Chapter II: Soul Retriever

by Laesë and crow

       "Honey? Are you okay?" Raven asked as she looked over at her precious love sitting quietly in the passenger seat.
       Celine's eyes were fixed on the road but they were looking beyond the highway.
       "Raven, what happened to those two men? Do you think they made it out?" Celine asked in a whispered voice. Guilt began to settle in her stomach.
       Raven took a deep breath. "I don't know honey. When we were down in the basement, I looked around to see if they were there, but I didn't see anyone. Just," She took another deep breath, "The other stuff. Goddess, I hope they got out okay." She turned on the radio to try and change the atmosphere a bit.
       Celine relaxed somewhat as she heard the song on the radio playing. Settling into the seat she closed her eyes and tried to get some sleep.
       The song ended and the disc jockey began announcing the news.
       "Fire has destroyed yet another historical landmark, The Old Witch's Brew Tavern early this morning. In spite of a well attended Halloween party, hosted by the tavern's owner Emmeline Cassidy, who was not available for comment, there were no deaths. However, two of the night's revelers were found near the scene of the fire. Hospital authorities report that one of the young men suffered only minor injuries and was released. The other has been admitted and no further details of his injuries have been reported at this time. Investigators refuse to comment on whether this fire is linked to another recent apartment fire that occurred just two nights previously."
       Celine opened her eyes and looked at Raven who had a relieved smile on her face. "Thank goodness. They got out."
       The truck drove along the highway as the sun rose higher in the sky. "Let's go home" Raven said.


       Raven finally settled down in bed, she leaned over and kissed Celine softly on the cheek before she lay her head on the pillow. Her eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep. However a few moments later, her eyes shot open. She looked around the room, something didn't seem quite right. Celine was still soundly sleeping next to her but something- was wrong.
       "Caw, Caw." The sound echoed from the hall way.
       "What the hell& " Raven got up out of bed and walked toward into hallway. For a brief second she felt disoriented and realized the hallway transformed into a cave. "Oh I'm dreaming," she said aloud, feeling some relief.
       She heard the cawing bird again and walked deeper into the cave. There was a glowing light resonating inside. Raven approached a cauldron sitting in the middle of the cave, the light was coming from the fire that burned under the cauldron. She look around the cave and saw the bird that must have been making noise a few minutes earlier.
       "Caw." The black bird swooped down and dropped a feather into Raven's hand. "Don't let go, no matter what," the Bird whispered in a deep male voice.
       Raven looked at the beautiful black feather then closed her fist around it.
       A woman with long silvery black hair stood behind the cauldron mixing a substance in the pot with a big wooden spoon. She smiled lovingly at Raven. She looked old but young at the same time.
       Raven smiled back, she felt a peacefulness coming from the woman's eyes.
       The bird cawed again at Raven and when she looked up she saw the cave infested with what seemed like hundreds of these black feathered creatures.
       As if the God of Chaos himself waved his mighty hand, the birds began flapping and flying every which way. They charged at Raven pecking and scratching, attacking her.
She tried to cover her face and body, but the birds were able to penetrate. They tore away at her face, her arms, her legs, her stomach and breasts, they devoured every bit of flesh until they were able to get to the fatty tissue and muscle leaving Raven a skeleton still standing, still breathing.
       She looked down at her bony hand that still clutched the feather. Her breath quickened at the site of her form without flesh. "What's happening to me! HELP ME PLEASE!" She cried.
       The old woman who looked young, smiled again lovingly, and continued to stir with the wooden spoon. There was a low growl coming from a dark corner of the cave. Raven stood staring. She breathed in a deep breath of cold air, watching the mist enter between her teeth and move down into her chest cavity and seep out through her ribs.
       There in the dimmest part of the cave, a pair of yellow eyes watched her, stalking, ready to attack. It was a black wolf. Raven stood frozen but she could feel her heart pounding wildly. Her mind still unable to fathom the fact that she had no flesh, just bone.
       The wolf leaped forward knocking her down. Her bones now mangled and separated, her chest still heaving for breath. The wolf moved it's nose between her ribs and tore them apart with it's claws. It opened its mouth and devoured her heart.
       The birds came back and began to eat away all her other internal organs and all the other parts they could get to, save for her eyes. Raven's eyes still sat in her skull. She was able to see.
       The old woman who was young walked in between the animal feast and picked up the bones including her skull. She tossed them into the cauldron and Raven was plunged into darkness.
       The young woman who was old poured the cauldron's mixture onto the floor. The substance flowed out onto the spot were Raven had been standing. Suddenly Raven felt her fist tighten, she looked down at it and opened it to see the black feather. To her relief her hand was covered in flesh, her flesh. She grabbed at her breast feeling the heart, her heart then she breathed in deeply.
       The old woman who was young smiled at her then faded. Raven looked around the cave, it was empty except for the black bird that she saw when she first walked in.
She felt someone touch her hand, she looked down to see the black wolf begin licking her palm. It's eyes were kind and loving. She petted it's head and it nuzzled her.
       Raven shot open her eyes again to find herself back in bed. She took a deep breath then turned to Celine and buried her face into the side of Celine's warm body.


       The sun found its way past the closed drapes and tickled gently on Celine's eyelashes. They began to flutter open. Celine looked around the room a bit disoriented at first, shaking off the vestiges of a disturbing dream. She turned to face the warm body which housed the other half of her soul. Snuggling closer she wrapped her arms around Raven and nuzzled her neck.
       "Mmmmm," Raven moaned and began to stir, heat rising from the center of her chest and working it's way down.
       "Morning love," Celine whispered.
       "Good morning. Goddess, I love you," Raven said as she pulled Celine in for a tight embrace. Raven's hands immediately began roaming and caressing the softness that was Celine until the sound of the phone startled them.
       "Shit!" Raven exclaimed, starting to get up.
       "Ignore it," Celine said pulling Raven back down towards wanted lips.
      "Ring! Ring!"
       "If I don't get it, it's not gonna quit," Raven said as she got up to get the phone.
       Celine lay back down and released a frustrated sigh as Raven walked into the other room and picked up the receiver.
       "What?" Raven said impatiently.
       "May I please speak with Raven or Celine?" a woman's soft voice said.
       "This is Raven, who is this?"
       "You don't know me," said the woman hesitantly. "My name is Amelia Smythe. Emmeline Cassidy told me that you two may be able to help me."
       Raven listened absently, waiting to get back to Celine until Em's name was mentioned. It had been two weeks since the fire at the tavern and she and Celine had heard nothing from the older woman until now.
       "Em told you to call?" she said. Celine came out of the bedroom and stood behind Raven, wrapping her arms around the taller woman's waist.
       "Yes, you see my brother Todd and his friends were at the Halloween party that night," said Amelia.
       "Oh," said Raven, quietly.
       "Yes," said Amelia. "I've spoken with Andy. I guess he and Todd had too much to drink. They went to find someplace to lie down and stumbled into the cellar of the tavern. Andy says he passed out. When he woke up, he was wandering around outside and the Tavern was, well, gone. He and Todd were found by the firemen. Andy doesn't remember how they got out and Todd & "
       "Is he & ?" asked Raven, afraid to finish the question.
       "He's alive, but catatonic," said Amelia, Raven heard her sniff.
       "What do you mean & catatonic?" Raven asked, understanding but not believing.
       "The doctors say that his body is working fine but his mind," Amelia paused for a moment.
       "Yeah, I know what the word means," said Raven. "What I meant was, how did he get that way? Hello?"
       "I'm here," said the woman after a long pause. "The doctors say they think he might be in some kind of shock or something. There's more, but I can't tell you over the phone. Is it possible we could meet somewhere?" Amelia sounded nervous.
       "Um, yeah sure. I & um, let me tell Celine and we'll set it up okay. I'll call you back in a while," Raven said. She got Amelia's number then hung up the phone.
       Celine saw the expression on Raven's face. "What's wrong, Honey?"
       "I don't know, that was the sister of one of the guys. You know from that night." Raven paused waiting for Celine's reaction.
       "Is he & ?" Celine couldn't finish the sentence, fearing the worst.
       "No, something else. We have to go meet with her and she'll tell us the rest okay?"
       Celine nodded in understanding. Fear began to creep it's way into her heart. "I knew it wasn't over," she said quietly.
       "Take it easy, Love," said Raven, burying her own trepidation. "I'm sure she's just trying to make sense of what happened to her brother. She probably just wants to talk to us to cover all the bases - damn Em for telling her to call us, though. She knows we can't tell her what really happened down there!"
       "So & what are we going to say?" asked Celine as Raven led her into the bedroom to dress.
       "I don't know," said Raven, frowning as she pulled on her clothes.
       Two and a half-hours later Raven and Celine sat down at a small café not far from where the Witches'Brew once stood.
       They sat quietly going over the past events in their own minds when a medium height woman with long ash-blonde hair approached the table.
       "Hi, I'm Amelia, I can see by the "Amazon Queen" shirt, you must be Raven. Mrs. Cassidy said you liked to wear them."
       "She sure does." Celine laughed. "Hi, I'm Celine. Please sit down."
       Amelia pulled out the chair and sat opposite the two women. "I asked Mrs. Cassidy what happened that night and she really didn't tell me much. I told her about a couple of dreams I've had recently involving Todd and she said she really didn't know much about that stuff so she gave me your number and said I should talk to the both of you."
       "Dreams? What kind of dreams?" Celine sat up a bit. She had been having some dreams about the events over the past two weeks herself, but she hadn't mentioned them to Raven because she didn't want her to worry.
       "First let me tell you about Todd. He liked goofing around in a lot of things that people shouldn't get involved in. You know  witchy'stuff, demons and the like. He's always talking about vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. Anyway that night he heard about the party at the tavern and wanted Andy to go with him because he had heard the tavern was haunted. Andy said they were drunk, which is most likely true, but he also said that Todd wanted to go down to the basement to call upon the ghosts that lived there." Amelia was interrupted by the waiter who took her order for coffee.
       Raven looked at Celine and shook her head already anticipating what was coming. "First of all, witches and demons have nothing to do with one another," said Raven.
       "I'm sorry," said Amelia, dropping her eyes from Raven's intent gaze. "I'm afraid I don't know much about & these things."
       "It's alright. Go on - what else did Andy say?" Celine asked nodding toward Raven.
       "Well, he said he doesn't remember much after that, just that he must have passed out." Amelia took a deep breath. "Over the last couple of nights I've been & I don't know how to describe it, but it feels like I'm not merely dreaming. It feel so real, this place I've seen. I don't know this place but I sense Todd there. He can't speak and I don't hear him but I know he is calling for help. I can feel it." Amelia looked at both women worriedly, afraid they would think she was crazy or something.
       "It's okay Amelia." Celine said as she patted Amelia on the forearm. "Go on."
       "Mrs. Cassidy said that you might be able to help me. She said you both would somehow understand. I know it sounds crazy, but I don't know what else to do and I honestly believe that he's trapped somewhere."
       "What do you think we can do?" Raven asked.
       "I don't know, I just feel that there is something more going on. How do you explain how a twenty-two year old man can go completely catatonic from being pulled out of a fire. He just sits there, his eyes fixed on the wall. He's just not there, his mind I mean."
       "Shock?" said Raven, raising one eyebrow at the woman.
       "No he must have seen something that made him withdraw like this. I don't know." Amelia rested her chin in her hand wearily.
       Celine smiled sympathetically, she reached out and touched Amelia again, this time on the shoulder.
       Suddenly she was pulled forward. Her mind began to travel past the café toward the tavern beneath the rubble, deeper into the earth. Pulling farther until she was slowed by a gray fog. She looked around seeing nothing but gray, bleak figures, forms, bodies, without color, indistinct in the fog, standing in lines and lines, waiting ... but for what? She stood in the middle of the crowded area but was completely alone, as if encased in a protective bubble. She looked beyond the forms and a splash of color caughther attention. She saw a lone man crouched behind a fence that was also dulled and lacking in color. He wore jeans that had just a hint of blue left in them and a bright yellow T-shirt. He looked up and saw Celine. His hand reached out toward her and silently mouthed the words, Help me.
       "Celine?" Raven gently shook her lover.
       Celine pulled back so quickly she felt her neck jerk. "What the & ?" Celine spoke and shook her head trying to clear away the vision of what she had just seen.
       "Honey, are you okay?" Raven knew what just happened but she didn't know what Celine saw.
       "Yeah, yeah, fine," said Celine, her hand to her head. She felt dizzy and a little sick. The sulphurous smell of that place still lingered in her nostrils.
       Suddenly the table began to shake and the half-filled cups of coffee grown cold flew in the air, showering their contents over the three women.
       "Oh, man!" cried Raven, jumping back and looking at her soiled shirt. "This is my favourite one!" Raven rolled her eyes, wishing her hero was there right now - she'd know how to handle this mess. "Probably just kick ass and ask questions later," she muttered.
       "What?" asked Celine, dabbing cold coffee from her lover's favourite shirt.
"Nothing," said Raven, grinning.
       "'Amazon Queen'again huh?" Celine smiled knowingly. It was a game they played when faced with a difficult situation. "What would the Amazon Queen do?"
       Amelia looked at the women now like they were crazy. "What the hell's going on here?"
       Ignoring the woman, Raven temporarily forgot about her shirt, concerned for Celine. It wasn't like they hadn't seen flying objects before. "Where were you just now?" Raven asked Celine.
       "I don't know & a gray place lots of people, I think but gray, like shadows & and then I saw a young man, blonde in a yellow shirt & "
       "In a yellow shirt? OH MY GOSH, that's Todd!" Amelia interrupted, excitedly.
       "It's the place in your dreams isn't it?" Celine spoke to Amelia already knowing it was.
       Amelia felt the chill run up her spine and little bumps rising on her flesh.
       "Celine, did you & ?" began Raven.
       "What?" asked Celine.
       "Did you bring anything back with you?" asked Raven, looking warily around the café.
       "No," said Celine, shaking her head. "I'm sure of it."
       "Then what was this?" asked Raven, gesturing to the now-still table.
       "I don't know," said Celine, troubled.
       "Spatial displacement, Honey."
       The women turned to see a very tall, colorfully dressed older woman.
       "I know you," said Celine. "You were at the tavern that night - the fortune-teller."
       The woman pointed her unlit cigarette at Celine and winked, snapping her gum. "You got it, Sweetie," she said.
       Raven sighed, rolling her eyes and feeling her irritation with the newcomer growing by the second. Everything about the woman annoyed her, from the heavily applied make-up to her incessant gum-snapping and clunky costume jewelry which adorned every visible part of her body. Her glaring bright clothing was an assault on Raven's eyes. Worst of all was the cloying, rose-scented perfume she must have bathed in moments before entering the café. Raven felt a serious headache coming on.
       "So what's spatial displacement?" Raven asked, trying to sound civil.
       "Well," the fortune teller started, "see, what spatial displacement is," she paused to light her cigarette and take a deep drag, exploding into a fit of coughing. She looked at her cigarette as if surprised then shook her head "I really gotta quit these someday."
       The waitress approached rather quickly. "Excuse me ma'am, this is a no smoking establishment," she whispered apologetically. The woman looked at her for a moment, then took a deeper drag, this time without coughing, and blew the smoke in the waitress's face.
       "Yeah, yeah - bring me a bourbon, no rocks, will ya?" she said, squinting through the cloud of smoke.
       The waitress found Raven's glare for the woman galvanizing and straightened her shoulders. "We don't serve alcohol here," she said firmly. "And it is a no smoking establishment."
       The woman rolled her eyes. "Then just bring me a coffee!" she said, exasperated.
       Annoyed, Raven took a deep breath. "Will you put that damn thing out?!" Her own nicotine craving was becoming unbearable with the arrival of this woman; she wanted this meeting over with so she could go out and take a couple of calming drags.
       The fortune teller debated a moment and decided it wasn't worth arguing about. She chuckled and took one last drag, before dropping the cigarette into Raven's coffee cup.
"Oh you're going to be fun to work with, I can tell," she said grinning at Raven.
       Celine put one hand on her nose and her head down so not to show the laugh that she was trying so hard to contain. She tried to disguise it with a cough instead, but Raven was not fooled. Celine really liked this very odd woman.
       "Spatial displacement?" Raven said through clenched teeth.
       "Yeah? What about it?" asked the older woman.
       "You were about to tell us what it is?" Raven felt her voice getting louder and struggled to control it.
       "Why don't you already know? I mean your sweetheart here caused it, I figured you know already," the woman said shooing Amelia over a bit so she could sit in the empty chair.
       Raven put her hands down on the table and leaned forward bringing her face mere inches from the fortune teller's. "Now, look lady - "
       "I'm Barb," the woman interrupted then smiled warmly and put out her hand in greeting to shake Raven's.
       Raven folded her arms and sat back down in her chair, her attempt at intimidating answers out of the woman thwarted. She looked to Celine for help and realized there would be no help from that corner as she saw her love trying desperately to suppress a bad case of the giggles.   Amelia sat at the other end of the small table equally afflicted, her face growing red with the effort of trying not to laugh out loud.
       Barb looked at the women, baffled by their behavior and held out her hands, "What?" she said. Not having a clue to the source of their amusement, nor the effect she had on Raven, Barb shrugged. She took the overly used piece of gum out of her mouth, sticking it under the table, then smiled at the waitress who brought her coffee. "See, no cigarette sweetie."
       The waitress smiled back then walked away.
       "Okay, Barb, why don't you tell us what spatial displacement is?" Celine asked
       "Oh yeah that's right." Barb said then took a drink from her black coffee. She reached in her bag and pulled out a spiral notebook, a pencil and lastly a flask. She poured a hefty amount of the contents into her coffee, then took a swig from the flask for good measure. She took another sip of her coffee. "Ahhhh, much better, they make good coffee here." She spoke to no one specifically.
       "Barb, spatial displacement?" Celine asked again.
       "Ah, what the hell, it's not important anyway. What's important is that you two & wait, let me find it here & " Barb said as she paged through the note book. "Oh, yeah, here we go - No, that's a recipe for chocolate fudge brownies. Ah, here it is."
       "What?" said Raven, her fists clenched, fingernails digging into the palms.
       Barb looked up at her and frowned. "You know you really oughta do something about that anger problem of yours."
       "Look, lady, do you have something to tell us or not?" Raven asked.
       Barb looked blank for a moment then slapped the notebook closed and stood up. "Not here," she said looking around. She picked up her cup and drained it then grinned.
"I hate to waste good coffee. Come on let's go to my place where we can talk in private."
She dropped the pencil and notebook back in her bag and started towards the door, leaving the women staring after her. She turned "You coming?"
       Raven slapped some bills down on the table to cover the check then followed. Celine and Amelia came after. They headed toward the parking lot following Barb. Raven stopped at her truck and pulled out the keys. She kept her eyes on Barb to see what car she would get into so they could follow.
       Barb walked past the parking lot and headed across the street. "I live over there." She pointed to the purple cottage across from the café.
       Raven and Celine both shook their heads, the three followed the older woman toward the cottage. There was a sign  Palm Reading'posted in the front yard which was surrounded by a white picket fence. The yard was well-cared for and the scent of rosemary, thyme, and other herbs greeted the women as they walked up to the door.
       Barb led them into her "office". The women were shocked that such a disorganized-looking woman had such an immaculate space. She chuckled, knowing what they were thinking. "The spirits can't abide clutter," she said, indicating that they should sit. Barb took her seat across the table. Folding her hands in front of her. She looked at Celine. "You have the look," she said.
       "What look?" asked Celine, worried.
       "The look of one who has traveled to one of the Lands of the Dead," said Barb. "Which one was it?"
       "I & don't know," said Celine, frowning worriedly. She described the place she had seen, including the young man and his silent plea for help.
       "Ah," said Barb, nodding, knowingly. "Didja see the Red-Coats?"
       "The & who?" asked Celine.
       "Well, they're not really wearin'coats," said Barb, frowning. "They're sorta more like capes with hoods, hidin'their faces - thank goodness- those are the guards. Keep the souls in line there is what they do."
       "There were people standing in lines," said Celine, remembering. "Lots of people."
       Barb nodded. "Yep, those are the souls waitin'for bodies so they can come back."
       "Wait are you telling me that Celine went to a & a sort of a waiting room for re-incarnated souls?" said Raven, frowning in disbelief.
       "Well, they're not re-incarnated yet, but yeah, pretty much that's what it is," said Barb, nodding.
       "You said one of the Lands of the Dead," said Celine. "Are there more?"
       "Oh, good heavens yes!" laughed Barb. "That one you were in, that's the place where folk who think that when you die, you just become worm food go. There's the Wiccan Summerland, and there's the Christian Heaven and then there's that funny Nirvana place - I think Valhalla's still around somewheres, and the Elysian Fields, too. Wherever a soul thinks it's gonna go when it crosses over is almost always where it ends up."
       Raven rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on," she said. "How do you know all this stuff?"
       Barb fixed her with a stern look. "Listen you Miss High an'Mighty Knows Everything," she said. "I been in this since I was little and I been called on by a lot of the folks in all of those places deliverin'messages to loved ones left behind and such. I know  cause I been to most of these places, but that one Celine was in today, that's the worst of  em. Those Red-Coats don't call on people in this world very often, but if they do you better listen."
       "It wasn't them," said Celine, softly. "It was Todd. I don't think the Red-Coats even knew I was there - and I'm pretty sure they don't know he is, either."
       "Well, that's good," said Barb, nodding. "Then there's still a chance. You just keep that bubble around you when you go there and you'll be just fine."
       "A chance for what?" asked Amelia, hopefully. Barb smiled and gently patted her hand.
       "To get your brother back, Honey," she said. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
       "Oh, yes," said Amelia, tears welling up in her large brown eyes.
       "What happened at the Witch's Brew was an accident," said Barb. "And your brother was accidentally pulled into that place before his time. But he brought that on himself by actin'stupid."
       "Now wait a minute," said Amelia, angrily.
       "You know it's true," said Barb, firmly. "Part of his problem is you always takin'up for him even when he's wrong - "
       "Hold on now," said Raven, eyeing Amelia's renewed tears.
       "And you, Missy - you need to take up for your brother a little more," said Barb, eyeing Raven intently.
       "What the hells are you talking about?" said Raven, momentarily startled.
       "You know what I mean," said Barb. "You think I'm an old fraud, do you? I know what really happened that night."
       She leaned close and whispered in Raven's ear. Raven grew terribly pale and Celine worried that she was close to fainting.
       "How could you know that?" Raven whispered, glancing quickly over to Celine. "No one & no one living knows about that except Adam and me."
       Barb smiled triumphantly. "No, no one living - and no, your brother and I have never met, so he didn't tell me," she said.
       "Then & how & ?" asked Raven.
       "How do you think?" said Barb, rising and leaving the room.
       Celine looked questioningly at Raven. Raven, still pale and shaken merely shook her head so Celine let it go & for now.
       Barb returned to the room, her arms full of stuff. In the center of the table, she placed a large quartz crystal ball. Then she placed white candles around it. Lastly, she lit some incense. Then she sat back down and pulled the crystal ball lovingly to her.
       "Are you ready?" she asked Celine.
       "What? For what?" asked Celine.
       "To go get that boy back here," Barb said.
       "Hold on a sec," Raven began, "What do you mean  go'?"
       "Your honey here is the one who's gotta go and get  im. Me and her's the only ones that've been there with the power to bring him back and I have to stay here and guide her," Barb said as she rose and began closing the heavy drapes, darkening the room before she lit the candles.
       Amelia looked around the place and began to get an eerie feeling about the whole thing. Suddenly she wanted to get out of this place but was held there by the love she had for her brother.
       Barb felt her fear and apprehension. "Don't worry dear, we'll get  im back for you,"
she reassured the distraught young woman.
       Celine sat down at the table and took a deep breath. She had no idea that she'd be the one going back there to perform or at least try to perform a rescue.
       Raven did not like this idea at all. She did not want her love to have to deal with this nightmarish mission, but she could think of no other way.
       "Listen baby," Raven whispered to Celine, "If you have to do this, I want you to get in there get him and get back, fast."
       "The faster the better," said Celine, trying to smile.
       Raven hugged her and kissed her gently on her shoulder. "Be careful and come home safe to me please."
       Barb clapped her hands together excitedly. "We ready?"
       Celine hesitated a moment then nodded.
       "Okay everyone hold hands & Oh wait. That's for séances, never mind." She laughed. "Celine, you know where you're going right?"
       Celine shook her head no.
       "Damn, that complicates things," Barb said as she tapped her long red fingernail on the table. "Okay, I want you to look into the crystal ball until you see the place you're going. Honey, you've been there before, you can go back. Just remember whatever you do, stay inside your bubble."
       Celine nodded her understanding and began to focus on the ball. Raven's eyes automatically locked on to the crystal ball as she tried to see anything in the blurry sphere.
       Celine sucked in a breath and felt the pull. Suddenly her head was thrown back and her body went completely limp, but she remained seated in the chair. Barb looked up at Celine and then into the crystal ball.
       "Good, she's on her way." She turned to speak to Raven whose body was in the exact same position as Celine's. Barb frowned and scratched her head. "Well that wasn't supposed to happen." She reached for a silver case sitting on the table next to the crystal ball. Amelia, who had no idea what to expect next, looked on wide-eyed.
       Barb pulled out a cigarette and lit it from one of the candles. She looked over to Amelia,
"Damn, this really complicates things."
       Celine and Raven felt themselves rushing through a long dark tunnel. Sparkles of light passed them by. They travelled through the tunnel for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually less than a few seconds. At last they saw a brilliant white light coming up fast.
       "Hey, aren't we supposed to stay away from the light?" Raven yelled to Celine who was slightly ahead of her.
       Celine shook her head thinking, She watches way too much TV. They found themselves tumbling through the clouds, then suddenly they were standing in the back of what seemed to be a classroom of sorts. People of all descriptions were sitting on cushions on the floor discussing the lives they had just left. At the front of the room stood a man in a shining white robe with a long hair and a beard. On either side of the room, was a door. As each person finished his or her turn speaking, the man would either nod and point to one door or shake his head and point to the other. At last the room was empty except for him and the two women. Celine and Raven approached him cautiously. He smiled and gathered them both in a hug.
       "What are you two doing here? It's not time for you to come back yet," he said.
       Celine frowned. "Have we been here before?"
       The man nodded. "Ah, you're still alive then, that explains it. Have you come here in a dream little sisters?"
       "No," said Celine. Briefly she described their mission.
       Raven, looking around, spoke up, "What is this place?"
       "This is the place of enlightened souls," the man said. "When you truly cross over, you will remember. Here we decide if you have completed the lessons of this life time and may move on or if you have to return to a similar life until you learn the lessons you were supposed to."
       Raven nodded as if she understood but Celine could see that she was just eager to get to where they were supposed to be going. "How do we get out of here?" Raven asked the man. He pointed to one of the doors and said, "That one should take you where you need to go."
       Both women nodded their thanks and started walking toward the door.
       The man stopped Raven and handed her a feather, "This may come in handy," he said with a wink.
       "Uh, thanks," said Raven tucking it into her pocket.
       They opened the door and stepped out falling through the tunnel again.
       Barb sat staring into the crystal ball, shaking her head. "I wonder what the feather's for?" She looked at Amelia.
       "What feather?" Amelia said also staring into the ball but not having a clue to what Barb was seeing. "Where the hell'd they go now?"
       Celine and Raven found themselves walking on clouds.
       "Oh, shi - um, crap," said Raven, gazing up at the immense pearl-encrusted gates and the man standing there with a great book in his hands.
       "This isn't & ?" said Celine looking up at her.
       "Oh, yeah," said Raven, her eyes widening at the man who was rapidly approaching them his face bearing a stern look. "Trust me - I'm a recovering Catholic - and this is the best excuse for a relapse I've ever seen." She grabbed Celine's hand and ran back the way they'd come. "Let's get the hell out of here. " She winced Poor choice of words, she thought to herself.
       The women found themselves in a neutral place.
       "Where are we now?" asked Celine.
       "Limbo - I think," said Raven, looking around.
       "Okay," said Celine. "I need to focus."
       "Yeah," said Raven, frowning. "Focus - that's a good word. Hey, what would the Amazon Queen do?"
       Celine looked at the other half of her soul. "Don't go there - uh!"
       Suddenly they were rushing through the tunnel, tumbling out onto a lush green field. They stood and brushed themselves off, noticing the happy people who wandered about, looks of pure bliss on their faces.
       "Hey, you know where this is?'said Raven, excited.
       "Let me guess," said Celine, wryly. "Elysian Fields?"
       "Yeah!" said Raven. "I wonder if & "
       Celine grabbed Raven and pulled her back as Raven started forward eagerly looking around at all the people, searching for that one familiar face.
       "This obsession of yours has gone way past cute, Rave," said Celine. "It's fiction for crying out loud!"
       "Aw, come on - it could be based on truth - like the stories of King Arthur - you know - "
       "Yeah, and Elvis is still alive," said Celine rolling her eyes.
       Barb sat back and took out another cigarette. "Jeesh, what do I have to do, draw them a road map? Celine you need to focus." She took a deep drag then wondered if maybe she should go in after them "Aw, hell." She opened her flask and took a swig then offered some to Amelia. Amelia just shook her head bewildered by it all.
       Celine held tightly to Raven's hand and closed her eyes focussing on the place she'd seen earlier at the café. Once again they found themselves being pulled, falling toward the gray clouds which slowed them down.
       "This is it," Celine said as her stomach nervously flipped.
       Raven looked around as far as her eyes could see and all she saw were figures of gray shadowy forms. "Where is he?" she hissed.
       "Hiding?" Celine shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe we should look around."
       Raven felt the bubble that encased them for the first time. It felt heavy and oppressive, almost suffocating. "What is this?" she said, pushing with her hands, touching the strange oily substance that surrounded them. "This wasn't on us before."

       "We didn't need it before. It's the bubble, it's a shield. We need to stay in it like Barb said." Celine looked at Raven and gasped, their bodies had begun to meld together like Siamese twins, skin and bones melting into each other. One soul reuniting the two bodies which housed it.
       "Well, Jeez-Louise will ya look at that. Soulmates - that explains why Raven was dragged with her," said Barb, stubbing out another cigarette in the now overflowing ashtray.
       "Okay, this is just too weird," said Raven. She looked at Celine. "Baby, you know I need to be close to you, but I still need my space now and then."  Raven focused on their arms and sides that were melding. She pulled slightly away and began to see them separate once again.
 "How did you ÉRaven?"
 "I just thought about it and it happened. Like in my dreams. This feels sorta like the dream world, and you know, I play around in there a lot."
 "Yeah, I do know You have those special powers in the dream world. DidnÕt you change into an owl or something once?"
 "Yeah, that gives me an idea." Raven looked at her hand and brought it up to the bubble she felt her fingers and a burning sensation. Closing her eyes she saw the nails grow into a talon. Grinning she looked at Celine who didnÕt seem too thrilled about this.
 "Raven what are you doing?"
 Raven took her taloned hand and sliced through the bubble then with her other hand pulled at the oily substance until it gave way and oozed down to the ground.
 "Oh, shit! What did you just do?" Celine asked, alarmed.
 "IÕm sorry love, I just couldnÕt take being in that thing. Come on letÕs go look around."
 "Damn it!" said Barb. "I told her to stay inside that bubble! What the hell are they thinking?" She took a long pull from the flask, then found it empty. Shaking her head, she rested her chin in both hands and watched the crystal intently.
 They looked around and saw shadowy figures in lines and lines being herded but they didnÕt see any herder. Like waves of smoke the shadows continuously stepped forward keeping the lines moving.
 "We have to get around them," Raven said looking every which way.
 Celine walked right up to the line and thought she might just say excuse me and go through, but just as she got closer to the line of shadowy figures they disintegrated into gray misty smoke and cleared a path for the pair to pass through.
 "ThatÕll work too." Celine said.
 She turned to look at Raven and bumped right into a figure wearing a hooded red robe.  She looked inside the hood and saw only darkness, her finite mind unable to comprehend the face of the being.
 "Red-Coat," Celine said as she started backing up. She didnÕt know if it would hurt her or not, but from what Barb had said sheÕd rather not wait around to find out.
 Raven saw the Red-Coat walking toward Celine. She tried to pass through the shadow souls like Celine did but they wouldnÕt budge. "Celine!" she shouted but it was too late, the Red-Coat wrapped its long cloak around her soulmate and Raven couldnÕt see either of them anymore through the line of shadow souls moving forward.
 Celine found herself in the midst of grayness, the shadowy forms milling all around her. She felt nothing, her mind completely devoid of thought, memory, or emotion. She made her way through the line with the rest of the shadows.
 Then, from the deepest recesses of her mind came a familiar voice, calling, echoing through her head, pulling memories to her consciousness.
 "Celine!" Celine was startled out of the fugue. "Raven!" she called back, leaving the line of shadows. As Celine hurried back to her soulmate, she felt the shadow souls behind her becoming mist.
 "Hot damn!" said Barb, leaping to her feet. The woman paced furiously for a moment, then flopped back down in her seat, rubbing her temples, her eyes closed. "That is exactly why I told her to stay in the damn bubble!"
 Raven grabbed Celine and held her close, then pulled back at armÕs length, looking for any signs that Celine had been harmed - if she was, there was going to be one less Red-Coat in this place!
 "Good Goddess, Celine, what happened to your feet?" cried Raven, alarmed. Celine looked down and gasped. All of the color had been leached out of her shoes and the bottom of her jeans, the grayness extending all the way up to her knees.
 "I É I donÕt know," said Celine, biting her lip. Just then she saw a flash of yellow out of the corner of her eye. "Hey - itÕs Todd!" Raven turned to see the young man running from three of the Red-Coats. Half of his body was now completely gray, only the yellow of his T-shirt remained.
 "Come on," she said, pulling Celine behind her as she ran after the group. Raven intercepted the young man, placing herself and Celine between him and the pursuing Red-Coats. She had nearly snagged the yellow shirt when suddenly, the two women felt themselves being encased in a thick oily substance and there stood Barb, extending her personal bubble shield over them. In the blink of an eye they were back in BarbÕs place.
 "What the hell did you do that for?" Raven yelled, furious. "I almost had him!"
 "And the Red-Coats almost had you," said Barb, calmly. She wagged one long, red-painted fingernail at Raven. "I told you to stay in the bubble. You didnÕt listen."
 "Shit! This is just great!" said Raven. "Now we have to do all that all over again."
 "No, no," said Barb, shaking her head. "Now Celine has a better fix on where youÕre supposed to go, donÕt you Dear?"
 "What? No way.  IÕm not going back there!" Celine said, firmly. She shook her head.
 Raven noticed the weary look on CelineÕs face. "Sweetheart, are you okay?"
 "No, IÕm not okay. Raven those things they tried to take my soul. My whole life, everything I have ever done, or thought, or felt, they tried to take from away from me. IÕve never in my life felt such complete emptiness. No way am I gonna let them do that again."
 "But, what about Todd?" Amelia said sadly.
 "I canÕt Amelia, itÕs just, I É" Celine was terrified of the Red-Coats, but her soft heart just didnÕt give her a choice.  She let out a sigh.  "Alright then."
 "Honey, are you sure?" Raven asked. "You donÕt have to do this. I can go back alone."
 Barb shook her head. "No, you canÕt," she said. "If one goes, you both go. ThereÕs no help for it. ItÕs a journey of the soul and you two share one."
 Celine looked at Raven and smiled weakly.  "Thanks, but I wouldnÕt want you to go alone anyway."
 Raven raised an eyebrow and grinned. "LetÕs go back and get Todd."
 "Not so fast, you two," said Barb. "First of all you both have to rest. This work takes a lot out of a person even if you donÕt feel it right now.  Second of all, IÕm not having you two go in half-assed like you did the last time. YouÕre both gettinÕ separate bubbles - and this time you better stay in Ôem."  She glared at Raven.
Raven glared back, then sighed, "Alright," she agreed.
 "Okay," said Celine, wearily. "I could do with a nap, but first, do you think we could order take out or something? IÕm starved."
 Barb chuckled. "Yeah, thatÕs part of it, too, Sweetie," she said, patting CelineÕs shoulder. "You two go on in the guest room, right through that door over there. Lie down for a bit and rest and IÕll just rustle up something in the kitchen. Go on, shoo!"
 Raven rolled her eyes and shuddered, imagining what culinary catastrophe would come out of BarbÕs kitchen. She took Celine gently by the arm and led her to the room Barb had indicated. The two women collapsed on the soft bed, more tired than they had realized and fell instantly to sleep.
 Raven awoke first, sniffing appreciatively. The savory scents of onion, garlic, thyme, basil, oregano and others filled the room. She arose and followed her nose into the warm kitchen where Barb and Amelia were busily chopping and stirring.
 "Ah, youÕre awake!" said Barb, smiling warmly.
 "Yes," said Raven. "What is that smell? Andouille?"
 "Yep," said Barb, proudly. "One of my clients was a Creole lady who didnÕt have much money, so I traded her cooking lessons for readings. She wanted to ask her dead husband where he stashed É well, never mind that. LetÕs say I saved the poor thing years of hunting through the swamp and learned how to make a pretty mean Chicken and Sausage Gumbo. And I do mean mean. Hope you like spicy."
 "I love spicy," said Raven, taking a spoon and tasting of the fragrantly bubbling contents in the big black pot on the stove. "Oh, Goddess, Barb, this is sensational!"
 "Aw, go on with you," said Barb, blushing with pleasure at the hard-won compliment. "ItÕs nothing, really - I grow the herbs myself - you really like it?"
 "I love it," said Raven, smiling at the woman.
 "Well, itÕs about ready - why donÕt you go and wake up that Sweetie of yours and weÕll eat?" Barb said, pulling some bowls from the cupboard.
 Raven went to the bedroom where Celine still slept. She thought for a moment. Except for Em, Barb was the only one in this town who hadnÕt given a second thought to her and CelineÕs relationship. Had simply taken it as the fact that it was - even recognised the soul-bond between them - not only recognised, but respected it, as well. And she makes a truly mean gumbo, thought Raven, smiling to herself. Just the way I like it.
 Raven looked down at Celine, her fair head resting on her arm, eyes closed in deep slumber. "And she likes her," Raven whispered to herself, shaking her head.
 CelineÕs green eyes fluttered open at the sound of RavenÕs voice. She blinked a few times, then focussed and smiled at her love, standing there in the doorway.
 "Hey, you still hungry?" asked Raven. Celine sniffed, then smiled.

 "Yeah," she said, sitting up. "Is that what I think it is?"
 "Oh, yeah,Õ said Raven, grinning. "And it is good!"
 "YouÕve eaten already?" said Celine, frowning.
 "Just a taste, I swear," said Raven, both hands held out before her.
 The women went to the table where Amelia had already set the steaming bowls. Barb gestured for everyone to sit and they began the meal, silently enjoying the simple feast.
 When they finished, Barb led them back into her work space. "Alright," she said when they were all seated. "Now, I donÕt want anymore of that popping around the Lands nonsense from you two." She looked at them sternly. "And this time leave the bubbles on. ItÕs very important especially now that the Red-Coats are aware of you."
 "Why?" said Raven. "What is it that they can actually do to us?"
 "They can take your soul," said Celine, quietly. "When they had me, I forgot about everything. I felt nothing. I donÕt ever want to feel that way again."
 "You wonÕt," said Raven. "IÕll stay right by you - "
 "No!" said Barb. "You two have to stay apart. If they catch you together É"
 "What?" said Raven.
 "They have both halves of your soul. Separate, they canÕt keep you there," said Barb. "But if they get you both, youÕll be stuck there."
 "For how long?" asked Raven.
 "Until your bodies both die in this world, releasing your soul to move on," said Barb. "And you both look fairly young and healthy - that would take a loooong time."
 Celine shuddered. "Okay," she said. "We stay apart. We each look for Todd. When one of us finds him, pull him into the bubble and É"
 "Get back here," said Barb. "DonÕt worry about leaving the other behind - YouÕll both just know when itÕs time to come back ... I think."
 "What do you mean you think? You donÕt know? Said Raven
 Barb looked up and smiled at her.
 Raven sighed. "LetÕs get this over with."
 "Okay," said Barb. "Look into the crystal - and this time, focus."
 Holding hands, both Raven and Celine looked into the swirling fog in the crystal ball. They found themselves again rushing through the tunnel towards the bright white light until they hit the resistance of the grayness. They slowly floated down to the ground, encased in a pale blue bubble of protection.
 "So, um, how do we get our own bubbles?" Celine asked.
 "Not a problem." Raven pulled away from Celine. She looked at the oily substance that held them, and held her hands out to the sides, feeling for the material behind her.  She concentrated on the image of a cell dividing. Slowly the bubble began to separate into two pieces until both she and Celine were encased in their own separate bubble shields.
 "ThatÕs pretty awesome Rave. I love how youÕre able to do that," Celine said.
 "Yeah, itÕs really cool. As long as I know dreaming, I can pretty much do anything," Raven said. "Especially when IÕm confronting demons on my own turf, I can really kick ass."
 Celine remembered how Raven had come into one of her nightmares and battled the demons which were attacking her there. When Celine woke up  she saw Raven sleeping, a grin on her face, very aware and proud of what she had just done. They talked about it later and that was when they began to realize the powerful bond they shared.
 "You know this really is a boring place." Raven looked around at thousands of Ôshadow soulsÕ walking in line but not interfering with them. Off in the distance, she noticed a black tower, stretching far up into the gray sky. With a shrug, she dismissed it as unimportant to their mission.
 "I really wouldnÕt want to be stuck here," Celine said, shuddering at the thought.
 "LetÕs do what we came to do and get the hell outta here." Raven said looking at Celine through the waves of the oily bubble.
 The women slowly moved away from each other, looking for the tell-tale flash of yellow. That was the only color besides the Red-Coats and each other they had seen in this place. Raven worriedly glanced back at Celine, remembering the grayness that had been creeping up her legs and sighed with relief when she saw that it was no longer there. She remembered that the grayness had been half-way up Todd and she hoped that they werenÕt too late.
 Raven caught a flash of color out of the corner of her eye and headed towards it. It was not yellow, however, but green. A lush grassy field in which sat dozens of beautiful, glossy black crows. Drawn to them, Raven moved closer, shedding the oppressive bubble as she walked. She was surprised when the birds did not rise up, flying away from her as she approached. Instead, they gathered closer to her as she sat down in the soft grass among them.
 "I see you managed your way back here."
 Raven turned to a deep voice and saw nothing but the crows. She looked at the black bird standing next to her. "Nah," she said out loud.
 "Where is your feather?"
 Raven looked again at the crow next to her. "Did you just talk?"
 "As a matter of fact I did. Do you have your feather?" the crow asked again.
 Raven reached in to her pocket and pulled out the shiny black feather that was given to her in the place of enlightened souls. She was somehow not surprised that the crow could talk here; dreams were like that, she knew.
 "Have you used it yet?" The crow asked as the other crows began to gather closer to look at the feather.
 She held it in her hand and flipped it over a few times. "For what?"
 "Well, to shift of course." The crow began to stretch upwards with its wings outspread.
 The transformation began with the feet, moving up the legs, torso, chest, neck, head. Lastly the wings became human arms and hands, one feather held between the fingers of the left hand. At last a very fair-skinned man with hair as glossy black as the feather he held stood before Raven, smiling. He was clothed in robes equally black as the feathers he had just shed. With a flourish, he placed his feather gently in a pouch which hung from a belt around his waist.
 "I know you," said Raven, eyes narrowed as she tried to remember where she had seen him before.
 "Of course you, do, Little Sister," said the man with a chuckle. "You have flown with us many times."
 Raven thought back for a moment, realizing the truth of his words, though she couldnÕt quite remember the specifics.
 Another crow joined the group and landed on the manÕs shoulder, cawing loudly in alarm. The man looked grave and nodded.
 "Thank you, Little Brother," he said. He looked at Raven sympathetically. "Your friends have been captured by the Enforcers."
 "Who the hell are the Enforcers and where are they?" asked Raven, jumping to her feet. The man turned and pointed to the black tower.
 "They are in there. They know you do not belong here," he said. "And they are very possessive of the souls they gather. They know you came here to take one back with you."
 "One that also doesnÕt belong here," said Raven.
 The man shook his head. "No, we did not bring him here any more than we brought you and your friend," he said.
 "You - you bring people here?" asked Raven.
 "We are Soul Retrievers," said the man. "As you are, though you donÕt know it yet. We take the souls crossing over and bring them to whichever of the Lands of the Dead they are supposed to go. This is just one of many."
 "What do you mean, Ôas I amÕ? IÕm not one of these ÔSoul RetrieversÕ," said Raven.
 "You just donÕt remember, yet," said the man, smiling. "Before this lifetime, you chose to do this work. Why do you think you have been given the powers you have? In your dreams, you are all powerful. Sleep is the Ôlittle deathÕ and dreams are one doorway between the Land of the Living and the Lands of the Dead."
 "I donÕt have time for this right now - I need to get to Celine," said Raven, looking up at the tower. "How do I get there?"
 Gently, the man placed RavenÕs feather between the fingers of her left hand. Instinctively, Raven began to wave her arm and more feathers appeared. Gradually the knowledge came to her, as if in memory and Raven expanded her movements into a graceful dance, then lifted off and flew towards the great black tower.
 Several of the crows in the field started to fly with her, but the man shook his head.
 "No, Friends - she must complete this task on her own," he said. They settled back to the grass to watch and wait.
 Raven had never felt so free, except in dreams. She flapped her wings harder, then stopped, gliding along, riding on the air currents, then flapped again, feeling a sense of urgency, needing to get to Celine.
 Raven came to the Tower and flew into a window, landing on a shelf on the wall high above. She looked down to see Celine and Todd standing before a line of beings, clad in robes which were diagonally cut half black and half red. She listened for a moment trying to hear what was being said. No sounds were uttered, but Raven heard CelineÕs voice in her mind, apparently addressing the hooded beings.
 "You donÕt understand," she said. "He doesnÕt belong here." Celine cocked her head to the side, listening. "ItÕs not nonsense! I donÕt know how he came here, but heÕs alive!"
 Celine listened for a moment, then sighed in frustration. "Well, someone made a mistake - and weÕre here to correct it."
 Raven stretched her wings and glided gracefully to the black marble floor. She shifted back to human form, her feather tucked securely between the fingers of her left hand. She flipped it deftly between her finger and thumb and carefully tucked it back into her pocket. As one being, the hooded figures bowed their heads slightly in recognition.
 Raven heard the voice of the leader now, speaking directly to her mind.
 "Welcome, Soul Retriever," it said. Celine looked at Raven in surprise, but said nothing. "Have your duties now expanded to include this realm?"
 Raven shook her head. "No, I have merely come to retrieve these two and return them to where they belong," she said.
 "That will not be permitted," said the being. "Once a soul is here, it cannot leave except through the Doorway of Re-birth."
 "ThatÕs not true," said Raven smiling.  "We were here earlier - and we left."
 The being leaned towards one of the others, apparently whispering something. Two of the hooded figures quietly left the room.
 "This is unprecedented - there will be an investigation," said the being. "This one," he pointed to Todd, who was almost all gray now, "has been trying to leave since he came. He is very resistant to the process."
 "Because he does not belong here," said Celine, insistently. "None of us do."
 "Who brought him here?" asked Raven.
 "DonÕt you know?" asked the being, surprised.
 "I told you, it wasnÕt a Retriever," said Raven feeling more confident in her authority.
 The two who had left earlier returned and the beings conferred silently for a moment, then looked back to Raven.
 "We now know how this soul came to be here," said the hooded being. "The door was opened to allow several souls to move on. Apparently he wandered in here before the door could be closed."
 "So, now you understand," said Celine, relieved. "We have to bring him home."
 "IÕm sorry," said the being shaking his head. "This happens sometimes. We still cannot allow him to leave. You two, however, are free to go - we cannot bind a Soul Retriever. And you," he nodded to Celine, "are bound to her. We have no authority to keep either of you here." Just then two Red-Coats entered and took an unresisting Todd by the arms. They started to leave with him when Celine shouted, "No!" and grabbed him, pulling him within her bubble. The Red-Coats tried to reach inside, then jumped back as if their unseen flesh had been burned by the oily substance which composed the shield.
 Raven looked at the hooded beings and smirked. "I think we have a stalemate here," she said. "Any suggestions?"
 "CanÕt you control her?" asked the being, angrily, pointing at Celine.
 "Nope, never tried, and I really donÕt want to," said Raven, looking at Celine with a mixture of pride and adoration. SheÕs beautiful when sheÕs angry, thought Raven.
 "Very well," said the hooded being. "We will trade. A soul for a soul."
 "What do you mean?" asked Raven. "If you think IÕm going to bring another soul to you, think again. This place is É " She shuddered.
 "In your world, there are bodies without souls, wandering among you," said the being. "Come, I will show you what I mean."

 Raven followed one of the beings to a chamber. She frowned at the sounds of misery and torment, shrieks, howls and groans of sheer agony emanating from beyond the closed door.
 "What is this place?" she asked.
 "Those that have not yet crossed over through the Door of Rebirth," said the hooded figure, sadly. "They are trapped. Many have been here hundreds of your years now."
 "Why?" asked Raven, horrified.
 "Their bodies still walk the earth, inhabited by soulless entities," said the being. "Creatures over which we have no control. They are neither living nor dead, but something between. These poor souls must remain until this earthly connection is severed."
 "What do you want me to do?" asked Raven.
 "You and your mate must find one of these creatures and destroy the body so the soul may be released."
 Raven thought for a moment.
 "And if I donÕt agree?" she asked.
 "Then the young man will become one of these creatures," said the being, shaking his head. "Even now, one of the body stealers is sniffing about his uninhabited form."
 "Why donÕt you just let him go, then?" said Raven. The being sighed.
 "There is a balance which must be maintained," it said. "A soul for a soul - I cannot compromise this further."
 "You will let him go first?" asked Raven.
 "Have we your word?" asked the being. "If so, then yes."
 "I can give my word, but whatÕs to say I will keep it?" asked Raven.
 "You are a Soul Retriever and thus honour-bound," said the being respectfully.
 Raven thought a moment longer. "Okay, but I have to ask Celine first - this will involve her, too," she said.
 The hooded figure nodded once in understanding, then led Raven back to the other room where Celine waited in the bubble with Todd.
 Raven walked into the shielded bubble and hugged Celine tightly. "ItÕs going to be okay, my Love.  We have to do something for them, though, in order to get Todd back."
 "What?" Celine asked.
 "We have to give them a soul to replace ToddÕs," Raven said as she held tightly to her love. "Well, not exactly give them a soul. They already have it, we just have to free it up for them."
 "How do we do that?" asked Celine.
 "IÕm not sure," said Raven." But I think itÕs one of those things that weÕll know what to do when the time comes. We can only do this thing together."
 "WhatÕs this ÔSoul RetrieverÕ thing?" Celine asked curiously.
 "IÕll explain that later. In the meantime, we have to get Todd back - heÕs fading fast," said Raven, looking in alarm at the young man - he was almost completely grey now. "What do you say?"
 Celine looked up at her and smiled, her green eyes crinkling in the corners just the way Raven loved.  "What do you think?" she said. "Can we get out of here now? This place gives me the creeps."
 Raven laughed, "Yeah, letÕs go." She looked at the hooded figures and nodded. "WeÕll do it."
 The hooded figures nodded once and waved. Celine suddenly felt lighter. She reached out and took RavenÕs hand, smiling at her as both grabbed hold of Todd. Celine closed her eyes, focussing, and brought them back to BarbÕs. The two jolted out of the spirit realm.
 "Amelia, take us to Todd," said Celine.
 "Now wait a minute, you two," said Barb. "Where the heck did you go? I couldnÕt see a thing once you landed there and separated."
 "Long story, no time to explain," said Raven, rising and taking the older woman by the arm, pulling her to the door. "We have to get to Todd before something else does."
 "What?" said Barb, suspiciously.
 "Never mind - can we just go, please?" said Raven, impatiently.
 "I - I donÕt think weÕll all fit in my car," said Amelia, hesitantly.
 "Come on," said Barb, leading them out back. There, parked in the backyard was a vintage Cadillac from sometime during the 1940Õs. Sometime later, it had been treated to a custom purple paint job. Raven eyed the car, then grinned as they got in. Barb got behind the driverÕs seat. "Where to?" she asked.
 Amelia spoke up. "Lake Street Hospital," she said.
 "Buckle up," Barb admonished, and they were off. Barb brought the Cadillac to a screeching halt before the front door of the hospital. "You three go on, IÕll park and meet you up there, okay?"
 "Room 313," said Amelia, as she and the others raced to ToddÕs room.
 The three women entered the room quietly. Todd sat in a chair, staring blankly at the wall.
 "Oh," cried Amelia, kneeling beside him. "It didnÕt work."
 "Yes it did," said Celine, pointing to a shadowy corner of the room. There stood a translucent Todd, a look of terror on his face.
 "WhatÕs wrong with him?" Raven whispered to Celine, who merely shrugged. They turned at a sound in the doorway and saw Barb ducking quickly out of the room. Raven followed her, meeting her in the hallway, the older woman trying to control the gagging and retching which shook her body.
 "Barb, what is it?" asked Raven.
 "DidnÕt you feel it?" asked the older woman. "No, of course you didnÕt - those senses are dulled for you right now, just coming back and no rest. That É that thing in there - itÕs evil - aw, jeez! There goes Celine again!"
 "What?" cried Raven, turning back to the room. She saw Celine kneeling before the young man, her green eyes glazed over in trance. Suddenly, Raven saw the young manÕs handsome face change as the lips were pulled up in a grotesque grin, the eyes holding something ancient and evil.
 "Celine!" she cried, running back into the room. Celine arose, her eyes still looking through the young manÕs body.
 "Begone!" said Celine, her voice ageless and powerful. She pointed at ToddÕs body and Raven watched as something dark and formless arose from it with a shriek. Celine reached for the shadowy Todd and pulled him into his body. He blinked a few times then smiled. It was an incredibly sweet smile, holding nothing of the malice Raven had seen in the grin that was there before. She relaxed and looked at Barb. The older woman poked her head in cautiously. "ItÕs gone?" she said. The sighed. "Of course it is. I felt it leave."
 "You two," said Todd, looking at Raven and Celine. "YouÕre the ones who pulled us out."
 "Us?" said Raven.
 "Yeah, Andy and me - there was a fire and you two showed up right before the building collapsed and pulled us out - werenÕt you two dressed like pilgrims or something?"
 "Something like that," said Celine, smiling at the young man. Amelia looked up at them tears in her eyes.
 "How can I thank you?" she said.
 "DonÕt worry about it," said Celine, smiling warmly.
 "Just É keep this whole thing between us, huh?" said Raven, raising an eyebrow. "Including the Tavern thing."
 "Humble heroes," chuckled Todd, kissing his sisterÕs tear-wet cheek.
 "Yeah - and you, Kid," said Raven looking at him sternly. "Stay out of stuff you know nothing about."
 "What do you mean?" asked Todd innocently.
 "If you want to learn about magic or witches or ghosts, find a reputable teacher," said Celine, gently. "You could end up getting terribly hurt."
 "Or worse, harming someone else," said Raven, very quietly.
 "Oh," said Todd, looking down. "YouÕre right. From now, IÕll stick to just reading about that stuff, okay?"
 "Yeah, okay," said Raven. "Come on - I want to go home now."
 Amelia had elected to stay behind with Todd, so Barb drove Raven and Celine back to her little purple cottage, offering them the guest room for the night.
 It was a quiet drive, all three women sat up front. Celine looked at Raven intently.
 "What?" said Raven, finally.
 "What you said in there to Todd - about harming someone else," said Celine, gently. "You sounded like that was from experience."
 "Go on," said Barb. "You might as well tell her."
 Raven glared at Barb, then sighed. "When I was thirteen, my brother Adam and I were the best of friends. HeÕs a couple of years younger than I am and he looked up to me. I was really into all that monster stuff - you know ghosts and vampires, zombies, werewolves - all that stuff."
 "Yes?" said Celine. Raven sighed again.
 "You know that I have been able to see spirits all my life, but up until recently, IÕve never been able to actually communicate with them. I wanted to know why I could see them, what they wanted from me," Raven said. "One night, Adam and I decided to sneak out. There was a condemned house up the street from us. All the kids said it was haunted. We figured it would be the perfect place for a séance. We took candles and matches and set it up. I donÕt think Adam expected anything to really happen, but sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night was really cool to him."
 "It would be to any kid," said Celine, smiling encouragement.
 "Not to me," said Raven, shaking her head. "I was dead serious about this. I needed to know why É anyway, we broke into the house and lit the candles. We sat on the floor and I called to the spirits É." Her voice trailed away and a single tear traveled down her cheek.
 "Raven," said Celine, gently wiping away the tear.
 "They came - not one or a couple, but É dozens, all wailing and shrieking É scared the holy hells out of both of us," said Raven, trembling at the memory. "I donÕt know exactly what happened next - both Adam and I wanted out of there, fast. Somehow, the candles tipped and caught the house on fire. I got out, but Adam was trapped. I tried to get him out É the house was very old and it started to collapse. I guess a beam fell on him, crushing his spine. I ran and called the fire department, then went back. They got him out. Luckily he wasnÕt burned, but he É he never walked again. HeÕs in a wheelchair, because of me."
 "Oh, Raven," said Celine, holding her close. "You canÕt blame yourself."
 "It was my idea - I knew heÕd go along because É he always did," said Raven, quietly. "He never told our parents - or anyone else. Just took the blame himself. He forgives me, but É "
 "But you canÕt forgive yourself," said Barb, gently. "And you should - itÕs past and you canÕt change it. Even if we all had time machines, weÕd still have things to regret."
 Raven shook her head. "We donÕt talk much anymore - every time I see him, I just É feel sick inside, knowing that É if only I hadnÕt É ah, whatÕs the use?"
 "Raven, your brother forgives you," said Celine. "It could even have been him that started that fire - you said yourself you donÕt know for sure just what happened."
 Raven shook her head. "IÕm tired - can we talk about something else, please?"
 Barb turned on the radio and they rode the rest of the way to her house without talking. Raven and Celine decided to spend the night and avoid the long drive home. Celine was showering and Raven sat on the bed, mulling over things. At last, overwhelmed, she looked out the window and to her surprise, saw a crow sitting there.
 "What the - they donÕt fly at night," she said to herself, rising and going to the window for a better look. The crow was gone and Raven shook her head. Remember your promise, she heard, and looked around, startled.
 "I must be tired," she muttered to herself. "Seeing and hearing things."
With a sigh, she crawled into the bed and fell instantly into a deep sleep. Celine followed immediately after her shower.
 Sometime later, Barb looked in on them. "Tsk, tsk," she said shaking her head as she saw the two women, whimpering and struggling in their dreams. She looked up and spoke. "Knock it off already - they need their rest." Suddenly, the two sleeping women relaxed and slept dreamlessly for the rest of the night.
 Raven awoke first to the sun streaming in through the window and the sound of the phone ringing. She got up and showered, then came out into the sitting room where Celine was already having coffee with Barb. Celine looked up at her and smiled, her green eyes sparkling with excitement.
 "Guess what?" she said.
 "What?" said Raven, not sure if she really wanted to know anything before her first cup of coffee. Barb poured for her from a silver coffee pot and Raven sat down next to Celine.
 "Well, I have this friend, a very nice gentleman," said Barb. "In fact, I think heÕs some sort of foreign nobility. Anyway, we met through a mutual friend who had this poltergeist and, oh what a mess it was making! She couldnÕt even - "
 "Barb," said Raven, raising one eyebrow.
 "Oh, yes, of course," said Barb, smiling sweetly. Raven noticed how much younger she looked with her face scrubbed clean, despite the generous sprinkling of silver strands running through her black hair. "Well, Vlad has a daughter, Victoria - "
 "ÕVladÕ?" said Raven, the eyebrow shooting back up. She looked over to Celine. "Did she just say Vlad?"
 "Raven, just listen - you know IÕve been looking for a job - this is a fantastic opportunity and itÕs an awful lot of money," said Celine.
 Raven smiled. "Okay, go on," she said to Barb.
 "Well, Vlad has a daughter, Victoria," Barb continued. "SheÕs a bit younger than you two. HeÕs been having some problems with her - "
 "What does this have to do with a job for Celine?" asked Raven, sipping her coffee.
 "Well, nothing, actually," said Barb, frowning. "Oh, I mean, yes - Vlad is looking for someone to translate some very old documents for him - he seems to think that whatÕs written in them can help Victoria."
 "And you remember that I studied ancient languages at the University," said Celine, excitedly.
 "Honey, thatÕs great," said Raven, smiling.
 "Yes, and do you know what?" said Celine, grinning. "The very best part - you are going to love this, Raven - we get to travel - all expenses paid - to his castle. IsnÕt that exciting?"
 RavenÕs smile faded. "Castle? Where is this castle?"
 Celine giggled. "Guess," she said.
 Raven groaned. "I donÕt want to guess, Celine," she said. "Where is it?"
 "Aw, youÕre no fun," said Celine, good-naturedly. "ItÕs in Transylvania!"
 Raven started to open her mouth to protest, then looked at the hopeful sparkle in CelineÕs eyes. She felt herself start to waver and looked at the window. There sat a crow, looking at her as if in amusement. RavenÕs eyes narrowed and the crow tapped the window twice with its beak, but to Raven it looked like the bird was nodding encouragement. Raven sighed, then turned back to Celine and smiled.
 "Then I guess weÕre going to Transylvania," she said, wondering what could possibly happen to them next É.

(To be continued in "Ghost Writer III: (We still need a title!)"

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