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 41: Repair
Riku woke intermittently, greeted by the blazing sun of the Cauterhaugh. In her fever dreams, she saw her god silhouetted against a stormy sky. Pain and numbness returned whenever her eyes opened. Slumped over Izzie’s back, she strained to turn her head and saw only the metallic sheen of Izzie’s arm and the faded tattoo on her neck.
“Where are we going?” Riku asked weakly. Speaking proved difficult, and her lungs strained.
“I’m taking you somewhere safe,” Izzie said. “Go back to sleep.”
“What about Telos?”
Izzie sighed and answered, “No idea. But the Council will find some use for her.”
“She’s my friend,” Riku said, squinting at the droll landscape upside-down. She leaned her head back. She noticed Izzie’s inorganic arm had healed completely, but that Izzie had tied a thick band of cloth around the joint where metal and flesh became one. Probably to avoid stares from anyone they met along the way.
“Telos reminds me of myself when I was young,” Izzalia said.
Riku said nothing. She could tell there were many things on Izzie’s mind, just as there were many things on her own.
Yawning, Izzie said, “Your god told you to fling yourself between us and stop the fight, didn’t it?”
Riku said, “Yes.”
“Do you regret it?”
Riku didn’t know. Being stuck with Izzie made everything more complex and confusing. If she could have found the strength she would have run away, but her god wanted them together for some reason. Was there anywhere safe from the Council’s reach? If there was, she believed Izzie would know.
“You’ll get fixed up where we’re going,” Izzie said, taking Riku’s silence for what it was.
“Where?” Riku asked.
“It’s called Waypoint Town. I went there once.”
“Is it... far?”
“Yes. You’ve been asleep for a long time, drifting in and out.”
Riku felt her heart rate increase, and a twinge of helpless fear. “Are you going to fly there?”
The look of certainty on Izzie’s face reassured her. “It would be faster, but no.”
They continued in silence. Riku took in the lush reflective landscape. After a while, she asked, “How did you escape? Didn’t they chase you?”
“Archie was kind enough to drive us a ways. I’m sure they’re gathering a sizeable force to chase me now. But the chaos delayed them. I’ve dodged a few scouts. You see, I know the Cauterhaugh better than anyone. We’re just lucky the trackers were on assignments, otherwise it could’ve gotten messy again.”
Riku wondered what was going through the priestess’ mind.
“I’ve been avoiding major towns,” Izzie continued, “but I know a small one close by. We could both use a rest.” Izzie smiled wearily. “Riku, I’m sorry,” she trailed off.
Riku was silent. Her energy wavered, and she dropped off to sleep.
After a short break in a no-name village, and a quick, flavorless meal, they continued under the ever-present sun.
The long, slender shadow of the Fjord sliced through the land and divided the mountains on the western horizon like a colossal snake frozen in place. The mark was as straight as the shadow line outside the wall of Mitchlum, and it brought back poignant memories.
Keep sleeping: Riku heard the voice of her god. And time melted away.
* * *
Not knowing what to expect from Waypoint town, Riku wasn’t surprised to see it in disrepair. Dozens of buildings had been leveled, and she detected other signs of a grotto-le attack. The sight of mounds of rubble and collapsed roofs sent a shudder down her spine.
Groups of mags watched them murderously. Izzie spoke to a tall man, who bent over Riku with concern. The man mended her broken arm and cracked ribs with a healer’s touch. One of his eyes, beneath his long voyin hair, was covered by a patch.
The next day passed in a blur of pain. New parts were grafted onto Riku. The intense heat of the forge blotted out the radiating pain.
When she finally awoke, she lay on a needle-grass mat that crackled. She stretched her limbs, flexed the new arm sluggishly and admired its blinding polish. She counted her prominent ribs with prodding fingers. They were smooth and new, and her breath came easier than it had since her injury. Peeking under her tunic, she saw the faint, discolored lines of welding scars across her flat chest.
Beyond a circular window in the marble wall, several mags hoisted a pillar of compressed shale, balancing it on a platform. Izzie chipped away at a reddish slab of stone with artful strokes. The other villagers gave her an enormous berth. A cloth bandana was wrapped around her shoulder, but she still toiled among them like a commoner.
Sitting up, Riku felt unsteady and feeble. It would be a while before she was good as new. Exhausted, she lay back and picked out a rough hair of lead needle-grass. There had been a large patch of it in Kaminovo Village once upon a time, and Nadyr had sometimes placed a blade of it in his mouth while he worked. Tears coursed down her cheeks until she directed her mind elsewhere, though wherever her thoughts turned, nothing but grim reality confronted her.
Later, Riku felt a nudge and awoke to find Izzie smiling above her.
“How do you feel?”
Riku shrugged. The priestess placed a hand on her back.
Izzie’s look was inscrutable. “If you’d like me to leave you alone, Riku, I understand. The villagers can’t stand the sight of me either, but I keep hanging around anyway.”
Riku watched workers pass by the window. Despite Izzie’s lack of popularity in the ruined village, she felt safer than she had on the endless trek through the desert.
“Want to meet the man who nursed you back to health?” Izzie asked eventually.
“Sure,” she said, letting Izzie help her up.
They made their way into the glaring sunlight. Since their arrival, new improvements had restored the thoroughfare, and Riku wondered how long she had been out of commission.
It had been a magnificent place, judging by the number of ancient buildings, the unusual mix of people and livestock and the peaceful atmosphere. At the edge of town, beneath steep sandstone cliffs, veined with coal and studded with shiny blobs of naturally occurring metals, Riku saw what she took for a grotto-le at first, perched on the wide steps of the dojo. The incredible creature between the filigreed pillars was one of the most peculiar things she had ever seen.
Sensing her amazement, Izzie chuckled and said, “That’s Virgil, in his beast-form.”
“So you’re not the only one who can transform!” Riku exclaimed. The beast was smaller than Izzie’s but the fiery eyes bespoke similar inner energy. Circulating bands of greenish hair covering most of its body. Its flexible limbs were a cross between arms and legs. It appeared lean, lithe and highly intelligent, poised there, with a flickering shadow beneath it.
The distance between Izzie and herself had shrunk, Riku realized. She was a priestess. Her relief was mingled with anxiety.
Virgil’s beast seemed so much more organic than Izzie’s. It was like a thing from another world. The painters and workmen took little notice of them on the steps and went about their tasks.
Virgil emerged from within the creature’s body, its exotic form dissolving around him. “I thought you should see both sides of me, Riku,” Virgil said in a kind voice, “as Izzie did when she came here last.”
Riku bowed awkwardly, supporting herself against Izzie’s muscular organic arm. “Thank you for fixing me,” Riku said.
He was one of tallest men she’d ever met, but he possessed a gentle delicacy that made her feel at home. It was the same serenity Nadyr had always exuded.
Virgil addressed Izzie in an admonishing tone. “I hope you know, it took a lot of convincing before these townsfolk agreed to let you back into Waypoint.”
Riku finally understood that Izzie’s beast-form had been responsible for the destruction around them.
The priestess cast her gaze into the distance, struck with sorrow or frustration. Instead of replying, she merely nodded.
Virgil smiled. His teeth were bright and alternated between gold and white. “I’m pretty good with inorganic parts.” He winked at Riku with his one eye and waved them up the steps through the intricately carved archways of his dojo.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich