Lord of the Night Realm - Book I: Sojourn

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter 12

Ellie lurched upward in bed before her eyelids could even open. She mumbled to herself as remnant of her dream seeped into reality, plaguing her with visions of melted cheese that hardened on the inner walls of bottomless pots.

“So much cheese,” she whimpered. “No more scrubbing.”

Her eyes shot open and glanced around the room as the corners of her mouth sank in a frown. A tiny, exasperated breath escaped her mouth as she forced the dream to the back of her mind. Now that her lesson was learned, she would be certain to never again offer to scrub anything that the goblins were blatantly avoiding.

Recalling that she had an overnight visitor, Ellie turned to the other side of the bed but was disappointed to find that Gerald was gone. Not even the slightest crumb from his cracker remained, yet there was a small scrap of paper left behind in his place. She plucked it from its resting place and squinted through groggy eyes to read the message, ‘T hanks for treet’.

Ellie cackled at the scratchy penmanship, awkward spacing, and misspelled words. Though it was a simple note, it brimmed with the charm of Gerald leaving a thank you for a single cracker. Like a parent that had been given a drawing from their child, she tucked it safely into the drawer of the bedside table.

With a perfect, swiping arch, Ellie threw off the blanket and bustled between the wardrobe and the washroom as she got herself ready for the day. She donned the green dress and matching shoulder cape that Elise had given her. Ellie was surprised to find that she had not worn it since the day she received it, as she had been wearing mostly blues and purples the past week for a change of pace. But she knew better, and there was no stopping her from returning to her tried and true.

A knock at the door distracted Ellie from her self-admiration in the mirror. She called out, never tearing her gaze away as she straightened out any small imperfections.

“Come in.”

She smiled when Janus entered the room, who bore a grin wider than her own.

“Good morning, Ellie. Did you sleep well?”

“I did, and you?”

“Well, I’m heading that way soon.”

“Right.” She scratched at her neck.

Sleep had momentarily veiled the memory of Ellie’s awkward display in the drawing room the night before. Her eyes drifted to one side as she wondered if he was even bothered at all by her invasive questions, but became quickly distracted by the shimmering, dark green cloth draped over his arm.

“What’s that?”

“Ah, this is for you. I’d like you to try it on.”

Ellie’s brow quirked as she reached for the cloth. Unfurling it revealed the long, hooded cloak with a velvet exterior and satin lining. With a gentle gasp, she admired the garment as she fell further entranced with its beauty with every passing moment.

“This is gorgeous.”

Softly, she wrapped the cloak around her shoulders and fastened the golden chain across her collarbone. With a tiny laugh, she outstretched her arms and looked herself over.

“I look like a little alpine today. I just need a hat,” she chuckled, pointing to her head.

“It looks lovely on you,” Janus said, his smile unfading.

Ellie’s face flushed with his words and began fidgeting with the hem of the cloak as she continued to admire herself.

“Thank you. This’ll definitely keep me warm in the courtyard.”

“There, and elsewhere, too.”

Her head tilted inquisitively.

“Can you join me in the Great Hall?” he asked.

“Of course.”

Before following Janus out of the room, Ellie snatched the book off of her bedside table and dropped it into her bag dangling from the back of the chair. With a shuffle, she situated it underneath her cloak and slung it across her chest. She patted the bag in place and beamed to Janus, who chuckled and held open the door as to let Ellie enter the corridor first.

A pair of voices in the midst of chatter caught Ellie’s attention as the two of them descended the grand staircase. To her surprise, she found Gerald carrying on in conversation with none other than Bedelia, who was dressed just as radiantly as during their previous encounters.

“Good morning, Eleanor. It’s good to see you again. I hope you’ve been well?”

“I have,” Ellie said, a smile forming on her face. “I’m happy to have a chance to talk to you again. I was a little... prickly last time.”

“Well, we both had our moments. And now that we have, we can move on and have a fresh start.”

“Agreed.”

Bedelia crossed her arms and turned to Janus, her foot tapping away as she waited for him to speak.

“Well? Are you going to make the announcement, or do you want me to have the honor?”

A nervous laugh parted his lips as he clasped his hands behind his back.

“As you know, Ellie, the three of us have been conducting an investigation into any unnatural occurrences due to your arrival in the Night Realm. Aside from the peculiar tremors of unknown origin, we have concluded that there has been nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Hunters have spotted a few more tainted than usual slithering out of the caves in the forest,” Bedelia added. “But I wouldn’t say that that’s uncommon.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Ellie said. “Just one step closer to returning home, I suppose.”

Janus bit down softly on his lip, his eyes shifting to the floor as he attempted to remain focused on the conversation amid a hollow sensation rising in his chest.

“This also means that your confinement is no longer necessary, so you are now welcome to leave the castle and explore the town and nearby farmlands,” Bedelia said in a singsong voice. “There are rules, of course, but nothing out of the ordinary for any citizen of Haven.”

“That’s wonderful.” Ellie linked her fingers in delight. “I’ve wanted to see Haven during the day.”

“Naturally. In addition, you are also welcome to stay at my home until you can return to the Prime Realm. That is, if you have any objections to your current temporary residence?”

“Oh no, no objections. I appreciate the offer, but I’m rather happy where I am.”

“Of course.”

Seeing the difference between Ellie’s feelings about staying in the castle now versus after her arrival caused Janus to subconsciously form a smile, of which he attempted to hide behind a closed fist.

“Will I be able to go to Haven today?”

“That’s the idea. I came all this way just to offer you a personal tour, Ellie. May I call you that?”

“Of course. And that sounds wonderful, I can’t wait.”

“Unfortunately it won’t be more than an introductory thing, but I can at least walk you through the layout of the town.” She turned her attention toward Janus, who was still being entertained by his own thoughts. “Will you be joining us? Or are you going to sleep?”

“Well, my routine has been shifting all over the place as of late, so not quite yet. But I must decline, as I have some important matters to sort out with Rehor.”

“Damn. Well, that’s alright, I’m sure I can find some way to embarrass you without having you present to defend yourself.”

“I’d expect no less.”

“Always finding a way out of tours, aren’t you?” Ellie nudged Janus slightly.

“It’s not as though I do it intentionally.” He batted her elbow away as the lot shared in a laugh.

“Do keep me abreast of how it goes with Rehor,” Bedelia said. “I have a few homes that opened up recently that would be perfect for any released afflicted to move into. Three two-bedroom homes and two one-bedroom.”

“Certainly, and I will let Rehor know about the available homes.”

Ellie grinned down at Gerald, who had been sitting there patiently the entire time.

“Are you coming along, too?” Ellie asked, outstretching her arm to him.

“Yes!” He leapt up and scurried to her shoulder. “I’ll pick up the slack wherever Mayor Bedelia fails.”

“Oh, ‘fails’, he says! I’m a busy woman, you know. Just because I can’t show her every little nook and cranny doesn’t mean I’m slacking.”

The air of amusement was infectious as the three of them started for the front gate. Ellie looked back over her shoulder and waved farewell to Janus, prompting a surprised wave of his own. A small knot formed in his chest as he watched Ellie pass through the door for the first time in weeks. He scoffed at his confounding array of emotions and paced down the east corridor to begin attending to his tasks.

With a playful hop, Ellie landed on the ground just after the final step of the staircase. She wiggled her toes as she stared down at her feet in disbelief that her confinement had finally come to an end. Though she had come to love the castle, she could not hide her delight in finally being able to return to Haven to see more of what the Night Realm had to offer.

“Hop aboard, Ellie.”

Bedelia held open the door to an elegant black and gilded carriage, smaller in size than the one beside the stables but still big enough to seat a few people. A cloaked coachman sat quietly on his seat, keeping to himself.

Ellie stepped up and seated herself on the back end. It was the first time she had ever ridden in a traditional carriage and not one intended for public transport, so it was a pleasant change of pace to be seated on plush interior rather than standing in the middle of an aisle. Gerald hopped off her shoulder and made himself comfortable beside Ellie as Bedelia stepped in. The door clicked shut behind her and she gave a small rap on the edge to let the coachman know they were ready.

As they started toward Haven, Ellie peered out the window and admired the rows of trees that she had only ever seen from the high angle of her balcony. Between the trunks she spotted a distant body of crystal clear water. She tilted her head in an attempt to better admire it, but let out a defeated tut when she realized it would be impossible from this distance with how the further trees were spaced out.

“Is there a lake over there?”

Bedelia looked out the window to the east with a faint smile.

“That’s Eversea. It’s a parallel to the ocean in the Prime Realm, although the water is fresh and hardly a fraction as tumultuous. I guess you could say that it’s more akin to a lake, one that goes on seemingly forever.”

“I’d like to see it a bit closer.”

“You will, if you decide to visit the farmlands. There’s a wonderful view from there, and you can also spot the solitary isle that the Savior lives on.”

“Right, I remember her being mentioned the last time we met.”

“Yes, she keeps herself mostly isolated to that island, only leaving when necessary. She does receive guests from time to time, but she spends most of her days meditating and regaining strength in hopes of one day purifying more of Blackest Pitch that creeps just beyond the Sanctified Lands.”

“You said that this valley is the Sanctified Lands, right?”

“Was it me who said that, or was it Janus? I can’t remember. But regardless, yes, that’s what we refer to this valley as. Just a sliver of all that is the Night Realm, with so much yet left uninhabitable.”

Ellie glanced back out the window, her eyes dancing between the glimpses of water between the trees.

“How long could it take to regain her strength?”

“Longer than anyone could have ever imagined. Since she’s the only one keeping this land habitable, we simply do not question it. There have certainly been moments in the past where her power waned due to being drawn elsewhere and Blackest Pitch began seeping in.”

Knowing that it was just one woman keeping the entirely valley livable was terrifying. Not only because of how little it could take for everything to crumble, but because of the weight that had been placed on the shoulders of the Savior. Though they had never met, Ellie felt for the woman.

The clacking of the carriage wheels as they met with the cobblestone streets of Haven dislodged Ellie from her thoughts. The few homes in the outskirts soon became a series of buildings nearly pressed against one another as they fit into neat pockets between the main streets. Ellie thought that the town might be more interesting to look at during the day, but the deep overcast only made it feel gloomier than at night. Despite this, Haven was lively with the bustle of townspeople out and about.

“Is it much different from Phiana?” Bedelia asked. “I was born into a family that has been in the Night Realm for generations, so I don’t know much about the Prime Realm. Not that it would matter even if I was, what with the memory loss that Blackest Pitch induces.”

“Well, there are some similarities. But honestly, it’s pretty different between the dark sky and the overall theme. Phiana has a bit more color, but the population is less exciting. It’s mostly humans with elves and dwarves here and there.”

“Do you not even see those races often?”

“I do. I was even close with an elven woman that attended college at my academy for a year.”

A memory of a tall, elegant woman passed in Ellie’s mind for a fleeting moment. Her brunette curls rested atop her shoulders as she sat beside Ellie beneath the shade a tree in their secluded place. Ellie blinked the memory away, refusing to let her mind unearth emotions that she was in no mood to remember.

The carriage came to a stop in the town center; a large, circular area with an array of government buildings and other important establishments. Their importance was signified by the greater attention to detail they were given than any other buildings in Haven.

Bedelia stepped out and held the door open for Ellie, who followed behind with Gerald perched on her shoulder. They trotted up to the most prominent building and stopped beside a board that was adorned with an overhead map of the town. Everything made far more sense from this perspective, what with how the streets were like the spokes of a wheel with a few smaller circles around the inside.

“Alright. As you can see, the town is a general circle shape and is about a mile at both its tallest and its widest.” Bedelia drew on the map with her finger as she spoke. “If you get lost, you only need to find a crossroad and follow it back to the town center. Major businesses are labeled accordingly and are located nearer to the center of town, with residential just outside of that. This far western-most semicircle is mostly the Crows’ jurisdiction.”

“The crows?” Ellie asked.

“Did no one mention them? They’re the militia that protects Haven and the outlying areas. I have word over them, but I do not command them; that’s General Delman’s duty. Trust me, you’ll know a Crow when you see one. I’m surprised you hadn’t already during your first evening here.”

“Maybe I did and I just didn’t think anything of it. I was so overwhelmed by everything that night.”

“Understandable.” Bedelia resumed pointing at different locations on the map. “You’ll want to follow the main southbound road to get back to the castle, and the eastbound one will take you to the farmlands. You can also reach them from where the road splits just outside of Haven.”

Once she finished pointing out anyplace of significance, Bedelia moved away from the map and started toward the stairs of the impressive building on the other side of the board. She stopped just before the steps and turned to Ellie, who stood just a couple of paces behind.

“And this is the town hall, where I work.” She held out a presenting hand. “If you ever need anything, or if you’re in trouble, come here. I’ve told my secretary—Aston—all about you, so you’ll have no troubles getting through him.”

“He was the one who answered the door at your home, right?”

“That’s him. And speaking of my home, that’s where you’ll find me when I’m not here. It’s on the street on the opposite side of the building. If I’m not in either of those places, Aston will be, and he’ll know where I am.”

Bedelia clasped her hands on her hips and scanned over the town center with a breath of pride as townspeople passed by them.

“I guess that’s about it, then. Oh!” She raised a single finger as she reached for something tied to her waist. “Most people that you’ll run into in Haven are of a good nature. But just as anywhere, there will always be those with ill intents. You have Gerald with you, but just in case...”

Balanced on Bedelia’s palm was a sheathed ornate dagger, its hilt decorated with a few red stones. She held it out for Ellie, encouraging her to take it. She had only ever held kitchen knives and the sort, so Ellie felt intimidated when she grasped the surprisingly weighty weapon.

“Like I said, you have Gerald with you, so hopefully you won’t ever have to use it. He could stun even a skilled wizard with that spell of his.”

“And I have,” he said proudly.

“I appreciate it.” Ellie tied the sheathe to the belt of her dress and gave it a few shuffles to make sure that it was secure.

“I’m sorry that I can’t give you a more legitimate tour, but as always, there’s a hundred daily tasks that keep me oh so busy.”

“I understand. I’m sure Gerald and I will manage just fine, won’t we?” Ellie gave his nose a gentle tap.

“Absolutely. I know this town like the back of my paw.”

“Well I hope that you enjoy yourself, Ellie. I’ll be seeing you again soon.”

Bedelia waved farewell as she ascended the short staircase to the town hall, leaving Ellie at the base with a contented grin. She felt so liberated, now on her own in Haven after two weeks of being cooped up in the castle. Of course, she had Gerald with her, but there was something about him that didn’t make him feel as restrictive of a guide as someone whose height was more equal to her own.

“May I make a suggestion on where to begin?” he asked.

“Certainly.”

“Well, it’s still morning, and you left the castle without so much as a bite of breakfast. So I was thinking—”

“—The Duck and Dory?”

“The Duck and Dory, Miss Ellie.” He shuffled on her shoulder in embarrassment.

“Well, I’m certainly famished and I’d like to see what it looks like during the day. So, lead the way, tour guide.”

Gerald’s ears flushed pink as he pointed westward with a chuckle.

“I hope you have those tiny gemstones to pay for this, because I don’t have a single coin to my name.”

“I assure you that I do, Miss Ellie. Now onward, onward!”

Ellie traveled through the streets with delighted clacks of her heels at every step. She began recognizing larger landmarks that she had seen during her initial visit, and it wasn’t long before she approached the door with the familiar sign depicting the duck chasing after the blue fish with a man’s legs.

A stout kobold shoved through the door of the tavern with an orc in tow, arguing with him over the origin of jeweled eggs. Neither one of them stopped their conversation or even appeared to acknowledge Ellie, yet the kobold still held the door open for her as he insisted to the orc that the eggs originated from a craftsman born in 2293. She muttered a thank you as she stepped inside and bit down a laugh at the orc’s groan of disinterest. The kobold insisted that jeweled eggs were peak ornamental craftsmanship and would not let him go until he saw reason.

“Gerald, you brought your castle friend back,” the owner called out. His brow raised when he heard the kobold still going on about jeweled eggs outside, and released a relieved sigh the moment the door closed and muffled the lecture. “Thank the gods I don’t have to hear any more of that.”

Ellie stepped up to the relatively empty counter and placed her hands on its surface, looking about the room. The daylight certainly outlined a few additional features, but the tavern was largely the same as it was when she first saw it.

“Do you want to sit up here, or in the usual spot?”

“The usual spot is fine,” Gerald replied.

The owner grabbed the crate from under the counter and led them to the same table from their last visit. Gerald hopped up and situated himself as Ellie sat herself in the chair beside him, straightening out her skirt.

“What’ll you have?”

“I’ll just go with a typical breakfast,” Ellie said, not wanting to inconvenience the owner with anything wild.

“Sausage and cheese,” Gerald requested.

The owner gave a low chuckle. “As expected.”

“I’m starting to wonder if that’s your usual.” Ellie gave a playful poke to Gerald’s wide end, to which he swiped his paw at her in response.

“It is not my usual, Miss Ellie.”

“We always have some set aside for him,” the owner interrupted.

Gerald pouted at the betrayal as he reached into his waistcoat and snatched out the pouch with the small gems.

“Not this time Gerald. It’s on the house.”

The owner returned to the counter and disappeared into the kitchen beyond, leaving the little rat in moderate shock. Ellie tilted her head, wondering if Gerald was ever going to break free from his trance.

“In all the years I’ve been a customer here, I have never once gotten a free meal. Why the change of heart!”

“Maybe there’s a law that says that cheese and sausage can never be free unless paired with a typical breakfast.”

“Humph.”

Clanks and sizzles from the kitchen provided ambiance in the otherwise quiet tavern as the pair waited for their meals. It wasn’t long before pleasant aromas proceeded the return of the owner with tray in hand. What Ellie expected to be on the light side ended up being an entire meal consisting of eggs, sausage, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, and bread. She wasn’t sure she could eat all of it, but considering that it was free, she would certainly try.

“Thank you,” Ellie nodded.

“Of course. Hope you enjoy.”

The owner returned to his other patrons as Ellie skewered a bit of egg and lifted the fork to take a bite. But something peculiar stopped her in her tracks; small whimpers came from Gerald as he continually pushed and pulled his food to and from his face. Blinking in concern, Ellie set her fork back down.

“Cheese,” he cried, taking a bite. He reached for a slice of sausage next and brought that to his mouth. “Sausage.”

Ellie shook her head, utterly dumbfounded by what she was witnessing. Every time Gerald went to take a bite, he would say the name of what he was about to eat. Judging by his pained expression, this did not seem like he was just being overly passionate about his favorite foods.

“Alright. What in the hells is going on?”

“What do you mean, Miss Ellie?”

“Don’t. Don’t even pretend. What is this? Are you alright?”

“No,” Gerald wept. “I’m not alright at all.”

“What’s happening?”

“Cheese,” he said, taking another bite. “This is all Lord Janus’s fault. It’s the curse of the day. I can’t stop myself. I feel compelled to say what I’m eating as I’m going to eat it. Mother made me eat breakfast outside this morning because I wouldn’t stop.”

“Hold on, this isn’t your first meal of the day?”

Gerald stared blankly at her before returning to his food.

“Sausage.” He took a bite. “Yesterday I smelled like honey no matter how many times I washed. My littlest sister kept chasing and jabbing at me in an attempt to find where I hid the jar so she could use it on her pancakes. But there was no honey, Miss Ellie!”

Ellie recalled when Gerald first told her about this spell that had been placed on him. Now that she knew Janus better, the thought of him thinking up each of these one of these curses made her wonder if he was less of a stick in the mud than she thought.

“Lord Janus is a cruel man, Miss Ellie. All the trials I have had to endure. Forget what I told you; you cannot trust him.”

“I think you’re being a little over dramatic about this.”

“I see. So you’ve sided with him. How the tables have turned. Cheese.” He took another bite.

Ellie could hold back her laughter no longer and clasped her hands over her mouth.

“Oh yes, laugh it up. If Lord Janus were here, he’d be laughing right alongside you. Sau—”

“—Sausage.”

He yanked the meat away and glared at Ellie, who once more slapped her hand over her mouth. A moment later, Gerald returned to his bite.

“Sausage.”

“I think you’ll survive, Gerald,” Ellie sputtered. “It’s just for today, right?”

“But what will tomorrow bring, Miss Ellie? This is for two months and it’s only been two weeks! My father made me sleep on the roof a few nights ago because I wouldn’t stop buzzing like a bee! It drove the whole house crazy!”

“Would it make you feel better if I said the name of what I’m eating with every bite, too?”

“Don’t humiliate yourself on my account, Miss Ellie. Maybe when this is all over, I’ll find the humor in it. But for now, I suffer. Cheese.”

It was a difficult meal, not just for Gerald due to his curse, but for Ellie as she struggled to down her food between laughs. As a result, the meal lasted longer than either of them anticipated, but left them quite content by the end of the hour-long ordeal.

As they prepared to leave, Ellie glimpsed a small portrait hanging on the wall. It consisted of a family of three and was no larger than her head. The father in the portrait was most certainly the owner of the tavern, though a couple of decades younger. Beside him was a woman, and in front was a girl.

Ellie grew fixated on the girl in the portrait. There were notable differences, but she was taken aback by how much she reminded Ellie of herself when she was in her teens. Judging by how different the owner looked, the girl must have been at least in her thirties by now. Ellie glanced about the tavern, recalling that at no point did she ever spot either of these women.

The cool outside air swept over Ellie as she joined Gerald, who stood on the newel of the short flight of steps. His nose was pointed upward as he looked back and forth along the streets and pondered their next destination.

“Where shall we be off to next, Miss Ellie?”

“Gerald,” she muttered. “Does the owner of this tavern have a family?”

The air around them grew weighted, Gerald’s nose dipping downward in silence.

“He did. A wife and daughter.”

“Where are they?”

“Gone.”

Ellie swallowed. She suspected something like this but had hoped that wasn’t the case.

“What—what happened to them?”

“It was some time ago. When I was still little, a swarm of demons broke through the barricade at the Maw of the Abyss. The Crows weren’t prepared for an attack of that scale.”

Gerald paused. Ellie said nothing as a means to let him stop the tale if he chose.

“There was no one left at the barricade,” he continued. “No one got away to warn the town, and there was no time to prepare. So many people were slaughtered in Haven’s streets, the owner’s wife and daughter among them.”

“Gods.” Ellie clutched at her chest. “I had no idea.”

“Demons don’t care, Miss Ellie. Adults, children, elderly, they attacked everyone. The Crows that were in town did their best, and they won. But poor Lord Janus had to tap into the feral side of his vampirism just to keep up with the demons. Rehor spent day after day tending to the wounded, but so many lives were lost. It was the only time I ever saw him weep. Needless to say, Haven was a much busier place back then.”

Ellie wrapped her arm around herself as she listened to Gerald. Had she any idea what her question would have led to, she might have kept to herself.

“I’m sorry, Miss Ellie. I know that’s a terribly sad story, but it’s an important part of Haven’s history. It’s what spurred Mayor Bedelia to run for office, since her younger brother also lost his life in the attack. The former mayor neglected the concerns of the people when they said they didn’t feel completely safe without a wall. Mayor Bedelia’s campaign was based strongly around the protection of the people, so she won in a landslide.”

“And she’s been mayor ever since?”

“Yes.” Gerald hopped up to Ellie’s shoulder, and the two began mindlessly wandering down the street. “The former mayor drank himself stupid the night he lost and staggered out of town. He never came back, and no one knows what happened to him. There’re rumors, but no one can say anything for certain. Although there is one thing for sure; his fate was an unpleasant one.”

“Then the wall around the western semi-circle...?”

“That went up shortly after Mayor Bedelia won.” Gerald directed Ellie to take a seat on a bench overlooking the street. “It’s not a full wall, but it does allow some kind of protection. The relationship between Haven and Lord Janus was also significantly improved after she took office. Not that it was bad before, but he mostly kept to himself and only came out when called upon. That day was also what spurred the current restrictions on residency, too.”

Ellie’s stare followed the townspeople as they strolled carelessly by. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of someone dressed head to toe in dark attire, with a half-cloak made out of something akin to black feathers. Their face was covered by a bird-like mask with two black holes that veiled the eyes from the outside. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that this was a Crow.

“How long ago was all of this?”

“About twenty years.”

“That long, huh? I’m sorry for bringing it up.”

“It’s sad, but like I said, it’s important. And today is all about learning about Haven, both the good and the bad.”

“You’re right. But, I’m curious about something.”

“What’s that, Miss Ellie?”

“If it was around twenty years ago, and you were young when it happened, just how old are you, anyway? I thought rats only lived for a few years?”

“Hm hm hm,” he chuckled discreetly. “A proper gentleman doesn’t reveal his age. And don’t forget; rats descended from humans turned into rats.”

“A proper gentleman may not, but this one makes sure to get plenty of sausage.” She poked at his hip.

“Oh!” He batted at her finger in playful offense. “You sound like my mother.”

The two shared a laugh, indulging in the much needed reprieve after such a weighted mood.

“I’ve thought of something I’d like to see,” Ellie said.

“Oh?”

“The academy. Or school. The house of education.”

“Ah. I suppose I can show you that, but don’t get your hopes up.”

Gerald hopped down and scurried across the stones as he led the way around a few bends. On a secluded block with several gangly trees stood a quiet, worn down building. The blocks surrounding it consisted of thriving businesses and clean residences, emphasizing the poor state of the school. To Ellie, this is what she imagined Leyia Academy would be like if it was attended by ghosts.

“This is it?”

“I’m afraid so. It was understaffed even before the demon raid, and not enough children attend to keep it well funded. Most of them end up with a basic education at home or none at all.”

“That’s a terrible shame.”

Ellie furrowed her brow as she started up the cracked steps and eased her way into the foyer. There was no one at the tiny reception desk, nor anywhere in the immediate vicinity. The floorboards groaned under her every step as she moved further in, drawing a line on the dusty counter with her finger.

A quiet voice from one of the wings trickled into the room and pulled Ellie’s attention toward a classroom door. She peered into the slight crack and spotted a single, tired teacher and a pathetic handful of students. The sight caused a sigh to part Ellie’s lips.

“It’s sad to see a school in such state,” she whispered.

“May I help you?”

Ellie clapped her hand over her mouth to suppress a startled yelp when the unfamiliar voice spoke to her. With a swift turn, she looked behind her to find an aged man with short, wavy gray hair. He gazed down his rectangular glasses at her, the corners of his mouth sagging in a frown beneath his mustache. He was dressed in a gray shirt and black waistcoat with matching trousers.

“Sorry, no.” She kept her voice quiet so that she didn’t disturb the class. “Excuse me.”

“Are you looking for someone?” He put his arm out to stop her from sneaking by. “Or perhaps looking to enroll someone? You seem too old to be enrolling yourself.”

“No.”

“She’s from the castle,” Gerald chirped.

“The castle?” His brow raised in intrigue. “Then you are also a friend of Lord Janus?”

“I am. And you?”

“Yes, though we haven’t had an opportunity to speak as of late. I am Fergus Faulkner, the headmaster of this school.”

“I’m Ellie Martel.” She shook his hand before pointing toward the foyer, taking the initiative to move them away from the classroom to continue their conversation.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Headmaster Faulkner stepped into the other room with Ellie close behind.

“I wasn’t trying to trespass or anything. I was just curious about the state of the school.”

“Ah, yes.” He cleared his throat. “Not many students attend this academy—as you can see—and we are understaffed and underfunded as a result. Because there are not enough students to attend, there are not enough graduates to go on to become teachers. The amount of students slowly rises with each generation, but children are often taught at home because it’s easier. But the education is basic and those children often end up working on the farms or in other labor intensive positions. Some even become hunters, or join the Crows.”

Headmaster Faulkner peered at Ellie from the rim of his glasses, noticing her glazed eyes.

“I apologize,” he stuttered. “I suppose I took your statement as an invitation to outline our troubles.”

“No, that’s okay, I really am curious. I just had no idea what kind of situation the school was in.”

“It’s difficult. Because of these factors, there aren’t many new people getting jobs that require a higher education. In turn, this means that the people who have been in these positions have to stay in them even longer.”

“That’s a very real problem. You have my sympathies.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, why do you care so much?”

“Oh.” Ellie thought carefully about how to answer. It would be suspicious if she told the truth about where she was from or tried to play it off as though she attended this school. “I have an interest in education and teaching.”

“Are you an alumni from this academy?” His intrigue grew when she mentioned this. “What were your majors?”

“No, I’m sorry. I was home taught.”

“Of course, of course. I thought I didn’t recognize you.” He glanced to the nearby clock on the wall. “Regrettably, I must return to my work. Please give Lord Janus my regards, and feel free to stop by again.”

“Thank you. I will.”

With quick steps, Headmaster Faulkner returned to the opposite corridor from which he came and disappeared behind a door at the far end. Her shoulders drooped in defeat, and Ellie stepped back outside with Gerald in tow. Upon reaching the last step, he noticed the forlorn look on her face.

“What’s on your mind, Miss Ellie?”

“Nothing. I just hate to see a school looking like this.”

“You must have really enjoyed school back home.”

“Well, I didn’t have the best grades, but my professors were all enthusiastic people who made learning a pleasant experience.”

“It’s a shame the school here isn’t more like the one in Rat Town. Mine sounds a bit more like yours.”

Ellie stared up at the worn building, pining for Leyia Academy and the apprenticeship she wanted so desperately to accept. Though things were looking up, it would still be six more weeks before she could potentially return home, assuming that it was safe to. By that time, the new school year would be underway and she would have lost her opportunity. She tried not to linger on these thoughts, but they weighed heavily on her mind and dampened her mood.

“Miss Ellie, let’s keep exploring.” Gerald could sense that something was bugging her. “There’s a pretty public garden near hear with an impressive monument. We should see it before we go back to the castle.”

“That sounds lovely, Gerald. I could use that right about now.”

With purposely boisterous enthusiasm in hope of infecting her with it, Gerald directed Ellie down the nearby street to the east toward a lovely gathering of lush trees.


Deep in the forest outside Haven, in the very same clearing that connected the two realms, a darkness bubbled and popped out from cracks in the stump. The more that this liquid darkness poured out, the more it roiled into a full boil as it took the form of a shadowy, featureless person.

The shadow being turned in either direction, examining the clearing before jerking its head upward at the overcast sky. It felt the air with its hands, almost as though it were looking for something that was missing.

Never tearing its gaze from the sky above, the shadow being melted back into a puddle of darkness and slithered away into the furthest reaches of the forest. Left in its wake was the tiniest, fainted trail of shadow—no wider than a hair—keeping it ever connected to the stump that it had emerged from.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.