“Lord Marcin.” Janus bowed his head respectfully. “Thank you for the opportunity to meet on such short notice.”
Ellie swallowed her anxiety as her eyes darted from one vampire to the next. They were motionless in the light, their unblinking gazes fixed upon their three guests. But among them was a single vampire that paid them no mind, instead choosing to stare idly at the tree across from him.
“Yes, I do apologize for the setting—” Marcin gestured to the woods around them, his pompous tone snagging in the branches. “—but given the haste with which you desired to meet, I found it inappropriate to request proper arrangements at either of our castles. Especially since my main hall is a tad… gory at this time. Though I admit; I am curious as to how you’ve renovated my former lair.”
A quiet, annoyed tut bounced inside Elise’s skull. She kept her remarks to herself as Marcin strode toward them and closed the gap by several paces.
“If I may; the situation must be dire indeed for you to be so agreeable to meeting in the Northern Territory, considering how long it’s been since you last set foot on these lands.”
“I assure you—Lord Marcin—that I am here strictly out of the interest of the entire Sanctified Lands.”
Marcin’s lips curled in a sly smirk at Janus’s remark, parting just enough to reveal his fangs. With his ruby red eyes, he glanced to Elise.
“And what about you? I know you’ve simply been aching to see me again.”
“Quite a hilarious jest,” she replied monotonously. “Always refreshing to see a lord who isn’t afraid of taking lessons from his own court jester.”
A hollow laugh heaved from Marcin’s chest as he placed one hand over his stomach with moderate amusement. To Ellie’s dismay, she quickly became the next target when he turned his attention toward her.
“I see you at least had the decency to show me respect by bringing along your thrall, Lord Janus.”
Ellie’s lips pursed as icy needles pricked her spine in annoyance and fear.
“At the risk of abashing you in front of your brood, I must inform you that my ward is by no means a thrall.”
“No?” Marcin stepped forward once more. “If she is not a thrall, then of what importance is she to warrant being placed in your custody?”
“That subject is not a part of tonight’s agenda.”
Though Janus’s voice grew firm, it did not deter Marcin’s questioning.
“Could she perhaps be at all related to this threat descending on the Sanctified Lands? The one that you yourself mentioned in the missive that was delivered to me last night?”
“The threat is directly correlated with the frequent tremors, Lord Marcin.”
In what Ellie could only perceive as a flash of motion, Janus brought an abrupt end to the discussion and gripped her shoulder as he pulled her toward him. A swift breeze passed behind them as Elise lunged to one side and gripped the neck of an assailant that everyone but Ellie seemed to have noticed. Her eyes widened as she stared at Elise, who dug her fingers into the neck of Narcyz as she lifted him with tremendous force.
“Marcin!” Janus’s voice seethed with a rage unlike anything Ellie had ever heard.
“Indocile half-wit,” Marcin scoffed, crossing his arms indifferently at his son’s situation.
From eye sockets that once only reflected pure darkness were now two small glimmers of silver light. Elise chuckled faintly as she kept the vampire suspended off the ground.
“You old sack of—” Narcyz voice was drowned out by the gurgle of his own blood as Elise dug her fingers further into his neck.
“Narcyz, I thought you knew better than this.” She adjusted her arm and brought her face closer to his, her voice changing to a low growl. “Surely you remember how effortless it would be for me to rip out your throat?”
“I apologize for this attaint on behalf of my son.” Marcin waved his hand dismissively. “However, I do ask if you could please unhand him, Elise. He is not without his uses and it would be unfortunate to make one of his siblings clean up the pulpy mass you leave behind.”
“Of course, Lord Marcin.”
Like a grimy cloth thrown in the laundry, Elise tossed Narcyz to the tree he had been perched beside, bark cracking from the impact. He turned to his knees and clawed at the blood-seeped holes in his throat.
“Are you simply going to let her get away with this?” he gurgled furiously.
“Was it not you who insisted on attending this meeting?” Marcin shifted his weight to one side and glared down his son. “And was it not you who swore to stay silent and do nothing as the meeting progressed?”
Narcyz could only manage a bloody cough in response and averted his eyes from his father’s terrifying gaze.
“Consider this a warning, Narcyz. Try anything else, and the punishment that I’ll serve you will be twice as severe.”
Narcyz sank shamefully into the dark of the Creeping Woods with Jantine close behind. In satisfaction, Elise flipped a handkerchief out of her pocket and polished away the blood that had stained her bones. Though amazed, Ellie’s heart seized in her chest as she pondered the true nature of the woman she had come to know—something more than an animated skeleton caretaker who dished out sassy remarks.
With an innocent tilt of the head and a reassuring pat on the shoulder, Elise looked to Ellie as the silver glint left her sockets. Janus’s mouth twitched in suppressed fury as she returned to her place behind the two of them. His hold on Ellie eased now that the threat was gone, but the anger in his eyes remained as he glared back toward their host.
“I will not accept something like this happening again, Lord Marcin.”
“And I would not expect you to.” He stepped even closer despite the tension that grew in his guests. “Now please, Lord Janus; elaborate on what precisely is causing these tremors.”
Janus took one brief breath to release the remaining ire that welled within him.
“As is common knowledge—Lord Marcin—you were present during Lady Soleil’s pilgrimage millenniums ago. Though a substantial amount of time has passed, there is no doubt in my mind that you have lasting memories of the journey through that impenetrable darkness.”
Marcin’s expression grew serious, then he lifted his brow to urge Janus to continue.
“During that pilgrimage, you encountered an abomination that was later dubbed the ‘Walker’. Though Lady Soleil’s light kept it at bay, it still stalked the pilgrims for quite some time.”
“Yes. It eventually collapsed from exhaustion, and we were able to complete the pilgrimage without the constant fear of being devoured looming over us.”
Silenced hovered around them as Janus waited for Marcin to interpret the purpose behind the subject. A grin cracked on his face with a laugh of disbelief before his expression morphed into disgust.
“Are you meaning to tell me that the tremors we’ve been feeling the past couple of months are because that godsdamned thing has stirred from its slumber and now approaches the Maw of the Abyss?”
As he spoke, Marcin had leaned forward and began pointing forcefully in the direction of the western mountains.
“I’m afraid that it not only approaches, but that it is currently ascending the Maw. It is estimated to be at its peak within four days.”
Marcin’s eyes shifted to the ground and he shook his head lightly.
“It cannot possibly survive outside of Blackest Pitch. Something of that magnitude created from pure haze—”
“—We cannot be sure of that. Preparations must be made in the event that it descends into the Sanctified Lands.”
Unspoken thoughts painted their faces in silent conversation, of which only Elise seemed to be able to decipher as an onlooker. The entire meeting frustrated Ellie; she wanted it to be over, to go back to the castle and be done with the evening. They had barely been in Marcin’s presence that long, but the slimy air that crept from him was something that Ellie wanted nothing to do with.
“Then what preparations have the leaders of the Southern Territory made thus far?”
“The Crows will attempt to stop the Walker at the Maw with ballistae. In the event that it fails, we are certain that the abomination will be drawn toward Haven. At that point, we will assault it in the plains with more ballistae, as well as mounted archers and magicians.”
When Marcin showed no reaction, Janus cleared his throat and continued.
“Ideally, this will be enough to take it down if it enters the Sanctified Lands.”
“And if it’s not?”
“If it’s not, then we anticipate that it will mow through Haven and head for the non-combatants evacuated to the shore. Having significantly weakened the Walker by this point, Lady Soleil will be able to annihilate it, even with the limited power available to her.”
“And tell me what happens if even that fails.”
Without tearing his gaze, Janus ran the worst possible scenario through his mind before letting the words pass his lips.
“Regrettably, life as we know it in the Sanctified Lands would most likely come to an end.”
“So tell me, Lord Janus.” Marcin wrapped one arm across his chest to support the elbow of the other as his fingers steepled against his forehead. “Where precisely do I and my family come into play in this haphazard plan?”
“There is no denying that you and yours are the greatest magicians in the land. If we do not have your aid during the assault on the plains, it would be a devastating blow to our combined strength against the Walker.”
“To me, it sounds like it would be more of a threat to Haven than to the Northern Territory. You’ve yet to mention the southern settlement’s involvement, which leads me to believe even they believe themselves relatively safe from this threat.”
“That is a baseless assumption. You cannot assume to know the extent of the Walker’s power simply because you were there three thousand years ago. This creature is a threat to both territories, from the southern peaks to the northern. Haven just happens to be the central point.”
“With all due respect, Lord Janus, I don’t think you actually believe that.” Marcin sneered as he allowed his words to sink in. “If it was my territory that was in danger and I petitioned for your aid, I suspect that you wouldn’t be so inclined to lend it. After all, you’ve made it habit to look down your nose at us as though we were a blight to be done away with, despite your clearly hypocritical nature.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,”Janus spoke through clenched teeth.
With a single motion, Marcin moved aside and swiped Ellie’s chin between his thumb and forefinger. So stunned was she that Ellie could give nothing more than a confused blink in response to him tilting her head to the side and exposing the right of her neck. Janus and Elise tightened their stances defensively as they waited for Marcin’s next move.
“You dare treat me as a fool, Lord Janus? I noticed the bite on the girl’s neck from afar.” He turned Ellie’s head over to see it more clearly, ignoring how her muscles tensed in anger. “For someone who believes so adamantly that vampires can survive simply on the blood of animals, you certainly seem to have made your mark upon this particular mortal.”
Ellie glared at Marcin from the corner of her eye as he continued scrutinizing her neck.
“It’s infuriating, really,” he muttered. “To think that that which divided us continues to do so, even when it’s apparently not such an issue anymore.”
Rolling her shoulder, Ellie swiped her arm upward and slapped back Marcin’s grip on her face with a scowl.
“I was the one who offered blood to him.”
Marcin’s hand stood perfectly still where Ellie had slapped it away to, moving only when he curled his fingers inward toward his palm.
“Impressive,” he said, his eyes glistening as though he were smitten. “To think that you would have the courage to speak to me in such a manner. How enticing.”
Ellie’s stomach churned with every word. She didn’t want this man touching her, complimenting her, or even looking at her. Of course she knew the situation was different than with Narcyz, but Ellie still wished that she could see Elise handle him in the same way.
“So it isn’t just the act of taking mortal blood, but to take it from one who is willing.” Marcin’s eyes shifted back toward Janus. “Perhaps we’re not so different after all, you and I.”
“I have not changed my stance on the subject,” Janus snarled. “Do not insult me.”
“No? Then for what purpose did you need mortal blood?”
“He was wounded,” Ellie snapped. “I offered him my blood so that so that he would recover faster.”
“A satisfactory answer. That would certainly explain why you went through the trouble of eliminating the infection.” Marcin stood in front of Janus and leered at him. “And yet now my interest is piqued; who could possibly have given you a wound so dire that your usual animal blood was simply not enough?”
“My assailant was a powerful shadow illusion. Out of respect for you and your kin, I did not jump to any conclusions.”
Marcin smirked. “I appreciate that. Despite our differences, I do not wish any harm upon you, Lord Janus. And even if I did, I would simply attack you myself instead of relying on cowardly methods such as sending an illusion to make my kill.”
With an elaborate wave of his cloak, Marcin turned on his heel and started back into the darkness of the woods. He stopped after several steps and raised a single finger to the air.
“However, I do not see why I should lend the Southern Territory my aid in this oncoming battle. If the idea is to weaken the Walker so that Lady Soleil can finish it off, then this abomination carries little threat against me and my own.”
“The idea is to finish it off before it reaches Haven, Lord Marcin,” Janus said, his voice raised in irritation. “If we don’t, the economy of the Southern Territory would be devastated.”
“It wouldn’t affect me.”
Janus gritted his teeth and squeezed the bridge of his nose.
“Even the North benefits from the South,” Elise scoffed, having had enough of remaining silent.
“Are you referring to the prisoners that Bedelia sends to us from time to time?” A small chuckle parted Marcin’s lips. “They’re not a necessary supply for us to maintain our lifestyle. After all, we can simply breed more mortals from those currently in our care.”
A horrible crack resonated through Ellie’s mind as all restraint was crushed beneath disdain. Listening to this insufferable man had tried her patience to its brink, and now she had none. Ignoring Janus as he reached out to stop her, Ellie stepped forward and stared daggers into Marcin.
“Oh, that’s rich,” she spat. “Treating mortals like livestock to keep you sustained? Sickening bastard. You’re nothing more than the sort of vampire that parents tell their children about to scare them into keeping their shutters closed at night. The kind that wails like a baby at the sight of the sun, that shrivels like a prune in the presence of vegetables like garlic and onions.”
Even as Marcin slowly turned back toward her, Ellie would not stop.
“You’re far too predictable and boring, Lord Marcin. Maybe you could stand to try something less predictable for a change?”
The clap of Janus’s hand clamping around her wrist echoed through the dark tunnel. Ellie peered over her shoulder to see his eyes bearing into her in terror. Janus’s lower lip trembled as he struggled to find the words to rectify the situation she had just created.
Nothing else could be said. Even Elise stood in such a manner as to prepare for anything. Their mannerisms slowly erased the confident anger that stirred inside of Ellie and replaced it with a rapidly developing fear. So on edge were they that Marcin’s boisterous laughter put the three of them on the immediate defensive.
“What a refreshing change of pace, to have someone who is willing to bite at me so aggressively for once.” A single tear was wiped from his eye. “I had become so bored with every spineless whelp around me always acting so agreeable or barely putting up a fight.”
Once again, Marcin stepped forward and smirked at Janus.
“Tell Bedelia that we’ll be joining them, but she must provide the horses.”
“I—” Janus stammered several times until his sentence finally formed. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“What isn’t there to understand? Don’t think too hard about it, though. There isn’t any deep meaning behind my change of heart, I’ve simply taken a shine to your thrall and believe there is truth in her words. Perhaps things will be a bit more entertaining if I lend my aid.”
“I am not Janus’s thrall,” she snapped. “And I have a name; Eleanor Martel. Most mortals have one, so maybe you should consider taking the time to learn the names of those in your ‘care’ and treat them with a little more respect. After all, they’re literally what keep you and your family alive, so you’d be nothing without them.”
Marcin carried the selfsame smirk as his attention shifted toward her.
“Perhaps I shall do exactly that. Especially if any of them are as audacious deep down as you are. That would be infinitely more interesting.”
Giving a partial bow, Marcin turned on his heel back to the darkness.
“I will begin preparations for the oncoming battle. You need only send word when we are required.”
The other vampires withdrew their orbs of illumination and sank into the woods with the mere swipe of Marcin’s hand. All that remained after they had vanished were Marcin himself and the single vampire that had disassociated himself from the meeting.
“Joshua.” His voice was commanding.
“You like the mortals and the Southern Territory folk, do you not? See them out.”
As Marcin vanished into the black void, Joshua cautiously approached the group with the light orb hovering above his hand. He peered back over his shoulder and waited. When he was certain that his father was gone and only the four of them remained, Joshua faced the three guests before running his fingers through his short and curly light blonde hair.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get the image out of my head of Narcyz fleeing into the woods like a scared dog,” he laughed.
Elise leaned back as a satisfied chuckle resounded in her skull.
“Oh, how good that felt. I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited to put that imbecile in his place.” She reached out her bony hands and rested them on Joshua’s shoulders. “If only I could provide you the entertainment more often.”
“I’m sure that can be arranged. We simply need to dig up more crises that require you to petition father for his aid. Narcyz is so full of himself that he’ll surely show up for each one, even if you humiliate him every time. After all, the man is so unhinged that he himself can’t decide if he wants to respect father’s wishes or disobey them.”
“Please,” Janus said, resting his hand on his forehead. “No more crises. I can’t stand talking to Marcin.”
The group shared in a small chuckle, and Janus then gestured to Ellie beside him with a smile.
“Joshua, this is Ellie, my friend and ward.”
He reached out and delicately took her hand in his own before bowing his head.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And you, as well. You must be one of the good ones that Janus told me about.”
“Ah, so he hasn’t completely forgotten about those of us still ensnared by father’s will,” Joshua said teasingly. Despite knowing his intent, Janus still groaned disapprovingly.
“Though I would love to stay and chat with you until dawn, we shouldn’t linger,” Elise said.
“No, unfortunately not. You certainly don’t need me to walk you out, however, so I’m not sure what father’s intention was. But I’m not complaining.”
Gesturing them toward the bridge, the four began making their way back to the border gate. Ellie was dumbfounded by how drastically the mood had shifted the moment that the other vampires had departed. It was a welcome relief.
Joshua stepped before the gate, then shifted to the side. It was clear from his body language that he knew where he belonged and was not about to complicate things by setting foot where he was not welcome. He forced a smile and motioned for Elise to step through first, then Ellie, and finally Janus. With a mournful groan, the iron gate swung shut with Joshua’s pull. Janus lifted the chain to fix it back in place while Elise stepped forward and reached through the bars, taking Joshua’s hands in her own. The once delighted aura around her had morphed into something somber.
“You take care of yourself, do you understand?”
“Elise, it wouldn’t do you well to paint such a lovely face in worry all the time.”
“Hush.” She turned over one of his hands in her own, revealing a horrible, blistering burn. “Don’t think I don’t know what he does to you, even when you submit.”
Joshua stared at the burn, laughing nervously between bites at his lip.
“It’s nothing, I assure you.”
“Don’t give me that.” Elise fished through the pocket of her dress and retrieved a vial of ointment. Carefully, she closed it in the palm of his other hand. “A little goes a long way. Use it to help in your recovery when he deprives you of blood.”
“Elise, is this—how did you?”
She nodded her head at Janus. “I put in a request with a capable alchemist.”
Joshua let out a small, breathy laugh and clutched the vial to his chest. The smile faded from his face as the glaze over his eyes shone in the lantern light.
“Thank you.” The momentary silence was so weighted that it felt as though it would pull each of them to drown in the river below. “Both of you.”
With one last nod goodbye, Joshua returned to the Creeping Woods and faded into the darkness as he recalled his illuminated sphere. Elise slowly retracted her arms back through the gate and moved out of Janus’s way, allowing him to weave the chains between the iron bars and lock them in place once more. With heavy hearts, the three returned to the carriage and set out for home.