THE SEVENTH ONE IS FREE
The reek of incense is overpowering before Asena even sets foot in the temple. She’s never gotten used to it. She’s last in line behind eleven other initiates who haven’t bathed in a fortnight, yet the smoke goes straight to her head. She tries to blink away the nauseating sensation of burning psychotropic herbs hitting her empty stomach. The girl in front of her throws up.
The midsummer sun cooks the vomit until it matches the incense, but Asena’s prodded forward by a grey-robed attendant before she can add to the mess herself. Up the rough stone steps, over the ancient roots reclaiming the rebuilding, through the massive double doors, into the sudden cool of the temple.
It’s nearly too dark to see after the brightness of the afternoon, and Asena navigates by memory. Each stone of the floor has its own character. They’re old friends, sharing her training journey as she ran from one elder’s room to another, fetching books and not asking questions about what she cleaned up. They’ve cradled her when she collapsed. They’ve dried her tears. She trusts the stones to guide her.
But today, their familiarity can only take her so far. The line of apprentices is heading for a part of the temple she’s never seen before. None of them have. During their training, they’ve been permitted everywhere—even the holy library—except there. She’s pictured it in brief moments between wakefulness and sleep, stitching together rumor and hope into a grand tapestry she knows can’t be real.
More than that, though, she’s escaped the drudgery of scrubbing clean floors and cooking meals she’s not allowed to eat by focusing on what she’ll receive there: the shaman’s ultimate reward for years of fasting, isolation, discipline, and servitude.
Asena’s reverie ends abruptly as she stumbles into the girl in front of her, who evidently stopped some time ago. Dae whips her head around with a vicious, silent glare. Asena mimes vomiting at her and she quickly turns back around. The disturbance earns Asena a thump to the back of the head from the nearest attendant, but she just grins at their back as they pass. Once this is over, no one will ever dare thump her again.
Musky animal smells add to the perfume of the temple as two attendants strain to swing aside a broad iron door. The sour breeze tickles Asena’s nose and makes her eyes water. She pretends not to be bothered, grinning dramatically in case the attendants are looking for a reason to cut her from this final stage of initiation. She’s not about to embarrass her family by blowing it with a sneeze.
The apprentices shuffle forward again. Asena glances up as she passes under the archway and reads the sign one last time: “Bestiary: Apprentices Forbidden.”
As soon as she passes the threshold, she’s lost. The stones are unfamiliar, the darkness is even deeper, and the smell is incredible. The disorientation makes her more aware than ever of the silence that goes with her everywhere. It’s a miracle she was allowed to train at all. Weakness in the body is weakness in the spirit, the elders said—a dangerous prospect for a shaman. She learned enough herbalism to not sneeze when she went outside, but no amount of medicine or prayer has restored her hearing. Or stopped the other apprentices from shunning her.
She picks out Dae’s sharp bile scent ahead of her, using it to stay close to the others. It takes all her willpower not to bolt ahead as she imagines the rare and wondrous creatures that must surround them. But she stays in line. Who knows what could happen if she got lost in here?
They round a corner into a pool of watery light where the group stops. After the profound darkness, this weak illumination is dazzling, and several girls rub their eyes. Thumps are administered, but not to Asena. Her wide eyes sparkle as she takes in the sight in front of her.
They’re in a large room segregated from the main halls of the bestiary. It’s bare except for twelve cages lined neatly on one side, each made of unvarnished wood with an iron plate door, their sizes ranging from twice the height of a man to half the size of a child.
Asena briefly wonders how the creatures inside can breathe, or if they even need to. But that thought is shoved roughly aside by excitement. What kind of animal companion will she get? A jungle cat with poison fangs like her mother received? A majestic gryphon like her grandmother’s? Surely her impressive heritage and exceptional magical performance have earned her the mightiest companion possible. She eyes the largest cage hungrily.
The four attendants leave their thumping duties to stand behind the line of cages. Their grey robes and face masks camouflage them against the stone walls until they almost disappear.
Without warning, the other girls start scrambling. Asena tears her eyes from the cages to see a man in bright crimson robes striding into the room, and she leaps to attention as well, the line of apprentices reforming horizontally. She notices with glee that she’s standing in front of the largest cage.
The Master sweeps to the center of the room and waits for them to settle. Asena’s at an odd angle to him at the far end of the line, but she can just read his lips as he speaks.
“Apprentices. This moment marks the end of your training. Ten years of service, ended. Like your mothers before you, today you leave the temple as shamen. Healers. Guides. Walkers between worlds.” He looks meaningfully at each face in front of him, lingering a bit on Asena. She shifts awkwardly. “Today,” he continues, “you will also leave this village. There are those who have never seen a shaman, and they need your talents and prayers. While this temple has been your birthplace and your school, it is no longer your home. You must go into the world to seek one out.”
There’s a sudden chill in the air. Asena steals a glance down the line and sees that several of the girls are crying. Dae looks like she might barf again. Asena rolls her eyes. Sure, she’s a little scared to leave, but come on—it’s part of the vow. Maybe they didn’t understand what they agreed to when they were five years old, but it’s too late to back out now.
The Master ignores the show of weakness. He adds, “But you will not go alone.”
The tears dry up. All eyes focus on the cages behind the Master. Asena flexes her fingers impatiently as she waits for him to get on with it. Ten years, she’s waited. She can wait ten more minutes. Maybe.
With a flourish of his robe, the Master retreats to the end of the row of cages. He’s too far away for Asena to read his lips now, but she doesn’t need to. The ceremony is simple.
One by one, starting closest to him, the Master calls the name of the new shaman. She steps forward, and attendants move into the foreground. Asena had expected the cages to be opened in order, each girl paired with the one in front of her, but the giant hound that leaps towards Kesia comes out of the middle cage. They crash happily together, rolling on the floor until they hit the Master’s feet, then they pop up and ease back into the line. Kesia’s smile visibly brightens the room.
But Asena’s own excited grin has turned into a tense line across her face. If they’re not arranged in order, any of the creatures could be her companion. Agonizing minutes pass as the attendants open cage after cage. Soon, all but the largest and the smallest creatures have been paired, each new shaman standing beside their companion, anxious to be released.
Asena’s nails cut ragged crescents into her palms when Dae is called. The girl steps out on shaky legs, eyes darting between the two remaining cages. The attendants pause and draw out the moment. Asena makes a mental note to give them a few thumps of their own for making her wait.
Then they open the largest cage.
A golden wyvern marches out.
Asena’s jaw drops and furious tears fill her eyes. She shoots an accusing glare at the Master, refusing to watch the disgusting show of joy Dae is putting on. He impassively holds her gaze until the new pair returns to the line. Then he steps forward.
The attendants melt away in the Master’s wake as he strides over to Asena. She scowls at him, wordlessly demanding an explanation. She knows she’s way out of line, but godsdammit, this isn’t right. That wyvern should be hers. Every woman in her lineage has had an extraordinary companion. There’s no way the remaining puny cage holds anything close to complementing her power and talent. She’s proven herself over and over, despite her obvious flaw, to be more than worthy of what she considers her birthright. All these years of bowing and scraping and perfecting her skills—wasted.
Her outrage doesn’t move the Master, though. Without reprimand, without expression, without breaking her gaze, he gestures to the final cage.
There’s a battle between Asena’s will and heart.
What she wants to do is storm out of the bestiary, out of the temple, and leave this life forever. Why bother? These aren’t mundane pets. They’re a shaman’s other half, the fulfillment of their being, their soul outside their body. Her power will be stunted, her purpose forever unrealized, her identity incomplete—all because she’s saddled with the wrong companion.
But in her mind’s eye she sees the faces of her mother and grandmother, and the shame is too much to bear. The eldest daughter in her family has been a shaman going back six generations. She’s an unprecedented seventh. And because of that legacy, she’s also the first apprentice ever to be accepted with a disability. If she quits now, not only will the temple never accept another apprentice from her family, they will never again accept anyone who isn’t physically perfect.
The weight of that burden pushes her forward despite the protests of her pride. She shuffles petulantly towards her doom with all eyes on her.
The Master himself opens the cage.
What crawls out is an animal Asena’s never seen before. It’s a promising acid green, but it’s squat, fat, and has ridiculously tall eyestalks. A rope of drool hangs from its toothless mouth as it blinks sleepily at her and swishes its long, leafy tail. There are bits of grass stuck to its face.
This isn’t a predator. It’s barely even sentient. How is this belly-crawling prey animal the completion of her soul?
Asena huffs loudly, then bends down and scoops up the creature in both hands. It’s lighter than it looks but just as sticky. She brings its sleepy eyes level with hers, and they stare at one another.
It starts with an itch at the back of her mind. A hot tickle, like a sneeze being born. The sensation osmoses quickly through her, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet to the tips of her fingers. The tickle builds to a crescendo of fiery bees in her bloodstream, then abruptly ends.
Asena’s heart pounds. Maybe this is a predator after all. Maybe there’s a fatal toxin in its skin that no one warned her about. Maybe they’re making an example of her. She suddenly regrets putting those “special” herbs in Elder Meena’s soup.
Did…did this thing just wink at her?
She looks to the Master for help. He’s smiling.
Did you think the gods would pair you with anything less than a perfect companion?
Asena cries out and clutches her temples, dropping the creature to the floor. The slime on her hands smears over her face, but she doesn’t care. Her brain is exploding. She hits her knees next to her companion, squeezing her eyes shut against cognitive dissonance.
Years later, the pressure subsides. A gentle hand helps her up. Her vision is blurred by tears of pain, but she manages to focus on the Master’s face.
“What is that thing?” she asks out loud. It’s accompanied by a blush. She can’t hear her words, but she’s been mocked enough for how they sound to be embarrassed.
It’s called a telepathic toad. One of only three in existence.
This time, the pain lands more easily. Less of a stab and more of a pinch.
Asena starts to say she’s never heard of any such creature, but she stops, cocks her head to one side, raises an eyebrow. Then an insane smile creeps over her face.
The Master’s lips never moved. The words just appeared in her head. Not in sound—in pure knowledge.
Excitement washes over her, and she snatches up her companion with a grin. She points insistently at Dae, who now looks more worried than happy.
This wyvern is going to eat me as soon as I turn my back, I just know it. I’ll never sleep again.
She barks a laugh, then points at one of the robed attendants.
I wonder who won the ball game today. I had fifty clams on red.
More laughter. She goes through the entire room, pointing at every person, reading their thoughts and reveling in the pure joy of knowing the unknown. Her tears start again, an overflow of a full heart looking to a future where no one can hide the truth by hiding their face.
It’s her peers’ turn to blush as they realize what’s she’s doing. Some of them appeal to the Master, but he waves their protests aside.
“The companion fits the shaman, chosen by the gods. This creature is perfectly matched to Asena to enable her to fulfill her destiny. It is the same with you. Be satisfied with your lot or be gone.”
Clutching her sticky bag of telepathic goo, Asena can’t stop grinning at the chastised row of new shamen. She watches as the robed attendants usher them out of the bestiary, signaling the end of the ceremony, satisfied in knowing she’ll never see any of them again. Good riddance.
The Master is the last to leave. But before he goes, he gestures at Asena, and she focuses on him to read his thoughts.
You are the seventh in your lineage, unique and therefore unknown. Unlike your fellow apprentices, your destiny is not one I can foresee. You have many gifts and now a powerful companion—and you are free from the shackles of fate. Do not ignore the danger of such blessings. The dark forces of this world and of the Other cannot fail to notice you.
He disappears around the corner without waiting for a reply.
Alone in the room, Asena releases a long, shaky breath. Her giddiness at discovering her companion’s talent now has an icy pall. What did he mean by that? She examines the creature in her arms. No fangs, stupid expression, certainly slow—it couldn’t be less dangerous.
She shrugs and heads for the exit. Whatever tragedy the Master thinks he sees isn’t going to happen today. Today, she’s the gods’ favorite.
Asena barely touches the ground as she strides out of the temple. A celebration feast is starting in the village, she knows, with dozens of singers and drummers who train all year to honor the new shamen. In years past, she’d sneak away from the temple on initiation night to feel the complex, trance-inducing rhythms bounce through the ground and into her bones. It always ended in thumps when she got caught, but it was worth it to almost break the silence for a while. It was kind of magic in itself.
She squints down at the long, thatched roof hall where the villagers are gathering, holds her breath until she sees spots, and hears…
Her breath comes out in a disappointed rush. The voices are so clear in her head—part of her had hoped this creature did more than read minds. Part of her had believed things could be different.
But they’re not.
She brushes away a tendril of grief and squeezes her companion a little tighter. Ten years of shamanic training have made her capable, tough, and almost wise, and while taunting and exclusion have left their scars, she’s outshone every one of her peers and made history at the same time. She doesn’t need to hear to keep doing that.
A gentle breeze ruffles Asena’s hair and brings her back to the moment. She gulps down a lungful of fresh air and smiles, eager to leave this old life behind and begin her journey. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and she’s got a telepathic toad under her arm. The entire world stretches out before her.
“What do you want to do first, Minion?” she says out loud to her companion.
The yellow eyes turn on their stalks with a look that makes Asena’s blood freeze despite the sweltering heat. It’s nothing more than a subtle narrowing of the eyes, but it’s somehow sinister. She remembers the Master’s lingering look during the ceremony, and for the first time, she wonders if having a perfectly matched companion might not be a good thing. She starts to wonder what her soul actually looks like.
We can do whatever we want, comes the answer. Let’s get in trouble.
Story content © Ellie Di Julio 2017
Art: “Fang” by Cory Loftis
Special thanks to Kami Green for checking this story for ableism. I worry.