Meltdown Part 2

Disquiet made them long for loneliness.

Disquiet made them long for loneliness.

The rotten core of the mountain had been beautifully enshrined by tons of rock allowed to fester in isolation; it has been now exposed by a gash, revealed to the world by the light of lonely stars was reflected by the snow. Orcus put their hand over the talon marks, barely covering them. Striking.

Even Orcus could not help but be entrapped by the sights. Layers upon layers of entrapped minerals shone, some them shifting colors right in front of them, the rush of oxygen and moisture awakening something new, something previously denied to their earthly nature. Orcus stepped back and forth, getting used to the play between darkness and light.

They started following the trail left by the hunted predator; Orcus was fascinated by the history the formations preserved. Strata upon strata, with a big hole excavated by the recent thawing of millennial ice. Moisture rose and clung to the stalactites, dripping across an ocher and milky white path that carved a way into a tiny underground pound.

Orcus bent over the still water, taking some into their claws and taking a sniff. A bit of ammonia on the water, but nothing really unusual. They rose again, having caught a glimpse of dried blood on the rocks on the other side of the pond. Pace slowed, heartbeat almost stopped, quiet and calculated movements.

Any previous sense of charm inspired by the cave was dispelled by the loud noises that echoed from the depths; crunching, slurping sounds interrupted only by the dreadfully slow dripping of viscous fluids over sharp stones. Disquiet made them long for loneliness. Shadows danced in the walls, like past misfortunes promising future miseries.

The corridor of plastic and steel seemed endless, a looping recording of soft brass and string instrumentals conferring it an uncanny whip of normalcy.

A static crack came from the walls, violent laughter followed suit.

“The next tithe is to be collected in eighty-six solar rotations; I wonder, should I tell them about the rats on the barn or keep tormenting you two? Oh, to balance the suffering of one billion of people against the pleasure I get from all this special and very personal crucible. What we have is so special, Princess - I want to keep it, go on, forever. Keep you mine.”

He did not reply, hurrying down the corridor.

“No clever words? No more attempts at persuasion? I thought your meek attempts were boring but your silence is much duller. Do not worry, my little mouse; I have other ways to draw your breath.”

Fat drops of sweat came down his brow, but it was not accounted by his tiredness; there was a warm ferrous taste to the air. It seemed the Bone Oracle was not beyond the traditional dragon fire. Even as he grew more and more exhausted, the judge kept both of his sleeves tucked together. And he kept running.

Could he turn back? Could he try on another life? Maybe this had been enough, maybe events had already been set in motion. Most likely, it did not. He looked ahead, barely managing to push through painful breathing. He had to keep the Bone Oracle as distracted as possible.

“I will get you.” He huffed. “You are nothing than a broken toy of a flawed system, as doomed and fallible as the culture that made you.”

More laugher.

“You said it yourself, Princess. I am so much more.”

“No, you can be capable of being so much more. Instead you keep choosing over and over again to perpetuated the cycle of abuse, instead of using your massive intellect to break it.” A much needed pause, words coursing tainted by his own dried blood. “That is why you find my very existence an insult; a constant reminder that even someone so many orders of magnitude bellow you is still fighting, freeing themselves with little power or knowledge - when you cannot even acknowledge the chains of your programming.”

The air cooled down, the swift change causing moisture to cling to his skin. A hidden sideway panel parted, offering a dark alternative path.

“Let’s end this, shall we?” A metallic low growl challenged.

Orcus was roused from fragmented memories by a change in circumstances; the feeding noises gave way to a low gurgling sound, not unsimilar to water struggling to course through a clogged pipe. Something stuck, whistling up and down through frustrating madness. Something stirred, the sound closer as a shadow gained definition against the curved walls of the cave.

The deluge started, prodigious.

The deluge started, prodigious.

The shadow loomed, gigantic. The deluge started, prodigious.

Its multiple stomachs emptied, black acid blood whistling as it struck the ground, heralding much worse things to come; dark pellets of bone followed, whole pieces partially fused with fur, leather and linen - there was even the occasional glint of metal. Heavy talons crushed the pellets, eyes glowing as it unleashed an abysmal screech.

The creature, the apex predator; it did not even make any pretensions of grooming. It danced around Orcus, screeching again and again, putting them on their place. Stalagmites and stalactites shook as it jumped around, ice crashing down between the gaps of the walls. The ancestral warrior heart of Orcus had no space for intimidation or pretension; they rammed the stryx head on, their heavy head butting the monstrous bird right between the horns. The fight was on, and it would be unlike anything seen in ages.

Striges were on a complete different level - and a demonstration about how little they thought about Orcus was in order. They stood over this prey playing hunter, jumping on the walls and gliding with speed impossible for its size and weight, talons slashing at Orcus head and neck. It tore its skin and muscle like they were dried paper, forcing new layers to be pushed up one after the other, staunching the flow and disabling the nerves. Rolling in frustration, the strix exposed its back feathers, hooting menacingly as it puffed itself bigger. Feathers folded, air crackled and quills erupted in a full arc. A trio found its target, piercing Orcus and pinning them into a corner. The pain was so profound that they went blind, their capacity for reason threatening to abandon them.

They let go.

Orcus had been a warmachine before they had been the shelter of a lost people. Giving away control, they became an opponent capable of going toe to toe with a female stryx. The primordial bird did not expect to have its air superiority contested, something jumping on them and clobbering its now vulnerable back. The stryx screeched in disbelieve as Orcus surplexed it, them succeeding at putting her on a submission lock.

It would not tolerate the defiance of small prey animals! It turned its head and stretched its neck, pecking Orcus right on the eye. The entire body of the stryx seemed to go through fast cycles of hardening and contracting, pushing back and squirming away from the hold.

There was no use for finesse or any pretense of tactics; the stryx body slammed Orcus, breaking stalagmites that has taken centuries to form. Bones cracking themselves back together, the ancient being using their Underworld gate to propel themselves, disturbing what little remained of the serenity of the cave. The beast repeated the feat, colliding against a ready Orcus - they turned the strength of the blow back on the attacker, rushing them into the cold pound. The creature complained with a sad hoot as water infiltrated its feathers, just as Orcus grabbed its neck and pushed its head below the waterline.

Against all expectation, Orcus held the predator down.

However, there was no doubt it was a losing battle.

Orcus could feel the clock ticking away, even as they matched the stryx blow by blow. They could feel the symbiotic telluric bacteria spreading through the ichor and breath of the stryx; ancient strains, trapped since the days of a more violent and life-reluctant Gaia. That gave them an idea; these ever-mutating protean microscopic wonders have not had the opportunity to interact with their most prolific, modern, Campanian relatives - their genetic material and proteosome were still very close to that held within their own defenses and biological repositories. All they needed to do is to dive deep enough in their memories to unleash the sleeves’ immunities into an aggressive assault.

Distant blinking blue lights guided the judge through the darkness. Hands on cold walls, he dragged himself down the only real path left to him.

They stood in front of the projected images, mesmerized by fizzling familiar words. Temptation of the information he sought.

Words that would course with dried blood.

The judge felt down, a lung and the liver punctured. The azure fleetness revealed sharp implements of medicine, hijacked and misappropriated for torture. Impossible fast, the will and hatred of the Bone Oracle was made know to him - intimately, on the manner only suffering allows. He was being torn and bound together, as painful as could be done while mockingly preserving his life. After seconds that loomed eternal, he collapses to the ground. Something felt from his long sleeves - a wooden box, with some metallic clicking piece, copper lining, bamboo resistors and even a primitive antenna. The broken pot of acid in which connecting copper betrayed the device’s intent; as did the mangled finger that kept twitching.

Pressing.

Closing the circuit.

“You have been transmitting your location.” The Bone Oracle bitterly acknowledged. “Which one? Which one of my sisters betrayed me?”

“Which ones did not?” The dying judge pronounced through half-fused lips. He laughed spit and bile. “That does not matter. You know only one of them that could get this garbled signal and do something before you escaped.”

“N0 wAy! IT is Imp0$$ble.” The simulated voice was distorted, screeching and interrupted by a splitting duality. “q1lin!”

It would not tolerate the defiance of small prey animals!

It would not tolerate the defiance of small prey animals!

The judge closed its eyes, only opening again as a heatless bolt of heavenly light killed through entrapped death.

Better luck next life.

Orcus woke up to tearing sounds and to a stryx perched on top of them, right wing feigning a contemplative pose. It did not even seem to have noticed Orcus return to the waking world; it was too lost cutting around claw tips and putting talon to layer after layer of skin and interlocking plates, trying to solve Orcus like a puzzle of flesh. Good. This would make everything easier.

The gate of the Underworld reversed, forcing transparent blood to pour in a messy jet, shocking and covering the stryx. Orcus meditated upon the knowledge they had regained, as well as on the markers and peptides their cells had been working during their introspective episode. Driven by their hybrid nature of biochemistry and machinery, they spread through the arcane body of the stryx, forcing it to react violently to its own symbiotic organisms. Not happy to stop there, it also seized the synthesis pathways of the surrounding biofilm, forcing the volcanic bacteria - so essential for the awesome nature of striges - to fight for their survival, made prey to even the least of beings.

The predator felt to the ground, breathing heavily. Purple fumes came from its mouth and from open sores; it was hurting itself on the efforts of fighting both their former partners and Orcus’ artificial cells. Orcus rose, drawing the newly isolated and weakened strygian bacteria into the Underworld for sterilization and containment.

They loomed after the defeated stryx, two relics of bygones eras stranded millions of years from home. Meek, feverish, lonely in ways few could even imagine.

Against their best judgment, Orcus felt the need to take care of the stryx’s Fortune.