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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 20: The Net

Advancing through the trials gave Riku more chances to experiment with her unexpected skill. The ability to command beasts had sprung up in her like a defense mechanism. She’d been told that the gods often chose their vessels in unexpected ways, but she had yet to feel the “presence” of any god within her.

Telos’ opinion was, even though Riku could stop cynths in their tracks, with enough training, she might reach past their primal instincts and speak to them on a deeper level. Cases had existed in the past, or so the stories told. Admittedly, Telos was envious of this rare talent, but Riku assured her that superb fighting ability would come in handy more often.

Telos shrugged. Her first tattoo had been slow in coming, and menial tasks were already being assigned to her while the other kids trained. “Soon enough,” Telos complained, “I’ll graduate from ‘veteran’ to ‘lousy hanger-on’.”

“But I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without you,” Riku said.

“Pretty soon you’ll know all you need to know. I’ll only hold you back. You’ve found a good way to stand out from the rest. They’re going to have a special need of you one day. The gods probably look at me and see nothing more than a faceless nobody. Sometimes, I’m afraid I’ll lose the little enthusiasm I have left.”

Riku tried with all her might to cheer her up, but when Telos got into one of her moods, she inevitably brooded for the rest of the day. Despite what she said, Telos’ extensive knowledge would surely qualify her to become an instructor eventually, and Riku had never seen Telos make a misstep in a fight.

One day, Riku was called aside by an instructor after a trial. It was the priestess with long gray hair named Cyona. She’d made progress, Cyona said, but now it was time to do something different.

Without asking questions, Riku accompanied her outside. A vehicle took them through new boroughs of Mitchlum, where buildings grew densely, and slender towers with interwoven branches housed twinkling torchlights. Looking up, she saw soft-looking blobs of flesh scaling the walls of the structures. These turned out to be a parasitic kirin, feeding off the buildings themselves.

At the edge of the river, the car passed under a bridge. They sank into a wide tunnel leading alongside the wall of Mitchlum. The darkness swallowed them, and she could feel the gentle bump and scrape of the car as it brushed against the moist sides of the cave. Several guards waved them through a shimmering sheet of falling holy water and into an extensive system of passageways. They were under Mitchlum, a place she’d never suspected existed. In the distance, she recognized the dull roar of cynths. She’d learned to distinguish certain calls, and what she heard did nothing to calm her beating heart.

Light expanded through the chamber by the time they came to a stop. Fire flowed through slender glass strings all around them. The bioluminescence snaked through vines overhead, bundled at intervals above the passage. The soil was spongey under her feet. The vehicle was silent now, resting a few inches above the ground, and all that could be heard was the unsettling din of cynths.

“Here you will find a unique new challenge,” Cyona told her. “Follow me.” She led Riku down the echoing path. The priestess walked with steady steps, and Riku found it hard to keep pace. The cacophony grew immense, and each wild lament vibrated through her.

At the rim of a wide pit, they came to a halt. Riku looked down and saw more cynths than she’d ever seen in one place. Hundreds were corralled under a strange net of energy, which looked like molten iron, but flowed freely through the air. Thousands more pushed against the horde from unseen chasms beyond.

“Those aren’t just cynths and kirins, but fearsome grotto-les,” the priestess said. “You may not be able to see them, but perhaps you can pick out their voices.” She paused to examine Riku’s stunned expression. “This place must remain an absolute secret. If the net were disrupted, a gateway into Mitchlum would open, and the hordes could cause incalculable damage. As it stands, too many of them climb the wall, but we can say we have them under control. This is the one place where there are simply too many to deal with.”

“What’s holding them there?” Riku asked in a whisper.

“An ancient power. The god of storms is being channeled through an object. Copper ropes carry the current that flows from the relic. It’s the only thing separating us from them.”

Riku strained her eyes to distinguish an old string of metal beads balanced on a pedestal. “What’s a relic?”

“You can call it another type of vessel. Unlike a priest, a relic contains a god but is not a living thing. Occasionally the net wavers, if only for a second. And that’s why we have to be vigilant.”

“What do you need me to do?” Riku was nervous, but felt a rush of pride to be entrusted with such an important secret.

“You’ve shown you can stop a cynth in its tracks. You can push them back with your voice. Here you’ll train in private and learn to subdue large numbers simultaneously.”

Riku regarded Cyona skeptically. It was hard enough to get one cynth to listen to her. How would they even hear her in the constant noise? “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“You must try. If the net fails, the evacuation would take days, but the city could be overrun in mere hours.”

“Thanks for believing in me,” Riku said. She took a step closer to the pit.

A row of armored delmoras wriggled at the front of the net below the rim of the pit. She followed the movement of the dark creatures with her eyes, to the mouth of the tunnel through which the hoard constantly roved. When too many were in the pit at once, the glowing strings of light repulsed them with a shock. A delmora grasped the edge of the current and tore at it uselessly. After several attempts, its claw loosened and then dangled limply at its side. It had several more pincers but knew better than to try again. Its luminous eyes blinked, and its saucer-shaped body scuttled back, giving another beast a chance.

“Why don’t you seal the tunnel, to stop them coming in?” she asked.

“We’ve tried it. We’ve used the relic to close them in, but if their path is blocked, they simply dig a new one. The bright net confuses them, and they seem to think that with enough work they can get through.”

“Where are they coming from?”

“The Council would give you vague ecological answers, but the most I can say is that the cynths consider Mitchlum the source of their torment.”

“What do you mean?”

“Cynths attack human beings because they’re born for one purpose: to destroy us. There’s still a lot we don’t know. It could be that the planet produces them. Before the Fjord, people had natural systems in their bodies to fight illness. This could be the planet’s way of trying to get rid of us after what we did with the Fjord.”

Riku’s mind reeled. “So no matter how many cynths we kill, there’ll always be more?”

“That much is certain. Now, see if you can do anything about that delmora on the left. It’s moving to the front.”

Spines protruded from its back. Concentrating, Riku let out a loud screech. The delmora froze, paralyzed. Riku added several more calls, varying the series until the eyes of the beast rolled. It spun wildly, driving spines into its neighbors, who attacked and dismantled it in a matter of moments.

Sweat broke out on Riku’s forehead. She hadn’t meant to kill it. Yet, it had been so simple.

“Good job,” Cyona said.

“I’ll barely be able to make a dent in them.”

“Everyone starts small. And the goal is to reach your full potential. Nothing more. You’ll spend two hours a day here from now on. We’ll monitor your progress. But remember, no one, not even your roommate or other priests, can know about this.”

“How will I explain being gone?”

“Just say we’re taking you around Mitchlum, to capture loose cynths. It’s not entirely a lie.”

Proceed to Chapter 21...

Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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