell if he would be an oun Shi’ehl or an aun Deuil. Perhaps — although he did not say this out loud — an ieh bouel. He set the kit down on the pallet and it resolutely crawled back onto his lap. When he looked up, he was being watched by three pairs of bright, curious eyes.
oun D’jir grunted. “You don’t seem to have the usual extreme awkwardness around kits that your gender seems to have.”
“Kits are people, oun D’jir.”
The priests hissed with amusement.
oun D’jir kept his cool gaze on him and said nothing, merely released the second kit. This one was more rambunctious. It crawled to aun Sjir’phal’s arm and attempted to crawl up his arm to access his mane. aun Sjir’phal was proud of his mane, and he didn’t want to lose a handful to a grabby kit. So, he took the little one and set him on his lap.
oun D’jir was studying him closely, which made his tail puff out. Thankfully, his tail was hidden under the bedcothes.
“Will you help me name him?” the High Priest asked.
“Ye,” aun Sjir’phal replied. As if I have a choice.
oun D’jir arranged the folds of his robes. “I know it is breaking tradition, to give them names before their gender is determined, but…” His tail wrapped tightly around his waist. “New world; new traditions.”
The stillness thickened in the hut and the three pair of adult eyes would not look away from aun Sjir’phal. On the earthen floor, the kits scrabbled, small balls of fur with amusing hisses, their tails puffed with their emotions. Two chased each other, their chubby little legs awkward, stuttering. Most of the time they fell unto their hands and feet and continued the chase at a crawl. One had fallen asleep in his lap. He picked up the kit’s right hand and examined the sharp, black claws. It was a perfect duplicate of an adult’s hand. The same could be said of the tiny feet. The palms and soles of their hands and feet had not gotten a chance to thicken as yet.
“Well?” oun D’jir demanded. “Will you help me name them?”
“It is not an aun Deuil’s place to do this,” he told the High Priest.
“And yet the God visited you,” oun D’jir spat. “And I will not gainsay the God! Name the blasted kits!”
One of the little ones startled and began to mewl in distress. aun Sjir’phal picked him up and bounced him gently to calm him.
He glanced at oun D’jir, who seemed angry still.
“I don’t see why you are angry,” he stated rather plaintively. “It’s not like I asked for this.”
“And that is why I am angry!” the High Priest retorted.
The other two priests shifted where they sat and dropped their gazes.
“Forgive me, oun D’jir,” aun Sjir’phal said.
oun D’jir sighed and shook his head. “Just name the kits.”
He looked at the kits around him and he thought of names and their meanings.
The little one asleep on his lap was quite docile, he thought. He caressed a sturdy little arm. The kit did not even stir.
“This one is Osoh’l.”
The one that was hissing and posturing to the other already was clearly a warrior, regardless of gender.
“That one is Perisan.”
“And this one?” one of the priests asked.
“That one startles easily. He is called Lis’lahn.”
“That one there, he is always chased and never turns to fight. He is Banem.”
oun D’jir watched him.
“This one keeps himself apart from the others, although he is part of them. He is Karu’em.”
“And the last one?” the other priest asked.
“This one is Tholes, because he observes everything with great attention.”
The three priests repeated the kits’ names over and over until they had memorized the names. They rose as one.
“Now I must record their names in our Holy Book. They were the first kits born to us and were a direct miracle from our God.”
They gathered the kits once more and headed towards the door.
At the door, oun D’jir turned to face aun Sjir’phal. “Thank you, aun Deuil. I will come at sunset to give you the appropriate herbs to induce a vision. I hope you survive.”
The hours crawled. Most of the time, aun Sjir’phal paced. He still felt weak, exhausted. His shoulder wound throbbed and smelled off somehow. Knowing the High Priest, the wound would be reopened, drained and cauterized. He did not look forward to that. But first things first. If he died during the vision, then the wound would not matter.
As the sun set in the west and long fingers of sharp colors filled the sky, oun D’jir and his assistant, oun Shamisj, entered the hut without asking permission. They had a busy air about them as they hurried inside with two trays and two buckets made of wood. They set the trays down against one curving wall of the hut near aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and the buckets against the opposite wall.
oun D’jir turned to him. “We have an emetic tea and a tea to clean your intestines. You are to drink plenty of water. Drink one cup of tea from this tray and one from the other tray. You will continue to drink the tea until nothing remains inside of you. Clear?”
aun Sjir’phal bowed.
oun D’jir inclined his head. “When I return, I will bring the tea that induces visions. Do you have questions?”
“Ne,” aun Sjir’phal repied and watched them leave as hurriedly as they had arrived.
He drank the emetic tea without tasting it, but when he set the cut down with a thud, he almost threw up the tea. The need to vomit passed as the tea’s horrible taste faded from his tongue. Then he drank the tea to empty the intestines. That one was not unpleasant but was extremely salty. He reached for the decanter of water and drank two cups. Then he went to sit on his pallet. He sat cross legged with his back to the curved wall and closed his eyes.
For the first time that he could remember, he uttered a sincere prayer to Ie’teina. For bringing them to this planet, which they had christened “Ahn’desu”; for encountering aliens with compassion; for losing the bloodthirsty God they had worshipped for eons; for finding a firm, yet compassionate God. He gave thanks that his many of his people had survived. The Sha’jeen had been given a second chance. He was grateful for that.
Then the teas began to work so he could not pray any longer.
The hours that followed would make him wish he never saw the God again, even if it was blasphemy. Hurrying to kneel before one of the buckets, he grasped the lip of the bucket and opened his mouth to release the meager contents of his stomach. The vomit came in a strong, fetid stream and hit the inside of the bucket with a loud thud. A bitter taste remained Then the intestines wished to be emptied. At the end of that, the small hut reeked, despite the airing hole in the ceiling and the smoke from the firepit. He stumbled to the door and pushed it open to allow fresh air into the hut. He was trembling and his eyesight was darkening. After a few minutes, he stumbled to his pallet and lay down. But minutes later, he was purging once more. By the time oun D’jir returned, aun Sjir’phal lay on his pallet, dozing.
“Wake!” the damned High Priest demanded. “Your vision will start at midnight. Come. Sit up.”
aun Sjir’phal obeyed before he was even aware.
oun D’jir handed him a cup of water and watched him drink it.
The High Priest sat cross legged before him. “I will hand you three leaves of the Xes’xen. You will take one at a time and chew it until it is a paste in your mouth. Afterward, you will swallow it. If a vision does not result within the hour, you must take the second leaf and chew it in the same manner. And so on. You must never take more than three at a time. Here.”
The leaf was thick, waxy and a deep green. He put the leaf in his mouth and began to chew it. The taste was oily and slightly rotten. It took all his will to keep from gagging.
oun D’jir steadily watched him.
He made himself chew the foul leaf until it was a slimy paste in his mouth. Afterward, he closed his eyes and used his all his effort to swallow it. It went down like meat that had gone bad. He was not sure afterward how he managed not to throw up.
“Lie down now,” oun D’jir murmured.
aun Sjir’phaj lay down, hands crossed over chest and closed his eyes.
“Listen to me,” oun D’jir said with some kindness. “I will guide you.”
aun Sjir’phal struggled to remain awake, but his eyes would not open. A most unpleasant cramp gripped his groin and he struggled to rise, for he thought he would empty his intestines again. But the feeling passed as swiftly as it had come on.
“You will allow the Xes’xen leaf to transport you,” oun D’jir said softly. “You will lie there and take in the visions the God sends you. You are honored, aun Sjir’phal, for the God has chosen you. Watch the darkness behind your eyes and see what can be seen. I will remain with you tonight.”
aun Sjir’phal said nothing. The unpleasant taste in his mouth was a constant reminder of why the priest was here and what could happen. Could he lie about a vision, in order to not eat another leaf of the pukra plant? He was not sure he could swallow another leaf and not throw up.
Time passed. He could hear oun D’jir shifting and standing, walking around the hut and then sitting down again.
As he lay there, aun Sjir’phal no longer felt the pallet beneath him. His body felt like a boulder. His lungs were reluctant to fill with air and he gasped. Soon after this, he realized it was not the pallet he could not feel. He could not feel his body. Despite weighing a ton, his body felt like it was beginning to dissolve. aun Sjir’phal fought to awaken, to move before his body liquefied, but his efforts came to naught. He fell through the pallet and he opened his eyes. His naked limbs flayed as he fell through space that was numbingly cold. Hoarfrost clung to the tip of his fur. Each breath was a frozen knife through his lungs. He coughed and blood drops spilled from his mouth and clung to the sluggish air.
He looked around him but the air, the space, beyond an arm’s length was pitch black. He opened his mouth to scream for it seemed that he could feel the ground rising up below him. His breath and voice froze in his throat. He could feel a scream building in his lungs. It shoved its way up his chest to his windpipe. It came up his throat like a ball of fire. It was out of his mouth, burning his tongue as it went, and spilled out into the inky darkness. And, suddenly, aun Sjir’phal was kneeling on a grassy knoll. Around him, a strange world. Trees with straight limbs and dropping leaves. The grass was a color he could not name. In the distance, a river meandered through an empty plain. Overhead, most of the sky was swallowed by a giant planet. It had glittering rings around it.
“Do you not have a collective memory of your planet of origin?”
aun Sjir’phal whipped around.
A being stood there. It was like Ariahl and Mariel of the Sentinels in appearance. There were two bumps on its chest and it was slender and smallish. Its mane was long to its lower back. Its face was cocked and watched him not unkindly. On one hand it held a bright golden pike. On the other, it held a shield.
He bent his head. “God. I praise you.”
When he looked up again, it had cocked its handsome head to the other side.
“I am Atana,” it said. “I will be referred to as Atana. I am a Goddess. Refer to me as such, for I represent creativity. The world you came to do mischief in is mine. That is the god of your ancient world.”
The God pointed with the pike and an animal like the one who had attacked aun Sjir’phal in the jungle padded up the rise of land. It was catlike, like the ancestors of the Sha’jeen, and black and there was a wound on its neck and steadily seeped ichor.
“I wounded the God!” aun Sjir’phal gasped.
“He is well,” Atana murmured. “That is Thul’ta’h’duk. The God you left a long time ago. He has followed you here.”
Thul’ta’h’duk padded to where aun Sjir’phal stood and sniffled his mane and throat, rumbling deep in his throat.
aun Sjir’phal reached up and grasped the God’s mane.
“I am sorry, God. I am sorry we left you behind!”
Thul’ta’h’duk rumbled and pulled away, padding to where Atana stood.
“You will worship both of us, aun Sjir’phal. Those of your people who give birth will worship me. Those who give their sperm to make a kit will worship Thul’ta’h’duk. I am a merciful Goddess. I could not turn away the God that has followed you through millenia. And the other God- the dual-faced one – has come into my space as well. He is weak now, but a time will come when here will be a great battle. Darkness knows deception. I fear the ones he will take to his bosom on this world. Now, aun Sjir’phal. Listen well and take these words to your people:
“There will be a priest for the oun Shi’ehl and one for the aun Deuil.
Each God has a holy day.
You must pray twice a day: when you rise and just before you lay down to sleep.
In your homes, you will build an altar to your God.
On the altar put things that will please your God.
Remember what I have told you.”
aun Sjir’phal bowed. “Ye, God.”
The God thumped the pike on the ground. “You will return now.”
aun Sjir’phal’s eyes rolled towards the back of his head.
oun D’jir hissed with distress. “Hold him!”
oun Shamisj and oun Belihe held aun Sjir’phal down as he thrashed about violently, foamy spittle spilling from his mouth.
“What is this?” oun Belihe gasped.
“A fit,” oun D’jir said. “It sometimes happens when we consume that Xes’xen leaf.”
There was now a tinge of blood to the spittle on aun Sjir’phal’s mouth.
oun D’jir released an explosive sigh.
Outside, it had begun to rain. The noises of their village quieted as the rain gained strength.
“Let him go,” oun D’jir told his priests. “Turn him on his side.”
His priests did as he asked then oun D’jir sat at aun Sjir’phal’s back and placed his hand on the aun Deuil’s head. He closed his eyes and prayed. He heard the other priests praying as well.
“Ie’teina,” oun D’jir murmured. “Great God of this world…please do not take him from me. There are moments when I wish to kill him, yes, but don’t take him from me. I feel he has a great lesson to teach us, from your mouth to our ears. He is God-touched and holy, no matter how much he fights it. Please forgive him, Ie’teina, and let him live.”
When he opened his eyes, aun Sjir’phal lay on his side, watching the wall with vacant eyes. oun D’jir’s heart gave a painful lurch.
He rose and picked up the the bedclothes he had gifted aun Sjir’phal and draped them over him. The large aun Deuil was trembling, although the night was barely cool. The smell of wet earth flooded the hut as oun Shamisj pulled the door cover to one side. The young priests stood gazing out at the early morning.
oun Belihe sat close, eyes closed, mouth moving soundlessly.
“I have chosen well,” oun D’jir murmured and turned back to aun Sjir’phal.
The aun Deuil had closed his eyes and now slept peacefully.
oun D’jir would remain here while the aun Deuil recouperated. He himself needed to eat and drink.
He rose and knelt before oun Belihe. He touched the priest’s shoulder.
The young priest opened his eyes.
“Bring me food, oun Belihe. And fresh water.”
The priest rose and bowed. “At once, High Priest.”
Both priests rushed out into the rainy day.
“I have to impart words from the Goddess,” aun Sjir’phal murmured, eyes still closed.
oun D’jir started. He rose and knelt by the pallet. “Please – tell me.”
“Firstly, Ie’teina is called Atana. Atana is a Goddess, not a God. Whatever that means. We should address Atana as such.”
oun D’jir clasped his hands before him. “The Sentinel Ariahl explained that to me. It is the female form. It means Atana can bear young as well.”
aun Sjir’phal frowned, his eyes closed. “What sense does that make? Why should a God give birth?”
“The Goddess gave birth to this world,” oun D’jir stated with wonder. “oun Atana gave birth to this world.”
“Help me up.”
oun D’jir assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit.
aun Sjir’phal leaned against the wall. His body was trembling still. He gazed at oun D’jir with large, luminous eyes and repeated everything that was told to him by the Goddess.
oun D’jir nodded, hands clasped on his lap. “We will build altars in every home. We will pray twice a day before those altars. We will placed objects upon each altar to please the Goddess and God. We will come up with holy days several times a year to pray in unison.” He cocked his head and looked at aun Sjir’phal. “Tell me about Thul’ta’h’duk.”
“He is as an ancestor, a catlike being.” He lowered his voice. “I do not think He is as powerful as Atana, but this is not His world.”
“We will revere him nonetheless. And the other thing she told you,” oun D’jir said. “The thing about the Dual-Faced god?”
“There will be a great battle in the future where things will be decided.” aun Sjir’phal reached for the cup of water and drained it. “Let us hope things are decided on the side of good.”
oun D’jir bristled. “I have no doubt the Dual-Faced god will die!”
“I don’t think gods can die, oun D’jir. They are driven away or dissipate into the greater universe.”
“Oh and you are an expert now,” oun D’jir sneered.
“No,” aun Sjir’phal replied. “But if I am going to be Thul’ta’h’duk’s priest, then I must keep an open mind.”
oun D’jir made himself larger. “Will we be at odds?”
“We can learn from each other,” aun Sjir’phal replied. “We can lean on each other. After all, we will be mated. I know nothing about being a priest, but I have striven to keep an open mind always, oun D’jir.”
oun D’jir’s tail puffed up.
“Stop,” aun Sjir’phal said then. “I want us to be allies not enemies. If you can’t learn new things, what business have you being a priest?”
oun D’jir rose up smoothly. “Excuse me.”
He walked blindly into the morning and walked to his hut by instinct. Once there, he leaned against the outside wall just right of the door. From here, he could hear the mewls and hisses of his kits. Slowly, his eyesight returned.
“High Priest!” oun Shamisj said. “I was just about to bring your food.”
“Take it to the aun Sjir’phal,” he replied wearily and stepped into the hut.
There was so much to do, he thought as his gaze took in the tumbling kits and the four other priests sitting in a circle around them.
There was salted, smoked meat hanging from the rafters by thick cords. He went and cut a piece down and began to eat it. The flavor was of this jungle, this continent, this world. The very air. He looked down at his hand where the thick slice of meat lay. He brought it to his mouth and continued to eat.
“Are you well, High Priest?” oun Satishe asked.
oun D’jir looked at him. oun Satishe was a beautiful oun Shi’ehl. His bright amber eyes held every emotion he felt and were filled with compassion and wonder.
oun D’jir felt humbled. He had forgotten how to be a kit, to have those qualities that made a good priest.
“Wonder and compassion, oun Satishe,” he murmured, cupping the other’s cheek. “We must not forget wonder and compassion.”
He wrapped his arm around oun Satishe’s arm. “Come with me, oun Satishe. Let us speak to oun Sjir’phal together. Don’t allow me to get defense, please. I have a terrible temper.”
oun Satishe hissed his laughter. “Only when it comes to aun Sjir’phal, High Priest.”