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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 12: Kirin

“You’re going to have to get stronger,” Telos told Riku. “Eventually, you’ll have to do trials alone.”

“You don’t think I’ll have to do the next one by myself, do you?” Riku asked nervously.

“The Council isn’t trying to kill a bunch of kids. They bring us here to become vessels for the gods. We have to sacrifice our time and energy and spill our own blood. In short, we have to do whatever’s necessary to survive, but we also have to recognize the will of the gods, to know right from wrong.”

After morning classes, Riku spent time reading The Book of Ages Past. It was a big, beautifully bound book from Telos’ shelf. It wasn’t the history of civilization that intrigued her, but the descriptions of the world. The descriptions of animals were especially fascinating. Before the Fjord, she learned, there were billions of creatures. Human beings had ruled over them all. Nadyr had taught her the basics about the major wars, and how, in the end, the Fjord had swept clean a poisoned world.

Illustrations of these strange animals flitted through her mind, and she pestered Telos with questions about them.

“Focus on learning about cynths,” Telos sighed. “Extinct beasts won’t teach you anything.”

“So nothing’s left of the old world?”

Telos decided to indulge her curiosity a little. “You’ve heard of Dust, right?” It was the setting of many tales from her childhood. “Some people say the Fjord could not reach Dust,” Telos said. “Supposedly, the planet is still wounded in that place.”

Riku thought she might like to see for herself, but doubted she ever would. She wished she could lie in bed reading, and not have to fight in the trials. But the other part of her remembered Izzie’s words. Telos and the others believed that the gods had a plan for them all.

Wearily, she went to Weapon Practice, the class before dinner. She sparred with the other mags, putting forth a good effort. A wooden sign on the training room wall said: With proper guidance and hard work, ANYONE can subdue ANY cynth. The words struck her forcefully, as if ANYONE referred to her directly. But also the word “subdue” called out. “Subdue,” not “kill.” Perhaps it wasn’t pain she feared, but killing.

The next day she was deemed fit by the nurse to continue her trials.

She had three comrades, all mags. One of them was named Hagi. He wore a black patch over one eye. Another was named Anda. She was the same height as Riku and around the same age, but she already possessed the serious attitude Riku could never imagine herself having. The last was a tall boy named Kamada, with dark anthracite veins in his long arms, a solid, circular torso, and thick copper strands hanging in coils down the back of his neck. The only one with a visible tattoo was Hagi, who chose his weapon with excitement. Riku noticed him casting sidelong glances at her distrustfully.

“Riku, take this dagger,” Anda suggested. Riku took it, wondering if there was meaning behind the offer.

“She won’t know what to do with it,” Hagi said snidely, twirling a mokume-gane kusarigama. “But at least she won’t accidentally hit us with it.”

“Focus, you blockhead,” Kamada said, flexing shoulders that swiveled in their joints with a grinding sound.

The various forms of cynths were incalculable in number, Riku knew, and only the most experienced initiates could occasionally predict the creature they’d face.

At the stroke of a bell, a grate in the ceiling clacked open. Three slender legs poked out. Riku tried to remain calm. Her knees were trembling, but with three comrades to back her up, she felt a little safer. The legs wiggled in midair. Finding nowhere to gain purchase, they turned up and stuck to the ceiling.

Riku could see by its lumps of flesh that it was not a cynth, but a kirin, an organic beast from Mitchlum. Like cynths from the Cauterhaugh, living things from Mitchlum had common traits. Their skin varied from transparent to chitinous, but kirins had no internal light, like mags and cynths, and were all the better at hiding in the shadows of the metropolis.

Her mind recalled images of extinct animals: crabs and spiders, monkeys and scorpions. It was a living nightmare. She had no idea what to expect. When its entire body emerged, Riku’s head swam.

“There’s another one,” Kamada announced in a whisper. “Spread out.”

As the enormous creature dragged its bulbous thorax forth, more legs sprung out behind it. It clung high up, glaring down with a dozen multi-colored eyes and emitting a high buzzing noise. Riku clutched her dagger, and her body swayed.

Her teammates sought cover, and Riku found herself alone, rooted to the spot.

“Riku, hide!” Anda called from under a massive green agate tree. But Riku’s feet refused to move. The second creature circled the hole, demonstrating its speed. Slowly, the first one’s abdomen slid open, revealing a concealed pair of translucent wings dripping with yellow mucus. It stretched into an oval shape, and flapped frantically. With a dozen dangling legs, it buzzed directly toward her. Riku held the dagger, frozen with horror. The others beckoned, waving and yelling, rather than coming to her aid.

Before the colossal shadow fell over her, Riku’s eyes lit upon Telos, who stood in the front stands. Perhaps she was too frightened to think clearly, but Riku let the dagger drop from her hands, and watched the slimy creature plop down several feet away. It had a wild, foreign smell, and gave a juicy hiss, taking slow, careful steps around her. Its breath filled the air, and she felt a delicate string fasten to her calf.

The little cord was cold and wet. As the beast circled, it hissed louder and sped up its dance, wrapping her ankles and then her legs with sticky twine. The movement and the sound added to her dizziness. Her breaths came in short gasps, and she coughed in the dense mist it exuded.

“Do something!” Hagi yelled, coming from behind a boulder, swinging his chain.

Riku’s arms and legs were secured tightly to her body, and she looked up again to Telos’ stalwart gaze. I don’t want to be just another roommate who didn’t make it, Riku thought. She needed to succeed at any cost.

Its quick rasping deepened. Beneath her fear, she felt an underlying curiosity. Its inhuman cry was full of sorrow, she thought. Despite her disgust, the sympathetic feeling rose in her again. As in her first trial against the wormoros, she could almost feel the creature’s fear. Desperately, she tried imitating the sound. It was like an unconscious defense mechanism.

The creature responded to her vibrating windpipe, and paused before sealing her entirely in its cocoon. Since earliest childhood she’d imitated the bleating of sheep and the buzzing of warble bees. The dense web around her no longer mattered. As soon as the natural wail left her lips, both creatures ceased to attack. She continued to woo it with the call, adding flourishes and accents. Her teammates stood by, astounded.

The second kirin joined the first and folded its legs, closed its mouth and listened quietly. It was far easier than running away or swinging a blade. She’d found the key lurking somewhere inside her. It might have been in her since the beginning, or it might have been the gods. But from that point on, very few cynths or kirins could resist her for long.

Proceed to Chapter 13...

Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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