It’s o-six-hundred hours — six in the morning.
It’s been a while now, since this all began.
Pilot sits next to Caretaker, together on the lake. He had been working on the Kestrel, and she had joined him to watch. But he decided to put his work aside for a moment, and now the two of them are there, just sitting by the water where he had crash landed all of those many weeks ago. Time is a funny thing. A little over a month and a half ago, he and his plane were getting shredded by .50 caliber bullets, as his hand pulled the experimental plane’s Seance drive into activation, together with its self destruction mechanism.
Now, he’s… here.
He’s in another world, speaking chunks of a language he doesn’t really know, spearheading the defense of a valley inside of which sits a monumentally impossible — and probably magical — tree, with a girl with deer antlers and a tail.
Some things are the same as before, but many things are different.
The same as before, he doesn’t really have a name, but neither does she. He’s Pilot, and she’s Caretaker.
The same as before, he’s a man who gets strapped inside a screaming metal death trap, firing out thousands of rounds of munitions at Tango. But now they’re goblins and zombies instead of other humans.
The same as before, he is putting his life on the line day in and day out to kill the enemy. Back then, he was doing it because it was his purpose, his calling. It’s what he was bred and raised to do. Pilot turns his head, looking at Caretaker as she stares out over the lake, fumbling with her fingers as she stares at the horizon and talks and talks.
“She was my best friend,” adds the dryad, nodding, seeming pretty dry and clinical in her tone. She’s been explaining her sisters to him, as best as he understands it. Honestly, he doesn’t understand most of it. But like a man listening to a broken broadcast from command over the radio, he sits there and listens quietly, trying to piece it all together as she goes on.
— But even if his goal is the same as before — to kill the enemy — now the motivations are slowly changing. Well… no. It’s not that they’re changing; it’s more like there's an amendment being added to the end of them. The war that never ends is inescapable, in this world or the last. But perhaps in the bringing of this reality to this place, he can also safeguard a few rare remnants of what has been left behind in the transition.
Caretaker rubs her wet eyes, looking back at him and finding him already having his head turned her way. She apologizes for getting upset.
Pilot shakes his head.
He’s seen people die. Squadmates, civilians — war doesn’t care whose brother you are or whose sister you are. It doesn’t care what patch you have sewn onto your shoulder or how deep your bunker is. It’ll come to you one way or another. Nobody gets out alive.
Pilot reaches out, only just barely starting to grab Caretaker’s shoulder, but she immediately reacts to his most slight touch by explosively turning toward him, leaning in, and shoving her face into his chest, crying into him as she mourns now for the dead who rest now in graves over which the men in black boots like himself march on over toward the future days that await those who remain within the battlefield.
It would seem that she has been holding this grief inside for a while.
Pilot holds Caretaker and lets her cry into his dampening shirt, his hands pressing against her back as he turns his head to avoid her antlers a little. He watches as a harpy splashes down into the lake, its long, sharp talons catching a fish, before it swoops back up into the air with its prize.
The fish dies so that the harpy might live.
The dead and the living in the war that never ends are much the same.
— Nails dig into his skin as something makes an ugly noise.
The river babbles on as people laugh and run around. Hammers strike out as carpenters work, and settlers run around in what remains of some of their best clothes. Given that there are hardly any clothes left barring the hodgepodge of things looted from the city, the people find themselves adapting to the circumstances and, instead of wearing anything like casual clothes or traditional festival outfits, have taken a liking to a new look.
The girls surrounding Caretaker clap excitedly as the dryad holds her hands out, showing them the vibrantly beautiful floral wreath she’s made. The dryad gives it to one of them, setting it on her head, and then continues teaching them to produce more from grasses and flowers.
“Hey! Like this?” asks a fairy flying next to him, tugging on his sleeve. Pilot looks back, staring at the object in his hands, made out of the soft bark of the world tree, and nods.
“It’s perfect,” replies Pilot.
“We also got the other stuff!” chimes in a second fairy from behind him, her wings buzzing as she flies, latching onto his shoulder from behind and looking over it. Fairies don’t hold much value to the concept of personal space. They’re very excitable in general. “Just like you said!”
Pilot nods, listening to her excitedly buzzing wings. “Thank you.”
This is just what he needs, not only for tonight but for the future defense of the valley. Or maybe its offense? The concept of taking the fight to the enemy sounds appealing to him. But unfortunately for him, the sky itself is a little hard to burn away.
…As of now…
The man eyes the clouds above his head warily.
The leaves of the world tree rustle, sounding like the churning of waves along an ocean shoreline.
Pilot stands on in the forest with the survival rifle, aiming down into the distance with the scope, and then firing.
There’s a crack as the gun splits the silence in the forest, which then returns a moment later. The glass bottle shatters, the bullet breaking it apart as the the projectile fires into the tree line behind it, a blue streak cutting through the air.
Pilot looks down at the masked stranger, his young alchemist acquaintance, who looks up his way.
The girl nods, holding up her arms as he hands her the lightweight survival weapon. “Here, hold it like this,” he says, adjusting her posture after she had done her best to mimic him. He lifts it a little higher. “Aim it like this,” Pilot instructs, and then lifts a finger, gesturing for her to pull when she’s ready.
The bottle remains untouched, the blue streak cutting into the forest.
So it does work.
Like with his pistol, whatever firing mode he sets the weapon to, will carry over if he hands the weapon to another person. That means he can augment the defenders’ machine guns with magical rounds too. This will be a very powerful tool. Magic plays a big role in this world. He’d be a fool to ignore it.
She fires again, wobbling on her feet but managing the kickback surprisingly well.
— Another miss.
She stops, lowering the rifle, and looks up at him. Pilot shakes his head. “Just try again,” he instructs.
The girl looks back at the glass bottle sitting on the rocks and aims again, firing. She misses. The trunk of the tree that the bullet hit begins to crackle and freeze over, the ice crawling up toward a branch above.
One shot is left in the five shot magazine. She takes it, missing the bottle again.
— But the frozen branch of the tree shatters from the impact, very likely upsetting some squirrels and birds.
He’s just going to not tell Caretaker about this. It’s for the best.
“Nice shot,” says Pilot, nodding to her. She nods back.
Their trade is complete.
She wanted to shoot the gun, and in exchange, he had some alchemical resources made with what the fairies had collected. She's quite talented in chemical manufacturing processes.
The people roar, cheer, and holler as the celebration begins. The sun is starting to crest on the horizon beyond the valley. A bonfire burns in the center of the settlement, and many survivors have set up booths and stalls all around the area to trade and offer the goods that they’ve made and plundered. Everyone is running around, dressed in colorful scraps of fabric atop their plundered clothes, anything to add a little more vividness to them. The women and girls have braided their hair, as seems to be the tradition here, and the men have all gone through extravagant processes of shaving and bathing, taking a good few decades off of many of their faces.
Even Pilot, who had been content with shaving with his knife by the lake thus far, had been dragged off and away to the chair by a swarm of fairies and guards, where he was soaped up and shaved clean, with his face sharpened up.
— As is evidenced by Caretaker standing there now that he’s done, curiously running a finger over his skin. “…So smooth,” she says, poking his cheek.
“Nice hair,” replies Pilot, looking over at her. Caretaker has short, shoulder length hair to begin with, but they made it work by tying it up into two tight braids that wrap around the base of her antlers.
She laughs nervously, touching her head. He’s not sure as she speaks, but he thinks she’s saying that it feels unusual to have it this way.
Pilot looks around the area, watching the many people walking around as music starts to play, which surprises him more than he expects, especially as he hears them begin. It’s very different from what he’s used to hearing from military marching bands all of his life.
He holds his arm out for her, and Caretaker takes it as the two of them walk around, enjoying the festivities, moving from booth to booth, and trying out all sorts of games and foods together. The baker woman, the dwarf, is making quite a name for herself, it seems, and has industrially made hundreds of small cakes and pastries. She must be quite resourceful to organize this much baking with her limited capabilities here in the settlement. Pilot takes note of that.
Caretaker runs around, dragging him after her, barely able to contain her excitement as they move from one stand to the other, her giddiness getting the best of her again and again as she yanks him around, seemingly desperate to see everything. The dryad and him are stopped many, many times over the night by people who want to talk, who are excited to meet him or her, who want to ask questions, or who want to share drinks and food. All around the settlement, people let loose and let everything drop. Laughter comes from the river as people jump into the waters after the sun sets. Cheers come from the bonfire area as more kegs of fermented fruit alcohol and plundered beer are brought out. Fairies shoot around the festival area, playing games and pulling tricks on people.
— Gunfire cracks out from a small booth that he had organized.
Pellet rifles. Small, single shot weapons that can fire a single metal bead. He had the craftsman who made his chu-ko-nus make them as prototypes for the production of real rifles. Pilot watches, walking by with Caretaker on his arm, as the children playing there take turns to shoot out the heart of a ‘goblin’, made out of straw.
The two of them stop by the medical tent, where Vilena and Staub are sitting, but not alone. Ever since the defense of the valley, the two of them have become sort of local heroes. As Caretaker told the story to everyone, they saved her life during the invasion. Currently, they’re being pampered by several admirers. Anything from the festival they’re missing out on is brought to them.
“Pilooot!” cries Vilena, clearly drunk, holding out a hand to reach for him in her bed.
Pilot waves to her from a distance.
It looks like they’ll make a recovery. Caretaker’s healing magic has become quite advanced after the mass of level-ups she gained after the last invasion.
The festival continues on like this for hours and hours, well into the night. People laugh, drink, eat, and play.
This is exactly what the valley’s defenders need. Morale is a key component of any good practice of warfare — it’s almost everything. A single man motivated to lift his rifle and aim it toward the heart of the beast is invaluably more important then a thousand men who don’t want to do anything of the sort, and people will become motivated not just for their lives, but for the regrowing bonds of society that they had lost before.
Later, the two of them sit and watch together as many of the women and girls from the city form a long ring of hands around the bonfire, dancing and skipping around it in turns, before letting others come in from the crowd, and they each throw their wreath into the blaze, one after the other. Caretaker and him are watching in fascination until a girl comes and drags Caretaker out to join the dance, and she fearfully looks around, trying to escape but unable to as several hands drag her away and lock her into the spiral.
Pilot watches in fascination as they continue onward, dancing around the fire, as the band plays their music on a series of strange instruments he doesn’t recognize. Even Caretaker looks like she’s starting to have fun as she dances around the blaze.
It’s almost about that time.
He should go. He has to get everything ready.
Pilot rises to his feet, gesturing to Caretaker that he has to go but for her to stay here.
He wants her to see this, after all.
Twenty-three-hundred-hours, ten minutes before midnight.
The Kestrel roars to life as he switches the ignition on, the machine vibrating as it wakes from its rest at an unusual hour. The payload is secured. He rises up to close the canopy and stops as something catches his ears.
Pilot looks back down at the radio and then at the world tree. Warily, the man sits down and picks up the receiver. “…What do you want?” he asks, narrowing his eyes.
No response comes, apart from the static white noise.
He’s sure that the voice he heard back then belonged to the world tree. But it had never spoken again ever since the day he was brought here.
Shaking his head, he locks the receiver back into place and grabs the canopy.
“Pilot!” calls Caretaker’s voice from the distance. It would be impossible to hear above the shrieking of the idle Kestrel, which is why he’s almost certain that it came through the radio he had just put away a second ago.
He turns his head, watching as a familiar silhouette comes hurrying down the shore, waving her arms to get his attention. She runs to the plane, panting, gasping for air, and covered in sweat. She must have sprinted all this way.
Pilot rubs the back of his head. She’s going to miss the show now. There’s no way to get back to the settlement in time from here.
He turns off the Kestrel’s engine, letting the plane fall silent again, the propeller spinning itself out. “Caretaker?” he asks. Pilot jumps down out of the plane. “What’s wrong?”
She looks at him and opens her mouth, but then shakes her head, stopping herself. “…Nothing.” The dryad looks around the area. The hollering of a crowd can be heard coming from across the lake. She stands there with one arm folded over her lower chest and her right hand pulling on a short, loose strand of hair on the back of her head that didn’t make it into a braid.
Nothing? She ran after him like the valley was on fire for nothing?
— Maybe she can see the show from here, but it’s no good if she’s alone. At least in the settlement, she was surrounded by people. But he has to get up in the air himself. There’s no way around it, then.
“Come on,” says Pilot, holding out a hand to help her climb up. He nods to the plane.
He’ll just take her with him.
Twenty-three-hundred-hours, two minutes before midnight.
The Kestrel rises into the air. Ever since his many level ups, the plane has become much more… reasonable in its comfort, noise, and smell. He’s even been able to make minuscule modifications with his abilities, such as expanding the canopy somewhat, which most certainly affects the aerodynamics.
“Weren’t you having fun?” asks Caretaker, looking back at him.
But they do allow Caretaker to sit less precariously, ignoring the issue of her antlers.
There is a theoretical possibility that he could make more radical modifications, such as a second seat or outright altering the fuselage itself, to offer more eccentric possibilities.
“I was,” replies Pilot. He thinks for a moment about his sentence, finding the next best equivalent to what he wants to say. He was out here for her, after all. This whole set-up he's gone out of his way for was for her. “- I have work.”
The dryad leans back against him as they rise into the air, flying above the tree line and then making a line over the lake, the Kestrel leaving a trail of disturbed water in its wake as it soars above the surface of the water, starlight glistening beneath it. They fly over the settlement, Pilot pulling the air brakes to slow down as much as possible to let Caretaker look out of the window and to let everyone below look up at them. He pulls on the throttle, making a loop back around toward the lake again.
One minute to midnight.
Pilot reaches out for the controls but then stops. Instead, he grabs Caretaker’s hand — she quickly looks back at him in surprise — and he sets it on the switch on the dashboard. Her expression changes, and she looks away from him at the control. “Press it,” he instructs, nodding to her as she looks back unsurely a second time.
Caretaker's finger flicks the switch.
The night around them bursts to light as many things hiss behind them, like a den of vipers.
Caretaker lets out a series of excited sounds, gazing into the window and then at the canopy glass as he makes his pass, flying out at a distance on the other side of the lake.
— Fire streaks into the air from the settlement, hissing and spinning as it flies in a relatively uncontrolled pattern toward the general direction of ‘up’ — with a few turns here and there. First once, then twice, then dozens of times more. Like arrows, they shoot into the sky beyond the lights of the glowing flares they dropped, the primitive fireworks that he had made through the cooperation of his alchemist friend and the fairies, exploding into starbursts.
Loud cracks carry across the valley as flashes of many colors paint the night, creating radiant displays for only a few seconds each.
Caretaker practically has her face smushed against the canopy as he flies across the horizon, the fireworks carrying on. They’re actually pretty small, so they were able to make quite a few of them. Magic and alchemy apparently go a long way toward stretching the effects of the explosions — the implications for artillery shells and missiles are astounding, honestly.
They circle the lake as the fireworks go on, the night carrying the many hues off far and away, reminding the rest of the dying world that here within the valley of the world tree, something still lives, something still grows.
The show continue on, but Caretaker leans back from the window, looking at him — perhaps because his hand is still holding the top of hers, even if the switch for the flares has long since been pressed. The inside of the Kestrel is painted by those many shades — greens, and reds, and blues flashing in and out in slow, gentle ebbs, each together accompanied by an abrupt, dull thud that moves through midnight like the strike of a heavily beating heart, the likes of which he can feel beneath his palm as her pulse moves into his body.
Pilot looks down at her tilted head, staring at him with a mixture of curiosity and severe uncertainty that is only visible in her eyes since her body has frozen entirely as soon as they made eye-contact at this angle.
He hadn’t quite planned it like this. But that’s how it goes. No plan has ever survived meeting the enemy.
With his free hand, Pilot pulls the throttle back lightly to allow the Kestrel to ascend by itself as he looks at Caretaker. The smells of her, her perfume, and a little bit of smoke from the bonfire fills the cold, dampening its sharpness significantly as they move closer together. Caretaker's free hand is fumbling with something in her pocket, as the two of them are suddenly a breath’s distance apart.
“Pilot…” says Caretaker quietly, and he can feel her saying it as their lips meet as he still holds her hand with his right and her body against himself with the other. The plane glides through the night, rising higher and higher by itself as the two of them find themselves connected for a time, both of her hands grabbing hold of him as they kiss.
And then, as they pull apart, Pilot finds himself somewhat worried, as Caretaker is smiling and crying at the same time. He’s not quite sure how to gauge that reaction. After a moment of this, she speaks. “…Yes,” says Caretaker to him, perhaps for the first time ever, wiping her eyes with her forearm and then looking back up at him with a glow in her expression.
Caretaker opens her fingers, showing what she has to him.
— It’s… a single brass bullet casing?
It looks like it’s from his sidearm, if he had to guess. What’s she doing with that?
“Yes!” yells Caretaker, wiping her wet eyes clean before grabbing his hand this time and pressing hers firmly against it, so that the old brass is held between the two of their palms as she takes the initiative, returning the two of them to their prior state.
Far off in the distance behind them, the valley erupts with fireworks, debauchery, and other such things, while the two of them soar into the clouds together, with only the one jacket to keep their two bodies warm in the lofty heights, but finding themselves content to manage as they are.