In the middle of a clearing in a dark pine forest sat a tree stump. Beside it was Ellie, stirred by a frigid sensation running down her back. Her eyes eased open, directed at the night sky above. She listened to the silence as thoughts poured out in an attempt to recall everything that had happened. There was only the memory of the argument with her mother at first, but others soon invaded her mind. The rat, the darkly clad man, the void in the tree stump.
With a sharp gasp, she shot up and sat in the grass while observing her surroundings. She thought at first it was the same woods behind her home, but Ellie soon realized this was not the case. The pleasant beech and maple trees she had known her entire life had been replaced by a tall, imposing pine forest. So dark was it that were it not for the clear night sky above and a scattering of glowing blue flowers, she would not be able to see around her at all.
Ellie tilted her head down and looked at the grass, noticing a slight bit of mist weaving between the blades. She could see the grass itself well enough, but it clearly wasn’t ‘right’. The mist looked like cobwebs that dispersed with her touch before reforming as she pulled her fingers away.
“Are you alright?” a small voice asked from beside Ellie. She was so wrapped up in determining where she was that Ellie didn’t even realize that she wasn’t alone. Standing on his hind legs beside her was the dressed rat. “You didn’t hit your head, did you? You’ve been asleep for nearly a half hour.”
“A half hour?” Ellie asked, scanning the area around her. “I’m okay, but I should really head home. My family is probably worried about me.”
Visions of the darkly clad man filled Ellie’s mind again, recalling the sense of dread and paralyzing terror as the man dashed toward her with malicious intent.
“Wait!” Ellie leaned down to the rat, startling him and causing him to fall backward. “Who the hells was that man? Why was he going to attack me?”
“Please calm down, miss!” The rat waved his paws as he rolled in an attempt to regain his balance. He stood on his back legs and adjusted his clothes, sighing as he gazed at the ground beside her. “Oh, I’m definitely in for it this time… I’m sorry, I don’t know who he is. And I’m sorry that I brought you here, but I really had no other choice. Nothing like this has ever happened during one of my tasks and I just—I panicked. I was afraid of what that man might do if I left you there. He certainly didn’t seem the trustworthy type.”
Again with that man. Why was he talking to her mother, Ellie wondered. Why was he watching her in the markets? Why was he there in the clearing and why was he so willing to attack her? Ellie’s mind overflowed with questions that she felt wouldn’t be answered anytime soon. She bit her lip as she scanned the clearing once more.
“So, where am I, exactly?”
“Hm, how do I explain it?” The rat crossed his arms in thought. “Well, for starters, you’re in a plane known as the Night Realm.”
“The Night Realm?” Ellie shifted to her knees and stared at the forest canopy. “What or where is the Night Realm? Is this another Shard?”
“Ah, not quite…” The rat mumbled as he struggled to form his words. “It’s more along the lines of ‘the other side of the mirror’, or something like that.”
“Ugh, what does that even mean.” She brought her hand to her forehead as if to suppress an oncoming headache.
“Well, not to worry, miss!” The rat hopped onto a nearby rock and placed his paws on his hips proudly. “Everything will make sense in due time, I assure you. I’m Gerald, by the way! May I have your name?”
“Eleanor Martel, although most people just call me Ellie.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Eleanor.” Gerald bowed.
“Oh, just ‘Ellie’ is fine, really.”
“Certainly, Miss Ellie.”
She chuckled as she realized that she wasn’t going to get Gerald to drop the formality entirely.
“You know…” Ellie leaned in closer. “I’ve never met a talking rat before.”
“Well, now you’ve met me!” Gerald seemed awfully proud of himself. “In your defense, there aren’t exactly many talking rats where you’re from, if any at all. And I would know! I’ve spent plenty of time scuttling the streets of Phiana.”
Gerald placed his front paws down on the rock and looked out at the clearing’s edge, his cheerful demeanor changing to one a bit more serious.
“While I’m happy that we’re formally introduced, we should really be going. It’s not smart to linger in the forest for too long.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“It can be, should anyone malicious appear. They’re more prone to do so at nighttime, too.”
“Well, that’s unnerving. I’ve never had to worry about anything like that in the woods back home.”
“All the more reason for us to make haste, then.” Gerald hopped off the rock and scurried toward a dirt path between the trees. “Come along, Miss Ellie. I’ll keep you safe, and we’ll see what we can do about getting you home.”
Ellie wasn’t sure what to make of all of this. Maybe it was just a dream? But if so, what harm would it be to go along with Gerald and see where he took her? After all, he did seem like a kind and trustworthy little rat.
Letting her curiosity take charge, Ellie stood up from the spot beside the stump and walked toward the path. They had only taken a few steps when Gerald stopped and turned to her.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Oh, no! Um…” He straightened out his clothes in a flustered manner. “Did you mean it before when you said you liked my waistcoat?”
Ellie was amused that Gerald had stopped them for this. “I do! Your little cravat, too. It makes you look very dignified.”
“Hehe, thank you!” Gerald’s face would have been flushed if rats could blush. “Right then, let’s tarry no more and be on our way!” He started down the path again with Ellie close behind.
The two of them walked along, the flowers acting as little beacons that lit their way into the unknown. The jagged maw of trees and dense foliage obscured everything ahead, save for the distant lights peeking through the brush. The atmosphere had Ellie on edge, but Gerald was clearly no stranger to the woods. He was not even deterred by the apparent hooting of a nearby predator.
“Don’t worry, Miss Ellie,” Gerald said as he glanced over his shoulder, sensing that she was tense. “I said that I would keep you safe, and I will. Besides, I don’t sense anything malicious nearby.”
“You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m having a hard time imagining how you can keep me safe.”
“Oh, have you already forgotten how I handled that wicked man back there?”
“I suppose that’s true,” Ellie chuckled, omitting how close he came to them before they vanished. “I’m sorry for doubting you.”
“Not a problem, Miss Ellie.”
They continued walking for a few more minutes before Ellie noticed that her surroundings were becoming brighter. She could see the forest’s edge illuminated by moonlight at the end of the path. The two of them quickened their pace until they reached the end and stepped into a large clearing.
Ellie was immediately swept over with as sense of relief, no longer feeling as though the dense forest was suffocating her. She breathed deep the cool night air and looked up at the sky with contentment. But as Ellie brought her eyes back down to the land around her, Gerald’s words had at last settled in when she realized that she was truly no longer in Phiana nor Galviece.
Just down a small slope beside them was a spacious field that had large white oak trees spread throughout. The field must have stretched on for close to half a mile before it met what Ellie presumed was a road. Following the road to the left, tiny embers clustered together against the darkness. It took a hard squint for Ellie to realize that they belonged to various buildings that did little to distinguish themselves from the night. But when she inspected what was to the right of the road, she spotted something far more sinister.
A black castle, seemingly three stories high, sat nearly a mile away from the town. Her heart skipped a beat when she gazed upon it, having never seen anything quite like it before. She had read stories where such things existed, but her imagination could only paint so much of a picture compared to seeing something like it in person.
Ellie followed Gerald down the slope, never tearing her attention from the black castle in the distance. So drawn to it was she that it was only a moment later that she noticed something even more imposing than that. Though it was hard to see in the night, the distant horizon was blotted by tumultuous spines of earth. Her head turned, following the mountain range until it lined up with the towering peaks of pines behind her. They were a decent walk away, but they might as well have been right beside her with how impressive they were. The border of Galviece had plenty of mountains that divided it from neighboring countries, so it wasn’t as though she had never seen them before, but certainly not so close up.
“What to do, what to do…”
Ellie was yanked from her trance by Gerald’s muttering in a determined voice and saw him standing with his back facing her.
“I cannot take Miss Ellie to the castle, I simply cannot. But, where do I take her, then? Should I take her to my home? No, no she’s too tall. Besides, we’d have to go through the castle for that, since the side tunnels are only big enough for rats.”
Ellie leaned in so that she could hear him better.
“I just don’t know, I don’t know who…” He stared at the town. “Of course! Maybe she could help?”
Gerald spun around to face Ellie with one sudden motion. “Miss Ellie! Oh!” He was startled by how close she was. “Goodness, don’t scare me like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Ellie chuckled. “You were just having such an intense conversation with yourself.”
“Oh, yes. I tend to think aloud a lot.” Gerald almost seemed proud of this fact. “I’ve decided! I’m going to take you to Haven.”
“That’s Haven!” He pointed to the nearby town. “I’m certain that you’ll be safe there until I can find a way to get you home.”
“Well, if you say so.” Ellie wasn’t quite sure she understood, but she trusted Gerald. Maybe too much for having just met him, but she was having too much fun to give that a second thought. She felt like she was on her own little adventure and was excited to see where it would take her.
Ellie trailed behind Gerald as he headed toward the road. It wasn’t until they were about half way there that she realized he wasn’t simply heading straight for the town.
“Gerald, why don’t we just walk straight to Haven instead of to the road and then to Haven?”
Gerald made noises as though he was struggling to think of an answer. Was it that he knew why and just didn’t want to tell her, or was he pretending like he had any good reason at all?
“Well that’s not a very satisfying answer.”
“Well it’s the most that you’re getting out of me, Miss Ellie.”
Ellie thought that perhaps she should reconsider how much trust she placed in Gerald, after all.
As they approached Haven, it dawned on Ellie that maybe the town wasn’t quite as normal as she thought it was from a distance. The buildings were fairly normal at first glance—houses and shops of all sizes lined the cobblestone streets—but Ellie realized that they were all rather darkly painted. In fact, the whole town gave off a bleak atmosphere, being full of buildings made of brown wood, stone, and dark gray paints. There was a splash of color on hanging shop signs and the like, but not much else. The orange glow of the street lamps also did little to saturate the dull aura of the town.
Ellie’s attention was drawn to the street beneath her. She narrowed her eyes as she looked closely at the cracks between the stones, realizing that the mist from the forest was weaving here, too. Was it like this everywhere, she wondered? It didn’t occur to her to look at the grass in the field, but at least the mist here seemed much thinner than that in the forest.
Not watching where she was going, Ellie ran straight into a person ahead of her and staggered back, holding her nose.
“Oh gods, I’m so sorry!” she cried. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“That’s alright, miss. Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m alright.” Ellie pulled her hand away from her face and froze when her eyes met the face of the person she had bumped into. Looking back at her was what Ellie could only assume was a six and a half foot talk orc with a gentle face and dressed in everyday clothing.
“Well, you just be more careful from now on, miss.” The orc bowed his head and started down a nearby branching street. She watched him as he left, her mind unable to comprehend what she had just seen.
It wasn’t until this moment that Ellie actually took a good look at the people bustling around her. Maybe it was because the first few people she saw weren’t anything out of the ordinary, being that they were humans, dwarves, and elves. But she also saw orcs, goblins, kobolds, what she was fairly certain was a banshee, what she was absolutely certain was a centaur, and so on. Ellie’s head spun as she saw all of these people and monsters around her going about their normal lives like it was nothing out of the ordinary. Of course she had seen elves and dwarves before; there were even a few as exchange students at the academy. But the rest? Those only existed in stories, didn’t they?
“Miss Ellie, if you keep turning in circles like that, you’re going to make yourself dizzy! I don’t want you throwing up on the street like some of my friends at the Duck and Dory Tavern do.”
“The—The what?” Ellie stopped spinning around to gawk at every person in her field of vision and looked to Gerald, sitting patiently on the street beside her. “Gerald, what did you say this place was, again?”
“No, this place.” She gestured widely with her arms.
“The Night Realm?”
“It’s the Night Realm.”
“I’m…” Ellie knelt down and gripped the back of her head. He had said that so matter-of-factly that she couldn’t even begin to think of an appropriate response.
“Don’t be a stumblebum, Miss Ellie. Let’s make haste to my friend’s home!”
Gerald started down the street before Ellie had time to recover, but she scrambled after him anyway. He was the only one that she could consider a friend right now and she most certainly did not want him leaving her behind.
As they walked, Ellie did her best to try not to gape at every person passing by. Considering that she had never once in her life seen any sort of monster race and had only ever read about them in books, she accomplished this horribly. If anyone noticed her staring, they either ignored her or raised a curious eyebrow as they went about their business.
“I know you’re confused, Miss Ellie,” Gerald said. “I’ve been to Phiana plenty of times, so I know what the population is like. But trust me, it’s only different on the surface. You’re as safe here as you would be back home.”
She wasn’t sure whether or not she could trust his words, but the more she walked through Haven, the more it seemed as though he was telling the truth. No one gave her dirty looks or eyeballed her bag, as people were generally minding their own business or enjoying their time interacting with others. Besides that, the orc that she had bumped into was rather polite, so she thought maybe it was better to simply take a deep breath and trust Gerald.
“Where exactly are you taking me, anyway?” she asked, finally relaxing.
“I know someone who might be able to take you in until I can make the necessary arrangements to get you back home. We’re almost there now!”
Gerald lead Ellie around another corner which, to her surprise, brought them to a street of row houses that were quite elegant compared to every other building she’d seen. They still matched the gloomy atmosphere of the rest of the town, but were made almost entirely of granite. Atop their pointed roofs were the petrified glares of marble statues; robed warriors that kept watch over the district below. Bright lights shone through many of the windows of these homes, delivering their rays onto the twilit streets of Haven.
Almost precisely in the center of the row homes was one that was possibly twice as big as the others. Without a doubt, it was the finest home that Ellie had seen so far, so it was only natural that this was the home that Gerald stopped at. He looked up the stairs at the entrance; an arched double door with ornate opaque windows and made of wood that had been stained to look darker.
“This is the one, Miss Ellie.” Gerald crawled up the steps.
“Of course it is…” She muttered, reluctantly following him.
He glanced back to her when she reached the top step.
“May you knock for me? My paws are too small to do more than scratch at it. If I do that, I will absolutely hear about it later.”
Unsure what to expect, Ellie raised a fist and gave the door a gentle knock.
“No need to be so timid, Miss Ellie. Give it a good one.”
“Are you certain?”
Ellie was already nervous enough, but she sighed and raised her fist again, this time knocking considerably louder. The door opened immediately, not even giving her enough time to lower her arm. Standing in the doorway was a well dressed man with short, black hair and dark skin.
“Yes, yes. I heard you the first time, no need to be so impatient.” The man gave Ellie a puzzled look. “May I help you?”
“It’s me!” Gerald hopped up, catching the attention of the man at the door. “May we see Mayor Bedelia?”
“Ah, Gerald.” Seeing him seemed to make the man relax yet did not alter his serious expression. “Certainly, please wait just a moment.”
“Thank you, Aston.”
The man returned inside and left the door ajar as he went to retrieve the Mayor. Feeling awkward from the whole knocking experience, Ellie shot Gerald a dirty look that he responded to with a shrug.
They were only waiting for a moment before Ellie heard the clacking of heels on stone as someone approached from the other side. She stood up straight as a gorgeous woman pulled the door open and smiled at her. She was only slightly taller than Ellie and appeared to be in her late thirties. She had a warm, dark complexion and curly, black hair that descended just below her shoulders. The woman was wearing an elegant blue dress with a low neckline that showed off her collarbone, but part of the dress concealed the neck itself. An exquisite, matching cloak was held in place with delicate silver chains that attached the shoulders of the cloak to the neck piece of the dress. Ellie blushed as she saw the woman, amazed by her beauty.
“Good evening, Gerald.” Her voice was pleasant. “Who’s your friend?”
“Good evening, I’m Eleanor Martel.”
“A pleasure. I’m Bedelia Orellana, the mayor of Haven, as I’m sure you know.” She took Ellie’s hand in her own and shook it politely.
Ellie didn’t know. In fact, it wasn’t until moments ago that she even knew that she was about to meet Haven’s mayor. She wanted to chase Gerald down the street in frustration for giving her literally no time to mentally prepare herself for this encounter. She just prayed that she didn’t feel any more awkward than she already did and that everything would go smoothly.
Bedelia’s smile faded ever so slightly as she let go of Ellie’s hand.
“I’m afraid I’ve never seen you around before, and I’m usually pretty accustomed with the people of this town.”
“She’s a, uh, representative from the castle.”
Ellie’s heart sank as Gerald spoke. She had a feeling this was not going to end well.
“Is that so?” Bedelia’s smile faded further as she tilted her head inquisitively, shifting her gaze to Gerald. “You know, I go to the castle fairly often on business. I feel as though I would have heard about Eleanor.”
“Mayor Bedelia.” Gerald’s voice was quiet. “May we please continue our conversation inside?”
Bedelia thought about this. She glanced at Ellie, her expression now serious.
“Alright.” She opened the door wide and gestured for them to step inside.
Stepping into the foyer was like entering a portal into another world. Met with a beautiful, well lit room with walls that were seemingly made of marble, Ellie found herself overwhelmed by just how different the interior was compared to the outside. She followed the trail of stairs, leading into multiple balconies overlooking the foyer, continuing all the way to a fourth floor where it appeared to stop. Large vases of red flowers popped out against the background beside the balconies of each floor. Ellie hadn’t really thought about it when she was outside, but it was amazing to her just how tall this home was.
“What is this about, Gerald?” Bedelia closed the front door and hustled toward them as she crossed her arms. “Who is this girl?”
“I’m sorry,” Gerald sighed. “I met Miss Ellie in the forest and was hoping that maybe you could provide her a place to stay until I can… sort things out.”
Ellie could have been crushed under the weight of the tension that poured into the room.
“No.” Bedelia’s voice changed as her mood soured. “I cannot believe this. The forest, Gerald? Have you been bewitched? No. Gods, what were you thinking?”
Ellie’s lips curled inward as she listened to Bedelia. So instantly had the atmosphere changed that she felt like she was going to be sick.
“You know better than this.” Bedelia returned to the door and gripped the handle, a hollow laugh passing her lips. “I’m sorry. You seem like a polite girl. Hopefully. Assuming that you aren’t actually a demon. But you cannot stay here, and you cannot stay in Haven. I’m giving you until dawn to leave.”
“Mayor Bedelia, please, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. But Miss Ellie isn’t a demon, I assure you!” Gerald’s voice had grown desperate, clasping his paws together as though he were begging.
“No?” Bedelia asked, giving him a look of disbelief. “Then follow the procedures. You know them well enough; if an inhabitant from Blackest Pitch comes to our lands seeking asylum, they must first verify their sincerity at the castle, lest they bring danger to the entire town. I do not have any of the gems on hand, or I would do it myself.” She thrust the door open. “So go to the castle. Now.”
Aston stepped out from one of the rooms beside the foyer with a woman beside him. She was as elegantly dressed as Bedelia, with dark skin and a thick braid of black hair trailing down her back. Cradled her arms was a few month old baby and clinging to the skirt of her dress was a small child, no older than three years.
“Is everything alright? Who are your guests?” she asked, giving Ellie a worried glance.
“No one, Caitriona. They were just leaving.” Bedelia forced a smile as she held the door.
Ellie bowed her head, avoiding Bedelia’s glare.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered as she rushed outside.
Gerald followed behind, apologizing as he left. Ellie could hear the small child ask if that was Gerald, but the door was closed before she heard anyone answer. Silently, the two of them sulked to the bottom of the steps. When they reached the street, Ellie let out an awkward, pained laugh.
“Well, that was definitely the most embarrassing moment of my entire life.”
“I am so sorry, Miss Ellie.”
“Don’t apologize, Gerald. There must be some sort of misunderstanding. And it sounds like there’s a strict resident system here, too. So why don’t we go to the castle and get this all sorted out?”
Gerald groaned at the last part. It was becoming more and more apparent that he wanted to avoid the castle and keep their true meeting a secret, but Ellie couldn’t figure out why.
“I didn’t think any of this through at all…” he sighed, wallowing in his own sadness. He waddled down the street, Ellie following behind and watching him closely. “I’ll have to think of something. Anything.”
Gerald stopped and looked back over his shoulder to Ellie, clearly dejected.
“Well, we have until dawn to leave. Are you feeling hungry, Miss Ellie?”
“I had dinner already.”
He turned and started down the street again.
“Good, so that means we can get supper.”