Meltdown Part 3
The cold had arrived - sudden and unexpected, - completely out of season. The druid climbed up and down the observatory; each time they confirmed what seemed to defy the stars themselves. As much as it would disrupt their life, they had to move on. Carts came rolling, hunting huts abandoned; unreasonable weather demanded an unreasonable migration.
A tribe like their, so entrenched in feuds and traditions, had their share entanglements with their neighbors. Soon they too would feel the cold, soon they too would have to move on. They would have to be careless, they would have to rush so they could avoid the competition for camping sites. All while being stealthy, avoiding conflict when crossing lands claimed by their cousins.
Traveling by night and resting during the day, they counted the uneventful voyage a blessing. Soon they would come to realize that their silence was as unnatural as the flash frost.
They first found the cattle. Sickly sheep and horses with disturbing neck marks, cow after cow mutilated by a being of scythe-like claws.
They they found the people.
Diodorus sneezed for the eleventh time since the climb had started. He blew his snooty nose, cursing the willful creature that had dragged his unprepared ass to these forsaken peaks. Orcus had stormed through the window of the room he was in, causing quite the chaos inside that unfortunate Patavine inn. They blasted his head with images of Alpine ice and snowstorms, massive deluges and treacherous passes. Diodorus had half a mind of testing his restored power by punishing Orcus with a smoky blast, but it would have been petty and counter-productive. The beast was as determined as they were single minded.
Orcus loomed behind him, stoic and sturdy as Diodorus shriveled under a pelt cloak. Annoyed, the pirate captain asked Orcus what the deal was with that; Orcus answered the inquire by showing images of themselves, crouched in a clumsy fetal position - their skin was obsidian-black and disquietingly wrinkled, floating awkwardly through empty space. Diodorus guessed Orcus was trying to say they had endured worse. Orcus did not travel light; they dangled across their back some clay pots, tied with ropes and tightly sealed with tar, the heavy and thick fluid within complaining with deep glops as it was slung around. Diodorus was too anxious to even look at them, knowing the powerful energies trapped within the charges. Orcus had a veritable stash of rare components inside of their Underworld reserve, as well as the knowledge to put them to good use. The creature had sent Diodorus a careful, precise and insightful slide-show of every step of the alchemical process - prepared against any eventuality and mindful of the dangers the volatile compounds represented.
It was not enough that Orcus was a physical juggernaut, they had to be his intellectual peer too? Diodorus was starting to feel inadequate. All that stood between the creature and some impressive achievements were agile human-sized hands and two thumb’s
Orcus raised one of their sinewy gray limb,s showing Diodorus an imagine of the Magus slipping and hitting some rocks with his skill. Despise how dramatic they made the warning, it was still worth considering. The alpine peaks cried new springs into existence, ice giving way to slippery stone and moody pools. The distant and cruel Sun was of little comfort, making everything about the trek uncomfortable.
“What are we looking for, exactly?” Diodorus asked, receiving an image that instilled immediate regret. He remained silent until they reached the site, a reasonably even point within the mountain range. Once again the Sun revealed itself no friend of Diodorus; it had melted millennial snows, uncovering a nightmarish battlefield. Hundreds of corpses, barely decomposed, all of them displaying horrifying wounds despite carrying only spears and crude bows. The Magus first assumed this to be the tragic result of two ancient tribes competing over hunting grounds, but he soon found those assumptions corrected out of him. The weapons could not cause such wounds and which two wandering peoples would so utterly obliterate each other? This level of mutual assured destruction was the purview of the civilized.
Orcus signaled some fragile points underneath rocking foundations, indicating where the charges should be planted. While Diodorus was wondering the source of such urgency, Orcus made clear he should be covering his mouth with the cloak before proceeding. The picture of a deadly plague being carried by critters and the water into inhabited lands ,wiping entire communities; the purpose driving this enterprise was made clear. Growing increasingly familiar with Orcus’ unique brand of communication, Diodorus felt some sort of uneasiness from them. He wondered if it was possible to lie with a mental picture. If it was, it would probably look a lot like what he had just experienced.
But how much did he care, really? This mountain was Orcus self-declared duty and born from their paranoia. If they wanted to keep secrets, who was him to deny them that? Diodorus shrugged as he dug through mud and snow, planting the charges as indicated.
That was when he found the trail.
Another tale of death, this one stretched over torn chapters. The carcasses of animals, killed because they were too feeble or needed for food. The sick, elderly and fragile, failing the dangerous crossing. And the eerie ruins of a village, winking at him, hinting at the gory finale.
This had not happened that long ago.
And yet, Orcus did not seem worried about possible attackers hiding in the region. They kept working with renewed determination; they ignored the wandering Magus. Diodorus rushed, trying to follow the creature. Orcus took him to a massive ice wall. Something was trapped within, something that made even Orcus look feeble. It was an avian being, vaguely similar to a giant owl, with thick plumage and a mean beak. The hind legs had impressive musculature and ended in vicious talons as long as Spanish swords. The wings looked odd, twisted and broken. However, Diodorus doubted that even at their best they could face the full power of this murder bird.
The frozen thing made him feel like a mouse, the natural prey of the creature. It was a mercy that it was probably dead and trapped; it had not been the author of the massacre. Next to it was a hole, just as large as the one that held the being. Orcus projected an image of what the ice block was supposed to look like.
The bird had a mate.
“They are Stryxes.” The Magus frowned. “Do you plan to tell the others?”
Orcus seemed to hesitate, their pitch-black eyes lingering towards the distant wisp of smoke, rising from the crushed rocks and fallen snow. He showed Diodorus what each of the other Corvii was doing, the challenges they faced, the opposition that was raising to challenge the new Triumphant guardians of Rome. Their plate was quite full.
Then they showed themselves, alone, surrounded by terrors.
“You tricky bastard!” Diodorus laughed. “You did not want my help burying these, you wanted someone to keep your secrets! If you just wanted to torch the place you would get the Vestalis. We both know her gift and how good she would be on a situation like this. We also got a glimpse of what she is like - no way she would remain quiet. She would rat us out immediately and sound the alarm about the return of Stryxes.”
Orcus had a few selection of manifestations of panic. When the fear of chaos seemed to sterile and distasteful, they showed some of their previous interactions with Arpineia. Apparently the girl left them feeling quite uncomfortable; Diodorus shared the apprehension.
“I suppose there is something in trying to remove the threat quietly. We might avoid causing mass panic.” The Magus pondered strategy. “I will try to do some research, devise some measures. Can I trust you will keep an eye on their movements?”
“I have a condition; if anything happens, if anything changes, if they start massing armies or manipulating nation-states, we will come clean to the other Crows and go all out against the owls.”
The ancient being was worn out and eager to agree. No point in silent arguing.
Their work bloomed into a glorious explosion, powdered stone rising towards the sky, falling over the resting snow; the world was covered in whiteness, the violent ringing echoing across the range. Soon everything was buried by a rampaging avalanche - the ice cave with the stryx, the bloody trail, the ancient battlefield. All the way down to the ravaged village.
Diodorus waded carefully across the displaced reality, too restless to wait for Orcus or safer passage. Dust and water mixed, forming a shining path downward as they became bright ice. The light played with the broken minerals and suspended water; the resulting weird mist enshrouded the abandoned settlement. For the pirate, it was like entering another world.
The Greek slowed down, getting a feel for the obscured layout of the village. He kept looking at his feet, trying to avoid split tools and mutilated corpses. Diodorus was deep inside and unconsciously speeding up; realization snuck on him.
He turned back, as Orcus caught up with him, the creature gently using the gate of the Underworld to clear debris and mist.
“Where are all the corpses?” Diodorus asked, alone in the emptied streets.
Orcus inspected around the corners, picking clean the little evidence that remained of the brutal attack. They concluded with a message of broken bones and sucked marrow. Somehow, this was enough to put Diodorus at ease.
“Oh right, they were not whole. That is good, they can’t accomplish more than necromantic puppetry.” The Magus hesitated for a moment, arriving to the conclusion Orcus expected. “Limited autonomy and even more limited range; the other stryx can’t be that far away.”
They ran after the dead trail. Right into a snowstorm.
Right into a trap.
It cleared as fast as it had appeared, having succeed at sealing their retreat. Shambling corpses pulled from the sides. It was not only the fallen from the village; it was the frozen dead of another communities, wanderers, collectors and the lost. They closed the circle; a screech commanded them.
Diodorus extended his sight beyond the horde of the dead, seeking the avian mastermind. It was clearly another stryx, but a creature unlike the other. Svelte and towering albino bird, round feathers and an extra pair of bright insectival wings. Its eyes were intense and red, illuminating a cloud of infected moths and fireflies.
A final screech; it unfolded its wings like the sails of a ship, leaving them to deal with the dead and the snow.
High above the Sun continued to melt terrors down, uncaring for human tribulations.