“And… Here we are.” Paulin flipped a switch on the rather intricate dashboard of the craft. Unbeknownst to Hesione, he had actually been with the craft for some time at that point, learning its intricacies and practicing flying it manually through the timestream. He wasn’t certain, but he thought that he could actually pilot their own pod manually now, at least somewhat.
With a flicker, lightning burst across the surface of the ship as the pod roared back into the mortal world. Outside the tinted red viewscreen, all Paulin could see was a mountain. He pressed several other buttons, causing the tinted windows to become completely transparent.
As the color faded, the view opened up to reveal that they were high in the sky, hovering over the expansive mountain range of Donitor. Paulin smiled, then grabbed hold of the flight yolk and dove, sending the craft plummeting down towards the ground below.
“What in Sarkil are you doing?” Hesione screamed behind him.
“Taking us in.” He shouted back. “I want to make sure we have the element of surprise.”
While he dove towards the coordinates he had pulled from his earlier scan, he pressed a button his right, bringing up an automatic targeting system. He quickly selected a temporal freeze option, and sat back to wait.
Below them, on a particularly sharp cliff that overlooked a brush-filled valley, a small light flickered against the sun’s light. Paulin flashed a smile as the door to their old pod unfolded. The vampire stepped out into the light… And he flipped the switch to fire.
A pulse of blinding green light exploded from the front of the craft, blasting the pod and Sam in green lightning. With that, Paulin pulled up the nose of the craft and fired the thrusters, slowing the craft’s descent a good deal.
With a flourish that spoke of extreme practice, he brought the craft to a halt only a few feet above the edge of the cliff. He turned and flashed a grin at Hesione, who looked rather horrified, and opened the doors. As the windows slid aside, he jumped out onto the red stone cliff. In front of him was the pod… And, by extension, his future.
It was a strange view, to be certain. On his right, the mountain continued to slope upward, where the soft dirt was covered in pine trees and loose foliage. Down in the valley below, a few more trees clung to the steep slope before ceding their reign to the sagebrush and cacti of lower Donitor. In front of him, Sam Bricklayer stood under a cloudy sky, frozen in place by the temporal energies of the weapon that Paulin had fired against him. As Hesione clambered out behind him, Paulin reached into his pocket and pressed a button on a small remote, causing the handcuffs on the time agent to pop off.
“Hey!” The human jumped out of the craft, his feet landing on the ground with a thud. Paulin ignored the outburst as he walked up to the statue-like vampire. “You’re going to pay for what you’ve done!”
“I borrowed your time machine to help prevent a vampire from ruining the timeline.” Paulin gestured at Sam. “None of this is new information. I told you exactly what I needed the pod for, you refused to help, so I took matters into my own hands.”
Hesione glared at Paulin. “Just what have you been doing? What have you become?”
“I became what I needed to be in order to save us.” Paulin shrugged and turned to the time agent. His name was… John? Jonathan? Jacob? Something like that. “You may take your pod back now.”
The man glared at Paulin with an unbridled fury. He was a nice kid, really. Couldn’t have been older than twenty years old or so, and sported a crop of brown hair that was curlier than almost any hairstyle Paulin had ever seen. He wore the standard uniform of the Temporal Commission, a grey jumpsuit with a few emblems patched onto the shoulders.
“Oh, I may?” The agent swore loudly and raised a hand towards Paulin. “I have your permission?”
“You do.” Paulin shrugged. “Now, unless you want to be trapped in an age where Donitor was ruled primarily by vampires, I’d suggest hopping back in your own machine. I set it on autopilot, it’ll be jumping into the future in… Oh… ten seconds?”
The agent’s face went white, and he turned and bolted back for the craft. No sooner had he dove inside than the doors slid shut and the craft dematerialized in a burst of electricity. Paulin took a deep breath and turned back to Sam. He reached for the holster that he now wore on his own Temporal Commission jumpsuit, pulled out a plasma pistol, and pointed it squarely at Sam’s heart. Making sure that he was far enough back that Sam wouldn’t be able to jump at him, he flicked a small switch on the pistol, charging it up.
A few short seconds passed, and Sam began to reanimate. His fingers began to twitch, followed by his arms and legs. He fell to the ground with a thud, where his face finally began to work again. As he slowly and likely painfully reanimated, Paulin kept the weapon pointed squarely at Sam’s chest.
“Look.” Paulin took a deep breath. “I truly am sorry for what we did to you. I’ve seen what we did to your life, and I fully understand that our actions completely ruined it. All you have to do is tell us whatever we have to do to fix it, and we’ll do anything in our power. If that’s not agreeable to you, then just leave. Go try to do whatever it is you’re planning on doing here.”
Sam uttered a soft hiss. “I’m going to ruin your lives.”
“That’s what you said.” Paulin shrugged. “Only one issue with that. You went way back before any of us were born. I suppose you could try to go kill one of our ancestors, but given that the vampiric wars just ended a few years ago, good luck sneaking across any civilized line. People are on high alert, you aren’t going to be able to go anywhere.”
Sam sneered. “You think that I would just try something so futile?”
“I honestly don’t know what you’re planning.” Paulin shrugged. “Now, like I said, you’ve got two options. Give up and tell us what we can do to provide reparation. Turn and run away. Or I guess I can just kill you. Three options, then.”
Sam glanced up at Hesione, who just looked confused. After a few seconds, he climbed to his feet and ran away, scrambling down the cliff face. Paulin fired a single shot after him, blasting a rock just behind him. The vampire yelped and kept running, and Paulin sighed deeply.
“Ahh, that’s the stuff.” He turned to Hesione and flashed a smile. “Care to take our time pod back?”
Hesione just frowned and shook her head. “Why did I even come here? All I did was watch you go… Go crazy.” She sighed and turned to look out across the canyon. “What’s gotten into you? Ever since he stole our pod, you’ve been obsessed. It feels like you just drug me along so you could crow about how good a job you did.”
“Not at all.” Paulin sighed and replaced his pistol in its holster. “I just…” He shrugged. “I know things are crazy. I just want to spend my life with you. You’re my sister, and I care about you, but I can’t just abandon Kisidera.”
“Paulin!” Hesione put her hands on her face. “Kisidera is lost. Do you now get that yet?” She turned and gestured out at the valley. “There isn’t a cure. You can search and you can search. We’ve flown across the universe, we’ve checked out every single credible rumor we can find. I don’t know how much time you spent without me, but I can tell that it’s a lot.” Her voice shook. “You can’t tell me that you didn’t do more searching. If you haven’t found a cure yet, you’re not going to. Continuing to jump through space and time is only going to cause more harm!”
She just shook her head. “I mean… What good is going to come from it? What could we accidentally do that might actually help people? If we’ve done something good, I’d love to hear about it, because I’m frankly in the dark. All I see is death and destruction. And then we finally had something good, something strong, and you pulled me away from it.” She punched him in the shoulder. “Darien saw us leave. I’m sure he’s confused, he’s probably questioning things, and-”
“We’ll go back to Darien.” Paulin assured her. “I already told you, you’re more than welcome to live out the rest of your life in that time period, I just…” An ache welled up in his heart, and he shrugged. “It’s been a long time, Hesione. I spent years trying to put this together. For me, you just vanished. I’ve been working to get to see you again. You and Kisidera both, admittedly. I just wanted to go on one more adventure with you. See one more sight.”
Hesione puffed out her cheeks and sighed, loud and long. When she finished, she shrugged slightly. “We have seen some pretty cool things together.”
“Exactly!” Paulin smiled. “We’ve been to Dararma, we’ve seen the stars! We’ve been to first-era Calsin, we’ve seen the libraries of the dwelves, and so much more.” He shrugged. “I’m not saying that I won’t settle down with you, but can you blame me for wanting to see a few more really cool things first?”
Hesione groaned, then shrugged. “I guess not.”
“See?” Paulin gestured at the still-open time pod. “Now come on. Let’s head home.”
Hesione sighed and nodded. “You’d better be able to get us back to the exact moment when we left.”
“Deal.” Paulin nodded and stepped up into the time pod. He pressed several buttons on the pod’s controls, quickly bringing up the navigation system. As Hesione stepped inside and closed the door, he dematerialized the pod and pulled up the manual navigation system.
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Hesione frowned as the telltale holographic steering yolk appeared in the air above the keypad. “You do remember what happened last time you tried to do that, right?”
“I’ve had time to practice since then.” Paulin shrugged and bit his lip. Dozens of glowing lines crisscross the screen, displaying the timeline itself in a format understandable by mortal minds. “You can actually get a lot more precision if you know what you’re doing.”
“And you do?” Hesione didn’t sound convinced.
“Of course.” Paulin flashed a grin. “Here, watch, you see that red line?”
As Hesione leaned forward, Paulin reached up and took hold of the two control diodes. Ever so carefully, he pushed them forward, sending them into the future.
With a blast that left his ears ringing, something exploded underneath his feet. He was blown into the curved roof of the pod, where something snapped rather painfully in his left arm. He came crashing back down to the grated floor as Hesione collapsed on top of him, having been slammed into the inside of the door.
Paulin groaned and started trying to force his way to his feet, only to find the world spinning around him like a toy top. Or maybe the time pod truly was spinning. It was hard to tell from his current position.
“Greetings, Hesione, Paulin.” Simon’s voice echoed dimly in his ears. “If you’re hearing this message, it means that you somehow managed to rupture the time pod’s surface while traveling through intertemporal space. I cannot tell you how much danger you’re currently in. Autonavigation systems should be activating, assuming that you didn’t somehow damage those too, and…”
“Shut up!” Paulin roared as Hesione slid off of him. Both elves staggered back to their feet as smoke began to fill the pod. Dozens of red lights flickered through the growing haze, and the world began to grow dim. “We have to get out of here!”
Next to him, Hesione frantically slapped at the door button. After several attempts, lightning flickered across the surface of the pod, and the door fell open with a crash. Both elves stumbled out into a dull and overcast day, collapsing on the red rocks of the same cliff they had just left.
Paulin’s face slammed into the rocky soil, and he inhaled deeply, trying to expel the smoky air of the time pod and replace it with the fresh mountain air of Donitor. The world began to grow brighter again, and he flopped over onto his back.
Overhead, all he could see were clouds. Thick, black clouds that spoke of a raging storm. To his knowledge, he had never seen such a powerful layer of clouds when rain wasn’t pouring down in thick sheets of water. He sighed and took several more breaths before even daring to sit up.
Hesione lay just next to him, breathing deeply in a similar attempt to recover her facilities. Paulin watched her for a few seconds, confirming that she was, indeed, safe, before turning his attention back to the time pod.
A thick, black smoke poured from the machine, where it slowly rose into the cloudy sky. Green flames flickered from within while lightning continuously flickered across the surface. Paulin sighed and climbed to his feet, shaking his head as the world spun for several moments around him.
As he recovered his balance, he slowly began to stumble towards the machine. He stopped with enough room to not strike it if he tripped, and tried to examine the damage. Was it truly destroyed this time? Or would it just heal the way it had done in the past? How long would the process take? And, perhaps most importantly, what had happened to it? It didn’t make any sense. Unless…
Unless Sam had placed a bomb inside the pod after he left. Paulin swore under his breath. Time travel was a powerful and mysterious weapon. He had been able to spend ten years of his life preparing, and had been able to completely take the vampire by surprise as a result. Sam had spent centuries planning. Who knew what he might have learned during that time? Perhaps even he had been visited by a future version of himself telling him to place the bomb. Maybe he just did it as a precaution. There was no real way to know, Paulin only hoped that it was the last he had seen of the vampire.
As he stood there, though, something caught his eye. He turned and slowly looked off the side of the cliff, where the small valley had apparently been filled by a massive encampment. Sagebrush had been cleared away, leaving nothing but red dirt and rocks. In its stead, thousands of tents clustered around campfires that sent their own smoke drifting up into the sky. Countless individuals milled about between the tents, forming up in rank military positions in open grounds or just standing near the fires.
Perhaps the most disturbing part was the large beam of greenish energy pulsing up from the center of the camp, where a massive fire blazed with dark flames. The deep and black clouds surged like a whirlpool around the pillar of energy, leaving no doubt about their origins.
“What in Sarkil just happened?” Hesione stumbled up next to him, shaking her head. “When are we?”
“I don’t know.” Paulin breathed. “I’d like to leave, though.”
Hesione’s eyes snapped open wide, and she let out a muffled gasp.
Paulin frowned as his brain finally kicked into gear. “Let’s see… I don’t think we went very far forward in the future. Might have even went a bit back into the past. Those tents aren’t very advanced, and the way that the camp is laid out looks like-”
“Would you stop?” Hesione snapped at him. “Please.”
Paulin turned and frowned down at her. “What?”
“Just… This!” Hesione shrugged. “You sound like one of them.”
Paulin crossed his arms. “One of who?”
“One of those people at the Temporal Commission.” Hesione pointed at his uniform. “You’re even dressed like one. You know anything and everything that’s ever going to happen, and yet you act like it’s not your fault when things blow up in your face. Literally, this time.”
Paulin crossed his arms. “In all fairness, Sam probably thought the same thing about our younger selves when we screwed up his life.”
“When that happened, we didn’t know what we were doing!” Hesione hissed. “You went and stole a time pod from someone else, then caused… This!”
“I did no such thing!” Paulin protested. “You really think I just blew myself up? What would that prove?” He gestured at the time pod, which was beginning to spark a bit more violently. “We were already stranded. Why would I want to strand myself again?”
“I don’t know!” Hesione screamed at him. “I just know-”
“Wait.” Paulin held up a finger as something caught his eye, rising from the camp below.
“No.” Hesione snapped. “All you’re doing is making things worse! You’ve ruined our lives along with Sam’s now, you’ve-”
“Batherals.” Paulin pointed out at the plain. “We need to run, now.”
Hesione finally followed his finger, to where three of the mighty winged beasts rose on the winds. If Paulin wasn’t mistaken, they were heading directly towards the two elves. He had only ever seen a batheral once before, and it had been heavily sedated in a royal zoo. He had no desire to see one up close in its natural habitat.
They both turned and tried to run, stumbling towards the trees as fast as their wobbly legs would allow them. Paulin swore as his legs fought his commands, instead begging to just throw him to the ground and leave him to lie.
As they reached the edge of the pine trees, a massive blast of air knocked both of them back to the ground. Paulin’s palms were sliced open on the sharp rocks as he impacted the ground, and he groaned loudly. A loud whoosh shook the atmosphere around them as massive feet slammed into the ground. Before he could even attempt to climb back to his feet, rough hands grabbed his arms and pulled them behind his back. A futile struggle ensued, after which his hands had been tied securely with a thick cord.
With that, both he and Hesione were pulled to their feet. Though he couldn’t see the man holding him, he could certainly see the one holding Hesione, along with the third who appeared to be supervising. Both wore long, black robes that hung in tattered strips. Combined with their drawn and pale faces, bloodshot eyes, and sharpened fangs, Paulin was left with no doubt that they were looking at vampires.
Behind the foul creatures, next to the time pod, stood their enormous mounts. Batherals, native to Donitor and long heralded as the chosen steeds of vampires, looked like a cross between dragons and bats. Thick leathery wings, scales, enormous ears, eyes that looked as though they could just stare into your soul… It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“Welcome, travelers.” The lead vampire hissed. “We have been looking forward to your arrival. It makes me disappointed that the old one was correct. I had been looking forward to flaying him. Nevertheless, your presence here will make our leader quite happy.” He flashed a fanged smile, though his eyes remained hard. “I do hope you’re familiar with proper etiquette. I would hate for you to upset her.” He turned to walk away, not giving Paulin so much as a single breath to ask questions. “Welcome to Donitor. Welcome to the reign of Lilith.”
Paulin felt his heart lurch as they dropped from the sky. The batherals had the two elves clutched in their talons, massive claws the only thing keeping Paulin from plummeting to Calsin below. The batherals didn’t spread their wings again until they were only feet above the camp, changing direction in a heartbeat to zing out across the tents. Paulin recoiled from the ground, not even daring to breathe as the tops of the tents zipped past only feet below.
As they neared the great black fire at the center, the batherals slowed, flapping their wings to bring them to a halt. Paulin felt a great relief flood his body as they flapped up next to the fire, when the batherals just let go. In the tradition of that day, both he and Hesione fell to the ground, slamming into the red dirt with muffled thuds. Dirt splashed up into Paulin’s eyes, momentarily blinding him.
He spat as hands pulled him back to his feet, desperately trying to blink the soil out of his vision. As it cleared, he found himself and Hesione surrounded by the foul creatures. Over a dozen vampires stood in a loose circle around them, while two more held him and Hesione tightly. Not that he could really do much. The camp was enormous, they didn’t stand a chance at escaping.
As they stood there, apparently waiting for their leader, Paulin turned and cast a glance up at the raging fire. The bonfire towered over twenty feet in the air, and seemed to be made from a large pile of bones. The flames themselves were black as coal, and gave off a sickly heat that made his stomach lurch.
In unison, the vampires turned and began to drag the two elves around the fire. As they rounded the massive obstruction, a large and extraordinarily ornate tent came into view. It stood twice as tall as the surrounding tents and was decorated with paints and bones. An ancient script was scrawled across much of it, but none of it made much sense to Paulin.
The vampires quickly formed two lines, one on either side of Hesione and Paulin, while the two vampires behind them continued to hold them firmly. After the line had been formed, the tent flaps were drawn aside magically, and the two elves were pushed forward.
As they walked into the tent, Paulin felt every last ounce of breath leave his body. There weren’t many vampires hidden inside the tent, only three to be exact. A woman, clad in the same dark and tattered robes of her minions, sat on a throne made from bones. A skull was mounted upon each armrest, where a burnt orange light poured from the eye sockets. Her hands, white and pristine, rested upon each skull, while her eyes bored into the two elves. Long, pitch-black hair fell down over one shoulder to rest in her lap. On either side were her royal guards, once more clad in the same garment, each holding spears that glistened with green energy.
Of course, none of these details were what truly terrified Paulin. No, that small detail that petrified him to the bone was the fact that all three of them had wings. Large, pitch-black wings covered in feathers that were all-too-familiar. The woman’s wings were spread wide, giving her an ever-more-powerful feel, while the guards simply had their wings folded across their back. Oh, and all of them appeared to be no older than fifteen or sixteen at best.
“Bow before Lilith of the Desert!” Both guard angels cried out, their voices projected through the tent like an earthquake.
Paulin felt his knees give out long before he could make a conscious decision to bow. Hesione remained standing in defiance even as he fought to keep from hyperventilating.
“Your friend seems to be far wiser than you.” Lilith hissed and folded her arms, an amused look on her face. “You remain standing in my presence. I strongly urge you to reconsider. Others who have done the same have a tendency to regret their defiance.”
“You’re an angel.” Hesione finally stammered. “How?”
“We can ask those questions later.” Paulin hissed up at her. “Just kneel!”
“You are an elf, in a camp of vampires. Only a short century ago, humanity believed themselves alone in this world. Why would you be the one confused here?” Lilith tilted her head to the side and smiled down at Hesione condescendingly. “Now, kneel. I will not ask again.”
Paulin elbowed her in the side, and she finally dropped to her knees. Lilith smiled and slowly rose, stepping down from her throne and walking across the dirt floor of the tent. The way her robes drifted in the wind, she very nearly appeared to be gliding like a wraith.
As she stepped up to the two elves, she smiled and bent over, running a fingernail across Paulin’s cheek. She turned and did the same to Hesione before sighing and standing up fully.
“So. Assuming that my new companion is to be believed, you two are time travelers. Your time machine is being brought back to my camp as we speak, where I plan on harvesting its parts. If you two expect to live, you will help me with this process. It has been many long years since I have seen another time machine, and I don’t expect to let this opportunity go to waste.”
“Madam!” The tent flaps burst open to allow Sam to come stumbling in, awkwardly clothed in the same garb as everyone else. “I heard that they had arrived! I told you-”
Both guards lowered their spears and fired brilliant bursts of green energy into Sam. The hapless vampire collapsed in a writhing heap on the floor, limbs twitching, as Lilith slowly turned to look down at him.
“I told you that I would call you when I needed you. Nowhere in those instructions did I tell you simply to come in at your own discretion.”
Sam flopped onto his back and gazed up at her, pain evident on his face. “Please! I can tell you about the machine. It’s-”
“Oh, p-lease don’t patronize me. I know more about time travel than you ever will.” Lilith sneered, then nodded at the vampires holding Hesione and Paulin. “Drag him out of here.”
The vampires hesitated, and Lilith’s eyes narrowed.
“Did I stutter?”
They left the elves’ sides in a heartbeat, leaping on Sam and dragging him away. Lilith chuckled as they vanished through the tent flap, placing a finger in her mouth as she watched them go. As the tent fell shut, she turned her attention back to the elves, folding her hands in front of herself.
“There are many things I don’t like about our lot in life. Immortality is not one of those things.” She placed a hand on Paulin’s head, matching the gesture with Hesione. “For example, you are obviously acquainted with my species. It’s the only reason I can think of that both of you would be so terrified of a young girl playing dress-up. You know that no matter what you do to me, you can’t kill me. Vampires are hard to kill, but me?” She chuckled softly. “You’d have better luck destroying the entire planet. Now, if you’ve seen angels before, and you know what they can do, just imagine what one of us cursed with vampirism might be capable of.”
Paulin tried to speak, but found that his tongue simply wasn’t working. Lilith continued to smile down at him before turning and walking away, drifting back to her throne. She sat down with a flourish, the flames within the skulls flickering softly.
“Now, if you’ll be willing to answer me a question, what would you have me do with you?” She placed a hand on either skull once more. “I could kill you. It would be quick and easy, but just might cause complications if your time machine is linked to your bioscans. Alternatively, I could turn you into vampires. That should still allow you to operate the machine, but it would make it impossible for us to detect you if you decided to fight against me. Third, I could lock you up. In this version, you stay alive to operate the machine and can be easily found if you were to escape, but it also allows for the distinct possibility of your said escape. So what’s it going to be?”
It was a painfully long wait before Paulin was finally able to answer. When he did, he found that the words coming from his mouth were the very words that he had asked Hesione not to say.
“How are you here?” He shook his head. “I mean… The angels…”
“Shouldn’t be here?” Lilith raised an eyebrow. “Should be trapped in another plane of existence, slaving away their immortal lives in a desperate attempt to regain meaning and purpose?” She shrugged. “I happen to disagree with my useless boyfriend’s philosophy on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By the gods, what a self-righteous prick. He’s killed more people than I could ever hope to.”
After a few seconds, she frowned and turned back to the elves. “You’re getting off topic. I really don’t like it when people do that. So, what’s it going to be? Death, join my ranks, or get locked up?”
Paulin took a deep breath. Was she genuinely asking them what they wanted? Was it a trap? A test? Sadly, there was no particular way of knowing.
“Lock us up.” Paulin finally managed to nod in terror. “I’d rather not die just yet.”
“Then it shall be done according to your will.” Lilith gestured with her right hand. “Guards? Take them away.”
Two guards burst through the tent flap an instant later, grabbed Paulin’s arms, and pulled him out into the open. Hesione was drug just behind him, and… That was really that.
They were pulled past a still-twitching Sam, past the dark fire, and through the camp. Batherals flew back and forth overhead, vampires milled around on all sides. It was a camp of death, quite obviously built with a purpose in mind.
Paulin only wished that he knew what that purpose was. If he even had the briefest inkling of their plan… Maybe, just maybe, he would be able to prevent it from coming to fruition.
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