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Pale knuckles tapped gently on the heavy wooden door and alerted Nairi to the presence of a visitor. She wrapped her slick fingers around the handle and pulled the door open just enough to peer at the other side. Janus silently bowed his head to her—a gesture which she returned before allowing him into the dark room.

Seated at a desk on the far end was Rehor, who hastily scribbled away with his quill as he muttered fragmented medical terms to himself. So enthralled was he in his work that he did not notice their guest until Janus stood directly beside him.

“Ah, good morning, Lord Janus.” He placed the quill in the inkwell.

“Good morning, Rehor.” Janus turned to the rows of beds, most of which were empty. “I see that Haven has ceased the delivery of any newly found afflicted during this approaching crisis.”

“Yes. Though I do worry about the lasting effects that the delay in treatment will have on them once they are finally sent here.”

“Have you been in communication with the spital regarding how they plan to evacuate the afflicted in their care?”

“I sent one of the goblins with a missive just this morning.”

Rehor turned at his waist and rested an arm on the back of the chair.

“Speaking of the goblins; what of the meals for the afflicted?”

“I inquired with Smaul this morning and he said that they’ve already begun preparations. Everyone will remain as well fed as they would be in the asylum.”

“Excellent. Thank you for checking with him in my stead.”

The pairs watched as Nairi slid across the floor and the residual droplets left trailing in her wake were drawn back into her form. She checked a folded towelette on one of the afflicted’s foreheads and used a slightest bit of water magic from her fingertips to restore the moisture that had dissipated. With a gentle tap, she placed it back on their forehead and returned the faint smile they gave her.

“Most of the afflicted will fare well, so long as they remain in the covered carts.” Rehor drummed dark fingers on the desk. “Unfortunately, those in the inner chambers may need an induced coma, as the stress coupled with the daylight may irritate them and cause regression.”

“Do you have the sedative necessary to induce a coma?”

“Not enough of it. I wanted your permission to use the transmutation room to concoct additional doses.”

“Of course. I’ll be certain to leave the south door unlocked.”

“Thank you, Lord Janus.”

“If there is nothing else, then I will take my leave to go tend to my family.”

“Ah.” Rehor raised a single finger. “As a matter of fact, there is one more thing.”

He pointed to Janus’s waist with the same finger.

“Your wound; how is it already fully healed?”

Janus’s brow twitched with confusion as he brought his hand to where his wound had once been. For how accurate Rehor’s assumption was, Janus nearly expected it to be exposed.

“A wasted effort to attempt hiding anything from you, eh?”

“I am a doctor, Lord Janus.”

“But certainly not a conventional one.” He returned his arm to his side. “Ellie… offered her blood to me last night.”

“And you didn’t take a sample for me?”

Were it not for Rehor’s low laugh, Janus might have thought he was serious. As it was, he was terribly confused by the humor and felt as though he were missing part of a larger image.

“Well, that was probably the best outcome for your recovery. Better that the blood come from someone you know than a complete stranger. I believe a bond between the vampire and the mortal they feed on increases the effectiveness.”

“I don’t believe that’s quite true, Rehor.”

“I’m the doctor, Lord Janus. And I’ve had plenty of years to study your kind.”

Rehor faced the desk again and retrieved the quill, tapping the feathery tip along the lower jaw of his ram skull before bringing nib to parchment.

“Additionally,” he started, his tone lecturing. “Should something like this happen again, do not consider yourself a burden by seeking my aid and come to me instead of making a mess of the finer furnishings. All that blood on the sofa made for an unsightly backdrop when I went to enjoy my late evening drink. Not only that, but Elise’s squawking for me to leave made for poor ambiance.”

Janus chuckled awkwardly as he made for the door.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Rehor.”

With a polite nod to Nairi, he departed from the asylum and started toward the other end of the castle to begin tending to the statues of his family.

***

“I don’t like it at all! Not one bit, Miss Ellie!”

From her cupped hands sat Gerald, his arms crossed in a pout.

“The thought of the entire cavern coming down and destroying our homes has us all frightened. Thankfully, most of us are only considering a few valuables to bring along, but others are saying that home is their most valued possession and refuse to leave at all. Can you believe it? They would rather risk death than leave this place behind.”

“My brother once told me that most people tend to think irrationally during times of crisis, unfortunately.”

Ellie looked out over the town from her seat atop the rock at the far edge. Many rats scurried about in a hushed bustle as they struggled to cope with the situation.

“What about your family?” she asked. “Are they being sensible?”

“Oh, yes, although a few of the littlest ones don’t understand what’s going on and have been making a fuss. My littlest sister—the one who chased me down when I smelled like honey? She keeps fussing over which stuffed toy to bring, since they’re all precious to her.”

“Your littlest sister sounds an awful lot like mine.”

“Maybe this is just how little sisters are?” he laughed softly. “Thankfully, my parents have it under control. They’re quite smart and capable rats, you know. Must be where I get it from!”

Ellie’s lips curled inward as she recalled a few of Gerald’s dimmer moments.

“Well, I’m sure everything will work out,” she said. “Just keep focused on you and your family, okay?”

“I will, Miss Ellie. And you be sure to take care of yourself.”

She laughed with a twinge of confusion. “I take care of myself every day, Gerald. For the most part.”

“Well, today especially. I imagine you’re feeling a bit weak after giving your blood to Lord Janus.”

“Gerald.” Her eyes widened. “How did you know about that? You weren’t—you weren’t sneaking again, were you?”

“Miss Ellie.” Gerald leaned his head to one side and glanced at her neck. “It’s not exactly hard to figure out.”

With a firm slap, Ellie placed her hand over the bite mark as she realized just how visible it had been. A small yelp came from Gerald when he lost foothold and hopped to the ground.

“Well, if you need anything, let me know,” he called as he started toward the nearby street. “I’m going to go check on my family.”

“Take care, Gerald.”

Ellie rubbed her neck and watched Gerald disappear among the houses. Her fingers brushed against the puncture marks, feeling that they were already a bit smaller than when she first woke. The healing was proceeding smoothly, and it would only be a matter of time before they were gone completely and she no longer had to fret over everyone seeing them.

A heavy sigh heaved from Ellie as she shuffled her way back through the tunnel and to the surface. Rain was misting throughout the courtyard and covered her in a delicate layer of water as she followed the path toward the Great Hall.

With every clack from heels on stone, anticipation of the approaching night plagued Ellie’s mind. She had mostly placed the incident at the border behind her, but knowing that she would now have to return there so soon caused Ellie’s chest to tighten. Even with Janus in her presence, would he truly be able to keep her safe if something happened? Ellie hated doubting him, but poring over every uncertainty had become commonplace.

Before she knew it, Ellie stood before the stairs in the Great Hall. Her eyes traced over the statues til she faced the front gate and dropped down onto the steps with a limp thud. The distant tick of the longcase clock beside her bedchamber acted as a prelude to each flash of memory of the day at the border. Back then, being bitten was already terrifying enough, but knowing that something darker awaited her if she were dragged into that void of gnarled trees...

“Ellie?”

She gasped sharply after the gentle voice called out to her. It caused her to loosen her grip on her forehead and sit upright. Ellie blinked at the visage of Janus looking down at her from behind the statue, concern painting his brow. Simply seeing his face melted the daggers of ice that had taken her heart captive.

“Are you not well?”

The corners of her mouth quirked in a smile, more for his reassurance than her own. But Ellie’s head shook from side to side as it betrayed her and spoke the truth.

“What’s wrong? Are you feeling weak? Perhaps I should have had you simply rest. The incline to Rat Town can be rather steep, after all.”

“No,” her voice cracked. “It’s not that. I’m just… worried about tonight.”

“Ellie.” Janus outstretched his hand and lifted his finger upward. “Stand up.”

With a little assistance from the railing, Ellie pushed herself to her feet and looked Janus in the eyes. The stair she stood on nearly closed the gap in their height, but it was fleeting as he smiled and stepped up to bring them closer. Ellie tilted her head up to keep her curious eyes fixed on the mesmerizing warmth she found in his.

Slowly, Janus reached out both arms and wrapped them behind her before pulling Ellie to his chest. It took a moment for her mind to fully grasp that she was being embraced. Ellie wondered if she should return the hold, but just as she started to move her arms, Janus let go and softly pushed away.

“Everything will be alright, I swear. I promise that not a single one of them will harm you.”

The truth in his eyes unearthed a genuine smile as reassurance trickled back into Ellie. She then gave him a few quick nods of understanding.

“Is there anything you’d like to do? Something to take your mind off of this?”

Ellie bit her lip as her eyes wandered to nowhere in particular. A breath was drawn as her idea attempted to vocalize itself, but Ellie retracted it with an embarrassed chuckle.

“No, it’s silly.”

“You can tell me.” Janus’s voice was musically playful.

“Well.” She looked back toward him, but instead focused on the clasp of his cloak. “I want you to teach me magic.”

“Magic?”

“I told you it was silly.”

“No no, that’s not silly.” Janus cleared his throat. “While I would love to, we would first have to gauge your affinity through meditation, which can take… hours that we don’t have left in the day.”

Ellie’s shoulders sank, prompting Janus to raise a single finger.

“But! We can try something small that just about anyone can do, with enough focus.”

Wasting no time, he took Ellie’s hand in his own and started up the stairs. She smiled at his touch and curled her fingers into his, locking them against her palm. Janus’s grip tightened in response, but the hold was brief when he stopped in front of her bedchamber.

Ellie’s brow furrowed at the glisten in Janus’s eyes as he stared at the door.

“What are we going to do in my chambers?”

“You’ll see.”

With a turn of the handle, Janus pushed the door open and gestured for Ellie to step in first. When she did so, he reached out and laid his hands on her shoulders to stop her from walking in too far, then returned his arms to his sides.

“This is a simple spell that’s suitable for beginners of many levels of affinity. It will allow you to ignite desired light sources within a confined space, such as a room like this.”

“Oh!” Ellie’s spike in enthusiasm gave Janus a small start. “I’ve been wanting to learn this for ages! Do you know how annoying it is to come in here at night and have to use the light from the corridor to find the matches?”

“I can imagine,” he chortled. “This is essentially a base for fire magic. Fire is one of the four major elements and as such is easier to learn than the outer elements or non-elemental magic. Of course there are different levels of spells and they’re more difficult to master the further you go.”

Janus shook his head and stopped himself before he started over-explaining.

“In any case, I want you to focus on the light sources in this room. Don’t close your eyes, but imagine the lamps, candles, and lanterns. Picture them alight.”

Ellie followed along with his instructions as he guided her.

“Now, breathe. Breathe deep, and draw forth energy from the depths of your soul. Feel it accumulate as it works its way from your chest into your arms and down to the tips of your fingers. When you feel it there, snap them and light the objects.”

Janus’s words roused encouragement, and so, Ellie snapped her fingers. Or rather, she attempted to. It was nothing more than her finger rubbing against her thumb. A tiny, nearly non-existent whimper formed in Ellie’s throat as embarrassment welled within her. With closed eyes, Janus bit down on his lip sympathetically.

“Try again.”

She drew a long breath and positioned her thumb and finger once more and held out her hand in front of her. Clenching her teeth as she focused, Ellie refused to be made a fool of yet again and snapped her fingers.

The satisfying crack was followed by nothing. Each light source in the room remained unlit and Ellie’s shoulders dropped in defeat. Immediately, Janus clapped his hands on either side of her and pushed them back up, keeping her shoulders in place as he leaned in closer.

“Don’t give up.”

Ellie snapped again, and the lights lit. A cheer resounded throughout the room and into the corridor as she reveled in her success. They shared in a laugh that quickly morphed into a single holler of frustration when Janus snapped his fingers and put out the lights.

“Hey, but I just lit them!”

“Light them again,” he smiled and crossed his arms. “If you can do it once, then the second time will be even easier.”

With a tut and a roll of the eyes, Ellie reached her arm out and snapped her fingers yet again. Nothing happened, to both of their surprise.

“Look what you did, you cursed them!”
“I don’t understand. If you do it once, you can do it a thousand times. Keep trying.”

Ellie’s fingers moved in a flurry of failed and successful snaps. Not a single candle nor lamp would light. Dumbfounded, Janus placed his hand on Ellie’s shoulder and leaned forward once more. The lights lit and gave both of them a jolt.

“Alright.” Janus raised his arm and positioned his fingers, to which Ellie shot a glare.

“Don’t you do it!”

“Ellie, this is all part of learning.”

With his snap, the lights went out and Ellie groaned in a variety of pitches.

“You can do this,” he encouraged.

With exaggerated movements, she threw out her hand and snapped. The lights lit.

“Oh.” She blinked. “It worked.”

Janus snapped to put them out, and she snapped to light them. They went on like this for several trade-offs until Janus rested his hand at his hip and once more put out the lights. Ellie snapped to light them, but they refused.

“What? What?”

Cradling his forehead, Janus began pondering why Ellie’s magic was so inconsistent. He glanced at her shoulder and thought for a moment before leaning his head back as all became clear.

“I wonder.” He placed his hand on her. “Try again.”

“… fingers are gonna fall off…” she muttered. Ellie snapped, and the lights went on. “Hooray.”

Janus snapped the lights off and removed his hand from her.

“Do it again.”

Ellie snapped, and nothing happened. He placed his hand back on her shoulder and commanded her to do it once more. The lights lit and Ellie shut her eyes with a violent shake of her head.

“I don’t get it.”

“I do. You’re channeling my magic.”

“So I’m a dud?”

“Not in the slightest,” he laughed. “It just means that you have the capability to use magic, but need the training to channel your own energy. You won’t be able to use this spell until you do or if you’re in direct contact with me.”

“Well you better be willing to come with me to my room every night so I can snap the lights on.”

“At that point, I might as well do it for you.”

Ellie kicked at the ground and sulked toward Janus.

“Sorry if that was a waste of time.”

“Not at all, I daresay that was rather fun. Besides, channeling another person’s magic before channeling your own is like learning to swim before you walk. It’s impressive, if not a little… useless, in most situations.”

“Alright, then,” she sighed. “I guess I’ll just have to get better, and you’re going to teach me. When we have the time, of course.”

“Of course.” Janus smiled and glanced about the room, noticing the books stacked on the table. “Now that we’ve done something to calm your nerves, would you humor me in doing something to calm mine?”

Ellie nodded in intrigue, but was surprised that Janus also felt anxiety over the oncoming night. Gesturing to join him in the corridor, she stepped out of the room and started pulling the door closed behind her. Janus pressed his hand against the wood and let out a nervous laugh before reaching his hand back into the room and snapping his fingers to put out the lights.

“Show off.”

“Come now, Ellie. We don’t want to leave the lights unattended.”

“You leave them unattended all the time in the dining hall and the corridors.”

Janus pushed Ellie by the shoulders to get her started toward the Great Hall.

“Yes, but that’s different. And don’t ask me how, because I don’t feel like telling you.”

“I doubt you even have an answer.”

“Well now I’m definitely not telling you.”

Once more, Janus took Ellie by the hand and descended the steps as they made their way outside. While they traversed across the misty courtyard toward the library, Ellie caught a glimpse of the relaxed smile painted on Janus’s face. Her head tilted in curiosity, yet she couldn’t help but find herself smiling along with him.

“And what exactly do you have planned for us in here?” She pointed at the library door.

“Just a couple of things I thought of while working here the other day.”

Janus stepped into the library with Ellie a mere pace behind, where he then led her to the far east end. Beside one of the sofas was a round table, of which Janus pulled out the drawer and reached inside. From within, he retrieved a small, cylindrical object with a single chain fastened to its edge. Janus slowly approached Ellie and took her hand before placing the object in her palm.

“What’s this?” She turned the curious little container over in her hand, admiring the faded illustration painted around its metal surface.

“Open it.”

Beside the chain, Ellie found a tiny clasp that held the object shut. She flipped it and the container snapped open to reveal something even smaller inside. Ellie’s fingers fumbled as she tried to grasp the object, instead letting it slide out into her palm. Laying there was a tiny, circular book with an ornate cover. Ellie let out a surprised, breathy laugh and opened the book. She turned the pages to find that it was similar to ‘Feyland Tales’, having illustrations every few pages to accompany the tiny words.

“This is amazing! Where did you find this?”

“It’s been here for quite some time. I think one of the previous castle rats brought it back during a trip. It’s a little difficult to categorize, so it must have simply been shuffled away and forgotten about.”

“Oh, I love this. I didn’t know something like this even existed. So easy to carry around!”

“I had a feeling you might enjoy it.”

Ellie flipped through the tiny book for a few more pages before returning it to its container and clamping it shut. Though she held it out for Janus to take, he simply kept his hands clasped behind his back and shook his head.

“I’d like you to keep it.”

“Are you sure? It’s so unique.”

“I thought it might be the perfect size to… take home with you.” He paused for a moment that felt like eternity. “To remember your time here.”

Ellie’s lips curled as she turned the container over and nodded. While she appreciated the gesture, Janus’s words painfully grasped her heart. So often had the two of them discussed future plans that Ellie had grown used to the idea that she would continue being there. But even if that was what she wanted, to do so would be terribly unfair to her family. Ellie wasn’t even sure if it was what she wanted, considering how she still dreamed of her apprenticeship.

Knots twisted and turned in her chest as anxiety returned, then she clutched the container to her chest and smiled.

“Thank you. Was this really what you wanted to do to calm your nerves, though?”

“Ah, not quite.” He stepped to the other side of the sofa with enthusiasm and motioned for her to sit down. “An idea struck me not too long after I found that, and I grew curious if you would be as keen to it as I am.”

Ellie lowered onto the sofa as Janus picked up a book from the same side table. He then seated himself beside her and turned to Ellie, the two sharing a brief glance before fixating on the book.

“Though I do enjoy our book discussions, we have been reading separately this entire time. I thought that maybe you might like to—to read together for a change?”

Her brow quirked. “Aloud?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “Perhaps we could take turns, chapter by chapter.”

Ellie’s lower lip trembled as tears welled in her eyes, catching Janus by surprise. He reached his hand out hesitantly for her shoulder, but not before Ellie buried her face behind her own hands, trying her best to hide her sudden spill of emotion, though it did little to help in that regard. For such a pleasant feeling to bring with it a sensation like a knife being run through her. Nothing would be more wonderful to Ellie than to keep on like this, but the reality that it would soon all come to an end loomed overwhelmingly over her. Even so, the fact that Janus offered at all to do with her something that meant so much was more meaningful than he could begin to understand.

“Oh. Ellie, I—I didn’t think… I’m sorry.”

“No!” She reached out and touched his arm. “I’m not sad. I’m—I’m happy. I would love to read with you.”

“Oh, good. I was terrified that I had offended you and that—”

“—You didn’t, Janus. In fact, I’m touched. You remembered what I said about reading aloud with someone. You probably think it’s childish, but no one’s offered since I was still so young that I just didn’t know how to handle it.”

“It’s alright, Ellie. And I’m glad.” He smiled, tracing his fingers along the painted grooves on the cover. “We have quite some time yet before our departure. Would you like to begin now?”

“Absolutely.”

“Excellent.” Janus adjusted himself and moved slightly closer to her. “Would you prefer to begin, or should I?”

“I’d like to listen for now, if that’s alright?”

“Of course.”

Ellie turned her body so that she was facing Janus, then rested her arm on the back of the sofa as to provide support for her head. With half-lidded eyes, she listened to the sound of his voice speaking each word from the pages. The small container turned over and over in her hand as she fell into a trance-like state, the story unfolding perfectly in her mind as it was read to her. For now, nothing else mattered aside from this splendid moment between the two of them.

***

The full moon illuminated the road, guiding the carriage as it made its way toward the northern border. Ellie watched the stars for some time before returning her attention inside. First, she glanced to Janus sitting across from her, then to Elise beside her. Janus was dressed no differently, but his usual outfits felt more formal as they were. Elise—however—had chosen to wear her outing attire instead of her usual caretaker uniform.

“Remind me again why you’re coming with us?” Ellie asked. “I thought you despised this man.”

“That’s precisely why I’m here, Ellie.” Elise tapped her fingers on her lap. “While your presence was requested, it was not requested that only you were to join Lord Janus. So it isn’t as though I’m breaking any rules by attending this meeting.”

“Elise doesn’t trust Marcin Reid, and neither do I,” Janus said. “Having her with us is just another layer of protection against anything that he or his spawn may attempt.”

Ellie raised an eyebrow, curious as to how Elise’s presence could possibly add that much assurance. If anything, it seemed like the bad blood between her and the northern vampires might cause more trouble.

“Ellie.” Janus’s voice was low. “You are to remain by my side through the duration of the meeting. Elise will be behind us. Should anything happen, trust in us to protect you.”

Though she was anxious, Ellie managed to muster a small nod.

“I also ask that you leave all discussion to me. The balance between these two territories is delicate and I do not wish to risk tipping it.” With a heavy sigh, he leaned back in his seat. “As much as it pains me, we need the aid of the northern clan in the event that the first phase against the Walker does not prove successful.”

“I understand,” Ellie said.

“Assuming that this goes smoothly, we should only be there for about ten minutes. Twenty at most.” Elise straightened out her skirt before turning to look out the window.

The remainder of the trip was fairly silent, the only consistent sound coming from the clopping of hooves and the grinding of carriage wheels. When they came to a stop at the border, Janus and Elise immediately stepped out from either side with Ellie following shortly after. The boards of the bridge groaned beneath their collective weight as they approached the gate. Elise lit her lantern, revealing the black void awaiting them on the other side.

“So it’s called the ‘Creeping Woods’, huh?” Ellie swallowed.

“That it is,” Elise replied.

“It’s a hundred times more terrifying at night.”

“Don’t worry, Ellie.” Janus placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “We’re with you.”

From within his cloak pocket, Janus fetched a key to the gate that Bedelia had given him. He then unlocked the chains and worked them through the bars before throwing the lump of linked iron to the floor. The wailing iron door eased open and the orb above grew bright with white light.

“It lets Bedelia know the meeting is about to begin,” Janus said, noting the perplexed look on Ellie’s face. “Just in case.”

The gate was left ajar as they walked to the bridge’s edge. Elise was the first to stop, then Janus as he outstretched his arm to keep Ellie from moving ahead. He then motioned his hand over the seam where the bridge met the earth, causing dozens of crackles to follow along. Elise scoffed through her ever-closed teeth.

“They couldn’t even be bothered to disable the spell for us.”

“Well, it’s up to them to put the trap in place again, as payment for putting me through the inconvenience.”

A satisfied cackle echoed in Elise’s skull as the trio stepped off the bridge and into the Creeping Woods, nothing more than the lantern to illuminate their way.

Perhaps it was because her last visit presented her with no opportunity to notice, but Ellie now realized just how quickly the sound of rushing water was completely dissipated as they traversed into the woods. It was unnatural, as water that moved that fast would have been heard for at least a while longer. In fact, it seemed as though all noise aside from their footsteps and Ellie’s own pulse in her ears had been erased. Her stomach flipped and churned a sense of nausea.

Ellie nearly stumbled forward from the abruptness with which both Janus and Elise had come to a stop. The endless darkness ahead was revealed to them by the lantern held firmly in Elise’s grip. Ellie blinked, and then it became apparent to her why they had stopped. Even she could sense numerous presences between the trees on either side of them.

Each of the presences raised a hand and called forth spheres of light which illuminated the surrounding area. After her eyes adjusted, Ellie looked around and noticed that each and every one of them was a vampire. Unfortunately for her, two of them had faces she was not soon to forget.

Separate from the rest was a single vampire that emerged from the black abyss swallowing the road. He was an older man dressed in noble attire in line with what the others wore, though the only thing separating him from the surrounding darkness was the gold trim along the hems of his shirt and cloak. The man’s short, medium brown hair was neatly styled and his beard closely trimmed. With bright red eyes, he stared them down with a smirk, shattering any illusion of security that might have been present.

“Good evening, Lord Janus,” he announced, frigid breath lingering on every word. “It’s been quite some time since we were last in each other’s company. Although—and for reasons I’m sure you understand—I have certainly not missed it.”

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About the author

sennabyrd

Bio: Author who loves high fantasy, old computer/video games, and elves. New chapters posted every Friday at 3:00 PM US Central!

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