Knowing Your Place Part 2
The trail was cold but Davinia burned with determination. She started with the ambush site, soaring across the sky and looking for where trees might have been recently cut. Planting a topographic flagstaff on every possible cutting site, she started looking for hideouts and nearby communities; she eliminated them one by one on the basis of elevation, primary and secondary sources of income and distance in Roman feet.
High in contemplative heavens, the loom of the former teen detective wove a tapestry of possible locations and the most viable routes between them. Davinia’s deductions had struck an early hurdle: the most practical and opportunists candidates where also the ones that would suffer the most from banditry; with their fields ripped apart by the roads, the lifeblood of the communities that formed Rome’s mouth was the southern Italian trade - if their village was not deemed safe, merchants would avoid stopping there. Immediate gratification would bring ruin to the entire community.
Davinia dared to form a more concrete hypothesis: if the bandits were from distant rural communities - or even an urban center deeper inland - they would have to walk long distances to reach Via Appia; that would take hours and returning and be even worse: they would have to drag the loot on their own, without the help of trails or oxen. Some sort of temporary hideout or drop point was essential. Such investment of time and effort would not make sense in a prosperous place without dramatic social inequalities; finding the best spots and keeping them hidden from wanderers and sheepherders requires an intimate relationship with the wilderness - and scouting and following marks required excellent tracking skills.
“You have the maps from the Temple that I left with you at hand, Sybil?” Promethia visualized on her head.
“I do, and made some additions of my own.” The mechanical oracle confirmed.
“Good, I need you to follow my position and point me towards villages lacking in arable land that complement their cattle with intensive hunting.”
Once again she took flight, eyes searching for anything interesting; she was seized by a lethargic mood, passively correcting her direction as Sybil suggested. She was stirred away from roads and rivers, deep into unruly hills where forests stole moisture from Aquilo’s meager aerial offerings and shared them with the parched earth.
Three figures caught her attention, running across the clearings, jumping and waving at her. It did not look like a trap, so she descended to meet them. It seemed to be three children, pointing and laughing as she approached.
“Are you sure that’s her?” The boy among them stopped running, out of breath.
“It has to be her! She looks just like me!” The girl on the lead kept her arm up, pointed at the approaching flaming Triumphant.
“Alba is right, she looks just like her.” The other girl agreed.
Promethia performed an impressive landing, drawing awe, shouting and clapping from the children. She rose with a warm breeze making her hair and scarf dance as she struck a pose.
“So, I seem to have caught you kids skipping work.” She teased with a smile.
“You did not caught us, we caught you!” The boy protested between heavy breaths.
“And you are wrong, we are hard at work.” The two girls were very proud of that fact.
“Is that so?” Promethia leaned. “Why don’t you show me what important task your parents gave you?”
Davinia followed the kids, earning a commentary from otherwise quiet Sybil.
“What are you doing, wasting time with these cubs?”
“Gaining favor with the locals. And don’t complain; they are children but they are the children of herders and hunters - natural explorers with the curiosity to find any secret.”
The three kids brought Promethia to a small hole in the ground: a former well, half-covered by a big slab and completely dry. Working together, they pushed a rope, recovering a long basket made of interwoven willow twigs. They uncovered the cork top, revealing a veritable stash of aromatic herbs, carefully picked arrow-head mushrooms, a mix of colorful berries protected by clever shells made from folding long leaves and grass.
“We have been foraging the entire day and got thaaaaat much.” The smallest girl explained to a very impressed Davinia.
“Have your parents sent you on your own? Are they not afraid of wild animals?”
“Nah, that is not a problem. Game has been hard to come by; they would actually welcome more beasts.”
“And we are the best around!” The oxen turned the mill of ideas; things were starting to fall in place.
“Are there more wells around here, where you might keep food hidden in shade?” The Triumphant asked.
“No, they have been either covered or collapsed on their own.”
“Did your village dig them?”
“No, they are from the haunted town.” The boy let it slip, hovering his mouth with both hands in shame. The girls started hitting him for the infraction.
The girl that seemed to see herself staring back from Promethia’s position swung back and forth, embarrassed and guilty. She did not resist long.
“Aqua Soterra, they called it. It is the only place our parents tell us to avoid. It was a happy village built upon a powerful underground spirit. But they insulted the mighty spirit, causing I to leave. The waters disappeared suddenly, the emptiness they left sinking the houses and farms. Only ghosts still live there.”
Caves, tunnels and a ill-fortuned place that people would rather avoid. Davinia was confident that she had found her hideout; the children kept talking, the younger girl screeching louder than the others.
“It is not only ghosts, on the barrow there is a sheepherder!”
“Stop lying!” The boy tried to bully her into silence.
“She never lies, you are the liar! You are always the liar! If she says the Gray Sheepherder is real, it is real.”
“Wait, Gray Sheepherder?” Sybil told Promethia. She ignored the oracle; as if she was not already going to investigate that lead.
“Take me to the old tumulus where you have seen that sheepherder.”
“I was right, you are a liar.” The boy announced with pride, head peeking from beneath a bush. The two other girls piled on him, delivering punishment. “There is no shepherd, gray or otherwise.”
“There is a herder and a herd implies a herder.” They defended themselves, pointing at the animals grazing between the ruins.
“No, he is right.” The smallest agreed. “They are not sheep, they are goats.”
Davinia raised both hands to her eyes, narrowing the field of view.
“Yes, those are definitely goats.” She patted both girls before advancing. “I guess Gray Goatherder does not have quite the same jounce. Stay back, I will take a closer look.”
She made her way to the top as quiet as she could, at the very least trying to keep the animals calm. Such a high minded opinion she had of herself; the goats did pay attention to anything else as long as there were thorns and dried bushes to be consumed. Promethia stopped beneath the biggest tree - an old being, the only real shadow that was not cast by sad rocks.
She bowed to look at the grass: squashed, warm; something big had been sitting there not long ago - and it had not been a goat. The woman looked up, the wind moving something hanging from the branches. She tapped into her Triumph, lifting herself up and grabbing what she found to be a straw hat. It was well-made and quite large; she inspected it carefully, following the twisting pattern with her fingers. Davinia frowned, picking up something stuck between two curving straws; a golden hair. Not dyed, sun-scorched or bleached - a healthy pale sunbeam. Now that was something rare.
Something stirred inside the ruins, a claw and bearded tentacles lazily stretching towards the Sun.
“It is them.”
Orcus circled around the tree, impossibly fast for such mess of limbs and tentacles; Promethia gasped and reflexively wreathed herself on fire. Davinia’s heart raced and she was almost seized by panic; she could feel her edifices of reason crumbling one by one - soon she would have to attack or flee.
“Calm down, Vestalis. You hold too much power to have the luxury of acting lax.”
“That is the monster that attacked me in the tombs of Alba Longa.” Nervous sweat stained the woman’s uniform. “I cannot believe it is real. If that is true, then everything that happened there was real. Is Egeria real? Did she held me on her arms? Did I really stole the flame? I… have to do something, anything; I’m losing control.”
Sparks and an irregular and distressing blue flame of impossible geometries drew a maze between her and Orcus, finally drawing panicked reaction from the goats. This shook Promethia enough that she convinced herself that survival required calm restraint. Making that a reality would be the challenge.
“You know the monster that dragged you into this had red hair and no tentacles.” Sybil pointed out. She was as nervous as a mechanical being could be; she was only now realizing how much mental abuse Davinia had been keeping in check. Stress and trauma were finally rearing their inevitable head. “Let them show you. Open your mind like you did to me.”
“What in Dis are you going on about?” Davinia released a mental squeal as Orcus kept moving around; they were too dangerous to stay unrestrained. She started sending jets of hot air and burning dried patches of grass, performing her classical battlefield pacification maneuver in an attempt to herd Orcus away from her and the children. Too bad that heat alone was not enough to faze the creature. She forced escalation through a jet of flame.
Immediate regret. Orcus rushed at her, forcing her to take flight and unleash two crossed arc of flame. Tentacles reached to grab the Triumphant and she had to dodge a claw. There was no more space for doubt; it had become a fight.
“They can only communicate by sending images into your mind.” Sybil warned. “Let it happen.”
“No, I think they can communicate only by fighting. I don’t feel anything.”
“Do not bother pretending insolence and scorn; I know you are barely keeping yourself together.” The Sybil distracted Arpineia, forcing her to dive violently to the ground to avoid a vicious slash. “You were frustrated and careless and hurt them. They are not used to that. They are such as afraid as you. Do not let your spark run amok or the Triumph you hold will consume you. You both started on the wrong foot; don’t let that define your relationship. What you do with your mistakes is what matters, not doing them.”
Promethia stopped being afraid; anger was all she was. Angry at Sybil, angry at the gray titan, angry at the Senate, angry at Lidia. She pulled herself up, lowered her head and shook her shoulders up and down. She raised her fists and punched emptiness, using the flurry of movements to whip and swing a flamestorm at Orcus. The creature was forced into a defensive stance, their confusion growing more apparent at each blow. Sybil was astonished, finally understanding the situation.
“Promethia, they are unable to recognize you! And they cannot show you anything either. It is amazing; your chthonic awakening and their disturbed nature seem to interfere with each other in an unseen, unexpected way. Please, Vestalis, stop this non-sense. Remember who you are, a spirit of rational inquiring.”
Davinia relented - just a bit, not enough to dispel ambiguity about her intention. Orcus saw a breach and embraced it, detaching its jaw and preparing to devour Promethia. The earth rumbled. Sybil would hold her breath if she could; the dead would tear Davinia apart.
A rock struck Davinia on her shoulder, a branch fell into Orcus’ maw. The three kids were rushing in, throwing anything they had at them. They joined the brawl. Promethia gave them a protective half-glance; to her surprise she found it reflected on Orcus’ black pools.
“It cannot be helped.” She said, shaking her head while hugging the charging boy. “Kids do come in all sizes.”
Orcus juggled the screeching girls between their arms.
“Sometimes millennia are not enough time to grow up.” Sybil commented. “Davinia, do I have to get a heart just so you can make it stop?”