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Echoes From Dust

by L. S. Popovich

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Chapter 58: Pressure

Telos unleashed her powers upon the invading cynths without restraint, but the stream of enemies seemed endless. Channeling the words of her god, Riku called out and the rain froze momentarily around them. Telos ceased and looked down at her. The background noise ebbed and herds of cynths scattered in fear.

“Impressive entrance,” Telos called to her. “Glad you could make it!”

Riku could hardly believe her eyes. Telos, loaded down with several weapons, floated several feet off the ground. A strong aura radiated from her, and a new tone rippled beneath her voice.

“You’re a priestess!” Riku cried with joy. But Yumi let her know something wasn’t quite right and stirred uncomfortably.

“I don’t know. I feel a lot of power and frustration. Perhaps it’s not settled in yet.” She flung a bolt of lightning from the tip of her spear and disintegrated a nearby cynth.

“You’re wounded!” Riku said, indicating one of Telos’ arms, the skin of which was pretty well flayed.

“I’ll attend to it later.” Telos betrayed no pain in her expression. “It’s funny,” Telos went on, “I saw Ovid get destroyed. That man is always getting pulverized.” She grinned. “But he’s been there since the beginning, acting important. I’m sure someone will manage to put him back together again. Every time they stick the pieces back together, less and less of the original remains. It’s kind of like the world, the way we keep taking it apart, trying to fix it again and again. Maybe it’s time to scrap the lot.”

Riku fought the urge to argue. Her heart thudded uncomfortably. “This war has to stop.”

Telos sank to the wet ground next to her and stared up at the sky, veined with seams of lightning.

“If we don’t stop soon, the thing we’re fighting for will be lost,” Riku said.

Telos held up her hands. “With this power I could turn the grotto-les to ash. It might be the quickest way to win.”

A hum filled the air, and they both watched the Fjord pulse with light. The ground quaked, and roots sprung out of the earth and whipped through gravel embankments. Time was slipping through their fingers, Riku realized.

“How’re we going to fix this?” Riku asked. Her voice contained layers of her god’s power. She placed a hand on Telos’ shoulder and felt her god reach out, strengthening the contact her words had made.

Thunder scrambled through the atmosphere. “All we can do is play a part,” Telos said. “My part is to fight.”

Riku glanced through sheets of rain at the deserted streets. The battlefield had momentarily gone quiet, but the calm showed signs of passing. Cynths ran amidst the rubble like misshapen shadows. Through a hole in the wall of Mitchlum, Riku watched a rampant vine crawl and spread with frightening speed toward the Cauterhaugh. Corpses rose on the backs of thick roots, which took hold of everything in their path, sculpting disfigured trees out of the dead.

“We’ve got to do something, Telos! The longer we wait, the stronger the Fjord’s power grows! We have to stop Izzie and Virgil!”

“I have no idea where Izzie and the others are,” Telos said. “They’re probably duking it out somewhere.”

“All of your power won’t matter if there’s no one left to save,” Riku said.

“Mitchlum is a pretty big place. I guess we’ll have to work together if we want to get out of here alive.”

A huge grotto-le hopped from rooftop to rooftop, leaving holes where it landed.

“Here they come!” Telos cried, raising her sword.

“We can’t possibly clear the whole city!” Riku cried.

“If I unleash all my power at once, I might be able to.”

“But how would you distinguish people from cynths if you shot lightning everywhere at once?”

Telos thought for a moment. Then she stared at Riku and said, “You do it then.”

* * *

The closer Izzie came to the Fjord’s tip, the weaker she grew. Forcing her feet to move, she descended against the rushing waves of heat and pressure. Her skin prickled and burned, and nausea swept through her. If it kept up she might have to resort to her beast-form, and plunge headlong into the chasm, but she wanted a clear head when she confronted her father.

It was excruciating, but she continued on. Virgil had clearly revved up the Fjord.

Fighting off fatigue and dizziness, she willed herself on. She’d withstood pain so many times she’d learned how to push through it.

Finally, she reached the roving sea of particles at the bottom. Squinting through blasts of gritty wind, she felt in the darkness along the vibrating surface of the Fjord. It hovered there improbably, a few feet off the planet’s surface, like the tip of a quill, ready to compose a single ideogram on a blank scroll.

Noticing a seam, she pushed through dense gusts and wrapped her fingers around the edge, and pulled herself out of the self-contained tempest and into the calm eye of the storm of the Fjord’s interior wall.

The smooth surface was cold. Every movement she made echoed upward until the sound diminished beyond the limit of hearing. Such a massive throat it had, she mused, marveling at her mother’s genius. It may be mankind’s greatest accomplishment and its greatest catastrophe.

Weary though she was, she managed to climb to a dimly lit platform. Surprised by the expansive size of the place, she staggered. Her eye was drawn to an ominous black obelisk in the center, with a mysterious ball of fire hovering at its peak.

Cautiously approaching, she made out the sounds of banging and clanging within. Peering through the open door, she saw a complicated control room, with a dazzling array of panels, technology of a kind she’d never seen.

“It’s quite magnificent,” Virgil announced, swiveling to face her.

She stared at him. It was like gazing into the eyes of a grotto-le. She wondered if he’d used his beast-form to get here and suffered for it. A tangle of roots blossomed from his empty eye socket. On the crown of his head, furry tendrils cascaded down to his shoulders. What had been his hands were now malleable sprigs of wood, peeling at the tips. Under the electric lights the woven bark of his skin glinted eerily.

“What happened to you?” she exclaimed. The resounding echoes did something to her voice and sent shivers down her spine.

“We both passed through the same chaos to get here. Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

Blinking slowly, she raised her hands and saw, instead of one metal hand, two. Trembling, she touched her face, and felt the matte aluminum that reminded her of the touch of Riku’s skin.

A bout of dizziness nearly overcame her, but she pulled herself together, trying not to imagine the incredible contortions of her innards after becoming a mag.

“Don’t worry, Izzalia. I can show you how the Fjord can be adjusted.” Virgil winked.

“I can’t let you go through with it!”

Virgil sighed heavily. “You take after your mother, you know. She said the exact same thing all those years ago. And at the last moment too. Did seeing her dead change your mind? I could’ve hidden the body and recording, of course, but that’s the sort of thing she would’ve done. However, I learned not to take chances long ago.” He lifted a gnarled hand. In it was the sword-hilt relic. “Remember what happened last time you touched this?”

The blurry memories of Waypoint Town and the aftermath came back to her. For a moment, Izzie faltered, but she clenched her fists and said, “You killed Remera with that thing, didn’t you?”

He stood, set his feet in a fighting stance and held the sword at the ready.

It occurred to Izzie she’d never seen Virgil fight. On the pilgrimage, Izzie and Riku had taken care of every threat. After spending so much time in Waypoint Town, was he a match for her?

He charged, and pure instinct saved her: she lifted her knife to parry his blow. Her new body responded in different ways, she realized with dismay.

She stumbled to her knees and rolled to the side. He laughed wickedly and jabbed at her again. She barely ducked out of the way. Momentarily, her eyes caught sight of a subtle aura drifting through the air, in place of a blade. When she deflected it, a gash was rent between her feet, and the groove his blade gouged out of the Fjord’s stone floor sprouted bright mossy growths.

Flourishing her dagger, she thought the relic must interact somehow with his forest-god powers.

“Izzie, I don’t want to hurt you,” he grunted. “I want to work with you. We can heal the world together, father and daughter. Remember the Celestial Plane! Forests, beaches, snow! Think of the world we could share! Sure, we’d have to sacrifice the people of the Cauterhaugh. But in the forest, wildfires make way for new life. Something always has to be put on the pyre!”

Izzie wavered, suppressing blind rage.

“Make a decision!” he growled. “The Fjord awaits my final adjustments.”

You don’t have to choose darkness, a deep voice said, so faint that it rustled through her like a breeze. It had been so long since Omi had spoken to her, so long since her god had touched her heart that it took a second to recognize it for what it was.

Virgil narrowed his eyes. “Enough,” he sneered and lunged forward with the relic in his merciless grip.

Izzie closed her eyes and went into a trance. The sword hilt jutted from her abdomen. Though the blade was invisible, she could feel its pressure within her, splitting her consciousness. The beast form emerged immediately. But something had changed. The tattered wings were whole. The elegant claws were free of battle scars. Omi had appeared in her place, casting an elongated shadow. The goddess opened her gray eyes. A fiery light glared in their depths. Omi plucked the relic out and tossed it aside.

Virgil stood, gaping.

All he could do was transform. In three swift bounds the forest spirit lunged for the door, gracefully keeping its distance. Omi reached forward and touched the blinking control panels, then swept the whole machine into a jumbled pile with an enormous claw.

The Fjord rumbled, the floor tilted and Omi broke out of the room and into the madly swirling particles at its base. As she rode the diminishing blast of air upward, Izzie’s features emerged beneath the shimmering flesh of the goddess.

Proceed to Chapter 59...

Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich

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