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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 39: Deception

Following the battle’s sudden end, a silence persisted. Riku caught her breath. Exhaustion and anger worked through her. Tears clung to the corners of her eyes; she staggered, mustering energy to remain standing. Telos was stunned by Izzie’s sudden return; it was she who first broke the spell.

“This whole time we were chasing Izzie?” A trickle of blood started from Telos’ forehead, but it did not seem to bother her.

Ovid sighed and placed a hand on Riku’s shoulder. “It seems we have a new priestess in our midst. When we get back, we’ll conduct the proper ceremonies. Well done, young one. That was a fine performance, Telos. I can see why they’ve kept you so long.” His last statement burned Telos’ pride more than a straightforward insult. She had trained harder and longer than Riku, but her god was nowhere to be seen.

Ovid stood over Izzie, his modified features frowning. His stare deepened to sudden hatred. Without preamble, he picked up a discarded spear and held it an inch away from Izzie’s neck.

“What are you doing?!” Riku cried, gripping the butt of the spear to hold him back.

“If she can’t control herself, it’s just a matter of time before it comes to this again.”

“It’s for the Council to decide,” Riku said.

Telos scoffed. Riku was already starting to act like a priestess, she thought.

Ovid grimaced with restraint. He shook Riku’s hand off and moved the spear tip to indicate Izzie’s arm. Most of her tunic was torn to tatters; it was clear to them that there had been a permanent change.

Riku let out an involuntary yelp. Izzie’s artificial arm was different now. Where the organic flesh of her shoulder connected to the metal arm, a seamless transition took place. Though the arm was inorganic, it was a solid, living thing, uniform, like the sleek body of a cynth, not something assembled from bits and pieces.

Telos understood the disgust on Ovid’s face. The incredible things that had happened — the shock in Kaminovo Village, the strange oasis, and the surfacing of Riku’s god — it all fell within possibilities they could understand. But Izzie’s arm, the fusion of flesh and steel, was simply incomprehensible.

“Riku, maybe he’s right.” Telos said, grunting in pain, she stumbled toward them. “We were able to stop her only because you were here. If you hadn’t been—”

“She would have murdered us,” Ovid said.

“And you!” Telos said with cold furry. “You didn’t feel like telling us who we were up against? Thought we couldn’t handle it?”

“The mission was simple. There was no need to go into detail.”

“And what about her arm? That’s not natural. Why don’t you tell us how that happened?”

Ovid cast her a look of outrage. “Only the High Priestess will be able to find that out. For now, our part is nearly done.”

“Were you planning to just kill her whether she returned to human form or not?” Telos snarled.

“My sister and I disagree on many things. Maybe we are rivals in a way, but you don’t know even the slightest bit about my past. You’re completely out of line.”

Telos said nothing more.

“I could assume a lot about you, too, Telos,” he went on. “How worried you are about becoming a priestess. How terrified you are of the future. But all of it is founded in ignorance, like your assumptions. If we all just let our secrets out, we’d be at each others’ throats!”

Telos said in a deadly whisper, “Balance is maintained through deception, and truth is never clear-cut. What kind of world do we live in?”

“Stop!” Riku shouted. Her words didn’t carry her god’s power, but they held a force of their own. Riku’s amazement and anger seared her from the inside. She wanted to go back to her room and sleep.

Telos stepped back. Ovid lowered his spear. “The battle caused our emotions to flare,” he said. “I shouldn’t have thought to deliver Izzie’s sentence without consulting the Council. Perhaps my solution would be too merciful. Let’s not forget what she’s done.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Telos said, her eyes riveted on the master priest, “preferably before she wakes up.”

Ovid nodded. “Now’s our chance. The cynths have retreated.”

“The Cauterhaugh isn’t as cool as I thought it would be,” Telos sighed bitterly. Riku’s heart stung when she detected the jealousy in Telos’ voice; she felt a coldness emanating from her friend that spoke louder than words. Very likely, she realized, their relationship would never be what it had been.

“Telos,” she said meekly, feeling a rush of blood to her head.

“Let’s go,” Telos shot back.

Ovid took hold of Izzie’s natural arm. Riku grabbed the other one. Riku strained, blinking back tears and lifting with all her might. She couldn’t tell if it was all the muscle, or just how tired she was, but Izzie’s limp body felt like too much to bear.

They dragged their feet to the base of the cliffs. A thought struck them all simultaneously. Arching her fingers between her lips, Riku whistled, and a lithe, sinusoidal cynth sidled up to them. A moment later they laid Izzie on its flat back. Riku had to chirp only once before the mindless creature took on their burden.

Izzie’s eyes were clamped shut; only Ovid’s senses were acute enough to hear her heartbeat. Telos took one last look at the sunken ruins, which glittered and crawled with cynth drones, going about their mysterious tasks.

It seemed to take far longer to retrace their steps. By the time they reached the plain, Riku was ready to collapse from exhaustion. The fainting fit came suddenly. One of her companions carried her to the waiting vehicle. Even though dreams tore at her mind, a pleasant numbness spread over her entire body.

Proceed to Chapter 40...

Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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