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 23: Catacombs
Izzie felt anxious whenever her body needed time to heal or her modifications required repair. She felt the same when Remera urged medication on her and enforced a strict regimen of physical therapy. When Izzie was well enough to sneak out on a walk, she watched trials of up-and-coming initiates. Once or twice she saw Riku and waved her over.
Riku thought the pain still showed on Izzie’s face, though she hid it well. Her eyes were dull, and she was slumping more than usual. Healing took time, and Riku couldn’t imagine how Izzie felt, waiting for the moment she could go out and fight again. Riku went out of her way to cheer her up, asking for advice against certain types of cynths.
Their conversations were brief, but Izzie shared everyone’s astonishment at Riku’s newfound ability. The special treatment from Cyona had been enough of a shock, but when Izzie suggested going with her somewhere, Riku could hardly believe her ears. “While I’m here, I’d like to show you something.”
“Why me, your grace?” Riku asked.
“I wish you’d call me Izzie. I’d just rather hang out with you than go back to my duties.” The truth was, Izzie felt an affinity toward the young girl and was curious to see what the intuition might lead to. It was also a convenient excuse to get away from Remera for the time being.
Riku wasn’t sure if an excursion was a good idea, considering the priestess’s injuries. But Izzie convinced her to go.
Most of the cloister was familiar to Riku now, but the city was still a mystery. In Mitchlum, they passed the guarded tunnels that led to the relic, and soon descended even deeper under the streets.
The air grew humid and her heart raced. There was nothing but darkness below and earth above. Somehow, her imagination frightened her and, when she stopped, sure the ceiling would collapse under the enormous weight it carried, Izzie turned and smiled.
“You’ll be fine.” Izzie extended a hand, and after a pause, she took it.
They continued. The smell of dank and rotting wood grew thicker. The fibrous loam absorbed the sound of their footsteps. Finally, jutting roots blocked their path. Reaching a dead end, Izzie turned to Riku with a glint in her eye.
“Ready?” Izzie laughed, and lifted the massive wall of tangled wood with her mechanical arm. To Riku’s surprise, light blossomed beyond the hole. After they had passed through, the roots fell into place with a heavy creak. Experimentally, Riku tried to budge the solid wall of organic growth behind her, finding it immovable. There was only a moment to marvel at this natural barrier. She looked into the lighted passageway, and her breath escaped her.
They were in a phosphorescent cavern. The whole ceiling was its own forest of knotted tendrils. Flowers sprouted and dangled like strange chandeliers. Light came from natural clusters of fungi erupting around tall stalagmites. The ground was finely granulated stone, and every footstep was magnified in the silence. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the rhythm of burrowing kirins and the sound of running water.
“My mother calls this the catacombs,” Izzie said. “They extend all under Mitchlum and the Fjord. It’s a strange place, where many ancient things are buried. My mother told me some unbelievable stories about this place... Once, she even mentioned finding Telos down here.”
“Down here?” Riku whispered, without turning away from the scene before her. “What do you mean?”
“All kinds of people live underneath Mitchlum. Telos must have been just another one of the waifs and strays to wander a bit farther than the others. Most of the vagrants don’t dare venture this deep and, if they did, they wouldn’t believe their eyes.”
They took in the sights a little more before Riku began to explore, Izzie following close behind.
Riku wondered silently how many unusual secrets Telos was hiding.
Gleaming crystals radiated around the rim of a glowing pool. Steam issued from a crack in the glistening wall.
“My mother spent more time down here in the early days, when I was young. You wouldn’t catch her hunting treasures down here these days. That’s why I like it here. It’s worlds away from the crowded city. Sometimes, I suppose, I want to be alone.” A shadow passed over Izzie’s face. Riku considered her words. She realized she knew very little about Izzie.
“Have you heard about a place called Dust?” Izzie asked.
“I’ve heard stories,” Riku replied tentatively. “Is it like this place?”
“I don’t know. I was there once, but the memory is gone. This place always brings it to mind, though.”
“I’ve heard Dust is far away. I’ve always wondered if it was real.”
“Dust is held sacred by some. Many priests pilgrimage there. To go there, one must leave the material world behind, since very few ever return.”
“So, you’ve actually been there?”
“As I said, I don’t remember it. Still, the gods protected it from the Fjord. Anyone who goes there is changed.”
Before they could discuss it any further, a howl froze Riku in place. A large kirin had spotted them and was creeping slowly closer. It wriggled forward silently, champing moist jaws and dragging a flat, fin-like tail. Her stomach churned slightly. Now was the time to use her technique, she thought but, instead, she found herself glancing at the priestess.
“Don’t worry, Riku, the beasts down here know better than to attack me.” Sure enough, the kirin inched forward and sniffed the air. With a start, it immediately doubled back and jostled through a thick patch of vibrant roots.
Izzie laughed. “A lot of these plants and animals can’t be found anywhere else. Another reason my mother took an interest in this place.”
Riku paused, waiting for any further details. “Really?”
“Yeah, it’s a completely different ecosystem from Mitchlum.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“If you go far enough, I imagine. The paths lead under the Fjord, where differences in the organic and inorganic aren’t so clear. I’ve seen cascades of rock shifting into new shapes and forms, old Mitchlum structures sunken and twisted into compact strata. Any cynths that make their way to the end get sucked into the storm at the world’s core and are melded together with surrounding material.”
Riku listened attentively, her mind running wild.
“It’s hard to imagine what the surface was like before the Fjord,” Izzie went on. “All that land, covered with organic trees. If you’d been born in that time, you’d have soft skin, just like me.”
Riku thought about how it must feel to have organic flesh. After giving her hands a thoughtful flex, she decided she was grateful to be a mag.
They explored together for a time. Riku saw many species of kirin, crouching in the shadows and, more than once, she came upon awe-inspiring natural phenomena. “Stay on the path,” Izzie warned her, indicating a frozen river of clear crystals. “If you got lost, you might never make it out.”
The thought unsettled Riku, and she imagined Telos younger, wandering around the dreamlike caverns with a band of scavengers, harvesting goods and rarities for trade.
Despite her earlier enthusiasm, Izzie frowned as they returned the way they’d come. She sighed after mentioning an upcoming mission, but Riku could tell that her mind was elsewhere.
Later, Riku told Telos where they’d gone.
Her roommate squinted at her doubtfully. “That place? I don’t have time to go all the way down there anymore.”
Riku nodded, as if any further adventures would be a waste of time, but she found her mind returning to the place as days went by.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich