Alyssa and Maximilian held their weapons at the ready, studying Assar's every movement. But he just smiled and waited, his right hand resting loosely on the hilt of his sword. The ticking of a clock resounded from behind him, its source hidden in the blackness. It echoed like voices in a cave and didn't seem to follow any rhythm.
A few seconds passed, then Assar started tapping his fingers against his blade. “Come on now, Drake. Ask your questions before I kill you where you stand.”
Drake snarled and stepped a little closer, Kal'ed voul'ch throbbing in his grip. “Are you truly one of the Asen?”
Assar smiled as bluish-white flames burst from his throne. They flickered almost invisibly and harmed neither his body nor the surrounding area. “Yes, I'm the guardian of the north, now the last protector of this world.”
“Is that why you wiped out Cardul's army and tried to kill him too?”
“You mean because vampires are evil and intruded upon my domain? No, not at all. I had already … changed at that point.”
“You mean turned evil?” interjected Alyssa.
Assar shrugged. “If you want to call it that. But the truth of the matter is that I was shown my destiny. The one that doomed me to die at your hands. So I hunted every vampire to stop my fate from coming true. Of course, Modera was the only one that mattered … but she was slippery, even at the peak of her madness. And when I finally found her … a part of me refused. My good side, so to say. The same part of my being that urged me to spare you, enabling this very moment from coming to pass.”
“So him being a weakling wasn't the actual reason?” said Maximilian.
“Not completely, no. But it truly would have been a shame to strike him down without giving him a chance. So here we are, at the end of the road. And I won't stand for the fate I'm meant to suffer. Not after wasting all these eons to keep this world afloat.”
“And I don't want to doom this world,” said Drake. “So tell me how to stop the End of Time and we can go our separate ways!”
“I already told you that this won't happen!” Darkness swallowed the white flame and crimson light flickered in his eyes. “I have to kill you … I need to kill you!” He gripped his blade and made to rise, then his limbs turned weak and he fell right back. The darkness billowed in result, shifting between black and white.
“Because this world isn't worth saving. Not with all the errors made in its creation. Only oblivion can put things right. And this time, no one can undo it. Neither you, nor the gods, nor anyone else.”
“This time? So what Adrammelech said is true? That all of this has happened before?”
Assar chuckled and flung his right leg up again. “Oh yes. And you're the one who screwed it up. All because you were so selfish that you didn't care about the bigger picture. As result, all of creation went poof!” He underlined his words by snapping open both his hands and thrusting them away from his body. “And that should have been it. But time is not a linear affair. Every decision causes branches in the timeline, so everything that can possibly happen has truly happened somewhere out there. But only one of these branches is seen as the one true timeline. All the others eventually end in tragedy. And then they snap off and fade into the sea of time.”
Maximilian frowned. “How does that relate to all of this happening again?”
“Accessing these lost histories would normally be impossible. Or at least very difficult. That's where Drake comes into play. He was all that remained when creation was undone. Might have been a fluke, or maybe a cruel sort of punishment. The fact of the matter is that he was powerful. Not enough to undo what he caused, but the essence of creation was strong inside his flesh. It originated in the Spark of Life, which had lain dormant since the start of time, its power mostly spent. But even then it held potential far beyond imagination. All it needed was a willing sacrifice containing the same kind of power it had once spread across the universe.”
Drake gulped while vague memories of endless, gelid darkness flashed through his mind. They made him queasy to the bone, his legs shaking, his fingers twitching, and his heart cramping up. He dug his fingers into his chest and looked Assar into the eyes. “By which you mean … me?”
“Indeed. And when your essence was absorbed into the Spark of Life, the gods used its power to reunite the stream of time, patching together a semblance of the history you destroyed. By doing so, the end of all creation was itself undone. But it couldn't stay that way. Time had come to an end. Patching it up only delayed the inevitable. You've seen what happened next.”
Red lighting streaked through his memories and sent goosebumps up his flesh. “You mean … Arlington being destroyed?”
“Yes. And that was only the beginning, as Alyssa knows quite well by now.”
Alyssa's hand flew to her quiver, but Maximilian clutched her wrist and shook his head decisively, earning himself a nasty look. She still relented when he wouldn't let go and dug her fingers into her palms instead.
“In the original timeline, Meceruun would have lasted a little longer. But now its time is up.”
“Then how do I stop it?” bellowed Drake, spewing spittle at Assar's feet.
Assar glanced down, then lowered his left foot to wipe off the other. His piercing eyes then flashed to Drake. “By killing me. If you don't, then I'll kill you!”
“But you're one of the Asen! A protector of this world! Killing you can only make it worse!”
“But at least you have a chance. More than as a corpse.”
Drake opened his mouth, then slammed it shut, biting his own lips.
Assar continued, “But honestly, what's the point? You failed once and you will fail again. So why not end this misery right now? You'd be doing all of us a favor.”
“Then tell me how I failed so I can avoid making the same mistake again!”
Assar smirked. “Like you avoided killing your father?”
Drake rushed to his throne, so close to plunging his blades into Assar's grinning visage. “I'm stronger now!” he screamed instead and then backed off.
“So you say. But that doesn't make it true.” He clutched his sword and rose to his feet, his brown coat fluttering despite there being no wind. “So kill me and prove that you deserve another chance!”
Raising his left hand, he flicked his fingers. Every vial erupted in response, spilling potions and blood all over the floor. Alyssa shrieked as shards dug themselves into her flesh and she shot an arrow at Assar's face. The room suddenly stretched, propelling Assar and his throne far into the distance. Only the light coming from his platform continued to reveal his location. Alyssa's arrow missed him by a long shot and orbs of energy sprang into existence, lining the darkness from side to side. Some were white, others black, but each was the size of a massive boulder.
“I hope you had no further questions,” bellowed Assar from far away, his voice barely reaching over. “Because the time for that is over now. Only when one of us falls will this battle come to an end. So fight with all you got! There won't be any other chance.”
Let me take over. I will finish this!
No! I have to be the one to do this. I have to prove that I won't fail!
The beast snorted. Fine, but the moment you screw up, I will yank you from the wheel!
Not going to happen.
Sure, sure. Whatever you say, oh mighty savior.
The orbs of energy burst into motion, some instantly, others with a slight delay. Lightning erupted from each and every one and ascended far into the darkness, making them impossible to be jumped over. Beams and arrows tried to stop them in their tracks, yet the orbs smashed right through, never even slowing down.
Meanwhile, Assar was doing absolutely nothing. He just stood there with his sword at his side, the orbs reflecting in his eyeballs. More kept spawning every few seconds, creating a gauntlet behind which Assar seemed perfectly safe. His eyes still jumped to the side when Drake slipped through the first two orbs reaching his location. The gap in-between had been slim, but he wasn't a vampire for nothing.
Maximilian didn't have it quite so easy. He zigzagged back and forth, passing through some of the larger gaps but never making much progress. The one time he did, the orbs suddenly sped up, forcing him to run back as quickly as his legs allowed. Switching Elegnis to its fiery form, he burned the darkness all around him. Pillars of fire stretched as far as the line of orbs could go, and there they stopped. Circumnavigating the gauntlet was impossible. So he cursed in annoyance and tried again.
Alyssa had it easier, somehow overtaking Drake before he even crossed the halfway mark. But even while she ran, she also fired arrows, taking advantage of every singly gap that opened a potential passage to Assar. None of them ever reached their target despite them seeming faster than most of the orbs.
Many steps later, Alyssa found out why.
The ground gave out beneath her feet and darkness coiled around her legs, ensnaring her before she even realized what was happening. She stumbled and bounced back, then glanced down quickly, followed by a panicked jerk back up. Another orb was racing straight toward her. Arrow after arrow smashed into the ground, exploding uselessly. The tendrils keeping her in place could not be moved. Not without striking herself—a revelation coming far too late.
The massive orb crashed into her chest and a wave of energy dispersed around her body. A powerful current surged through her flesh, burning her from the inside out. She screeched like a banshee and was hurled far back, her hair curling itself and its tips sizzling away. Maximilian dashed to catch her and snatched her out of the air, falling to his knees, then jumping up quickly, sidestepping an orb aiming for them both.
“You okay?” said Maximilian, nearly disregarding the smoke rising from Alyssa's mouth and nose. The elf groaned and nodded, her eyes flickering open. She placed a hand upon her chest and blue light enveloped her body, healing her internal injuries. A trickle of blood still ran down her lips, its source unclear.
Moments later, Drake passed the point where Alyssa had been snatched. The tendrils reached toward him and Kal'ed voul'ch flared up, scorching the darkness and steadying the ground. But from there on out, the orbs moved even faster, giving Drake no time to catch his breath. He jumped and dashed and retreated, advancing slowly and backing off a lot.
Assar's eyes followed every move with ultimate precision, jumping left and right and center, missing no contortion. And then he spun his blade around, readying it for combat. He stood like this for close to a minute, the rest of his body still frozen in place. Then, for a second or two, he was about to lower the sword. It spun back up when Drake slipped through the tiniest of openings and finally their weapons clashed. Kal'ed voul'ch and Carrazon formed a cross upon impact, applying the full force of Drake's momentum upon Assar's blade. Still, he only used one hand and didn't budge at all.
“Nice to see you made it. So let me formally introduce Abolitor, one of the Heavenly Blades!”
Black flames sprung from his blade and reached toward Drake. The vampire leapt backward and Assar followed hard on, attacking from the center and slicing to the side. The force of his attack yanked Carrazon aside, leaving Drake open for a second. Spinning Abolitor around, Assar used it like a dagger. It sliced open the side of Drake's hip, and then he got away, moving just in time.
He reappeared behind Assar, his body spinning in a circle and both blades racing for the Asen's flesh. Assar just took a step and Drake hit nothing but thin air. At that moment, one of the orbs reversed directions and propelled itself at Drake. Assar stood in-between and didn't move a muscle, confusing the vampire. The orb then passed right through him and Drake scrambled away.
Assar was on him in a flash. He forced Drake's body to the ground and grabbed Abolitor with both hands, thrusting it at the vampire's heart. Drake used all his strength to push himself up and Abolitor missed its target, slicing off the vampire's right cheek instead. A gaping hole was left behind, spurting blood and revealing the inside of his mouth. Drake channeled the pain into his blades and rammed them behind his back. But Assar simply jumped away.
“You have to do a lot better than that. And I fear you aren't strong enough to take on someone of my caliber just yet.”
“Good thing he isn't alone then!” screamed Maximilian, who appeared out of nowhere, Alyssa in tow. Elegnis descended at just that moment and Assar spun quickly to intercept it. He still slithered backward a few inches, which brought a smile to his face.
“Huh, I wasn't sure you'd make it. And then you go and turn invisible!” His eyes flashed to Alyssa, who was just about to nock an arrow. “Maybe I should finish you off first to spare me more surprises.”
Drake came flying at just that moment, forcing Assar to momentarily retreat. Arrows followed his arc, always missing by a hair's breadth. Beams of light came shooting for his destination, so he thrust out his left hand and redirected them. Then Drake was on him once again, both his blades closing in from different directions. Assar parried the one heading for his neck while blood spurted from his belly. His body then touched down and he kicked Drake back before his blade cut deeper.
Maximilian came running from behind the vampire while arrows flew right past, all heading for Assar. He stopped the projectiles in mid-air and swung Abolitor around. Metal clashed on metal, then flames leapt for his face. Assar growled and stumbled back, arrows tearing into his flesh. Heat enveloped his body and light flashed beyond the flames.
Every single attack was swallowed by the darkness. Assar had vanished like a mirage.
“Where'd he go?” yelled Maximilian.
“Over there!” screamed Alyssa and pointed at the darkness far above.
Assar was hovering in mid-air, both his hands stretched out. Abolitor was nowhere to be seen, but lightning crackled in his palms, first extending to the darkness, then switching to the field below. The orbs were drawn to each of the beams, quickly circling in the center of the chamber. Their own lightning joined together and fed back into Assar. The noise it caused was deafening, preventing Drake and the others from speaking to another.
“What's he doing?” screamed Drake anyway.
He got the answer in a heartbeat. The orbs came flying like cannonballs, completely unpredictable. All they had in common was their general direction: where Drake and the others were standing. They also covered both the ground and the sky, leaving hardly any openings to speak of. And those that could be seen were plucked up by orbs coming from even further back.
Alyssa threw herself into the line of fire and erected a barrier just before the first orb hit. Lightning crackled and energy surged along the unseen shield, causing it to flicker and Alyssa to groan. More orbs slammed down all at once, blasting tiny holes into the barrier. Offshoots of the lightning surged right through and struck Alyssa's torso. She screeched and slithered backward, her barrier flaring up and its edges crumbling away.
Drake and Maximilian covered her sides and deflected all they lightning their eyes and blades could catch. But even that wasn't enough, as the onslaught lasted barely a minute, with hundreds of orbs hitting the barrier.
Alyssa collapsed when the last orb faded away. Her skin was covered in sweat and bloody bruises puckered all over. But at least she was breathing, although her throat rattled like nails rolling in a pot.
The room suddenly turned white and a red flash assaulted both Drake and Maximilian. The latter was flung sideways, rolling multiple times, while Drake deflected the blow with both of his blades, only slithering across the floor. Assar stopped in front of him, tattered wings adorning his back. Black smoke enveloped both, making them seem bigger than they actually were. Abolitor, on the other hand, was veiled in crimson light and throbbed like a human heart.
“Was your first form not enough?” spit Drake out, his arms hurting from the impact.
“Maybe not. But this might be.” He vanished in an instant, almost impossible for Drake to follow. Their swords then clashed again and again, from the side, the back, the front, above, all of which transpired in less than a second. Some of these, Drake couldn't parry, as was evident by more and more cuts appearing on his skin. His torn up cheek had almost healed by then, but the more injuries he suffered, the more his powers were spread thin. So eventually, his wounds stopped healing. He had to channel all his power to actually fight back.
He spun and sliced and blocked, slowly getting a feel for Assar's continued onslaught. The blood loss was a problem, though. It blurred his vision and dulled his instincts, almost leading to a fatal injury on multiple occasions. Like the time Assar tried to ram Abolitor through the hole in his cheek and diagonally into his brain. He only survived that by falling onto his back and having his flesh torn open once more. It also cost him parts of his teeth, the result of which felt like explosions going off in his mouth.
Maximilian tried to help as much as possible, but Assar kept kicking him away, occasionally slicing up his flesh. Human eyes just weren't capable of following his movement. Closing his eyes and listening to the air rushing past might have made a difference, but doing so would also have given Assar the perfect chance to finish him off. Therefore, he studied what little he could see, hoping for a different kind of opening. Even then he didn't stand still. He circled around, back and forth, sending beams of light wherever Assar could show up next.
None of these ever connected.
Drake, upon spotting Maximilian's attempts, suddenly began to spin, both his arms stretched out wide, the blades within forming a deadly tornado. Assar backed off, then chuckled to himself, flashing to the darkness above Drake's head. Maximilian caught side of that and instantly realized what Drake was doing. Or so he hoped, because the next thing he did was stand still until Assar's form vanished again.
Beams of light tore into the Asen's flesh just as he was planning to impale Drake. They stole his speed and pushed him back, a chance Drake used to plunge Carrazon and Kal'ed voul'ch deep into his stomach. “Explode!” he screamed out loud.
A fireball rocked the room and Drake flew backward, hitting the ground hard and rolling backward, his limbs moving at impossible angles and his neck cracking loudly. When he finally came to a stop, every bone and muscle in his body throbbed with agony. He had to force his limbs back into position, first pulling them from under his body, then snapping them back to how they meant to look. Agony erupted every time, stealing his vision and almost knocking him out.
When he shambled to his feet, he looked to where Assar had been. He stood there now, the hole in his stomach closing slowly and his wings lying on the ground, their connective tissue blown apart. Maximilian knelt not far away, having suffered an injury that stretched across his stomach. Rivers of blood ran down his armor and pooled upon the ground. He tottered to his feet nonetheless and tried to swing Elegnis. Assar raised his left hand without even turning to look. A lightning bolt struck Maximilian in the chest and sent him flying like a doll. He slammed down on his stomach near the edge of the room and howled in pain.
“Almost done now,” proclaimed Assar with a wicked smile, his eyes on Drake. White wings sprouted from his back, red streaks pulsing within. “Should I play with you a little longer? Or do you want a quick and painless death? I'll give you ten seconds to decide.”
We need more strength!
But the vials are all gone!
There's still more than enough blood lying around!
Would you rather be destroyed and get them killed anyway?
Drake's eyes jumped from Alyssa to Maximilian.
The elf lay too far way, almost in Assar's reach. Maximilian lay much closer, although Assar could easily have crossed the distance in a heartbeat.
Drake's body shuddered as the beast took control. It propelled his body through the room and rammed his fangs into Maximilian's neck. Assar watched it happen without lifting a finger, a smile playing around his lips.
“Ten … I guess,” he said eventually.
Metal clashed on metal and one explosion after the other rocked the ground and the sky as both combatants moved back and forth like lightning. The beast was still in control, pouring every ounce of power into the battle, uncaring for the consequences. Alyssa's body was blown away by one explosion while Maximilian's skin turned ashen, his breathing fading slowly.
“Stop this pointless struggle, Drake! You've already proven that you cannot win by relinquishing control!” Yet despite his words, blood was blemishing Assar's skin. Mostly from superficial injuries, but the countless numbers of blows caused his skin to open more and more, revealing flesh and bones and muscle tissue.
“Do you think I give a damn? Just die already!” But Drake too suffered countless injuries, quickly losing all the blood his power was being drawn from. Desperate, he left himself wide open to slice off Assar's wings, hoping for a similar advantage as during the battle against Adrammelech.
Assar neither lost altitude nor did he slow down. And with Drake's torso exposed, he raised his left hand and blew a hole right through. The vampire coughed up blood, his eyes wide open, and crashed onto the ground, his body contorting in pain.
“So this is the end,” said Assar as he floated to the ground. “But at least you put a good fight … even if part of that was not your own doing.”
“Me and him … are one! So it doesn't matter,” said Drake, now back in control.
Assar shrugged. “Perhaps. But it doesn't change the end result. Maybe you would have been less stupid, but now we'll never find out, will we?”
Drake tried to speak, then coughed up even more blood. His stomach burned as if dissolving in acid and his muscles cramped up hard, feeling more like rocks.
Assar waltzed over with a stupid grin plastered on his face, blood covering his skin and spurting from his torn up wings. He hobbled noticeably with every step and the fingers of his left hand spasmed all the time, forcing him to ball them into fists.
He stopped in front of Drake and swung Abolitor around, so that the blade pointed to the ground. “Don't be sad that you have lost. Soon, eternal darkness will reign supreme, erasing Heaven, Hell, and all creation. So no one has to suffer anymore. Not even you.” He clutched Abolitor with both of his hands, and then an arrow tore through his back, spraying Drake with blood.
Alyssa had risen to her knees and fired arrow after arrow. But Assar had turned at that point, easily swaying left and right, avoiding further injury.
“You should have just stayed down, girl. Maybe then you could have lived a few more—“
Drake's arms swung around Assar's neck and his fangs tore into the Asen's flesh. Screaming, Assar grabbed him with a slight delay and flung him overhead, tearing open his own neck.
Assar snarled, his body tilting forward. “Did you really think that could possibly wor—“
Another arrow tore into his flesh, causing him to stumble backward, almost keeling over. He chuckled nonetheless, his head jerking back. “Stay down!” he bellowed and thrust his left arm to the ground. Alyssa was felled as if hit by tree and her nose cracked horribly.
At that very moment, Assar's stomach was sliced open. He had just enough time to look at himself before darkness mingled with light and erupted in his damaged flesh. The resulting explosion wasn't quite as powerful as the one inside his body, but it still flung him to the edge of the room, where Maximilian's quivering figure was trying to rise from the ground.
Seeing what was happening, Maximilian clutched Elegnis and raised it high with what little strength he had. The impact nearly ripped it from his fingers, then the blade found purchase and ruptured Assar's heart.
The last of the Asen gasped his final breath and then his eyes went dull.
Victory had finally been achieved, but only Drake truly noticed.