Chapter One: Duty

My heart skips a beat as the telephone rings. The Caretakers told me yesterday that I needed to be prepared, so I dash over to the receiver and pick up the handset. “Is it time?!”

“Yes. Fresam Khaild-Cemi, come prepared for your first Symbiosis Ritual.”

I’ve waited so long to hear those words. I can’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. I fight to catch my breath and finally utter, “Yes, Caretaker.” The handset makes a distinct clack as I hang it back up.

I study myself in the mirror. It was fortunate that I remembered to shave my head earlier in the day. The last thing I would have wanted to do right now was to scramble to do that. My neck strains as I tilt my head to one side, trying to see as much of the back of my neck as possible. Anxiously, I run my left hand over the back of my neck, imagining what the beautiful sporocarp will look like spread there. Will it be a firmer variety? Or will it lay flat, gently adding contour? Only the Caretakers have seen it to this point, so I can only guess. I smile, my hand tracing to my throat now, and up my cheek. How far will it spread?

Then again, I might not be chosen today.

With that thought, I turn to the robe hanging to the left of the mirror. I remember crying during the tailoring just sixth months ago. As is common, I had been fitted for my robe prior to my twentieth birthday. I still remember the sweet servitor girl who helped me pick out the fringe. As I hold the fringe in my hand, I can’t help but to admire the pattern the girl showed me. It’s a wavy fringe, about half the length of my pointer finger, done in tan. The embroidering is the gold and garnet, mimicking the most common Cemi pattern. The rest of the fabric is simple, a shade of alabaster. The first and only time I wore the robe was to ensure its fit. The tears flow down my face again as I pull it over my head now. I hope that servitor girl is in attendance in the gallery. If she is, once the Cemi takes control and is acclimated, maybe it will let me find her.

I exhale and wipe my face dry. I’ve waited my entire life for this. My first Symbiosis Ritual. My parents told me my whole life how proud they were that I was to be a Candidate. It always made me feel a little bad for my sister. She was always jealous of me, her little brother. Still, I know my mother and my sister will be there today, and I know they’ll both be happy for me if I’m chosen.

Damn. I need to hurry. I take off in a sprint. If there are multiple Cemi specimens, it won’t be organized by age. Well, that’s not entirely true. Senior Candidates, those at least thirty years old but under thirty-five, will always be at the front of any line. After that, though? It’s whoever gets in the procession first. If it’s a single specimen, though, I’ll be at the back of the line. I see a few other candidates jogging down the halls as well; I fall in line behind two of them. In the end, it’s not a race. It’s not about us. It’s about the beautiful Cemi making its choice. We’ve all got smiles on our faces.

Finally, we get to the ritual hall. Two Caretakers are waiting for us all, and from the looks of it, I’m the eighth in line. It’s pretty good odds, all things considered.

The Caretaker on the left is an older woman. She smiles at us all as we here more footsteps approaching rapidly. “Please make two lines. We’ll discuss the final details before we head inside to first pay our respects to the Cemi.”

“To the Cemi,” she said. It was just ambiguous enough to be either a single specimen or multiple. I resist the urge to ask.

“Ma’am, how many are there?” A voice asks from behind me. I look back to look at him. He’s probably a Senior Candidate based on the lines I can see on his face. It must be kind of scary being his age right now. All of us candidates are praying that we are chosen; it’s just how we are. If we are deemed imperfect, then at least we know we can still serve immediately. The thought of being looked over time and time again must be so disheartening. There’s a part of me that would almost rather be deemed imperfect rather than to be looked over like that again and again.

“That really is inappropriate, you know that. Alkar, I know you are anxious.” The older woman approaches the Senior Candidate. She reaches out a wrinkled hand and touches his cheek. He starts to cry. “Alkar, I know this is going to probably be your last Symbiosis Ritual. It’s alright, dear. Not being chosen does not mean you’ve done something wrong. It only means you will serve a different purpose than as a Host. Hopefully, today is your day. Hopefully, one of the Cemi smiles upon you.” I see her wink at him and realize it’s her way of saying there were multiple specimens!

The other Caretaker began to count the number of people in line. “Caretaker Telthi, how many were we expecting? Twenty-eight?”

“Yes. The others will be in line tomorrow since another Cemi is being prepared for joining. We are taking the Seniors and the youngest today.” The older woman smiles at all of us. There must have been a rather significant yield from the recent harvest. “We will only call the others in if no Candidate is chosen from this lot.”

“I count twenty-eight. Will all Seniors line up on my right, please? All others, to my left.” The other Caretaker calls out, his rough voice indicative of years of service. Tending any of the Cymal fungi is a difficult task, but the spores of the Cemi colony are well-known for their ability to strip a person of their voice over time.

I move over to the other line, which puts me third in line now. Still, I’m more than happy to give the senior candidates their chances. Surprisingly, there are ten of them, and the Caretakers move Alkar to the front of the line. When the two lines are finally arranged, the two Caretakers move to the the doors and look back to us.

“Many of you have been here before as Candidates. All of you have been here or in the galleries as revelers. Some of you may have been here during an Offering Ceremony. Still, we treat this the same for everyone. Before you lies our Sacred Altar. You have been taught these things in your training as Candidates, but it is tradition to speak them now, honoring those who came before us, those who are here now, and those who will come in the future.” The older woman can’t contain her smile as serious as this occasion is.

My eyes start to burn from the tears welling up. I look at some of the other candidates and am relieved to see that I’m not the only one crying.

She continues, “We enter the ritual hall single-file, led and attended by Caretakers.” She motions to herself and the older man wearing the distinct red Caretaker robes. “One by one, as we file inside, we pay our respect to the beautiful Cemi. Praise it, for it is the reason we are gathered together. It is the reason that we are all family. It is the reason we live, and it is the reason we die.” She paused.

“Our hearts, our minds, our bodies belong to the Cemi! Their glory guides our way, and their chosen forge our path!” All of us repeat the mantra in unison. I feel the goosebumps rise on my arms. Am I to be chosen today? Am I to be one that helps forge the path for future generations?

The Caretaker laughs softly, warmly. She wipes tears from her eyes. “Yes. Such beautiful words remind us who we are and of our purpose. We praise the Cemi, and we encircle the altar. Today, Alkar will be the first at the head of the altar. We Caretakers will stand beside the altar. Then, the revelers in the gallery will share their prayers for us all. When it is concluded, I will signal each of you to the altar, one by one, and the Cemi will make its choice. It will be placed on your neck. You will feel its mycelium gently probe at the tissue. You will hear the Cemi whisper to you, if you are lucky. But know, if it speaks to you, that does not mean it has chosen you. If you are chosen, you will know. The mycelium will take root and you will feel its mind reach for yours. Welcome it; it means you have been chosen. You may feel your body start to tense or tighten. Do not fight it. Relax and let it take control. Soon, it will know you better than you know yourself. Soon, you will know it. You will rise up and tell the gallery your new name.”

The other Caretaker steps forward, his wrinkled smile fading. “Some of you will not be spoken to, that is alright. Some of you will be passed by. That is alright. Some of you may be marked as imperfect. If the Cemi realizes you are not a fully viable Candidate, you will be marked. That, too, is alright. You may be disappointed if you are marked, but know you’re being marked because the Cemi do not want your life to be wasted. They are marking you to tell you that they need you. Your legacy will go on through later generations of the Cemi. Remember this, when you kneel before your destiny today, know that we will all be one in their glory one day.”

The older woman smiles as she opens the door to the ritual hall. “And so it begins.”

The older man leads us inside. He stops at the altar, but I can’t see the Cemi yet. He whispers a prayer as his hands extend over them, taking great care not to touch them barehanded. Handling any Cymal fungi is lethal to any servitor. When a Cymali child is born, we are exposed to the ashes of honored dead Cymal. If our skin burns, we are deemed servitor. If it does not, we are deemed Candidate. The older man takes his place at the right side of the altar.

As Alkar approaches the altar, he starts to say a prayer. I see him crying as he circles around. Now that I’m a few steps inside, I can smell the intense aroma of the Cymal incense. The nonviable fungi, when they are at the end of their lifespan, are dried and used as a ritual incense. It’s a strong smell, herbaceous, slightly sweet even. I inhale deeply and it starts to sink in how close I am now.

Before I know it, it’s my turn. There they are. I can’t help but to cry again. They’re more beautiful than I could have imagined. The one on the left is a rather small, delicate specimen, half the size of my palm. It’s gold underside can be seen ever so slightly as it is being held up at an angle by its mycelium. The top part of its cap is a series of gently cresting garnet waves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful, and yet fragile. The second specimen is sturdier one, about the size of my palm. I can’t see it’s underside. The cap itself shows that this one is a strong, firm one. Its garnet cap is a solid piece that almost looks like it could be a decorative crest instead of a unique, living god. I raise my hands over the two of them.

“Beautiful, powerful Cemi, my heart and mind praise you and your kin. My body belongs to you, now and when I am gone. May your glory guide my way.” I’ve said the words before, or variants of them. I said them just minutes prior, even. Never before in my life have they meant what they do now. I move slowly to circle around the altar. Finally, I get to my place and kneel. My mind races, repeating my prayer over and over. What I wouldn’t give to just touch one of them now!

After a while, the other Caretaker says her prayers and takes her place at the left side of the altar, on the same side as the small, fragile looking Cemi. Both Caretakers reach inside of their robes, pulling out their gloves. I can’t imagine how they must feel. I know it’s an honor to be a part of such a ritual, but to come so close to them, only to have a barrier between you and them? It must be heartbreaking. But, they chose this life. When they reached their elder years, they could have chosen to offer themselves to the colonies, but instead, they delay their bliss, choosing to serve the community still.

A mixed smattering of prayers rain down from above us. All eyes are on us and on the beautiful Cemi on the altar. After a moment of silence, the two Caretakers repeat the earlier mantra.

“We pay respect to the beautiful Cemi. We praise them, for they are the reason we are gathered together. They are the reason that we are all family. They are the reason we live, and they are the reason we die.”

We keep our heads bowed. “Our hearts, our minds, our bodies belong to the Cemi. Their glory guides our way, and their chosen forge our path!” I can feel the words reverberating off of the stone walls. They penetrate everything that I am.

Alkar is called forward. He kneels before the altar. The older man has put his gloves on. He reaches for the firmer of the Cemi, and I can see the beautiful underside of it now. Supple waves of gold line the underside of this one, making its pale white mycelium stand out even more. The male Caretaker places it on Alkar’s neck. After a few moments, the Caretaker lifts it, setting it back on the altar. I can see Alkar’s tears falling to the stone below.

The female Caretaker whispers something to him and I see him try to compose himself. After a moment, she carefully lifts the more delicate Cemi and sets it on his neck. After a few moments, everyone in the hall groans in disappointment as she lifts it from him. Alkar stands and looks at everyone kneeling, then up at the revelers in the gallery.

Alkar sighs. “I have not been chosen, but today,” he smiled through the tears, “today I, Alkar Varin-Cemi, offer myself in sacrifice. My body belongs to the Cemi.” We hear the revelers above rain down applause. He circles around behind the altar and kneels there instead; it is a sign that he is choosing to submit to sacrifice today.

The process is repeated a few more times. The fifth Senior Candidate approaches after a while and when the firmer specimen is placed on her, we all know what as happened. She gasps and her body tenses up, her hands balling into fists. After a few tense moments, she starts to relax and we can see her hands and legs twitch periodically. The crowd is totally silent as she stands.

She cranes her neck in a bizarre jerky motion. It’s clear the Cemi hasn’t fully taken control of her. She smiles and throws her head back. Her shoulders and upper body convulse a few times and her mouth opens with no sound. After a few more times of this, we all hear a soft laugh start to echo through the room. It builds into full-blown joyous laughter, and soon, everyone is laughing and cheering. She labors to catch her breath, and raises a hand to quiet the crowd. “I am Cem-Alsia, Carine Mathol.”

Her new joined name is beautiful. She who was Carine Mathol-Cemi is reborn before our eyes, Cem-Alsia.

The older male Caretaker removes his gloves and extends a hand to her, smiling broadly. She takes his hand. His gravely voice sends chills through all of us. “Our hearts, our minds, our bodies belong to the Cemi. Their glory guides our way, and their newest chosen will help forge our path!” She leads him down and out of the hall.

The process begins again. Eventually, it my time.

The female Caretaker looks at me. “Fresam Khaild-Cemi, come forward.”

I can feel my entire body trembling, shivering with anticipation. I want to cry but I can’t make the tears come. I want to beg the beautiful Cemi to please choose me, but I can’t muster any words. This is the moment of truth, the moment I’ve waited for my entire life, twenty years. I kneel, lowering my head, exposing the back of my neck.

I feel the Cemi’s strands of mycelium against my neck. Nothing could have ever prepared me for this. Just feeling it against my skin is pure bliss. I close my eyes and begin to feel a gentle kneading sensation against my neck.

A voice?

A whisper?

I think I hear something, but I’m scared to look for it.

Be still, young one. The Cemi is speaking to my mind. I’ve never heard a more beautiful voice. Of all things, to be spoken to by a living god, one so beautiful!

I’m honored by you, Cemi. I hope you find me worthy, but above all, I wish you long life, and I praise you.

 

Child… you honor me. Your worth was never in doubt. You believe with all of your heart. This pains me more than you will ever know, child. Know that my kind will honor your sacrifice. Know that I do this out of love. I love you.

 

I whimper as I drop to the floor. I feel the Cemi’s mycelium burning into my neck. The Caretaker removes the fragile thing from my neck. The burning sends waves of pain through my body as I stand. I hear the crowd gasp. The Caretaker holds the Cemi in front of me.

It’s still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on, though it has revealed my imperfections. I reach a trembling hand out to touch its cap as I cry. “I love you, too,” I whisper softly to it. Slowly, I bring my fingers to my lips, kissing where my hands had the honor of touching. I turn away and look around at the remaining candidates, and then the revelers. “I have been found imperfect. Today, I, Fresam Khaild-Cemi, will proudly give myself in sacrifice. My body belongs to the Cemi.” I take my place on the back side of the altar, kneeling next to Alkar. He sits up on his knees and embraces me. I bury my head against him as I cry.

The ceremony continues. Alkar and I break our embrace when we hear the crowd gasp. We both realize that the last Cemi had found its Host. We watch on, smiling.

“I am Cem-Silat, Mathia Marvi.” The proud woman proclaims.

The Caretaker removes her gloves and presents her hand to the new Host. “Our hearts, our minds, our bodies belong to the Cemi. Their glory guides our way, and their newest chosen will help forge our path!” The new Host gently tugs on the Caretakers arm and leads the Caretaker out. The remaining candidates slowly file out after giving them a moment.

The revelers look down on me and Alkar, literally but not figuratively. They know what is to come, as do we.

I look at Alkar. “Do you have any family?”

He shakes his head. “No, I was an only child. My parents were both just servitors. They were so proud that I was born a candidate. I never had children of my own, just because I didn’t want to risk being found imperfect and not be able to raise them. I have an aunt, I think.” He chuckles and shrugs. “I never knew her though. What about you?”

“My mother will be here soon. My father is a Host: Cem-Ammar. He joined one of the last space exploration missions, actually.” It has been quite some time since I had seen him, but he helped instill in me just how important it was for me to fulfill my role as a Candidate, no matter what happened. I couldn’t have asked for a better father.

“Was that the exchange mission with the Aevocar?”

I nod. “Yes. I got to meet one of them actually. Or two? I don’t really know. They’re… different. I suppose we have some similarities, but their culture is so… alien.”

He laughs. “I’ve heard that, but I imagine they’d say the same about us. Hey… it’s… been an honor being here with you.” He extends his hand to me.

I take his hand and squeeze it as I smile to him. “The honor’s all mine, Alkar.”

Moments later, we both shake our heads. I grin. “No… The honor belongs to the Cemi.” I withdraw my hand and wrap my arms around myself. I’m nervous.

“Are you scared?” Alkar asks me.

I nod honestly. “A little. I… hadn’t thought that I’d die today. It’s… surreal. It’s hard to think that I’m standing here talking to you right now… and here in a little while, I,” a few tears start to roll down my face, “I won’t be. I’m scared, but this is my calling. This is my destiny. It spoke to me. It told me it loved me before it marked me.”

“May… I see it?” I nod and turn my back to him, lowering my head to expose the back of my neck. I can feel the mark pull against my skin. “It’s… beautiful, Fresam. Here… let me show you.” I turn back around and he’s knelt down again, drawing the mark burnt into my skin by the Cemi into the dirt underneath our feet. It was a series of gentle curves and bends.

“Thank you. That… means a lot.” I reach to feel the mark, tracing my finger around the raised scarring as I study the image drawn in the dirt. It matches what my finger tells me.

I hear the doors open. It’s my mother and my sister being lead by the female Caretaker from earlier. Behind her is the same male Caretaker from before. Each Caretaker is holding a dormant Cemi in their gloved hands.

The crowd about is stirring now. I wrap my arms around my mother and soon feel my sister wrapping her arms around me awkwardly from the side.

“I wish Cem-Ammar could be here for this. He would be so proud of you.” My mother tells me. I nod, but stay silent as I try to keep from bursting into tears.

My sister looks down. “I’d… hoped you would be chosen, but… this is a beautiful thing, too.”

“It is. The Cemi spoke to me. It told me that it loved me, that it thought I was worthy, even if my body wasn’t. It’s voice… it was heavenly, Mom…”

She reaches up and touches my cheek. She’s crying and so is my sister.

The female Caretaker approaches us. “Let us move to the side. Alkar will be the first.” She cradles the dormant Cemi against her. It’s a duller shade of red, with a series of rust colored scales on its cap; the clear sign of a dormant Cemi versus a vibrant, telepathic one.

The Caretaker stands in front of the altar. “Alkar, do you wish to address the gallery?”

He nods. “For fifteen years, I’ve hoped I would be lucky enough to share my body with one of the Cemi. Clearly, it was not meant to be. I could try for another time or two, but… something told me today that this was the right thing to do, and the right time. I spent my life with my heart and mind dedicated to the Cemi. Now, my body shall join them. I pray that my death brings glory to them.”

I want to run up there and hug him as he had hugged me earlier, but the time for that had already passed. Instead, I nod to him and mouth one word, “glory.”

He removes his robe and begins folding it neatly. He kisses it, then sets it aside. He exhales, trying to clear his mind as he crawls on to the cold stone altar.

The male Caretaker approaches him. “Are you ready, child?”

He smiles and folds his arms across his body. “Yes.”

The Caretaker cradles the Cemi with one arm now. His free gloved hand extends toward Alkar. With one finger, the Caretaker smears a thick grease across his throat. It begins to sizzle and Alkar gasps as I had earlier. The grease is the same chemical that the Cemi had used to mark me earlier. Periodically, it is extracted for cases like this, so that a Candidate never marked as imperfect can still give themselves. The Caretaker places the dormant Cemi on Alkar’s throat. Within seconds, its mycelium began to burrow into his throat.

Alkar smiles as he labors to breathe. We can see his body begin to relax. Moments later, a look of bliss washes over him. His breath hurries until it simply stops with one large exhale. We all applaud.

The Caretaker turns and looks at the gallery. We all speak the mantra in unison, “Our hearts, our minds, our bodies belong to the Cemi. Our bodies prepare their way as their glory guides ours!”

The Caretaker turns back to the body that was once Alkar, now host to the newest Cemi micro-colony. For the next three to five years, Alkar’s body will serve as host for generations of Cemi. He picks up the body and carries it off to a room to the side.

I hug my mother for the last time. “I love you. Thank you for helping raise me for this.”

“You’ve made all of us proud, son. Remember what the Cemi told you. It loved you. You’re worthy.” My mother lets go and touches my cheek. The next thing I know, my sister is throwing her arms around me.

“I’m sorry for all the times I was jealous. I…”

I interrupt her. “No, you don’t have to apologize. Who doesn’t dream, Candidate or servitor, of becoming a Host? It’s… natural. Don’t worry, sis. You’ll have your chance, even if it’s like this.”

She nods and sniffles as tears run down her face. She lets me go and I approach the altar.

The female Caretaker stands in front of the altar, facing me. “Fresam, do you wish to address the gallery?”

I nod and smile as I look up at them, then back down to my family. “I turned twenty just a while ago and I couldn’t wait for this day.” I chuckle. “I’ll admit, I thought it would go a little different. Still, I couldn’t be more proud to be Cymali. When the Cemi marked me as imperfect, it whispered to my mind. It told me that I was worthy, it told me that it loved me, and that it pained them to have to mark me because they knew how much I believed in them, and how much I wanted it. That… was the proudest moment of my life… until now. I’ve spent my life dedicating my heart and mind to the Cemi. Now, my body will truly belong to them, and I can’t wait.” I pull the beautifully detailed robe off, fold it, and place it next to Alkar’s.

I crawl on to the altar and see the Caretaker approach me. She looks down, smiling. “Are you ready, child?”

“Please.” I fold my hands over my chest and she places the dormant Cemi on my throat. I feel fluid rushing down my throat as its mycelium begin to penetrate into my body. I close my eyes as the world begins to fade.

I can hear that voice, I think?

I wish it would speak a little louder.

Ah… Such a beautiful voice.

I love you, child. You are worthy, and your body will feed our kind for generations. Let your body relax, child. Your time has come. We are proud of you.

 

My breathing stopped and I couldn’t hear my heart beat.

I thought I heard one last whisper.

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