Every muscle in Ellie’s body ripped against her mind’s desperate attempts to move them. It was as though she was placed inside of a body that was not her own, utterly helpless to everything that went on around her as she watched through foreign eyes.
The pallid man towering before her did not tear his gaze, narrowed eyes like garnets keeping Ellie ensnared in his grasp. Hands from an unseen presence caressed at her shoulders and sent sensations like pinpricks all throughout her back. The man’s long, golden hair rolled across the fur collar of his dark red cloak as he curled a finger beneath Ellie’s chin. His touch was like ice, freezing her so intensely that she thought her skin might burn.
“Such a curious situation.” The feminine voice once more wormed its way into Ellie’s ears. “There wasn’t a prisoner retrieval scheduled for today, was there, Narcyz?”
“Certainly not, Jantine.” He leaned in closer, his fangs protruding from his toothy grin. “Yet here we have a mortal that dared to trespass on our land. And I thought it would be yet another boring patrol. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so hasty to curse father for sending us out in the daylight today.”
Narcyz drew his hand down to Ellie’s neck before trailing it along her shoulder as he switched sides with his sister. Her heart pounded violently in her chest as Jantine stepped in front of her, resting her frigid hand on their hostage’s face. In a similar style to her brother, she had long, brown hair that was swept back and rested on the fur collar of a long cloak. Sheltered beneath it were dainty gold chains that decorated the low neckline of an elegant purple dress. Despite her gorgeous features, they could not mask Jantine’s crazed eyes and the vile aura that swelled within.
“What a pretty girl,” she hissed from behind her fangs, looking over Ellie with similarly red eyes. They reminded her of Janus, but with with such vibrancy that seemed almost unnatural in contrast to the gentle tinting of his own.
“Who are you?” Ellie was barely able to move her jaw enough to form the words.
“Were you born yesterday?” Narcyz mocked.
“Now, Narcyz.” Jantine cupped Ellie’s face in icy hands. “She could be one of the dwellers from the far south. They’re not as smart down there, you know.”
“Doubtful,” he tutted. “She’s too well dressed for that.”
Jantine drew her face closer to Ellie and tilted her head forward, nearly close enough to touch foreheads. She stared up at Ellie through widened eyes, a disturbing smirk twisting on her face.
“Perhaps we should show her who we are?”
Narcyz’s hands gripped Ellie’s arms with such ferocity that she was unable to stop the small squeal of pain from escaping her throat. With a single motion, he craned his head down to her neck as Jantine pressed her hand to force Ellie’s head to one side. She gritted her teeth, tears welling in her eyes as she felt the slightest sensation of two sharp points on her skin.
But when she expected it to be followed by a painful pierce, there was nothing. Ellie watched Jantine’s face distort from sadistic glee to twitches of confusion, her eyes darting back and forth between her and her brother.
“What’s wrong? Why in the hells are you hesitating?”
The slightest relief swept through Ellie’s body when she felt Narcyz’s breath leave her neck. But insurmountable pain still pulsed from his grip on her arms.
“It’s faint, but there’s the scent of another vampire on her.”
Jantine squeezed Ellie’s head in her hands, tilting it either way with enough force to cause her to cry out in pain. Her eyes circled around every inch of Ellie’s neck as she searched for something that wasn’t there.
“Are you certain? She isn’t even marked.”
“I’m certain. Think about it, Jantine; there’s only one vampire in the Southern Territory, and do you really think that naive child would ever mark a mortal?”
“Well what the hell do we do with her, then?” she scoffed.
“We throw her back to the trash she came from.”
“I guess,” Jantine whined. “Wouldn’t want any potential consequences to enrage father. You know how he’s willing to bend if it keeps that bitch happy.”
“How unfortunate,” Narcyz sighed. “I was in need of a new thrall after getting too carried away with the last one.”
Jantine swept out of the way with a single step as Narcyz gripped Ellie’s wrist and dragged her toward the gate. Her legs moved according to his whim, but a small tingling alerted Ellie to the slow return of control over her own body. She reached for his hand and desperately tried to pry his fingers open, but Narcyz snapped his arm to shake her off.
A growl of irritation rumbled within him when they stepped out of the gnarling trees and into the dull light. The boards of the bridge groaned under their weight as they hurried across. Narcyz forced Ellie through the iron gate and shoved her with tremendous force, sending her to the ground on the opposite side before slamming it shut.
“Don’t ever set foot in this territory again,” he snarled. “If you do, I won’t hold myself back next time.”
Ellie’s widened eyes fixated on the gray sky peeking out from the edge of the closed bridge. When she no longer heard the creaking wood beneath Narcyz’s feet, she flipped from her back and brought her knees to her chest. Ellie curled her body like a frightened animal and gripped at her neck in terror. The only thing that separated her from being completely enveloped in fear was a familiar, desperate voice screaming for her.
"Miss Ellie!” Gerald dashed across the road as quickly as his little feet could take him.
Cries were all that she could respond with, her vision behind her sealed eyes filled with flashes of what-ifs and could-haves.
“No, no no no, Miss Ellie. Miss Ellie!” Gerald placed his paws on her arm and reached for the hands covering her neck. “You have to let me see. Miss Ellie, you have to show me! Can you hear me? Ellie!”
His attention was torn from her when the sound of a racing carriage skidded to a halt nearby. Before the horses had even come to a complete stop, the doors on either sides of the carriage swung open as Janus and Bedelia poured out. Leaving Ellie to him, Bedelia raced to the gate in seething anger at the sight of the piled chain and lock. Weaving the chains between the bars and fastening everything in accordance with her standards, she cursed that she would have the head of whoever was responsible for this oversight.
“Ellie!” Janus knelt down beside the trembling bundle, his anger melting away at the sight of her.
“One of his children was there.” Gerald’s voice was panicked. “He threw her through the gate, I saw him.”
“Ellie, did he—” Janus touch Ellie’s arm in hopes of easing her hand from her neck, but this only caused her to tighten her stance further.
"No!” Ellie’s traumatized sobbing pierced the three of them like daggers. “Please don’t!”
“Everything’s alright now.” He placed his hand gently upon her back, finding a spot that did not cause her to recoil. “They can’t hurt you, Ellie.”
Slowly, Janus wrapped his arms around her and scooped her up before lifting himself from the ground.
“Lord Janus, I’m so, so sorry.” Gerald’s paws shook as his words struggled out of him.
“Get in the carriage, Gerald.” Though it was a demand, Janus’s voice was not stern. The only thing on his mind now was getting Ellie back to the safety of the castle.
Once boarded, he leaned down and tried to lay Ellie on the seat, but her free hand was tightly fastened to his shirt. Janus instead sat himself down with Ellie in his arms. He stared down at the swollen, half-lidded eyes that peered at his chest with pink sclera.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered.
“Don’t.” His gentle voice hushed her. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“If anyone should apologize, it should be me.” Bedelia sat on the opposite side of the carriage with crossed arms as she gazed out at the passing scenery. “The gate is my responsibility, and I did not verify with the warden if it was properly sealed after the last drop off.”
“No,” Gerald chirped, his eyes downcast. “I didn’t think Miss Ellie would wander so far without me. I let personal issues get in the way that I thought would only take a few minutes, but I got carried away and lost track of time.”
“Please, just stop.”
Janus held Ellie’s hand while cradling her shoulder. He knew that if there was fault to be laid, it was with him. There was no reason not to tell Ellie to at least stay away from the Northern Territory. Yet in some distant part of his mind, he wanted to keep her sheltered from the darker realities of their home. He didn’t want her to have reasons to be scared back into her own realm the moment it was safe for her to do so.
The remaining trip to the castle was quiet. When Janus noticed that Ellie had stopped trembling, he looked down and saw that she had finally released her neck from her grip. She had nestled in so close to him that Janus grew afraid of shifting too much and making her uncomfortable.
As the carriage eased to a halt, Bedelia stepped outside with Gerald in tow. Janus looked at Ellie once more, seeing that her stance was still unchanged.
“Do you feel like you can stand?”
Her inner brow peaked in distress as she tightened her grip on him. Janus responded only by placing his hand on hers again and giving an acknowledging nod. He then wrapped his arms around Ellie and delicately carried her out of the carriage and up the castle stairs, where Bedelia had already opened the gate for them.
“I’ll send your carriage home once I return to Haven.”
“Don’t worry. I can recall the apparition from here.”
Bedelia nodded swiftly, her solemn eyes watching Ellie as Janus passed by.
“Please keep me abreast of how she’s faring.”
“And Janus; don’t hold back anything from her anymore. You can’t treat Ellie like a child. She needs to know what this realm is really like.”
Janus averted his gaze with the faintest nod of his head before stepping further into the Great Hall as the gate creaked to a close behind him. At the entrance to the east corridor was Elise, whose stance reflected her concern and confusion.
“Please retrieve hot water and a reversal salve and meet me in Ellie’s bedchamber.”
“Reversal...?” Elise looked to Ellie, who still refused to tear her eyes from where she gripped Janus.
Elise dashed down the east corridor while he carried Ellie to the second floor with Gerald trailing behind. Using his knee to turn the handle, Janus pushed his way into her bedchamber and carried her to the bed. Finally prying Ellie’s fingers away, he managed to get her to lay flat, though she immediately turned her focus to the balcony door.
The room was silent, the only sound coming from the longcase clock in the corridor as it ticked away the morning into afternoon. Janus stared Ellie’s neck, her skin red from how much she had squeezed it.
“Ellie?” Janus knelt to one knee, brushing his hand gently beside hers. “I’m sorry.”
Her ill-mannered tone took him aback.
“I—I should have warned you about the Northern Territory.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” she scoffed. “It wasn’t your fault, nor was it Bedelia’s or Gerald’s. It was my own stupid curiosity that put me in that situation.”
Her voice raised with every word, but settled back to normal with an elongated breath.
“I should have known better, but no. Despite my intuition, I still peeked at the other side. I know I shouldn’t have, but I was too stupid to do the right thing.”
Janus jumped when Ellie swiftly slapped her hand back to her neck.
“I can still feel that bastard’s breath on me. I hate it. I hate it.”
“Ellie, stop. Don’t touch it anymore.” With the utmost care, he took her arm and pulled it back to the bed.
He turned toward the door and saw Elise with a basin of water and a jar filled with an off-white substance. Janus motioned for her to bring them to him before asking Elise to retrieve a towel from the washroom. With everything in place, he dipped the towelette into the water.
“Ellie?” Carefully, he parted the hair from near her neck and dabbed all around the area with the soaked towel. “Did you touch this spot with your other hand?”
“No.” The warmth of the water began calming her nerves.
Janus turned her arm over to raise her open palm toward the ceiling, then ran a clean part of the cloth all over her palm and between her fingers. He handed the towel to Elise, who draped a dry one on the edge of the bed before folding the wet one over her exposed arm. Janus reached for the jar and unlatched a compartment holding applicator sticks before swiping it into the solution.
“This might sting.”
He applied it to her neck, drawing larger circles one after the other from the center to be certain that the entire space was covered. Janus glanced to Ellie when she had no reaction, other than to the cool sensation of the salve itself.
“Do you feel nothing?”
“It’s just cold.”
“That’s good, Ellie, that means your skin wasn’t broken. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Grabbing another applicator stick, Janus took Ellie’s open hand in his own and applied the salve, covering it as thoroughly as he had when he washed it.
“This will prevent an infection that would begin metamorphosis as a result of a vampire’s saliva entering your bloodstream.”
“So those two really were vampires, then.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Like night and day,” she muttered.
Elise extended a small tray to Janus, inviting him to place his used tools on it. After doing so, he stood and reached for another clean towel to dry his hands of any remaining salve. Easing back onto the bed, Janus leaned forward and idly turned the towel over in his hand.
“You must think I’m an idiot.” Ellie’s lips barely parted as she spoke.
“Stop it.” Janus’s voice pitched in annoyance. “Why do you reprimand yourself for something as innocent as curiosity?”
Ellie shifted to her right side. Her eyes finally met something that was not in the realm of distant thoughts as she stared at Janus. Sensing her gaze on him, he turned to look over his shoulder and locked eyes with Ellie as her face twitched in inner anguish.
“You really don’t think I deserved what happened?”
He thrust his head forward again and twisted the towel in irritation.
“Who would think such a thing? No person in their godsdamned right mind would blame you. If they did, then they think too highly of how they themselves would handle a situation they likely know nothing about.”
There was a small tug at his sleeve. Janus glanced from the corner of his eye to see Ellie biting at her lip as she gently rolled the fabric between her thumb and forefinger.
“I’m sorry. For thinking that way.”
“That’s all that you have to apologize for, Ellie.”
Janus tilted his head toward the door to motion Elise and Gerald to leave them. She nodded and tapped Gerald’s shoulder to get his attention and lead him out of the room. With a quiet groan, the door eased shut as it left Janus and Ellie alone together.
“I’ve never been so terrified in my entire life.” Her shaky voice laughed hollowly. “All I wanted was to get a closer look at the bizarre trees beyond the bridge. I had never seen anything like them, and I wasn’t even going to step off the bridge itself. I was just gonna get a quick look and walk right back. I don’t even know what happened.”
“What do you remember?”
“I don’t know.” Ellie’s inner brow peaked as she delved into memories that her mind already strained to suppress. “Well, I remember a hiss. Then my head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton and squeezed in a vise. I couldn’t see clearly, and before I knew it, I was standing in that black void in the trees. I tried to run back, but then those creeps appeared. Narcyz and... Jantine, I believe.”
“Of course it was them,” Janus scoffed, twisting the towel more forcefully.
“I couldn’t move, I couldn’t scream. I could barely do more than whisper, and they looked at me like a godsdamned prize.”
“Ellie, I can’t even begin to apologize. I should have told you about the northern clan.”
She hesitated. Ellie wanted to tell him that he had no reason to apologize, and that she should have used her better judgment. But doing so would only lead them down a spiral of apologies that would just waste their time.
“Are there more than just those two? They mentioned their father.”
“Yes. Their father is a vampire lord, a powerful being.”
“Are they... all like those two?”
“Not all of them. There are a few kind souls among them, but they are bound to their lord’s will and thrive on the blood of mortals.”
“Why are you so different from them?”
“Well, that’s a contributing factor as to why there’s a divide between us. They’ve been here far longer than I have and didn’t much care for my ideals. The Sanctified Lands were quite a bit different back then.”
“Can you... tell me what happened?”
Janus leaned back and rested his arms behind him, a deep breath parting his lips. Judging by his reaction, Ellie could sense that this wasn’t a story that he shared often. She wanted to tell him to forget it, but considering everything that happened, she felt like she had a right to know.
“After I arrived in the Night Realm and had settled into my vampirism, I spent a bit of time with their clan. However, because I was not of his brood, he held no power over me. I grew disgusted with his ways and expressed my disagreement.”
There was a pause as Janus recollected old and painful memories.
“Back then, the people of Haven had to give their own blood in exchange for protection from the demons of Blackest Pitch. It took everything from the Savior just to keep the land pure enough to live in. It was unrealistic to expect her to protect them from every single attack.”
“So they had to give their own blood, whether they liked it or not?”
“Precisely. I tried to argue that there were other ways, but the lord of their clan told me that they would not be at their strongest without mortal blood. That they would not have the power they required if there was a large-scale assault nor have the capabilities to quickly recover wounds. Though these things are true, it was more of an excuse to keep doing things the way he desired to. He didn’t even try to change the situation to something that would work for everyone.”
“What did you end up doing?”
“Thankfully, I was not the only one who disagreed with his methods. There were mortals that were faithful to him, but most were not. They were tired of how the vampires were treating them, but they knew that they were far more treasured than they made it seem. The argument got violent, and I ended up exchanging blows with the clan’s lord.”
“Exchanging blows? Like a brawl?” Ellie’s voice peaked in moderate amusement.
“Ah, more along the lines of a duel.” Janus nearly stuttered as he rubbed his neck, giving Ellie cause to wonder if this was true.
“What happened afterward?”
“The Savior intervened. Since her influence was above all, no one questioned her when she determined that the land would be split in two at the River of Vigilance. Twenty miles for the vampire clan in the north, and twenty miles for the mortals in the south, with me presiding as their guardian. Though he was reluctant, the clan’s lord agreed to the terms, with conditions.”
Ellie swallowed hard when hesitation accompanied Janus’s grim voice, the air in the room becoming weighted.
“One condition was that any trespassers that were found on their land became their... property.”
"Property.” The word was sour in her mouth, making her wish she could spit it back out.
“All things considered—no, never mind.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to fill your head with possibilities of what could have happened.”
For once, Ellie agreed. She didn’t want to think about the possible outcomes had those siblings not decided to throw her back across the bridge.
“What were some of the other terms?”
“It was agreed upon that anyone of ill intent with no remorse or desire to change could be thrown into the Northern Territory as an alternative to casting them into Blackest Pitch. That’s why—that’s why you lost control when you reached the end of the bridge. It’s a measure put in place to stop criminals from trying to jump into the river once they reach the other side.”
“Gods.” Ellie brought the hand clear of salve to her forehead. “What happens to people that are taken up there?”
“Honestly? I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that they’re kept alive by the vampires as a means of sustenance.”
“That’s a terrible fate for a person.”
“We don’t have much luxury of choice, Ellie.”
“I wasn’t necessarily disagreeing with it. If they’re criminals that show no remorse for their actions nor any desire to change for the better, then there really isn’t much else you can do to administer justice in a land with limited space and resources.”
“You’ve been talking with Elise about this, haven’t you?”
A memory of their conversation in the asylum emerged in her mind. It was true that she didn’t agree with the methods back then, but knowledge of how different it was in the Night Realm made it easier to understand why criminals were dealt with the way they were.
“What warrants punishments of that magnitude? Not petty crimes, I hope?”
“No. Actions that directly threaten the people and the delicate balance of life in the Sanctified Lands are what get criminals thrown up there.”
“Those vampire siblings... they called me a ‘gift’ when they first saw me.”
He jeered. “Of course they did. Technically speaking, they were doing precisely what was within their right according to the terms; claiming trespassers. But, that doesn’t make it right. They should have warned you to turn back before trying anything. It never sat right with me that anyone who could have accidentally ended up there was immediately forfeit.”
“I take it this isn’t the first time this has happened?”
“No. The territory line isn’t as apparent to the far west, and mistakes happen. It’s imperative that parents are transparent with their children from a young age as to why they must avoid the Northern Territory. Not much room for innocence in that regard, I suppose.”
“I don’t understand. Why is something like that so close to the farmlands, of all places? Right beside the main road? Was there nowhere else to put it?”
“The farmlands have expanded over the years. They used to be considerably further away, but crept closer to the river as crops continued to prosper. Not just that, but because of the Sunspheres, they need to remain on the eastern coast for even a glint of sunlight in the morning.”
The room grew quiet as a thousand thoughts ran through both of their minds. Ellie struggled to process everything that she had heard. Up until now, she was blissfully unaware of what Elise meant when she said criminals were taken ‘elsewhere’. Though she wished she had known about all of this sooner, Ellie carried no grudge in her heart against Janus for withholding the information. She wasn’t certain, but she imagined that it was for her protection.
Shifting her weight to her elbow, Ellie raised herself to a sit. Janus rose to his feet to give her more space and leaned down carefully to examine her neck.
“Are you feeling alright?”
“I think so.” Ellie dangled her legs over the edge of the bed and examined the salve on her right hand. “I thought for sure you were going to scream at me when you arrived. I think that was partially why I was so terrified, but only by a fraction compared to everything else.”
“For only a moment, I was furious. But when I saw you like that, I just—I couldn’t keep hold of that feeling. I just wanted to be certain that you were unharmed. Anger would have only made everything worse, anyway.”
Ellie’s heart seized in her chest at the thought of Janus feeling that way for even a moment. But the tone that accompanied the rest of his words caused a small flutter in her stomach, confusing her as to why they had that effect.
Janus extended the towel to her after having folded it neatly again.
“You can clean the salve off your hand, but leave your neck for awhile longer.”
With a gentle nod, Ellie took the towel and began wiping off her hand.
“I wanted to ask one more thing.” She swallowed her hesitation. “You mentioned that you arrived in the Night Realm long after the other vampires. How exactly did you end up here?”
The salve between her fingers was polished away with quick swipes. When there was no response, Ellie blinked and looked to Janus, who was staring out the balcony door wistfully.
“Sorry, forget it. I don’t want to dig up any painful memories.”
“No. I want you to know. I... trust you.”
Ellie was taken aback when Janus extended an open hand to her.
“Can you stand? There’s something that I’d like you to see.”
His smile was slight and genuine, but his eyes were somber. Ellie didn’t know if it was right to put him through this, but this appeared to be what Janus wanted. She replied with a slow nod and took his hand. The delicate manner in which he placed his fingers beneath hers caused her cheeks to flush.
Janus’s smile grew, but the look in his eyes did not change. When Ellie stood to her feet, she waited for his fingers to part. By no means did he hold her hand in a way that kept her in his grasp, but she chose instead to tighten her fingers in his. Taking this as a sign to guide her, Janus led them out of the bedchamber and toward the Great Hall. The longer they walked—down the grand stairs and into the west corridor—the more Ellie found herself with no desire to retract her hand from his.
Before long, they arrived at the stairwell beyond the series of locked doors. Returning to her was the memory of the uninviting atmosphere Ellie felt during first visit to this portion of the castle. Janus took one step down the stairs when he felt a tug from her hand. Without loosening his grasp, he looked up to Ellie and felt the tension running from her shoulders down to her fingertips.
Ellie stared at Janus before gazing down the stairwell. There was a tremble to his voice that indicated that she wasn’t the only one feeling nervous about what awaited them at the bottom of the stairs.
Each step felt weighed down by the air around them. They reached the landing, turned the corner, and followed the next staircase leading to an old, wooden door on the underside of the castle. Janus took an unlit torch from the wall and lit it with his magic before handing it to Ellie. He reached into his cloak and removed a ring of keys, running his fingers over them with a tense sigh.
“Once I show you what lies beyond, perhaps then everything will become clear.”
He inserted a gray key and turned it slowly, a small click announcing that the door had become unlocked.