The Night Panther (Flood Thieves Chapter 7.5)

There are three noble creatures that even the dominant race of humans respects. These are the condor, hunter of the sky Hanan; the panther, guardian of the land Kai; and the serpent, dweller of the underground Uku. These animals are said to retain unknowable power and are often used to represent Hwaca deities of individual communities that believe they embody the traits of these creatures. While there are no royal decrees or practices protecting these creatures from harm, they are the three animals that comprise the sacred Escopu. Few know that Escopus do not originate from love or parent, but rather from eggs created at Master Temples through a process shrouded in secret. Every Escopu is king of its own domain, and its domain is wherever it chooses. An Escopu may be a noble hunter or a passive scholar, conferring with wild beasts or humans or both, roaming the land or defending a single territory. The only steadfast part of an Escopu’s life is the utmost respect granted to them. Any honorable human must offer their life willingly if the Escopu demands it. Any who dishonors an Escopu must be burned to block their path to the afterlife.

 

Mawnco winced as his clay ball hit the Escopu directly in the chest, his heart beating wildly with both remorse for and fear of the powerful being. As much as he hated to give up the afterlife for assailing an Escopu, he wasn’t about to jeopardize the fate of all mankind by letting the Bloodkooma escape. The Escopu let out an incredible, mangled hybrid between a screech and caterwaul. Mawnco’s skin froze. He ducked as its body tumbled through the air over his. He had never known an Escopu to make such an inhuman noise. Its voice sounded like something clinging to the last hopes of life. It was completely silent, the light having been smothered by repeated rolling across the grass.

Mawnco crouched and tried to make out the figure of the Escopu. He heard nothing as Areesee and Kooteeck came into sight far away. As the moonlight approached, he stood to face his opponent.

Hopefully it wouldn’t be his opponent for long.

“Honored Escopu,” Mawnco addressed it, “I do not wish to fight you, but you assist a Bloodkooma escaping interrogation, and as a Chosen Child, I cannot allow that. My quest is urgent. I am hunting for the salvation of all living creatures, including yourself.” To show his sincerity, he set his staff and sling on the ground beside him.

There was no response. He could barely see in the shadow of the clouds overhead. He crouched again and touched his fingers to the grass. Greenish-white light spread across the strands like a wave, illuminating a semicircular portion of meadow before him. The Escopu lay on its side, the light shining off of its intent eyes as they met Mawnco’s. Its side heaved at once, and then shook, and then continued heaving erratically.

“I only want to speak with you,” Mawnco said quietly, the pinching sensation in his heart replaced by a dull and urgent thrum. “Some villain has caused the Bloodkoomas to vanish, maybe the same person who took the Guardian so long ago. If I can find—”

“You are mistaken,” the Escopu interrupted in a gravelly voice. Its beak remained open in between words, its tongue lolling uncontrollably out the side of its mouth. It was female. Mawnco waited as it slowly rose, hacking and coughing as it did so. Mawnco stiffened, ready to help if it requested aid. Soon it was sitting on its hind legs, staring at the glowing grass at Mawnco’s feet. Then it continued:

“Your quest is not for the sake of all living creatures,” the Escopu told him calmly as it regained strength. Mawnco marveled at its resilience. The fur around its chest looked undamaged from the fire, but Mawnco couldn’t help but notice that its wings were incredibly short for a man-sized being, and not as slender as he’d seen in other Escopus.

“Yes it is,” Mawnco insisted. “If we don’t find the Guardian soon, then the life will fade from the world.”

“There is still life left,” the Escopu said. “If you do not find the Guardian, your life will fade. But not everything will.”

Mawnco gaped at the creature. Was it lying to him, or delusional? It couldn’t be telling the truth, because it said things contrary to what Mawnco, and all humans before him, had learned. The human ancestors in Hanan said it was so, and so did the race before them, and the race before them, and on into eternity.

“The Bloodkoomas have been taken to where that life resides,” the Escopu growled. “If you find them and do not join them, they will kill you. If you do not find them, you will die. I can take you to the, and spare your life. Do you really want to die for mankind when its age will soon catch up to it? Don’t be stupid, Chosen Child. You have been raised to serve the gods and your ancestors, but soon they will all be powerless compared to those who remain alive. You can be a king in the new age. All you have to do is exactly what I say.”

Mawnco’s skin crawled at the Escopu’s words. He refused to even consider the possibility that they were true…except that the Escopu obviously knew where the Bloodkoomas were.

Just then, a terrible shriek split the sky. Down by the stream, a Peeskoo took flight as three dark figures, two battling and one frantically running toward them, moved with all the strength they had. A brief ball of yellowish-white light was visible before crashing into the river. Areesee must have caught up with the Bloodkooma. They could interrogate the Bloodkooma on their own, without the mad Escopu.

But the Escopu let off a half-Meesee, half-serpent hiss next to him. Its short wings ruffled open in the air in irritation, but somehow did not unfold evenly.

They’re broken, Mawnco realized. “Who did that to your wings?”

“The Janpees you serve,” the Escopu growled, its feminine voice deepening. “Tell your companions to release the Bloodkooma or else face a fate worse than death.”

“Please, great Escopu,” Mawnco implored. “We’ll go with you to the lake, and we won’t harm the Bloodkoomas. But don’t harm my companions; they’re too young.”

“ ‘The lake’? ” The Escopu repeated, turning on him with surprising ferocity. It bared its teeth at him. “Never mind my offer, Chosen Child. You have the power of script, and you already told the others.” It approached him without breaking eye-contact, and before Mawnco could consider his next move, it lunged with outstretched claws.

Searing pain erupted in Mawnco’s eye as one of his lenses fell to the ground, and a great weight pushed on his body as his head hit ground. He tried to turn away from a sight full of red. He could feel the loss of his magic without his lenses. A true man-hunter always aimed for the glasunes first.

There was a flurry of movement, and the weight was suddenly off of him. He writhed on the ground, his mind engulfed in chaos and panic. He heard more movement beside him, a mix of grunts, hisses, and thuds that vaguely reached past the pounding of blood through his head and out of his right eye. The night seemed to erupt into red again. Mawnco’s concentration was on his face, but suddenly he was acutely aware of more pain in his leg. He wailed into the night, the kind of yell he had only heard from plays, when the actors reenacted the sound of a dying man. He gasped for air, unable to howl anymore.

Then, something turned his face toward the grass, which flickered with orange light. It seemed like the world around him was spinning, and he felt he was moving. His mind gave way to complete disarray, and he begged for an end to it.


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