The shroud of sunlessness wraps itself heavily around the Kestrel, the large plane’s propellers buzzing aloud as it soars through the darkness that clings to it like a slick film, which is constantly broken by the machine's forward movement only to be reapplied by the never-ending night that it is submerged inside of. It has been days since they left the mesa, flying off toward the distant horizon in pursuit of the secrets hidden below the unreachable sunset. However, these mysteries seem to be very closely guarded, as there has been nothing of the sort to be found.
Ever since Pilot and Caretaker had left the survivorship of the mesa, flying toward the east, they have seen nothing but desolation. The great fields and meadows, the forests of old ages, the cities of renown, and the rivers — once mighty — are now nothing but pulverized channels of ash. Like flowing water, ash moves across the world — a gray tide pushed on by the powerful winds that now envelop everything there is. With no trees, no hills, no towers and spires, and all such things made of the factions of life, the wind has no choice but to roar stronger and stronger, to flow undisrupted, and to gain more and more power. Ash fills the air as the unhindered global wind carries the fine sediment up on high, and ash flows across the surface below them, as if it were alive and rippling like dry skin over a festering wound, ready to burst at any moment.
Caretaker stares out of the window of the plane, watching it all go by with a heaviness in her heart that never seems to settle. Deep down, she knew that everything was gone, taken by the great rot. But some part of her still hoped to find… anything. A forest, a glade, a town — anything at all that might have escaped the consumption that has come to crawl over the world endless centipedes, but now, faced with reality, she finds herself lost in the fact that there is simply nothing. Sometimes they divert course, turning abruptly toward this direction or that direction, but she doesn’t understand why. Those few sparse townships that remained existing around the mesa seem to have been unique in their ability to survive this long, at least from what she can see. Her sisters, who left the valley, she wonders what became of them all. She wonders about what sights they saw before the end came for them too. The world must have once been beautiful. In a way, she wishes that she had gotten to see it too.
The dryad turns her head, looking away from the grayness that has swallowed the world, toward Pilot who is holding the controls of the plane, staring intently out of the window. Caretaker rises up to her feet, planting a hand on his shoulder and a kiss on top of his head as she walks by toward the midsection of the plane.
All they do is fly.
Sometimes, they land for a few hours for Pilot to sleep. But then they rise up again quickly, before the ash outside of the window can swallow the plane, as it often tries to do, burying them in a metal coffin beneath fine silt. He’s underslept, but there isn’t time to sleep longer than those few rare hours, and she isn’t able to fly the Kestrel in these powerful winds. She has no idea where to begin. Pilot has shown her a few things, letting her try out this and that. A couple of times, she’s sat on his lap and held the controls, steering the craft while he closed his eyes and leaned back to nap, but that was always only for a few minutes here and there, before some powerful wind came that she wasn’t able to fight against, and he needed to resume control of the machine. So, she does whatever else she can to be useful in such an odd, unnatural environment such as this.
The dryad rubs the regrowing nubs on top of her head as she looks around the metal cylinder and then down toward the little nook she’s standing in front of. She pulls out a small sachet — a ration — and begins setting to work on making a meal for them to share.
Pilot flies, and she does everything else. She tests the mounted gun turrets on the plane’s body now and then, keeping their rotational joints free from the fine ash that flies through the air, even up here in the sky. She prepares their food and drinks. She scouts the landscape and tries to remember every single marker and waypoint that remains in the world, taking note of them on Pilot’s project map. Who knows if such information will ever be useful, honestly. But it’s work; it’s proof that she’s doing everything in her part the same as he is. Being in this metal tube for so long makes her twitchy. She has a desire to run and frolic that there simply isn't enough space to fulfill in here.
Caretaker shakes the little sachet, having finished pouring hot water into it from a small mechanical spout, letting the contents simmer inside the bag for a moment before heading back toward the cockpit. Her hand graces the side of the plane as she walks.
Her magic travels through the metal body of the Kestrel, enveloping the entire thing in a cushion of air that keeps the ash away somewhat. However, this far away from the world tree, her magic is weak. She’s connected to the titan innately, and even if its presence can be felt around the world, it is far weaker than it once was, perhaps only a year ago. Now, only the faintest shadows of its presence remain, and as such, her magic is the same.
“Pilot,” says Caretaker, sitting down on the co-pilot's seat. Pulling on a latch down below it, it releases from a lock and swivels sideways toward him. “Dinner’s ready,” she says, placing the small sachet in a little cubby between their seats.
The two of them are a team. They have different tasks, different abilities, and different functions — they compliment one another. He flies, and she makes sure he can fly. He’s the blackbird of the world tree, and she’s the updraft that carries him toward the sky.
“Thank you, Caretaker,” says Pilot, looking her way. The bags under his eyes are noticeably darker than a few days ago, but there is nothing to be done about it. She frowns, looking at him in worry and then out toward the gray sky ahead of them, which stretches on endlessly forevermore.
There is nothing left.
There is nothing to find.
“Pilot…” starts the dryad, needing to ask her question now. “Should we go back?” Caretaker turns back to look at him. “There’s nothing here. What are we looking for?”
Pilot shakes his head. “No,” he says. “We can’t go back yet,” replies the man, looking toward the center console of the cockpit and then out toward the window to his left. He diverts the plane, looking back toward the console again, checking for something. She smiles, watching him glance her way for a second. He’s gotten much better at the language. While he’s hardly fluent, he’s able to communicate with her now in ways that simply weren’t possible before. Although, in a strange way that’s hard to explain, she misses the days when he couldn’t understand her. It made it easier to hide embarrassing thoughts and feelings that she now has no choice but to admit.
Caretaker frowns, turning her head and pulling on a strand of her dark hair that she’s wrapped around a finger. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything,” she relents as they turn again toward a new direction.
Pilot shakes his head, tapping down with a finger toward the console, inside of which is embedded a display with a line drawn on it that spins around in a slow, circular motion. In the center of it, as she’s understood, is them. And anything marked on it as a dot is something around them. A ‘radar’, as he’s called it. However, out here in the ash storm, this device seems to be mostly useless, according to Pilot. There’s too much noise, too much sediment, and too much movement of particulate matter, and so the device simply doesn’t work as it should in clear skies.
“Is it back again?” she asks, looking down at the device.
There is a dot on it, marking the presence of another entity that is following them. It has been appearing and disappearing for a while now. Pilot said that it was just a mistake the machine was making because of the storm, but given his constant diversions of direction and reaffirming glances toward it every now and then, she assumes that he is reassessing this theory. “I thought it was just a lost spirit in the machine?” Caretaker looks at the radar and then turns her head, looking out of the glass window toward where something ought to be, according to the device. But within the heavy gale, nothing is visible, and by the time she looks back, the marked dot on the radar has vanished again. “There can’t be anything out here, Pilot,” says Caretaker, shaking her head as she looks out sadly toward the endless nothingness. “Everything is dead.”
She purses her lips, looking back his way to insist that they go back home now just in time to see the shadow pressing out of the ash in the sky, glass shattering and metal breaking as a large, webbed, taloned foot breaks through the cockpit’s exterior, wind howling, and sirens screaming as something grabs Pilot from outside of the plane and yanks him out into the sky.
The Kestrel spins, careening down toward the ground. Caretaker flies out of her seat as they spiral, hitting her head against a metal beam. Everything goes dark within the banshee scream of an alarm in the wind as the machine crashes, hurtling down toward the endless ashlands.