“On the bright side, you’re probably not going to die here.” Hesione glanced over at Paulin, giving him a small smile. “That’s got to be some encouragement.”
“It is.” He returned the small smile before directing his attention back to the valley below. “Not much, but it’s something.”
It still means that you could die.
He didn’t dare speak the words, didn’t even want to let the thought pass through his mind at all. And yet, there it was. He had been wrought with that reality ever since they had arrived in the land of the vampires, and he was no closer to working through the issue now than he had ever been.
When Hesione had suddenly vanished that day back in the fifth era, he had known that he had succeeded. Somewhere in the future, he had succeeded in traveling through time. The moment he had been able to find a way to do it, he had stolen a time machine, picked her up, and they had gone on their way.
And now… Now, they had been tossed from one vampire encampment to another. Now, they were going to be witness to one of the single largest battles that Paulin had ever even heard of. Sure, reports from the Dwarven Civil War spoke of troop moments numbering close to fifty thousand, but… Nothing was anything like this.
The two elves stood on a small cliff, mounted on vampiric horses for a quick getaway, that overlooked the battlefield. Off to his right, Falreach Castle stood tall on top of a small plateau. The reinforced walls, elevated towers, and striking banners spoke of a true imperial presence. Even from the distance at which they viewed the castle, he could see the machines of war sitting on the tops of the walls, ready for action.
Down below the plateau, stretching across the rocky plains, was the Assembled Army of United Vampiric Clans. Deciding on the name had taken the better part of a week, and had nearly resulted in the Anti-Lilith Coalition. Over a hundred thousand vampires had come, traveling across hundreds of miles to join in the battle. Dozens of vampire lords flew their flags from enormous vampiric mounts, ranging from batherals to korcats to horses to mammoths. Their troops all stood at attention, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
The front lines stood with their weapons drawn, having held the same position for nearly two days at that point. From the tips of their swords, a dusty expanse stretched nearly a quarter mile to the front lines of Lilith’s own troops. There, the black-robed vampires held a similar formation. Flags flew from poles there, too, though they all showed only an insignia of two wings set against a bloody background. Batherals stood to either side, while vampiric horses lined the front row.
Lilith herself sat on a throne of bones, which itself was mounted on a wooden frame carefully attached to a vampiric elephant. Her wings were spread wide, while her other vampiric angels flew back and forth overhead.
That, perhaps more than anything else, worried Paulin a great deal. There were a lot of vampiric angels. He had assumed that she might have one or two followers, but no. Well over one hundred of the creatures flashed back and forth over the battlefield, never growing tired, never once landing. Most had black wings, though a few with white feathers stood out against the black clouds.
“Paulin. Hesione.” Retqueth came riding up to join them on the hillside. His own vampiric mount snorted and stamped at the ground, striking up sparks where its hoof struck the stones. “Lord Apolis wishes you to know that he will instigate the attack soon.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “What does he think his chances are?”
“We do not know.” Retqueth’s voice was soft. “Their numbers are nearly equal to our own, but they have more immortals than we were anticipating. Per your instructions, we have plans to immobilize as many as we can, but it’s not certain how effective it will be against their large numbers.”
“Just be glad they don’t have advanced technology.” Paulin sighed. “Just by blowing up their own ship, they were able to kill thousands of my people.”
“Indeed, we are counting our blessings. Small as they may be.” Retqueth nodded to the two elves. “When the fighting starts, do not wait to observe the battle. If you cannot retrieve the time pod, all may still be lost, regardless of the final outcome of this war.”
“Believe me when I say that we’ll do our part.” Paulin nodded, then glanced at Hesione, who nodded back. “Just give us the signal.”
“Believe me, you’ll know it when you see it.” Retqueth turned his mount around. “It’s a weapon we took from the invading elves a hundred years ago. We’ll only get off a single use before the armies clash and we would risk hitting our own soldiers, but I think you’ll find it inspiring.”
Paulin dipped his head. “I look forward to the show.”
With that, Retqueth spurred his horse and trotted off down the trail, vanishing back towards the castle. Paulin sighed and turned back to the battlefield. It was so hard to know what would happen, so hard to just ride away.
The sad fact of the matter was that the result of the battle, whether Lilith won or lost, would have no effect on the course of history. If she won, she would subsequently choose to remain hidden, even through her species’ reintroduction into Calsin. If she lost, that would be that. Such a massive war, such little consequence.
As they stood there, something seemed to ripple across both armies. Before, the soft chatter of conversation could be heard drifting up through the air. Slowly, though, it all faded into silence. All members of both groups stood as still as statues, preparing themselves in ready positions.
With a mighty roar, Lilith’s mount burst into the sickly black flame that Paulin was rapidly growing to hate. The elephant reared up on its hind legs as a thick black energy roared up into the sky, causing thick dark clouds to spread across the battlefield, obscuring the much lighter clouds that had been making the day so dreary.
With that, Lilith’s army let out an unworldly scream. It was a wail that seemed designed to wake the dead, destined to draw corpses back from the dirt and onto the battlefield into war. The first line of her troops began to move forward, marching onward towards the castle.
Before any of the United Vampiric Clans made their move, something rose up from the depths of Falreach Castle. In the last few glimmers of light before the dark clouds turned the day into night, Paulin thought that it looked oddly metallic. He didn’t get much more of a look, though, before it let out an extraordinary pulse of light.
In that instant, he recognized the weapon from his history books. The Lance of the Gods, a weapon crafted by the Elven Empire and lost during the vampiric wars. Only now… Maybe not so lost after all.
The battlefield was turned back into day as a shaft of pure light burned through the air and blasted a trench through Lilith’s troops. Vampires crumbled to dust under its light, exposed to the fury of a thousand burning suns. Warriors on either side of the blast were engulfed in flame as their clothes caught on fire, and several of the batherals bucked off their riders to flee the battle.
As the light faded, Paulin blinked spots out of his eyes. The day returned to almost total darkness, and the cry of two hundred thousand remaining warriors shook the air. Thundering feet, beating wings, the scream of massive stones.
Paulin spun his horse and spurred it onward, racing down the trail that led across the top of the cliff. As his mount tore across the desert sands, he couldn’t help but glance to the side at the progressing battle.
It was impossible to see much in the dim light, but he could see enough. The flames from the Lance of the Gods still burned across the battlefield, though they slowly flickered out. The army of darkness simply surged forward, roaring across the open plains towards their opponents. The vampiric calvary raced out in front of the footsoldiers, and soon enough slammed into the front lines.
Screams and rages of war echoed upward as the two sides slammed into each other. It was like watching titans themselves battle it out. Mammoths lurched forward, crushing the enemy under their enormous feet. Batherals zinged down into the battlefield, grabbing warriors and flinging them high into the sky. Other batherals carried enormous stones over the warzone before dropping them onto their opponents. Fiery arrows rained down from Falreach Castle, magic flickered and cracked through the air like lightning in a storm.
With a mighty crack, lightning itself began to pour down from the sky. In that instant, as the brilliant lights crisscrossed the battlefield, time itself seemed to slow. For that brief instant, Paulin caught a glimpse of Lilith standing tall on her mount, engulfed in black flame, hands extended high above her head. Her eyes were wild, as lightning flickered from her fingertips.
In that instant, Paulin had a realization. Lilith could access the magical field. In addition to being immortal, in addition to whatever powers her vampirism granted, she could access the magical field of Calsin. The clouds above the two clashing armies began to twist, green lights flashing and pulsing from within the deep coverings.
This revelation was left unfinished, as the trail turned and led down the other side of the cliff. He reluctantly turned his back to the war and pushed his horse harder. They quickly dove down into a narrow crevice, racing along a shallow stream and through a thick layer of brush and scraggly trees.
Their only light were the flickers of light coming from behind them, their only consolation was that Lilith had left the time pod back at her main camp. With luck, it would soon enough be in their hands. If they somehow failed in keeping both the time pod and the castle from the witch, Paulin honestly wasn’t sure what he would do.
They soon enough raced into a small clearing in the brush, where two saddled batherals stood at the ready. They were held by two vampires who appeared more than a bit nervous by all the explosions and flashes going off in the distance. As Paulin rode up, he could see their eyes wide with fear, and frankly couldn’t blame them in the slightest. He swung from his horse and took the reins of the batheral from the closest vampire, a woman who mounted his horse in a heartbeat and took off in the other direction.
Hesione did the same, taking hold of her new mount, and watching as the second vampire vanished into the growing darkness. The two elves glanced at each other, and Paulin slowly swung up and into the batheral’s saddle.
As he settled into the seat, he simply snapped the reins and did his best to hang on. The batheral exploded into the air, flashing up into the dark sky without any hesitation. Paulin subsequently dropped the reins and simply grabbed hold of the horn of the saddle. Wind whistled by on every side, wings beat powerfully on either side of him. He risked a single glance behind him, and thought he saw Hesione close behind, but it was impossible to tell for certain.
Without anything more to do, he simply watched as the batheral swung once more into view of the battle. From that position, so high in the sky, had a perfect view of a strange green light ripping down from the sky, over and over, blasting massive craters into the sand. Dust and smoke rose from the area, obscuring the entirety of Falreach Castle. Something was beginning to rise into the air over the castle once more, likely Lord Apolis attempting to fire the Lance of the Gods once more… But then the batheral turned away, angling back over the mountaintops.
The batheral mounts had been stolen from Lilith’s camp two nights earlier. According to Retqueth, batherals had a strong sense of direction, and would usually attempt to go back to their nest if they were disturbed. Paulin only hoped that the "usually" worked out in their favor.
Quite unfortunately, there really was nothing that he could do. The batheral simply continued to fly, blasting the elf with freezing cold air, as it winged towards its final destination. Mountains slowly moved past on either side, they passed over valleys and rivers, the clouds gradually began to grow lighter the farther from the main battle that they flew.
Eventually, after trying to stay upright against the wind, Paulin wound up laying flat against the batheral’s neck. At that point, he could retain his sturdy grip on the saddle while still remaining protected somewhat from the raging air. Of course, this also let him stare straight down at the ground hundreds of feet below, giving him a perfect view of where he would land if he were to fall.
It was… Well, it was more than a bit strange. Lights flickered on the sides of mountains here and there, small campfires of unknown individuals. Perhaps they were vampires, abstaining from a fight they didn’t believe to be their own. Perhaps they were still living, and simply trying to pass through the country undetected. Perhaps they didn’t even know about the war, or perhaps there were deserters from both sides who got cold feet at the last moment. What must it be like to sit at one of those flames, listening to the distant roar of battle? What would it be like to not know what danger those noises held?
Of course, these thoughts only brought more thoughts to his own mind. What would he and Hesione do once they had escaped? He, at least, would make it away from the battle free. Supposing that both himself and Hesione came away from the battle unscathed, would they set up their own campfire? Would they just return to their island paradise, collapse on the beach, and enjoy some time off? Would they go back to the sixth era and resume their lives there? Would they travel to the stars again?
Or… Would they travel back to this land? Jump a few years into the future to see the aftermath? Wonder about their friends who had died? Would Hesione be okay with any of that at all?
His questions were brought short as the batheral flashed over the edge of the valley where Lilith’s camp stood strong. A few fires still smoked here and there, but the entire structure had been abandoned some time earlier. The batheral let out a yelp of excitement and folded its wings, diving down to the ground below. Paulin did his best to hang on, once more cursing the creature as it only opened its wings a few dozen feet above the dusty land below.
As the creature began to near the location of the massive bonfire at the center of the camp, Paulin sat back up and began to tug on the reins. The batheral responded instantly, coming to a halt far faster than Paulin would have expected was even possible. He nearly fell from the saddle as the creature dropped to the ground with a thud. Thankful to be alive, he scrambled from the saddle and fell to the packed ground below.
The batheral snorted and blasted back into the sky, flatting a nearby tent. Hesione’s batheral sailed over Paulin’s head and came crashing down just on the other side of the ruins of the fire, sending up a plume of ash. Paulin jogged in that direction, keeping his hand on his plasma pistol. As he ran past the ash, his stomach turned, reminding him of just how volatile that particular brand of magic was.
Hesione jumped down from her mount, landing on the ground, and her own batheral launched itself back up into the sky. As it faded from distance, she jogged over to meet Paulin.
“I vote that we never do that again.” She sounded breathless, and Paulin frankly couldn’t blame her.
“I’m really not going to fight you on that one.” Paulin flashed a small grin before turning to Lilith’s old command tent. “After you?”
“Uh, no.” Hesione shook her head and pulled her hair back behind her head. A solid hour of flying had caused it to explode into a frizzy bird’s nest, which she seemed intent on calming. “If there’s anyone hiding in their waiting on us, I’m not sacrificing myself for it.”
Paulin chuckled and stepped towards the tent, actually feeling confident for the first time in the several weeks since they had been captured. He pushed back the flap of the tent, allowing him to see inside. There, where Lilith’s throne had once been, the time pod glimmered as though nothing was wrong. There was no green magic shooting from it, no smoke, nothing to indicate that something was wrong.
“Perfect!” Paulin sighed and stepped forward. “Come on, it’s-”
A blast of green magic leapt from the interior of the tent and struck him in the chest, blowing him back out into the open space once more. He came crashing down in the ash of the fire, and struggled to his feet as a flicker of doubt and lethargy rushed across his limbs.
Hesione yelped and scrambled out of the way as Sam Bricklayer stepped out into the open. His ancient face was twisted into a foul sneer, while his hands clutched a spear that glimmered with a greenish energy.
“Ahh. Sam.” Paulin stumbled out of the fire and began to brush the ash off his arms. As the soot flaked away, his strength began to return. “I can honestly say that I wasn’t expecting to find you here.”
“No. No, you never do.” Sam hissed. “You never expect to see me, and yet our paths keep crossing. Funny, isn’t it?”
“Not really.” Hesione muttered. “You’re the one who stranded us in the sixth era.”
“Eras, time, what does it all matter?” Sam slammed the butt of the spear into the ground, causing a blast of magic to leap up into the clouds. “You took my life from me.”
“And, so far, you’re really struggling to take it back from us.” Paulin sighed and crossed his arms, planting his left hand as close to his pistol as possible. “Just saying.”
“Taunt me all you want.” Sam sneered. “I’m not letting you walk away from here alive.”
“And we’re not letting you defeat us.” Paulin held up his hands. “Look, just tell us what we need to do. I’ve said that we’re sorry. We truly did mess up your life. What can we do to fix it?”
“Unless you can bring the dead back to life, nothing.” Sam spat. “Can you? Can all your time travel, all your magic, bring people back?”
Paulin sighed and glanced down at the ground. It was several long and painful seconds before he was able to get the words out of his mouth.
“No. Time can’t be changed. You should know that better than anyone by now.”
“Then I don’t see any reason to keep you around either.” Sam swore and raised the spear over his head. “May my parents finally find rest.”
Paulin drew his pistol as Hesione scrambled out of the way. Sam launched a blast of green magic at Paulin even as he fired a blast of plasma at the vampire. Both shots went wide, and Paulin scrambled for the cover of a nearby tent. Sam simply conjured a small shield around himself, a glistening green sphere that surrounded his entire body.
Paulin poked his head back out from cover, frowned at the odd shield, and fired another blast of plasma at the vampire. The futuristic projectile bounced off the shield, zinging off into the distance with a loud ping. Paulin frowned, and Sam cackled. He gave the spear a soft twirl before pointing it at Paulin and casting some other spell.
As it was still inside the shield, the destructive spell simply reflected off the inside of the magical barrier and slammed into Sam full-force. The shield dissolved, he was knocked flat on his back, and his clothes caught on fire. Paulin fired a warning shot at the ground next to Sam’s head, then broke cover and raced for the tent. He had a few seconds while Sam tried to recover, and that was likely it.
Nearby, Hesione broke cover as well, diving for the tent flap. Both elves raced past Sam and smashed blew into the tent in a rush. Of course, they both only made it a few steps before magical strands of energy leapt out and wrapped around their legs. Both were subsequently tossed back out into the open once more, landing on the ground with a loud thud.
“Hold still and let me slay you!” Sam roared and loosed a blast of flame against the two elves. Paulin rolled out of the way, his clothes ending up more than a bit scorched by the fire.
“Now you just sound like an orc!” Paulin shouted back. “Sam! Think logically for a moment!”
As he slowly climbed to his feet, Sam made a small gesture with his hand. Paulin’s plasma pistol jumped from his holster and sailed over to hover above Sam’s head. Paulin felt his breathing happening much faster than usual as the insane vampire sneered at them.
“Alright, you want to talk?” Sam started walking towards the two elves. “Talk.”
Paulin took a deep breath, then shrugged and spread his arms. “Is this what you want?”
Sam chuckled. “You dead? Yes.”
“No.” Paulin shook his head. “I mean… This. Trapped in this age, where you’re about to be enslaved by Lilith. Is that what you want?”
Sam paused, then shook his head. “I’ll escape in your time pod.”
“You can’t even open it without us.” Paulin shrugged. “Lilith? Maybe. If she knows Simon, she can probably find a workaround. You? Not a chance. It’s as useless to you except as bait for us.”
Sam hesitated, then swore under his breath. When he stopped, his eyes were wild and confused. “So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying you can come with us.” Paulin held up his hands. “There are vampire refuges in the future. You can live a normal, ordinary life among people who are just like you. I can take you to whatever era you want. I can even drop you off on another planet if you’d like a change of scenery.”
Sam snorted. “You’re just trying to trick me.”
“No, he’s not.” Hesione spoke up. “We’re not. We ruined your life and we’re so sorry for that. Right now, though, you have a choice. It doesn’t have to keep being bad.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “So what’s it going to be? Do you want to keep living in this misery? Or do you want to actually do something positive with your life? End on a good note?”
Sam’s jaw worked for several long and painful seconds. He glanced down at the ground and scuffed his feet, torn and conflicted. Hesione started to shift as if she was going to jump him, and Paulin held up a hand to stop her. Finally, Sam sighed and shrugged.
“You can really take me anywhere?”
“You’ve been in there before.” Paulin nodded. “Just say the word. Anywhere, anytime. Future, past, any world we can access. I’d offer to take you to another timeline altogether, but I don’t know if we can do that in a model this old.”
Hesione glanced at him curiously, and he did his best to stay focused. Things got quite complicated in the future.
“Sam, please.” Paulin pleaded. “Just let us do this for you. I promise, we just want to help.”
Sam finally looked up, meeting their eyes. His jaw worked back and forth, pain poured from his entire body. He looked like a puppy that had just been kicked, like a cat that had been beaten so many times it didn’t know whether to trust a helping hand or not. Finally, after several minutes, Sam tossed the spear to the side.
“Thank you.” Paulin smiled and walked up to the man, holding out his hand. The pistol slowly dropped down into his palm, and he slid it into his holster. “You won’t regret this, I promise you.”
Sam just nodded slowly and painfully. Paulin put an arm around his shoulders and led the man into the command tent. There, they slowly walked up to the time pod, which continued to shimmer in the soft light. Hesione placed her hand on the side of the craft, causing the stairs to fold down. As Paulin gazed up into the interior, so full of lights and buttons, it felt like he was coming home. Like he was seeing an old friend for the first time in years.
“Oh, it’s been a long time.” Paulin flashed a smile and slowly climbed up into the pod. He ran his hand along the keyboard, traced a finger along the computer screen. Everything was just like he remembered, healed from whatever damage Sam had caused. Hesione joined him, and Paulin slowly turned around.
Sam still stood at the base of the stairs, a concerned look on his face. Paulin held out a hand, gesturing at the vampire.
“Come on. We’ll get out of here.” He took a deep breath, then frowned. “It’s not going to explode again, will it?”
“No, that spell should have dissipated.” Sam took a deep breath and shook his head, slowly climbing up the stairs. As he reached the top step, he once more hesitated. His eyes traced around the interior of the craft, and he sighed. “Do you mind me asking you a question?”
“Sure.” Paulin shrugged and leaned against the wall of the craft, making sure not to hit any of the exposed buttons or switches.
“Why do all this for me?” Sam shrugged. “I did my best to kill you.”
“I know, but…” Paulin shrugged. “Look, things get crazy when you spend too much time running through time. I’ve caused enough harm. Maybe…” He gestured at Sam. “Maybe I can finally set something right.”
“Maybe.” Sam took a deep breath, then grinned. “Ahh, you two are the best, you know that?”
Paulin grinned back. “Just trying to help.”
“And that’s why you’ll die.” Sam’s grin became quite sadistic, and he jumped backwards. At the same time, a burst of magic erupted from his fingertips, crashing into the keyboard.
The door of the pod slammed shut, and lightning flickered across the outer shell. As they dematerialized, Paulin began pounding on the keyboard, trying to bring up any sort of navigational systems, but found that none of it seemed to be working.
“What did he just do?” Hesione’s panicked voice broke into Paulin’s thoughts as he desperately tried to figure out the answer to that very question.
“I think…” Paulin took a deep breath. “I think he just sent us somewhere.” A few odd thoughts clicked in his mind, and he grimaced. “And I think it was his plan the whole time. Fight us, play the victim, get us to open the time pod for him.”
Hesione nodded slowly as the pod rocked back and forth. On the display, dozens of brilliant colors scrawled back and forth across the display.
“And where exactly do you think he’s taking us?”
Paulin sighed and looked at the display. They made far more sense to him than before, but they were cycling so fast and it was such an old and imprecise display that he wasn’t able to track it well enough to say with certainty. All he did know was that the white dot that they were rapidly approaching was their endpoint.
“Not a clue.” Paulin grimaced as their own timeline intersected with the white dot, and lightning flickered across the craft once more. “Though I do have an odd feeling that we’re about to find out.”
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