Cursed plastics, all twisted up into the rotors. That made a shameful amount of sense.
And when he said “cursed”, that wasn’t just an expletive; this trash was magically afflicted, and it was bound to harm anyone living downriver. Even if its proximity to a fresh water source made him worry; merging magics would seep into everything it touched, and the fuels of life were always more sensitive to such influence.
Using a long pole that had been propped up against the mill’s main shack, he carefully pried the soaked tangle of long-discarded wrappers from the water wheel. This mess went right into the garbage bin he had set off to his side, and once it was filled up, he carried the container to a nearby furnace. Of course, it wasn’t like the fire was going to take care of the curses, that would be much too convenient. Instead, he emptied the dusty contents of one of his waist pouches into the garbage fire, which colored its flames a wondrous pink. Now the plastics could be safely deposited, and as he did so, the satisfying shriek of broken hexes affirmed his proper conduct.
Oh, the joys of general maintenance! Honestly, as far as these smaller jobs went, this wasn’t even the worst of it. Just a little too routine for his liking. From the water purification huts, it was only a short walk to the roadside hostel whose owner had messaged him in the first place. Well, to be precise, she had messaged the Maintenance Guild, who had then dispatched him to this location by electro-cart. The latter was parked near the hostel, but he wouldn’t be taking it out until tomorrow. Whenever he made a trip out to this forgotten region, he would always check up on some of the other water mills north of here, which still functioned as generators instead of purifiers. That way, he wouldn’t have to travel back here again when they inevitably broke down. It also gave the villages south of here some backup capacity, should they ever need it. All in all, it was a useful diversion, and he was going to spend the rest of the afternoon working at it.
First though, he would let the hostel owner know that the job was done. Simple words were exchanged with the woman behind the counter, a routine interaction if ever there was one. Then again, it did allow him to enjoy the relative cool of that rundown place, casting a sideways glance at the few patrons who were hanging around its lounge area. He thought there was a certain charm to this lost glory, but mostly because he could imagine its potential renovation. Ah, to see such an establishment turned over to the people! Not that he knew what they’d do with it; these were just the fantasies of a blessed maintenance man.
Before he could round off his short chat with the hostel owner, he had to ask her for a final favor. While he could probably walk his way to the mills up north, he had seen some tarp-covered bikes out back, which had probably been lent out to local travelers back in the day. While he had his doubts about their current state of operation, they didn’t look completely wrecked, and asking about them didn’t hurt anyone. As it happened, the hostel owner was quite appreciative of his offer to fix one, since she had an occasional need of them herself. Unfortunately, her last bike had broken down inexplicably some months ago; if the kind mechanic could repair that one, he would certainly be free to use it for the day.
With a deal thus made, his work could resume. The trouble with the broken bike came down to a broken part, one he could easily borrow from one of the other wrecks. In no time at all, he was riding it across the main road that ran past the river, heading straight for the northernmost mill he would service. The bike’s three-wheeled design kept him stable, while the cloth cover above him provided some welcome shade from the midday sun. Although gusts of wind occasionally blew in his direction, they were not strong enough to cast up the red dust which coated this landscape. All in all, it was a pleasant mode of travel, one which afforded him much time to daydream.
Riding past the staggered rows of adobe structures, the mechanic noticed faded swirls of once-garish colors adorning most of their exteriors, suggesting that this had once been a much more exciting neighborhood. These buildings had been steadily deserted with the Bending of the Flow, a diversion that had exclusively benefited the people of the City. It was they who now dominated the river’s traffic, preying on what little there was left to exploit. And when this denudation led waves of migrants to head for the City, they saw it as just another source of cheap labor. He knew this was just the law of business at work, that the problems were caused by structures rather than people. The City-folk were his kin just as much as the farmers down south. So what was the central cause of their cruelty? Perhaps it was the will to profit that had poisoned their conduct, though even this did not emerge from nowhere. In any case, it was a conundrum he would not be solving today, and it was better to enjoy this peaceful trip while it lasted. Before too long, he would be back in the southern villages, where crises, breakdowns, and shortages were always occurring. This job was a vacation compared to that.
Once he resolved to relax, time flew past him like a strong wind, its sands eroding his every chance for thought. The rhythm of his pedaling became a meditative exercise, and only the instincts of his frequent cart-driving kept him going straight and steady. When he finally came up to the mill he had sought, he looked back on his trance with some amusement, wondering if it could have caused him to commune with the gods in blissful transcendence. If so, he had to keep himself from such meditation on the way back; divine interference could only be an unwelcome distraction from the work he had to be doing. There was only one godly being who could reasonably demand his attention, and he knew she would not bother him unless she had to. All the others were self-seeking entities.
His mind was wandering again, and it took a few minutes before the sting of the afternoon sun attended him to his present reality: he was standing next to his bike in the dusty road, staring out at nothing in particular. That was no way to be, especially not when there was work to do and shade to seek. By entering the mill, he resolved these two goals at once, as he began to check the generator for operation and output. Both seemed to be in order, though he replaced a few parts he though likely to fail before his next visit. Again, it wasn’t strictly necessary to maintain these northern mills, but letting them fail would be a waste of potential energy; surplus power was always welcome down south, as it meant they had one less resource to worry about. Besides, upkeep was in his nature, and even the thought of a broken machine could make him wince. These were the little things that made him feel useful, and which distracted him from the larger breakdown of society all around him. The waters were spoiled and the land was barren, and the great lifelessness which resulted could make even the canyon rocks lament their fate.
Melancholy was still in the back of his mind when he stepped out of the shed in search of a certain Radiance. While working on the mill’s machines, his exposed neck had felt the distinct sting of excessive sunshine, a flareup which was usually achieved through a blessing of the Lord of Light. These ‘blessings’ were far from unknown in these parts, as concentrated doses of sunlight powered the homes and factories of the City on the lake. But to feel them all the way out here, that usually meant a patrol boat was passing by, carrying an active blessing as it surveyed the world between canyon and riverbank. Clearly that wasn’t the case here, for the incessant burning went unaccompanied by the drone of electromotors or the lapping of displaced waves. Instead, the search for the sensation’s origin led him to look up at the sun through squinted eyes. In front of it, he saw the silhouette of some heroic figure, a broad-chested fellow in what had to be a tight-fitting outfit. As they descended from the heavens towards him, the Radiance he had felt seemed to follow them. Taken together, it was as if the sun itself had taken humanoid form and was now setting next to him. The analogy was likely intentional, and it revealed a suspicious fact. For if the slow descent was but a dramatic performance, and this figure had shone at him long enough to cause a fresh patch of sunburn, then they must have been watching him for a while now. But what did that imply?
When they were almost at ground level, the solar hero finally spoke to him. “You work with care,” they said, “like a natural leader.” This was a strange way to start a conversation, far too casual compared to how a hero would ordinarily address a lowly maintenance man. Were they suspecting him to be something more? Whatever was going on here, he would play it cool, replying to the mighty stranger that he was far from a leader; he was just someone who went around and fixed things, like the watermill behind him. He asked if the hero had need of his services. “Of a kind,” replied the other. “I have received word of economic irregularity in a nearby agricultural sector, the place you would refer to as ‘Downriver Villager’. Apparently, a significant portion of your Mandatory Offering Quotas, or MOQ, has been neglected or held back. This is a form of theft. Furthermore, my superior and I have reason believe that certain rogue elements may be involved, anti-theist insurgents who could threaten the overall safety of this region. Now that I have explained myself sufficiently, you will assist me in my investigation.”
The mechanic was taken aback by the hero’s words. He did not know of any ‘irregularity’, or why he would be particularly helpful in resolving it. True, he was a trusted member of his guild and his wider community, but that didn’t make him any kind of sleuth or spy. Nevertheless, he was not going to disobey the direct order of a divine agent. Thus, he answered the radiant figure with all the sincerity he could muster: he would help them look into this matter to the best of his limited ability. The hero seemed pleased by this answer, offering a firm handshake and a proper introduction. “I’m glad to hear it. Since we are to be partners in this endeavor, you may refer to me as ‘Glow, avatar of Radiance’. Just ‘Glow’ will do as well, pronouns he/him. How would you like me to call you?”
In spite of the friendly words, the touch of Glow’s hand made a nasty shock run through the mechanic’s body. The moment of their interaction slowed and intensified as he narrowed his attention. Glow’s patient smile betrayed a hidden suspicion; when combined with the heat of electricity running through his nerves, there was the suggestion of a supernatural scan. If the solar hero didn’t yet trust him, now would be the moment of decision: what did the mechanic’s inner nature reveal? The entire affair was over in a second, as Glow’s grip relaxed and his grin became one of disguised relief. The mechanic had apparently passed the enigmatic test.
Still, the introduction wouldn’t be complete until the man had actually said his own name. He was about to do so when a second covert force intercepted his stream of consciousness. This one was more welcome than Glow’s touch had been though, as it derived from a presence who had long informed his being and his purpose. The whispers which were now in his mind could deliver a thousand revelations in no time at all; indeed, the information they imparted presently was quite substantial. Though his expression remained the same, he had instantly learned a terrifying amount about the one just introduced to him, this Glow of Radiance. Their coming cooperation was going to be interesting, to say the least. But first things first:
“Nice to meet you, Glow of Radiance. My name is Spark of Downriver, pronouns he/his. I’m very happy to work with you. Where do we begin?”