“It’s really very simple!” explains the boy, holding his hands on his hips as he looks up at the large collection of gears and mechanical components that are placed together over a table on the many shelves of the newly made workshop.
“Uh… huh…” says a sharp voice from his side, a brightly red-haired fairy, Jol. She hovers there with her arms crossed, looking at the things all around the workshop and then down at the boy, who has a very excited but pleasantly calm smile on his face. “So what does it do?”
“It tells the time!” he replies, holding his hand out toward the clock.
“The… time?” asks Jol, confused. The fairy blinks, looking at him and then out of the window for a moment. She turns her head back toward him. “It’s the afternoon,” remarks the woman, pointing with her thumb at the glowing orange glass, which is warmly illuminated by the midday sun. “The sun will set in two, maybe three hours.”
Uhrmacher, one of the specialists who had been extracted from the southern cities by priority teams, was an apprentice to one of the world’s most renowned watchmakers, who did not survive the demon invasion. Of the trade, only the boy remains, making him one of the world’s most important people.
Clockmaking is a secretive art lost between the vagueries of mechanics and magical technology. The secret of the devices is closely guarded by the clockmakers’ guild, which no longer exists in any significant capacity — the same as which could be said of the many former guilds of note, such as the adventurers’ guild or such other collections.
Generally, the populace of the world tells the time using traditional methods, such as shadow-orientation, the ringing of church bells, or simply by just knowing what time of the day it is, roughly speaking. Exact measures down to the minute aren’t a concept outside of those places the watchmakers’ guild has visited, such as the halls of kings and princes, for which they charge exorbitant amounts. The concept of 'exact time' became popular amongst the noble houses of the world, who used it as another tool of control and elevation of and over the general populace of their lessers.
“Actually,” starts Uhrmacher, looking at the device he’s put together. “It’s exactly two hours and twenty-seven minutes until sundown!” he explains, lightly tapping the construct’s hands with pride glowing on his face, his finger pointing toward an ornamental sun painted onto the device.
Jol places her hands on her hips, hovering there in silence as she seems to contemplate what exactly she should say to that. “Neat!” relents the fairy after a moment, nodding her head to him. She doesn’t really think it’s that exciting, honestly. But the human boy is really excited about it, and, in fairy culture, it is extremely rude to destroy someone else’s excitement for things, even if they may perhaps be misadvised adventures.
“Right?!” asks Uhrmacher, not catching her deceit, clenching his fists, his eyes glowing. But then, after a moment, he drops his stiffly excited posture and sighs, everything falling slack as he rubs his hair and turns his head toward the table. “But… you know…”
“What?” asks Jol, flying over and looking down at the plans laid out on the workbench. They’re designs for machines and constructs, drawn by the civil planner, Schtill, under the guidance of the valley’s hero, Pilot.
“This stuff here is complicated,” admits Uhrmacher, running a hand along the intricate design of a machine that lists exact specifications for many odd components and parts that he’s never even dreamed of before. He’s not sure if even his deceased master had ever seen such things in his lifetime. Uhrmacher looks back toward Jol. “Where is he from?” he asks, looking into her eyes. “Pilot.” He looks back at the plans. “How can he know about such things?”
Jol frowns and shakes her head. “Nobody knows,” says the fairy. “Everybody has a different story about him,” she explains, shrugging. The fairy floats around the room, playing with a few odd things here and there, moving them around nonsensically. “One story is that he’s a witch,” she says, looking back over her shoulder toward the pale-faced craftsman. “- Cursed to help humanity by the gods to make good all of his former misdeeds.”
“A… a witch?” asks Uhrmacher, uncertainty clear in his voice.
Jol snorts, holding back a laugh. “That’s nonsense, though. I also heard some priests say the plane was hatched from a big egg on the world tree’s branches, and Pilot was inside of it when the shell broke.”
“…I don’t know,” mutters Uhrmacher, leaning back against the table and crossing his arms. His boot taps against the stone floor as he turns his head, looking over his shoulder and back at the plan again. “Something like this…”
“If you ask me,” starts Jol, hovering upside down. Her face hangs next to his as he turns back to look her way out of curiosity. “I think he’s one of those old heroes,” says the fairy. “You know, the kind that the gods used to send to solve the hundred-year crises people had back in the day?”
Uhrmacher shakes his head. “There hasn’t been a true hero in centuries. Besides…”
The two of them look down at the plans together — a design for a machination of death and destruction. They look back at one another and then back at the plans for a land vehicle with a long horn that breathes fire like that from a dragon’s maw.
Above their heads, a clock chimes, signaling the exact passing of one hour since she got here.
Jol doesn’t like it, being able to tell time so exactly. It’s stressful.
All around the settlement, things are changing very rapidly.
Trodden dirt paths have slowly become paved. The inner square of what is now perhaps the last city of the nation is a well-paved circle, lined with structures of note such as the clinic, the city hall and library, the large military school, which serves to educate both young and old, a public bath house, a constable’s watch, and many other faculties of significant importance. Out from this center core branch many straight roads, with buildings on either side of them pressed wall to wall to eliminate as many alleys as possible, leaving only the main roads as a method of movement between one part of the settlement and the other. This design was intentional so that, should the defense of the valley be pushed all the way back toward the settlement, its architectural nature could complement the defensive efforts. Straight, clear firing lines, ease of movement of troops, and easy barricade locations. Plus, it allows easy movement of civilian logistical goods and removes hiding places for criminal activity.
Stores, workshops, houses of worship and faith, homes, and everything that lies there in between pop up by the day as the several tens of thousands of people who remain establish new lives, new dreams, and new purposes. For the first time in what seems like generations, people once again look and work toward the concept of a future; they once again have hope for survival and growth. This speaks to the devastation of the invasions, which had started only less than a year ago, but also to the unity held currently between every one of the survivors.
Those from the northern city, those from the southern cities, the wanderers who are picked up in the wastes by patrols and brought in by the day, the pilgrims, those escaping other invasions, and so many more find themselves enveloped in the new emerging culture that defines the group, the people of the valley, who are now one and the same regardless of prior affiliations of culture and creed. The fears of discord between the survivors, given the atrocities committed in the name of survivorship, seem to have been unwarranted. It turns out that, at the end of the day, when people want to stay alive, they're willing to push back a lot of things. And while sentiments of class segregation and superiority of humanity, or elfhood, or that of any other race of peoples for this reason or that reason still remain within the minds of many who brought them here with them, these are quickly battered and beaten out by the overwhelming force that is the brotherhood of those who remain alive. Living is the great connection that those who remain share, and it masters all other inferior attributes that a person might carry with them.
There were many deaths attributed to the people of the south — people they murdered prior to the demon invasion in order to keep order in their regions. These are not forgotten; however, the faces of the perpetrators largely are, as most had succumbed to the Black Contract, which was offered during the invasion, and those few guilty who do remain are assimilated not out of want but out of need.
The initial camp of survivors from the north had become a small settlement, then it became a small town, and now, at an unnatural, incredible pace, it has become what can only be described as a city. It is inorganic and rigid in many ways, having developed with unnatural planning as opposed to the organic, generation’s long flow that the old cities of the world had. However, even here in the rigidity of the design, there remains the undeniable influence of nature. The trees of the valley cannot be suppressed; their roots dig through stone. The grasses cannot be held at bay and press through cobblestone streets, together with wildflowers that seem to return every day. The rivers, bridged, sparkle with glistening water and thousands of fish. Birds flock to the sun-warmed roofs when the night falls over the valley, nesting below attics and rain gutters, which many of them seem to prefer to the forest. Occasionally, an animal will wander into the city in confusion, wandering around the city — doe and rabbits, and even a bear with a litter of cubs one time.
The people of the mesa now exist as exactly that, not as survivors from the north, refugees from the south, or wanderers from the east and west — no, they are simply the people of the mesa, together as one, beneath the great boughs of the world tree that cast shadows over their heads day and night as if it were one single roof that they all lived beneath.
Schtill the librarian, looks out of the window of her private home by the city hall, staring down over the square where people and carriages pulled by beasts and motors move, the proverbial blood of the newborn city flowing through its veins. The setting sun casts in a last few rays of light through the window toward her face, which isn’t hidden by a hood or anything else as she stands alone in a small upstairs room that is her very own. She’s tied her hair back, letting her scars and mangled ears be seen by the world there with her — that is, nobody at all — as she now at least finds within herself the confidence to exist in such a disrobed state while entirely alone. For the first time in a long time, her hand touches the nub of one of her destroyed, long ears. She never touches them, her face, or her body as a whole. The latter had been mutilated when she was young, the sanctuary of her youth taken from her, and since then she had hated being near it at all — quite a difficult predicament for the flesh one must reside in. There’s hardly a good way to get away from it, as evidenced by the surgical, straight lines of scars that cover her inner thighs and her lower forearms — Marks from another time.
Idly, Schtill watches the world go by as the last rays of today’s daylight come to touch her and to show her that here, somehow, in this time of all times and this place of all places, things are better than they once were. Despite all the death, despite the horror, despite the tears, the blood, and the gore, despite it all, the horrific spring has now come to an end.
The final sunset of the good season vanishes over the horizon, taking with it so many thoughts and prayers as the world prepares itself for the new thing to come, the new wholeness of experience that promises to envelop them all in a brand new scope of life’s many offerings.
She turns her head, looking at the books that Pilot has given her, stacked neatly on her bedside table and not in the public library, where someone else might touch them.
Summer is now here once again, and it promises to be very different from those summers that have come before.
The elf narrows her eyes, her thoughts coming together as she starts to piece together a reasoning as to why that particular, strange book from yesterday had been stolen. People forgive and forget and move on in the name of surviving the apocalypse. But that does not mean that they are entirely willing to let go of their old ways and traditions, their old beliefs, or their future desires and aspirations. Those who want power find themselves in the perfect moment of history to seize it, and those who wish to restore their power from the old world will stop at nothing to make sure it is done. A fallen king will never be satisfied with sweeping floors should he lose his throne. He will desire its return at any cost.
This is bad. It's very bad.
It's unfortunate timing that both Pilot and the caretaker of the world tree have left the mesa now of all times. There's something going on inside the city; there's something festering. There's a game being played; a power struggle is brewing. She's read about things like this in her books and tomes. There's only one group who would not only be able to identify such an object as that particular damp book through what can only be the hearsay of the salvage workers or a brief second's glance at the catalogue that was delivered to her with it. There's only one group who would have not only the institutional knowledge but also the desire to take hold of such an item — an item that she personally suspects to be a witch's grimoire from ancient days that have now long since been forgotten and repressed by the victors of ancient history.
Schtill looks back out of the glass, watching the people move on by as salvaged church bells loudly ring in the distance, their heavy chiming marking the exact passage of the morning and the arrival of a new midday.
If Pilot is gone, then she has to handle this situation. He's counting on her. The elf grabs her robe, which still has black, inky spots on it from the soggy book that don't seem to want to wash out, and throws it on before she grabs her identification papers. She has to warn somebody, but given her suspicions, she can't go to the city council with this accusation. She has to take this to the mesa's secret police — the fairy black operations unit. They have to get the grimoire back before someone learns to use the magic inside of it — a forbidden magic that is too closely related to the sources of the invasions for this all to be a big coincidence.
That ink, the dark spots on the floor of her office and her robe, the murky water that the tome seems to have oozed consistently like a secreted mucus — it is one and the same as the sludge that remains after a black invasion needle collapses.
The elf grabs a heavy steel revolver from the table by the door, pulling up the fabric around her leg for a moment to tuck the gun into a tight leather strap there, before quietly leaving her home and making sure she isn't being followed.
The enemy, Tango, is already inside the city and close enough to them to wrap its long, sharp fingers around their heart. The next invasion isn't coming. It has already begun. There just hasn't been a system warning yet.
Schtill bends around to go through a side street to get there faster, the cold metal resting against her leg. A pair of large, rough hands come from the side and forcefully grab her face and core, fingers clutching her ear and hair as she's quickly pulled off the street and vanishes, never getting to where she was going.