The world has seen many ages. Dominion over Kai and Hanan has been passed along since the beginning of known history. None remember the first beings that ruled Kai, who now reside in the highest and most unreachable levels of Hanan. They were the first gods that resided over the second age when their time on Kai had finished. Over time, the world always and steadily succumbs to chaos as its magical energy is slowly lost. Only the rejuvenating waters of the Flood can bring energy, life, and order to the world. It is the Floodwaters that bring the Anima of the deceased to Hanan. Without them, the remains of the dead would slowly rot. In the beginning, the ruling races did not know to release the Floodwaters, and so their worlds perished one by one; they became the gods, and the spirits recreated the world as they saw fit. They gave counsel to the dominant races of succeeding ages, instructing them to release the Floodwaters. When the time came, these rulers sent champions to unleash the replenishing liquid on the world, though many oblivious innocents drowned in the process. The current rulers, the human Empire, has devised a system to both unleash the Flood upon Kai and protect its citizens and property from the damage the Flood can incur. The Four Herds, with the aid of spirits and gods, appoint a Guardian to oversee the waters and release them when the time is right. The Guardian is granted immortality by the waters, but must succumb to age once the Flood has been unleashed. Due to this innovative tradition, the human race has retained power over Kai for longer than any of the previous races — nearly a millennium. Many believe that the human race will be the race that lasts for the rest of eternity.
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They had to leave before the village set off for the Ore Kingdom Capital, as the roads would then be too crowded to sneak away, and both Patcha and Kooteeck knew well that their parents wouldn’t properly understand why they had to leave. Even Kooteeck barely seemed to comprehend just how vital it was that Patcha accompany Mawnco on his quest. Raua would be one of the first villages to start the journey toward the Ore Capital, since they had the longest journey to make in the same amount of time.
That very night, Patcha and Kooteeck stored their traveling bags with them in the loft underneath their pillows and blankets, and sneaked out the window with them when their parents were fast asleep. Patcha couldn’t help but wish that they understood her system of symbols, and that she could just leave them a message telling them where she had gone. They would have to tell Chusku to pass on the information. Mawnco carried a bundle of his own on his back, holding rations and a rudimentary list of some of Patcha’s symbols.
Before leaving, Patcha and Kooteeck traveled to the temple at sunrise, now guarded entirely by the grumpy Janpee. Mawnco, now boasting a tattered, gray hat far too large for him, followed Chusku inside first for some “private counsel.” A few moments later, Chusku reappeared alone, and Patcha and Kooteeck went to pray. They did not see Mawnco again until sometime after they had finished and were waiting outside the temple.
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By sunrise, Raua was out of sight, and they had already passed Ayar on the road up the mountain. They were, so far, unmolested by Soikles and Red Runners. Patcha was well aware that if she and her sister were found on the road without Mawnco or some other figure of authority, then the consequences could be dire.
Patcha and Kooteeck inquired much about Mawnco’s life, but they soon found that he was incapable of telling them much. He had only ever been in the jungle and the place where Chosen Children trained, which he was forbidden to speak of. He had never seen actual combat, and had never had any Coming of Age Ceremony. He had never farmed, sewn, painted, or traveled a mountain road.
Instead, he asked them countless questions about their own lives, ceaselessly intrigued by the prospect of everyday things. He knew history and culture almost as well as Patcha, and often entertained Kooteeck with stories that had bored her when told by her older twin. Yet he was captivated by stories of public school, Soikles, and the sport of Pop Ball.
Just as the dawn was turning from an angry red to pale yellow, the earth shook again. They were some ways uphill now, but the slope was not so great that anything fell toward them. They held still where they stood, scanning the valleys below them and the hills across from them for any sign of disruption, but saw nothing of significance.
The entire time, Mawnco had told Patcha to be on the lookout for more symbols. Though Mawnco didn’t explicitly state it, Patcha assumed that they were heading toward the nearest lake. They were nearing the crest of the Ore Kingdom’s outermost hill, on which sat Raua and Ayar. There, they clearly saw the Capital Volcano for the first time. Every Herd’s rulers resided in the tallest volcano of their region, where it was easy to withstand invasion, communicate with Lavakoomas, and gather citizens during the Flood.
Here, they found a rest stop. All three of them knew it when they saw it; a modest, wooden shack about the size of a small granary, with a sophisticated, iron lock holding the door shut. Its boards were weathered from time, but there were still remnants of colorful stripes and indigo panthers, the royal symbols. None of them were Runners, and so had no key. Patcha and Kooteeck watched curiously as Mawnco splashed some water from a pouch onto the lock, froze its insides until they became brittle, and then shattered the ice with his staff. The door swung open with the wind as the frost-covered iron fell to the ground.
“They’ll likely notice it soon,” Mawnco vindicated the action. “What with all the messages being sent all over the empire.”
“But now is a time when many will be traveling the roads, and might be tempted to steal,” Kooteeck pointed out.
Mawnco glanced guiltily at the lock in response. “Consider this a learning experience.”
The inside was far less spacious than Patcha had imagined. The walls were stacked high will shelves that held pots of cacao, dried meat and fruit, clothing, and other portable items that a Runner might need. The shack was organized into two sections: a small one in which sat a small bed made of straw, and a larger one where energy sources were held. Some of the straw had spilled throughout the remainder of the cabin, but most of the floor was hard-packed dirt, solid enough so that nothing could grow.
Most of the energy sources were of the Red Spirit and Green Spirit — the locally relevant ones — but a modest bowl of yellow beads was kept for the Yellow Spirit. There was nothing for blue energy — typical, since Island Dwellers were few, far between, and not very well respected. Of Red and Green Spirits were red and green potted flowers, jewels, dyes, and beads. There was also blood and flint for making fire of the Red Spirit, but there wasn’t likely to be much leftover fire energy for long, with the Time of Chaos coming. Through her glasunes, Patcha could see that all of the Red Spirit’s energy sources were well saturated, and she assumed that they weren’t guarded by any riddle or password. She suddenly understood why the Runners would want this stash to be kept under lock and key.
Few people in Raua ever guarded energy stores around town, since everyone was always willing to share with each other. Patcha recalled how to set a guard on a red-energy flower — the kids had put enough energy in the flowers to keep them in bloom for a year, but Kooteeck had drained the flower of energy so that she could secretly burn an ugly ruwana her grandfather had given her on her birthday. Patcha, admittedly, was always somewhat wasteful with red magic whenever she used her secret hideaway. She was too lazy to sneak supplies for a proper fire into the hole.
It was now around noon, and Kooteeck allowed Patcha to sleep first, as she was not as accustomed to exercise as her sister and Mawnco were. Hiking up cold hills at night was quite different from picking fruit in the heat. Mawnco went out to flag down potential passing Runners to inquire about the Bloodkoomas of nearby communities. Kooteeck sat among the plants and admired some of Patcha’s clay records.
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Patcha dreamt that the Time of Chaos had arrived, and there was no Flood in sight. The dried-blood sky during the Time of Chaos seemed distorted like water, brittle like wood, and shiny like marble. Strange entities and gods roamed the sunless region above, made visible now that blue or black skies no longer separated Kai from Hanan. She was atop the Capital Volcano, with nothing but deformed skeletons surrounding her. The buildings themselves were rotting, and the ice and lava of the volcano rolled around her feet. Below her, rivers were dry, plants were decaying, and no animal, big or small, fierce or tame, was anywhere to be spotted. The only movement was of the black earth, beneath which the Lavakoomas were stirring. She saw great mounds of earth the size of entire villages move below her, guided by the Lavakoomas. The upturned earth, which smoldered with the fires of Uku, formed symbols that only Patcha could read. Each and every one of them read: Revenge.
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Both Mawnco and Kooteeck, too exhausted to wait, were sleeping without a bed in the dirt when Patcha awoke. Mawnco’s gray hat blanketed his head.
It was nearing sunset again. Patcha wondered if they would make it a habit to travel by night. She sat in the entrance to the shack, hoping that a Runner would pass by.
Out of boredom, she began writing the rules to Chax. She wished that they had the sticky clay here with them. If they had beads, she supposed they could have merely imagined their energy fading out into the clay to form patterns for opposing teams. Of course, they had access to the beads of the shack, but she felt hesitant to use up their energy on a trivial game, even if only minor amounts would be lost in the process. Besides, they only had three colors of beads available to them, and couldn’t use Mawnco’s eclectic energy skills to make different colors.
She began by writing out the game’s goal: to build a “bridge” of color from one side of the circle to the next without being blocked by an opponent. She noted that there would be up to six players. Player turns, as well as how often they could choose to let another player change the color of any already-used spot on the circle to any color — this allowed for alliances, bargaining, and sabotage — were determined by a toss of each bead color in the cup at the beginning of the game. The player who rolled red went first and could choose someone to change a spot every turn, but whoever got purple went last and could only pick someone every six turns.
Then, she took inventory of what the shack held. Since someone was obviously using Lavakoomas to kidnap Bloodkoomas, and this person could obviously read her system of symbols, she was wondered if she could leave a message and lure them to the shack.
Then, her mind was overtaken with thoughts of something more trivial. If she, Kooteeck, and Mawnco could use their imaginations to pretend the ground below them was changing color, then perhaps they could pretend that certain slabs of clay or wood represented the beads of Chax.
Or better yet, we could mark off each other’s territory just by writing the names of the colors. It would be an effective way to teach Mawnco and Kooteeck how to write the characters.
I could even substitute color names for more useful things, like ‘Bloodkooma’ and ‘lake’. Heart, racing, she now chose a large pouch from the shack and began carving out symbols on a few thick agave leaves outside. If they had no cup, she could simply take the spines off of the agave leaves and mix them in a pouch in order to shuffle them.
A while later, when she had run out of leaves, she returned to the cactus-like agave plant to retrieve more and found that some of the leaves were already scratched, and even had bite marks on their serrated edges. She backed away from the bush, looking around to see what had made them.
Don’t be silly. Whatever it is eats plants, she told herself. Though she did shy away from the fact that the plant eater had swallowed a fair amount of spikes along with the vegetation. She noticed a paw print in the dirt.
“Qhilla?” she whispered, casting her gaze about again. She neared the agave, wondering if she could find more tracks, and found the creature asleep in its crest, its belly turned upwards toward the open sky, a long, moss-coated arm hanging lazily out the side. Patcha frowned to herself, wondering why the spirit would be there. It could not be anything else, as they were so far from the jungle. But if it had important news, why was it asleep? Patcha tried to wake it with a toss of a few small pebbles, and even dared to poke it with a stick, but to no avail. She instead continued with her work.
When the twilight grew too strong for her to stay outside, Patcha grabbed her crafts and carried the Qhilla in the travel bundle on her back like a babe, retreating into the shack and using a rock to hold the door shut. She placed the Qhilla on the floor next to Mawnco’s motionless body. Her customized game of Chax was almost complete. She had come up with two and a half variants of the game.
The sun was completely gone when Mawnco began to stir.
“Good morning.” Patcha teased, “You have a visitor.”
“Visitor?” Mawnco repeated, rubbing his gloves over his eyes to wake himself. Then he noticed the Qhilla. “Illa!”
“Illa?” Patcha echoed as the Qhilla stirred and shifted to rest its head on Mawnco’s knee.
“That’s his name,” Mawnco explained. Now Kooteeck was stirring.
“Illa the Qhilla? Isn’t it ironic to name him after lightning?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. He’s the fastest Qhilla of all! ‘Lightning’ is a perfect name.”
“And it rhymes,” Kooteeck added. Patcha left the subject where it was, as she was anxious to show them how she had spent her time.
“Are we traveling by night?” she asked first.
Mawnco stroked Illa’s back for a moment, thinking. “Illa says he hasn’t found anything else that might redirect our course, but knows from the other spirits and Chosen Children that similar symbols are being found where Bloodslayers and Bloodstealers are disappearing. They all mention a ‘lake.’”
“So do we just move to the nearest lake?” Patcha wondered, feeling a bit of anxiety over the little information that they had to go by.
“Bloodkoomas are disappearing all over the empire,” Mawnco told her. “They could be at any lake. It’s best that we head toward the biggest ones.”
“But if there are Chosen Children all over the realm, then wouldn’t we do better to go to whatever lake is nearest to us and them to theirs?”
Mawnco bit his lower lip.
“They are all looking for the Guardian, right?” Kooteeck inquired.
“Or related matters,” Mawnco conceded reluctantly.
Mawnco sighed. “The people will find out soon enough that there is no Flood coming. We can easily fix that by finding the Guardian, but if everyone starts panicking and revolting, and give into chaos, then there is no hope. Chosen Children are positioned all over to keep the peace and many are negotiating with the Herds’ leaders — they didn’t know until now, either — to try and interrogate their Lavakooma messengers and organize the people or give them an explanation as to why the Flood is late. On top of that, Chosen Children are disappearing.”
“Disappearing?” Patcha echoed. “So we’re all being hunted as we speak?”
“No,” Mawnco said slowly, his fingers fidgeting against the soil. “There is some conspiracy afoot, but whoever is involved is not after me.”
“That’s why you’ve never left your training grounds,” Kooteeck realized. “You’ve all been hiding. And you’re still in training. You’re not a threat!”
Mawnco twisted his lips about in all directions, apparently trying his best to remain expressionless. “I have never finished my training, and I chose a Qhilla as my spirit companion. No one expects me to find the Guardian.” Then he looked to Patcha. “But it will be a long time before we reach a more likely candidate. Illa can relay your news to the others, and I can contact them whenever we reach the next temple, but for now I’m the one who has you. Besides, from the sound of it, no one is taking the symbols very seriously.”
“So we’re in a hurry?” Patcha offered, once again wondering if they were traveling by night or not. She also wondered how Mawnco could contact other Chosen Children at temples, and recalled how he had disappeared into Raua’s temple separately.
“If we’re going to spot any symbols, it’s best to travel by day,” Mawnco finished. “And who knows what might take us in the night once we near the caves and springs where Lavakoomas can easily emerge?”
“Well, then I am satisfied,” Patcha announced, pulling out the stack of leaves that she had meticulously carved into identical, triangular shapes. She mixed their order in her hands clumsily, all of their symbols facing the ground and their bare backs facing upwards.
“What are those?” Kooteeck wondered skeptically.
“Was Illa eating agave again?” Mawnco asked sharply, eyeing the sleepy Qhilla. “I sometimes worry about your digestion, Illa.” Even as he said it, Mawnco scratched beneath Illa’s chin.
Quite a spirit. “Yes, but these weren’t leaves that he chewed on.” Patcha began passing six random leaves to each of them, and left the rest aside. “Mawnco, do you know how to play Chax?”
“Yes, but the rules vary by region.”
“Well, that’s fine, because these rules will have to be different, as well. Instead of using a circular slab of sticky clay, we’re going to use this.” Patcha began carving six tiles by six in the dirt floor of the shack to form a square, and explained the other modifications. “Instead of six bead colors, there are six symbols that I’ve carved onto those leaves, and there are the usual sixty to a set. The same ranking and blotting rules apply, but if we want to change a tile’s symbol, we just mark it.”
“Eh, how are we going to throw these randomly?” Kooteeck inquired, looking concerned for her sister’s health.
“We just randomly pick two leaves with their symbols facing the ground from the set,” Patcha explained. “It’s still random because we can’t see the symbol. We lay them out six across like this,” she laid her six cards across the row directly in front of her. “And then flip them over.” She flipped them, and found that two of the cards that said ‘lake’ touched each other. “And we’ll just have to memorize the hierarchy.” She grabbed her stick again and wrote out the symbols in a list. She pointed to the end with the word Bloodslayer and explained, “This side has the symbol for Bloodslayer, and it has the sixth rank, like the color purple.” As she moved down the line, she pointed out each character. “Then there’s the Bloodstealer, Lavakooma, power, Chosen Child, and lake.”
“So the lake is like the red bead?” Kooteeck pressed.
Patcha nodded. “Same rules as usual. Now why don’t we try this out and see if it works!”
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 Geography: The rulers of each Herd reside atop the tallest volcano of their realm, where they can withstand invasion and communicate easily with gods and Lavakoomas. The Central Volcano, at the heart of the Four Herds, is currently ruled by the Sun King and Queen, while regents watch over the Sun Kingdom itself.
 Culture: Patron Spirits rule over certain earthly things. For instance, the Red Spirit grants energy to the world in the form of fire, the Green Spirit through plants, the Yellow Spirit through light, and the Blue Spirit through water. The glasunes of humans allow them the ability to wield the energy in the form of magic, as well as use the earthly possessions of Patron Spirits to spot, store, and gather more energy.
 Culture: A popular family game involving colorful energy beads. Each player is assigned a color after one roll of a cup of six beads, each being of a different color. Color determines the order in which players roll and how often they can give another player the option to change the color of a single colored dot in the circle. Beads are shuffled in cups and randomly rolled out onto a circular, sticky, clay plate that then absorbs and mimics the beads’ colors. Each player strives to form a bridge of color to the other side of the circle.