Ellie’s eyes danced around the carriage during their return trip. The judgmental stares of both Elise and Janus drove her to an awkward state of avoidance of which she had no escape. Having given both of them sufficient time to speak their minds, Ellie shrugged her shoulders and instead took the initiative upon herself.
“Whatever you have to say, you might as well just say it already.”
“I cannot believe that you did that,” Janus started. “We’re lucky that Marcin responded as he did. Contrary to how he presented himself tonight, he is typically more prone to lashing out, especially when humiliated.”
He crossed his arms and turned toward the window, though his gaze was still fixed on Ellie through a squint.
“Did I not say to leave the conversation to me?”
“I don’t like that man.”
“I don’t either, but that doesn’t—”
“—Well, unlike you, I don’t have the patience for creeps like him.”
The tension between Ellie and Janus was unlike anything it had been since her arrival in the Night Realm. If Elise had eyebrows, they would have clearly painted her surprise at the tones being exchanged. Though perhaps she shouldn’t have done what she did, Ellie stood by her actions. However, there was no part of her that wished to keep the argument going.
“Look, I’m sorry. I know things work a certain way here, I just—I couldn’t stand him. Everything about him felt wrong, like someone who gets away with atrocities simply because he’s charismatic. You saw how he acted toward his own son after Elise got to him, what he did to Joshua’s hand.”
“Believe me, Ellie; I know.” A pained breath escaped Janus as he eased his back against the carriage seat. “I’ve seen what he’s capable of firsthand. The last thing I wanted was to have anything to do with that man. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much other choice, given the situation.”
“If it’s any consolation,” Elise chimed in. “I’m confident that I would’ve been able to get the two of you out of there relatively unharmed if the situation grew dire due to Ellie’s commentary.”
“Consolation for our safety, perhaps, but not for the fate of the realm,” Janus added.
The sight of Elise clutching Narcyz by the neck brewed in Ellie’s mind, the sensation of awe returning with every vision. Now that things had calmed down, she had more time to mull over the events of the evening.
Waiting for them upon their arrival at the castle was another carriage situated near the stable. As they stepped out, the door opened and Bedelia exited her own carriage with a cheery smile.
“Good evening. I’m anxious to hear how your meeting went.”
“Wasting no time, I see,” Janus sighed.
“How did you know we were on our way back?” Ellie asked.
“The detector told me as soon as you closed the gate and were safe and sound. Either that, or Marcin kidnapped the lot of you and it was time for me to initiate a rescue.”
“Speaking of Marcin,” Janus said. “He agreed to lend his assistance to the plains assault. That is, if we provide the horses.”
“Really? He did?” Bedelia cleared her throat. “I mean, I just didn’t expect him to actually agree to it.”
“I thought he wouldn’t, at first. However, Ellie told him off and somehow that changed his mind. I simply don’t understand that man, but so long as we get the aid that we need.”
Bedelia turned toward Ellie with a satisfied grin.
“You told him off? During your first meeting with him? A woman after my own heart.”
“I couldn’t stop myself. Such a disgusting and slimy man.”
A reveling chuckle rolled from Bedelia’s chest with each of Ellie’s words.
“Well, I did fear that her commentary would turn him sour,” Janus said. “I’m just relieved that it worked out in our favor.”
“You worry too much, Janus,” Bedelia scoffed playfully. “If Marcin had gotten a bee in his little baby bonnet over a few well deserved jabs and tried to come after us, then you and Elise could just do what you did a few centuries ago and incite a rebellion in Haven to drive the nasty vampires back out.”
“Excuse me?” Ellie blinked. “He did what? And I’m only just now hearing about this?”
“Don’t talk about that as though you were there.”
Though Janus glared at her, Bedelia could sense that his annoyance was minor and delivered him a satisfied smirk before continuing.
“I might as well have been, what with how crystal clear the records were of that whole affair.” She began gesturing her arms dramatically. “The details make it so easy to visualize the confrontation; Elise grabbing vampires by the ankles and swinging them for yards, Janus in the vanguard with the armed townspeople he had trained in secret. All this to bring down the tyrannical Lord Marcin.”
“Bedelia.” Janus stomped his foot in an attempt to silence her. Ellie could swear the tips of his pointed, elven ears had turned red with embarrassment. “Tell me how your meeting with Lady Soleil went.”
Twisting a curl of hair around her finger thoughtfully, Bedelia’s expression morphed to something akin to moderate amazement that Janus even had to ask.
“She said yes, of course.” She chuckled when Janus rolled his eyes at her painfully confident tone. “It wasn’t as though she’d deny lending her aid, anyway. Not with a threat of this magnitude on the horizon.”
“Of course you would leave me with the more challenging petition.”
“I had far more preparations to make as it was, Janus. I needed the easier one. Besides, Marcin was far more likely to speak to you than to me.”
“Fair enough,” he sighed. “How well do the preparations in Haven proceed?”
“Chaotically. Putting aside the cold shoulder from the southern settlement, Delman and I have had to downplay the threat to the townspeople. Avoiding mass hysteria, you see. But that in turn makes it harder for some residents to understand why they need to evacuate. All children, elderly, and non-combative adults have been made aware that they will be in the care of Lady Soleil on the eastern shores and that her magic will keep them safe.”
“So that leaves you, the Crows, and any other capable men and women to fire the ballistae and ride the fields?”
“Precisely. Although I worry that there may be a shortage of horses, if we need to provide for Marcin and his brood. I should discuss with Delman the possibility of a few extra Crows remaining in Haven.”
With a mind rapidly sinking into contemplation, Bedelia returned to her carriage and placed one foot on the stair before looking back over her shoulder.
“I’ll send messengers to Lady Soleil and Marcin the night prior to when we believe the Walker will rise. We still estimate it will be four days from now, but we’ll keep a close eye on the bastard case anything changes. I trust you won’t be needing a messenger?”
“No, we’re close enough to assemble when it’s required.”
“Excellent. Then without further ado, I bid you all a good evening.” She climbed into the carriage and peeked out the window at them after seating herself. “Take care, and rest when you’re able. You’ll need much energy in the coming days.”
The three watched as Bedelia’s carriage departed back toward Haven. Without a word shared between them, the trio ascended the stairs and passed through the large gate, which greeted them with its usual groan. Their harmony of footsteps echoed throughout the Great Hall as they approached the grand staircase, then gradually tapered off as each came to a stop.
“I’ll retire to my chambers for now,” Elise said, stretching her arms outward with a crack. “I need to purify my body and mind after enduring such unpleasant company.”
“Goodnight, Elise,” Ellie uttered.
They watched as she started down the east corridor and eventually disappeared behind the kitchen door. When the two of them were finally alone, Ellie glanced to Janus to find him staring idly out the second story windows toward the courtyard.
“What are your plans for the rest of the evening?”
“Resting. After I attend to a few tasks, that is.”
The coldness that Janus exuded was almost enough to freeze Ellie where she stood, as though it demanded her to let him go. But she would not have it be so, and thus took his sleeve between her thumb and forefinger when he took one step toward the stairs.
“Wait.” When Janus turned only partially toward her and kept his gaze affixed elsewhere, Ellie instinctively steepled her brow and curled her lips inward. “Are you still upset with me?”
Janus released an irritated sigh. “Ultimately, what you did won over Marcin’s favor, but I wish that you hadn’t gone against my word. You put all three of us in danger.”
“But you saw how Elise handled Narcyz.”
“Do not overestimate Elise’s skill. We were vastly outnumbered and would not have been able to protect you if they descended upon us all at once. Marcin knew that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if using you as leverage was why he insisted on your presence.”
Ellie let her arms slap against her sides with a defeated shrug.
“I already said sorry, and I meant it. I don’t know what more you want. I just… my blood boils every time I think of how that man looked at me and how he treats not only mortals, but his own children. Besides, it didn’t seem like the negotiations were going well, anyway.”
“And I already told you that I’m not unfamiliar with how horrible he is, Ellie. I just want you to be more aware of the potential repercussions of your actions and to be more careful.”
Returning to her, Janus looked down at Ellie as the annoyance in his eyes dissipated into a gentle glaze of concern.
“Please believe me; I share your disdain for Marcin. I just don’t want you to be so reckless. I don’t know what I would have done if something happened to you.”
A faint, reassuring smile bloomed on Ellie’s face and she placed her hand on Janus’s arm.
“I’ll be okay. I promise.”
Janus watched her with somber eyes, unconvinced by her words. Sensing his uncertainty, Ellie stepped closer and touched his other arm as her face remained host to an unfading smile.
“You don’t need to worry so much, Janus.”
“Ellie.” Slowly, Janus raised his hand and cupped it softly against her face. The touch surprised her, but Ellie found herself leaning into it ever so slightly. “I’m terrified. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming days, and the thought of something happening to you fills my heart with dread.”
“I’m terrified, too, Janus. I haven’t even seen what’s beyond that tower, but I know that it’s serious from how you and Bedelia are acting. Despite that, I know that it will be okay. I have a good feeling about this.”
The pair exchanged long looks as Ellie felt her chest tighten, her entire body growing light with each passing moment. Emotions that had hardly stirred since the night in the flower field returned to her, swathing Ellie in thoughts that she struggled against entertaining out of fear of causing her and Janus unnecessary pain.
But Ellie found it difficult to care about that any further in that moment. When Janus eased toward her with open arms, she wanted nothing more than to fall into them. Her eyes drew closed as she inched closer to him, lured by the subtle warmth of his body.
“—And do they ever thank me?” a voice grumbled amid the tiny screech of a door hinge, followed by a small thud. “No, they don’t! They’re just a bunch of stubborn, scraggly old rats that refuse to listen to reason.”
Gerald waddled out from behind the grand staircase with an exasperated huff. The abruptness with which he had made his appearance formed a wedge between Ellie and Janus, forcing them to step away from one another with startled eyes. Had it not been for the loudness with which they cleared their throats, Gerald may not have even noticed them amid his ramblings.
“Oh, Lord Janus! Just who I was hoping to speak to!”
His frustrated shuffle transformed into an energetic leap as he started toward them. Ellie glanced about the Great Hall while scratching at her nose before smirking awkwardly.
“I’m off to bed. Goodnight.”
Hurried steps tapped up the stairs with her departure and Janus’s lips parted only for the words that he wished to speak to remain buried in his throat. His outstretched hand that attempted to stop her slowly returned to his side as Gerald rambled on obliviously.
“You wouldn’t believe how some of the elderly rats are acting, Lord Janus. They’re locking themselves in their homes and refusing to evacuate! No one wants to leave them behind—of course—but how are we supposed to convince them to leave the homes they love so dearly if we have no reassurance that they’ll still be standing when they return?”
Gerald’s tangent went on as Janus watched Ellie disappear into the west corridor, the rat’s words lost to his diverted attention. Though he too felt embarrassed over the interruption, Janus failed to understand why Ellie retreated with such haste.
“I don’t know. What do you think, Lord Janus?”
He turned slowly toward Gerald as his mind processed the few words that he did hear and pieced together the conversation from that.
Gerald blinked. “Bags, Lord Janus? I don’t quiet understand how that fits in with my question.”
“Tell the elderly that I will send in the goblins to capture them in bags if they refuse to evacuate. So they should be compliant if they want to avoid humiliation, as we will be taking their safety into greater consideration than they themselves seem to be.”
“Oh! You’re suggesting a different idea, I see. You could have simply said so. But I suppose that would work.” Gerald fidgeted with his paws as he ran the scenario through in his mind. “Yes yes, that could work. Well, that was all I had to discuss, really. I’ll be off to Haven now.”
“Wait, Gerald.” Janus raised a single finger, commanding him to stop. “Do you have a moment? I would like to discuss something with you in private.”
“In private? Of course, Lord Janus.”
Gesturing him to follow, Janus made his way into the dark and lonely courtyard with Gerald only a few paces behind. He approached the fountain plaza and leaned forward, resting his hands on the rim of the basin and staring at his reflection in the moonlit water. With a wistful breath, Janus turned toward Gerald, who had perched himself just beside his hand.
“Almost two months have already gone by.”
Gerald’s brow perked. “That they have, Lord Janus! I suppose that means these pesky curses will soon come to an end. There’s been a rather bothersome whooping sound in my ear from time to time today.”
A light chuckle parted Janus’s lips. “It also means that in a few days, you’ll be able to cast the cross-realm teleport again.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose I will, won’t I?” The way in which his tone shifted implied that Gerald understood the implications behind Janus’s words.
“I have quite a serious request to make of you.”
“What is it, Lord Janus?”
“Not yet. First, a binding of secrecy.”
“Yes, yes of course.” Gerald stood upright and cleared his throat before placing a single paw over his heart. “I, Gerald of the Manyskitters family, swear unto secrecy that which I and my lord are to discuss.”
“It is acknowledged.” Janus gazed up at the night sky as water trickled into the basin. “Gerald, I have a terrible feeling about what’s to come. If the Walker reaches Haven, I plan on abandoning the fight and riding to the coast to retrieve you and Ellie from Lady Soleil’s barrier.”
“You—you will? Why?”
“We will ride to the forest and take Ellie to the gate, where you will then use your magic to take her back to the Prime Realm and return here immediately the moment she is safe. We will not disclose this plan to her.”
“I highly doubt that Miss Ellie will let us send her back against her will. If I take her through to the other side, she’ll likely snatch me in an attempt to return.”
“I will bring a sedative and will administer it to her as we ride. Otherwise she would know precisely what we were doing before we could even reach the forest’s edge.”
The drawn breath and forlorn look on Gerald’s face demanded a momentary pause.
“Can I trust you to carry this out, should this come to pass?”
“Yes, my lord. I share in your feelings, even though I would be saddened to say goodbye to Miss Ellie and would feel terrible for the circumstances of her departure. If the worst should come to pass, she is the only one that can safely retreat to the Prime Realm.”
“Thank you for understanding, Gerald.” Janus stood upright and gazed upon the ripples in the fountain with a heavy heart. “That will be all.”
“Lord Janus, if I may; there seems to be more to this than simple concern for Miss Ellie’s safety. What’s the other reason for this plan?”
Janus’s eyes narrowed with his furrowed brow. “You’re awfully observant, aren’t you?”
“It’s part of my job, Lord Janus.”
“Then need I remind you that you are still under your vow of secrecy?”
“You need not. Please continue.”
Turning on his heel, Janus observed the surrounding area to be certain that only he and Gerald occupied the courtyard. The moment that he confirmed this to be true, he lowered his voice and resumed the conversation.
“I am unsettled knowing that—despite the pilgrimage being three thousand years ago—it was not until Ellie’s arrival that the Walker was stirred from its slumber. During my meeting with Marcin this evening, he said something that left me with a dreadful feeling.”
“What was it, Lord Janus?”
“He said that as the Walker stalked them, they were in constant fear that the monstrosity was to devour them. I have this terrible feeling that the Walker approaches the Sanctified Lands with the intent to consume, and I cannot be certain if it targets one or many.”
Janus gripped the edge of the basin once more.
“Ellie was never supposed to be here. If this abomination is after her, then I will do all I can to spare her that fate. But I also cannot let anyone know that the Walker was drawn here because of her.”
“I agree, Lord Janus. If the wrong people found out, they would try to be rid of her.”
“I know.” Janus clasped his hand over his mouth. “I—I’m sorry, Gerald.”
“Why are you apologizing, Lord Janus?”
“I’m being terribly selfish. We might be able to solve all of this simply by taking Ellie to the gate the moment the spell is active, and yet I can’t bring myself to. If there is even the slightest chance that we can destroy the Walker and let Ellie remain here until she’s ready to depart, then I want to seize it. But is that good for the realm? I’m supposed to be it’s defender, but I’m letting my own selfishness obstruct my duty.”
Janus struggled against frustrated tears and dropped to one knee.
“I’m about to put the entire realm in danger when I potentially know how to stop this oncoming threat, all because I can’t bear to let her go. I feel ill whenever I think of Ellie leaving us. I try not to show it, but I can’t bear the thought of never seeing her again. Of never feeling the warmth of her presence, of never again seeing her smile or hearing her laugh.”
Clenching his fist, Janus took out his frustration on the basin with a moderate slam.
“I’m merely an honorary leader—the land’s protector—yet I fail to accomplish even that! I have no right to bear the title of protector if I cannot even put the realm ahead of my own feelings!”
The gentle touch of Gerald’s paws rested on Janus’s fist lightly swept away the cyclone of emotion that had started to take control.
“It’s alright, Lord Janus. Love has a tendency to make things difficult, but your confliction shows how genuine your feelings are. Now if you were perhaps a bit less torn, then I’d suspect that your feelings for Miss Ellie were more a fleeting fancy than something deeply rooted.”
“Gerald.” Janus’s face was painted in confusion as he looked up from his hand. “What are you saying?”
“Oh, come now, Lord Janus. I know you’re smarter than that.” Gerald gave his hand a playful swat with his paw. “Surely you know by now that you’re in love with Miss Ellie. Honestly, considering the questions that she asked me the other day, I have a sneaking suspicion that the feeling is mutual.”
“What questions?” Janus was barely able to speak, his emotions thrashing about inside of him.
“No no, that’s not what we’re here to discuss.” He leaned his face closer. “If your duty is to protect the realm but your heart also aches to keep Miss Ellie safe and sound, then you simply have to do everything in your power to stop that ugly creature before the worst comes to pass.”
A light chuckle escaped Janus as his furry little friend stared him down.
“You make it sound like it’s a simple thing, what with how confidently you say that.”
“It won’t be simple, but I’m sure that you’ll pull through. Not just for Miss Ellie, but for all of us.” Gerald let go of Janus and plopped down on his backside. “But maybe hold off on telling Miss Ellie how you feel until this is all over. It might make things more painful if things go sour.”
“You’re probably right.” Janus stood up, straightening himself out and dusting off his knee. “Thank you, Gerald. For your time, you’re welcome to one of the sausages from the kitchen.”
The delighted gasp that departed Gerald nearly propelled him from the fountain as he started back toward the Great Hall.
“What a wonderful treat for the road that will be! Thank you, Lord Janus.”
“You can have two if you divulge to me what Ellie inquired about,” he called after him.
“Oh that’s quite alright, Lord Janus,” Gerald chuckled. “I had a large supper, so just one sausage will do. Have a good evening!”
Janus tutted as Gerald disappeared behind the tiny door, certain that his plan would have worked. But the observations that he had shared left Janus feeling light of body as he turned back toward the fountain with a grin. The future was uncertain, but he would give his all to stop this threat if it meant the safety of the realm and even one more day with Ellie.
Deciding to leave his tasks for the following morning and let himself muse over the day’s events, Janus started toward the library on his way back to his bedchambers.
A muffled clap carried throughout the room as Ellie dropped the open book down on her blanketed lap. She stared up at the ceiling and pondered all she had just read; a woman and her companions struggled against all odds to save their world, resorting to an incredible explosive to annihilate their foe. Ellie felt a slight connection between their story and her own, though the most glaring difference was the heroine’s combative capabilities compared to her utter lack of such.
It wasn’t fair. She agreed to stay with the evacuees on the shore, but the thought of doing nothing irritated her. After all, as Ellie saw it, she was the one responsible for what was happening. Despite this, she knew it was pointless to even bother asking Janus if she could assist the Crows in Haven instead, or just do anything she considered impactful.
Ellie’s mind grew increasingly tired with every moment. She sighed deeply and reached for the scrap of paper with Gerald’s thank you note and wedged it between the pages of her book. After resting it on the bedside table, Ellie looked to the lamp and snapped her fingers. Though she knew it would do nothing as she couldn’t even channel her own magic, she had to try. In defeat, Ellie put out the lamp normally and flopped her head down on the pillow, her eyes easing shut for a restless sleep.