21. The Ending Chapter, part 2
...in which most is made of the time remaining
The fire, despite the slight moisture in the underbrush, diligently caught onto new twigs, tufts of grass and trees. It wasn't dry enough for an explosive spread of flames but the few hastily drafted Molotov cocktails were enough to quickly fuel the existing embers on the forest floor. Their already limited supplies of alcohol among their medical equipment were now all but used up. While still unsure if this plan was a wise decision, Lithuania couldn't help but feel relieved to see the flames gaining strength. If the fire hadn't caught on, their supplies would have been wasted for no reason. Hopefully, in just a few hours they would have a lot more effective healing tools at their disposal.
Lithuania watched the wall of flames they had created spread into the forest and prayed that after this, they still had a way home. In front of him, the flames licked their way up the trees. The smoke drove away birds and critters from their nests. The smell of the burnt matter filled his senses. As the flames caught on to the bodies of the dead and the cries of the injured humans lying amidst the fire mixed with the living ones who were shouting and scrambling to safe their comrades as well as themselves, Lithuania's determination faltered. Like a heavy rock hitting the water's surface and sinking to the bottom, something suddenly replaced every sliver of optimism and positivity in him. He covered his ears and closed his eyes, but couldn't erase the burning smell, the warmth of embers floating towards him or the memories he was sure would never go away.
"Liet!" Poland shook his shoulder violently, pulling him towards himself. "We have to GO! The flames are−!"
"Poland…" Lithuania whimpered and raised his gaze one more time to the hell he had created. "What have I done?"
Poland was as shook as Lithuania but his survival instincts and the sight of his friend's despair gave him strength to keep pulling Lithuania out of the trench to retreat away from the fire. "What had to be done to save us, right! Okay? We all agreed on this, now let's not let be in vain, okay? Okay?! Now come on before you burn too!"
The nations fled their trench. One by one the rose out cover into the open. But almost no one was there to shoot them. A few humans aimed at their direction still, determined to stop their escape, but their attentions were too divided. Soon the nations disappeared behind the cover of the trees, helping the slower and injured ones forward themselves. The humans tried to desperately put out the fire, suddenly more concerned with the land's wrath than their opponents. Only Italy's arm was graced by a bullet, but Latvia had dealt with their assaulter before more damage was done.
And with Italy, every last nation on the front lines had been hurt in some capacity, from scratches and bruises to amputated limbs, bombs shards and burns, gunshot wounds and mystical damage by the forest. Were it Switzerland who had torn his skin to the trees while climbing or an earlier gunshot wound Egypt was desperately trying to hide not to make Belgium worry, they all had shed their blood to this land now.
Behind them rose a wall of fire and smoke, growing wider, higher and louder, hiding under its might the screams and death they had left behind. It was now that a question rose in many of their minds.
How many had they killed?
"Don't say it," Russia told Canada as the other was about to voice this thought as they were running. "We're doing what we can to survive. Right?"
"I guess, but…" Canada hesitated.
"It's done already," Finland said from his other side, biting his lip to remain focused. "This is war. We can only do the most with it now."
"You too?!" Canada said. He couldn't find a way to be okay with this now that the thought of the destruction they were leaving in their wake had crossed his mind. All of them had seen, heard and lived the cruellest of times during their long years in their respective histories. All of them had seen war, death and pain. But rarely, if at all, did they these days deliver those themselves.
"I'm not telling you to enjoy it!" Finland snapped a little before taking a deep breath. "I'm not. …Look, let's just keep going."
"Hey, think of it this way," Russia said, sounding almost a little cheerful. "They definitely started it."
Time remaining to departure: 2 hours, 54 minutes, 17 seconds
.*** *** ***
"Have they gone mad?" England uttered in disbelief as the smoke and embers of the forest fire rose ever higher. "Are they out of their minds?! What even… I… They can't just…"
"England. Eyes back this way," Norway said way too calmly considering the situation.
England looked at him, watching their magician continue enchanting the rune buried into the ground under his palm. "How can you be this calm?! They just−!"
"I wanna to go home," Norway replied, concentrating on the feeling of magic flowing out from his hand to the ground. "Can ye help me with that, England? While we still have time."
England stood still for a moment longer, then cursing and going back to his role while cursing more under his breath. "Those little… twits! When we're back I ought to…"
"Save your breath," Austria advised. He glanced at the direction of the fire one more time and suddenly sighed deeply. "Norway. The wisps are here."
Norway raised his hand from the ground and took a deep breath. "Tha' was fast, dammit…"
.*** *** ***
Liechtenstein had seen the from the window what was going on in the direction of the front lines. Now as she saw the wisps appearing at the edge of the forest, she was surprised to notice herself not afraid or panicked at the sight of them. She stepped away from the window and with calm steps walked back to Belarus who was still lying on the table. She was almost done cleaning the blood out of her hair. She had taken a break to treat China's injuries and now more blood had seeped through the bandages on Belarus' eyes, negating some of her earlier work. She'd have to change the bandages again. They still had some supplies left she could spare to use as extra cover for the bleeding eye sockets as well. As Liechtenstein got to work, she wondered if the blood staining her fingers and nails would ever come off. Shutting the outside world out of her mind, she concentrated on her little domain inside the hut. The people inside were her responsibility. She'd take care of them until something lifted that burden. Whatever that something would turn out to be.
"Say Belarus," Liechtenstein chatted quietly as she again grabbed the sponge, that she had been using to clean the blood, and dipped it into the cleaner pool of water she had nearby. "When we're back in our world, could we go have some fun together? Like shopping and buying something unusual to eat. We could find a good place to hold a picnic and chat. And invite some of the other girls too. Just spent some time together and enjoy each other's company, you know." She watched the bloodied water drip down the hair and form ripples into the container of reddened water at her feet. With each gentle tap and drag of her sponge the blood in the hair and the face washed away. "I don't think we do those kinds of things often enough. But then again, I'm not sure would you be into something like that." The sponge followed the wave of Belarus' hair one more time before Liechtenstein let her hand fall onto her lap. "And you know, right now…" She whispered as a few of her tears fell on the silver hair she held on top of her palm. "That makes me really sad."
"Liechtenstein…" China said weakly from the bench by the window, where he had been trying to sit in a position that he could see outside.
"Don't move around so much," Liechtenstein ordered softly, wiping tears away from her eyes. "I didn't have time to stitch your wounds so the bleeding is going to get worse. Don't worry. I'll take care of you all. I'll take care of you. I'll take care of you as long as it takes."
China tried to think of something to say but instead, turned his head to look back at the wall of smoke rising above the forest. In his heart he knew why the nations still in the front lines would have resulted to such a thing. Would he have done the same if he was still in charge? How had things changed between his last memory down in the trench and the time he had woken up in the hut? Could he have found a different way? Had there been a different way?
"China?" Liechtenstein asked quietly. "We'll be fine, right?"
Time remaining to departure: 2 hours, 37 minutes, 11 seconds
.*** *** ***
A string of explosions to the left of them startled the fleeing nations and they turned back to look at the direction of the sound. The leftmost pair, who had not much earlier gone to check their protections from the sides, didn't need long to deduce the origin of the explosions.
Hungary grimaced. "I think there goes our protection from the flanks."
Greece took this moment they didn't have to run or fire a gun to lean his hand on a tree and take a deep breath. "Yeah… I did not think of that."
"Well, the humans have other things to keep them busy now right?" Hungary suggested hopefully.
"I'd say so but…" Greece replied but then frowned at the wall of smoke. "Is it just me or…"
"Hey!" someone suddenly shouted at them and they turned to look at Finland who was waving at them from further away. "What are you two stopping for?! One gust of wind this way and it's not humans we have to run from!"
"That won't probably be the problem here. The fire isn't spreading," Greece replied but Finland was too far to hear.
Hungary was not. "What?" She looked up at the flames again.
Greece wasn't the only one to notice. Switzerland and Spain who had been running ahead of them had reached the clearing with their next lines. Without the trees surrounding them and on a slightly higher ground, although further away, they had probably the best view of the wall of smoke and the red aura of the flames. Or… it was supposed to be red.
"I have a bad feeling about this…" Spain mumbled as Switzerland raised his sniping rifle and peered through the scope towards the front line.
The sparks flying up the smoke weren't red but blue. Blue hue surrounded the fire and the longer they observed, the more and more sure they were that while the smoke rose ever higher and filled the sky, the area of fire itself grew smaller and smaller.
"There's only one blue thing I know around here that would want to interfere with this. Tch… Blasted no man's land… I wish someone had asked us about this plan beforehand too," Switzerland huffed and was about to continue when Spain suddenly yanked the gun downwards and slapped his hand on Switzerland's face. "Huh, Spa −!"
"Shh!" Spain said and kept his hand on Switzerland's eyes and turned them both away from the fire. Through Spain's fingers, Switzerland saw the sparking blue fire floating near them. Spain took a deep breath. "Yup. Yup, I think we made them mad."
Switzerland pushed Spain hand away and raised his own hand to cover his eyes instead. "Let me guess: there's more than one?"
Switzerland gritted his teeth and clenched the gun in his hand. "You think I could just shoot them after all? There has to be something there I can hit."
"How about we won't make them any madder? Hmm?" Spain suggested, trying to hide his distress under a lighter tone of voice.
Their conversation was interrupted by a hissing noise, like a fire that had water poured on it. Out of curiosity and cautiousness they both glanced at the direction of the sound. One of the wisps was flaring, sparking what looked like little bolts of electricity around itself and moving its blue flames around wildly instead of quietly burning like a candleflame like the wisps usually did.
Spain frowned. "Is it literally throwing a hissy fit at us?"
Switzerland sighed. "Call it something more dramatic, would you? It certainly looks like it's trying to get a message through," he said and then raised his voice to talk to the wisp. "We get it! This is your home, right? I know the feeling, buddy, rowdy trespassers are the worst. We're trying to leave here ourselves, you know. Now stop getting in our way."
"Umm…" Spain mumbled. "Switzerland. Can you please be nicer to strong supernatural beings that are mad at us?"
"It's telling us how it feels about us and I'm returning the favour! Quite nicely actually!"
"Er, sure: work on your 'nice' voice, okay?"
The wisp interrupted their argument by flaring bigger and brighter, hissing loudly back at Switzerland (Spain decided it was just Switzerland). Then suddenly, it coiled in on itself and disappeared from sight along with the rest of its kin.
Switzerland and Spain stood still for a moment, both dumbfounded and trying to process their sudden encounter.
"Wait…" Spain finally said. "…What?"
.*** *** ***
Lithuania breathed a sigh of relief as he saw one nation after the other emerge from the forest after him to the clearing. A message from Greece and Hungary had earlier reached him that the forest itself seemed to have stopped the spread of the fire. While that was good in a way, it also meant that the humans could soon again be on their tails. Now on the clearing himself, he could look back and see better how the increasingly bright blue light seemed to confine the forest fire within itself. Russia had gone back without permission to check on the fire and Lithuania had accepted that he'd take any info he could get, although sending someone back alone was something he definitely wouldn't have ordered at this stage. Or ever. But Russia was stubborn and hard to kill. …Right?
"Hey yo, commander!" Poland hollered to Lithuania from the first trench on the clearing. "Which line?"
Lithuania turned away from the fire. "The one on the other side. Let's hope if the humans come, they'd like to spent time on this one again."
"Oh?" Lithuania raised his eyebrows as he walked towards the trenches. "What is it, Switzerland?"
Both of their current snipers marched towards him with a determined step and Lithuania was a slightly worried at their stern expressions. They reach the closer trench at the same time and Poland also settled to listen to the report, leaning his arms on the edge of the trench.
"So, like, what's up?" Poland asked, but Switzerland paid him no mind as he talked to Lithuania.
"Did you see any wisps on your way?"
Lithuania shook his head. "Are you talking about the fire not spreading? We noticed it too. But−"
"No not that," Switzerland said. "I'm talking about actual wisps? Did you encounter any? Did anyone?"
Lithuania grew more worried. "No. Not as far as I know."
Spain heaved. "Okay then," he said while glancing at Switzerland. "I repeat: what?"
.*** *** ***
"Egypt, you're so dumb!" Belgium scolded as she dragged her line partner forward through the forest. "You're the worst dummy there is!" They were behind everyone and the pair next to them, Latvia and Italy, hadn't noticed that the right end of their line was no longer as close to them as it should. "Are you listening? You're a big. Dumb. Dummy!"
Egypt nodded silently, trying his best to help Belgium move them forward.
"No, you talk to me now, got it!" Belgium demanded. "Your vocal cords need some workups anyway. A dummy like you is not giving me the silent treatment right now!"
"What was that now?!"
"Good, now keep talking! Dummy!"
Egypt had been shot earlier during the day, but since the bullet had lodged itself to the wound so tightly that he had managed to keep the blood flow in check with his own first aid supplies, he had decided to stay in the fight. The bullet hadn't hit anything important and the adrenaline had pushed him through any pain. Belgium hadn't even noticed his partner was hurt. She had been shocked to see the first recoil but since Egypt quickly had gotten back up and waved her away and because of the enemies rushing in at them, she had figured it hadn't been serious. But getting up from the trench for this retreat had dislodged the bullet from its place keeping the blood vessels in check. It hadn't taken long for Belgium to realise something was wrong. And right now: she was mad.
"How could you not tell me?! That is so dumb!"
"Not gonna cut it! When we're back home, you're treating me to some waffles."
"Now tell me what you are?!"
"Good! You get it. Now hang in there and I'll get us to the others."
Egypt nodded again which immediately earned a loud clearing of a throat sound from Belgium, so he corrected himself. "I'll do my best."
They continued forward, Belgium nagging about the different ways this could have gone if Egypt hadn't been such a dummy, while Egypt was giving her brief vocal replies to make it a conversation. The pain was starting to kick in now. Belgium had hastily tied a bandage around the wound to the best of what their supplies could offer while on the run, but the blood was seeping through. Back then, it had seemed like the best decision to not make Belgium make that frightened expression at him and push through. He had felt like it would be fine. Now, Egypt admitted that he was an idiot. Or a dummy, since Belgium seemed to have lost any insult vocabulary outside of dumb. He had been dumb.
From the corner of his eye, Egypt spotted something blue. The level of his awareness spiked up again and he pulled on Belgium's shirt to catch her attention so she'd stop talking and look to their right.
Belgium gasped and turned away from the wisp as soon as she saw it. "Oh no… Oh no no no no…." She held Egypt tighter and edged away from the wisp the best she could, but then saw another wisp on their left as well. And one more over there. And there. Belgium took a deep breath that shook with each shiver running down her spine. They'd have to keep going. The fire would catch up to them. But could she carry Egypt through the wisps safely? Would they follow them? "I have to keep moving," she mumbled to herself, forcing herself to take a step forward while keeping her eyes on the ground and hands tightly around Egypt. "If we take long, someone will come look for us. If I don't get clear of the wisps until then, they could be in danger too."
Egypt listened to Belgium's mumblings and gathered his own strength to help her move. He was feeling weak now that the adrenaline was gone but he could still move his feet. Belgium was taking care of his balance. He could concentrate on easing the weight of his body on her. He could feel Belgium's hands shiver and grip tighter onto his clothes. This was his fault. He had to reassure Belgium somehow to ease her fright.
"Belgium," Egypt started, deciding to talk about something that had been on his mind for a while now. "Why do you think we're here?"
"Huh?" Belgium managed, surprised at the question.
"Our allies here… and Norway concluded that most likely something happened here that caused us to get transported. With this nest thing," Egypt kept talking with a steady voice to keep Belgium's thoughts away from the dangers of the wisps. "Magical… things happened. Like something went wrong. But none of the nations here did it. And we got transported to this no-man's-land instead of to any of them although they said they had those magic links of theirs with us. But this forest… nest thing… doesn't want us here either. Why would it have the power to call us but not sent us away if it wanted?"
"Um… I don't know?" Belgium replied. "Wait, you don't expect me to answer that, do you. Sorry, it's sort of odd to hear you talk so much. Sorry, no I umm… I don't get this magical stuff and haven't really had time to think about it either. But… I guess you're right. It's all… weird."
Egypt nodded. "It's weird. Why are we here?"
"There you are! Oh god, Egypt did you get hurt?" Latvia's voice had them both raise their gazes up to the forest ahead. Latvia and Italy were coming back to them. "We're so sorry we didn't notice you were left behind. Hurry, I'll help−"
"Wait, watch out, there are wisps here!" Belgium raised her hand to stop the approaching too and succeeded.
"Really?!" Italy shrieked a little and hid behind a tree and crouched down. "W-where? Are there many?!"
"There… was?" Belgium looked around. "What?"
But the wisps were gone. The forest was empty.
Latvia was looking around cautiously as well. "Where?"
Egypt and Belgium looked at each other. They hadn't imagined the wisps: they both had seen them. But where had they gone? When? And why?
.*** *** ***
"And?" Lithuania asked Russia as the other walked to him and entered the centre hut where the nations were having a little meeting now that they had a moment of respite. "Any results from your free-spirited adventures towards danger?"
"Aww, were you worried about me?" Russia asked and smiled.
"Yes, idiot, please don't leave the line without permission," Lithuania sighed. He did not need any extra pressure. "So?"
"The wisps are surrounding the fire we started," Russia replied and looked thoughtful. "It looks to me that they can't put it out but are preventing it from spreading. So, it'll probably keep burning until everything in that area is burnt up and the fire goes out on its own."
"I see," Lithuania said and sighed a little. "Honestly I'm a little relieved it's not spreading. Then again, that is less protection than we thought."
"Did you see any humans?" Korea asked Russia. A couple of nations were out keeping guard in the case someone was following them, but for now they had been confident that they had stopped the advance of the humans at least a little.
Russia shook his head. "Nope. I didn't get close enough to see anyone. The wisps started hissing at me when I got close enough to see the fire."
Spain looked at Switzerland. "See? A hissy fit again."
"Can you not call it that?"
"We definitely made the forest angry…" Lithuania buries his face into his hands. "What have I done? I hope everything is alright at Home."
"We should send someone there to check," Australia suggested but as soon as he said it, Japan shook his head beside him.
"No," Japan said and looked at Lithuania who had raised his head again. "We should send back everyone who cannot run. If everything is still going as planned, the time is running out soon. We must operate under the assumption that Norway will succeed. We keep guard here in the case the humans return one last time but anyone who cannot move fast when the time comes should go Home now. Besides after what happened to Cuba, no one goes out there alone again."
Lithuania nodded. "You're right. I agree." He looked around to see if other in the hut had any opinions. "We've broken two hours remaining now. It feels like longest and the shortest time at the same time. Not only should we make sure everyone is at the hut at the allotted time, but extra protection around the hut can't hurt either."
"So how many does that make?" Finland asked, trying to take into account everyone's injuries. "How many would go and who would stay?" He looked at his neighbour. "Well Sweden goes back for sure."
Sweden frowned. "I jes got back 'ere…"
"Well then, at least you know the way."
"Belgium seems determined to take Egypt back herself," Australia said. "That's three with Sweden. Then probably Netherlands too, that makes four. Me and Taiwan are good to stay, so I'd say is everyone here."
"Ukraine is exhausted," Japan reported about his partner. "I'd let her leave earlier."
"Romano and Italy can go as well. Italy is keeping a surprisingly brave face for everyone, but his arm seems to hurt quite a bit. And Romano won't stop complaining about everything," Poland said.
"HUH?!" Southern Italy said, coming in from the side. "Excuse me for not enjoying the situation! I've been doing my job well haven't I?!"
"You have," Lithuania assured. "Thanks for that. I wouldn't have been able to hold the line at the centre without all of you." Romano was technically his partner at the centre but the other had vehemently denied any leadership responsibilities. That said, he had been vocal about his opinions which Lithuania actually appreciated. Both Poland and Romano had helped him keep a cool head in the heat of battle.
"But if too many leave, we can't hold the line here if something does still happen, right?" Russia pondered. "Sweden, Netherlands, Egypt, Belgium, big sis and the Italys are a lot already. If we bring an army home with us, it's all for nothing."
"Hey, don't decide things for me, okay!" Romano objected. "I'm staying."
"Wow, wait, really?" Poland was genuinely surprised. "Willingly?" He earned a growl from Romano for his doubts.
"Even if we're making our defences thinner, I still think we should send the more injured and slower folks back already. If Romano stays, then that is four people leaving the current line up plus the medics," Lithuania counted. "Minus two pairs still leaves six pairs and one alone. I can be by myself as long as the other pairs are close. Romano can join Japan instead of Ukraine and Russia can pair up with Latvia instead of Italy." Lithuania tried to think of their current line as well as the lines they'd pass on their way home. "I think we've bought ourselves enough time to make do with that. At least so I would like to believe."
Time remaining to departure: 1 hour, 51 minutes, 3 seconds
A/N: So I was supposed to have the ending be in two parts but writing some of these scenes out made it longer than I expected so have three instead. Hopefully three I mean...
Thank you for all the comments still. This story has been in the works forever, but being so close to the end of it... Well. It feels odd at this point. But knowing someone still reads it is heart warming. I wonder if anyone of the original people who found this fic are still here. I started a D&D campaign recently and that has taken most of my creative capabilities but as soon as we were on a break with that, I found myself writing again. Inspiration strikes unexpectedly. And even with a story this old it seems. I was reading the earlier chapters and although I try to adabt of how it was, my style has definitely changed. I'd like to think for the better.