Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia


  “What’re you doing around here, bird? Unless you’re looking to make a deal, there’s nothing for you here. An’ don’t even think I’m letting you get into my whiskey this time.” The biker shooed Exu off the table. “Go on. Shoo. You tell Abner I’m ready to deal when he’s ready to play.”

  As he waved the crow off the table, and Exu disappeared into the blue sky, the biker noticed me standing at the edge of the grass. “You out sightseeing, or are you looking for something?” He tossed the remains of his lunch into a small white Styrofoam cooler and picked up a deck of playing cards.

  He nodded my way, shuffling the cards from hand to hand.

  I swallowed hard and stepped closer as “Hand of Fate” started playing on the old transistor radio sitting in the dust. I wondered if he listened to anything besides the Rolling Stones, but I wasn’t about to ask. “I’m looking for the River Master.”

  The biker laughed, dealing a hand as if someone was sitting on the other side of the table. “River Master. I haven’t heard that one in a while. River Master, Ferryman, Water Runner—I go by a lot of names, kid. But you can call me Charlie. It’s the one I answer to when I feel like answering.”

  I couldn’t imagine anyone getting this guy to do anything he didn’t feel like doing. If we were in the Mortal realm, he would probably be a bouncer at a biker bar or a pool hall where people were dragged out for breaking bottles over one another’s heads.

  “Nice to meet you… Charlie,” I choked. “I’m Ethan.”

  He waved me over. “So what can I do for you, Ethan?”

  I walked over to the table, careful to give the giant creature on the ground a wide berth. It looked like a mastiff, with its square face and wrinkled skin. Its tail was bandaged with white gauze.

  “Don’t mind old Drag,” he said. “He won’t get up unless you’re carrying some raw meat.” Charlie grinned. “Or unless you are raw meat. Dead meat like you, kid—you’re off the hook.”

  Why didn’t that surprise me?

  “Drag? What kind of name is that?” I reached out toward the dog.

  “Dragon. The kind that breathes fire and chews your hand off if you try to pet him.”

  Drag looked at me, growling. I moved my hand back to my pocket.

  “I need to cross the river. I brought you these.” I laid the river eyes on the padded card table. It really did look like the ones at the bridge club.

  Charlie glanced at the stones, unimpressed. “Good for you. One for the way there, one for the way back. That’s like showin’ a bus driver your bus ticket. Still don’t make me want to get on no bus.”

  “It doesn’t?” I swallowed. So much for my plans. Somehow I had thought this was all working out too easily.

  Charlie looked me over. “You play blackjack, Ethan? You know, twenty-one?”

  I knew what he meant. “Um, not really.” Which wasn’t entirely true. I used to play with Thelma, until she started cheating as badly as the Sisters did at Rummikub.

  He pushed my cards toward me, flipping a nine of diamonds on top of the first one. My hand. “You’re a smart boy—I bet you can figure it out.”

  I checked my card, a seven. “Hit me.” That’s what Thelma would have said.

  Charlie seemed like a risk-taker. If I was right, he probably respected other people who did the same. And what did I have to lose?

  He nodded approvingly, flipping a king. “Sorry, kid, that’s twenty-six. You’re over. But I would’ve taken the hit, too.”

  Charlie shuffled the deck and dealt us each another hand.

  This time I had a four and an eight. “Hit me.”

  He flipped a seven. I had nineteen, which was hard to beat. Charlie had a king and a five sitting in front of him. He had to take a hit, or I would win for sure. He pulled a card from the top of the deck. A six of hearts.

  “Twenty-one. That’s blackjack,” he said, shuffling again.

  I wasn’t sure if this was some kind of test or if he was just bored out here, but he didn’t seem anxious to get rid of me anytime soon. “I really need to get across the river, si—” I stopped myself before I called him “sir.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I mean, Charlie. See, there’s a girl—”

  Charlie nodded, interrupting. “There’s always a girl.” The Rolling Stones started crooning “2,000 Light Years from Home.” Funny.

  “I need to get back to her—”

  “I had a girl once. Penelope was her name. Penny.” He leaned back in his chair, smoothing his scraggly beard. “Eventually she got tired of hanging around here, so she took off.”

  “Why didn’t you go with her?” The second I asked the question, I realized it was probably too personal. But he answered anyway.

  “I can’t leave.” He said it matter-of-factly, flipping cards for both of us. “I’m the River Master. It’s part of the gig. Can’t run out on the house.”

  “You could quit.”

  “This isn’t a job, kid. It’s a sentence.” He laughed, but there was a bitterness that made me feel sorry for him. That and the folding card table and the lazy dog with the messed-up tail.

  Then “2,000 Light Years from Home” faded out, replaced by “Plundered My Soul.”

  I didn’t want to know who was powerful enough to sentence him to sit by what, for the most part, looked like a pretty unimpressive river. It was slow and calm. If he wasn’t hanging out here, I probably could’ve swum across.

  “I’m sorry.” What else could I say?

  “It’s okay. I made my peace with it a long time ago.” He tapped on my cards. An ace and a seven. “You want a hit?”

  Eighteen again.

  Charlie had an ace, too.

  “Hit me.” I watched as he turned the card between his fingers.

  A three of spades.

  He took off his shades, ice blue staring back at me. His pupils were so light, they were barely visible. “You gonna call it?”

  “Blackjack.”

  Charlie pushed back his chair and nodded toward the riverbank. There was a poor man’s ferry waiting, a crude raft made of logs that were bound together with thick rope. It was just like the ones that lined the swamp in Wader’s Creek. Dragon stretched and ambled after him. “Let’s go before I change my mind.”

  I followed him to the rickety platform and stepped onto the rotting logs.

  Charlie held out his hand. “Time to pay the Ferryman.” He pointed toward the brown water. “Come on. Hit me.”

  I tossed the stone and it hit, without so much as a splash.

  The moment he lowered the long pole to push against the river bottom, the water changed. A putrid odor rose from the surface—swamp rot, spoiled meat—and something else.

  I looked down into the shadowy depths beneath me. The water was clear enough to see all the way to the bottom now, except I couldn’t, because there were bodies everywhere I looked, only inches below the surface. And these weren’t the writhing forms from myths and movies. They were corpses, bloated and waterlogged, still as death. Some faceup, some facedown—but what faces I could see had the same blue lips and terrifyingly white skin. Their hair fanned out around them in the water as they floated and bumped against one another.

  “Everyone pays the Ferryman sooner or later.” Charlie shrugged. “Can’t change that.”

  The taste of bile rose in my throat, and it took every ounce of energy I had to keep from throwing up. The revulsion must have registered on my face, because Charlie’s tone was sympathetic. “I know, kid. The smell’s hard to take. Why do you think I don’t make many trips across?”

  “Why did it change? The river.” I couldn’t drag my eyes away from the waterlogged bodies. “I mean, it wasn’t like this before.”

  “That’s where you’re wrong. You just couldn’t see it. There are lots of things we choose not to see. Doesn’t mean they aren’t there, even if we wish they weren’t.”

  “I’m tired of seeing everything. It was easier back when I didn’t know anything. I barely even knew I was alive.”
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  Charlie nodded. “Yeah. So I hear.”

  The wooden platform smacked against the opposite bank. “Thanks, Charlie.”

  He leaned on the pole, his unnaturally blue, pupil-less eyes staring right through me. “Don’t mention it, kid. I hope you find that girl.”

  I reached my hand out cautiously and scratched Dragon behind the ears. I was happy to see my hand didn’t burn off.

  The huge dog barked at me.

  “Maybe Penny will come back,” I said. “You never know.”

  “The odds are against it.”

  I stepped onto the bank. “Yeah, well. If you’re going to look at it that way, I guess you could say they’re against me, too.”

  “You may be right. If you’re headed where I think.”

  Did he know? Maybe this side of the river only led to one place, though I doubted it. The more I learned about the world I thought I knew and all the ones I didn’t, the more everything threaded together, leading everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

  “I’m going to the Far Keep.” I didn’t think he’d get the chance to tell any of the Keepers, since he couldn’t leave this spot. Besides, there was something about Charlie I liked. And saying the words only made me feel more like they were true.

  “Straight ahead. You can’t miss it.” He pointed into the distance. “But you have to get past the Gatekeeper.”

  “I heard.” I had been thinking about it since my visit to Obidias’ house with Aunt Prue.

  “Well, you tell him he owes me money,” Charlie said. “I won’t wait around forever.” I looked at him, and he sighed. “Well, say it anyway.”

  “You know him?”

  He nodded. “We go way back. There’s no telling how long it’s been, but I’d guess a lifetime or two.”

  “What’s he like?” Maybe if I knew more about this guy, I would have a better chance of convincing him to let me into the Far Keep.

  Charlie smiled, pushing off with the pole and sending the poor man’s ferry floating back into the sea of corpses.

  “Not like me.”

  CHAPTER 16

  A Rock and a Crow

  Once I left the river behind, I realized the road to the Gates of the Far Keep wasn’t a road at all. It was more of a crude, winding path, hidden within the walls of two towering black mountains that stood side by side, creating a natural gate more ominous than anything that could’ve been made by Mortals—or Keepers. The mountains were slick, with razor-sharp corners that reflected the sun, as if they were made of obsidian. They looked like they were cutting black slits into the sky.

  Great.

  The idea of navigating a path through those jagged knife-blade cliffs was a little more than intimidating. Whatever the Keepers were up to, they definitely didn’t want anyone to know about it.

  Big surprise there.

  Exu circled overhead now, as if he knew exactly where he was going. I picked up my pace to follow his shadow on the trail in front of me, feeling grateful for the creepy bird that was even bigger than Harlon James. I wondered what Lucille would think about him. Funny how a supernatural crow borrowed from the Greats could seem like the one familiar thing in the landscape.

  Even with the help of Uncle Abner’s crow, I kept stopping to consult Aunt Prue’s map. Exu definitely knew the general direction of the Far Keep, but he disappeared from view every mile or so. The cliffs were high, the trail was twisted, and Exu didn’t have to worry about navigating those mountains.

  Lucky bird.

  On the map, my path was outlined in Aunt Prue’s shaky hand. Every time I tried to trace where it would lead, the path disappeared a few miles ahead. I was starting to worry that her hand had shaken a little too far in the wrong direction. Because the directions on the map didn’t have me going over the mountains or between them—I was supposed to go through one of them.

  “That can’t be right.”

  I stared from the paper up to the sky. Exu glided from tree to tree in front of me, though now that we were closer to the mountains, the trees were that much farther apart. “Sure. Go ahead. Rub it in. Some of us have to walk, you know.”

  He squawked again. I waved the whiskey flask over my head. “Just don’t forget who has your dinner, eh?”

  He dove at me, and I laughed, sliding the flask back into my pocket.

  It didn’t seem so funny after the first few miles.

  When I reached the sheer cliff face, I double-checked the map. There it was. A circle drawn in the hillside—marking some sort of cave entrance or a tunnel. It was easy enough to find on the map. But when I lowered the paper and tried to find the cave, there was nothing.

  Just a rocky cliff face, so steep it rose into a straight vertical, cutting the trail off right in front of me. It pushed up into the clouds so high that it looked like it never ended.

  Something had to be wrong.

  There had to be an entrance to the tunnel somewhere around here. I felt along the cliff, stumbling over broken pieces of the shiny black rock.

  Nothing.

  It wasn’t until I stepped back from the cliff and noticed a patch of dead brush growing along the stones that I put it together.

  The brush grew in what was vaguely the shape of a circle.

  I grabbed the dead overgrowth with both hands, yanking as hard as I could—and there it was. Sort of. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the reality of what that circle drawn on the mountain actually represented.

  A small, dark hole—and by small, I mean tiny—barely big enough for a man. Barely big enough for Boo Radley. Maybe Lucille, but even that would have been cutting it tight. And it was pitch-dark inside. Of course it was.

  “Aw, come on!”

  According to the map, the tunnel was the only way to the Far Keep, and to Lena. If I wanted to get home, I was going to have to crawl through it. I felt sick just thinking about it.

  Maybe I could go around. How long would it take to reach the other side of the mountain? Too long, that was for sure. Who was I kidding?

  I tried not to think about what it would feel like to have a whole mountain fall on you while you were crawling through the middle of it. If you were already dead, could you be crushed to death? Would it hurt? Was there anything left to hurt?

  The more I told myself not to think about it, the more I thought about it, and soon I was almost ready to turn back.

  But then I imagined the alternative—being trapped here in the Otherworld without Lena for “infinity times infinity,” as Link would say. Nothing was worth that risk. I took a deep breath, wedged my way inside, and started to crawl.

  The tunnel was smaller and darker than I ever could’ve imagined. Once I squeezed inside, I had only a few inches of free space above me and on either side. This was worse than the time Link and I got locked in the trunk of Emory’s dad’s car.

  I had never been scared of small spaces, but it was impossible not to feel claustrophobic in here. And it was dark—worse than dark. The only light came from cracks in the rock, which were few and far between.

  Most of the time, I was crawling in complete darkness, only the sound of my breathing echoing off the walls. Invisible dirt filled my mouth, stung my eyes. I kept thinking that I was going to hit a wall—that the tunnel would just stop and I’d have to backtrack to get out. Or that I wouldn’t be able to.

  The ground beneath me was made of the same sharp black stone as the mountain itself, and I had to move slowly to avoid bearing down on the exposed edges of razored rubble. My hands felt like I’d shredded them to pieces; my knees, like two sacks of shattered glass. I wondered if dead people could bleed to death. With my luck, I would be the first guy to find out.

  I tried to distract myself—counting to a hundred, humming the off-key tunes of some of the Holy Rollers’ songs, pretending I was Kelting with Lena.

  Nothing helped. I knew I was alone.

  It only strengthened my resolve not to stay that way.

  It’s not much farther, L. I’m going to make it a
nd find the Gates. We’ll be back together soon, and then I’ll tell you about how much this really sucked.

  I fell silent after that.

  It was too hard to pretend to Kelt.

  My movements slowed, and my mind slowed with them, until my arms and legs moved in some kind of stiff syncopation, like the driving beat to one of Link’s old songs.

  Back and forth. Back and forth.

  Lena. Lena. Lena.

  I was still Kelting her name when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel—not a metaphoric light but a real one.

  I heard Exu cawing in the distance. I felt the beginnings of a breeze, the stir of air in my face. The cold dampness of the tunnel began to give way to the warm light of the outside world.

  I was almost there.

  I squinted when the sunlight hit the mouth of the hole. I hadn’t hauled my body out yet. But the tunnel was so dark that my eyes were having a hard time adjusting to even the smallest amount of light.

  When I was only halfway out, I dropped onto my stomach with my eyes still closed, the black dirt pressing against my cheek. Exu was calling loudly, probably angry that I was taking a break. At least that’s what I thought.

  I opened my eyes to see the sun glinting off a pair of black-laced boots. Then the bottom of a matching wool robe came into focus.

  Great.

  I raised my head slowly, prepared to see a Keeper towering over me. My heart began to pound.

  It looked like a man—in a way. If you ignored the fact that he was completely bald, with impossibly smooth grayish-black skin and enormous eyes. The black robe was tied at the waist with a long cord, and he—if you could call it a he—looked like some kind of miserable alien monk.

  “Did you lose something?” he asked. The voice sounded so much like a man’s. Like an old man, sort of sad or maybe kind. It was hard to reconcile the human features and voice with the rest of what I was staring at.

  I pulled against the rock opening, yanking my legs out from the tunnel, trying to avoid bumping into whatever he was. “I—I’m trying to find the way to the Far Keep,” I stammered. I tried to remember what Obidias had said. What was I looking for? Doors? Gates? That was it. “I mean, the Gates of the Far Keep.” I got to my feet and tried to step back, but there was nowhere to go.

 
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