“So your assailant is still out there, then.”
Hooves clopped alongside the grinding of the carriage wheels as Bedelia rode with Janus toward the Maw of the Abyss. Shifting her head from the groove of her palm, Bedelia sat upright and looked at Janus, seated across from her.
“I can have a few Crows assigned to keep watch for anything suspicious. We can even station a few to patrol the perimeter of the castle.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Janus objected with crossed arms. “Elise placed a powerful ward that should keep out any malign beings. Though, I would appreciate it if the Crows kept an especially watchful eye on the forest.”
“Of course. I would have still asked that of them, even if you said no.”
Bedelia’s eyes wandered the interior of the carriage as she took mental note of every imperfection while in the midst of thought.
“Will this experience hinder your combat abilities?”
“Unfortunately. I should avoid strenuous combat for a week. The animal blood works slowly, after all.”
“So I’ve heard. However, we may be needing you before then.”
Janus looked up, his eyes sharing in a long stare with Bedelia.
“This is related to what you’re waiting to show me?”
“Potentially.” She drew in a sharp breath, then released it as she leaned back. “Perhaps you should consider finding a mortal—”
“—No. I won’t be like that bastard.”
“Let me finish, Janus.” Bedelia spoke through clenched teeth, her patience worn thin by Janus’s proclamation of his morals. “Find a mortal who is willing to part with their blood so that you can heal promptly.”
“Bedelia,” he stammered. “Even if I were to, I wouldn’t know who to obtain it from.”
“You have a mortal in the castle. Several, truthfully. And if you won’t ask any of them, then I will find you one.”
Janus leaned forward and laced his fingers together.
“What’s happening? Why do I need to be combat ready so soon?”
“You’ll see soon enough, Janus. What we discovered yesterday morning is a… substantial threat.”
“And I’m only hearing about this today?”
“I was preoccupied with the chaos that ensued in Haven after yesterday’s tremor. Believe me, I would have mentioned it sooner if I could have, but I passed out nearly the moment I was no longer needed.”
“Must you wait until we reach the Maw before you tell me what’s going on?”
Bedelia pinched the bridge of her nose as she carefully pondered her next words.
“There’s something emerging from Blackest Pitch. Something huge.”
“Emerging? Can it not simply be dispatched if it’s not passive?”
“It’s not that simple. Again, you’ll understand once you see it. I’m not holding back for no reason, Janus. I simply don’t know how to describe it.”
Janus’s eyes bore into Bedelia as her gaze shifted to the carriage floor. Whatever it was that awaited them at the Maw was clearly as serious as she was proclaiming. After all, he knew that she was the type to otherwise explain it in detail the moment he set foot in the business room that morning. However, the suspense was forming a knot in his stomach which in turn shot pain into his mending wound.
The carriage slowed to a stop near the barricade beside the mountain opening. No sooner had Bedelia and Janus stepped out that they were greeted by General Delman, his beaked mask veiling a grim expression.
“Thank you for coming, Janus,” he said with a small bow. “If you would please follow me.”
Janus smiled faintly at the sight of his old friend’s obscured face, then followed behind him into the stone tunnel. The three proceeded through the dimly lit corridor in silence and ascended the watchtower. The few Crows that were stationed at its summit kept vigilant watch in all directions, but those who faced Blackest Pitch were nearly as stiff as statues. With cautions steps, General Delman and Bedelia approached the western edged and peered into the haze below. Every muscle in her body tense as she stared at the looming threat.
“It’s closer than yesterday,” she muttered.
His heart heavy with hesitation, Janus eased toward his friends at the battlement. He placed his hand upon the stone and carefully leaned forward, staring out at the endless void of Blackest Pitch as it marred the overcast horizon.
Gazing down to where the watchtower seeped into the mountains, Janus’s eyes widened as horror bore into his soul. Leaning against the mountain and emerging from the dark haze was a ghoulish face, no less than twice as wide as the watchtower itself. Adorning the abstraction of aged umber flesh were half-lidded, bloodshot eyes that stared unblinkingly at him. Jagged teeth—each as tall as a person—were stained putrid shades of yellow and brown and formed a malicious grin on a lipless mouth.
What Janus thought might’ve been arms were far from it—tenebrous mandibles encased the hideous smile as inky abyss dripped from the appendages, almost as though it had chewed through the very darkness from which it emerged. What was truly terrifying to him was how equal parts human this abomination seemed for every bit that was twisted.
Janus staggered back and fixated on the horizon while his mind struggled to comprehend the monstrosity below. Closing his eyes, he shook his head desperately as he strained to part his mind from the vision that had imprinted itself on it.
“And this—this thing is what’s causing these tremors?” he asked, his voice barely above a shaken whisper.
“Indeed,” Bedelia replied. “We believe it’s been slowly making its way here since the tremors began nearly two months ago. It would certainly explain the frequency as opposed to the natural earthquakes we get from time to time.”
“You may not have noticed, Janus,” General Delman said. “But we believe that is one of its legs jutting out from the haze, as well.”
Janus followed General Delman’s finger as it pointed out a long and pointed black limb pierced into the side of the mountain.
“Do either of you have even the faintest idea what that abomination even is?”
Bedelia glanced to General Delman, who in turn raised his hand and directed the Crows to withdraw into the tower. When only the three of them remained, General Delman unfastened his mask and lowered his hood before nodding to Bedelia to continue.
“There was a text penned by a scribe of the Savior that is kept in the vaults at the town archives with other ancient texts. It’s her journal—or rather a copy of it—from her pilgrimage three thousand years ago.” Bedelia paced the eastern battlement as she spoke. “In the journal, she mentioned a creature that she referred to as the ‘Walker’, whose description matches that of our unwelcome guest. It apparently stalked her and the pilgrims for some time but was unable to penetrate the light of her staff, despite being utterly enamored with it.”
“This… thing stalked them?” Janus asked. “Why has she never mentioned this?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. But interestingly enough, her journal also mentioned that the Walker simply collapsed one day and stopped pursuing them. Coincidentally, this was roughly two months before they reached the Sanctified Lands.”
Janus joined Bedelia at the eastern battlement and gazed out upon the pure land, their single haven in the impenetrable darkness. This was his home, and he would sooner be damned than let it be torn asunder by this abomination.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Three thousand years is a substantial amount of time. Why has it only now been stirred from its slumber?”
Bedelia glanced to General Delman, who gave her a confirming nod.
“I’m afraid there is only one reasonable conclusion, Janus,” he muttered.
Janus stared hollowly at General Delman before shaking his head.
“Ellie.” He scratched his brow. “How did you discover her secret?”
“I assisted Bedelia in her investigation two months ago. Have no fear, I will not betray the trust placed in me. Miss Ellie’s secret is safe.”
“Thank you, Delman.”
“Ellie is untainted, Janus,” Bedelia claimed. “Between the magical surge that was emit from her arrival and the fact that her blood is pure, it’s difficult to imagine that anything else could have drawn the attention of the Walker. After all, the surge was akin to the Savior’s light, of which the Walker was drawn to ages prior. It must have pulsed all the way out to its resting place.”
“So then what is to be our course of action?” Janus asked. “Can it be killed from here?”
“Let’s first make our way back to Haven. I’ll explain the plan we devised on the way there. There’s much to do and we three will need to begin preparing immediately.”
Leaving the horror poised behind them, the trio descended the tower and made their way back to the carriage. Once boarded, Janus sat across from Bedelia and General Delman and watched as the latter leaned back and released a tired, anxious breath. It was clear to Janus that the situation was plaguing the poor man, given that he and his Crows would be staring this monstrosity in the face for the coming days.
The sound of hooves trotting against dirt filled the remaining void as Janus waited patiently for General Delman to announce the plans that he had crafted with Bedelia to deal with this threat.
“We’ve been studying the Walker tirelessly since it was first discovered,” General Delman started. “Based upon our calculations on the speed of its incline, we anticipate that it will be visible in the Maw in five days.”
“And so that’s why you wanted to assure that I would be combat ready?” He looked to Bedelia.
“Precisely,” she nodded. “We have several plans in place on how to carry out terminating this abomination, but we need your help. Politically.”
“Politi—” Janus sighed as he brought his hand to his forehead. “Continue.”
General Delman crossed his arms. “First, my Crows will attempt to take out the Walker with ballistae atop the watchtower. Using explosives at that proximity would disrupt the foundation and bring down the whole tower, so this is the only alternative.”
“Though it seems to me that if that doesn’t work, it will bring down the tower, anyway.”
“That is likely, but if there is any means of keeping the watchtower intact, we want to try,” Bedelia added. “There is no doubt in my mind that if the Walker does rise above the tower and descend into our land, it will head toward Haven. We will need riders to assault the damnable thing from both sides as it pulls itself along.”
“As for the people of Haven?”
“All non-combatants will be evacuated,” General Delman interjected. “Crows will be stationed both in the plains and in town. We’re taking many precautions to prevent another massacre. I will not let terrors from beyond the barrier claim the lives of our people. I will not fail them again.”
“Delman,” Bedelia spoke in a low voice. “That wasn’t—”
“I’ve heard it a hundred times before, Bedelia, and I’ll hear it a hundred more.” Disgraced eyes drifted away from hers. “I should have been at the barricade that day.”
The air was somber as recollections of the massacre invaded their minds. It was only when Janus reclaimed the courage to speak that the painful silence was broken.
“Are there enough Crows to divide between Haven and the plains, as well as what I assume will be those stationed at the watchtower?”
“There… are not.” Bedelia rubbed her neck. “That’s where we need you.”
Janus stared warily at her, causing Bedelia to shift her attention around the carriage in discomfort. He knew what she was going to ask, but he wanted to hear her say it rather than simply assume, in the sliver of a chance that what she had planned for him was not nearly as terrible as he anticipated.
“I need you to petition Marcin Reid and the northern clan to aid us,” Bedelia said, nearly mumbling the request.
Several moments passed before Janus could break his disappointed stare and turn to look out the carriage window.
“Of course you do.”
“This is something that threatens the entire land, not just the Southern Territory,” Bedelia continued. “He cannot ignore it.”
“And in the event that Marcin Reid should find it in his blackened heart to lend us aid, what happens if even our combined strength is not enough to stop this thing before it reaches Haven?”
“By that point, we would most certainly have significantly weakened it, if not killed it outright,” General Delman said.
“Should the worst come to pass and we are unable to stop its advance, it would likely target the non-combatants on the coast, where Lady Soleil would assuredly stop it. She cannot spare the strength to kill it as it is now, but surely she could finish it off in a weakened state.”
“This is an awful lot of what-ifs,” Janus said.
“What-ifs are all we have.”
“You mentioned Lady Soleil. Have you already petitioned her?”
“Not yet, but you can hardly even call it a petition in the first place. You know the safety of the realm is her first priority.”
“And I assume that you’re going to be the one to petition her?”
Janus scoffed. “Of course you would leave Marcin Reid to me while taking Lady Soleil for yourself.”
“Oh Janus, you know I can’t stand Marcin. If I went to speak to him, a war would break out between us. Though who knows; our screaming might be precisely the weapon we need to chase off the Walker.”
“Wishful thinking,” he chuckled. “Alright. I will send word this evening to Lord Marcin that I desire to meet with him at his earliest convenience and that time is of the essence.”
“Excellent,” Bedelia smiled. “Just don’t catch anything when you meet with him.”
“Trust me, I’ll be keeping an acceptable distance between us.”
“I apologize, but we’ve nearly arrived at Haven,” General Delman said, looking out the window. “I will begin preparing the Crows, as well as spend the next few days setting up their battle stations along the wall, in the plains, and at the tower.”
“Of course,” Bedelia nodded. “We’ll drop you off at the town center on our way through.”
The trip through Haven was brief. General Delman disembarked, leaving Bedelia and Janus to continue south toward the castle. With little else to discuss, the pair sat in quite contemplation as they listened to the rolling thunder of an oncoming storm. The moment the carriage came to a halt beside the castle, Janus stepped out and gave Bedelia a parting nod. However, she reached her hand out and stopped him from closing the door.
“I am worried about your recovery,” she said.
“Not this again. I assure you, there is nothing to worry about.”
“Janus. I can’t force you against your will, but if you change your mind about the mortal blood, contact me immediately and I can have it arranged. I know a few people who would gladly give you their blood.”
Janus paused in thought. “I will consider it.”
Bedelia pulled the door closed and signaled the coachman to depart. With an exhausted breath, Janus ascended the stairs and pushed through the castle gate, a hollow groan echoing through the Great Hall as it closed behind him. Thoughts clouded his mind like a swarm of locust and obscured his priorities. He pondered how he would explain to everyone what was going on and what to expect without giving anyone too much of a fright.
Deciding it best to begin with Rehor and the afflicted, Janus hurried down the east corridor in the direction of the asylum.
The quiet of the library was disrupted only by the occasional scratching of paper as Ellie sat on the sofa and flipped through an old history book. Though it was not her usual read, she found herself fascinated by the section covering an older Galviece, its descriptions accompanied by illustrations of the landscape and of Phiana. Seeing early versions of buildings she had come to know filled her with a sense of nostalgia. Ellie wondered how long a book like this had been in the library, as its contents seemed a few centuries old. She could only assume that it was brought into the Night Realm by one of the castle rats.
Thoughts of her family embraced her as Ellie closed the book and clutched it to her chest. She stared wistfully at the books above and around her, committing the image of the library to her memory. Every day that passed was another day closer to her departure, each one than the last making it harder to come to terms with that thought. Nothing was certain, but she wanted to remain optimistic that it wouldn’t be the end of her story in the Night Realm once she returned home.
With a slight turn of the head, Ellie smiled to the portrait of the Alscher family on the wall. She hoped that both she and Janus would soon be reunited with their families, and that one day they might be able to meet the other’s under happy circumstances. Ellie’s face twitched with the thought of her family potentially embarrassing her—mostly Lillian—but thinking of how they might get along with Janus filled her with a happiness like no other. She hoped that his family, in turn, would appreciate her all the same.
The clock in the library struck five in the evening. Ellie shook her head and scrambled to her feet, hardly able to believe just how many hours she had been in there. She had woken up close to noon in hopes of lessening her wait for Janus’s return, but she had yet to receive word that he had. A chill was sent down her spine as her mind wandered to possibilities for his delay.
After gently setting the history book down on the table beside the sofa, she trotted to the main entrance and stepped into the courtyard. Thunder drummed vigorously through the heavens as it gave way to droplets of rain that spotted the stone path. Before Ellie could even reach the fountain plaza, the soft raindrops morphed into a stinging downpour that forced her to dash the rest of the way to the Great Hall.
The door clicked behind her as she stood in the alcove behind the stairs and shook herself off. Mere moments in the rain was all it took to take her clothes from bone dry to nearly drenched. With a sigh, Ellie tapped the toes of her shoes near the door to shake loose any water that might trail along the marble floor. Feeling the weight of the water saturating the fabrics, Ellie started toward the stairs to her bedchamber to go change. But she was stopped when her eye caught a glint of light peeking through the slightly ajar meeting room door.
Voices carried across the hall as Ellie crept closer. She placed her back against each pillar she slid between in an attempt to keep hidden. Ellie moved closer to the door and cupped her hand beside her ear to better listen to the conversation in the room. Her brow perked when she recognized the voices of Elise and Janus speaking to one another.
“Are you certain you’ll be alright?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ll be fine, Lord Janus. I’m the safest bet, aside from Rehor. After all, what use am I to vampires, anyway? I’ve nothing for them to suck out, unless they fancy marrow.” Elise’s hollow chuckle reverberated against the wooden door, causing the faintest rattle. “If I’m lucky, one of those miserable whelps I used to attend to will be the one to receive the letter. Then I might have an ounce of fun.”
“Regardless, I want you to be careful.”
“Lord Janus, I’m a skeleton; I’ll be fine. The only thing you need to worry about is this rain soaking my lovely coat.”
There was a slight shuffle of paper before any more words were spoken.
“I’ll return by morning,” Elise said. “Don’t get into any trouble in my absence.”
“Of course. We’ll hold a contest in the drawing room to see who can balance the most wine glasses stacked on their head,” Janus chuckled. “Surely that isn’t prelude to disaster reflected in a thousand shards of glass.”
Elise tutted and pushed open the meeting room door. From behind the nearest pillar, Ellie listened as Elise popped open an umbrella and stepped through front gate into the rain. Then, Ellie waited. Should she wait for Janus to leave the meeting room, she wondered? Perhaps enter anyway and attempt to appear as though she was not at all eavesdropping?
“Care to join me, Ellie?”
Her face contorted into a confused pout as she sulked out from her hiding place and shuffled into the meeting room. Leaning back in his seat at the table was Janus with hands folded neatly in his lap. Stationery, an inkwell, and a quill were spread out in front of him. With a roll of his hand, he motioned to Ellie to step forward.
“How did you know I was there?”
Janus smirked and pointed to his ear. “I’m an elf and a vampire, so my senses are quite acute. I was aware of what you were doing the moment you came through the courtyard door. I’m sure Elise was, too.”
“No sneaking around the two of you, I guess.” She stepped up and leaned against the back of another chair before glancing out the window. “So, what was that all about? It sounded like you sent Elise out with a letter for the northern clan. Why?”
“Well, there have been some interesting developments today. Unfortunately, said developments require me to establish contact with the vampire lord of that clan; Marcin Reid. By this time tomorrow, I hope that he and I will have spoken and will be in mutual agreement with one another.”
“You’ve certainly said a lot, but I still don’t know what’s going on.”
Janus tapped the quill thoughtfully on the table.
“I suppose not. But don’t worry, I fully intend on telling you everything.”
“Tonight, Ellie. But before then, I would like to retire to my bedchamber to relax. I’ll fetch you to join me in the drawing room when I’m ready.”
“Can’t we just converse there instead?”
“In my bedchamber?” He blinked at the request. “I don’t see why not. I suppose you’re awfully eager to know what’s going on.”
“You know me well enough by now to know that I’m a terribly curious person, to a fault.”
“That you are, Ellie. But I have no qualms if that’s where you desire to converse.”
“Good. I caught a glimpse of the room last night, so I know you have a whole seating area like the one in the parlor. I’m sure we’ll be plenty comfortable as we sit and chat, assuming you didn’t get blood on those sofas, too.”
“That we will,” he chuckled. “Then, I shall make my way there. Please join me in an hour.”
“Perfect, that will give me more than enough time to go change.” She showed off her rain-soaked outfit. “I’ll see you soon, then.”
With a parting nod, Ellie left the meeting room and started back into the Great Hall.
Droplets plipped against the panes of glass on the balcony door. Illuminated by only a few lamps and a candle, Ellie walked across her bedchamber as she patted her hair with a soft towel. She threw open the wardrobe and picked out the fanciest garment in the lot; a rich, dark purple dress with flared sleeves and a black belt adorned by an elegantly etched buckle. Wearing this would certainly overdress her for a simple evening chat, but Ellie hardly cared.
After shedding her night robe onto the bed and clothing herself in the elegant dress, Ellie leaned in front of the standing mirror and began running the comb through her hair. Each unruly strand draped onto her collarbone as it grew tame. She smiled as her fingers lightly touched the hairs. Seldom did her hair move beyond her shoulders, but this evening called for something different.
The comb rested on the table with a hollow thunk. Ellie paced around the room to snuff the lights and then started down the west corridor to Janus’s bedchamber. Clearing her throat, she tapped musically on the large door and waited only seconds for a response.
“You may enter.”
A warm, inviting glow flooded from the bedchamber and into the dimly lit corridor as Ellie turned the handle and gave the door a small push. The room beyond was massive in size, stretching two floors high and nearly three times as wide as her own bedchamber. On the east wall sat a phenomenal canopy bed draped in elegant bedding bearing dark shades of red and purple. On the opposite side was the sitting area, nestled beside a staircase and beneath a balcony that wrapped. around one side of the room to a door above her. Situated in the far back was a small hallway consisting of three doors leading to rooms unknown.
“Wow,” she chuckled. “I think your bedchamber is bigger than my family’s entire house. What do you even do with this much space?”
Ellie did a half twirl around the room, taking in every detail of the mahogany walls and slate marble floors. The ornate rug beneath her feet muffled the taps as she made her way to where Janus was seated and awaiting her.
“I did offer to move you to one of the larger rooms, did I not? But I recall you turned the offer down.”
“Well, I’ve gotten rather used to my cozy little room. Besides, was it a room this size?”
“It was not.”
“Then I’ll have nothing to do with it.” She turned her nose up playfully before grinning to him. “You look awfully comfortable.”
“Do I?” Janus looked over his outfit, consisting of a black, half-opened night shirt and dark gray trousers. “Well, I did want to relax. You, on the other hand, look quite radiant.”
“Radiant, you say?” Ellie laughed. “I see your compliments have certainly stepped up from terms such as ‘fetching color’.”
“Ah, that one will carry on forever, won’t it?” Janus rubbed his hand over his mouth.
“Only so long as I’m reminded about ‘overgrown licorice stick’.”
Pleasant laughter emitted from the two as they admired each other’s appearances. Janus then slid to one side of the sofa and gave the seat beside him a quick pat as he invited Ellie to sit. The loose sleeves of his night shirt draped from his arms as he reached for a bottle and glass on the low table in front of him.
“Do you want a drink, Ellie?” He glanced at her puzzled expression at the red liquid. “It’s wine, I assure you.”
“I think I’ll pass this time.” She dropped onto the sofa with little care, prompting a soft laugh from Janus as the wine in the glass splashed lightly. “I’ll absolutely take you up on it next time, though.”
“And if I were to offer again in, say, twenty minutes?” He took a slight sip.
“Well, we’ll see where the conversation’s at. If I don’t like what you have to tell me, I may be more likely to accept.”
“Perhaps I should pour your glass now, then.”
The uplifting mood took a sudden shift.
“So it’s bad, then?”
Janus nodded as his smile faded. He set down the glass and began explaining to her everything that happened at the Maw, the plan of action, and the steps that needed to be taken. Every word made her blood run cold as she fixated on the assumed reason for the Walker’s awakening; her arrival in the Night Realm.
“We are fairly certain that we can eliminate this invader before it reaches Haven.” He lifted his wine glass once more. “I ask that you remain with the evacuees on the shore, though.”
“What?” Ellie asked, a twinge of offense in her voice. “Why?”
“Are you a combatant?”
“Then that’s why. It’s not just for your safety, Ellie, but also for the Crows.”
“Alright, I understand.”
While that was true, it wasn’t as though Ellie liked it. If the Walker truly was on the verge of descending upon them because of her, then the least she wanted to do was be a more active help. Not necessarily just in combat, but even helping the Crows in Haven. She didn’t want to be useless.
“What about you, Janus? You’re expected to participate on the plains in the state you’re in?”
“That’s correct. I’m still recovering after I was assaulted by that shadow, but I can only hope I will be as close to fully capable as possible.”
“You’re certain there’s no way you can fully recover in time?”
“I’m certain. Not without—” He hesitated, pressing the glass to his lips. “No.”
Janus glanced at Ellie, her gaze fixed on him with a look in her eyes that was clear. He shook his head before she could even speak.
“Don’t tell me what to do.” Ellie shot to her feet and began pacing as she gestured her hands in tune with her words. “You said it yourself; animal blood doesn’t work fast enough. If you’re not completely healed by the time you enter combat, something worse could happen to you. I’m not a combatant, Janus, but you are.”
She stepped back to the sofa and stood beside Janus, worry painting her face.
“Take some of my blood.” Ellie bit into her lip as she paused. “Take it now.”
“I know you don’t want to be like those other vampires, but it’s already clear as crystal that you aren’t. Even if you did drink mortal blood, as long as it was from someone willing, then you’re still not like them.”
“I cannot put you in this position.”
“You aren’t. I am. This stupid monster is gonna crawl into the Sanctified Lands and it’s all my fault. I can’t even do a damn thing about it. So please, at least let me do this.”
“We’re friends, right? Gods, you’re the closest friend I’ve ever had. I trust you. What your body needs right now is mortal blood, so let me provide it to you.”
Janus could barely bring himself to look her in the eyes. The way his face twitched with each silent thought made it clear that a knot of indecision had formed in his chest. When he finally stirred the courage to look at Ellie, he was nearly overwhelmed by her determination.
“Are you positive?” he whispered.
A faint smile appeared on Ellie’s face and she gave him the smallest nod.
“I swear, I won’t hurt you. And—and I’ll take care of you afterward.”
“I know, Janus.”
Ellie’s heart leapt as the throbbing of her pulse drowned out any subtle sounds she could have otherwise heard in the room. It dawned on her that she was uncertain how she was supposed to sit beside him. She swallowed hard as the muscles in her legs stiffened and stopped her from lifting one over the top of Janus’s lap and facing him. Her face grew hot as every position—aside from the obvious—dawned on her as being inappropriate. What was she supposed to do? Face him? Lay on her side? Of course, when she needed the knowledge most, Ellie couldn’t remember a damn thing about the process from the one or two vampire novels she read. Not that she remembered much about them at all, anyway.
“Ellie?” Janus’s inner brow quirked. “Just sit down and turn your back to me.”
Slowly, Ellie seated herself and faced the wall with the bed. She felt vibrations through the sofa as Janus sat up straight and narrowed the gap between them. Every muscle in her body tensed when his hand brushed the hair away from her neck and to her back. The sensation of him touching her hair—though brief—gave her a pleasant chill.
“You need to relax,” he muttered, his voice mere inches from her ear. “It’s likely to hurt if you’re too tense.”
Ellie made the faintest sound in acknowledgment and drew a small breath as she relaxed her entire body from one tip to the other. With the gentlest touch, Janus guided her head to the left side to further expose her neck. A tiny yelp escaped Ellie’s lips and her eyes squeezed shut, her reaction causing Janus to stop immediately and withdraw his hands.
“Let’s not do this.”
“No!” Ellie’s eyes shot open. “I want to continue. Let me do this for you. I’m sorry that I reacted like that, I just—I thought of that day at the border. But you’re not like them, I know that you’re gentle and would never harm me. So please continue, Janus.”
Delicately, Janus returned to Ellie’s side and placed one hand on her shoulder and the other on her waist, adjusting her carefully so that she was nestled against his body. His warmth was faint, yet it soothed her nonetheless.
“It won’t hurt more than a pinch,” he whispered just beside her ear. “Remain relaxed.”
Ellie said nothing as she waited for his bite. Two of the tiniest pricks pierced her lower neck, filling her with the strangest dull pain she had ever felt. It was over as soon as it began, replaced by the pleasing touch of Janus’s lips on Ellie’s skin. She breathed deeply inward, then out again as her heart pounded in her chest. Slowly, Janus drew the blood as he drank from her.
One wave after another of euphoriant sensations raced through Ellie’s entire body. Controlled by her own emotions, she shifted her arm and placed her hand atop the one that Janus had rested on her waist. When Ellie leaned back further into his chest, Janus responded by wrapping his arm around her further and pulling her waist closer to his. He began drinking more eagerly, prompting a concern in Ellie for the slightest moment as she wondered if he knew when to stop. But she trusted him, and did not interrupt his drinking.
What was only moments felt like an eternity. Ellie’s fears were diminished as she held Janus’s arm in a partial embrace, the corners of her mouth lifting in a slight smile. Perhaps it was the blood escaping her, but Ellie felt content to remain like this, for now she had no more cares. There was no Prime Realm, no Night Realm. No frets over returning home. In this moment, there was simply the two of them.
Janus withdrew his lips from Ellie’s neck with a satisfied breath. He watched as her head leaned away from him with eyes drawn shut. Knowing that he had grown overeager, Janus lifted his open hand to draw his fingers along Ellie’s jaw. He waited to feel her pulse as she had drifted into a weakened slumber. With reassurance that she was well, Janus further wrapped his arm around Ellie’s waist to pull her limp body close.
“Thank you, Ellie,” he whispered, leaning his head against her. “Thank you so much.”
For a time, Janus held Ellie in his arms before he carried her to his bed with utmost care. After setting down her unconscious body and folding her hands over her stomach, Janus brushed aside a loose strand of Ellie’s hair before approaching a cabinet just beside the single window facing the courtyard. His finger ran along labels of several jars until he fetched the right one, along with a clean cloth and an applicator stick.
Just as the day she had encountered the vampires at the border, Janus applied the salve to Ellie’s neck. Though unlike the mere precaution that it was last time, this was to prevent something that would certainly affect her if left untreated. When the bite was sufficiently cleaned, Janus placed the small cloth over the opening to absorb any residual blood.
After setting the salve and utensils on the bedside table, Janus reached over Ellie and draped the other end of the blanket over her. Now that she was safe, he could relax. Janus made his way back to the sitting area and dropped onto the sofa, a deep breath parting his lips as he looked on from afar.
The aftereffects of drinking mortal blood coursed through him. Janus pinched the hem of his night shirt between his fingers and lifted it to reveal the mending wound. Already, it was slightly smaller than it was even an hour prior. He knew that it would be completely healed by morning at this rate. And though Janus’s stance on drinking mortal blood remained unaltered, he brimmed with gratitude that Ellie had gifted something so precious to him.
Easing onto the armrest, Janus relaxed his head against his closed hand and watched Ellie from afar. Seeing that her chest still rose with every breath, he felt certain enough to finally close his eyes and allow himself to drift to sleep.