Note: Immediately follows the events of Volume 5: Chapter 8
“Get inside, get inside!” Paulin screamed at Hesione as they tore through the crumbling dwarven fortress. The corridor that they were within began to crack, letting tongues of fire spill through the gaps and into the walkway. Paulin yelped and leapt over the flames, grateful when they finally came to the doorway at the end.
Hesione slammed into the door with a loud crunch, knocking the metal obstruction aside. As they rushed through, Paulin risked a single glance backwards. An armored dwarven minotaur stomped into view, molten lava dripping from its carapace. It raised its arm, and Paulin dove out of the way as several blasts of magic ripped through the space he had just been occupying.
“Over here!” Hesione’s voice sounded farther away than it should have. He climbed to his feet to see her standing at the far end of the strange room, next to an egg-shaped device that looked identical to the one that they had just been carried within only a few hours earlier.
Oh, how his brain hurt to think about the implications of what they were doing. Hesione placed her hand on the side of the egg, where lights seemed to burst forth from within the metal itself. A few moments later, part of the upright shape folded downward to form stairs. Hesione and Paulin rushed up inside, glancing at the interior.
It looked just as it had before, covered in lights, buttons, and runes that meant who-knew-what. Paulin smacked a large red button just to the right of the open door, causing the stairs to slowly fold back up and into place.
They were still several feet from closing when the minotaur crashed into the room. It brought up its arm, only for sparks to burst from its elbow. The limb dropped ever so slightly, causing it to loose an explosion of fire into the space just in front of the egg, not actually targeting the pod itself. Small miracles. The minotaur seemed unconcerned, though, and simply lowered its head. With a snort, it charged at the vehicle, horns intent on ripping the strange device in half. This, naturally, was the last thing that Paulin saw as the side of the pod finally finished folding back up.
“Punch it punch it punch it!” Paulin screamed at Hesione.
“I’m trying!” She stood over what Simon had described as the control panel, where a display sat just above a large number of buttons. Paulin reached past her and smacked a small white button near the top, and lightning burst across the exposed metal shell of the egg.
With that, the noises of the dwarven fortress faded into the distance. The egg began to tilt back and forth softly, like the gentle rocking of a rowboat on a small stream, and Paulin let out a soft laugh.
“Is that it?” He couldn’t help but chuckling. “We’re safe!”
“Oh, we are.” Hesione puffed out her cheeks and sank to the floor of the craft. “Oh, we’re safe.” After a few seconds, she scowled. “Why couldn’t we have just dropped ourselves in the room with this thing instead of… There?”
“Because…” Paulin stammered, then sighed. “Oh, I’m sure there’s a good reason.” After a few seconds, he shrugged. “Ready to go pick ourselves up?”
“No.” Hesione shuddered. “Give me a few minutes. It’s not like timeis an enormous concern at this moment.”
“Fair enough.” Paulin sat down next to her, leaning against the metal wall of the pod. For the first time, he allowed himself to actually look at the interior of the strange vehicle.
It wasn’t large. Both Paulin and Hesione sitting down nearly covered the entire floor. Four or five people were all that it would be able to hold, and even then, it wouldn’t be comfortable for long.
The pod was directed by the control panel, which sat just to the right of the stairs upon entering. Though Paulin didn’t actually know what any of the lights or buttons did, he was fairly certain that these were the buttons telling the pod where to go and how to do it. The rest of the pod was covered in wires, lights, and other buttons. He had absolutely no idea what any of them did, and wasn’t in any particularly large hurry to find out. The guts of the pod sat underneath Paulin’s feet. He glanced down at the floor, which was made from a grated metal of some sort. Below, he could see hundreds more wires, pipes, and, of course… The time sphere.
According to Simon, it wasn’t actually the same time sphere that had been used towards the end of the angel incident. That said, it had been created using the original time sphere, and thus possessed all the same capabilities. It sat in a small coupling, metal bands that held it in place while streams of light leapt out to different connectors and other metal objects. The sphere cast a green light that shone up through the grates to light the interior of the pod, casting the entire structure in an odd light.
Paulin looked away after a few seconds and just closed his eyes. He still didn’t understand what was going on, and he was afraid that he wasn’t going to understand what was going on for quite awhile longer. If he ever properly understood it, really.
Hesione awoke him some time later, shaking him from a nightmare involving the burning dwarven fortress. She smiled and held out her hand, helping him to his feet. He yawned and stretched, smiling down at her.
“I think I’m ready now.” Hesione puffed out her cheeks. “You want to do the honors?”
“Not really.” Paulin sighed and stepped up to the control panel. “Let’s see here. Where’s that paper Simon gave us?”
“Here.” Hesione pulled a small note out of her robes. “Two sets of coordinates, I think he called them.”
“Uh, huh.” Paulin glanced down at the first set of numbers, written in a black ink. “Here goes nothing.”
He placed his hands on the buttons below the display of the control panel. They displayed a wide variety of dwarven runes, most of which made little to no sense to Paulin’s untrained eyes. Nevertheless, he was able to match the symbols with what Simon had given him. As he pressed each successive button, the symbols appeared on the glowing display, creating a string of symbols that likely meant something.
As he finished, he reached out and pressed a green button just next to the symbols. With a whir, lightning burst across the shell of the pod once more, and the rocking slowly ceased. As it stood still, Paulin frowned. Slowly, he reached out and pressed the button next to the exit, curious what would happen as the shell folded down to form the stairs that he was slowly growing used to.
He was a bit more surprised that he should have been to find the cave that he had been inside only a short time earlier. All members of the team turned to look at him in surprise, just as had happened earlier.
“What is this?” Past-Paulin breathed. “Who are you? Simon? You’d better not be pulling some sort of trick.”
“Look, there’s not really time to explain this, but I’m actually you.” Paulin scratched his head. “To be honest, I don’t really have any answers, but… We’re you guys from about four hours in the future, and we need you to come with us.”
Past-Paulin frowned up at Paulin, examining him. Paulin just sighed and tapped his foot. Oh, how he just wanted to speed up the conversation, but… It would have to play out exactly as it had done earlier.
“You two need to come with us. Now.” Hesione stepped forward. “Prince Korvac is about to break into this cave. When he does, he’ll kill the two of us in cold blood. If we’re not here, he’ll let the rest of you go. This is the only way we survive.”
“And how do we know you’re not just a trick sent from Korvac?” Past-Paulin snapped.
“Your favorite place when you were growing up was that old rosebush you could crawl inside and no one could find you.” Paulin sighed. Why had he had to choose that example? Why couldn’t he have chosen a slightly less embarrassing incident from his childhood? Time travel was already giving him a headache. “Seriously. No time. Now come on.”
With that, he and Hesione took a step back into the machine. Past-Hesione and Past-Paulin began saying their goodbyes, and Paulin felt a particular pang explode through his heart.
He could see his past self promising Kisidera that he would help her. The problem was that… Well, he didn’t have any idea how to do that. He had assumed, several hours earlier, that the time traveling egg would be as simple to pilot as a boat on the ocean. Now, it seemed that travel through time was far more complicated than he would ever have dreamed. Oh, how he just wanted to run out of the time pod and give Kisidera a hug, since he didn’t have any idea how long it would be before he would be able to do such a thing again. That would go against what had already happened, though, which meant that his hands were basically tied.
Several minutes later, Past-Hesione and Past-Paulin climbed up into the machine. Paulin reached past Past-Paulin and pressed the button to close the door. As the stairs swung up to form the shell, he kept his eyes fixed on Kisidera, up until the door slammed shut.
The moment the shell clicked into place, Hesione pressed the white button next to the control panel that caused the pod to dematerialize. As it began to rock back and forth, Past-Hesione and Past-Paulin turned to look at their future selves.
“So… Yeah.” Paulin clapped his hands. “Guess you’re here now. Time to get down to business.”
Past-Hesione turned to Past-Paulin and frowned. “You used to go crawl in a rosebush for privacy?”
“Please don’t make me think about that again.” Past-Paulin groaned. “So… How does this work?”
“I’m not exactly sure.” Hesione began to type the second code provided by Simon into the display. “You’re about to get a quick overview. With luck, I’ll actually be able to understand it when I hear it the second time.”
She finished typing in the code and pressed the green button once more. With a burst of lightning, the pod ceased to rock… And noises from the outside world began to filter through the shell. Paulin winced at the screams, the explosions, the relentless crash of armored minotaur feet. He reached past the two rather shocked younger versions of the two elves and pressed the button to open the stairs.
The stairs unfolded into a scene of absolute chaos. They sat on a ledge overlooking a crumbling dwarven fortress. Strange metallic shapes zoomed back and forth over the fortress, loosing strings of fire down onto the structure. The roar of a dragon echoed in the distance, screams filled the oppressively hot space.
Standing just in front of the pod were two figures: Simon and one of the other angels, Fortrina if Paulin remembered correctly. Both had crossbow-like objects aimed at the pod, though they both lowered their weapons as it became clear who was inside.
“See?” Simon shrugged, causing his steel armor to clank softly. It appeared to a glance to be standard soldier armor, nothing special. His bare wings protruded through two slots that appeared to have been rudimentarily burned through the back. The armor that Fortrina wore, though, was something to behold. Dozens of gemstones, glowing with internal enchantments, were embedded in the golden-plated armor. Much of the suit had been pressed to look like golden feathers, with plates of metal even covering her wings. “Told you it would be them.”
“It might not have been.” Fortrina muttered and turned around. “Figure this out and let’s get out of here.”
“Hey, I’m saving us.” Simon snapped back. “I thought you’d be grateful.”
“I would have been grateful if you had died a martyr and hadn’t sold out our people.” Fortrina raised the weapon and began firing at an unseen target further down the ledge. Enormous bangs echoed from the device, reminiscent of the weapons that the dark angels had used during their attempted conquest. “Finish up so we can get out of here.”
“Right.” Simon put his hands behind his back and sauntered up to the pod. “Greetings, Paulins and Hesiones. Please pay no attention to the large battle taking place just behind me. I promise it’s not as bad as it looks.”
In response, a fiery blast erupted outward from the fortress, causing a large portion to crumble into the lava below. Simon winced as the heat from the explosion drifted up to the ledge.
“Okay, it might be as bad as it looks. But I promise that I’m helping save it, not make things worse!”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Past-Paulin slowly stepped down out of the pod. “Start talking.”
“Okay, so you remember that time sphere that Ferguson created out of the Grove of Isengrod?” Simon stepped forward and gestured at the pod. “Turns out, the Fond’sar got ahold of it and kinda tried to create a time machine so they could go back in time and change the course of the Dwarven Civil War. This right here is that machine.”
“One of three.” Fortrina barked back. “Don’t forget that part.”
“I’m doing the best I can!” Simon snapped back, then sighed. “Right. So there are three of these things that they’re planning on using. You four are going to be taking one of them out of the equation, making it somewhat easier for the rest of us to do our job. The two of you who just got picked up are going to head that way-” He gestured to the left. “Follow the path, take a right at the first drawbridge, head down into the fortress-”
“Into the fortress?” Past-Hesione yelped.
“Hey, your older selves are standing right there, so you obviously come out alive.” Simon shrugged. “Once you get to the time pod, hop in and fly it back to pick your old selves up, completing the time loop. Got it?”
“I think so.” Past-Paulin groaned. “By Persphone, this hurts to think about.”
“It’ll hurt worse, trust me.” Simon stepped past the past versions of the elves and hopped up into the pod. “Alright, quick rundown on how this thing works. First off, I’ve added both of you to the recognition enchantments. Just press your hand to the shell of the pod, and it’ll let you in. The time sphere is located under your feet. I suggest not ever opening that up, as I’m really not sure what letting it destabilize might do and I really don’t want anyone blowing up the fabric of space-time. This here control panel tells the pod where to go.” Simon gestured at the strange display. “You’ve got your screen and your keypad. Just type in the coordinates of where you want to go and you’ll head there. If you want to try flying it manually, just press that orange button and you’ll be able to navigate the streams of time unhindered. I strongly suggest not doing that if you’ve had anything to eat in the previous half-hour or so. Whatever the case, when you push this white button, it’ll remove you from the space-time continuum. I strongly suggest hitting it the moment you hop inside, just to make sure nothing can shoot you or eat you. Gives you time to make your calculations and such.”
“Right.” Simon jumped back out of the pod. “Alright, go! Past versions, go get the pod. Future versions, please don’t try to do anything spectacular with it.” He looked Paulin dead in the eyes. “If you press the yellow button off to the side, it should provide a translation matrix for the runes and coordinate system. Find a time period where the two of you would like to retire and smash this thing into scrap. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” Paulin nodded.
“Good.” Simon took a step back as another explosion shook the cavern behind him. The slightly younger versions of Hesione and Paulin took off, terrified for their lives, while Paulin raised the stairs once more. Simon gave one final wave before the outer world was sealed off.
The moment the doors shut, Hesione pressed the button to dematerialize the pod. With a flicker of lightning, the pod began to once more rock gently back and forth. Paulin took a deep breath and glanced at his half-sister.
“And… That’s that.”
“Yup.” Hesione’s voice was soft. She sighed and closed her eyes for several seconds before opening them and turning to the control panel. “Where to? Do you want to just head back to the group?”
Paulin began to nod, then paused. Kisidera’s eyes continued to stare out at him, haunting him. He sighed and turned to lean against the wall of the pod, slowly shaking his head.
“Hesione?” He took a deep breath. “Do you realize what we have here?”
“Yes. Yes I do.” Hesione nodded firmly. “We have a device that’s so dangerous that even Simon wants to destroy it. He didn’t tell us to take it somewhere he could use it later, he told us to destroy it.”
“Yeah, but…” Paulin stammered. “I have to help out Kisidera. Please.” He took Hesione’s hand. “We can jump around, look for a cure, and then just go back to the point where we left. We can spend as much time as we want doing it, and she’ll never know the difference.”
Hesione bit her lip and started shaking her head. She looked up at him, a trickle of liquid dripping from the corners of her right eye. “This is what you were like when you were chasing after me, wasn’t it?”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks and shrugged. “I guess, yeah.”
Hesione nodded and turned to the control panel. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. “Paulin, we can’t risk it. She’s a vampire. You’re an educated man. Have you ever heard of a cure for vampirism?”
“No.” Paulin shook his head. “That doesn’t mean there’s not one! Maybe one just hasn’t been discovered. Come on, we have to try! We can’t just doom her to wind up staked through the heart!”
“I suppose.” Hesione shrugged, though he could see indecision written on her face. “Do you know how weird it is to help my former boyfriend help out his new girlfriend?”
“I know it’s weird!” Paulin almost screamed. “I know it’s strange, but… What about this situation isn’t weird? You know?”
“Yeah.” Hesione’s voice was soft. When she spoke again, Paulin could barely hear her answer. “I still don’t like it.”
Paulin bit his lip. He knew he wasn’t going to convince her, not so quickly, but he couldn’t just leave Kisidera to suffer.
“Why don’t we just pick a place to set this thing down for awhile?” Paulin held up his hands. “We go back somewhere really early in history. Somewhere without people. We take some time to think about it, then go from there. Is that okay?”
Hesione bit her lip, then nodded slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, we can do that.”
“Good.” Paulin stepped up to the control panel and pressed the orange button, causing the screen to light up with a number of instructions, likely written by Simon. He started to read them as carefully as possible, taking note of the various buttons and levers that Simon referenced around the craft.
Somewhere early. An image rose in his mind, a picture of a primitive elven village on the plains of Notirot from before it had been turned into the desert of modern times. It was a painting that had hung in the palace of Nettingo, which he had always been quite drawn to. Finding a directory that Simon had compiled of various empires and their relative coordinates, he began to type in the correct symbols.
They would go hide out among the primitive elves for a time, and, with luck, he would convince Hesione of the urgency of finding a cure for Kisidera. Then, once he had her on his side again, they would depart.
It was all he could do. And it was all he would do.
“Come on! I’ll race you!” Desrorch raced out across the grass, his long legs giving him a rather large lead over his sister. “Last one there is a pile of dung!”
“No fair!” His sister, Descha, called out behind him in indignance. Nevertheless, he could hear the sound of her own feet pounding against the ground as she desperately tried to catch up to him.
Together, the two of them simply raced across the prairie. Red rocks rose out of the ground in the distance, marvelous buttes and cliffs that were always exciting to explore when the tribes wandered that far west. Nevertheless, it was the slowly wandering brook that Desrorch cared about in that moment.
The sound of the babbling stream echoed in his ears as they drew closer. It appeared as he topped a small hill, revealing the winding body of water that snaked across the landscape like a living creature. Just in front of him, it temporarily opened up into a deep pool, a brief interruption in the water’s path.
Desrorch reached the edge of the pool and jumped upward without taking off any of his clothes, grinning as he sailed over the water. He landed with a loud splash, sending sprays of liquid high into the sky. As he surfaced, Descha reached the edge of the water, where she glared at him.
“You’re going to ruin your clothes!” She crossed her arms. “You know what mother and father say about swimming!”
“I know, I know.” Desrorch paddled back over to shore and climbed up onto the muddy ground, where he stripped out of everything except his undergarment. Descha did the same, leaving them both dressed in loose robes designed to protect the body from the wear and tear of life.
Both siblings quickly jumped once more into the water, laughing as they splashed back and forth. Desrorch felt a fish brush his leg, and dove underwater to catch it by its gills. When he came back up, he slung it at his sister with a laugh. She let out a shriek and dove back out of the way, letting the fish come down with a loud splash.
She swam to the shore, where she scooped up a handful of mud and threw it back at him. The blob caught him in the face, splattering thick black goop across his golden skin. From there, the frolic quickly turned into a mud fight as they raged back and forth across the pool.
By the time they finished, the sun was just reaching its peak. It was a worthwhile morning, well spent in Desrorch’s opinion. Idly, he wondered what the adults back at camp were doing. Probably boring stuff like sewing new clothes. The two siblings crawled out of the water and began wringing out their robes, facing away from each other for privacy. Desrorch found his primary clothes to have shrunk a great deal over the morning, the leather going far stiffer than it had been when he had left the camp.
As he pulled it over his head, he found it chaffing quite a lot against his skin, bringing a frown of displeasure to his face. Descha laughed at his plight as they turned to face each other again.
“I told you not to jump in the water with your clothes!” Descha grinned.
“I’ll throw you in the water with your clothes.” Desrorch scowled at her.
“No you won’t.” Descha smirked back at him.
The two of them laughed once more, then climbed up away from the pool and back onto the open prairie. A gust of warm air rushed across the waving grass, bringing a smile to Desrorch’s face. He would be dry in no time, long before they got back to camp.
They had only taken a few steps back towards their tents before they heard a loud horn echoing across the prairie. It came from behind them, and both quickly spun to see what was happening.
On the other side of the pool, running towards the duo in leaps and bounds, were… Well, Desrorch wasn’t sure exactly what they were. They looked like elves, but stood taller than anyone Desrorch knew. Their skin was green instead of gold, they had tusks that extended upward from their lower jaws, and it looked like they had claws that extended from each fingertip.
“Oh!” Desrorch turned and waved at the individuals, who showed no sign of stopping. “Hi!” He turned to Descha. “They look like they’re hunting, but I don’t see any animals.”
Descha just grinned as the men continued to charge forward. One of them leapt across the pool of water in a single bound, crashing into the shore on the far side. Wearing little more than a loincloth and some paint, he jumped forward a second time, seemingly aiming for the siblings.
He landed just in front of them, only feet away. As he straightened up and roared, Desrorch continued to wave. The rest of the green-skinned men quickly surrounded the duo, roaring down at them. It rather hurt Desrorch’s ears, and he started to whimper under the pain.
“Do you think they know we can’t understand them?” Desrorch turned to Descha. “Is this how they talk?”
As if in response, the first man to attack them ceased to roar, and instead started growling. It was definitely a language, but none of the languages that Desrorch knew of. After several seconds, he reached out and grabbed Descha, lifting her off the ground.
“Hey!” Desrorch crossed his arms. “You shouldn’t pick people up!”
The man simply growled down at Desrorch. For the first time that day, he began to feel afraid. What was this man trying to do? He took a step back, only to come up against another of the strange men.
Once more, on cue, all of them began to roar once again. This time, it was different. Somehow, Desrorch got the feeling that he wasn’t going to like spending time with the men at all.
“And here we go.” Paulin felt the pod stop rocking as lightning exploded across the shell for several seconds. “Ancient Calsin, during the time before the Elven Empire. This is even before the elves split into dark and high variants. We’ll be safe here.”
“I hope so.” Hesione muttered. “I don’t want anything bad happening to us.”
“You and me both, believe me.” Paulin took her hand for a second as she walked up to the door. “Look… I just think we need to spend some time trying to figure this out. We have something so powerful that’s been given to us. I just think it’s irresponsible to throw that away.”
“Uh, huh.” Hesione sighed and pressed the button opening the door. As the shell unfolded and dropped down to the ground, Paulin took a deep breath.
A lush, warm air blew into the pod, filling his lungs and bringing a smile to his face. It just felt so fresh, so new. It felt younger, as though the world itself was just a newborn babe.
He and Hesione slowly stepped down the stairs onto the open prairie. In the distance, he could see mountains rising above the horizon. Hesione frowned and glanced to the side at him.
“What’s this?” She shook her head. “This isn’t Elsinor.”
“The elves actually lived down near the mountains of Donitor for quite awhile before moving up to Elsinor.” Paulin shrugged. “History.”
“I don’t like history.” Hesione took a few steps and slowly twirled through the grass. Paulin took several steps out as well, though in the other direction. For as far as he could see, it was the same open grassland that dominated so much of Calsin’s landscape. No tents or cities, nothing to indicate that civilization might be anywhere near.
“Oh, this is it.” Paulin lay down on his back in the grass, enjoying the blue sky filtered through the softly waving stalks that now towered high above him. “This is it.” He closed his eyes, relishing the relative peace compared to the surroundings he had just left. The drums of war were gone. Sintison was a distant memory. The angels wouldn’t be around for millennia to come. They were safe.
“I do have to agree with you.” Hesione walked up next to him, slowly sitting down in the grass nearby. “This is… This is something else.”
A particularly strong gust of wind blew past Paulin, and he inhaled deeply. It brought back memories of the blazing fires under the cold stars on the northern coast of Sintison. The wind ceremonies, the tales gathered by the assembled windcasters.
“I promise, we’ll settle down.” Paulin spoke once more. “We’ll find peace. We’ll get a house on the ocean, or we’ll pick out a nice place somewhere else. We don’t even have to live together if you think that would be weird. I just want… I just want to make things right before we stop.”
“You always do that, don’t you?” Hesione’s voice was soft. “You always have to make things right with the universe.”
“Well… Yeah.” Paulin nodded, keeping his gaze fixed on the sky above. “If I have the power to set things right and I fail to do that, what am I? I’m no better the criminals who steal in the night, no higher than the warlords who slay and pillage without thought.”
“I guess that’s one way of looking at it.” Hesione shifted slightly. “The problem is that you can’t fix everyone’s problems. If we do decide to go traveling through time, are you just going to jump every time someone needs you? If the answer is yes, you’ll never be able to help Kisidera because you’ll always be getting distracted.”
“I suppose so.” Paulin rubbed the back of his neck, where an insect had decided to latch onto his skin. He swatted the pest away and turned back to Hesione. “I’m sorry.”
“And I’m sorry too.” Hesione sighed. “I just… We don’t know what damage we could cause. What if we accidentally prevent the formation of the Elven Empire? Or something worse?”
“That’s not how the Grove worked.” Paulin assured her. “You can join a different part of history, but you can never alter it. If the Grove worked that way, anything derived from the Grove will be the same.”
“I guess.” Hesione puffed out her cheeks. “I just… Paulin?”
“Huh?” Hesione’s voice had taken on a somewhat more concerned tone, but that could be for any reason imaginable. “What’s up?”
“You said we’re in elven territory, right?”
“Uh, huh.” Paulin nodded. “I’m fairly convinced I’m right, too. Those mountains over there are all red, and Donitor is known for its red mountains.”
“Were orcs ever present down here?”
Paulin shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. They wound up displacing the elves, but we should be too early for that. Why?”
Paulin sighed and slowly sat up, forcing his aching body to give up the rest it was enjoying. Which was when he saw Hesione staring, wide-eyed, at a point behind him. Which was when he turned to see several orcish flags slowly rising out of what must have been a hidden ravine about half a mile from their position.
As they sat there, the flags continued to rise as a small contingent of orcs slowly rode out of their cover and onto the open plains. They were still far enough away that Paulin couldn’t see many details, save the fact that they were very obviously orcs. And, quite unfortunately, they were likely still extraordinarily primitive orcs.
“Back up into the pod. Now.” Paulin breathed softly, climbing to his feet. “You good with jumping another hundred years back in time?”
“Please believe me when I say that I’m all for it.” Hesione nodded rapidly.
As Hesione climbed to her feet as well, Paulin turned around to face the time pod. Which was when he noticed the second contingent of orcs riding out of a far closer chasm. Only a few hundred feet away and perched on horses far larger than any Paulin had ever seen in his own time, the leaders let out shouts and charged at the time pod.
“Inside!” Paulin raced for the stairs, clambering up inside as fast as his limbs would move. Hesione was only halfway up the stairs as he smacked the button to close the shell. It began to raise, ever so slowly, as the orcish horses raced across the distance.
“Get us out of here!” Paulin screamed as the door reached a point that was more or less halfway closed. “Now now now!”
“It’s not letting me!” Paulin turned to where Hesione was smacking the dematerialization button. A message in dwarven runes flashed on the screen every time she tried, leaving them open and vulnerable.
The orc reached them as the shell closed to a point approximately three-quarters of the way shut. The man, nearly as tall as the shell itself, leapt off his horse and latched his claws around the edges of the metal. The shell ground to a halt, then slowly began to open back up again as the orc pulled it away.
“No no no!” Paulin looked around for a weapon but found nothing. A second orc reached them and grabbed hold as well, ripping the stairs away in a split second. The metal flopped to the ground, now only connected to the pod with a few wires, leaving them exposed.
Both orcs roared in triumph. They stood over a head higher than Hesione and Paulin, taller than any of the orcs that Paulin was familiar with from his own day. Paulin backed up, trying to crawl into the corner, but soon found enormous paws wrapping around his legs to pull him free. An instant later, both he and Hesione were dangling from orcish grips.
“Ahh, good sirs.” Paulin spoke in what he hoped was a reasonable tone. “Perhaps we could discuss this situation?”
The orc barked something in a guttural speech and turned to stomp away. The rest of the cavalry had reached the pod by that point and had soon surrounded the two elves in what appeared at a glance to be a defensive position. Several orcish females jumped off their horses and took the two elves from the males, tying them up with long ropes that looked like they were likely dried and tanned intestines from less fortunate creatures.
Paulin’s heart pounded in his chest as the lead orcs began to ride out once more, pounding across the prairie. They were carried to the rear of the cavalry, where a handful of elves had been tied to a series of pack horses that were even larger than the riding horses. At a glance, their backs were nearly eight feet off the ground, almost large enough to be classified as something far larger than a horse. Small ladders even hung from their saddles to allow the orcs to climb up and down.
Soon enough, Paulin and Hesione had been tied to the side of the horse, and the calvary was on its way. As they marched off, Paulin cast a single glance back at the time pod. Thankfully, the orcs hadn’t done any more damage than simply ripping the door off, but… How would they even fix that without an army of dwarves to help them?
When they had been running through the dwarven fortress, Paulin had been comforted by the fact that he had known he would survive to contact his younger self. Now… Now, he had no such guarantee. If they died there, on the open plains of Notirot, they would be well and truly forgotten. The time pod would fall into rust at the hands of the primitives, and that would be that. Destroyed as Simon had commanded. Kisidera…
His heart ached as he thought of Kisidera, standing in the cave, waiting on him.
He would get back to her. Some way, somehow, he would escape the orcs and return to her side.
“Deschor!” Kisidra’s voice echoed through the air, causing Deschor to look up from his work at the fire. “Where are you?”
“In here, my love.” Deschor climbed to his feet, where he was preparing the smoldering coals for a week-long session that would preserve much of the meat that the tribe had hunted over the previous several weeks. “What can I do?”
As his wife burst through the flap of the conical tent, he frowned in confusion. Her eyes were wide, terrified even. He spread his arms and drew her into a hug, pulling her close. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s our children.” Kisidra breathed. “I can’t find them anywhere.”
“They’re probably off playing.” Deschor shrugged. “Children do that, ours more than others. They’ll show up for supper.”
“I don’t know.” Kisidra pulled back from him. “They’re usually back by lunch! I went down to the stream to look for them, but all I found were footprints.”
“So follow them.” Deschor frowned. “I didn’t think it had rained recently enough to cause-”
“No.” Kisidra took a deep, shuddering breath. “Big footprints.” She held up her hands, wider even than her chest. “They looked like ours. Giants!”
“Hush, now.” Deschor flashed her a smile, even as his heart began to twist. The tribal elders had been telling the men to watch for any sign of disturbances. Rumors were on the fly that several more northern tribes had simply vanished at the hands of enormous men. “I’ll go speak to Mackarone. Stay here.” He stepped up to the flap of the tent before turning and flashing a smile back at his wife. “They’ll be okay.”
With that, he slipped through the flap and allowed it to fall shut. The moment that he was far enough away from the tent that he didn’t think Kisidra would hear him, he broke into a run. The sun was now starting to crawl down across the sky, and that was when the strange men were always rumored to attack.
If what his wife was saying was true, none of them had much time left at all. And that was something that he simply couldn’t tolerate.
“Are we there yet?” Hesione groaned softly as the horses began to draw to a stop.
“Seems like it.” Paulin groaned as well, his voice barely drifting through his chapped lips. Trapped on the sides of the beast all day without water had been… Well, it wasn’t something he ever really wanted to experience again.
Ahead, he could see the horses beginning to circle around. Much more than that he wasn’t able to see, at least until the female orcs came stomping over to untie himself and Hesione.
They were carried, once more by the female, through the makeshift camp that was quickly rising around them. The massive orcs didn’t seem overly concerned about things like tents or fires, and instead simply planted their flagpoles and banners in the ground around the area to mark their territory.
More captives were removed from the other horses, men and women whom Paulin hadn’t noticed prior to that point. All of them were taken to a point near the center of camp, where they were thrown into a collective pile. Paulin caught glimpses of dozens of different elves: men, women, and children alike. As the female finished pitching them down, the males started stomping forward and grabbing the captives.
Paulin and Hesione locked eyes as the screams of the victims began to rise into the night. Sometimes, the orcs ate their meal headfirst, ending the pain of the captives quickly enough. Other times, they started with the feet, and spent the entire time laughing and jeering at the pain of their victim until he or she finally died.
Paulin realized that he had never truly felt terror until that very moment. Not when he had spent years of his life searching for Hesione, not when the angels had been invading, not when he was being pursued by assassins from Sintison. Tied up, face in the dirt, all he could do was stare into the eyes of his sister. Blood splattered down onto their faces. If any of the orcs picked him up, that was that. He was done.
Overhead, the stars continued to turn while Paulin’s heart pounded within his chest. He was fairly certain that he had soiled himself, but he frankly didn’t care. If they survived, he would deal with that rather unpleasant aspect of life later.
He wasn’t certain when the screaming all stopped. He wasn’t certain when the roars turned into snores. It was nothing he was conscious for, nothing that he consciously processed. Instead, it came as a simple realization, as he watched Hesione, that the noise of the camp had seemingly ceased.
“What’s going on?” Paulin had to make several attempts before the words would actually exit his mouth. When they did, it was as a mere whisper, barely audible in the slightest. “Are we alive?”
Hesione’s own mouth opened and closed several times before she simply closed it and stared at him. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, trying desperately to think.
They were in an orcish camp. That meant… Well, what in Persphone did it mean? They were in a time before orcs had even began to conceive of the idea of order and leadership. They were in a time when dealing with orcs involved killing them before they killed you. There were no tricks of leadership that Paulin could employ, no loopholes in treaties that he could try to exploit. All he had was the small dagger in his robes, and it didn’t stand a chance against orcish skin.
His eyes snapped open wide with that realization. He was living in a time before complex tools, when the orcs probably didn’t really use anything that they couldn’t just fashion with their own hands. The orcs hadn’t even thought to search his body. He began to wriggle back and forth, trying to figure out where the weapon was on his body.
He eventually located it, pressed against his right thigh, right where he had strapped it. He smiled for several moments before frowning just as hard. There wasn’t a chance in the world he was going to be able to reach it, not with the way his hands and legs were tied. But… Maybe…
He began to flop back and forth, at least as much as he could, trying to shift himself over to Hesione. The process wasn’t easy, nor was it particularly fast. Several times, he was fairly certain that he kicked her in the forehead. Nevertheless, she got the idea, and began to shift around as well.
When he got himself more or less into position, he found that he couldn’t see a thing that she was doing. Nevertheless, when he felt a hand wrap around the blade and pull it from its sheath, it was one of the greatest feelings he had ever experienced. Trying not to shout in celebration, he simply waited for several minutes until he felt the blade slash at his wrists.
His arms fell to his sides, and he rolled over on his back to stare up at the starlit sky. There, standing over him, was a young elven boy who rather appeared as though he would never sleep again. He wordlessly handed the knife back to Paulin, who quickly slashed the restraints around his ankles before turning and cutting Hesione free as well.
As they climbed to their feet, he felt his breath catch in his throat.
They were the only three left alive.
Bone fragments covered the ground, mixed amid chunks of flesh that had fallen from the brutish orcs’ teeth. The orcs themselves lay just as scattered, slumbering quite loudly with snores that could have been roars in a more civilized land.
Paulin motioned at the boy to climb up onto his back. The boy did so quickly, wrapping his arms tightly around Paulin’s chest. With that, the two elves began to tiptoe past the quiet warriors.
As they slipped out into the open prairie, both broke into a run, racing past the assembled horses and into the distance. The boy held up a hand and pointed off to Paulin’s right, then began to cry softly. Paulin couldn’t understand a word the boy was saying as he started babbling in an ancient language, but he could at least assume that the child was directing them to his village.
With nothing else to do, the three elves tore across the prairie. With luck, they would be able to reunite the child with his family. Once that was done… Well, it was anyone’s guess what they would do next.
“Please, look harder.” Deschor fell at his knees before Elder Mackarone. “You have to help them!”
Elder Mackarone nodded slowly. He couldn’t spare a single warrior for the search, but he supposed that Deschor didn’t need to know that. “I will do my best. Until then, continue packing the horses. We still do need to leave at morning’s light.”
Deschor nodded, climbed to his feet, and rushed back out into the growing night. It was nearing the dead middle of the darkness, and the tribe was still not ready to go. Elder Mackarone breathed softly and shifted on his blanket, praying to the gods above that they would be spared.
The first trader with a report of green-skinned men had appeared six months earlier. Since then, more and more people had shown up with similar reports. The elders had all hoped that the reports would prove false, or, at the least, would not bother their tiny corner of the world. Nevertheless, it seemed that trouble was determined to track them down.
Their only hope was to head south. If the invading men were as ruthless as was rumored, they needed to escape over the mountains and hope that the newcomers would be content ruling the plains. After all, the mountains were ill-suited for survival. It would make the life of the tribe much more difficult, but such were sacrifices that would need to be made.
“Elder!” Another warrior of the tribe burst through the flap of the tent. “We have visitors! The boy has returned!”
Elder Mackarone immediately felt a pang of sadness run through his heart. “But not the girl?”
The warrior hesitated. “No, sir.”
“Send them in.” The warrior turned to leave, and Elder Mackarone held up his hand. “Do not yet inform Deschor. I need to hear what has happened first.”
The warrior bowed his head and vanished. Several moments later, a man and a woman, with the child next to them, stumbled through the tent flap.
The boy appeared in shock, likely at the death of his sister. Elder Mackarone motioned for the man and woman to wait, then knelt down and motioned for the boy to come to him. He did so almost instantly, though the motion was wooden and forced.
“Are you okay?” Elder Mackarone breathed. “Are you hurt?”
The boy shook his head, and Elder Mackarone sighed. After a few seconds, he tapped his chin and leaned forward. “What happened to your sister?”
The boy shuddered, breaking into a torrent of tears. “They ate her!”
Any hope that Elder Mackarone had faded in that instant. His heart hardened, and he loosed a series of curse words. When he spoke again, he spoke softly.
“You listen to me, and you listen to me good. Those were not men. Those were devils, lacking all semblance of a soul. They are evil, and we will destroy them. Do you understand me?”
The boy shook his head, and Elder Mackarone sighed. He patted the boy on the back, then pulled him close. As he continued to shudder and cry, he looked up at the newcomers.
They were quite obviously from a distant tribe, none of the native tribes dressed in even a remotely similar way to how they were clothed. The composure of the cloth presented him with several questions, but the time was far from right for any of those.
“What are your names?” He spoke in the magical common tongue, calling upon the air for translation.
The visitors reacted with surprise. The male spoke a second later.
“Paulin, and this is Hesione. You can understand us?”
“The practice of drawing language from our surroundings is a new discovery, only a few of the most practiced shamans can attempt it.” Elder Mackarone sighed. “Please, forgive me if I speak only briefly to you. Do you know the nature of the men who attacked you?”
The male nodded once more. He seemed the least affected out of the three, though the blood stains on his clothes told of unspeakable terrors. “They’re called orcs where we come from. You can’t reason with them, and they’re almost impossible to kill.”
“Nature has provided ways of killing almost anything.” Elder Mackarone breathed the mantra that, all things considered, he had been mostly forbidden from ever speaking. “Would you like to travel with us? Or would you prefer to leave immediately?”
The two individuals glanced at each other before nodding softly.
“We’d like to leave, if that’s okay.”
“Take one of our horses.” Elder Mackarone nodded at the tent flap. “Ride like the wind, do not stop until you reach safety. For your sakes, I hope you can avoid these orcs.”
“Thank you.” The male dipped his head. “We’ll be heading… Far from here.”
With that, they vanished into the night. Elder Mackarone slowly climbed to his feet, cradling the young boy in his arms. If the orcs truly were the monsters that they seemed to be, it was going to take magic unlike anything he had ever heard of in order to stop them.
“Ancestors, be with me.” He stalked from the tent as horses began to race back and forth through the camp. “Avenge us. Avenge our blood.”
“And there it is.” Paulin gasped for air as the horse pounded across the prairie. In the distance, the time pod could just be seen, the early morning light glinting off the golden shell.
Hesione didn’t respond, and Paulin frankly couldn’t blame her. The horrors… It was going to take a long time to forget about that night. The haunted eyes of that boy, whatever he had seen before Hesione and Paulin had arrived… Somehow, Paulin suspected that the child was never going to develop properly as a result. If he even survived the next several weeks.
As they arrived at the time pod, Paulin swung off the horse and down into the grass. Hesione followed, and Paulin gave the horse a slap on the rear. It galloped off into the distance, and he took a long and deep breath.
“We’re safe.” He stepped up to the pod, which now sported a perfectly closed door. Curious, he placed his hand on the shell. As before, lights burst forth from within the metal, and the door began to swing down. Curious. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Paulin?” Hesione’s voice was quiet as they mounted the stairs. Paulin turned around at the top, noticing that Hesione seemed to have paused down at the bottom. “Can I ask you a question?”
Paulin nodded. “Anything.”
She turned and gestured back across the softly-waving grasses. “What’s going to happen to those people?”
Paulin sighed and closed his eyes. It was a thought that he hadn’t particularly wanted to pursue.
“If I remember my history correctly, the orcs are in the process of invading elven lands. They wipe out something like ninety percent of the elven population before the elves manage to strike back.”
“So all those people are dead.” Hesione’s voice was soft. “The boy that we saved…”
Paulin glanced down at the floor of the pod, to where the soft green light glowed from within. “If he lives another week, I’d be shocked.”
“So why aren’t we helping him?” Hesione cried out. “Why aren’t we helping them all? Why don’t we go get an army from the future and put an end to the slaughter?”
“Listen to yourself.” Paulin shook his head. “Events play out the way they will. You said it yourself when we first got here. If we do anything like that, we could alter the state of time itself. We could destroy the Elven Empire, we could mess things up for countless other people.”
“So why did we do it?” Hesione took a deep breath. “Why help that one boy? Why do any of this?” She gestured vaguely around her.
Paulin closed his eyes. Those questions swirled around his own mind, tantalizing, and unanswered. When he spoke again, he wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince Hesione or himself.
“We can’t change the course of time, but we can help individuals. If we can help one person, here and there, it’s worth it.” He flashed a small smile as he opened his eyes once more. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s what my entire life has been focused around: One person at a time.”
“It has, hasn’t it?” Hesione bit her lip, then nodded. “Alright, fine. We’ll help Kisidera. Nothing that will change the course of time itself, but I suppose it would be rude of me not to help save my brother’s fiancé.”
Paulin felt a small warmth grow in his heart. “Thank you.”
“Under one condition.” Hesione pointed back across the plains. “We can help one individual at a time, right? We go get that boy. We get him and any family he has left, and we take them somewhere else where they’ll be safe.”
Paulin held out his hand towards Hesione, which she took. He helped her climb up into the time pod and closed the door, feeling an odd sense of security as the shell snapped back in place.
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