Kaji crouched behind the giant leaves of a tropical bush, trying not to make a sound. She had extinguished her luminant beads and the darkness of the jungle seemed to press upon her. Her catlike ears twitched at a movement. Something very large was walking past. She thought she heard the click of talons on the stony earth, pushing through the mossy groundcover. It moved at a slow, deliberate pace. Huge nostrils sniffed noisily. Kaji was grateful she had masked her scent with a hunting cantrip.
She strained her ears for any sign of her companion, who was still out there in the night. She heard nothing, and frowned. Teyloth was very brave, but he did not have the benefit of Kaji's spellcraft. She wondered if he wasn't overconfident about his chances against a wild predator. It would be like him to try to impress her. At that moment, she was not charmed by the thought. Rather she prayed that the beast would move on, finding no prospects for a night's meal in this otherwise lush, peaceful glade. The creature had already ransacked their camp and found nothing.
Kaji's prayer went unanswered. The huge predator stopped and lifted its head, smelling the air with sloppy noises. She saw its silhouette in the skeletal moonlight. It was a madrogai. On its hind legs it was more than twice her height. The reptilian carnivore cocked its crested head, to aid its hearing. It had sensed something. It snapped its beak and coughed a grunt. The sound was hard and resonant, jostling her with its force. Kaji froze. She fought the impulse to run.
Then the madrogai turned its massive head and looked at her.
Kaji hoped it was simply coincidence, that the giant carnivore did not see her. Perhaps her lightly spotted fur and her tunic of dark pelts would blend with the enormous leaves of the undergrowth. But it was a vain hope. Probably the beast noticed her trembling or her quick, frantic breaths. Kaji knew her large eyes, brimming with tears, must be glistening like two jewels in the moonlight. The madrogai looked directly into them. Recognition passed between the two, predator and prey. In that instant she cursed the vanity that drove her to come here, to the most dangerous wilds a Meer could travel, even a spellcaster like her. Meer did not belong in this place. She had known that. But then, she had not asked to be sent on this mission in the first place.
It was the Matriarch of the province who had summoned Kaji a week earlier with the unfortunate assignment. Kaji had not wanted to answer the summons. She had been on the road, attending her duties as a visiting mage to the rural townships. Kaji truly enjoyed magework. In return for healing and agricultural magic, she received gifts, warmth and respect from farmers and villagers all over the province. Kaji had a talent for it. She had completed the Circle of Elements by the age of thirteen. Never before had the Matriarch granted a mage's commission to one so young. But even if she hadn't been an outstanding spellcaster, Kaji would have found the job fulfilling. Every day was a delight. As she rode her ostard into each new village, she was greeted by a crowd of children who recognized the loose, billowing mantle of a member of the Mystic caste. Kaji loved to see the expressions of wonder in the eyes of the young Meer. Their pale fur and bright smiles were always a welcome sight. She enjoyed the smell of the thatched roofs and pulpy, rough-hewn wood of village homes, nestled sometimes in the gnarled embrace of giant yews or cypresses. And Kaji's fellow mystics might chuckle, but she considered the simple food and drink of the Worker caste to be more hale and satisfying than any of the refined, delicate treats offered by the Matriarch's kitchen.
As well, Kaji relished the beauty of the road. The province was luxuriant with plant life. Everywhere were giant flowers that burst with color and trees that filled the sky like woody, twisted hillsides. Tall grass and ferns blanketed the rolling hills. The savannas yielded to ranges of forest and jungle, making each day's ride a fresh spectacle. The wildlife was a festive menagerie of large, multicolored reptiles, serpentine mammals, game-sized insects, and of course the durka, the enormous, domesticated lizards that served as Meer livestock. To the young mage, the flora and fauna were just as welcome companions as were other Meer.
The life of an itinerate mage also suited her independent disposition. With its long periods of travel and isolation, magework granted Kaji a refreshing liberty from the restrictive discipline of the Mystic caste.
In fact it was far too much liberty, as the Matriarch Sayaru reckoned things.
"Kaji, your behavior is indefensible," grumbled the old Meer after Kaji answered her summons. The Matriarch was so aged that her fur was marbled gray and white, despite spells of longevity that had halved the effects of the passing years. Her face was grim under a headdress of draped silk. Crystals sparkled in her robes. She sat in her ceremonial throne, canopied by brightly-colored veils of rich design. Kaji knelt in front of her. The throne room of the Matriarch was a lavish spectacle of mosaic tiles, brilliant tapestries and intricate carvings in the living cypress-branch rafters. Yet every diverse detail seemed to contribute to leading the eye back to the center of the room, to the very old Meer with the stern set to her jaw.
"Young woman," frowned Sayaru, "it pains me to admit that I have begun to doubt my decision to commission you as a mage of this province."
"You don't mean that, Venerable Mother," said Kaji, though she knew it was true.
"I certainly do. When I granted your commission, I trusted that you would soon become as wise as you claimed to be. But perhaps I was mistaken." The old Meer hunched forward in the tall chair and narrowed her eyes. "You are a gifted mage, Kaji, but you lack dignity."
"Dignity? Venerable Mother, that isn't true! I have always been proud in my duties. The people of the townships will confirm it."
"Oh, the Worker caste confirms it." Sayaru twirled her hand in a flamboyant gesture. "The farmers adore you. Even the merchants have nothing but praise for your charm and courtesy. But, ahh, the Warrior caste. Now there, I find a different tale."
Kaji could not meet the Matriarch's eyes. Instead she looked down at the old woman's woven silk sandals.
"From the warriors I hear rumors that you have... engaged... in forbidden pleasures." Kaji flinched when Sayaru's hand touched her face, tilting up the young Meer's chin. Their eyes locked. Kaji swallowed. "Tell me his name, then, young woman. Who is this lad from the Warrior caste, whom I hear accompanies you on the road?"
"I don't --"
"You don't -- want to lie to me, Kaji." Sayaru paused with a slow, languid blink. "Tell me his name, please."
Kaji's tall ears pressed flat against her head. "His name is Teyloth, Venerable Mother."
The Matriarch scowled. "It is forbidden to mix between castes. You are a mystic. You must honor your kind."
"I know. I've sinned. But, Dame Sayaru, you know I'm the finest mage you've trained!" Kaji winced and corrected the urgency in her voice. "In time I'll be the finest mage this province has ever seen. You can't say you regret my commission."
"Can't I? Then tell me, should a commissioned mage be so impudent to her Matriarch?"
Kaji closed her eyes. "I'm sorry, Venerable Mother. Please forgive me."
Silence crawled between them. The young Meer waited an eternity before opening her eyes. She saw the Matriarch rubbing her temples. "Kaji, forget about this warrior. You no longer have time to waste on girlish whims. There's something very important you must do."
Sayaru sighed, then spoke careful words. "You have a talent. You show more promise than any mystic I've ever taught. That's why I have chosen you for this... important task. But you must use good judgment, or all might be lost."
Kaji tilted her head. She had never heard such gravity in the Matriarch's voice, though Sayaru had instructed her for more than half of Kaji's sixteen years. "What task, Venerable Mother?"
"You must give up being a mage. Instead you are to go to the city of Anjur, where the Lore Council meets. There you will apprentice yourself to one of the Lore Masters, to learn Anjuric sorcery. With your talent for magic I am confident they will accept you. When you begin to train with them, you must report to me the doings of the Lore Council."
The young Meer gaped. Her stomach seemed to plummet from her gut. "M-m-mother?"
"I know this is unorthodox, Kaji. I apologize for that. But the situation is... urgent."
Kaji fought to put words together. "What -- leave the province? Venerable Mother, why -- what situation are you talking about?"
The Matriarch Sayaru shook her head. "Perhaps the end of the Lore Council, young woman. Or perhaps the end of everything."
The end of everything. Sayaru's words echoed in Kaji's head as she crouched in the midnight gloom, staring up at a hungry saurian predator. If she hadn't been travelling to Anjur, she would not be in this predicament. Of course it was Kaji herself who had selected this route to the crystal city of the Lore Council; but that didn't matter anymore. The gigantic madrogai was tensing its back in a way that the Meer did not like. She would have to act swiftly.
When the monster opened its beak-like maw and screeched, Kaji's twitch reflexes acted for her. One hand darted into the sack at her waist and pulled out a small, sparkling crystal. She looked up to see the madrogai lunging at her. Its tremendous mass plunged through the underbrush with loud cracks. A sour stench hit Kaji, who tossed the tiny crystal into the madrogai's open beak and leapt frantically aside. By inches she avoided the loud snap of bony jaws that weighed more than herself. She rolled into prickly brambles and glanced back. Had she hit its mouth? No time to check. She shot up one hand and made an unusual gesture, then sang the droning chant of a spell. She felt currents of essence stirring in the thicket around her.
With unnerving speed the giant carnivore lifted its head and spotted her again. Its beak opened wide, though this time it did not screech - it snarled with surprise. Light scintillated in its mouth as Kaji hexed the little crystal, causing it to swell, until its faceted shape filled the beast's maw. The madrogai stepped back and shook its head, unable to dislodge the boulder-sized hunk of crystal. Kaji breathed again. She had a moment more to think.
Nor was she the only Meer who took advantage of the pause. A shadow whisked past the predator's massive legs. A heavy whip lashed the beast, snapping at its knee. Then the whip itself sprouted legs and crawled up the madrogai's limb, slithering into the softer tissues between the thigh and torso. The beast flinched, then shouted a gurgling roar. The crystal stuck in its jaws garbled the awful sound.
Of course it was Teyloth's Living Whip in action. Kaji knew the serpentine arthropod was pumping its venom into the madrogai's blood. She doubted it was enough to subdue the giant, but every moment gained was precious. Teyloth was already seizing the opportunity. The Meer warrior appeared again as a small silhouette under the bulk of the madrogai. Moonlight glinted in the crystal blade of his sword. With a powerful motion he thrust at the predator's belly, piercing the softer underscales. The madrogai yelped. Again he punctured its gut, then immediately tucked his head and tumbled to the side to avoid the swipe of an enormous claw.
The beast was reacting too quickly. Teyloth darted out of the underbrush a moment before the madrogai pounced. It smashed the florid thicket in a burst of leaves and branches. The warrior recovered and thrust at the saurian's exposed back, but his crystal sword might have been a pinprick against the giant's thick bony plate. The madrogai lunged again. Teyloth dove behind a tree, the monster tight on his heels. Crystal chunks were beginning to fall from its beak, as it slowly ground the crystal boulder down to a manageable size.
Kaji's mind raced. Her mage's spells could help her elude the predator, but she knew of nothing to actually repel such a huge animal. She had to find some way to help Teyloth. The madrogai was clawing a tree the warrior had climbed, peeling away large, fleshy strips of bark and pulp that now littered the forest floor. From high branches the Meer warrior stabbed the beast's head with his sword, but its heavy skull finally broke the crystal blade. Even over the growls of the monster, Kaji heard Teyloth cry out in frustration.
He had cried out in a similar way when she told him about her meeting with the Matriarch Sayaru. His expression had been sheer dismay. "She's sending you to Anjur? Kaji, that's at least a week's journey away from the province!"
"I know, my love." Kaji was curled up in the warrior's arms, in a corner of an ostard stable where prying eyes would not find them. Kaji disliked having to hide when she met her lover in a village or town. But a mixed-caste relationship was inherently furtive. For the moment, the comfort of Teyloth's strong embrace was compensation enough. In the dusky shadows, the dark spots of his fur and the light spots of hers seemed to blend into a single, dappled continuum. She stroked his side to calm him. "We can still be together. Come with me, Teyloth."
"That's a joke, right? Go to Anjur with you?" He nuzzled her ear. "You're not being sensible. The only place we can be together is the wilderness out between the townships, where people can't watch us. In the city, there's no chance for us."
"Then forget the city for now. Just travel with me."
He kissed her brow. "The closer you get to Anjur, the more dense the villages. There will be eyes watching us the entire way. It won't work." He heaved a deep sigh. Kaji felt his broad chest sink a bit. "It's madness, my love. We're doomed."
With a wide smile she rolled atop him, staring straight into his face. "We're not doomed, Teyloth. And we're not mad. If we travel to Anjur through the Wilds of Dashan, there won't be a single eye to watch us the entire trip. Not a Meer eye, anyway."
"The Wilds of Dashan? The rainforest?" He furrowed his brow and tipped up his tall ears. "That place is nothing but miles and miles of thick jungle. It's full of wild animals. The kind that eat people."
She nodded and grinned. "And we'll be two more wild animals, for awhile." She laid her lips onto his and pulled his arms around her waist. After a moment she broke the kiss. "I hear it's absolutely beautiful this time of year."
Sometimes, Kaji had decided, Teyloth was too easy to convince. Despite the protests of the warrior's immediate family, he agreed to join her on the trip to Anjur. With careful silence they avoided the topic of what they would do once they reached the crystal city. Their options were not very appealing. Instead they busied themselves with preparations, packing food, water and clothing to last them at least a week in the Wilds of Dashan. Kaji's mage clothes - a short tunic of soft hides decorated with a lavish, colorful mantle - would serve fine unless the terrain grew very rough. Teyloth wore his armor, a collection of chitin pieces engraved with the symbols of his family. He even brought along his helmet. It was a flared iridescent affair with a tall, brushy crest that Kaji thought was simultaneously absurd and regal. She always smiled when he wore it.
He also brought his Living Whip. Kaji had never quite gotten used to the bizarre, insect-like creature. It was a large thing - the length of a Meer warrior when completely uncurled - and its dozens of segmented legs were armed with venomous barbs. Yet it was well behaved enough. Naturally it would be; the Warrior caste had bred Living Whips for centuries, and other strange creatures, to be used as exotic weapons. Teyloth had bonded with that particular one from the moment it hatched. The bond was even said to be telepathic, though Kaji did not know that for certain. The Warrior caste guarded its secrets as jealously as the Mystic caste. Kaji knew better than to pry details out of Teyloth. She was content that his Living Whip kept placidly looped around his waist or arm or in his bag and did not turn its poisonous stingers in her direction. Sometimes, though, she wished it did not look so unreservedly nasty.
Their provisions complete, they set out from the Matriarch's treetop villa. Kaji was not sad to leave the gigantic cypress and its nest of houses behind. Their walls of woven thatch held as many dark memories for her as bright ones.
The route to the Wilds seemed longer than it should have, as the couple maintained a discreet distance between them. None of the villages along the way realized they were associated. But once they reached the broad strip of savanna that separated the Wilds from the rest of the province, they were inseparable. Kaji climbed onto Teyloth's ostard and rode in his arms. For that single day they enjoyed a freedom they had never known, not even in the wide, uninhabited spaces between the rural townships.
By evening they reached the edge of the jungle. It was a high, dark wall of trees that ran to both horizons. As an amber sunset unfurled above them, they decided to camp for the night.
"All right, Kaji," said Teyloth as he spitted a fist-sized insect over the fire, "you've been holding out too long. Why exactly has the Matriarch sent you to Anjur?"
"You'll never believe it." She sighed, then giggled. "I've become a spy for Dame Sayaru."
"A spy? What for?"
"The Matriarchs are worried that the Lore Council has... lost its way."
"Is that a joke? The Lore Council are the most powerful sorcerers in the world."
"Of course they are. But the Matriarchs are worried that their power might be upsetting their judgment." She stoked the fire with a pointed finger and a quick cantrip. "Look, Anjuric sorcery was founded in provincial magic, like I use. The Lore Council stripped away the rituals and traditions behind it, to get at the meat of the power. They boiled each spell down to its Essence, then combined them in ways the Matriarchs would have never dared. You have to give them credit. They've accomplished things the Matriarchs did not dream of. Where mages make tools out of crystal, the Lore Council built cities. Famine and disease are almost completely gone. For the most part we get favorable weather now, even out here in the provinces. Wilderness is held back from our settlements." She glanced at the black silhouette of Dashan. "The Lore Council has mastered nature. When you think about it, they've made the world... perfect." Gently she leaned against the warrior's shoulder. "Nearly perfect, anyway."
Teyloth turned the spit with one hand and held Kaji in the other. "I hadn't really thought of it that way, but you're right. But, is it really possible to master nature? That sounds very... I dunno. Arrogant."
"That's just what Dame Sayaru thinks. Sure, the Lore Masters have done amazing things, but they did them by stripping away the traditions of the Matriarchs. Our traditions exist for a reason. Magework is all about respecting the balance in nature. I must make a sacrifice every time I work a spell. If I didn't, my magic would get out of control in a hurry. But Anjuric sorcery doesn't care about balance. The Lore Council wants to get rid of all the bad things and keep all the good things. And the strange part is, that's just what they seem to be doing. Which is why Dame Sayaru is worried. How do they do it? Have the Lore Masters completely lost their spiritual grounding? Do they understand anything about balance and sacrifice? Or are they performing these great feats without regard to possible consequences? Because as Dame Sayaru reckons it, the consequences could be extremely bad."
The warrior nodded. "I can understand that, I suppose. If anyone looks after the balance of nature, it's the Matriarchs. But something's still missing. The Lore Council has been in power for centuries. Why send a spy now?"
"Dame Sayaru knows something. She didn't tell me what, but she said it was very urgent that I apprentice myself to a Lore Master as soon as possible. Something must have happened to worry her so much." Kaji nestled closer to Teyloth. "Or maybe she's just sending me someplace I can't break any more rules."
The warrior let out a quiet laugh. "Surely the Matriarch isn't that naive."
Kaji grinned at the crackling fire.
The next morning they penetrated the tangled rainforest of Dashan. Animal paths served them well for the first two days, but by the third evening it became clear their ostards could not make it any farther through the thick vegetation. They pointed the riding beasts back toward civilization and hoped for their safety.
They were surrounded by the noisy bustle of the jungle, which chirped and screeched and grumbled in the voices of thousands of animals. The air was languid with heat and moisture. Humidity soaked their fur. The dense canopy of trees created a perpetual green twilight, and they used torches and luminant beads to light the way. Among chaotic shadows they picked a slow path over stones and brambles, looping vines, twisted roots and fallen trees; and by the end of each day their bodies were quite sore and quite hungry.
Yet Kaji savored every moment. The jungle was wild in ways she had never before experienced. The untamed sounds, the constant movement, the watchful eyes of animals, the smell of soil never tilled; Kaji could barely apprehend the scope of it. This was nature indulging on a grand scale. Giant ferns crowded the underbrush. There were flowers larger than Teyloth. And to her trained senses as a mage, the rainforest seethed with raw power. She had no idea how to tap into it, but the magical potential of the jungle was palpable and tantalizing. She wondered if she might have discovered one of the sources of the Lore Council's power.
But best of all was the unconstrained time with Teyloth. They had set no goals for their speed through the sanctuary, so they made no attempt at optimizing their pace. Rather they delighted in each other's company, swimming in a diamond-clear stream, playing games among the tree trunks, chasing each other, catching each other. Kaji snared game with her magic and they ate like hungry children. Each night they shared a portion of the provincial wine Teyloth had brought in a leather bottle. At night they slept in the high embrace of the trees.
It was deep into the seventh night when Teyloth had wakened her with a whisper. Something very big was creeping through the darkness. Unseen it rummaged through their bags, which were suspended below them in the lower branches of the tree where they were bedded. Kaji thought she heard the snap of the leather bottle as it was crushed or bitten. When the beast began to shake their tree, they quickly climbed onto nearby branches and, by separate paths, down to the forest floor. Teyloth intended to fetch his spear from the rubble of their things. Kaji simply felt safer on firm ground.
And now Teyloth was trapped by the rampaging madrogai, as it shredded the small tree where he had fled. In a few moments, Kaji knew the warrior would topple from his perch. She had no more time to think. Her hand clamped around a thick, gnarled root. She started to murmur a spell.
The sensation was strange to the young mage, as her magic tickled the soul of the jungle. The spell was a simple one, yet in her panic she did not restrain herself as the Matriarch had taught her. The rainforest seemed to stir on its own. She felt as though she was disturbing some dormant force, awakening some impossible being. When she finished the spell, she peeked out to see what she had done.
The spell was designed to summon a swarm of insects. Kaji had directed the swarm at the face of the madrogai, in hopes that the saurian would be distracted long enough for Teyloth to escape. But something was different. The insects were not appearing as quickly as she expected. And from the pervasive rustling that grew in the jungle, Kaji suspected the insects were coming from all around and not from a single hive or colony, as they usually did.
A loud snap echoed through the forest. Teyloth's perch had given way. The Meer warrior plunked out of the tree and into the pile of debris left by the madrogai's attack. The predator whirled to face him, raising a giant claw to strike.
Kaji opened her mouth to scream. When her voice emerged, however, it sounded like a hurricane's roar. From every corner of the jungle millions of flying insects poured out like a gale wind. The sound was thunderous. The maelstrom of activity lashed through the vegetation and smashed against the madrogai. The surprised predator leapt back in alarm. Kaji watched in shock as the swarms quickly enveloped the saurian. Where she had expected a single kind of insect, her spell had summoned every kind of insect, from swirling clouds of gnats to formations of bird-sized beetles soaring on phosphorescent wings. The madrogai screeched in terror and twirled around in great circles, bashing trees and gouging the rocky earth with its claws. And still the insects showered upon it. The jungle grove was filling with swarms like a rising, humming tide. Some of them were stinging at Kaji now.
From the midst of the insect storm emerged a shape. Teyloth stumbled in her direction. With a cry she rushed toward him. After a moment's embrace she felt the warrior tug the Mystic's mantle from her shoulders and unwrap it. The voluminous cloth unfurled to the size of a very large cloak. Teyloth pulled her against a tree trunk and they huddled under the mantle, tucking it around them like a silken shield. Spitting insects from her lips, Kaji chanted a few spells to protect them. They clung together in the middle of the bizarre tempest. They did not speak a word, nor could they have heard each other in the nightmare cacophony of insects.
Not far away, unseen, the madrogai groaned in dying agony.
It seemed like hours until the hurricane ended. When at last they dared to pull back the mantle, the dawn's golden rays greeted them. The sun shone through a devastated jungle. In all directions the trees were stripped bare by the hungry insects. Kaji felt cold when she saw that all the leaves, all the vines, all the elegant tropical flowers were completely gone. No high canopy transformed the day into a green twilight. No animal voices sang haunting jungle songs.
The forest floor was encased in a layer of dead insects. Their feet sank several inches with every crackling step. As the dawn's glow skittered over the chitinous surface, Kaji could not reconcile the pearlescent beauty of the sight with the sheer scope of death. Instead she searched for the remains of the madrogai. She found them nearby. The bones were stripped clean, as though they had been bleached.
A strange, bitter smell saturated the air.
Teyloth nursed a conspicuous silence for some time. He had managed to retrieve his Living Whip before the madrogai or the insects could kill it, and he now clung to the serpentine arthropod like a frightened child holds a lifelong pet. The one time he spoke that morning, he said, "If this is what a spy for the Matriarch can do..." and nothing more.
Towards noon, using only meaningful looks, they decided to set out again. The devastation extended for almost half a mile. When they reached green, living jungle again, Kaji felt herself starting to cry. Teyloth took her in his arms. It was the first time he had held her since dawn.
In a low voice he asked, "Is that what you mean by very bad consequences of unbalanced magic?"
Kaji shook her head. Her words trembled. "It wasn't even a powerful spell."
"Then how --?"
Kaji laid a finger over his lips. "Don't ask that question. Please." She looked down at her hands. "If I had kept to the ritual as the Venerable Mother taught me, that -- horror -- would never have happened."
Teyloth tilted his head. "And maybe I would be dead."
Kaji shivered. Teyloth took her hand and became silent again. With a steadier pace they set out again for the city of Anjur, quietly hoping they would reach it before too many more nights passed. Already they felt a rising dread as the sun crested noontime and began to descend, darkening the verdant twilight that permeated the Wilds of Dashan. They were a long way yet from the crystal city and the warm, pleasant miracles that awaited them. There was no sense in tarrying any longer.