Echoes From Dust
by L. S. Popovich
|Table of Contents||Glossary|
Chapter 28: Vessel
In the dojo, Virgil sat with legs folded. An attendant poured fragrant tea from an iron pot. Izzie saw that it was the tea of the shio plant, called Snowy Mountain tea because of its soft, powdery texture. It was a delicacy, and she sipped it with pleasure. The shades were drawn, and the dim light petering in glinted off the slender brass planks lining the floor.
“What would you like to know first?” Virgil asked, brushing aside the long threads of his hair to expose his missing eye unabashedly. “If your god led you here, there must be a specific purpose.”
“My mind is full of questions. First, tell me how this place prospers, when every other town this far out is under the scourge of wild grotto-le.”
Virgil smiled. “It’s protected by a relic, not unlike other special places.”
Izzie started. Was it possible he knew about the relic securing Mitchlum?
“It’s a powerful ward,” he continued, “and there’s a story behind it.”
“I hope for my sake it’s a fascinating story,” Izzie said, taking another swallow of the strong tea.
Unfazed, Virgil began recounting. “Untold years in the past, a man in the Cauterhaugh was running from a grotto-le. He’d run far past his body’s endurance, and knew he would soon fall to the ground and be consumed. He was only an ordinary mag, so he could only see the steaming breath of the monster pursuing him. Nonetheless, the size of the creature’s footprints and its fearsome roar filled him with terror. He had left his village after wounding the beast, choosing to lure it far away to give his family a better chance of escape.
“His steps faltered, and his desperate eyes lit upon a cave in the mountainside. It might have been his imagination, but it seemed that the cave called to him. ‘Salvation!’ he thought, scrambling up the cliff. When he came to the opening, the grotto-le was at his heels, but the cave mouth proved too small for the beast. The passage was deep and full of impenetrable darkness. The man was overjoyed when he realized he’d escaped, and felt momentarily safe. In the silence of the cavern, he could hear the restless predator pacing at the entrance.
“There was no immediate danger, but the man felt the fear returning slowly. If the only way out was the entrance, there was no hope of lasting more than a few days. Grotto-le are patient, and often act with wicked intelligence more than instinct.
“After a time, the man heard a sound from deep within the cave’s twisted throat. Quaking with fear, he imagined he was inside an even bigger beast, which had been lying in wait. The deeper he went, the more moisture collected on the walls. Every surface was thick with oil, and his feet slipped through rancid tar.
“When he came to a dead end, he fancied that the growling from within grew louder. ‘I’m in trouble,’ he thought. ‘Soon enough I will be digested in the body of this colossus.’ Around the next corner, his feet were caught in a pile of bones. ‘How many passing travelers have fallen for this trap?’ he wondered. Alas, he could only grope through the darkness.”
Izzie interrupted him solemnly. “You have proven your storytelling ability, but there’s no need to amplify the tale with suspense. I’m not one of the village children. Just skip to the moral.”
Virgil’s face cracked into a good-natured smile. Taking a long drink from his ceramic cup, he continued. “In the course of his wanderings, the man grew accustomed to the cave and resigned himself to his fate. He lost track of time until he heard the voice of a god. He bowed in awe. Being an ordinary man, he had never expected to hear the call. ‘Perhaps this is where I die,’ he thought. But the god gave him a message so clear that it dissipated the cloud of sorrow in his mind. It said, ‘So long as you wait in the cave, the grotto-le will stubbornly linger. Remain out of its reach, and its destructive power will be nullified. How many towns will you spare by forfeiting your life?’
“The man was overcome with emotion and spoke in return. ‘I shall subsist upon your aura, Oh great and powerful god! Do not spare me suffering. All creatures are destined to die. Let my death be worth something.’ The man proceeded to make noises in the cave to attract the grotto-le’s waning attentions, and kept up a racket for days and weeks without tiring while the god gave him strength. “The thing he thought about most was his family and their flight to safety. He continued far past his body’s physical limits, until he became a pure spirit dwelling in the cave, captivating his enemy. Over time, his eyes adjusted to the darkness, his body no longer slipped against the cave’s cold walls. In fact he saw the cavern for what it truly was. And when the seasons changed, the mountain awoke and swallowed the fearsome grotto-le and the man’s spirit together. For, as the god said, the fates of the two were entwined.
“A man who had begun running for his life had ended as the vessel of a god. His spirit had taken in the whole mountain, and he was able not only to see the grotto-le but to annihilate it. And where there once was a high, inert mountain, now there is a fertile plain.
“Long afterwards, his descendants returned and established this town. The creature, the man and the cave now exist here in spirit. We sit within the cave right now, though our eyes perceive it differently. And that is why no grotto-le can get in. This ground is sacred, nestled against the neighboring mountains to the north and the lake of quicksilver to the east.
“It’s a safe haven for travelers where monks are revered, since the town’s protector had received no training from the priesthood, yet won over the god of the mountain all the same.”
Izzie finished her cup and stretched contemplatively. “Then where is the object containing the god’s power?” Izzie asked. “I understand the story, but you haven’t pinpointed the relic.”
“The location of the relic is a closely guarded secret. It lures only a certain type of person and wards all the rest away. We are all troubled wanderers looking for a moment of peace. I sense a raging fire burning deep inside you. Sometimes you heed this fire, like the voice within the cave, but perhaps a short break from the chaos of your journey will lead you to a revelation. The relic may offer this respite, but it is not to be trifled with. Its effect on those who come too close is unpredictable.”
“I don’t have time to rest.”
He scoffed and said abruptly, “Let me look at that arm of yours.”
For a moment she stared distrustfully. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“I happen to be a healer of both mags and voyin. Anyone can see that your injury requires more attention.”
Reluctantly, she let him undo the bandages and treat her arm with a special salve. Without the slightest hesitation, he performed his duties with unconscious skill.
* * *
During her stay in Waypoint Town, Izzie searched for signs of the relic. It was easy to lose track of time in the Cauterhaugh, and not having to keep one eye open for cynths was a weight off her mind. She found herself opening up to a few of the monks, most of whom possessed a peace of mind unknown to any member of the Council she had met.
Laughing and drinking, she sat once with a band of monks gathered around a table. They were eager to hear her stories, showing off one or two scars in the process. The Council had never been further from her mind than when she passed the time with the carefree townsfolk.
More than once, she questioned Virgil on the relic’s location. Each time, he shrugged and said he didn’t recommend seeking it.
“It’s my job to figure out why the grotto-le are going out of their way to eliminate villages,” Izzie said by way of explanation. “If this town is really protected, I need to learn as much about it as possible.”
“Is it really the job of human beings to question the workings of the gods?”
Virgil’s statement gave her pause. She had said something similar to her mother just the other day, she thought. “During a fight a while ago, I encountered a strange creature. It looked a little like a grotto-le, but acted completely differently from any I’ve ever seen.”
“It snuck up on me for one thing, and it looked organic, almost like one of the ancient animals painted in the storybooks. Something with dark stripes and millions of glinting hairs covering its body, and fierce, glowing white eyes.”
Virgil smiled, but said nothing.
“What’s so funny? You think I’m making it up?”
“No, I know you aren’t making it up. It wasn’t a grotto-le.”
“What was it, then?”
“One of the gods.”
Izzie started. “But how could that be? How could one of the gods appear like that, in our physical world?”
Virgil shrugged. “The gods reside in a separate realm, where they command the forces of Nature and look down on us like slow-moving ants, right? They come down and enter our bodies. Is it that hard to believe that they might also walk among us if they chose to?”
“But how do you know I wasn’t just imagining things?”
“Do you really think I wouldn’t know what my own god looked like?” Virgil flashed her another smile.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich