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 40: Sacrifice
Riku was haunted by troubling dreams: images of mythic oceans teeming with life too beautiful to comprehend. When she awoke, she was lying on a hard steel cot in the Fjord. Memories rushed back and tears began to flow. She gave herself up to sorrow until the door to the room swung open and Telos walked in.
Relief cut through her despair, but Telos was worse for wear, bandaged and bruised from head to toe. It took a second for her morose expression to sink in. A distance had grown between the two of them, one that Telos didn’t attempt to bridge.
“You’re awake. Good. Can you walk?” Telos said.
Riku slid off the table and shuffled her feet. “You okay?” Riku squeaked.
Telos’ frown deepened. “Fine. I’ve had worse. Come on, Ovid wants to talk to you.”
“Telos, I’m sorry—”
Before she could finish, Telos turned, leaving her to follow.
If the circumstances had been different, Riku might have marveled at the strange sensation of being inside the Fjord. With her recent experiences weighing on her mind, however, moving one foot in front of the other took all her willpower. The passageways were regular, uninteresting, but grandiose in size, gray and white, with windows that were nothing more than dark slits.
They entered a large room where dejan hustled through a pair of tall double doors that made a harsh screech whenever they swung open. The shiny suits worn by the high officials of the Fjord were made of plastic, and they each possessed multiple modifications.
Ovid directed the chaos, but when he noticed Riku, he approached. Riku observed that the priest appeared completely uninjured.
“It’s good to see you, young priestess. Once we’ve finished here, we’ll take you to the cloister for the proper rites.”
Without a thought to his words, Riku blurted out: “What about Izzie?”
Ovid’s smile faded and he raised an eyebrow. The swinging doors screeched open and clanged shut, drawing an annoyed glance from him. “She’s still out of commission. The coma may be a side-effect. The fusion of her augmentations might cause internal complications. They’re examining her in there. High Priestess Remera will be along shortly to determine what to do.”
Riku bowed her head in dismay.
“Knowing her, she’ll probably pull through,” he said. Without another word, he turned and joined a group of ritual healers.
Riku and Telos waited. Meanwhile, dozens of priests darted through the hall, but imagining what they were all doing on their errands hardly kept her mind off Telos’ hostility. When the tension became unbearable, Riku said the first placatory thing that came to mind. “Telos, I’m sorry you weren’t chosen. The way you fought was incredible.”
The look of scorn she received prompted her to swallow the rest of her words. Telos took a step forward, tightening her fist. Riku wondered if the frightening power of that fist had been there from the start.
Telos took a deep breath. “Not much we can do but accept it. I wasn’t destined for glory. You got it without having to work hard, and I’ll get swept out along with all the rest!” Telos raised her voice only a little, but some of the busybodies nearby stopped, sensing the force of Telos’ emotions.
Trembling, Riku stumbled backward. “Telos, I didn’t want it to be this way. I never wanted to join the cloister in the first place.”
“Some are chosen by the gods. Some aren’t. Some grow up with families. Some don’t. In the end, some of us end up with nothing: no past, no future.”
Abruptly, a scream arose from the surgery room. Sounds of alarm and a scuffle could be heard over the general racket. A fight was breaking out beyond the steel doors.
The wall shook. A large dent appeared on the other side of the impact.
Ovid stood perfectly still. A sudden silence descended, and he cast a grave look at them both, then rushed through the doors. A moment later there was a grunt and a crash so heavy its echo buzzed in the air around them.
Telos looked at Riku with wide, uncertain eyes. Riku did not have any idea what would happen next, but she knew she did not have another fight in her. Her first instinct was to run. She was about to whisper to Telos when a subtle voice spoke within her mind. Go. A deep courage welled up inside her without warning, and she ran for the double doors. With perfect understanding, Telos followed.
Dozens of synthetic limbs were scattered about the room, and several people lay crushed and bent against the walls. Tubes dangled from the ceiling, and the floor gleamed with blood and oil. Ovid was slumped against the door. Breath wheezed through his gaping mouth. His torso was imprinted with an enormous crater and shards of metal jutted out of his chest.
Izzie was the only one standing. Clear ligaments sprung from her shoulder, and a long cut ran across her forehead. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and the look of panic and anger in her eyes reminded Riku of the beast. Izzie stared at them and lurched back, overcome with nausea. Her inorganic arm was torn open, and a pair of pliers was still clamped to the gleaming bone underneath. The wound gushed. The arm dangled uselessly at her side. It was clear from where Riku stood that they had tried to amputate it, but the limb was stubborn. Izzie must have wakened and resisted.
Overcome with fear and confusion, Riku backed away. Only briefly fazed, Telos charged. Riku found it difficult to follow their movements, but she saw Telos was managing to hold her own. Izzie’s strength was unmatched, but in her state she could not catch up to Telos. Telos danced outside of Izzie’s reach and aimed for the wounded arm, though Izzie didn’t let the blows connect.
The voice inside Riku got her attention. Stop them. They must not fight. Steadying herself, she put all her power into her words. The words of her god washed over the room and stunned the two combatants. The effect was brief. She was sure the words held the same strength, but they just glanced at her before returning to their engagement. Dejected, Riku sought the inner voice again: It’s not enough!
Then after a pause: A sacrifice.
Riku realized the fight was becoming one-sided. Telos was being overpowered. With a start, she watched Izzie use the mechanical arm. It no longer hung by a thread, and the enormous laceration had begun to close.
If I don’t stop this now, Riku thought, Telos could be killed. She took a deep breath and launched herself between them.
The pain was brief but intense. Riku felt her ribs jangle loosely against each other when she hit the ground. All of her strength evaporated at once, and her breath came in tiny gasps. Vague shouts reached her from above, but they were muted and distant. Pain returned in waves.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her crooked arm. The god within her was silent. “The stupidest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do,” Telos’ said.
Riku blinked, feeling a gap in her understanding. Izzie kneeled above her.
The energy was gone from her limbs, and she found it impossible to speak. With an involuntary shudder, her jaw clacked open uselessly.
“I pulled the punch at the last second, but her arm is broken,” Izzie said.
“And her jaw,” Telos said quietly. Vaguely, Riku felt a hand prod her. “Several ribs. Collar-piece. She’ll need replacements.”
“I’ll take her to the intensive care level,” Telos said. “You can escape for now.”
“You really think you could’ve stopped me?”
Telos sighed and swept a hand over her sweaty face. “Either way, there’s no getting out of this now. If you run or hide, they’ll get you eventually.”
“Forget about me. What about Riku? Will you hand her over to Remera? The Council has already made use of her abilities once.”
Telos felt the anger go out of her voice. “Who else could fix her up?”
“I know a place,” Izzie continued. “They took me in once. And they can fix mags.”
“Where is this place, exactly?”
Izzie laughed. “If I tell you, they’ll figure it out when they interrogate you.”
“You think she’d just let you take her after all you’ve done?”
“I won’t take her against her will.”
They turned to Riku. Her first thought was to shake her head. The Council couldn’t be as bad as the unstable priestess. But before she could respond, she found herself nodding slowly.
“You want me to take you?” Izzie asked with a knowing look.
“Okay” It was all she could manage to say. Only after the words were out of her mouth did she realize her god had been the one to prompt her.
Telos shrugged, and Izzie picked Riku up. Riku almost fought against her, but the slightest movement created a ripple of agony.
Telos watched them go with a frown, saying nothing. Riku was a priestess now. And there was nothing Telos could do to change that.
The Fjord’s exits would be blocked. Izzie would have to muscle her way through.
Within seconds after Izzie’s departure, the High Priestess and her entourage arrived. Remera gave Telos an inscrutable look before tending to the fallen. Telos had never seen the High Priestess up close before and only now realized how short she was, compared to her daughter and Ovid.
It was only after Ovid showed signs of life that Remera confronted Telos. “You can start with what happened when she awoke. Leave nothing out,” The High Priestess said in an eerily smooth voice.
Telos answered, “And if I don’t?” She wasn’t feeling particularly helpful.
A sudden flare in Remera’s eyes caught Telos off guard. Something in Telos had broken when Riku jumped in front of Izzie’s punch. It wasn’t her ambition or her resolve, but more like her loyalty to the priesthood, to everyone but herself.
“I wasn’t asking,” was all Remera had to say before Telos decided to tell what she knew.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich