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 4: Initiation
Riku and Archie entered a tunnel leading into the heart of the giant tree. Archie’s song was still ringing in her ears.
“I liked your song, Archie,” she said.
“Thank you. It’s about how the Fjord created the world anew.”
The hallway widened and separated into a mystifying maze of passages. Riku kept close to Archie in the bustling crowd. “Will I learn more history soon?” she asked, trying to still her thumping heart.
“You’ll learn many things. About the grotto-le, cynths, and even kirins.”
“Are there many kinds of grotto-le?” The only thing Riku knew about grotto-le was that one of them had killed her parents.
“Unfortunately, I’m not an expert,” Archie said flatly.
“Are you Izzie’s helper?”
“I’m nothing like her, just a neophyte priest. Hardly qualified to teach you anything. Izzalia is a dejan, a part of the council that occupies the Fjord.”
Riku’s head was swimming.
* * *
When they finally arrived at the cloister and proceeded to the living quarters, she frowned when they came to her room. Instead of letting light in, the circular window reflected her face like a glassy, black eye. There were two of everything. Two chairs, two small desks, two beds arranged on top of one another, and two basins full of water. A girl was lying on the top bed, entirely in shadow, unmoving and silent.
Riku touched the brown material of the bedpost, the same smooth texture as the walls, against which her hands felt rough. “That’s wood,” Archie told her. “You’ll get used to it. And we have only holy water in Mitchlum.” He pointed to the basins. “It’s just like quicksilver, but you might not like the taste at first.”
Riku’s attention flitted from one aspect of the room to another. Archie swung the stone lantern, flinging shadows into the corners. “Your roommate,” he nodded with his chin at the top bunk. The girl remained silent.
For the rest of the tour, Riku followed in a daze through ornate hallways dark as caverns that stretched endlessly like the throats of colossal snakes, and through tall doors that swung wide and sent a gust that brushed through the tinkling strands of her hair.
The other kids she passed cast mournful glances at her, pausing in their tasks, while older people wore hardened, blank expressions. There were so many creaking elevators and sleek slide-ramps curving down like soft tongues, and so many sloping walls and ancient stairwells spiraling into darkness that her head throbbed, and she lost all sense of time and place. Already her mind was clogged with sorrow and loss.
The tunnels seemed to go on forever, and her feet were already stinging with exhaustion. She hardly listened to Archie’s explanations.
* * *
Finally she was led to a seat among other children in a great assembly hall. It might have been three hours since she had entered Mitchlum. Looking around self-consciously, she began to realize how different inorganics and organics were. In her village, everyone looked roughly the same, but shape and composition were more varied here.
Archie placed a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “I’ll be getting back to my station now, Riku. You must let the others guide you. Trust that everything will be all right, no matter how hard it seems.” The glint of his smile barely soothed her pounding heart.
To Riku’s astonishment, a head appeared from the floor in front of the podium. It was a priestess rising through the solid wood like a ghost in a dark uniform. The priestess announced to the gathering in a sharp voice: “We have two new initiates today.” Long, gray hair hung neatly to either side of her face and a bright organic flower was fixed to her collar. “Both of them were born near the shadowline in the Cauterhaugh. The first is named Riku.” The room went still.
Riku’s heart almost burst within her.
“Please stand and introduce yourself,” the priestess said, staring directly at her.
Trembling, Riku stood, swayed, and found she couldn’t speak.
“Thank you, Riku,” the priestess said gruffly. “The other is named Akeda. He has suffered a fainting fit and will join us tomorrow.”
Riku’s hands shook, but no one looked at her for long. Was she the only one who didn’t know what was going on? The other children wore serious, but absentminded looks, as if this were a daily routine. “There’s no trial for the first three days,” the priestess continued. “But it will benefit you to watch nonetheless, Rikaku.”
Riku jumped. It had been a while since someone had used her full name. And the way the priestess said it made her feel like everything about her was common knowledge.
“I trust you’ll all welcome them both in the same way you were welcomed. We all experience the change in surroundings differently. For some, the transition is smoother than others. Before we begin our reading for today, I want to ask Felma to come up and receive an Emblem of Strength.”
Everyone stood at once and recited: “May the light in us guide our steps. May the gods preserve us from death.” Riku scrambled to stand in synch with the others.
A girl stood amid the crowd, fifteen or sixteen, muscular, beautiful and stoic. Riku saw with horror that her right arm was bundled in a tight bandage: the half of it that wasn’t missing. The girl walked very slowly, with painful effort, until she stood before the priestess and bowed. Then she lifted her good arm upward and hung her head. Her black hair fell like a curtain, and the priestess brushed it aside before clasping the arm tightly with long, white fingers.
Riku noticed a small symbol tattooed near the elbow, no bigger than an eye. Taking a golden knife from a pouch at the back of her belt, the priestess slid the knife across the girl’s skin in a complex pattern and a black badge appeared without a trace of blood: a tattoo of the sun, vivid and red and raw-looking. Riku gripped the edge of her seat and felt light-headed.
“Carry this Emblem of Strength, Felma, because thou hast met the trial with persistence and cunning and, through excruciating pain, prevailed to tempt the gods another day. Fight on, until thy strength is overcome or until the spirit entereth thee.”
The crowd cheered. Felma stood unsteadily, short next to the priestess. She then limped back to her seat.
Riku couldn’t stop herself from crying but tried to make not the slightest sound. Hiding her face in her hands, she shook uncontrollably until the meeting ended and she could go back to her room.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich