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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 9: Stars

Riku sulked over her untouched meal. Since her shameful first showing, she’d begun eating alone on the verandah under the stars. Telos had confronted her with a mixture of disdain and concern.

The next trials didn’t go any better. No matter how many times Riku replayed her roommate’s advice, and pictured herself stabbing or slicing, when it came time to act, Riku simply froze. The other kids were aggressive, and used the environment and their own bronze to counter surprise attacks or subdue whole groups of enemies. Her own attempts at defending herself were pitiful at best and laughable at worst. Everyone began to keep their distance. Only one or two other mags cast forlorn looks her way, full of either sympathy or pity.

It didn’t help that Telos made the trials look easy. She was one of the few initiates who preferred to fight alone, and she usually finished the job in a few strikes. Even though Telos’ ability was undeniable, Riku noticed she was missing the tattoos that signaled advancement through the training, and when Riku asked her about it, Telos dodged the question.

The whole ordeal weighed heavily on Riku. Telos was kinder than most, but Riku began to feel utterly alone amid the constant darkness and ruthless competition.

She hadn’t been able to contact Nadyr yet, which only filled her with more doubt. Her only comforts were the few visible stars hanging over Mitchlum. No stars could be seen in the Cauterhaugh, since it was always bright but, through the heavy smog of Mitchlum, a half dozen of the strongest stars still managed to glint down to her.

The brightest thing in sight was the Fjord. At first it had looked like a long beam of light, shooting up from the depths of the metropolis. Centuries ago, the Fjord had reshaped the world and given birth to the varieties of life in the Cauterhaugh. Lights shone out of its windows, but the way they rose past the clouds made her think of a trail of stars, trickling to the ground.

But it wasn’t made of stardust. Stories told of the Fjord’s origin: Once there’d been a moon, the counterpoint to the sun. When the Earth had shown signs of dying, humanity used the moon’s raw material to construct it, and the new world emerged like fruit out of a peachstone.

Mitchlum was impressive compared to her simple countryside. Indeed, she was beginning to think her leisurely upbringing was part of the problem, since the other children instinctively knew how to fight, having grown up in the dangerous streets of Mitchlum or the wilder parts of the Cauterhaugh. All the time she’d spent tending livestock hadn’t prepared her for this. But if Nadyr had suspected she might be chosen, why hadn’t he warned her? Did he want her to fail? She thought about running away but, between disappointing Nadyr and becoming an exile, she couldn’t make up her mind.

The more she meditated beneath the stars, the more often Nadyr’s words came back to her. Becoming a priestess meant giving up her body to the will of the gods.

While thoughts floated through her mind, a sudden splash hit the back of her head with enough force to whip her magnesium hair braid against her face. Wincing, she rubbed the base of her skull, and the bottle of carbonated juice sloshed over the side of the verandah. “Clean that up, rusty! It’s all you’ll be good for soon!” She had no words to defend herself. All she’d done so far was embarrass herself in the trials.

She leaned over the rail and watched the crowds flowing below, waiting for the footsteps behind her to fade. Since her disastrous first trial, several of Arbit-mon’s friends had taunted her. It was her fault he could never walk again, after all.

After she asked Telos what happened to initiates who couldn’t impress the gods, possible futures took shape in her mind. Once someone entered the cloister, they belonged to the gods. Some didn’t earn tattoos or become a vessel. Possible death notwithstanding, if she didn’t want to be a lowly servant or factory worker, she’d better learn fast. Whether she served the gods or not, it seemed like her freedom had already been lost.

A deep gong chimed behind her to signal the end of the break. Glancing to the stars one last time, she made her way to the gallery to greet Cyona, the priestess in charge of her class. But, to her great surprise, instead of the slim priestess who’d called her Rikaku on the first day, she saw Izzalia Argos emerge from the elaborate archway.

The High Priestess’s daughter sported a bloody bandage on her shoulder, and a half-dozen neophyte priests followed her. They were clad as warriors and hauled something atop their shoulders. They could only have been carrying pieces from the carcass of a grotto-le. The parts were invisible to the students, but fear still suffused the room. Riku shuddered at the sight of the petroleum dribbling in their wake.

There were many rumors about the High Priestess’s daughter, and Riku was beginning to think some of them were true. Izzalia barely glanced around the room before departing.

In the next instant, Menander kicked Riku in the leg, and she gasped in pain. “And you said she’s the one who chose you, mag?” he laughed. “Should have known you were lying.”

Since the room had gone silent, everyone stared directly at her. Before the moment had passed though, the oak door swung back open and Izzalia strode in like she’d forgotten something.

To Riku’s terror and amazement, she walked directly toward Menander.

“Did you just imply that my god’s decision was a waste of time?” Izzalia asked him coolly.

The color drained from his face, and he stammered, “I didn’t mean to—”

Riku blinked at him and then glanced at Izzalia, who said: “I wish I had time to acknowledge everyone when I come through here. Unfortunately, my time is better spent saving lives.”

The boy only nodded wordlessly and made the sign for reverence in the air. Riku couldn’t understand how Izzie had heard the remark thirty feet away.

“Whether Riku impresses you or not, my god made the decision,” Izzie said.

Riku didn’t know what to make of Izzie’s statement. She felt it was a mistake; it was hard to accept that a god had chosen her.

“Do you think my god misjudged?” Izzie asked Riku quietly.

Riku couldn’t speak, but she shook her head.

A powerful hand lifted her chin up. “My god is the god of fire. Fire makes its own path. It burns the forest floor, clearing room for new growth. As a vessel, I felt the god’s will burning inside me. It led me to you.” She smiled faintly.

Then, raising her voice, she directed her words to the room at large, and every initiate listened. “You are all here because the gods plan to use you. This is not a club where racking up kills bestows status. The life of a priest is no easier than the life you now live; it’s far more difficult. When you’re ready, some of you will become vessels. So, what can you do for the gods? What makes you special? Why should the gods take notice?”

Riku considered the words carefully. The stars came to mind, and the fact that she seemed to be the only one who gazed at them. With a swift nod, Izzie patted Riku’s shoulder before leaving.

The moment the air cleared, a storm of muttering and exclamations broke out. Telos stared at Riku with newfound respect. Riku was still dazed.

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Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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