“The time has come,” says the woman, her voice resounding around the empty church as she holds her hands out, giving a sermon of her own. The black book lies before her on the altar; the strong braid of her hair is wrapped around her neck, akin to a hangman’s noose, as her eyes wander the empty pews. “Brothers, sisters,” she preaches, her words echoing from one cold stone wall to the other as they travel across empty seats. “For years we’ve waited for this chance, for generations,” she proclaims, her eyes carrying over from one seat to the next as she stares at what is there in the emptiness as she preaches not to the bodies of the people but to the remnants of the dead — souls.
Her gaze wanders, her eyes flashing with yellow in the night as the flickers of candlelight illuminate her pupils, which dilate into black slits.
With so many convergences of life coming together at once, it is, of course, complicated to identify what is really happening. The powers that be are just this — plural — as in, there are many powers, and their individual ‘being’ implies that they have individual desires, wants, and goals.
The invasions and their unknown master are one party. The survivors of the world-tree mesa are another party. But across the whole of the world, could there not be other forces that remain? There are, in fact, many.
Monsters that remain despite the apocalypse, wandering the wastes in hunger. Nomadic people who travel the ashlands, desperate to find food and water day in and day out. Clustered pockets of life here and there in the distant reaches, having buried themselves out of the touch of the dry winds. Old kingdoms and noble bloodlines who have yet to accept the fact that the world has ended and their generational titles are now worth nothing more than soot. Military powers from other nations of the many races of the world, some of whom have fared better than others thus far.
— There are as many interests still remaining in the world as there are grains of gray ash in the sky.
“The time for your return to the world is at hand, as we have been promised,” she finishes, her arms lowering as she looks down toward the book that opens by itself. The wet pages fly, fluttering as a strong wind moves in through the open windows of the church, bringing her to the rites of the incantation that she needs, a reserpine grin covering her face as she looks back toward the pews, which are filled with the spirits of the dead — almost endlessly. Souls, lost to this world, sit there as witness to her gospel. “The sacrament is complete,” says the head-priestess, looking over the many faces that have come to turn her way, all of their features hollow — their sockets and broken mouths hanging ajar — the spirits of the tormented, who found no peace in their hoped exit from this world nor a place to exit to, as if the passage to the other world and into the well of souls were firmly jammed shut by a coagulation.
Blackwater drips down her fingers.
Water splashes as they move, the two fairies hustling down the passageway, the contents of Six’s rucksack bouncing around noisily inside next to the emptied ammunition cannisters — a series of hexogen ordinances, enough to collapse the sewer. This will be a problem, of course. But it’ll be an even bigger problem for the city if it gets swarmed with a million rats.
One moves at a steady pace, keeping his shotgun ready, but has had nothing to fire at for a while now. Ever since the initial pursuit of his team, the rats have mostly left the two of them remaining alone. Occasionally he’ll see one scamper here or there in the distance, but the great swarm hasn’t made itself seen anymore as they progress forward. Six walks alongside him, the ground beneath both of their boots rumbling as they go because of the violent streams of water that almost seem to shake the world.
— A sprout of a massive root runs across a tunnel. It’s obviously one of the world tree’s.
“Not a single gnaw on it,” he mutters, as the two of them walk beneath it.
Six looks at him. “Do rats eat roots?” she asks. One shrugs in response, shaking his head.
Damned if he knows what rats eat. Fairies and rats don’t get along. Fairies, in the olden days, lived in the forests and the trees. As such, they don’t get along with any sort of critter or bird. Owls, rats, and, even particularly big frogs are all ‘natural’ predators of fairies. He’s glad that his people have advanced to moving into the cities of the other races these days; now all that they have to watch out for are cats. He hates cats. Cats kill fairies all the time. The beasts. But humans love their pets, so this is a point of contention between neighbors very often.
“Hey,” says Six. He snaps back to focus, looking at her gaze and then following it to the large chamber ahead of them. “We’re here,” she whispers.
One aims his gun ahead, gesturing for her to follow him. The two black-clad operators move in sync, their weapons trained toward the forward distance.
A large chasm fills the central chamber, bridged by a metal platform covered in machinery of a nature far too complicated for him to understand. “The clockmaker helped with a lot of this stuff,” says a voice from his side, Six. She looks toward a series of moving gears that power a series of pistons, churning a series of massive wheels made out impossible amounts of melted of scrap metal from the destroyed cities.
“Good that we brought him with us then,” says One, his eyes aiming down the sight of the trench gun, the amethyst light projecting forward along the catwalk walkway the two of them are traveling over. The metal vibrates, shaking as they move. “Get the charges ready,” he starts to order. “Bef-”
The defused light of the weapon shines over wet metal, carrying upward toward the forward trajectory until he sees something incomprehensible.
The walkway and the tunnels aren’t shaking because of the vibrations of the water channels or the workings of the world tree — they’re shaking because of the movement and the scampering and scurrying of an impossible number of rats.
His light shines across the chamber as he intensifies the beam, revealing rats that move along every pipe in and out of the chamber. The massive gears, the wheels, the pistons — everything around them is covered with rats, who had been scurrying out of touch with the flashlights this entire time.
One spins around, aiming behind them at the ground. His hand lifts to the side, pressing against Six’s back lightly to encourage her to keep walking. The fairy strolls backwards at her side, the amethyst glow bouncing off of thousands and thousands of eyes that scurry across the bridge behind them.
“They set us up,” he mutters to himself.
“…The rats?” asks Six, her finger hovering over the trigger of her machine gun. Her wings buzz as she gets ready to fly, his buzzing in coordination. She holds in her hands one of the plastic explosive charges, primed and ready to use.
“No,” says a voice from ahead of them.
One and Six aim their weapon lights at a figure sitting there on a metal casket with crossed legs. She looks at the two of them. “I did,” says the elf, civil counselor Schtill. One looks at her, his finger ready to pull the trigger as he looks over the bandage around her head.
Those bastard rats got her too. This is bad.
She nods her head to the side. Six follows with her light, looking at the four other black-clad fairies, sitting there at a table with a map and looking their way. Four waves. Five is standing there like a scarecrow, her arms outstretched as raw sewage drips out of the fabric of her uniform. A rat brings her a stolen towel, dragging it over the metal grate and tripping several times as it scurries. The fairy stands there, staring down at it incredulously with a look on her face as blank as her mask.
“We have a problem,” says Schtill, walking toward them.
“Yeah. I can see the rats,” replies One, narrowing his eyes. He can only assume that his squad has been compromised as well.
“What?” asks Schtill. “The rats? Well, yeah. But, no,” says the elf, lifting her hands and shaking her very sweaty palms. “There’s an invasion about to happen. I need you and your team,” says the elf. Feeling his gaze on her head rather than her eyes, she puzzles for a moment before pointing at the bandage. “This?” she asks.
“I saw Winter,” replies One. “You aren’t taking me, like you did him, rat.”
“Yeah!” shouts Six, the hexogen charge held in her hands.
Schtill looks at them and then sighs, dropping her hood. “I think there’s a mix-up here,” she explains, unwrapping the bandage from around her head. The elf turns the wounded side toward him, showing him a red, swollen nub of an ear. “Some rat-controlled dingus grabbed me too hard when they dragged me underground,” she explains, gently touching the swollen spot on her head. “Turns out that sewer hands and broken skin are a great way to get an infection,” she says in an accusing tone, turning her head.
“ENOUGH,” yells a voice. One’s light blasts toward its source, resulting in a loud hissing as it captures the form of a woman sitting there on a throne of living rats just behind the table, all of which hiss in protest at the weapon being aimed her way. The rumbling in the chamber stops as millions of rats turn their attention away from their duties and toward the two fairies. “The hour is at hand!” she yells. “The scaled wretch will make her move.”
One looks at the table where Two is sitting and repeatedly, quickly gesturing with a finger across his throat.
The fairy lowers his trench gun. “What is this?” asks One. “I don’t understand. Counselor?”
Schtill gestures for the two of them to follow her as she walks over to the table where a map is laid out — the same civil planning map that they had in their headquarters. “We’ve been infiltrated,” explains the librarian, her hands running across the paper. “Tango is inside the city.”
— The table rattles as the woman on the living throne crosses her legs, placing her feet on the map.
“While you stole its shade, a snake made itself comfortable in the branches of the world tree,” says the odd human, a scrawny, bony person with sharp features and taut skin that doesn’t look like it has ever been touched by sunlight. Her teeth are sharp, and her eyes — sunken in deeply — are just the same. Her hair looks like it was once a glowing blonde that has fallen out in patches, color, and scruff over the years because of stress and illness — like a rat that can’t stop gnawing at itself. The patches that remain now resemble a more matted, dull mess. “You’re lucky that our kind are old friends,” she says, resting her head on her fist, her elbow digging into the breaking back of a rat, which considers itself to be the luckiest of all rats as its spine shatters.
“Our kind?” asks One, not sure what’s going on. This woman is Tango, as far as he can tell. But the elf and his team don’t look like they’re possessed.
“Men,” replies the hissing voice that carries around the sewer, and he now only notices how silent it has become. All of the raging storm water has stopped, all of the churning has stopped, and all of the chittering and scampering has stopped as millions of rats hold their peace and block the pipes as they speak — as if trying to stop any whisper from leaving this deep place. “- and rats,” she explains with a hiss to the word. “Where you go, we go.” The woman holds out her arms, pulling her feet off of the table as she stands. “And I am the we,” she finishes, rising to her feet and towering above them — not that this is hard. They’re fairies, after all, and Schtill is pretty short. Really, she’s about the size of a normal human.
But for the rats, this is very impressive, and they all squeak in excitement at the sight of their matriarch doing something vaguely mildly interesting at best.
Her hand lands on the map. “Do you know what night tonight is?” she asks, looking around the table. The fairies shrug.
“Isn’t it some church holiday or something?” asks Five, standing there and pressing the towel against her face, although, judging by her expression, she is unsure if she regrets doing so or not. It appears to have a smell. “Not like we really have a calendar anymore.”
“It’s not just any church holiday,” replies Schtill. “Today is the remembrance festival of the long since dead.” She looks at One. “Officer. There’s a snake in our ranks.”
“Not a rat?” he asks, looking around the chamber and receiving a series of hisses for his remark.
“No,” replies Schtill dryly. “I mean, a literal snake,” explains the elf. “- Naga,” she finishes, narrowing her eyes in the glow of amethyst light. Her finger lands on the central cathedral of the world tree city. “They’re making their move.”
Luisa flies, her hands holding the controls as she soars toward the east. The little plane does its best to cut through the strong winds that almost seem determined to keep her here where she is — as if imprisoned below the shadow of the world tree. At this rate, she won’t break through the storm.
Her hand reaches down, holding onto the lever to activate the plane’s Séance Drive, when suddenly, everything around her flashes red. The plane’s instruments scream and shine alight as wild magic ruptures through the air, her wings wobbling for a moment as shockwaves travel past her, clearing out the ash in the air for a moment to let her see clearly now.
The sky is webbed, as if spun with spider’s silk.
And all around the glass of the cockpit shines the warning window of a crisis.
Luisa leans to the side, staring back out behind the plane as a massive spire ruptures up toward the sky from inside the city. The black pillar rises up alongside the world tree, countering it as a grand monument almost mockingly, as from it stream an endless number of screaming, howling gestalts — the dead.
Resting back in her seat, Luisa stares forward for a moment as she thinks about what to do.
Does she go back? She can help defend the city. The plane is outfitted much the same as the Kestrel is. They need her there.
Or does she follow the distress beacon, flying to where Pilot is? Even if it will take her days to get there? By then, the world tree city might long be destroyed.
— In the mirror glass, she sees the contorted, twisted face of a tormented spirit flying her way from the mass. Immediately, her skin becomes cold, and her heart stops for a moment as the machine around her rumbles.
Before her past can catch up with her, Luisa shoots off toward the distant horizon.