Chapter 3. Raven
Cerridwen and James were now standing on the weirdest floor James ever saw. He couldn’t quite understand what it was made of. From the first look it resembled a dense fog, but at the same time the substance looked like something solid and unmoving. The moment his bare foot touched this misty road he felt as if it was made of rock. The pair of travelers carefully followed this strange path. Slowly, the surroundings around them changed. On the right hand James saw a vast and gloomy desert, endless and threatening. The sky was the mixture of grey and brown, in the very far distance, beyond the bare trees and bold mountains, there was an unstopping lightning that divided the said sky into slattern pieces. James recognized this desert. This was the first, albeit extremely short stop before his soul was dragged into the endless pain. But he was sure he had never seen it from this misty road, he just appeared in that desert, in the middle of nowhere and the next moment…Well, he didn’t want to think about that. With an effort James tore away his gaze from this very depressing view. For some reason this place, the one he hated to pieces called to him, and there was a part of his being that longed to answer this call. He tried to focus on the road in front of him, but then something caught his eye, a spark of light, like a ray of a morning sun. As soon as James focused on this spark, his mouth fell open. The fog on the right of the road looked puffy and full of white color. It stretched for many miles, it looked like as if it cocooned and protected something huge inside. But that was not the most impressive part, right in the middle of this cloudy fence, and for some reason James was sure it was exactly in the middle, there were enormous, tall gates. They were impossible to describe, no human words could take the beauty and shine of this creation. First you could think that they were made of white marble, but as soon as the first impression wears off, you could see there is no specific color, they were all at once, and none of them. The handles were made of silvery metal, but after seeing the parts of this world, James was sure it was not the plain silver. Maybe it was the shine that radiated from them, which clearly indicated the unearthly material. The head of the gates was covered in flowers and herbs all sorts, some of them were familiar to James, but most he never encountered before. James took a glimpse behind the bars and saw even more stunning and indescribable view. But then he quickly turned away, the place of this beauty and grace was obviously not for him. James felt filthy as if he was covered in the pile of mud, which divided him from the blessed place behind the gates.
‘Impressive, ha?’ asked Cerridwen with pure excitement, James saw how much she wanted him to like the place and in order to humor her, he forced a smile. ‘Too cheesy for my liking, but you know. They have to show that it’s all “made of light and beauty,” she rolled her eyes mockingly. ‘Seriously they should just put one of those cheap glowing motel signs: “Here is good.”’
‘I think it’s beautiful,’ said James.
‘Never said that it wasn’t,’ Cerridwen shrugged her shoulders, ‘just too grandiose.’
Suddenly, Cerridwen turned her light brown head to the right, a mischievous smile spread on her young face. James tried to figure out what made his guide so dangerously happy. Cerridwen warily crossed to the other side of the road, closer to the vast desert and James finally saw a shadow which attracted her attention, and then he heard Cerridwen’s happy and a bit child like squeal.
Everything happened really fast, in a moment someone yelled and then James saw like an unknown man was hovering over Cerridwen, sticking her forcibly to the ground and the worst part, the unknown someone was about to slice her exposed throat.
‘Hey, let go of her!’ James heard himself yelling. He obviously wasn’t in the position to fight anyone, but at least he hoped to distract the man, giving Cerridwen the time she needed to escape.
James hurried to help, but to his surprise his companion was laughing her face off. The stranger with a sword looked slightly mad and heavily irritated. As soon as he recognized the girl on the floor, his sword disappeared into thin air, like it was never there.
‘Damn you, Ceri! I could have killed you, you eternal pain in my ass,’ the man said harshly. He looked like he was in his early forties, strong and lean, he had dark hair with signs of silver in it. The man’s eyes were very dark brown, cold and shut, he clearly was not glad to see the freckled physiognomy in front of him.
‘Stop being such a grump, Raven! You can’t kill me! You must be happy to see me! Especially, since you spend most of your free time with your imaginary sword.’
‘It was a figure of speech and I’d rather spend time with a bloody Vij, then bear with you jokes!’ snarled Raven.
‘I was just having fun, it’s a good thing you know, it’s not like you have too much fun standing here all the time,’ Cerridwen nodded in the direction of the desert. Only now, when James was sure that whoever this Raven was, he was not about to hurt them, James saw another gates. They were made of plain metal, the bars were thin and shaky, a kid could break them, but of course James understood that as many things here, it was only the image.
‘It’s my job and none of your business!’ Raven said roughly, but the first wave of anger clearly sailed off.
‘Hey, there is no need to be rude,’ James once again tried to intervene. He actually surprised himself, this man was obviously dangerous and James didn’t have enough energy to show chivalry. But he owed this girl his life or even more and he wanted to protect her, even from the little harm.
‘Who is this shake-rag?’ asked Raven, his eyes bored James’s face, James had a strange feeling like the man already knew the answer and he was not happy with it.
‘Oh yeah, sorry! Introductions. How rude of me,’ said Cerridwen as if she forgotten the most important thing in the world. ‘Well, my manners should be improved this instant. James, this is Raven. He is a Gate Keeper of the Dark Realms and he is not as bad as you might think of him, he is just a brood. Raven, this is James. I saved him from the Black Market when I sort of ruined their business for the foreseeable future. Well, at least that particular Market’s future, don’t think they would recover any time soon. How is Gilly doing? Did she learn the new trick?’
‘What did you just say?’
‘I asked how is Gilly,’ Cerridwen’s act was terrible, James couldn’t help but sprinkle quietly.
Raven’s black eyes went wide open. Suddenly, without any words he grabbed Cerridwen’s arm and dragged her away from James.
‘Hey!’ protested James ready to punch the rude brood.
‘Don’t worry its fine, James. Just wait here for us, please,’ asked Cerridwen in a rush and disappeared behind the misty waves. Even if he wanted he couldn’t follow them. James inhaled deeply, he shouldn’t be worried, he thought to himself. After all she was here for a long time, it was her home and she clearly knew this Raven guy. And she obviously could take care of herself, better then he in fact.
‘Are you out of your mind!?’ yelled Raven on the top of his lungs. He could swear that this girl would bring the death to him and his nerves if he wasn’t already dead! ‘What were you even thinking, Cerridwen? You brought him here? And I guess you don’t want to hand him to me, do you? And how the hell you even got to the Black Market!?’
Cerridwen’s eyes started to glow harder; she was not a sweet young girl right now or a friendly traveler. She looked older and wiser and frankly speaking a bit dangerous. Raven could bicker all he wanted, but he knew what power was hidden inside this girl and as much as he cared for her, he wasn’t a fool. He knew that he should never underestimate her. If she wanted something, she always got it. When Cerridwen finally spoke, her voice was pure steel.
‘I was thinking that the Black Market is a horrible place, Raven. That what they were doing here to those people is unthinkable. And I can bring here, whoever I damn want, you old crow! You are standing here, pretending that you are doing the important job, but all you do is wasting your time!’
‘My job is important and you know that!’ No matter how intimidating Cerridwen could be, Raven knew her well enough. He knew that what she did was out of good intentions, but sometimes she forgot about the consequences of her actions and had to be reminded. She was stubborn and never liked to fail, which brought her to lots of troubles. And not many were brave enough to tell her the ugly truth. ‘Ceri,’ he said firmly, ‘I know what a horrible place the Black Market is and I know that with your too hot head and too soft heart you couldn’t just watch and do nothing when you got there. But this was exactly the reason why you were not allowed there,’ he stopped for a second and gently squeezed her arm. ‘Hey, kiddo, I am just worrying about the consequences, which you should do too, from time to time. You can’t save everyone, there are laws.’
‘I couldn’t just watch them,’ insisted Cerridwen quietly, she looked away. ‘I knew I shouldn’t even be there, but you know, Ralph and Sylvia travelled there so many times and I was curious, so I decided to spring to one of the Dark Realms, and well, I accidently got into the middle of the Market, everyone saw me anyway. So I decided to act, sort of, well,’ she smiled a bit and clarified, ‘dissolved a few Hagglers and a few Howlers, not sure if they disappeared permanently or just ran, slipped under Maximus’s skirt, but they disappeared. And then,’ she closed her eyes, she could still see the dirt and blood and crippled faces, she could still feel the terrible smell of burned flesh drainage, she could hear the screams of the doomed, ‘everything became chaos. The prisoners were running away like crazy, not that I could blame them, everyone was screaming and crying. I tried to stop them, to explain that it’s their choice now, you know, that this was not a real hell, that they could be free. But of course no one could hear a word. And then I saw him. I don’t know why, but it looked like they were even harder on him then the others. He wasn’t running, he was just sitting there looking into nothingness, empty like an eggshell, so I touched his hand and he twitched, he looked at me and he called me by my name.’
‘He called you by your name? Do you know him?’
‘No, this was the first time I ever saw him, it was so weird, but I swear for a second he recognized me, maybe he heard about us, maybe it was just my imagination, I don’t know! I just realized I had to help him. And then it got to me why he wasn’t running, he almost became one of them. So I knocked him off and dragged out of that place. You need to understand, Raven. This guy, this James as he calls himself, would be gone, instead of him there would be a monster!’
Raven, shook his head. How could he be mad at her? She did what she always did. Got into danger and saved someone, he just wished he met someone like her when he was in need of help.
‘Of course you did what you did out of good intentions, but, Ceri. You do realize he can’t stay here, no matter what. He was almost transformed into one of the Hagglers. You should have left him in the Dark Realms. There is a good reason why people like him should go through that place before they could go further. He won’t be able to live a normal life or stay at Chantale’s or even move on. He is stuck now. I felt how much he craves to go back to the Dark Realm, it’s where he belongs. At least for now, what you did was wonderful and brave, but selfish. You can’t just save someone, because it is hard for you to watch, you should have thought of what would be best for him.’
‘Best? Raven, it may take hundreds of years for him to get better, it’s not like we have special hospitals for damaged souls! It’s always better just to accept what happened and try to move on, no matter how hard it might be. And as you said yourself he was almost transformed and there was no guarantee that he would even make it.’
‘Yes, but that would be his path, his choice. Free will, balance and grand design, remember? Not everything depends on us,’ Raven said with a hint of a smile, which made his tired face look almost jauntily handsome.
‘To hell with that!’ snapped Cerridwen. ‘Balance? Seriously? Those scamps broke and still breaking balance and any known law by trading souls! I think it is more than fair that I decided to make it a short cut for one of their victims.’
‘No one says that they are not wretches and what they do is right. But your friends do fight them, not as bluntly and openly as you did, but they do. You do forget that those people made their own choices, willingly or not. They knew that trading your soul is not a good deal, even in this period of time people at least watch those terrible moving pictures about afterlife and occult! Cerridwen, you know, that there is a certain process, if he won’t be able to accept what happened to him and forgive himself, he will be stuck here until the Rebirth. And it will not happen in a very long time.’
‘He won’t,’ she said firmly. ‘I know he will make it, I believe in him.’
Involuntarily smile appeared on Raven’s face. Some things never change, after all.