Light danced on the walls of the dining hall as the flames in the fireplace crackled with life. Silent suits of armor that were spaced along the edge of the room spectated as Lord Janus stepped closer to his charge. Ellie watched him with every step as he kept his own eyes averted from her. Swiping his cloak aside, Lord Janus seated himself at the head of the table, easing back and crossing one leg over the other.
“Have you enjoyed exploring the castle thus far?”
The arm rest creaked under the weight of his elbow as he rested his cheek onto a closed hand.
“Well.” Ellie scratched at her brow. “I’ve only seen a handful of rooms, but I spent a lot of time in them. The drawing room was lovely, though I’m not really sure what to make of some of the art I saw in the gallery.”
“Ah, yes.” The corner of his mouth raised sheepishly. “Admittedly, I don’t go in there often, so I tend to forget about the more... interesting pieces on display.”
“I can see why.” She tapped her hands on her lap. “I have yet to find your token pipe organ, though.”
“It’s on the third floor.”
“Oh.” Ellie squinted at the high balcony. “And here I was just joking.”
“It hasn’t been used in centuries. Never cared for it, personally.” His eyes shifted toward the far end of the dining hall. “It seems you’re enjoying yourself, though. I’m glad for that.”
Ellie opened her mouth to speak, but retracted her words into her throat when the push door opened with Elise’s return. In her hands was a small tray with a crystal glass and a half-sized wine bottle with no label. The tray clinked as it was set beside Lord Janus, and Elise gripped the bottle with her ivory hand before jabbing a corkscrew in the mouth of the finish.
“Are you well rested, Lord Janus?” A satisfying ‘pop’ emanated from the bottle. “Though I guess that’s a silly question, since you only just went to sleep about five hours ago.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead, making a face not unlike a child caught in a lie. Ellie counted in her mind how much time had passed since she started exploring, her eyelids gradually narrowing in realization. Elise tilted the bottle and began pouring the contents into the glass.
“Honestly, I’m surprised you’re awake so soon, considering how desperate you were for—”
“—Thank you, Elise.” Lord Janus leaned the neck of the bottle upright with a single finger. “I can take it from here.”
Elise bowed her head and set the bottle down before departing from where she came. Ellie could swear that she saw her angular shoulders shake in a silent chuckle before disappearing behind the push door.
“So,” she sneered. “Important matters to attend to?”
A gentle scoff rippled the liquid in the glass as he brought it to his lips.
“Alright. Yes, I went to sleep instead of showing you around. I was exhausted. I still am, given that I haven’t slept well in a few days.”
“That’s because of me, I assume.”
“Oh, yes,” he smirked. “I’ve been losing sleep since the moment you came through that gate.”
There was an air of playfulness between them, but Ellie’s stomach still twisted in unease.
“No, don’t apologize. What’s done is done.”
He took a small sip and cradled the stem of the glass between his fingers.
“I’m surprised you’re making an issue of this in the first place, jokingly or not. I would have assumed you would want to explore freely rather than have me hold your hand the entire time.”
The crackling from the fireplace was all that drowned out the following silence. Ellie glanced about the room in an effort to make herself seem busy with her observations, but was drawn by the glug of the bottle as liquid swashed the bottom of Lord Janus’s glass. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the consistency of the liquid was thicker than any red wine she had seen before.
“Is it true?”
A single brow arched on Lord Janus’s face as he turned his head toward her but kept his focus on the glass.
“What Bedelia said,” she continued. “About you being a vampire.”
“Well, this certainly isn’t wine.” He raised the glass and noticed Ellie’s apprehensive expression beyond its glimmering rim. “Does that frighten you, Miss Eleanor?”
She gripped the edge of her seat as her eyes traveled across the table.
“Sorry. I don’t mean offense.”
The hole in Ellie’s stomach slowly expanded into a gaping pit as the room once more grew silent. Part of her suspected that Lord Janus was a vampire from the moment she noticed his fangs, but the other part of her had continually refused this. Now that the two of them sat alone in this room together, that disbelief shrank into a pinpoint as his undeniable nature overpowered it. Having only ever believed vampires to exist in stories, it was difficult to grasp being in the presence of the genuine article. Her mind flooded with myths that her mind now convinced her were truths, and with each one, she grew increasingly more concerned for her safety.
Beads of sweat bled from her forehead with the certainty that Lord Janus was watching her fear begin to cyclone internally. But as Ellie stirred up the courage to meet his gaze, she was spattered with confusion when she realized that he wasn’t looking at her at all. His attention was focused on the oblong rings on the surface of the wooden table as the glass swirled gently in the palm of his hand.
“Are you afraid that I only keep you here to feed on you and that the reasoning I gave prior was mere fabrication?”
His gaze bore into her, and Ellie thought she would choke on the lump in her throat. Were it not for his softened brow as the corner of his mouth raised in a smirk once again, she would have been certain that he was serious. With tightly closed eyes, Lord Janus brought a closed fist to his mouth as a brief breath of laughter cracked out.
“Gods, what is so funny?” Ellie’s grip on the chair was so tight that it could snap the wood.
“I’m so sorry,” he chuckled. “That was a positively terrible thing for me to do. I’m just so used to everyone treating me without suspicion that I couldn’t help myself.”
A loud sigh of pure exasperation burst from deep within Ellie’s chest. She had not mustered the strength for one so intense since last time she heard one of Lillian’s terrible puns.
“That was not funny.”
“I know, I apologize. It was in poor taste.”
Lord Janus held up the glass and exhibited it to her.
“This is animal blood. I only drink that which the people of Haven provide to me from their game, in exchange for my services to the town. They keep everything else.” His shoulders eased as he brought his arms near to his lap, his eyes tracing the rim of the glass. “However, vampires were meant to drink mortal blood, so a diet based solely on the blood of animals means that I must drink more often; a small bottle at the start of each day instead of a feeding once or twice a week.”
“What do you mean, ‘mortal blood’? Aren’t animals mortal, too?”
Lord Janus waved his hand. “It’s just terminology and makes it easier to distinguish between the two types. It’s excessive to say things like human, elven, orc, when you can just say ‘mortal’. And ‘people blood’ doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue.”
“Hm. Does that mean you’re just now starting your day?”
“Well, I am a creature of the night, so this is the time in which I thrive.”
“You’ve been awake during the day before, though. Isn’t that harmful?”
“It’s perfectly possible to function during the day, but it isn’t ideal. Daylight causes minor irritation, though it’s completely manageable.” He took the smallest sip before continuing. “Ideally, I would be awake at night and sleep during the day, as that is when my energy peaks. But with my sleep routine lately, I find myself falling asleep in the early afternoon instead of at dawn.”
A hint of disappointment rose within Lord Janus when he observed that Ellie still struggled to keep eye contact with him.
“Do you truly find me so intimidating? Is that why you avert your gaze?”
“No.” She shook her head and forced herself to hold a stare on him, lasting for only a moment before her discomfort caused it to break. “Well. Maybe you are a little intimidating.”
Lord Janus cleared his throat and shifted his eyes back toward the table.
“Despite my earlier ill attempt at a joke, I’m honestly not trying to be.”
“Maybe it’s your height.”
A smile cracked on each of their faces, Ellie’s attempt at lightening the mood proving fruitful.
“Now, I can’t help that. I’m elven, and as such am naturally tall. An ‘overgrown licorice stick’, as you might say.”
“Oh, for goodness sake.” Her face sank into her hands. “How many more times am I going to be reminded of that today?”
Lord Janus’s tender chuckle prompted her to peek at him from between her fingers.
“Your noble attire doesn’t help, either. It makes me uneasy.”
“So now you have a problem with the way I dress?”
“Well, not so much that as just... I’ve never been in the presence of nobles before. I grew up in a humble cottage in the countryside with my family. We didn’t exactly have a reason to interact with nobles.”
Ellie rested her elbows on the table and cupped her face between her hands, a longing breath passing her lips.
“Although I would have seen plenty of them at the delegate banquet with Professor Emmett, but I guess I won’t be attending that now.”
She glanced to Lord Janus, noticing his eyes focused on her elbows rested on the table, prompting her to lift them.
“Sorry, was that rude?”
“No no, it’s quite alright. I’m just pleased with how much your posture has changed since I first entered the room. You’re certainly more relaxed.”
“Huh. I guess I am.”
“Well, if taking a stab at my height and attire helps you feel more comfortable around me, then by all means, sharpen your sword while I fetch my shield.”
Lord Janus set the down the glass with a clink and tilted the bottle to find only a small trace of blood gliding along the bottom.
“Well, I suppose it’s time that I resume my investigation.” He shifted to rise from his seat, but relaxed when Ellie spoke.
“What do you mean?”
“For the past couple of nights, I’ve been observing the surrounding areas for any strange signs of activity.”
“And that’s because of me?”
Lord Janus nodded gently and raised his hand to stop her, noticing the apologetic glint in her eye.
“Do not apologize, Miss Eleanor. It isn’t as though you did any of this knowingly.”
Ellie watched as he rose from the chair and bowed his head, bidding her a good evening. She did not tear her eyes away as he paced across the dining hall toward the far end, twisting the skirt of her dress as her jaw struggled against her words.
“Could you...” She bit her lip when he pivoted back. “Could you drop the whole ‘miss’ thing? It’s getting a little tiresome.”
“Of course, Eleanor.”
“And... I’m sorry if I’ve been rude to you. I do appreciate having a place to stay.”
“Again, no need to apologize. As lord of this castle, it’s in my duty to make certain that my guests enjoy their stay.”
Once more, he bowed his head in parting and entered into the corridor, the dining hall door groaning shut behind him.
Ellie’s stare lingered as conflicting emotions welled within her. Maybe Gerald was right and Lord Janus wasn’t so bad, after all. She rubbed her arm and turned back toward the empty bottle on the tray, noticing the traces of blood pooled at the bottom of the glass.
The sound of bones clacking on wood as the push door opened caused Ellie to jump in her seat. Elise emerged with a tray of hot food and a glass of water in her hands. It wasn’t until she was nearly beside Ellie that she could peer beyond the high back of Lord Janus’s chair and became aware of his absence. Her shoulders slumped as a sigh echoed within her skull.
“It wouldn’t kill you to be a proper host and stay a little longer,” she muttered.
Elise placed the tray before Ellie, revealing to her the pleasant dinner consisting of a cut of beef, steamed and seasoned broccoli and carrots, mashed pea stew, and a cranberry sauce.
“Thank you, Elise. Please give my regards to Smaul.”
“Of course, Miss Eleanor.”
Elise fetched the tray from Lord Janus’s place and made her way back to the push door.
“Elise!” Ellie called out, stopping her in her tracks. “Thank you. I heard from Gerald what you said to Lord Janus. I’ve been in much higher spirits since being allowed to wander the castle.”
“Well, that’s a conversation that the little furball wasn’t invited to.”
Her foot tapped a few times in succession as Ellie’s lips curled inward at the realization at what she said.
“But I’ll let him off the hook without a lecture this time. You’re most welcome, Miss Eleanor. And besides, we can’t have you wallowing in bed all day and wasting precious food.”
She disappeared into the room beyond, leaving Ellie with a smile as she eagerly poked at her meal.
The crisp night air caressed Lord Janus’s pallid skin as he eased the massive castle gate shut behind him. Resting one hand on the sheathe of his rapier, he used the other to draw the blade by its hilt. Hovering the metal in the light of the sconces, he volunteered his fingertip to verify the point was at its sharpest.
Having returned the rapier to its sheathe, Lord Janus descended the stairs with his dark cloak trailing behind him. He had only just reached the last step when a pained voice spoke nearby.
“Good evening, Lord Janus.”
Waddling down the road just ahead was Gerald, having just returned from Haven.
“Running errands this evening, Gerald? Or are you out investigating, too?”
“Well, I was going to run errands. But I was half way to Haven when I stopped in the lamplight and noticed that, lo and behold, my shirt was yellow today!”
The corner of Lord Janus’s mouth tugged in a smirk at Gerald’s evident frustration.
“Now, I could have sworn it was blue when I put it on this morning. This is not a yellow shirt day, Lord Janus, not with this waistcoat. I will not look like a fool at my usual haunts this evening, no I will not.”
“Gerald. Your shirt is blue.”
He narrowed his eyes at his lord before glancing down. Gerald gasped and gripped the fabric of his positively blue shirt in his paws.
“What! I know for a fact that this was yellow! Or was it blue? It was blue when I put it on this morning, wasn’t it? Was it always yellow?”
“It’s probably—” Lord Janus strained to swallow his laughter. “It’s probably the curse.”
A sigh escaped Gerald that was not at all unlike the one that Lord Janus had just heard from Ellie not too long ago.
“No. No no no, Lord Janus. Imaginary flies, I can handle that. But messing with the color of my attire? No. I will not stand for this. Release me from this curse at once.”
“Fifty eight more days.”
“Release me, I say! Let me suffer no longer!”
“I can do no such thing, Gerald. Considering your violation of the terms of travel between realms, you should have been replaced. But I like you too much for that. Dealing with a temporary fashion crisis is a minor inconvenience that a tough little rat like you is more than capable of handling.”
Gerald whimpered as he fidgeted with his shirt, his over-dramatic reaction only amusing Lord Janus further.
“Is it only me who sees it, or will others, too?”
“I suppose you’ll have to find out, now won’t you?”
“Cruel. Absolutely cruel. What will tomorrow bring? What tortures await me at the next dawn? When will my suffering end?”
“I told you, Gerald; fifty eight more days.”
“I wasn’t asking seriously, Lord Janus. It was for theatrics.”
“Ah, of course. My apologies.” He gave a brief bow. “But I assure you, you will be fine.”
“I suppose,” he groaned. “But I wonder what your idea of a ‘minor inconvenience’ is if you must torture me so by tapping into my passion for color coordination.”
“Oh, you’ll only be slightly embarrassed by these curses. Or possibly greatly embarrassed, depending on how much you care what others think of you.”
“Cruelty,” Gerald cursed.
Lord Janus knelt down and gave a gentle pat on the head to the frustrated ball of fluff. This caused Gerald to whine and wiggle in place in a display of both frustration from the teasing and contentment from the small display of affection.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, Gerald.” He turned on his heel toward the forest and made haste to the dark sea of trees.
“Where are you off to, Lord Janus?”
“I need to ascertain anything out of the ordinary due to your little mishap,” he called back over his shoulder. “Now run along back to Haven and have a pleasant evening. And don’t fret so much over the little things.”
“We’ll see, Lord Janus. Good luck out there.”
Gerald waddled back toward Haven, wallowing in self-pity every step of the way.
The ding of silver utensils resting on an empty porcelain plate drowned out Ellie’s contented breath as she leaned back in her seat. She stared up at the inaccessible third floor balcony as she took this moment of quiet to ponder to herself. Ellie found more opportunities to do that lately, and as such had become more of a daydreamer than usual.
Eating meals alone was a foreign concept to her. She couldn’t remember more than a handful of times in her life where she ate without her family, but now she was eating most of her meals in solitude. Even the lack of Gerald’s company was starting to feel peculiar to her.
Ellie glanced to the push door. She had been done with her meal for a little while now and felt awkward just waiting for someone to come retrieve her plate. It seemed awfully rude to her to just get up and leave, even if that was expected. Without so much as a second thought, Ellie rose to her feet and scooped up the tray, determined to return it to the kitchen herself. Just as she saw Elise do before, she used her shoulder to ease the door open, finding it surprisingly light.
Considering everything else that Ellie had seen that day, a twinge of disappointment took hold when she saw what was beyond the push door; a rather long and plain room with a door on the opposite wall at the far end. All that sat between there and where she stood were two lengthy counters that created a narrow aisle down the middle. The only objects of interest were a wooden serving cart at the opposite end and the tray with the bottle and glass on the surface beside her. Delicately, Ellie set down her own tray beside it. She gave it a long look, thinking about how casually Lord Janus drank its contents. Sure, it was just natural for a few centuries old vampire, but to her it was bizarre.
Curiosity piqued, Ellie gripped the body of the bottle and brought the finish up to her nose. The scent of copper hit her like a brick and compelled her to turn away as her face twisted in mild disgust. It wasn’t as bad as she expected, but definitely struggled to see how this was appetizing to vampires. The smell lingered in her nose as images of the chapel conjured into her mind.
The door at the far end swung open as Elise entered into the serving room, immediately noticing Ellie and the bottle in her hand.
“No no.” She rushed over, her hand chiming against the glass as she snatched it and set it back down. “You don’t want that.”
“I wasn’t planning on drinking it, I was just curious. Not like there was anything in there, anyway.”
Elise pointed a bony finger inquisitively to the tray with the empty plate.
“Oh. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I brought it back here.” Ellie raised a hand and rubbed the back of her head. “Was that okay?”
“It’s my job to take care of those things, Miss Eleanor.”
“I know, but I grew up in a small house where we just put away our own dishes. Do you need any help cleaning them?”
“A guest doesn’t need to be concerned with that.”
“Please,” Ellie begged. “I would rather help out than always be waited on.”
Elise held her eyeless stare on Ellie, the black void beyond her skull stirring with unseen emotion. Though she was still uncertain what to think of her, Ellie refused to be intimidated.
“Where do I take it?” she asked, picking up the tray.
“Alright,” Elise sighed. “If you insist.”
She grabbed the smaller tray and made her way back toward the far door, Ellie trailing close behind. The room on the other side was instantly recognizable as the kitchen, despite them being on the opposite end from where Ellie had entered earlier that day. The only difference this time was that in addition to Smaul, there were now seven other goblins cooking and bustling about.
Beside the stove near them, a goblin woman with tied back hair began snickering as her eyes followed Elise to the counter.
“Elise loves geese and fleece and grease,” she sang.
Elise dropped the tray on the surface with a clang and slowly turned her head to the goblin woman.
“I don’t enjoy any of those things.” Her voice was so flat that Ellie could have skipped it across water. “Geese always chase me. Fleece irritates my bones. Grease is horribly unpleasant to the touch.”
The goblin woman continued her snickering, followed by a breath of satisfaction. Ellie caught her attention when she placed her tray beside the other.
“Who’s your human friend, Elise?”
“This is Miss Eleanor. She’s Lord Janus’s ward.”
The goblin woman blinked at Ellie.
“And you’re back here in the kitchen because...?”
“I wanted to help clean up. It’s the least I could do for being waited on so much.” Ellie plucked at her arm with a timid smile.
“Aw, well that’s awfully kind of you. Pleased to meet you, I’m Meen.”
“Oh, but you seem rather nice, if not a bit teasing.”
“Thank you! I’m Smaul’s wife. We and the other gobbies are about to take food down to the afflicted, so if you’d like to help out with that, we’d appreciate it.”
Meen hopped down from her stool and distributed the food from her frying pan across several plates, unaware of the puzzled expression that had formed on Ellie’s face as she looked to Elise.
“M-e-e-n,” Elise spelled out.
“Are—are all goblin names like this?”
“Unfortunately, as you’re about to find out.”
A familiar voice called out to Ellie from the other side of the kitchen.
“Ya came after all,” Smaul said, waving and smiling from beside a few large trays. “Gobbies, come introduce yourselves, this is the girl I mentioned earlier.”
The other six goblins, dressed in aprons and common clothes, bobbed along as they each picked up a tray when they passed by.
“Hello, I’m Hapi.” He had slightly larger ears than the others.
“Please to meet you. I’m Fahtt.” Contrary to her name, she was rather tall and lean.
“You can call me Taul.” Unlike Fahtt, she was the shortest one there.
“Nais.” He avoided eye contact.
“I’m Eingree.” She had the brightest smile of them all.
“Hi, I’m Skeeni.” If Gerald were a goblin, this was probably what he’d look like.
Ellie gripped her forehead and groaned as the line of goblins made their way down a staircase beside a door in the northeast corner.
“I’m gonna need all of that in writing.”
“I have a card with the spellings in my room that I can copy for you,” Elise said, sharing in Ellie’s pain.
The pair picked up the remaining two trays from the counter, which were considerably smaller than the ones the goblins had hauled off.
“Do they intentionally not start by saying ‘My name is’ when they introduce themselves?”
“If I were a goblin, I’d probably do the same, just for the reaction it would get.”
“I guess it’s a good thing you’re not a goblin, then,” Ellie chuckled, following her into the subterranean hallway.
The echoing laugh from within Elise’s skull made Ellie happy that their banter seemed to be just as entertaining to her. She never once pictured carrying on a conversation with a living skeleton, but it was just like interacting with anyone else.
Ellie’s pleasant mood shifted as the gloom of the stone hallway permeated her with every step. Even the goblins that were just ahead of them were mostly quiet as they approached a single wooden door, the only thing in the hallway aside from the sconces that lit their way. Smaul leaned the tray in one hand with perfect balance, giving him an opportunity to rap on the door.
By now, Ellie thought that there wasn’t much else in the castle that could surprise her, but that was proven false when the heavy door creaked open. A soft glow outlined the person-shaped being made of dark mass that stood in the doorway, clad in fitted black robes and wearing a ram skull atop its head.
“Good evening,” the shade spoke, his voice deep and calming. “Please take care when distributing the meals tonight. A few of the better off afflicted are having a rough time of it.”
“Of course,” Smaul muttered. He eased past the shade as he allowed everyone inside.
The air in the room beyond the door was weighted and crushed Ellie under its grim atmosphere. Lining the walls on either side of the room were infirmary beds, each one with an occupant experiencing varied levels of distress. Small, pale yellow orbs hovered beside each of them to provide the patients a faint light. Some were resting peacefully while others strained to breathe. A few of them were human, one was dwarven, but the rest were a variety of monsters.
Ellie stood perfectly still as her eyes darted around the asylum, watching as the goblins quietly brought a meal to each bed. Near to where she stood, Ellie noticed from the corner of her eye one patient that was held to the wall with a loose chain. He blinked with hollow eyes as he struggled to compose himself enough to sit up, but the shade placed his dark hand on the patient’s shoulder and encouraged him to remain at rest. When Ellie took note of his black veins, it dawned on her that every single patient in the room had the same condition, though to variable degrees of intensity. This poor man seemed to be the worst off.
The door at the opposite end of the room creaked open quietly as a peculiar woman entered. She was entirely turquoise from head to toe, her skin shimmering in the glow of the orbs as though she had just emerged from a pool of water. She appeared to be wearing a flowing skirt that matched the rest of her appearance, but it was impossible to tell where the outfit ended and her flesh began. Her ethereal beauty was enthralling, like the sea taken form of a person. She gazed at the table beside the door with pearl-like eyes from behind long strands of hair. It was the only part of her appearance that was a different color, the eyes solid with no indication of pupils. Spotting the trays that the goblins had left there, she effortlessly lifted one and returned to the darkness beyond the door.
Ellie’s observations were interrupted when the shade slowly approached her and Elise. At some point, one of the goblins must have come and taken the small trays from them, because she did not remember setting hers down on the nearby desk.
“Beg your pardon, but I don’t think we’ve met.” The shade’s voice was quiet, as to not disturb the patients on the other side of the partition. “Something about you seems... different.”
“This is Miss Eleanor,” Elise said. “She’s Lord Janus’s ward, and is from the Prime Realm.”
“The Prime Realm?” His attention was fixed on Ellie. “But not from Blackest Pitch?”
“No. She the first of her kind; an untainted.”
“Untainted? In the Night Realm?” The shade’s voice grew eager as he crept closer, forcing Ellie to step back. “May I take a sample of your blood?”
“Rehor,” Elise snapped. “For gods’ sake, you’ll frighten the girl if you say things like that.”
“But untainted blood here, in the Night Realm? Do you understand there is a minute possibility of creating a cure with blood from—”
Ellie was the only one of the three that could not interpret their emotions beyond voices, the stares that the skeleton and the shade exchanged being only understood by each other.
“You’re right. I apologize. That was uncharacteristically rude of me.” He bowed his head. “I am Rehor, the castle’s doctor. I take care of the afflicted alongside Nairi, the water spirit you might have seen a moment ago.”
He gestured to the door that the sea-like woman had disappeared behind.
“And the afflicted are...?” Ellie’s eyes traveled along the rows of patients.
“Yes. We specialize in removing the poison that has entered their bodies from either excessive exposure to tainting or from inhaling the haze of Blackest Pitch. More often than not, it is the latter.”
“Most of them seem to be coming along well.”
“These are the afflicted that are close to release. Believe me, you don’t want to see our most recent arrivals in the deeper chambers.”
He sighed as he turned toward the door that Nairi had come and gone from at least once more since they began speaking, retreating with a tray each time.
“Speaking of which, I should assist Nairi with feeding the deeply afflicted. A pleasure to meet you, Eleanor. And I apologize again for my behavior.”
Rehor walked to the far end of the room and retrieved a tray from the table before disappearing into the darkness beyond. The clanking of wooden utensils on matching plates filled the room as the afflicted calmly ate their food. Elise motioned to Ellie to sit with her on one of the benches on the other side of the partition, away from the goblins who were waiting patiently. She crossed one bony leg over the other and adjusted the skirt of her dress, making no attempt at further conversation as they waited for the afflicted to finish eating. The silence did not satisfy Ellie, who was brimming with questions after everything she had seen since entering the asylum.
“What exactly is the taint, Elise?”
“It’s a curse that flows through the blood and aura of every inhabitant in the Sanctified Lands. We can live normal lives when it’s brought to a controlled level, but it is dangerous when first instilled in a person’s body. It also binds us here, never allowing us to return to the Prime Realm. Even if we could, we would die a painful death after a few days.”
She spoke with an air of certainty, giving Ellie reason to believe that this was tested in the past. It was a terribly sad thought as it was, knowing that the people of this realm were forbidden from life in the Prime Realm, but Ellie’s thoughts remained with those who were torn from there in the first place.
“How often do people usually come out of Blackest Pitch to seek asylum?”
“It varies.” Elise turned her head in Ellie’s direction, but did not look directly at her. “Usually there are only a handful that wander in through the caves in the forest or from the barricade near the Maw. But there have been times in the past where this place has been overwhelmed with afflicted.”
“Can it not hold very many people?”
“It can. The medical area is larger than it looks. There are several chambers under this corridor of the castle, one of which connects to the south stairwell. That’s the normal entrance, and this one used by the goblins at mealtime.”
“I remember Bedelia mentioning—or maybe it was Lord Janus—that sometimes people come out of Blackest Pitch with ill intentions.”
“That certainly does happen. More often than not, they cannot be reasoned with.”
“What happens to those people?”
“Depends on how threatening they are. Some are executed, some are sent back into Blackest Pitch. Others are taken... elsewhere.”
“That seems rather cruel.”
“We don’t have the luxury of providing second chances to those who aren’t willing, Miss Eleanor.” The sternness in Elise’s voice caused Ellie’s entire body to tense. “The amount of land that is safe for us to live in is painfully limited. Those who wish to do us harm are dealt with in the way that we deem acceptable.”
Ellie wasn’t sure she agreed, even after hearing Elise’s reason. But who was she to speak out on matters she hardly understood? It didn’t feel like it was her place to.
When all of the afflicted had finished with their meals, the goblins went around collecting the plates and returning them to the trays. When they had collected from the other chambers as well, the lot returned to the kitchen to begin clean up. Ellie offered to help them, but the bags under her eyes were a dead indication to the goblins that she had done plenty that day and should seek rest. In agreement, Elise led Ellie out of the kitchen and into the corridor, guiding her back toward her bedchamber.
Upon reaching the stairs in the Great Hall, Elise stopped and looked up to Ellie, who had turned when she noticed that she was no longer following behind.
“About what we discussed in the asylum, Miss Eleanor.”
“What about it?”
“Don’t go bringing those things up to just anyone, understood?”
She was curious, but Ellie decided it would be best not to question the request.
" Good. I placed the rest of your dresses in the wardrobe, as I said before. Your night robe is still on your bed, as well, so you should have a more comfortable sleep with the proper attire.”
“Alright, thank you.”
“Should you need anything, my bedchamber is beside the washroom on the opposite end of the east corridor, just above the kitchen.” She pointed in the direction as she spoke. “If you have a hard time finding it, Miss Eleanor, there is a door in the kitchen beside the stairs to the asylum that leads up to my room.”
“Thank you. Um...”
“Is there something wrong?”
“Could you just call me ‘Ellie’?”
“Certainly, Miss Ellie.”
“No. No formalities. Just Ellie. It sounds nicer.”
“If that’s what you would prefer.” Elise bowed her head. “Then, have a good evening, Ellie.”
“You too, Elise,” she smiled.
The two parted ways as Ellie returned to the second floor. She fumbled in the dark for a moment, wishing that she too could simply snap her fingers to turn on the lights. Wondering if maybe it might just work, Ellie fumbled with her fingers to get an actual snap out of them. For the amount of effort it took to finally get one that sounded right, the lights could have at least lit out of pity.
Defeated, Ellie navigated the room with help from the glow from the corridor and searched the table drawer for matches, using them to light the lamp beside the bed. After closing the door and the curtains, she took the purple night robe in her hands and felt the fabric again before undressing and putting it on.
She crawled into the soft bed and felt its embrace as she stared at the light, recounting the day in her mind from the moment she woke up until now. There were many things about the castle that filled her with excitement, and was pleased to find that she was enjoying her time with most of the residents. However, the darker aspects underlying the things she had witnessed were coiled around those memories like a snake.
Her thoughts bounced between each of her encounters, slowly narrowing themselves down until they lingered on her time in the dining hall. Ellie was happy that she finally had an opportunity to talk at length with both Elise and Lord Janus, but a small lump in her throat stifled her with regret that they weren’t able to converse more.
Putting out the light, Ellie closed her eyes and curled up under the blanket, attempting to clear her mind of the day’s events and determining that another day would give her another opportunity to socialize with her hosts.