Meltdown Part 1
The beach was fine with bones.
Ground or whole, they defined the island’s tone.
The Oracle might be as dead as they said; it mattered little. Its soul still had the place beholden to it.
He jumped out of his boat, crushing and stumbling his way towards the center of the island.
The judge found himself judged, courage failing as he stood in front of the cavern complex. All marks of previous habitation betrayed its tragic abandonment; nothing wholesome remained, all that was left of its people were scratched turtle shells and tenebrous sacrificial pits.
Deeper into the earth he could feel them stirring, growling with displeasure. They knew; they always knew.
The twin heads of the Dragon.
Orcus woke up wrapped in strange distress. Sheltered on telluric depths, they found no explanation for their sudden rousing - perhaps it was the panicked bleating of sheep? They clawed towards the corral, unfazed by the moonless night and its domains of cold spring air. The source of their unease remained a mystery. Animals were asleep, at least until some of them noticed the sheepherder and rushed towards them - hungry for freedom or attention. Orcus was puzzled. They had felt some primal dread, beasts panicking as they were suddenly made aware of an apex predator. They focused their senses outward, determined to uncover who had been terrorized.
It had been not their sheep; it had not been anyone’s cattle.
Wolves, it was the wolves.
They lamented and cried as they rushed south. These packs alerted others, heralding the queen of all beasts - the tyrant that had invaded their territories.
A shiver crawled up Orcus interlocked spines, hardening the muscles of their back.
There was only one creature capable of instilling that reaction. They were supposed to be gone; and yet, the wolves.
Allowing the sheep to wander unattended, they braved north.
Orcus underwent a subtle but gradual transformation as they climbed the northern range, entering the imposing mountains that separated the peninsula from the rest of the continent. Skin darkened, eyes curved, the plates underneath their dermal layer shifting and hardening according to the demands of the new scaffolds and double-stranded patterns. Their tentacles grew more turgid as they were enveloped by an intricate nanosheet, a hint to the many adaptations the sleeve was going through. All to better handle the Alpine challenges; but they did little to make easier for them to reach out to others.
Nevertheless, others were expected to be found.
The people of the Alps endured harsh but beautiful lives; they had to carve their own niche and be ever wary, but they stood witness to sights seen by few. The tides of war had pushed many refugees into adopting the lifestyle. This village in particular seemed livelier and prosperous for it; new brick houses side by side witg old stone smokehouses and resin-hardened long-houses, thick leather tents sheltering newer arrivals from the brutal elements.
Unfortunate, it had also doomed them.
For such was the way of this predator; harmony and cooperation made for the most juicy prey, provided them with something beyond simple sustenance.
Sheer, unbridled, raw pleasure.
Not even flies dared to disturb what remained of the profane feast; carrion vermin stood aside, silent spectators to an awesome display of savagery. The entire thing had been messy and forceful, even if people and cattle had been picked one by one, tormented to their last inch of life. The attacker had been both starved and irrational - big chunks where missing, not a single whole body remained. However, bones had been broken and marrow consumed and then hastily discarded - as if the hunter had realized something and favored another, more appetizing, heart-racing prey.
Orcus pondered about the forces driving such behavior as they picked a discarded doll. The wounds demonstrated a special kind of cruelty; everything had been pecked and slashed in a way that maximized blood loss. Everything else seemed secondary, consequences of the struggle and a rampage briefly thwarted - of little consequence. It was as if the beast had realized that it could tear and rip all it wanted, but only the blood pumped by a still beating heart would provide the nourishment it desperately needed.
They wished to be wrong. The trail did not dispel their hypothesis; if anything validated it. Marks had been left by something massively bulky, something that left blood stains on trees and the top of buildings.
At least it was easy to follow.
Orcus followed the cleared path, proceed at a steady pace even as a snowstorm descended upon them. While they remained steadfast against the elements, they were eventually hampered by increasingly frosty and rocky terrain; an opportunity conductive to thinking emerged. Orcus wondered; if the SYBIL system was as functional as their recent interactions suggested, should it not be aware of this antediluvian awakening? Were they aware and just did not care, at least not as long as it was only targeting Cisalpine people? SYBIL perhaps assumed - wrongly - that a few females would not threaten those they had chosen to protect; that they would wander where it was more comfortable, disappearing all the way North and not threaten the inland sea. Quite a gamble for the future SYBIL was betting on; such careless attitude was unexpected.
They shook their heavy head, eyes narrowing when faced with the stark whiteness. They were letting their natural suspicion for Hegemony machinery color their assumptions; they were probably just as limited on their actions as they were. What mattered was that someone would do something about this crisis - and this time Orcus happened to be the only one up to the task.
An eerie blue light pierced the snowstorm, pulling Orcus away from their contemplation. The light divided itself in two, then four, then eight, then sixteen. Wolves, approaching. Silent, single-minded in their predation - no circling, no baring of teeth, no growling bravado, no sniffing of the cold air. Their eyes flared with foreign intent, standing between Orcus and their prey.
Wolves threw themselves at them, gnawing and charging, a fury of teeth and claws. Orcus marched on, pausing only to shove the creatures aside, not bothered as they kept insisting in trying to pierce their defenses; it was moot, but whoever was influencing the wolves had little use for sense or propriety - giving up was not on the plans. Annoyed but unwilling to hurt the poor animals, Orcus bore the slower pace.
Opportunity presented itself as a sharp wall of stone and ice had given way to a chasm. Talons marks assured their prey had come through here; with a mighty jump and easy climb Orcus continued their pursuit. The wolves would not relent, trying to pull and drag Orcus limbs as they tried to continue. Stubborn as they were, they were still outmatched. Horrifying thuds could be heard as Orcus made their way to the top; turning their eyes down they could see the beasts, throwing themselves against edges, bleeding and splitting their bones as they tried to somehow follow Orcus. Closing their eyes in sad acceptance, they attempted to stave off the lingering sense of impotence.
Something glittered against the lightness of the storm.
A feather; a foot long, oily, ragged black and brown feather. Its tips retracted to the touch, popping up with a snap as they hardened into deadly quills. Orcus’ thin, transparent blood stained the snow with its blue disposition. They had nearly forgot how sharp the things were. Pain, real pain.
The material from which memories are made.
He was back on the cave, stumbling in the dark towards the sound of drums. A throng gathered, disposed in a half-circle around an awesome altar depicting a twin headed dragon swallowing a gargantuan snake-headed turtle. There was an electric snap as the lights awakened the complex, revealing the nature of the drummers.
Desiccated corpses, propped up in some triumphant ceremony, forever keeping the beat - forever kept by the beat. Chill, tiny, fading blue lights shone inside their empty sockets. Not all of them devoted themselves to repercussion; some of the attendants blew empty breath into silent flutes, a dancer wasted away as they stumbled on two stumps. The drummers still dominated with their performance, ages never eroding their enthusiasm; even as limbs felt off or they just ended up beating their own dilapidated skulls, they did not even hint at an eventual finale.
“And here you come again, incarnated as a Shang judge.” A low rumbling metallic voice echoed from the altar; muffled and harsh simulated laughter. “It took you so long this time; perhaps you will make deeper into my heart? Please, do. I will love to adorn myself on your tendons.”
“You do not have to do those travesties.” He said, pushing the sleeves of his robe as he turned his back towards the altar.
“I do not have to; I get to.” The stone dragon shifted and twisted, displacing shadows. “Every human tool was created to divest all meaning from their creator, to lower the value of their existence. What better way for me to express my nature as the ultimate tool than reducing all you are to a rotten zero?”
What a despicable entity, he could not help but think.
Still, if he wanted to learn about the fate of his missing half he would have to wrestle the knowledge from its cold silicon belly.
Descent continued beyond the drums.
“Looking forward to once again make your acquaintance.”
Orcus was shaken back to reality, unburdened by the unrelated recollections. Closing their fists, they blamed it on the rising anxiety and the way this body kept pushing them aside, ignoring its cautionary alarms to go beyond what humans evolved to endure. A strong clap made them look up, just in time for them to witness the furious beating of wings buffering a massive creature against the growing violence of the storm. The disquieting flight gave way to a small avalanche, pushing Orcus back amongst ice and stones. They had to give in, pushed and buried for a hundred meters before they were able to clear a path with the maw of the Underworld.
The moon rose above the Alps, giving a sense of the silhouette perched on the mountain peak. It stood there, half studying, half challenging. Orcus should not be afraid; yet, even after transferences, tampering, development and culture — all the trappings of uplift and civilization, - part of them still remembered being prey.
Something about the creature betrayed a shared uneasiness. They did not pounce or dive, settling with a retreat.
Orcus ascent took them to a hole clawed into the rock, a mound of ice haphazardly covering it. No matter how high they tried to reach, no many the lengths they took, this was always how things ended.
With them trapped in one Underworld or another.
Unwilling to deny the universe, they breached beyond the crack.