Chapter 28

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Darkness saturated the environment from all corners as the mist once more parted above the pool of water. The crushing silence was alleviated only by the infrequent calls of a man's soothing voice as he beckoned Ellie to the cerulean sphere hovering just above the water's surface.

Cautiously, she submerged her toes into the pool, then stepped further until she was waist deep. The sphere spun in place while water dripped from its surface with silent trickles.

"... not afraid... this gift..."

Ellie gazed into the swirling colors of the cerulean pearl. Her hand trembled as she slowly reached for it, letting the pearl hover just above her palm. If she could just grasp it, it would be hers.

A horribly sharp pain shot through her arm and froze Ellie in place. The pearl had vanished in the blink of an eye, replaced by trails of blood that branched down her forearm. Jagged, stained teeth pressed into her flesh and pierced deeper as the unseen beast grew increasingly more determined to rip through her.

Ellie's breath became desperate pants as she attempted to pry the mouth open with her free hand. As each drop of blood clouded the pool in crimson, so too did the water begin to rise higher and higher, slowly from her waist to her neck. Ellie struggled until she took her final gulp of air before becoming completely submerged. Not even this was afforded to her, though, and a muted scream erupted from her throat when the mouth's razor-like teeth severed her arm.

And, without a single drop of regard, darkness once more claimed this wretched existence.

***

A terrified gasp parted Ellie's lips as she propelled upright in bed and pressed her back against the headboard with frantic kicks. Beads of cold sweat raced down her face as her muscles and tendons found purchase. Her hand that was once trapped in the maw of a beast clenched and released, proving that it was indeed still attached. The soft glow from a candle she never lit outlined the relief of finding both of her arms fully intact.

Ellie buried her face in her hands and let out a small whimper. Now parted from her nightmare, she began focusing on the state of her bedchamber. There was still a bit of daylight when she had fallen asleep, but now her room was shrouded in darkness aside from the candlelight on her bedside table.

Placed atop the table across the room was a tray of food. Ellie threw off her blanket and shuffled toward the appetizing spread, but discovered upon the cold touch to her lips that the meal had been there for some time. A few bites determined that it wouldn't be pleasant to eat in that state, so Ellie placed the fork back down and seated herself on the edge of the bed.

As she mulled over the day's events, Ellie's mind strayed toward her family. She was dismayed at the realization that she had hardly given them a thought amid everything that had been happening recently. But soon she could return to them. After all, Gerald's magic was restored and the Walker had been dealt with. Aside from determining if the other side was safe, there wasn't much reason left to linger.

But Ellie's heart tightened in conflict. She didn't want to leave the Night Realm, but neither did she want to abandon her life in the Prime Realm. Ellie missed her family terribly and wanted to hear their voices, to hold them in her arms, to feel the warm familiarity of home.

Yet in turn, she would lose these same sensations from the Night Realm. Ellie would no longer hear her friends' voices, no longer feel the warmth of their love and acceptance. Perhaps she could see Gerald on occasion, but not Elise, Bedelia, the goblins, or Janus. Never again would she see Janus's smile, hear his laughter, feel his touch, bask in his presence.

Ellie's heart pounded in her chest. She had been avoiding her emotions despite knowing full well what they were. The comfort she felt simply being herself in Janus's presence—seeing how he accepted her for who she was—was heartwarming. She wanted to be greeted by his smile, to hold him in her arms, to share in their passions together. Ellie wanted these every day of her life.

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