Echoes From Dust
by L. S. Popovich
In the Cauterhaugh, lifeforms and even the landscape are composed of synthesized metals, and beasts called cynths ravage the dwindling human settlements. Riku is a Mag, an inorganic human born in this harsh and unforgiving land.
Riku has grown up hearing stories about Mitchlum, a metropolis of habitable trees and the bastion of the Priesthood, which channels divine powers in defense against the encroaching cynths. Riku is chosen to undergo the sacred trials, assume a priest’s mantle and protect her homeland. Everyone has high expectations for her, but her destiny is hers to decide.
|Table of Contents||Glossary|
Chapter 7: Trial
On her second day, after Telos explained the importance of viewing trials, Riku reluctantly watched her first one. Her turn was only a few days away. “The fewer surprises, the better,” Telos said.
In an enclosure several hundred feet across, four children were standing in a tight circle. The scene Riku surveyed from behind the crystal partition had more varied vegetation than the part of the Cauterhaugh she’d come from. The ground was veined with jagged quartz. Massive slabs of spotted marble jutted between clumps of delicate jade shrubbery. Across the massive auditorium, two priestesses looked down from a private viewing box.
“What’s going to happen?” Riku asked Telos.
“Wait and see.” Telos smiled. Her teeth were fine and white, and her face projected confidence. “Towns in the Cauterhaugh would never survive if priests and priestesses didn’t defend them against cynths and grotto-les.”
“But aren’t grotto-les invisible?”
Telos looked at her and sighed. “That’s why they train us. We’re chosen for our potential. Only priests can see grotto-les. You’ve got to prove yourself to the gods to earn that ability. If you fight hard enough and never give up, you’ll succeed.”
Riku’s heart raced. A vague sadness welled up inside her whenever she thought about the grotto-le that had killed her parents, but the sadness never took definite form. She’d always feared the grotto-les, but it was hard to understand a creature she’d never seen.
Suddenly, a roar exploded from the pit. A huge cynth swooped out of a cage. Uncoiling a sharp steel tail and whipping it back and forth, the creature stirred up a gust with its heavy wings. Its smooth, white carapace was heavily scaled in intricate orichalcum, and its vibrant blue eyes glowed. Like Riku’s body, it was composed of a seamless blend of plastic and metal components, either eerily visible beneath translucent membranes or hidden beneath sleek porcelain.
Riku recognized Menander among the contestants, who circled and leapt over the terrain with impressive speed. She doubted even Nadyr could defeat such a monstrous cynth, with its incomprehensible network of wires and its gleaming musculature of flexible cylinders. The few cynths she’d seen from afar in Kaminovo Village were in an entirely different class from this one. Its back was ridged by heavy metal braids that dangled and swayed as it balanced itself in midair. Its elongated avian beak let out a vibrating screech, and a row of jagged pipes along its neck belched steam.
Surveying its waiting prey, the creature swan-dived into a pool of quicksilver, then emerged and chased one of the girls, who scampered up a tree. Soaked with molten metal, the creature slid closer with its tail raised like a spear. Quickly, the others came to the rescue. Menander carried a slender lance, a stalk of copper wrenched from a cluster of tree branches. He thrust it at the creature and opened a wide hole in its side. It plucked the rod out with its slanted jaw and chewed it to pieces.
“That’s the slowest toko-tachi I’ve ever seen,” Telos said. Riku wondered how many creatures Telos could identify. “When its teeth come out, that’s when you’re really in trouble.”
In the next moment, the toko-tachi folded its head back between its silvery wings, and a second head emerged from the inside of its ribcage. It was crowned by four giant bismuth hooks that shone with mottled splendor.
Another girl flung a sharp stone at its wound, and a few drops of black oil trickled to the ground. Menander and another boy jumped courageously at the creature’s head, each grabbing one of its colorful horns. The girl came flying from above with a crooked iron branch and pinned its tail to the ground as the others hooked their legs over the toko-tachi’s straining arms and pulled with all their strength. Its wings flapped frantically and its horns cracked, as a fountain of sludgy oil rained down.
“I don’t know why they put Menander in such an easy trial,” Telos complained. “What a sad performance.”
Riku gaped in astonishment. If the toko-tachi was considered weak, she couldn’t imagine what other monsters lay in wait for her.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich