The history of the Four Herds begins in the end of another age. Few remember the age that preceded the age of humans, 1,996 seasons ago. Only those who have laid eyes upon the gods — the eternal Anima of the most prominent individuals of the prior age — know of their customs and ilk. Mortals cannot interact in the flesh and bone with the gods, but rather must mediate any counsels via the Anima of their deceased ancestors — who await the day when the age of humans ends and they too can rule Hanan — or with powerful Spirits. Mortals will be mortals; that is the identity of humans in Kai, the earth. The roles of gods and Spirits, however, are more defined and restricted. The gods govern Hanan in the sky, discussing with the gods of past ages in the higher and older tiers of Hanan, and holding vigil over all that is touched by the light of day. The Spirits must carry out the wishes of their siempre-deberes, the talismans that give them their immortal power. Spirits can ally with mortals or with the gods, with other Spirits or with the beasts of the terrain. They can travel to Hanan, Kai, or Uku as they wish. But all must obey the nature of their siempre-debers, or run the risk of losing influence over their elements and their own lives. The Chosen Children, those mortals offered to serve the gods in their youth, carry out the gods’ wishes in Kai, and all law-abiding humans are obligated to serve them in return.
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Patcha and Kooteeck felt that the end of the day was anticlimactic. They had both known for a time that this would be their last day working together in the fields before their more intensive training began. This brief respite from the harvest before the Northern Season would be their last, as well. Just after these few months ended, Patcha would travel with her father to the city in order to find her new future. Kooteeck’s life had seemed like it was going to be the same harvesting routine every year in her home of Raua, until she had received the good news. However, the following day, the last day of the fruit harvest, today, was so boring that the entire family had all but forgotten her engagement.
Kooteeck briefly paused, fighting with the weight of the fruit basket on her back, to pick up part of a fallen branch that held an old wasp’s nest. She finally grasped it when Patcha kindly put her sandaled foot beneath. This liberated the loose dirt on the trail, which gleamed scarlet in the sunlight traversing the peak of the distant mountains.
“Do you think this would be a good wedding gift?” inquired Kooteeck, twirling the branch around in her fingers while they continued their arduous walk toward the village. The turning movement briefly fixed the stick in her curly hair. That was how life had always seemed to Patcha since her childhood; her sister was the curly one, never directed on one route, mentally or physically. Patcha, meanwhile, had to be the rock of the family, with a round face and resolved heart.
No one else was there to hear such a ridiculous enunciation. The pair’s only company was the little shrubbery bordering the path continuing from the forest and the scent of the fruits in the baskets upon their backs. As usual, the tropical Peeskoos of prey could be seen circling in the sky, directed home for an evening’s rest, just like the two girls.
“Are you joking?” Patcha wondered incredulously, glancing at her sister to make sure that her skin was a healthy, non-heat-stroke color. It was dark, like that of most frontiersmen and farmers, but not too red or wrinkled from the sun.
“No, no, I’m wondering if we could dye it a pretty color. It’s been a while since I’ve dyed something. We could do it together, like the old days.” She stressed the one word with pleasure.
Patcha chuckled halfheartedly. “We’re a little old for the old days. We’re grown up now; you don’t have to try to please papa if you don’t want to.”
“No, I do want to. It’s not like we’ll be saying goodbye forever. More than likely we’ll all end up in the Ore King’s service! I’m thinking I could be his personal gardener…”
Patcha did not indulge her sister’s sudden fantasies of gardening for the leader of their Ore Kingdom. It was true that the nobility had taken a special interest in Patcha, and subsequently the entire family, but Patcha had a suspicion that she had gotten more than she had bargained for with her Trial. She had been aiming high on this test of culture, high enough to start as a registrar for the Ore King, to travel around the greater Empire beyond the Kingdom. But she had done too well to be allowed to stay on the fringe of the Empire. Now, she would likely be spending the days after her recent First Puberty working for the royals. Kooteeck seemed content with that, except for the family’s needing to leave Raua. This vexed Patcha to no end. She’d aimed for high marks in the trial, but she had never intended to strip her family of its home. Her efforts had flourished, but now their fruits were ripe enough to be plucked away by the nobles. Too ripe to ignore.
Perhaps that was why Kooteeck was so nostalgic all of the sudden. That, or it was her imminent trial marriage. Kooteeck was only engaged for a one-season trial marriage, as were many young farmers who had never met their fiancés. She would be with her trial husband during the time most adults would be in service to the Mita, working a yearly shift on the empire’s projects. Patcha wondered if Kooteeck would prefer the short, easy trial marriage or be pressured by the limited time allowed to judge her fiancé.
The sun was already gone by the time they entered the village, and the first stars were beginning to appear. Kooteeck hummed a cant that Patcha immediately recognized as their childhood favorite, the Tune of the Four Herds. It had once filled their malleable minds with wonder of the outside world, but now Patcha did her best to ignore its verses.
Four Herds, six kings, all parts of a whole
Bringing light to all the land
Joined, by truth
Two tribes, two loves, warring gods above
Twin volcanoes born of loss
Patcha ignored the story that the song called to mind. A tale of forbidden love between members of the two original tribes, who fought at the bidding of the gods. When the two lovers died for their love, their Anima became the first Volcano Spirits of the twin Central Volcanoes. In the valley between the two lived the four shepherds that gave rise to the Four Herds, one of which was Patcha and Kooteeck’s Ore Herd.
But Patcha ignored that.
She was stuck in contemplation. The doors to the homes had already been secured with rotting planks of wood from the jungle — it was unusual for homes elsewhere in the Empire to not have a tapestry over the door, but the residents of Raua found it useless to leave them out for the elements to ruin, except on special occasions — leaving nothing but footprints in the loose, ash-like dirt that set the village apart from the jungle or open farmland. Patcha could smell soup cooking behind nearly every door. All the other families were already shut in for the night, having merely met their quota in the fields and returned. Patcha and Kooteeck’s parents had insisted that the family exceed the quota this month, but were still furious when the twins arrived home after dark.
“You know the Soikles will be hatching any day now!” their father scolded them. “They would have been right on your heels with all that fruit on your backs!” His hands were stained green from the day’s work, and he still wore his clay-crusted apron over his thin, feather ruwana, which stretched from his shoulder to his thighs in a large triangle. Seeing him so furious in his outfit reminded Patcha of back when she, too, despised assisting her father in the shop, and he would berate her for every careless “mistake” she made in the name of boredom.
“Sorry, papa,” the two apologized in unison, Patcha a bit more earnestly than Kooteeck. They set their baskets down near the door and helped their mother put the plank in place to hold the door barred — at least, barred to anything without opposable thumbs. The kitchen seemed larger than usual, now that Patcha thought about leaving it. She had always thought it cramped, as the pots and bowls from the dye workshop spilled out all over the floor where niches in the walls would not hold them. The floor was earth and straw, as the constant dirt being brought inside by the girls’ fruit picking rendered the concept of a wooden floor utterly ridiculous. The chimney — so colorful with all the artwork of Patcha and Kooteeck’s childhood — and the plain, grey benches shaped out of the stone wall next to it were the only ‘kitchen’ aspects of the kitchen. The weavings of Patcha and Kooteeck’s mother were all kept upstairs in the storeroom, right next to the sleeping loft. Patcha had never viewed the place as so comfy and so dismal at the same instant, unable to stop imagining how life among royalty would be.
“Red Spirit!” Kooteeck suddenly exclaimed to the patron of the red lensed like her. “Where in the Four Herds did you get that?”
Patcha ceased her contemplation to see what the commotion was about. Kooteeck was peering into the pot over the fire in the chimney. Patcha scented the air. “Is that milk?” she wondered excitedly.
“Of course,” their mother replied slyly. “What else would be fit for a bride?”
Kooteeck howled deeply with delight, shaking her hands and feet with excitement. Patcha glanced at her sister’s shoes, and she could see them tearing at the seams (again) as Kooteeck’s toes curled up and down with her energy. Patcha tried to imagine her excitable younger twin fasting before the wedding ceremony, but failed. There was no way that Kooteeck could have enough self-control to keep from running around outside for four days. Nevertheless, Patcha’s mouth watered at the thought and smell of such a luxury. He must be nearly blue-blooded to send fresh milk all the way down here, she thought as the family sat down for supper.
The subject matter immediately turned to the wedding, and the preparation for the event. Kooteeck had wondered countless times at the identity of her suitor, and how handsome and well-off he must be. Their parents happily engaged in the conversation, knowing that the matter of Patcha’s Trial was still sensitive, and their slightly older daughter would not tolerate any more praise. Patcha was truly disappointed with the scores, and occupied with thoughts of being confined to small quarters in a huge palace that she was forbidden to see. Papa thought that such thoughts were ludicrous, but Patcha would not be consoled. She did not rejoice in the thought of Kooteeck’s wedding, quietly worrying for her sister’s wellbeing, and secretly wondered if a suitor of such high-standing was the result of their family’s new prominence. Prominence gained through Patcha’s Trial.
The small feast was soon over, and the fire put out so as not to attract any Soikles to the village. Patcha climbed the ladder into the loft — the stairs were cluttered with various pots and clothes — and crawled over to the corner near the window, where her grandfather had once slept, the eyes behind his rosy glasunes slowly diminishing in performance: milky white eyes behind a bone frame, visible only through a layer of red lens.
She pulled back the drape, a wonderful green and beige pattern that her mother had once used to carry Patcha into the forest with her when she was only an infant, and looked out into the night sky. She pulled a small bit of clay from beneath her nearby fur pillow, but saw that it had hardened since last night when she had discovered the spot’s perfect stargazing properties. After sitting a moment and thinking, she pulled off her violet, wool ruwana to expose her arm. At her elbow was her elbone, a perfectly sharpened bit of bone extruding from the skin — her grandfather had always complemented her on its figure, so similar to her grandmother’s, although others, including Kooteeck, hated the elbone as a symbol of her mixed origins. She wet the elbone with saliva. Just as she had suspected, the acid did not bite through the bone, though it would have through flesh. She angled her arm awkwardly, using the acid on the end of the bone as a kind of dye that dissolved a bit of clay where she drove in the point. At the top of the rectangular tablet was a detailed map of last night’s stars. Becoming accustomed to her new carving utensil, she took careful note of the names of the constellations off aside — which she had neglected to note the night before when her sister had come to bed early, nearly catching Patcha — referring to her separate chart of invented symbols whenever she was unsure.
In the sky, she could see no red, only an empty range of purples. The stars appeared pink through the filter of her red lenses. Making sure that no one else was in the loft with her, and listening to her parents and sister discuss wedding dress colors below, she hesitantly removed her red lenses from her glasunes’ frame. She felt blinded for a moment as the cool colors of the night became more saturated. And then, she began to sketch what she saw before her eyes tonight.
I must practice these symbols, she told herself somewhat frenetically. These self-invented symbols had been the reason for her outstanding trial results, she was certain of it. She had used the loose dirt outside and the dye from her father’s workshop to paint and etch them wherever she could. The rest of the village was baffled by the appearance of the strange symbols on barn doors and fence posts and the occasional pet. They had never known scratches to convey messages in the way words and pictures could. But Patcha had been studying Trial-relevant facts and speeches every time she had passed by a wooden post she had dyed or some wet dirt that still bore the symbols.
Not even her sister knew how to read the little system Patcha had invented. How could she? Everyone else lived in a world of descriptive pictures and verbal words, whereas Patcha had trained herself to understand meaningless scratches on a clay tablet. Only a local Bloodstealer from Raua’s temple knew that Patcha was the one marking things, but knew not what for.
She was quite irritated when her family interrupted the process of marking tonight’s stargazing by coming up to sleep. But they were so drowsy from the day’s work and worries and having milk for dinner that they were all quickly in slumber. Patcha, once again, quietly crawled over various feather and fur blankets and robes to reach the window, popped out the lenses of her glasunes, spit on her elbone, and began to write.
Perhaps hours had passed, and Patcha had begun to instead etch an account on the wooden floor beneath the blankets — she had run out of clay — of the names of all the fruit-bearing plants she knew. Then she heard a strange sound: a thump on the opposite side of the wall she sat against. She froze and slipped her lenses back on, wondering if she should pull back the drape. She heard the noise again soon after, this time four quick taps in quick succession. Readying the hard block of solid clay, she pulled back the blanket.
The night was just as still and silent as before, the nightlife of the jungle still far off. The stars were the only thing illuminating the empty streets of the village. The thatch, stone, sod, and wooden homes all remained silent with slumber. Patcha moved over to her left so that she could see farther right, and saw a black shape the size of a large Alkoh against the wall of the house, two yellow dots gleaming back at her. It was hugging the wall about a man’s height away from the ground.
She stifled a gasp as the thing moved its head. The moonlight on its shaggy back seemed to glow pink through the tint of her glasunes, but the pure, pale-yellow color of its eyes was so strong it broke through. This was no Soikle, as they were too heavy to climb and had nothing to grab with anyway. But then what was it?
Patcha bit her lip, and then made a sound like a Whistling Peelee. The creature’s head moved again, tilting slowly aside. The movement looked so familiar…
“A Qhilla? What are you doing all the way out here?” Qhillas were far too slow to have made the journey from the forest to civilization in a few mere hours, and if this one had traveled by day it was impossible that a Condor or some other predator (even some child!) would not have seen it. It was the largest one Patcha had ever seen, and the only one she had ever seen in the village. The Qhilla slowly moved its shaggy, moss-covered arm toward her face. She moved back with ease, and the animal left its arm outstretched. She sighed, wondering if it would make that annoying tapping sound if she left it to its own devices.
But then she noticed something odd about its paw. It was not shaggy like the rest of its featureless body, and its long nails appeared to be hidden by a smooth sack. Sticking her head out of the window for a closer look, she saw that a leather glove covered its paw. She slipped the glove off of the Qhilla’s paw. The creature was gone from the wall in an instant. She gasped, watching the ground for where it might have fallen, but she instead saw it slowly crawling across the street a few feet away.
“What in Ore’s name…?” She clenched the glove tightly as she leaned out the window to get a closer look at the still-living Qhilla on the ground below. It stopped as she watched it, and turned its head over a stunningly long period of time to look at her, its yellow eyes seeming to resonate some ulterior meaning.
Patcha looked down at the glove that had been on its hand. How could it have come across a glove? Unless…
“Red Spirit…” she cursed. “It’s a spirit!” Making sure that her family was not awake, she slipped both legs out of the window. She wouldn’t be able to lock the door downstairs from the outside, and she couldn’t leave her family vulnerable to Soikles — this was the only remaining way out. She maneuvered down the path her sister always took to sneak out at night during the Southern Season and swim in the river. She slipped clumsily and crashed to the ground, her elbone digging into the soft earth. She yanked it out. The Qhilla was now all the way in between the homes adjacent to hers; this was no ordinary creature. Patcha ran after it, and found herself hard pressed to keep up. Every now and then, she would blink, and it would be lost from sight.
She was some ways out of the village and uphill, toward the temple, when a nearby holler met her ears. She faltered for just a moment, and the Qhilla vanished. She cursed, knowing that she had to help instead of following the spirit. She shot off in the direction of the cries. It wasn’t long before her blood ran cold at the sight of Soikle tracks among the shrubbery.
A boy was cornered on the foundation of an abandoned store house. He had a sling, useless to him at such close proximity, slung over his right shoulder. He instead used his gloved left hand to wield a traveling stick coated in frost. The pack of tiny Soikles, each no larger than a Meesee, seemed to have just cornered the cloaked young man, who retreated as far back as he could on the foundation before reaching a wall. He leaped forwards again as some of the Soikles attempted to climb the base with their hairy black legs, swatting them with his icy staff to keep them away.
“Help!” he called out again. The newly-hatched Soikles spit at him, but as they could only aim lengthwise, they hit each other. One glob of acid saliva met the boy’s staff, and it dissolved before Patcha’s eyes.
She stood still, as quietly as possible, so that the Soikles wouldn’t notice her. How could she help him? She had heard only stories of how to combat Soikles, but had never been trained in the methods, especially not under pressure.
Then, from her left, there came a mellifluous voice, chanting soothing tones.
Guess my name, guess my name,
I’ll give you just three tries.
Guess my name, guess my name,
Act quickly to surmise.
I want respect and offerings,
But cannot choose my fate.
I’m named a fearsome jungle king,
From none will I claim hate.
By the time these verses were done, the Soikles had frantically begun to dash in different directions, searching for the source of the cant. But when they did not succeed, they stood still, the shadows of their six legs and bulging eyes swaying with the rhythm. The boy spotted Patcha, and she indicated him to stay where he was for now. The voice sang in a high pitch, but belonged to a boy. Patcha recognized it almost immediately; the one singing the lullaby was the Bloodstealer who knew her secret.
I, unborn king born from kooma,
Will one day claim my throne.
All spirits, gods, and moral men,
Will leave me to my own.
Seeing that the Soikles were pacified by the song, Patcha motioned for the young man to come down from the stone platform. He swiftly and gracefully obliged, though Patcha could see he was shaking and choosing his steps carefully. Patcha, too, began to back up, and was about to turn when the Bloodstealer appeared. His lenseless, blue eyes twinkled in the moonlight, a crude knife in his hand as he approached the Soikles. Patcha and the boy turned and jogged back to the village as the Bloodstealer finished off the little monsters.
“I thank you and your friend for saving me,” the stranger told her as they entered among the boundaries of the first homes, picking their way through fields of potatoes.
“He’s not my friend; he’s a Bloodstealer,” Patcha corrected him, eyeing his strange staff warily. How could it be frozen at this low altitude? “But it’s my pleasure. Why are you traveling alone at night, away from the road?”
The stranger did not answer, but asked, “Is that my glove in your hand?”
Patcha glanced at it and presented it to him. So the Qhilla had intended to lead her to him the entire time… How was he involved with a spirit? Her mind was amassing enough questions that she wanted to copy them down to keep track of them, as only she and her symbols could. As the boy slipped his glove over his right hand, she noticed that his knuckles were scaled.
“You’re an Island Dweller!” she gasped. She was tempted to scold herself for being so rude. “Pardon, I’m only a little surprised. Are you…full Island Dweller or part?”
The short young man pulled his hood down from over his head. She was amazed to find that his lenses were a deep brown, behind them hazel eyes. He was incredibly thin, his hair almost completely cut from his angular head, slanted at the forehead. Of course, she realized. He’s a Chosen Child! His appearance answered many questions. Because he was ethnically an Islander, he must have first learned how to master blue lenses, and subsequently could, of course, cover his staff with any form of water he chose, including ice. If he was a Chosen Child, meant to serve the gods, then he probably dealt with spirits regularly (though she couldn’t imagine why he would choose a Qhilla) and was likely assisting them with some quest. He must be powerful, she thought, judging by the tint of his lenses. Only someone who had learned many different magics would have enough colors to blend into a nice shade of brown. But these answers only washed more questions to the surface of Patcha’s mind.
“Where did you find this glove?” he inquired, unsmiling but not unkindly. As the North Season was approaching, she could see his breath in the nocturnal cold. It took her a moment to realize that no horns were growing from his temples — the usual sign that a Chosen Child had been given a quest. Why else would he be out in the real world if not for a quest? Was he following the Qhilla, or hunting it? It certainly couldn’t be his patron animal…no one would want to accept the powers of a Qhilla!
“Well, a Qhilla brought it to me,” she told him slowly. “But not any ordinary Qhilla, a fast one…”
Just then, they heard pounding footsteps behind them. Patcha and the boy paused to see the Bloodstealer jogging toward them, his knife gone. They waited for him to catch up, his thin, weak legs looking to be near collapse beneath him. His eyes had tears in them from the cold and the exertion, and he panted as he came to a stop before them, hugging the rags he had for clothes. The moonlight made the black, dual-snake tattoo around his neck — the symbol that marked him as a Bloodstealer — shine silver.
“Young Miss Ango Char,” he addressed her formally, “are you all right?”
“Yes,” Patcha replied curtly.
“My thanks to you,” the Chosen Child said gratefully, even kneeling to the Bloodstealer. “My name is Mawnco.”
Didn’t I tell him he was a Bloodstealer? Patcha thought to herself, trying to revisit their brief conversation to make certain. Why is he bowing to him? And thanking him?
The Bloodstealer blushed at the boy’s kindness. “It was no trouble. An honor, really, to help a traveler.” The Bloodstealer then kneeled back, compensating for the reverence that he had received.
“Those beasts are subdued by song?”
Both Patcha and the Bloodstealer were shocked by his ignorance. What kind of helpless and clueless Chosen Child was this?
“They are easily manipulated creatures with weak minds,” Patcha told him. “They will obey whatever tone of music they hear. And so if they hear the Escopu’s Lullaby, then they fall asleep.”
“An Escopu’s egg,” he whispered to himself. “I remember that riddle now.”
At least he knows the answer to the most common riddle in the Empire, Patcha considered. An unhatched Escopu, waiting to be worshipped. She nodded. “We had better get inside somewhere. There could be more Soikles lurking about. There’s likely more than one cloister of eggs waiting to hatch out in the forest.” Patcha started off toward her home, thinking up a way to hide her tablet before she offered the spot by the window to this boy.
“What is your name?” the traveler asked the Bloodstealer.
“My name?” The sickly, lenseless, blue-eyed boy seemed shocked by the question. “Capac. My name is Capac.”
“Your full name?”
“Where is your twin?”
“He’s still at the temple. I was on guard when I heard your yells.”
“Interesting,” the boy said to himself. “Good night to you. And once again, thank you for your services.”
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 Culture: Patriarch of the Ore Herd
 Culture: A trial of cultural, historical, and geographical knowledge taken by every youth before First Puberty. A high score may lead to a government position.
 Culture: It is customary in certain areas of the Four Herds to arrange a trial marriage between a couple that has not yet met, ensuring that they are familiar with each other when and if they decide to officially wed. The wealthy are generally engaged for a year, the poor for one season.
 For a portion of the year, representatives from every family must work in service to the Sun King and Queen in a system known as the Mita. Employment ranges from construction to record-keeping to maintenance to skilled jobs such as entertainment or cooking
 History: A reference to the pre-empirical Two Loves of old, belonging to the original two tribes that were pitted against each other in a war by the gods above. When the Two gave their lives for their love, their spirits gave rise to the two Central Volcanoes, the valley between which was home to the Four Shepherds that founded the modern empire.
 Fauna: A species of giant insect native to the lower, more humid climates of the Four Herds. It has useless wings but deadly acid, and is born from a clutch of translucent eggs. Eats anything its acid can digest
 Culture: A modest item of clothing, triangular and extending from the shoulders to the hips or knees, often made of feathers
 Culture: The Patron Spirit of those who wield red lenses
 Culture: Royal, noble, or aristocratic
 Culture: Glasunes are a facial feature uniform for every human, a frame of bone protruding from the flesh around the eyes. The color of lens determines one’s ability to see and use items of power.
 Blood: A trait marking someone as a Jungle Dweller, though they may also be of mixed ancestry. Elongated bones that protrude from the arms of those with Jungle Dweller blood. It is common for Jungle Dwellers of mixed ancestry to have theirs removed in their Rite of Age Ceremonies.
 Blood: One who has stolen the eye-color of his or her parent(s), possibly due to evil forces. Identifiable when his or her eye color is identical to one of more of his or her parent’s. One of the two types of Bloodkoomas, who are said to be the reincarnations of evildoers
 Fauna: A domesticated canine used to guard homes, track quarry, or as a companion
 Fauna: A species of Peeskoo named for its unique call, used whenever the creature is agitated or excited
 Fauna: An arboreal jungle-dwelling animal characterized by its slow movements, thick fur, and long claws
 Fauna: A semi-domesticated feline used to catch rodents or as a companion
 Blood: A trait distinguishing one as an Island Dweller, also seen in those of mixed heritage
 Culture: Humans given into the gods’ service at a young age and trained to carry out their wishes