Vilena stands there in the middle of the street, staring with wide eyes toward the night, her chest heaving violently, her breath visible as vapors that travel through the cold night as she watches the dancing lights fly above their heads. Thousands of spells collide from all sides, and the ground around her explodes as lobbed attacks crash down in and all around the valley, illuminating it fully with chaotic magic both above and within it. Trees break apart, stones from the walls shatter, and dirt and mud fly through the air, caking her face together with the blood that flies with it from those who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“They’re breaking through!” yells a man’s voice, carrying through the midnight air, filled with as many bursts of fire as there are stars in the sky above. “Fall back! Fall back!” he shouts.
— There is a hissing as an unusual red light blasts up into the sky. A signal flare is fired, together with the sounding of many horns, to sound the alarm to the eastern wall and all internal defenders that the defense is moving inward.
The world spins; everything is filled with streaks of vivid color as she stands there like a wide-eyed child, staring, lost, at the sight of the fairy lights dancing above her head. It all blurs together, swirling in her vision, the same as the voices of everyone all around her. They’re all… jumbled and inaudible. Everything from her sight to her hearing is all one big splotchy mess, like a palette of oil paints that have fallen to the ground and blended together; they have become inseparable and indistinguishable in their individualities.
“Dig her the hell out!” yells Staub as the soldiers work, heaping away rubble. The dark-elf yanks on the arms of the world tree’s caretaker, who was buried beneath the collapsed bunker. “Fuck!” shouts the dark-elf. “Vilena!” she cries.
But Vilena doesn’t hear her in any sense that matters. Her eyes are full of fire as she watches the world around her cascade and burn in the great inferno, and she just smiles and laughs and laughs, as she’s been doing the entire time.
The gate buckles inward.
“Get her to the god-damned cart! MOVE!” orders Staub, as the soldiers pull a mostly unresponsive Caretaker out of the rubble. “VILENA!”
But Vilena is lost to the enchantment, the sensations, the sights, and the feelings that have entranced her as she walks forward, drawn toward the glow of hellfire that breaks through the massive gap forming in the gate like a moth toward light, through which thousands of red arms and faces press themselves, squeezing through the gap as the witch of ruby fire stands there, trails of machine gun blazing past her sides.
Metal ticks inside his vest’s breast pocket.
Screams fill the air, their harrowing cries indistinguishable from the screeching of metal and the howling of beasts as everything comes to hellfire. Men run, carrying within their arms their children, which are hunted by their corrupted mothers, who have taken the bargain out of fear of not being able to protect their own. Brothers descend over one another, exchanging claw and sword between their cores, as long held back battles of familial integrity are brought to the forefront by the demon compact. The city is turned to rubble, window by window and door by door, as all things coherent, whether they are made of wood and stone or blood and flesh, are made undone.
The boy runs, stumbling over a corpse, catching himself, and hurrying past the infernos that break out a thousand shattered windows as he pushes into an alley.
“Take the deal! Take the deal! Take the deal!” screams a woman’s voice. A red, bloated mess of a figure is sitting on top of a mushy remnants of a beaten in and broken corpse that she continues to pummel over and over with unnatural strength that breaks the stones of the road below them. The face and breast area of the victim both have been broken and fully destroyed, having been so thoroughly mashed that there is nothing resembling a human left there, barring the pendant around the victim's neck that is covered in flayed meat — one and the same as the sister demon who is sitting on him is wearing.
She turns her head, looking at the boy.
He screams, running the other way as all around him spells explode, taking people and everything that they have made with them. Others scream not from mutilation and death but because they accept the terms of the agreement offered by the black contract. Those who are terrified of death, those who are terrified of living beneath its endless shadow for so long, those who are simply tired of being weak, hungry, and afraid, those who need power to protect who and what they claim to love — they all take the deal. All of them and so many more hold their rupturing bodies as they writhe and claw over the stones of the city’s roads and squares. Nails break as they try to dig grooves into cobblestones as they wretch in agony, their bodies bursting and rupturing as they change. Their sinew snaps and reties itself; their teeth fall out and regrow dozens and dozens of times, leaving mounds of yellow and white pebbles below their drooling and screaming faces; their eyes bulge and burst as the blood vessels inside of them rupture from the pressure; and their skin peels and rips as if burned by the sun a thousand times over. Like worms pretending to be people, they flail on the ground of the city around him as he runs, their twisted, breaking bodies leaving streaks of juice as they crawl, unable to find anyone to undo the bleak choice they have made.
— And then there are those who rise up after the process has ended, changed, different in both body and composure, leaving nothing left that was once human apart from empty sacks of skin floating in cold broths of bile, blood, and waste.
Just the same, those who remain as they are, unchanged, fight or run for their lives — the latter living noticeably longer than the former, but only because demons enjoy the hunt itself as much as the kill.
Everything is a blur; everything is a haze as the boy runs on pure instinct, not sure where he’s going, only vaguely following the stream of people who are running toward the north. One by one, they’re snatched from the sides of the street and pulled into the grasp of chasing hunters. Others, terrified of the death about to face them, take the deal themselves at the last second as they are descended upon by the red creatures. The red of their bodies is hardly distinguishable from the fire, as if the world ending blaze had come to consume them all, having grown flesh and bones itself as cruel avatars of its hunger.
Along the northern gate, hundreds of people are running, trying to flee the city. But the area is under heavy siege from both sides. Demons are attacking the gatehouse from the inside of the city, and also hounding it and those who escape from the exterior.
A clawed hand grabs him from behind.
The boy yells as the world spins and he’s thrown across the ground, tumbling violently as he collides with a heap of rubble. Dazed, the panting boy looks up, watching as a red blob of a silhouette moves toward him, its features, its eyes, all of its intent focused toward him as it begins to channel a crackling spell around its broken hands, which it then lifts toward him as he covers his face in terror.
— A crack like thunder cuts the air, and the fighting all around the field stops for a brief flash of an instant as a thousand eyes all turn to look at the source and see as the single demon is ruptured cleanly through by a cylindrical burst of concentrated magic that presses through, exploding against a house down the street.
Five blasts more of the same type follow, and the entity falls back, pierced and killed, smoldering, with clearly gaping wounds covering its torso. The holes sit there, as if six angel's rapiers had been pressed through its breast. Someone drops down next to the boy, holding out a rod of iron and wood, the hammering of war coming again and again as others land too. Demons fall one after the other all around the siege of the northern gate.
A masked face looks down his way, from not that far up, actually. A fairy, draped in black clothing. “Boy. What’s your name?” asks the fairy, looking down at him, grabbing his vest, and yanking him up as high as he can.
“NAME!” screams the masked face at the boy as everything around them erupts. The fairy's hand reaches down, fishing through his own pockets, searching for something.
“UHRMACHER!” replies the terrified boy, screaming through closed eyes.
The fairy lets him go and pulls out a piece of paper from his chest, reading a name on a list. “We have him,” says the fairy, looking at his circle of people. “Six. Status?”
“Sir! The hexogen charges are ready!” barks a masked fairy, setting something on fire after the leader nods to her. A flame hisses as it begins to travel down a long string. The fairy in charge whistles, spinning a hand, before lifting his weapon and shooting the head off of a man who was in mid-transformation in the middle of the street.
Four small pairs of hands wrap ropes around the boy, tying him up like a prisoner. Confused, he struggles and fights, as he’s tied up and lifted into the air by four of the fairies as the other two fly up, shooting down at the demons as spells blast up toward them and toward the remaining defenders as survivors streak out toward the north by the hundreds. He kicks and tries to fight himself free as they rise into the air, high above the city’s walls and high above the fires that try to reach up for him as if to claw him back down their way. They rise higher, fly further. Down below them, thousands of bodies stream out of the city in all directions. Some are changed and turned, others are not.
The boy is freighted off toward the north-west, toward the world tree valley.
The other fairy to their side continues counting down as she had been doing, until she reaches zero. “— IMPACT!”
The whole flying formation tightens up, holding together, as a powerful shockwave suddenly rumbles through the air like the voice of an ancient dragon as they fly back out of the needle of the invasion. A great plume reaches toward the sky. The north-western half of the city’s defenses, where thousands and thousands of demons had been streaking out of, is swallowed by a black cloud so massive that it reaches the height of the needles themselves, as if offering them a counter.
Then, not a minute later, come more such explosions, as the other two cities in the distance are met with blasts of the same nature. Flocks of black-clad, masked fairies fly out of the smoke, carrying various bodies with them as they offer high value individuals the opportunity of priority extraction compared to everyone else on the ground who has to run for their lives themselves.
Professors, highly skilled artisans, tactical masters, and socially renowned individuals who everyone has heard of given their talents or knowledge that will be needed by the valley to restore society are pulled from the smoke as pieces of smoldering rubble and destroyed limbs rain back down to the burning world below.
The whistling comes to Vilena's ears as she stands there with her arms out at her sides, spellbound beneath the ominous novelty of the stars crashing down on the world from the heavens above.
— Everything around her explodes, the mortar shells bursting around the gatehouse as demons push into the valley like water through a broken floodgate, stepping past its first row of defenses and into the waiting nests of gunners only one row further back. Flayed pieces of red bodies fly this way and that as the enemy creates new rows of barriers, pushing into the valley with shields made out of magic that absorb the heavy gunfire as they cast new attacks one after the other, lobbing them over the barriers to eliminate one bunker after the other. Mounted auxiliary pushes from the east, a carriage hurtling past, wildly circling the encroaching mass as an elf stands on an interlinked array of quad machine guns, firing into the mess of enemies as explosions trail after the carriage, which almost careens over from its own momentum as the animals pulling sprint through the anarchy. There is so much fire, so much light, and so many shines and glows, sights and sounds, that Vilena is as lost in it all as if she were one and the same as the spectacle that the ten-thousand stars of the night sky watch from above.
A body tackles her, a fist striking into her jaw as a lanky demon presses in through an opening, the two of them tumbling over the scorched, blood soaked mud as they fight, one of them screaming and writhing with teeth and claws, and the other just laughing in delirium as she sees nothing else except for a memory.
Vilena wrestles her way on top, fully ignoring the demon claws tearing into her side, blood pouring out of her torso as she holds her hands over its mouth that is biting furiously into her suffocating palm. The glow inside of the demon's cheeks becomes apparent as it begins to shine behind its eyes and ears. Vilena watches as the body below her writhes and spasms, flailing and cutting, and screaming beneath her muffling grip over its face as fire pours out of her hands over its lips, pours down its throat, and into its cooking body that kicks and fights with the mud below itself as she does nothing else but stare into its pupils, watching them as they shine, as they glow alight like fireflies in the darkness.
The head below her ruptures, its skull cracking as the pressure of the boiled brain inside the cranium blasts it open from the inside out. She falls forward, her palms dropping into the hissing mud below, resting on fragments of splayed bone and indiscriminate mush.
— Panting, Vilena looks around herself, watching as the world explodes in a thousand places and is cut in a thousand places more. Beautiful fire travels the distance from here to as far as the horizon spans like a hidden road toward the secret of paradise. And ten-thousand demons pour in through the gaping wound of the valley, streaming like blood through a wound that hasn’t finished cauterizing all the way through. Rising to her feet, Vilena screams as she holds her hands to her sides, her burning palms pressing fire into her freshly flayed stomach and ribs, causing the bleeding wounds to burn shut from the horrific heat, sweat, and breath leaving her body at the same pace as falling blood as she comes to see that she’s surrounded within the enemy mess.
What did he say? Pilot. He had said something about her fire back at the hospital.
The machine gun nests have pulled back further and further into the valley, the mortar explosions have moved forward, and all of the defenders have fallen back.
She’s the last one here, and there isn’t anywhere left to go. She's essentially the last one left, now within enemy lines.
But Vilena isn’t close to being in a state to think about things like that. The fire has her in its captivity, as it always has done, ever since her bedwetting childhood. It had kept her safe back then, burning away the faces of the things that hurt her in exchange for the flames hurting her themselves. That is the bargain the fire gave her, and she has never left its abusive embrace, as often as it burns her, marks her, scars her, and wounds her. Because these are marks she has allowed to be made, she agrees to receive them. Back then, when the fire first came to her, it was the trade of voluntary abuse of the flames against the involuntary abuse of a person.
Fire is the opposite of control, and yet it gave her exactly this. Fire lets her erase the things that hurt her and lets her choose to hurt herself instead. The end result is the same in a way, but it’s different because it’s her choice to get there. A mark for a mark, but she chooses the hand that brands it.
Vilena channels everything into her grasp, the fire rising up her arms, the skin of her wrists and forearms blistering and scalding black as it rises to touch them, as she looks around herself at ten-thousand demons who press on in a forward tide, with several having formed a closing circle around her. But she doesn’t see them. She only sees the flames and what dances between them — the wavering, shifting air that is pushed aside by the heat, creating a shimmering mirage.
Pilot had told her that she could create stronger fires, more potent reactions if she mixed more oxygen into her spells. Fire eats air, but the more it can eat and the more fuel it has, the faster and hotter it can grow. The conflagration all around her conspires to do just that, her magic weaving through between the feet of the lunging encroachers as a blast of a heatwave crushes in toward the center of the ring all at once, a rush of oxygen, pushed by the directed heat of a hundred blazes, pressing toward her at once in a perfect circle.
Vilena lifts her blackened, wildly burning hands, reaching for the stars as she shines as brightly as she can in her effort to make them jealous.
— A spark ignites.
The horizon is no longer out of reach.
Staub screams a name as her voice is overpowered by the roar that cascades through the red valley as ignition, the likes of which the world has never seen, shoots toward the stars like an arc of lightning cast from the world up toward the heavens above as vengeance for their misdeeds.
— The shockwave breaks down an endless line of trees, the forest breaking second for second as it shoots their way. Red air flows like the waters of a tsunami.
Staub watches as a hundred men are sent flying like a flock of blackbirds and then as the world itself starts to spin as she too becomes one of them, her feet leaving the ground as she rises toward the firmament of heaven.
The carriage flips over, tumbling and rolling down the hillside. She’s sent flying, rolling down toward the waters of the lake, only barely managing to pull herself into a ball as she’s flung roughly down toward the shore. The carriage smashes into a tree, along with the coachman, who breaks his body on a rock. Her senses spin, her sense of orientation fully lost, as she looks around herself for a moment, watching as soldiers regather in their broken formations, men running this way and that way carrying pikes, and others setting up machine guns with the little ammunition that’s left — most are shot empty.
The red tide crests over the ledge of the hill, running through the fire, and as many as remain are still pressing forward, having broken in through both the south and the east.
Delirious, Staub rises to her feet, watching as the unorganized defenders fall into the latest melee.
The dark-elf looks to the right, toward the carriage, returning to her senses. She runs, sprinting over toward the wrecking and trying to find Caretaker in the mess of it all, as the crystal shoreline of the lake is glassed behind her with unnaturally potent magic.
— Something swoops out of the sky, a winged demon pressing its claws into her back and slamming her down into the water as it rips at her.
Pilot turns the Kestrel, pulling the trigger and firing a stream of bullets through the body of a flying demon that falls apart into two separate halves, his burst protecting the squad of fairies that is evacuating a priority target to the valley. The plane spins in a spiral as it weaves between the vectors of two other combatants. The lower machine gun blazes, as Luisa fires behind them, shooting after their pursuers. They’re persistent but easily dealt with. Except for that one big one.
— The Kestrel lurches, losing its grace. Pilot looks into the mirror, seeing that a chunk of the left wing is missing, and the plane is shifting drastically toward the left.
The internal canister of stored raw materials is depleted as the plane regenerates a section of its wing very slowly.
His eyes find the valley, which is glowing like a ruby.
The plane lurches, its weight unbalanced. He looks to the right, seeing the demon that has latched onto the wing, tearing into it with its claws. The man takes the plane into a rapid dive, spinning wildly before pulling up a second later and flinging the monster off. It crashes down into the mess of a broken, barren, ashen world below.
“It’s empty!” yells Luisa, the machine gun clicking as she pulls the trigger again.
He opens his map, looking at the locations of everyone inside the valley. The defense has shifted inward and Caretaker…
— Pilot yanks on the controls, diverting the plane north-west in an instant, pushing the throttle down as he speeds back toward the valley, a heavy shadow barreling after them.