The Bloodkoomas, first the fair and then the ragged one, climbed through the opening in the wall. His curiosity getting the better of him, Mawnco rushed through as the Janpee followed. Beyond the range of the blue light, the other side was in complete darkness. But the Janpee soon removed the beads as well as their influence, and the light died as the stone materialized once more. The blue beads did not regain their magic, but Mawnco sensed the Janpee had more to spare.
Once the artificial light was gone, the Chamber of Sleeping Flame lit on its own. They stood on the pebbly, gray shore of a vast lake contained within an incredibly smooth-walled cavern. Mawnco had never seen such fine stone except for a temple’s Chakana. The only light came from the lake, a deep bluish glow that rippled across the high cavern ceiling. Mawnco was not surprised by its size or depth. Its far end was just barely visible on the opposite side of the cavern, almost completely shrouded in darkness.
There’s no ice, Mawnco thought with excited dread. He’d never seen this, but he’d heard plenty of stories. They’re about to retrieve the flame. He wondered how they would fare.
“The surface ice will reform by morning,” Master Awkaseesa told them solemnly. “You may begin.”
One bursting with excitement, the other weighted with anxiety, the two girls slowly waded out into the lake. As their heads submerged, and Mawnco moved to follow them, he noticed curls of wispy mist at the other end, rising toward and disappearing in the cavern’s high dome. That must be where the lake begins to freeze, he realized. I hope these girls don’t overstay their visit below. He genuinely wanted these two to pass the Bloodkooma Rite of Age. If they did, they might retrieve an Escopu egg. As a Chosen Child, he had never received an initiation ceremony during first puberty, as Patcha and Kooteeck would when and if their quest was completed. The ceremony for Bloodkoomas was quite different; instead of enduring a physical change to represent their transition into adulthood, they had the opportunity to find an Escopu egg, the ultimate sign of redemption. Or so the legend went.
His intangible form pass through the lake water easily. He dived into its depths, searching for one of the girls. He saw a distant figure, already well beneath the surface along the lakebed, and followed it. He was disappointed to see that it was Whyra, the ragged one who had thought of abandoning the temple. He half hoped that she would not find the flame in time for dawn, when the lake’s surface would freeze over, but, for now, he followed her.
The water was perplexingly opaque. He couldn’t see the surface, he couldn’t even see more than a few feet in any direction. The pebbly bottom shifted with Whyra’s sluggish footsteps. Her hair rose in locks in the waters, and her cheeks were swollen as if she wanted to hold her breath.
She must never listen, Mawnco considered, if she thinks that she needs to hold her breath in this lake.
They were searching for the flame. Its light, now red at the bottom of the lake, seemed to be present everywhere, before and behind, above and below. With such omnipresence, it would be difficult to find. They wandered around for a long time as the lakebed leveled out into a flat plane. Whyra occasionally turned, her movements somewhat panicked. More often, she kicked the sacred pebbles in frustration. Just as the light was turning a clear orange around them, Whyra stopped her meandering. She stared at the pebbly bottom.
Mawnco rounded her to see what had caught her attention. It was a place in the lakebed that had obviously been disturbed by something, as there was a small dent in the flat bottom with pebbles strewn away from it. An impact site. From Whyra’s own kick.
The cursed Bloodstealer, Mawnco growled in his own mind. She pockmarked the Lake of Sleeping Flame!
To his intense shock, she dug her bare foot into the crevice and began to drag her foot alongside her without ever lifting it back up. Mawnco gawked in disgust as he followed behind her in helpless disbelief.
After she had walked some time, she turned. Her movements were less panicked now, but they were far swifter than before, as if some new drive had overtaken her. With every scrape her now bleeding foot made, Mawnco felt his heart being nipped by rodents.
This continued until the orange flame was fading into yellow. She occasionally turned one way or the other. Finally, they came across a gouge that she had already made.
She’s tracking where she’s been! Mawnco thought to himself in amazement. Clever girl! Blasphemous, but clever.
By the time she had stumbled upon it, the sleeping flame was the color of a thirsty plant, a lime mix of greenish yellow. It was a simple fire resting on a bed of pebbles, its most ambitious tongues not reaching higher than Mawnco’s ankle. She cupped some of the flame in her hands and turned back to inspect her gouges. She followed them back, and soon she was emerging from the water with a rich green flame hovering above her two upturned palms. Mawnco was astonished that she had retrieved the fire before half of the lake had even frozen over. Cool wisps curled off the ice that had already claimed half the water’s surface.
Whyra, grinning for the first time, looked at Master Awkaseesa expectantly, pride ringing in her blue eyes. The water did not drip from her skin, but rather evaporated in a cloud of steam.
Master Awkaseesa did not seem daunted by Whyra’s feat. Mawnco knew that Escopu eggs were produced by the Lake of Sleeping Flame, but that was where his knowledge ended, because that was where the legend ended. He thought that perhaps the Janpee was disappointed that Whyra had come back without one. He had never asked himself why the Sleeping Flame changed color, or how an egg was made from it.
“Swallow it,” Master Awkaseesa instructed.
What? Mawnco thought, and saw his shock reflected in Whyra’s face. The natural light faded from her eyes, replaced by the green twinkle of the fire.
She stood, shocked, for a few moments before she complied. With effort, the fire disappeared down her throat with neither smoke nor ashes remaining of it. Whyra fell to her feet, and Mawnco saw her eyes suddenly glow green with the fire. In a moment, the glow had died, and the girl collapsed onto the pebbly beach.
Θ Θ Θ
Mawnco gasped awake. It was dawn, and he lay on a soft, bloodstained bed of incredibly soft quilts. One he recognized as the green baby blanket Patcha had brought with her. Patcha and Kooteeck sat against the wall across the room. Shriveled Chax leaves lay forgotten by Patcha’s knees as Kooteeck tutored her in fire magic.
“…be as smooth as possible, that way we don’t waste any dying energy,” Kooteeck was saying, her hands cupping an invisible ball. Mawnco was familiar with the tactic; it was a basic method of practicing magic use without needing a vessel to transfer it to, as the hands could sense each other’s energy.
“I need something more specific than ‘smooth,’ Kooteeck. Do you mean I should curve my arms around?” Patcha’s hands moved around the air in clumsy twists.
“No, no, I mean…well smooth. It has to feel smooth.”
“It feels hot.”
“But is it smooth hot? It’s got to dance on your hands.”
Patcha groaned. “Could you write it for me? I don’t understand what you’re telling me to do.”
“Just don’t be so…spastic. Go where your muscles naturally guide you. The fire knows best.”
“I control my muscles, not the other way around.” She paused when she finally noticed Mawnco’s labored breathing. “He’s awake!”
She and Kooteeck rushed to his side, kicking the cards aside in the process. Mawnco rolled onto his right shoulder to meet them and noticed that a white hat stained with bits of brown dirt lay next to where he slept.
“Are you all right?” Kooteeck prompted.
“Can you see?” Patcha worried.
“Of course I can see,” Mawnco replied, confused. Then he blinked, and only felt his left eyelid move. He was tempted to freeze in horror, but forced himself to be dignified and lifted his left hand to his right eye. A wall of cloth blocked its path.
Kooteeck and Patcha watched him apprehensively.
Relax, Mawnco. If it heals, it heals. If not…
“How long was I unconscious?”
“Just since last night. It’s almost noon.”
Mawnco sighed and summoned a smile to chase away their frowns. He raised the hat onto his head playfully to prove his joy. “I guess this could be an impressive battle scar,” he joked. “It’ll be my proof that I survived an Escopu.” He hoped that his nonchalance would convince the girls that he wasn’t in danger from the fact that he had attacked an Escopu. They didn’t seem convinced.“Did you find the Bloodstealer?”
“She escaped.” Kooteeck pounded a fist against the hard-packed earthen floor, casting a shadow from the open door to Mawnco’s right. “That idiot Hiyee attacked her before Areesee could reach her.”
“Areesee’s at the temple,” Patcha clarified. “She was awake all night trying to placate the townspeople before they wreaked havoc on something…or someone.”
“She’s a dedicated girl. She deserves better than absorbing peoples’ frustrations. We should get going,” Mawnco declared, sitting up. He wanted to reach the Capital. Let’s see what my eye can still do. He grinned, again but his face trembled with the effort.
“Can’t you rest a day?” Kooteeck exclaimed. “If your eye—”
“The fate of the world weighs more than the fate of my eye,” Mawnco told her sternly, though he whispered in case there were any unwanted listeners lurking nearby. “At least now we know who’s involved with the kidnappings.”
“What do you mean?” Kooteeck asked quickly.
Mawnco realized that he hadn’t told either of them about his conversation with the Escopu, or the ensuing dream. He conceded that at least he would be resting a bit while he told them about the treachery of this Escopu.