“Don’t worry, I didn’t get so much as a scratch on it.” Geraldin waved his hand at the time pod with a flourish. “You’re certain I can’t do anything more for you?” Paulin shook his head, simply grateful for the enormous amount that the elf had done for them during the brief stint in Donitor. “You’ve been more than helpful. I promise you, I’ll mention your name the next time I talk to my superiors.” “You simply are the most wonderful souls.” Geraldin shook Paulin’s hand before turning to Hesione as well. “And you too, my dear. I wish you safe travels!” Paulin flashed him a smile, then placed his hand on the side of the pod. The stairs unfolded, and the two time travelers climbed up inside. As the stairs folded back shut, Paulin dematerialized the time pod and took a deep breath as the pod began its same, gentle rocking that he had already grown so familiar with. “And we’re gone.” Hesione took the hat from her head and tucked it under her armpit. “Oh, it’s a nice feeling to get away from there.” “I’m not so sure we should entirely leave the time period yet.” Paulin frowned and turned to the control panel. “I agree, these clothes are quite dreadful, but it’s possible that we arrived just a bit too early.” Hesione raised an eyebrow. “How so? Deschur said that things started disappearing around the beginning of the sixth era. Shouldn’t we be going back to the fifth era?” “Maybe.” Paulin pursed his lips. “I just have a hunch. This book says that Donitor maintained its independence from the corporations for longer than anywhere else. Let me try this?” “And, once again, we’re trusting your hunches.” Hesione sighed. “Please?” Paulin held up his hands. “If we don’t find anything, we’ll go back to the fifth era. Cross my heart.” Hesione just stared up at him. He didn’t know if she was going to punch him or just ask that they go back to the island that they had left behind. Either way, he just hoped that she agreed to follow his lead at least once more. He had a plan, he really did! “Come on.” He pointed at the door of the pod. “Geraldin himself said that occasionally the traveling salesmen found something. What if one of them did find something, but it took a few years to spread around? All we’d have to do is jump forward about fifty years or so and we’ll be able to just walk into an archive and pick it up.” Hesione sighed before finally shrugging. “You know what? Why not? It’ll only take a few days, either way.” “That’s the spirit!” Paulin turned back to the keyboard and updated the coordinates, simply changing the date to a few years later. “And here we go!” He pressed the execute button and smiled as the pod came to a stop. Hesione opened the stairs with an annoyed sigh, and he quickly stepped past her into the slightly more distant future. If he had typed in the coordinates correctly, they hadn’t actually moved in space at all, simply through time. If that was the case, the building that they now sat in had been run down a considerable amount. The wallpaper was faded and cracked, the room was dark, only lit by a few strands of sunlight that crept in through holes in the walls. Paulin shrugged and walked to the door of the room, where he slowly stepped out into the front lobby. Several suits of clothes still hung from pegs in the walls, though most of the pegs were empty. Boards had been placed across the windows, and even the door seemed to have been secured shut. Paulin frowned and walked up to the former exit, musing at what might have happened. After a few seconds, he walked up to the window and pressed his eye up to a crack between the boards, where he was able to catch a glimpse of what seemed to be an empty street. Hesione was just walking into the front office when he walked past her and into the back room once more. Now that his eyes were adjusting to the darkness, he could see that the area was filled with several dozen crates, though many appeared broken. Past the time pod, another slightly larger door had been nailed shut as well, sealing them inside. Feeling a good deal less remorse about breaking open a back door than a front one, Paulin kicked open the rear door, allowing him to step out into a small back alley. Red dust stung against his face as he once more stepped out into the blistering heat. That much hadn’t changed a bit. The only real difference seemed to be the store that had sprung up just behind the shop, though Paulin couldn’t tell many details from the rear. “Hey, don’t leave without me.” Hesione jogged up to join him. “Quit rushing.” “Just trying to figure things out.” Paulin shrugged and stepped fully outside. “Quit taking so long.” “I’m just trying to help us.” Hesione held up a small bag, which she shook with a sharp jingle. “Money. Not much, but something.” “Good work.” Paulin flashed her a smile, relishing the annoyed look that she shot back up at him. He sighed and let the door fall shut behind them, then squared himself and marched forward. As they walked around the back of the store, they found that the town of Redthorn hadn’t changed nearly as much as they might have thought. Instead of the single street that it had boasted fifty years prior, it now had a grand total of two streets. A quick walk around the area revealed that over half of the businesses seemed to be closed, with boards across their windows and doors. Only a few people other than themselves walked around the town, and most of them didn’t seem interested in talking. They had nearly walked all the way around when a train came roaring past. It looked almost identical to the one that they had seen only minutes earlier, but moved at a speed far faster than Hesione had imagined it would be possible to travel. It blew past the town in a matter of seconds, vanishing into the distance with a mournful wail of a whistle. “Wow.” Paulin finally managed after a few seconds. “Good thing no one was standing in front of them.” A nearby woman shot the two elves an odd look, but otherwise said nothing. Paulin sighed and slowly walked out into the street, angling towards the nearby saloon. Bars were always a good place to get information. As he walked in the front doors, he found a small number of patrons simply sitting about, either drinking or playing card games on large tables. An elderly man in a green suit stood behind the bar, where he nodded at the two newcomers. “Well, what do you know? We don’t get many new faces around here. Come in, come in!” Several heads around the room all swiveled to face Hesione and Paulin. Paulin did his best to look intimidating, making sure to leave his hand around the same location as the gun on his hip. It had been a gift from Arthur, and wasn’t one he was willing to part with. The tavern was, as with the town itself, unusual in a sense. The patrons of the city seemed, far and away, to be human. In fact, Paulin didn’t see a single elf, dwarf, or other species present whatsoever. The clothing was equally almost identical to the way it had been. In so many ways, it seemed that almost no time had passed. Or, almost, that time had even regressed. “I’ll just take an ale.” Paulin stepped up to the bar. He nodded at Hesione, who placed the small sack of money on the wooden surface. “And some conversation, if that’s allowed.” The elderly bartender squinted his eyes at the two. He emitted a soft chuckle after a few seconds, then slapped the wood. “By the gods, it’s you two! I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see you again. You left so suddenly last time. Of course, you were being chased so I can’t really blame you, but…” He sighed and held out his hand. “It’s me. Sam! Worked for that really crabby guy, Arthur?” “Sam?” Hesione leaned forward and grabbed hold of his hand, which she shook enthusiastically. “Good to see you!” Paulin bit his lip, more than a bit confused about the whole being chased/ thing, but he didn’t have much time to say anything as Hesione kept the conversation going. “How have you been?” She sighed deeply. “It’s only been a few minutes for us, but… Really, how have things been?” “Oh, they’ve been plenty good.” Sam took out two extraordinarily tiny glasses and placed them on the counter. He then pulled out a glass bottle and filled up the small vessels and nodded. “First round’s on the house! I’ll get you filled in on everything, no need to worry.” Paulin shrugged, took the small glass, and drank the liquid in one gulp. Almost instantly, fire filled his throat as though he had swallowed a burning coal. As he coughed, Sam laughed. “Oh yeah, we get that a lot. Hardest juice you’ll find in Calsin, that’s what I say.” He sighed. “But seriously, things have been good. The ranch got bought up by the South Insultar Trading Company. Arthur and his family got moved back east, I think, but I was able to get permission to stay here in Redthorn.” He smirked. “I had worked for the bar for a few years earlier, which meant I had a bit more wiggle room than Arthur did. I actually own the place now, come to think of it.” He sighed deeply. “Of course, Insultar is looking to shut us down, but we’re staying open. People need a good drink every now and then, and that’s not changing anytime soon.” “You keep bucking them, they’re going to come up with a way to drive you out.” A rather overweight man stumbled up to the bar and tossed a few coins to Sam. “You mark my words.” “And you mark my words, I’ll keep fighting them.” Sam smirked as the man turned and stumbled away with another of the tiny glasses. He lowered his voice once more, smirking softly. “They keep threatening all sorts of mishaps. Trains derailing and taking us out. Hired thugs. Fires. They even threatened to conjure a magical storm once. You show me a sorcerer powerful enough to conjure an entire magical storm, and I’ll give up my bar.” Paulin sighed and forced a smile. It seemed that Hesione’s intuition had been correct, they weren’t going to find anything here. This company, the South Insultar Trading Company, seemed to have bought up everything it could. Just like they had been told. “As long as we’re here, I don’t suppose you could answer a brief question for us?” Paulin sighed and put the small glass back onto the bar. Hesione threw a couple of coins from the purse onto the surface, and Sam quickly refilled the drink. “You wouldn’t happen to know of a cure for vampirism, would you?” Sam chuckled softly. “Oh, yes. I forgot about that, you were interested in that the first time you came through Donitor. My my, that was so many years ago. In answer, no.” He sighed and glanced down at the bar. “I’ve met plenty of salesmen over the years claiming they could do it, but I still haven’t seen it actually work. If such a thing existed, it would be locked away in company vaults somewhere. Nowhere anyone would be able to touch.” “Thanks anyway.” Paulin sighed and downed the second shot. It burned just as badly as the last one had, which wasn’t particularly pleasant. A few seconds later, the building rumbled as another train shot past, never even slowing. “That has to get annoying.” “You get used to it.” Sam sighed and shrugged. “Sorry I can’t help you more. I truly wish I could repay my debt to you.” Paulin frowned slightly at that last statement. “Our debt to you?” “Oh yes.” Sam grinned, then tapped the bar. “Oh, maybe it hasn’t happened for you yet. Time travel must get so confusing! You were the reason I came here in the first place.” He leaned forward. “You met me in the Elven Confederation. Oh, I couldn’t have been older than sixteen. You set me on the path that led me here. Changed my life, let me tell you.” He sighed and pulled out a rag, wiping down the counter. “I never would have come here if not for you two. I found a purpose in life instead of just working for the Confederation. That’s something I’ll never be able to repay.” Paulin flashed a small smile. “I’m glad that we could help. Or that… We’ll be able to help.” “Like I said, it meant the world to me.” He sighed and shook his head. “Just don’t forget to go there, okay? It was the Sixth Era, year eighty-eight, in the city of Desfinar. I was working for a tavern called the Fiery Steed.” “I’ll make sure we stop by.” Paulin took a deep breath before nodding at Hesione. “Shall we be on our way, then?” “As always, feel free to stop by again.” He gave a small wave. “I don’t know how much more time I have left in this world. We humans really drew the short straw on our lifespans.” Paulin waved back, then dejectedly set out onto the street yet again. A dusty wind blew past, causing his leather jacket to flop in the breeze. Hesione walked out just after him, squinting against the blistering heat. “Alright, then.” Paulin turned and sighed. “I guess we do things your way. What say we head back, set Sam there on his new course, and then jump back to the fifth era?” “Works for me.” Hesione nodded. “I just want to-” “Vampires!” A voice at the end of the street echoed through the air. “Vampires are coming!” Paulin took a step back, next to the salon entrance, as nearly a dozen horses roared around the corner and into the town. All of the riders wore the thick black cloaks that vampires desperately needed to survive the harsh sun. And all of them seemed to be heading straight for the saloon. “Back inside!” Paulin ducked through the swinging doors and planted himself on one side of the doorway. Hesione took up a position on the opposite side, while most of the patrons either did the same or began to flood out the back. “I’ll not have my salon overrun while I still breathe!” Sam pulled a large gun from beneath the bar. He planted it on the wood and aimed it at the doors. “You two might want to stand back.” Paulin did as he was told, sliding back nearly into the corner. A split second later, a vampire crashed inside, emitting a loud hiss that filled the room. Sam cut loose with an earsplitting crack. The vampire turned to dust in the blink of an eye, and the doors were both blown off their hinges. Two more vampires came rushing in, though they both dove to opposite sides to avoid being hit. Sam adjusted his aim and blasted the one nearest Hesione, turning both it and a good portion of the floorboard into splinters. Paulin aimed at the second vampire and shot it with his pistol. It took him a good three shots before he managed to land a hit on the heart, but watching it crumble to dust was certainly satisfying. With that, the rest of the swarm of undead poured into the building. Sam was able to get off a single shot more before they had reached him. Curiously, none of them seemed intent on harming Hesione or Paulin, and instead simply focused on Sam. As two of them dove over the bar and tackled him to the ground, the others spun to face Hesione and Paulin and raised their hands. Beneath their hoods, Paulin could see that they were human. “We have no quarrel with you. Leave now and we’ll let you live.” Hesione responded by firing two quick shots at the vampires. The bullets bounced off a magical shield projected by the creatures, causing a loud zing as the bullet spun somewhere else in the room. “I guess we’ll just kill you then. After we’re done with him, of course.” The vampire sneered. “No one stands against the South Insular Company!” Paulin took a deep breath and measured his odds. If they had still had their team with them, they likely could have taken the vampires. If they had access to a larger array of deadly materials, if they had swords, if and if and if. The fact of the matter, though, was that Paulin wasn’t a particularly good soldier. He and Hesione stood no chance whatsoever against a hoard of ten… Possibly soon to be eleven… Vampires. “Hesione.” He glanced to the side at her. “We’ve got to go.” “Run, little elves.” The vampire took a step closer, twisting his head back and forth. “Oh, this ought to be fun!” “Come on!” Paulin turned and bolted from the saloon, followed closely by Hesione. Together, they tore across the street and around the backside of the tailor’s shop. As they stepped into the small storage room, Paulin noticed that he didn’t hear any signs of pursuit. The vampires likely didn’t even consider them worth chasing. How depressing was that? The two of them slowly walked up to the time pod, where Paulin opened up the door. On the off chance that the vampires did indeed decide to track them down, Paulin dematerialized the pod the moment they were inside. As it began to rock softly, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Hesione, on the other hand, sank to the floor and began sobbing. “He’s gone.” She looked up at him, tears staining her eyes. “He’s gone!” “I know.” Paulin scuffed his feet against the metal. “At least we didn’t know him. Makes it easier.” The words felt hollow in his mouth, and judging by the way Hesione looked at him, they hadn’t exactly landed well with her either. For a few minutes, they just stood there. When Hesione spoke again, it was with a certain sense of finality that Paulin didn’t particularly like. “I guess we just have to go send him on his way now.” Paulin frowned and crossed his arms. “We what?” “We have to go send him to his death. Or his vampirism.” Hesione looked up at him. “He gave us the time that we’ll meet him. We have to go back there and set him on this path.” “Oh, don’t talk like that.” Paulin scoffed. “He had a good life. He was what, eighty years old? Ninety? Not much for an elf, but a good life for a human.” “And now he’s going to be cursed to live out another three or four hundred years as a vampire. That is, if he doesn’t die a horrible and terrible death.” Hesione snapped at him. “Alright, so it’s not ideal.” Paulin held up his hands. “I just… I don’t know. What if we just don’t do it?” “I don’t see how we can’t.” Hesione climbed back to her feet. “We’ve already seen how time can loop. Just look at how we got this pod in the first place.” She shrugged, then kicked at the wall of the pod. “That’s the worst, you know that? Knowing what’s about to happen, knowing what people will do or even what you’re going to do to people, and not being able to do a thing about it!” Paulin bit his lip. “We could try just never going to that time period.” “We’d just wind up going there sometime for something else and doing it accidentally.” Hesione shrugged. “Or… I don’t know! Think about it. If we don’t, then he’ll never go to Donitor. If that happens, we’ll never meet him, never know to avoid that time period, and things get all messy really quickly!” Paulin closed his eyes and looked down at the floor. The same thoughts were going through his own head. Sometimes, he didn’t like how much Hesione sounded like himself. Other times, of course, he wished that she echoed him a bit more, but… Siblings. “Alright, then.” He squared his shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “Here’s what we’ll do. We head there, and we talk to him. After that, we keep looking for a cure. Whenever we find it, we go find Kisidera andwe go find him. Deal? We cure both of them in one fell swoop.” “Deal.” Hesione nodded firmly. She forced a small, sad smile and nodded at the computer. “Let’s get this over with, then.”
“You’re going to be late!” Sam’s mother yelled down at him as he ducked and weaved through the home. “Hurry!”
“I know, I know!” Sam laughed and swung by the closet, pulling out a green-trimmed coat that he had purchased for the occasion. He looked up the small stairwell to where his mother was working on a small painting. It was of the tower that could be seen from the rear windows of the home. She used magic to lift the paints onto the canvas, putting together a rather excellent portrayal.
“Thanks mom. For everything.” He puffed out his chest. “Off to make my fortune!”
His mother turned away from the paints and smiled down at him. She offered no comment, but gave a small wave as he dove through the front door and out onto the streets of Desfinar.
It was a mid-level city, nothing terribly important but equally not small and remote, either. Buildings rose to a modest height of three or four stories, fashioned together with wood drawn from the surrounding forests by the good people of the Forsworn Lumber Company. Men and women alike made their way up and down the winding cobblestone streets, the men dressed in dapper suits of varying colors and the women clothed in full-length dresses. Most were elven, a mixture of high and dark, though a handful of humans like himself populated the mix.
He grinned widely and took off, running down the street with a leap in his step. The city was laid out in concentric circles, with most of the roads running in parallel loops around the central Family Tower. A few other roads connected these circles, allowing for easy access between them. As Sam reached the nearest of these crossroads, he cast a single glance up at the Family Tower.
It was a far cry from the much larger towers deeper in the Confederation, but it was still impressive. Rising over two hundred feet into the air, it had been fashioned out of solid steel, imported by the South Insular Trading Company. At the top, it mushroomed outward to provide a place where the high-ups in the city could look down upon their subjects.
It took Sam nearly ten minutes to run the distance, two circles inward, to where things really started to pick up. Wagons rumbled back and forth, a few of them were even powered by the horseless engines that the Tuskisic Enchanting Corporation had put together. He slowed as he reached this inner circle, trying to prepare himself for what was to come.
Ahead was the Fiery Steed, an upscale establishment where the waiters all wore the same uniforms and the patrons gave generous tips. Sam squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest, making sure to measure his walk even as he strode up to the doors. A dapper-dressed guard bowed to him as he approached, then turned and swung the door open for him. He bowed back before stepping up and into the main floor.
It was just like he had imagined it would be. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, where magical flames danced back and forth like little fairies, though electric lights produced most of the actual illumination. A soft tune that spoke of great battles and noble war carried across the room from an organ over on the side. One of the waiters, dressed in a white garment that was a cross between a robe and an apron, came over to him with a soft sniff.
“You would be master Sam Bricksetter, here for the interview?”
“That’s me!” Sam grinned, then forced a more professional look onto his face.
“Oh, smile my boy. Not many have made it this far.” The waiter held out his hand slowly, directing Sam to a small set of stairs just next to the organ. “At the top, just turn to your left and you’ll find a door. Knock once, then position yourself exactly two feet from the door.”
“Thank you.” Sam inclined his head in return, an ancient greeting that the upper classes still used to look dignified, and turned to walk to the destination. As before, he kept his steps measured, and even only looked to the right or left as he passed the organ. Here, he risked a glance at the marvelous machine, where an aqahartis allowed his fingers to dance across the keys, sending magical impulses to a series of enchantments that caused blasts of air to flow across differently sized pipes. Lower establishments only had non-magical variants, or even only used pianos.
He walked up the stairs slowly and purposefully, trying to keep the noise from the squeaking down. As he arrived at the top, he did exactly as he was told. Turn to the left, a single knock, and then stand two feet from the door.
The door, a simple white edifice without much more to it, swung open with a flourish. Behind it was an elf who had to be Family. His golden skin practically gleamed in the light, and his suit sparkled with inlaid strips of gold and other precious metals. He stared down at Sam for several rather painful seconds before smiling wide.
“Ahh, my boy! Come in, come in.”
He held out his arm, and Sam slowly walked into the office. It was an elegant room to be side, with an oak wood desk that was adorned with a number of statues and figurines that Sam recognized from his studies. The elf walked around to the far side of the desk and sat down while Sam settled into his own chair. A soft cushion made sitting down far more bearable, it was a luxury that wasn’t often seen outside these circles.
“Welcome, welcome. My name is Kolibalt Botolan. I must congratulate you, I don’t even allow most people into my office.” Kolibalt inclined his head. In the flickering electric light of the room, Sam got the impression that the elf had splattered on some form of makeup designed to enhance just how golden his skin truly was. “As I’m sure you know by now, everything from this point onward will be a test. I will ask you questions, and you will respond. Some questions will have specific answers, others will be more open. Answer incorrectly at any point, and you will be sent home. If you are rejected as a candidate, you can rest assured that no negative marks will be placed on your record, though you will be barred from reapplying to our company for a period of no less than one year.”
“I understand.” Sam felt butterflies flitter through his stomach. “Ready whenever you are.”
“Good.” Kolibalt crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Please give an account of the Fiery Steed. I want to know which corporation owns us, who our competitors are, and what the best market for us to expand into is. It is essential that all our employees have a working understanding of these concepts.”
Easy. “The Fiery Steed is an independent location owned by the Korcat Management Group.” Sam held up six fingers. “Other locations owned by the same group in Desfinar include the Battered Fish, the Warm Loaf, the Red Pony, the Bloody Stain, the Raging Octopus, and the Frozen Tundra. All of these are mid to high-level establishments intended to capture the attention and business of Family members, their close guests, and other esteemed members of society. The only businesses in direct competition are the ones owned by Herring and Associates, including the Tar Pits, the Painted Frame, and Ageless Ale to name a few.”
Sam paused for a breath, during which he tried to measure the facial expression of Kolibalt. Nothing was revealed, though, and he plowed onward.
“The best way to compete with these rival businesses is twofold: First and foremost, service. The upper members of society talk to one another about their experiences, and thus the best way to ensure continued business is to ensure a good experience. Secondly is advertising, specifically in the manner and taste of flyers and paintings. If such marketing is placed in a manner that is too obscure, it may not be noticed. On the other hand, if it is considered too tacky or overt, Family members may be turned away by the lack of proper etiquette. Expanding our business should not take any more overt forms than this, as we do not want to compete with other brands underneath the Korcat Management Group. We should even take care not to take too much business from the Herring brands, as both Herring and Associates and the Korcat Management Group are owned by Reginald Apician, who, of course, is a Lord within the family. If we drive others out of business, it hurts all of us. Instead, we should offer healthy competition that ultimately increases sales for any and all branches of Family participation.”
Kolibalt raised an eyebrow. “You sound like you have an eye for this. Are you classically trained?”
“No, sir.” Sam shook his head. “I’ve been able to pick it up from my dad. He works for the Sewer Maintenance Conglomerate. I’ve tagged along on his jobs and been able to pick things up from Family homes we’ve had to clean out.”
“Observation skills. I like it.” Kolibalt slowly crossed his arms. “Should we hire you, how would you be a benefit to our company?”
“Like you said, I’m observant.” Sam shrugged. “I can listen to the needs of customers while I’m performing my work. It won’t even look like I’m doing it. Once I know what they’re enjoying or disliking, I can adjust my service to better fit their needs.”
Kolibalt raised an eyebrow. “Can you prove that?”
“Of course.” Sam bowed his head. “Would you like me to make the observation that someone is about to knock on the door?” He pointed over his shoulder mere seconds before a knock echoed through the room. “Or would you rather me point out that the painting that you have of Lord Botolan is a fraction of an inch tilted to the right? If I remember my etiquette correctly, that means that you have an inner love for her, and would be open to a romantic relationship if one was opened.”
Kolibalt’s eyes snapped open wide, and he spun to the painting that hung on the wall behind him. He leapt to his feet and hastily adjusted the picture frame before rushing around the desk, answering the door, sending the person away, and once more sitting down behind his desk. Sam was now in control of the conversation, and Kolibalt knew it.
“I don’t think you’ll find many issues with my resume.” Sam crossed his arms. “I know my work, and I know it well.”
“I must say, you’re remarkable in every sense of the word.” Kolibalt finally acknowledged. He tapped his finger on his chin for several moments before leaning forward and folding his hands. “Perhaps I should simply skip to the most important question. Should you be hired with the Fiery Steed, what are your plans? Do you intend to move onward in a short time? Is this a mere steppingstone for you, or do you have larger goals?”
It was an incredibly interesting and painful question. The distinct issue was that, while Sam could analyze market trends and memorize company names and policies, it was impossible to know how Kolibalt would want him to answer the query. Both of them knew the simple answer: He was planning on stepping across the bar to far greater things, and needed the experience for others to take him seriously. The only question was: Would Kolibalt admire honesty, or would he only want people willing to play the company game?
“I want to help my parents.” Sam finally answered. “Like I said, my dad works for the Sewer Maintenance Conglomerate. He’s been working there ever since he met my mom, almost twenty years ago, and it’s worn him down. He can barely even stand up straight anymore. My mom works for the Artist’s Guild. She loves it, but I know she’d love to keep a painting or two for herself. If I can get this job, I’ll make more than both of them put together. We won’t be living in luxury, but I can ensure that they can both get better jobs that are a little less harsh.”
Kolibalt smiled and leaned back in his chair, a genuine smile on his face. “You just want to help your family. That’s something I can respect.” He sighed and gestured up at the painting of Lord Botolan, who looked down from her throne with a stern gaze. “I’d be nothing without my Family. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for them, but it’s always worth it when you see their faces.”
“Exactly.” Sam nodded. “I just want to make them happy. I mean, I know they’re happy to have me, but… You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” Kolibalt tapped his fingers against the desk for several seconds before holding out his hands. “Ahh, you’ve won. You’re hired. Head out the door, turn to the left, and head down to the end of the hallway. There’s a tailor at the end, he’ll take your measurements. Come back one week from today to begin your training.”
“Thank you.” Sam tried to keep himself from leaping for joy. He had done it! “Thank you, sir.”
“Think nothing of it.” Kolibalt stood up at the same time as Sam, smiling down at his new hire. “With you in our ranks, our competition won’t know what hit them.”
Sam simply bowed once before turning and letting himself out of the room. As he walked down to the tailor, his heart began to skip beats. He had done it. He had done it! He would be able to give his parents the life that they deserved. In another decade, as long as he kept working at it, the three of them would be living in a penthouse at the base of the Tower.
All he had to do was stay the course. If he stayed focused, nothing would be able to distract him from that goal.
“This is it?” Hesione nodded up at the bar, proudly labeled Fiery Steed.
“Yup.” Paulin stroked his chin, even as his stomach flipped over and over several times. He didn’t want to do what they were about to do. No part of him wanted to go through with it, and yet… They had to. That was the increasingly prevalent curse of time travel. They knewhow things would turn out. How many times had he wished for that sort of power? Now, all he wanted was for it to go away.
He glanced down at his clothes, a fine, pressed suit that sparkled with fine metals. Next to him, Hesione wore a similarly elegant dress. They had been forced to rob another dwarven vault to afford the clothing, but… Minor details.
With a feeling of finality settling in his bones, he walked up to the door, where an elegantly-dressed guard pulled the door aside for him. The two stepped inside, where a waiter immediately swept to their side, took Hesione by the arm, and led them to an open table. Paulin glanced back and forth, looking for Sam, but saw no one who could have been the boy.
“There he is.” Hesione hissed and nodded off to his right. Paulin turned in that direction to see a young Sam, no more than fifteen or sixteen, dressed in the clothes of a waiter. At that moment, he was carrying a large tray of food through the room, dancing around high-profile elves and placing the food on the tables with ease.
“I’m sorry, madam may not have heard me.” The voice of their own waiter cut back into their minds, and Paulin turned back to the man. “Would you care for the roast or the poultry?”
Hesione frowned before nodding. “Poultry.”
The elf inclined his head once before turning to Paulin. More than a bit distracted, Paulin barely even noticed himself saying the word “Roast.”
As their waiter walked away, Paulin sighed and closed his eyes. He looked up and met Hesione’s eyes, who just looked back at him sadly.
“What do we even say?” Paulin whispered. “How do we convince him to give this up? It doesn’t look that bad.”
“Maybe it’s worse behind the scenes.” Hesione shrugged. “All we know is that it’s better where he goes. Where he’ll be going.” She put her head in her hands. “Oh, this hurts.”
“Yeah, I know.” Paulin risked another glance at the boy, who now was bringing out a tray of what looked like some sort of alcohol. “But we know what he said. He’ll love his new life so much more than this.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Hesione drummed her fingers against the table. “It’s just…”
“Hey.” Sam walked up to them, where he proceeded to strike a pose where he could still see the rest of the room while he spoke with the two elves. “I can’t help but notice that you keep looking at me and whispering. Anything I need to be concerned about?”
Great. He was observant, too. Paulin bit his lip and looked up at Sam, who simply seemed so young. So eager. So unaware that he was going to be turned into a vampire in Donitor in about eighty years.
“Sort of.” Paulin wagged his hand back and forth. “It’s honestly going to be a bit of a long conversation, but we came here looking for you. Would you be able to take a break? Or, better yet, when do you get off?”
Sam shrugged. “I just started, so my shift doesn’t get over for a while. Meet me at the street corner at the sixth hour. Deal?”
“Deal.” Paulin had absolutely no idea when the "sixth hour" was, but he didn’t figure that it would be too hard to sort that out.
Soon enough, Hesione and Paulin’s food was brought out. They ate mostly in silence, not really bothering to make much small talk. When they finished, they paid the waiter and wandered back out onto the street. They spent the next several hours wandering up and down the storefronts, browsing the items stored there and watching the horseless wagons rumbling up and down the cobblestones. It was such a strange land, such a far cry from the dusty wastes of Donitor.
The sky was beginning to darken when Sam finally emerged from the tavern. He was clad in a green suit that looked on par with everything else that seemed to be worn in the city. Hesione and Paulin hurried over to meet him, where he looked up at them in surprise. In a way, Paulin couldn’t really blame him for being a bit shocked, he probably had a large number of customers each day who tried to talk to him.
“You actually waited around.” Sam raised an eyebrow. “I have to say that that’s a new one for me.”
“Sorry.” Paulin rubbed his jaw. “It’s a little strange, I know, but… We were sent to speak to you about an important matter.”
“Really?” Sam crossed his arms. Paulin couldn’t help but notice that he had positioned himself near the street, far enough away that he couldn’t be grappled easily. A survivor. “And who sent you? One of the Families? You look like you might have some Apician blood in you.”
“I’m afraid not.” Paulin sighed, knowing how the next statement was going to sound. “See… You were actually the one who sent us. You from the future.”
“Really?” Sam’s face hadn’t changed. “Me from the future? And what message does future me have for present me?”
“You need to go to Donitor.” Paulin took a deep breath. “You gave us the exact location and time to meet yourself.”
“Donitor?” Sam snorted. “Come on. I’ve spent my entire life working towards working for the Families.” He pointed behind Paulin. Paulin turned to gaze up at the enormous tower. “Donitor is just dust and vampires. What does it have that I don’t have here?”
“Opportunity.” Paulin shrugged. “You were the owner of a saloon when we met you. You told us that your life had improved, that you had gained a purpose to your life.”
Sam continued to look at the elves quite wearily, and Paulin sighed.
“Look, I know it sounds crazy. We’re not asking for anything, and we’re not trying to scam you. After this conversation, you won’t see us again for a long time. We’re just trying to help you out, the same way you’ll help us out in the future.”
Sam still didn’t look convinced. That said, Paulin could see indecision running across the boy’s face. They had him intrigued. Maybe that was all it would take. If he was discovering anything about time travel, it was that things had a habit of working out the way that… Well, the way that they worked out.
“Thanks for telling me.” Sam crossed his arms. “I’m still not convinced that you aren’t just sent by the competition.”
“You can believe what you want.” Paulin turned away. Had there been a better outcome for the boy, he might have pushed harder. As far as he was concerned, he had checked the box on his end, the timeline could do what it wanted with the rest of Sam's life. “Again, we’re not going to force anything on you. I’m just here to tell you that your future self wanted us to let you know that you’d be better off in Donitor.”
With that, Paulin turned around and started to stride away, down the street. “I do wish you the safest of travels, whatever you decide to do. See you in the future, Sam.”
There was a short pause. “I never told you my name.” Paulin stopped as Sam began to sputter. “You don’t tell anyonein this city your real name. Not unless you’re signing a contract with them.”
“I’m not lying to you.” Paulin turned around and gazed down at the boy. “You’ll be happier in Donitor. Trust me. Trust yourself.”
Sam continued to stare up at Paulin. His lips trembled for a few seconds, and then he turned and bolted, vanishing into the streets. All around, people continued to churn back and forth. Men and women, dressed up for an evening in the city. Partiers, workers, so many people caught up in the web of the metropolis.
And there they stood. Two elves who had just put a single boy’s life on a track that would end in his being turned into a vampire. Sure, they were just following the will of the timeline, but what did that make them? What kind of monsters had they become?
“You’re right.” Paulin finally spoke again, his voice soft. He turned and gazed down at Hesione, who looked back up at him with tear-filled eyes. “We have to destroy it. We did nothing that we didn’t have to do, and we’ve sentenced him to death.”
Hesione gave a single, shot nod. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. “What about Kisidera?”
Paulin took a deep, shuddering breath. He didn’t want to leave her there, stranded in a cave in Sintison, but… What choice did he have? What was the other option? Keep searching for a cure, keep wrecking the lives of anyone they came across? That wasn’t a fair trade, not by any stretch of the imagination.
“Let’s go back to the island.” Paulin nodded firmly. A tear slipped down his cheek, the knowledge that he would never again see his fiancé. “We’ll do it there.”
With that, the two elves turned and wandered off through the city. It was true, they knew exactly what they needed to do. Paulin only hoped that he would have the strength to do the deed when it came time.
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