The streets of Haven were alive with orders being shouted from Crow to Crow as they organized the cleanup of the town. Janus’s face contorted in disgust as he strolled down the cobble streets from the putrid scent of the calcifying cocoons that tainted the air. He snatched a handkerchief from the pocket of his cloak and pressed it against his mouth and nose, creating a makeshift filter as he proceeded to the town center.
In the midst of conversation before the town hall were Bedelia and General Delman. Upon noticing Janus approach, she raised a single finger to bring their conversation to a halt and started toward him.
“My, aren’t you glowing,” she said with a smirk.
Janus gave her a puzzled look from behind the cloth. “Pardon?”
“From what I can see of your face, I can definitely tell that you’re carrying a radiance unlike any other. At least, as much as a vampire can.”
“Never you mind.” Bedelia swept her hand as though to brush away the awkward start to their conversation. “Anyway, I hope things are better at the castle than they have been here.”
“There wasn’t much damage, no. Mostly small landslides contained to the rat tunnels.”
“That’s a relief.” She spun on her heel and gestured at the chaos around them. “As you can see, we’re still hard at work here. The debris isn’t really the issue, but rather that these cocoons have seemingly melted into the cracks between the stones, making them a pain in the ass to clean up.”
“Any estimate how many you’ve removed thus far?”
Bedelia scrunched her nose. “Half, if even that.”
“So not as much as you were hoping.”
“Not in the slightest. I mean, we didn’t even know those things would be dangling off the Walker in the first place, nor that it would toss them at Haven like pebbles at the water. We simply weren’t prepared.”
“How soon do you suppose the evacuees can return?”
“In a couple of days, assuming these cocoons won’t take too much more effort to clean up. But the Crows are exhausted and need better rest than what they’re getting.”
Bedelia beckoned Janus to follower her with her fingers. At the opening of a nearby side street, she stopped and faced the west wall with her hands on her hips. Janus stood beside her and examined the curled legs of the Walker that peeked out in the distance.
“Notice anything?” she asked.
“You mean aside from the corpse of an eldritch creature from Blackest Pitch?”
“Surely you’ve noticed the smell, judging by the cloth over your face,” Bedelia laughed.
“And I take it that the smell isn’t nearly as potent for you, considering that you wear nothing over yours.”
“Oh, it’s dreadful. But the longer you’re exposed to it, the less it bothers you.” Bedelia traced the tip of her finger along the corpse’s silhouette. “Lady Soleil examined the Walker yesterday, but she couldn’t say for certain if it was safe to dump it back into Blackest Pitch. She suggested burning it, but then there’s the issue of its size.”
“What will you do? You can’t burn it right there. The winds would carry the smoke across the town and into the farmlands, right to the evacuees. The same goes for the cocoons.”
“Well, Lady Soleil and I met with Marcin last night. Amazingly, he agreed to let the Crows transport the remains to the northern shores and let them burn them there.”
“And how do you plan on transporting something of that volume?” Janus pointed to the Walker.
“We’re going to chop it up.”
His eyes widened in genuine surprise. “Chop it up? As if the smell wasn’t already foul enough!”
“It’s the only way we can reasonably move it. We’ll chop it up into small enough pieces to transport via wagons. It’ll definitely require a series of trips, but what other choice do we have? Lady Soleil has reassured us that exposure to its organs won’t cause us harm, as any lingering essence of Blackest Pitch that was inside had dissipated when it was killed.”
Janus stared out at the corpse, his stomach churning with the vision of the grueling process. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t seen his share of internal organs before, but this was of a completely different variety.
“Well, at least there is a plan.”
“There’s another reason for cutting the thing up.” Bedelia shared a glance with Janus. “Lady Soleil can sense something strange inside of the Walker and it has her intrigued. She wants to know what’s giving off such a strange aura.”
“Oh, perfect,” he said sarcastically. “So not only does it need to be cut apart, but its organs need to be cut into.”
Bedelia turned to him bodily with a wide grin that understandably unsettled Janus.
“And this brings us to why I called you here.”
The realization hit him harder than a brick. “Oh no.”
“Janus, I would greatly appreciate any help that you and any others from the castle can lend us. I honestly thought the Crows would be enough, but the poor souls are at their limit. We need the aid of anyone able bodied enough to handle this mess.”
A pained sigh found its way through Janus’s teeth and the handkerchief shielding his face. He gave the request a momentary thought, but ultimately he had little choice, as his duty was to the Southern Territory and Haven when the people were in need, even if that need required rather repulsive work.
“Oh, thank you!” Bedelia released the breath she had been holding and spoke louder than necessary. “You’ve no idea how relieved I am.”
“Now, I can’t promise you’ll receive more than myself and perhaps a few of the goblins, but I may be able to convince Ellie to help. Don’t count on Elise for this one, though.”
“No, this doesn’t seem like something she’d willingly subject herself to, but any help at all would be tremendous. The sooner we get this damn thing out of here, the sooner things can go back to relative normality.”
“Agreed.” Janus shifted his weight in preparation of departure. “If there is nothing else, I will return to the castle and begin preparations for tomorrow.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “Thank you again. We’ll begin by mid morning.”
With a partial bow of the head, Janus hustled down the southern street toward the town’s edge, flipping the handkerchief away from his face when he put enough distance between him and the source of the vile odors.
“Was it really as bad as you say?” Ellie laughed into the wine glass, her breath creating ripples before she took a sip.
Janus folded his hands atop the blanket on his lap. The cool air of the room caressed his exposed upper half as he leaned against the headboard with a heavy sigh.
“You don’t understand, Ellie; vampires and elves have much keener senses than others, both of which I am. It was horrendous.”
“Well you you certainly didn’t use those senses to stop me from jumping you today.”
He scooped the glass from her fingers, brought it to his lips, and—before partaking in the wine they shared—shot her a lighthearted glare.
“I let you jump me.”
“Ooo, yes I’m sure.” With her hands free, Ellie readjusted the blanket along her chest before dropping her arms down at her sides. “Well it’s just gonna stink even more once they cut it open.”
“Absolutely. Let’s hope the winds are in our favor tomorrow.”
With a side glance, Janus watched Ellie’s face twist with the thought of the horrible experience awaiting them. He hummed a soft laugh behind a sip of wine and set the glass down on the bedside table beside the new book that Ellie had loaned him.
“I apologize. Perhaps that wasn’t the best conversation to have after intimacy.”
“Maybe not, but I’m the one who asked.”
Janus reached his arm around Ellie and shifted to his side, guiding her into an embrace as she burrowed her head into his chest.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” she mumbled. “But I’ll do it.”
“You don’t have to, Ellie.”
“I wanna help, though.”
“You always do.”
Gently, Janus began stroking Ellie’s hair in an effort to ease her tension. The soothing sensation lulled her into a state of comfort, and had it not been for his voice breaking the minute-long silence, Ellie may have drifted off to sleep entirely.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Ellie, I can tell that you’re deep in thought.”
“But it’s embarrassing.”
Janus chuckled and coiled her hair loosely around his finger before releasing it again.
“Well, I won’t force it out of you.”
“But it’s important.”
“Ellie,” he snickered. “Make up your mind.”
Clearing her throat, Ellie pulled away just enough to look Janus in the eyes. Despite this, she avoided doing precisely that and instead focused on his collarbone.
“We’ve been rather… eager during intimacy.”
Janus nodded slightly. “Are you referring to the biting?”
“No.” She blinked in realization. “Oh, but I did put the salve on my leg and wrapped it up when you stepped into the other room for a few minutes.”
“Oh, I can’t believe I forgot about that. But you handled it yourself? That’s good.” Janus tucked the hair beside Ellie’s face behind her ear. “What’s bothering you, then?”
Ellie bit her lip. “I’m just worried because we haven’t been very… smart when we finish. I’m beginning to get anxious because I am not ready for parenthood and I don’t even know if—”
“Ellie.” Janus placed a small kiss on her forehead. “Don’t worry about that. I wouldn’t have been so careless if there was a risk. Honestly, I’m surprised you’re asking after the second night and not the first.”
“Wait, what do you mean, ‘don’t worry about that’? Are you unable to—”
“No, not that. Ah, vampires reproduce a little differently than most mortal races.”
“Oh, do you truly want me to get into this now? Are you not satisfied simply knowing there’s nothing to worry about?”
“I think I’d have more peace of mind if I knew the ‘how’ behind it.”
“Alright. Always the strangest topics at even stranger times with you,” Janus sighed alongside a chuckle. “Perhaps it’s the gods’ way keeping the immortals in check, but vampires cannot reproduce as easily as the mortal races. They’re only fertile once every few decades, and must perform a small, mutual ritual for it to work.”
“Well that certainly takes the romance out of it.”
“You think so? Vampires may not be able to reproduce as often, but it’s guaranteed when both vampires reach that fertile stage and perform the ritual together.”
“How does that work with the two of us, though, since I’m mortal? Is a half-vampire possible?”
“You refer to a dhampir, and yes, it is possible. But there’s no need to worry, as the vampire parent still needs to perform the ritual for themselves.”
“I think I understand. So this ritual essentially ‘allows’ everything to happen, but only when the time is right.”
A deep sigh parted Ellie’s lips as she returned her head to Janus’s chest once more.
“Thank the gods. Like I said, I am not ready for that.”
“Well, I hope you enjoyed your little lesson on the mating rituals of vampires.”
“I did, thank you.”
Janus shook his head and scoffed playfully at how easily Ellie completely shifted the mood with her curiosity. After rolling his shoulders, he slid his form further beneath the blankets to bring his face close to hers.
“Now, there is something that I’d like to ask you.”
Ellie’s brow lowered in anticipation. “What is it?”
He took a small breath, his lips trembling slightly as he formulated the question in his head.
“This is difficult to ask, but… Ellie, what are your thoughts on vampirism? For yourself?”
The words caused her heart to momentarily seize in her chest. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t given it thought before. After all, there was a reason beyond mere curiosity regarding her inquiry on the process of transformation when Janus first drank her blood.
“You were quite inquisitive the morning after I first partook of your blood.”
Her brow twitched. Was it possible that he could read her mind? It certainly wasn’t the first time that his thoughts were eerily on the same wavelength as hers. But it wasn’t worth fretting about, and Ellie found it best to relinquish herself of such thoughts.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t given it any thought, but I don’t know what to think.”
“What do you mean?”
“Janus.” She reached for his hand and entwined her fingers with his own, then brought it to her face and gave it a light kiss. “I love you terribly and I want to be with you. The thought of my mortality and your immortality has been on my mind—of course—and I don’t want to be limited to spending only my mortal life with you.”
Janus waited for her to continue, but Ellie’s pause seemed to cry at him to first encourage her to do so.
“But I can’t stand the thought of watching my family age and die as I stay the same. I know it’s selfish, but I’m so conflicted. I don’t know if I could turn unless my family did, too. I love them all so much, and the thought of spending a literal eternity without them terrifies me. And yet, I don’t know if they even would turn.”
Ellie lowered her head and hid herself under the blanket ever so slightly.
“I’m sorry. I know that isn’t what you wanted to hear.”
“Ellie,” Janus began, and stroked her hair yet again. “I understand. It’s not an easy decision to make, but there’s surely some way to make everything work.”
“You’re starting to sound like me.”
“It’s only natural that two lovers begin picking up traits from one another.”
Though his remark made her smile, other thoughts still troubled Ellie’s mind. Her inevitable return to the Prime Realm crept up on them, and certainly she missed her family and her home dearly. But after everything that had happened since her arrival in the Night Realm, Ellie was terrified of passing through that gate without reassurance that she could return. Janus’s reluctance to tell her if a solution could be found did little to ease her fears, but the way he spoke of their future gave a hint that it might be possible.
“We should rest now,” Janus muttered. “We’ll want to rise early.”
Delicately, Janus lifted Ellie’s chin so that their gazes met and he smiled, encouraging her to do the same.
“I love you, Ellie.”
“I love you, too.”
Janus raised his arm high above them and snapped his fingers. Once the lights were extinguished and the room was flooded with darkness, Ellie wrapped her arms around Janus and nuzzled into his embrace. With a snort at her own humor in mind, Ellie opened her mouth for one final say before sleep.
“We have quite a gross and smelly day ahead of us.”
“Oh, Ellie,” Janus chuckled.
The Crows were busy at work cleaning up the streets of Haven of the putrid mess that only worsened with each passing day. Though they had removed their short, feathered cloaks to reduce any contained body heat, some of the Crows kept their beaked masks to help filter out the horrid scent as they parted the half-melted cocoons and carcasses from the stone.
At the town’s south end stood Janus, accompanied by Ellie and six of the eight goblins. Taul and Nais were repulsed by the prospect of dealing with such a cleanup beyond their expertise and had refused to join them.
As they started the long walk toward the town center, Ellie began studying the unfamiliar attire that Janus had donned that morning before their departure. From head to toe he was covered in an off-white suit made of thick fabric, and latched around his waist was a brown, leather belt with loops designed to hold items that weren’t present. On his feet were black boots that nearly reached his knees and covering his hands were appropriately matching thick gloves.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, but—” Ellie kept her pace with Janus, just several steps behind the goblins. “—what is this outfit you’re wearing?”
Janus raised his arms almost in a partial shrug as he looked himself over.
“This? I suppose you could say this is my work attire. I wear it while conducting alchemy—sans the hood and goggles—as it can be rather messy work and I have no desire to ruin my usual clothes.” He glanced at her. “There were several suits hanging from hooks beside the door of the transmutation room. Did you not see them?”
“I must have overlooked them among all the infinitely more fascinating instruments.”
“Well, what about you?”
He gestured at the length of Ellie’s body with his hand, implying his questioning of her own attire. Beneath her green cloak was the plain dress that she wore the day she arrived in the Night realm, and had not worn since. Ellie gave a small chuckle at how differently the two were dressed.
“I guess of all the outfits I had, this was the one I was least worried about getting dirty. My mother would have something to say if she saw me get guts on it, but it isn’t as though she’s going to break through the gate to come lecture me before I have a chance to wash it.”
“I should have loaned you one of the alchemic suits. I apologize.”
“No no, that’s fine. I’ll just be careful.”
“Well, so long as we’re questioning each other’s attire,” Janus said, pinching the strap of her bag between his fingers. “What’s this about? Planning on running off at some point for a little reading?”
“Hey, you never know when I might get a chance, and I want any chance I can get for the one I’m reading now.”
“Enjoying it, are you?”
Bedelia had been waiting for the group in the town center by the time they approached. She smiled when she saw them and parted from the group of Crows she was working with to greet the additional help.
“A fine turnout for disgusting work, I must say. Though if I knew you’d be here a little early, I’d have met you closer to where you’ll be working, which you walked right past on the way here. Are you all ready?”
“Maybe everyone except him.” Ellie pointed to the hood of her cloak.
With a confused quirk to her brow, Bedelia peeked behind Ellie and spotted a lump tugging down her hood. She parted the fabric and light poured in to reveal a sleepy Gerald, who began whining as he searched for a dark nook to bury his face in.
“How long has he been in there?” Janus asked.
“He crawled in before we set out.”
Gerald glared at Bedelia when she poked his backside.
“Good morning, Gerald,” she said. “What do you plan to accomplish with such a sleepy face? Were you working hard all night in Rat Town?”
“No, Mayor Bedelia,” he yawned with a hint of regret. “I got into a tussle with old Sticky Paws at the farms and was out there much later than I planned. The sneak has been trying to hustle the bored evacuees. But I still wanted to help out today.”
“Well then let’s get you all situated.”
Bedelia waved her hand and led the castle crew halfway back the way they came before turning down one of the side streets. They emerged on the next main street on one of Haven’s middle rings, a street that was unfortunately still covered in calcified cocoons. Upon smelling the rot, Janus fumbled to unlatch the mask on his belt and fastened it along the bottom half of his face.
“Most of the other streets are nearing completion, but this one in particular has been quite nasty.” Bedelia pointed to the pockets of Crows that were working hard at dissolving and ripping up the cocoons. “I’d appreciate it if you could help them out.”
“Oh, no.” Smaul waved his hands in protest. “We were told that the giant beastie needing chopping up, and that’s what we came here for.”
The other goblins eagerly agreed with him. Bedelia exchanged a look with Janus and waited for an approving nod before shrugging with a chuckle.
“Alright, alright. We could use a few more hands willing to do the real dirty work. Then, Janus, Ellie; if you could assist the Crows?”
“Of course,” Janus replied, his voice muffled through the mask.
With the goblins in tow, Bedelia started off toward the northwest in the direction of the main wall. Janus and Ellie looked to one another before turning their attention to the nearest pair of Crows struggling to work away at a cocoon.
“Sure you’ll be fine?” Janus asked. He used his finger to draw a circle around his mouth and nose when she gave him a quizzical look.
“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I mean, it’s dreadful, but manageable.”
“Oh, the one time I wish my senses were that of a mortal human.”
Ellie draped her cloak and bag atop a nearby barrel, creating a soft thud as Gerald’s body flopped into the mass of cloth. He peeked his little head out and watched Ellie and Janus assist the Crows with dissolving a cocoon on the other side of the street. The scent grew more pungent and repulsive from the reaction to the chemicals as the mass was pried from the stone. Ellie was forced to recoil from the stench, gagging as she slapped her hand over her face.
“Oh gods, okay, that’s pretty bad.”
“We may have an extra mask laying around that you can use,” one of the Crows said as she wiped her hands on an old cloth before starting on the next cocoon.
“I’m fine for now, but I’ll let you know if I need it.”
“Take the mask, Ellie,” Janus insisted.
“Well, now I can prepare for it since I know that’s when it smells the worst. I promise, if it gets to be too much, I’ll ask for one.”
Janus shrugged off Ellie’s stubbornness and joined the Crows at the next cocoon. This one was a bit closer to the barrel that Gerald was seated on, much to his dismay. He let out a pained groan as the four of them wedged shovels beneath the cocoon and used the solvent to help dissolve it from the stone.
“Oh, that’s dreadful. Positively horrible. I though I’d smelled the worst of the worst when a patron at the tavern threw up on me that one time. But this? Wretched.”
“We know, Gerald,” Ellie sighed. She wiped the sweat from her brow before continuing to crank the blade of her shovel into each small opening.
“By the gods, if that smelled any worse then I’d think we were in the bowels of the Walker itself! Horrible, horrible smell.”
“Gerald,” Janus said firmly. “If you’re simply content to make commentary while we work, then you’re better off returning to the castle.”
“I’ll be quiet.”
Ellie and Janus scoffed in amazement by the laziness of their companion.
It took nearly five minutes of heaving and shoving to even remotely part the cocoon from the stone. But in the last dousing of chemical, the surface of the cocoon began cracking open to reveal the unhatched and underdeveloped creature inside. Everyone gasped and covered their faces when the perished creature’s insides spilled out, bringing with it the worst smell yet.
Ellie backed into the wall near Gerald and turned toward it while clutching her stomach and protesting against her body’s desire to retch on the street.
“Miss Ellie,” Gerald called, reaching out a concerned paw.
“Ellie, step out of town and get some fresh air,” Janus commanded.
“Ellie, go. And please wear a mask when you return.”
She bit her lip and gazed at the street in disappointment with herself. “Okay.”
Reluctantly, Ellie scooped up her cloak and bag and started toward Haven’s south entrance a few blocks away. Gerald sat alone on the barrel and fidgeted his paws as he watched the gap widen between them with each of Ellie’s quickened steps.
“Should I go with her?” Gerald asked, turning back toward Janus and the Crows as they discussed how to handle the rotting corpse.
“She’ll be alright by herself. It’s not like it was during her early days here.”
Gerald refused to sit, choosing instead to stare down the street at where Ellie had vanished. He clenched his mouth shut and watched them work for another minute before he began fidgeting his paws again.
“Are you sure, Lord Janus?”
Janus sighed through a masked smile. “Looking for an excuse to get away?”
“Why, I never!” Gerald glanced at the street. “Well, perhaps a little.”
“Go with her, then.”
Eagerly, Gerald bounced off the barrel and started after Ellie at a leisurely pace, leaving Janus and the two Crows to their unfortunate mess.
The pleasant breeze that swept through the field outside Haven filled Ellie with nostalgia as she breathed deep the air around her. Clasping her hands behind her, Ellie watched the overcast sky roll over the mountains and out toward the sea. When first she laid eyes upon it, she was overwhelmed by the mysterious realm before her. Though there was still much left unknown, Ellie was amazed nonetheless by how she had come to love her home away from home.
Ellie waded through the tall grass and stopped just beside one of the giant white oak trees, placing her fingers on its trunk and feeling the roughness of the bark. A small pinch at her neck drew her hand toward the source of the pain, but when she found nothing out of the ordinary, Ellie put the momentary pain behind her and returned to admiring the scenery.
A smile formed on her face as Ellie’s gaze drifted to the tree’s canopy and across the sky to the edge of the forest. That place was yet another one of the mysteries of the Southern Territory that she didn’t quite understand. Her time there was brief, but she always wondered what it was like during the day and had considered asking Janus to take her there.
The content and thoughtful expression that had painted Ellie’s face slowly morphed into that of disbelief. A sinking sensation pitted itself in her chest when her eyes met with the visage of a person standing at the forest’s edge and staring out at Haven. This person was all too familiar to her, and Ellie thought that if she were to blink then they might fade away.
Ellie could hardly form the words as disbelief created a blockage in her throat that made it hard to breathe. She tried calling out again, this time straining to speak even louder, but her voice could not reach her mother’s trembling form as she sank back into the forest.
Giving it no second thought, Ellie dashed toward the forest’s edge in desperation to stop her mother from disappearing into the dangers that awaited in the darkness. So determined was she that Ellie had become deaf to all other sounds, including the constant screams of a nearby voice.
“Miss Ellie, no! Stop!” Gerald hollered. “Miss Ellie, please! Don’t go to the forest!”
He scurried after her as fast as he could through the grass, desperately hoping to get just close enough to use his stun spell to stop her in her tracks. But it was too hard to see her through the tall grass, and Gerald could do nothing but watch as Ellie reached the forest’s edge and disappeared behind the trees.
“Why! Why couldn’t she hear me?” he squealed. “Was it that string around her neck?”
Gerald gripped his head in frustration, uncertain if he should give chase or if he should retrieve Lord Janus. There was no time to think and Gerald knew full well that whatever was happening was beyond his ability to stop. With no other options, Gerald leapt out of the tall grass and darted back into Haven.
“Lord Janus! Lord Janus!” he screamed, hoping that his frantic voice would draw his lord to him than having to find him himself. To his relief, this was precisely the effect that it had; Janus emerged from the side street, unfastening his mask as he approached.
“Gerald, what’s wrong?”
“Miss Ellie,” he panted. “The forest. There was a magic thread around her neck, I don’t think she knew it was there. It’s like she was in a trance. I didn’t see who or what—”
Wasting not another moment, Janus scooped Gerald into his hand and clutched him to his chest as he sprinted through the alleys toward the edge of town.
“I’m so sorry, Lord Janus,” Gerald whimpered. “Something always happens whenever I take my eyes off of her.”
“It’s alright, Gerald,” Janus panted as he leapt over the small bits of debris pathetically attempting to barricade him from the shortest route to the field. “You did the right thing by coming to me.”
“Mum?” Ellie called into the darkness. “It’s Ellie! Please stop wandering, it isn’t safe here!”
Scraggly brush scraped at Ellie’s exposed lower legs as she continued down the narrow path illuminated sparsely by glowing blue flowers. The forest was frighteningly dark for the middle of the day, hardly any better than when she traversed it at night. Ellie’s anxiety peaked the further she descended, terrified of what possible terrors awaited both her and her mother in this place.
Drawn toward the only substantial source of light other than the flowers, Ellie found herself in an all too familiar clearing. Situated in its center was the stump, lighted by the gray sky above. A hundred emotions washed over her as she gazed upon it and recalled her arrival in the Night Realm.
She whipped toward the trembling voice just to her right. Standing at the edge of the clearing was unmistakably her mother—Vena—staring at her with tearful eyes.
Before Ellie could take even one step toward her, Vena dashed to her daughter and embraced her tightly as she strained against her sobs.
“Ellie, my Ellie,” she cried. “I finally found you.”
“Mum,” Ellie muttered between her own cries. She rested her head on her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “It’s dangerous here. We have to go.”
“You’re right, you’re right. Let’s go home, Ellie.”
Conflict squeezed Ellie’s heart. Was this it, she wondered? The moment in which she could finally return to her family and her life in the Prime Realm? This was what she had been longing for, but now that it stood before her, Ellie found herself so horribly torn.
“Mum, I can’t go yet. Come with me first, then we can talk about going home.”
“Ellie.” Vena stroked her hair. “What are you saying? We can go home right now.”
“I can’t, not yet. Please, you have to come with me.”
“Alright. Just, give me a moment. I can hardly believe I’ve found you after so long.”
The scream pierced the air around them. Ellie’s eyes shot open to find Janus standing at the forest’s edge, his face twisted in terror. It didn’t make sense to her. What was so terrifying to him about being reunited with her mother? Was it simply because he didn’t know who she was? Everything would be alright, though. She’d just explain it to both of them. Everything would—
The dense fog that pushed in from behind the trees and outlined Janus’s form stirred an unpleasant memory in Ellie. He took note of the fog and began looking around frantically for the source. It was in this moment that Ellie once more felt the pinch on the back of her neck, followed by a faint, shattering glint beneath her vision. What was once her mother’s hand rested on her arm was now replaced by a gangly, pitch black claw emitting a dark mist. Ellie’s heart pounded in her chest as she slowly lifted her head and stared in terror at the being that held her.
Without a hair of space between them stood the very same shadow that had pierced Janus the night in the flower field. Ellie shook in its grasp, her lips trembling with screams that couldn’t form. She attempted to pull away from the shadow being in a desperate act, but was immediately ensnared as it raised its claw from her arm and transformed the limb into a horrific spike. In an instant, the shadow drove the spike into Ellie’s shoulder and drew from her a sharp, cold breath as her torso tensed in agony. In some sort of twisted humor, the shadow used its other claw to keep her close and keep stroking her hair.
His indecision shattered, Janus lunged toward the shadow being in a desperate attempt to save Ellie. Numerous sharp appendages shot from the being’s back and pierced into the ground, creating a cage around them that Janus strained to tear through. One after another, he ripped the appendages apart as he tried to get closer, constantly yelling out for Ellie.
The arm that had formed the spike snapped off and caused Ellie to scream out in torment as the tip of the thorn remained lodged in her. Darkness pooled in her veins and stretched from the wound up to her neck. Satisfied with its work, the shadow slowly began drifting toward the stump as Ellie deliriously reached out to Janus.
Janus continued screaming her name as he ripped through one appendage after another and reached his arm through any openings he could find. With eyes red from tears, Ellie watched helplessly as the shadow raised the two of them atop the stump while still effortlessly keeping her separated from Janus. Though the pain in her arm was tremendous, she kept it outstretched even as they began sinking into the stump.
The shadow began enveloping her entire body with each part that entered into the plane between worlds. Darkness consumed her vision, but still she kept her arm outstretched. She could no longer see nor hear, but for the slightest moment, she felt the warmth of Janus’s fingertips on hers. Hope entered her heart, but was washed away the second the touch grew cold. Now there was nothing but the void that had ripped her from the Night Realm and enveloped her completely in darkness.
Janus panted painfully as he stared at the blank surface of the stump. The shadow was gone without a trace and Ellie along with it. A horrendous cry of loss tore through Janus as he collapsed to his knees and gripped the edges of the stump, cracking away the bark.
The summer afternoon had grown almost unbearable with the stifling heat and humidity, but the oncoming clouds held promise of a reprieving storm. Sitting in the shade beside the house and watching the sky hopefully was Bram, who had in his hand a few sheets of folded parchment that he had turned into a makeshift fan to keep himself cool. He spectated the pathetic, lifeless play combat between his children nearby, the occasional clack of their wooden blades and the distant clank from Vena’s workshop being the only sounds to rival the deafening chirp of cicadas.
Bram sighed as a preludial breeze swept away the stagnant air around them. As though he were in a daze from the relief, he stared out at the line of tress along the edge of the woods and followed it to the right. His heart nearly stopped when his eyes met with the form of an unrecognizable woman that stared lifelessly at them as she swayed back and forth with pathetic steps.
At first he gripped his cane to arm himself and thought to alert his children in the event that this strange woman meant them harm. But the longer that Bram stared at her, the more he began to realize who the sickly woman truly was. Tears welled in his eyes as he desperately lifted himself up onto his cane and stumbled forward in his haste.
His cry drew the attention of Irwin and Lillian, who immediately looked to their father and followed his gaze to the woman nearby.
“Ellie!” they screamed, dropping their weapons and darting toward her as Bram hobbled after them.
Though elated by her return, Ellie’s frightening appearance brought them all to an abrupt stop, especially when she began convulsing and clawing at her throat. Dark veins were branching from the hole in the chest of her dress and reaching up her jaw toward lifeless eyes. It was as though she were desperate to stop it from spreading completely.
Ellie collapsed to her knees and leaned forward, coughing out a black fluid into the grass between her hands and gagging until the last of it had expelled itself from her mouth. The darkness in her veins then finally began to recede to the black hole in her chest and returned the life to her eyes.
Having heard the commotion from her workroom, Vena leapt through the garden and dashed across the yard to where Ellie was leaned over. She cared nothing for how the rest of her family hesitated and fearlessly approached her daughter, encouraging the others to do the same.
“Ellie,” Vena cried, wrapping her in her arms and easing her weight onto her lap.
Ellie’s body was stiff with momentary resistance until her surroundings became clearer. Tears formed in her eyes as she weakly grabbed her mother’s shoulder and fell limply into her chest. She was barely able to hold onto a handful of the fabric of Vena’s shirt in her desperate attempt to return her mother’s embrace.
Each one of her beloved family knelt beside her and tearfully placed a hand on her, terrified that if they didn’t verify her presence for themselves that she might yet again vanish. Ellie was unable to look any of them in the eye, instead focusing on where she gripped her mother.
Finally, her breathing returned to normal and allowed her to speak.
“I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
Following her strained whisper, Ellie’s arm fell into her mother’s lap as she slipped from consciousness.
“Ellie?” Irwin muttered through trembling lips.
“No, no!” Lillian cried, crawling closer to her sister before Vena outstretched an arm and held her back. She checked her eldest daughter’s pulse and breath, then let out a deep sigh.
“She’s still breathing.”
The Martel family wept as an overwhelming relief washed over them with Ellie’s return. Vena held her daughter’s head close and rocked her back and forth as she looked over her appearance, biting her lip in confusion at her hair and attire, but more importantly at the horrid state she was in. She was uncertain how Ellie could look so different in such little time, and silently cursed whoever was responsible for putting her through whatever trauma she had experienced.
The puddle of black fluid caught Vena’s attention as it seeped further into the ground. She watched it as it slowly disappeared into the grass and how the remnants stained the blades purple. Whatever her daughter had been through was tremendous and Vena was determined to find out who had harmed her and what their intentions were. But for now, she would remain focused on ensuring the health and safety of Ellie, now finally returned home to her family.
In the dark basement of an abandoned house on a quiet street of Phiana, a roguish man on watch beside an open door frame observed the tall, darkly clad man descending the stairs. His stance stiffened as he stepped closer with no regard to the rogue’s station as guard to whatever lied beyond. In an attempt to make his position known, he outstretched the arm wielding a dagger to halt the man in his steps.
“Let him through,” an unforgiving voice called from the next room. “I’d very much love to speak with our little renegade.”
The darkly clad man stepped into the small room, consisting of little more than a table with a flickering lantern, a few chairs, and a soft bed tucked behind a wooden partition. Seated at the table with his finger steepled before him was an aged man dressed in silken ceremonial robes in muted red. A sash bearing embroidery of the sun was draped across his shoulders.
“Close the door.”
Nearly as soon as the order was given, the rogue had sealed the two men alone in the room. Silence swept all around them as they exchanged stares for nearly a minute. The darkly clad man—against his better judgment—spoke first.
What came next was not unexpected. The Overseer stood with such a start that his chair toppled beneath before he stormed toward his underling and struck him across the face.
“You dare speak before you are told, given all that you have abandoned us to since becoming consumed by your irrelevant fascination? What could you possibly have to say that demanded you speak first?”
The darkly clad man dared not speak out of line again.
“Well?” the Overseer screamed.
“Trust in me, Overseer Saverio. I would not act against my orders for something that I wouldn’t believe would benefit our cause.”
“Is that so?” The snide whisper carried behind the Overseer as he vanished behind the partition for a moment and returned with a large chalice in hand. Overseer Saverio slammed it down on the table and filled it with a liquid that he promptly ignited. So clearly could the darkly clad man see the fury in his superior’s eyes as he eased back into his chair at the head of the table.
“Repent, then, for abandoning your family in their time of need, and assure me that your childish fascination was worth it.”
The darkly clad man smiled as he approached the table. Without breaking his gaze from the Overseer’s, he outstretched his left arm and placed his hand over the scorching flame. No matter how he braced himself for it, nothing could dull such pain.
“What I have done, I have done to further our cause,” he said, his voice cracking.
“The off-world heathens will soon be upon us. We need every member of the family that journeyed here at our disposal. That includes you.”
“I understand, Overseer.” His fingers coiled slightly from the pain. “I accept my punishment for my insubordination, but by the Holy Lady’s light that now sears my flesh, I swear that my actions will prove fruitful in the coming days.”
“Then let it be shown, and by our Holy Lady’s judgment, your insubordination shall be forgiven.” Overseer Saverio leaned back in his chair, breaking his gaze and waving his hand dismissively. “Withdraw, and be gone.”
Though he accepted his punishment, the darkly clad man quickly withdrew his hand from the flame. With no further words spoken and a respectful bow, he turned back toward the door. No sooner had he reached it before once more his superior spoke.
“I do not punish you because I enjoy it. You are one of our best, and from you I expect nothing less. Do not disappoint me, Isadore Renard.”
“You will feel only pride when you see the results of my toils, Overseer.”
“Your confidence is inspiring, I will give you that.”
When the door had closed and Overseer Saverio was left alone once again, he swept his arm over the flame and extinguished it with a single motion, returning the room to its original gloom.
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