A loud, electrical whining fills the air as some mechanism continues to wind and spin, pressing naturally against a piece of a contorted metal body like a broken bone, jutting out against skin through an open wound. Crackling comes and goes, sharp popping sounds as wiring sparks for a time, before becoming suffocated by the consistently monotone and full wind that presses in over the body that lays there limply, dangling from a chair that it’s strapped into.
Caretaker’s senses, lost on the edge of her periphery, slowly start to recollect themselves, to put her consciousness back into a whole state — but only ever so slightly. As she looks around the world from where she sits, she notices that it all seems wrong. She blinks, but her vision doesn’t fix itself.
The ashlands howl, fine, misty silt flowing into the Kestrel’s cockpit from the outside like water creeping into a sinking ship. Her hands, dangling freely downward, lift themselves and feel around her body as she tries to reorient herself and release herself from the straps that are holding her in.
— There’s a loud clunking, followed by a series of dull thuds, as Caretaker falls out of the co-pilot’s seat and onto the hard metal floor of the Kestrel.
The plane is upside down.
She’s lying on what ought to be the ceiling above the cockpit.
Lifting her gaze, the confused, dazed dryad looks around herself. The airframe is bent and broken, fire and smoke rising where they can, only to be quickly suffocated by the ashy winds, like a witch’s loveless hand smothering a weak throat inside a cot. The window glass is shattered and broken from impact.
Caretaker slowly tries to rise to her feet, her mind still processing — the creature that she is, developed in utterly simple and peaceful circumstances, not quite able to follow in such emergency situations so quickly. She finds herself standing there in a half-catatonic daze as her mind goes through the events of what just happened, trying to piece it all together as if it were collecting the broken glass all around her feet as she walks over them toward the door, which is above her head.
Instead, she stumbles out of a gash in the side of the Kestrel, the metal ripped and torn jaggedly apart as if by a great dragon’s claw.
The dryad falls into a dune of ash, looking around herself and calling a name, but receiving no answer other than the endless howling of the ashland winds and the dying throes of the Kestrel’s corpse, which sits half-buried behind her like a falcon’s skeleton.
She coughs, hacking out dust that she’s breathed in. The fine silt of the ashlands makes it difficult to breathe or speak.
Reaching down around her neck, Caretaker pulls up the fabric shawl she’s wearing and wraps it around her nose and mouth as she looks around the area.
Her eyes scan the horizon in all directions, but she finds nothing to land her gaze upon. Along every cardinal path lies nothing but ash. There is nothing but gray, dead lands, for as far as the soul can hope to see. No water, no food, no Pilot, no world tree. Even the horizon itself is impossible to see within the desolation, as the ashstorm keeps it from her vision.
At this point, Caretaker has already begun climbing up atop the Kestrel’s wreckage and looks around the area for any signs of her partner at all.
She sees nothing of the sort.
However, she does see a spark of some kind off in the distance in a direction that she can’t identify. It sits off to the Kestrel’s right wing, far, far away. Whatever it is is only barely visible, a tiny yellow pinprick amongst the utter darkness that has come to the world through the power of the great rot.
She has to find Pilot.
Something attacked them. It grabbed him and ripped him into the air before she could react.
Caretaker holds her head as the vision comes back to her of the crash.
The Kestrel spiraled out of control; she only barely managed to strap herself in, like Pilot taught her, before everything went blank in her body and mind, and she fell limp and unconscious.
He might be dead.
The dryad stands there atop the metal corpse, looking out at the pinprick of light present somewhere in the immeasurable distance. Taking her hand off of her forehead, she looks down at her palm, which is now covered in blood.
The thought comes to her as being hard to suppress. A fall from that height, even for a man like Pilot, isn’t survivable. Whatever that thing was that attacked them, that took him… Its talon grabbed him and tore him through the glass. There are thousands of ways he could have died, if not by the claws and teeth of the thing itself. She might be by herself out here.
She might be by herself.
Caretaker stares out at the distant light.
The metal locker’s door breaks as she rips it off of its last hinge, pulling out the survival rifle and the rucksacks inside of it that they had prepared for just such emergencies. She grabs everything that she can, smearing blood here and there indifferently as she rummages through the bowels of the dead animal she’s inside, before crawling back out of the gash and wandering out into the wastes, sparing only a single look back at the plane.
Written inside of it in blood is a missive, describing her direction if, by some happenstance of fate, Pilot or anyone from the valley finds the Kestrel.
But she doubts it.
Still half delirious and half unsure of reality, Caretaker stumbles toward the faint light in the distance.
She has to find Pilot. That’s the most important thing. Forget going back to the world tree; forget the valley; forget the people there — she has to find Pilot. If he’s alive, she has to find him. If he’s dead… she has to find him.
Like a sick animal, the dryad wanders the wastelands in a semi-delusional state, almost certain that she sees faces appearing in the dust every now and then. The storm is so thick and heavy that she simply cannot tell if it is day or night anymore. The gale wind batters against her, almost impossible to walk against on flat terrain as it pelts her with particulate.
From the view of the Kestrel, the lone silhouette walking across the landscape obscures the last glimmer, leaving the machine to rest in smothering darkness.
The hooded man cackles with a jackal’s voice, his face hidden, but his bony hand strikes the counter top as he laughs. His skin is so sickly and pale that the blue veins present beneath it resemble the crawling of parasitic works, bulging the flesh outward from within as they crawl through him.
“’Help’?” he repeats after her. “You need ‘help’?” he asks again, his hands moving toward his face down below his hood, where they stay for a while, hidden from her sight as he digs around there for a while, still laughing a sick, hacking laugh. His voice is like that of a man who had died and returned from the grave, stuck within a state of perpetual rot. It’s high and raspy; his breath stinks the same as his ash covered body. Ash covers everything inside the broken building, from top to bottom. The chairs around the room, the tables — everything lies half-buried in ash, as if the desert had begun swallowing it all whole, gorging itself on the remnants of civilization.
“The gods help those who help themselves!” he says cheerfully, almost howling, until he starts hacking out a slimy cough, spitting out a globule of ash out of his lungs onto his open palm. He looks at it for a while before lifting it to his hood, where she can only assume he’s licking it clean again with a dry, almost scaly tongue. His body is deprived of moisture. The ash is taking him too, inside and out.
Caretaker looks at him, at the creature before her that she isn’t quite sure is a human anymore, honestly.
His posture, his build, his clothing — these things indicate a human. But everything beyond that deeper facade is… misaligned.
In nature, proportions are a key fundamental. A buck with proportional antlers is likely healthy in body; a tree with proportional roots and branches is likely safe; and a face with proportional features is likely beautiful — signaling a good mate. Things being in proportion is what lets you know a place or a person is alright. Nature is chaotic, but it always finds balance in its own way.
But here, this man is not in proportion.
His voice fails to match his body, his body fails to match his posture, and his actions fail to match what she has come to know of humanity from her recent experiences with them. Perhaps this man is a human, and she simply doesn’t know enough about them and their variety of existences to identify him as one, or perhaps he is something that lies below the concept of humanity, acting as a lost word on the tip of a tongue when one had hoped to speak of a person. However, this thing here is no longer capable of personhood.
It’s a husk, inside and out.
Caretaker walks back out of the building, looking up at the sign for a moment.
“Adventurers’ guild,” reads the dryad quietly to herself before looking away from the sign and out and down the street of what looks to have once been a city. Half of it is buried and vanished beneath the ash. The other half subsists still, somehow still present within existence, and between it — only ever in the darkest of shadows, shuffle whispering, secretive things. ‘People’, drabbed in cloaks and weaves, move like the dead, only barely capable of ambulation as they struggle to stay afloat above the soft ash that fills the streets, as if constantly fighting to not be taken by it. As she walks down the road, cautiously looking around herself out of the corners of her eyes, she stays in the middle of what she assumes is the street. She does her best not to think about how many skeletons and bodies lie below the blanket of ash, just beneath her feet.
She’s not followed, but she’s also not ignored, always drawing glances and looks and whispers following after her like ghosts as she walks past one husk after the other. The creatures, the people, shuffling away through the silt, vanishing in the gritty fog that obscures her vision as they disappear around corners that she looks around to see nobody there, or in through doors into houses — the sights within the broken windows, however, reveal that they are abandoned.
“Who are you?” whispers a voice as Caretaker stares in through the broken glass of an old house. The soft tone of its touch carries around the ash-flooded room. Her eyes scan the darkness, not seeing anyone. “Leave. Run,” it whispers, the words falling down low, as if making sure themselves not to leave the frame of the structure and carry out into the street beyond.
“I’m looking for someone,” says Caretaker. “I need help,” explains the dryad. “Please, I’ll trade you,” she offers, pulling her rucksack forward. “I have food, water,” she says into the house. “I just need information.”
“There’s nobody here to find,” replies the voice in the house. “There’s nothing but ash…” it whispers, coming from unnervingly close, even if she can’t see anyone standing there by the window. “Besides, don’t you know?” it asks, coming closer, but from down below.
“What?” asks Caretaker, looking down at the ground below the inside of the window.
“Those who partake of the food of the underworld,” it starts as her eyes fixate on a single shape down below, inside of the silt. “- are cursed to never to be able to leave again,” explains the voice as her eyes find a single, fleshless skull of an antlered person. There is no body. A crack runs along its yellowed top, as if someone had shattered it open to reach the moisture trapped inside of it like a chestnut, thick to bursting.
Caretaker steps back, stumbling over the ash as she looks around herself, pulling out the rifle and aiming it at the first shadow she sees.
But that is all that she sees.
The many bodies and the many persons are now all gone. All that remains in her vision is herself, the city, and loose fabric hanging here and there from the odd lanterns or signposts, waving in the wind in vaguely the shape of people, but with nothing of substance beneath them.
It is as if they never really were and who really knows, perhaps they weren't?
Clutching her bleeding forehead, Caretaker holds the rifle at her side in her other hand as she stumbles through the dead city, moving toward its center as she tries to find anything that could hint toward where she has to go and what she has to do. “Pilot…” mutters Caretaker beneath the shawl covering her mouth, the ash finding its way to her tongue nonetheless.