Heart Rot: Chapter 1
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Listen, and you shall hear a story.

Once, alike in face as in personality, there lived twin brothers - and ah, you know now, don’t you? Ten words spoken, and you can already predict how this story is going to end.

For they are twins, and there is always a special fate set aside for twins. For you see, no new child conceived escapes the eye of the great spirits - Hualma, of the day, who first set firm the ground and raised up the firmament, and placed all goodly things within it for our use, and Olin that is his mirror, lord of snakes and poisonous things, death and cruelty. Both will bring to bear their strength, that they may claim each person as soon as possible while they still endure in the realm of sight and sense. So the soul of every person at birth is composed of both aspects, mixed in measure. Some receive more of Hualma, and they are the saints and the holy ones, the leaders of their communities; some less, and they are the warmakers and lawbreakers.

But two children, in one womb - good and evil each the other repel, as oil to water, and that is why we each of us face such conflict throughout our lives, as the two sides of our souls seek to flee each other. But should one try to drink from a cup half-filled with water and half of oil, they shall take all the oil into their mouth first, before tasting even a single drop of water, and so two children in one womb receive not two blended souls but each unmixed, one of good and one of malice.

But who can tell a child’s soul before they have ten, fifteen, nigh on twenty years to their name? So every set of twins born is a game of chance - that the one who is good will suffice, to outweigh the evil of the other. It is no coincidence that most of the great myths have hero and villain born of the same mother.

And out of myths? About five days' travel to the east - or four for those that drive themselves fast - there is a mountainside all bare of trees, where a section broke free and slid into the valley and lake below. There was once a village, where the rocky fen it formed now meanders, but of course no trace of it could survive such a catastrophe. Its neighbours, coming to trade, found only one survivor, a girl of barely marriageable age who they knew had been born with a sister of her own - a sister whom they had encountered a few times before in trading, sweet as honey and light as moth-flight, and who must have been one of the first to die, for her body was not found.

The girl who lived had had barely a scratch upon her and a heart as cold as the belly of a cave, for they never saw her mourn the death of her family and people.

And northwest, there is still a cliffside and waterfall that the roads bend widely around, and that must be guarded with talisman and garland, for near to that place lived a woman with her twin elder siblings, a brother and a sister, and the brother lusted after her in secret. And the one day, thinking that he like all others deserved to have a bride, he took her by force and slew the other, who, as it is right for a woman to do for her sister, attempted to defend her. And horrified by what he had done she fled to the cliff and cast herself off - but his seed had already taken root in her womb, and dying unborn and nameless the soul it would have been became a vengeful wraith in Olin’s ways, drowning or maddening all who would come near in vengeance for its uncle’s wrong.

Of course, that is the greatest extent that has been known to befall - most are far smaller, more human degrees of evil, a single murder or theft or the manipulation of records for unjust debt and credit, and smaller degrees of good, as most things in general do not happen on the mountainous scale of sorcery. But nonetheless, it is always a chance rather than a choice, for them. Fate is fate, and always fruits.

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Comalpo hoped it wasn’t an omen - two trogon, scarlet flashes up in the canopy, repeating their grinding-wood cry as they hopped from branch to branch. He dropped his gaze just before he tripped over a root, and managed to hop over it instead, guiltily yanking his spear-butt from the mud. Not that being fast enough would prevent small sediment particles working themselves into the grain and shortening its lifespan, because if it had touched the ground it was already too late for that, but it would prevent anyone from seeing and criticizing him.

Tliichpil, who didn’t count for that purpose because he was not the kind of person who liked to criticize, nonetheless smirked at him from several paces ahead. His spear hung loosely in his hand, the absolute image of unhurried confidence. At least every few days they trod this path, and the dirt was so packed down that none of it gave off anymore, even when walked with wet feet. But the roots had been worn to stand out like buttresses and could catch an unwary toe.

There were likely to be waterbirds at the mere still, for the wet season was only just fading to dry, and they would not have yet flown away to the north to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. That was what they headed out to hunt - although Comalpo also carried at his hip a net bag in case of what Tliichpil had jokingly called an “unexpected groundnut encounter”.

His lips reflexively twitched even at the memory. Not a phrase he would have come up with on his own, but of course, that, in addition to not criticizing him, was what Tliichpil was for - his broken reflection, his other half since the earliest they could both remember. The one who made the jokes. The relaxed one, the clever one, to Comalpo’s quietness and seriousness.

He hopped over another ridge, landing in a mat of fallen leaves. Besides, even if the trogon were an omen, he would not know how to interpret it. For fate was not always negative - half of it Hualma had knotted, always for the good. And as if on cue, both trogon spread their wings and lifted off, disappearing into black specks among the canopy. There. That was better. No reason to worry, and ruin what was shaping up to be an excellent day - patches of sunslight cut through the canopy in a bright, clear green, outlining the myriad of colours displayed by the leaves of the understory to capture it as it filtered down. Purple-streaked bromeliads, reddish-black arrowleaf, and citrine-stalked lianas shimmered like gems on all sides. A dragonfly buzzed up, considered him for a heartbeat, then sped away again.

And anyway, he would need most of his focus to keep a close eye out for those unexpected groundnuts.

“What’s so funny?” Tliichpil asked as he caught up. He fell into step behind Comalpo again, and they continued.

“Nothing.”

He poked him in the back. “C’mon, what?”

“Nothing. Really.”

Tliichpil huffed. “You’re a dork.”

“You’re worse.” After all, he came up with these silly turns of phrase.

Companionable quiet fell again. They reached the cross-roads - although it was not, truly, for beside the village path four others led away, winding like an outstretched hand up and across the valley. They took the leftmost, which began to climb upwards. In the heavy rains it became a stream itself, lined in the bottom with stones - these rolled and clattered under their feet.

Comalpo hauled himself up through a particularly steep section with all four limbs, like a cat. Tliichpil followed with three, leaning far enough back to force his weight into the ground that he warned “Be careful.”

“I am.”

“Then be more so.”

Tliichpil rolled his eyes and gripped another ridge with his other hand. He dragged himself over the upper edge and stood, brushing dust off his apron. The ground flattened out at the top of the ridge, and the path wound ochre over it and dipped down into the next vale.

Well, time wasn’t going to wait for them. Comalpo turned and started off again, and, as always, Tliichpil followed.

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Tliichpil only became aware of the low drone pressing against his ears when it resolved into the familiar sound of the cataract. The river that ran through the village was small enough to barely earn the name, dammed into a lake that filled the upper valley. It was shallow enough to be waded across, for even young children to play in without fear of drowning; but not so was the cataract-river. Even in the driest of dry seasons it sunk only barely down from its banks, nor could the bed ever be seen through the turbid water. In the higher regions, it fell over many waterfalls and rapids, scouring cloud-white beds from the stone. Lower it poured through clefts, chasms, and joints.

And then in between was the cataract, where the river dove underground in a secret waterfall. One looking upon it from upstream would have wondered how the flow filled its well and then did not spill over, if they had not seen the downstream outflow where the foaming outrush calmed into a turquoise plunge pool.

The path crossed right between them, a white streak over the center of the ridge. Its edges were fringed with plantain, fist-sized rocks, and the spaces where rocks had eroded and tumbled away. Comalpo went first, toes curling over the rock, and he followed.

He had crossed this path no doubt hundreds of times before, remembered racing Comalpo and their sister Lotlixya over it when they had been younger and their father had finally allowed them to come to their first trade meet and being screamed at to stop, get back from the edge. Two full paces wide had looked like a road to his younger self. To his older perception it had narrowed, but was still easily navigable.

Up ahead, a stone clacked as Comalpo put weight on it, and then clacked again as he moved off. Tliichpil turned his eyes back down before his own feet.

The stone looked strong enough to step on. And then it moved.

A shock of cold drove through his veins. The rock and the dirt it lay within slid and fell, white specks against the dark water. The spear slipped from his hand as he flailed wildly for balance, but to no avail; his foot dropped, and he went gasping over the edge.

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