“And you’re sure this will work?” Hesione looked up at Paulin, who didn’t appear nearly as confident as she would have liked.
“Absolutely.” Paulin nodded firmly. “Ish.”
“I don’t like that ish.” Hesione sighed. “Last time we trusted your instincts, we almost got eaten by a minotaur.”
“And, thanks to that adventure, we have this fantastic book.” Paulin gave the volume a soft thump. “Come on. It let us find this place! You have to admit, this is pretty cool.”
Hesione sighed, but slowly nodded in agreement. After leaving the sixth era-New Donenrot, they had traveled back in time to a land that would someday be known as Insultar. It was a small chain of tropical islands located around a hundred miles south of Calsin, and according to the history book, wouldn’t become inhabited until around the middle of the second era. As they were squarely in the first, they had the island all to themselves.
If it hadn’t been for the necessity of getting a cure for Kisidera, Hesione would have strongly suggested that the two of them just stay there. It was calm, it was peaceful, and it was beautiful. From where they stood on the edge of a cave high on the most prominent island, they could see out across many of the nearby landmasses. Tall tropical trees rose from sandy beaches, separated by expanses of the freshest blue water Hesione had ever seen. Birds crossed the expanse in enormous flocks, their calls rising on the wind in a glorious melody. The fruits they had at their disposal were unlike anything Hesione had ever tasted before, even from within the palace garden that had plants taken directly from the jungles of Sournous.
“It’s something else, alright.” Hesione nodded and turned to look at the strange time pod. “Once we finish up with everything else we need to do, I say we come back here.”
“You do realize that everything else involves going to Donisil where I die, right?” Paulin snorted. “Not to mention the whole Mal/Ferguson thing, and-”
“I’m trying not to think about it.” Hesione snapped. As Paulin turned away from her, she sighed. She hated the idea, the fact, that Paulin was going to die at the end of their journey together. She had seen him die almost two years earlier. She had watched the life drain from his body as Malah came back to life. And yet, she had somehow hoped that she would somehow be able to avoid that fate. Maybe it was a Paulin from a different reality, or a golem designed to look like him, or an illusion. Nevertheless, fate seemed determined to push the two of them onward to that unavoidable conclusion.
“Look, you’re my brother.” She finally sighed and walked over to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. He looked up from the page he was studying, which appeared to be a report about what happened to Calsin following the angel invasion. She glanced away from it, not particularly wanting to learn the ultimate fate of any more of her friends. “We’re in this together. I’ll go where you go, just like I know you’ll be by my side.” She bit her lip. “Things have been weird between us too long.”
“I agree.” Paulin closed the book and turned to her, a smile on his face. “That means a lot.”
“Well… You mean a lot to me.” Hesione shrugged. She continued to stare down at the now-closed book for several long moments before looking up to meet Paulin’s eyes. “If you think we can find a cure in this new era, we’ll go there. Just… Do me one favor?” She glanced down at the tropical jungle, which sparkled upward like a crown gemstone. It was so unlike the rainforest of Sournous, which held more danger than it did beauty. “Let’s have a bit of fun. We really do have as much time as we need. Take a few days, that’s it, to just relax.” She let out a breath. “We just became time travelers a few days ago. Everyone deserves a rest.”
Paulin held her eyes, then nodded. She let out a breath that she hadn’t even realized that she was holding.
“We’ll take a rest. Just for a few days, though.” Paulin shrugged and glanced back at the book. “I won’t spend much time studying it, but I do want to do some more reading. There’s a lot of really good information in here. Fashion throughout the centuries, standards of money, the list goes on. If we’re going to blend in a bit more successfully than we did last time, we’ll need to know how to look the part.”
“Then I’d say you need this rest as much as I do.” Hesione nodded. “It’s settled, then.” She turned back to face the jungle, a smile on her face. “Race you down to the beach!”
Paulin smirked, then turned and walked back to the time pod. He opened it up, set the book inside, and closed it once more. With that, he walked back up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
Without warning, he shoved her as hard as he could before breaking off down the mountainside. Hesione laughed as she nearly fell over before leaping down after him. Sure, they were full-grown adults, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have some fun.
She only wished that they could continue to do so, never leaving the island again.
“I keep telling you, I’m not interested.” Arthur snapped as the incessant salesman continued to chase him across the dusty driveway of his ranch home.
“And I keep telling you, my good sir, that this elixir is the perfect solution to anything and everything that you may face!” The dwarf hustled forward, puffing out his chest. His tweed suit was already showing sweat stains in all sorts of uncomfortable places, marking him as an eastern city-dweller ready to make a hot bit of money off the poor uneducated ranchers of Donitor. “Back pains! Knee pains! Foot pains! Any kinds of pain you may be facing!”
“Oh, really?” Arthur stopped as he reached the stairs of his home. He placed a single foot on the wooden stairs before turning and placing his hand squarely on the pistol on his hip. “Does it save you from gunshot wounds? I’d rather like a demonstration. On yourself, if you’re willing.”
“Sir, do not mock me!” The dwarf continued to prattle. “I bring you only the best elixir, I would not lie to such a valued customer! Come here to my store!” He gestured at the rather oversized wagon that sat blocking much of the road. Two other, much younger dwarves hung from the side, ready to present Arthur with anything he might please. “I have gathered ingredients from across the world! Salts dug from the deepest depths of the mines of Calsin! Herbs prepared by fauns in Fairn!” He lowered his voice, as if presenting Arthur with a great and unknowable secret. “I even managed to garner the secrets of the regal elves and their secret to immortality! It’s all right here, ready for your consummation.”
“Really?” Arthur pulled the pistol from his belt and pointed it down at the dwarf’s feet. “I don’t suppose you sell anything to cure the indigestion I might incur from drinking that stuff, do you?”
The dwarf began to wave his arms wildly, spitting an incoherent speech that Arthur suspected was dwarven profanity. Not exactly endearing to a customer. When the dwarf had calmed down, Arthur tilted the pistol back and fired a single shot into the sky. Powered by actual dwarven enchantments, it spat a small piece of lead high into the sky with an earsplitting crack. The dwarf jumped back, and Arthur slid the weapon back into his holster.
“You get off my property, you hear?” Arthur kicked at the dwarf. “Now! Move!”
The dwarf turned and scuttled away, continuing to sputter under his breath. Arthur shook his head as the creature scrambled back up onto the wagon. His children… At least Arthur hoped they were his children… Scrambled up into the driver’s seat and snapped the reigns against the backs of the two horses they had pulling the contraption. Arthur did feel more than a bit of pity for the mighty beasts, which showed heavy signs of exhaustion. Both of them snorted quite loudly before slowly pulling the wagon back out onto the road.
Arthur sighed and turned away, ready to never see the man or his kind ever again. He stomped back up into the home, where he found his wife, Abigale, sitting in front of the fireplace. Strands of magic leapt from her fingers to a small canvas nearby. Splotches of paint leapt from her nearby palate, painting a fantastic, almost picturesque image of the mountain that rose from the edges of their ranch. He placed his hands on her shoulders, smiling at the painting.
“Fantastic, as always.” He breathed. “Your work truly is amazing, you know that?”
“Makes more money than your cattle do.” She didn’t bother to look away from her work, though he could see the smile playing across her face.
“Yeah, but my work is what gives you the inspiration.” Arthur patted her on the shoulder before turning away. “Have you seen Dalton? It’s time to work the herd, I’d like him to come help.”
“Oh, don’t do that.” Abigale turned and sighed up at him. “He’s just a boy.”
“He’s fifteen years old.” Arthur crossed his arms and turned back. “He’s got to start learning soon if he’s going to make it in this world.”
“And what if he doesn’t want to become a rancher?” Abigale turned and scowled up at him.
“Then that’s his choice.” Arthur shrugged, meeting her gaze. “But until he moves out of this house, I need all hands on deck.” He turned away a final time, clomping back to the front door. “Now where is he?”
Abigale sighed deeply before answering. “Out in the barn, I think. He said something about hiding in the hay.”
“Thank you.” Arthur walked back out the door and into the burning heat of Donitor. He loved Abigale deeply, but there were times when it seemed that she was determined to see them go bankrupt.
A scorching hot breeze blew across the arid land as he made his way towards the barn. A few of his farmhands waved at him as he passed, and he waved back. All of them were human, a common enough sight in the unforgiving land. Most other species weren’t willing to delve into the festering heat and withering environment as humans. Human magic also helped out a good deal too.
The barn stood just in front of him, past the chicken coops, past the small arena, where it was framed by the enormous mountain behind. The first peak of the mountain range that separated Donitor from Notirot, it was cloaked in a green carpet of pine trees and marked by outcroppings of brilliant red stone. Some believed that the red stones were caused by the blood harvested by all the vampires that infested the hills. Arthur didn’t necessarily buy into all that, though he couldn’t deny the presence of the vampires.
He reached the barn and slid the door aside, where he quickly ignored the incessant stamping of the horses and climbed up into the loft. There, settled down into the hay, was his son. Dalton looked up at him, hair just as sandy as his father’s, eyes wide as though he were in trouble.
“Mom told on me!”
“In fairness, I made her.” Arthur took off his hat and wiped his brow. Inside the airless loft, it was scorching hot. “Come on out, son. You’d be cooler if you laid down in the driveway. Might get run over by a dwarf, but at least you wouldn’t be baking yourself.”
“Come on, dad.” Dalton climbed to his feet, eyes wide. “You know I want to be a wizard!”
“And I see no particular issues with that.” Arthur spread his arms. “You turn eighteen in three years. When you’re of legal age, you’re more than welcome to do whatever you please with your life. Until then, you live under my roof and abide by my rules. Is that clear?”
“Crystal.” Dalton muttered. After a few seconds, he crossed his arms. “I bet you don’t even know the magical properties of crystals.”
“Depends on the type.” Arthur matched Dalton’s gaze. “Most of them serve little purpose more than focusing your spells. A few can be used in enchanting, mostly destructive spells. How long do you want to do this?”
Dalton sighed and walked to the ladder down to the main floor of the barn. “Sometimes I forget you know things.”
“I grew up with your grandpa. I know a lot more about magic than I ever cared to know.” Artur followed his son as they both climbed back down. “Now saddle up. Take Sadie and meet me out by the coral. We’re going to be rounding up the northern herd.”
Arthur turned and walked back out into the heat while Dalton began to get the horse ready. He wandered back over to the coral, where half a dozen horses slowly trotted back and forth in the heat. The rest of his farmhands were already there: Sam, Francis, and Dean. Sam was a tall and lanky individual, while Francis and Dean were both shorter and far more heavyset. Their three horses, along with the one Arthur would be rising, drank from a small water trough nearby.
“Finally got your family rounded up?” Francis nodded at the barn. “Seems to me I’ve always heard talk about what happens to men who don’t have their kids in order.”
“You hear any more of that talk and I hear you talking about it, you’ll be speaking to the inside of a casket.” Arthur leaned against the fence next to them while they waited. “He’s a good kid, just has his head in all sorts of far-away places.”
“Do you ever worry that he’s not getting enough diversity?” Sam walked over and tilted his hat down to shield his eyes from the sun. “If he’s planning on leaving here, might be good to show him some species that aren’t human. Hire yourself a housemaid or something so he doesn’t go throwing himself around the moment he sets eyes on one of them elves.”
“He’s not a complete idiot.” Arthur snorted. “What do you think he is? Some sort of sheltered caveman that’s never seen a woman before?”
There was a short pause before Sam leaned forward. “Has he?”
“Oh, go get on your horse.” Arthur kicked up a dust cloud at the worker. “I hear anything about this from any of you, it comes from your pay.”
With that, he pushed away from the fence and swung up onto his own horse, a grey mare he had named Sarah. The rest of them mounted and slowly trotted out to the middle of the driveway, where Dalton soon came out to meet them. For as little as the boy liked riding, he truly was good at it. His posture was solid, his feet firm. Sadie obeyed his commands well.
“Alright, boys.” Arthur gestured up at the mountain. “You know the plan. Round up the herd, bring them back here. We brand them, then get them turned loose by nightfall. If you see anything, shoot first and ask questions later. We take these things into town in a week, so I don’t want any mishaps.”
A round of head-nods greeted him. He smiled and kicked lightly at his horse, causing her to leap into motion in a practiced blur.
Without another word, they all tore out, past the barn, towards the foreboding mountain in the east. Past the packed red dirt of the ranch, the ground was covered in low-lying sage brush, small bushes, and the occasional cacti. It was a land that he loved, a land that he had spent his entire life acquiring.
They continued to ride north for the better part of an hour, slowly meandering into the softly rolling foothills that surrounded the mountain. The further they got, the wilder the land became. The flat expanses of the low ground below were replaced by sharp rocky outcroppings, sudden cliffs that dropped dozens of feet into dry creek beds, and sharp buttes that rose from the ground like red tables.
As they reached the top of a small rise, they came to an overlook of a small valley below. There, grazing happily among the soft grass that grew in the protected oasis, was the herd. Arthur let his eyes trace across them, starting with the southernmost tip of the herd and moving north. He didn’t take an exact count, but instead simply tried to gather a rough estimate of what might be below. As his eyes reached the northernmost edge of the herd, he heard a small gasp from Sam beside him.
He had only heard that gasp a few times before in his life, and it never boded well. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he let his eyes move up to the opposite side of the valley.
Standing there, silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky, were a dozen more horses. The figures on their backs were cloaked, wrapped in dark cloth that would have been unbearable for the living to even think about wearing. All of them simultaneously raised spears above their heads, threatening the ranchers.
“What do we do?” Sam glanced to the side at Arthur. “Any ideas?”
“None good.” Arthur removed his hat for a brief moment to wipe his brow. “Sam? Take Dalton back to the ranch. Now.”
“Are you really going to try and fight them?” Sam whispered. “You’ll be killed.”
“They’re not the first vampires I’ve taken on.” Arthur whispered under his breath. “I fought tooth and nail for this land, I signed that treaty just like they did, and I will not let them forget that.”
“Alright, I think this is right.” Paulin tapped the coordinates into the computer while the pod slowly rocked back and forth. “Just say the word.”
Just behind him, Hesione leaned against the wall of the pod. She really didn’t understand why the dwarves who made it hadn’t crafted it to be a bit larger. She tried to imagine more than one dwarf cramming into the space at a time, and frankly had a terrible time of it.
“I think I’m good.” She glanced down at the rather large nugget of gold that they had just lifted from a dwarven warehouse. “Let’s just hope that they still use gold in the future. Or the past. Or… Whenever we’re headed to.”
“Uhh… Sixth era, year one-oh-three.” Paulin frowned as he looked down at the dates. “About seven hundred years or so after we got picked up by ourselves.”
“Hmm.” Hesione flipped her hair back over her shoulders. She had officially decided to cease wearing her shawl. If they were going to popping in and out of time, she didn’t really care if anyone saw that she wasn’t a purebred. “What part of the world?”
“Donitor, actually.” Paulin glanced back down at the book for reference before continuing to type commands into the keyboard. “Apparently it gets cleansed of vampires.”
“Sounds like an improvement, at least.” Hesione sighed as Paulin placed the book on the floor. “We can’t run into too many troubles in a land like that.”
“I guess we’ll see.” Paulin flashed her a smile before pressing the execute button.
With a burst of lightning, the pod stopped rocking. Hesione took a deep breath and opened the door, letting the side unfold into stairs. Almost instantly, scorching heat blasted through the pod like the breath of a dragon. She winced and slowly stepped down onto a landscape that looked more like a barren wasteland than anything else. Paulin joined her, and she glanced back and forth in awe.
It was almost completely flat, at least where she stood. In the distance, she could see a mountain rising from the desert floor, around which seemed to be a number of smaller rocky landscapes, but that was really it. Cacti and brush were the only plants she could see, which didn’t bode particularly well for survival.
“Well, this is interesting.” Paulin sealed up the time pod once more. “I’ve always wondered what Donitor was like.”
“I guess it makes sense that something so close to Notirot would look like this.” Hesione wiped her brow, which was already starting to sweat. Her robes, designed for the cold winters and mild summers of Elsinor, now felt thick and heavy. “We need to get better suited, I think.”
“Agreed.” Paulin frowned. “The coordinates I typed in said we’d be close to a town. Come on, let’s check this way.”
He started walking off to Hesione’s left. She reluctantly followed him, a bit uncertain, but trusting that he knew the coordinates better than it seemed.
Thankfully enough, it didn’t take long before she saw structures rising from the dust in the distance. A smile broke across her face, and the two elves began walking just a bit faster. They soon found themselves coming in just behind the settlement, as the rear faces of dozens of wooden buildings stared across the wastes at them.
When they stumbled between two of the buildings and onto the street, they found that they received more than their fair share of odd glances, though no one bothered to confront them about it.
Hesione found that, most assuredly, their clothing made them appear quite out of place. The clothing that she could see was widely varied, though it all shared the same heavy-duty qualities. Thick fabrics, leather pants, clothes that could take a beating. It made her wonder about the “cleansed” nature of the land.
Most worrisome, perhaps, was the fact that everyone, men and women alike, wore the same strange guns strapped to their hips. It seemed that everyone carried one of the weapons in the future, more people than who carried swords during Hesione’s own native time. Were people really that eager to kill one another?
As if to answer her question, a haunting flute-like noise began to waver across the small, one-street town. Everyone else on the street simultaneously walked up to the edge of the sidewalk, though still in the shade from the overhangs on the shops, where they watched as two men came stumbling out of what looked to Hesione to be a tavern of some sort.
The men, both of whom were likely drunk, took up stances about twenty feet from one another. Both had their hands on their guns, both seemed ready to strike at a moment’s notice. One was a human, the other a dark elf. Neither seemed willing to waver from whatever it was that they were doing.
A few moments later, both of them drew their weapons with a blur. The gun in the hand of the dark elf gave a mighty crack, and the human collapsed onto the street without another word. The flute ceased to play, and the crowd began to disperse.
Hesione put a hand over her mouth in shock. That had… That had just been a duel. In her time, duels were rare and quite royal events that only took place under certain very official circumstances. That had just taken place in the middle of the day, without so much as a proper fanfare. And no one cared! A few other people walked out to pick up the body, but that was it.
Hesione sighed as Paulin tugged on her shoulder, pulling her down the street. They walked a short distance, continuing to incur a number of odd looks, before arriving at a store with a sign proudly displaying what appeared to be a suit of clothes. Paulin held out his hand, and Hesione quickly stepped inside.
“Be with you in just a minute!” A friendly voice echoed from deeper in the store, somewhere in the back. Hesione flashed a small smile, then glanced around the shop. It was small, without so much as a counter or chair, though several dozen articles of clothing hung from pegs that protruded from the walls. A few seconds later, a high elf came stumbling through a small door, several spools of thread and what appeared to be a measuring cloth dangling from his hand.
“Ahh, welcome!” He flashed a smile and bowed. “You must be from the Confederation. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen another proper member of my race here.”
Hesione frowned and gestured outside. “I just saw a dark elf out there. Is he-”
“Oh, posh.” The high elf waved his hand dismissively. “The elves who actually bother to live out here and acclimate to it are practically human. No one in their right mind would care to leave the palaces of the Confederation. With the exception of present company, I presume.” He bowed at the waist.
“Of course.” Paulin cut in before Hesione could say any more. She glared at him, but couldn’t blame him for not letting her ask the countless questions on her mind. “As it happens, circumstances have forced us to undertake this journey. We won’t be here long, but we do need clothes that can stand up under this weather.”
“Ahh, I have just the clothes!” The elf turned to rush back into the rear room, then paused. “You do have money, don’t you?”
“We have this.” Hesione pulled the gold nugget out of her robes. “Will this work?”
“Oh, Persphone be praised, indeed it will.” The elf held out a hand, which both Paulin and Hesione shook. “Geraldin Filisan, at your service. I will provide you not only with clothes, but any further knowledge or supplies you may need. Simply state your request.”
“I take it that that thing is worth a lot?” Paulin raised an eyebrow. At Geraldin’s embarrassed glance at the floor, Paulin laughed. “Forgive my imprudence. We do need to stay low. We need clothes, as stated, that will withstand this heat and weather. We’ll need you to keep hold of our current clothes until such a time as we’re ready to leave again, and we’ll need you, if possible, to retrieve our vehicle from the desert.”
“Your vehicle?” Geraldin frowned. “You didn’t travel by train? Did your wagon break down?”
“No.” Hesione cut back in. She wanted to be the one spinning the lie this time. “It’s a bit of a state secret. We just wound up sending it to the wrong place.”
“Ahh, of course, of course!” Geraldin sounded ecstatic. “I won’t breathe a word to anyone! I understand how uptight our superiors in the Families can be. Believe me, you’ll have all of that and more!” He once more vanished into the back room, returning with several suits of clothes. “Begin trying these on while we talk. I will get you proper attire for this land.”
“We’re greatly appreciative, believe me.” Paulin and Hesione both stripped out of their robes, leaving them standing quite relived in their undergarments while the sweat that covered their bodies began to dissipate. Geraldin seemed not to mind, and simply began taking measurements of their bodies using a long, narrow strip of cloth marked with increments of measurement. “If we could bother you to ask one more question: We were sent to find a cure for vampirism. Is that possible?”
“That’s the question on the minds of everyone out here these days, seems like.” Geraldin sighed as he finished measuring Paulin and began to measure Hesione. He was careful not to actually touch her skin, a fact that she rather appreciated. “Seems like everyone in Donitor has lost someone to those bloodsucking monsters. And, it seems like everyone is willing to give up their entire fortune to save their loved ones who got taken.” He glanced up, a small smile on his face. “Don’t tell me, someone in the Family was infected?”
“We can’t talk about it.” Paulin sighed. “I wish we could.”
“Please believe me when I say that I wish the same thing.” Geraldin sighed as he pulled a pair of scissors out of his back pocket and began cutting away at one of the outfits that he had brought with him. “Your best bets are the traveling salesmen that roam Donitor. Nine times out of ten, all they’re selling is cactus juice that they mixed with horse droppings to disguise the favor. Every now and then, though, you meet an actual genius who managed to find a cure for something.” He stopped cutting and frowned in apparent frustration. “I once met a faun who came over from Fairn. He was selling bundles of herbs that he claimed eliminated the need for sleep. I went ahead and bought one, and by the gods, it worked! I went almost six months without the need to rest. Got more done per month than I’ve done in entire years, let me tell you.”
Hesione frowned. “Why’d that change?”
“Some no-good, low-down scoundrel broke into my shop and stole it.” Geraldin snarled. “The spell broke and I slept for a week without interval. When I finally came back to the land of mortals, he was long gone. If I ever catch wind of the fellow who did it, I’ll fill him so full of lead he’d sink to the ocean floor in a split second if you threw him overboard.”
“Right.” Paulin nodded slowly. “Do you happen to know of any of these salesmen nearby?”
“Hmm.” Geraldin momentarily crossed his arms. “There was a dwarf who came through town a few days ago, I think he just left this morning. He’s probably your best bet unless you’re planning on waiting around until someone shows up. Head north towards the mountains, he’ll probably be stopping at every ranch he comes across.”
“Will do, thank you.” Paulin took a deep breath and glanced at Hesione. “If we’re lucky, we might just be able to end our quest quicker than we thought.”
“Alright, boys.” Arthur steeled himself as Sam and Dalton rode off down the hill, back towards the ranch. “Been practicing your fast draw?”
Francis nodded rapidly, his massive frame sat squarely on top of his steed. “Every day!”
“Then forget everything you think you might have learned from that.” Arthur straightened his hat and placed his hand firmly on his gun. It held ten rounds before he’d have to reload. With vampires, any number of bullets was too few. “Shoot little and shoot straight. The only way to kill them is to hit their hearts.”
“Dude, we’ve heard this speech before.” Dean smirked and drew his own gun. “To the death!”
His gun went off with a loud crack, sending the bullet flashing across the valley. It moved too quickly to be seen, of course, and traveled across far too great a distance to be accurate. When nothing happened, Arthur turned to glare at Dean.
“You fool! You just-”
With a loud splurch, a spear appeared thrusting out of Dean’s chest. He heaved and collapsed to the side while Francis and Arthur both spun.
Standing only feet away were three more vampires, their sunken and pale faces staring out from behind thick hoods to keep them out of the sun. Two of them held spears, while the third had seemingly just launched his through Arthur’s hired man.
“Fire another shot, and it will be your bodies next.” The voice of the vampire was a mere whisper. “These are our cattle now. Leave and you will incur no more death.”
“You killed my brother!” Francis drew his own gun. The weapon had barely left the holster before a blast of magic rippled off the spear of the vampire closest to them. It punched a hole through Francis’s chest, knocking him from the horse. As he fell to the ground, Arthur felt all hope leave him.
“Don’t make the same mistake.” The vampire continued to hiss. “You cannot win against us.”
Arthur fingered the holster of his gun. He was fast, but not fast enough to take three of them. Down the hill, he could see Sam and Dalton riding into the distance, blissfully unaware that anything was taking place.
“I’ll be back.” Arthur muttered through clenched teeth. “I killed a thousand of you to take this land. You’re not taking it back, no matter how hard you try.”
“We’ll see about that.” The vampire took a few steps closer. Beneath the hood, Arthur could tell that the man had once been human. Human vampires were the worst. They could still technically access the magical field of Calsin, which never boded well. “We have a dozen mages prepared to defend this herd. Now leave! I do not wish any more death on either side.”
Arthur spurred his horse, nearly riding over the vampire in his haste. It was his mistake, he had rather hoped to trample the creature in his anger.
His anger and frustration only continued to mount as he rode down the mountainside. They had given the vampires plenty of territory, they had even given them their own grazing ground so they could raise the herds needed for the blood they needed for their survival.
He would be back, that was a certainty. And when he returned… He wouldn’t be alone.
“This must be it.” Paulin pointed ahead, to the building slowly rising in the distance. “What did he call it? A ranch?”
Hesione nodded, the motion causing a sweaty lock of her hair to fall into her face. She swept it back out of the way and urged her horse a bit faster. Clad in the leather garments of Donitor, the heat was certainly far more bearable, but it was far from pleasant. In particular was the hat, an odd piece of fashion that had an oddly curved brim. Almost like a bowl. That said, if it helped them blend in for a certain amount of time, she was certainly willing.
As they drew closer to the ranch, they caught sight of several dust clouds moving down the road from farther beyond the home. Curious. Other riders? They hadn’t seen a single soul since leaving the town. Why would there suddenly be more people?
They got their answer, in a way, as they trotted through the front gates of the property. A woman stood next to a young boy just outside the front doors of a rather large wooden home, both of whom held a large number of guns. Some were short, like the ones that everyone seemed to wear on their hips, while others were much larger and longer.
“Ahh, you’re here!” The woman called out. “Abigale. Good to meet you. My husband sent you, right?”
“I’m sorry?” Paulin frowned. “I didn’t…”
“Abigale!” A much deeper voice called out as the rest of the riders swept into the ranch. There were five in total, all men, who wore clothing that appeared just as battered as the rails that made up the fences and homes of the area. “I got the help!”
As the horses raced up, the men began to dismount and grab the guns before marching back and forth across the property with purpose. One of them in particular, a sandy-haired man wearing a jet-black hat that had to be burning hot in the summer heat, bent over and gave Abigale a peck on the cheek before turning to the two elves.
“I don’t recognize you folks. You look like you just got off the train from the Confederation, and I don’t have time to deal with that right now. If you’re selling something, I ain’t looking to buy. If you’re looking for work, I ain’t got none.”
“Honey!” Abigale snapped. “You did just lose two men.”
“Oh right. How forgetful of me to pass on that fact.” The man pointed up at Hesione. “Forgive me if I don’t want to get on the wrong side of the Families because of a pathetic little issue with vampires.”
“We’re actually here because of vampires.” Paulin spoke up. “If you’re willing to help us after whatever you’re heading into, we’d be more than willing to help.”
The man glanced back and forth before groaning and grabbing two of the guns that were leaning against the wooden walls of the house. He tossed one to Paulin and the other to Hesione.
“If you’ve got anything that negates magic, these won’t work. Point that end at the vampires, squeeze the triggers to shoot things at them. Don’t point them at us. Deal?”
Abigale frowned at him. “Oh, be nice! I’m sure they’ve shot guns before.”
“Shooting recreational targets on the shores of an ornamental garden isn’t the same as facing off against vampires.” The man finally sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m just a bit stressed. Name’s Arthur. My herd got taken by a bunch of vampires up in the hills and two of my men got killed. We’re going to go get the herd back if you’re up for it.”
“Like we said, we’ll help you if you help us out later.” Paulin inclined his head. “Just lead the way.”
Arthur continued to stare at the pair for several seconds. Hesione got the distinct feeling that he was trying to figure out just what they were up to, which didn’t bode particularly well as far as “fitting in” went. That said, if they could find a cure and get out of there, she wasn’t going to complain too loudly.
“Alright, whatever. Just follow when we ride out.” He turned away and started stomping across the area. “Does anyone know where Sam is? Sam?”
Hesione just held her breath as everyone else slowly finished up what they were doing and remounted their horses. All except two, Arthur and a particularly tall farmhand, had bottles of alcohol strapped to their waists. At least Hesione assumed it was alcohol, it certainly smelled that bad.
As they all mounted their horses, Arthur took the lead and sent his horse racing off through the ranch, north towards the mountains. All told, as the rest of the group raced behind him, they were eight strong. And so, they rode. Wordlessly, they simply charged into the unknown.
Hesione frankly didn’t know what would be gained from the actions. They would go fight vampires, and then hope that a man with an obvious distaste for the creatures would give them information on how to cure it? It was a long shot at best, a gesture of complete futility at worst.
Oh, well. There was ample evidence to show that Paulin at least would survive the encounter, which meant that it wouldn’t be too dangerous if she just kept her head down.
At least, that was what she hoped. More and more, she was getting sick of the wasted land. All she wanted to do was finish up so they could get back to more pleasant climates. Somehow… She suspected that it wasn’t going to be nearly that easy.
Arthur kept his eyes focused on the terrain ahead. The men following him… Minus the strange elves… Were all fellow ranchers in the immediate area. Each and every one of them had lost cattle to the vampires, some had even lost family. Arthur would have come to the aid of any one of them, and they knew it.
Now that he had some firepower with him who actually knew which end of the rifles spat the lead, he might actually have a chance at taking his herd back. That was, assuming that he could find it. Vampires were finicky creatures, always changing their habits. That said, based on the location of the valley where they had stolen the cattle, there was only one place it made sense to take them: Dead Man’s Crevice.
To Arthur’s knowledge, no one had actually died in the crevice, but that may have simply been because the name kept a large number of people away. He led the way, sweeping around pillars of stone that rose sharply from the rolling hills and through small gullies formed by the torrential rains that showed up ever so often.
Soon enough, they arrived at the crevice. Roughly half a mile long, it was almost invisible until you came up upon it. Arthur led the posse into a small ravine, which ever-so-slowly began to drop farther into the ground. Ahead, it made a sharp turn off to his right. Bingo.
He pulled out his pistol as they approached. They came sweeping around the corner in a blur of dust, revealing two vampire guards standing under outcroppings of red stone. He fired a shot through the heart of the nearest to him, dusting the creature in a split second. Sam, just behind him, fired two more shots that took out the second vampire. They were off to a good start, at least.
At this point, the ravine dropped off sharply into the crevice. The ground sloped away so steeply that trying to move at a speed faster than a crawl would result in tumbling the entire way to the bottom, almost a hundred feet below. Brush and even some small trees clung to the loose dirt, hiding countless footfalls and other untold dangers.
That said, down at the bottom, Arthur could see that the brush had been recently trampled down. His herd had been through, even if it wasn’t still there. Without pause, he urged Sarah onward, letting her sure feet take them down the hill. The rest of the men behind him did the same, letting them descend in a large cloud of red dust. They would be lacking the element of surprise, but Arthur didn’t particularly care at that moment.
As they reached the bottom, Arthur spurred his horse towards the northern end of the crevice. They roared in that direction, hooves pounding like thunder. A small plume of smoke rose into the sky, just visible against the blue backdrop. They had been here, and they had been here quite recently.
Without warning, a spear flashed out of the brush from above them, slashing down between their horses without hitting a thing. Half a dozen guns went off a second later, flinging lead up at the spot where it had come from. In response, dozens of plumes of red dust exploded from the side of the hill as the bullets missed their mark as well. The vampire, still hidden, released a loud hiss that echoed through the crevice.
“Spread out!” Arthur shouted. “Make yourself smaller targets!”
The gang did as they were told, immediately increasing the distance between themselves. It wasn’t a great solution, finding cover would have been far better, but it was the best thing he knew to do when facing off against the undead hordes.
While everyone behind him continued to move forward at varying speeds, trading shots with the vampires above, Arthur pounded forward. The vampire camp soon came into view, a location under a red overhang at the very end of the crevice. There, just off to his left, the ground began to slope back up to the open plains once more. The ground was quite trampled down, indicating that they had since moved the cattle onward. Great.
Arthur sighed and rode up to the camp itself, where the smoldering embers of the campfire still released its telltale smoke. He swung out of his saddle and to the ground in one smooth motion, slapping the rump of Sarah to make sure she would get clear of the action. Another spear flashed out of the brush and struck near his feet, and he backed up under the ledge ever farther.
At this point, he unslung the rifle from his back and aimed it up at the side of the crevice where he suspected the spear had come from. His finger touched the trigger, and enchantments sent the lead flying with a crack. A cloaked figure fell from the brush, injured but not killed, tumbling down the dusty hillside.
Systematically, he began doing the same with the other vampires, targeting their rough locations and shooting until they fell. Once they became visible, the gunmen on the crevice floor were able to start picking them off. As the fifth creature crumbled to dust, Arthur found himself distinctly lacking in targets.
“Alright, fellas.” He called out. “I think that’s the last of them.”
Slowly, the posse began to trot over to join him at the campfire. Free finally of people trying to kill him, he began to examine the site for clues.
“Good show, all.” Sam congratulated the men. Most of them ignored his statement, and instead took swings of the moonshine that they had all brought with them. Good. They needed the calm nerves.
“What do you expect to find?” It was the male elf. Paulin? Arthur didn’t particularly know or care.
“I expect to figure out where these monsters took my herd.” He snapped. “What in Sarkil do you think?”
The elf didn’t say much more, which Arthur rather appreciated. The only elves he liked were the vampire ones. Their magic didn’t really work well, which made them far less of a threat than the human undead. If he didn’t miss his guess, most of the vampires they had just faced had been elven, which meant that the really nasty ones were the ones actually guarding his livestock. How fantastic.
“And here we go.” He flipped over a log next to the fire, revealing a small cluster of pine needles. “I was afraid of that.”
Sam dismounted and walked up next to him, kneeling down in the red dirt. “What are we looking at?”
“I was hoping they were the ones that lived over by the lava tubes.” Arthur straightened up and kicked at the dirt. “No, these are the ones on the mountainside. Probably Lake Ondswania, if I had to guess.”
Sam stroked his chin. “Isn’t that where that particularly nasty vampire lord lives?”
“He’d be the one.” Arthur climbed back to his feet, dozens of swear words flowing from his tongue. “Alright, people! Buckle down, we’ve got a ride ahead of us!”
With that, he swung back up onto Sarah, who had wandered back down to join the gathering. With that, he turned and spurred her up and out of the crevice, following the path that the cattle had taken.
The lake was about ten miles further onward, a several-hour ride at best if they wanted to spare their horses. There was no doubt in his mind that the vampires would be ready for them.
Or, at the least, the vampires thought that they were ready for the posse. Arthur, for one, couldn’t wait to see the look of surprise on the vampire lord’s face as he personally dusted him.
Hesione held her breath as they pounded ever onward. The sun was setting on the horizon, and she was growing quite exhausted. The horses seemed to be growing tired as well, and were speckled with foam from their work, and yet the mighty beasts continued onward.
The terrain was slowly beginning to change. They were riding higher, up a gradual slope where brush was being replaced by taller and taller trees. Soon, pine trees surrounded them, sparsely populated trees to be certain, but pine trees nonetheless. The dusty ground, now a much darker soil, was covered in thin grass and pine needles. A few rabbits darted back and forth, fleeing from the hooves of the horses as the group pounded ever onward.
Ahead, Arthur held up a hand and brought his horse to a stop. The rest of the group brought their own steeds to a halt as well, gathering around him. Arthur turned and whispered, his voice barely carrying all the way to Hesione.
“Everyone dismount. Hitch your horses here, we go the rest of the way on foot.”
Hesione nodded and complied, sliding off her saddle and wrapping the reigns around a nearby tree. That much, at least, she could do. Paulin did the same next to her, and both made their way over to where Arthur and the rest of the group were standing.
“Ahh, good. You actually know how to use a horse.” Arthur remarked sarcastically. “You’re not holding the gun right, but tying up a horse, you can do.”
Hesione frowned down at her gun. She was holding it like she would hold a sword! What was wrong with that?”
“Here, let me help you.” Sam stepped up next to her and took the weapon from her hands. He then placed her right hand around one end of the weapon while placing her left hand under the part that seemed to fling the projectiles. He lowered his voice and nodded to Paulin. “Do the same. You’ll have a lot more support and be able to shoot straighter.”
Paulin sighed and nodded. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” Sam gave a small wink. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Hesione frowned, but decided to let the comment slide. With that, Sam nodded back at the main group, where Arthur was speaking softly. They stepped up to join the group, at which point Arthur gave them a rather condescending and annoyed look.
“Since you missed the most critical part of this, let me recap.” He pointed off through the trees, which were now streaked with shadows as the sun continued to set. “The lake is right through there. Head off to your left, that’s where the ranch is located. The cattle should be in the large pens out back, do not shoot any of them. There will probably be guards that we have to take out in order to get close. That will alert the larger vampire force, which means we’ll be dealing with a lot of the monsters. These might even have guns. Any questions?”
Hesione had several, but was given no time to ask them as Arthur pointed out across the landscape.
“Alright, go! No one screw this up!”
Hesione and Paulin both nodded, but by that point the group was already moving out en masse. Both elves fell to the rear as the group ran forward.
Curiously enough, they didn’t run standing-up, but instead hunched over, almost a half-crouch sort of gait. It was a unique run, and quite painful to try and emulate. None of the others seemed to have any issues with it, though, which didn’t make her feel any better about their chances of getting out alive.
In the distance, she caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a building, constructed out of wood in a similar style to the ranch they had just left behind. Here, the men began to take cover as they ran, darting from one tree to another as they pushed forward. Once more, Hesione found it quite difficult to emulate, though she certainly tried her best. At least Arthur seemed to pay no practical attention to her, which was nice.
She stuck fairly close to Paulin as they drew within view of the first guards. Now, they were close enough to see the entire structure, the single ranch home with the pens spreading out behind, just as Arthur had told them. Only two guards were visible, stationed in the trees just in front of the pens. Hesione wasn’t one hundred percent sure how they would shoot the guards without risking shooting the cattle, but…
A crack echoed through the air, which was followed by the guard to her left falling to the ground. Arthur let out a shout, and they all rushed forward.
As Arthur had predicted, dark shapes began to flow from the ranch home almost immediately. At a glance, Hesione counted nearly a dozen of the foul creatures. She held onto her gun tightly, really not certain what she would do if she was attacked directly.
The rest of the group they were with immediately began to shoot at the vampires, ducking behind trees and only poking their heads out to fire off a few shots. Hesione fell to the ground and scrambled behind a slightly larger pine tree, where she peered out at the situation. The vampires fell to the ground as bullets knocked them down, only for them to climb back to their feet once more.
A vampire in the lead raised his hands and launched a series of fireballs out into the woods, where the magic exploded into raging infernos. At least one of the men screamed in pain as he was engulfed by the flames, and Hesione grimaced. Carefully, she raised her gun and tried to point it roughly in the direction of the vampire.
When she squeezed down on the trigger, a mighty flash nearly blinded her. She blinked the spots out of her eyes to find the vampire flat on its back, climbing back to its feet. No kill, but a hit. That was something!
She pointed the weapon at the creature once more and squeezed the trigger again. This time, preparing for the flash, she winced as the gun went off. This time, as she opened her eyes once more, she found that she hadn’t hit the target at all.
Blast. Shooting the guns was a lot more difficult than just swinging a sword. She glanced back and forth for any materials that might serve well to cast spells with, but saw nothing that could really be used offensively. Great.
“Oh, come on!” Arthur’s voice screamed out above the chaos. “Push forward, men!”
Almost as one, the group leapt from their cover and raced forward. Lightning bolts flashed from the vampires, striking at the ground and causing small explosions. Ice dropped from the sky, vines erupted from the ground. Still, the ranchers continued to shoot back.
Hesione took a deep breath and charged from cover herself, racing towards the next closest tree. She was about halfway there when something struck her from behind, and she was driven to the ground. The gun fell from her hands, and her face slammed roughly into the pine needles of the forest floor.
With a laugh, the vampire who had just jumped on her flipped her over onto her back and sneered down at her. His pale skin was just visible behind the deep hood that he wore, his eyes hollow and sunken. She flailed for her gun, trying desperately to catch hold of it.
“You’ll never win.” The vampire hissed. “You’re just-”
Her hand landed squarely on the barrel of the gun, and she pulled it to herself. With a flash, the gun went off, blasting the vampire off her body. He hit the ground and rolled, coming up against a small sapling. Before he could recover from having a chunk of his shoulder blown out, Hesione positioned the gun the way that Sam had shown her, pressed the end of it into the vampire’s chest, and squeezed the trigger once more.
With a blast of light, he turned into dust. Hesione allowed herself a single moment of celebration before diving back behind the tree that she had been aiming for in the first place.
Magic continued to crackle through the air, guns continued to fire back. As the sun continued to set, she knew that they would soon enough no longer have the advantage. Desperately, she did her best to point the gun at a new target, though the vampire closest to her seemed to have taken cover behind a tree of his own.
It was a battle unlike any she had ever seen before. It seemed that in the future, gone were grand charges across open plains, instead fights took place at distances where you could barely even see the person you were fighting against. She was certain that she didn’t particularly like it. She only hoped that she would survive long enough to complain about it to Paulin.
“Alright, men!” Arthur shouted as the battle continued to rage. “We can do this!”
Even as he shouted it, the words felt hollow in his mouth. They had already lost another man… Harold? Had that been his name? Arthur wasn’t even sure anymore, he only knew that they were likely fighting a losing battle. Vampires could take dozens of hits and remain alive, humans and elves could only take a tiny bit of abuse in return.
“We have to withdraw.” Sam dove up next to him, narrowly avoiding a torrent of electricity thrown by the vampires. “They’re not going to give up until we’re dead.”
“They might if we can take out their leader.” Arthur frowned as he tried to survey the situation. If the sun dropped all the way, it didn’t matter if they left. Cloaked by the night, the vampires would be able to hunt them down and kill them in minutes. Especially with how tired the horses were. “It’s the only chance we have.”
Sam tried to protest. “If we run now, I can stay back and cause a distraction while-”
“It wouldn’t work.” Arthur felt a hollow pain in his chest. “We either come out of this alive, or we don’t. There’s not really another option here.”
Sam rubbed his head, then nodded. “So what do we do?”
“Like I said.” Arthur took a deep breath. He handed his rifle to Sam and withdrew a pistol from each belt. After checking to ensure that both of them were fully loaded, ten shots apiece, he nodded. “Cover me.”
He took a deep breath, then rushed from behind his cover. One foot in front of the other, time itself seemed to slow.
Lightning flashed down from the treetops at him, vampires keeping themselves so far away that it was practically impossible to hit them. Fire swept out from the nearer vampires, cowering behind trees and rocks. Vampires standing on the roof of the ranch home cast more complex spells, causing the stones and vines themselves to shudder with innate magic.
Arthur ignored it all and simply rushed forward, doing his best to keep his head down. In what seemed like only seconds, he reached the wall of the ranch home, where he slammed up against the wood and pointed his guns back into the forest.
Now exposed, he squeezed off four shots into four separate vampires. None of them were killed, but all were knocked from behind their cover. In response, a dozen shots dusted three out of the four in mere seconds. Good, but not enough.
With that, he turned and rushed along the edge of the cabin, coming around the corner to the front. There, a large porch overlooked a small lake, where the crystal-blue waters came right up to the very edge of the boards.
“Hey you in there!” Arthur roared as he stomped up to the front door. “Get ready to face justice!”
He kicked the door as hard as he could, shattering the wood around the lock and sending it crashing inward. He then quite immediately ducked to the side, allowing a burst of deadly magic to flash out across the water. An explosion rose from the middle of the lake as it struck home, and Arthur rushed inside.
There, standing at the far end of the room, was the vampire lord. Arthur had met him only once before, at the signing of the treaty that established their current lands. The man, so withered and worn that he looked as though he might just drop dead on the spot, raised bony hands with a smile on his face.
Arthur simply raised his guns and unloaded his guns into the creature. At that point, he didn’t even particularly care if he hit the man’s heart or not, he just wanted him to suffer. It seemed to work well enough, as the vampire stumbled backwards and crashed to the floor with a thud.
As both of his guns clicked empty, Arthur threw the weapons to the side and grabbed a nearby chair. He lifted it over his head and brought it crashing down to the floor, where two of the legs cracked off with loud snaps. He scooped up the closest one, charged forward, and plunged it into the heart of the withered vampire.
The creature turned to dust without any further preamble, crumbling into nothingness. A small jewel clinked to the floor, a loyalty crystal that vampire lords carried to ensure that other vampires followed their orders. He smashed it with the wooden leg, grinning as the stone itself let out an otherworldly scream.
A single footstep behind him alerted him to the fact that there were still vampires around. He spun to see one of the pointy-toothed creatures staring down at him, only for it to vanish in a cloud of dust as a gun went off just behind it. The dust faded to reveal Hesione standing there, breathing heavily but very much present.
“Well, now.” Arthur climbed to his feet. “Seems I owe you my life.”
Hesione stepped inside the home and pressed herself up against the wall, as though taking cover from any vampires that still might be shooting at them. “Just trying to help.”
“The fight’s over, so you can stop now.” Arthur stalked back out onto the porch, where he caught glimpses of dark shapes vanishing through the trees. “Takes a few moments to take effect, but when it does, smashing a crystal ensures that they’ll all turn tail and run like the wind.”
“So… What now?” Hesione stepped out after him, where she still held the weapon like a club.
“First, you give me that thing so you don’t kill me with it.” Arthur took the gun from her hands and slung it onto his back. “Then, we get these cattle home.” He frowned as he kicked at the wooden floor of the lake home that should have been his. “And then I guess I owe you whatever help I can give you in return.”
“So you’re saying that you’ve never seen a cure for vampirism that works?” Hesione sighed as the wagon rumbled down the road, back towards the town. “You’re sure?”
“Sure as the town we’re driving to is named Redthorn.” Arthur leaned back against the seat of the wagon. All things considered, while so much else had changed, wagons seemed remarkably similar to what they had driven several hundred years earlier. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s just a fact of life. I’ve lost a dozen hands over the years who tried to cure a vampire or two. There are a hundred thousand people who claim to have a cure out there, but I have yet to actually see any evidence of it.”
Hesione sighed and crossed her arms. Yet another dead end. Admittedly they hadn’t exactly tried that many leads yet, but she wasn’t sure how ready she was for a twenty-five-year long crusade like Paulin was.
“Well, thanks anyway.” Paulin leaned forward, from where he sat in the back.
“No, thank you.” Arthur sighed. “I truly am sorry for how I acted earlier. It’s… It’s a long story. You helped me out immensely, I do have you to thank for my life.”
“Just glad we can help.” Hesione flashed a small smile. After a second, she sighed. “I wish we could have found something, though.”
“Lady, if you could actually find something like that, you’d be as rich as those dwarves back across the mountains.” Arthur nodded forward at the town, which now seemed to have added a large number of massive boxes on wheels. “Oh look, the train’s here. Guess you’ll be off, then?”
“That’s our plan.” Hesione nodded.
“Then I wish you the best of travels.” Arthur turned and shook Hesione’s hand, then turned around and shook Paulin’s as well. “If you’re ever back in the area, feel free to stop in and say hello. I’d be more than happy to have you. Might even be willing to teach you how to hold that gun properly.”
As they rumbled to a stop, just in front of the start of the single main street, Hesione climbed down and glanced at the train. It was a large, boxy contraption, mounted on a single track that ran across the desert floor, that pulled a series of boxes behind it. Enchantments kept it aloft, it seemed that the track itself was enchanted in at least some way.
“Blasted dwarves.” Arthur snorted. “They’d own the whole continent by now if it wasn’t for Fairn and the Confederation.”
“Indeed.” Paulin agreed with Arthur as they climbed down, despite the fact that Hesione was certain he had no more idea what Arthur was talking about than she did. “Safe travels.”
“To you as well.”
With that, Arthur turned and wandered towards the tavern, which Hesione had been informed was called a saloon. They watched him go, then slowly turned towards the tailor’s shop.
“Where to next?” Hesione glanced up at Paulin, who had a curious look on his face.
“I don’t really know.” Paulin finally admitted before turning to smile down at her. “I’ve got a few ideas, though.”
Hesione flashed a small smile, trying to remain supportive of her brother. It was hard, but… That was what sisters did, right? “Then let’s see if we can get lucky with the next one.”
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