There hasn’t been a sign of anything yet. No enemy scouts, no unusual happenings, no ominous warnings sent by the powers that be.
— The sound of several dull, thwumping thuds fills the air, coming one after the other in quick succession.
Pilot lifts his gaze past the pillars of smoke as several mortar rounds fly in an arc through the air, crashing down into the wastelands outside of the world tree valley. A moment later, there’s a significant cascade of explosions as the volatile alchemical mortar rounds erupt on contact with the ground. Rubble and dust fly through the fiery air, shooting in all directions through a wall of flames.
“Reload!” orders an officer.
The mortar crews slide in a new payload of munitions.
It’s expensive to train. They need to fire their real munitions off, as they simply don’t have the industry to sustain making training rounds and shells yet. It’s just easier to shoot the real ones at the moment.
One thousand people sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. In a professional standing army, the majority of members aren’t frontline troops; they’re people who are in logistics, support, command and control, medical, and everything else. The men with black boots and rifles are the tip of the knife, but the hand, the arm, and the body — those are made up of the backbone of the force. Of their barely thousand people, those who are available to serve as dedicated combat troops are the minority, especially for a place the size of the valley. Their only hope is the force multiplier offered by technology like machine guns and mortars, but even then, munitions are precious and rare.
He’s modified the Kestrel now to hold more ammunition containers, significantly improving the speed and quantity of harvesting from it during this ‘down phase’, but he’ll need to turn it back into its proper fighting state in a day or two. For now, it suffices to harvest and fly supply missions to the other cities. The last enemy invasion came early, and as far as he’s concerned, they’re already all on red alert. That ‘four-day invasion warning’ from the system that runs this world is as trustworthy as a damp handshake from the enemy themselves.
Hellfire erases the horizon.
What gives them the right? He hates them so much, those animals.
He peeks around the corner, looking into the market square. It’s almost about that time. For days now, the great blackbird that rests on the branches of the world tree has brought them gifts in its talons many times each day. Large crates of food and medicines are dropped from the sky toward them.
Hungry, Zweck stares and watches from behind the wall with tired eyes, listening as the sky becomes louder and louder. He’s a young man, just about to become an adult, but his hair and features still falter from boyhood, their development having been spurned by his severe malnutrition over the past year.
Everyone watches as the strange thing blasts over their heads, and the wind behind it that seems too slow to catch up with the bird’s passing presses against the roofs of many houses. The powerful gale blows away both the fabric of many clothes and the strands of many people’s hair.
Slowly, the package drifts down to the market square.
The city guards who are standing there in waiting surround it immediately as it lands, securing it and bringing it back to their barracks, where they have also collected all of the others.
— A hungry man makes a run for the box from the crowd.
His attempt is stopped short by the crossbow bolt that pierces through his throat from front to back. He falls down, gurgling and clutching his neck, as the guardsmen walk away, carrying the latest plunder back with themselves.
Nobody else in the city is going to see a crumb of it. What a rotten world. Maybe it really does deserve to die.
Zweck pulls away, returning back into the alley.
Pilot yanks the controls of the Kestrel, the plane spinning in a wild loop as it rotates around its forward vector, just barely dodging the uncontrolled harpy careening out of the sky. Several other harpies diverge, each shooting off in one specific, different direction — not in an uncontrolled escape — but rather in a controlled diverging of their formation to spread out their damage profile. They had been flying alongside the Kestrel on today’s mission, as they sometimes do. The one wounded monster flaps with its wings, one of which is pierced, a crossbow bolt sticking through it as it loses momentum.
“Caretaker!” calls Pilot, looking behind himself in the mirror, making sure she’s strapped in there in the co-pilot’s seat. The dryad sitting behind him, nods, assessing the situation. She’s gotten a lot sharper since he first found her, absolutely paralyzed by fear.
The man looks in the mirrors, watching the blue feathered creature tumble as it loses the wind beneath its wings, hurtling back down to the ground below — the southern city on the far eastern edge of the territory from where the bolt had come. He knows it seems ridiculous as he yanks on the controls, turning the Kestrel around while staring at the creature, but the back of his mind expects the plume of a released parachute to break out from the falling harpy at any second.
This plan is a stretch at best, but it’s worth a shot.
“Get ready!” he calls.
“I am!” replies Caretaker, yelling over the sound of the plane, her hands already glowing with magic as she grabs the back of his seat.
Pilot pulls the plane into a dive, aiming toward the city, the walls of which come closer and closer by the second as he then yanks on the air brake and opens the canopy. “Now!” The violent force of the wind above rips the glass bubble open, tearing it back and causing the Kestrel to jerk violently upwards as it acts as a sail.
Pilot’s drops down, grabbing the plane’s controls to pull it back steady as it begins to drop, a lurching coming in his gut as gravity takes hold of them like an arrow that had become stopped mid-flight.
The dryad’s spell flies out of the plane, up toward the harpy hurtling downward, the magic gale causing the tumbling, flopping creature to messily land atop the plane, its sharp talons and clawed hands scratching and kicking everywhere as it screams, flapping its massive wings, and striking them both as he presses the throttle down, causing the Kestrel to nosedive toward the city that comes closer and closer by the second.
Pilot eyes their altitude and speed, the wind crashing against his face as a terrified animal beats against his side. Not yet.
The houses come closer and closer, and the towers and steeples of the churches become clearly distinguishable.
The smoke rising from them, the details of the people there, moving around as individuals of a swarm, and the make up of their society all come into clarity as they plummet, the wind of their descend violently pressing against him, crushing him back against the seat.
Pilot yanks on the controls, pulling the Kestrel upward, the plane roaring as it uses the momentum of its downward arc to fly back up in a slingshot.
The Kestrel wobbles, rumbling heavily as he lowers their altitude, flying back toward the valley with the canopy open at a very low speed as everything behind him starts to settle down.
A flock of harpies reforms, flying around the Kestrel as they return to the shore of the lake.
“Pilot!” yells Caretaker, looking at him.
Pilot looks down at himself and at his tattered, stained jacket. It looks like the harpy in her terror had clawed at just about everything she could reach, and that includes him.
Actually, he didn’t even notice until just now.
“I’m fine,” replies Pilot as the two of them look over at the wounded harpy, lying on the sands of the lake on her back. The other harpies have landed around her, all of them screeching and shrieking indistinctly, stamping their talons into the sands in the circle they’ve formed as they rage, fighting ghosts, by the looks of it.
Caretaker frowns, clearly not accepting of his answer, as she nonetheless turns her gaze to look at the harpies, watching them undergo their ritual. “They’re mourning her death,” explains the dryad, looking back at him as he takes off his helmet. “Not being able to fly is fatal for a bird.”
“I understand,” replies Pilot, handing Caretaker his helmet as he breaks into the circle, walking toward the wounded blue-feathered monster, looking at her and at her wing, which had been broken by the crossbow bolt. Harpies seem to have hollow bones like most birds, and the bolt hammered straight through them, only getting lodged in her body because of the sideways angle it had flown at. It sits directly between the inside edge of her wing and her shoulder blade, piercing through both fractured segments.
He turns his head, looking back at Caretaker, who stands outside the circle. Reading his questioning expression, she slowly shakes her head.
It doesn’t look like this sort of injury can be remedied easily.
Harpies live in collectives, but they must feed themselves. They warm each other, fly together, roost together, and mourn each other like losing their own sisters, but hunting is always done alone by the individuals. A harpy who can’t feed herself, even if she's part of a flock, is simply going to starve. From a human perspective, it might seem nonsensical, but the monsters appear to have a hunter culture of sorts in which the pride of the hunt is placed on the same value as a life. If you can’t hunt, you are already dead, even if your heart is still beating.
It’s too bad for her that the war that never ends doesn’t give a damn about culture. Everything gets caught in the gunfire. Nobody gets out alive.
But nobody gets out that easy either.
“You’ll be fine,” says Pilot, looking into her terrified, crying eyes. “Count to three.”
— Before she can count to one, assuming harpies can even do such a thing, she screams in pain as he grabs the bolt, breaks its head off, and yanks it out.
The other harpies scream in protest, but a pistol pointed their way goes very far in silencing them. They’ve been watching often enough to know what the object represents.
Diplomacy is a beautiful thing.
Sending Caretaker to the settlement, he has a team arrive with some tarps, and they carry the wounded harpy off to the clinic, where a few very confused and somewhat overwhelmed priestesses and medics are waiting.
He doesn’t know if the harpy will fly again. If Caretaker doesn’t think so, he’ll believe her. But that doesn’t mean the creature isn’t without merit. He’s not sure how wild or communicative harpies really are, but he’s never had the opportunity to get up close with a system-designated ‘monster’ before.
She might be a valuable asset.
The tired woman stands on the tower, holding her filthy hands against herself, her nails digging into her palms as she looks across the horizon.
Of the three cities that remain, theirs is the furthest to the east. One sister city lies to the west, and one lies to the south of here. This city used to be the greatest alchemical and scholarly hub in the nation, and now it’s just… dead.
The professor, Sinn, of a magical university that no longer exists stands in what was once her office, looking out of the wide, circular windows at all that remains of the world. The other cities are fallow and destitute, their existences marked by little more than the vague, gray shapes of their walls. Signs of fire and industry have long since been quenched.
Only the valley to the west, the heaven on the world below the limbs of the great world tree, remains full of life and movement. There, she can see birds rise into the horizon, cracks of warfare, and the hammer of powerful hammers carry across the world.
Why do they get to thrive?
Why do they get to live in a place like that, while the rest of them are locked out here, doomed to either starve or fall to the hordes of tooth and claw?
It’s not fair.
She stares out of her window at the world tree, the giant that had inspired her as a girl to learn about magic, that had motivated her to learn about healing and nature, and the complicated patterns of leylines and life-cycles of magic in the world’s history. It had always been a monument of awe and inspiration for her. It shaped her entire life’s path. She had always dreamed of one day being able to enter its forbidden valley, which repelled any and all outsiders from entering as one of the rare few to have ever done so.
She dedicated her life to it.
…And now… here she is.
Forgotten, unheard, and unseen. Her profession, life, and dreams are simply mud below its branches.
She should have never thought anything of it to begin with.
She hopes it and everyone below it — everyone who stole her dreams from her — burn down in the next fire to come.
Where the god-damned hell is Tango?
Pilot circles the valley, looking down from the sky as he flies over the thick forests and the settlement, looking for any signs of any oddity.
The goblin invasion sent scouts in advance. The undead invasion had secret infiltrators.
So surely that means the third wave has to have something too, right?
What is he missing?
— Pilot flies another round over the valley and then around its exterior. But apart from a few straggling monsters in the wild lands, the likes of which have been increasing by the day, there is nothing of note.
“I say we kill them,” barks the man, hitting his fists on the table and looking around the room, in which dozens of senior officers are sitting. They’re in a conference, all gathered at three large tables formed into a ‘U’ shape. He looks around the room, staring at the vague nods or silent mumbling faces sat there behind clasped hands. “Sitting out here, we’re dead men walking,” he explains, after waiting for somebody to voice protest. But nobody does. “But if we prepare now, if we wait until the invasion is over, until after they’re weakened and spent…” he insinuates.
“Brother Absicht,” chimes in a voice from the corner seat. An older man in chain armor sits there, leaned back, with his hands folded over his stomach. His eyelids are so droopy with wrinkles that he can barely keep his vision clear anymore. “You are suggesting that we lay siege to the world tree?”
Absicht turns his head, looking at him. “I am suggesting that we save our people!” he shouts, his voice echoing across the room. “The valley has everything we need to survive, all of us!” He looks around the room. “In the past, we know it was impossible to enter the valley. But that has changed,” explains Absicht. “The northerners took what was ours because of their cowardice and inability to defend their own walls!”
Murmurs come from around the room.
“Perhaps we should begin diplomatic engagements?” asks the man in the corner. “Send envoys.”
— Metal rattles as the speaking officer throws everything off of the table with a swipe of his arm, sending used cups and plates clattering over the stone floor. “And ask them what, do you propose?!” he snaps. “For more of their high-nosed charity?” he asks, his voice spitting.
The old man sits there, unphased. “For their brotherhood, brother Absicht,” he replies calmly. “Which they have offered us.”
“The world tree belongs to the world, not them!” declares Absicht, holding his arms out and looking away toward the rest of the crowd. “We are the majority, we are the largest city,” he explains, many eyes looking up his way and people sitting taller than they had in a while. “Does that not make it ours, then, by right?” asks the officer. “We are the world.”
There is a quiet knocking sound as someone knocks on the table with his knuckles, signaling his approval. After a moment, another joins in, and then more, as the consensus of the majority is made clear.
“Prepare our men for a march,” orders Absicht. “As soon as the invasion ends, we’re claiming what is ours.”
Metal ratchets as the machine gun is loaded, one of many.
He’s turned the Kestrel back into its prime fighting state now. But for days, it has been outfitted with additional ammunition canisters and machine guns, to allow him to duplicate the weapons, nearly doubling their number of machine guns to almost forty across the valley’s defenses — interior and exterior.
With the number of ammunition canisters they have, the full valley has about twelve minutes of uninterrupted firing time if they shoot in controlled waves, pulsing from one gun team to the next back and forth.
Two elves in military drab, the new uniforms, of which several dozen are ready, walk by, carrying a crate of landmines.
The reinforced walls are complete and ready. It was a sprint like none other. The wooden barriers have been replaced by an exterior white stone wall that is made out of massive stone fortifications from the northern city. Carved into them are several bunkers, out of which the machine guns are emplaced. Barbed wire lines the cliffs in strategic weak spots.
These stones are thick and heavy as all hell. He’s confident that they could withstand fire from an actual tank, let alone some goblins chucking spears their way.
Every entrance is secured with flagged minefields. Every entrance is covered by mortar teams on the cliffs around and behind the bunkers. The interior of the valley has several fallback firing positions as well as a few internal patrols armed with armored, gun-toting carriages. Caretaker’s guards are healed and back in fighting shape. The teams are trained and ready. Everyone has a job; everyone has a role.
Given their tight time constraints and very narrow list of situational possibilities, they’re about as ready as they can be.
But what the hell are they supposed to be ready for?
It feels like he’s walking into an ambush that he already knows is coming.
Twelve hours remain until the invasion begins.
“The skies are clear!” reports a fairy, wearing a small, waterproofed, drab uniform. The sizing was still a little off, so her sleeves are rolled up a little. “No monsters in sight.”
An elf from the side speaks. “We checked every crooked step of the forest,” he says. “Nothing, apart from a few wild slimes and things of such an inconsequential nature.”
“The caves are locked down and guarded,” reports an orc. “Nothing but rocks,” says the large man.
“The mine and the settlement too,” reports the dwarf who is next in line. “Only echoes,” he explains, shaking his head.
Pilot turns his head, looking at the dark-elf who is next. She shrugs as well. “We went down every river and across the lake a dozen times with our rafts,” she explains, frowning, her long ears wobbling as she shakes her head. “Nothing.”
He looks at Caretaker. She shakes her head. “The world tree has told me nothing.”
Pilot looks back at the battle plan they’ve drawn out on this large parchment. “Thank you all,” replies Pilot, standing there and thinking.
They have no clues or hints as to the next invasion, nothing. They’re going into a siege situation with an unknown Tango with unknown capabilities in both force projection, numbers, as well as tactics or assets. It’s a full on blind attack. But at the very least, it’s good that the valley is secure.
There’s nothing left to do. Everything is as ready as can be given the current situation.
Pilot nods, standing up straight. Caretaker steps next to him, looking around the room at the people who are essentially his officer candidates. There’s one representative from each species. Given their wildly different tactical capabilities, it seems wise to make the most of their unique biologies. Magic sure is something. “Ring the bells,” orders the dryad. “Everyone move to your positions. And please be careful,” she instructs, looking at them all. They nod to her and then look back toward Pilot, who looks back over his shoulder at them as he turns to leave.
“I’ll see you all tomorrow morning,” says the man, waving idly over his shoulder as he walks away.
Two hours remain until the invasion begins.
Pilot’s hand holds Caretaker’s face as they kiss. His hands pull free from hers as Staub and Vilena drag the dryad away; his pistol remains in her grip. A dryad’s magic is fine and all, but he finds it easier to focus on his work if she’s armed. “Okay, let’s move it along,” says Staub, rolling her eyes. “We can keep this show going when we’re done.”
“Can we?” asks Vilena as they drag Caretaker away. The dryad sadly waves to him, her heels drawing lines in the dirt as her two bodyguards pull her into the distance. She should be bunkered in the world tree, where it’s safest. But Caretaker won’t accept that, and so she’s out here again.
“Vilena, I swear,” mutters Staub as the three of them vanish down the road.
Pilot’s waving hand drops down to his side as he watches them disappear and then turns to walk the shore of the lake, where the Kestrel is waiting for him.
The man walks below the midnight moon, the eerily soft winds only barely moving the air anymore. It’s starting to feel stagnant and oppressive, almost heavy. Breathing is somewhat laborious, as the moisture in the air tonight is palpable.
— There is a crunching of boots next to him as someone moves out of the forest.
Pilot doesn’t bother looking, recognizing the sound of the gait. “Stay with the people, Luisa,” instructs Pilot.
His masked alchemist compatriot ignores him, simply walking after him as they move toward the lake. The many layers of her stacked, fabric clothing flapping around as she half-jogs to keep up with his quick, purposeful strides.
He stops, turning to look at her as she practically runs into the back of his legs. “You can’t come tonight,” he explains, grabbing her shoulder and turning her around. The many bottles on her belt clink and clatter around. He nudges her back toward the settlement, even if he knows she'll never actually go there. “It’s too dangerous.”
Pilot heads to the Kestrel alone. The machine has been converted back into its two seater fighter configuration, with all of its additional harvesting components having been removed again. He’s found this somewhat larger configuration more enjoyable than the base model, even when flying alone. The lengthened weight distribution gives the plane a smoother, less rattly feeling in the air.
His hand rests on the metal body of the plane as he climbs up the wing, popping open the freshly repaired cockpit canopy. The seat padding Caretaker had made for him is visibly stitched back together, having been shredded because of the terrified harpy that fell into the plane. He climbs in, sitting down and leaning back, just waiting there for a moment as his gaze turns toward the world tree.
Pilot picks up the radio, squawking into it for a moment before holding it up to his face. He’s not even really sure what he wants to say, honestly. Instead, he sits there for a time, and then shakes his head, clipping the receiver back into the radio.
— He picks it up again. “I’ll chop you down myself if I have to,” warns the man before hooking the receiver back in. He pulls down the canopy, tightens his straps, and begins his initial check as he waits for midnight to strike.
It’s possible, like with the goblin invasion, that the invasion will be delayed for a time, and all of this was for nothing.
But it’s also possible that it could come right now.
One minute to midnight.
Pilot flicks the Kestrel to life, checking his gages as he moves from one control to the next, the machine roaring as it readies itself for another fray, for another skirmish in the domain for which it was made. All of this organizing, building, and… feeling was complicated, messy, and confusing.
It’s time to get back to what they know.
He pushes the throttle forward, the Kestrel shooting off first toward the night but then toward the sky that begins to distort and break. Threads span across it from one horizon to the next, as if a honeycomb net were being cast around the world once again.
In his mirror, black needles pierce the sky, striking down into the world like swords being plunged into an already dead carcass.
They land dead center, breaking directly into the hearts of where the three southern cities sit.
Pilot yanks on the controls, diverting the plane and blasting toward the south, where three black pillars connect the world to the sky. The cities are all but consumed, as if lost beneath plumes of smoke. Nothing of them is visible at all.
This is bad.
— Something clicks audibly behind him. Pilot looks up in the mirror, staring at Lusia, who appears to have snuck in while he was down on the ground and messing with the radio. She’s sitting in the co-pilot’s seat.
The situation is critical. There’s no time to land and throw her out anymore now. “I want to kill monsters,” she explains as their eyes meet in the mirror.
“They’re still people,” replies Pilot.
Luisa just shakes her head, taking off her mask and setting it on her lap as she takes hold of the gun and presses her face against it. “We’re not,” is all that she replies with, as Pilot looks back down toward the horizon, not sure if he has a good reply to that.
The message pops up again a moment later.
Then, as if these two had begun the cascade, more appear. They flood the canopy, almost fully obscuring his sight of where he’s flying as hundreds and hundreds of them come into focus all around his vision.
And then thousands.
And then tens of thousands more.
By the time the countless messages fade and dissipate and his view of the night returns, the sky has become ruby red and tinged. The moon is crooked and full, as if someone had taken hold of it and turn it around at a strange angle, so that the crescent resembles a pair of a centipede’s pincers coming down to bite the world on ten-thousand unseen legs, behind which skitter ten-thousands more.
The third invasion begins.