1 – Seeing Through To Another World

In a world known as Highrealm, full of energy beings and advanced technology, Jarith’s dreams were interrupted by visions of another reality. Ze peered through the eyes of an infant who, if her flailing limbs were any indication, had limited control of her physical body. Not having a physical body of zir own, Jarith didn’t understand what ze was seeing at first.

Ze couldn’t access her thoughts or feel her emotions. But ze could hear a gentle voice cooing the infant’s name, Maliah, and ze could see her arms swinging and her legs kicking. She had two of each, which Jarith had to assume was normal. It was super weird, but no one said peering into an alternate reality where people are obsessed with the physical nature of things would be seamless. They said it was ‘prophecy’ and threw around the word ‘destiny’, but no one had ever mentioned ‘mind-blowing.’

The actual word for how Jarith was seeing into this other reality — known as Midrealm — was ‘science.’ The scientists of zir world had forged young Jarith’s connection to this tiny life with their fancy equations and a proud sense of superiority. Jarith’s creation as part of the ‘Ascension Project’ meant ze knew the truth of the scientists’ work, and it bothered zir that the project was sold to the general population as a divination foretold by some long gone prophet.

After much effort, Maliah’s hand grabbed onto a fabric doll. She pulled it so close to her face that Jarith couldn’t see much else. Ze heard a strange sound that ze later learned was Maliah chewing and sucking on the toy.

This moment was important for Jarith. It was the harbinger of a new life, free from the oppressive surveillance and control that ruled zir. It was the first moment toward fulfilling zir destiny.

Glimmers of light filtering in from somewhere beyond captivated zir, and Maliah’s small, sweet sounds brought zir peace. It filled zir heart with a feeling ze had never experienced before: joy. And with the joy came hope.

The scientists had told Jarith that their connection wasn’t unidirectional. They could each see into the other’s world while they slept. When Maliah slept, she would watch Jarith’s world through zir eyes, just as ze could when their roles were reversed. Jarith resolved zirself not to be a bad influence. Not that ze knew what was considered inappropriate in Midrealm.

Each night, Jarith’s frustration grew at the limitations of their connection. Because Midrealm was physical and Highrealm wasn’t, zir perception of Maliah’s world was vague and unsettling. People were glowing blurs of light and shadow, truly the stuff of nightmares. Still, as the infant grew — a process which was all kinds of disturbing for zir — Jarith immersed zirself in her world as best ze could. Yet the two worlds were incredibly different.

For example, in Highrealm, Jarith could choose how ze projected zir form. At any given moment, ze could be a floating golden orb with wings wearing a silver crown, and the next, ze could be bipedal with purple spikes and deep indigo skin. Those in Midrealm were tied to the form they were born in, which seemed cruel. Still, they found ways to express their individuality. Maliah’s parents loved to tie a ribbon in her hair, which Maliah seemed to enjoy pulling off and shoving in her mouth. Jarith never found out if it tasted good to her.

Despite their worlds being so different, Maliah and Jarith were tied together through their dreams, and Jarith knew that someday, they would be brought together in one reality. Maybe then things would make sense.

Maliah was the daughter of two Exalted Grand Priests of the Huleay Temple, who commanded the most powerful magic in the Ledine Empire. They lived in the capital city of Ar, close to the main temple. Her parents loved her. They gave her hugs and kisses, told her stories, and tucked her into bed at night. But they also expected Maliah to join the spiritual ruling caste, the Huleay Temple, and to fulfill her destiny. 

One hundred years prior to Maliah’s birth, a new prophecy — the Ascension Four prophecy — had caused an uproar in Ledine’s capital city. It was such a big deal that the ruling spiritual caste had publicly declared prophecy to be real in the same breath that they declared prophecy to be the most divisive topic of their time. After all, many past wars were fought over prophecy. People had been slaughtered over prophecy. And where to find a reputable prophet in this day and age was anyone’s guess. 

But the Ascension Four prophecy was different. This wasn’t one of those streetside predictions, where one might gamble away their camel for a magic bean. No, this was a legitimate divination, foretold by Exalted Grand Priest Emin and promising ascension for all in Midrealm. And it foretold Maliah’s future, just as it foretold her parents’ futures, her child’s future, and her grandchild’s future.

Like all of Exalted Grand Priest Emin’s prophecies, the Ascension Four prophecy was destined to be fulfilled, whether or not Maliah wanted it. And it became increasingly clear to Jarith as ze watched her grow up that she really, really didn’t want it.

Ze understood her hesitation. Being the subject of prophecy meant a lack of control over one’s own fate. It meant being the center of attention. And perhaps most disturbing of all, it meant being responsible for something much larger than oneself. Maliah had expressed fear over these facts from an early age, even before she truly knew how to put words to them. But Jarith didn’t need her to spell it out for zir. Ze had the same worries and hated to see her grappling with it while she struggled to walk, understand abstract thought, and recognize when she needed to use the toilet.

As was typical for families of the spiritual caste of Ledine, Maliah joined the Huleay Temple at the age of six, where she began training as a Young Priest. But she was destined to change the very laws of Nature. Well, at least one law.

That was a lot of pressure for a Midrealm child. Jarith had heard her parents regale her with stories of their youth at the temple, and they were a tough act for any little girl to follow, especially a little girl whose foretold magical powers had not yet manifested.

Sometimes, when she was alone, she would whisper to herself — and to zir — her secret wish to be someone else, her vision clouded by tears. It broke Jarith’s heart, and he would have given up his freedom to grant her wish.

Unfortunately, wishes don’t overrule prophecy. In what felt like the blink of an eye, Maliah’s thirteenth birthday arrived. She spent the morning alternating between pacing and meditation. This evening, she would have her Start of Night ritual, where she’d publicly acknowledge her destiny. The ceremony would be held at the main temple, which sat on the Huleay Grounds at the seat of power in the capital.

Jarith made sure to be asleep in time to see her don her new dress for the ritual, and as ze watched through her eyes, a bittersweet joy filled zir. She twirled in front of her bedroom mirror.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she asked.

There was no one in the room with her, and she had no way of knowing if Jarith was there. It would have been quite the awkward situation if anyone had walked in. But there was little chance of that, seeing as how she didn’t have any friends and her parents had left hours ago to prepare for the ritual. In all honesty, the ritual was more about them than Maliah anyway.

Jarith did indeed find the dress lovely, and ze thought that thirteen-year-old Maliah, with her golden skin and thick, dark head of curling ringlets, was beautiful wearing it.

However, aside from her, much of Maliah’s world was still hard to bring into focus. Ze could make out the edges of the mirror, but everything else was blurry.

It didn’t matter to Jarith. Ze was content with Maliah’s smile looking back at zir.

Just because Jarith couldn’t hear her thoughts or experience her emotions didn’t mean ze didn’t have insight into what she was thinking. Her smile was directed at the new dress she had worked tirelessly to sew herself, but ze knew she was dreading the ritual she would soon take part in.

With another twirl of excitement, Maliah regained her composure, collected her things, and hurried out of the house. Jarith was disoriented by the blurred buildings, people, and the occasional camel, dog, or donkey whizzing by as Maliah raced up the hill toward the Huleay Temple.

When she entered the dressing chambers for the Young Priests, she took her place in front of her designated dressing table, where ceremonial robes and adornments awaited her. She pulled the robe over her dress and decorated herself with an arm cuff, an assortment of jewelry, and a headdress. Each was heavily decorated with magic symbols and charged gemstones that would magnify the magic of the ritual.

“Priest Maliah?” a small voice called from behind her.

That’s right, Jarith reminded zirself. Maliah was no longer a Young Priest, despite still being relegated to the Young Priest dressing chambers. She was now considered an adult, and thus would be referred to as just plain Priest. It was a strange hierarchy that ze didn’t understand, despite giving it a reasonable amount of thought.

Maliah turned to face the blurry figure who had spoken. Jarith was used to other people being blurry. Ze could often see items of magic when Maliah focused on them, such as her ceremonial garb, but people were different. Jarith could only make out the semi-amorphous blobs of figures. Instead, Jarith focused on the auras of the people Maliah interacted with, such as this person’s aura of worry and fear.

“Yes. That’s me,” Maliah acknowledged. “Are you a scribe?”

Jarith knew she was attempting to put the person’s mind at ease. Unfortunately, if anything, it made them more tense, as Jarith could tell from the aura’s wobbly undulations.

“Yes. I was sent to illuminate you with the spells of today’s ritual.”

The scribe sounded young to Jarith, around Maliah’s age, but with a somewhat masculine voice poised to drop at any moment. That didn’t make them seem any less blobby to Jarith, though.

“May I begin?” the scribe asked.

Before Maliah could respond, her gaze — and Jarith’s along with it — was pulled away, down the long hall of blobby Young Priests, to something out of place, wrong, and really not any of Maliah’s business. Nevertheless, she left her dressing table and the scribe who she had been speaking with to cross the long hall.

Jarith watched through her eyes, unable to make out details of the people they were passing. However, ze could see every detail of the table at the far end of the hall. As Maliah closed the distance, ze noted a large tray sitting atop the table. On it sat objects for the ritual: several feathers tied together with twine, bowls with powdery or chunky substances, a wooden wand with wire-wrapped crystals decorating its structure, some containers with delicate lids, and an urn that Maliah’s — and therefore Jarith’s — attention was focused on.

The urn’s lid was sculpted into the shape of a cat’s head, painted a brilliant blue with striking black eyes. Jarith got the feeling it could sense zir within Maliah. The urn itself was extravagantly ornate, with intricate decorative motifs lining the top and bottom and detailed images of people painted around the center.

It was clearly not something she should touch, yet Maliah’s hesitant hand reached toward it. The closer she got, the stronger Jarith could sense the power coming from it, power that the priests could channel in a ritual, but a power that didn’t seem quite right for the uplifting ceremony to celebrate Maliah’s dedication to her people.

“Young girl, what do you think you’re doing?” a shrill voice asked, laced with anger and annoyance.

She turned her head toward a tall priest, just another blobby figure as far as Jarith was concerned, but with an aura glowing in swirls of green.

“The ceremonial artifacts have been blessed for the ritual,” they continued. “Only the Exalted Grand Priests may handle them now.”

“I humbly apologize for the intrusion,” Maliah replied with far more respect than Jarith knew she held for most of her superiors, “but someone has made an error. The Ankh of Terunith is meant to be placed on the left side of the tray. You have instead set the Zhur Urn there.” Maliah stressed the word you, and Jarith inwardly cheered for her small act of defiance.

Ze couldn’t make out the priest’s face, but their aura gave off energies of frustration as they reviewed the tray, then surprise when they realized Maliah was correct, and finally embarrassment as they called their aides to fix the mistake. They’d be even more embarrassed when they found out who Maliah’s parents were, Jarith laughed to zirself.

The priest showed no appreciation for Maliah’s correction and gave no thanks or apology. Since ze couldn’t hear Maliah’s thoughts, Jarith wasn’t sure if this bothered her as much as it did zir, but she returned to the scribe without another word.

“Thank you for your patience, scribe,” she said, lifting her chin and putting her arms out in front of her. “I stand ready for your illumination.”

Maliah’s stomach was in knots as she waited for her cue to join her parents on the stage. Covered with magical symbols, she stood at an entrance at the back of the afternoon ritual space with a Young Priest to either side. Her parents stood on a platform, where the setting sun’s rays made them glow with reds and pinks.

This was her Start of Night ritual, one of the rarest ceremonies performed by the Huleay Temple. Though it celebrated the beginning of the journey of an adult priest, the ritual was reserved for those spoken of in world-changing prophecy, such as Maliah, and for certain cases of members joining the spiritual caste as adults.

Most of the ruling members of the Huleay Temple had been born into their positions, but sometimes a person came along who had not. Such was the case for one powerful Exalted Grand Priest who Maliah had only met in passing, but who would soon become an important part of her life.

Mirrors on either side of the stage focused the waning sunlight on her parents. Their arms, necks, and chests were covered in symbols, and as her mother spoke, the symbols luminesced.

With a dramatic gesture, her father swept his hand across the room, and oil lamps came alive with light. The crowd gasped in amazement.

There was a crowd, Maliah suddenly realized. A crowd who would be staring at her. At the base of the stage, stretching all the way to the back of the sanctuary, the crowd of eyes fixated on what was happening on the platform. Although she knew what was expected of her, Maliah couldn’t help but worry.

What if she tripped? She looked down at her robe to ensure that it wasn’t long enough to get tangled around her feet, which it wasn’t. Reviewing the ramp up to the platform, she confirmed it was smooth and gentle. If she tripped, it would be due only to her own incompetence. These weren’t exactly the best words of encouragement she could have come up with.

Her mother, the night before, had laughed at Maliah’s fear of becoming clumsy on the platform.

“What a day for the most elegant woman of Ledine to become clumsy,” she had said, running her hand over Maliah’s curls.

“Now, your mother, on the other hand…well, let me tell you how she ruined her first public ritual,” her father had joked, invoking a quick slap from her mother.

It was easy for them to laugh. There they were, up on that platform, being perfect. Maliah took one deep breath after another. She just needed to keep telling herself she would be fine. If she thought it enough times, maybe she’d even start to believe it.

“We call upon our ancestors,” her mother spoke from the platform, “and the spirits of the earth, sky, river, and sun. Grace us with your presence, that we may present to you the one named in the Ascension Four prophecy, the daughter of Exalted Grand Priests Meta and Jua, the mother of those that will change our world.” Her mother paused dramatically and put her arms out in welcome to the crowd, the spirits, and the ancestors. “Priest Maliah.”

No pressure.

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