Chosen Children are mortal humans who have been given to the serve of the gods. They are referred to as Children because most are given at a very young age. Parents willingly sacrifice their children for many reasons, the most common being that the child’s twin has died, the family has some debt to repay to society, or that an aristocratic family holds it as a longstanding tradition. It is unknown to commoners where the Chosen Children live when they are not sent out to do the gods’ bidding. It is only known that to sacrifice one’s child, the child must be given to a Janpee at a large, prosperous temple. All Chosen Children are trained in martial skills and master all energy forms. The colors of every magic mix to cloud their glasunes brown. They do not have Rite of Age Ceremonies; but when given an official quest sponsored by a powerful spirit instead of a god, the Chosen Child must go through the physical Rite of his homeland as well as a mental task in exchange for guidance from the spirit. This is not to be confused with the unique relationship between Chosen Children and their spirit companions. Chosen Children may obtain skills under the tutelage of several benevolent spirits, the most popular being the puma, condor, or serpent. The spirit messengers aid Chosen Children in communication with the gods, Herd leaders, and other Chosen Children. Chosen Children are sometimes given Escopu eggs to care for in infancy, strengthening the bond between human and beast. The Escopu, however, is not bound to the Chosen Child as the Child is bound to it. Because Escopus made a habit of recruiting Chosen Children into their private service, it is now rarer now for Escopu eggs to be raised by Chosen Children.
Θ Θ Θ
The temple’s insides were stuffed with jewelry, clothing, and many other respectful and sentimental offerings to the dead, whose body baskets were now lined along the prayer mats around the Chakana. Patcha did her best to not complain about the smell of incense that only slightly masked the stench of rotting flesh. The walls were painted with the usual scenes of Hanan above, Uku below, the royal panthers, and legends. This village seemed to place particular emphasis on Vicunas, although Patcha knew that most Mountain Dwellers did.
Now she paid particularly close attention to the central Chakana. Its beautiful green and russet marble gleamed underneath the skylight. It looked just like any other; the same size as a small room, with three tiers. The bottom tier was shaped as a square with smaller squares jutting out of the center of each side. This tier appeared to be an equilateral diamond with a square sticking out of each side, so that from above it would appear that each side was its own pyramid of steps. Atop this tier was the second. Four sets of double right triangles, like tiny birds opening their mouths, stretched out toward the dips of each side of the square. There were eight triangles in total, two for each extension of the bottom tier that formed a cross. Finally, the third tier was a circle whose perimeter met the beginnings of the triangles. All three tiers had a square hollow in the center, perfectly aligned.
The Janpee approached a prayer mat that held several bowls of magic beads. He scooped out four of the red ones and retreated back to the Chakana.
Patcha couldn’t help but remember her grandmother’s funeral, and how her grandfather had wanted to leave fifty-six beads by her basket to represent the number of seasons they had been married.
The Janpee stepped atop the Chakana, his sandals making dull thuds against the marble as he climbed to the top tier. He placed a red bead on each semicircle around the hollow square. They began to glow with the fading light, and suddenly the green splotches of the marble began to glow bright as fire. Once the tablets were all glowing orange, the Janpee collected the beads and threw them into the hollow center. He stepped down, and indicated for the four to ascend.
Patcha and Kooteeck followed Mawnco and Areesee’s lead, quickly climbing the slippery, but surprisingly lukewarm, tiers. Patcha gasped at the top when she saw that the hollow center now swirled with orange mist, like the silt of a fiery river. Areesee, without hesitation, dropped down into the mist, and disappeared. There was no sound to indicate a person hitting any sort of ground. Patcha felt her stomach clench. There was no sign of her at all. She had never seen magic of this sort in all her life, nor heard tales of it.
Mawnco indicated for them to follow her through. Kooteeck fainted. Patcha sighed as she caught her sister and slowly slid her body into the cleft. Kooteeck disappeared.
Well, can’t leave her behind. Patcha bent down, counted to three, and then dropped through, her arms tight at her sides. She was tense, holding her breath. A wave of light blinded her, and she closed her eyes.
Now she felt pure, dry heat around her, rippling through her hair and clothes. She couldn’t have breathed if she’d wanted to. Then her feet hit solid ground, and she collapsed head-forwards.
Her eyes flew open as she landed on something soft and heard an, “Uf!” She’d landed on Kooteeck just as Areesee had been trying to drag her out of the way. Patcha aided her, moving out of the way for when Mawnco arrived. But she never tore her gaze away from what she saw.
A long stretch of soft grass dotted with patches of flowers and clovers, the soil shimmering with a white gleam, stretched away toward what seemed to be the four sectors of the Empire: Jungle, Mountains, Beach, and Islands. The place was nearly deserted in terms of people, but lenseless phantoms glided about the land, interacting with tree-climbing Qhillas, countless breeds of ghostly Pillpintus with their colorful insect wings, and Peeskoos with gleaming plumage. Young animals of all kinds dotted the landscape, their partly transparent bodies bounding through obstacles as if they were nothing more than mist.
The gravely hills that stretched directly out before them held pools of hot springs and shifting lava, every last drop of the latter shining with refulgent energy—more free red magic than a brush fire. The jungle to their left emitted familiar sounds and ghost fruit hung in the trees, ghost Peeskoos occasionally trying, in vain, to peck at them. Pillpintus and tiny, swift Humming Peeskoos flew backwards and forwards futilely trying to land of the flowers. The sandy, saltwater river to their right glimmered with some unseen light from the profound horizon, large Islands visible in the distance and smaller ones visible more nearby. Patcha had never seen the coast before, but was amazed by it now. Between the shallow puddles dotting her home and the silt-ridden river of the nearby jungle, she had never entirely believed that large bodies of water could be blue. But here before her eyes, gentle waves of clear, iris blue lapped at a sandy shore lined with countless shells and more of the strange white grains.
There were also ghostly tools lying around, everything from weavings and thread to clay and flint to staffs and slings to knives, swords, and arrows. The sky above and the horizon was grey and clouded. The only light here was produced by the various magic sources available. Patcha, having red lesnes, could only sense the red energy emitted from the lava.
“This isn’t…?” Patcha began, breathless.
“It’s not,” Mawnco told her simply from behind. Patcha turned around, and saw the pillar of swirling orange mist towering behind him. “You’ve never heard the name of this place before. It called the Fields of Innocence.”
“A lot of weapons for innocence,” Patcha commented. Kooteeck still leaned against Areesee for support as she nervously took in the view around her, although Patcha could see a gleam of awed pleasure in her eyes.
As they stood and gathered themselves, a few of the ghosts, human and animal, approached them. Two were humans with shaven heads, one a very young child and one a little older than they were. The younger one had dark eyes, fatty skin and the elbones of a Jungle Dweller, whilst the older was gaunt with sunken green eyes. He was either a Mountain or Beach Dweller, as he had neither scaled knuckles nor bony elbows. Neither of them had lenses. Most of the animals that approached them were curious young Alkohs and Meesees, along with a few of the Humming Peeskoos. But perhaps most strange of all was a very small Escopu that calmly stepped toward them alongside the humans.
Immediately upon spotting the Escopu, Kooteeck dropped to her knees and kneeled. Patcha bent over more slowly, seeing that neither Mawnco nor Areesee were bowing.
“Greetings, Mawnco,” the older human said, ignoring the rest. “What is it you’ve been trying to tell us about strange symbols?” he demanded, though not unkindly.
“MAWNCO!” the little girl screamed in a surprisingly deep voice as she ran up to him, although she ran directly through Mawnco’s body and tumbled behind him into the pillar of orange mist. Patcha was worried what the Janpee would think of a strange child popping out of the other end, but the girl didn’t seem to have gone through. She reappeared from behind the intangible pillar a moment later, laughing herself silly.
As Mawnco began to explain Patcha’s system of characters more clearly and where they had seen them, the Escopu directly approached Kooteeck and Patcha where they kneeled. It stood for a moment, watching them, its serpent-like tongue flickering out every moment or two, its beige wings still at its side. Then it laid down in the grass, eyes flickering back and forth between Patcha and Kooteeck. Feeling protective of her sibling, Patcha stood and placed her arm on Kooteeck’s shoulder, eyeing the Escopu warily.
Insolence to an Escopu is insolence to existence, Patcha thought of the old saying. But this one can’t even touch us, now can it?
As soon as the Escopu had noticed Patcha had stood, it focused entirely on Kooteeck, who began to shake beneath Patcha’s palm.
“Kooteeck, stand up,” Patcha told her. Kooteeck shook her head fervently. Patcha tried to yank her to her feet, but her younger sister was considerably stronger than her due to her love of exercise. “Kooteeck, I know we’re supposed to respect Escopus, but this one obviously doesn’t mind,” she whispered. After getting no response, Patcha sighed, sitting down next to Kooteeck and saying to the Escopu, “Greetings.”
“Welcome,” the Escopu replied without taking its gaze off of Kooteeck.
“A watched Qarachupa doesn’t budge,” Patcha reminded it, imagining her sister as a tiny, fuzzy animal playing dead. She wondered if her sister even remembered what a Qarachupa was, since they had only ever heard about the rodent-tailed thing from school.
“Your twin is not a Qarachupa,” the Escopu replied steadily.
“Kooteeck, you don’t have to bow to her,” Areesee told her gently, although she seemed preoccupied with the young phantom girl that was dancing around her and begging for stories.
“I always imagined Escopus to be larger,” Patcha told it questioningly, now feeling more comfortable and hoping that her confidence rubbed off on Kooteeck.
“When they grow,” the Escopu replied.
“So how old are you, then?”
“Huh?” Kooteeck said rather loudly, all inhibitions gone. “Well how long do Escopus live, then?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the ghost creature replied. Kooteeck immediately returned to a subordinate position.
Areesee lifted Kooteeck to her feet, explaining, “The Fields contain all innocent creatures. Specifically, those who have never done any creature any harm…or never got the opportunity. That’s why they’re called the Fields of Innocence.”
“Escopu eggs are rarely given to Chosen children anymore,” the Escopu told the living patiently. “Mostly, that’s because the Escopu would grow and manipulate its Chosen Child. After all, no one in the land can disobey an Escopu,” it claimed proudly, but somewhat sadly. “My Chosen Child was a boy named Tawa. He was different. He resented his family for giving him to the gods’ service, and abandoned the Fields of Innocence before his training was done, when I was just a hatchling. He took me with him, of course, and sold me to a trader who took me South. I was used for sport in the Colosseum.”
“That’s horrible!” Kooteeck exclaimed simply, a look of disgust across her face. Patcha, however, felt a creeping chill in her spine. She understood why the people should be kept ignorant about the imminent end of the world, but found it discomforting that nearly a century ago even Chosen Children were leading Escopus—the incredible, revered creatures that Chosen Children could be given the privilege to care for—to the slaughter. And in an undignified circus no less!
Perhaps the Sun King and Queen thought the Colosseum was a good idea, meant to foster a sense of wealth for the newly conquered peoples in the southern Creature Lands through a spectacle of fights are performances. But elsewhere in the Empire, commoners only associated the events with crime and bloodlust.
“But my ghost lives on to warn others,” the Escopu consoled. “And the soldiers who thought they could get away with it soon learned otherwise, and their ghosts do not live on.”
Patcha shuddered, guessing what the Escopu meant. Generally, a person’s animus went to await entry to Hanan with their ancestors once ascended through the Flood. That, or a Bloodkooma who had behaved badly would be reincarnated down to Uku to become a Bloodkooma once more. But the only way to fully destroy a person’s animus was to burn their body before it could ascend or descend. This punishment was reserved only for the worst of offenses. No afterlife, only oblivion.
“Soldiers?” Kooteeck exclaimed, falling back to sit on the ground. “It wasn’t those barbaric southerners?”
The Escopu cocked its head. “Those barbaric southerners are now near the center of the empire. More land has been conquered, and the old south is now the middle.”
Kooteeck blinked several times, as if the thought that southerners would not stay southerners as the empire progressed had never occurred to her. Patcha chuckled. It was always a pleasure to explain things to her sister…especially if Kooteeck forgot them, so that Patcha could one day explain them again.
Patcha felt something cold against her leg, and upon inspection it turned out to be Illa’s moist nose. You’re just all over the place, aren’t you? He looked up at her, and she had trouble discerning his eyes from the dark patches of fur around them.
“Hello, Illa,” the Escopu greeted him. “Have you chosen a successor yet? Or are you waiting for the Flood to pass first?”
Illa merely answered by slowly sticking out his tongue and then keeping it there.
The Escopu nodded in solemn understanding.
“Successor?” Kooteeck and Patcha inquired simultaneously.
“Haven’t you ever heard the Verse of Qhilla before?” Areesee countered with her own question.
“The same Verse of Qhilla that’s so long only the high priests have it memorized?” Patcha replied, unamused. I’m bright but not that bright.
Areesee huffed but her expression did not change. “Well you should have heard the first stanza.”
The Escopu flicked out its serpentine tongue, ruffled its feathery, transparent wings, and recited:
“Come my children, and bear witness
To the crowning of the Qhilla King
For old Qhilla has grown too old
To bear his siempre-deber ring.”
Patcha did not understand the cryptic verse’s meaning, but Kooteeck seemed to instantly understand.
“He willingly gave up his siempre-deber?” she wondered, her eyes wide as moons. “But spirits don’t age unless they take off their siempre-deber…” She reached out to stroke Illa’s thick, moss-coated fur. In a flash he was in her lap, his arms curling around hers as if they were tree branches. “Well I don’t see a ring,” she announced, ruffling through Illa’s deep fur.
“He himself was once granted the siempre-deber,” Mawnco explained. “He did not steal it, and he is not the first Qhilla. The Verse of Qhilla outlines every one of Qhilla—the first ever Qhilla who gave rise to the others—every one of Qhilla’s descendants to have worn the siempre-deber of Qhilla.”
“So…his siempre-deber is specifically just for all Qhillas?” Kooteeck gathered. “And they willingly pass it on to each generation?”
“Whenever there is an extraordinary Qhilla, he receives the ring,” Mawnco informed her. “And several have appeared—Illa’s own daughters. Illa was the fastest Qhilla to ever live, and now five of his daughters have similar strengths.”
“Wow,” Kooteeck breathed. “So then what does the siempre-deber do?”
Mawnco’s eyes seemed to light up from their usual dull hazel. “It stores more power than most can imagine.”
“As much as Mawnco loves Qhillas…” interrupted the older human that Mawnco had been speaking to. The little girl was now playing chase with the Escopu, who would take off into the air and drop down in front of her. Squealing in delight, the girl would merely change directions and the chase would continue. “I would like to discuss something with you,” he proclaimed to Patcha, who was beginning to feel slightly intimidated by his height.
“While Mawnco was traveling, we had some of the ancestors investigate to see if they could find out anything about these strange symbols, and asked the gods if they had seen them in use.”
Patcha waited eagerly, musing that this man must be pausing for dramatic effect.
“Evidently,” he finally continued after making eye contact with each of them in turn, “these symbols have been in use for quite some time, and not by any one group in particular. They have been found etched into stones throughout the heart of the empire. Many of the old races saw them, but did not know what they were.”
“But—” Patcha wanted to protest, but was speechless. She felt defensive of her precious, perfect, brilliant system, which she had invented herself. But she also did not understand how the same system could have been developed by more than one person independently, how the centuries-old races that ruled the land before humans could have witnessed them in their own time.
“Tell her what the gods said about who was using them,” Mawnco requested.
“They saw no one teach it to the Lavakoomas, but that could have easily been done underground or in a cave where the gods can’t see. What caught their attention was that, long ago, some at the heart of the Empire, our human Empire, also used this system to their advantage. And disappeared. Much in the same way the Bloodkoomas are disappearing now.”
Patcha stared at him, unable to believe what he was telling her. It was simply impossible, improbable in every aspect. None of it could be true! The same system, used independently ever since the rise of the humans and before, with vanishing users. What did this imply for her? Would she have vanished if she had lived at the Empire’s capital? Was she going to disappear when they found the lake—if there was just one? Had this cycle existed since the beginning of time, and all of the users of script had merely etched into a few rocks and then ceased to exist?
Her heart was racing, and she fell to her feet. She did not faint but wanted to dearly. She retched.
“Give her a moment,” Mawnco announced. Suddenly, Illa was before Patcha’s eyes, holding a wooden bowl. Patcha heard her sister whisper to Areesee, “How bad is it to taint the Fields of Innocence?” Areesee did not reply.
Kooteeck rubbed Patcha’s back with one hand as she began to weep out of pure alarm. Mawnco kneeled next to her and, to Patcha’s annoyance, began to recite the entire monotonous Verse of Qhilla. Of course he would know it: his spirit companion was the Qhilla spirit. Piqued, Patcha closed her eyes to wait it out. But it did not end, and the sonorous verses varied just enough for her to pay them attention. Upset as she was with the real world, she focused on the repetitive verse, curling her fingers with its rhythm. She cleaned her mouth when Kooteeck handed her a cloth that Illa fetched. She kept her eyes closed and breathed deeply.
“Patcha?” Kooteeck inquired in a small voice.
Suddenly, Patcha felt her insecurity leave her. She glanced at her sister and looked into her eyes. How could she let Kooteeck see her like this? Patcha was embarrassed to show such weakness and irreverence before Chosen Children (the Escopu had promptly ceased its play to take the little girl away from the scene) but further down she worried for her twin’s psyche.
“I’m fine,” Patcha grunted, although not very convincingly. She wiped a few more tears from her eyes. She turned her head in the general direction of the man, but did not meet his eyes. “Do we know why they disappeared?”
“Where they went?”
“How they all concocted the same—”
“I’ve told you everything we know,” the man interrupted. “That was all we could muster in such a short period of time. But we will try to keep you three informed as you travel to the Ore Capital. One of us has been working his way into the Ore King’s favor and convince him that his Lavakoomas are being misused. He may be able to tell you more, and his bureaucrats will be receiving documents on the disappearing Bloodkoomas. We’re trying to spread the word as much as possible, but it would be foolish to haphazardly send Chosen Children to random parts of the countryside in the hopes of stumbling across this mysterious manipulator’s hiding place. If he is powerful enough to control the Lavakoomas and steal the Bloodkoomas, then we aren’t dealing with a petty force.”
Patcha nodded, although she sensed that their quest would not end with the Ore King. The others still watched her cautiously. She forced a smile. “I didn’t expect my characters to become so dangerous after being so useful.”
“Most powers are,” the man mused. “But powers, when used properly, are quite useful.” He knelt down and locked eyes with her. “We need all the advantages that we can get. I need you to teach this system of symbols to as many Chosen Children and animal messengers as you can.”
“What animal messengers?” Kooteeck asked.
“Followers of spirit companions,” Mawnco said quickly. “The spirits can’t be everywhere at once…except for Illa.”
“They have a talent for being less conspicuous,” the man replied, standing tall again. “Hopefully, if this trend of disappearance continues, they can go unnoticed by the Lavakoomas.”
“But which animals can script?” Patcha wondered, imagining Peeskoos trying to etch characters with their beaks and Alkohs licking the ground to clear the dirt.
“We’ll see,” Mawnco said. “But I know for a fact that Qhillas can!”
Patcha heard Areesee sigh behind her. But that was, evidently, the end of the conversation. Only Chosen Children were welcome to stay the night in the Fields of Innocence, and the sunset was fading. Mawnco and Areesee seemed reluctant to leave. So was Patcha.
 Culture: Chosen Children are sometimes given Escopus eggs to care for. However, most Escopus break ties with the Chosen Children upon reaching adulthood. Because many Escopus eventually forced Chosen Children into their own private service, the practice was abandoned.
 Culture: In the Creature Lands to the South, the conquering armies establish large fighting arenas used to display exotic talent and creatures to the newly conquered. However, the fights are notorious for attracting bloodthirsty administrators and competitors who often resort to crime.
 Culture: Bodies of particularly bad criminals are burned to prevent their ghosts from ascending to Hanan, depriving them of the afterlife.
Lead Image: “Construction method” by Huhsunqu via Wikimedia Commons.