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 13: Izzie
The grotto-le scraped its claws against the porous ground, grating against Izzie’s ears. It stamped a distance away, baring barbed teeth. Izzie smiled knowingly. Most grotto-le acted on instinct. In its eyes, she was simply another animal, a threat and, even with the difference in size, standing her ground was a provocation. It charged, and nearby trees shook. Instead of scrambling for cover, she met the heavily armored avalanche head-on. Propelled by four sturdy arms, the creature ripped a jagged path behind it, casting bright chromium sparks.
However, it wasn’t enough to knock over the priestess. Against the momentum of two tons of living, breathing metal, her feet skidded over the uneven shelf of stone behind her, before catching hold on solid footing. The brute blustered and groaned. Its eyes glowed wildly, and it grunted over the smaller opponent matching its strength. It pushed, and Izzie grasped the cool horns with firm hands to direct the force directly into the ground.
Before the grotto-le tried to lift its massive head, she stepped aside gracefully, whipping a heavy spear of petrified wood from over her shoulder. With terrifying speed, she thrust it into the creature’s skull, between chinks in its plating. The smooth motion drove the blow deep into the creature’s whirring brain. When its body subsided entirely, section by section, it was already dead, and a steady trickle of petroleum formed a shiny puddle beneath it. The eyes flickered briefly, and then faded to dullness.
Long ago, she’d lost count of how many she’d destroyed. Their shape and size varied, but their senseless ferocity never changed. They were the bane of travelers and were known for leveling whole towns before they could be stopped. It was all she could do to travel to whichever regions they appeared in and put an end to their rampage.
She lingered over the carcass for a moment, wondering how many lives it had taken during its short existence.
“Is it dead?” a voice called from beyond a hill. Slowly, she turned to her entourage, all of whom had kept out of danger while rendering themselves completely useless. Her mother, the High Priestess, insisted she bring guards for backup, no matter how much she protested, but all they did was give her an audience. On rare occasions, a grotto-le proved to be more than her body could handle, and she had to resort to her beast form.
Stretching leisurely, she nodded to the waiting neophyte priests, each of whom held a weapon in readiness, as if the grotto-le could spring up without warning. In the Cauterhaugh, most idle priests never felt at ease. No matter how empty and endless the wasteland appeared, it was still a warzone. Often, she had to put on a smile and reassure them. There was little difference between her mother’s reserve forces and the initiates in the cloisters, when it all came down to it: neither one of them stood a chance against most grotto-le.
“The gods smile upon us. We’ve earned a little peace for now,” she said. The words were bitter in her mouth but, like her forced smile, they put everyone else at ease. Everyone gave the lustrous behemoth a wide berth. One of them brought a damp cloth. At first she only stared at it, but then she realized she was covered in black oil. Deliberately, she wiped her face clean. She wasn’t too thorough, since the full ritual cleansing would take place at the Fjord.
“They’re getting more and more aggressive, my lady,” the neophyte said.
“That’s the nature of the Cauterhaugh. There is nowhere sacred, and nowhere free of change.” She gave the beast another thoughtful glance. Over the past few years, their numbers had definitely increased. There had been a time, she vaguely remembered, when cynths and grotto-le had been almost manageable. Recently, they sought out human prey with a vengeance. And it wasn’t just in the Cauterhaugh. According to what she heard, the kirin were wreaking havoc in the slum districts of Mitchlum.
She bent over the creature and placed a callused hand on its head. Pausing in the silence, she waited to detect the slightest vibration from within. Satisfied that it was dead, she motioned for the others to proceed with their work.
Carting the monsters back to the Fjord was one of the High Priestess’ more troublesome orders. Izzie thought her mother was being a little too careful, but there were many superstitions surrounding the death and birth of grotto-le. Even minor priests took certain pains to dispose of cynth carcasses. She supposed the rituals were necessary, though she wondered how many of them appeased the gods, and how many were only to ease their own minds.
“So what now, my lady?” one of them asked tentatively. “Do we head for the cloister?” She thought again how close this one had gotten to the nearest town. By the time they returned to the Fjord, there would probably be another attack somewhere. It was almost like a sixth sense, her intuition of impending attacks. She hated what she had to do, but it was for the benefit of all.
“No, the god in me has spoken. You all take care of transporting this, and I will head to the Fjord now. I need to see the High Priestess.”
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich