Two pairs of feet bustled along the surface of the marble floor, filling the southeast corridor with the sound of clacking heels. Ellie kept herself several paces ahead of an annoyed Elise, who followed with such speed that she might as well have been pursuing her. In both of their hands were plain, metal trays holding shards of glass that glimmered dangerously in the firelight.
“I know what you said,” Ellie pouted. “But just because your fingers are all bone and mine are ‘soft’—as you say—doesn’t mean that you’re the only one who needs to pick up everything.”
An audible sigh resonated within Elise’s skull. “You think it’s because I’m worried, but truthfully, I don’t want to have to clean up your blood in addition to everything else.
The pair approached a cylindrical container beside the back door at the far end of the corridor, dumping the glass into a pile with countless other shards.
“That’s what you say, but I know you’re actually concerned.” Ellie delivered to Elise a playful smirk, which in turn prompted her to shake her head in a flustered manner.
“Yes, well, of course I’m concerned. But that factor is secondary.”
A nearby door creaked open and put a hold on the lighthearted argument. The pair watched as Rehor silently shifted up the steps of the nearby stairwell. His footfalls made not a sound—the only noise emanating from the glass rattling on his tray—causing Ellie to wonder if he even wore footwear underneath his long, trailing robes. In turn, this thought posed the question if a shade even had need for such things.
“Good evening,” he said as he approached. “I see we all have a bit of cleanup to do.”
“Was everything alright down there?” Ellie asked.
“Minimal damage, only a few broken instruments.” He pointed a shadowy finger to the fragmented alembics and vials. “The tremor did unsettle some of the afflicted, so our primary focus was calming them down. Most are well now, though.”
With a careful movement, Rehor dumped the glass into the container, the shards clinking against the rest.
“And how do things fare on the surface?”
“Well, glass seems to be the common casualty.” Ellie peeked over the edge of the container. “Most other things were just misaligned or slightly dented.”
“Hm, I’m not sure we’re equipped to handle many more tremors of such magnitude. I can only imagine the chaos in Haven at this moment. Lord Janus and I had only just departed when it struck.”
Ellie had been so preoccupied with everything in the castle, it hadn’t even occurred to her that the town would have been similarly impacted. Images formed in her mind of tumbling fruits and vegetables from the few unstable stalls that they had visited.
“Do excuse me,” Rehor said. “I should return to the asylum and assist Nairi with the afflicted.”
As quietly as he arrived, Rehor shifted back down the stairs with an empty tray in hand. Ellie and Elise watched him as he vanished beneath the stairs and opened and closed the asylum door with a gentle thud. She coyly smiled to her as she held her tray close, negligent of any particle-sized fragments that might have still dusted the surface. Considering this, Elise snatched the tray and placed it with her own before starting back down the corridor. Ellie followed close on her heels with pursed lips and a furrowed brow.
Upon entering the corridor intersection, the kitchen door eased open when Meen stepped out and blinked in surprise at the two of them.
“Oh, how lucky, I was just coming to look for you. Dinner is nearly ready, Ellie.”
“Thank you, Meen. Should I wait in there?” She pointed casually to the kitchen.
“You go to the dining hall,” Elise said, her voice firm. “I’ll bring it to you.”
Elise tutted as she pushed into the kitchen, leaving Ellie to trot along to the dining hall on her own. The room was radiant with fully lit chandeliers and flames that crackled in the fireplace. Ellie was awestruck, this having been the first time she had ever seen it so bright. In this light, it would have been impossible not to notice Janus seated at his place as he relaxed his head on a closed fist. Ellie couldn’t believe that he had finished looking over the rooms that quickly, unless he neglected the rest she demanded of him.
“My, aren’t you fast,” she sneered blithely, her words stirring him softly from his rest.
“Well, vampires are naturally quick. You wouldn’t have stood a chance even if you tried.”
“Is that so? Considering that I did try, something tells me that you deprived me of my head start. Or is that chair so comfortable that you’re prone to falling asleep in it even when you’ve already had rest?”
She gave his shoulder a light poke, prompting a chuckled from both of them.
“Well, it is awfully comfortable. Perhaps you should try it sometime?”
“I’ll be sure to throw myself into it the moment you turn your back.”
“Preferably after I’ve stood up?”
Ellie smirked as she traced her fingers along the backing of the chair and swept to the other side, easing herself into her own seat beside him. She pulled herself closer and leaned forward on elbows rested on the table’s surface, intertwining her fingers and peeking at Janus with a smile.
“Did you find anything broken? The rooms I looked through were a mess, but there wasn’t much that had actually broke.”
“The second and third floor west rooms were relatively undisturbed, much to my surprise.”
“Second and third? So not only did you finish before me, but you also checked more rooms than I did. Now I know for certain you didn’t relax when I asked you to.”
“But you also said those rooms were a mess, so you spent more time in them.”
“Don’t try and make me feel better about it, cheater.”
The pair shared in a laugh when the serving room door pushed open with Elise’s arrival. Gripped between her fingers was a large tray carrying two plates, as well as a cup of water and Janus’s usual drinking glass and bottle of blood. Ellie’s eyebrow perked when she saw Elise not only place those beside him, but one of the plates of food, as well. With everything in place, she returned to the serving room with a slight bow of the head.
“I didn’t know you could have anything other than blood,” Ellie said, pointing to his plate with her fork.
“Well, while normal food doesn’t sustain a vampire, it’s still a pleasure we can indulge in from time to time, much like alcohol.”
Janus unraveled the cloth napkin with a single stroke and draped his delicately on his lap.
“How does that work?” Ellie asked, looking over the appetizing spread of baked and seasoned chicken with fried peppers, zucchini, and other vegetables.
“I can give you a detailed and scientific explanation, but it’s not exactly appropriate dinner conversation.”
Ellie fished through the plethora of vegetables on the plate. Prying her fork into the chicken, she found a groove where one of the vegetables had nestled away during cooking. With a small pull, she dug it out to find a clove of garlic. Ellie prodded further and tore at the meat to pull off a generous helping, but squinted her eyes at the clove. Her mind darted back to the day she went to the market with Lillian and the conversation they had on the carriage.
Throwing her fork down with a terrible clang, Ellie shot up and jerked her arm across the table to yank down Janus’s hand, causing him to drop his own fork as she pinned his wrist.
“Ellie, what in the hells?” he yelled. “What’s gotten into you? Perhaps you’re the one suffering from exhaustion?”
“There’s—” Her short breaths couldn’t drown out the sound of her pounding heart. “There’s garlic in the food! I think someone might be trying to hurt you!”
His eyes bore into her for what felt like eternity before his inner brow and the corners of his mouth peaked in amusement. A boisterous laugh barreled from his chest as he used his free hand to start prying open her fingers.
“Why are you laughing?” she asked in a panicked voice.
“Oh Ellie, you’re too much.”
After struggling to loosen her grip when she continually clamped her fingers back down, Janus retrieved his fork and promptly placed it in his mouth. Ellie squeaked in disbelief as she watched him savor the meat’s flavor, terrified of what would come next. Satisfied, he leaned back in his chair and gazed up at the ceiling.
“If garlic could kill me, I’d have died at least a hundred deaths by now. Well, relatively speaking, what with being undead.”
“Are you—are you telling me that garlic does not harm you?”
“I should hope not, otherwise I don’t think I could continue living the way that I do. The smell is awfully potent, though, but I find it magnificent.” He looked Ellie in the eyes, an amused breath passing his lips as he saw her mortified expression. “Is this some sort of Prime Realm misconception about vampires?”
Ellie dropped limply back into her seat with a thud. She then threw her arm down onto the table and slumped into it as her face warmed unbearably.
“I’m gonna kill you, Lillian.”
Her expression contorted when she heard the remnants of laughter still trailing out of Janus. Turning her head to the other side, she gave him a glare that only provided him further amusement.
“Come now, Ellie, don’t be so embarrassed. Gods know I needed the laugh, and you’ve been providing me with plenty these days.”
“Well I’m happy that my shame can provide you with so much joy,” she said ironically, rapping her fingers on the table’s surface.
“Honestly, I’m touched. You cared about my well being so much that you moved with speed that could rival even a vampire’s, and all because you wanted to protect me from something you thought would cause me harm.”
“I still wanna die,” she said, sitting up with a slouch. “But I am happy to know that garlic doesn’t actually hurt you.”
“Well, now that we’re on the subject,” he said, skewering a few of the vegetables. “Are there any other myths about vampires that you’d like to confirm are true or false?”
Ellie’s mouth tightened in thought as her eyes traced toward the ceiling. Though she had read a fair share of vampire stories, there was no better place to start than the conversation she had with Lillian when they went to the market.
“I already know that daylight won’t kill you, but it still isn’t an ideal time for vampires to function.”
She tapped her fork thoughtfully on the plate, the gentle clink causing ripples in her cup. Ellie’s eyes met with the utensil, its silver surface reflecting the light of the chandelier.
“What about silver?”
Janus lifted his fork to show her that it matched her own, then took another bite.
“Alright then.” She glanced around the table, noticing Janus’s faint reflection in his drinking glass. “Well I can see that you do indeed have a reflection.”
“And thank the gods for it. I certainly wouldn’t look this nice every day if I didn’t.”
“Okay, what about holy objects?”
“Now that one there is cause to fear. However, a holy object on its own does nothing. I’ve certainly held a few out of curiosity and was no worse for wear, but if the faith of the person wielding it is strong, it can be deadly.”
“And I take it that that’s where the Solar Cult comes into play?”
“Precisely. An object of their faith was never used on me personally, but I have no doubt that it would burn my flesh if one ever was.”
A brief silence overtook the room, accompanied only by the sound of silver on porcelain as the two continued their meals. The thought of something so small as a pendant or an idol causing Janus’s flesh to burn terrified Ellie. That reality gave her at least one reason to understand why the Solar Cult could never find out about life in the Night Realm.
“I wonder where the myths about silver and garlic came from,” Janus pondered aloud. “It seems awfully silly, when you think about it.”
“I heard once that it has something to do with antibacterial properties? Or as Lillian would say, ‘Auntie Back Tear Eel’.”
“Ah, because vampirism is caused by bacteria in the bloodstream. Interesting. Well, these myths would’ve been more applicable to vampires from ages past. Over time, we have adapted and evolved to feel minimal to no effects.”
“So those things really don’t bother you?”
“I will admit that there is a tingle in my skin when I feel the daylight, or a small sting when silver hits my tongue for the first time in months.”
“That sounds unpleasant, but I’m relieved. I’d hate to know you’d burn to ash the moment you stepped outside during the day.”
“And I would have, were I among the first vampires to exist. Thankfully that was a ludicrously long time ago, so there isn’t much truth to it anymore.”
Ellie stood her fork upright and tilted the handle back and forth, resting her chin in her palm as she stared at a painting on the wall that was hugged between two suits of armor.
“If I became a vampire and was told that I could never again eat my grandmother’s garlic bread, I would find the nearest priest to run a stake through my heart.”
Janus laughed abruptly. “Such a dramatic response, but if you feel that way then that garlic bread must be positively divine.”
“Oh, is it ever!” She pushed herself back in her chair and closed her eyes as fond memories poured in. “My grandparents visit once a month and cook us dinner, and she would always make her garlic bread. My family and I would roll die, and the person with the highest number got to have the last piece. Lillian would try to cheat, but Irwin always caught her in the act. My dad’s a natural, though, and won most often.”
“Would you say it’s the best garlic bread you’ve ever had?”
“Absolutely. Much better than any that’s ever served at the stalls during the Joining Festival.” Ellie tilted her head to one side, staring at nothing in particular with solemn eyes. “I promised my siblings I would go with them this year, but that festival is long over by now. I know it’s unlikely, but I hope they were able to enjoy themselves at least somewhat.”
“Don’t worry, Ellie,” Janus said, a slight waver to his voice. “We’ll make sure that you can return home, or at the very least, send word to your family that you’re alright. It won’t be too long now before Gerald can use his magic again. Then we can begin determining if it’s safe on the other side.”
Ellie smiled, but it felt only partially sincere. She wanted to return home, to see her family again, and to hopefully begin her apprenticeship. But every time she thought about returning, something tore at her. She hated knowing that soon she would part from her friends in the Night Realm, that she would likely never see them again. Was it selfish for her to wish that she could have both? To be able to live life in the Prime Realm while still being able to visit? With the threat of the Solar Cult looming around them, it was impossible. They’d managed to subjugate all these people to this realm; how could one mortal possibly hope to rid the world of their influence?
So deep was she in thought that Ellie hadn’t even realized she finished her food, being brought back to reality by the sound of Janus’s voice. She blinked, then looked over to see that his plate was mostly empty and that a glass of blood had been poured.
“Are you sure you’re feeling alright? You only nodded in response when I spoke the past few minutes.”
“I’m alright.” She sat up straight in her chair, setting down her fork and returning her napkin to the table.
“If you want, we could postpone our drinks in the parlor until another night.”
“No no.” Ellie shook her head to rid herself of the fog that plagued it. “I worked as quickly as I did in those bedchambers because I was looking so forward to it, so don’t you dare take it away from me.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. Why do you think I also worked as quickly as I did?”
“Because you’re a quick-footed, cheating vampire.”
A hearty chuckle from the two of them filled the room as Elise returned with the large tray in hand, her head tilting in suspicion at their twice-fold laughter during her arrivals. She situated herself between the two of them and collected their plates. When she noticed how full the bottle of blood still was, she pointed to it questioningly.
“Ah, I’ll have the rest of it later. We’re retiring to the parlor for drinks next.” Janus downed the last few sips that were in his glass before setting it on the tray. “Thank you, Elise.”
“Of course. I’ll take the bottle to your bedchamber for later. Enjoy your evening.” She glanced between the two of them and made her way back to the serving room.
Not even a moment after the door swung shut, Janus turned to Ellie with an expectant grin.
“Shall we, then?” He rested his elbow on the table and extended his hand to her.
She smirked, resting her fingers in his. “Yes, we shall.”
With a gentle pull, Janus raised Ellie from her seat and guided her into the corridor, a slight sadness in her heart when he pulled his hand away to open the parlor door. Ellie thought to try taking his hand again when he didn’t use it to turn the handle, but she withdrew her fingers when he held the door open for her from within the parlor. Janus smiled invitingly, easing the lingering tension stirring within Ellie from her thoughts of returning home. In this moment, she just wanted to enjoy her time in the Night Realm and her time in Janus’s company.
Ellie dropped onto one of the sofas with a heaving sigh as she watched Janus approach a mahogany cabinet with glass doors. From within, he retrieved an oak box that opened to reveal several small glasses and a few bottles of liquor.
“Do you drink often, Ellie?” He lifted one bottle and studied the label.
“Not terribly so, but I do enjoy one from time to time. Usually I drink on nights that I stay up late socializing with my parents.”
“I find it’s best enjoyed in the company of others. Usually.” Janus’s brow twinged with an unspoken memory before he placed the bottle down and lifted another. “Is brandy to your liking?”
“Oh yes, please.”
Janus popped the lid and poured an equal amount into each glass. After return it to the box, he pushed his cloak out of the way and set the drinks down on the low table between the sofas. Though he intended to sit opposite of her, Ellie scooted aside and patted the spot next to her in invitation. With a quiet, breathy laugh, Janus grabbed his glass and eased himself down before resting his arm on the backing so as to better face his company.
“I truly am glad to see how much you’ve integrated into life here.” Janus crossed one leg over the other elegantly.
“Almost naturally, right?” Ellie laughed into her drink as she took the slightest sip. “Thinking back, I really just wanted to go home after I got here. But now this place feels like a home away from home, in a way.”
“Well, I hope that I’ve been a satisfactory host during your stay.” He smirked at her from behind the rim of his glass.
“Oh, you certainly have.” Though they sipped their drinks together, Ellie drank far more. “But I still remember being rather intimidated by you at first. My first impression upon seeing you descend those stairs was that you looked about as warm as a block of ice.”
“Well, I have been told that my hands can get quite cold.”
Ellie reached her hand up to his, giving him a slight start from the sudden contact.
“Not right now, they’re not.” She smiled as she watched the flustered way his lips drew inward as his eyes averted. “You know, you really are... kinder than I thought you’d be. Honestly, I never quite pictured a vampire being like you are.”
“Because all the stories you’ve read make them out to be intimidating?”
“Intimidating, controlling, regal, desirable, dark, mysterious. You are a few of those, though.”
“Oh? Do tell me which of those traits you think best suit me.”
“Ah ah, I haven’t had enough to drink yet to divulge that kind of information.” Ellie playfully shook the glass back and forth by its stem. “But seriously, you’re not intimidating. Nor do I think you’re controlling.”
“Well that’s a relief.” Janus sank into the corner of the sofa, resting his glass in his lap. “I still feel a bit guilty for how I teased you that night in the dining hall.”
“Oh, don’t. Looking back now, I find much more humor in it than I did at the time.”
Ellie lifted her glass to drink again, but retracted it when she took note of how quickly it was disappearing. Not wanting to seem overeager, she set it down and turned herself bodily to face him.
“You know, today was the first time I’ve ever been behind the castle.”
“Truly? I would have thought you’d explored most everything by now.”
“I would have thought so, too. So imagine my surprise when I saw the sad sight of that flower field back there.”
“Ah, I have a view of it from my bedchamber balcony.”
“Do you? I can’t imagine it’s a very pleasant one. Is there a reason they all look so sad?”
Janus glanced over his shoulder at the window, noting that there was not an ounce of daylight left in the sky and that the rain from the afternoon had long since finished.
“Perhaps you’d like to assist me in ascertaining that very reason?”
Ellie tilted her head to one side, peering at Janus with an uncertain quirk to her brow. When he set his drink down, Janus stood from the sofa and beckoned Ellie to follow him out of the parlor. Eagerly, she stumbled behind him down the east corridor toward their destination.
“You have to lead me or I’ll get lost,” her voice sang as she reached for his hand.
“Ellie, you couldn’t possibly get lost in these corridors.”
Despite his words, Janus clamped his fingers with hers the moment he felt her touch. Ellie giggled the entire way, not knowing if the fluttering in her chest was due to the alcohol or because she felt the happiest that she had since her arrival and never wanted their stroll to end.
Alas, it did indeed end when the pair reached the back entrance. When Janus’s hand left hers, a melancholy sigh escaped Ellie as she pined for the fleeting emotion.
“Now Ellie, don’t make that face,” Janus said, turning the door handle. “You haven’t yet seen what I brought you all this way for.”
An ethereal blue glow seeped in through the open door and silhouetted Janus as he beamed at her. Without the faintest idea of what awaited her on the other side, Ellie blinked perplexingly as Janus once more took her hand. He brought her outside in the cool night air, an anticipated shiver rolling down Ellie’s back when Janus purposefully stood in her way and turned her toward the east as he closed the door.
With a click, the warm glow from the corridor disappeared, leaving the pair bathed in the light of the moon and a mysterious celestial blue. Delicately, Janus placed his hands on her shoulders and turned Ellie in the opposite direction, revealing to her the unrecognizable sea of flowers swaying gently in the breeze. Her breath was stolen the moment she laid eyes on them. Ellie could do nothing but step softly into the natural garden, brushing her fingers along the droplet-covered petals.
The flowers were not unlike the ones she saw when she first arrived in the Night Realm, but they stood taller and glowed with greater vibrancy. Upon closer examination, she realized they were bell flowers, unlike the ones in the forest that were more like petunias.
“This—” She turned to Janus, who stood only a few paces away. “This is a dream, right? It has to be. I had no idea something so gorgeous was right here behind the castle, and I can’t believe you kept it a secret.”
“I assure you, that wasn’t my intention,” he chuckled nervously, stepping closer so that he could stand beside her.
Twirling on her toes, Ellie turned to face Janus and tapped his chest playfully with a questioning finger.
“You have a view of this from your bedchambers and somehow conveniently forgot to tell me about it? I’ve been here for almost two months, you know!” She shared in his smile and looked at the flowers nearest to them. “What’re they called?”
“They’re Moon Bells.” He cupped his fingers delicately underneath the petals. “It’s a flower that’s native to the Sanctified Lands. They’re quite weather hardy, so they bloom all year, but only at night. During the day, they feign withering and drain themselves of all color. When the moonlight hits them, that’s when they come alive.”
“Incredible.” She followed Janus’s lead and placed her fingers beneath the flower beside him. “For how brightly they glow, I’m amazed I never noticed them before.”
“Surprisingly, the glow isn’t easy to spot from further away.”
Ellie’s shoulders relaxed as she returned her hand to her side and stared out at the field. The unfading smile that painted her face caused Janus’s chest to tighten as he found himself unable to take his eyes off her. He grew mesmerized as he perceived her as glowing just as radiantly as the flowers that surrounded them.
“I’ve never seen something so breathtaking,” she said.
“Nor have I.”
His words were barely above a whisper, his voice as soft as the touch of his fingers on the strands of hair caressing Ellie’s face. Her smile faded into curiosity when she turned slowly toward him, catching a glimmer of blue light in his eyes. In a mere moment, her heart began racing in her chest. Ellie felt so light, she thought she would be swept away by the slightest breeze.
Eyes fluttering as the trance was broken, Janus’s lips trembled as he withdrew his hand.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” he said, averting his gaze. “That was far too personal. I don’t know what came over me.”
“No, that was nice. I liked it.” Ellie swallowed, her smile returning through flickers of enticement. She took a single step forward and closed the gap between them. “Can you do that again?”
Janus raised his hand with a light breath, gently brushing his fingers across Ellie’s warm cheek as he swept her bangs behind her ear. They stared into each other’s eyes as they became spellbound in one another. She waited for his hand to cup the side of her face, her eyelids closing in anticipation. Ellie had felt this feeling once before, but she was uncertain if it was true or simply due to being swept up in the moment. And yet, she didn’t care. If this is what this moment was to be, then she wanted it to be.
But the touch she awaited with bated breath never came. With a befuddled brow, Ellie opened her eyes to find Janus’s hand suspended a mere inch from her face. She would have been tempted to take it in her own and press it against her, were it not for the troubled expression that painted his face. Something unwelcome had caught his attention. Ellie held her breath when she noticed that Janus’s shoulders were still. His eyes darted back and forth along the edge of the field, his brow twitching when he finally spotted the intruder.
Terror struck him as he shouted Ellie’s name and swept her aside. Her head rattled as she fell into Janus’s grasp and a terrible piercing sound reverberated through her ears. When she opened her eyes, she caught a glimpse of a shadowy tendril withdrawing itself from Janus’s side. Ellie squinted in the direction of where it escaped to, making out the form of a featureless person in the moonlight.
With a swipe of his other arm, Janus sent a wave of energy at the distant shadow, forcing a powerful wind across the field. Though the shadow attempted to dodge his strike, it was just slow enough that it was ripped in half by Janus’s magic. Black liquid splattered on the grass as the two segments melted into puddles that shifted at incredible speeds across the clearing and into the forest.
Ellie panted heavily as her mind struggled to grasp what happened in those few seconds. Confusion and ire marred Janus’s face, an expression unlike Ellie had ever seen him bear. She knew from the tension in his muscles that Janus wanted to give chase to their assailant, but instead kept himself firmly planted where he stood.
“Are you alright?” he asked, his eyes scanning the forest perimeter.
“I’m—I’m fine, but what in the hells was that thing?”
Janus leaned forward, grasping at his side with his free hand. The corners of his mouth twitched as he turned to look at Ellie and forced a smile.
“I don’t know, but... I’m glad you’re not hurt.”
The thin trail of blood beside Janus’s lips was the only answer Ellie needed for her own inquiry. Forcing herself from his grip, she looked to see the blood blooming beneath his shirt.
"Janus! Gods, we need to get you help!”
“Ellie, please. Don’t yell.”
“But this is—” She reached for the wound, but was halted immediately by his hand gripping her wrist.
“—Don’t touch it. I’m a vampire, Ellie. It hurts tremendously, but I’ll be fine as long as I get blood.”
“Then—then let’s get you blood!” She shuffled under his free arm to put distance between her and the wound. “Can you walk?”
“That might be a stretch, but I can certainly stagger.” There was a slight slur to his words. “Gods, how embarrassing, letting something like that do me in.”
Ellie helped Janus back toward the castle, ignoring the small spray of blood that spoiled the petals of the flowers.
“You’re handling this way better than I am,” she said with a shaken voice.
“That’s because I know I’ll be fine.” He leaned his head playfully against hers as they limped toward the door. “Have a little faith in me.”
At the far end of the corridor, the kitchen door clicked open as Elise stepped out with a slip of parchment in hand. Heels clacked hurriedly across the floor as the void in her eye sockets stared at the list of supplies to be moved to the pantry. Were she so inclined, Elise could keep herself completely invested in the list, but the sight at the rim of her sockets demanded her attention.
From beside the back entrance were Ellie and Janus, the latter’s tall form slouched over the former. Blood dripped to the floor and was smeared by a single shuffle from his foot. Ellie’s panicked expression bore into Elise while Janus’s casual smile offset the entire mood.
“Hope you’re having a better evening than we are,” he called.
Shadows bubbled from the stump and churned in twisted agony as the darkly clad man ripped his head free from the black mass. Trails of shadow seeped out from behind his eyes and writhed in the grass like slugs while the main body remained latched to its host. A horrid grin formed on the man’s face as he leered up at the clear night sky with bloodshot eyes.
His laughter was subtle, shaking his body gently before evolving into maniacal convulsions. Leaning forward with a stagger, the man dropped to his knees and gripped the edge of the stump as the shadow wrapped itself around his legs.
“Do my eyes deceive me?” The pitch of his voice was unstable. “No, there’s no denying what I saw.”
With eyes as wide as they would allow, the darkly clad man leaned so close to the stump that he nearly pressed his face into it.
“It wasn’t enough that these cursed beings found a way to live normally in their prison, but now I find that young Janus is alive and well! Oh, how the blood continues to torment me so!”
His mood shifted when he arched backward, a shocked realization overcoming him as his maddened eyes stared into the darkness of the woods.
“And here I thought the poor child was a captive in the cursed realm. But now I see, I see that she was conspirator all along. And perhaps... something more?”
The man’s laughter shattered a temporary silence before ending abruptly when his gaze shifted to the stars.
“Such a fascinating development. I’ll need to observe them further.”
His face twisted into a demented smile, plots racing through his head with every breath.
“Janus Alscher. Alscher, Alscher, Alscher,” he repeated in instability. “Of course you lived, like the disease that you are. How many more of your brood still draw breath, I wonder? Yet it’s no matter. I have plans for you and Miss Martel, you can be certain.”
Outstretching his arms, the darkly clad man grasped at his shadow and allowed it once more to creep into his face and assimilate with his eyes, letting him once more observe places unseen.