“Tango, Tango, Tango,” calls an almost bored, drone-like, emotionless voice over the radio. The lifelessness of the expression stands in full contrast with the soul-breaking anarchy happening in the background of the broadcast — screams and gunfire. “E.T.A Five minutes.”
The heavy thundering of a dozen drumbeats fills the air, one strong pulse after the other shaking her to the core from her boots up to her skull. The black hood over her head presses her matted hair down flat. A sweltering heat radiates around the metal cabin of the vehicle, the long, angled rectangular machine roaring as it soars through the air for a moment, its treads leaving the ashen soil of a dune that it barrels across. The hooded woman wearing a white wooden mask holds onto the safety railing, bracing herself as her gut flies up toward her heart as they leave the ground for that split second. Her boots pull free from the metal floor for a moment as she flies, like most everyone else inside next to her.
A dozen people, all strapped into their seats on the inside of the speeding armored personnel carrier, sit there, their boots lifting from the ground from the momentum of the lift as they ready their rifles. The crack of thunder strikes out from the central firing position, the vehicle that they're all inside of being equipped with a single central .50 caliber heavy auto-cannon that is aimed toward the sky.
— A scream cuts the air as they land, the bodies inside of the cabin jostling around from side to side, the gunning position finding itself empty all of a sudden. They all look toward the vertical, half open tube in the center of the vehicle on which a man was standing a second ago. He's not flying out from his spot because of the bouncing. They only have time to watch his feet kick as he’s dragged out from above and vanishes out to the other side.
She waves her hand, two people running to the back door of the moving vehicle, fastening themselves in to a series of hooks with corded straps as they aim their rifles and hit a button, the back of the vehicle groaning as a door begins to open vertically. “Cover me,” she orders, yelling over the roar of the twin engines. The rear ramp of the vehicle folds down outward inch by inch, revealing a barren, dead landscape in all directions that they shoot across. Fine, sooty ash is kicked up in strong clouds as they soar over the landscape, the ramp gliding over the ashlands as the two strapped in men in the back begin firing their rifles up toward the sky that is full of black clouds.
Her boot thunks against the tube, the vertical, now emptied cylinder that sits firmly in the center of the transporter. The gunner's position, that is now empty. Popping her head out of the open top, she grabs hold of the auto-cannon's two handles, her eyes darting around the landscape for a moment. Six other vehicles of the same make and model roar across the wastelands in a tight formation. Their rigid, sharply angled metal bodies are covered in engraved and painted runes and sigils of the old magics.
The 'Aplomado' is a dual treaded, armored personnel carrier built to favor all terrain mobility with a full cabin over anything else. In a tight line, ten men can sit shoulder to shoulder on two rows each, along with the driver, the navigator, who sits in their half-separated compartment, and the gunner, who has the luxury of standing alone in the tube. Each Aplomado is equipped with one single .50 caliber auto-cannon. This heavier weapon was preferred over the Kerzenzünder machine guns given the lower rate of fire and, thus, the, smaller ammunition capacities that needed to be stored on board, making room for one extra person each. If one were inclined to make it uncomfortable, you could probably force a good thirty people into each vehicle if you stacked their bodies like crates.
The gun ratchets as she turns it, aiming it toward the tracer filled sky, where a headless carcass is being carried off by a taloned monster.
“We’re coming in hot,” says a voice over the speaker to her side, built into the machine. Each Aplomado is outfitted with several plundered radios. “Visual. Gunner, clear us a path.”
“Confirmed,” she replies, firing the .50 caliber across the sky, the gun roaring as she drags it from body to body, cutting one shape after the other out of the blob that makes up the cloud cover above the world. A black swarm hangs in the air. She turns her head and the gun toward the front, looking as they roar in toward a mass that moves over the ground — bodies. All of them press forward, pressing in toward a single settlement that remains out in the wastelands. In the middle of nothing, a town has managed to survive, like many others, only to now become the target of an invasion. The metal around her shakes as she fires, one brass shell after the other flying out into the wastelands past her field of vision as the mass ahead of them is ripped apart.
The seven APCs diverge from their formation, breaking off toward the left and the right, mowing through hundreds of screaming monsters — insectoids and other malignancies of a corrupted natural creation. Their APC, however, barrels straight onward, directly toward the town’s gate, plowing over dozens of chitenous carcasses as she flattens them in advance with heavy machine gun fire straight ahead.
Cracks and crunches fill the air as the APC slips and grinds over mounds of rigid, chittering carcasses. The air around her lights up, the Aplomado glowing vividly orange. She ducks down immediately, grabbing the hatch and pulling it closed as the barrage of nature-magic spells thrown by the enemy explodes against the side of the vehicle, the runic protection carved into it dispelling the damage of the enemy assault. The superheated metal around her hisses nonetheless, as drops of her sweat fall down and onto it.
“Deploy,” she orders into the hot radio, the navigator pressing a switch and then relaying the order over the radio, her voice cascading from one Aplomado over to the next.
Several heavy, metal canisters roll off from the sides of her vehicle, tumbling and barreling through several small bodies, crushing them, before the hissing of a great serpent comes to ear. Blue, pressurized gas violently shoots out in all directions from the canisters that they let fall. The same thing happens near the other six Aplomados, who have begun driving circles around the burning settlement. A ring of nebulous, vividly blue colored gas forms like a wall of fog around the survivorship, the APCs sealing themselves shut to avoid leaks into the vehicles. Thousands of monsters claw and tear at the machines as they roar past, trying to grab hold of the open ramp as the rear gunners fire down into the mass, blue gas leaking inwardly toward their black boots.
“Brace for impact!” warns the driver, the soldiers around her readying their guns as she holds onto the railing.
They speed up, flying forward with a violent burst as there, within the heart of the mechanical beast, the mechanism roars.
Everything around them erupts, crashing and cascading down as they ram the gates of the township at full speed, hammering through the fragile defenses with the Aplomado. Wood and metal splinter and fly all around them as the APC screeches to a sideways halt through the ashen mud, the driver turning and bringing the smoking metal construct to a violent halt. “Go! Go! Go!” yells the gunner by the door, waving his hand as the soldiers inside undo their straps and run out of the rear of the vehicle, firing their guns out through the freshly broken gate that they had come in from. Another man reopens the upper hatch as she steps down, manning the machine gun and providing fire support.
She grabs the radio, pulling it to her mask. “Pilot. We’re ready for you,” she says into the speaker, looking up past the broken gate toward the sky that is full of flying monsters and fire, the black shapes dancing around like waltzing shadows below the moon.
Not getting a response, she looks at the fog and hooks the radio back in, running out into the town.
“We’re evacuating!” she yells, cupping her hands by her mouth. “Everybody get in!” orders the woman, waving her hands as confused people run around in terror.
“Who are you?! What have you done?!” yells a guardsman as she ducks, grabbing the man’s arm that had struck her way and throwing him to the ground as others run in around them. Standing there with her boot on his neck and his arm outstretched, she looks around the town square as the guardsmen gather near the broken gate that has destroyed the town’s defenses.
“Monsters!” yells a man, screaming as the guardsmen raise their crossbows. The soldiers next to her aim their rifles toward them.
“This is your only chance,” says the masked woman, as the other six APCs ride in through the broken gate in single file, creating a firing line as they unload their smaller contingents of troops, their words and thoughts inaudible over the blazing of seven auto-cannons that hammer through the wave with piercing strikes that leave clear holes behind like nails driven through flesh. The soldiers secure the only way in or out as blue fog creeps across the horizon, obscuring the encroaching of an endless mass of flesh and fangs. “Everyone who wants to live, get in,” she says. “We’re from the world tree.”
She lets go of the guardsmen, pulling her boot off of him as a soldier pulls him up and drags him to the APC.
“You’ve killed us all!” screams an accusing woman. “The wall is destroyed! We’ll never make it out past them!”
The sky above them roars, the droning of the war that never ends coming to its highest point yet as it sings its song of gunfire and machinery as the masked woman lifts her hand into the air, a speck on the horizon almost nested in her palm, the quickly increasing, swirling wind blowing her hood to the side as a powerful gale spins around the city, the blue fog from the gas canisters twirling and rising, spiring upward in several sharp plumes. “You have it backward,” she explains, as the roaring becomes louder and louder. The screaming of the banshee cutting across the sky becomes undeniable as a metal shape blasts over their heads, releasing something from itself. It flies with incredible speed; the passing of it over their heads sends a surge of wind across the town, ripping off shingles and signs, breaking windows, and destroying fragile structures. “They won’t make it past us,” explains the woman in mouse gray, as her hood falls from the surge, revealing messy black hair of the same tone and two flattened, but still protruding stumps atop her head, causing people to mutter amongst themselves as they recognize her — a dryad, a sacred caretaker of the world tree.
The thing that was dropped by the plane that flew overhead a second ago strikes against the ground, flying through a vortex of blue gas.
This gas is that they released from the Aplomados in several dispersing containers is a highly combustible gas that they siphoned from the depths of the mine below the world tree. The blue tinge it has is just a colored dye that they added to it to make it visible and somewhat less dangerous to work with.
Caretaker clenches her hand.
Everything explodes, a perfect ring of fire erupting past the township’s walls on all sides, rising up toward the sky like a barrier of flames created by the heavens themselves — the divine inferno cleansing the world of all evil trapped within their reach. Countless things burn to ash within the red, countless things scream and chitter and become nothing more than another speck in the wastelands.
She watches Pilot fly off, diverting as he’s chased by a swarm of hundreds of flying insectoid monsters.
The dryad turns, heading back to the APC. “Get everybody inside!” she orders, hammering on the side of her vehicle. The gunner looks down at her and then up toward the sky, following her gaze. He nods without her having to have said anything, turning the heavy auto-cannon up toward the Kestrel and shooting at the monsters flying after it in order to afford Pilot some breathing room as he keeps the monsters in the sky out of their hair. The black cloud above shifts and twists, condensing as it chases after the single comet flying above the surface.
Hundreds of people begin to surge forward toward the scarred, and battered vehicles that Pilot had made for them out of the Kestrel’s spare, ever-regenerating parts.
It’s a hell of a tight fit, but the Aplomoados are robust and stronger than they need to be. There isn’t sitting room with this many people pressed into the vehicles like too many bullets in one magazine, but they start and run just fine, if not a little less mobile than ideal. The soldiers pull back toward the vehicles, firing off into the gateway as more and more demons continue to press in as the fire dies down. Soldiers make room for the evacuating people by clinging to the top and the sides, strapping themselves into several external hooks.
“The evacuation is complete,” says Caretaker into the radio. “We’re heading home, Pilot,” says the dryad, letting go of the push-button on the receiver as she squeezes in between a couple families.
— The radio squawks back as the APC’s ramp slowly pulls back closed as the last man jumps in, the motors starting.
“I’ll open the door for you,” replies a man’s voice over the radio, as the seven armored transports spin in a circle with Caretaker's vehicle at the lead and the other six driving behind them in a row formed of two vehicles each in a spearhead formation, intended to push out through the disrupted enemy lines.
“You're such a gentleman,” replies Caretaker’s voice over the radio.
The Kestrel howls, its dual propellers screaming as he flies back over the burning city, over the row of APCs filing out of the gate and blasting through a mess of corpses and fresh bodies that make their way forward, through the black smoke and smoldering wastelands. The machine guns behind him blaze as Luisa holds their back clear, slicing through hundreds of monsters one after the other as she fires down to the world from the rear gunner’s position.
“Cluster munitions,” he says, turning his head to the side.
“Roger!” says a chipper voice, a fairy sitting in the bomber’s seat flicking a series of switches, flying back and forth as a hatch opens up in the center of the Kestrel’s belly. One after the other, fat, metal tubes drop out from the inner walls that they line, falling down toward the ground like a dozen spears, only to break apart in mid-air, releasing a payload of several internal munitions each.
A line leading straight from the destroyed city’s gate through the mass of bodies that still continues to move is blasted out and open — a full lane of nothing but gore and smoke cuts from there to the horizon, to which they move. The convoy roars through the opening they've blasted into the enemy lines.
“Seventy-percent fuel,” says Luisa, keeping him up to speed on their remaining flight time. Out of his mirror, he watches the APCs move through the clear area, roaring forward at full speed as their treads grind over bodies as indiscriminately as gravel.
A tense minute later, eight silhouettes blast toward the east, with a horde at their heels and nothing left to kill at their original target location.
Pilot flies toward the east, switching frequencies. “Artillery Command. We’re coming home.”
There is static for a time as someone clicks on the radio, squawking into it and only speaking half a sentence.
“— have to hold the button down!” barks a voice in the background on the other end.
“Right, right!” replies a sharp voice belonging to a red haired fairy named Jol. “Artillery Command here, confirming that we’re ready!” she says excitedly.
Pilot nods, hooking the radio back into the receiver.
Minutes later, he flies back over the mesa, doing a loop as the much slower APCs only just begin to crest over the horizon after a time longer still — and then, a time after that, the horde comes in pursuit of their prey.
The edges of the green mesa on which the world tree sits glow alight, as if it were a green wreath full of candles. Pre-positioned artillery cannons thunder out one after the other, long howitzers nestled on top of the world tree mesa, eruptions blasting to the sky, sending just as many monsters up toward it as they do ash and dirt.
As everything behind them explodes in artillery and anti-air fire, the convoy circles the mesa, driving toward the north, where an underground tunnel leads up through the body of the mountain and up toward the flat plataeu.
Pilot circles overhead, watching as the seven smoking APCs open their doors in the unloading area and as hundreds of people stream out in all directions, being corralled by an already waiting team of medics and civil servants.
“Mission complete,” says Caretaker’s voice over the radio. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“Great work,” replies Pilot into the receiver. “I’ll see you then,” he confirms, hooking it back in as he watches the west from high up in the sky, flying past the great titan of a tree that is the world tree.
Dozens of artillery teams fire, the horde being cut down before they even get close. The flying enemies are knocked out of the sky by dedicated anti-air teams manning quad Kerzenzünder platforms and flak cannons — none of which are placed on the world tree itself, which he desperately wanted to do. The concept of turning it into a massive anti-air tower excited him beyond words. But Caretaker wouldn’t hear a word of it, so the flak cannons have to sit on the cliffs instead, which is also… fine…
And before much else has to be done, he begins to lower the plane, knowing that the defenses can manage the rest without him and his crew.
In the time since the demon invasion, the war that never ends has escalated in many ways, but so have the wills of the people.
His weapons development programs, civil development concepts, organization, and logistics have exploded. Houses and centers of industry are being built left and right. The settlement has become a full town, with thousands of people moving around it. Everybody is at work one way or another. Children are in military schooling programs before joining artisans as apprentices or priests and wizards as students. The mine is running at full capacity, as are all other industries. The mesa is well on its way to becoming fully industrialized as the engines, originally from the plane, are used for the creation of factories and land vehicles, allowing manufacturing to explode in capacity in an impressively short time.
The Kestrel taxis along the shoreline of the lake, crashing waters splashing against its wide tires, the plane slowing to a halt.
Out in the distant wastes, pockets of civilization survive here and there, like the settlement they had saved today, which was in the distant west, across the nearly endless flatlands. The invasions have let off of the mesa for a time in the recent past, ever since the great demon swarm, and have since then been focused on destroying anything else that remains.
He’s sure that whatever power is behind the invasions is trying to isolate them and starve them out in a siege by depriving them of any potential outside help whatsoever. However, he and his people are a step ahead of Tango.
These new vehicles have let them save several of the townships and villages already; they have let them plunder the ruins of the many cities near and far, bringing back valuable items that can’t be easily made here within the mesa, bringing back rare books on magic and the arcane arts, exotic chemicals and materials, and every now and then a survivor they found in the wildlands too.
Pilot shuts off the machine, taking off his helmet as he lifts up the canopy of the Kestrel, the smell of industrial production and smoke coming to his face as he takes in a deep breath of the polluted, industrially tinged air as heavy artillery echoes in the distant background, below the glow of exploding flak barrages.
It all smells and feels like home.