The Flood Thieves Chapter 3: Two Trails of Blood

Bloodkoomas are the disgrace of the human race. There are two breeds of Bloodkooma: the Bloodstealer and the Bloodslayer. While both are equally menacing, and treated as such, the Bloodstealer has hope for redemption. Simply put, the Bloodstealer is he who has stolen the exact eye color of one of his parents. However, the eye colors of some Bloodstealers have been known to change with age and repenting labor. Bloodstealers are born with their twins like any other healthy child. But the Bloodslayer is beyond redemption, for he is born without his twin, and can only be assumed to have slain him in the womb. The Bloodkooma is believed to be the punished Animus of a past evildoer who has been denied entry among the ranks of humans awaiting their destiny as gods in Hanan. Instead, his Animus was circulated back into the ground, down through the darkest depths of Uku, tainted by and further tainting the darkness that dwells beneath Kai, until his Animus was granted another chance at life. A Bloodkooma who behaves himself will be allowed among the ranks of the deceased between Kai and Hanan. He who disobeys his Janpee or Master will repeat the cycle once more. As a mark of disgrace, the Bloodkooma’s neck bears the tattoo of Uku’s twin serpents. They are without glasunes and without power.

Θ                                             Θ                                             Θ

“Capac, wake up.”

Roca was shaking him. Capac sat up, feeling the warmth of the sun on his feet. The shadow of the temple wall they slept next to only reached just past his knees. They were some eight feet off the ground, where they were safe from the Soikles during the North Season, which would be starting soon. The fields before them seemed empty, the South Season crop already harvested. For weeks they had woken to the pleasant sight of farmers tending the fields as water flushed through irrigation canals. Only a gentle breeze met the twin brothers atop the stone wall, carrying with it the scent of distant chimneys cooking breakfast.

“What’s going on?” Capac wondered, stretching and yawning. As he’d been guarding the temple the night before, it was Roca’s turn in the morning.

“Chusku wants to see you. A Red Runner[1] came in from Ayar.”

“Why is Ayar sending us messages?” Capac, spurred on by curiosity, stood and began to climb down the side of the pyramidal temple to look for the sunburned messenger.

It was immediately evident that word of the messenger had reached the ayllu[2] council, and its three senior members were crowded outside the entrance to the temple. The sun rose from the east, and cast a light directly into the stone doorway, which led downwards into the inner sanctum. Capac thought that the Red Runner would now be resting in Chusku’s chamber just beyond it, but was surprised to see the messenger’s face, red from a lifetime of sun, amidst the aged brown of the elders’. Chusku had been discussing something with the elders when Capac rounded the corner. They made themselves silent as soon as they spotted the Bloodkooma, but Capac had managed to pick up the words “Soikle”, “Sisi[3]”, and “Chosen Child”. The first two made Capac’s skin crawl, but the last excited him. He inwardly felt elated for having rescued a Chosen Child. And the Chosen Child had addressed Capac with such respect!

“Capac,” Chusku addressed him. “Did you fight off a pack of Soikles last night?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you lost your knife?”

“It was stuck in one.”

“That’s all I need to know.”

Capac remained expressionless, but knew that he would be punished for losing the knife. He was disappointed that his moment of glory had ended before it began.

Chusku continued his conversation with the Red Runner, but did not give Capac permission to leave.

“Were Runners sent out to any other villages?”

“Yes, all of them,” the Red Runner responded. His voice was shockingly deep for one of such small stature, thin from years of extensive training and running. He wore very short, thin clothing, even in the North Season, and a pouch was tied around his neck, probably carrying cacao. “You are the farthest to the east, and the Sun King and Queen[4] do not intend to send word to Jungle Dwellers.”

Capac wasn’t surprised to hear that the rulers of the Empire did not care for those who shared the eastern border.

“Good, then I need you to send word to the rest of the village to meet here once they are done breaking their fast. But do not tell them why. If you give even the slightest hint that they should evacuate, they’ll deny all the signs. It’s one thing to have the stubbornness of a Mountain Dweller, it’s another to also have the stubbornness of a frontiersman.”

The Red Runner did not inquire any further, but immediately left to deliver the news. Capac felt faint from his suspicion of what news Chusku had for the villagers. He knew that he should feel joyous, but couldn’t prevent his stomach from rising into his throat. He glanced at the sky, though he knew it was too soon to tell the signs of an oncoming apocalypse.

The elders and Chusku waited peacefully and patiently for the village to assemble. Chusku motioned for Capac to bring them breakfast. Shakily, Capac entered the temple through the drape depicting the royal panthers, poised in the same pose as the snakes tattooed around his own neck. The inner sanctum was just as it usually was. It held hardly enough space for the central Chakana[5] — the legendary, spiritual doorway that made a temple a temple. Beneath the sky light, a dozen prayer mats, three on each wall. surrounded the Chakana. No one had made any offerings since the death of the Ango Char family’s elder, Patcha’s grandfather. Crude tapestries by the local weavers depicted scenes from basic children’s fables, and on a single pedestal to the right stood a petrified tree stump bearing all the jewelry that anyone had ever been predisposed to donate. Two corridors led out of the far corners, one to the pantry and living quarters for Chusku and his visitors (most often the Karaka[6] minister the imperial government sent to their ayllu), the other to the tombs of the mummified. Capac couldn’t help but pause and stare at the latter, the tapestry in the doorway depicting the Flood[7] that the messenger had come to warn of. The Flood that would carry the deceased Anima to Hanan. The Flood that would kill all Bloodkoomas so that they could be redeemed.

He imagined that he could hear the crawling of the Sisis in their jar beyond that doorway. Chusku cared for them personally, and Capac had always half-wished that he would one day be the one to announce the arrival of the Flood with them. But now he half-regretted that half-wish.

He retrieved some quick food from the pantry: some tostado from the night before, dried fruit brought in from the harvest, and a jar of cacao powder and leaves for the Red Runner. Capac illicitly scooped enough cacao out to cover his three fingers well enough so that his saliva wouldn’t burn them[8] — Bloodstealer or not, he still had a Mountain Dweller’s acidic saliva — and then licked them clean. The bitter taste immediately gave his system a jolt and filled him with confidence.

Roca was there by the time he returned. He and his twin waited in silence, and Capac informed his brother of his suspicions of the oncoming Flood. Roca’s face, too, was overcome with a shadow, though his eyes were bright with fear. There seemed to be no choice for them, as it was what all Bloodstealers and Bloodslayers did when the time came, but Capac still felt too young. Most Bloodkoomas decided to finally redeem their Anima and join their fellow humans in Hanan as equals, no matter what their age was. Even though Capac and Roca hadn’t even gone through First Puberty, they would still be expected to drown themselves in the Floodwaters.

“Hey, at least there are no Soikles in Hanan,” Roca told him lightly when the rest of the village finally started to gather.

Hush!” Chusku growled. “If you knew what was good for you, you wouldn’t talk of such things. There is still time to disfigure you before the afterlife. See how you like spending an eternity without your fingers. I can’t say I’ll miss a few little, stubborn Bloodstealers like you.”

“And there’s no Chusku in Hanan,” Capac told his brother, his mind still giddy from the powder. He began to think of all the people he would not miss. But then thought of Patcha’s dead grandfather, and how he and Roca would probably be the ones to carry the recently deceased out of the temple. He shivered at the memory of Patcha’s grandfather’s milky, blind eyes.

Sometime later, Roca tapped Capac on the shoulder when he spotted their parents in the crowd. They were coming up the hill, not bothering to crowd the path but instead taking the rough way through the fields, still young enough to handle the coarse ground. Capac imagined that he could see his mother’s blue eyes through her red glasunes, the same blue eyes that he and Roca had stolen.

When nearly everyone was present, and the Red Runner had returned and taken his place standing beside Chusku. One of the elders raised her hands toward the sky, maintaining eye contact with the group, and they were soon silent.

“Janpee[9] Chusku, keeper of the temple, has very urgent news, which concerns all of us,” she announced in a voice much bigger than her small stature. As she turned respectfully toward Chusku, her white braids of hair brushed against the earth.

Chusku took a step atop the first large stone of the pyramidal temple, so that everyone could see and hear him more clearly.

“The Flood is upon us,” he said simply. “Roca, fetch the Sisis.”

Capac’s heart began to race uncontrollably as his twin brother disappeared into the building. The crowd murmured amongst itself. The oldest were silent, as they were familiar with the coming of Floods, but the young and excitable were all in a flurry about how this was going to affect their plans. Capac knew well that no matter what their plans were, they would have to leave them behind if they were going to escape the Floodwaters and live. He himself, however, had some thinking to do.

Chusku dismounted from his pedestal and approached Capac with a short blade as bony as his features, his shoulder-length black hair reflecting the morning sun as it approached its crest, his tall frame casting a shadow over his servant. Capac rose and looked into Chusku’s purple lenses, behind which he saw a face of calm pulse. Chusku began by cutting his own palm along the fold of skin, beginning at his thumb and stopping at his third and final finger[10]. He let his blood drip into the sand. Without needing to call for it, someone presented Capac with a knife from the audience. Capac mutilated his hand just as Chusku had done, from the thumb to his third and final finger, his blood dripping out to form a tiny trail as it rolled down the mountain some feet away from Chusku’s. The whole village was now silent, and invigorated children tried to worm their way into the vanguard.

Roca returned with the Sisi jar, which depicted only a black, crudely-painted line of Sisis traversing a continuous tunnel downwards until meeting the jar’s base, the very bottom of which showed countless leaves being collected by the insects. Roca stood between Chusku and Capac, the two fountains of blood, and stripped the jar of its lid. He then turned its contents out into the dirt between the two trails of blood. The insects, along with the scraps of rotting vegetation and soil that they made their home in, fell from inside of the jar and into the dirt, their six legs and mandibles squirming in disarray as soon as they landed. It was the defining moment. Capac heard a mother explain to her ignorant child, “Sisis will normally only choose good blood. But if the Flood is approaching, then they will follow the bad blood of a Bloodkooma.”

Capac could not bring himself to witness the thing as it happened, and the expressions of the townspeople gave away nothing. He looked beyond into the fields, to the horizon where the jungle stretched out of sight, imagining all of it underwater.

These may be my last days here, he thought. Though he resented society for marginalizing him, he couldn’t help but feel grief knowing that he would be leaving his home in Kai forever.

“They follow the bad blood!” Chusku announced. “The Flood is upon us!”

The elders then handed Chusku and Capac bandages. Capac made to give the blade back to the woman who had given it to him, but she would not accept it. The villagers dispersed under the announcement that they should begin packing and await orders for evacuation to the Eastern Capital. Chusku disappeared into the temple to make his own preparations, and the elders followed him into his chamber to rest.

“Capac, look!” Roca, the only other person around, gasped.

Capac finally looked down. The Sisis were swarming his blood, never straying from its path for very long. But while he was not surprised that his blood had not formed a straight trail, he was utterly astounded at the shapes it made now. The Sisis themselves seemed to be relocating the red liquid, digging at the dampened dirt through which the blood had already disappeared and shoving it into odd loops and scratches.

“Is that normal?” Capac wondered breathlessly. He and his brother stood in shock for a few moments, and then Capac realized something. “The characters. They’re forming the characters!”

“Characters?” Roca repeated, finally shifting his gaze from the Sisis and, quizzically, toward his twin. “You lose too much blood. Sisis aren’t people and they definitely can’t play different character roles.”

“I know. Do you remember how I told you that Patcha was the one painting symbols all over the place? Those are some of her symbols. I recognize them perfectly! She told me that that one means ‘lake’.” He indicated to one that was on the end of the series of symbols the Sisis were forming.

Roca still looked skeptical, but saw no point in arguing with his brother at such a volatile time as this. Capac looked down the hill, where he could see the cluster of homes that signaled the very edge of the village, where the fruit harvesters and trappers lived. Without another word, Capac started down the hill by way of the fields, hoping to catch Patcha at her home. There were no Alkohs[11] in the village for him to watch out for, as they were useless when it came to guarding homes from Soikles. He did take an alternative route to avoid a few children playing in the street, but that did not delay him for long. He was not doing anything illicit, but knew that being so far away from the temple would draw suspicion to a conversation that Patcha clearly wanted to keep secret.

He climbed atop the slanted wooden roof of one home and observed the Ango Char home. He saw Kooteeck Mapa and her parents enter, but not Patcha Sapa or the Chosen Child. He waited a few moments to see if she would appear, but then knew that he would need to find her elsewhere, most likely where she hid her supplies.

Capac started down the trail that led out of the village, following Patcha’s fresh shoeprints. They stopped a few feet away from her hiding place, hidden under fresh dirt that she had swept into place to cover her tracks. On either side of him was nothing but open fields, ahead of him the jungle.

Capac crouched beside an agave as large as he was, with green fronds striped with yellow spikes. Tiny wisps of smoke rose from its roots. Picking up a large leaf next to it to avoid being pricked, he shifted the entire plant — he knew it was not as well-rooted as it appeared — aside. He heard shuffling from below and then silence.

“Young Miss Ango Char!” he called down. “I come alone.”

“I thought I told you never to bother me here,” she hissed. Her face, partially coated in dirt, appeared in the hole that was beneath the agave. Her glasunes were glowing red, and Capac knew that she had been using them to create flames to see by beneath the surface.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but this is urgent. I saw some of your symbols at the temple.”

“No, you didn’t. I haven’t marked anything up there. Ever.”

“I swear it, ma’am, I saw the Sisis form symbols with the blood just after everyone left. You must come and see!”

She continued to glare at him, but then her expression turned to horror. Capac turned to look behind him, and saw the Chosen Child, Mawnco, standing over him.

“I didn’t hear you, sir!” he said, as he always did when someone snuck up on him.

“Of course you didn’t,” Mawnco responded, not unkindly. He squatted beside Capac to look down into the hole. “Are you trapped?”

“Um, yes!” Patcha Sapa answered, fervently nodding her head. “Could you help me out?”

“Well, don’t lie to me,” the Chosen Child told her, expressionless. Then he turned to Capac. “What is she doing in a tunnel?”

Capac felt his stomach drop. He couldn’t lie to someone, but Patcha Sapa had ordered him not to tell anyone of her secret cache. He felt his mouth go dry, and let out a small whimper while staring at the sky just beyond the Chosen Child’s face, being sure not to make eye contact with a Chosen Child.

“Don’t make him break his oath of secrecy,” Mawnco pleaded with Patcha. “I’m no threat to whatever you’re doing. You can trust me.”

Patcha groaned, but climbed out of the tunnel. She also conceded to let Capac show her the symbols outside of the temple, as an example to Mawnco. Capac could do nothing to rush them up the hill, but they took the short route. through the main dirt road of the ayllu. Capac wouldn’t be suspected of wrongdoing if he was with them.

Patcha explained as they climbed, “I’m sure you know of the Trial. My results were high enough that I’ll have a lofty position helping the King or running the Mita.”

“Congratulations,” Mawnco responded.

“Yes, well I was never expected to do very well, nor my sister. We both have horrible memories. Well…over the years, I’ve developed a system of symbols, and each symbol represents something in the real world. So I can trace a shape in the dirt, or paint it on a wall, or carve it into wood, and I can come back later and know exactly what it means.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“For instance, if you told me to draw a picture of a condor, and we came back ten years later and saw the picture, we would both immediately know that it was a condor, yes?”

“Yes.”

“But say I drew a line in the dirt, and I told you that that line meant ‘condor.’ If we remember that that means condor, then we can still come back ten years later and know it means condor, but no one else would.”

“Wouldn’t that only complicate things?”

“Well, no. Because there are some things that you just can’t draw. Like the word ‘the’ or ‘Hanan’, or if you don’t have dyes you can’t draw the color green. But with my system I can. I can form entire sentences with them.”

“And so you can memorize all the history and customs you need for the Trial,” Mawnco finished slowly, realization in his voice.

“Yes. And I etched these characters all over the place, so that I could study while going about my daily business. I only have to remember what my teacher says for a day, etch the characters somewhere, and then I can go back and reference it without ever needing anyone else’s help.”

“That’s ingenious!” Mawnco reveled, showing a shocking amount of expression. Capac felt safer around the Chosen Child when there was emotion in his voice. He, too, marveled at Patcha’s invention. He had even figured out the meaning of some symbols for himself, since a few of them looked just like crude pictures.

Patcha continued to tell how she kept this system a secret from the village, becoming guarded when Mawnco inquired as to why. “They wouldn’t understand. And everyone would be too overwhelming if they did,” was Patcha’s only explanation. She kept most of her works underground in the tunnel she and her sister had dug as children, so that no one could accidentally stumble upon them. Capac had once been pushed into the plant as a punishment by Chusku when he failed to cross the river in the forest (for fear of flesh-eating Panyas[12]). He’d returned later to inspect why it had shifted slightly beneath his weight, only to find Patcha.

“I’m glad the Flood is coming,” she said finally. “Grandpa’s eyes were bad enough when he died. They don’t have to get any worse before he gets to Hanan…”

Capac felt obliged to share her sentiments. Her grandfather was lucky to be making the journey before his body withered any further. Capac was lucky, too; it was rare for a Bloodstealer or Bloodslayer to go when he was so young and fit.

Mawnco made a small noise of consent, but when Capac turned to look at his expression, he seemed troubled.

Somehow we’re both troubled by the Flood, Capac considered, realizing the stark contrast between a Bloodkooma with no respect, and a Chosen Child with all the respect in the world.

The Sisis were gone by the time they arrived at the top, and the jar lay forgotten in the dirt. But their handiwork was still there. Mawnco stood off to the side and studied the symbols curiously, his eyes bright with spirit. But Patcha gasped and knelt to examine it frantically.

“Red Spirit,” she cursed.

“What does it mean?” Mawnco prompted, his features slack with anticipation.

Patcha whispered, “It says: ‘We will bring you to the lake. Be ready.’”

Θ                                             Θ                                             Θ

[1] Culture: Specialized messengers posted in medium to large ayllus and cities throughout the Empire. From birth, they are reared to be fast and resilient messengers, serving the government and the people alike. Their skin tends to take on a reddish hue from constant sun exposure.

[2] Culture: The main unit of community

[3] Fauna: Small, wood-eating insects used by temple Janpee to detect oncoming Floods

[4] Culture: Rulers of the Sun Herd, which currently dominates all Four Herds

[5] Culture: The central object of prayer in the Empire. Said to be a doorway connecting the three worlds of Hanan, Kai, and Uku

[6] Culture: Ministers sent on behalf of the Sun King. They often are in charge of more than one ayllu.

[7] History: The rejuvenating flood that revives the world’s energy and allows the deceased to rise to Hanan. Unpredictable, it often only comes a few times in a man’s lifetime.

[8] Blood: The saliva of Mountain Dwellers burns.

[9] Culture: Keeper of a temple, sometimes subordinate to a Master

[10] Fauna: Humans of all Dwellings have three fingers and one thumb.

[11] Fauna: A domesticated canine used to guard houses. Not commonly used on the frontier due to larger predators, such as Soikles

[12] Fauna: A waterborne creature that swims in a group. Though they are small, they can be fierce predators together, stripping creatures of all their flesh in mere moments.


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