The arduous morning had come to an end, and in the wake of the Walker’s terror came hours of scouring the town and its outskirts for any creatures that may have still roamed. Bedelia had sent Ellie and Janus on their way shortly after the Walker’s death, confident that she and the Crows had the town under control.
Standing in the courtyard with her hands folded neatly on her lap was Ellie, gazing into the tunnel entrance with Gerald mimicking her stance beside her. They glanced at one another, then back into the tunnel when they heard varied grumbles grow increasingly louder. Hapi emerged from the darkness with dirt-stained clothes that he almost frantically attempted to dust clean.
“How did it look?” Gerald asked.
“Ahh, well we certainly have our work cut out for us. The town is mostly intact, but the entrance was caved in. Found a few landslides after I dug in, though.”
Both Gerald and Ellie released sighs as their tension eased away.
“Just so long as it wasn’t completely destroyed,” Gerald said. “I’m sure the other rats will be happy for the news.”
“Well, I’ll still need to round up a few of the others to help me check the cavern’s integrity.” Hapi stepped onto the stone path with a stretch. “Don’t want any of the little ones moving back in just for it all to come crashing down.”
“Anything I can do to help? Maybe I should fetch the burrowers?”
“Not a bad idea. It’ll go faster with more help, though I still anticipate it’ll take a few days.”
As the conversation continued on, Ellie idly scanned the courtyard for anything misaligned as a result of the near-constant tremors from the Walker’s journey. She held her gaze on the library windows and winced at the thought of how many books might have toppled over.
The distant click of a closing door drew here attention further to the west. Across the long courtyard, Janus stepped out of the greenhouse and started toward the entrance to the Great Hall. With a grin, Ellie took great steps to keep up with his pace as she made her way to meet him. Janus chuckled when he noticed her and slowed down to perfect his stride so that they met perfectly in front of the door.
“Judging by your expression, I take it your family was safe and sound in the tunnels.”
“Yes, thankfully. Nothing was out of sorts and I will soon return them to the dark room. I would do it now, but I simply lack the strength.”
Janus motioned his head upward toward Gerald and Hapi, still chatting by the tunnel.
“And how is Rat Town?”
“A few landslides, a caved in entrance, but the town itself is fine. Just need to make sure it’s safe for the rats to return to.”
“Well, all things considered, I’d say that the castle came out better than expected.”
“At least from what we’ve seen so far. I haven’t heard from Elise yet, so she’s probably still checking the rooms.”
“She didn’t invite you along?”
“You think she’d do that?” Ellie scoffed. “No, she was most insistent that she take care of it.”
“Unsurprising,” Janus chuckled. “Sometimes I wonder if she acts that way out of fear of inconveniencing us, or if she’s simply asserting her dominance.”
“Probably a bit of both.”
Soft laughter parted their lips as they strained to blink away exhaustion. Ellie staggered to one side and caught herself from falling, which in turn drew Janus’s attention.
“I don’t think I need to ask how you’re faring.”
“Definitely not. I’m absolutely exhausted.” She rubbed her brow. “But there’s still so much to be done and I don’t want to rest yet.”
“But you really should, Ellie.”
“And so should you,” she said with a sing-song tone. “In your own words, you told me that the consecutive slinging of fire spells positively drained you.”
“That it has.”
“I’m glad we can sleep in the castle tonight, but I feel bad for the townspeople that have to camp at the farmlands.”
“It’s unfortunate, but the Crows need to be certain that the town is secure before they can return.” He smiled before placing a reassuring hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “But at least they have a town to return to at all, in no small part thanks to your intervention.”
“Bedelia’s intervention,” she corrected.
“Ah, yes, of course. How could I forget?” Janus placed one hand on his hip and sighed as he looked out toward the storerooms. “I should see how Rehor fares with the afflicted. Care to join me?”
“Sure. I doubt I’ll be missed here, anyway.” Ellie pointed a thumb over her shoulder at Gerald and Hapi. “I wasn’t contributing much as it was.”
“Shall we, then?” Janus pulled the handle of the Great Hall door and held it open.
“Wouldn’t it be faster to cut through the storerooms?”
“Perhaps, but what’s the rush? We’ll have more time to talk if we go through the corridor.”
Ellie smirked. “Alright, but if I get any more tired, then I expect you to carry me.”
“I just may.”
With haste, Ellie stepped into the Great Hall and waited for Janus just outside the alcove. She wiped the flustered expression from her face and started down the corridor with him at a leisurely pace. The gap between them grew narrower with each step as Ellie intentionally moved closer, nearly brushing her arm with his.
“Ellie, I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“What is it?” she swallowed.
“Before we departed Haven—when you pulled Bedelia and I aside and told us that as far as everyone else was concerned, it was she who took down the Walker. What made you decide this?”
“I’m surprised you even need to ask; it’s just better this way.”
“Better this way?” Janus repeated.
“How do you think the people would feel if some nobody took down the monster they tried so hard to defeat? If it were someone they knew and trusted, they’d probably feel more empowered.”
“Well, you’re not wrong. And we will be certain that the tale is told as such.”
“Thank you.” Ellie clasped her hands behind her and gazed up at the high corridor ceiling. “I wonder how in the hells they’re going to dispose of that awful corpse?”
“Bedelia didn’t mention anything before we departed, but they may have to somehow throw it back into Blackest Pitch. But before that, Lady Soleil would need to examine it to verify that doing so wouldn’t cause something absurd to happen, such as revival.”
Lady Soleil. The woman was an enigma to Ellie, though everyone else she spoke to about her seemed to have met her in person plenty of times. She hadn’t even the slightest idea how the woman looked or what her personality was like, and yet she was so tremendously important to this land Ellie had come to love.
“What is Lady Soleil like? I might have had a chance to see her if I went to the coast, but…”
“She’s a kind and caring woman, but there’s always a somber air about her. I believe I mentioned before that she helped me tremendously when I first came to the Night Realm, so I am forever indebted to her.”
“I hope I can meet her someday.”
“I’m certain that day will come before you know it.”
A small knot took residence in Ellie’s chest. No matter how many times she told herself otherwise, Ellie couldn’t stop from speaking as though she could come back to the Night Realm whenever she wished. The future was so uncertain, but each passing day left her more conflicted than the last.
“I’m surprised that I haven’t met her already, since she’s the protector of this land, no?” Ellie glanced to Janus as he nodded. “I’m a bit of an uninvited guest, after all.”
“The night that you arrived, I sent a missive to Lady Soleil to explain what had happened and that you would be in my care.”
“What?” Ellie came to an abrupt stop, causing Janus to also stop only a few paces ahead. “I didn’t know about this.”
“I didn’t think it was important, so I never brought it up.”
“Maybe not, but I’m still curious about what she thinks of me.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.” Janus pushed the rear exit door open and gestured for Ellie to walk ahead. “Her response was quite neutral.”
“Well, I hope that she likes me whenever I do finally meet her, and that she isn’t too upset about how I came here.”
“I’m sure she’ll like you just fine and won’t hold any grudges.” He closed the door behind them and led Ellie toward the side path.
“What if she doesn’t like me, and does hold a grudge?”
“Ellie,” he chuckled. “Why are you so worried about what Lady Soleil will think of you?”
“She’s an important person! I don’t want to make a bad impression.”
“Alright, alright. But there’s really no need to worry about that right now.”
Around the bend, Ellie and Janus found nothing more than a series of empty carts and Nairi picking up a few loose medical tools from the ground. It wasn’t long before she noticed them standing there.
“Already finished here?” Janus asked.
Nairi simply nodded in response, and he pointed back toward the door.
“Is Rehor inside?”
She nodded again.
“Thank you, Nairi.”
Ellie gave a small wave of the fingers before following Janus back inside.
“Take care,” she said with a smile, receiving one in return before Nairi resumed her tidying.
The pair promptly descended the stairs to the asylum, then Janus rapped quietly on the door and waited for Rehor to answer. When there was no reply, he reached for the handle only to be startled by the door opening at the same time. Rehor stood in the doorway, staring at them from the darkness beyond his ram skull and giving them an unnerving lack of response.
“We’re going about and seeing how everyone is faring,” Janus said, brushing off the unintentional intimidation.
“Ah, of course.” This jostled Rehor from his petrified state. “I apologize, I’m quite tired. We did have to sedate more afflicted than we anticipated, but everything else has been relatively fine.”
“Do you need any help?” Ellie asked.
“I appreciate the offer, but I believe it best to keep the number of people in the asylum to a minimum for now.”
“Understood,” Janus said. “Do let us know if that changes.”
Once more, Ellie and Janus returned to the east corridor and resumed their journey to find anyone who could possibly need their assistance.
“I wonder where Elise is,” Ellie yawned. “Though I doubt she’d let us help her with whatever she’s doing.”
“Looking for Elise?” a voice called out from one of the storerooms. Smaul peeked his head through the open door and pointed toward the intersection. “Just saw her go in the kitchen a minute ago. Not sure if she’s headed toward her room or what, but that’s as good a place as any to start.”
“Thank you,” Ellie said.
“Everything going well in the storerooms?” Janus asked.
“As well as they can be. Nothing here for either of you to worry yourselves over, so run along now. You’ve had a full enough day already.”
Smaul closed the door to the storeroom with a firm push, practically shutting them out from lending any assistance. With a laugh, Ellie and Janus started toward the kitchen.
“I’m starting to think no one wants our help,” she joked.
“Oh, I’m sure we could find somewhere to impose ourselves if we tried.”
The door to the kitchen opened with a gentle push, and the two of them stepped inside to begin searching for their beloved skeleton caretaker. They soon spotted her at the far end, leaning over the counter beside the serving room door.
“Elise,” Janus called out.
She turned her head toward them, but kept herself firmly planted above the ledger she had been preoccupied with.
“Did you need something, Lord Janus?”
“I suppose that’s what we were hoping to ask you. Need any assistance with anything?”
Elise stared at the pair, holding her gaze for what felt like much longer than what it actually was. She then stood upright and placed her hands on her hips before pacing toward them.
“Are you two perhaps going about the castle in search of work?”
The sternness in her voice made Ellie and Janus both respond with timid nods.
“For goodness sake, it’s still the same gods damned day. You were one of the combatants, Lord Janus, and I know how your magic has exhausted you. Just focus on resting for now.”
“What about me?” Ellie pointed to herself.
“Have either of you looked in a mirror recently? Or even at each other? You both look terrible. Just, don’t worry about helping out around the castle right now and go to sleep. The rest of us have everything under control.”
“But it’s only just evening,” Janus said.
“I’m sure both of you will sleep twelve hours, minimum. You won’t start waking at strange times, don’t worry.”
“But Elise,” Ellie whined, then pouted when the voids glared at her. “I’m hungry.”
“Oh for—” She stormed toward a cupboard beside the pantry entrance. “It will be awhile before things wind down and the goblins have the energy to cook up anything. I’ll bring your meal to you around that time, as well as blood for you, Lord Janus.”
Elise returned to them and took Ellie’s hand in her own before thrusting a small, burlap pouch in her palm and clasping it shut.
“What’s this?” Ellie asked.
“Something to tide you over. Now shoo.”
Grabbing each of their shoulders and turning them toward the door, Elise pushed Ellie and Janus out of the kitchen and closed the door firmly behind them. They stood in surprise at Elise’s aggressive means of keeping them from assisting, but each let out a small chuckle at the display. Ellie then lifted the pouch to her face and opened it as Janus looked on skeptically.
“What is that?” he asked. “I don’t like the way it smells.”
“It’s just dried dates.”
“Of course it is.” His face contorted in disgust. “I’ve always hated them.”
“Really? I don’t mind them, but they definitely wouldn’t be my first choice of dried fruit.”
As they started back toward the Great Hall, Ellie placed one of the dried dates in her mouth and began slowly working through the chewy texture.
“Perhaps it’s for the best that we take the evening off,” Janus said. “It was a long day and we’ve already nearly pushed ourselves to our limit.”
Ellie made a confirming sound through her chewing, which prompted Janus to let out a repulsed sigh.
“I cannot believe you’re actually eating those.”
She breathed a slight snort of amusement before swallowing.
“And I can’t believe you hate them so adamantly.”
“Surely there’s a food that would make you react similarly if you saw me eating it?”
Ellie walked up two steps, the corner of her mouth tightening in thought before she looked back to Janus at the base of the stairs.
“Beets. I can’t stand them.”
“Ha! I could eat beets.”
“Oh?” He stepped up to her and leaned in close. “I would bite into a raw beet in front of you, just to see how you’d react.”
Ellie retrieved another dried date from within the pouch and promptly placed it in her mouth. The way in which Janus withdrew from her and widened the gap between them caused her to laugh.
“Probably something like that,” she said, pointing at his repulsed face.
Ellie let out a satisfied giggle as they continued up the stairs, instinctively stretching her arms and letting out a hearty yawn as she reached the door to her bedchamber.
“I feel like I could sleep forever.”
“Likewise. At the very least, until dawn.” Janus clasped his hands behind him and gave her a gentle smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
Ellie returned the smile and gave a slow nod. They exchanged parting words, and she bit her lip as watched him start down the corridor toward his bedchamber. Ellie then called out and leaned coyly against the rim of the door when he looked back to her.
“You said earlier that you’d be willing to teach me how to fight.”
“I did indeed.”
“When we next have the chance, could you teach me to fence? I’ve always liked rapiers.”
He smiled warmly. “I’d be more than happy to teach you.”
“Thank you. Goodnight, Janus.”
Ellie closed the bedchamber door with a small click and leaned her back against it. She gazed up at the ceiling, her worries melting away at the thought of what tomorrow might bring.
With what little energy remained, Ellie shuffled toward the washroom and quickly cleaned up before wrapping herself in her robes. Her eyes fluttered as she made her way to the bed and threw the blanket aside. Upon flopping down and tucking herself in, Ellie reached lazily for the book on her nightstand. Her fingers had barely touched the surface when her exhaustion took hold of her completely, enclosing her in a well-deserved sleep.