Sophie was glad that there weren't many people on the bus. Or would be, if she could be glad about anything at all given what she'd been through. "Take a bus," Aunt Agnes had told her, "take a bus to where the soil turns red." Blood? That had been Sophie's first thought. But no. "While you were still gone, I arranged for you to be taken in to a safe shadowrealm. There will be someone waiting for you who will be able to watch over you until the danger passes." Watch over? Why? And what danger could be worse than… With no answers whatsoever, she was left to reluctantly follow Tsagaglalal's orders.
It was quite windy when the bus pulled into the station, and though the rain droplets were few, they struck her skin with the power of hail. The handful of people there to greet the passengers were gone in seconds, with one exception. A large, tall man in a coat with its hood up stood next to a bench. Once they were alone, he approached her. Sophie prepared to call up her aura, but the man made no move to attack.
"Come with me, Silver." Sophie didn't budge. "Miss Newman?" he asked gently, holding out his arm for her. As he did so, he raised his head so that the hood slid back just a fraction to expose a face with dark bangs and warm, friendly eyes of brown. In a gesture of trust she placed her arm on his, and he began leading her down the empty street at a brisk pace. After a couple darker streets they reached what looked like a nicer neighborhood. Off to one side was what looked like a forest, and it was into there that she was led, hoping beyond hope that this was really the right person. Suddenly the trees vanished and they found themselves facing a cozy looking cabin with the sun almost completely set behind it. It had been a moonless night just moments before. He led her to the door and took his shoes off at the entrance mat, waiting for her to do the same. Only when the door was bolted did he remove his coat and turn to face her. With a shock, she realized that he appeared to be only a little older than she was, probably not yet twenty. He had a slightly handsome face that was a little bit rough, but mostly clean-shaven. Long brown hair fell to his chin in elegant curtains, and the friendly eyes were now matched with a warm smile.
"Sophie Newman, the Silver. It's an honor to finally meet you. Your story is already legend, so much so that I can hardly distinguish fact from fiction. My name is Conall Nashoba, and She Who Watches has asked me to protect you until the danger passes. Here, now, I can assure you that you are entirely safe."
"What danger? What's going on? What do I need to be kept from?" she blurted out in a rush. "I don't know how many different shadowrealms I've been to, and I just got back to Earth. How much time has even passed here?"
"A few months, a year, maybe a bit more. A bit more. As for the present danger, I have no idea. But no one has ever had reason to distrust Tsagaglalal, so I was more than willing to volunteer when I heard that you needed protection."
"How can you protect me if you don't even know what you're protecting me from," she demanded, "and wh-…"
"By keeping you here in my shadowrealm."
"And what makes you qualified to protect me? Do you have any idea what I've been through, and for how long I was gone? Because it was definitely longer than a year!"
"I have no idea what you've been through," he said, "and while there is little to qualify me, I feel obligated to mention that I only achieved immortality a year ago; yet I have created this shadowrealm entirely on my own. It's not as grand as some, but it's as safe as any." She closed her mouth. She wasn't really angry with him; she was just so distressed and confused. And if Tsagaglalal truly had a reason for this, which Sophie realized she must, then it was actually quite the kind gesture on Conall's part, whoever he was. "Have a seat." Sophie collapsed into the nearest armchair. "Hot cocoa or cider if you're cold?"
"Yes please. Cider please," Sophie mumbled meekly, exhausted. Conall went into the kitchen and came out a few moments later with a cup of warm cider in each hand. He handed one to Sophie and took a seat on the sofa directly across from her. After a few sips she brought herself to say, "It's good. Thank you."
"You're very welcome," Conall said, his voice soft. Normally he talked a lot more, but the girl clearly needed an opportunity to think.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed, but when Sophie felt in imminent danger of falling asleep, she yawned and said, "I'm... really tired."
Conall stood. "Here, let me show you to your room." He led her down a tiny hallway and opened the first door they came to. "This is your room. The bathroom is on the other side of the hall. My room is the only other one, at the very end. In your room there's another door; it connects to my room. I don't care what time it is, if you need anything, just knock. Is everything all right?" he asked after she didn't move.
"Yes," she breathed quickly. "No. I mean... goodnight." And with that, she shut the door between them.