It took only a day to reach the larger villages and markets, which was ample time for Mawnco to forget his large, gray hat in a resting shack. Red Runners and townsfolk from all over discussed the disappearance of Bloodslayers and Bloodstealers. On the second day, they came across a village called Atok. Mawnco immediately changed course and headed toward it when they came to a fork in the road.
“You think they’ll know what happened to them?” Kooteeck inquired, keeping a polite tone even though this Chosen Child was an untrained Island Dweller. “The trail of missing Bloodkoomas seemed to start from the Capital and end in Raua. If they had a solution, they would have used it by now.”
“No, I just know that they’ll have a large enough temple for me to get to the training grounds,” Mawnco informed them, increasing his pace. Curiosity piqued, Kooteeck kept her mouth closed as she huffed up the hillside. Patcha was not having much more luck, but Mawnco seemed to be born to endure any physical obstacle that did scurry on six legs or spit acid. Kooteeck wanted to know how he expected to fit his entire training facility in a temple, but couldn’t bring herself to say much more.
Atok’s infrastructure was far more sophisticated than that of Raua; paved streets were lined with countless workshops, every house was painted, Alkohs and Meesees ran through the streets alongside children, and a town square boasted mounds of gathered supplies that were being strapped to the backs of colorful Vicunas. Each Vicuna’s shaggy fur was shaved around the bellies, but left in peace near the hooves and along their long necks. Two Red Runners stood alongside village leaders in the village square as they directed the people about their preparations. Individuals already seemed ready, but extra supplies were being gathered to be brought to the Capital. Patcha and Kooteeck had never seen a place so big, and the same seemed to be true for Mawnco. He gazed enviously at a woven crate overflowing with hats of all shapes and sizes.
They were quickly spotted by one of the leaders — who were the only with glasunes that were not completely red, but rather a purplish mix of red and blue magic — an incredibly tall man with shoulder-length hair. But instead of approaching, he disappeared into the streets between the homes. Mawnco, Patcha, and Kooteeck, without knowing what else to do, approached the other leaders and Red Runners. As Mawnco approached, the Red Runners gave small bows of respect.
“Hello,” said one tall woman, whose thick facial features looked almost identical to the other man’s. “Are you also on a quest?”
“Hello, ma’am,” Mawnco greeted her respectfully, giving a small bow. “It’s an honor —”
“No need for formalities,” the woman told him, waving away the gesture. “Your comrade has already shown me plenty of respect, but has given me no answers. Why have our Bloodslayers disappeared?”
Mawnco seemed taken aback by the question, but was rescued in the nick of time by the reappearance of the man, alongside a Chosen Child who appeared to be even younger than Mawnco. Her head, like his, was mostly shaven. Her glasunes, like his, were obviously some mix of colors, but unlike his were not entirely brown; she was not as experienced as he was with every form of magic. She carried no weapon, but shot Mawnco a look that seemed to hold much information.
“We must discuss what we have seen, first,” Mawnco informed the woman. “We are not yet sure ourselves.”
“I hope you figure it out, soon,” she snapped. “Because the people are getting restless. And we leave in two days.”
Mawnco, Patcha, and Kooteeck followed the other Chosen Child past where the village was compiling its supplies and down a street to the right. As they walked, the houses grew few and far between, and the lavish murals of animals and myths disappeared entirely, replaced by bare wood and stone. At the end of the street, they rounded the corner of a storehouse, and began a trek downhill, toward a huge, pyramidal temple. As they approached, Kooteeck marveled at the well-endowed village, which apparently had enough prestige to talk so curtly to Chosen Children.
“Mawnco, I hope you know what you’re doing with this girl,” the Chosen Child panted as they sped toward the temple. “I have to stay here and escort the people to the Capital.”
“Are they that concerned?” Mawnco inquired, his brows furrowed.
The girl nodded. “They know something is wrong. All the Runners to the far east pass through here, and they all know that every Bloodstealer and Bloodslayer in the realm is disappearing all at once, and that the Chosen Children have been sent out and yet don’t have answers. They’re in a panic, and it frightens them more that I can’t tell them what’s the matter.”
Mawnco looked troubled as his acquaintance continued, “You actually have some training and potential to find the Guardian, but I’ve got to stay here and give the people some peace of mind. I have to show them that not all of the Chosen Children are occupied and that the Flood really is coming.”
“You can’t stay here,” Mawnco objected. “Not for much longer! If you’re attacked and the townspeople see it —”
“Whoever’s controlling these Lavkaumas wouldn’t take me. I’m no threat.” The girl waved the notion away, but didn’t sound convinced. “I’m worthless. And we’ll be on the road soon enough.”
“But you’ll be defenseless if —” At that moment, the village’s Janpee appeared in the entrance to the temple and waved to them. They were within hearing range.
The Janpee gave Mawnco and the girl a deep bow, her remarkably long hair brushing the ground and obscuring her dark red lenses in the process. “It is my pleasure to help serve the gods,” she said respectfully. Kooteeck couldn’t help feeling disappointed that it was normal to show Mawnco respect again.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Mawnco said, nodding his head to the Janpee.
“Would it be unkind to ask what it is you’re seeking?”
Kooteeck saw Mawnco’s eyes briefly meet with those of the other Chosen Child. “My only business here is the Chakana. As for my travels, I’m merely escorting these two to the Capital to meet with the Ore King.”
“Ah.” The woman showed no sign of disappointment or frustration at Mawnco’s refusal to divulge any secrets. “I would be honored to open the passage for you. Sunset is in a few hours.”
Seeing that she had no more information to pry out of Mawnco, the Janpee retreated back into her quarters. The four waited outside on the first level of stone steps. Mawnco and the girl said nothing more to each other. Patcha and Kooteeck spoke in undertones.
“This place is as empty as our temple,” Kooteeck commented.
“With all the Bloodkoomas gone,” Patcha agreed. “But have you noticed that Mawnco never introduces himself?”
Kooteeck thought for a moment. True, he hadn’t. But neither had any of the Red Runners they had encountered, nor had this village’s Janpee. “Do you think people only introduce themselves back home?”
“Who is there to introduce themselves, though?” Patcha wondered. “We all know each other…except for the Bloodstealers.”
Kooteeck sneered. “They don’t count.”
Patcha shrugged. “But Mawnco learned their names, and introduced himself to them.”
“Have you two ever traveled before?” the younger Chosen Child wondered from beyond Patcha and Mawnco. The sisters shook their heads.
“How much do you trust them?” she wondered to Mawnco. Mawnco simply nodded his head solemnly. “Really?” she inquired. Once again, Mawnco nodded.
“Well, then!” she smiled amicably at the two sisters. “My name is Areesee.”
“Patcha,” Patcha said simply. Kooteeck followed her lead and said her own first name.
“Well, in answer to your question, in a professional setting, you don’t call each other by names,” Areesee explained. “Only friends learn each other’s names. In a brief partnership with someone, you only share titles.”
“Ah,” Patcha and Kooteeck grunted simultaneously.
Areesee then glanced at the sun, and then back at Mawnco, as the Janpee appeared again carrying a couple bowls of hot potato stew. He seemed clumsy with the plates, and Kooteeck pitied him for having to keep the temple all by herself, without assistants. He served the Chosen Children first, and then disappeared back inside.
“So when you mean you trust them completely…?” Areesee began, using her spoon to cool the food absentmindedly.
“Yes, they can come through the Chakana with us,” Mawnco finished, blowing on his spoon and trying a taste. He briefly stared ahead of him as if he were holding back some feeling of displeasure. Kooteeck soon found out what that displeasure was when she was served her own bowl.
How long has it been since the Janpee cooked for herself? she wondered. She politely kept her thoughts on the food, and did not wonder what Areesee meant by going “through” a Chakana. She assumed they were referring to the central, stone Chakana of the temple and not some painting. But how would one go through a set of stacked stone tables?
Patcha was less polite. “I thought we were here to access your training grounds?” Patcha queried. “Is that why no one knows where they are? They’re accessed through Chakanas?” Kooteeck was shocked that her sister would be so bold as to ask directly about the sacred training grounds, but Areesee seemed amused by the notion.
“I see why you think this one can help you,” she commented. “And what happened to your hat?”
As they finished their first round of bowls — they did not ask for more, but the Janpee brought more nonetheless — Mawnco continued with their business.
“Were you here when the Bloodkoomas were kidnapped?” Mawnco wondered. “Did they all disappear at once?”
Areesee nodded. “Over the course of the night. The Bloodstealers disappeared one by one at first, and then all the Bloodslayers were taken at once when they went to search for the Bloodstealers.”
“Interesting,” Mawnco commented. “So the Lavakoomas knew where and when to strike, no property was damaged, and no one else was taken?”
“That’s right,” Areesee confirmed, briefly choking on a chunk of under-cooked potato. An insect came out alongside it.
“Of course there are bugs in the food,” she sighed, finally putting the bowl on the stone next to her and giving up. Mawnco made to do the same, but she handed his bowl back to him when he passed it to her. “You’re bigger than me. You have to eat more to make it convincing.”
Mawnco’s chuckled, and he returned to eating obediently, though he shook his head in denial.
“Do you remember if there were any of the symbols where the Bloodkoomas disappeared?”
Areesee shook her head. “There’s already been a light rain, but they might still be there. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be looking for…”
“Show us,” Mawnco ordered, standing and placing his bowl where he had been sitting. “Before it’s disturbed any further.”
They did not need to stray very far from the temple to find several patches of upturned earth where the Bloodkoomas had been pulled through to Uku. Kooteeck did not know the symbols they sought very well, but recognized that the open, flat meadows where they had been seized resembled the fields back in Raua. The marks were more prominent than the ones in the fields, however, now that grass was there to contrast them.
“The message is the same,” Patcha confirmed. “Almost.”
“Well, all of them have mentioned the lake so far, yes?”
“This one says a lake.”
Mawnco scrutinized the characters. “They look the same to me.”
“You see the character ‘a’? I made it so that it’s talking about something specific, ‘the,’ when it has a line beneath. It’s ‘a,’ something unspecific, when there’s no line.”
Mawnco stared at the field even harder. “It doesn’t appear to be disturbed by the rain…”
“But does it really make a huge difference?” Kooteeck wondered.
“Yes,” Patcha explained, “because it would tell us whether they’re all being kept at one lake, or several.”
“Maybe the Lavakoomas aren’t in agreement about that,” Kooteeck suggested.
“Or maybe they didn’t learn my system correctly,” Patcha said defensively. Kooteeck rolled her eyes.
They both turned to look at Mawnco, who continued to stare at the sentence.
“What do you mean?” Areesee prompted from uphill behind them.
“I mean it’s incredible that the Lavakoomas could have such precision in making lines in the earth — and everything else they’re doing. I find it even more incredible that they could learn such a detailed system and utilize it flawlessly in such a short amount of time. But it’s very important to know if all of the Bloodkoomas are being held together. If they are, we simply need to contact all the others and tell them to investigate the nearest lake, and the rest can move in.”
“Except that they’ll never listen,” Areesee added, finally pulling Mawnco’s gaze away from the field.
Mawnco snorted, a tiny shadow of a scowl creeping across his upper lip. “I’ll make them listen.”