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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 35: The Cost

The vehicle glided past the shadowline. Riku couldn’t sit still. No matter how Telos reassured her, her knees still shook. All she could do was curl them to her chest and focus on breathing.

“We’re almost there. I’m sure there’s still time,” Telos said calmly. Riku appreciated her friend’s demeanor, but couldn’t help imagining the worst.

They arrived at Kaminovo Village. Riku shook her head, blinking wildly. The car slid through the perfect silence of a ravaged town. At a single glance, the extent of the destruction was clear. Before the vehicle trundled to a stop, she leapt out and sprinted through the once familiar lanes, now strewn with debris, calling out names of people she had known. Nothing but silence answered by the time she paused and leaned against a crooked pillar, light-headed.

Bodies lay in pieces, crushed beneath fallen rafters. Everywhere, the slain were cast about at random. Staring in disbelief, Riku refused to accept that this was her home. She fell upon her knees and fought the sick, wringing pain inside her.

Her life in the Cauterhaugh flashed before her eyes: The years alongside Nadyr, in the peaceful village, tending to the black-horn yaks and slothful sheep. Kaminovo Village would never recover from such a disaster. The presence of death, before so remote and unreal, latched onto her mind with a force that would never let go.

When people spoke of the dead, they said: “They’ve returned to the gods,” or “The soul is free, once the body is left behind.” The cloister taught the cycles of life and death, but the teachings were not a comfort to her.

Priests performed rites for the dead, but towns in the Cauterhaugh usually lay barren until a new community was established by pilgrims. Her hometown had become another lonely monument.

Riku knew they could not stay long, that other priests would come to clean up, but the resolve had gone out of her. When Telos put a hand on her shoulder, she barely felt the pressure.

“Riku, we need to search for survivors. Ovid will perform a few rites in the meantime.” Telos’ quiet voice spoke through sympathetic pain.

Riku knew Telos was right, but Riku’s legs were unresponsive. Vaguely, she heard Ovid approach.

“You’re oddly calm, Telos, in the face of this disaster.”

Telos stiffened slightly. “I’ve seen a few dead initiates in my time, but never anything like this. It’s clear this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill grotto-le.”

“Let’s get ready. We need to find the trail immediately and set off after it.”

Telos whipped around to face the priest. “And leave all the victims lying here? Without even praying for their souls? Do you want wild cynths to drag away the remains?”

Riku had never seen her friend so upset. Telos was a voyin, but the idea of what could happen to a mag’s abandoned body had occurred to all of them at one point or another.

Ovid shrugged. “We have no choice. Every moment we spend performing rites, the monster continues to rampage. If we go back to the cloister to get priests, it puts others at risk. The only option is to stop it once and for all.”

“This is Riku’s village!” Telos yelled. “These people were her family!”

“This is what being a priest is about! Sacrifice. The right to mourn, the right to a dignified death. Your earthly body belongs to the gods!”

Telos spat with contempt. “The Council has no compassion.”

“It’s not your place to make the decision.” His words stopped Telos in her tracks. With a sigh, Ovid waved his hand and said, “We have to be practical. Sentimentality won’t get you very far in the Cauterhaugh. Our job is to protect the living. Respecting the dead can come after. Comforting others is a luxury. I would rather save lives. We will all lose someone sooner or later. It’s a harsh reality, but a reality nonetheless. At least Riku survived. She can go on to do great things.”

Ovid let out a hollow grunt. Telos had landed a resonating punch against his augmented ribs.

“You’re right. We should just go.” Telos snarled in disgust and tromped past him.

Riku watched Ovid for a moment, who chuckled and sucked in his breath. “Save that for the grotto-le!”

Shakily, Riku stood. “I’ll run through town to see if I can find a trail,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. In a daze, she wandered past ravaged huts, shattered trees, toppled fences, and stone walls reduced to rubble. Pools of petroleum gleamed beneath slaughtered livestock. The town square was nothing more than a crater. She bypassed the old house next to the hill, avoiding the horror of seeing her former home. A stray dog picked through the ruins. Angrily, she tossed a dark green stone at it. Turning her back, she heard it whimper plaintively.

Ovid called from behind the crumpled heap of the barn. His face did not contain a trace of pity. “I found the site of the battle on the forested side. It looks like a priest fought there.” Vaguely, Riku pictured her grandfather fighting against the grotto-le.

“Nadyr’s not there?”

“Nothing alive or dead. The trees were torn up. However, the priest was clever. He left a distinct trail of petroleum through the woods. If we follow it, we may find the beast’s footprints. We’ll have to go on foot. The driver can meet us on the other end.”

It took her some time to reply. “Could he still be alive?”

“It’s not impossible. The trail’s not very old.”

She nodded grimly and followed. Telos was right behind her, watching silently. Riku didn’t look back.

They entered the forest. Riku was sure it would be the last time she saw her home.

* * *

Beneath angry volcanoes, the quicksilver river flowed from a bubbling pool. It carved a trail over the land. Layer upon layer, the stones and colorful metals of the wild were churned and compressed by wind and petroleum rain. Giant pools of bubbling metal and plastic collected and hardened under the perpetual sun. Harsh colors glinted from jagged peaks. Wisps of yellow gas exuded from cracks in the uneven ground, dissolving as it spread.

The trail arced away from the shadowline, as if the beast had been heading for Mitchlum then suddenly changed its mind. The further out the group went, the more inhospitable the terrain became. It was clear that the world belonged to the cynths. The greater part of the planet teemed with them. Inorganic creatures roved in packs, scavenging, while the bleak plains and sparse flora withstood the gritty winds in grim defiance.

“In the thick of the forest, it’s easy to lose one’s way,” Ovid said dispassionately, pointing out signs where the beast had torn off branches and trampled through the brass wildflowers and needle grass. The innocent wildlife that took shelter beneath the trees had scattered, and the stray cynths they encountered were few.

Riku sighed and glanced at the sky. Telos placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder too, and remarked at the unique landscape she was seeing for the first time. Riku knew her heart was made of metal, but she had never felt its immense weight and hardness as she did then.

The creature they were tracking had broken through knotted tangles of silver and agate, topaz and garnet, shoving aside and cracking the trunks of crystalline trees. On one end, it had stopped to drink at a shining pool of molten lead. Ovid paused. His look betrayed uncharacteristic alarm. Prodding a semi-solid drop of metal with his staff, he indicated the marks it had left.

Once its direction was clear, he waved to the waiting vehicle, which pulled alongside them and hovered patiently. Ovid wasn’t sure what fate lay along the path they followed, but he was determined to proceed, no matter the cost.

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Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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