Published: October 22, 2023
Warnings: Artemis goes a little feral, some implied violence.
Blurb: Four perspectives of the same morning. Can be read in any order, technically, if it tickles your fancy.
---- CELENA -- INTI -- MITRA -- ARTEMIS ----
Hand after hand. Bar after bar.
With only the frigid morning breeze as his companion, Mitra pulled himself up, heave by heave, fingers curling around the cold metal with every makeshift rung.
His good leg searched for purchase - found it against the bars he’d passed, braced against them. His bad leg gently leaned against the first, the occasional spikes of pain reduced to a dull throb.
Not helped by the weather, of course. Unusually cold, for this time of year. Winter would arrive a month early, by his estimate. They’d need to adjust their route further south.
But right now, his mind was clear of those thoughts and worries. The only thing that mattered was the crisp metal against his palms, and the smell of the icy morning, the swell of the wind in his face, the tension in his muscles as they lifted him.
A hand clattered against the tiny platform he’d spotted from below. It groped around - closed around the central pole of the entire structure, and with that grip secure, he hoisted himself onto the lattice with a huff of air.
It took seconds to catch his breath. But catch it he did, and he turned himself over to sit properly, legs dangling, tail wrapped half around the pole.
With something akin to pride, he inspected the upper echelons of the tower. Age and weather had worn at it, chipping away at the magic circles that had prevented its rusting. Now, swaths of the structure had turned an ugly red, flaking down like snow to the ground below.
And, far above the platform he sat on, the satellite dishes sagged, chunks almost bitten out of them. Cut wires dangled, swayed far above, almost like the branches of a spindly tree.
In a way, it was ugly. But - his eyes caught the way the sun sparkled against the curve of the metal, the way the wires chimed as they bounced off the great posts holding them up.
Serviceable enough for breakfast.
He reached into his satchel, procuring his green-and-flower patterned thermos. The soup inside was still piping hot, thick slices of potato and meat peeking from the thicker broth.
With a smile, Mitra tipped his head back to sip. The warmth banished the nip of the morning, filled his chest and stomach with a radiating comfort. In quiet peace, he plucked his deepest spoon, and idly stirred, staring out over the expanse before him.
It was a beautiful place.
Some town, at some time. Not big enough to be a city, not small enough to be a village. Maybe a stone’s throw from some urban center, some place to commute to and shop at.
But the town itself was nestled in a forest. A real forest.
Sure, it was sparse, sparser than the sprawling woods he’d explored as a child. But it passed for a forest in this world, sickly trees stretching to the sky, ferns and bushes scattered around the ruins of houses.
It had been... such a delight, to see the greenery on the horizon. He hadn’t been able to keep the elation from his face.
Here and there, pockets of life survived. Here and there, Vitrephant’s blessing persisted.
“Morning,” Mitra said, quietly. The wind mussed his hair. “It’s a cold one today, isn’t it? Would they have prayed to you, asked for your power to preserve their crops?”
The trees swayed, gently, as they always did.
“I’ve been fine,” he said, lifting a spoonful of soup to his mouth. “The cold makes it hurt more, but being active always helps. Gets the blood moving. I’ve been thinking I should start a daily jog when we wake up, and maybe rope Celena into it. He’d be furious, but I think it’d be good for him.”
It was cooked perfectly, as always. He’d have to compliment Inti again once he scaled back down the - radio? - tower. Tease him about the recipe, question the source of his myriad talents.
Mitra stared down at the bowl, silent. Thoughts and emotions swirled inside of him. Not overwhelming, but tugging at his attention. Asking for his inspection.
“He’s Solsurya, isn’t he?” he asked, tapping his spoon against his thermos. “You’d be able to tell me. You’d recognize him right away, wouldn’t you? Would you be happy that he’s lived?”
“Should I be happy?”
Mitra set the last spoonful in his mouth, and shook the thermos out over the edge of the tower, the last feeble drops splattering to the ground. He closed the lid, quietly, almost uncertainly, tucked it and the spoon away again.
It was just him and the trees, now. His mother’s trees. Her blessings....
“The sun still rises,” he said. “the moon still sets. Your life still grows, tangling over itself. Is some part of you out there, still? Trapped in a hunter, warped into ambient magic? Or....”
His hand ghosted over his chest, to the brimming sensation inside of it. Like an overfull cup, sloshing, but never allowed to quite spill.
Because he was scared.
A frank emotion. One that he couldn’t say he was familiar with, or knew how to wrangle. One that he dismissed, without a second of hesitation, and banished to the back of his mind.
“Well,” he said, after a long second. “Whatever the case, I’d best be getting back to them. Artemis’ll throw a fit if he sees me up here. Won’t he?”
Mitra smiled, and reached to adjust the weight of his satchel. “I’ll speak with you again whenever I get a chance. Tell you about that morning jog. “
“So take care,” he said, to the trees and the ferns and the bushes that laid out before him, and they trembled in the wind, and did not speak as he swung himself out to clamber down the tower.
---- CELENA -- INTI -- MITRA -- ARTEMIS ----
The crunch of leaves under his feet was - okay, well, mostly it just startled him with every step.
But it was also nice! It was also nice. Because when he looked up, he could see the trees’ branches above, and they were positively splattered with leaves. Not entirely healthy-looking ones, but that was probably the result of the cold.
It was nice. To see trees again. And to pick berries again!
Real berries! Real, foraged, delicious berries!
Inti smiled, deft fingers plucking at the ripe bundles hanging off the myriad of bushes. Into his basket they went, some tumbling, a few squashed by their fellows.
After all, it didn’t need to be careful harvesting. It just needed to be swift, and then he could scurry back towards the camp.
Not that he was scared! Sure, there were occasional noises, out across the abandoned town... but they were probably just some of the houses falling further apart. Like, floors shifting, sort of thing. Probably.
Probably! His mantra, as he hurried back towards the town center. The dirt underneath him melded from beaten path to stonework as he approached, and the warmth of their fire and the smell of the stew brewing over it washed over him, a comforting greeting.
Inti took in a steadying breath. Yeah, he hadn’t been scared. Just wanted to get back and get some of these preserved already. And it was too cold, this morning, anyhow! Yeah.
And, and, he liked the quiet of the camp when everyone else was busy - oh Mitra was there.
Mitra, staring at the pot like a starved puppy. His face bore the same stock smile he always wore, but the intensity with which he stared into the brew was words enough.
“Hey,” Inti said.
Mitra nodded at him, but didn’t look away from the pot.
“You can have some soup if you want,” Inti said, setting down the basket. “I haven’t finished it but it’s, like, edible.”
“Thank you,” Mitra said, with relief, and produced his thermos. He ladeled a generous helping, tongue sticking out - probably unconsciously. “It smells downright magical, you know. I’m not entirely unconvinced you aren’t enchanting this somehow.”
Inti grinned. “I would if I could spare it - probably something like, some healing, some energy, sort of thing-”
Mitra stood, tail flicking in delight as he capped the thermos. His eyes flicked up to meet Inti’s. Oh. He was - packing it to go.
He tilted his head, a small frown on his face. “You’re not eating here?”
“Just need some air,” Mitra said, pointing to the west. “We passed a sizeable structure earlier, I want to climb it, get a lay of the land.”
“Does Artemis know?”
“Oooh, you’re not going to include me in keeping things from Artemis,” Inti said, crossed his arms, pouting. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear anything, and you’ll just be a soup thief.”
“I strike in unexpected ways,” Mitra said, tucking his thermos away.
And with that permission, he set off at a pace that was definitely too hard on his leg. But before Inti could speak - yep, he was gone through the throng of hollowed-out buildings.
He had no right to be as fast as he was! Ugh.
Well. At least he’d taken some soup.
Inti sat down on one of the overturned boxes, lifting the basket into his lap. From the bags strewn about their camp, he pulled out an unnaturally chilled little tupperware, popping the lid off to a flurry of cold air.
Methodically, quietly, he transferred them over, inspecting each handful carefully as he did so. The freshest ones, plump and cute and juicy, went into the freezing box. The others remained in the basket.
He’d turn them into something by the end of the night. If only they had any sort of dough... last time they’d had some, they’d bumped into a trader’s caravan who had been carting crates full, and Artemis had haggled a batch.
Just for Inti.
Footsteps. Inti looked up, stare meeting Artemis as the other emerged into the camp.
“Getting the laundry,” Artemis said, plainly awkward, gesturing down to one of the bags. “Have, uh, you seen Celena?”
“He said he was going to explore for resources - medical kits, stuff like that. He left before the sun rose. He didn’t tell you?”
“No,” Artemis frowned. He hefted the bag over a shoulder. “In what direction, do you know?”
“Sou- hey, you don’t have to do the laundry! I was planning on tackling it after I got breakfast situated and the-” Inti lifted the basket, “Look! Berries!”
Artemis was at his side in an instant, holding one of the berries between two fingers, inspecting it intently - but his voice was near manic, “Are they safe?”
“Yes!” Inti plucked the berry and dropped it back into the basket, “I recognize them - I wouldn’t pick berries that I wasn’t sure was safe.”
“You do know your foraging....” Artemis loomed over him. It was sort of intimidating, but also not really - because his face was just concerned, scanning Inti. Protective, and he just didn’t know his own strength. “If you’re sure they’re fine....”
Inti gave a firm nod. “They are. And - you can leave the laundry to m-”
“I got it, Inti” Artemis said, and disappeared off towards the east, almost as fast as Mitra had vanished.
Inti huffed. Really, they were more similar than they cared to let on. Caring little individualists... and they could both turn up the intimidation in a way he and Celena couldn’t quite match....
...It would’ve been nicer if one of them had hung around, though. It was quieter without them, but it was also... a little colder at the fringes.
Inti glanced back to the basket. Well, he could still make himself useful before they came back.
---- CELENA -- INTI -- MITRA -- ARTEMIS ----
Fog clung to the ghosts of buildings.
It shrouded them. Obscured them. He ducked under low-hanging wires, squeezed past collapsed alleyways. He glanced to the overgrown yards, to the sagged fences.
Ghosts. Ghosts on ghosts on ghosts, all of it, down into the soil. All of it, in the soil now.
Celena huffed, watched the puff of his breath dissipate into the freezing air, and drew his jacket closer around his neck.
Rocks and pebbles crunched as he stepped over them, his stride swift, confident. A confidence he hadn’t exactly earned, if he was honest... now wasn’t the time, though.
He paused. The fog was deeper here, obscuring the shapes of the once-houses into looming structures. Only the sound of tired night insects reached him, here, and the smell of Inti’s cooking was a distant memory.
So he was far enough.
Celena reached his arms out, slowly. A ritual well-known.
The magic bubbled in his chest, roused from its sleep. It snaked down his arms sluggishly, coalescing in his hands ‘til they glowed with his dual-magic colors, the spell growing against his palms.
He let out a steadying breath.
The magic directed itself down, imperceptably. It crawled under the door of his reality, shuffling around on the underside of the sphere of the world - til it found its mark, and wrapped gleeful hands around.
He lifted his left hand, slowly, carefully. And as he did so, the sun jostled free of its bed, tethered to him by the thick rope of his power, his heritage, his magic. It followed him, an obedient puppy, and crawled out from the metaphysical.
The warmth over his face, though his eyes were squeezed shut, told him of his success.
His right hand lowered, slowly, carefully. The moon, exhausted and on the brink of the horizon, slipped beneath it. It disappeared under the edge of the world, and found the warm soft comfortable spot that the sun had napped in, and nestled in for its own rest.
And, like that, it was over.
The magic fizzled out of his hands. He opened his eyes, and saw the brightness bleeding over the homes, the degraded walls, the broken roads. As it had, every morning like clockwork since he’d taken his first breath, the sun rose in the east.
His last real duty.
Celena dusted his hands off on his pants. Normally - it wasn’t something he ruminated on. Every dawn, every dusk, it was the same thing. The celestial bodies - part of his magic, given to him by grace of godhood - obeyed his orders, and set off on their daily-nightly paths. The end.
He glanced to the north. Nothing could be seen past the ruins of the town, of course. And even if they were on a plain, he wouldn’t be able to see it.
But he knew it was there. Lingering, waiting for him. Judgment and redemption, rolled into one.
The Standing City.
The name roused a shudder down his back, which he tried to stifle with a flick of his tail. The Standing City, he thought, firmer, half-irritated at his own reaction. The Standing City.
Nothing to be scared of. Just - the home of his only surviving peer. The home of the only other living god left.
It was still surreal. Still uncomfortable. He’d lived through - he bit back the word ‘cowardice’. It still hurt to think it. But, he reminded himself, he had to be honest. He’d ran, tail between legs. He’d chosen himself over everything else.
Well, it couldn’t have been all bad. Because he lived, and nobody else - save Ocypete - did. So, bleh on them. Cowardice had been the answer. Fuck everyone who judged him.
Celena set off again, almost aimless, through the town. Through the remains of whatever mortals had been living here.
Just another empty once-was. Just another forgotten reminder of everything that once existed, that once mattered. The lives his friends died for.
Yeah. It was worth it to try to stick around and stop everything. It got everyone killed.
It still didn’t make sense. His survival. They’d declared him definitively dead, attributed it to Godscourge. Someone supped on his magic.
But there he was. In the flesh, in the Standing City. It sounded just like him. It looked just like him. So either it was some... morbid, horrible puppet made by - who could even? - or it was just. Really Ocypete.
But it was still nonsense. Still... unbelievable.
That’s why he had to tag along. Had to agree to go there. Had to see it for himself.
Of course part of him was excited. It was a... weird excitement. Made him almost want to vomit. Someone else lived! Someone else out there! His friend, his friend!
But the rest of him knew - they hadn’t exactly been friends, before it all fell apart. And he wasn’t sure if Ocypete would - fall over himself in equal elation, or if he still... harbored grudges.
Uncomfortable feelings. Uncomfortable things to wonder about.
Maybe he could still convince Artemis to sneak away with him at the last second. Leave Inti and Mitra in Ocypete’s capable hands and abscond into the night.
As if. Artemis wouldn’t abandon those two if his life depended on it.
Celena shoved his hands into his jacket.
He turned a corner, into the expanse of the gurgling river that ran beside the town. It sprayed before him, their navigation. It would bring them close to the coast where the Standing City was said to float.
Celena sucked in a breath. But they weren’t there yet, and he didn’t have to think about that. Or Ocypete, yet. So, instead, he half-turned on his heel, hunched slightly.
His eyes, however, landed firmly on - Artemis, crouched at the riverside, clutching - something made of fabric, and shaking like he’d been out all night.
---- CELENA -- INTI -- MITRA -- ARTEMIS ----
Laundry. Laundry. Laundry.
Steps to the river’s edge, scan down either side. No sign of animals - or people. Good riddance. Good.
Bag down to feet, taste the air, no errant magic, nothing in the water thank the stars. Could just scrub this, keep his mind off of wherever Celena was, and then go back and everyone’d probably be there.
Inti was going to be fine. He’d drawn so many wards last night. So ingrained in his mind, he could tap them out against the canvas as he pried the drawstrings open. Same ones, every night, until he had to switch them up so they weren’t leaving a paper trail, that’s how it was.
Artemis crouched. His hands jerked forwards, almost robotic, as they pried a bundle of shirts out of the bag.
This was soothing. This was soothing. Just a mundane little task, like a normal person-mortal, a little routine. Routine. Calming, right? Right. Of course.
He plunged the shirts into the rushing water, the sudden snap of cold against his hands. Cold enough to make them twitch, just a little. His wings took the shudder, alien feathers ruffling up instead of his shoulders.
Still wasn’t used to them. Stupid stupid. Sticking out of him like tumors, ugly little growths, right out of his marred shoulderblades. He could get rid of them if he wanted. He really could just tear them out and he’d be fine. He never really bled anymore anyways.
But he couldn’t. Nope. They changed his silhouette enough, them and the horns. Enough that nobody had give them a sidelong glance yet, asked after him. The Leech was dead. He’d fallen in the end of the world and it needed to stay that way.
Uuuguhn gods. He was too wired. Too upset! Anxious about - just - not knowing. Where the fuck Celena was. Not that Celena wasn’t allowed to wander off if he wanted to he just had to tell Artemis first so he wasn’t fucking shaking like a leaf. Just tell him. Just talk to him. Was that hard? Impossible?
For all he knew Celena could - hnnnngh - getting hurt, maybe, if Artur was still stalking them then NO that wasn’t something to think about.
Clean. Scrub the fucking clothes, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Focus on that. Be normal. Be fucking normal. Be fucking normal. Keep his stare focused on the cloth in front of him, on the soap suds.
It’d ease the burden on Inti. So, there, latch onto that instead. Obsess over that instead, at least for now. He was helping Inti.
Fuck. The berries still bothered him. What if - no, trust Inti. He was good at foraging. He really was. It’d be an insult not to trust him. He knew what he was doing. It just - would it have been so bad to let Artemis check first? Fuck.
He wrung out the clothes, watching the water cascade into the river. See? One batch done already. It was totally calming him. He was calm. He was calm.
He was actually calm.
Artemis paused, blinking, as the clothes unfurled and dangled from his outstretched arms. He was actually... calm.
He lowered the still-damp clothes into his lap, and glanced left, down the river. Trees stretched over its small banks, roots digging into the earth. He glanced right, up the river. Some sort of reeds had poked through the soft silt, and were waving as the water accosted them.
He was actually... calm. It actually worked? What part of it?
It... it bothered him that he didn’t know. That he couldn’t figure himself out. That his own damn mind was still an unsolvable puzzle, to him, the person who knew every inch of it.
But - it was nice. To not have his chest squeezed, the air out of his lungs. So much of himself still felt - strange, foreign. He didn’t even need to breathe or eat anymore, not since that night.
He wasn’t really himself anymore, was he?
Artemis’ muzzle scrunched. He dried the clothes with an aggressive flick of them that ran magic up-down the seams, and folded them neatly. They sat on the grass beside him, and he reached back into the bag.
Knowing himself wouldn’t even really help, would it? What would it actually change?
Artemis’ eyes snapped down to the smears on the shirt. They were aged, stained into it. Into - Celena’s jacket. He stared, uncomprehending, for a few seconds before -
- Of course. The last time Artur had caught up to them. One of his fucking demented self-CENTERED egoTISTICAL RABID repulsive lackeys had FUCKING stabbed Celena with that pocket knife and -
He lurched half-over, fingers digging in hard enough to almost rip. He’d held himself back so-o-oo fucking MUCH hadn’t ripped that smirk right off of that BITCH’S ugly fucking face, hadn’t ground fingers into the fucking meat of them and shredded and torn and unsewn the muscle from tendon, and they’d still had the AUDACITY to sit there with a dopey fucking leer like they didn’t fucking know who they were dealing with, whose anger they’d narrowly avoided -
- And for WHAT? What’d he get out of tempering himself, huh? Some vague moral pleasure, some fucking jerkoff knowing he was better than Artur for not succumbing to it? Why even fucking bother when it got under his skin so fucking much? Why let these stupid, puny fucking mortals bother him, after all the fucking suffering they’d already put him through? Why’d he value their petty little fears so fucking much?
He was so much fucking MORE than ANY single one of them and he could’ve kept Celena fucking SAFE but no he had to be ‘sane’ and ‘controlled’ and all and nothing even though it was HIS magic now and HE was a god now and it wasn’t even like there was anything else worth saving in this fucking world so why was it WRONG for him to want to protect what he COVETED was it so-
Artemis looked up, meekly, to Celena. Hands tucked in pockets, one eyebrow cocked, a frown over the other’s muzzle.
“Yeah,” Artemis said, voice hoarse. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Celena pointed to the ripped-in-half jacket.
Artemis looked down at it, silent.
Leaves crunched as Celena approached. He sat down on the dirt next to Artemis - fuck he should’ve magicked up a chair or - and awkwardly pried the fabric out of his clutch.
“Sorry about your jacket,” Artemis said, hand twitching. “I can fix-”
“-Oh, shut it. It’s fine.” Celena tossed it into the river.
Celena scoffed, shrugging. “Who’s gonna fucking arrest me?”
Artemis stared, eyes boring into him. “Me.”
“We’ll see about that,” Celena muttered, darkly. And then reached over Artemis for the bag. “Gimme that.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure I trust you with laundry if you’ve been just - tearing it up,” Celena said, dunking a handful of underclothes into the river. “Clearly you need some help. Probably therapy, too.”
Artemis watched him, for a long second. And then - smiled, a small little smile. “Okay.”
And he reached into the bag, and pulled out a jacket, and dunked it into the water, and felt Celena’s warm thigh against his own.
Maybe... it was all going to be okay.