The Unworthy Priest
The sun beat down and he scooted further back on the stone slab under the hanging limbs of the lone Whisper Glen that grew behind the rock. Like the outlandish tree, Gened-Jin was a curiosity in the southern lands of Avanis. He rested against the twisted trunk and enjoyed the rough surface. It was familiar and felt real, unlike the events ensuing from the message that had been received from the Master himself, from the Empire far to the east in Tsagaan.
“Gened,” a voice called out from below.
He knew it was his mentor, Poojan-Uul. He was the only one who would be informal enough not to use his title.
“Gened,” the voice called again.
He leaned forward and crawled to the edge of the rock. Gentle Poojan-Uul stood in the middle of the sandy ravine, his head turned up to Gened-Jin, a hand held up to shade the older man’s eyes.
“It is time my son.” Poojan-Uul’s smile had not changed since Gened was a child. He remembered little of the day he lost his parents and had been delivered to the temple, but he did remember the old Uul’s smile. The man was as thin as a flute, and his hair had deserted him with age, but his smile still made Gened feel safe.
“I am not worthy.” Gened knew it was the truth. He had been a Jin Priest for only five years. It was too soon, and he knew too little.
“That is not for us to decide,” the voice from below sounded infallible, but in sharing the truth, it did not lose any of the cheerful tone Gened had come to love, which made his departure even more difficult.
It took a few moments for Gened to move to the other side of the rock and descend the slope of the ravine to join the man who, though not of the same blood or even of the same peoples, had raised him.
When he reached Poojan-Uul he unconsciously hunched over. Born to parents of Western Kieran, he still towered over the Uul, as he did most people in the Kingdom of Avanis. He wiped the dust off his black robes and bowed his head to look at the ground.
“Gened.” The old man cupped the Jin’s chin in his hand and lifted the younger man’s face so they stared into each other’s eyes. “Stand up straight.” The Uul’s smile widened, contrasting with the cinnamon color of his skin.
Gened took every opportunity to expose his body to the sun, but he still paled next to his mentor.
“Today we will be equals.” He turned and indicated the temple beyond the ravine. “It is Koke Tengri’s Will.”
“I thought the Master himself called a new Uul,” Gened tried to argue, looking for any escape from the upcoming ritual.
“The Master may announce the name, but only the God-of-Everything can make a man a Uul.” Poojan-Uul reached up and patted his student on the shoulder. “Come. You don’t want to be late for your own ceremony.” He walked ahead up the ravine; his feet kicked up dust as he went.
The large double doors were pulled back by Initiates, and Gened entered. The boys closed the doors from the outside. The ritual was only for the vested priests of the Shin-il Way.
Gened wanted to turn and run as quickly as his feet would take him, but he knew he could not. He could leave the others, but not his mentor, Poojan-Uul. Gened was not ready for this. Only twenty-three, he would be the youngest to be lifted to such a station. He knew it was because he didn’t look like his Brothers. Since his youth when he first noticed he was not like the other Initiates he had tried to hide the differences—their face flatter, nose narrower, and not a one had dark blue eyes. He told himself it was only because he looked like those in Taran that he was being raised above others more worthy. But he knew in his Spirit that he was unworthy for other reasons. The differences were not just on the outside.
Gened stood inside the door and scanned ahead. The chamber was dark except for the hint of light that filtered in around the edges of one of the shuttered windows to his right. In front of him he could make out dozens of the black-robed Jin priests sitting to either side, creating a narrow aisle. He couldn’t see through the dark to the dais, but knew it waited at the other end.
As he knelt in his regular spot along the aisle several rows from the back, he noticed that the men near him each had their fingers intertwined and held an unlit candle. They knelt and touched their heads to the floor, then leaned back on their heels, repeating the rite several times. They began to chant as their voices rose together. The repetition created a song Gened had sung many times since childhood. The lesser priests joined in and the voices of over two hundred men filled the chamber.
Then chanting stopped.
“In the darkness, we wander lost and alone, the truth hidden. Fear is our constant companion.” Gened could hear Poojan-Uul’s voice ahead—deep and trustworthy—though he couldn’t see his mentor.
“In the darkness, we wander lost and alone, the truth hidden, and fear is our constant companion,” a hundred voices repeated in unison.
From a door to the side, two Jin priests stepped forward. They were his closest friends, or at least as close as anyone could be considering the differences between him and the others in the chamber. They each held a short pole with wicks already lit.
“Light pushes back the dark, making our path clear,” Poojan-Uul heralded. The chant was also repeated by the men in the room.
His two friends walked up the aisle to the front. They were barely visible, mere silhouettes in the flickering light of their poles. When they reached the front, they tipped the poles to the side—one to the right, the other to the left. The flames of the wicks revealed a red-robed man sitting to either side of the aisle in the front—the only Uuls at the temple, aside from his mentor. His two friends lit the candles of the two kneeling Uuls, then turned around and walked back toward Gened. They lit the candles of the priests along each side of the aisle. Each kneeling priest in turn lit the candle of the man next to him.
“The light pushes back the dark, exposing the truth.” The senior priest, head of their temple, led the men in the next line.
With each newly lit candle, the room grew brighter. The illumination spread out from the front and flowed back toward Gened. It reminded him of the blossoming of a flower.
When Gened’s two friends drew near, they stopped and turned to face him.
“The light pushes back the dark, fear dies in the fire.” Poojan-Uul’s voice was followed by the others.
With over a hundred candles blazing to life, Gened could now see the other end of the room. Poojan-Uul stood facing the assembly. He was adorned in blood-red robes, the vestments worn only by the elite Uul priests, the few who sat at the pinnacle of their order.
“When light fills our life, we see Koke Tengri and know His Will.”
This time the men in the room did not repeat the entire line, but instead responded with, “Koke Tengri be praised.”
In response, panels slid back in the arched ceiling to let sunlight shine down on the men. This exposed the entire chamber. Gened knew Initiates had used a pulley system to slide the panels aside, but the effect was no less breathtaking. His heart swelled at the perception that their God blessed their conclave and the events taking place.
Gened kept his face directed to the front toward Poojan-Uul, but his eyes shifted from side to side as he noticed the tapestries that covered the normally bare walls. They recounted the history of the Shin-il Way from its beginnings over a thousand years before. From the first Master—their portal to Koke Tengri—to the current Master, the voice of God. His eyes wandered, another reason he knew it was not his time. Even the most novice of Jin priests could stay focused for hours at a time.
Poojan-Uul stepped forward to the edge of the dais. “You have been called by Koke Tengri.”
Last year Poojan-Uul had traveled to the capital of Avanis for a convocation of the Uul priests. Gened had been permitted to join him. During the assemblage, a priest was invested with the red robe. Gened could not forget that day. One thing he remembered clearly was the line, ‘You have been called by the Master.’ He couldn’t understand why Poojan-Uul had changed the ritual.
Gened walked between the two lines of priests until he reached the dais and stepped up onto the platform, then turned to face the assembled priests. His two friends came up to stand on either side of him. With a great deal of formality, they carefully removed the white strips of material that wrapped around Gened’s waist several times. Then taking turns, they untied the knots that held Gened’s black robe in place.
With each knot, the entire room said a prayer for Gened led by Poojan-Uul.
When the knots were untied, each of his friends took a shoulder of the robe and stepped back, pulling the robe off, leaving Gened naked in the warm air.
With his arms at his side, he could feel the silk of the new robe being pulled over his hands and up his arms to his shoulders. He tried to keep his eyes focused on the chamber, but he couldn’t help but glance down to see the blood-red material covering his arms.
Poojan-Uul stepped in front of him and began to tie the strips of red material that ran down the front from his right shoulder to his left. With each knot, Poojan-Uul said the canon of those devoted to the Shin-il Way.
“The Body does not destroy itself.” Two knots tied.
As before, the men in the chamber repeated each line.
“Conflict is brought about by differences.” Two more knots tied.
“Eliminate differences and conflict is eliminated.”
Gened repeated the words as well. More knots finished.
“When all are as one Body, peace and harmony shall ensue.”
As the last knot was tied, Poojan-Uul turned to stand next to Gened and faced the chamber of priests as he finished the canon.
“Peace and harmony are a choice each must make on their own.”
Poojan-Uul wrapped a gold and black strip of material twice around Gened’s waist. “My Brothers.” Out of the corner of Gened’s eyes he could see a saddened look on his mentor’s face. He shifted his eyes forward again to see the same on those in front of him. “Today we mourn the passing of our Brother Gened-Jin.”
“All things exist in Koke Tengri, and Koke Tengri exists in all things. Death is only a passing of essence from one form of Koke Tengri to another form. My Brothers, we mourn that which was known as Gened-Jin, but we rejoice in the birth of our Brother Bat-Uul.”
“Praise be to Koke Tengri.” Every man in the room responded, then stepped forward to offer their congratulations and wish him well on his travel to his new station.
I, Gened, do not deserve such an honor. No, he admonished himself, Gened-Jin is gone. I am now Bat-Uul. He would have time to get used to the new name and title as he traveled to the far shores of Kieran and then across the Wailing Straits to the island country of Taran.
When the last of the priests had stood and left, Bat-Uul’s friends stepped up and both knelt in front of him. “We wish you safe travels and success in your mission,” they said together.
“My friends.” Bat-Uul put a hand on their shoulders. “I will never forget you and will remember our times with great fondness.”
“We are honored by the Uul’s words,” the friend to the left said with the same familiarity Bat-Uul would have used that morning to a superior, though the hint of a smile bled through the ritualistic response. Then both bowed, stood and left the chamber.
“It will be hard my son, but who you were as Gened-Jin is no more.” Poojan-Uul pointed as the door closed after the last of Bat-Uul’s old friends. “They know it. You must accept it yourself.”
Poojan-Uul guided Bat-Uul through a different door to the temple leader’s private chambers. Gened had been there many times as the Uul’s aide. Now he was presumably an equal, but that made Bat-Uul more uncomfortable than any time he had been here as a lower-ranking priest.
“You leave in the morning.” Poojan-Uul sat in a cushioned chair and indicated the chair across from him.
He had never sat on one of the few chairs in the room. As Gened, his place had been on a short stool with a small writing table next to him to take notes and record the temple leader’s orders. He sat, though he couldn’t relax. It was as if the action was sacrilegious.
“Do you understand your name?” Poojan-Uul leaned forward, his hands clasped together.
The new name held no special meaning for Bat-Uul. He knew it was a name from far to the east, almost to the lands of the Master himself. It meant firm, strong. But none of this helped him to understand why Poojan-Uul had given him the name. Who was he to be strong for?
“The beliefs I held as a child are being tested and I am not sure if I will survive.” Poojan-Uul’s words were cloaked in wariness. “You saw the tapestries?”
Bat-Uul was a bit surprised by the other Uul’s tone but tried to focus on the content of the man’s words and not interpret any hidden meaning. He nodded as he pictured the decorative wall hangings in the great chamber.
“Koke Tengri came to the first Master and endowed him with compassion, awareness, and wisdom to spread the Shin-il Way.”
Bat-Uul had heard this many times in his lessons with the old Uul and some of the senior Jin priests.
“The Shin-il Way spread from the first Master, through his predecessors, across eastern Kieran, and even into a few kingdoms of the west.” Poojan-Uul leaned a little further. “Sometimes accepted quickly, other times it has taken generations before a kingdom comes to know the truth.” He leaned back, his clasped hands resting on his stomach. “We cannot judge progress in terms of our time, but rather Koke Tengri’s.”
“I understand, my Uul.” It was proper to listen, but Bat-Uul already knew all of this and was anxious about his mission; another reminder that he was unfit for his new role.
“Forty years ago, this changed,” a sadness crept into Poojan-Uul’s voice.
Bat-Uul was confused. The Shin-il Way had been spread the same way since the first Master created the first Uuls.
“The Master, at the time of my birth, died, suddenly.”
He hadn’t noticed it before, but Poojan-Uul was staring intently at him as if looking for some type of reaction.
“I met him once. He was a good man. I never met his successor.” He paused and lifted his hands, still interwoven, and put them on his chin. “But there are stories.”
“Stories?” The mixed feelings of the recent celebration were forgotten because whatever the old Uul planned to say seemed more important.
“It does not surprise me that you have not heard.”
Another reminder that in spite of his position and the friendly tone of everyone around him, he was not really part of this community.
“I gave you the name Bat-Uul because I believe you will have the strength and the faith to stay true to the Shin-il Way and our Creator.” He stood and Bat-Uul followed quickly. “I do not have insight into the future but believe your mission will be more important than any can imagine. More than even the Master can envision.”
This shocked Bat-Uul. The Master’s wisdom came from Koke Tengri and Bat-Uul couldn’t imagine anything the Master did not know.
“You must rest now.” Poojan-Uul guided Bat-Uul to the door. “I will see you in the morning. An escort has been prepared. Supplies and money will be provided for your journey.”
He would have to travel in a caravan, enduring the merchants’ many stops. It could take Bat-Uul nearly a year to reach the island of Taran—the number of side excursions depended on how well the merchants did early in the journey. Excitement and dread equally filled him.
After the door closed, Bat-Uul went back to his room. His baggage had already been packed. More red robes were folded and placed reverently on a bag. His old black robes still hung on the wall. Bat-Uul secretly changed back into one and slipped out of the temple back to the Whisper Glen tree in the ravine behind the building. He sat on the rock and stared out into the night. The air had cooled, but he did not feel it as he focused on connecting to the Spirit world. He reached across and found one of the gossamer creatures that inhabited the Spirit world. It transformed into the figure of what he thought was a woman, a woman he had met many times since he had been trained in the use of magic, the il fennore. He had been amazed the first time she had manifested. All the other Spirits were little more than blurred images, like a cluster of spider webs woven together. He knew they were Spirits, but he could not tell one from another.
She floated closer to him, her body a veil of silky threads.
‘I am leaving tomorrow for the west,’ he thought. He knew she would understand.
‘This is the truth.’ She continued to float a few steps from him.
‘Poojan-Uul believes my mission will be of importance.’ Bat-Uul was confused and knew not what to make of his mentor’s words.
‘This is also the truth. All thee hath known will change and the world with it.’ She shimmered, then faded away like she was pulling back from him, but he knew it was he who was withdrawing from the Spirit world.
He opened his eyes and leaned back against the coarse and twisted bark. The lights of the temple and the city beyond burnt like a thousand fireflies. A thought—the same one he had had a thousand times over—filled his mind, I wonder who she is and why she comes to me. More importantly, he wondered, Will she travel with me to the new land?