A fire can only burn for as long as there is fuel for it to consume. Much the same, the war that never ends may only proceed onward forevermore because there is tinder for it to greedily gorge itself on. As long as there are fresh bodies to throw into the kiln, as long as there is unscorched land that belongs to this side or that side, and as long as there are intents that stand in contrast with one another, with wills behind them strong enough to force them both onward, the battles will continue day and night without pause. The moon will rise and the sun will fall, and the number of eyes available to see these happenings will reduce day after day after day as the machinations of carnage work them down into indiscernable mush.
What causes the invasions against the world?
— There is a sound of stone grinding against stone as something is worn down.
The invading monsters themselves are a direct threat; the enemy — Tango. But what is the central power behind their birth into the dead world? Who or what decides when the invasions begin and when they are over? The scholars and the holy people of the many faiths of the world that remain are at odds with one another, each claiming the fault lies with this devil, that god, or anything at all that can be named, really. Nobody knows, and so there is no target to strike against. There is no enemy command center or nation.
The true enemy, the unknown force that lies behind the creation of the black needles of the invasion, has yet to be named or identified.
However, it remains certain that as long as this hidden entity exists, it will continue to press forward its bleak will to destroy everything that remains — to eradicate everyone in the valley, to destroy the world tree, and to kill its last caretaker.
— A soft clinking can be heard.
Even with this enemy’s best attempts thus far having been thwarted, it is unlikely to stop. The situation will only intensify from here on out. But if anything has been proven by all of this anarchy, it is that there is still hope.
The people of all cities have been crushed and pushed back, but the tide of the black tsunami has now crashed against a resolute, deeply rooted mountain and lost its terrible momentum and energy. The enemy has been repelled, their advance halted, and that means the enemy isn’t infallible. It is an enemy that can be beaten. Be it by gunfire, by magic, or by the force of a hand pressing forward on the blade of a knife, it can be beaten. A fire can only burn as long as it has fuel. The invasions must be sourced from somewhere; if either this well of monsters can be depleted or if the kingpin of the invasions can be identified and neutralized, the mission to defend the valley will be a success.
Until then, the war that never ends will just need to churn out through its contingents of bodies and souls, as it always has done.
The man with black boots sits on the edge of the bed, holding the stone mortar bowl in his hands, inside of which is a green poultice — a medicinal blend of herbs mushed into a paste. Dabbing his cleaned hands into it, Pilot begins applying the ointment to Caretaker’s wounds, which have been healed shut by magic but have not healed fully to closure. There are simply things that magic cannot do or, if attempted, would be too dangerous. Magic can heal wounds, but it is often indiscriminate in its effects if not applied with surgical precision. Skin can fuse together wrongly, ruptured organs can ‘seal’ themselves again by sticking to other organs instead of growing closed as individual pieces of a body, and broken bones can mend by solidly fusing together rather than healing as individual sections. Falsely applied magical healing has led to untold numbers of horrors across the world, just as gruesome as any wound.
“…Pilot,” mutters Caretaker, weakly opening her eyes to look at him.
Pilot dabs a finger against her forehead, pushing her head back down. “Sit still,” he instructs.
Not that she has much choice. Her muscles are ripped to shreds; the bulging roots of the world tree tore into her thighs and arms, ripping the red meat from the bone and tearing many strands of sinew, pulling free many ligaments. She wasn’t just pierced; she was ruptured.
That moment when they landed from the sky, he essentially had to hold a random priest at gunpoint to pull the stranger out of his shellshock and get him to stop the dryad’s wild bleeding. For days now, she's been teetering on the edge, her tanned skin so unusually pale from blood loss that she looks like she’s been underwater for months on end. Since then, she’s been here below the world tree in the den, fully out of commission. He’s been tending to her, much the same as she had done for him during those days back when they first met.
The dryad looks at him as he applies the ointment to her external wounds, staring at him for a time as he quietly dabs on the medicine. “Remember when you were hurt last time?” she asks, speaking after a minute of silence. She tries and fails to lift an arm, wincing. It simply doesn’t respond to her desire for it to move. “You said ‘we need to stop meeting this way’?” she asks weakly, rolling her head in his direction but closing her eyes again.
“Mm,” replies Pilot.
“You were right,” remarks Caretaker.
Pilot sits there and squeezes her hand as she doses back off into whatever delirious version of sleep her heavy medication is dragging her down into. “I wasn’t,” he replies. “We will meet again this way tomorrow.”
She smiles as she drifts back to wakelessness. “Then I’m… glad…” replies Caretaker, her words fading away as he holds her hand, watching her chest slowly rise and fall as she returns to a state of healing.
The valley as a whole has been fundamentally changed, with the entire landscape having been ripped from the ground and risen up toward the sky at a height of several hundred meters. The roots of the world tree, pressed up high and deep, gnarl around its edges like a thick bramble briar. The rotting corpses of countless dead demons hang stuck in thorns and spikes high up in the air, where they are picked clean by the feasting birds of the world like macabre, functionless scarecrows. The valley is no longer a valley. It is a mesa that rises above the dead world like a fortress.
Atop this new, flat mountain that was once the valley, huge swathes of the forest are flattened and destroyed, thousands and thousands of trees having been ripped out by the gale winds, crushed, and exploded by the stray wildfire present during the invasion. The rivers remaining atop the new mesa are partially jammed and dammed by broken debris and rubble, with the water flooding the areas and creating marshy wetlands in some sections. Other rivers pour out and over the edge of the valley’s exterior, creating sapphire waterfalls along its outside, the water flooding out endlessly into the ashlands beyond the last fortress sanctuary of all that lives. The great lake present in the core of the valley is almost abyssally deep now, having been split and cracked by the great quake. The water that has rushed in to fill it from around the world carries with it an icy chill of death. The lake, despite being atop this new mountain with its rivers now flowing outward, never empties. Fresh water pours endlessly out of a broken hole below the roots of the world tree, higher still than all the rest of the region on its hill that still remains. A new, massive waterfall roars down the peak on which it sits, feeding into the lake with only a partial runoff of the millions and millions of gallons that the giant tree pulls in from all around the world through its impossibly deep roots. All around the mesa, caves have broken and collapsed, and others have emerged. Everything has shifted one way or another. The peaceful forest he has come to know and understand is an entirely different place now. If before it had resembled a perfect natural utopia, it now resembles the bleak, black forests told of in old childhood stories, in which witches live below the dark canopies and hungry wolves prowl after the scampering feet of wayward children. The magic of the world tree remains, but it is now different in aura and sensation — darker, older. There is a strange primality to the air in the region now, as if they were breathing in the smell of a decayed body pulled out of an ancient sarcophagus.
Yet, from the blackened ashes that scorched the valley where demon fire had burned, already fresh sprouts have emerged, pressing toward the bright blue sky above. The fish of the lake jump out of the water, splashing as they chase the same sunspots they have always chased. Birds fly across the sky in swarms, as they have always done. And people, one way or another, find their way much the same way. Life continues on as it always has, just somewhat differently now.
Pilot walks through the settlement, people hardly having time to cheer for him this time as there is simply so much to do.
“The logistics of the living situation are still underway,” explains the librarian, Schtill, as he walks with her through a series of emergency shelters that are being built. Bunk housing is being erected a hundredfold a day using the fallen wood from the invasion. The people are well at work, with little rest, like there was after the second invasion. “Everything is mapped out and planned,” explains the elf. “Nobody is building anywhere except where I say so,” she notes, looking around the area. “Most importantly,” she starts, looking up at him. “I’ve sent special teams to retrieve every single book that they can salvage from the southern cities,” explains the librarian. A group of black-clad fairies fly through the air toward the horizon.
“Good. We'll need them,” remarks Pilot, nodding. He thinks for a while, trying to find the right words. “Much knowledge has been lost,” he explains after a moment, looking down toward her. “We must preserve everything we can.”
Schtill looks at him for a moment and then nod, clutching the large ledger against herself with both hands as she looks away, lowering her hood. She stares toward the ground. “Food supplies are being rationed out to everyone. We’ve begun creating identification papers for…”
This goes on for a time.
Pilot walks after her as she goes over the list of details that they’ve been working on together, which have now slowly begun to become reality. Given the massive influx of new bodies who entirely outnumber the original people of the valley from the north, there is no choice now but to fully charge ahead into the creation of a tightly run civilization inside the valley. A ‘settlement’ won’t do. They need something bigger than that. They need something industrial — a city. Housing, logistics, paperwork, schooling, training, employment, and, of course, civil defense, for numbers of this scale, are all going to be developed and running at full speed. The next invasion is only in one month, and he really has a mess of a situation to deal with this time.
He doesn’t know if there is anything in the world other than the world tree region that can be called 'civilization'. But if there isn’t, which is plausible, then they need to preserve what remains of such a concept here.
Some tens of thousands of people remain alive, thousands are ill, wounded, elderly, or too young to even understand what has happened to the old world that they will never know.
Weapons must be produced for every pair of hands, a roof for every family, a bed for every body, and rations for every stomach. Tensions between the survivors of every faction must be eased and amended. It must be made clear that they are all one whole now, rather than separate parties. Every single person here is no longer from the south, the north, or anywhere else. Everyone of them is now a person with black boots and a gray uniform. The fragile green emerald floating in a sea of endless blackness, which is all that remains of existence, must be protected at any cost.
Unfortunately for a man like him, the safety of civilization requires a lot of dry bureaucracy.
“— And of course, as part of the new logistics protocols, if anyone needs monster blood or bullets, they’ll have to sign this form in triplicate,” explains Schtill, showing him a piece of paper. “One for the borrower, one for us, and one for the archive.”
He can’t help but assume that he isn’t exempt from this rule.
Pilot stops, turning his head toward the medical tent, as a pair of priests in gray uniforms run past, carrying a stretcher with a wounded man.
— Someone screams a ghastly scream from inside of it.
“Oh, right,” says Schtill. “Those things you ordered are done,” she explains, digging into a small pouch on her belt.
“I told you it would hurt!” says the chipper woman’s voice, carrying around the tent. Dozens of heads turn, lifted up from the pillows of just as many beds, as all of the wounded in the medical center try to see what’s happening next to them.
“This is very unorthodox!” shouts a priestess, yanking on the gown of the bald woman who is sitting on top of the back of a dark-elf’s legs. The dark-elf's exposed back has two clear, fresh burn marks in the shape of a pair of spread hands on them. “Please get off of her!”
“Huuh?” asks the patient, turning her head. Her annoyed expression, which is hard to decipher given her clear lack of eyebrows, shifts in an instant. “Pilot!” says the woman excitedly.
The priestess turns toward him. “Pilot!” she complains. “This patient is delirious and hurting the others! Help me restrain her!”
“You could try doing it yourself,” suggests Vilena, sitting on Staub's back as she leans in toward the holy woman. The priestess yanks her hands away from Vilena, letting go of the fabric of her medical gown.
“It’s fine,” says the wincing dark-elf, who is lying face down on the bed with Vilena. Staub rolls her head to the side. “I told her to cauterize it,” she explains. “Stupid demon wounds are taking too long to heal.” She rolls her head, looking down toward him. “Pilot.”
“Well, now that burn has to heal instead!” argues the priestess. “It’ll get infected!” she argues. "The air is still full of pollutants!"
“Vilena, Staub,” greets Pilot, walking in toward them. He nods to the priestess, thinking for a second. “I’ll handle this.”
The priestess looks at him and then at them, before tsking and walking away.
“I did it just like you said, Pilot!” says Vilena, clasping her hands together. “Pulled away all of the air around my body. The fire didn’t even come close!” explains the heavily burned, hairless, and red sorceress, her skin peeling like an overly enthusiastic lizard’s as she looks at him with a sparkle in her eyes. “There’s enough of my body left for you to have!”
“Vilena, get off of me, you sick freak,” barks Staub. She looks at Pilot. “I’m sorry. She’s touched in the head,” says the dark-elf, looking his way. “You understand.”
“I have someone already,” replies Pilot, holding out a small satchel and opening it.
“I still don’t mind shari-,” argues Vilena, getting punched in the side of her gut by Staub, who hits directly on a burn wound. Vilena howls, clenching the spot and falling over, rolling around next to the dark elf as she holds her side, kicking her legs out in pain.
He clears his throat, speaking loudly. “Vilena, Staub,” says Pilot, pulling out two silver talismans attached two a short, flared red ribbon. “For your services in the defense of the valley, you are being awarded with these special commendations,” he says, presenting them the medals, reciting the line had had Schtill teach him.
Coughing, the peeling sorceress lifts her gaze and talks through a pained gasp. “But… Staub literally didn’t do anyt-” Vilena’s sentence is cut short by the vicious howl that carries through the air as Staub punches her again in the same spot. The fire sorceress flops down, rolling off of the bed and onto the floor, spasming and clutching her bleeding side. The harpy they had captured, who is still healing from her wounds, begins to shriek and flop around because of the noise.
— The priestess comes back and throws him out for causing a ruckus.
As he leaves, a team comes in after him, carrying a small chest full of similar but different medals that he had put in a special order to be made with the highest priority. Everyone who was wounded in the defense of the valley gets one. Along with some other special commendations that were made for people who shone particularly brightly for those around them.
Medals are more than just shiny trinkets. They serve to act as markers of social proof that a person’s efforts have been seen and taken note of. They serve to fortify these actions mentally, acting as an encouragement to continue this productive behavior in the future. They are cheap to make, but are powerful morale boosters.
Armies for centuries have utilized medals to help motivate their soldiers, and, given the intentness of the many wounded who were previously lying slack and limp, it seems to be working.
The water of the lake churns in and out, the gentle tide that it once held having now become much more forceful. Waves move back and forth, practically akin to that of an ocean, as the great mass of water is disturbed by some greater force that lies now beneath its deeply cracked basin. The power of the magic moving through the world tree’s massive roots — some of which are now submerged rather than buried — leaks into the lake. The magical current disrupts the tranquility of the water, which now never really fully comes to rest save for a few distant patches.
Pilot stands there, where the Kestrel would usually be waiting for him, and looks out toward the black hole on the side of the world tree, the scorch mark that is ringed by jagged metal and ash even now. What remains of the Kestrel is firmly lodged in there, high, high up in the heights, and will not be able to be retrieved.
As he stands there on the shoreline, the crashing of the waves is interrupted by the familiar sound of someone walking his way over the crystal sands of the lake. Although, some sections have been turned to literal glass by the fighting and the power of many violent spells.
Pilot turns his head, looking at Luisa, wearing her many layers of garb as always. Her mask is up, letting him see her chemically scarred and burned face. However, instead of being barefoot, she has on a pair of black boots, much like his own. He can only assume she pilfered them sometime from the stockpile, as she never goes into the settlement. He’s not really sure why that is, but for whatever reason, she has burned out from being around the others in any capacity, always choosing to stay by herself in the forest day and night.
She turns, looking together with him at the speck on the body of the world tree that makes up the Kestrel’s wreckage.
“How long do we have?” she asks, already being a step ahead of him. He hasn’t told her a single thing about his plan, but Luisa is clever. She knows what he’s up to. “I want to kill more monsters.” Pilot looks down at the girl, who has her priorities right, and then toward the nearby forest, where there are stacks upon stacks of empty ammunition canisters that he had plundered from the plane’s ever-regenerating body. A lot of the stockpile was damaged in the battle, but there is a lot left, more than enough.
There is more there than just ammunition.
He and Luisa had been very busy before the invasion began. Engines, sheets of metal, propellers, fuel tanks, fuselages, whole wings, wires, nuts, bolts, pistons, and everything else that could be removed from the Kestrel had been removed from the Kestrel, day after day after day. There are enough spare parts to build a new one; hell, there are enough spare parts to build three or four new ones and then some.
And they’ll be doing exactly that and then a little something more. Who says that the engines need to be used in planes alone? Lots of things use engines. Trucks, tanks, and railways.
The war that never ends does exactly this because both sides are always evenly matched. But maybe it’s time to shift the balance a little. Tango threw a surprise their way, now it's time to throw something back.
“Never long enough,” replies Pilot. She and him — the first of this world's many men and women with black boots to come — walk over the ashes of the countless dead that rest now forevermore below the colossal shadow of the world tree, setting to their grim work.