[AZ] Through the Mud & Cleaned
The rain drummed on the roof of the vehicle, its tires crunching against the gravel and clumps of dirt. The ground had just begun to disintegrate into mud, sticking to the treads in their ATV, slowing them further. Visibility had dropped; Libra couldn't see more than a yard past the windshield, the rain an impenetrable sheet of blackness. The headlights could do nothing but discolor the falling water white.
"Wonderful," he dully muttered, leaning back, the chair creaking. "Is there any monster you know of that emerges during torrential downpours, Acquie?"
Aquarius, fingers curled on the wheel, frowned as he leaned closer to the windshield. "Not that I know of, sir, really. We're not close enough to any bodies of water to attract anything that can tolerate this."
Libra sighed softly, lifting two fingers to press into his temple. His magic shuddered, the sensation of it crawling forth from him enough to send a shiver down his spine. His mental map of their path, completely immaculate and detailed, appeared in his mind's eye. Of course, the pathing collapsed as soon as they'd entered the Plains - but he could estimate, vaguely, how many turns they'd taken, and if his memory of the Plains prior the leak was correct....
He lowered his hand as full clarity faded from his mind. A minor headache had settled in. Libra was well aware the effects of using magic too close to the leak, but how else was he to get his charges to a safe location? They required his guidance.
Aquarius glanced at him from the sides of his eyes. There was a twinge of fear that the other normally did not hold in his gaze, his knuckles slightly white from his tight grip. See? They were fearful, terrified of what they may find. He could soothe their worries.
"Make a u-turn, then veer sou-to the right," Libra instructed, tapping the dashboard.
Aquarius gave a nod, adjusting the vehicle's clutch and then spinning the wheel. Mud kicked up to the sides of the car, the inhabitants thankfully saved by sheets of metal and glass. One did not strut into the Untamed Plains completely defenseless, of course. With a few more seconds of churning up dirt, they turned 'round, and then Aquarius swerved right.
"It just set in so fast," Cosmia piped up, from the backseat. Libra tilted his head back to acknowledge the mortal. "My radar didn't even pick it up on our way in, and the clouds looked normal!"
"It isn't the leak itself, right, Libra?" Aquarius asked, voice raising a few octaves.
He smiled at his two underlings. Ah, the fear of everything that lay before them. He was tempered to it, but his comrades still quaked in terror, the emotion overcoming their senses. "We were only driving for thirty minutes. Spatial distortion has not yet been discovered, I do not think."
"It's not out of the question. Something could have teleported us closer."
Libra raised an eyebrow, although not mockingly. It was a strange sensation, to be untrusted, but he was not ignorant to it. He merely had to prove his point, settle Aquarius' blood pressure before the other had a heart attack whilst driving. It would do them all no good to have to push the car the entire way to the next checkpoint, through the mud after the rain let up.
"Well, here," he began, reaching to press a button on his door. "I will show you."
"Libra, sir, what are you-"
At the click, the window rolled down, the sound of the rain deafening and drowning out Aquarius' startled shriek. Libra reached a hand out into the darkness, the water dropping into his palm and harmlessly dripping off the sides. The sudden wetness soaked his fur through, coating the lower arm of his dress shirt. Ah, he'd have to remind Deluge to run it through the dryer for him later.
But, it was merely rain. He brought his water-filled palm to Aquarius, whose horrified expression melted into dubious. "Behold," Libra said, a smile on his features.
Aquarius' eyes flicked up, even though he didn't lift his head. "If that had been the leak you would've been super fucked. Pardon my language, sir."
"I knew it wasn't," he said, calmly, reaching his hand back out the window to dump the handful of rainwater. "Therefore I had no fear. I do not let the unknown control me."
"Okay, sir," Aquarius mumbled, sitting back in his chair. "How much longer do I need to drive?"
Libra closed his eyes, pulling forth his mental map once more. The continent splayed out before him, the ruins of old cities still stark in his mind, the evacuated emptiness that now laid over a third of what had once been his lands. Far to the west laid Gloss River, the last bastion of defense that he now held against the encroaching disease. The first checkpoint, he knew, was perimiles east of Gloss, buried near the skeleton of an ancient urban sprawl.
"Turn left here," he muttered, letting the memory recall spell dissipate. The headache had fully settled in, now, right in the front of his skull. Quietly, he reached into a pocket to procure a small bottle of pills.
Cosmia helpfully reached forwards to offer a water bottle. Libra accepted it, downing two of the medicine before storing it away again.
"Will you need a refill when we get back to Ferallax?" Cosmia asked, peeking forwards, hands on his cheeks.
Libra glanced down at his pocket. "We'll see how much I need on this trip."
There rested between the three an uneasy silence. Noises filled the spaces around them - the hum of the engine, the vibrations of the rain, the occasional sliding wetness as the vehicle dipped into a larger puddle. It was almost rhythmic, a silent, forgotten pounding in Libra's ears as they marched ever-closer to the checkpoint, through the mire and the torrent.
Despite the fact that they traveled on what had once been a well-worn road, nature had clearly taken its course. Vines and trees had long since overgrown the asphalt, the tires dipping every time they caught on one. Though the rain obscured the sight, Libra knew well enough by now how the asphalt had shattered, roots curling around it and breaking into into rock-sized pieces. They'd had to come through every few months to pry the old material free and pitch it into the drainage systems, at least keeping the path to the checkpoint clear.
He was not curious of how the rest of the Plains had fared. If the wilds had so quickly reclaimed what had once been his primary highway, the primary way of travel for those unwilling or unable to teleport... the quiet fields and rolling hills that had provided his cities with beautiful views were probably caked in danger, overgrowth, and corpses.
"Will we have to stop and wait for the rain to clear?" Cosmia asked, shifting in the backseat.
"No. I know how to get back."
Aquarius coughed into his elbow. "Where are we now, Libra?"
He peered out the window, although the rain was still too thick to see through. Calling up the map now would be a waste of energy. His eyes flicked to the clock on the radio, slowly ticking on. They'd been driving east for only a handful of minutes, which would've placed them...
"In the old solar arrays." Libra shifted as he sat up a little firmer. "Farms of solar panels we'd set up to catch the sun's rays whenever it would emerge. This was the flattest plain we had, and it was government-owned land. Haha, fancy that. A time when that word meant something."
"Are they still around?" Cosmia asked, placing his chin on the shoulder of Libra's chair.
He reached to pat their antennae. "In pieces, perhaps. They were built to require little maintenance, to be as primarily independent as possible. A few may have survived the leak, but I imagine a good amount have been broken by weather or animal. After all, if I were a beast, I would indeed attack any shiny thing I laid my eyes upon."
"What were they constructed of?"
"Primarily a mixture of gadrium alloys and several silicon variants. They were somewhat expensive to produce, but well... we had more stars in those days. They just had to tell me the formula and I could generate for them whatever mixtures they needed. I suppose I could have constructed the panels themselves. Alas, my engineers insisted on that part themselves. They were dedicated people. I look upon them with fondness."
Cosmia made an appropriate awed noise, eyes wide. "How big were the arrays?"
"They weren't our largest farm. Under a dozen square perimiles? They were enough to supply Cadavenza, however. More than enough, really. Power usage shot up after the array was installed, likely because the energy rations had been lifted. We had a tax on electric usage for a long time."
"I remember that," Aquarius piped up, adjusting the wheel to avoid something Libra couldn't make out. "Something like nine hundred kilowatts a month per household? Every kilowatt above was like, half of an equan, rounded up on the utility bill afterwards."
"We had to hire on a few more interns to triple-check the books and spreadsheets of energy consumption," Libra reminisced, tapping the armrest with a finger thoughtfully. "People were very grateful when the arrays allowed us to produce ample electricity. Before, we were struggling to produce it through cores. I believe most of our core research was stolen by Kallise after we settled in to solar power, however. Do they get enough sun for solar?"
Aquarius narrowed his eyes. "I don't think so, no. They don't have a lot of room for big arrays, either. Guess you'd have to put them on top of buildings?"
"Yes, I believe so. We were planning on building an ever bigger array in the center of the desert before the... leak. It was going to power the nation, yes, but it was also going to power the construction and eventual usage of a research facility to be constructed some perimiles away. Obviously, the research was towards the Ocean. It's a shame we were never able to push forwards with those constructions... they would have been a fantastic addition to Helltone's scientific community."
Cosmia hummed, wrapping both of his arms around the seat and Libra's chest. He leaned into the familiar touch, a twinge of Ant pheromone communication in the air. He could taste relaxation and calmness. Good. There was no need to panic, not here. They were going to reach the checkpoint just fine. He reached up to rub over Cosmia's hand, feeling the other's soft, loving touch and warmth.
"Will you visit the colony when we're home?" he asked, voice even.
"Do you want me to?"
"Ah, I had wondered if you missed it." Libra smiled, teeth showing. "If not, you may, of course, stay with me."
The car stopped. The engine rumbled, but there was a click as the headlights turned off.
Libra blinked, then sat up. "Aquarius?"
The other lesser god reached forwards, a hand coming up to press a finger against his lips. He unlatched the glove box, pulling out some sort of small dart gun, eyes trained on something through the windshield.
Libra inhaled slowly, leaning back in his seat. There was a faint light in the distance. Two faint lights, fairly close to one another. Though the rain was powerful, they shone dully in the blackness, just barely visible. They couldn't possibly be that far away; visibility was too low.
"A sedative?" he asked, voice strangled slightly as Aquarius cocked the gun. "You think that would work in this weather?"
"It should, it's not capsule-based, is it? Did you change my gun?"
Libra frowned. "I informed you months ago we discontinued the model you insisted on packing every time, and you did not listen, so I took the liberty of replacing it!"
"You-" Aquarius grit his teeth slightly, "sir please understand that I respect you with all of my Magninium, but why the fuck did you take my gun."
"It was not up to safety code!" Libra shot back, reaching to unclip his seatbelt. "Regardless, I will handle this. Remain in the care. There are flashlights in the glove box."
Aquarius blinked, head whipping to face the other. "You're not going to-"
"Libra, sir," Cosmia yelped, "you can't go out there, what if it's a monster?"
"I will be perfectly alright," he informed the duo, with a warm smile, and opened the vehicle's door.
He could handle a simple monster. These were his lands, still, even if he'd signed those international treaties forfeiting all claim to them and the resources they contained. He knew these paths, had walked them, had carved them. And if some mutated beast decided to think it had any right to take his homeland from him, well... he'd be starved when they returned home, but he had a stockpile of stars in the vaults.
Libra kicked the door shut, prowling forwards. The rain bore on him, soaking through his clothes in a blink, the wetness beginning to cling to his fur. Aimlessly, he realized he'd have to redo his hair after this.
The lights did not move, but one disappeared for only a second before returning. A blink? He set his jaw.
Libra paced forwards, feet slipping slightly into the mud as he kept his pace steady and foreboding. There was a tense hum in the air, a tense vibration of magic as it shivered, this deep into the plains. It was feral, uncontrollable, leftover irradiated poison from the hole in the sky, warping the land and bending its inhabitants to an unknown will. It, too, pulled at his own magic, every time he called upon it, sank its teeth into him.
Yet, it was still magic, and he was still a god.
His fingers curled into a fist, the tendrils of Magninium caught by it twirling into his palm. When he squeezed, it resisted, but it bent all the same, roughly forced into submission by his own will. Libra knew he did not have to accept anything less than perfection, accept that this magic could defy him. These were still his haunts, his home. It still was a part of him. It still obeyed. As it should.
The hum in the air steadily climbed into a whine as he lifted his arm, the magic channelling into a glowing, sparking, crackling ball in his hand. How dare a monster crawl about his lands, about the ruins of his civilization. How dare it pick across the decay, chewing on the wires that had once made his cities glow, snuffling about the trash and picking through bones. How dare.
Libra swung his hand downwards, letting the magic blast from his outstretched hand, lighting up the area and evaporating the unlucky raindrops that dared to touch his beam. The light was bright enough that the area was bleached of color, cast in bright whites, but raising visibility enough for Libra to make out the face directly in front of his laser.
"BOSSHT IT'S M-"
His eyes widened as another lesser god slammed into the ground by the beam's force, blood splattering out of their mouth as their organs were compressed together. With a hacked cough, they wiped at their mouth, looking up blearily as the light faded.
"Ophiuchus," Libra managed, awkwardly, blinking. There were not many times he could say he was caught off guard, and yet, here he stood, sheepish. After a second of hesitation, he lowered his hands, stepping back slightly. The rain suddenly felt very cold.
And the pounding in his head had increased tenfold.
"Wow, bosst," Ophiuchus muttered, blood leaking from his mouth. "Didn't know you were usin' magic in the Plains like that."
Libra glanced up at the lights, still shining down at him. Now that he actually paused to concentrate, they were likely outdoor lights. For the checkpoint building. "I... did not realize we were so close to the checkpoint. The rain made it hard to see."
How had he let himself make such a mistake? Too many people depended on him. How irresponsible of him, to make such a decision without consulting all information first. If he'd concentrated, he surely could've realized that they had travelled further than he'd thought.
"Do you require healing?" Libra asked, stepping forwards to take Ophiuchus' hand.
The other allowed Libra to pull him up. "Don't waste more magic, bosst. There's potions in the checkpoint. Is Aquarius in the car?"
"He is." Libra gave a thumbs up, the headlights just barely illuminating his face. Aquarius, visible inside, smiled nervously and adjusted the clutch to roll forwards.
"Who's back in Helltone?"
"I left October in charge." Libra opened the backseat door, helping Ophiuchus in and strapping his seatbelt. He slipped into the passenger seat afterwards. "With directions to call me immediately if anything goes wrong."
Ophiuchus slumped against the chair slightly, a hand still on his stomach. "Is that a good idea? What if Kallise mobilizes? It'ssht not a guarantee that cellie communication towers can reach here."
"I am aware of the risks, but I am certain Helltone will be just fine. We would be back in Ferallax before the Isles' navy could even manage to cross the Starsea." Libra took in a small breath, closing his eyes as the vehicle revved, tearing up dirt as it moved towards the checkpoint. There were still twinges of guilt hanging around his mind, but he shooed them as quickly as they formed. He did not care for self-pity, nor did he care to dwell on the past.
His people needed their guiding hand, and he would supply it without fault or insecurity.
"What were the instruments reading?" Aquarius piped up, glancing at Ophiuchus in the rear view mirror.
He made a vauge wave motion with a free hand and shrugged slightly. "Normal. Nothing suspicioush. Which, I guess, is suspicioush in and of itself. I was going to collect more data but the rain stopped that."
"Do we have enough rations to set up at the checkpoint?" Libra asked, leaning his chin on his hand.
"Yessh, of course, I stocked the last time I came here. I predict the rain will end by tonight."
Cosmia leaned forwards to hug Libra and his seat again, smiling, "So it'll be like a sleepover."
"What a great time we're all going to have," Aquarius muttered, a weak smile on his face.
Libra's eyes flicked over to his subordinate's exhausted expression. It'd be a nice change of pace, but he, too, understood Aquarius' worries. To leave Helltone for so long, to leave his people for fend themselves - ah, what horrible thoughts. They needed him, needed his guidance and care, like helpless little kittens. He trusted October, just enough, but certainly not to the decree of leaving his nation in the demigod's hands.
Aquarius parked the vehicle under the canopy attached to the checkpoint, the canvas at least providing them with protection from the rain. Libra stepped out of the car, wringing out the sleeves of his clothing. He was still soaking wet, but there were drying rooms in the checkpoint. He'd be fine. Aquarius slipped ahead to unlock the door while Ophiuchus was helped out by Cosmia. Cosmia darted forwards to hold Libra's hand, and he offered a smile to the other Ant. Gingerly, Libra led him in.
"Healing potions are in the top right cabinet," Ophiuchus mumbled to Aquarius, who nodded and procured a sparkling red bottle, handing it over.
Libra settled onto the table as Ophiuchus downed the entire drink in a single swig, putting the empty glass on the counter. He winced, before standing up straight, inhaling fully for the first time as the magic wormed its way through his body. With a huff, he wiped the last bits of blood from his mouth and turned towards the massive monitor Libra had sat in front of.
On its screen was displayed a sprawling map of the Plains, the last remaining cartography they had done before the leak. Vaguely, it was still accurate, although the marked cities on the map made Libra's eyes glaze slightly with a mixture of regret and nostalgia.
He reached forwards to press a button, the display splitting to show a gritty camera feed of the sky. The cloud layer - permanent over all of Azodia, the last bastion of defense against the toxic, corrosive Ocean beyond it, swirled around, blackened and covered with soot at their edge. In the top-right of the feed sat his biggest mistake, the constant reminder of his failure, of his inability, of why he had to be better.
The leak. The hole in the cloud layer. The gush of the Ocean, pouring onto his old capital, soaking the buildings, the bones of the skyscrapers, wearing at the steel and iron and glass until it warped and eroded until they twisted into battered claws tearing at the sky.
"It isn't getting any bigger," Ophiuchus said, tapping on the nearest table as he leaned forwards. "And the cloud synthesis is going well. We could reclaim Old Ferallax before the year's up."
Libra stared at the leak.
"Was it nice there, Libra?" Cosmia asked, still hanging off his arm. He glanced to the other out of the corners of his eyes, at Cosmia's wide eyes, hopeful expression. There was a tempered sort of guard to his personality, but he could retain some sort of innocence underneath it all.
Yes, innocence. Most of his charges were. It was why he had to do what he did, why he had to carry the weight for them. Such silly little things. They'd bend and break. Best they listen to him, just obey, like good little citizens. Libra patted Cosmia's head. "It was, yes."
"I still maintain that Kallise messed with our tech to make us look awful," Ophiuchus snarled darkly, fangs bared in the low light.
Aquarius leaned over the back of the couch, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah... you into conspiracy theories, Ophy?"
Libra clicked through several more camera feeds, watching the screen intently.
"I didn't assume fluorescent lights were a monster, you know," came the retort.
They were all fuzzy and slightly unclear - simple side-effects of the leak's effects. Nothing worked quite right, nothing was quite the same. It was a fear that had settled in after he'd realized how difficult magic was to use in the leak's sphere of influence: what if they could not reverse the changes to the land, the changes to the atmosphere? Even if the leak were to be plugged, would monsters still appear? Could they plant crops? Would a train line to Isaolla even be safe?
"I mean, at least it's not a conspiracy theory."
Libra sighed through his nose, clicking through more feeds. Empty, they all were, just stretches of landscape that had once bustled with people, empty cities in the distance.
"They have motive and good evidence. How else did they find out about the leak so fast, hmm?"
Something flickered on Cam 506. Libra's finger ghosted over the button as he leaned forwards.
"It was visible for miles around, Isaollans saw it! I wouldn't be shocked if Kallisians can see it!"
He clicked to Cam 507. Ah. There it was. He appropriately lifted a hand to cover Cosmia's eyes.
"So? They still reacted way too fast to-"
"-Enough bickering," Libra cut in, gesturing to the monitor. "The ping was right. There's a monster."
The room fell silent as all turned to face the screen. A massive, hulking creature was hunched in the corner of the feed, a fallen camera in front of it. Its teeth, gnarled and too large for its skull, gnawed helplessly at the casing, struggling to tear off the steel plating that had kept the delicate machinery inside safe. Its eyes were hollow and unfocused, staring forwards as Magninium leaked from around the sockets.
"Oh, that one's real bad," Aquarius mumbled, covering his mouth with a hand. "Eugh. How the fuck did it get so mutated?"
"Did it stumble right into the starsdamned leak?" Ophiuchus near-hissed, leaning completely forwards as his tail swished.
Libra sighed, slumping against the chair. "Either that, or we missed one from the last cull. Looks like a forgotten pet to me. Likely exposed to high amounts of radiation. Perhaps not from the capital, but a nearby suburb."
"We need to dispose of it as soon as possible, bossht."
"Yes. We will head out as soon as the rain clears and the sun rises. You expect tomorrow to be clearer weather, Ophy?"
The other nodded, tapping a box that was spitting out various numbers and charts. "Seems like it. This rain was unprecedented, but it's rare to get weird weathersh two days in a row. We can definitely resolve it tomorrow and be back in Ferallax by nightfall."
"I guess I'm designated driver, then," Aquarius sighed.
"Indeed." Libra stood, turning towards the others. "Alright, everyone. Let's get some rations and some rest. We'll have quite the fight on our hands tomorrow."
He didn't speak further as Aquarius and Ophiuchus saluted and nodded, heading off towards the single dorm. Libra waited for them to leave before glancing down at Cosmia, lifting his hand from the other's face. The other Ant had fallen asleep curled against his arm.
Libra breathed in slowly. This was what he was made for. He would reclaim these lands, with all the spit and determination he could muster, tear them from the claws of failure. His people needed it of him. They needed so much - so much more than they knew - but he understood. He would provide it all, so long as they remained good, obedient citizens. And what did his citizens need?
More land. Better technology. Strong, star-fed lesser gods who could protect them from the rest of the world, from the maggots and leeches that crawled its surface. He would be their guard, their martyr, standing in defense of all Helltone and its peoples wanted and needed for. It was a grueling, thankless task, but he would bear its mantle proudly. No other lesser god could lay claim to the generosity and care he gave to others.
With a smile, Libra headed for his own bunk, Cosmia in his arms. Tomorrow, he would strike fear into the hearts of all monsters - figurative and literal - that dared to threaten his peace.