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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 31: Omi

Izzie had never seen her god so clearly. Atop the black cliffs of the Astral Plane it towered.

Entering the realm of the gods startled her. During all the times she had meditated, she had only ever glimpsed the place like a distant scene through a window. The gods were normally vague blurs, obscured by a dense mist, when viewed from the physical world. Now the panorama was clear. The ground and sky were expansive and full of eerie light.

But if her consciousness was here, she wondered, what was happening back in Waypoint? What would become of her physical form? When she transformed into her beast-form, she lost herself in the heat of battle, but she had never been flung out of her body, completely disconnected from the outside world.

The light was softer than in the Cauterhaugh as the sun sank toward the horizon. The ground on which she stood was fine sand of a type she had never seen. Before she knew it, her god floated down from the mountain slowly.

Suddenly self-conscious, Izzie looked down at her own body. Her scars and modifications had disappeared. Her tunic was still in place, and her body felt pure and untouched: it was whole again, but it almost made her believe she was dead.

Her god settled gently on the ground with spread talons, and stood at twice Izzie’s height. Its folded wings were draped nearly to the ground.

Quickly, Izzie bowed.

The god had eyes so bright she couldn’t look directly into them. She could do nothing under its powerful gaze but wait for it to address her.

The celestial plane felt both familiar and alien, she thought. Beyond the solid cliffs, an endless lake of holy water sloshed, an ocean of it. All life was said to originate from the beautiful water. White frills erupted from the motion of its living waves. The sound soothed her ears. It acted like one body, and she knew from ancient tales that it covered most of the world, like a thick robe, and certain gods swam beneath its surface.

The god bent at its waist until its slender nostrils were less than a foot from her head. Sniffing slowly, it rose up without a word and flew into the sky. The visitation had been brief, and Izzie was disappointed.

“Wait!” Izzie called. “Why did you bring me here?”

The god paused briefly before retreating to a cave at the top of the cliffs. Not knowing what else to do, Izzie began to climb. Was this really the god of fire? She had expected an angry god, not a calm one.

In a short time, she reached the cave’s mouth. The sky had grown dark, and burned with more stars than Mitchlum’s sky. Strange constellations stood out, portraits of gods she couldn’t recognize.

Light flickered within the cave, drawing her in.

She entered and heard iron scraping against stone. Proceeding deeper, the temperature rose, and her face was soon covered in a sheen of sweat.

Her god sat before a miniature sun which hovered above a bed of coals. An impish creature crouched on a flat stone and slid a short sword over a whetstone with a repetitive rhythm. Neither acknowledged Izzie until she neared the brilliant floating fire.

“You’re new here,” the impish creature told her, putting away his work. “Have you come to seek the wisdom of Omi?” This creature wore only a thin loincloth, had a bulbous nose, and eyes like shiny bits of coal. A round, flattened hat slid across his smooth greenish head whenever he moved.

Izzie glanced at the divinity sitting with folded wings. The imp had spoken the god’s name! She had never known it before.

“I don’t know how I ended up here,” she said. “Is it usual for human beings to come here?”

A low growl resonated from Omi’s massive chest, which caused the nearby shadows to scatter. Izzie tensed.

“Don’t worry, Omi is thinking,” the imp reassured her.

“Does it know I’m here?”

“She may be blind, but she’s not stupid.”

She? Blind?” Izzie had never thought of her god in terms of gender, and had never known of its blindness. Tales of the god of fire raced through her mind, but none of them added up to the being she saw. The gods were often portrayed as parents and children, rulers and servants in their own realm. They were all related to one another, Izzie recalled, and fought their own battles.

“Omi is going to paint soon,” the imp continued, winking good-naturedly. “I’ll be leaving. You shouldn’t watch her paint. Knowledge of the future can wreak havoc on the mind of man.”

Izzie glanced further into the cave. To her astonishment, she saw that the interior was hung with intricate artwork. The passage wound into unseen depths. Omi’s eyes glistened but were fixed immovably in sharp sockets behind elegant, inhuman nostrils, and fierce teeth.

“How does she paint if she cannot see?” Izzie whispered.

The imp stood — he was only about half Izzie’s height — and sheathed his minuscule sword. “Omi’s scrolls depict what is to come, not what is.” It took four steps for him to reach Izzie. He bowed. “I’m Gotenba.”

“What is your job here, Gotenba?” Izzie asked, bowing in turn.

“I’m just a lonely spirit. Some of the gods tolerate me, as long as I don’t tell any jokes.” He winked.

Izzie squinted at him incredulously.

“Occasionally, I make use of this great god’s fire,” he said.

Omi growled, and she felt the air ripple. The furious flaming orb increased in size, and the heat became oppressive.

“Why don’t we come back later?” Gotenba suggested.

Omi sniffed and turned in Izzie’s direction. Sensing that she had outstayed her welcome, Izzie decided to follow the comical green spirit. She glanced over her shoulder one last time at the beautiful goddess, who had lifted a giant paintbrush from the bed of coals.

* * *

The inhabitants of Waypoint Town were horrified. For the first time, a grotto-le stood in the center of their village. The monks fled in terror, and the ordinary mags, who could only hear its roar, fled for cover.

“Virgil,” one of the young monks called from the top of a balcony, “it’s a grotto-le. How did it get in here?”

Virgil was the calm eye of the storm. The lack of surprise on his face bespoke first-hand experience with danger. “It’s the priestess’s beast-form,” he yelled.

“It’s a grotto-le if I ever saw one,” the boy declared. “But you’re right. It’s sort of flickering.”

Virgil watched the villagers run haphazardly from the thing they could not see or believe.

“There may have been a difference between the two,” the young monk said, “but not anymore.”

Villagers turned and stared. Izzie’s beast-form was famous, but the thing before them inspired only fear.

There was no hope for Waypoint Town. Even if every monk banded together, the losses would be great. Virgil sadly watched the walls of his dojo crumble beneath the senseless creature’s rampage. Squinting, Virgil was able to make out the relic dangling from its jaws.

“What on earth does she plan to do with that?” he asked himself. He ushered the villagers into the hills. “It’s time to leave,” he told them, “for better or worse. We can scavenge what’s left of the town after we get to safety.”

Everyone evacuated. A few casualties littered the streets. Virgil steadied himself and called on his god. Like a flash of lightning, the god pounced and snatched the sword hilt away from the grotto-le before streaking into the forest.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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