“You will tell us how to fix the machine.” Lilith’s voice echoed down from above Hesione’s head, taunting her. “You obviously come from an age of technological sophistication. Even if you did not build it, you should know how to handle it now.”
“I’m sorry.” Hesione gasped, her lungs barely able to pull air into her body. “It wasn’t built by us. It was built by the dwarves. I’ve told you that a dozen times.”
“And yet I still don’t believe it.” Lilith began to pace back and forth in front of Hesione, her legs the only visible portion of her body. At that exact moment, Hesione was wrapped in a sinewy rope and hung over one of the black fires, which was slowly sucking every last drop of energy from her body. “The fire doesn’t lie, and it says that you know more than you’re telling me. So tell me: How do I fix the machine?”
Hesione ground her teeth together. After being thrown in the vampiric prison, she and Paulin had vowed not to give her any information. Specifically, they had decided not to tell her about the future impact that the angels would have on the world. Through every bit of damage the two elves had caused, one single fact rose abundantly to mind: Knowledge was a curse. If Lilith knew what the future held, there was no telling what havoc she could wreak.
“Tell me!” Lilith shrieked, kicking Hesione in the side. The air left her body once more, and she spun wildly as her body flailed from the impact. As she slowly drifted to a stop, Lilith grabbed hold of her hair and pulled her head back. Her neck exploded with pain, even while Lilith’s wild eyes glared down at her.
“I. Don’t. Know.” Hesione wheezed. “You have to understand, we tried to destroy it! We tried to get rid of it, and it didn’t work. No matter how many times we tore it apart, it just put itself back together all on its own.” She hissed softly. “If you want an answer, you’ll have to talk to Sam. He’s the one who blew it up.”
“Sam has already been given due punishment for his actions.” Lilith let Hesione’s head fall back down. “He was reckless and may have cost me my time machine. Now, speak. What do you know of its self-healing mechanism?”
“Almost nothing.” Hesione shook her head. “Just that when we tear it apart, it heals. Simon said that…”
Her voice trailed off, and she swore under her breath. Above her, Lilith chuckled softly, running a finger along Hesione’s forehead.
“So you do know Simon. I wondered as much. Not many people know of the angels without first hearing of that particular ingrate.”
Hesione clamped her jaw shut, determined to say nothing more. Lilith, apparently wanting a response, hissed softly.
“Nothing? You’re not going to regale me with tales of how obnoxious he is? Tell me, was he the one who invented time travel in the first place?”
“I’ll say nothing that might help you.” Hesione spat.
There was a short pause before Lilith’s foot slammed into the side of Hesione’s head. She was sent spinning through the air once more, whirling around and around over that deathly fire. As she came to a stop, head ringing, Lilith grabbed her hair and pulled her head up yet again.
“You will give me what I want, or I will cut apart your brother into pieces and feed him to the batherals even while he’s still alive to watch it.” Lilith hissed softly. “Maybe you don’t know everything about the machine, but you know more than you’re telling me. I want everything you have, every scrap of knowledge you hold. If you fail to provide this to me, if you hold back even the tiniest, most insignificant piece of information, I will make you suffer in ways that you wouldn’t ever dream of.”
With that, Lilith turned and swept away, vanishing into the camp. Two other vampires shambled forward, their dark clothing drifting in the light breeze, and began to untie Hesione from her bonds.
They dropped her to the ground next to the burning, black flames, not even bothering to tie her up. She couldn’t have run if her life had depended upon it, the fire had sucked every last drop of energy from her body. Her limbs felt like pudding, her bones felt as though they would break if she put even an ounce of force against them.
She was picked up and taken away through the camp only a moment later, carried by her hands and feet like a corpse. In such an undignified manner, she was taken to the prison cells, a miserable location made ever more unbearable by how easy it should have been to escape.
In short, it was an area, fifty feet on a side, that had a black torch planted on each corner. That was it. Laying on the ground were nearly a dozen people, none of which were moving. They simply… Laid there. Drained of all their motivation by the mysterious flames.
The two vampires tossed Hesione onto the ground, where her head smacked against the ground quite loudly. She was rolled onto her back, allowing her to stare up at the oppressive cloud layer that had only grown more intense during the time they had been there.
She truly wasn’t sure how long they had been there. Maybe it had only been a few days. Maybe it had been a month. It was so hard to keep track of the time, so hard to keep any sort of sanity under the oppression of the mysterious flames.
“Hey Paulin?” She could barely even make the words come out of her mouth.
Well over a minute passed before the whispered words finally came back. “Yeah?”
She made several attempts at drawing a breath before she had enough air to speak. “I told her about Simon. Didn’t mean to.”
“No harm.” Paulin wheezed. Each word was punctuated by a pause in between. “She would have found out eventually. Sounds like she knew him at one point.”
“Yeah.” Hesione sighed. “I wish I could talk to him. Or question her.”
“Not going to happen anytime soon.”
Hesione closed her eyes, just trying to get the energy to move. To speak. To do anything. The edge of the prison was so close. She would just have to stand up, and she could go. That was it. So simple. So easy. And so impossible.
The clouds continued to spin overhead as several more vampires moved into the prison, darting back and forth among the inmates. A pale and drawn face appeared in Hesione’s vision, staring down at her with an intensity that terrified her. Hands latched down around her wrists and ankles, she was once more hefted into the air. This time, she was thrown roughly over someone’s shoulder, hauled about like a sack of produce.
“No.” She breathed softly. “Not again.”
It was too soon. She couldn’t be taken back, she couldn’t be thrown into that pit again! She would die if she was once more hung over that fire, once more subjected to its deadly heat.
And yet, there she was. Carried through the camp, available for all to see. Carried off to whatever doom she would face. Her fogged mind tried to make sense of the path she was taken down, but it was to no avail. Tents and campfires swirled through her vision in a grand array of color and images, making little sense and explaining nothing about her condition.
When she was carried through the flap of a tent and dumped onto the floor, her terror grew ever higher. The only time that they had bothered to torture her behind closed doors… It hadn’t been good. She shuddered as an iota of strength came back to her limbs, regained by the distance from the fire.
“Here.” A voice hissed in her ear as she was flipped onto her back. “Make them eat this.”
The sentence made no sense, but then… What did? She was subsequently quite surprised when an object was forced into her mouth. It tasted salty, and a hand soon latched over the bottom of her jaw to force her teeth to crush the mysterious crystal.
The taste of salt poured through his mouth, mixed with an odd flavor that just tasted… Dark. There was no other word for it, it just tasted dark. Her body heaved mightily, and she swallowed a large chunk of the material in a single gulp.
“What is that?” She sat up and began trying to spit out the material. “What…”
“Finish eating it!” The vampire over her hissed. “Now!”
Hesione looked up at him, not intent on letting the rest of the crystal in her mouth dissolve.
“You can move again! I suggest you not waste the powers that you were just given.” The vampire stood and walked over to the entrance of the tent. “Finish swallowing it all, then go to my associate Cordial.”
Hesione took a deep breath, which she found herself finally able to do, and swallowed the remainder of the crystals in her mouth. As she did so, she turned to find a second vampire standing over top of Paulin. He was in the process of forcing a crystal down Paulin’s throat, using a similar technique to smash it up inside the elf’s mouth. As Paulin began to stir, Hesione frowned.
“What are you doing to us?”
“Helping save you.” Cordial turned and whispered softly. He was an old vampire, wrinkled around the eyes, and had soft grey hair that stood out against his black robes. “You will have many questions, and I will provide many answers. However, the effects of these crystals will not last forever, and I suspect that you do not want to be caught inside this encampment when that happens.”
Hesione simply gave a short nod as Paulin climbed to his feet. He swayed unsteadily for several long moments before he finally took a deep breath and nodded firmly.
“I’m alright. I think.”
“You will not be so confident by the time we are out of here.” The first vampire turned back and gave a soft hiss. “Hurry up! They need to be dressed soon!”
“Right.” Cordial scurried to the corner of the room, where he grabbed a small pile of the tattered robes. “Put these on. And hurry!”
Hesione nodded and took the cloth from the vampire, doing her best to get dressed in the awkward robes. It wasn’t a particularly easy process, as the long strips of cloth got in her way. Paulin fared no better, and both of the vampires had to help the elves get dressed. As they pulled their hoods up to surround their faces, the first vampire gestured at the tent flap.
“I’ll go first. Cordial comes last. If anyone stops us, my name is Retqueth. Any questions? No? Good.”
Retqueth quickly pulled back the flap of the tent and stepped out into the encampment. Hesione hesitated for a brief moment before following him, a bit unsure about what was truly happening. Sure, they were being rescued, but… Were they really? What if Lilith was just playing some sort of mind game? What if this was just a plot to give them a taste of freedom once more before subjecting them back to that awful torture? What if…
Paulin stepped past her as her mind spun. She glanced at him as he did so, and caught a single glimpse of his face under his hood. That single glimpse, no more than a fraction of a second, turned her blood to ice.
Paulin’s golden skin was a pale, sickly yellow, while his eyes were sunken and bloodshot. He was a vampire! Or, at the least, he looked an awful lot like one. She stumbled backwards, only to be caught by Cordial. He pushed her forward, and the quartet stumbled out into the dreary, overcast day.
At that point, Hesione had no option but to follow. Together, they swept through the camp, winding through the rows upon rows of tents without any discernable purpose. Overhead, batherals flapped back and forth letting out high-pitched screams. The strange dark fires burned forcefully at regular intervals, ranging from torches stuck in the ground to campfires that dotted the land. Hesione found herself flinching as they approached each one, though no further drain on her health was noticed.
They had been walking for well over an hour before they finally came to the end of the encampment, a large batheral pen where half a dozen of the terrible beasts stomped back and forth under the grey sky. A handful of vampires stood around the area, but they all looked more like farmers than guards. Several were scooping out batheral manure into large wheelbarrows while others seemed to be gathering hay and grain.
“Scouting party, reporting for our mounts.” Retqueth bowed slightly as he walked up to the gate. “Should be an interesting one today, from all reports.”
“Have fun out there.” One of the farmers muttered. “Sure, Lilith will give permission to youto ride the batherals.”
One of the other farmers laughed. “You knocked over her tent! You’re lucky you’re even still alive!”
“Yeah, well…” The farmer stammered.
Hesione might have found the banter interesting, had they not been trying so desperately to escape. Retqueth quickly strode up to the closest batheral, a monstrous fusion of hair and scales, and climbed up into the saddle with a flourish. He then held out his hand to Hesione, while Cordial climbed up on another nearby mount with Paulin following him.
As they sat down, Retqueth snapped his fingers, causing several ropes to leap up and wrap around Hesione’s body. As she was essentially tied to the saddle, he snapped his heels against the beast’s sides, and they exploded up into the air.
It felt much like it had felt when they had been flying inside the much more advanced time pod. Mighty wings beat on either side of them, lifting them high into the air in a matter of seconds. The camp fell away below them, the deadly vampires grew ever smaller as they rose past layers of red stones. The batheral flew in a tight spiral, launching itself higher and higher into the sky.
As they rose past the cliff where Hesione and Paulin had first landed, Retqueth spun the mount and raced towards the deeper mountain ranges. Cordial’s mount flew just behind them, the scream of the wind nearly deafening Hesione. They quickly left the valley behind, and proceeded to flash over pine-covered mountainside after pine-covered mountainside.
Eventually, Hesione caught a glimpse of what looked like another valley stretching out in front of them. It was much larger than the former crag, a sprawling expanse devoid of mountains. As they slowly passed the final mountain to enter the flat plain, Hesione’s breath was taken away.
It was simply a massive gap in the mountain range, stretching out for dozens of miles upon end. A small lake sat at the exact center, and was surrounded by what appeared to be lusher, more deciduous trees. These same trees were clumped around the handful of rivers that fed into it, though spreading outward, only pines and low-clinging sagebrush could be seen. A few small trails of campfire smoke rose from the central trees, indicating some sort of settlement.
The batherals dove, zinging down to the lower level of the plain. They spread their wings at the last instant, zooming across the parched landscapes at speeds that made Hesione’s head hurt. Why did batherals always have to fly so low?
They began to slow as they neared the trees, and soon set down on the red dirt of the dried plains. As the batherals snorted and stamped, the two vampires dismounted and began to help the two elves climb down. No sooner had their feet hit the ground than cloaked figures began to appear out of the thicker brush, primitive weapons pointed in their direction. Unlike the wraith-like garb of Lilith’s followers, these vampires were dressed in hodgepodge cloth that simply covered their bodies in a more practical fashion.
“Please, come.” Retqueth gestured and jogged towards the cloaked figures. “Quickly!”
Hesione scrambled to follow, uncertain of the urgency of the request, but nonetheless certain that she was preferring escape with these vampires to imprisonment with Lilith. The four of them rushed into the cover of the brush, and several bolts of magic flashed out to strike the batherals in the haunches.
With a mighty blast of air, the creatures exploded into the sky. The wind from the downbeat of their wings nearly knocked Hesione to the ground, and left her with dust stinging her eyes. As the batherals began to rise into the distance, Retqueth pulled her down and put a finger over her mouth.
With a flicker, some sort of magic rose over the small grove. And then… Nothing. They just sat there, still as corpses, while they waited.
The reason for the wait came nearly half an hour later, as a troop of batherals appeared in the air over distant mountains. There were nearly a dozen of them, and seemed to be searching in a specific pattern. They were looking for the escapees. And there they were, hidden in the open, only protected by whatever flimsy magic had been projected.
The minutes ticked past into hours as the batherals vanished, only to reappear once more. By the time a low trumpet shook the air, the sky had begun to grow dark as the sun set somewhere beyond the oppressive cloud cover. Several of the vampires pulled out torches and lit them up, sending the welcome orange light across the desert setting, and began to move back towards the small lake.
“Can we talk now?” Hesione whispered to Retqueth. “Is it okay?”
“You may speak, yes.” Retqueth inclined his head. “Apologies, we don’t communicate much between ourselves. I know you have many questions, and, as I said, you will get those answers.”
Hesione nodded shortly, then glanced around for Paulin. She found him only a few feet back, his face still drawn and haggard. He nodded wearily at her, and she nodded back. With that, they turned and continued forward.
Ahead, flickers of a larger campfire began to be seen through the trees. The flames grew brighter as they walked closer, resolving into a small clearing filled with a rather large bonfire. On the other side, a throne had been constructed out of sticks and stones, making a rather impressive chair. Behind it, through just a few more trees, the lights of the fire could be seen glancing off small waves on the tepid lake.
Sitting on the throne was yet another vampire lord. This one was a young man, though he seemed withered and twisted by his disease. Two small prongs protruded from his forehead, marking him as a faun. Hesione frowned in confusion. Weren’t fauns only supposed to arrive on Calsin in the fifth era?
“You seem confused.” The vampire lord’s voice was slow and precise. “Allow me to explain, then.”
“Please.” Paulin stepped forward, up next to Hesione. “What’s going on here? What have you done to us?”
“Nothing permanent.” The man continued to hiss. “The effects of the crystal you have consumed will wear off in another day or so. Once they do, you may experience a return of the lethargy you were infused with at the hands of Lilith, depending on how much smoke you were exposed to. The final effects should wear off within a week at most, leaving you as your healthy selves.”
“What were they?” Paulin pressed. “The crystals, those flames?”
“Both are born from the same font of magic that gave birth to the vampiric curse you find yourself battling now.” The faun shifted on his throne. “I do not know the details, nor do I care to. What I care about is putting a stop to that abomination you were taken prisoner by. I am not familiar with her species, but I am growing all-too-familiar with their powers. My spies in her service reported that you seemed to know who she was. Information like that is precious to me.”
Hesione sighed and kicked at the ground. “Truth is, there’s not much that anyone will be able to do for another few thousand years.”
“Ahh, yes. The intrepid time travelers. You were also reported to hold such power.” The vampire lord clicked his tongue softly. “The ability to travel through time is something that sounds far too good to be true. Or, perhaps, far too dangerous to be allowed to run free.”
The vampire lord leaned back in his throne. “Here is my offer to you. It has already cost me much to free the two of you and bring you here. If you answer my questions and assist with defeating Lilith, I will allow you to go free with your lives. If you do not…” He shrugged and wagged his hand back and forth. “I have not tasted the blood of a sentient being in many years. We will not waste a drop, I assure you.”
“No need for that.” Paulin held up his hand. “Whatever Lilith is doing, it was brought on by someone who stole something from us. We’re invested in this fight, just as much as you are.”
“That much I doubt, but I will accept your statement as proof that you are with us. Or, at the least, proof that you will assist us inasmuch as it prevents your death.” The vampire lord sneered. “Now, speak. Your ability to travel through time. True or false?”
“True.” Paulin nodded, then shrugged. “Sort of. We have a machine that we use. Right now, Lilith has it.”
“Can she use it?”
Hesione snorted. “Not if it’s still as broken as it was the last time we saw it.”
“Good. I am glad to hear of such things.” The faun crossed his arms. “If this is true, then the only weapon Lilith may have is knowledge of the future. I am satisfied with giving her so little.”
Paulin frowned. “Knowledge can be powerful.”
“It can also be mistaken.” The vampire lord shrugged. “I intend to ensure that her reign, if it could even be called such a thing, is as short as possible. Now, perhaps you could elaborate on her species? You seemed to indicate that they could not be killed for several thousand years more?”
Hesione grimaced. “Their entire species is under a curse of immortality. We helped break it in the distant future.”
“Indeed.” The vampire lord crossed his arms. “Then, if she herself cannot be killed, her only true weakness lies in her followers.”
“Hold on.” Paulin held up a hand as the vampire opened his mouth once more. “We’re doing our best to explain things to you, but… Can you help us out?” He gestured at himself and Hesione. “We need to know what the situation is.”
The vampire lord held Paulin’s gaze for several painful seconds before turning to Hesione as well. She did her best not to flinch under the oppressive gaze, though that was far harder than it sounded. Finally, he inclined his head and clapped his hands. A few more chunks of wood were brought forward and tossed onto the fire, and he folded his arms.
“I do not know how much you know of vampires. Once, there was a great civilization that stood on the other side of these mountains. Cities that rose high into the sky. Mortals who convened with the gods. Great lords who could own a hundred thousand slaves apiece. Great ships that sailed across the oceans to lands afar. I myself traveled on one of those ships, brought along as a willing slave.
“Then, one day, the country collapsed. Men began eating other men. Towers fell from the sky, fire ran through the streets like water. Many men escaped on the ships, but even those refugees soon began fighting against one another for fear that the other was infected. In a matter of weeks, the country collapsed. I, along with the other slaves, was used as a living sacrifice to placate the hordes of undead while our watchful masters escaped across these mountains.”
The vampire lord paused for several moments before continuing. “After our masters left and the curse of the undead set in, we were left to figure out how to handle our new cravings. Fights broke out, as they do, and clans emerged. We tamed the batherals, learned how to satiate our desire for blood. And then, of course, the elves came. What had once been a war of confusion became a fight for survival. Thousands of us were slaughtered.
“Under the leadership of a man named Lord Apolis, we came together to stand against the threat. I fought on the frontlines, warring against the living under conjured storms. We killed whoever we could and offered council to those we were forced to turn. Eventually, the invaders were driven back. In the century since, there has been peace.”
The vampire lord’s jaw trembled. “Then Lilith appeared. No more than a year ago, an angel walked out of the ruins of Descrator and declared herself the queen of all vampires. Lord Apolis offered her a position in the court which he had set up, and she attempted to kill him. He managed to escape, but only just.” The man slowly raised a hand, pointing in a direction that Hesione thought was north. “There, in the distance, he has taken up residence in a fortress. He refuses help, for he doesn’t want anyone else to suffer under Lilith’s wrath. What he fails to realize is that once she kills him, all of us will be forced to bend the knee.”
Paulin smirked. “And you don’t want Lilith for a queen?”
“We want to live our lives in peace.” The vampire lord sneered. “I have already been denied a natural death, the chance to rest with my ancestors. All she wishes is to rule and destroy. She will bring great attention to our people, and I do not wish this.”
Hesione nodded slowly. It didn’t sound like a great situation, no matter what way she looked at it. Lilith, whoever she was, certainly didn’t have any good plans for the continent. If she was allowed to roam free, she would undoubtedly cause mayhem and wanton destruction.
And yet, history was clear. Lilith never reigned as queen over Calsin. Maybe she took over these vampires. Maybe, for a time, she actually did manage to live out her fantasy as ruler, but Calsin very clearly wasn’t a vampiric state by the time Hesione came around. So… Why should they help?
“Allow me to put it another way, as I see indecision written over your faces.” The vampire lord crossed his arms. “In addition to letting you walk away with your lives, as you will certainly not do if you refuse me, I will restore your items to you. Several personal belongings were taken by Lilith, which we managed to steal back. Additionally, I will provide the services of Retqueth and Cordial to help you sneak back into camp and reclaim your time machine. You will not receive a more generous offer.”
Hesione scowled as she realized what the man had done. It was an intentional court tactic, used often in Elsinor. Despite no effort given by Hesione and Paulin, he had increased the offer that he had initially made them. Of course, he had been planning the final offer from the very beginning, but from the outside, it would absolutely appear as though he was being the bigger man.
“We accept.” Hesione stepped forward before Paulin could have a chance to get in the words first. She glanced to the side at her brother, who simply gave a small nod. “Just tell us what we need to do.”
“You know, I really wasn’t expecting this.” Hesione muttered as their horses clopped up the side of the mountain.
“Then what were you expecting?” Paulin frowned as they continued ever upward.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Hesione shrugged. “Go fight a giant monster. Help him go back in time and warn himself. Literally almost anything but this.”
Next to her, Paulin inclined his head once, but said nothing more. She was a bit worried about him, as he hadn’t said much of anything since they had left the vampire camp. Of course, given the circumstances she couldn’t really blame him, but it still made her worried, nonetheless.
That very night, they had been loaded up on horses along with Cordial and Retqueth. The four of them had set off, and that had been that. They had headed to the west, making their way towards what Retqueth assured them was a common vampire meeting place. Their plan was fairly simple: Arrive at the place of meeting and convince all the other vampire lords to join in the battle against Lilith.
Of course… Simple didn’t mean easy. The faun had assured them that it would prove difficult to convince the other vampires to join the fight, as many of them had reservations against banding together. Hesione still wasn’t sure exactly how they planned on getting around that fact, but she assumed that Paulin had a plan. Either him or the two vampires they were with.
Below her, the horse snorted as it pushed onward. She glanced down, only to look away hastily once more. The creature was quite obviously vampiric, with pale hair, sunken eyes, and shaper teeth than any horse had a right to have. She hadn’t even known that such a thing was possible, let alone that she would wind up riding one of the strange beasts. The one upside was that they had been allowed to change back into their non-vampiric clothing as soon as the effects of the crystal had worn off. Of course, she now looked completely out of place in her faded green attire, but at least she wasn’t wearing something undead.
In front and behind, the two vampires simply rode. Neither spoke often, and when they did, it was often just to give instructions. Now, as they drove ever-deeper into the mountains, Retqueth turned around from where he sat in the lead.
“We’re getting closer. I expect that we’ll arrive by sunset.”
“Good.” Hesione shifted in the saddle. “I know you don’t mind it, but we mortals still have to deal with pain. And I’m really getting sore.”
“You will be able to rest as much as your heart desires once Lilith has been removed.” Retqueth glanced back at them once more. “Please. While we may not experience physical pain the way you do, rest assured that we feel the pain of her actions just as clearly as you do.”
Hesione sighed. Harsh rulers were something that she was growing ever more used to. “Believe me, I’ve seen what the angels can do. You don’t have to tell me.”
They continued to ride forward. Ahead, the path wound up on top of a narrow cliff, where they began wind their way along the side of the mountain. Hesione tried not to look down, where the ground simply plummeted down hundreds of feet to the rocky plains below.
“Would you care if I ask a question?” Cordial leaned forward. “What’s it like in the future? What happens to us vampires?”
“Cordial!” Retqueth snapped. “You heard the order. We are not to ask them about the future.”
“Yeah, I know, but…” Cordial sighed. “What’s it going to hurt if you or I know something? We’re nobodies.”
“I once spoke to a relative nobody.” Hesione sighed and glanced back at him. “He was a waiter at a bar. Had a good job. He’s now the reason we’re stuck here. Probably the reason that Lilith is making her move.”
“Lilith would have made her attack regardless of whether she had the time machine.” Retqueth shook his head. After a few seconds, he conceded. “That said, she is likely moving a bit faster than she would have been otherwise. There has been talk of preparing for the eventual uprising ever since she appeared, but none of us thought that she would attempt a coup until she had secured the loyalty of the western shore clans.”
“So you see?” Hesione gestured at Cordial. “What we did… I so desperately wish we could take it back.” She sighed. “We didn’t think we would cause the damage that we have. And yet, everything that’s happened since then has just slowly spiraled out of control. One mistake can destroy a massive amount of time.”
“I see.” Cordial sighed and scowled. “Is it too much just to ask if the vampires take over Calsin or not?”
Hesione sighed and gestured vaguely at Paulin. She didn’t want to answer, but she would leave the final decision up to him. Paulin glanced back, frowning for several long moments before finally shrugging.
“No. No, they don’t.” Paulin sighed. “Vampires never again really emerge from Donitor. A few take up residence in the desert on the other side of these mountains, but that’s about the extent of it. The vampires never again are able to make a legitimate claim against the continent, and no one ever really manages to push back into Donitor again.”
“Not really.” Paulin shrugged. “A bunch of Donitor gets colonized during the fifth and sixth era, but they withdraw towards the end of that period and leave it as a vampire reserve.”
“Interesting.” Cordial stroked his chin. “So… Lilith doesn’t succeed?”
“On a major, continent-wide scale, no.” Paulin shook his head. “The problem is that we don’t really know what that means. Maybe she succeeds and takes over this local area. Maybe she just escapes through time. Time is a strange beast, and I wouldn’t say that we necessarily have a grasp on it.”
“I certainly don’t.” Hesione muttered. As far as she had been concerned, they shouldn’t have told the vampires anything about the future. At all.
“Please. By your own admissions, you could be disrupting the flow of time itself.” Retqueth snapped. “No more questions, I beg of you.”
Hesione nodded and turned to glare at Paulin, who just shrugged. After a few awkward moments, they simply rode onward. The path continued to wind along the side of the mountain before dropping back down into the thickly-wooded area between two of the enormous piles of stone. They wound along a small river there, past some rapids, and back up the side of yet another mountain. At that point, it seemed to Hesione that they were about halfway up the side of a large cliff, with well over a hundred feet of stone both above and below them.
Eventually, as the light was beginning to fade, they came to a tiny gap in the stone, so small that it could easily have been missed had Retqueth not pointed it out. Their horses barely squeezed through, placing them in a narrow cave. Hesione’s legs scraped against the walls of the cave, her head brushed against the ceiling. It wasn’t pleasant, and the light from the entrance soon faded behind them.
With that, they were plunged into complete darkness. Unable to see, Hesione was forced to rely on the sight of the vampiric horse below her, which regularly twisted and turned to the left and right with a precision that Hesione didn’t particularly like.
It felt like hours had passed before she caught a brief glimpse of firelight ahead. The horses began to trot just a bit faster, causing her to duck involuntarily in fear of catching her head on something. When the riders came out of the cave, they emerged into a small area that rather defied all explanation, leaving Hesione breathless.
In short, they were in a small crag in the mountain. An area maybe a hundred feet wide and two hundred feet long was all that was there, with sheer stone walls rising on all sides up into the sky. High above, flickers of magic danced across the overcast sky, like thousands of tiny fireflies keeping watch. A small coral sat near the far side of the space, which held a small handful of vampiric horses. Meanwhile, a bonfire blazed in the center of the area, obviously magical flames dancing with an odd blueish light. A handful of thrones had been erected around the fire, which at that moment held five separate vampire lords. A dozen or so servants scurried around behind them, preparing food at smaller fires and bringing it to their masters.
Hesione felt her throat tighten as the vampire lords turned to face her. One was an elderly human male, clad in deep blue robes that almost looked like mage attire. One was a young human woman, clothed in deep red sashes that wound around her body like strips of cloth on a mummy. One was another faun, a woman who wore leather robes that fell away from her shoulders almost like a cloak. The fourth was a high elven male, who wore a tailored dark cloak that could have been from royalty. The fifth and final one was another human, though she appeared at a glance to be a mere child. Her robes were simple, and almost looked like they had just been salvaged from other clothes. All the servants wore clothing similar to their masters, allowing for easy and simply identification.
“Why has Lord Hershes brought the living into the presence of the dead?” The faun hissed in their direction. She nodded at the two elves. “I will not stand for this. Cut them down.”
“Wait!” Retqueth jumped off his horse as several of the faun’s servants rushed forward. “He sends his regards. He believes that these two may be the key to fending off Lilith’s advances.”
“I thought we had already decided this matter.” The elderly human sighed and reclined on his throne. Thankfully, at that same time, the faun waved her hand, causing her servants to draw to a halt. “Lilith is a child. She may be immortal, but her mind will never mature beyond that of her biological age. She may try to amass a following, but it will never hold together.”
“Objection!” The child spoke up, crossing her arms. “Just because you’re trapped in a small body doesn’t mean you’ll be like that forever!”
“Please believe me when I say that I’m not attempting to challenge your leadership.” The old man inclined his head in her direction. “Humans and angels are quite different. They must be, for half the things she does to have happened.” He coughed and turned back to Retqueth. “The point is that she will never hold the power that your master fears she will wield. She should be left to her own devices. Let her kill her own people until they all flee from her.”
“I’m not convinced that they’ll do that.” Retqueth crossed his arms. “She’s made a camp and summoned the dark flames.”
“She did what?” The faun hissed and leaned forward once more. “Impossible! The fonts went dry a hundred years ago!”
“I feel as though I should point out that I suspected this fact over two weeks ago.” The red-clothed woman snapped her fingers, causing a small burst of red magic to leap from her fingertips into the flames. In response, the fire cracked nearly twice as high. Her own voice poured forth from the flames, clear as day: “These clouds are no natural formation. We have not seen such a sight since the dark fires burned within the citadel.”
The flames died back down, and the woman crossed her arms. The faun sputtered, while the elderly man simply crossed his arms.
“Assuming that such reports are true, it is still of no consequence. Living flesh was brought into this space. The rules on such an occasion are quite clear.”
“Indeed they are.” The elven vampire finally spoke up, his voice deep and resonant. The rest of the lords fell quiet as he slowly rose to his feet. “It seems to me, then, that Lord Hershes must have had a good reason for breaking said rules. He had no reason to jeopardize his position with us. Perhaps his minion should proceed. If we find his logic improper, we can deal with the infraction at that time.”
There was a short pause, after which the faun inclined her head. “Proceed.”
“Thank you, lords.” Retqueth bowed, then took a deep breath. “Lord Hershes, once again, extends an invitation to join him in a battle against Lilith. She has rallied all her forces together in the Valley of Bones, and is preparing to lead her assault against Lord Apolis. We believe that she will attack in no more than two weeks.”
Cordial nodded and stepped forward as well. “She’s making this move because of something she stole from these two. A machine that allows for travel through time. These two have seen the future. They know what it holds. Lilith could cause untold damage with such a weapon.”
There was a short pause. Finally, the woman in red slowly crossed her arms.
“Forgive me for being so imprudent, but I haven’t heard anything so preposterous in my life. If she has access to such a machine, she will have already used it. We would be powerless against her.”
“The machine is broken.” Hesione held up her hands. “She can’t use it yet. She’ll need to be stopped before she can put it back together.”
There was a short pause. The vampire lords all looked at each other. Finally, after a pause that went on far too long for Hesione’s comfort, the elven lord put his hands behind his back.
“Perhaps we could have some time to discuss this in private.”
He snapped his fingers and turned to face the other vampire lords. All the rest of the lords made similar gestures, and a dozen vampiric servants quickly rushed around the fire to form a barricade between the newcomers and the lords. Hesione sighed and turned to Paulin, who just looked frustrated. She subsequently glanced at Cordial and Retqueth, both of whom looked equally despondent.
“So what do you think our chances are?” Hesione whispered.
“Not great.” Retqueth’s jaw barely moved. “Now please, stop talking. The vampire lords have strict protocol rules, breaking them could result in our being killed.”
Hesione straightened up instantly, trying to put on her best regal front. Hadn’t she left court politics behind when they fled Elsinor?
The minutes drug on as the lords continued to converse. Their voices were muffled, but Hesione could catch bits and pieces of dialogue. From what she could tell, they were more or less divided over what exactly to do. The elven lord seemed in favor of assisting in the fight against Lilith, while the other lords seemed far less interested.
They were still talking when Hesione heard a small scuffle, coming from deep within the tunnel. She frowned and turned slightly, curious. Retqueth glanced at her, an annoyed look on his face. She ignored him, and peered into the depths. It had sounded almost like a footfall. But… Would it even have been possible for someone to walk into the mysterious cavern on foot? And why would you even want to?
The answer came to her in the blink of an eye, and she reached over and grabbed the pistol from Paulin’s belt. He yelped, and most of the vampiric servants lunched forward. Without hesitating, she spun and fired the weapon into the darkness. A brilliant beam of green light lanced into the cave, briefly illuminating a pack of six vampires clothed in Lilith’s rags.
The cavern instantly exploded into chaos. The servants rushed forward while Cordial and Retqueth pulled Hesione and Paulin out of the way. The vampire lords themselves abandoned their fire and rushed into battle, drawing swords and grabbing spears.
The fight only lasted a few seconds, as Lilith’s troops were quickly decimated. In the distance, a batheral roared loudly, its voice echoing through the narrow cave. As the excitement of the fight began to wear off, the vampire lords slowly began to walk back to the fire.
“Well?” Retqueth stepped forward. “What about now? Does that not convince you that we need to be fighting against Lilith together?”
“I find it mighty convenient that we should be attacked in our sanctum only moments after your arrival.” The elven vampire turned and growled down at Retqueth. “I see two primary options: You were followed, or this attack was staged by your own companions. Neither one bodes well for you.”
Retqueth took a deep breath and shook his head. “I assure you, this was not us. We-”
“Please believe me when I say that I do not care about your pathetic excuses, be they justified or not.” The elf sneered. “Regardless of the nature of the attack, we were already in agreement. This small battle does not change our position in the slightest.”
Hesione held her breath as the vampire lord raised his right hand over his head and snapped his fingers. Instantly, his servants formed up behind him. The other vampire lords did the same, forming up a rank around the four intruders.
“We will indeed fight by your side.” The elf finally spoke. “If what you say is true, if Lilith has indeed amassed an army, then her power grows far stronger than any of us imagined it might do. She will be making tracks for Falreach castle, I am certain of it. Return to your master, have him call upon his allies. I will do the same. Perhaps we can encourage the valley clans to join us as well.” He crossed his arms behind his back, drawing himself up to his full height of nearly eight feet.
“No pretender as childish as Lilith will ever hold the throne of the vampires. We fight, not for Lord Hershes, but for the good of our kind everywhere.” His lip twisted up into a sneer. “You had better show up for the battle.
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