Chapter 53: Kinship (私は吊るされた木だ。私の枝からは死体がぶら下がっている。)
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- [Vilena] -
Level: 62 Sorceress


The world tree region, being atop an elevated mesa, has a distinct advantage in its use of artillery and other indirect fire weapons. During the demon invasion, mortars proved invaluable to the defense of the valley, killing untold numbers of Tango. The elevated height of the transformed valley makes such weapons even more potent than ever before, allowing extended periods of uninterrupted firing as the enemy will have difficulty approaching, clear firing zones as the entrances are limited, as well as a nominal boost to the range of all weapon platforms given the elevation.

While the mortars more than served their purpose, a higher tier of weaponry has been under development for some time — howitzers.

The two weapons — mortars and howitzers — are in vague principle, similar.

However, upon a moment’s further examination, they are entirely different. Mortars have a much simpler design, being a muzzle-loaded weapon with an upward-facing barrel. Mortars, compared to howitzers, fire at higher angles from a much shorter barrel, significantly reducing their range but allowing simple indirect fire in nearby locations with extreme accuracy. Howitzers, however, are much more complex in usage and design. Howitzers are breach-loaded weapons, meaning that they are loaded in the rear of the barrel instead of the front, through an opening hatch mechanism. Their longer barrels allow a more significant range when firing.

However, one weapon cannot replace the other. Rather, they compliment each other. Mortars are excellent short-range artillery weapons, whereas howitzers allow precise indirect fire over medium to long ranges. Mortars are light and can be carried by mobile teams on the go, whereas a howitzer needs to be emplaced and set up, making it ideal for the interior defensive zones inside the mesa that already exist — close to the bunkers and firing positions.

True long-distance weapons have been what the valley has been lacking in its defense until now. The mortars, spells, and machine guns — all of these allow a ranged defense, but only in close to medium-distance engagements. Long-distance engagements could only be solved by clever use of the Kestrel until now, leaving the valley at a key strategic weakness that the invasions thankfully have not abused yet.

However, this hole has been preemptively filled now by the design and construction of the newly developed Hexenstoss light field-artillery gun. A small artillery howitzer manned by a three-man crew that is light enough to be pulled by anqas or very laboriously by its six-man crew themselves if need be, but with enough power to precisely lob a 75mm shell across the ashlands. As far as artillery shells go, this is a rather small payload. However, it was chosen on purpose over a heavier impact shell in order to emphasize the mobility of the crew, given the limited number of guns currently produced, as well as the saving of precious chemical resources by manufacturing smaller explosive payloads but augmenting these with additional alchemical measures such as toxic gas or highly flammable liquid fuels.

Vilena stands there, looking it over. The howitzer is a cannon on two wheels, plundered from the stockpile of machine parts that have been harvested from the Kestrel.


{Normal Quality}[Hexenstoss Pack Howitzer {75x272mm}]

An extremely mobile, lightweight pack howitzer that is suitable for airborne deployments as well as ground fielding in difficult terrain. It can be easily deconstructed in order to be transported by logistics crews, or, given its broad wheels and unusually light frame, pulled by pack animals or even its own weapon's team to desired locations.

Using its hydro-pneumatic firing system and barrel length of 1.39m, this howitzer has an effective range of over eight kilometers.

The horizontal-block breech has been modified with an off-gassing vent to allow extremely volatile alchemical shells to be fired without risk of internal rupture at a rate of up to six a minute, depending on the skill of the weapon's team.

Weight: 659 kg Value:


“And you’re sure this is what it’s supposed to look like?” she asks, running a hand over the barrel before turning her gaze to look at the officer.

“Down to the last bolt,” replies the man, lifting up the rolled-up plans in his hand toward her. He shakes his head, dropping his arm. “Which are themselves of unusual specification,” explains the officer. He looks at the gun, waving the crew over. “This is actually the second attempt,” he explains as the gun crew opens the weapon’s breach and loads a long, thin shell into the gun.

“What happened to the first one?” asks Vilena, plucking at one of her regrowing eyebrows.

The man shakes his head, looking at her. “Turns out there’s a reason for the specific bolting,” he explains, taking a few steps back. “Our initial design didn’t hold, and the whole thing blew apart.”

A voice chimes in from the side — an orcish man who was rescued from the southern cities. He’s an expert metalurgist. “The properties of the material itself are very important,” he explains, his fingers tapping a ledger he has clamped in his arms. “Specific types of metal are far more resistant to the violent pressures exerted by the internal propelling explosions of the ammunition.”

Vilena stares at him as the crew closes the breach, slowly blinking. “What?”

“The first gun didn’t handle the punch and exploded into a thousand pieces,” explains the officer as his crew finds safety behind a tree. “Damn near took out my eyes.”

“Huh, neat,” replies Vilena, looking back at the gun. “So does this one work?” asks the witchy woman, turning back to look behind herself. Everyone else has stepped back quite a ways.

“We’re about to find out,” replies the officer. “I suggest taking cover and protecting your hearing,” he adds, gesturing for the man holding the firing mechanism, fastened to a long cord, to wait.

Vilena stares at them for a moment, not sure what she’s seeing. “Chicken,” says the woman, grabbing down and reaching for the end of the cord that is attached to the howitzer. Before the officer can stop her, she yanks on the triggering mechanism. The grove shakes, hundreds of trees rattling on their branches as a minor quake travels through the ground, causing thousands of leaves to fall around the plume of radiant fire that expands from the howitzer’s barrel. The rumble cracks through her ears and senses, overpowering them with the shockwave of a single, strong punch against her entirety. Vilena stumbles back from the presence of the blast, looking around as her hearing has gone completely silent, wondering why everyone is lying on the ground and covering their heads.

Off toward the distance, a gleaming projectile whistles through the air before rupturing apart a designated target out in the ashlands. Vilena, already holding herself with both arms and standing with her legs stiffly pressed together, watches the marker fly into the air in several pieces as fire ruptures it and the landscape around it apart.

“I’m going to marry that man,” mutters the sorceress, entirely unable to hear her own voice or even her thoughts over the violently loud ringing in her head as she watches the fire and shrapnel rise toward the sky like a plane flying toward the clouds.

She's almost excited about the next invasion now.



- [Staub] -
Level: 68 Shieldmaiden


So it’s finally all come back around to where it began.

The dark-elven woman sits there on her knees in the forest at the edge of a river, staring down at the blackbird’s feather that she holds in her hands. Staub twirls it around lightly and watches the sun-reflecting water glisten through the gaps of the feather’s tatters.

In the north, she had given up her life, having been ready to end it before the arrival of the goblin invasion that destroyed that city. She had been ready to forsake the physical world and return to the spiritual, to her gods, and to the great cycle of death and rebirth that lies beyond.

But she didn’t jump off of that wall because of the vague sign she was given. The gods — and her god — are watching.

— Something cracks next to her.

Staub turns her head, looking at the masked person standing there, holding an empty bucket for water. The two of them look at one another for a while. She knows the stranger; this girl is Luisa, a close contact of Pilot’s.

She nods and then returns back to her contemplations and prayers.

Ever since she herself was a girl, she has been spiritual and of the faith. There are many religions across the world, some codified in tight doctrine, like the followers of the Holy-Church and others more… loose in their beliefs. There are versions of history that do not align with the official gospel that is preached as truth by modern historians to the general public. There are religions that do not align with contemporary faiths and beliefs. History is written by the victors, after all. But that does not mean the beliefs of those who have lost the old war are invalidated. Rather, they persist in secret even to this day.

Her faith is one such thing. It is a familial teaching that has been passed on from one generation to the next, never in public settings. But those times have changed. The validity of what she feels — knows — to be true has been proven. The old faith of the blackbird, the gospel of Isaiah — a name forbidden to be spoken by the Holy-Church — is real. It is real. The deity she and her ancestors have prayed to is real, as are then the providences of heaven and the great well of souls that governs death and rebirth.

Pilot proved this to her beyond a shadow of a doubt. There is much more to this world than what one experiences when alive.

“Do people really come back when they die?” asks a voice from next to her, abruptly breaking the muffling silence covered by the noises of river water and birdsong.

Staub opens her eyes again, looking over toward the cloaked and masked girl, who is holding a full bucket of water and has already turned to leave. She’s only stopped to look partially over her shoulder toward the woman by the river.

The dark-elf looks at her, tilting her head, before looking back down at the feather she’s twirling in her hands. “I believe so,” replies Staub after a moment.

“Why?” asks Luisa.

The dark-elf purses her lips with a smile, softly shaking her head. She’s never spoken to Luisa before, but she supposes it’s natural for a girl her age to have questions about life. Neither of them know each other, but they know of each other, so there is a specific level of safe anonymity here present between them. “Because I have faith,” she answers.

“No, I mean, why would they make us come back again?” asks Luisa, standing there and holding her water bucket with both hands in front of herself, as Staub rises up to her feet, letting the feather on a string return to dangling around her neck.

The woman approaches Luisa, holding out a hand to grab her bucket. “Because it is good,” explains Staub. “- the world and the people in it,” remarks the dark-elf, taking the bucket from her. “The gods want us to experience that over and over again.”

“Good…?” asks Luisa after staring up at her for a moment as she stands in front of her. “It’s not!” barks the girl sharply, pulling on the bucket that she hasn’t let go of, water splashing around lightly over its edge. With her free hand, she throws a gesture out to the world. “They’re not!” she argues. “That’s dumb. I hate it!” yells Luisa at her from behind her scar-concealing mask. “Why would I ever want to be alive again after the first time?!” she asks, throwing out many heavy words for their very first conversation ever.

Staub holds onto the water bucket firmly with both hands, looking down at the girl, water running down her legs and into her boots. “Goodness is life’s base state,” she explains calmly. “And when it isn’t, it is the gods’ will for us to make it good again,” she replies. “For ourselves, for each other.”

Luisa grabs the bucket with both hands, trying to pull it back. “Let go. I don’t want your help.”

“No,” replies Staub dryly, starting to walk off, holding onto the water with both hands. She vaguely knows where the girl’s camp is. Luisa awkwardly stumbles after her, not willing to let go either. But her much shorter legs make it hard to keep up with Staub’s purposeful strides as four hands fight over one bucket.

“Let go!” argues Luisa, yanking on the bucket and spilling some more.

“No,” replies Staub, as they awkwardly walk together like that, neither of them letting go of the bucket with any of their hands.

And herein lies the awkward conundrum of the goodness of life and the happiness of souls. For an outsider, it would appear that the dark-elf’s intervention was unnecessary and pointless. Carrying the water from the river is something Luisa could have easily done herself, after all. It would appear that Staub is simply enforcing her egotistical will, desperate to be seen as helpful, on someone weaker than her who couldn’t resist her unrequested charity. However, that is the illusion that has been created by the shadows of the heart.

By the time they arrive back at Luisa’s camp, the bucket is more than half empty from the spillage caused by their fighting over it, most of the water having sloshed down over them and onto the forest as neither has let go.

But why would they?

Luisa’s camp is on a source of water itself, after all. The river runs right by it, right outside her tent. There is no reason for her to have gone all the way to where Staub had been meditating to gather water, much further away. That is, unless it was not the physical water that she was after but rather simply using it as another mask to hide yet another scarred, frightened thing that lies deeper beneath.

The two of them stand there in the camp, still holding onto the bucket, with water running down them. Luisa stares toward the ground through her mask, and Staub looks toward her as she asks what she really wants to know.

“…What happens to monsters?” asks Luisa quietly, now that they have finally arrived in a safe place, her voice having lost its sharpness as the summer wind moves through the trees toward them, shushing the disgrace of her childhood uncertainty as she asks her real question. “When they die, do they go to the same place as people?” Staub feels the small, gloved hands tighten firmly next to hers around the bucket’s handle. Luisa looks at her, waiting for an answer. “…Are they still hurting my family?” she asks, clearly doing everything that she can to not let her voice crack as the proverbial water finally spills over the edge and onto Staub, who stands there with the feather around her neck blowing in the wind, much the same as her white strands of hair.

The dark-elf looks at the girl, trying to formulate a satisfying answer, before lifting her gaze toward the very blue sky above their heads.

According to her own personal beliefs, life is innately good, but that goodness is not unconditional and ever-present. It must be fostered, earned, and reasserted over and over again. One must remind themselves of it, teach themselves such a truth, and bring their energy toward the establishment of this foundational principle amongst all peoples during the dark times. But how does one convince another of such a thing when their fingers are touching yours, when their body is shaking in held-back terror and emotionality that is not ever allowed to come to the forefront in the presence of those others who they deeply wish to impress, when all they have experienced is the total opposite of this?

To say that life is good is one thing, but how do you keep a straight face and truly believe it when you are confronted with evidence of the opposite every day by the mutilation that you see in your own reflection?

“Let me tell you an old story,” says Staub after a moment of consideration, the two of their eyes meeting over the water, which reflects the vision of a blackbird’s feather.



- [The Deep Forest] -


The farmer’s son walks, holding his basket full of fruit, as he moves through the forest on his rounds. The world tree valley is abundant in food like no place he has ever heard of in any tale or fable. Every few steps, there are fruit trees bearing ripe fruits once again, despite having been plucked the day before. All around are thick, heavy bushes laden with berries so abundant that they would form piles of ooze around the rootwork — were it not for the chittering insects that move to devour everything decayed, only to in turn be eaten by birds and animals of a somewhat larger size. As a practice, farming is almost irrelevant here, even with the significant population that needs to be fed.

However, that does not mean that there is no desire for it. People hunger for more things than fruits, tubers, and berries, and moreso, crops have been planted that are used in the industries of textile making and alchemy. Farming as a trade still exists; it just has shifted its priorities somewhat, is all.

He himself has to go to school now in the mornings, which had never happened before. He was never booklearned until now. But he’s making good progress in learning how to write and how to make fuses for bombs. His teacher is very pleased with his progress, which is a point of particular pride for him as the shy and awkward son of a farming family who never really got to talk to anyone, given where he lived and how. All he ever knew in his life that has only just now begun to reach the mark of manhood was work and family until the apocalypse came.

In a way, he has more fun now than he used to back then. He likes going to school; he likes living in the city and around people. His father complains, yearning for the past. But he himself likes this new life. The nights aren’t so quiet, and he has an easier time sleeping because of it — It’s hard to imagine demons and monsters while people are laughing outside on the street.

— But despite everything, he still has his chores.

One of which is collecting fruit for the city. He has to bring back eight full baskets a day of edible, strong quality produce to the warehouse where it’s inspected. After his schooling, this takes him half of his remaining day since he likes to wander further away from the spots everyone else uses — less competition. If he can find any particularly rare medicinal herbs that the caretaker of the world tree has shown them, they count for two baskets, so he has better chances of finding those out here. He rubs his face, thinking about the dryad. She’s very pretty. He’s going to finish his schooling and own a farm like his father did, then he’ll ask her to elope with him. She likes nature, so he’s sure he can convince her once his farm exists. He’ll just grow nothing but these rare herbs and lots of flowers — the kind she likes — that’ll do the trick. He’s going to have to work hard though, harder than anyone else. The other boys in his class like her too. He and they are all at the age where they have begun to think about such matters.

— Something scurries from ahead of him, leaves rustling as something runs through the forest. He lets out a sharp yelp, lifting his leg and jumping to the side as a big, fat, fuzzy rat runs down through his lifted leg past him and away, having come out of a bush. It squeaks as it runs in terror, not stopping for a moment as it vanishes in the direction of the city.

He sighs, holding his chest and looking around, very glad that he came all this way. If any of the guys from his class had seen him jump because of a rat, they’d laugh at him till the sun sets.

“Hello?” calls a voice from ahead. “Is someone there?” it asks. It’s a woman’s voice. He turns his head, looking as he moves through the forest, until he sees someone standing there and looking his way. He opens his mouth to speak, already embarrassed at the thought that she heard his frightened yelping a moment ago. looking at the woman who is sitting there on an old stump, draped in white fabric, and the rays of mellow sunshine that paint it with a soft ruby glow. Her warm auburn hair is tightly bound behind her head, pulled into a strong braid that drapes over her shoulder, and her arms are covered in many exotic bracelets and beads. She is a priestess of the Holy-Church. With large eyes, she looks his way, staring at him as he stands there with his mouth agape.

“I… H-hello…” stutters the farmer’s son, realizing that he must look like a fool standing there like that. “I wasn’t screaming,” he explains presemptively, before she asks anything.

“Pardon?” asks the priestess, who hasn’t stopped looking into his eyes, which unnerves him greatly. She’s very beautiful.

“There was a bear,” he lies, setting down his basket as he holds out his arms. “It was really big. I had to scare it away,” says the farmer’s son. He shrugs, shaking his head. “It ran off like a chickedee that saw a snake!”

She continues to stare at him, tilting her head.

After a moment of self-perceived awkward silence in which he wonders if he didn’t just make himself look like a bigger fool than ever before, she smiles a smile with a form that he can’t identify, clasping her hands together at the side of her face. The look brings him relief as she smiles kindly. She lets out an impressed exhalation before speaking. “My, what a brave man you are,” says the priestess. “I’m very lucky that someone strong like you showed up then,” she says to him, stretching out her leg and pulling up the fabric of her robe around her calf to show it to him. He stands up straight, his face and eyes locked rigidly. “I can’t get up,” she explains, tenderly touching her ankle. “Will you please help me?” asks the priestess, playing lightly with the end of her braid and twirling it around. She holds her finger next to her mouth as she explains, still staring into his eyes.

He gulps, his feet carrying him onward before his mind has been able to speak a single word to him. As a young man with no social experience of almost any nature, he is more than overwhelmed here in this situation that feels… strange. He’s keenly aware of the fact that girls have started making him nervous by just being near him, let alone one telling him that he’s brave or strong, but he doesn’t know what to do with that feeling. Farm work is dangerous, and he’s seen plenty of rolled ankles and broken bones even at his age, so maybe there’s something he can do for her? A simple stint or a crutch will be easy to fashion out here, enough for him to help her back to the city. Something inside of him tells him that he likes the fact that she was impressed by his story, even if it was a lie. That particular something wants to impress this woman, whom he’s never seen before, even more. His actions aren’t guided by the desire to help another person; they are fueled by the age-related changes in his mind and body that he doesn’t really understand, let alone control. There’s a bolstering in his core that makes the farmer’s son hold his shoulders back and stand taller than before; his chest puffs out somewhat while already standing there directly in front of the helpless woman sitting on the stump as his mind finally catches up to his actions.

“You look very healthy,” she says, lifting her leg for him to look at it.

He feverishly clears his throat, reminding himself to act like a soldier or a hero — calm, collected, unphased. “What… what’s wrong?” asks the farmer’s son, kneeling down and turning her leg lightly with his very sweaty hands to see if he can see an injury on the porcelain skin of her ankle and calf.

A warm sigh comes from above him. “I haven’t eaten in days,” she says in a soft voice, as he lifts his eyes to look back at her.

The farmer’s son screams, not able to fall back fast enough before two massive fangs entrench themselves into his torso, piercing through him as a large mouth engulfs him nearly whole while he kicks and fights in animal fear and instinct.

However, his muffled cries don’t get very far and then fall silent, by the time his legs are swallowed too.




I wouldn't worry about it.


私は吊るされた木だ。私の枝からは死体がぶら下がっている。 I am a hanging tree. There are corpses hanging from my branches.