Candlelight flickered along the walls of the bedroom, dancing fervently whenever a summer breeze wafted through the open window. Bram rested on the large bed, his hand shielding closed eyes from unseen irritations. He focused his mind on the sounds in the other room; locks on the front door clicking into place, followed by old floorboards groaning under approaching steps.
The bedroom door creaked open and Vena slipped into the room with an aged expression. Closing the door behind her, she shuffled up to Bram with a small, glass vial of dark green liquid.
“You look terrible,” he said, his voice low as to not carry beyond the confines of their bedroom.
“I’m exhausted, between the nightly searches and the daily requests.” She took Bram’s hand and clasped the vial in his palm before slumping down beside him. “Today’s dosage.”
“Thank you, love.”
Bram pushed himself up with his free hand and removed the tiny cork. He winced when he brought the rim to his lips, hesitating before downing the entire thing. A slight, lingering sting tickled his throat and forced him to cough.
“It’s more potent than usual.”
Vena moved to the plain wardrobe on the far end of the room and began undressing. She threw her work clothes carelessly to the floor.
“I added a few things to it. Hopefully it’ll be more effective.”
Having changed to a light nightgown, Vena returned to the bed and collapsed to her side with a heaving breath. She peeled at the blanket, but stopped when Bram placed his hand on hers.
“You can’t go to sleep like that.” He smirked and pointed to her hair. “You haven’t undone your braid yet. Besides, I see burrs in it.”
“Are there?” She reached a hand back, withdrawing when she felt a prick.
Sleepily, she raised herself back to sit on the edge of the bed as Bram positioned himself behind her. He reached for the brush rested on her bedside table and, with a gentle touch, worked the burrs out of her hair. After removing the tie that held the braid together, Bram wove his fingers between the segments and let her dark blonde hair hang loose.
“Irwin and Lillian have been trying to stay strong, but I can tell they’re struggling.” Vena pinched part of the blanket between her fingers, rubbing it back and forth idly. “Poor Irwin just reads and reads with swollen eyes, hardly talking and barely eating his meals.”
“Mm, I’ve noticed that, too. Lillian tried to hide her tears behind the sound of the bath faucet last night. I’m worried about them.”
Silence embraced the couple as Bram ran the brush through Vena’s hair, taking care not to pull too hard as he worked through her tangles. The sensation calmed her nerves and prompted a drawn sigh to part her lips.
“No one has found—has found any remains. In the woods.”
Bram’s body froze momentarily with the grim imagery of her words.
“But what if they overlooked something, Bram?” Vena’s voice broke as her shoulders tensed. “What if she fell into a hole that they haven’t found?”
“Vena, they’ve absolutely scoured those woods. They would have found something like that by now.” There was a long pause as he finished brushing. “Any word from the road, or in Phiana?”
“No, but my parents are taking care of that. Bless them, they were already so busy getting ready for their trip.”
After observing his work, Bram returned the brush to the bedside table before leaning his chest against Vena’s back in an embrace.
“My father stopped by while you were out. He heard about Ellie.”
“And I suppose the bitch still wasn’t with him?” she scoffed.
“No, he was alone.”
Vena turned at her hip to face Bram, her arms wrapping around him as they dropped to the bed and held one another close. As Bram leaned his head against hers, Vena’s eyes wandered his chest while the shared warmth soothed their heavy hearts.
“Do you think there’s something magical at work here?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, do you remember that story I told you years and years ago? When you were sick and I went to gather wildflowers for you?”
“I don’t think so. But I remember the flowers.” The corners of his mouth quirked with a fond smile.
“I was in the clearing, the one that the children liked to play in sometimes. I saw a small, wild rat on top of a stump that I had never seen before. When it saw me, it and the stump just... sank into the ground.”
“Right, yes, I remember this one now.”
“I had completely forgotten about it until recently.” Vena shifted her head to look at Bram, her fingertips tracing his arm as he brushed a loose strand of hair from her face. “Every time I’m out searching, I find myself back in that clearing. There’s something drawing me to it. I just can’t help but wonder if Ellie was... spirited away, or something. Just like that rat.”
“We shouldn’t rule it out, considering the fantastical things that can happen in this world. Maybe we should commission one of the traveling wizards to see if they can do anything.”
“Maybe, but we’d have to pull from Lillian’s college fund just to afford it.”
“Something tells me Lillian would be the first to offer up the money,” Bram chuckled.
“You’re right.” Vena shuffled down in the bed to situate her head against his chest, the sound of his heartbeat soothing her. “We’ll find her, Bram. And if anyone has hurt her, I won’t rest until they know her pain.”
Voices traveled along the curved length of the town market, potential customers bartering with merchants and friends and associates socializing in the spaces between stalls. Ellie perused a display of red tomatoes as Smaul instructed her on how to pick out the best ones. With an understanding nod, she reached for a few and held them up for his approval. Of the three she chose, only one met his satisfaction.
“This one was picked while it was still green.” He turned up his nose at the first before poking gently at the second. “And this one is soft in some spots. But this one? Ruby red, firm, not a blemish in sight. Perfection.”
Thin fingers rested on Ellie’s cloaked shoulder as Elise leaned in to peer at the selection.
“Oh, only you would be dissatisfied with the other two,” she tutted.
“My creations don’t excel without the finest ingredients,” Smaul squawked.
With the best tomato snatched up in his long and well-manicured fingers, Ellie returned the other two to the stall before spinning on her heel to face Elise with sparkling eyes.
“Enjoying yourself today?”
“Oh yes,” Ellie beamed. “It’s better than when we tried to go shopping last month. There were too many customers and not enough crops, so the goblins and I had to sit and wait in a queue just to be able to buy a handful of potatoes.”
A breeze swept by, flapping Ellie’s cloak and Elise’s blue outing dress to one side. She placed her hand atop her matching hat to keep it in from flying off.
“The wind certainly seems to be picking up.” Elise tilted her head toward the clouds. “Might start raining soon.”
“Glad I wore my cloak today, then. It was a little warm when we set out, but now it’s come in handy.”
“We should probably finish up and head back to the castle shortly.”
“Oh, but I don’t think Janus and Rehor are back yet. Shouldn’t we wait for them?”
“They have the carriage, Ellie. They can return on their own.”
Elise reached inside the pocket of her dress and snapped out a strip of parchment listing the remaining supplies left to purchase. She joined a few goblins at one of the stalls as Ellie stood on her toes and peered out at the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pair returning from their own tasks.
Instead, her eye caught the familiar figure standing outside the town hall. In the midst of conversation with an unknown person was Bedelia, of whom Ellie had barely the chance to speak to ever since the incident at the border. Weaving her way through the crowd with a spring to her step, Ellie hustled out of the market and up to Bedelia before she could retreat back to her work. Eyes widening in delight at her approach, Bedelia wrapped up the conversation and bid her fellow politician farewell. She outstretched her arms and stepped forward to meet Ellie at the street’s edge.
“Ellie, so good to see you.” She placed her hands on her arms, returning the warm smile that she had received.
“It’s good to see you, too. I spotted you and figured I’d say hello while the next big vegetable debate raged on.”
“Oh, so you’re visiting the markets today?”
“Mhm, I’m helping the goblins with their monthly shopping. Not only that, but Janus and Rehor brought the recently healed afflicted into town to bring them to their new homes.”
“Right, I heard they arrived just a little while ago. I was about to head that way to see how the housing committee was faring with setting them up.”
The hurried clack of hooves on stone drew the attention of Ellie and Bedelia to the approaching Crow on horseback. As they came to a halt just beside them, the Crow turned toward Bedelia with their beaked mask and gave her a respectful nod.
“Mayor, I apologize for the interruption,” she spoke with a rushed voice.
“What’s the problem, Crow?”
“General Delman has requested your immediate presence at the Maw Watchtower. There’s a... situation.”
Bedelia’s brow furrowed at the Crow’s unsettling request.
“I understand.” She turned to Ellie with a sigh. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to check in on the afflicted later. I’m sorry to part so suddenly, Ellie.”
“No, I understand. Take care.”
As Ellie sulked back a few steps, Bedelia turned her attention to the Crow once more.
“Ride ahead and tell General Delman that I’m on my way.”
With a nod and a swift turn, the Crow raced back through the streets to the north from where she came. Ellie watched Bedelia wave down Aston at the second story window so that he knew she was departing, then board her carriage before setting out.
Her lips curling in thought, Ellie shuffled back toward the markets to find Elise and the goblins almost precisely where she had left them. She had worried that she might’ve given them cause for concern for disappearing without a word, but it appeared as though they weren’t even the slightest bit aware of her absence.
After a couple of hours well spend and a pair of carts full of fresh supplies, the lot made their way down the south road through the sea of stalls and shoppers. The grinding of the wheels on the stone street was hardly missed when they finally met with the dirt road on the outskirts. Ellie clasped her hands behind her and smiled at the black castle in the distance. It was a complete change from how she felt the first time she laid eyes on the place that she now considered a second home.
A pop and a snap caused Ellie to stop in her tracks, then look down at her feet to see that the strap on one of her shoes had come off completely.
“Damn it,” she cursed, reaching down and flapping it back and forth in disapproval.
“Oh dear,” Elise said, having taken notice of Ellie’s dilemma. “We’ll have to get a cobbler to fix that.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you don’t wear the right kind of shoes with all the running around you’ve been doing these days,” Smaul called out, motioning for the goblins in front to stop. “Hop on the cart.”
Meen bounced over to the vegetable cart and shuffled them out of the way to create a nice little pocket for Ellie to sit in.
“Hop on, hop on.” She patted the spot happily.
“Are you sure? I’d hate for you all to have to pull me along, too.”
“It’s no trouble,” Eingree called back. “We’ve hauled more than this before.”
“Just be glad it’s not the meat cart,” Skeeni laughed.
With a gentle thump, Ellie dropped onto the cart and cracked a nervous smile to Elise, whose shoulders shook with silent amusement. Unaffected by the added weight, the goblins continued to chatter among themselves as they hauled everything back to the castle.
When they arrived shortly after, they steered the carts to the path on the east end. Ellie looked up at the castle wall beside her before turning her attention over her shoulder. The last time she helped the goblins, they told her to scuttle off at the front gate, so Ellie had never actually been to this side of the castle before.
The carts came to a stop at the back corner, where Ellie promptly lifted herself up to help the goblins unload the supplies into crates stacked by the back door. Her eye caught a glimpse of a wide, open space behind the castle library; a field filled with dull, drooping flowers. The sight of such neglect gave her cause to frown as she pondered why these weren’t given the same treatment as the flowers in the courtyard.
Elise’s voice beckoned Ellie into the castle with her crate full of vegetables. Everyone took turns unloading them into the nearby storeroom, only needing a few trips before everything was brought inside. Placing his hands on his hips in satisfaction, Smaul nodded to each of the crates as he verified the contents.
“Good work, everyone. Another month, another—”
A chorus of gasps filled the storage room as a terrible tremor shook the earth. Bins and crates full of supplies rattled and toppled as everyone struggled to keep their balance. Distant sounds of shattering glass and clanging metal rang through their ears. Ellie looked on in fear when she noticed a small tower of crates begin leaning over the top of Nais. Having noticed it at the same time, both Ellie and Elise reached out and pushed back against it before it could collapse on him.
Everyone stood breathless as the tremor finished, attempting to wrap their minds around the mess surrounding them. Meen groaned in dissatisfaction and reached for a few loose vegetables that she started placing back into the bins that they fell from.
“These tremors may not be daily anymore, but they’re certainly getting worse,” she grumbled.
“That one was particularly nasty.” Smaul pushed a misaligned crate back into place. “I’m worried about the little ones under the courtyard.”
Ellie perked up in concern. “I’ll go check on them.”
Without a second thought, she hopped over a few crates and darted out of the storage and into the garden storeroom two doors down the corridor. Ellie raced beyond the array of tools and supplies and pushed her way through the door to the courtyard, just to the south of the tunnel to Rat Town.
Commotion from deeper within echoed through the perfectly intact tunnel. Despite appearances, she feared the worst when she heard a few rats yelling out. To her surprise, Rat Town largely intact, save for one far corner where the dirt wall had collapsed and caused a landslide toward one of the houses. Seeing that most of the town was gathered around there, she quickly but cautiously made her way over.
“Is anyone hurt?” she called out.
Gerald raced toward her, immediately leaping up onto her outstretched arms and climbing to her shoulder. His little paws fidgeted as he watched the other rats burrow out the dirt that had collided with the side of the single house.
“No one hurt down here,” one rat replied. “Just a few scratches. Thankfully no one was home when the landslide hit.”
“What’re we gonna do if these tremors don’t stop?” another rat asked.
The question prompted discussion from a couple dozen pairs, making it impossible for Ellie to follow the conversation. Though there was damage done to a house, a relieved smile formed on her face that none of the rats were harmed.
“Miss Ellie,” Gerald said in a low voice, bobbing his head back to lure her away from the crowd. After several paces, he continued. “If these tremors don’t stop soon, the entirety of Rat Town might have to relocate to the surface. We’d have to leave behind our homes.”
Ellie reached up and gave Gerald a reassuring scratch behind the ear.
“Hopefully it won’t come to that, but if it does, maybe there’s some way we can transport the houses.”
“I really hope it doesn’t, Miss Ellie. It’s not just the houses that we consider home, but the entire cave. So many of us would hate to leave it behind.”
The pair watched as some of the rats continued digging at the dirt beside the impacted house, taking care that it’s overall integrity wouldn’t collapse further.
“I’m gonna help out, Miss Ellie.”
“Do you want me to see if any of the goblins can lend a hand?”
“That would be wonderful, thank you.”
Ellie knelt and extended her arm so that Gerald could climb his way back down before shuffling back to the group of rats. With care to her steps, Ellie made her way back through the tunnel and to the surface and cut back across the garden storeroom in search of the goblins. While most had dispersed, Ellie found three of them where they had been before.
“There was a landslide in Rat Town, but the rats themselves are okay. Is anyone able to lend a hand?”
“I can help them,” Fahtt said. “I’ll head down there in a few minutes.”
“Thank you. Does anyone else need help up here?”
“We have the storerooms mostly under control,” Hapi said. “But maybe Elise might need help with cleanup in the other rooms? Sounded like a lot of things broke.”
“Good idea, I’ll go check on her.”
Ellie bustled down the corridor in the direction of the Great Hall, stopping beside the dining hall when she spotted the open door. Peeking her head inside, she saw Elise crouched over by a shelf of drinking glasses with a few vacant spots. Ellie rushed over and knelt down by a glass broken in two clean segments, reaching out to pluck it up.
“No no,” Elise said, slapping her bony fingers on Ellie’s hand. “It’s easy enough for me, but I don’t want you bleeding everywhere. That will just make even more messes to clean up.”
“Well, is there anything that I can help with?”
Elise paused in thought. “Could you check on the drawing room and the gallery? If there’s anything broken in there, let me know. If something has simply fallen over, feel free to put it back in place.”
Ellie raised herself up and started for the door, but stopped when she heard Elise’s voice.
“Go change your shoes, first. It’s not good to keep running around with that broken buckle.”
“Yes, mother,” Ellie chuckled, making her way into the corridor.
Barely several steps up the staircase in the Great Hall, Ellie turned to face the front gate as it creaked open, her face lighting up when she saw Janus return with Rehor a few paces behind.
“You’re back,” she said.
“Ellie.” Janus paced across the room to meet with her, stopping just at the base of the stairs. “Is everything alright here? That tremor was terrible.”
“Well, a lot of things fell over and there was a landslide in Rat Town. Oh, but the rats are okay. Everyone’s just kind of rushing around and cleaning up.” She pointed down at her shoe. “I have to go change my shoes before I can do anything, though. Elise’s orders.”
“Oh, Ellie.” Janus shook his head with simpering smile. “How did you manage to break your shoe?”
“Lord Janus?” Rehor was standing just beside the entrance to the east corridor. “I’m returning to the asylum to check on Nairi and the afflicted.”
“Of course. Let me know if I’m needed.”
With a nod, Rehor left the two alone in the Great Hall as he made his way down the corridor.
“Where will you be checking first?” Janus asked, turning his attention back to Ellie.
“Elise asked me to look through the drawing room and the gallery.”
“Alright. I need to check on—on my family. I’ll look through the transmutation room and the greenhouse after that.”
“Then I’ll check the music room afterward and meet you in the art room?”
“Perfect. I’ll see you soon.”
The two parted with a nod and a smile, Ellie hurrying to the second floor while Janus rushed down the west corridor in the direction of the dark room beside the stairwell.
To the far west of Haven, where the peaks of the mountain range dipped low, sat a lonely tower that peered across the land and out over the darkness beyond. At its base, it sank into the mountain before stretching into a tunnel that peeked out next to the road. Beside that was a barricade that protected the realm from a foreboding, pitch black tunnel that stirred with dark mist and terrible rot.
Patrolling the area were several men and women in the uniform of the Crows. One beside the stables perked up when she heard the grinding of carriage wheels and clopping of hooves drawing close. With determined steps, she approached the halting carriage and waited for its passenger to emerge.
Bedelia stepped out and gave the Crow a nod, unable to recognize her as the very same that had delivered the message earlier.
“I’m glad to see you’re unharmed, Mayor. That was a frightful tremor.”
“Oh, yes.” Her brow arched in realization when she heard the familiar voice muffled by the beaked mask. “The horses were terrified and we feared the carriage might topple, but my coachman kept them under control.”
The coachman bowed his head when Bedelia gestured to him.
“Now, if I may ask; is the reason I’ve been summoned here due to these tremors?”
“I’m hesitant to say one way or the other, Mayor. But, if I had to say anything, our discovery this morning would make for a likely candidate. However, I think it best that General Delman share the findings with you.”
“Of course. Lead the way.”
The Crow led Bedelia into the tunnel beside the barricade, their heels clacking along the stone floor as they approached the winding staircase of the watchtower. Upon its peak, they stood on the very barrier between the Sanctified Lands and Blackest Pitch. The dark fog swirled on the opposite side for miles upon miles, until their eyes were unable to see anything else.
Several Crows were positioned at points of the tower’s peak, looking out in either direction with watchful gazes. Near where Bedelia had emerged was one towering Crow dressed in a more ornate beaked mask and a longer feathered cloak. Upon seeing her, he gave a partial bow.
“Thank you for coming, Bedelia.”
“Delman.” She returned the bow. “I’m told you may have a lead as to what’s causing these tremors?”
The general reached both hands into his hood and unfastened his mask, revealing a timeworn but graceful face. Upon pulling down the cloth, his wavy, auburn hair rested on his shoulders as half-elven ears coyly peeked from between the strands. He looked down his hooked nose at her with gentle green eyes.
“Indeed.” His deep voice carried across the peak of the tower, no longer stifled by his mask. “One of the patrols noticed it this morning while observing Blackest Pitch.”
Moving his cloak to one side and briefly uncovering the black attire beneath, General Delman stepped cautiously to the tower’s edge that overlooked the sea of black. Slowly, he tilted his head directly down along the edge of the tower before motioning for Bedelia to join him.
“You should... brace yourself.”
Bedelia hesitated, her brow twitching in uncertainty. Her eyes darted to the other Crows, noticing the tension in their stances as they stared blankly at the mountains and horizons. Their chests barely rose with their breaths, prompting a similar reaction in Bedelia as she crept forward. When her eyes met General Delman’s, she placed her hand on the edge and leaned forward as drips of rain began dotting the surface of the stone. In the blackened sea, she fixated on the newly discovered terror.
“Delman.” Bedelia’s voice cracked with quickened breaths. “What in the Savior’s name is this abominable horror?”
Each brush that had spilled out on the floor plopped back into the container that Ellie dropped them into with a hollow clank. She sighed at the mess of utensils strewn about, but was grateful that nothing of greater importance had toppled over in the art room.
The groan of the door opening stirred Ellie to look over her shoulder as Janus entered the art room. He scanned the area before making his way to her, leaning this way and that to be certain that none of the easels were out of sorts.
“This room seems relatively unaffected.”
“That’s after I came in here.” She pointed to the containers on the table. “These damn brushes were trying to use the floor as their canvas a moment ago.”
With a few extra thunks, the remaining tools and utensils were returned to the final container. Ellie raised herself up and set it with the others before turning on her heel and leaning against the table’s edge.
“There were a few broken glasses in the drawing room and a shattered bust in the gallery, but I haven’t found much else. I told Elise about them, so she’ll clean them up soon. She doesn’t want me picking up anything that shattered.”
“That sounds like Elise. Bit of a mother hen, isn’t she?”
“Funny that you should call her that. I said something similar when she told me to change my shoes earlier.”
Ellie wiggled her foot and the two shared a much needed laugh, the tension caused by the tremor easing itself from their shoulders. Janus moved toward the single long sofa in the room and dropped himself onto it, caring nothing for elegant form and letting his limbs go every which way.
“Was your family alright?” Ellie asked.
“Yes. The dark room held up well, and the measures I put in place to secure them weren’t affected. But if we get too many tremors like that one, I may need to consider moving them to the tunnels, or even up to the surface.”
“Well, I’m glad they’re safe. What about the other rooms?”
“A few broken alembics and toppled plants, but no significant losses.” He heaved a deep breath as he leaned his head back. “What a long day. I can’t wait for it to be over.”
Ellie shuffled up to Janus and placed her hands delicately upon his face, startling him as he blinked at her. The sudden contact left him at a loss for words and his lips began trembling as he struggled to speak.
“Ugh, you’ve been sleeping poorly again, haven’t you?” She carefully traced her thumbs over the bags under his eyes before releasing him, the rising warmth from his face lingering in her palms. “I thought it was getting better.”
“It was, when everything had slowed down. But now that they’re busy again, I’ve been growing restless.”
“Maybe you need to concoct something to help you sleep?”
“Hm, I hadn’t considered that. It’s not a terrible idea.”
Ellie stared blankly at Janus in thought, unaware of the mounting anticipation he experienced as he waited for something that never came. Averting his eyes from her, he sat up straight and scratched at his forehead.
“Well, in any case, I still need to check on the second floor bedchambers,” she said.
“Oh, let me help you with that.” Janus moved to stand, but was pushed back into place by Ellie when she placed her hands on his shoulders.
"You rest up for a bit. I can handle it for now.”
“Ellie,” he tutted. “Don’t you start mothering me, too.”
“If you really want to help me, you can take care of the bedchambers outside your own, but only after you’ve relaxed for a few minutes. I’ll take care of the other end. Besides, if I want a chance at finishing before you, then I need you to give me a head start.”
“So it’s a competition then? Fine, fine.” He leaned forward and laced his fingers together. “It may annoy Elise, but I would say feel free to clean up anything you find. She doesn’t need to worry herself with every little thing.”
“Her heart’s in the right place, but I agree.” Ellie took one last look around the room to be absolutely certain that nothing had escaped her cleaning wrath. “Well, I’ll get started on the second floor, then. I’ll see you at dinner, when I’ve arrived before you upon my victory.”
With a taunting wave of the fingers, Ellie started for the door.
“Ellie,” Janus called, his summon succeeding in stopping her in her tracks. “With everything going on lately, I think I need a good drink. Would you like to join me for one in the parlor after dinner?”
A delighted smirk perked up on her face. “That sounds fun. I’d love to.”
With an exchange of smiles, Ellie parted ways with Janus and started back toward the Great Hall. Listening to her quieting footsteps, he glanced toward the door on the other end and brought his tongue to his cheek in thought.
“You can’t stop me from starting early if you don’t see me,” he muttered.
Sneering playfully, Janus exited through the further door and started toward the back stairwell, taking an alternate route to the second floor bedchambers.