“I am a qengai…a spy…a warrior…a thief…an assassin.”
The k’chasan girl lifted a sleeveless top off a pile of neatly folded clothing and slipped it over her head. Next came the matching charcoal shorts. She adjusted the skin-tight material so that it lay comfortably over her russet fur.
“I am devoted to Master Notasami’s Sacred Codex.”
Reluctantly, she stepped into a pair of thick canvas pants and cinched them tight. She hated the pants. Given her fur and the tropical rainforest she lived in, they were almost unbearably hot. But the pants protected her legs from brambles, rocks, and far more harmful things.
“I am willing to die for our cause.”
She slid on her thick-soled sandals and wound the cross-gartered straps up her calves. Then, over the pants, she fastened on dark green shin and thigh guards made from hardened leather.
“I am the clouds and the wind.”
She paused, savoring the feeling of one last cool breeze against her fur, before pulling on her long, canvas shirt and her padded leather breastplate.
“I am the rain and the hail.”
With nimble fingers, she laced the hardened leather vambraces onto her forearms and wove her thick hair into a braid that circled her head like a crown. She pulled up the hood of her shirt, making sure her catlike ears retained their full range of motion, then wrapped the gauzy scarf around her lower face, so that only her amber eyes and the downy fur around them could be seen.
“I am the thunder and the lightning.”
She tucked two sickle-shaped blades with long handles into the loops on her belt, strapped a sheathed knife onto each leg, and slid a set of throwing spikes into compartments hidden underneath the vambraces on her forearms.
“I am the storm.”
Even though she had spent the last six years training in this uniform, she was already sweating. But a qengai ignored discomfort. All that mattered was the mission, the cause. She examined herself in a small, polished-bronze mirror, the most valuable thing she owned.
“And I am so not ready for this.”
She sank onto the reed mat that served as a bed in her tiny, ramshackle cottage. Drawing a pebble from her pocket, she traced a finger across the name etched into it.
“It’s just nerves. Everyone feels this way before their first mission…out in the world…all alone. I can do this.” She clenched her fist around the smooth stone and nodded her head. “I have to do this: for myself, for my clan, and especially for my mother. I’ll be fine. I’ve trained harder than anyone else. And I’m better than even some of the older, experienced boys.”
Someone tapped on the door.
She kissed the stone and returned it to her pocket. Then she stood and looked at herself in the mirror again. “You’ve got this.”
Elder Oreni, first-husband of their clan’s leader, stood on the other side of the door, his expression sterner than usual. She didn't expect encouragement from him or anyone else in the village of Yasei-maka. Just because he was also her stepfather didn't mean that she got special treatment—exactly the opposite, in fact. “It’s time to go. The Prophet is expecting you.”
She nodded. “I’m ready.”
“I took a chance on you, Iniru,” her stepfather growled. “Don’t make me regret it.”
* * *
The Cavern of the Prophet lay deep within the heart of Yasei Forest, centered between the original nine qengai villages. The Prophet interpreted the inscriptions that magically appeared within the pages of their chapter of the Sacred Codex. After determining which qengai was called to serve and the nature of his or her mission, the Prophet would send a silver-beaked magpie to the appropriate village to summon the required qengai by shouting their name three times.
Only a few thin shafts of early morning sunlight managed to pierce the dense, evergreen canopy overhead, but it provided more than enough illumination for a k'chasan like Iniru to easily avoid fallen logs, stumps, thorn-tipped vines, and bogs. She darted from shadow to shadow, hurrying through the rainforest quietly and, as always, cautiously. The dangers so close to a village were few, but it was important for a qengai to maintain a constant state of heightened vigilance, even on her home turf.
Iniru’s large, fur-tufted ears twitched back and forth, taking in all the sounds around her. Above her, loud birds in a myriad of bright hues cheeped, warbled, and sang. In the distance, monkeys howled and chattered. And among the foliage and ground debris, snakes slithered and all manner of insects and rodents crept and crawled.
The wind shifted. Iniru's nose crinkled. Somewhere close by lurked a panther, either perched in a tree or soundlessly stalking its prey. Iniru changed her route to lead her farther away from the cat. It wasn't likely to attack, unless threatened or starved, but it never hurt to be extra careful when dealing with them—especially today. She couldn't risk anything going wrong on her first and most important visit to the Cavern of the Prophet.
Besides, Iniru secretly didn’t mind the delay changing her route would cause. It meant that for another precious few minutes, she was just a k’chasan girl, still training in the arts of subterfuge and combat, and not a full qengai burdened with the responsibility of a dangerous mission from the Sacred Codex.
The shadows lengthened as she slipped deeper into the forest. The birds and insects quieted. The vegetation changed.
Thick air—heavy with the cloying scents of fungus and rotting vegetation—invaded her nostrils and seeped through her clothes and into her fur. Despite the stifling atmosphere, she shivered.
The rainforest around her village had always seemed simultaneously ancient and new, with old trees and ferns dying and new ones sprouting up to replace them. But this part was different. Her mother had once said to her that walking into the heart of the forest was like stepping back in time, to a primordial forest that had once covered the entire continent of Okoro, long before k'chasans or any other peoples had come here. Iniru couldn’t disagree.
The farther she went, the thicker the forest grew, closing in on her. Twisted, vine-wrapped firs of a type she’d never seen before leaned into one another. Red-striped bamboo stands grew so tightly together that they formed massive impenetrable barriers. At times, she was forced to climb over the bloated roots of towering magnolias, as if they were boulders on a mountain. Blue-tinged ferns with wide leaves lay amidst clusters of briars, their thorns dripping a strange sweet-scented ichor. And crimson flowers bobbed out from fungus clusters hanging off the sagging limbs of cypresses.
Shivering again, she suppressed her fear as she had been taught. Her pace slowed and every sense came alert. She crept forward, her eyes scanning the unnaturally dense vegetation on either side. A clear path had formed, leading her forward. That should have made her feel better. She had heard stories of interlopers being trapped by the forest until they starved to death. Even qengai would find their way blocked by an impenetrable wall of trees if they had not been called. No one could reach the Cavern of the Prophet without permission.
But it took all her willpower to force herself to keep going. As the canopy lowered and thickened to form a roof that choked out the already dim light, Iniru’s hands started to tremble and her stomach twisted. The trees grew tighter and tighter together, interweaving their branches until she was walking down a living tunnel and even her sharp, k’chasan eyes could no longer see by the faint light that made its way in. By feel and instincts alone she advanced, picking her way carefully across the uneven floor of roots and earth.
Despite her training, her heartbeat raced as she imagined monsters lurking within the darkness. One legend said the forest had given birth here, that the goddess Ishiketa had emerged fully formed from this very tunnel. Another legend said the trees had been warped into this shape by the dark magic of a terrible monster. The great hero Akahiron had slain the beast eons ago but its twisted lair still remained. The elders dismissed all the stories except one: centuries ago, Master Jujuriki Notasami had meditated here for one hundred and forty-nine nights, recording his prophetic visions into the Sacred Codex. And only their Prophet, who lived out her entire life in the cavern, could decipher the strange glyphs of his transcriptions.
Thinking about the Prophet only increased her anxiety. Even the most hardened qengai master spoke of her in hushed tones edged in fear. Most people only mentioned the Prophet directly when she called someone to the cavern.
Iniru was on the verge of panicking, of breaking and running out, back toward the light and out into the fresh air beyond the heart of the forest. But then faint, flickering orange lights appeared ahead. Relief flooded through her, breaking her uncharacteristic paranoia. She took a deep breath, scoffed at herself, and tentatively walked into a huge cavern illuminated by a sparkling swarm of fireflies…and an expansive iron brazier filled with glowing, red-hot coals placed in the center.
“Hello?” she called.
At the sound of her voice, the fireflies stirred erratically for a few moments before settling back into their languid clouds.
Searching the circular cavern, she found a simple table, and three boxes—a large one filled with square sheets of paper, a medium one containing a number of charcoal sticks used for drawing, and a small one stuffed with an herbal, tea-like mixture. Beyond the table, a narrow passage led into a small room with a second, normal-sized brazier. Rows of boxes filled shelves that seemed to grow out of the walls, and what appeared to be two piles of bedding lay to one side.
“Greetings, Iniru of Yasei-maka,” said a husky voice, behind her.
Iniru spun around, automatically raising her hands in a defensive position.
A stooped, white-furred k’chasan woman wearing only a short skirt stepped out from the shadows to Iniru’s left. Chills pricked across Iniru’s skin. She had examined the cavern carefully without seeing or smelling anyone. And if the woman had entered after her, surely Iniru would have heard some trace of sound.
Judging by the withered folds of her skin and her thinning fur, the Prophet was older than old. Trailing behind her was a girl several years younger than Iniru. She too had cloud-white fur and wore only a matching black loincloth split along the sides. Iniru had seen k’chasans with red-brown fur like her own or with paler browns, darker reds, and sable even. But she had never seen white fur before.
“I am the Prophet,” the crone said.
Iniru removed the scarf from her face and bowed respectfully. “Hello…um….” Iniru frowned. “I’m sorry. No one told me how I should address you.”
“It is of no matter,” the Prophet said. “Let us begin.”
The Prophet gestured to a spot in front of the central iron brazier. “Kneel here.”
As Iniru stepped that way, the girl smiled at her.
“And who are you?” Iniru asked.
The girl started to speak, but the Prophet interrupted her. “She is the Acolyte. Ignore her.”
Iniru knelt before the brazier. Her knees settled into rounded indentations where thousands of knees had knelt before. This wasn’t the only place to kneel. Eleven other pairs of indentations surrounded the brazier. Missions often required more than one qengai, so that didn’t surprise Iniru.
“Are you prepared to serve the Sacred Codex?” the Prophet asked.
“I am ready.”
The Prophet smiled, her bright-blue eyes disappearing into the folds of her skin and fur. “You are well-trained and determined, but you are not ready.” She turned to the Acolyte. “They are never ready when they come here, because they are afraid—of their future, but more so of us. Do not doubt them, though. The ones like Iniru here will conquer their fear and serve.” She waved the Acolyte closer. “Can you see the determination in her eyes? Can you feel the passion radiating from her soul?”
“I can,” the girl said with a squeak.
The Prophet nodded. “In time, child, you will be able to sense her future as well.”
Iniru gasped. “You can see my future?”
“I cannot see what will happen,” the Prophet said. “But I can feel the possibilities that lie within your heart and mind.”
Iniru studied the Prophet’s ancient face shrewdly. She seemed calm, but her eyes glinted with fierce determination, her lips pressed firmly together, and her jaw wasset. She looked as if she was prepared to do something terrible—if necessary.
“If you don’t like what you…feel…you can reject me, can’t you?”
Iniru breathed deep through her nostrils, blocking out the smoke from the burning coals in the brazier, the strong body odor of the Prophet and the Acolyte, and the pungent vegetative scents of the forest cavern.
She caught a faint but distinctive scent: acrid…cold…metallic.
“I didn’t see you when I entered, but I thought for a moment that I had smelled steel,” Iniru said. “And I was right. You have a dagger hidden somewhere, most likely strapped to your thigh and hidden underneath your skirt.”
“You are well-trained, aren’t you?” the Prophet said.
“I train all day, every day.”
“I’m sure you do,” the Prophet said. “Do you know what my dagger is for?”
Iniru nodded. No one had told her the consequences of being rejected but, she could guess. “Don't worry. If I don’t deserve to be a qengai, then I will stand tall before you and allow you to plunge the dagger into my heart. I will make my mother proud. If I cannot do that with my life, then I can at least do it with my death.”
The Prophet nodded appreciatively, then touched a fingertip to Iniru’s forehead. “You will be important and accomplished…” she clenched her eyes shut “…but you will be sorely tempted to stray from the path and…in the end…you may fail as a qengai.”
“I swear I won’t fail. I will complete every mission assigned to me.”
“That is not what I meant. And don’t be daft. All qengai fail a mission at some point. Some even survive those failures.”
“You mean you think I will abandon the path?” Iniru asked, her voice rising sharply.
The Prophet shrugged. “Now, let us begin.”
Iniru leapt to her feet. “If you can sense that I’m going to be a failure, why haven’t you drawn the dagger?” There was no fear in her anymore. She patted her chest. “Kill me now—the sooner the better.”
“Stop being such a dramatic teenager and kneel back down.”
Iniru did as commanded, albeit reluctantly.
“It is not my job to sense failure in you,” the Prophet said.
“Then what’s the point?”
“Child, tell her our responsibility.”
“To sense evil,” the Acolyte recited. “If there is evil in her heart now and evil in her future, we kill her—mercifully.”
“Oh…I suppose that makes sense.”
“Besides,” the Prophet sighed deeply. “Truth be told, it is far more likely you will die before the thought of giving up ever occurs to you.” A threatening tone entered the Prophet’s voice. “Now, can we begin?”
The Acolyte handed the box of herbs to the Prophet. She removed a single pinch and returned the box to the child.
“Things will be different the next time you come here,” the Prophet said. “I will give you a mission and a few words of encouragement, you will honor Master Notasami and the gods with a prayer, and then you will be on your way.”
The Prophet tossed the herbs onto the hot coals. Purple flames flashed within the brazier and a thick, aromatic smoke billowed throughout the room. The firefly swarms zipped up to the ceiling, but as the smoke thinned out to a haze, they drifted back down.
“But this time,” the Prophet said, “using methods handed down to us by Master Notasami, I will open your mind to the world of dreaming. There, what I felt before in your heart, you will see for yourself: glimpses of possibilities…scenes of what might happen…images that represent your destiny…should you stay true to yourself.”
Iniru rubbed her swelling, smoke-irritated eyes. “So I will see my future?”
“In a manner of speaking,” the Prophet said. “Many are the paths that lie ahead. The things you see might be specific, or they may be vague and open to interpretation. Or the visions might not mean anything to you…not yet, anyway.”
“I only saw this cavern,” the child said wistfully.
“It is true that a few souls will see only one thing, one future,” the Prophet said. “For instance, when I ventured into the dreaming, I too saw this cavern and nothing else. This was the path of my heart, my only destiny. No matter what I did, I would always end up here.”
Feeling dizzy and a little sick, as if she’d had too much wine, Iniru struggled to think. “So…so what’s the point?”
“Perhaps knowing what lies ahead will bring you inner peace when things are darkest. Perhaps it will give you strength when you are weak.” The Prophet shrugged. “Ultimately, only you can understand your heart’s desire. Only you can embrace the possibilities you see today, or attempt to thwart a certain fate and forge for yourself a new destiny.”
The Prophet shuffled to the table and picked up some items. “So the point is what you make of it.”
She gave Iniru twelve small squares of parchment and a shard of charcoal. “The images you see will quickly fade from memory, as with scenes from a normal dream. But you can record the ones that resonate with you the most…if you like. Most qengai do.”
“I’m not…I’m not an…artist,” Iniru said drowsily. “I can’t…draw anything.”
The Prophet spoke a phrase Iniru didn’t understand and tossed another pinch of herbs onto the hot coals. “The magic of the dreaming will guide your hand.”
The Acolyte placed a small drafting table between Iniru and the brazier. “Here, everyone’s an artist.”
Iniru’s normally erect shoulders slumped, and her mind went suddenly wonky. The room bobbed and spun, like a toy boat caught in rapids. She felt as if she might fall over and didn’t see how she could possibly draw anything.
The Acolyte arranged the sheets of paper, adjusted the charcoal stick in Iniru’s hand, and pulled the table closer.
“Don’t let go of the charcoal.” She patted Iniru on the back. “I’ll be right behind you, and I won’t let you fall over.”
“How…how am I…supposed to….”
“It’s so much easier if you stop fighting it,” the child said as she placed her small hands on Iniru’s back. “Let go.”
Chanting arcane phrases, the Prophet paced the room, circling Iniru and the brazier. The fireflies descended and followed her, like a frothing stream of stars.
And then, spark-lit mists were all Iniru could see — erratic fireflies dancing in a dense morning fog. Images formed within the flickering mists and slowly came into focus. Iniru became vaguely aware of her hand moving in reality, the charcoal stick scratching against a square of paper.
She saw a boy, maybe the same age as her. He was baojendari—pale and tall and furless like all his kind, though he was especially lanky. She’d only met a few baojendari before. They had mocked her by saying her mother must have been a cat. It was a rude thing to say. But not surprising. It was the sort of thing you expected from them. The baojendari ruled Okoro, and most of them enjoyed lording themselves over the other races.
The boy’s traveling clothes were gray and green; the breastplate he wore was burgundy. A sheathed sword hung from his hip. He had a small, round birthmark on his forehead. She sensed something powerful, a force that radiated out from him—fiery and intense, unlike anything she had ever before encountered. Then she saw it: an amber channeling stone dangling around his neck.
He was a wizard.
He stood at the end of a rope bridge, somewhere in the rainforest. Tears filled his striking blue eyes. Rage strained his face. Bodies lay all around him and along the bridge. His eyes locked onto her.
The vision shifted.
Again, the baojendari boy appeared. He had changed somehow. More than twice as much energy radiated from him—so much that her fur stood on end and her skin crawled. On his cheek there was now a cloud-shaped mark, pierced by a lightning bolt. What it was, she had no idea, but it worried her.
He reached a hand out toward her.
The vision shifted again.
Bundled in a coarse fur coat, Iniru stood on a windswept plain covered in snow and ice. Exhausted and frustrated, she argued with the boy. Over what, she had no idea. She couldn’t hear anything in the visions.
After another shift, Iniru found herself standing in a lush courtyard. Horrified, she knelt beside the boy. Wounded, he lay still upon the ground, crimson blood and rose petals scattered around him.
The scenes then shifted into a rapid blur of adventures in exotic locales, where Iniru and the boy battled monstrous creatures beyond her imagination. The dream stopped suddenly. Iniru and the boy cowered as ahead of them rose up an enormous dragon—a dragon!—of deepest earth and darkest shadow.
And then she stood with the boy on a high cliff. A small, ragtag force gathered behind them. A vast army snaked through the valley below. She argued fiercely with the boy, until he seemed to give in. But there was an odd glint in his eyes that she didn’t quite trust.
The visions picked up speed, racing by faster than her hand, or mind, could keep up. In every one, the baojendari boy was there. They shared bowls of tea and long sunsets. They laughed and kissed, argued and trained, and fought many desperate battles together. But the bowls of tea were the oddest, because they were always served by a flying, catlike creature whose presence irritated her.
The racing visions slammed to a halt and locked onto one that caught her breath. Again her hand flew into motion, the charcoal stick scratching across the paper. This was the only vision that hadn’t included the baojendari boy. Iniru knelt across from a rune-carved, stone arch. She was alone in a forested land decorated with autumn leaves in all their colors. Day after day, she watched that lifeless arch. But she would never give up hope—just as she knew that he would never give up on finding a way to be with her again.
She woke suddenly—bewildered, the cavern spinning around her.
Gasping for air, she slumped over the table.
The Acolyte patted her back. “You did well.”
“The arch in the autumn land….” she said. “Why wasn’t he there? Where was he?”
“Where was who?” the Acolyte asked.
Iniru frowned. “I–I don’t know.”
“Here, drink this,” the Prophet said. “It will clear your mind.”
Iniru pulled herself up and took the bowl from the Prophet. She sipped the bitter tea and returned the bowl. After a few deep breaths, her thoughts cleared and the dizziness abated.
Twelve squares of parchment lay scattered across the table. On all but one, she had drawn a surprisingly accurate image of the baojendari boy, though the background scenery on each was sketched in crudely, probably because she hadn’t had time to fill in all the details. On the exception, she had drawn herself kneeling alone across from the stone arch.
The visions slipped from her mind, falling rapidly away until all she had left were the pictures she’d drawn and a memory of the deep connection she had shared with the boy. It unnerved her to so quickly lose the memory of something so profound. No wonder the drawings were necessary.
“Why is he furless?” the Acolyte asked. “And what’s wrong with his ears?”
Iniru stacked the pictures together. “He’s baojendari.”
“Oh,” the girl said. “And he’s the destiny you chose to focus on, huh?”
“Stop prying, child,” the Prophet said.
Iniru sighed. “I didn’t choose him. In every vision I saw, he was there. Except for one.”
“I got this lousy cavern and you got a boy,” the girl muttered. “That’s hardly fair.”
Iniru shrugged. Boys barely registered to her. She had relentlessly focused on one thing only: becoming the best qengai she could. All she was interested in was making her mother proud.
“What you just went through,” the Prophet said, “is a sacred process. And it is to remain a secret—always. Speak of it to no one, not even your children, should you one day have any.”
The Prophet gestured. “Follow me.”
Iniru stood on wobbling legs and followed the Prophet and the Acolyte. They walked to the west side of the chamber and turned into a blind, narrow tunnel. Iniru glanced back toward the entrance.
“How could I have missed that?”
“It wasn’t there,” the Acolyte said. “It only appears when—”
A dank, winding tunnel that smelled of rotting leaves and upturned earth led them to a cramped chamber where, from a minuscule skylight above, a ray of sunshine struck a pedestal of interwoven roots and highlighted the enormous book that rested on top of it. Copper wire threaded through the book’s ragged-edged pages and its worn, bamboo-plank cover.
Awestruck, Iniru stopped at the entrance and stared at what could only be her clan’s chapter of the Sacred Codex of Master Notasami. The Prophet and the Acolyte entered the chamber and stood beside the pedestal.
Iniru dropped down to her knees and bowed low, touching her forehead to the earthen floor, while the Prophet and the Acolyte sang a long hymn honoring the Great Deities of the earth and sky, as well as the lesser gods known as the Shogakami.
“Rise and declare yourself,” the Prophet said.
Iniru spoke her full name and recited the Vow of the Qengai, handed down by Master Notasami himself. Then, at the Prophet’s invitation, she stepped up to the pedestal and gazed reverently at the Sacred Codex.
The Prophet flipped the book open about halfway, to a spot marked by a silk string. The right page was blank, while the left was filled with tiny, intricate glyphs that trailed along the page in narrow rows with barely any separation from one another. The glyphs in each row were either deep brown or yellow, with the yellow ones largely concentrated on the bottom of the page. A few brown rows were struck through by a crimson line that dripped ink like blood along its length.
“Each row describes a mission and names the qengai chosen to perform it.” The Prophet pointed to the blank page. “When a new mission is required, a new line of writing will appear.”
“So this is mine at the bottom?” Iniru asked.
The Prophet nodded. “The glyphs on your row are yellow, representing an ongoing mission. The missions described by the brown lines were completed successfully. The brown lines struck through in red…” she pointed to four lines near the top “…those are failed missions. If a qengai were to refuse a summons, then that yellow line would turn completely red.” She gave Iniru a meaningful look. “That has happened only once in my lifetime.”
Failing a mission was a shame that every qengai dreaded, because each failure added one or more lines to the codex, delaying the arrival of the Golden Age by months, maybe years. And it was always hard to face your clan and admit failure. But to refuse a summons…Iniru had seen the result firsthand. It had been….
Iniru clenched her fists and shook her head. She couldn’t let her mind wander onto that subject. Nothing good would come of it. She had a job to do, and it was time to prove herself.
“So what now?” Iniru asked, excitement edging into her voice.
The Prophet reached out a folded slip of paper. “Here is your mission.”
“I translated it myself!” the child said.
“I made sure she did it correctly,” the Prophet said.
Heart thumping, Iniru took the paper. The missions of a qengai could range from spying or theft to scouting for an army or infiltrating a gang of thugs. But it could also, and often did, mean assassinating a target. Iniru, despite all her training, didn’t want to kill anyone—especially if it wasn’t in self-defense. Obviously, the day would come when the Sacred Codex would ask her to kill an unsuspecting victim—some threat to building their great new world. But she prayed that wouldn’t be today, not on her first mission.
Iniru took a deep breath, steeled herself, and unfolded the paper. A grin tugged at her lips as she read the goal of the mission, its parameters, and the instructions for reaching the destination.
“Of course,” she said. “Of course.” She shook her head, laughing. “Well, he shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
“Why do you say that?” the Prophet asked.
Iniru pulled out the squares she had illustrated during the dream vision. “How could I miss him?”
“You don’t know that it’s the same baojendari boy,” the Acolyte said.
“How could it be anyone else?”