The rulers of the age of humans have a love for organization and categorization. Because of this, they have built an empire locked tightly in a system of quick communication, strict rules, and simple but firm hierarchies. The leaders of the land have employed the courier services of spirits known as Lavakoomas, which wield significant power over the fires of Uku beneath the soil. Extensive roads have been paved throughout the Four Herds, stocked with shacks of supplies at regular intervals. None need fret over encountering crime on the royal roads. The royal roads are traveled by Red Runners, the dedicated messengers trained for endurance and speed from birth. The Sun King and Queen have loyal soldiers, likewise raised from birth. Each individual Herd also controls its own standing army. Once a year, either in the Northern or Southern season, at least one member of each household serves in the Mita to aid in the maintenance and building of the empire, in anything from infrastructure to record keeping; the King’s men work on projects in the King’s service, while the Queen’s men work on projects in the Queen’s service. One’s role in the Mita system is determined largely by an oral Trial examination which all the empire’s youth must complete as they approach the time for their Rite of Age Ceremony. As of late, many in the Mita have spent their weeks of service in the Creature Land, organizing and crafting the recently conquered territories to the South.
Θ Θ Θ
Kooteeck had been told not to leave the house alone when Soikles were hatching, but wanted to be alone with the river. She did not know where Patcha or Mawnco were, but did know that they would not be coming here. The water, per the usual, was filled with silt that formed odd shapes when she moved through it. The sluggish current always threatened to pull her downstream, but she stayed in the shallow end where her feet could reach the bottom. Unbeknownst to her family, she had once been attacked by a Soikle, nearly full-grown. But she had only needed to cut its leg with a rock, and the blood attracted a pack of Panyas to strip it of its flesh in mere moments. The dumb Soikle hadn’t had the wits to flee the water.
There was no wind to break the humid air of the jungle. Kooteeck observed the colorful Peeskoos above her, felt the bodies of water-dwelling creatures on her legs, and embraced the cool water. She imagined that she could see ocean creatures among the misty silt and wondered what it would be like to see the entire world flooded.
A twig snapped in the bushes somewhere beyond the river, but she paid it no mind. Above, in the canopy, she saw a Qhilla hanging from a tree branch, slowly making its way along in a manner so slow it could only be a Qhilla. She did eventually glance over to see if she could make out a pair of timid eyes among the foliage, but instead saw the tip of an arrow.
Kooteeck panicked, dipping her head far enough underwater so that only her eyes and nose showed. Water lapped at her glasunes.
A man, covered only around the waist and painted all over in green to match his lenses, emerged. He did not drop his weapon, and continued to brandish it at Kooteeck. Protruding from his elbows were arrow-shaped stretches of bone. Kooteeck wondered if he would leave her in peace if she showed him that she, too, was part Jungle Dweller. But he would probably instead be offended that Kooteeck, in frustration and resentment for her grandmother’s ethnicity, had beaten off a good portion of her elbones with a rock years ago.
He spoke to her in a coarse but shallow voice. “Are the rumors true?”
Kooteeck kept her head beneath the water, neither knowing what he asked nor answering.
“If my arrow so much as pricks your flesh, the Panyas will be on you in a heartbeat,” the man warned, never moving a muscle. “I recommend you cooperate.”
Kooteeck slowly lifted her head out of the water. “What rumors?” she whispered. The man heard her.
“Of the Flood.”
Kooteeck briefly wondered if she should lie. After all, the world would be better off with fewer Jungle Dwellers, in her humble opinion. But if this man had heard tell of the Flood, then perhaps he already knew the answer.
The man nodded. “The Jungle Siblings thank you.”
Without another word, the man crept, kneeling backwards, into the foliage, and was gone. Kooteeck waited for her heartbeat to slow, and then ran home.
Θ Θ Θ
The family did not think much of Kooteeck’s encounter with one of the savage Jungle Dwellers because she did not tell them that she had been in the jungle. Alone. During the cold transition to the North Season. Instead, she found a few small girls and a boy playing Pop Ball and joined them, letting the sun and wind dry her before she headed home.
“Kooteeck, are you going to find out what your tattoo means?” inquired Achik, a little girl with green eyes behind red glasunes and incredibly short hair. She was the only one to wear a long skirt to a Pop Ball game.
“Yes, I am,” Kooteeck told her. She saw that Achik did not share Kooteeck’s tattoo design, but rather Patcha’s. Kooteeck’s tattoo depicted a cluster of knuckle-sized black spots in the shape of a crescent moon, as did the tattoos of all the younger “Mapa” twins in the village.
Achik’s, Patcha’s, and those of all the eldest twins displayed a cluster of stars. Truly, about half of the children she was playing with had one design, and the rest the other. Her mother had the moon like Kooteeck and her father had the stars like Patcha. There was no mistaking the split between the older Sapa and younger Mapa twins of the village. Except between the two Bloodstealers at the temple, who had been given serpent tattoos around their necks instead; no one remembered or cared who the older twin of that pair was.
Only adults knew what this split between the older and younger twins meant. And soon so would Kooteeck, as her Rite of Age would be the week before her marriage. The Flood would not postpone either of them for long.
“Will you tell us?” Mallki, the boy, wondered as he blocked the other team from scoring. Kooteeck mused that at this age, boys were just as good as girls at playing the sport.
“Of course not,” Kooteeck chuckled. It was forbidden. Kooteeck had already heard several rumors of what the tattoos might mean, but she doubted any of them was true. She stole the ball from Achik and managed to score from across the full length of the field with a header. I always wanted to do that. Normal pop balls were far heavier, harder, and sharper than the tiny rag ball these children were using.
“New game!” Achik shouted out. “Kooteeck’s on my team this time!”
Kooteeck grinned. It felt good to be praised, but no one paid Achik any attention. Llaksa collected the ball and threw it back into the game. Feeling powerful, Kooteeck used her longer legs to immediately score again. Since this time the children only looked disappointed, she returned to going easy on them.
Within little time, she was satisfactorily dry. She brushed the dirt off of her as best she could. But before she left the tiny, level-ground pit where they were playing, Mawnco appeared at the top of the cleft that led to the village. Kooteeck paused, not wanting to leave as soon as her house guest appeared.
“It’s Mawnco!” all the kids shouted at once, forgetting their game and running up to him.
“Show us your powers!” Mallki begged, pointing to Mawnco’s brown lenses. The Chosen Child grinned, and pulled out his staff. Frost crept up the pole from where he held it, and then he immediately made it glow hot with red flame, water dripping to the ground.
From the ground, a glow of green signaled the growth of a tiny, violet flower, from which briefly emanated a pure, yellow light that made Kooteeck squint. The children squealed in delight and promptly pulled the flower out from its roots. They began rationing its petals among themselves. Mawnco shook his head, a sly grin across his features.
“You just love putting on a show, don’t you?” Kooteeck inquired, wondering if he would show her more if prompted. She was not going to beg him like a child, but after all, it was not every day that a Chosen Child visited a small village on the frontier.
Mawnco shrugged, but he sheathed his wooden staff in the leather strap he had wrapped around his back. He let out a deep breath.
“I don’t want to waste the village’s magic, of course,” he apologized, bowing his head slightly.
“Well, it’s about to be replenished, anyway,” Kooteeck indicated at the sky, though the signs were not yet visible. The Flood would replenish all the world’s magic, so for now they could waste as much as they wanted. It wasn’t exactly a scarce resource.
“Right,” Mawnco agreed, though somehow he sounded skeptical. “I wanted to ask you, have there ever been any other Bloodkoomas here?”
Kooteeck was startled by the question. “Well, no. Only the two little Bloodstealers now. Why do you ask?”
“No reason, really,” Mawnco said cryptically.
The children were finally done quarreling over parts of the flower, and gathered around Mawnco again, asking the Island Dweller about the islands to the far west.
“Sorry, but if I was ever on the islands, I don’t recall it,” Mawnco told them. “I was only a baby when I was offered into the gods’ service. I have no memory of anything before that.”
“Have you ever seen the Capital?” Achik asked enthusiastically.
“Well, no,” Mawnco said, now blushing. “I’ve only ever been in the jungle and where I was trained.”
“Eww, not the jungle!” Mallki sneered. “Where were you trained?”
“I can’t tell you. It’s forbidden.”
“What can you tell us?” Kooteeck queried, growing somewhat suspicious of this stranger now.
Mawnco only answered with a shrug, and before his shoulders had even fallen back down, the children were at their game again. Mawnco looked crestfallen.
Θ Θ Θ
It was nearly sunset, and all of Kooteeck’s family was preparing for the long trip to the mountains. They did not have much to pack, as they would be unwise to try and carry the pottery. Yet her father was not completely convinced of that.
“If you can bring your rawanas, then I should be able to bring a few little pots,” he argued to Kooteeck’s mother. “We need something to carry things with, don’t we?”
“Yes, that is what the rawanas and baskets are for,” Mother retorted. “They weigh far less than pots and you know it.”
“I also know that the empire will be in dear need of pottery once the Flood is over, and I can gain good standing with the Ore King if —”
“We’re already in good standing, Father,” Kooteeck interrupted. She was already packed. Kooteeck only planned on bringing a single personal possession: a small Panya-tooth necklace that she had made for herself when she was a child. Patcha, of course, was off somewhere doing who knew what, her clothes and some food already wrapped up in the green blanket she couldn’t bear to leave behind.
“Well if we get in even better standing then we could end up in the Sun King’s service. Did you ever think of that?” he demanded.
“The cup of ambition has no bottom,” Mother scolded him, once again handing him the blanket full of food and clothes she had prepared for him. “And neither will any of your pots if you insist on taking them. I’ll lop off their bottoms to keep them from slowing us down.”
Before Father could respond, a pot on the edge of the stairs spontaneously fell into the dirt and cracked on a loose stone. They all searched momentarily for the culprit, but then simultaneously felt the ground beneath them shaking.
“What in the world…?” Father said. More of his precious pots began falling to the ground as the shaking intensified. Not all of them hit loose stones, but eventually the ones that were closest to the center of the stairs were rolling off and breaking against the pots that had already fallen. Father stretched out his hands as if to catch them from half way across the house, but seemed to know better than to walk among pottery shards. Meanwhile, Kooteeck and Mother moved to secure anything else and bring it into the shadow of the fireplace, certain that it was the most stable part of the house. Father soon joined them, but just as quickly as the earth had begun to quake, it had stopped.
They heard shouts outside. Kooteeck felt fear welling inside of her until Patcha threw open the door and shouted out their names. Her head was covered in dirt, and for some reason she held some clay tablets under her arm. Apparently she’d been off drawing pictures.
“We’re all right,” Father told her, slowly emerging from the fireplace and wiping the ashes off of his ankles.
“But the pots aren’t,” their mother said, somewhat smugly.
“Was that an earthquake?” Kooteeck wondered, finally standing up straight and observing the damage. “This far away from the mountains?”
“There’s no other explanation,” Patcha replied slowly, as if thinking out loud. “Even if they were displeased, the Empire’s Lavakoomas shouldn’t be rocking villages before the Flood.”
“So strange,” Kooteeck said to herself, her arm hair still standing on end. Then, after a moment of silence, she asked, “So, where’s Mawnco?”
A shadow of suspicion suddenly crossed Patcha’s face. “I might have an idea.”
Within little time, they were at the peak of the hill, near the temple. They had marched straight past the elders’ homes, where people were gathering, demanding to know what had happened and if Lavakoomas had anything to do with it. Chusku was outside. Though the temple seemed perfectly intact, he seemed to be frantically searching for something.
Mawnco stood at the peak of a nearby bluff which dropped into the potato fields, his staff in hand, shoulders squared as he looked down. The dirt appeared to be very well upturned, but Kooteeck couldn’t see any other reason to be watching empty fields.
“Mawnco!” Patcha snapped, stomping across the ground toward him. “Oh great Chosen Child, what in the Red Spirit’s name is going on?” Mawnco turned around, but didn’t seem prepared to say anything.
“Those filthy Bloodstealers,” Chusku responded from behind them, startling all three. “They caused this, somehow, I know it!”
Kooteeck narrowed her eyes, her brow furrow and mouth agape. “What, two children shook the village? You know they have no command over Lavakoomas. There’s no way they could have caused it.”
“But they’re both gone!” Chusku insisted, his eyes wild and flashing.
“Gone?” Kooteeck echoed. Then she felt her heart grow heavier. “Just like a Bloodstealer to wait until the Flood to try and run away. But they’re fools if they think they can travel the roads without being noticed at a time like this.”
“They wouldn’t run away,” Patcha interrupted, her voice completely devoid of emotion. Kooteeck turned to see that she stood shoulder to shoulder with Mawnco, staring at the scarred field. “They know better than that.”
Chusku was irritated by Patcha’s ignorance, but Kooteeck now felt a chill up her spine at her older twin’s passionless tone. Kooteeck walked up to them, looking to see what was so special about the field. Focusing her glasunes on the soil, she saw that the disemboweled dirt was emanating red energy. Some heat was breaking through.
“Pretty,” Kooteeck commented sardonically. “So maybe the earth is unstable here, mountains or no mountains. But we need to send out a Red Runner to find those two before they start any trouble.”
“Kooteeck, this is no natural phenomenon,” Mawnco told her with an air of finality, but not unkindly.
“What? You think Lavakoomas did that?” Kooteeck demanded, gesturing to the fields. “They would never form such an odd pattern to suck a few Bloodstealers underground, and they would never take Bloodstealers without their Janpee’s permission.” But the two continued to stare at the fields and the random grooves and shapes that the quake had caused.
Kooteeck suppressed a growl. She wanted to turn on her heels, make her way back home, and forget about the Bloodstealers and Mawnco, but couldn’t bring herself to leave. She felt that it would do no good to go quietly.
“What is it that you even want from us?” she demanded of Mawnco. “If you’re on some quest, why are you going around doing magic tricks for kids? Why are you asking about Bloodstealers and staring at empty fields? You know what? You’re no longer welcome in our home!” Kooteeck’s breaths were growing short now, and she felt light headed. “Chosen Child or not, we have our own business to attend to! After the Flood we’ll just —”
“Kooteeck, please,” Mawnco interrupted her, turning around. It was the only time she had ever seen him cross with someone. She felt that if she yelled any more, she would faint.
Both Mawnco and Patcha had broken their attention away from the fields now, and exchanged a worried look.
“What does it say?” Mawnco inquired of Patcha.
“You dare call me ‘it’?” Kooteeck growled, eyes wide.
“The same as before,” Patcha answered, ignoring her younger twin. ‘“We will bring you to the lake. Be ready.’”
Kooteeck felt her anger transform into confusion. “What?”
“This can’t be a coincidence,” Mawnco told her. He glanced over at Chusku. He was trying hard to light a pile of wood atop the temple to signal the other villages nearby to send a Runner. He had apparently expended all of his energy searching for the boys, and so was attempting to light the wood with red magic.
“I apologize ahead of time for whatever consequences there might be, but I officially recruit you on my quest,” Mawnco said to Patcha. “Both of you. I need your knowledge of the symbols if I’m going to find them.”
“Since when is it your job to catch runaway Bloodstealers?” Kooteeck demanded.
“How is it that the Lavakoomas know my system of characters?” Patcha wondered, sounding deeply concerned.
“I don’t know.” Mawnco shook his head, having answered only Patcha’s question. “But I will need your skills, nonetheless.”
“We need to be with our family during the Flood, Patcha,” Kooteeck protested, giving her sister a small hit on the arm. “I don’t know what he wants from you, but he can get it from anybody else —”
“There won’t be a Flood!” Mawnco whispered forcefully. He once again stole a glance at Chusku to ensure he had not heard. Mawnco had achieved a great silence with these words. Kooteeck and Patcha did not wait for an explanation.
“But the Sisis…” Patcha began.
“…they followed the Bloodstealer’s blood,” Kooteeck finished.
“Yes, they followed Capac’s blood,” Mawnco conceded. “And it is time for a Flood. But there won’t be one if I don’t complete my quest.” He hesitated momentarily, before finally clarifying, “The Flood Guardian is missing. All of the Chosen Children, fully trained or not, have been sent out to find her.”
Both Patcha and Kooteeck stood in shock at the news. The world was ending and there might be no Flood to rejuvenate it, for the first time in almost a millennia. Without the Guardian to release the Floodwaters, the world’s magic would die — and every creature along with it.
“Patcha, Kooteeck, if we do not find the Flood Guardian, everyone will die. Your grandfather’s eyes, and much more, will rot before he ever ascends into Hanan. The reign of humans will end, and all of us with it. Both types of Bloodkooma — Bloodstealers and Bloodslayers alike — have been disappearing all over the empire. And many who seek to offer their sons and daughters to the gods as Chosen Children disappear before they ever get the chance. This message — your symbols — could be the best chance we have at stopping whatever is conspiring against us and saving the world as we know it.”