The Temple of Inirhon loomed on the horizon, solitary and foreboding; the descending sun cast forth its shadow like a dark beacon.
The temple was constructed from the shell of the immense rhenen, and situated in the barren plains of the mid-south country. Appropriate, for the God of Desolation. The harsh sun had faded the shell’s colors, so only the parts on the curved underside still had the original deep golds and browns. Its surface appeared dry and smooth.
As I approached I tried to imagine the shell as it was originally inhabited, by a rhenen lumbering alone across the plain. But settled as it was on the gray ground, all I could picture was the beast making its last mournful cries of death.
The surrounding land bore only dusty grass and scrub. Vines snaking up the outside of the temple’s towers were the only other vegetation. While the towers and a back wall closed off the part of the shell where the rhenen’s hindquarters had emerged, the front, where its head and front legs had been, was left open. As if to let the emptiness in.
Here I was to undertake my initiation into adulthood, to undergo the rites and transformation of completion. Ironic: completion at the place of desolation. The shell’s emptiness matched my mood.
I had always been taught that the selection of which temple I would be sent to for the rites would signify what I would become as an adult. Thousands of temples, each to a different god, and each year hundreds of youths make this passage. But never in the memory of my village had someone been relegated to the Temple of Inirhon. What could it mean?
Again I wished my parents could have accompanied me; it didn’t seem fair that other clans had turned the ceremony into a family affair while ours stuck to the old ways and required that it be done alone.
I rode up to the side of the temple, leaving the sailcar parked in its shadow. The only sound was my breathing, made raspy by the dryness.
As I walked around to the front of the structure I craned my neck to take in the immensity of the shell from which it was built. I imagined being this close to a live rhenen. Not likely, though they were herbivorous and thus not particularly dangerous. I had seen pictures of them, but they were now very rare, nearing extinction.
Despite my depression about undergoing my initiation at the Temple of Inirhon, I could not help but be impressed by the grandeur of the inside.
Here the hand of man was a little more obvious. The polished walls were augmented with wooden balustrades on narrow ramps and upper balconies. The single aisle down the center was inset with tiny stones to give better traction than the shell floor. The three rows of benches on each side were built of sandstone. I could sense magic permeating the place, as was the case in other temples where I had been. Even my weekly visits to my village’s temple always made me feel a slight quiver inside, thanks to the subtle flow of spirit and magic throughout. Here was no exception, "God of Desolation" or not.
The altar and the area behind it which led to the man-made part of the structure were all luxuriously trimmed, yet the overall impression to the eye was one of spareness because of its size.
I strolled slowly, solemnly, toward the altar, moving my head about in all directions to take it all in. The clerics had not made their appearance, but I knew they were there. They would wait for me to take my position at the altar.
I lifted the hem of my robe to climb the stone steps of the platform, then kneeled and lay my hands palms up in the recessed areas made for the initiation rite. I bowed my head and waited. The altar felt cold to my bare arms.
Silence, except within me my heart pounded so loudly I almost thought it echoed throughout the alcove. After what seemed hours - though I knew it was really only a few minutes - I began to hear the low humming of the clerics coming from the chambers on either side of the altar. The chanting grew louder and closer as the four stiffly walking figures approached. With a furtive glance I could see their robes of iridescent white, bearing the insignias of their orders embroidered on their breasts and shoulders in crimson. As they took their position directly in front of me their song worked itself into a complex harmony and ended on one last unifying note, so loud now that it reverberated in my ears.
The head cleric reached his hand down and lifted up my chin, then began the litany of the ritual.
“Denra,” he said, “soon you will learn the significance of your calling. You have been brought to the Temple of Inirhon, God of Desolation. Inirhon presides over the deserts of our land and the silences of our lives. Isolation is his cousin and Waste is his bastard son.”
I expected his voice to echo in the cavernous chamber, but it didn't. It was as if even his voice wanted to escape this place and head away. By now tears welled at the corners of my eyes.
“You may well wonder and feel disheartened by the choice of this god for your ritual,” he continued, apparently noting my tears. “But fear not. Desolation is not despair. Without desert we do not know the worth of forest; without silence there is no respite for our ears.
“Besides, I believe you will find your destiny has more to do with this temple than with the god for which it was built.
“Allow me to tell you the story of how this -” he spread his arms upward to indicate the whole structure - “the Temple of Inirhon came to be built.”
The priest pressed a goblet of water to his lips before continuing, then held it out to me. I shook my head silently, but gave a small smile, as I recognized that he was letting the formality of the ceremony lapse a little so that I could relax too.
His small beard waggled as he spoke. Soon I was lost in his words as if hypnotized, and barely aware of where I was.
“When Inirhon was mortal there were many more of the creatures which wear this shell roaming the land. They were much feared by men, for their size and potential for destruction. It became a test of strength and courage for people to track down and kill one of the rhenen.
“The rhenen breed slowly, and in time their numbers dwindled. When it was Inirhon’s turn to hunt one there were so few left that it took him nearly a year, searching beyond the deserts and pestilent swamps, in the mountains where no trees would grow - in the desolate corners of the world - before he found one’s lair.
“When Inirhon approached the lair he had everything in his favor. He was up on a ledge across from the rhenen’s cave. He had a clear view and a clear shot. But as he drew his bow the rhenen turned and looked in his direction.
“But instead of a glaring, fierce beast, Inirhon saw a pitiful visage. The monster appeared resigned to its fate and waited patiently for its own end.
“Inirhon, seeing its mournful eyes, could not fire. He saw that this noble beast should not have such an end. He turned and left. He returned to his village.
“There he told his people the rhenen should be respected and let to live. He said that if left alone they would not hurt anything, but if killed off a noble part of nature would be gone forever. A very few joined his cause, but the rest called it an excuse for cowardice and insisted he should have killed it. He was banished from his village.
“He and his followers went back to the lair, and to the lairs of the other remaining rhenen, and guarded them. They kept all people from coming to disturb the rhenen.
“The followers of Inirhon have grown in number and have protected all of the rhenen ever since. Today acceptance of their cause has become almost universal. Still, the rhenen are few.
“So the beast is rare. This is why you are here.”
This is why I was here? That didn’t explain anything! I looked up at the priest with pleading eyes, but he shook his head to indicate that I should ask no questions now. He and the other priests went about preparing me for the next stage of the ritual.
They strapped my arms down to the altar with light adhesive bandages, and rubbed liquid along both my wrists. I knew what was coming, but it didn’t make me any more prepared for it.
One at a time I felt the sharp jabs as the needles were inserted into my arms. The pain was only momentary, however, and only a distraction to my greater anticipation of what I would be feeling next.
I didn’t really feel the liquids flowing into my veins so much as I felt their effects begin to travel from my limbs and into my core. It started as a golden glow, and a textured warmth.
In time there came an odd lurching feeling in my gut, and I knew the real essence of the changes was happening.
I felt a swelling at my chest; hot, expansive, hot. And now between my legs, too, but the surges, the repositioning of muscle and tissue and even bone was almost all internal. I felt an itching as pubic hairs sprouted. I looked down inside my robe and could see my now-grown breasts shaping themselves, with pert, walnut-brown nipples.
I was becoming a woman.
I felt a flush of excitement as soon as I knew, mixed in with feelings of warmth, protection and grace all in turns. But these were just the emotions. I felt pain in my joints, especially my hips as they expanded. Momentary nausea was accompanied by sweat soaking into my robes. My heart accelerated, feeling like it would burst out of my chest. And deep inside I felt a brand new touch that I guessed must be sexual pleasure.
Like everyone else I had wondered as I grew, and as I saw the examples of my parents and other adults, which gender I would become when it was time for the initiation of adolescence. Some people think they can guess by mannerism or traits beforehand, but for every tendency there are exceptions.
I had had my desires on that subject change back and forth numerous times throughout my androgynous childhood. Recently, when my friend Saren had gone through the initiation and had become a woman, I pondered hoping to be a man so we could be married. But on the other hand, being a woman meant being able to bear children - something else which I hoped for. And anyway, Saren and I are such close friends that nothing would be able to change that, marriage or not.
What was of more concern to me was the next stage of the ritual, when the clerics would reveal the occupation for which I had been chosen. This was what filled me with dread when I learned that my ritual would be here at the Temple of Inirhon. What life would I have, based on being called to the God of Desolation?
As the others removed the needles from my arms, the head cleric held his hands to my forehead, as if reading the depths of my mind to determine my appropriate occupation. Surely, though, he already knew, and was confirming an earlier decision. He took his hands away and as I looked up at him he motioned for me to stand.
“Bring the collar cloths,” he said to one of the other clerics, who silently moved to obey.
The order took me aback immediately, for there are only two types of professions for which collar cloths are worn: wizards and physicians. Wizards are always male, so was I to be a physician? But that didn’t make any sense in the context of this temple. Physicians are well-respected, even popular members of every village. They maintain health and life; what could be desolate about that?
In a moment the cleric returned with the vestment, iridescent blue with black trim and embroidered in the colors of pearl and parchment. The needlework depicted various wonders of the land and sky, creatures both real and mythological. And most significantly, the intertwined hexagons. Impossible! Those are for wizards! I stared at the head priest in wonder. Had something gone wrong with the chemicals and magic, or with my body’s reaction to them? Did he know I had become a woman? Silly thought! He could see it! I just stood staring at him, not knowing what to expect from his words.
“Denra, as I said the rhenen is a very rare beast,” he said as he barely held back a broad smile for the sake of decorum. “So is a woman wizard. Rare indeed, but not impossible. You are to be the first in centuries. If you accept the calling.”
It took a moment for that last comment to sink in.
“If I accept?” I questioned, confused. Tradition held that one becomes whatever the priests decree; there’s no “accept” about it.
“Yes,” he said. “Because of the unusual nature of this calling, the final decision is yours. The significance of this temple is not so much desolation - I always thought that was an unfortunate designator for Inirhon - but the rarity and the need, like Inirhon, to face up to society’s prejudices. Many, including some other wizards, will not accept you as one because of your gender.”
He took the cloth from the assistant and placed it in my hands. Ordinarily he would have draped it over my head; his action underscored the fact that it would be up to me to don the mantle, with its responsibilities.
“One other thing you must know,” he continued. “The isolation of your calling will be especially difficult in the first year, which you must spend in solitary study. Your only contact will be with the Lord Wizard, whose apprentice you shall become. But again, that is if you agree.”
My mind reeled. The thought of a year away from my family and friends was difficult. But how could I pass up such an opportunity? “If I were to choose against, then I would be ...?”
“I cannot say, until you’ve made the decision. Take a moment if you wish.”
I only paused a little. The respect and power a wizard earns, even if tempered by prejudices, would outweigh any difficulties.
“I accept,” I said, draping the cloth around my neck. I felt as if I were glowing, but whether it was from any magic in the cloth itself or just from sudden ecstasy I don’t know.
The priest continued. “Rare things, like the rhenen in whose shell we stand, are special and noble things. That is what you are. Your choice required rare courage.
“I give you, then, your second name: Rhenen. Go now, Denra Rhenen, and learn the ways of wizardry. You will have a few days to prepare and tell your family and friends. Then the Lord Wizard of your district will send for you. Farewell.”
With tears of joy streaming down my face, I could barely squeak out a “Thank you” before backing deferentially out of the temple.
Outside, the desert, in all of its emptiness, seemed alive and teeming with possibilities.
Chapter 1 - Homecoming
The ride home was uneventful at first, as desert gave way to sparsely populated farmland and wooded stream banks between low grassy rises.
On entering villages, though, I began drawing curious looks, as it is not every day that one sees a wizard passing through. My youth probably caused some double-takes, but I don't think anyone could tell I was a woman under my robe.
A lot of anticipation went through my mind. At some point, people would be close enough to tell. And then my parents on my return... how would they react?
The further I moved north from the desert the more the breeze picked up and the sail car's progress with it. But after a while I needed to take a break and get some food. I had a hankering for something savory and felt like celebrating my new status as a grownup at least, not to mention everything else.
The next village had a choice of diners; I picked one with a few other sail cars already parked outside.
Inside the curious looks were apparent and I felt myself blushing as I approached the counter and took a seat. And when the server came around and saw me it was the first thing out of his mouth.
"You look young to be a wizard," he said.
I tried not to put on too big of a grin. "I just initiated today," I said. "I won't truly be a wizard until I get my training."
"Congratulations," he said. "Too bad you're not trained, though. We could use somebody to bring on some rain. It's been dry for weeks."
"Wizards don't control the weather," I said. Or maybe they did, and I just don't know it yet, I thought.
"I know," he said, handing me a menu. "I was joking. But y'know, people used to think they did. Long ago. Just wish it were true."
He stepped away then to give me time to make my selection. I thought about how much I needed to learn, about magic, about its history...
And I wondered why it was so unusual for a wizard to be a woman, or for a woman to be a wizard. It was apparent that the server hadn't noticed my gender. But I knew today's transformation was just the beginning; in the weeks and months to come I would take on more feminine features in my face and voice and it would be more obvious. My breasts might get larger, too, and certainly my hips over the course of another year or two.
I ordered a light pasta dish and wished I had a book with me while I waited. For lack of anything else I picked up a newspaper someone had left behind on the counter. The main topic seemed to be about the drought to which the server had referred. There was also a story about an upcoming fair, articles about school activities and the typical births, deaths and pairing ceremonies. One that drew my eye was on someone else who had gone through initiation recently and would be a teacher. I had a feeling that in an area like this he would also be helping tend his family's farm.
My food came and as I ate I thought about how my initiation would play in the paper back home. It was still hard to judge what the reaction would be. The cleric warned of possible negativity, but maybe that would be outweighed by the pride of having a wizard, any wizard, regardless.
Although I still faced several hours ride ahead of me I couldn't resist taking just a little more time for dessert. After bringing it the server hung around for some welcome small talk.
“Since I don't recognize you I assume you're traveling through. Headed home from your ceremony?” he asked.
“That's right,” I said. “I was at the Temple of Inirhon. Headed back to Yun.”
“Inirhon? Out in the desert? You had quite a journey.”
“Indeed,” I said.
“Don't wizards - not that there's a lot to compare - don't they usually get named at, well, grander places?”
I hesitated, not sure how much to reveal. But perhaps this would be an opportunity to test the waters. “I was told the unusual site for my ritual was because of the unusual nature of what I became. Not just a wizard, but … a female one.”
He was taken aback. “Well, don't that beat all,” he said. “I've never heard of such a thing. But now that you tell me I can see it. I thought it was just that you looked young.”
I took a bite of my dessert. “I was also told I might encounter resistance to the idea.”
“Hm, you might,” he said. “But not from me. Way I see it, we could use more magic in the world. Don't matter where it comes from.”
I smiled at that. “Well I hope it won't be long before I can bring some. I know I have a lot to learn.”
“Good luck to you,” he finished as he went off to serve some other folks.
I felt better about my prospects in the court of public opinion.
I finished off my dessert and tea, and picked up the bill the server had left face down in front of me. It was less than what I had expected- and I saw he had scrawled a note: “Dessert is on me.”
I caught his eye and gave him a big smile, then left more than enough coins to cover the remainder before heading out.
Just before reaching the door, though, I spotted an old woman scowling at me. It was clear she had either overheard or had figured out on her own, and didn't like it.
I just nodded politely and kept going.
The outskirts of Yun were peppered with small homes, ash and oak trees and little businesses that had cropped up over the years to fill this need or that. My own family’s home was parked on one of the many residential streets between there and downtown. Before I even got there, though, people who knew me were calling out.
“Denra! How went it?” The whole neighborhood knew it had been my initiation day. In response I smiled and lifted the corner of my wizard collar cloth.
“Great!” I kept saying. To some I added, “Come by later and I'll tell you all about it.”
And finally home was in sight, and I could see Mother had set up outdoor tables for a good sized celebration dinner for family and friends. Just as I was parking the sailcar I heard my younger sib Tres call out, “Denra’s here!” and se bolted out the door and ran into a tight embrace with me.
As Mother was stepping out the door, Tres yelled to her, “Denra’s a girl! She’s a she!” Se was too young to understand the significance of the collar cloth.
I could see tears of joy welling in Mother’s eyes as she approached - but then a look of confusion.
“But that's a wizard cloth,” she said. “But Tres said…”
I took her into my arms for a hug and said, “That's right. It's no mistake. I am a woman.
“And a wizard. Or, I will be. That's why, it turns out, my initiation was at the Inirhon temple. The Rhenen shell.”
She shook her head, not understanding, and turned to sit in one of the chairs set up for dinner.
“It can't be,” she said. “It just can't.”
“It can,” I assured her. “And it is. I am not actually the first woman wizard, just the first in a long time.”
She stood again, shaking her head, and not looking directly at me. It was obvious she could not accept what I was saying.
“Well, I've got dinner cooking. Your father will be here soon. And of course Saren. And the Uppuns. And …” her voice trailed off as she headed inside.
“What's wrong with Mother?” Tres asked.
“It's hard to explain,” I said. Changing the subject, I said, “have you invited your friends to come today?”
“She said today is about you and so I shouldn't.”
“Well I like your friends so I think we can squeeze in a couple,” I said. “I'll go tell her I said it's O.K.”
Se ran off with a wave and “Thanks, Denra!”
I went in to the kitchen. Mother was chopping vegetables. It looked like there were already enough for about 500 people.
“The cleric told me it might be like this. I know it's a shock. It certainly was for me.”
“I'm sorry, honey. I just don't know what to think. I would think if they stopped having women be wizards there must have been a good reason. And now, tradition…”
“You know what Dad says. ‘Tradition is the worst reason to do anything. It perpetuates bad ideas equally with good ones.’”
“Yes, he says that. But then I always think, if you abandon all traditions you trash the good or innocuous ones equally with the bad.”
“Well,” I said. “Let's not assume this was a bad idea. C’mon, we're supposed to have fun today. And speaking of which, I told Tres se could bring some friends.”
She put down her knife and scooped the chopped veggies into several waiting bowls. “Fine. I still just don't know how we're going to explain this to everyone.”
“I'll take care of that at dinner,” I said.
I headed back outside with an armful of glasses for the table. But I had to put them down quickly because just then Saren was coming up and we had to practically leap into a massive hug.
“Tres told me you were a girl now,” she said. Apparently se had stopped by her house, because one of ses friends was her sib, and indeed little Dreff was coming along behind her. “But se didn't say -.” She fingered the collar cloth. “Is this for real? Can you be a wizard?”
I nodded enthusiastically. “I'll explain later. But you don't think it's bad, do you? Mother isn't taking it well.”
“I think it's great! And the priests wouldn't have done it without reason. What does your dad think?”
“He's not home yet,” I said. “But you know Dad. He's jovial about everything.”
That much, at least, I had confidence in, and I figured he'd help bring Mother around.
Saren and I helped Mother finish setting things up while the rest of the guests were arriving. Things were bustling when Dad came, so he just took a moment to greet me. With a hug and a kiss on my forehead he said, “I'm so proud of you. And I have some things to tell you, but we'll talk later.”
The rest of the guests’ reactions to seeing me were cordial and confused, and certainly awkward, but no more so than when my friend Nodan, who had only recently been initiated as a male, decided to cop a feel of my breasts. He earned a slap on the hand for that.
“Sorry,” he said. “You are cute, though, just so you know.”
I hadn't ever really thought about which of my friends, other than Saren, I might want to pair with once I knew what my gender would be. Nodan certainly hadn't ever crossed my mind.
During the meal the conversation thankfully wasn't all about me, ranging instead to everything from the weather to the usual sports and politics.
Then when everyone was just about done with the main meal, and Mother was inside getting ready to bring out the dessert, Dad stood, clinking his glass. “I'd like to raise a toast to my new daughter,” he said. “I knew I would be proud of Denra no matter what se - or she- would become. To say I am happy for her, and for all of us to have a new source of magic right here in our family, well, that would be an understatement.” He raised his glass.
“Hear, hear,” the guests called out, though I noted one or two remained silent. These calls were then replaced with “Speech! Speech!”
So I stood, nervous but determined to put everyone at ease.
“Thank you,” I said. “To say that I am surprised as you are to be wearing a wizard cloth is also an understatement. If I had become a male, being a wizard would still be unexpected, but for a girl - a woman- well, you know it's almost unheard of.
“As you may or may not know, the Temple of Inirhon where I underwent my initiation is built from a Rhenen shell. And whereas the Rhenen were once feared they are now regarded as the noble and valued creatures they are.
“Some people fear what is new and different, and what they don't understand. As a wizard I'm going to make it my goal to allay that fear. I hope to bring the comforting instinct of womanhood to the practice of magic.
“I know I can count on all of you to be open to this possibility.
“Now, let's have some cake!”
They applauded as Mother, who I noted had unfortunately missed most of what I said, began passing out the dessert.
Later after the dishes were cleared and some of the guests were trickling away and the rest were milling around talking in small groups, Dad took me by the arm and said, “Let's go talk in my study for a moment.”
This room was his own little getaway, where he would sometimes work on his architectural drawings but more often do some casual reading or artwork. I always enjoyed his landscapes in which he hid little story-telling details.
“I wanted you to know something,” he said as he sat me down next to him on the little sofa. “When the word came that your initiation was to be at the Inirhon temple, I was concerned. I know you were, too.”
“To say the least!” I said.
“Yes, well, I didn't want to necessarily interfere with what had been decided for you, but I wanted some answers. So I went and had a sit-down with Brother Merdok.
“And he told me. He revealed the plan, the reason you were going there. But he made me swear not to let on to you or your mother or anyone.”
“I didn't think they were allowed to reveal it to anyone,” I said.
“They're not. So you can't tell anyone that I knew. But he felt easing my mind was necessary.”
“What about easing MY mind?” I said.
“He said it was important that you make the decision on your own. Anyway, I just wanted to say how proud I am that you made the brave choice.”
He hugged me. “It may not be an easy road you follow, but I'll have your back.”
“And will Mother?” I asked. “She wasn't happy with this.”
“Oh, she'll come around, don't worry.”
We got up to go, then something occurred to me. “Wait … how did they know that I would become a woman in the first place?”
“I don't know,” he said. “Brother Merdok wouldn't tell me. But I guess they knew somehow.”
Over the next few days I settled into a kind of anticipatory routine, knowing the messenger would be coming soon to start me on my journey but not knowing exactly when. I had prepared a rucksack with clothes, a small tent, a box of campfire cooking gear and some snacks. In the mornings I went to the library for whatever insights into the workings of magic were made available to the general public. It also gave me a chance to chat with Saren, who worked there, at least when she wasn’t busy.
The library didn’t have much about wizardry. And that was to be expected, as part of being a wizard was to keep the powers secret lest they fall into the wrong hands and are abused. So what was left was the histories of past wizards and their deeds.
It was while perusing these backgrounds that I came across my predecessor: Ponjayan Yiu, the last woman wizard. It was 377 years ago.
She was described as having been born the seventh child in a family, and in the 11th month of the year, and that combination of numbers was seen as significant. Her family was of the type in which gender was established at birth, and the developments that led to her being a wizard were based on her own interests of study rather than decreed by the regional clerics.
The history told of her growing abilities as a foreseer, healer, soul reader and potion maker. But then after years of these standard practices there was a downfall. The country was hit by several weeks of drought and despite several tries Ponjayan had failed to bring relief.
Apparently back then people thought wizards could control weather, and so did she.
People found all kinds of reasons to cast blame, including her gender and the fact that it had been so since birth, and at a community enclave the next month, Ponjayan resigned her position — although at that point some rain had come. A new wizard was chosen later that year from among those who were of the delayed gender populace. It was a male that time, and then for every time since.
So much of the story struck me as strange, from the lack of a traditional initiation for determining not only her gender but her career, to the notion that there was a such thing as resigning from it. I had been raised with the assumption that one’s career was determined by hidden, inborn talents that were brought out in the initiation ceremony, and you could no more change it than change your eye color.
Further research led to the discovery that back then the relative numbers in the populace between those of our type and those who were born already having a gender were quite different — and in fact those others that I had always thought so strange were in the majority. Funny how in history class in school they never talked about that. I thought it would be worth having a conversation with Brother Merdok about our background, and how this change came about.
So it was quite a coincidence when I arrived back home to find his sailcar parked outside.
Inside he and Mother were at the kitchen table, teacups in front of them and looking like they had been deep in a conversation that they suddenly halted when I came in.
I felt the blood rising in my face. “Mother, what’s going on?” I demanded. I then remembered my manners. “Hello, Brother Merdok, I’m sorry. It appears I’ve interrupted.”
“It’s OK, Denra,” he said. “As you no doubt have guessed we were talking about you. Why don’t you sit down and join us.”
I sat and brought my anger under control. “Have you told her about your meeting with Dad?” I asked him.