Θ Θ Θ
The Janpee seemed incredibly anxious when the four reappeared from the portal. Kooteeck felt a gust of wind rush pass them, and in one blink saw Illa in the entryway to the temple.
“What’s the matter?” Mawnco asked the Janpee calmly. He seemed to stand taller, as if his trip back home had replenished his spirit.
“You must come quickly!” she insisted, her lenses glowing red with excitement. “The town is all in an uproar, you can hear it from here!”
Indeed they could hear a humming that carried dozens of simultaneous yells. Kooteeck could see the refreshing bliss the Fields of Innocence had brought to her companions now melt away into horror. But Kooteeck would rather deal with the real world any day. Her heartbeat was only now beginning to slow after her trip into the supernatural.
“What’s the matter?” Areesee inquired as they all sped outside and began the trek uphill, the portal dissipating behind them as the sun set.
“I don’t know!” the Janpee replied. “I had to keep the gate open for you, and I have no Bloodkoomas to send to investigate!”
Kooteeck could see smoke rising from the heart of town. The buildings they passed were abandoned, and no lights were visible inside in the gaining darkness. The barks of Alkohs began to drown out the hollering, but a few piercing shouts were still heard.
The group was greeted by a group of men carrying burning torches in the night.
“Halt!” a tall one at the head of the group yelled to them. “State your names!”
“Mawnco, Chosen Child, with companions Kooteeck and Patcha of the eastern village of Raua,” Mawnco stated firmly.
“Areesee, Chosen Child,” Areesee chimed in.
“You know who I am,” the Janpee hissed sibilantly. “I leave for an hour and suddenly everyone’s in an uproar. What’s the matter? What happened to the preparations for the Flood?”
The man in front stepped forwards. The light of the torch danced on his glasunes and played with his facial expressions, so that one moment he seemed old and frightened, the next young and defiant. “A young traveler was asked to show her passport when she asked for some of the supplies we were gathering. Not only did she have none, but when a Red Runner pulled off her cloak, she had the mark of a Bloodkooma upon her neck.”
“A serpent more twisted than all the connivances in the east,” someone else growled behind them. They turned around to see a thin, yellow-lensed man wearing a feather ruwana. He bore a pan-flute in hand and a tropical Peeskoo on shoulder, which glowered at the humans around its perch. The villagers shifted restlessly at the words of the entertainer, their red glasunes burning as brightly as their torches.
Kooteeck felt her skin rise on end. They may not need to travel to the Ore Capital after all, if they could trap this traveler.
“What did she look like?” Mawnco inquired.
The man answered him, “She’ll be the one running.”
“But how tall, how young, did she have a scar or a limp?” Kooteeck demanded, eager to get searching before it became much darker. “Was she a Mountain Dweller or a Jungle Dweller?”
“Either Mountain or Beach Dweller,” the man said. “Although, by the accounts of the Runner she hit over the head, she had the strength of a panther and the bite of a serpent.”
“Two thirds of the way to being holy,” the entertainer chimed in from behind. Kooteeck stifled a chuckle at the roundabout reference to an Escopu.
“We’ll search on our own,” Areesee told them, plucking a nearby wooden pole from its mark in the road and setting it alight with her hands. Kooteeck mused that Areesee was quite deft with her magic. How come she had never seen Mawnco use his like that?
“Be careful,” a woman in the back of the group called out to them.
“They don’t need caution,” the man up front yelled back as he turned the group’s attention to the road they had been searching. “They’ve got two Chosen Children with them.”
Kooteeck wasn’t so sure, however, from what she had heard of Mawnco’s less-than-valiant fight against infant Soikles. As they began to follow Mawnco wordlessly toward the center of town, Kooteeck briefly stopped to pluck her own wooden pole, wondering if she had enough magic to light it. She heaved on it, but found it was much harder to remove than Areesee had made it seem. She twisted, then got from behind it and started to push in vain, her sandals slipping over the stones behind her.
“Try removing the stone at its base!” Patcha called out. “It’s meant to clear a road, not fall on it.” The others were already turning a corner at the end of the street. Kooteeck looked down, and saw that the enlarged cap on the end of the stick was buried snugly underneath the layer of stones. She turned the wood, and then removed it from the gaps between stones easily. She sprinted down the street, easily overtaking her intellectually inclined sister but unable to reach the Chosen Children.
When they reached the center of town, Kooteeck busied herself with trying to set the stick alight. She concentrated her power on it, and the tip she held began to smolder.
“Try rubbing it,” Patcha panted, lending a hand to help her. Within a moment, the wood was caught aflame and Kooteeck grinned broadly.
“Let’s go Bloodkooma hunting!”
Patcha frowned, glanced over to where Mawnco and Areesee were inspecting wet tracks from a puddle, and said, “Why don’t we just wait for the others to catch her?”
Areesee responded without looking up, “You think they’ll stop at prison? After she disappeared from her post, illegally traveling the imperial roads, resisting capture, and assaulting a Red Runner on duty?”
“Hmm.” Patcha considered this as Mawnco began to climb up a small, stone wall with astonishing speed and find a way onto the rooftops. She began to look at the mess around them. “She was looking for supplies, right? So wouldn’t she come back here?”
“Or flee to the next town,” Kooteeck added, bringing her torch over to where Mawnco was pulling himself atop the tiled roof of a well-decorated inn.
“I doubt that!” Patcha squealed with delight, marching in the opposite direction. Kooteeck, confused by her twin’s enthusiasm, glanced back and saw Patcha inspecting a pile of toppled baskets that a Vicuna was beginning to munch on. “These are pottery baskets, packed according to standards. But all the ink and clay is gone! The man said the Bloodkuma never got any supplies. She can’t have gotten far if she took it after the mob left to find her.”
“And these prints reveal someone with fresh volcanic ash on their sandals,” Areesee announced, having reached a puddle of accumulated rainwater where another road intersected the square. “The fire dances off of them.”
“That could be anyone from the Ore Capital,” Mawnco argued. “But if she did steal the ink and head that way…”
He removed the sling from his back and disentangled the net. He took two of the balls that he had stored in the web. Of the grass, clay, and stone balls he removed the latter two, which Kooteeck remembered were for stunning and maiming, respectively, leaving the one of knotted grass clumps. He set the two spare balls at his feet and pressed his palm against the grass one, which began to glow. Kooteeck stared at it in amazement as it began to let off as much light as a star. Mawnco then took aim and swung the sling in circles to gain momentum. He let the sphere go, and it soared perfectly over the rooftops, a path of ephemeral light following behind it and illuminating the ground below it. From his own rooftop perch, Mawnco peered after it.
“He sure knows Beach Dweller magic,” Kooteeck breathed in wonder, before noticing that her torch had been leaning up against the side of the building, which had caught aflame. She gasped, dropping the stick, which clattered its flame out on the ground. Mawnco turned his head and promptly spit at the smoldering insulation beneath the tiles. A stream of ice-chilled water came out of his mouth, dousing the fire in its infancy. “Sorry!” Kooteeck called back up.
“What did you see?” Areesee and Patcha inquired simultaneously.
“A—a—” Mawnco stuttered, his body as still as a stalking Meesee.
“A what?” Areesee demanded impatiently. “Did you see the girl or not?”
“No—no…I saw…we should just go that way,” he finished lamely. He approached the edge of the roof and dropped back down to the ground with catlike precision. “Put the torch out,” he instructed Areesee, who appeared impressed by Mawnco’s climbing.
“Put it out?” Areesee echoed in disbelief, though she obeyed.
“But we won’t be able to see!” Kooteeck protested, knowing that she could not possibly use up more of her energy to light the torch again. The sky was clouded, though thinly. The absent full moon would not be with them, and the nascent starlight drifted in and out of usefulness along with the clouds.
“We don’t want to alert anyone we’re coming. The Bloodkooma and…the Bloodkooma doesn’t know we’re here.”
They followed Mawnco as he rushed haphazardly in the direction he had thrown the glowing ball. Kooteeck huffed in rebellion but still followed behind. She heard Patcha moan as the two Chosen Children pulled ahead of them. Luckily, few things riddled the streets to trip them, and the rocks were smooth from years of ware. Kooteeck followed the sound of Mawnco’s shallow breaths, and continued to complain in order to help guide Patcha and slow the others:
“Can you at least tell us what to watch out for? Or how to act? I mean, are we supposed to be quiet or make noise or what? If we have our torches out, I guess we should be quiet, but you really should say something. And you’re making a lot of noise with your huffing, too. You never huffed before, is what I’m saying. Ack! Stupid post. Why do they even have these? Red Runners hardly ever come through!”
“To tie Vicunas to and mark the distance you’ve traveled,” Patcha answered laboriously, not far behind.
“You see? We can be useful, so it’s good to keep us in the loop.”
“Shh!” Mawnco cut her off as they came to a sudden stop, and all at once everything was silent. Although they lacked breath, they did not dare give away any hint of shallow breathing. Absolutely nothing stirred, though the distant grunts of the searchers lingered.
“What do you think it is?” Mawnco said in the darkness as the starlight vanished once again.
“Think what is?” Patcha wondered.
“That! On the ground.”
“I don’t see anything because I don’t have a torch,” Areesee snapped back.
Then the cloud cover shifted again, and a sheen of light caught Kooteeck’s eyes. Mawnco was some ways ahead of where the three girls pressed up against the walls of a long-hall, standing over a small puddle that had accumulated in a muddy patch of ground where the cobblestones broke in the street. Kooteeck saw nothing special about it, and it certainly did not emit any light besides the reflection of the star-shine. Except that the puddle was a deep indigo color.
“Calm down, Mawnco, it’s just a puddle,” Patcha assured him. “But there seems to be an inconsistency with what color it should be and what color it is.”
“The ink!” Areesee announced.
“And next to the ink…?” Mawnco offered hesitantly. The girls’ eyes wandered to see a large paw print beside broken glass. The slope of the hill caused the ink from the pawprint to run downhill, partly obscuring its shape.
“They’re Alkoh prints!” Areesee confirmed.
Mawnco sighed in relief. “Good. I thought I was going crazy. There’s just a huge Alkoh chasing after the Bloodkooma, then.”
Without speaking, Areesee and Mawnco began to follow the tracks. Kooteeck couldn’t help but glance in every direction, imagining the Bloodkooma behind every corner. The tracks grew fainter as the ink pawprints grew fainter, but they reached the end of its trail before they disappeared completely. Yet there was no Alkoh. Its tracks now lead in circles and rested on top of each other at the edge of a bare, stone wall.
“What happened to the Alkoh?” Kooteeck heard Patcha’s anxious, tentative voice from behind as the night darkened once again.
“I’m guessing the ink ran out,” Areesee said.
Kooteeck raised her head to view the top of the stone house before them. There was no possible way for anyone (and most certainly any Alkoh) to climb that high.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Areesee said begrudgingly. “But I say we follow her up that wall.”
“And how do you propose we do that?” Patcha snorted. “Unless you have a hook and rope on the end of that sling, we’d better find another building to fall off of.”
Kooteeck wondered how her sister could be so bold after having known Areesee for less than a day, but her thoughts were cut off by a faint scraping noise. It was still too dark to see.
“You forget that Mawnco’s animal master is a Qhilla. They are quite adept climbers.”
As the stars reappeared, Mawnco was heaving himself to the top of the wall. Kooteeck now noticed small scratches across the plain, flat roof.
“These are claw marks!” Mawnco announced as if his worst fears had been confirmed. “And the mortar here is loose. It’s as if something crashed…” He still crouched when he had pulled himself over the edge of the roof. He made to grab another ball to sling across the landscape, but then froze in place with a gasp.
“Hurry and head North!” he called to them, stretching his arm at an angle off into the distance. “Have your weapons ready. I’ll follow them on the roofs.”
“ ‘Them’ ?” Areesee repeated.
“She’s running across the rooftops, but pausing when there is not starlight,” he explained, “and circumventing wide gaps. And an Escopu is gaining on her! It’s not flying, though. I think I can catch up.” He dashed away with this last sentence.
“North it is, then,” Areesee said nonchalantly, heading down the road in the direction they had been headed. Patcha and Kooteeck followed behind. After many twists and turns, once needing to backtrack from a dead-end, Kooteeck was convinced that they were lost. All noises were lost to the night, and even the distant yells of the other searchers had disappeared. When the starlight vanished or they came across a road directly beneath the cloud cover, they groped against the walls of houses to find their way. The entire time, Kooteeck was wondering how these facts could add up. The Bloodkooma would do well to hide on the rooftops, but was there really an Escopu chasing her? Why didn’t it fly and catch her?
The cloud cover shifted. Not far ahead of them, the street ended, leading out into a field.
“Are we still headed northward?” Kooteeck inquired as they sprinted toward it.
“Yes,” Areesee and Patcha answered simultaneously. Kooteeck marveled at how Patcha had recalled the star alignments so well. But, then again, that was why she had scored so highly on her Trial, and Kooteeck had not.
The night was even stiller without their footprints echoing against the walls and their breaths so clustered together. Out in the open, they could see downhill for miles, spot every stream and terrace, clearly mark where the clouds hovered above the patchwork-shadowed ground, and even make out the distant city lights of the Ore Capital on the snow-capped volcano towering over their puny hill. And, heading toward the nearest stream flowing through a terraced field, they spotted two shapes moving swiftly downhill.
“There’s Mawnco!” Areesee pointed to the east, their right, where another shape was quickly gaining on the other two. “Let’s go!”
Patcha moaned, her knees buckling underneath her panting torso. “I can’t go farther. I’ll stay here.”
“All right. Don’t tell the townspeople to stop searching,” Areesee instructed. Then she and Kooteeck began sprinting after the distant, dark figures. Kooteeck couldn’t help but sympathize with the villagers, who would be anxious, cold, and empty-handed for a while.
The darkness barely slowed them as they made their way over to an unpaved road heading downhill, parallel to the fields and occasionally intersected by small irrigation canals. Of the two figures heading downhill, one stayed on its course toward a large stream, while the other, smaller, and longer shape stopped to await Mawnco. Kooteeck thought she saw a fouth shape lurking by the side of the stream.
The quadruped that had stopped now began galloping toward Mawnco, gaining more speed than a human could ever hope, even going uphill. It certainly did seem to reflect the puma blood of an Escopus. Mawnco’s shape froze, and then a flame appeared, spinning steadily in a circle over his head.
“Is he insane?” Areesee panted, her voice hoarse with effort and anoxia. “He can’t attack an Escopu! It’s forbidden!”
He certainly can’t defeat one, either, Kooteeck thought with dread.
The ball was released mere moments before the Escopu and Mawnco were set to collided. Its path was guided by the wind perfectly. Just as the cloud cover made to hide the two from view, the fire exploded in a shower of sparks and then sputtered out. Kooteeck heard a piercing caterwaul streak through the night, splintering the air. And then there was only the sound of Kooteeck and Areesee’s footsteps.
Areesee did not change course, and the two continued past where Mawnco and the Escopu had been, downhill, on the heels of the Bloodkooma.
We’re not going to make it, Kooteeck thought to herself as the Bloodkooma’s figure reached the water some ways upstream from the mysterious fourth shape. She began to fall behind with exhaustion. Her head felt faint, though she ignored the pain in her chest. She breathed as steadily as possible, but soon found her breaths coming out in dangerously quick spurts, and she coughed. Her legs buckled underneath her, and she caught herself on the ground between empty rows of dirt. Areesee sped off without her.
Years of dancing made me stronger than Patcha, Kooteeck thought. But the only human faster than a Chosen Child is a Red Runner. With dismay, she regretted Patcha’s instructions to not inform the townspeople. The Red Runners were accustomed to traveling paved roads, but surely they would have had more stamina than a few adolescents.
But she beheld with amazement that the Bloodkooma’s figure was not moving from the edge of the water. Perhaps she was fatigued from the Escopu’s chase, as well!
Another, higher-pitched shriek echoed in the empty, windy night, but not from behind Kooteeck. It was down by the river, where the fourth figure was suddenly rushing toward the Bloodkooma. A fifth figure, of a Peeskoo, lifted into the air and began circling above-head as the Bloodkooma and her assailant grappled by the side of the sparkling water.