Contrary to any of the other portals he had stepped through, Drake bore witness to every step of his journey, just at speeds so rapid that everything he saw passed by in a blur, making him all nauseous in only a few seconds. He passed through ice and fire, was flung past corridors and cities crawling with abominable creatures, then a flash stole his vision and he emerged in Bel Ga'nahn. He spiraled to the top as if shot from a canon, momentarily swirling around the crystal before rising even higher.
A vast mountain range welcomed him outside and then he was dragged all the way across the ocean, joining dolphins and whales and massive swarms of fish. Once in a while, his vision submerged, making him feel like he was drowning. The last of those encounters sent him flying into a wasteland of snow. It seemed to stretch in all directions, bar a single anomalous spot that Drake was quickly being dragged to. A distant high-pitched screech swelled the closer he got, sounding like nothing he had ever heard before. He tried to cover his ears, but his non-existent body wasn't capable of such actions. Then suddenly, he came to a stop, a bell ringing in his ears and the world rippling like water.
He was vomited back into the real world, spinning at high speed. A thick layer of snow stopped him in his tracks, engulfing his entire body and chilling him to the bones. He emerged gasping loudly, like a diver rising from the sea. Alyssa was standing to his left, her eyes focused on the very same castle that Drake instantly honed in on. Not because it looked magnificent or anything, but because it shouldn't have existed in a place such as this.
While ice and snow dominated the landscape, none of it could even get close to the castle. Neither could the icy temperatures, judging by the lush grass and the small river weaving past the building. The area in-between, where snow and grass met side by side, was billowing like steam, distorting the view.
Maximilian, who had also risen from the snow now, was rubbing his eyes and blinked a couple of times, none of which changed his perception in the slightest. “What is this place?”
No one could say, so no one did.
“Whatever it is, it must be why we're here,” said Drake a moment later. “So let's try going down.” His eyes lingered on Alyssa, but she didn't even turn around. Let alone speak.
Maximilian shrugged. “There isn't much else we can do out here, except freeze to death. So yeah, why not?”
Trudging through the snow, they made their way down the hill they had landed on. It was flanked by trees in all directions, one of which was growing on both sides of the barrier, which didn't seem to bother it at all. A squirrel was even sitting on the sunny side and calmly eating a nut, uncaring for the howling winds and the snow fluttering past. The newcomers were the only thing drawing its attention, but not for long.
A swath of warm air emanated from in the barrier and the faint rustling of leaves echoed from beyond. Drake approached it carefully and raised his left hand, gingerly touching the space where seasons met. A mild tingly sensation traveled through his fingers and he felt something like a thin membrane push back against his probing touch. It didn't really hinder him, however, so he pushed right on. His hand emerged on the other side and a warm breeze played around his flesh.
“Hm, doesn't seem dangerous. But let me just make sure.” He took a deep breath, then stepped through quickly. For a moment, his whole body seemed to be crawling with bugs, sending goosebumps up his arms. Then something swept right over him and he stumbled onto luscious grass. It swayed in the wind and was teeming with ladybugs, grasshoppers, bees, ants, and so much more, like the whole wasteland had been evacuated before the snow took hold.
Maximilian and Alyssa followed within seconds and a group of butterflies came around as if to greet them. Alyssa raised her hands and smiled softly when one of them decided to perch upon her palm, its tiny eyes looking right at hers. It stayed there till the swarm dispersed, then fluttered onto Alyssa's shoulder like some kind of living accessory.
“So … what do you think?” said Maximilian from her side.
Alyssa turned her head while stroking the butterfly's fiery wings with her thumb. “About what?”
“About this place. Some kind of trap, perhaps? Or is this”—he pointed to the barrier—“just a massive portal leading somewhere else?”
“Didn't feel like a portal. And the place itself doesn't seem dangerous either, as the animals would be the first to notice. Their numbers are unusual, though. As is the fact that they seem to have no problem sustaining themselves despite the area being so limited in size.”
“Well, let's just check out the castle. Maybe someone's still living there who can explain what's going on,” said Drake and started walking.
They crossed the bridge spanning the river and kept their eyes upon the walls, expecting someone to be watching them. However, the castle didn't look like someone was maintaining it, what with one of four towers having halfway collapsed and another missing most of its roof. The large gate beyond the bridge also wasn't locked. It creaked open the moment Drake knocked while the wood he had touched simply broke off.
“Is anyone in here?” yelled Drake as he made his way inside. His voice echoed far and wide, yet no one ever answered. And the first room they saw looked even more dilapidated than the outside of the building, with a moth-eaten rug leading to a fallen chandelier before continuing toward a staircase whose handrail had broken off in places. The whole room was also covered in a thick layer of dust and giant spiderwebs stretched across the ceiling.
“I'm more inclined to believe that this place is haunted than that someone actually lives here,” said Maximilian as he swiped his finger across a collapsed piece of armor. It didn't seem to have fallen on its own, however, as parts of it were dented as though hit by a massive force.
Alyssa walked silently throughout the room, occasionally turning from side to side. Eventually, she climbed halfway up the stairs, then turned once more, now surveying the whole room from higher up.
“Did you notice anything?” yelled Drake from down below.
“Someone's been through here recently,” she replied in a monotonous tone. “Their steps are light and don't stir up much dust, but I assure you of their presence.”
“So where they'd go?”
Alyssa pointed behind her and began climbing even further. Drake and Maximilian followed quickly and they soon headed out the eastern exit, following the wall to the collapsed tower. The entrance itself was perfectly fine, but climbing even higher was out of the question as trying to clear a path might have caused the rest to come crashing down.
Alyssa paid it no attention and brought them down the stairs, which connected to what seemed to be a common room, with a small bar taking up the corner, some dart boards decorating the walls, and two billiard tables occupying the very center of the room.
Maximilian took a bottle of wine from the bar and popped it open. His face scrunched up when he caught a whiff and he hastily replaced the bottle where it belonged. “God, this must have been here for a while. The stench alone might be enough to knock some people out.”
“Well, we didn't plan on getting drunk, did we?” said Drake, once again glancing at Alyssa. She didn't seem to mind, though. Or to care in any way. She just stood there like a puppet, her eyes wandering between chairs and tables, once more trying to find the way. She did so moments later and led them through the northern exit.
The corridor beyond was home to sleeping quarters, only the last of which drew Alyssa's attention. Not because it was their destination, but because it was the only way to proceed past the rubble blocking the remainder of the hallway. Should still have been impossible if the room had looked like the others, but the northern wall had been destroyed, perhaps deliberately so, as the damage looked too orderly to have been caused by natural means.
Alyssa ducked through the hole and continued to the west. Midway through the corridor, she stopped in her tracks and spun in circles, squinting at the floor.
Drake stepped up next to her, making sure to leave some space so as not to be hindrance. “What's wrong? Did you loose track of whoever came through here?”
“Kind of. Because I'm sure the tracks stop here”—she pointed just in front of her—“so reaching any of the doors should have been impossible.”
“Must be another secret passage,” said Drake, his hand already on Carrazon.
“Maybe. But I don't think whoever lives here would appreciate you blowing up his home,” added Maximilian quickly. “And I'd rather not have the ceiling collapse above our heads.”
Alyssa ignored them both and turned toward the wall, spreading her arms. Somewhere in-between—and maybe a few more inches to each side—should have been a hidden mechanism, unless the castle's sole inhabitant had arms longer than an ordinary man. But before Alyssa could push even one stone, one of them caught her eyes. It was sitting slightly above eye level and had two circles drawn upon it, each of which contained a notch on opposite sides. Pushing the stone accomplished nothing, except that the tips of her fingers started throbbing for no reason. Moving them around caused the outer circle to start spinning.
“Can we help you somehow, or—“
Before Drake could speak any further, Alyssa had already aligned both notches. The wall rumbled in response and slowly sank into the ground. A circular staircase lay beyond, with a lever protruding from the wall. And contrary to the rest of the castle, it was actually lit up.
They waited for a little longer, expecting someone to be moving up above. But no one else disturbed the silence, perhaps because they too were listening.
“Let me go first,” said Maximilian as he drew his blade.
Ascending the stairs didn't take long as they only went up to the second floor. Another wall stopped them there, but the lever next to it took care of that. A large bedroom could be seen beyond, one whose entrance had collapsed. Peeking around the corner revealed a bed whose posts had been torn to pieces by what must have been a wild animal and whose bedding was full of holes. A dressing table stood beyond, half of it obscured by a large chair. The reflection of an elderly man stared back at Maximilian, but the person itself didn't react.
“There's someone in here. Be careful!”
They advanced one by one, each with their weapon in hand. Alyssa wasn't really into it, however, as she never even thought of readying an arrow. And her bow was constantly on the verge of slipping from her grasp.
“Hello? Are you awake?” said Maximilian as he walked toward the chair, stopping just out of reach. The man in the chair didn't respond and the unruly, white hair covering his eyes made it impossible to ascertain if he was asleep or not.
Maximilian took another step and was just about to kick the chair when the man's left hand rose into the air. “There's no need for such rude behavior. I'm already wide awake.” His voice sounded like ancient gears grinding against another.
“You're the one who didn't answer.”
“And you're the ones who forced themselves into my bedroom despite not being invited.” Even now the man didn't turn around. He just stared into the mirror, his arms resting once more.
Drake stepped forward and sheathed his blade. “Only because we have reason to believe that you can help us somehow.”
“Oh?” The man's voice rattled in confusion. “And why is that?”
“Because Adrammelech, the Guardian of the Ninth Circle of Hell, told us so.”
The man turned his face at last, revealing a single bloodshot eye. “Did he now? So may I assume that he is dead at last?”
“More or less. We destroyed his body, but his soul remained behind.”
“Good enough, although it doesn't make a difference now. The other guardians have already faded, so they cannot be restored to their rightful place.”
Maximilian too sheathed his blade and circled around the chair, still keeping his distance. “Which means … what, exactly?”
“That Regkier Nhoell will rise at last. But that's something you shouldn't worry about.” The man tried to lift his body, but the higher he rose, the more his arms shook, ultimately flinging him back down.
“Do you need help?” said Maximilian.
“Apparently so. I thought I would be able to last for all this time, but it seems my reserves are finally exhausted.”
“Well, we don't have much ourselves. Almost nothing, really. But what do you need?”
Drake crossed his arms and smirked knowingly. “Blood, isn't that right, old man?” The voice emerging from his lips was unmistakably the beast's.
Maximilian turned his head, then took a step back. “Wait, he's a vampire?”
“Not a vampire. The vampire. The one who ruled a kingdom that tried to live in peace. And the one who was supposed to have died a long time ago.”
“Indeed,” rattled the old man. “That's how I was known all these years ago. But now I'm just a hollow shell, trapped in this prison of time. And apparently in this creaky body too. Don't even remember the last time I drank a drop of blood.”
Maximilian turned his gaze toward the nearest window, which showed the border between summer and winter flickering upon the nearby mountain range. “Didn't seem like much of a prison from the outside.”
“Because I'm the only one who's trapped in here. Everyone else can leave whenever they want. But until they do, the world stands still. Which means, that what you see right now, is not what I myself am seeing. To me, it's still the world from a thousand years ago. But I cannot go back to save it now. Not while Assar is still alive. He's the one who trapped me here, you know? Because neither of us could defeat the other. All because I failed to slay Adrammelech. Otherwise, everything might have turned out differently.”
Drake frowned. “How would slaying that beast have made a difference?”
“Simple. I was offered power in the form the Heavenly Blade, so that my faction could win the coming war. All I had to do was slay the Guardians of Hell, who had abandoned their duties and risen to the surface of Meceruun. Destroying one of them added to my strength while eradicating all of them would have restored them to their proper place. But I failed at the very end. And others did too. You've seen what happened next.” He leaned forward and raised a trembling finger, poking the mirror with a dirty and broken fingernail. Its surface undulated like water and showed a scene from long ago, when Modera had consumed all of Drake's blood. “And so did I, thanks to a 'generous' gift Assar left behind.”
Drake tore his eyes away from the mirror, his fists balled tight. “I hope you're not thinking of taking revenge for what we did to your wife.”
Cardul shook his head, momentarily revealing the wrinkled and ashen face hidden by his face. “Don't worry. I realize it was the only way to save her from her madness. I wish I could have done so myself, but even after decades of trying, the barrier just wouldn't budge. And then I realized I was just wasting my strength with almost nothing to replenish it. Because everything I bite dies soon after, even if I only take a sip. Their blood goes bad in turn, so I cannot even save it for later. And now there's hardly anything left to sustain me.”
Despite Cardul looking so frail, Maximilian still circled back behind his chair. “And you still expect one of us to to give you blood now?”
“I can't expect anything of you. We don't know each other after all. But if I stay bound to my chair, then I cannot give you what might be necessary to best Assar. And neither can I open the passage to where you need to go before his hideout is revealed.”
Drake furrowed his brow and unrolled Modera's map. “Isn't it this final place Modera marked? This area surrounded by four dots?”
Cardul chuckled, or he tried to. “That's the place indeed. And as you can see, it's far to the west of here. And beyond the ocean even. Back in the day, you could have simply walked right over, but now it's not only unreachable but also hidden to the eyes of mortals.”
Drake surveyed the map only to confirm that Cardul spoke the truth. “But you still know a way to get there?”
The ancient vampire waved toward the mirror. “I've seen a lot in all this time. And you've seen it too. It even tried to kill you.”
“It did? When was that?”
“Before Modera turned you into a vampire.” Tapping the mirror once more, Cardul summoned Drake's memory from when he was drawn toward the mysterious door in Modera's tower. “The crystal you saw inside that chamber houses Modera's rage, her desire to avenge me and to tear Assar to shreds. She locked it away to keep a clear ahead until the day drew near when victory seemed close at hand. But in doing so, she forged a connection between herself and Assar, one that threatened to betray her presence unless she locked it away in a pocket dimension.” The scene shifted to the swamp Drake had seen beyond the doorway. “This was supposed to be an empty space, but now it's full of malice, and not just that belonging to Assar. I guess you could say it's like a sponge, one that keeps on growing without limit. And without Modera to keep it in check, it's eventually going to spill over into the real world.”
Drake watched the scene play out until the end, when Modera saved him from her own creation. “And we're supposed to stop that … which will somehow enable us to reach Assar?”
“Yes. Shatter the crystal and the pocket dimension will rupture, momentarily opening a gateway to the only creature it's still linked to, which would be Assar. I doubt he will allow you to invade his hideout, but it should be enough to get you through the barrier.”
Maximilian smiled. “Thanks for that. But now we have no reason to help you anymore.”
“Don't you? I might be mistaken, but I don't think you came here with a ship. And my castle is the only place that still exists upon this island, so there's no one else who could give you a ride. Sure, you could try swimming, but I don't you'll make it far.”
Maximilian grumbled and looked around, only now noticing that Alyssa was standing near a painting depicting Cardul and Modera in better times. Modera actually seemed timid there, as Cardul had pulled her to his side while flashing a brilliant smile. She also wasn't wearing anything revealing, just a plain yet colorful dress. Drake followed his gaze, barely recognizing the monster he had slain.
“I'm truly sorry for what she did to you,” said Cardul while watching Drake's reflection. “But she wasn't always as crazy as when you met her. Maybe a bit jealous and possessive, but she still knew how to be kind and gentle, and how to love another person from the bottom of her heart. Losing me as well as her extended family, by which I mean all the vampires who lived here with us, did utterly unhinge her, though. Which doesn't excuse her actions, of course. I just want you to know how bad experiences can ruin a person's life.”
Drake turned back, his expression as hard as rock. “Maybe so, but I'll never think of her as anything else but a monster. Too many people have suffered thanks to her.”
“Like Feyadal,” whispered Alyssa.
Maximilian stepped behind her and squeezed her shoulder, but she didn't respond in any way.
“I wish I could undo the damage she has caused, but history isn't so easily changed. So all I can offer is a final gift that might assure your victory.” Cardul stemmed himself against his chair once more and tottered to his feet, nearly slamming his head into the mirror. “But as you can see, I'm a frail old man, hardly better than a corpse. So if you don't help me, then I can't help you either. Don't worry, though. You shouldn't die as long as I don't drink directly from your body.”
Maximilian faced him once more. “But you're not sure of that, are you?”
“Not entirely, no. It's a curse after all. And I haven't seen another human being ever since my imprisonment.”
Drake took a deep breath and helped the vampire onto his bed. “Then how about we do it like this: I give you some of my blood and Maximilian gives me some of his. I'm immortal after all, so if this curse still springs into action, it might not actually harm me.”
“Yes, that seems like the best possible solution.”
“Unless Drake dies anyway,” interjected Maximilian.
Drake shrugged. “We don't have much of a choice if we want to leave anytime soon.”
“Well, you could theoretically try to build a boat. The time outside is frozen after all. Even then, I'm not sure you'd be able to reach Modera's tower in time.”
Maximilian crossed his arms, a skeptical look on his face. “And why is that?”
“Because the End of Time is sweeping across Pagan as we speak.”
“What? Show me!” Maximilian grabbed Cardul in an instant and dragged him back toward his mirror, showing no concern for his condition. Cardul indulged him and tapped his nails against the glasses, revealing a storm moving toward Pagan. A wasteland covered in dust was all that remained in its wake.
Maximilian's eyes widened in fear and disbelief. “Is this happening right now?”
“Time has no meaning in this place, so it could be happening at this very moment, or it could be nothing but a vision of things to come. The only way to be sure is to go there yourself. Which I could help you with as soon as I regain my strength.”
“Fine, then let's get this over qu—“
“Stop!” barked Alyssa suddenly. She was standing just behind them, her left hand keeping Cardul in place. “Show me what happened to Mimeidr.”
Cardul sighed and tapped the mirror once again. Mimeidr emerged from within the clouds, at first glance as majestic as when they had last seen it. But its leaves were starting to shrivel and decay, soon following the fate of the forest of which no trace remained. The clouds responsible were hovering close by, crimson lightning gathering within. It struck Mimeidr once in a while, only to be stopped by a dome of energy that covered the whole tree. Every other lightning bolt still managed to get through, slowly erasing bits and pieces of Mimeidr's trunk.
“So … there's nothing left, is there?” spoke Alyssa in a far off tone.
Cardul turned his head to watch her from the side. “I'm afraid not. And if you don't stop this, then all of Meceruun will share the same fate.”
“But we don't even know how to stop it,” said Drake. “I assumed Assar might be responsible, but if he's truly one of the Asen, then the End of Time will supposedly appear after his death. As will this Regkier Nhoell you mentioned.”
“In which case Meceruun is doomed no matter what. Unless you manage to achieve what I could not: to cleanse him of all evil and restore him to his rightful place. Your only other option would be to join me in this prison and abandon the outside world.”
Fury distorted Alyssa's beautiful features. “And let Feyadal's death be in vain? Never!” She pulled away from Cardul and spun around, calming herself with breathing exercises and the clenching of her fists.
“If time truly has no meaning here, then couldn't you just show us what will happen when we confront Assar?” said Maximilian.
“I wish I could, but your presence here makes that doubly impossible. Because not only have you confirmed that the confrontation hasn't happened yet, but you've also removed yourself from the stream of time by entering my prison. So the only future that would be possible right now would be one where none of you even exist.”
Maximilian grumbled, then stopped himself again. “Can't we just leave your prison and come back later? Then the possibility of us fighting Assar should exist again, right?”
“Perhaps, but even if you wait for only a few minutes, hundreds of years might have passed for me. And I'm not sure I can last that long, even if you leave me some blood to strengthen myself. The only reason I'm still around is because I spent most of the time in a state of suspension. But even that wears me down, both in body and soul.” Cardul raised one of his skeletal fingers as Maximilian opened his mouth. “Also, I'm not convinced that knowing the future is such a good idea. Because knowing what will happen could either invalidate the future … or make it come true in the first place.”
Drake swallowed a painful lump forming in his throat. “Yeah, I know that well enough. So let's just help him so that he can help us too.”
“Fine. But we've already lost if it kills you.” So Maximilian dragged Cardul back onto his bed.
The ancient vampire stretched his limbs, all of which cracked in an awful sort of way, as though his body was collapsing from the inside out. He shrank in turn and glanced at Drake. “There should be a goblet on one of the bookshelves. Fill it with your blood and bring it here.”
Drake obliged and looked around the room with Maximilian's help. Alyssa watched them with a blank expression, her arms wrapped around her body. The goblet in question was obscured by her hair, so it took them a while to unearth it. Drake took it to the dressing table, then unsheathed Carrazon to slice open his palm. Pressing it together, he drained enough blood to fill the goblet nearly all the way. A momentary wave of nausea gripped him as he did, doubling his reflection and pulling the floor from under his feet. Then he blinked and clutched the goblet and everything was fine.
Congratulations, you just avoided being killed by a curse!
Good thing I changed the plan...
“Maximilian, don't cut yourself just yet. It seems this curse will activate no matter if Cardul sucks the blood out personally or not.”
Maximilian glared at the vampire but decided to say nothing. He just watched Drake give him the goblet, which Cardul emptied in only a few seconds. His wrinkles vanished as he did, followed by his hair growing shorter, his nails recovering, and even his clothes becoming less disheveled. The air grew heavy the more he changed, making it quite obvious that his power was on a wholly different level than even Modera's had ever been. But even after being trapped for who knows how many centuries, he showed none of the madness that had claimed his wife, as was evident by the gentle smile he offered after emptying the goblet.
He wiped his lips, rose to his feet, and bowed in front of Drake. “Thank you for bringing back my strength. It might not be able to help you in your struggle, but I hope my gift will make up for that.”
“Depends on what it is,” responded Maximilian instead. “So are you gonna tell us what is it already?”
“I'd rather show you directly, so let's go back the way you came. I'd rather not waste my power fixing the castle. Might be pointless anyway.”
Back in the entrance hall, Cardul removed the fallen chandelier by levitating it into a corner. He then rolled up the rug, which fell apart in his hands, and knelt down to inspect the stones underneath. “Please give me a moment. It's been … I don't know how long, since I last opened this passage.”
He traced the stones with both of his hands and came to halt by the western end of the stairs. Placing his left hand upon a stone that didn't look much different from the others, he mumbled something under his breath. The whole room shuddered in response, scattering dust upon them all. A section of the floor then vanished into the ground with what sounded like a giant's footstep. Cardul backed away as more of them followed and stopped at the very beginning of the newly formed stairs.
“Couldn't you have simply told us how to open that?” said Maximilian.
“No. The vault opens only when it recognizes my fingerprints as well as my voice. If even one of those is missing, the intruder will be disintegrated on the spot. And if they somehow manage to ward themselves against it, then bolts of lightning will fry them from all sides.”
“Huh … whatever's done there better be amazing.”
Cardul smirked. “Oh, I don't think you'll be disappointed. Although you personally might have no use for it.”
They climbed down several flights of winding stairs, circling deeper and deeper into the earth, until a large metal gate stopped them in their tracks. Mysterious runes had been burned into its surface, all of which where arranged around a dull ruby positioned in the very center of the gate.
Cardul's feet lifted off the ground until his face was on eye level with the ruby. He turned his head from left to right, and the ruby glimmered every time. Then the gate rose into the ceiling and the room beyond was illuminated by a large pool bursting into flames.
“So, what would have happened in case someone actually made it this far?” said Maximilian.
“The gate would have fallen shut as soon as they were out of reach, instantly followed by another, even thicker gate. At the same time, the pool, which is filled with oil, would have spilled over, quickly covering the entire floor. A fiery inferno would then have cleansed the room, only stopping when all living creatures have been eradicated. Shielding themselves from the flames would therefore only have prolonged their suffering.”
They marched through another room whose exit was blocked by a dozen additional gates, each more massive than the one that came before and all of them covered in protective runes. Cardul's presence was enough to open them up, but progress was still slow, as each gate that opened caused the previous to fall. Therefore, they walked side by side, only taking another step when Cardul told them to. Anything else might either have locked them out or caused someone to be crushed.
The final chamber looked nearly identical to the first, with another pool occupying most of it. However, this one was part of a pedestal that was filled with crystal clear water glowing from within. A beautiful sword with a glittering blade was spinning above its surface without ever actually touching it.
“Is that what I think it is?” said Drake as he approached the pedestal.
“If you assume that to be the Heavenly Blade, then yes. Although that's a bit misleading, as it seems to be part of a set forged by the gods. And this one here is Kal'ed voul'ch, the blade of light.”
“Not the easiest name to pronounce,” said Maximilian as he grabbed the handle of his own blade. “I like Elegnis better.”
Cardul turned to him, frowning. “Elegnis?”
“That's what I called my copy of the Heavenly Blade.”
“Ah, I see. But it can never hope to live up to the original.”
“Can it burst into flames?”
Cardul shook his head.
“See? Then mine's already superior.” To demonstrate, Maximilian drew Elegnis and used it like a torch again.
The vampire smiled impishly and turned back toward the pool. “I'm afraid that by adding a secondary enchantment, neither of its powers will ever reach its full potential. There's only so much magic you can cram into an object after all. Especially into one crafted by the hands of mortals. Kal'ed voul'ch, however, is light incarnate, capable of banishing all darkness in an instant. The same applies to creatures drawing strength from said darkness, although beings like Adrammelech can only be weakened by its presence.”
Now that he had spoken, Drake finally became aware of the influence the blade had on him. The closer he got, the more muddled his mind became, making it impossible to concentrate. So he stepped back as far as possible, which wasn't quite enough to leave its sphere of influence. “So how were you able to wield it? I can barely stay in range.”
“The one chosen to carry Kal'ed voul'ch cannot be harmed by its effect. And that's why I need to transfer it to you. Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not asking you to abandon your shadow sword. You have to use them both, especially if Assar is truly one of the Asen, as that would mean that he too has access to the powers of darkness and the powers of light.”
“But I've seen what happens when those powers clash. And I'd rather not blow myself up while trying to defeat him.”
Cardul chuckled. “Don't worry. Kal'ed voul'ch is a refined and precise blade. It won't blow up in your face unless you want it too. And even then, its powers will shield you on their own. So you'll never have to erect another barrier by yourself. Just make sure you're facing the direction the attack is coming from. Don't get cocky, though. Even the most powerful of artifacts cannot shield you forever.” He stepped behind the blade and grabbed it by the hilt, slowly lifting it from its invisible restraints. “So come and let me transfer its ownership.”
Drake nodded and moved next to him with one quick jump so that Kal'ed voul'ch's power couldn't paralyze him before he got there. Cardul raised the blade toward the ceiling and held it in front of Drake's face.
“Grab the blade with both of your hands so that your blood can mingle with its power.”
Drake obliged and his palms burned up the moment he touched the blade. Cutting his flesh open made it even worse, as the inside of his body began to boil as though he was roasting on a spit. He still held on tight and swallowed the pain by biting his own lips.
Cardul placed his left hand upon one of Drake's and raised his head toward the ceiling. “I, Cardul Dragul, hereby relinquish my ownership of Kal'ed voul'ch so that the one whose blood is seeping into the blade may wield it next.”
A distant noise like rolling thunder echoed from afar and a cone of light burst through the ceiling, enveloping both Drake and Cardul. It grew so bright that no one could catch even a glimpse of what was happening. A high-pitched tone could be heart all throughout, resembling a choir holding a single note for far too long. The ground shook too, sending both Maximilian and Alyssa stumbling into walls.
Moments later, when the light began to fade, Cardul could be seen kneeling on the ground while Drake was holding Kal'ed voul'ch with both of his hands. The pain and the weakness had left his body, making way for newfound strength emanating from deep inside the blade. Ancient memories gushed forth at the same time, showing the castle in all its glory, Modera free of madness, armies marching forth, and mighty beasts trying to devour Cardul. The last of his memories showed his battle with Assar, which somehow saw them jumping all across the globe until the moment that Cardul leapt straight into his trap. Everything after that day was an incoherent mess that only got worse as the eons passed.
Cardul pushed himself to his feet and stretched his arms, showing none of the weakness Drake had felt while being near the Heavenly Blade. “So there you go. Now all that's left is to defeat Assar. Or save him, somehow.”
“I think what's more important is for me to learn how to wield two blades at once. Might be a short battle otherwise.”
“Then stay and train a while. My prison is the perfect place for that. And I'm sure you can use some relaxation after fighting almost non-stop.”
“Damn right!” bellowed Maximilian. “Although I would have preferred a place where I don't have to fear that the ceiling might cave in at any moment.”
Cardul crossed his arms, a smirk on his lips. “Don't worry. I'll make sure that no harm comes to you while in these walls. I cannot offer much in terms of food, however. But that shouldn't really be a problem with time being frozen. Unless your heads convince you otherwise.”
They stayed in the castle for a week or three—it was impossible to be sure with the sun never leaving its spot and with most of the castle being veiled in gloomy darkness. Drake and Maximilian sparred every day, the latter with his fire blade so that Carrazon didn't blow them both sky high. Alyssa watched them once in a while, never speaking a word unless she was spoken to herself. Anyone who watched her for more than a moment would soon have realized that she wasn't actually paying attention, however. Her mind was stuck in the past, remembering Feyadal and her village and the forest around it, all of which was now completely gone, never to resurface. Yet for some reason, she couldn't cry anymore. She just felt empty, like a piece of her had been ripped out.
One of these days, Drake was kicked across the roof, still unable to use his off hand as effectively as his dominant one. He slithered to a halt in front of Alyssa and only then realized that she paid them no heed, as she didn't even lower her head to meet his gaze. He rose to his feet and waved his hands in front of her eyes. “Alyssa, are you okay?”
“Of course she isn't okay,” said Maximilian from behind them. “How could she, after what happened? So … just leave her be, for now.”
“And then what? Hope that she'll be ready when the final battle draws near? We've been here for a while, you know? And I honestly can't remember her speaking much after Cardul gave me his sword.”
“We can give her all the time she needs, if necessary...”
“Waiting for her to maybe recover isn't much of a solution, though.”
“How'd you do it?” asked Alyssa suddenly, her mind now clear and her eyes on Drake. But her voice remained hollow and her posture slack.
“Do what … exactly?”
“Keep fighting after losing everything. I mean, I listened to the story that you told the dwarf. How your father's death left you in a stupor just like me. But when Arlington was leveled and when Emily was killed, you somehow kept going until this very day.”
Drake thought about that for a moment, his eyes on the ground and his memories surfacing from the depths of his mind. He saw his father die again, saw Emily evade his strike after Modera used her as a shield, saw the Mad Queen die at his hand … and then his memories grew fuzzy, until the day the End of Time drew near.
“To be honest, I simply had no time to mourn. Not after I realized that defeating Modera had ultimately solved nothing. So maybe I will, when all of this is over. But until then, I have to do my best. Otherwise, what was even the point in trying to survive? And you said it yourself, didn't you? That staying here would mean that Feyadal's death was in vain. So you have to fight, if you want to or not. Afterward, you can wail and scream for as long as you need.” He turned his head from side to side, mustering the castle. “I know, we could theoretically stay here forever, but that wouldn't solve anything. It would simply delay the final confrontation.”
Alyssa watched him for a while, saying absolutely nothing. So Drake wondered what else he could say. Or if his words had even reached her. But when he opened his mouth, she raised her hand and shook her head. “It's fine. I get what you're saying. But I still need a few more days. And then I'll try to join you.” She reached for Feyadal's bow, which was lying next to her, and clutched it firmly. “I need to get used to this bow after all. And it can't hurt to confront you with a different style.”
“You're always welcome,” said Maximilian.
Alyssa smiled faintly and rose to her feet. “I'll see you later. Good luck with your training.”
They waited for her to climb down the nearby stairs before resuming their positions. Drake then sighed and ruffled his hair. “Do you think she'll actually be fine?”
“Eventually, sure. At least on the outside. And that's all we can hope for right now. So let's keep going until then. We won't have any more time once w e leave.”
Drake had further doubts on his mind, but Maximilian left him no chance to utter even one of them. His flurry of blows sent Drake reeling from side to side, hardly able to parry, let alone strike back. Using his vampiric speed made little to no difference. Maximilian had seen him fight too often to be caught off guard. Fighting to the death might have turned out differently, unless Maximilian struck one of many openings that fighting with two blades should normally have covered. Like a full frontal assault, which crossing both blades should easily have stopped. Drake's left hand simply yielded to Maximilian's strength, however, nearly causing him to strike himself while Maximilian had the perfect opportunity to ram Elegnis deep into his body.
Cardul watched the training every so often, always hidden in the shadows of the nearest tower. He had seen every one of Drake's victories, some more than once, but he still couldn't help but worry that this final battle would be too much for him. And now that time had finally caught up with him, all he could was hope and pray that everything would turn out fine.
He reached into his vest and pulled out a small golden locket that he opened with the push of a button. Modera's smiling face looked back at him, like it would never do again. “Modera's all that kept me sane, you know? Even when I saw her lose her mind. Because I truly hoped that someday I'd be free, and that I could save her from the madness.”
Alyssa stepped from the shadows, being the only person he could possibly be speaking to.
“But I wasn't lying. I don't seek to avenge her death. Except, of course, by having him slay Assar. I wish I could do so myself, but even Kal'ed voul'ch couldn't pierce this barrier. So he will have to do, no matter how inexperienced he might be.”
“But you still hate him, don't you?”
Cardul snapped the locket shut and looked her in the eyes. “For killing the love of my life? How could I not? Although, to be honest, it wasn't he who landed the final blow. That … 'honor' was all Assar's. Because even when Drake thought he had finished her off, she still had one more card up her sleeve. One that saved her life at the very last moment.” He clenched his fist and the locket cracked. “Until Assar showed up and did her in … after revealing that I was still alive. Because that's what he does best. Make people suffer before they die. I saw it happen time and time again, all through his accursed mirror. But I couldn't pull myself away. It was my final lifeline after all, my last connection to the world of the living.”
“Yet all it did was make you suffer.”
Cardul shrugged. “Wouldn't you have done the same when the alternative would have been eternal boredom and obliviousness? Also, if I wasn't trapped in here, then everything I've seen and heard would give me strength, perhaps enough to slay Assar. I would even give my life to accomplish that.”
Alyssa cocked her head, her eyebrows twitching slightly. “And waste your final chance at freedom?”
“Freedom? In a ruined world where none of my kind remains? What would be the point?”
“You could sire new vampires, raise your kingdom from the ashes.”
“I could. But I won't. Even if I have the chance. Vampires are too much trouble once they've had a taste of power. You should know as much, given your age.” He took a deep breath and fixed his locket with the wave of a hand. “So let's cut this useless banter. I won't harm your friends. I promise. Doing so would only harm myself.” He crossed the room until Alyssa stood right next to him. “So see to it that Assar pays for what he did.”
“And if he's truly one of the Asen and his death would make the situation even worse?”
“Then at least make him suffer!” And so he marched down the stairs and slammed the door behind him. Drake and Maximilian paused when they heard it, but soon resumed their training, now with Alyssa watching from the shadows.
After many days or weeks, Drake was dancing across the roof, one blade parrying arrows, the other Maximilian's strikes. Even now his swordplay wasn't perfect, but neither Maximilian nor Alyssa had managed to drive him into a corner since they started their latest sparring session. They certainly came close time and time again, but Drake jumped and ducked and even slithered across the roof, never stopping for even a second.
Cardul clapping from the nearest staircase made them stop mid-battle and turn his way. “It seems you improved quite a lot in what little time you spent here. And I'm not just talking about Drake.” He crossed his arms and mustered their clothes. “Even then, you're looking worse for the wear the more time passes, so how about you spend the next few days relaxing in preparation for the final battle? I've even fixed the bath for you, which will provide you with warm water.”
Alyssa eyed herself, sniffing her clothes silently. “I could certainly use a bath. And new clothes, which I don't suppose you can help me with?”
“Actually, I could. If you don't mind wearing something that Modera once owned. I'd just have to adjust it a little.” He then looked from Drake to Maximilian. “As for you both, I might have something for you too. Enchanted clothes even, although not the most powerful. Those were sadly lost when Assar massacred my people.”
“Everything's better than this,” said Drake, not quite sure when he last had time to change into something fresh.
“As long as it isn't cursed,” added Alyssa.
Cardul smiled innocently. “I made you a promise, didn't I? Although some cursed equipment can actually be useful. If you can work around certain limitations, that is. Still, I wouldn't recommend it in this case. You'll need all your strength and concentration to take down Assar. Especially if he happens to be even stronger than when I fought him myself. So rest and relax. I'll take care of everything else.” He turned around and took a few steps, then stopped to look over his shoulder. “The bath is on the backside of the ground floor, by the way. And you can use it all at once, as there's a different partition for each gender.”
When he was gone at last, Maximilian turned to Alyssa. “What promise was he talking about?”
“That he wouldn't harm you. Of which I wasn't convinced until I watched him from the shadows. Still, he's not as nice as he appears to be. Not when it comes to Assar anyway.”
“Understandable. So let's take him down soon.”
Without another word, Maximilian charged at Drake once more. The vampire blocked his lunge by catching Elegnis between his blades and forcing it above their heads. His next move was to kick Maximilian in the stomach, but Alyssa's arrows forced him to jump backward instead. Getting closer was out of the question, so he circled around Maximilian to use him as a shield before attacking once more.
And that's how they continued for a few more hours. Only when their muscles ached and their legs threatened to collapse did they finally call it quits and make their way into the bowels of the castle. Filling the bath took only a few seconds, as the water was supplied by the nearby river. Certainly not the cleanest affair, but a filter installed within the mechanism assured that neither of them would leave any dirtier than how they had entered.
Heating the water took a little longer, so Maximilian challenged Drake to a push-up contest. Or rather, he demanded that Drake participate lest he want their training to be extended by a few more hours. Alyssa, who was forced to listen through a thin partition, could only roll her eyes. The groaning that followed didn't make it any better.
“Have fun while you can, but if you keep making such a clamor when the water is warmed up, then I'll kick your asses personally!” is what she yelled eventually.
Silence fell and that's how it stayed for most of the bath. So Alyssa could simply lean back and empty her mind, for once neither thinking about the past nor the future. Not an easy feat for sure, but the warmth pervading her flesh made her truly feel at peace, if only for a couple of hours. Only once, when her mind began to drift into the realm of dreams, did Feyadal's image force itself into her consciousness. And not just as a memory but as an alternate depiction of reality, with him sliding into the water and his naked body approaching hers.
She rose from that delusion with a start, only then realizing that the water was starting to go cold. It served her well enough, so she stayed a few more minutes to cool herself off. Afterward, she simply wrapped a towel around herself so she didn't have to wear her dirty clothes any more. The others had obviously left some time ago, so she didn't expect to run into them. And even if she had, it would hardly have been a problem. Living in the forest didn't come with a lot of privacy after all. Especially while taking a bath.
Someone did cut her off just before she made it to her room, however. It was Cardul with a bag in hand. He glanced at her for only a second before forcing his eyes upon her face. “I'm sorry to disturb you in this state, but I'll be gone the next few days to prepare for your departure, so I thought it prudent to give you these supplies in advance.”
Alyssa took the bag and peered inside, finding lots of potions shining green and blue. Only one of them was different, as it pulsed rhythmically, constantly shifting between many shades of red. She pulled it out while pressing the bag to her chest and shook the vial from side to side. “What's this? It doesn't look like blood.”
“Of course not. I would have used it myself if that were the case. But it's still meant for vampires, and only them. Everyone else would die an agonizing death before they could ever reap the benefits of it.”
“So it's dangerous?”
“If used incorrectly, yes. It incites a murderous frenzy drawing power from the blood itself. But if used for too long, the user's blood will start to boil, slowly killing him from the inside out. So a vampire is the only one who can survive it. If he stops in time, by which I mean his target has to die, as the frenzy will cease when the kill is achieved.”
Alyssa frowned and put it back. “So it's a last resort in case me and Maximilian are killed?”
“Perhaps. But there's no reason not to ingest it sooner. He just has to be certain that victory is possible. You could of course provide him extra blood all throughout—there's some empty vials for just that purpose—but if the frenzy crosses a certain threshold, then his whole consciousness will be devoured, desiring nothing but another kill, no matter if it's friend or foe.”
“Let's keep it as a last resort then. But thanks anyway.”
“No problem. Now enjoy these last few days. There won't be any rest once you step into Modera's pocket dimension.”
Alyssa nodded and watched him vanish in the darkness. Then she stepped into her own tiny room and found a beautiful, yet simple, violet dress lying on her bed. It covered most of her upper body, but stopped just above her knees, giving her just the kind of mobility she needed for battle. Picking it up caused her body to prickle, its magic amplified by whatever enchantment had been weaved into the cloth.
She put it on and smiled while looking in the mirror. The color didn't fit her pale appearance, but Feyadal would surely have liked what he was seeing. Her eyes burned at the thought alone, so she rubbed them for a moment while forcing back his smiling face. Afterward, she grabbed the bag and picked some potions for herself. With the others still in hand, she went to her companion's quarters, first listening at their doors, then knocking loudly. Neither of them responded, so she poked her head inside and saw them both to be fast asleep.
She divided the remaining potions between their desks, then took a few more seconds to inspect both of their clothes. Drake's consisted of a black, royal doublet with a golden pattern as well as a simple pair of trousers made from the same silken material. Her arm moved a little faster as she held it in her fingers, once again rousing memories of Feyadal.
Maximilian had gotten an actual piece of bluish black armor, although one that put mobility above survivability. The enchantment tried to make up for that by coating the wearer in a thin protective film. Didn't quite achieve the same effect, but being able to evade Assar's attack was certainly preferable to being an encumbered and therefore stationary target.
Content with what she had seen, Alyssa returned to her own room to enjoy what little time they had left.
While their days of training seemed to have taken forever, their peaceful days were over far too quickly, and also without warning. Cardul just appeared one morning and said “It's time to go”.
He led them to the roof, where the mirror from his chamber had been placed upon a wooden stool. A pearl necklace had been laid upon it, with three chrome tourmalines weaved in. Each of the gemstones faced a different direction and glittered like a lake, reflecting a succulent green.
Cardul tapped the mirror and Modera's tower emerged from within. “I did a few tests these last few days and the mirror is working as a perfect conduit to the world beyond. The only thing it doesn't accept is me. You, on the other hand, should be able to step through just fine, which will send you to your destination in a matter of seconds. You have to be quick about it, though, as I'm not sure if an artifact meant to reflect the outside world will survive being misused as a portal.”
“So you might lose your only connection to the outside world?” said Drake.
“Maybe. But I honestly don't mind. There's nothing left worth watching, except perhaps your victory. The possibility of you being killed and me being trapped for all eternity is more than enough reason to abstain, however. So I'll just see and wait what happens. Even if it takes forever.”
“We'll do our best!” bellowed Maximilian as he swung his blade upon his shoulder. “So open that portal and let us finish this.”
Cardul smiled and turned back toward the mirror. He grabbed the necklace and mumbled something while cradling the first tourmaline. The moment he was done, he crushed the jewel as though it was a fruit. Its remnants rained upon the mirror and turned its surface into tiny waves. Repeating the process two more times made it seem like something was trying to burst through from the other side. That's when Cardul grabbed the mirror and spun it toward Drake and the others. Howling, he clutched the frame and pulled with all his strength, somehow widening the mirror without it snapping in half.
“Go now and put an end to the Calamity! If not for me or Modera, then for all the others who suffered as result of his emergence.”
Wasting no time, they jumped through the portal one by one. The mirror shattered the moment they were gone, almost blowing Cardul off the roof. He grabbed the ledge just in time and propelled himself back up. Something had already changed by then. A person was standing where the mirror had been.
“I must thank you for putting the end in motion,” spoke Assar. “But with that, you've served your purpose. So let me put an end to your eternal suffering.”
Cardul burst into laughter. “Oh, so now you finally show up again … when Kal'ed voul'ch cannot harm you anymore. Coward!”
“Call me what you will. It won't change what's going to happen. All that's left is for you to decide if you want to die a quick and painless death, or if I have to make you suffer before you finally give up.”
Cardul raised his hands and conjured fireballs with each.
Assar smiled and raised his blade. “So be it then. Goodbye!”
And so they fought their final battle, perhaps for only a moment, or perhaps for many days. The only person who knew for certain didn't care to share. And why would he? His continued existence was proof enough that Drake was now the last survivor of a once proud race.