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 19: Reservoir
Mitchlum lacked the clean starkness of the Cauterhaugh. Mitchlum’s ecosystem was more condensed, a greater diversity over a smaller area. Simply walking through the market gave Riku a vivid impression of the assorted flora and fauna to be found in the organic city.
Storytellers gathered on street corners, retelling ancient tales. Among crowds of riveted citizens, Riku enjoyed listening, enraptured by the descriptions of times when the gods had taken human form. Old men stood in the midst of traffic, cried out prophecies of the future, how one day the gods would return with a vengeance to undo the work of the Fjord.
Riku could tell that she and Telos had grown closer. Nadyr had taught her little about making friends, but it wasn’t so hard once she passed the hurdle of her timidity.
Out in the dank air, after class was dismissed and homework was done, they debated whether to spend a few coins on entertainment or food, and sauntered back and forth through the bazaar, examining the wares and passersby in turn.
Riku stood before a stand of brightly colored fungi, each twisted stem of which was knobbed with vibrant swellings. “What are these things?” she asked.
“Those are nibble-shoots,” Telos said, “and those are curdle-pods. Not worth the money, if you ask me. But some people consider them delicacies.”
A mangy mutt waited patiently beside the stall and sniffed Riku curiously. The dog licked her palm when she reached out a hand, and the sound of the two metals rubbing together sent shivers down the back of her neck.
“You came from the Cauterhaugh. How’d you get to Mitchlum?” Riku cooed and patting its sleek glassy coat of rippled gray iron. “You’re so sweet,” she said. The animal jumped up hugged her with both paws. Gently, she pushed it back down, reached for one of the spongey mushrooms nearby, and tossed it to the waiting mongrel.
Instantly, the old woman behind the counter screeched, “You dirty thief!”
Riku started and looking up from the dog, which was chasing its tail excitedly. “I’m sorry!” Riku exclaimed.
“You filthy mags don’t know the first thing about personal property, do you?” the old hag said. Her voice was like rusty nails grating on glass. “I’m going to call the authorities and have you locked up!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, here’s the coin, and keep the change!” Telos said, slapping a gold coin onto the counter. Immediately, the saleswoman took it up, squinted at it between two fingers, and then bit down on its edge. Her rotten teeth pressed it feebly before she tucked it away in her filthy dress pocket. Seemingly satisfied, she pulled out a long staff and swung at the stray dog until it cowered and retreated.
“Thanks, Telos,” Riku said quietly. They casually walked away.
“What were you thinking?”
“In Kaminovo Village everyone shared food. Whatever Nadyr grew was added to the storehouse.”
“It’s entirely different here. Ask me before you do anything illegal again.”
“Sorry,” Riku sighed, dwelling on thoughts of her village. “I guess I’m still not used to the customs here.”
“In this city everyone’s a stranger, unless you’re part of a cloister or a trade society. You can’t speak to people on the street. Also, everyone can tell you’re not from here. Unfortunately, they’ll assume you’re up to no good because you’re inorganic. I’ve even met people who’re convinced being a mag is some kind of unnatural condition. It’s sad, if you ask me, since you’re just like me, except we’re made of different raw material.”
“Thanks, Telos. I’m glad you’re here for me.”
Telos grunted noncommittally, cleared her throat, and changed the subject. “Menander told me about a reservoir around here, past the corn-mallow factory.”
“What’s a reservoir?” Riku asked.
Telos thought for a moment. “You’d call it a lake, I guess. Back on the bright side.”
“I’ve never seen a lake,” Riku said. “They’re not common in the Cauterhaugh. But we did have a mercury river in Kaminovo Village.”
“That doesn’t sound like something I could swim in.”
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s good for voyin to bathe in it. Though I’ve never seen one try.”
“The reservoir is mostly holy water, and they treat it with chemicals, so you don’t have to worry about kirins. It’s safe, as long as you don’t swallow any of it.”
“But what if I don’t know how to swim?” Riku muttered sheepishly.
“I’ll just have to teach you.”
On the other side of an enormous warehouse-like structure with a painted sign on the front reading: “Sherman’s Corn-Mallow and Bran,” a tall, sizzling green waterfall slid out of a hollow tube jutting from the factory’s canopy of smoke-tinged foliage.
The reservoir was really more of a pond than a lake, but definitely secluded enough for children to swim in.
Without a word, Telos took off her tunic and dove in. Riku had expected the glowing green water to feel slimy, but it didn’t. Carefully, she dipped a toe in. It was strangely warm and smooth, except for the dead leaves that bobbed on the surface like mottled shadows. Telos demonstrated different swimming techniques and Riku watched nervously. Each “stroke” had a name, like the “butterfly,” the “doggy-paddle,” and the “alligator.” None of them seemed doable with Riku’s clumsy arms and stubby legs.
“Take off your uniform and jump in,” Telos urged her. “It’s shallow enough to stand.”
Peering about in agitation, Riku removed her mail jacket and then hesitated.
“You’re not shy, are you?” Telos asked, standing up in the starlight, dripping. She walked a few steps closer, and Riku trembled slightly.
“Nothing to be scared of.” Telos smiled.
Riku glanced briefly at her friend, who looked so different from her. There were no modifications, except for the two artificial fingers; just organic, smooth skin, crosshatched with dozens of scars. Telos had a strong, lean body, and Riku was not proud of her own appearance.
“There’s no one here but us,” Telos said, holding out a hand. “Plus there’s not enough light for anyone to spy on us, anyway.”
Riku finally got in, but she sank like a stone. The liquid was much thinner than quicksilver, and no matter how hard she flapped her arms, she couldn’t seem to stay afloat. After several attempts at instruction devolved into splash-fights, they retreated, shivering, onto the moist soil and sat next to each other, watching the waterfall spilling foam.
Riku broke the silence. “Thanks for taking me here.”
“You’re welcome,” Telos said. “They have proper pools in the cloister, but I’ve only used them once or twice. Swimming out in the open feels better.”
“I wonder if there were a lot of places like this in the Cauterhaugh, I mean, before the Fjord.”
“There were whole oceans, too big to cross.”
“It’s hard to imagine,” Riku said, overcome with wonder.
“Since Mitchlum is all I know, the Cauterhaugh is going to be a different story. You’ll have to stop me from committing cultural blunders when we go there. For instance, I have no idea why you bought that trinket in the market.”
Hesitantly, Riku took out the figurine, carved from ironwood, she’d bought at a stall. “It’s a gift for my parents’ grave. I thought I should bring back something from this side of the shadowline.”
“You’ll be going back to visit soon, won’t you?”
In a few weeks she’d see Nadyr again, when she woud leave Mitchlum for the first time after being chosen. She was luckier than most, since most of the initiates came from too far away to take such a trip.
Riku smiled, and her heart prompted her to ask, “What was it like for you before you entered the cloister? Did your parents have a trade?”
Telos’ mouth twitched. “It’s not so easy to talk about my parents, since I didn’t know them.”
Riku frowned. “Sorry. I’m asking too many questions. My parents died when I was too little to remember. Luckily Nadyr took care of me, so I never really felt alone.”
“All I remember is the cloister. Sometimes the priesthood takes in lost and abandoned children, if they think they can be useful.”
Riku tried to smile. Tears floated into her eyes and her throat tightened.
“We don’t have to talk about the past,” Telos sighed, standing up. “The future is more important.”
Riku stood up sorrowfully, as if she’d spoiled a beautiful moment in time that would never return. “Do you think we could come back here sometime?”
“Once people catch on, it won’t exactly be private anymore, will it?” Brusquely, Telos wrung the moisture from her short locks of hair and slipped on her boots. On the walk back to the cloister, they spoke little.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich