Athena had read up on El Ávila National Park as she left the city, before she completely lost cellphone service. One thing she had found interesting was the park’s biodiversity – Wikipedia had informed her it has over five hundred bird species, a hundred and twenty mammal species, twenty amphibians, and thirty reptiles, on top of eighteen hundred different plants.
As interesting as Athena found that factoid, she was reasonably certain that cockatrices were not a normal part of the local ecosystem.
Mythology had come to describe the cockatrice as a two-legged dragon with the head of a rooster, but the reality was far closer to the terror bird. The one that Athena watched eating the ossified corpse of some now indistinguishable animal was as tall as she would be standing on her own shoulders. It had bright red and yellow plumage. She was certain there was some green in its feathers, but did not want to risk looking too closely to be certain.
After all, if she met its gaze, she would be turned into bone and devoured, same as its current prey. She was just getting ready to try creeping around where it was feeding when it raised its head and angrily asked the forest “Boooooraaaaaaaaak?” When the trees did not respond to its inquiry, it turned back to feeding.
Athena didn’t think the creature was one of Moloch’s, just a monster unleashed by Arthur’s deal with the Archangel Michael. A deadly predator set upon the Earth because the King of Hell had been bored when he was a mortal. Such things were becoming common in the more natural parts of the world and spreading into the cities.
Entering El Ávila was trickier than usual for that very reason. Between the threat of wandering monsters and the growing cult of Moloch, public traffic had been cut off entirely, and the military was blocking the normal points of entrance. Athena had seen a young couple attempt to sneak past the soldiers blocking off the area.
The military had fired a few rounds as a warning over the couple’s heads, and then soldiers had descended upon them. They’d torn into the couple’s bags with the gentle care of a wolf with a rabbit’s carcass, and when they’d found a pair of black robes within the pair had been cuffed and hauled off on suspicion of association with the cult of Moloch.
Not wanting to try where the soldiers were already on alert, Athena had walked further to the west. There, she had seen a different group of soldiers had fired blindly into rustling bushes. Whatever they had shot at let out an unearthly howl, prompting several explosive rounds to be dispensed by a nearby tank. The military’s strategy began to become clear to Athena – given the presence of literal monsters with supernatural abilities, they were keeping the park clear of humans and assuming any movement was hostile.
A rather cold tactic, one that put innocent lives in danger. Given what some mythic creatures were capable of however, Athena couldn’t entirely fault them. Many creatures, such as the one now cracking chunks of bone that had been flesh between its massive beak, could kill or incapacitate on sight. Safer for the soldiers to shoot first, and wait to make inquires.
Safer, but damned inconvenient for Athena. At full power she could survive the rifle fire, but those tank rounds would blow her apart. With the clock ticking, she didn’t have time to test the entire edge of the park for holes in the security. Instead, she burned some of her stored power to render herself invisible and intangible so she could dash as far into the woods possible. It was an easy trick, but she felt every second she spent in that state – she had to be sure to conserve enough power over this trip to use the same trick to exit the woods.
She’d dropped the shroud when she’d seen the cockatrice ahead. It would easily see her even with the protection, and the fact that it was alive and hunting meant she was safely out of the military’s range.
Now that it seemed again intent on its food, she started to edge around it again. She’d slain a couple cockatrices in her day, but it was always a dangerous prospect even at full power.
“Kaaaawooook?” it asked, popping its head up, and she had to freeze again. What is it sensing? Cockatrices were not known for being easily distracted from their meals. In fact, Athena could only think of two things that would distract them more than once – a mate in heat, or a predator it actually feared.
She shrunk back further into the trees as the bushes began to rustle in front of the cockatrice. Looks like I’ll be getting an answer soon. She took a deep breath, readying herself for whatever might be emerging from those woods.
She kept that breath held as Moloch stepped out, leaning on a staff.
“Well, what do we have here?”