Caretaker sits there in her favorite place, looking out over the waters of the lake from up on the ledge of the world tree’s hill, just down the path from the den. It is raining very lightly.
— But that’s not a problem.
Sometimes it rains on you. That’s just what life is like for an animal that lives out in nature.
She smiles to herself for no particular reason, staring out over the valley, the soft wind that moves the rain coming to move her hair and clothes as well.
Ever since that night during the celebration, ever since that flight into the night that she and Pilot took together in the Kestrel, things have been different. She’s not really sure how to explain it. This is all so strange, and she wishes more than anything that she could have her sisters here to talk to her about it and guide her through it all. She’s just fumbling her way through life every day by herself in regards to these confusing feelings that she has, and she has no one with whom she can really talk about them. Sure, there are plenty of others from the settlement, like Vilena or Staub, but… they’re just acquaintances, and she doesn’t really feel comfortable opening up to them about something so personal like this.
Caretaker supposes that she’s just going to have to figure it out herself. But she’ll manage.
She finds her hands held against her own face, her fingers pressing down on her cheeks, just above her mouth, as she thinks about that night and about how she and Pilot had kissed.
He’s such a dopey romantic.
— But then again, that would have all never happened if she hadn’t run all the way to the lake from the settlement herself because he was being an idiot and wanted to fly off alone when she clearly wanted to spend the whole festival together with him.
Honestly. Caretaker sighs and shakes her head, looking back out at the valley. She can never quite decide if he’s a bit of an unaware fool or not, given how often he overexerts and hurts himself in his perhaps overzealous efforts. Then again, because of those efforts, they’re all still alive. The valley is safe, and so is the world tree.
Maybe that is her job in this, then.
Maybe he’s supposed to be a little self-destructive in his efforts, and maybe she’s supposed to be the one he falls down toward when the energy leaves his body. That’s how they met, isn’t it?
He fell to her.
Caretaker watches the sky and the clouds, observing the rain fall but not thinking about anything else except how she and he moved through the night together.
— The dryad does her best to ignore the raging fire she sees in the distance to the north.
She hopes he gets back soon.
Vilena laughs, her eyes wide and frantic as the glow of the raging inferno reflects back into her pupils, filling the diluted blackness of them with radiating red cinders. Her passionate witch’s cackle carries through the night like a cold, desperate shriek as she incinerates another section of the forest in the world tree valley.
Pilot stands back at a distance, turning his head to look at Staub, the dark-elf. “…She really loves what she does,” remarks Staub, not turning her head to meet his gaze.
Pilot looks back toward the anarchy unfolding ahead of them. The sorceress, despite her wounds having not fully healed yet, is practically dancing and spinning around by herself, with everyone having long since found shelter, as she sprays fire out in all directions.
One of the valley’s strongest features, but also its most hindering, is its dense inner forest. This forest makes traveling between the four entrances a logistical nightmare. Delivering supplies, people, and anything else is a significant problem that they have so far circumvented by traveling around the valley’s exterior when possible instead of through it. However, in crisis situations and just in the long term in general, this isn’t viable.
They need a network of paths and roads.
It’s quite easy to conceptualize. One road leads to each entrance of the valley, with the northern settlement acting as the main hub.
This will allow them to transport goods and materials easier, as well as bring his mine into operation. Several men from the settlement have already gone to survey it and have reported back that the project would be viable — once the issue of having to reach the base of the world tree, which is uphill, is circumvented.
A further road that leads to the base of the hill below the world tree can fix this. Instead of using the existing, natural shaft that he found, they’ll dig their own at ‘ground level’. He doubts he can convince Caretaker to let him set up a full scale ore conveyor system from the base of the world tree down to the lake, so this is a good alternative.
One of the first things they need to do is clear out the underbrush where the road is going to go. Teams of people with axes are working their way through the forest, cutting down the old growth wood so that it isn’t wasted. Vilena moves after them, burning and smoldering away everything that remains. After her, a third team moves in and clears out any significant debris.
Even just clearing an easily navigable path like this will shoot their productivity up to the sky, and that’s before they get into actually paving it and making it easily traversable for carts.
Pilot turns his head, looking up toward the world tree as the rain drizzles around them, the droplets not being enough to quench the fire.
It’s going to be a while still.
This isn’t the only project they need to work on. “Come on,” says Pilot, turning to walk to the settlement. Staub turns and goes with him, the two of them leaving the teams to their work.
The two of them move down the lane, returning toward the settlement as Staub stops. The dark-elf stands there, turning her head to the side, her long, somewhat floppy ears twitching as she listens to some sound coming out of the forest. Pilot stops a few steps ahead of her, looking at the battered and bruised person as she stares out toward the forest, her eyes slowly wandering from branch to branch.
“Wait… Hold on,” says Staub, walking off a ways and into the woods.
Confused, Pilot looks around the area for a moment and then walks after her. The elf limps her way through the thick underbrush, looking back at him and lifting a finger to her mouth, gesturing for him to be quiet. The man looks at her uncertainly as she turns her head back forward, looking out through the underbrush. The water of a creek trickles nearby as birds sing.
There, ahead, is a large tree with many low branches. A small blackbird stands on the ground below its boughs and scoots across the ground from side to side in a very strange, oddly smooth locomotion that makes it look more like it's sliding than running back and forth. All the while, it’s whistling.
— The bird freezes, sensing them approaching. The animal looks their way for a moment with beady, round eyes, and then a second later there’s an eruption of feathers as it shoots up through the forest canopy.
Staub runs out to where it was, pressing through the underbrush that snags the fabric of her garments as she hurries, watching it fly away up toward the sky, toward the light of the blinding sun above, from which she shields her eyes with her hand.
He has no idea what her fascination with a bird is, of all things. There are thousands of birds in the valley, singing around them this second. What makes this one special? Pilot walks out after her, examining the clearing to see if he’s missed some context for the situation. However, he sees nothing out of the ordinary.
The dark-elf sighs, holding her hands clenched in front of her chest. The exhalation is deep and long, her shoulders drooping and falling slack to a level they hadn’t been at, as if she had just released some great tenseness that she had been carrying for a while now.
Smiling, the dark-elf looks back his way and, likely seeing his confused expression, speaks. “Are you religious, Pilot?” asks the dark-elf, as a shadow drifts down over their heads, disrupting the rays of sunlight for a moment.
Pilot looks at her for a moment, opening his mouth to speak but then not finding the words in the language he needs. He stops for a moment before trying again. “God does not come to where I live,” replies the man, finding the closest approximation to his intent. Many a man has found his faith within the confines of a shelled foxhole. However, just as many have lost it in the same place.
— The thing from above falls down, landing on his shoulder.
Pilot looks and grabs hold of the oddity. It’s just a feather from the escaped blackbird, having lazily drifted back down from the sky above. He stands there, twirling it in his fingers for a second, before lifting his gaze back toward Staub, who stares and watches him — watches the feather with wide eyes.
He’s not sure what this little excursion was about, but it seems like it was a personal matter for her.
Seeing as her eyes are lost in it, Pilot holds out the black feather for her to take. It’s not like he wants it.
Reaching out, Staub carefully grabs the other end of the feather, looking at him, something having changed in her expression that he doesn’t really comprehend. “I don’t know where you’re from,” she replies, taking the feather carefully from him and then tenderly running a finger along its edge. She looks back up at him. “But I think you’ve misunderstood,” remarks the shieldmaiden. Staub slowly limps back toward the road and Pilot walks after her. “God doesn’t ever come to you or to any of us,” she explains. With her hurt arm, she holds a branch to the side for him to pass by. With her free, good hand, she holds the feather, not letting it go of it. “God comes through you,” explains Staub, as Pilot grabs the branch so that she can let go of it.
He doesn’t really know what to do with that or any of this, so he just nods to her, and they return to their work.
From what he’s gathered, there are a few different religious affiliations among the survivors from the north. While many belong to the flock of the organized faith that was once led by the Holy-Church, or what was once such an organization, others follow more individual paths of belief. The population as a whole is strongly spiritual in one form or another.
As long as it isn’t causing any internal divisions, he supposes it’s fine.
The courtroom of the foxhole will sort them all out soon enough, one after the other, into those who believe and to those who do not. In the end, all that matters is that they have guns in their hands and that they point them in the right direction.
In the settlement, work of a less destructive nature is being undertaken.
The stockpile of old growth wood is growing high, with hundreds and hundreds of logs being stacked into rows and piles. Woodworkers come in teams, taking them and processing the wood down into usable planks and materials.
Pilot walks ahead, looking around the area but not seeing what he’s looking for. “I will return,” says the man, gesturing for Staub to stay there and walking off alone through the settlement, until he reaches its end. There’s no sign of anyone here anymore, outside of the rows of primitive structures. As far as anyone could tell, there was nobody here at all except for the rabbits and the birds.
— If not for the slight flapping sound as paper moves and heavy breathing, one would think they were entirely alone.
Pilot lifts his gaze, looking at the elf he was searching for. She’s sitting up on a branch of a tree. “Schtill,” says Pilot. The librarian screams in surprise, throwing her book into the air and flailing with her arms, the two of them flying down to the ground from above.
He manages to catch the elf in both of his arms. The book, however, is hard to catch with his hands full, so instead he kicks his boot behind himself instinctively, striking its edge and sending it flying into the air a second time. Schtill screams more at this than anything else, scrambling out of his grip and over his shoulder to catch it. The librarian manages to stretch herself out as far as she can to save it from falling to the ground.
Pilot stands there, looking back over his shoulder at her, his left arm only holding the bottom of her legs at this point as she lays slung over his back like a drooping sack. Schtill sighs and clutches the book against her chest, her hood and hair dangling downward to the ground behind his back.
Having what he needs, Pilot quietly turns to head back to the settlement. “…Hey! HEY!” yells the dangling librarian, as he kidnaps her and brings her back toward what is to develop into civilization.
The librarian’s displeasure is clear to see in her vivid frown as she stands there staring at the ground with the book held against herself; only her mouth is visible. “The clinic is being built over here,” explains Schtill, whom he has made his generalist for everything regarding paperwork and civil planning. She’s honestly the most qualified person out of any of the survivors he’s talked to or heard of.
“Isn’t this the main market square?” asks Staub, pointing to a general area that is really just a big, muddy field with nothing on it. “Isn’t this where the shops go?”
Schtill walks on silently for a time. “You would be correct,” replies the librarian. “If, one, money still existed and, two, we weren’t all going to die before it is reinvented.”
The clinic being on the biggest, most directly accessible node of the township to come makes the most sense. Medical evacuation carriages can be stationed at every valley entrance. In the event of a severe injury during an invasion, they can directly scoop up the wounded and bring them back here to be treated in an organized, professional way. Increasing the survivability of their numbers is key, as they are quite simply limited in terms of total population. Every man who dies is a critical component of their defense that will be missing in the future. So they need to keep as many of them alive and in as good shape as possible.
So far, the settlement has been sort of a mixture of crude shelters and old carts and carriages turned into the same. It’s time to make this all feel a little more permanent.
“And over here is where the library is going to come,” explains Schtill, with a little more pep in her voice. “It's not open for the general public, of course.”
“I think we need to work on some of these details,” remarks Staub, the shieldmaiden.
Pilot trudges back up the hill to the world tree.
It’s so late that it’s technically early again. But there’s so much to organize and manage, and he has to make sure everything is going according to plan. The next invasion is going to be here soon, and that’s not including any forward elements, which he isn’t going to neglect keeping an eye out for this time.
He pushes the beads aside, looking into the den as he takes off his muddy boots.
Caretaker is asleep.
Quietly, he creeps inside so as not to wake her up and throws off his wet clothes before sitting down on the edge of the bed, rubbing his tired and somewhat cold face. The valley is generally temperate, but out by the lake, especially at night, it can get very cool very quickly.
“Pilot,” says a voice from behind him. He turns his head, looking at her as she scoots to the side, patting the spot next to her.
“Sorry,” he says, apologizing for waking her as he lies down.
Caretaker shakes her head, her hands pressed against his chest first as she puts some warmth into him and then pulls herself up, the two of them kissing. “I was awake,” she replies after they finish. She shakes her head and places it on his shoulder, her right arm draped over him.
“…Why?” asks Pilot, turning his head to look at her in the dark.
Caretaker opens her tired eyes, staring at him for a moment before closing her gaze and nuzzling herself against his side somewhat tighter. “I was waiting for you to fall to me.” She mumbles a few other things he also doesn't understand. He assumes that they're insults, given the tone.
She yawns, her hand touching the side of his face for a while to warm it. But eventually it falls limp, sliding slowly down to his shoulder. His hand is wrapped around her back, holding her against himself as he finally closes his own eyes and falls to sleep, not really sure what she, or anyone else today, was really talking about.