Ok, so...I was a little hasty with the posting and deleting of this chapter. I wasn't feeling very confident about it. The recent flood of reviews I've gotten has made me decide to put it back up. But I will stress that this chapter is just a rough draft. I haven't been able to revise it because my mind has been elsewhere lately. But hopefully I can get some helpful feedback, especially since I think the idea of bringing three new characters in during the course of a single chapter is a little iffy.
"For this freedom, I have given all I had
For this darkness, I gave my light
For this wisdom, I have lost my innocence
Take my petals
And cover me with the night"
- Emilie Autumn, "Rose Red"
VII: Beyond Time
Vanja descended the stairs to a series of crumbling rooms, down in the very heart of the clockwork that woke the Army. The rooms showed their age, and would be useless as a real prison, but when the prisoners are surrounded by twice as many huge, mechanical soldiers, the conventional trappings of imprisonment become obsolete.
Red lay on the floor of one of the rooms, the walls of which were all in such states of decay that the area might as well have been one large room. The others were gathered around their wounded hero. When Vanja entered, Liz's tear-streaked face distorted into the very image of rage. Liz leapt from the floor and threw herself at Vanja, letting out a strange, grief-riddled war cry as she did. Vanja's face was stoic, but showed her sadness. She grabbed Liz's arm easily before the woman's body even connected with Vanja's, and jerked her around so that the arm was twisted behind her. Vanja wrapped her other arm around Liz's stomach, holding her close.
Liz broke down completely, crying so hard that her attempts to ask "why?" came out as nonsense syllables.
"Sshhh….It's okay, Liz," Vanja whispered in her friend's ear, "everything's going to be okay. Please calm down so that I can let you go."
Liz's sobs slowly began to quiet, and Vanja released her. Liz slid back down to the floor. As Vanja stepped over to the others and knelt down next to HB, she heard Liz's flames ignite, crackling and becoming the physical incarnation of the woman's rage and sadness. Vanja realized that Liz had held it back. Liz could have killed her if she'd wanted to. Vanja took a deep breath, swearing to herself that she'd never hurt Liz like this again, and praying that she could keep that vow.
"How you doin', Red?" she asked quietly, placing a hand over his where he held the wound.
Hellboy's eyes rolled up to meet Vanja's with a mix of annoyance and hate.
"Sorry," Vanja sighed, "I'm not sure if this will keep you from hating me, but…"
Vanja pulled Nuala's dagger from her belt, and cut open her wrist. Abe gasped, Krauss looked intrigued - however that was possible without facial features - and Liz and Red were both too far gone in grief and pain, respectively, to notice what was going on. Vanja pulled Red's hand away from the injury, and let her blood drip onto the open wound. Red flinched a little, but showed no other sign of pain or relief.
After a few drops of blood, Vanja's wrist healed up but Red's wound didn't look any different. Vanja groaned in annoyance and cut open the vein again, hissing and trying to bite back the pain. She figured she must have cut deeper this time because the blood practically flowed from her vein to the wound in Hellboy's side. Abe, Vanja, and Krauss all felt themselves leaning forward to see if the blood was doing its job. It was. Slowly, the wound began to shrink, and, finally, close altogether.
Red groaned, gasped, and opened his eyes, much as if he were waking from a dream. His mind seemed to be working around what had just happened, and all his thought processes showed on his face. Vanja smiled despite the situation. Liz rushed to Hellboy's side, her entire body still engulfed in flames, her hands running over Hellboy's healed wound.
"What the hell did you do?" Liz hissed, sounding more as if Vanja had just poisoned HB rather than healing him.
The emotion that suddenly took over Liz's face resembled insult. Shock, perhaps.
Then Red started laughing. A boisterous, rumbling sound that Vanja hadn't heard in quite a while.
"The sun," he choked out, between peals of laughter.
"Yeah. I drank from him, and now," Vanja was surprised at how much her words sounded like confession, "my heart beats and I can walk in the sun."
"So, what do we do now?" Liz whispered, the flames receding as she wiped the tears from her face.
"I'm sorry, but you don't do anything."
"Vanja! This is fucking ridiculous," Liz spat, tired and exasperated. "You're going to let him destroy the world?"
"Not the world, Liz," Vanja corrected, her voice calm and even.
"Just the humans, is that it?"
Vanja nodded. "And, I know it's terrible, because no one else here has ever damned the fate of humanity for love."
Liz and Abe both shifted their eyes away from Vanja, knowing full well what she meant.
"It was different, Vanja, we didn't actually let it happen…" Liz's argument was weak and she knew it.
"So, just because you didn't think about the consequences, you're not guilty of anything? Come on, Liz. Do any of you even have the strength to do this anymore? Liz, you're pregnant. Abe, you've got Nuala now. Do you honestly have the conviction to go on protecting a world that hates you?"
Vanja knew none of them liked the rationale, partly because it was true. But she could see all of them thinking about it.
"Liz, what are you going to do when the kids are born? You want them to live in this world? How's it going to shape them? Will they still want to protect it after seeing how it repays those who do? I know this is hard to accept, guys, but really think about it. What were you fighting for? What were you protecting?"
Silence fell, and was broken shortly after by footfalls echoing down the stairwell. Vanja slipped past the Golden Army soldiers to meet the approaching party. She was surprised to find herself staring at two tall, beautiful men with glowing, tanned skin, angular faces, and identical manes of long, blond-white hair. One carried a bow, and the other held a broadsword and had another strapped to his back.
"Milady," they each addressed Vanja and bowed their heads in recognition.
"Nuada sent us to watch over the prisoners," the sword-wielding elf informed her. "He wishes for you to join him. There is a party waiting upstairs to escort you."
"I…" Vanja hesitated. She didn't want to leave Red and the others. She somehow felt that by staying here she would be showing loyalty. But did they really want that from her? What more was she going to do for them by staying here? And she would admit that the curiosity in her was growing - what was Nuada doing out there?
"Be kind to them," she warned. "They are my friends."
The elves both nodded reverentially and moved past Vanja, down the corridor toward "the prisoners." Vanja watched them for a moment, then made her way up the stairs and back to the main room. She moved gracefully over the now-dormant clockwork in the center of the room. Another pair of elves was waiting for her at the top of the stairs.
While the elves sent to keep an eye on HB and the others resembled Nuada so strongly Vanja knew they must be of his clan, the two that now stood before her were a different race entirely. They were slightly shorter and more muscular than Nuada and the others, their skin was a warm, light brown and both elves bore many tribal-looking tattoos. Although there was little to distinguish what their ages might be, one wore his dark blond hair long and loose from restraint, giving him an air of a kind of middle age in which he was done with expression through physical style. The other wore his brown hair in a short Mohawk that did afford him the atmosphere of youth but also seemed extremely fitting for a tribal, warrior lifestyle. Their simple leather clothes also spoke of their lives, the apparel very different from the perpetually regal garb Nuada always wore. That simplicity seemed to reflect bravery, for the seemingly younger one was shirtless, perhaps for comfort, or simply to better sport his tattoos.
Vanja was still taking in their appearances when the Mohawked one smiled and greeted her with a strong hug that caught her completely off guard. Vanja froze in his arms, alarm and amusement mingling on her face.
The other shook his head. "I apologize, milady," he told her, regret and a strange fondness mixed in his voice.
The one Vanja had now decided was definitely the younger released her and took a step back, his face holding a charming grin.
"I am Caelaias," the older one continued after his apology, "this is my brother, Malashk. Forgive his lack of manners."
Vanja chuckled as Malashk rolled his eyes, like he'd heard it all before.
"Nuada wanted you to see," Malashk informed her. "It's incredible out there," he continued with a look in his eyes and a tone in his voice that indicated he wished he could still be "out there."
"So, why do you two look so different from Nuada and the other two he sent?" Vanja inquired while they rode horses through the deserted countryside.
"We're wild elves," Malashk informed her.
"The names don't matter much now," Caelaias was quick to point out, "there are so few of us left."
"Nuada's clan are sun elves. There's the most of them left," Malashk continued as if his brother had never spoken. "There's always been the most of them, because they naturally live longer."
"Sun elves? That's why his appearance changes out of the sun?" Vanja thought out loud.
"Yeah…" Malashk's voice trailed off as they crested a hill and what Malashk had described earlier as "incredible" came into view.
"Incredible" wouldn't have been the first word Vanja would have put on the scene, though she supposed it really was. But she wouldn't think of calling something so devastating and destructive "incredible."
Every building was burning, and the light of the fire made clear the red shimmer of blood on the streets. But this place was deserted. The battle had already been fought here. And something had been done with the bodies, because there was plenty of blood, but no dead. They rode through the abandoned city in silence and didn't speak again until they were out, back on lonely, spacious countryside.
"We're all kind of worse for the wear these days," Malashk continued abruptly, "all of us forced out of our natural homes by the humans, but the suns have it the worst. Out of the sun for too long and they start looking like albinos. And it was terrible on the collective morale. Sun elves are warriors, but they were forced underground, and after that the culture was never the same. They just accepted it. The rest of us didn't know what to do. The sun elves have the highest population, and once the humans started taking over we all followed their lead. Besides, sun elves are perfectionists. They tend to have more conviction than other elves. They're the perfect leaders."
"Hmm. Sounds about right," Vanja agreed, thinking about Nuada.
"Malashk loves our history. Most of us don't bother thinking in terms of race anymore," Caelaias told Vanja. "We let the past be the past. Now is the time to put differences aside."
"Except for Drow, right?" Malashk, suddenly incensed, shot back at Caelaias. "We don't discriminate among elves, but still we all hate the Drow."
The three rode through another deserted town, but this time the conversation didn't cease.
"Drow?" Vanja asked.
"They were once called the Ilythiiri and their nation was one of the most powerful. Corellon Larethian banished them to the Underdark after their goddess tried to invade Arvandor and-"
"Whoa, okay," Vanja stopped Malashk, becoming a little overwhelmed. "You'll just have to give me a personal history lesson sometime."
Malashk grinned, obviously happy to have his knowledge recognized.
They rode on in comfortable silence, passing through many more empty towns. Eventually, they began to hear the sounds of battle up ahead. More like the sounds of a massacre. This wasn't truly battle. Screams became louder, as did the sounds of blazing fires consuming everything in their path.
Malashk nudged Vanja. "Check it out," he told her, pointing to the sky.
A huge, winged creature circled the town just ahead of them. It looked to have no apparent purpose, but seemed rather to simply love being in the air. Vanja watched it suddenly dive and release flames from its mouth, setting another building ablaze.
"Is that a…?" Vanja couldn't get it out.
"Yep," Malashk nodded. "A red dragon."
"What does that mean, a red dragon?"
"Red dragons are the only ones who can breathe fire," Malashk answered. "Well, gold dragons can too, but they don't like fighting very much, and obsidian dragons, but all the gem dragons are pretty much extinct now."
"Wait, you mean there are other dragons who can do other things besides breathe fire?"
"Yeah," Malashk replied, eager to show his knowledge again, "silver and white dragons actually breathe cold air, bronze dragons have sleep gas…"
"Okay, that's enough," Vanja gasped, shaking her head in disbelief that she was actually staring at a dragon. "So how is it dragons are still around?"
"Dragons have the highest population of all magical races. It's because they can take a human form, and look as dragon-like or human-like as they want to in that form. Dragons have been blending into human society for ages."
"You're fucking kidding," Vanja turned to Malashk, her face betraying absolute shock. "That's amazing."
"Come on, now," Caelaias encouraged. "Nuada's waiting for you."
They rode to the very edge of the town, where Nuada was standing, a spectator's distance away from the closest burning building. He smiled at Vanja and stepped forward to meet her horse, petting the animal affectionately and offering his hand to help Vanja down from her mount. Vanja slid off the horse and into Nuada's arms. He held her tightly and she was amazed by the sense of relief that swept through her at his touch. She felt like she was exhaling a breath she didn't know she was holding, letting go of an anxiety she wasn't aware she harbored.
Nuada pulled away, held her head gently in his hands and looked into her eyes.
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine," she told him.
"I know I told you that I'd return to you, but I just…" he trailed off as he cast a swift glance toward the siege behind them. "I wanted you to see this. I thought you should be a part of it."
"What about Red and the others?"
"The elves I sent to watch them will make sure they are safely escorted to the castle and given comfortable quarters."
"Yes. There are castles here," Nuada smirked.
Vanja laughed and stared at him in disbelief. Was that a joke? From the lips of her prince?
"I've chosen one to be a kind of temporary base," he explained amiably.
"I love you," she stated after a moment of silence, smiling at him, her love being fueled by the way he smiled back.
He leaned close to her, so their foreheads touched.
"I love you."
"Come," he beckoned, breaking their embrace and simply taking her hand, leading her over to where his own horse waited patiently for him.
Nuada stood behind Vanja and wrapped his arms around her. Vanja didn't realize that Caelaias and Malashk had gone until she saw them out on the "battlefield."
"What do you think of Malashk?" Nuada asked conversationally, seeming to read her thoughts.
"He seems like quite the historian."
"He is. Though he has not lived through much of it, Malashk knows more about our history than most of us care to remember. He is extremely important to our future. It will be largely up to him to objectively teach future generations."
Vanja smiled, giving her mind a moment to register the thought of future generations of elves. Her thoughts traveled back to the scene before her, and she saw a small group of elves systematically moving humans into large barred carts.
"Are you taking prisoners?" she asked, seeing that that was obviously what Nuada's elves were doing.
"We can't kill them all, Vanja. The extinction of an entire species is never a wise idea."
Vanja thought about that for a moment as she watched a Golden soldier kill an entire family just a few yards from where she stood.
"Your suggestion was a good one," Nuada told her, speaking directly into her ear to make his voice more prominent over the sounds of the slaughter.
"What?" Vanja asked, knocked out of the trance of watching death.
"You took that seriously?"
"Of course," he replied. "It makes sense. Why not populate small human cities with those who could actually contribute to a society?"
Vanja watched the red dragon swoop down from the sky with phenomenal grace and speed and snatch up a young woman from the ground.
"Dragons, Nuada," she breathed.
"They are a sight to behold."
"How many are there?"
"What do you even need the Army for, then?" she asked.
"Dragons take the sky, the Army takes the ground. It's a simple tactic. One that will be very important once we make it to America." He paused, then answered her next question before she said it. "I sent the others on ahead. This attack has to be very quick. I split up the Army and gave groups to each of my generals. The dragons scout ahead and take care of what they need to in order to prepare for the rest of us."
"We're only a few hours into this and you've already got such a system," Vanja stated, slightly awestruck, turning around briefly to see Nuada smirk.
"Nuada! You're missing all the fun."
Vanja turned away from Nuada, toward the sound of this new voice, one that rang with depth and a strange youthfulness. Vanja gasped aloud when she saw the man who matched the voice. No, not a man, she realized, because she knew the dragon was no longer in the sky. This was his human form?
He was as tall as Nuada, with a similar physique, but his body seemed more dramatic due to the fact that all he wore was a pair of leather pants resting low on his hips. His shoulder-length hair was like fire, a thousand different shades of red, yellow, and orange all dancing around each other in the wind. His pale skin retained the slightest trace of scales, a strange patterning outlined in red. Blood was splattered all over his body. His eyes were bright, sparkling like rubies as he wiped blood from his lips.
"I'm enjoying myself just fine from right here," Nuada answered, his arms tightening briefly around Vanja.
"Ech," the dragon scoffed, tossing his hair out of his eyes with grace that defied the wind. "Ireland is done," he continued, seeming a little disappointed. "We're ready to cross the sea."
"Very good," Nuada nodded. "Vanja, this is Ridesos," he introduced her to the dragon.
"Milady," Ridesos bowed his head.
Vanja felt an annoying blush creeping to her cheeks at the idea of constantly being addressed this way.
"I have never seen the Eye look more beautiful," he told her, charming yet matter-of-factly.
"What do you know about the Eye?" Vanja stammered, shaken.
"Well, I should know quite a bit," he replied, "an Eye of Fire is one of the most prized possessions among red dragons, not that we ever need to use them. It's all in the spirit of collecting," he explained, smirking. "May I ask how you came upon yours?"
"That is a tale for another time," Nuada interrupted. "For now, let's take England."
Ridesos scoffed again, rolling his eyes. "You're no fun anymore, Nuada. All business." He smirked and winked at Vanja before transforming back into his dragon shape.
"Come on, then," Ridesos grudgingly encouraged them.
Nuada gestured for Vanja to climb on the dragon's back.
Nuada shook his head, mounting the dragon gracefully and pulling Vanja up behind him.
"Hold on," Nuada told her, his voice soft and seeming to understand her nervousness.
Vanja wrapped her arms tightly around Nuada, buried her face in his hair and managed to bite back her scream as Ridesos took to the air.