There was something to be said about Keats' reporter's conditioning and instincts that he was able to absorb several details in rapid succession. At three in the afternoon, he spotted Ellen sitting – alone – outside his office on a bench, feeding breadcrumbs to the common breed of fowl that frequented the park. It was a Sunday morning.
He pulled his hand back from the blinds, allowing the slats to snap closed, and thought on the implications of the scene outside his window. When no clear answers sprung to mind, he removed his glasses and carefully cleaned them with the soft handkerchief that he kept on his person. Keats replaced them across the bridge of his nose, then reopened the shades a sliver to reassess the situation.
Ellen remained centered in the same place he'd seen her last, with her back to him, but her unmistakable cloak and braided hair gave her away. She hadn't cut it since last their paths crossed.
"Curious," he rumbled to no one other than himself. "Peculiar, even."
The sight was indeed unusual, the woman having left this – room, realm, what have you – a year ago, to the day. That was an extreme gap, one he'd predicted to stretch on for quite some time longer. Possibly forever, not that he was gullible. Nothing, not even the written word or humanity's flimsy interest in the going-ons around them, lasted until the end of eternity. But a meeting between them may have very well contested that.
Keats was sure there was an interesting story behind this, and he intended to get the scoop on it.
Grabbing his jacket, he propped open the window, retreated through it, and down the fire escape to the ground level. He kept calm, but permitted himself longer strides than usual to cross the street.
He stopped to the left of the unoccupied side of the bench and simply bided his time, or that was his initial intent. Ellen did not respond to his presence immediately, and the polite clearing of his throat was required. She jumped at the noise, one hand clutching the bag of bird morsels tightly and the other going to rub the pendant around her neck, as if seeking protection from it.
"Ellen," he greeted, politer this time.
"Oh, hello," she responded in kind, timidly.
Keats got straight to the point and said, "Not that it's against your rights to be here, but I'm curious why you would visit."
"Please, won't you take a seat?" Ellen asked instead, and he recognized a diversionary tactic when he spotted it.
He humored the woman, realizing he was towering over her at the moment, and accepted a spot to the far right side of the bench. Birds scattered at his abrupt motion, but when he leaned forward and rested both elbows on his legs unassumingly, a few returned to demand birdseed of Ellen once more. She obliged them, continuing to avoid the subject, and might have gotten away with it were Keats less curious.
She flinched, unable to mask the gesture, and ceased in her task.
"I'm sorry," she finally began, causing Keats to purse his lips. "I didn't mean to impose like this."
Whatever was bothering her must be distressing, Keats reasoned.
"I sense a 'but'. Am I correct?"
Ellen nodded, haltingly, and admitted, "Yes. I've been having these strange precognitions, and I'm…"
The alarm Keats felt was pushed aside, his body remaining stock still. What went on in his mind was an entirely different matter.
"They were minor, at the start – just dreams…nightmares. I'd experience déjà vu later during the day, or sense…" She shook her head, clutching the necklace harder with the one hand and rubbing her temple with the other. The bag of bird feed was forgotten at her hip. "I thought it was stress, from the events at Doolin, but shouldn't such effects have ceased lingering?"
Keats listened and rubbed his chin in thought as he said, "I dare not jump to any conclusions, but who knows how the Netherworld impacts the human psyche? You could be feeling negative side effects from prolonged exposure from anything to do with the different realms."
"I sense a 'but,'" she murmured, mimicking his earlier turn of phrase to her. He offered her a wan smile for the attempt at humor, appreciating the gesture, even if what he were about to say was mirthless.
"But I bet such a solution would be too obvious, and nothing in life is ever so easy. Tell me, how often do these bad tidings occur? Are they frequent? What impressions do they provide?"
She bit her lip as she thought, then started to reply. The words transformed somewhere in her throat, leaving as a garbled cry of pain. Ellen shifted, clutching her head in both hands and alerting Keats to action. Foregoing his usual decorum and distance, he placed a hand on her shoulder. Minutely, Ellen leaned into the contact. Their sudden movements disturbed the container of seeds, spilling them to the ground. The school of birds took flight in alarm, the commotion they caused nothing but soft coos and the wind beneath their wings.
His question was answered before it could find its voice, the clouds up above seeming to respond to her distress. They were dark and foreboding, thundering in from all directions to converge directly overhead. Keats' eyes flickered in the clouds' direction to witness the phenomena and then concentrated on Ellen as a whimper of shock demanded his undivided attention.
"This… What is this?" she asked, and clenched her eyes shut. "It-It was never this awful!"
"Come, can you make it back to my office?"
He directed Ellen to her feet before she could respond, the storm rushing in taking a turn for the worst. Lightning flashed and droplets began pattering the ground. The water soaked their hair and bodies as the rain picked up. Their clothes provided some protection, but Ellen's Cloak of the Deep would have fared better under such an onslaught.
"I'm not… Oh."
Ellen fainted, and Keats was forced to catch her, adjusting her weight for carrying.
It was like nighttime, the world plunging into darkness as the sky blotted out any speck of sunshine. The streets puddled with water, the liquid there resembling oil, as he dashed through the road to his tenement. The journey became precarious as he was forced to escort her along the fire escape – now slippery from the weather and hard to navigate with Ellen's additional dead weight.
Keats gritted his teeth, forced to maneuver his charge over his shoulder as he lugged them both the final way to the window. The man paused with his hand on the sill, glancing over his free shoulder to scan the outside. He sensed that they weren't alone; it was as if thousands of hands were beseeching.
He hurried inside, minding Ellen's head as he entered his office, and made sure to close and lock the window in their wake. The blinds were snapped down with a shht of finality, blocking out the sight of the storm.
There was a leather chaise against the far wall that he used for guests or clients, had he had any, and slept on between assignments. The material was stiff, despite what was supposed to be years of being napped on. So as not to jostle Ellen needlessly and cause her harm, Keats laid her gently across the piece of furniture. He swept her bangs from her face, since the rainwater had plastered them to her forehead. The light strands held more color than her skin, a fact he acknowledged worriedly.
"Ellen? Come now, Ellen, this is no time to be swept off your feet. Open your eyes, hm?" he pressed, feeling like a daft moron the entire while. For a guardian, he was a rather disgraceful caretaker, not understanding the protocol for situations like this. He'd simply have to keep inquiring until he gathered results.
Beyond the glass of the single office window, he could hear the storm picking up, as if trying to batter its way inside. He sighed and removed his glasses, making room to pinch the bridge of his nose.
"Surely you can't sleep through that racket, can you?"
But apparently she could, and she did. Keats rose to his feet to retrieve a small dishtowel from a drawer in his kitchenette, intending to dry her off as much as possible. It wouldn't do if she caught a fever during her visit. He hadn't gotten very far, patting down her face as tenderly as he was able, when Ellen regained her bearings.
She appeared embarrassed and flustered, which indicated she'd made a swell recovery. He permitted Ellen her dignity, not mentioning the escapade, and instead moved onto more pressing matters.
"Have all your experiences been so episodic?"
"No, not in the slightest. I've never felt so much as dizzy. Once, I had a minor headache, but nothing like this. Could this be due to my presence here?"
"That's my theory."
As if to prove the point, the world beyond the room made itself known: the wind pounded the exterior wall and sounded like nails clawing at the stone. Rain pelted the glass in an agitated state, tapping in the background.
"What could be reacting to my company like this?"
"What, indeed? A mystery, I assure you," he said distractedly as he receded into his thoughts.
This was the most action he'd seen in this realm – a fact that dampened his prospects on reporting supernatural occurrences for his Unknown Realms magazine. He wished the dull consistency of his boring limbo wasn't interrupted like this, though. The sole, differing factor was Ellen herself, but this was not her first visit. Coming back to himself, he noticed they'd lapsed into silence. Ellen had taken up the towel to wring out her hair. The result was minimal.
I suppose tea is in order, he mused, belatedly recalling some form of etiquette. When he got to his feet to do just that, he startled Ellen in the process.
"Would you care for something warm to drink?" he asked, attempting to put her at ease.
"Yes, thank you."
"So tell me more about these precognitions," he began a short while later as he waited for the teakettle to come to a boil. "What sort are they? Visions?"
"Yes and no. So far nothing outside of my dreams, until today. I would wake every day feeling drained and…sad, as if…" she trailed off, her eyes wide and hollowed as she glanced toward the window toward the storm raging outside.
"As if?" Keats prompted.
"As if a cloud of despair were hanging over my head."
"Intriguing analogy," he said considerately and followed her gaze.
The trill of the teapot on the stove alerted him to its readiness. He moved to retrieve it and finish preparing the drink, handing off the refined brew. Ellen thanked him and took a grateful sip.
"You're onto something, I think," Keats finally continued, after he'd had some tea, too. "Not enough to come to any conclusions, but it should be safe to say the problem lies with – or within – you."
The point didn't seem to bring the woman much comfort. Her shoulders bunched and, seemingly crestfallen, she apologized.
"I brought this, whatever this is, to you, when that was not my intention."
He chuckled, startling her.
"And what was your intention? Not that I mind your company, seeing as your problems guarantee that I'm never bored. Honestly, what else do you expect me to be doing?"
Her face remained dejected, and he mentally shrugged. He'd tried.
A bang interrupted her statement and caused them both to jump. Ellen set down her tea to keep from spilling what was left.
"I think our attention is wanted," Keats murmured and moved to retrieve his purple jacket. The material was still slightly damp, but he had more pressing matters to be concerned with. Another harsh strike hit the window, then another in quick succession.
Ellen stood, eyes flickering toward him, then the window.
"Is it a Folk?"
"We're about to find out, I imagine," Keats managed to say at the sounds of glass cracking once, twice, and then shattering across the floor. A gust of wind thrust the curtains back and sent papers scattering every which way. Beyond the opening was darkness – blacker than should be possible or natural.
Keats braced for an attack, but hundreds of inky shadows stretched for them and were difficult to retaliate against. They attached to limbs, hair, and whatever else they could reach.
He remained focused, despite how swiftly the situation was deteriorating. Tilting his head down a fraction, the remaining light from the room filled out his glasses and obscured his eyes a fraction of a second before he tried to release his energy to transform. He'd never attempted it in this space until now, and he would not find out the possibilities this day, either. A strand of black as toughened as rope coiled around his throat and caused him to choke.
In retaliation, he gripped his assailant with both hands and forced himself free, gasping for air. Several more started to encircle him and Ellen. No matter how many times they broke free, five tendrils sprung in to replace those that fell, clinging tighter than those before. Keats wrenched an inky hand from around his upper arm, retreating closer to Ellen when he could.
"Keats! I can't summon-"
She was cut off as a stretch of black attached and tugged at her hair. His jaw tensed and he doubled his efforts but barely moved an inch in any direction.
She reached for his hand, the futile gesture the last thing he saw.
Keats awoke chest down on a grassy bluff, the toughened leaves assaulting his nose and the dirt digging into his cheek. Disorientated, he lifted his head to survey the sun resting past the ocean and a nearby arch. A woman sat at the edge of the cliff, under the stone formation, with her back directed toward him…and Ellen.
He remembered this place, this time, when he visited the Village of the Dead after receiving an alarming phone call. This was most assuredly not his office and their presence here was unusual, to say the least. Still, Keats was only mildly ruffled in the face of uncertainty and waited to decipher what was a fabrication or reality.
The woman tipped forward and Ellen sprung toward her from his left.
She would have tumbled after the figure if Keats hadn't leapt then, forgoing his stance on observation to instead grab her to safety. It was no easy accomplishment, given her adamant struggles. Exactly one year ago he had latched onto her arm in this very spot, but his position on the ground had not provided the same ease as back then. He wrapped both arms around her middle and tugged, both of them nearly tumbling over.
"No! Mother, come back!"
"Ellen!" Keats shouted, reaffirming his voice to gather her attention. "She's gone! That woman-"
"Why did you stop me?" she asked, more hurt than angry. "I almost reached her. I could have saved…"
"Saved whom?" Keats asked.
He stared down the bridge of his nose and over his glasses at her, waiting for Ellen to come to her senses on her own. She fumbled both physically and verbally as she gave the question more serious thought. The hold he had on Ellen didn't give an inch, not until he was sure she wouldn't go rushing off.
"My…mother? I have a letter…"
"You know that to be false," he said, the words coming out blunter than he'd intended, but platitudes would not save Ellen here.
She calmed, if only marginally, and pushed a hand against his shoulder to vie for distance. He granted her that much, seeing as Ellen no longer seemed prone to diving over steep ledges. "I'm… I'm sorry for my behavior just now. That wasn't like me at all."
"Considering the circumstances, it's only understandable that you-"
"Let me down."
The unexpected intrusion startled them both, the voice originating from behind them. It was Regine, the real individual who'd resided on the cliff. The woman's clothes were soaking wet. Ellen gasped at the sight, both hands going to cover her mouth, while Keats frowned and pushed his glasses back into place.
"You let us all down, Ellen!" Regine said. Her voice warbled as water gushed past her teeth and dribbled down her chin.
Doolin, the village stationed behind her, started to go out of focus. It was as if it were being stretched as the place receded away, blurring in motion.
"It's your fault!" a new voice proclaimed, this of Regine's daughter, Suzette. She'd materialized to their left.
Matters had certainly taken a turn for the unexpected. Their initial encounter on the cliffside hadn't involved nearly this level of drama. Storm clouds were rolling in, something else that hadn't happened originally.
"You should've been careful what you wished for. Uwee hee hee!"
The appearance of Scarecrow was inevitable, though no less startling than the rest. Ellen was close to tears at the sight of him, her hand reaching beseechingly towards him.
"No, that's not – I would never dream-"
"Foolish girl! You would curse all of us, faery and humans alike, for your childish dreams. You should be ashamed!"
Ellen's hand snapped back at the sound of Livane's voice, sounding like thunder. They were surrounded on each side, accusations pouring down like sleet. Ellen desperately closed her eyes and covered her ears from the onslaught.
The talking ceased. Everyone including Ellen focused their attention on Keats after his outburst.
"Honestly, what absolute trash. Who would believe such unfounded lies?"
"Keats?" Ellen tentatively asked.
But he wasn't finished. He eyed her over the rim of his glasses, ignoring everyone's presence save hers.
"Let's examine the facts, shall we? At the time of incident the first, Regine was murdered not by you, but in an act of maternal protection, which in no way involved your hand. The emotion fueled actions of an individual are not under your control.
"Think back, won't you? Not all things are dark and gloomy as all this."
Ellen was quiet, eyes wide and flickering, but Keats remained firm. She took a shaky, albeit reassuring, breath, and concentrated.
"When…when I was a baby, my mother read me stories. I adored them. They're all I have left of her."
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Regine and Suzette become transparent, fading out of existence. He stepped closer, coaxing her to continue.
"Good, and what else?"
"Scarecrow…he saved me. He said I'd given him a purpose, one he fulfilled until the end," she spoke softly, the Half Life vanishing as the two women previously had. "And the portal, it's closed now. No one else will be harmed."
Last to disappear was Livane, and though he could not confirm it because of his focus on Ellen, Keats would swear the Messenger smiled as she simply ceased to be.
"Thanks in no small part to you, might I clarify," he said.
"After I had opened it."
"When you were a little girl of twelve."
Ellen transferred her gaze to her shoes, having nothing else to say. Keats sighed, the sound not nearly as exasperated as it should be, and he placed a hand at her elbow.
"Remorse, loss, guilt, anguish…these are things a thoughtful person should feel, but they shouldn't define them. You're too good for that, and no one wants to see you carry such a burden needlessly."
"How can you say that after what I've done? To them, to you-"
"Because I forgive you, and if any of them were really here and possessed a single shred of decency, they would confess the same."
Rain started to fall, but it was nothing like back at his office. This was a soft downpour, the droplets almost temperate – like a spring rain. Ellen had closed her eyes, trembling slightly in place. They didn't move closer, but neither did they move apart; she remained rooted to the spot and he kept a gentle hold on her arm. He blinked, water clinging to the frame of his glasses and trailing off his eyelashes, and when he opened them again they were standing in the same position, save it was in his residence. Past the blinds and foggy glass was a clear blue sky.
"O-oh, we're back."
"It would appear so."
He released her and walked over to his coat hook in the foyer to hang his sopping wet jacket, tired of the thing, and ran a hand through his hair. When he approached his desk, the tea residing there had remained warm, so he poured himself a new cup. No use wasting good tea.
An awkward silence now occupied the space, and though Keats was loathe to be affected by it, he still found himself clearing his throat as he leaned against his desk and asking, "How are you faring now, Ellen?"
He was not a personal man by nature, journalist tendencies aside, but not asking the right questions months ago may have prevented this.
"I don't know," Ellen honestly answered, sounding as lost as she had when they'd first met. "Did you mean what you said?"
"The facts speak for themselves, I should think."
"Not…not that," she said, shaking her head just enough to cause her braid to swing back and forth. "I mean that last part. About… You truly meant what you said, that it wasn't simply for my own benefit?"
"Ah," Keats said.
He pushed off of his desk and circled around to his chair, not caring that he collapsed in the seat in front of a guest. He motioned for her to do the same, but she didn't heed the invitation until he spoke.
"I may be many things, Ellen, but a liar is not one of them. My readers expect the truth, and I have yet to disappoint them or those whom I address in person. So yes, my words were earnest."
His clarification did not have the desired affect: Ellen began to cry. For a moment, he discovered even he could be struck dumb, as he found himself unable to do anything but stare. When she started to sniffle, he hastily reached inside a pocket and pulled out the handkerchief whose purpose was intended to clean his glasses, but it would have to do. With watery thanks, she accepted the offering and dabbed under her eyes.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know I needed this so badly. I've bottled it all up for so long."
"Then perhaps we should change that."
"What do you mean?"
In way of explanation, he pulled his typewriter close and said, "I'm a reporter, so allow me to report. Who knows, perhaps you'll be the story that finally gets Unknown Realms out of the gutter."
"That's sweet of you," Ellen said, her tears finally beginning to stem. "You've been generous to me, even back when… Maybe I should… You deserve kindness in return, you know. Your presence here is my fault. So many thought I was powerful, and I suppose I must be, to have constructed all of…this. If…if it's what you want, maybe I can-"
"Just tell me your story, Ellen."
And so she did. The office was the liveliest it had been for years, filled as it was with only with the sounds of Ellen's voice and Keats' typing.