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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 11: Experience

Riku grew more worried as her minor injuries healed. Telos assured her that some initiates started out small, and only got the hang of it after months of failure.

“The trials are nothing more than training,” Telos told her during lunch. “The real trials are out there, in the Cauterhaugh.”

“But Nadyr hardly ever has to fight cynths,” Riku complained. “And he fought a grotto-le only once.”

“Once is enough,” Telos said ominously. “Some priests don’t even make it to their assigned townships.”

“What do you mean?”

“The further you get from Mitchlum, the more dangerous the Cauterhaugh is. The villages are far apart, and the roads between them are treacherous. Some priests spend most of their lives on pilgrimage. Your grandfather is not really the normal kind. Many have to fight every day of their lives, like Izzalia. Since she’s so strong, she has to go from place to place, wherever the threat is biggest.”

“But why doesn’t everyone move where it’s safe, like into Mitchlum?”

Telos laughed. “You thought it was safe here?” She stood up and stretched her long legs, shuffling her boots. “Where do you think they get all the cynths we fight? You think they bring them in from the tundra? They’re crawling up the walls of Mitchlum every day. The trials are a great way to get rid of them, wouldn’t you say? And it gives the priests a break. If the gods didn’t give us a fighting chance once we are chosen, who’d want to live such a life?”

“Nadyr always said it was a great honor to be a priest. Do you think life’s always going to be hard?”

Telos stared at her with an unreadable expression. Sometimes lines formed around her soft mouth and her stony-grey eyes. “I’ve been doing this for seven years.” Telos sighed heavily and leaned against the bedpost. “Sometimes I don’t want to go on. I never even had a family to begin with. And it’s hard to make friends with these kids when you know some of them aren’t going to make it.”

Riku felt a wave of sadness wash through her. “I promise I’ll do my best, Telos. One day, when we both make it through the trials, I want to go on a pilgrimage with you. Or we can protect a town together.”

“You’re getting way ahead of yourself, mag. First we need to figure out what the secret is. It’s been driving me crazy. What’s so special about you that interested Izzie’s god in the first place? In your next trial I want to see your full potential.”

“You should listen to your friend. She offers good advice.” Izzalia’s voice from the doorway caused Riku to squeak and, when she approached Riku’s bedside, Telos got to her feet. The priestess smiled warmly and sat down at the table where all their homework was piled, rendering them speechless.

When no one spoke, Izzalia continued. “So you must be the one advising Riku on her trials,” she said to Telos.

Telos managed a nod.

“I’ve seen you fight before. I was impressed. What’s your name?”

“Telos.” Telos gulped.

“Where are you from, exactly?”

“I’m from Mitchlum... Not sure which part.” Telos coughed.

Izzie’s eyes widened. “Now I remember why your name sounds familiar. My mother brought you here.”

“But... That means, the high priestess herself...” Telos stammered in disbelief.

“I seem to recall you were found in an odd place.”

“I can’t remember much before I got to the cloister.”

“No memory, you say?” Izzie looked pensive for a moment, then continued. “Yes, I’m sure of it.”

“With a little refinement, I know Riku’s potential will come out,” Telos said, changing the subject.

Izzie nodded, “Do me a favor: keep it up. Maybe you two were always meant to work together.”

The two of them nodded.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” Telos replied. “I’d like to train her in the basics, but it’s getting more difficult with all the chores I’ve been given recently.”

“Oh really?” Izzie laughed. “We’ll see if there’s anything I can do about that. In any case, I’ll stop by again after my next mission to see how you’re doing, Riku.”

Riku detected a hint of sadness in the elegant dejan, but wondered if it was just her imagination. As Izzie stood to leave, Riku’s eyes wandered to the fresh bandage over Izzie’s shoulder.

“Is your shoulder okay?” Riku asked suddenly.

Izzie made a dismissive motion with her hand. Telos glared at Riku.

“What we do is dangerous, make no mistake. If a few wounds are the only consequences of facing a grotto-le, I consider the encounter a success.”

Admiration spread across Riku’s face.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. But in the beginning my trials didn’t go well.”

Somehow, Riku found it hard to believe Izzie had ever struggled through the trials. To think that the only thing separating them was years of practice seemed a little far-fetched.

“Is that how you lost your arm?” Telos blurted out and then paled as she realized how improper it had sounded. During the ensuing pause, Telos cleared her throat quickly and said, “Sorry, Your Grace. Forget I asked.”

Izzie patted Telos on the shoulder, flexing the mechanical arm that hung against her side. She said, “No, I lost my arm during my trials. It was one of the reasons I had it rough. The modifications the high priestess made weren’t as well-integrated then as they are today. I went through prototype after prototype.”

Izzie gazed out the window as Telos and Riku exchanged a look. “They call them trials because the only way through them is trial and error.”

Riku found another question stirring in her like a persistent itch. “I’m not the only initiate you brought here, am I? I mean, it seems like you’re watching over me sometimes.”

“I care about what my god cares about,” Izzie replied simply. “I can’t tell you specifically what the future holds, but I know you’ll find your way. Both of you are special. That much is clear.” Telos looked surprised, but Izzie’s next statement brought her back to herself.

“However, the future can wait. I could go report on my last assignment, but even I need to take a break every once in a while. How about a game of cards?” She brought a stack of thin steel cards from her pocket.

A look of profound shock and just as much interest crossed Telos’ face.

“But, cards are... strongly discouraged,” Riku said dumbly.

“You mean ‘forbidden’.” Izzie grinned. “It invites evil into the mind, produces idleness, and loosens your purse strings.”

Perhaps it was a test, to see if they’d give in under pressure. Once she’d laid the cards out on the table in the popular manner, Izzie sighed. “Traditions and taboos serve a purpose, but do the gods really pay attention to one or two harmless card games?”

Telos hesitated.

“Of course, we don’t have to go telling my mother, now do we?” Izzie laughed.

Proceed to Chapter 12...

Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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