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 36: The Cavern
Riku and the others sat in the back of the vehicle in silence. The dry wind battered the windows and sunlight sizzled the air on the horizon. The driver swerved to avoid fallen trees along the uneven path.
For her first experience in the Cauterhaugh, Telos showed a lot of poise and kept her emotions in check. Riku was disoriented by the loss of her village and utterly terrified of the fierce creature she was supposed to combat. If Nadyr had failed, how could she hope to succeed?
They stopped in front of an endless steel rail, unnaturally straight, as if it had been drawn into the distance with a ruler. Two stout bars ran parallel, with enormous bolts pounded into them.
“This was put here before the Fjord,” Ovid said.
“What purpose did it serve?” Telos asked.
“It was called a railroad. Giant cars ran across the landscape on manmade tracks, powered by wood and coal. This one’s well preserved.”
“Are we still going the right way?’ Telos asked.
“The grotto-le went this way. You can tell by those claw marks.”
The track had been clearly gouged and scratched in several places. “We’re getting close,” the driver said. He had not said a single word for the entire journey.
Telos squinted at him. He was a neophyte priest, wearing a threadbare uniform. She’d always wondered how scrawny, quiet men like him were able to enter the priesthood. “How can you tell?” she asked suspiciously.
“Jodo is particularly good at tracking grotto-le,” Ovid said.
Telos examined him closely. “How?”
Ovid replied. “Every priest receives certain advantages from his god. Jodo’s ability allows him to see the auras of people and grotto-le.”
“Auras?” Telos asked. “Like spirits?”
“Spiritual essence leaves a trail wherever it goes,” Jodo said curtly.
Jodo cast his gaze down anxiously, and Telos darted a look at Ovid. “He hasn’t gotten out of the car since we left Mitchlum. There’s something you’re not telling us, Ovid. Like why the master priests aren’t taking care of this. Why get Riku and me to chase after this thing? Do you think we’re expendable?”
“There is much I’m not telling you. But knowledge is a privilege granted to those who earn it through humility and experience.”
Telos clenched her fists.
“It’s okay,” Riku sighed. “Ovid wants me here to calm the beast. And you’re just a good fighter. Isn’t that reason enough?”
Telos muttered under her breath, “I’m sure Izzie could defeat it, if she were here.”
Ovid’s eyes widened and his posture stiffened. Without warning, he exclaimed, “Your behavior so far, Telos, does not reflect well on you. I hope you can make up for it during the confrontation. Now, let’s make haste.” They got back into the car and cruised along the shiny rails.
* * *
The rails led to the mouth of a canyon. In the brilliant sunlight, Riku still was not able to see the bottom.
“It definitely went down there,” Jodo said, gazing into the chasm.
“Look at that,” Telos said, pointing to the far side. A line of cynths were crawling up the steep banks of the canyon wall, congregating on the lip like a pool of roving shadows, then proceeding into the expanse of the Cauterhaugh.
“Could this be where cynths are born?” Telos wondered aloud.
“Some of them, perhaps, but not all,” Ovid said. “Don’t forget to take weapons with you.”
From the trunk of the vehicle, Ovid removed three daggers of the finest steel, forged in layers, folded with aluminum and reinforced with crushed diamonds. “This sword belongs to the High Priestess,” he said, holding up a glittering blade, more magnificent than any Telos had ever seen. “If I fall, leave my body and return it to the Fjord.”
Telos scoffed. For her own equipment, she took a bladed pike staff, two short swords, and two sets of knuckle blades and strapped them across her shoulder harness.
Riku was loathe to carry more than a scimitar, stifling the doubts welling up inside her. Noticing her reticence, Telos nudged her and said, “Your voice is the greatest weapon we have.”
Riku smiled, securing a canteen of holy water to her side. Recently, she had kept it near at hand. Among its many benefits, it seemed to clean her mouth and ensured her voice came out clear.
“The cave is volcanically active,” Ovid said. “Put on this mask.” He handed a lumpy mask to Telos.
“What? Why?” she asked, offended by its stiff texture.
“Just put it on,” Ovid commanded. “There could be harmful gases.”
“What about you? Aren’t you a voyin too?”
“I have a modification for that.” So saying, he twisted a valve beneath his vest. Suddenly, his torso inflated with internal pressure. “Shall we?” he asked, waving them to the edge of the abyss.
Carefully, they traversed the winding path leading down the smoking hole. Every few steps, Riku coughed. “Shouldn’t I have a mask too?” she asked Ovid, who didn’t seem bothered by the excessive exhaust.
“Mag lungs won’t be damaged, even if it feels unpleasant.”
“Where are the claw marks of the beast?” Riku asked. “It couldn’t have jumped down, right?”
Ovid hesitated before answering. “Perhaps it flew.” Then he said slowly, “Let’s keep moving.” Telos paused. Riku could not see what expression she wore beneath her mask, but she imagined it was one of frustration at knowing so little about their adversary.
Glowing eerily, the stratified rock changed in hue gradually the deeper they traversed. Intense sunlight bounced from wall to wall, shifting across the spectrum until it petered into darkness.
Strange growths appeared beneath their feet, like the moss carpets of Mitchlum. “Is this green stuff organic?” Telos asked, her voice muffled by the mask.
“There are places in the Cauterhaugh where organic material has survived. We could very well be entering an oasis.”
“An oasis!” Riku said, coughing out a puff of soot.
Once the steep path leveled out, the moss afforded a soft but slippery footing. It was here that the first cynths took notice of them. Riku prepared to screech out the appropriate call, but Ovid made a motion with his hand and called for silence. “Don’t attract attention yet, Riku,” he whispered.
“I’ll take care of them,” Telos said confidently. Lifting up the mask, she sniffed the air. “I can’t fight in this thing,” she announced, tossing it aside. The smoke flowed from cracks in the canyon walls above them, and the air was not bad near the bottom.
Telos made short work of the slow, many-legged salamantas. She had fought more than her fair share of them in trials. She hacked off their vicious fangs before they could bite, then skewered them on the end of her staff.
“No need to show off,” Ovid chuckled.
Proceeding into the impressive cavern depths, they were led through a tunnel lined with bright spook-weeds, which provided an eerie blue light.
The ceiling was too high to make out in the dim light, but it was covered in giant, dripping stalactites of molten metal. The metallic icicles glowed red hot at their bases and trickled into pools. In some cases, the high, slowly accumulating spikes joined stalagmites on the floor to form thick columns of variegated copper, iron, and nickel. Measuring their height would have proved difficult, but Riku judged that some of them must have been at least a hundred feet high.
They stalked past naturally florescent pools, and massive porous growths of fungus, like far-reaching nets spun by colossal arachnids. Creeping silicone vines snaked through the rock walls, interspersed with veins of gold, silver and lapis lazuli. It was impossible to tell how long the cavern before them had lain undisturbed, but when they recognized ruins of antiquity, they stood in awe.
Perilously huge structures jutted out of jagged piles of rubble, shot through with millions of little windows. Buildings that could have housed thousands were piled on top of one another in disarray, composed of manufactured stone and steel struts, like warped and bloated carcasses of concrete and shattered glass.
The railroad machine Ovid had described had found its final resting place at the base of a mangled bridge. It was coiled like an iron snake, collapsed in segments, and melded together by rust and flowing streams of lava.
“Do you think the grotto-le is hiding in here?” Riku asked in a whisper.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Ovid said.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich