“How long?” asks Caretaker again, not sure if she heard him right, grabbing hold of his jacket.
“A week, maybe,” replies Pilot.
“…What?” asks the dryad, looking at him nervously, and then around the forest, as if it had some solution to offer her. “That’s so long!” she replies, turning back toward him.
Pilot nods, grabbing her hand. “It is,” he concedes, nodding. The man gestures with his free hand toward the modified Kestrel. “I must survey the far regions,” he explains. “The people told me…” He looks up toward the sky for a time, clicking with his mouth as he finds the words. “- where others are,” he explains. “Survivors.”
“…Still…” mutters Caretaker, looking at him and lowering her gaze in dejection.
It sounds weird, considering that she spent her whole life without him, but ever since they met, they’ve only ever been apart for a few hours at most here and there, and now if that breaks, it will feel… strange. There was only one time when she thought he was flying away for good, just before the first invasion, and that wasn’t a great feeling.
…Maybe she’s become a little unhealthy in her clinginess…
— Her fingers tighten around the fabric of his jacket.
The dryad looks toward the Kestrel, which has changed significantly ever since she first saw it. Pilot has modified and altered its exterior. The one slim hawk of a machine is now a fully grown buzzard, with a neck and body to match. It’s easily four or five times as large as it once was. For days, he’s been using raw materials from the mines to expand the plane, fortify its components and exterior, add weapons, and do all sorts of things she doesn’t understand in the least.
“When?” asks Caretaker, looking back up his way.
“I want to go now,” explains Pilot. Her eyes go wide. “The next invasion is… distant,” he says, after finding the final word. “But it will not be for long. I will return before then.”
She frowns, letting out an unsure groan as she looks around again, as if there was something there to stop this from happening. But there isn’t. She’s not even sure why this is such a problem for her? It’s only a week. She has so much work here that the days fly by. People are counting on her to do her best — literally thousands of them. With Pilot not being here, she’ll be the only one in charge for a while, which means the workload will double too. There’s so much to prepare before the next invasion now that the settlement is becoming something much more than that day by day.
Everyone is counting on her — the world tree, the people — the entire world.
Caretaker nods, having made up her mind. She looks back up at him. “I’m coming with you,” says the dryad in a sure, firm voice.
Pilot shrugs, nodding again. “I know,” he replies.
“Hu-?” starts Caretaker, blinking in confusion as the man turns around, grabbing her hand and dragging her after him straight toward the Kestrel, sitting on the shore of the lake. Her heels dig through the soft, crystal sands as she’s dragged after him like a protesting child. “Wait! Now? As in now-now?” asks the dryad. “I need to tell everyone; we can’t just leave! I need to prepare a bag and I need to finish teaching the children about bees, and I -”
Caretaker goes on and on, listing a thousand different things that still need to be done before they can go, even as Pilot grabs her with both of his hands and hoists her inside like a sack of cargo, shutting the door behind them.
The man looks down into her eyes. “- I handled it,” is all that he says, cutting her off in the middle of her rant, which had been becoming more and more feverish by the second. His sentence eviscerates everything she had been going on about, leaving her standing there somewhat blankly for a moment as her mind tries to process what is happening.
Life has been moving much more quickly ever since the invasions began. Back before all of this, a day was long and the years were longer.
Now, she’s not even sure what day it is anymore. She’s just running from place to place, from person to person, and task to task — she feels like a busy ant that lives for nothing other than the glory of the colony.
“…You handled it?” she asks, not sure why that sentence brought her so much relief to hear. “What about Staub and Vilena?”
Pilot makes his way down the long plane’s central corridor toward the front, waving back over his shoulder. “Told them,” he replies, moving through the little barrier that separates the rest of the plane from the open cockpit.
She jogs up to the front, leaning around the metal corner and looking down at him. “What about the mines? The production of weapons? The city? The defenses? Everything.”
“Told Schtill to handle it,” replies Pilot, flicking a switch and allowing the plane to roar to life.
Caretaker sits down in the co-pilot’s seat. “What about the -”
“- Luisa is handling it,” remarks Pilot, cutting her off, knowing what she was going to say.
“What if the people get upset because we’re gone? What if the children miss me and cry?” asks Caretaker.
“Told Vilena to handle it,” he replies dryly.
“Vilena?!” yells the dryad in horror. Caretaker opens her mouth to protest, but her words are drowned out as the engine starts, the upgraded sixteen cylinder mechanism roaring with the cry of a dragon as it comes to life.
Pilot nods, setting on his helmet and reaching down below his seat, pulling out a second one that he offers her. Caretaker sits there, her mind still not having caught up to her body, as she places her hand onto it. “Why do I need a helmet?” she asks, as the plane settles into a more monotone hum. “I don’t like having things on my head…” mutters Caretaker.
“You don’t,” he explains, shrugging. “I just thought it would look good.”
“I…” Caretaker feels her face go red, snatching it from his hands and turning away, placing it on her lap. “Shut up!” she snaps, not really sure why.
The plane begins to taxi forward, the body shaking and roaring as it rolls across the shoreline, slowly rising upward after a few bounces. She straps herself into the seat, feeling her pulse rushing through her body. This is certainly not how she expected to spend the day. But in a way that’s difficult to convey, she’s glad.
This spontaneous adventure is a break from the mindbreaking pressure she was under. Every day felt a little heavier than the last. She’s never had so many people counting on her, so many people watching her every move, and listening to her every word. It’s truly exhausting in a deeply spiritual way.
The dryad finds herself smiling, her finger wrapped around a strand of her black hair that she has pulled into a tight loop, as she turns out of the window, staring at the giant tree that crests toward the sky that they rise to meet. “What about the world tree?” she asks.
“Ah, right,” replies Pilot, flicking a switch and holding his finger over the trigger of the machine gun as they fly straight toward the giant.
Caretaker yells in panic, grabbing his hand and yanking on the control, and the plane veers off toward the horizon with him laughing next to her, as they clear the forest and shoot off toward the distance.
Their mission for the next week is to travel to the further regions of the world, as far as they can manage within a week. They need to find locations of note, people, materials, information — anything at all that can give them just a little more edge against the overpoweringly crushing weight of the invasions to come.
She’s flown with Pilot out of the valley before, but never like this. She’s never gone so far before. She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t excited about it. Even if the great rot has sterilized the world as a whole, even if there are only minuscule pockets of what once was left to see out there… the thought of moving far away from her home, from the place she has always been, the thought of being able to go so far away that all of their problems seem like things of the past, is perhaps even a little enticing.
As they right themselves back, Caretaker looks down at her lap, letting go of her hair. “I think I get it,” explains the dryad, smiling as she stares out of the window at the mirror glass as they leave the valley behind. Even the world tree, as massive and remarkable as it is, becomes smaller and smaller as the two of them rise toward the distant sky, which is so vast that any person who finds themselves in it is fully lost and freed of their identity, which becomes contextless when adrift in a sea so endless.
She lifts up the helmet, looking at it and its black, obscuring visor that hides the face. Normally, she could never wear this, with her antlers. But those are broken now.
Sometimes, having an identity, a life, is overwhelming. Even when one is doing exactly everything they should be doing, there is something that can be found in the freedom from progress, from being a formed, concrete individual, that is… desirable. “- Why you and Luisa always like wearing things like this.”
Freedom, true freedom — the kind that only becomes available when everything is cut and released and when a body is free to float in the sky, fully undone from any of its ties to the firm, hard world below.
Caretaker puts on the helmet, shifting it from side to side to get it to sit right. Dryads never wear hats or helmets, for obvious reasons. But as it slides down, and her ears are muffled somewhat, and her vision is partially clouded by darkness, as her face and all of its many features and expressions — changing every second — are hidden by the shield it offers, and as her sense of smell is clouded with scents of metal and chemicals, she finds that it fits… perfectly. It’s comforting, in the same way that a dark, warm underground burrow is.
The man and the woman, who for now do not have faces, look at one another. One hand from each meets in the middle of the aisle between the two of them, landing on a firm lever that sits there between them on the ground.
“Ready?” he asks, his hand pressing down on hers.
The woman’s fingers crackle with magic, sparking as they touch the handle of the mechanism. “I am,” she replies.
The two of them look forward as they push together, and the Kestrel screams, its overdrive flooding the engine with fuel, sending them shooting forward toward the horizon, which never ends, but it does feel like they come close to making it do so as they blast past desecrated hills, valleys, ravines, and ruins with unnatural speed.
The woman with no face watches the world blur around them as the warmth of a hand over hers flows into her body, the warmth of a human moving into a dryad, as it has done now in body and spirit many times.
Her sisters were wrong about so many things; she’s sure of it now.
They were naive, blinded by the spoiled life of luxury they lived. That was unnatural. That was as far from nature as one could get.
This, this war and death and endless ash, this thrashing in her chest and the sweat on her cold skin that makes her clothes stick to her — this is what is real. Apocalypse, the breaking down and decay of that which is, is the natural state of the world. It is the job of the unnatural, the people with black boots and featureless faces, to create and flourish in spite of it.
The Kestrel flies over the ashlands, toward the distant regions of which she has never heard a word or carried a thought of.
City life all around goes on as it always does in this new age, with the excitement of a new era and a new beginning palpable between everyone. There’s an electricity in the air present now that many say has been missing since the ages of discovery, ever since society had finished developing and the borders of nations had been drawn to a close like a tightened noose around the human spirit. Ever since the beginning of the age of reason, people have lived for their jobs, for their homes, and for their families in order to secure things that already exist. However, in this new world in the midst of the crisis, as grim as it may sound, there is a strange morbid optimism that people carry with them. It is callous, but true.
The old guilds of masons and their strict rules have been shattered; the ancient institutions of banking and law that ruled the nations with a fist stronger than the king’s own have evaperated; the old ways of doing things, the old traditions, and what is proper and improper behaviour — all of this has crumbled and fallen apart in the horrific collapse that the apocalypse has brought over the world. People have hope now that this crisis will end and they will be unleashed into a new world, a world fully free from the shackles of the old. And so, spirits are higher than he’s ever known them, as they burn with a rare fire that the people of many nations have not known for generations.
New growth explodes after a forest fire.
“The hell…?” mutters the mason to himself, scratching the back of his head as he stares at the sagging brickwork of the house in the alley. This timberframed structure with masonry between the joists is one of the newly erected houses, but there’s something off about the work. He leans in, pressing a finger against the crooked brick. It looks like the foundation is soft and the structure is sagging. The mason lifts his head, looking at the rest of the house, and then back down at the wall as he feels a subtle vibration inside of it. “What?” He closes an eye, leaning his head against the wall with a cupped hand against his ear as he tries to listen to the oddity. The stone shakes ever so slightly, like there was a quake — no, like there was… water moving on the other side?
“Hey!” he calls out, waving a hand over to the foreman of the team, who is busy talking to a group of people about the plans for the rest of this zone. “There’s something broken here!” They’re building homes by the dozens here every day. The foreman, being busy, looks his way and gestures with an annoyed, tired wave that signals a mixture between ‘handle it yourself’ and ‘maybe I’ll look in a week when I have a free hour’. The mason sighs, listening as he tries to figure out what the problem is.
The sound gets louder and louder, and he wonders if it isn’t the piping system, maybe? That Pilot fellow sure had some odd ideas about architecture, that’s for sure. The man listens, closing both of his eyes. Is that water? No… it’s too… scratchy. Rodents? It sounds almost like mice gnawing their tunnels in an old farmhouse. But that can’t be. This is a brand newstructure; the wood is treated, and they certainly aren’t chewing through the brickwork. He’s seen some mean rats in his day, but none that have literal rock chompers in their little fuzzy mouths. Besides, there haven’t been any reports of vermin in the city that he’s heard of.
— The sound gets louder and louder quickly — too quickly, until it is almost frighteningly loud for the ear pressed against it.
Not that it has a chance to pull away from the stone as something bites out and latches onto it, a poison born of filth and sewage moving through his body in an instant. Several more sharp faces hook onto him with sharp teeth that bite the side of his head, holding it there. The mason spasms, unable to move, as something small and very flexible gnaws its way out of the brickwork tunnel through the side of his ear and in through his skull in a manner on moments. He opens his mouth to scream, but no sound comes out as something gnaws around inside of his head, chomping and biting and scratching with tiny little claws as something eats its way into him.
“What is it?” asks the foreman, walking over to the edge of the alley and looking at the man who has his head pressed against the wall.
He stands there quietly, staring vacantly ahead.
“Hey!” barks the foreman, slapping his hands together.
The mason jolts.
“Oh, nothing, nevermind,” he says. “There’s just a small hole here,” he says, almost puzzled, as he nods with his head to the hole in the wall.
“Well, fix it, asshole,” says the foreman, waving him off and walking away. “And close your damn mouth.”
The mason stands there, staring blankly onward into the distance with a look on his face that suggests he might still be there, watching and seeing, but not doing. His head looks down at the hands attached to his body as one of them slowly rises up and presses his jaw shut again. He twitches, his nose making an odd contortion for a moment as he looks around the darkness and speaks. “Yes, my queen,” mutters the mason, as he stands up almost unnaturally straight and tall, with posture as rigid as an oak, before moving out into the city with shuffling steps, covering his eyes. With his free hand, he pulls out a rag and holds it against his bleeding ear.
A small, hairless tail that had been hanging out of it slides in through the ear’s canal and pulls itself fully inside of his head as he walks off of the jobsite and into the rest of the city.