The Toll

August 4, 2011
"Come on, Starling!"

I moaned and rolled over, refusing to open my eyes. You are never truly awake until you open your eyes and clean out all the crunchies.

"Starling!" snapped Rooster, kicking me in the ribs. "Let's go! Raven said we could go with him if we were both up before dawn!"

"Shut it, Rooster," I snarled, still not opening my eyes. "It's not even dawn yet. Leave me alone."

"Well, yeah, that's why he said before dawn. Which is now. Up! Up!"

"Lemmelone," I muttered, and pretended to fall back asleep. I heard his heavy sigh and his light footsteps as he left me there in the abandoned warehouse. I promptly fell back asleep.
~~~

When I woke up, it was from the noon bell ringing from the square. It reverberated in the large warehouse, jerking me awake. I moaned and sat up.

"Rooster? You back yet?" I called.

No answer.

I shrugged, half-remembering the pre-dawn conversation we had. If he went out with Raven, he wouldn't be back anytime soon. Raven could disappear for days. I didn't really like him. He was arrogant and bossy and really, really good at what he did. He made money. I didn't know how, as he didn't like questions, but we always had a warm meal and some pocket change when he was around, so I didn't complain. Too much. And it didn't really help that Rooster hero-worshipped him. Rooster was prone to such folly, but Raven? Ugh. He was slimy and not nearly as handsome as he thought he was.

I rolled out of my pile of blankets (which were on top of a straw mattress, thanks to Raven's damn money) and rubbed at my eyes until all the sleep snot was gone. I ran my fingers through my chin-length hair to make it decent at the very least and left. I didn't lock up; Rooster was the careful one. We hadn't had anyone break in yet.

With my hands in my pockets, I strolled the streets of Csatorna, the most beautiful city in the world. It was crossed and divided into many islands by the rivers and canals that made it so famous. It was a great tourist attraction for rich snobs, which meant lots of pickpocketing for me and Rooster. And Raven.

But today, I just wasn't feeling up to the challenge (or lack thereof). I breathed in the smell of the rich meat pies and fishy treats. I could smell fresh bread from the little bakery around the corner, and my mouth watered. My feet pulled me that way, and my stomach followed cheerfully after.

I walked into the bakery and stood in line. As usual, it was packed. Its reputation was well earned, so I didn't mind waiting in the least. After all, it wasn't like I had anything else to do. So I stood there, soaking in the delicious warmth of the bakery and watching the baker's cute son give his bright grin to all the customers. An attractive guy with decent money who can also make delicious food? Yum.

A gaggle of rich girls came in, giggling and fluttering their fans and making eyes at the cute baker. They were so busy being frilly that one of them bumped into me, making me fall into the customer in front of me. He turned around faster than I would have thought possible and glared at me with his impossibly violet eyes.

"Excuse me," I said politely. "I was pushed."

His eyes lifted to the girls behind me, who giggled and fluttered anxiously. "I understand," he said, and then he turned back to the front.

"He's gorgeous," whispered the girl with the blue fan.

"Did you see his eyes? And that hair!" sighed the girl with the pink fan.

"As black as the midnight sky," tittered the girl with the green fan.

"His eyes are like amethysts," murmured the girl with the orange fan.

"What are you looking at?" snapped the girl with the white fan. The other girls all frowned at me.

"I like your fan," I said. When she gave me a strange look, I smiled blandly. I turned back around, studying the violet-eyed man's jacket. He ordered a baguette and a few pastries—with peach filling, of all things—and then it was my turn.

The cute baker flashed his grin at me and asked, "What would you like today?"

"I'll take a raspberry jelly bun," I said, smiling back.

One of the other shop assistants dropped a paper bag onto the counter. I got another smile as well as my sweet bun, and I was pushed out of the way by the fan girls. I resisted the urge to squeeze some jelly out onto White Fan's dress. The jelly was too good to waste on the likes of her.

I ate my jelly bun slowly, savoring the perfect mix of sugar and bread, as I exited the shop. There was nothing better than a delicious pastry given by a delicious boy.

"Starling?"

I started, almost dropping my bun. My eyes scanned my immediate surroundings, and I spun to face the violet-eyed man from before. He had the swarthy skin of an islander and the broad shoulders of a man who knew the meaning of hard work. A sword hung from his hip. It was the fancy sword of an aristocrat, which was at odds with his simple clothes.

"What do you want?" I snapped.

"Rooster requires your assistance," he said.

I narrowed my eyes. "What do you know about Rooster?"

He cocked his head, and a black gondola materialized in the water behind him.

The hairs on the back of my neck and arms stood up. Everyone knew magic was real, but it didn't usually directly affect anyone who kept their heads down. It was unpredictable, both good and evil.

Rooster, what the hell did you get yourself into?
~~~

The smoky gondola was sturdier than I thought it would be, and the violet-eyed man was a better gondolier than I would have pegged him to be. We sculled along in silence. Slowly, the world began to fade away into something darker, less distinct. It was still Csatorna, but different.

"So, you know my name. What's yours?" I asked, my voice absurdly cheerful to counter the creepiness of not-Csatorna.

He was quiet for so long that I was surprised when he said, "You may call me Gethin."

A shiver ran down my spine. It wasn't a pleasant name. "Where are we going?"

"To save your friend Rooster," he replied, and he refused to say anything else for the rest of the journey.

Instead of talking to him, I watched the beautiful city I knew and loved decay into not-Csatorna. Ivy began to appear, covering all the houses and shops. The canals grew dark and ominous, and I sometimes could catch a glimpse of something slithering through the water. The sun faded from its usual bright yellow to an eerie, sleepy red, casting everything in a bloody light. There were no people, but shadows moved at the edge of my vision. Fear rose within me, threatening to overpower all my senses, but I kept a clear head for Rooster's sake. Wherever he was.

We sculled along the canals, twisting and turning through the alleys and backstreets that were so similar to my Csatorna. I had no idea how long we traveled, but it must have been awhile because the moon rose. Its crescent was unfamiliar and strangely ominous.

Gethin stopped suddenly, snapping me out of my reverie. He had pulled up next to a dock and was securing the gondola to one of the posts with a length of gray rope. He looked at me and cocked his eyebrow. "Are you getting out?"

I clambered out of the slim boat and onto the dock. Directly in front of me was a large, bone-white cathedral with spires that pierced the night air like daggers. The sight of it made my skin crawl. I wanted to jump back in the gondola and go back to Csatorna. But Rooster was in there. I knew it.

Gethin stood, walked up behind me, and asked, "Are you ready?"

I nodded before I lost my nerve.

"Then follow me." He strode to the huge black doors of the cathedral, which swung open for him, seemingly of their own accord. I scampered in behind him, and the doors slammed shut with a resounding thump, leaving us in total darkness. I reached out for Gethin, as he was far less terrifying than anything else in not-Csatorna. I managed to get a handful of his coat, which was made of the softest material I had ever felt.

Suddenly, there was light. Gethin had somehow managed to light a torch. The flames reflected in his eyes and threw strange shadows on his face. He was staring at me. I let go of his coat.

"Sorry," I whispered.

"Are you afraid, Starling?" he asked quietly.

"No," I said, but my voice shook and I was quivering.

"Good," he said, and he continued on.

What I could see of the walls was covered with drawings of people being killed in various ways by shadowy, vaguely humanoid beings. Other parts of the walls had harsh runes carved into them. I resisted the urge to grab Gethin's jacket again, but I stared at it instead, tamping down on my growing terror.

I noticed that the corridor we were walking in sloped gently. "Are we going underground?" I asked.

Gethin nodded sharply. "Hush," he murmured. "We're nearing the dangerous area. It is better if we take them by surprise."

"Them?" I squeaked.

A wind suddenly rushed through the tunnel, and I clapped one hand over my mouth to prevent a scream and grabbed Gethin's jacket with the other. He ripped his sword out and thrust the torch out to me. "Hold this for me." I took it with the hand that had covered my mouth, choosing to keep hold of the tall, dark man.

We remained like that for what felt like centuries, but Gethin eventually turned back around and continued down the corridor. He kept his sword at the ready, and I was holding the torch so hard my hand started cramping up.

Eventually, we got to the end of the hallway. I could feel the weight of the earth above us, but I shook it off. Rooster was somewhere behind that door. I had to be strong for him. Gethin stopped and turned to me. He gently took hold of my wrist and pulled my grip from his jacket. He released my wrist and took the torch from me.

"This is as far as I can go," he said.

"What? Is Rooster in there?" I asked, voicing the two most pressing questions.

"Take this. You may find need of it." Gethin handed me his sword, hilt first. My fingers wrapped around it of their own accord, and I looked at him in terror.

"But I—"

"You are not afraid, remember?" He smiled with amusement and then leaned down and kissed my forehead. "Good luck, Starling."

I was still reeling in shock when he opened the door and pushed me into the blackness.
~~~

Turns out, beyond the door, there was no floor. I screamed as I fell what felt like fathoms through the darkness. I could feel things touching me and chittering in my ears, running scaly fingers through my hair. I screamed and screamed and screamed and then something walked along my face. I clamped my lips together.

Suddenly, I was standing on a black and white tile floor in a huge ballroom. A wrought iron chandelier hung from the ceiling, and chips of obsidian and diamonds hung from it. The candlelight reflected off the pieces of shiny rock, causing them to glitter and throw sparkles against the black and white striped walls. Against the far wall slouched Rooster.

"Rooster!" I screamed, running towards him. He looked up at the sound of his name, and I saw the left side of his face was covered in blood. The eye that I could see went wide.

"Starling, what are you doing here?" he gasped when I reached him. I kneeled beside him and patted gently at his eye with my sleeve.

"Saving you. What happened? How did you get here?" I asked. He batted my hand away, but I slapped his hands and continued cleaning his face.

"Raven. This is where he's been getting all that gold," he muttered. He grabbed my hands suddenly, forcing me to meet his eye. "Starling, you need to leave now. It isn't safe—"

"Don't tell me what is and isn't safe, Rooster! And I'm not leaving without you," I snapped, cutting his bonds with Gethin's sword. "Can you stand?"

"Yeah, I think," he said, pushing my helping hand out of the way and getting to his feet. He swooned, probably from blood loss, and I grabbed his waist. He put his arm over my shoulder, trying to stand on his own as much as possible. I helped him across the room to the black door. I reached my arm out to open it when the floor suddenly spun. It stopped as suddenly as it started, knocking us off our feet. Rooster and I both emptied the contents of our stomachs. Good bye, jelly bun.

"What was that?" I asked, wiping my mouth on the non-bloody sleeve.

Rooster shook his head, his face pale. His forehead was bleeding again. I frowned and ripped off the hem of my shirt, tying it tightly around his wound. Hopefully that would stop the blood, but he needed real healing soon.

I got to my feet, holding out my sword. "Let us go!" I yelled, figuring that whoever was messing with us could hear me.

"I am afraid that is out of the question."

Inky black smoke fell from the ceiling, congealing into a human shape. The shape became colored and leered unpleasantly at me from underneath its curtain of greasy hair.


"Raven," I hissed.

He spread his arms. "Welcome to my humble abode, Starling! This isn't the whole thing, of course, but it is the only bit you'll ever get to see. Be a good girl and let the c*** die, and then I can deal with you."

Raven took a step toward me, and I pointed Gethin's sword at him. "Come any closer, and I'll kill you!"

"Where did you get that?" snarled Raven, all his composure gone. "Did he give it to you?"

"It's none of your business. Now, let us go!" I yelled, brandishing the sword.

"No!" he snarled. "I need Rooster! He has to be the sacrifice!"

Sacrifice? I didn't like the sound of that. I could see Rooster get to his feet beside me. "What do you mean by sacrifice?" he demanded.

Raven bared his teeth, which were all sharp, like the teeth of a flesh eater. Don't think about that, Starling. "Crossing between worlds requires a toll, and my credit has been building up, eh?"

My skin crawled. A toll? What did Gethin pay to get us here—and what did we need to pay to get back?

Raven stepped towards us, and I swiped at him with my sword. He jerked away, and began to circle. He watched us with his beady eyes. As he walked, his clothes began to turn into inky black feathers. His arms turned to wings, and his legs became those of the bird he was named for, complete with black raven's feet. The ends of his toes all had wickedly sharp talons that clacked against the tile. His face elongated into a shiny black beak, and he cawed at us. He still had all his vicious teeth. The only human things left about him were his eyes.

"Put the sword down, Starling, and I won't hurt you. But the boy . . . Rooster has to die," whispered Raven, still circling us. I turned to keep him in sight. "You can go back to your city and strike out on your own, without Rooster to hold you back. You could pursue that boy—Fabrizio?—and not worry about hurting the c***'s feelings."

Fabrizio? Oh, the baker's son.

"No!" I snarled. "You aren't taking Rooster! He's coming back to the real Csatorna with me!"

Raven cawed and rushed at me. I swiped at him with Gethin's sword, but he evaded easily and swooped behind me, making a pass at Rooster. My friend dropped to the ground. Whether he was dodging the giant bird or just fainting from blood-loss, I didn't know. Raven cawed again, flapping almost right in front of me, just out of sword's reach.

"Starling, this is the real Csatorna. They are both real!" he sneered.

"No! Csatorna is beautiful and wonderful and good and this place is horrible," I snapped. "Don't even compare this place to my city!"

I jabbed with the sword, and Raven eluded me. To my dismay, it left Rooster's prone body wide open. Raven cawed with triumph and dove at the boy, talons outstretched.

Good luck, Starling.

My forehead felt hot where Gethin had kissed me, and strength flooded my body. I lunged forward like a fencer, and suddenly I was directly in Raven's path. Before he could change direction, or barely register I was there, I thrust Gethin's sword into his feathery breast.

He opened his beak and screamed a very human scream. He dropped to the ground. His feathers began to fall off, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, until all that was left was the Raven that I knew. He stared at me, but not really at me, his eyes wide with fear, and his mouth huge as he screamed.

The walls began to shake, and tiles fell from the ceiling. I pulled Rooster up, using my newfound strength to carry him on my back to the black door I came from. This time, the floor didn't spin when we got close. I threw open the door and stepped into the dark corridor. Gethin was standing there, torch in hand. He handed it to me and said, "Give him to me. He will not weigh me down as much."

I quickly gave him my unconscious friend and took the torch, and then we were running down the collapsing corridor. The rumbling from the ground was deafening in my ears. My lungs and legs and heart were burning, but I kept running.

When we reached the end of the corridor, Gethin threw his hand out, and the two massive doors flung themselves open. We raced out into the bloody sunlight and across the dock. I almost burst into tears at the sight of the gondola, and I clambered into it. Gethin gently laid Rooster in the bottom, and then he nimbly climbed to the front and began to scull us back to Csatorna.

The return trip was much quicker than the first one. I didn't ask questions. I was keeping an eye on Rooster, who was muttering and moaning and developing a nasty fever.

"Don't worry, Rooster, we're almost home. We're almost home," I murmured, keeping the mounting panic and worry out of my voice as much as possible. I looked up at Gethin, but he was intent on what was ahead.

As I watched, the ivy began receding, and the water became clear (well, clearer, Csatorna canal water isn't all that clean). The sun became yellow, and we were back in Csatorna. I couldn't help the tears running down my face, but I bowed my head so Gethin wouldn't see them. A few fell from my face and splashed onto Rooster, who was sinking deep into the sickness.

"We have to get him to—" I began, but Gethin was already tying the gondola to one of the posts dotting the sides of the canal. We were at the healer's.
~~~

I sat outside the healer's shop, waiting for Rooster to come out. It had been two weeks since our journey to not-Csatorna, and he was finally well enough to be let loose. I had visited him every day, and I had promised to meet him here when he was fully healed.

I dangled my feet in the water, remembering the words Gethin and I had exchanged after he had given Rooster to the healer, a Signora Bellini, and paid her above and beyond what anyone else would have paid.

"She says he will live," he says.

I sink to the ground, my face in my hands. I am weeping from relief and shock. I cannot quite believe everything that happened, and all the pent up fear and anxiety I had been feeling has finally overflowed. I feel a hand on my shoulder, and I look up to see Gethin. He has a weird half-smile on his face.

"Why are you crying?" he asks, and I swear I can hear a teasing note in his voice.

"Shut up," I mutter gruffly. I want to wipe my eyes, but one sleeve is covered in vomit (mine) and the other in blood (Rooster's).

As if he can sense my dilemma, he pulls out a snowy white handkerchief and pats my tears away. He says, "Rooster is a very special individual. What happened today is just the beginning, a small example of the potential dangers your friend could face. I need you to keep him out of trouble as much as you can. I will be protecting him, but, as you witnessed earlier, I cannot be everywhere." His smile sours, and then goes away entirely. "He is not to know of my presence. Do you understand?" When I nod, he cups my cheek. "In some ways, you are as extraordinary as him."

Gethin searches my face for a moment, and then he kisses my forehead again. He straightens, gets back in his black gondola, and sculls away into nothingness.

"Stupid Gethin," I muttered. I had to sit on my hands to prevent myself from touching my forehead.

I didn't know how or why Rooster was so important, but he was my friend. I was determined to keep him out of trouble, both in Csatorna and not-Csatorna, whether he liked it or not.

"Starling!" he called. I stood up and brushed myself as he ran over to me.

"Hey, Rooster, what did she say—"

He threw his arms around me and squeezed me so tight, it was hard to breathe. I punched him in the gut, and he pulled away, laughing and holding his abdomen.

"What was that for?" I demanded.

"I just wanted to thank you for, you know." His voice trailed off, and he looked at me helplessly, his face tinged red.

I sighed. "That was two weeks ago. I've moved past it. Come on. Let's go celebrate your recovery. Why don't we go to that little bakery to get some sweet buns?"

His rakish grin was back. "The only sweet buns you'll be drooling over are Fabrizio's."

"Probably," I said breezily. I hooked my arm through his, and we strolled through Csatorna as though we had all the time in the world.





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MKimmi said...
Aug. 14, 2011 at 6:34 pm
About how old are they? Is there another chapter? I really like this story!
 
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