An impenetrable darkness accompanied only by a thick fog blanketing the ground embraced Ellie in its hollow existence. Her mind was confused, but disconnected from everything she knew. Gazing upon her hands, she saw them as clear as the morning sky. But around her, everything was black. So silent was this place that her ears rang with the sound of her own pulse.
Ellie wandered the darkness, her bewildered eyes darting about as she struggled to comprehend her situation. At the back of her mind were fragments of memories; of her family, of the Night Realm. But they sank further back into her mind as she wandered, the fog swirling around her knees to mask everything below.
Endless darkness and unbreakable silence were all that existed. There was nothing, only Ellie dressed in her night robe, unable to force her mind to grasp this foreign plane. But it was in this moment of struggle that the fog began to disperse. She turned to the hole in the veil to see a pool of clear water attached to nothing. Hovering just above its center was a small orb, like a beautiful cerulean pearl that called out to her. Water dripped endlessly from its bottom into the pool below.
A man’s soothing voice muttered to Ellie in captivating fragments. She did not hear it with her ears, but with her mind.
Mesmerized, Ellie stepped into the water, slowly submerging from her toes to her waist as she drew closer to the beckoning pearl.
She reached her hand out, trembling as she drew ever closer to it. An otherworldly pulse grew painfully loud as she nearly touched the gift from the unseen man. But then, it was gone. All was black as everything returned to darkness. Ellie could no longer see herself, could no longer hear her heartbeat or her breath. All ceased to exist in this plane.
Warm sensations returned to Ellie along with an array of memories; helping the goblins in the kitchen, assisting Elise with cleaning, conversing with Gerald in the courtyard, and a brief exchange with Lord Janus as he departed for the evening. These thoughts poured into her mind as they suppressed the memory of the peculiar dream that had plagued her.
But a fragment lingered on her soul. Her eyes bore into the ceiling, pondering the fading vision of the cerulean pearl. So enamored was she with this remnant of her dream that her body lost focus on breathing, stirring her to take a deeper breath to collect on what her lungs were owed.
She threw the blanket off and shuffled toward the window, pushing the curtains open to unveil yet another thickly overcast morning. It was unnatural how it kept the land so dark, yet never delivered any rain. Ellie made her way to the table and fished through her bag for the ornate book, ‘Melody of Shadows’. Easing into the chair and bringing her knees to her chest, she decided it was time to finally finish the story after having intentionally drawn it out so that it would last longer.
Her eyes traveled the pages for a time, the words flowing through her mind as the tale came to an end. With an uncertain thump, Ellie closed the book and pondered the bittersweet conclusion. The protagonists had won, but with dramatically too much lost along the way and one too many suspiciously descriptive scenes of mauling. While she enjoyed the story, Ellie felt as though the destination didn’t make the journey worthwhile.
A musical tap at the door separated her from her thoughts.
“Come in,” she said, setting the book on the table.
“Good morning, Ellie,” Elise said, pushing her way into the room. Her head tilted at the auburn stream resting on Ellie’s back. “I can’t say I’ve seen you with your hair down before.”
“Oh, I forgot to tie it when I woke up.”
“Well, that high ponytail of yours certainly made it look shorter.”
Elise stepped up to Ellie and gave the tips of her hair a playful fluff before handing her a cloth that was draped over her arm.
“It’s a shoulder cape. I know there’s a bit of a chill in the castle from time to time, so this should at least help keep you a little warmer.
“Thank you, Elise.” Ellie’s mouth lifted to a smile as she took the cape. “It’s green.”
“Yes, I noticed that you tend to lean toward the green dresses more than the others, so I thought this color would be more appropriate. Do you not like it? I can bring the others, too.”
“No no, I love it.” She felt the fabric between her fingers, touched by Elise’s gift. “By the way, I’ve been wondering.”
“It’s definitely not as warm here as it was back home, and it’s always so overcast. What month is it?”
Ellie’s jaw dropped, remembering that it was the end of July when she first came here.
“Have I—have I gone back in time? Or forward?”
“No, nothing like that. The months just don’t align properly between the two realms. You haven’t traveled through time, so don’t worry.”
Elise gave Ellie’s shoulder a reassuring pat.
“Well, it’s awfully dark and chilly for June,” Ellie said. “I keep thinking it’ll rain, but it never does.”
“I suppose the consistent overcast does make it difficult to predict the weather, although it rains more frequently during spring and autumn. Don’t worry about the clouds, that’s just how it is here in the Night Realm. No one knows why, but they never fail to roll in at sunrise and disperse at dusk.”
“So I guess the daytime overcast makes it a bit colder. Well, it’s a welcome change of pace from the sweltering summer heat, that’s for sure.”
Ellie glanced over the shoulder cape again before looking up at Elise.
“I’m gonna get dressed so I can try it on.”
“Of course. Call for me when you’re done.”
Elise stepped out of the room, giving Ellie privacy to change. She threw open the wardrobe and picked out a dress that was practically made specifically to match the cape that Elise had given her, both being a pleasant shade of green and decorated in a gold trim. After affixing a belt to her waist to bring the outfit together, she straightened out her skirt and reached for the cape, placing it on her shoulders as she called for Elise.
The gilded standing mirror beside the wardrobe reflected Ellie’s appearance with radiance, giving her cause to admire her new accessory with a smile. Elise returned and stepped up to Ellie, leaning back to look her over and nodding in approval.
“It certainly suits you,” she said. Elise held her gaze and brought a finger to where her lip would be when she looked upon Ellie’s face. “May I try something?”
“Oh, sure.” She wasn’t sure what to expect, but followed along as Elise motioned for her to sit back down at the table. Ellie watched as she picked up the nearby brush and began running it through her hair.
“I thought of a look that you might like. But if you don’t, I can always put it back to the way it was before.”
Ellie nodded, but this caused Elise to lecture her to use words instead of gestures. She used her other hand to put her head back to the position she wanted it in.
The brush gave a wooden clang as Elise set it down and began working her bony fingers through Ellie’s hair, weaving the parts above her ears and beside her bangs into two braids. Ellie bit her lip as a slight chill traveled down her back with each motion of Elise’s ivory fingers. She wasn’t sure what to make of the sensation, but the longer it went on, the more Ellie was reminded of when her mother would do the same. With lidded eyes, she relaxed and reflected on this memory as faint tears began to well.
Elise stopped when she reached the end of the strands and paced to the bedside table to retrieve Ellie’s hair tie. When she returned, she pulled the braids to the back and tied them in place to keep them together.
“All finished,” she said. Elise placed her hands on Ellie’s arms and pushed gently upward to encourage her to stand and look at herself in the mirror once more.
Through her reflection, Ellie was better able to admire the way that Elise had styled her hair. For so many years, she had kept it tied back out of simplicity, only occasionally wearing it down during the colder months. But here she had a pair of gorgeous braids that pulled back the hair over her ears, creating a pleasant divide between her long, parted bangs and the hair that trailed to her waist.
“Again, if you don’t like it, I can easily put it back to what it was before.”
“No, I love it.” Ellie traced her fingers along one braid and followed it to the back of her head where it met the other. “I usually keep my hair tied back because it’s easier, but it’s nice to see something different for a change. I don’t think I’ve had a braid since I was in early secondary school, and even that was all of my hair.”
“Well, I would be happy to do it for you again if it needs to be redone. Just let me know.”
“Of course. Thank you, for this and the cape.”
“It was my pleasure, Ellie. It’s the least I can do to thank you for all of your help the past few days.”
Ellie chuckled. “I was happy to help, and it kept me busy. Who would have guessed how much effort it took to clean just one room of the castle?”
“Indeed. Difficult to believe you’ve already been here a little over a week.”
The chime from the corridor’s longcase clock interrupted their conversation, declaring the hour at ten o’clock.
“Speaking of work, I suppose I should get back to it. It’s a little late for your breakfast now, but the goblins would be happy to put something together for you if you’d like.”
“Good idea, I’ll stop by later for a bite to eat. Do you want any help with your tasks?”
“Hm, possibly. Come find me when you’re done having fun and I’ll decide then.”
“Sure thing,” Ellie smiled. “See you later, Elise.”
Elise bowed her head before departing, the door creaking shut behind her. After slipping on her shoes, Ellie stepped up to the mirror once more to admire her new look.
“I didn’t think this place would grow on me as much as it has,” she thought aloud, giving the hair laying on her shoulder a small flip so that it could join the rest. With a skip to her step, Ellie wedged the ornate book back in her bag before slinging it across her chest and setting out for today’s adventure.
She decided to begin with a walk in the courtyard, seeing as she didn’t yet feel hungry enough to head to the kitchen. A pleasant, cool breeze caressed Ellie as she eased her way through the courtyard door in the Great Hall, wafting with it the gentle aroma from the flowers lining the path. Her heels clacked on the stones as she walked east, in the direction of the tunnel to Rat Town, though with no intention of paying a morning visit.
Shadows swept across Ellie’s face as she passed beneath the balconies peering out from the second and third floors. During her subsequent explorations of the castle, she had discovered that the rooms beyond those darkened windows were unused bedchambers of little interest. However, the doors on the third floor were all locked, leaving a bit of mystery as to what yet lay hidden.
Once more, Ellie found herself beside the large door on the south end. She stared upon the woodwork, unable to understand why this one in particular gave her such cause for interest. Perhaps it was the implication that it led to a room that was larger than even the Great Hall, or perhaps it was just her overwhelming curiosity. Her eyes scanned from one far wall to the other, her lips arching in a pout.
“I know I already tried once, but…”
She crept up to the door, looking around for any eyes that may be watching her. Ellie gripped the handle and pushed, finding it no less stiff than the first time she tried. In frustration, she rattled it and pushed down even harder, just so that the handle knew she didn’t care for its attitude.
And it turned. There was a brief but horrible grinding sound when it did, but even so, it turned. Ellie glared at the handle, pulling at it ever so slightly to confirm that the door would actually open. When the latch gave, her jaw trembled as she sought her words.
“It was unlocked.” Ellie’s voice wavered in uncertain confirmation to nonexistent observers. Granted, she was sure that the door wouldn’t just magically give if it was in fact locked, so perhaps the handle was simply stiff this entire time. Maybe if she had asked someone about it sooner, she would have solved this mystery days ago.
Glancing around the courtyard once more, Ellie pushed the heavy door in small segments and shushed it with each one as it insisted on wailing with every movement. When the door was open just enough, she slid her form through the crack. Ellie didn’t know what to expect on the other side, but considered that it could have been a ballroom due the room’s outer appearance. Or maybe, it was something with a more sinister aura like the chapel. No matter the possibilities she came up with, nothing could prepare her for the truth that lied beyond.
A single breath was stolen the moment she laid eyes on the veritable ocean of tomes, packing the shelves that lined the walls from one far end to the other and all the way to the high ceiling. Novels, textbooks, scriptures, manuals, everything she could possibly think of. Words could not form in Ellie’s mouth, for she feared that if they did, the magic that she felt would materialize another book out of thin air that consisted purely of her thoughts, adding yet another tome to the monolithic collection.
Taking no mind to the audible protest, Ellie shut the door behind her, unable to tear her gaze away from the sea of spines that beckoned to her. The dark woodwork of the library did nothing to quell her fascination, her eyes glistening as brightly as the few magically lit lamps in the room. Ellie’s eyes followed the rows of shelves, taking note of the two spiral staircases spaced throughout the room that led to the second and third floors above. How so many books could be in one place, she could barely understand. Even the libraries she visited in Phiana were not to this magnitude.
The dusted windows provided just enough light for Ellie’s eyes to dance across the words on the spines. To her amazement, not everything was written in a language she understood. Some were even just an antiquated form of her own language. Gently, she pushed at a rolling ladder to get a better look at a few books that had been tucked behind it. Pulling one out, she leafed through the pages and shuddered in delight as they scraped against each other. Her face lit up when she found this book to be a particularly interesting work of fiction to potentially replace ‘Melody of Shadows’. Taking note of the exact spot she got the book from, Ellie clutched it to her chest and continued on through the library.
Stepping through the makeshift corridor of shelves and engraved pillars, Ellie found herself at a sitting area on the east end. A few red sofas separated by end tables faced an unlit fireplace, no less grand than the one in the dining hall and drawing room. Her mouth arched in a smile as she felt the fabric of the sofa with the back of her hand, noting that there was hardly a speck of dust on any of the furniture.
The floorboards creaked beneath her feet as Ellie made her way to the opposite end of the library. It was a longer walk than she expected, but was understandable as the library was at least as long as the east and west corridors combined. Once there, she found a sitting area that was similar to the previous one, but lacked a fireplace. However, while the rest of the library was tidy, this spot had scattered stacks of books laying about. But there was something more noteworthy than this; a large portrait on the north wall of an elven family of six, consisting of a father, mother, and four children. Affixed to the bottom of the frame was a small plaque that read ‘Alscher’.
The man in the portrait was tall and appeared middle aged, with a medium complexion and hazel eyes that complimented his short, brown hair. His mature, angular face coupled with his professional attire gave the impression that he was a man of business.
Beside him was what Ellie could only assume was his wife; a gorgeous woman, with eyes like sapphires, nearly the same age as her husband, and almost just as tall. Her long, black hair was contrasted by her pale skin. Like the man beside her, she had a mature and angular face, yet a soft smile that gave a bit of warmth to an otherwise dark appearance.
The four children took after their parents, though it was apparent that their genetics favored the mother. The eldest son, seemingly in his twenties, had eyes and a face like his father, but skin and hair like woman that bore him. The second eldest, a daughter, was like her brother in every way, but her hair was pulled back into a tight braid with thin strands that caressed her face.
The third child was another son, though unlike the two before him, he appeared to be in his teens. He also took after the father in appearance far more than his older siblings, but had short hair that descended to just above his shoulders. In some ways, he reminded Ellie of her own brother.
Finally, the last child, a boy that couldn’t have been older than ten. His delicately wavy black hair dipped below his shoulders. He was the spitting image of his mother, the only other member of the family with eyes so blue. The longer that Ellie stared at the boy, the more she wondered. There was something about him, something—
“How did you get in here, Eleanor?”
Ellie’s feet nearly left the ground when she jolted as the authoritative voice called out to her. She whipped around to see where it had come from before noticing Lord Janus staring down at her from beside a door on the second floor. He peered through narrowed lids, yet his eyes didn’t carry the same weight that they did the first night that she arrived. Her presence in the library gave him little to be amused about.
“The door was unlocked.” She pointed with a trembling finger in the direction of the entrance, but did not lift her gaze from his.
“No it wasn’t.”
“Yes it was?”
“Eleanor.” He started toward the nearest spiral staircase. “I can guarantee the door was locked, as I am the one who locked it in the first place and the only key is in my possession. But it’s possible that the lock rusted, since that door hasn’t been used in decades.”
Her face contorted in embarrassment. “Sorry. Am I not supposed to be in here?”
“This place is a bit more personal to me, so no, you’re not.” He reached the last stair and paced across the library floor to meet with her. “After all, that’s why the door was locked.”
Lord Janus stopped just before her and pointed to the book she had cradled in her arms, his brow arching questioningly. Like a child caught sneaking treats before dinner, Ellie lowered her head and pouted as she placed the book in his outstretched hand.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself. But I remember where I got it from.”
He glanced at her before drawing his eyes toward the book’s cover and flipping it opening to leaf through the pages. His expression didn’t change as he scanned the words, a recollection of the tale filling his mind.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve read this one, but I do remember enjoying it. An adventure with a touch of romance and suspense, and a likable protagonist.” Lord Janus clamped the book shut with one hand before returning it to her. “I hope you find enjoyment in it, as well.”
Ellie snatched the book with both hands and brought it back to her chest, nodding diffidently as he leaned down slightly and clasped his hands behind his back.
“Do you read often, Eleanor?”
“Yes!” She cleared her throat. “Err, yes. I’ve been reading since I could first understand the words. I think I’ve read the entire fiction section at my academy’s library twice over, if not more.”
Lord Janus’s lips curled in a gentle smile, breaking through the serious expression he had been carrying since he first spotted her. He stepped toward the nearby shelf and rested his fingers atop a few spines.
“Immersing oneself in another time and place, it’s an incredible feeling. I frequently find myself absorbed in fiction, as well, letting the pages take me to vistas I can only dream of.” Though he was happy, his voice seemed somber.
“Yes, I feel the same!” Ellie could keep her enthusiasm bottled no longer, slowly stepping closer to him. “Maybe it’s just lost on me, but I could never find myself interested in non-fiction. Why would I want to be grounded with biographies, history, and self-indulgent self-help books? You can’t make those your own if they actually happened. When everything is rooted in imagination, you can add in additional scenarios and little details that were never there before.”
Lord Janus chuckled heartily. “I agree.”
Elated smiles overtook the pair as their eyes met in silent thought, and just like that, the heavy air that swarmed them since they first met in the Great Hall had finally dispersed. With a careful turn, Lord Janus briefly looked over his shoulder before turning his attention back to Ellie.
“I’d like to show you something.”
She trotted behind him in an attempt to keep up with his surprisingly eager steps as Lord Janus made his way toward the library’s main entrance. On an unused receptionist desk beside the door were several large ledgers, each one labeled with a different category of literature. Lord Janus opened the one labeled ‘Fiction’ and gently ran his fingertips down the page.
“Over the years, I’ve taken the time to fill out these pages with the categories and locations of each of the books in the library. If there’s anything specific that you’re looking for, you’re more than welcome to use this directory.”
“Oh, thank you. Although there’s nothing off the top of my head right now.”
“That’s alright, you can come back some other time if you do think of something.”
Ellie couldn’t stop herself from grinning widely. “So, it’s okay if I come back here? I mean, it was locked and all.”
“Under normal circumstances, I might say no. But considering our mutual shared interest, you’re more than welcome to return.”
“Well, in that case,” Ellie said, drumming her fingers on her chin as she scanned the rows of books all around them. “Do you have any recommendations?”
Lord Janus’s enthusiasm gave Ellie a start, causing her to wonder if this was even the same man that she thought he was. She slapped her hand to her mouth when he turned on his heel to plunge into the deluge of books and slightly stumbled over nothing but his own eagerness. His ears flushed as he ignored his gracelessness and glided through the rows of books while Ellie watched and stifled a gentle laugh.
“Have you read this one, Eleanor?” he called out. “It’s about an amnesiac woman and her companions swept up in a world-changing event.”
“I don’t think so, but I’d like to.”
“The boy adopted by a rambunctious family of goblins?”
“That one, too.”
“A woman defying her own fate and the powers forced upon her?”
“And that one.”
Unbeknownst to Ellie, Lord Janus had at some point made his way to the second floor where he continued to run his finger along the series of spines.
“The two sisters who delve into the dreams of the townspeople to combat their nightmares?”
“Definitely grab that one.”
“The pirate queen and her adventures with a bog witch? It’s a series.”
“Do you have the first volume?”
“I have all of them.”
“Bring me the first.”
After a time, Lord Janus stopped asking Ellie which ones she would be interested in after gauging her tastes from the titles he had selected so far. She chuckled to herself as he bustled about the fiction section, the stack of books in his arms growing ever taller. When he could carry no more, he eased his way down the spiral staircase and returned to Ellie, a nervous chuckle escaping his lips when he glanced between her and the stack.
“I think I got a little carried away.”
“I would have done the same,” Ellie said, sharing in the laughter. She tried to position her arms around the stack, but found that there was no way to safely retrieve so many books from him without a few toppling over. “Although if you pick out any more, nothing’s going to be able to be carried away.”
Lord Janus stepped to the empty table on the other side of the door and set the tower of books down, placing his hand on the top with moderate pride.
“Well, I’ll leave them here. You can take a few with you now and then come back for more when you’re finished.”
Ellie looked over the first two books from the top of the stack before joining them with the one she had picked out earlier. Holding them close, she turned to Lord Janus with a smile.
“Thank you. I just wish I had something I could recommend, too.” She blinked in thought, then set the books down on the table and reached into her bag. From within, she withdrew the old, worn book that had been partner to ‘Melody of Shadows’ for weeks. “Actually. Maybe you might like this one?”
Lord Janus reached out his hand and delicately took the tattered little thing, treating it as though it were a priceless antique. In gilded letters on the book’s cover was the title ‘Feyland Tales’.
“It’s a series of short stories. This has been a favorite of mine for years and I always carry it with me for a reread, so that’s why it looks so worn out. I’d like for you to borrow it.”
“Are you certain? It seems awfully special.”
Ellie’s head bobbed happily. “It’s not a particularly long read. There’s an accompanying illustration every few pages. I hope that you like it.”
Lord Janus carefully flipped through the book, taking in the intricate framework drawn on every page and the ethereal illustrations spread throughout.
“Oh, but don’t look too far ahead! The drawings might reveal too much.”
“Of course, of course. I just hadn’t seen anything quite like it.” He closed the book and smiled to her. “Thank you. I’ll be careful with it, and I’ll start reading at my earliest convenience.”
The atmosphere between the pair was unlike anything it had ever been. The past week was always weighed down by a sense of tension, even after they had become more comfortable talking to one another. They had hardly a moment to converse after the night in the dining hall, as Lord Janus was always rushing off for his investigation. But just like that, a rusted lock opened the door to what felt like a quickly developing friendship.
To their dismay, the pleasant mood was disrupted by a tremor that was not unlike the one Ellie experienced in Rat Town, but with more ferocity. Taken off guard, Ellie stumbled forward and reached out to protect the stack of books, which caused her to teeter backward.
“Ellie,” Janus muttered. With one swift motion, he reached out one arm to catch her while the other applied pressure to top of the stack. He supported both while keeping himself firmly planted until the tremor faded away. When it did not resume, Ellie upright herself with a flushed face.
“Are you alright?” Janus asked.
“Yeah. Are you?”
“Yes.” He let go of her and the books, then stared toward the courtyard door. “That’s odd. We’ve never had tremors so close together before.”
Janus turned back to Ellie, who blinked with a smile when his eyes met hers.
“Well, I think my fatigue finally caught up after all that excitement.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed in realization. “That’s right, it’s morning, and yet you’re awake?”
“Well, I fell asleep around the usual time, but I found myself rather restless. I thought I heard commotion so I got up for a stroll, and that’s when I came in here. For now though, I think I’ll return to my chambers and try to get some rest.” He held up the book that she loaned to him. “Thank you again for this, I’m eager to read it.”
“Oh no, thank you.” Ellie gestured to the stack of books. “I had just finished my other book and was worried I’d have nothing to read.”
“I apologize if I overwhelmed you at all.”
“No no, this will be an excellent start.”
They bowed their heads to one another in parting. Ellie scooped up her treasures and eased the door open, but stopped when Janus called out to her once more.
“Would you dine with me this evening, Ellie? I shouldn’t have to leave so quickly tonight, and I would very much like to sit and talk with you more.”
“I’d love that, Janus.”
The two parted ways, Ellie heading into the courtyard while Janus returned to the door on the second story. Though their destinations were different, they both shared in the same flustered yet elated grin by their unexpected encounter.