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 10: Defeat
In Mitchlum, hints of sunlight glowed like approaching fire, blotted out stars, and then receded. It wasn’t like the Cauterhaugh, where sunlight swelled from the horizon, burnished the reflective mountains, and suffused every corner of the sky.
Bundled in layers, many voyin grumbled about the frigid temperature of the cloister. The mags were used to the heat of the Cauterhaugh, and suffered a chilling pain as the cold sank to their cores. The aching of her limbs and her anxiety prevented Riku from sleeping.
Time rushed by in the city. Everyone bustled about like warble-bees in a hive. Kaminovo Village receded further into her memory, and Riku longed for the leisurely life she’d known and the sun’s warmth.
Riku absorbed what knowledge she could from Telos’ comments on the trials. It was difficult not to believe mags were at a disadvantage. Telos assured her that inorganics were tougher than voyin, but they couldn’t build up muscles, so any lack in agility or strength was harder to correct. The few words Izzie had spoken to Riku echoed in her ears until they took on the weight of prophecy. She was chosen for a reason. If the potential wasn’t inside her, she’d still be living with Nadyr, she thought.
Part of the day, Riku studied in classes with other students. Most of the information was new to her. Slowly, she’d began memorizing parts of a big book. The copy given to her was bound in thick wood, had covers worn smooth, and pages of polished, whisper-thin ivory reeds. Every sheet was smudged, stained, folded, ripped, annotated or otherwise battered, but Riku admired the physical heft of knowledge it promised, as well as the illustrations.
Determined to prove herself in her next trial, Riku chose her weapon with resolve. Certain trials called for crude instruments like those found in villages throughout the Cauterhaugh. She chose a thin rake with an aluminum handle and four blunt prongs. It was so heavy she had to rest the tip on the ground. Izzie had faith in her, so she hoped she had some buried skill.
“It’s going to be an ikugo,” the boy next to her said. She only had one partner for her fourth trial.
“What?” Riku asked.
“It’s a huge cynth. Slow, but tough and ugly.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“I have a good sense of smell. And it stinks.”
Riku had a weak sense of smell, like most mags. Some mags weren’t so lucky, she knew, and were born with a nonexistent sense of taste or smell.
“I’m usually right,” the boy said, picking up a crooked spear of yellow jasper.
“How do you beat it?” Riku asked, feeling her nervousness swell into a torrent.
“I defeated one before. But I didn’t have a pathetic coward on my team.”
Riku couldn’t stop tears from welling up when she heard his words. “I’m sorry...” she whimpered.
He sneered, spat at her feet, and shoved her aside, tucking two daggers into his belt from the weapon rack. His back was composed of rippling muscles, and his arms were long and hard as steel, though they were made of flesh and bone.
Riku looked to the stands, but couldn’t find Telos among the expectant faces.
The ikugo was more terrible than she could have imagined. It swung down from a cage in the wall, gnashing its claws against the nearest tree trunk. She could smell it when it drew closer. It had a powerful, beastly stink and long multi-jointed arms with a dozen sparkling claws. Wings a cobalt blue held it aloft, and two rows of flashing eyes regarded them with predatory hatred.
The boy stood in front of her. “I’ll give you one more hint,” he whispered over his shoulder. “If you lie perfectly still, it won’t bother you.”
Before the fearsome creature leaped toward them, the boy suddenly turned and cracked the handle of his spear across her jaw.
She woke up in the infirmary. “What happened?” she muttered. The hinges of her jaw scraped when she tried to speak. She squinted her eyes, and saw Telos by her side.
A hand with two metal fingers reached out and touched her collar. “Don’t worry,” Telos said. “Tambre — the boy who clocked you — got demoted for that.” Telos frowned with severity, and Riku waited for her to explain. “If we stray from the codes of the gods, we invite impurity. Since he broke the Council’s rules, his tattoos were removed. Now he has to earn them back.”
“I don’t get it,” Riku said weakly. Talking only spread the pain out from its source.
“Even more important than overcoming the trials, you’ve got to gain respect,” Telos replied.
Riku tried to sit up, but Telos’ strong hand held her down. “Why?” Riku asked weakly.
“It’s the way of the world.”
“No. Why do you believe in me?”
Telos smiled enigmatically. “Rest, and study your books. And search for your strength, as Izzalia told you. You’re not out of the game yet.”
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich