Chapter Three – The Thorns of Roses
Soeun sat on the expensive silk bed, staring at the magnificent dream in front of her – the Victorian furnishings, closet of luxurious clothing, and drawers filled with beautiful jewelleries that would make any girl felt as though she was a real princess. However, she was no longer a fool blinded from the ugliness and dangers beyond the boundaries of this marvelous cage. It would have took every ounce of her strength to drag herself back here if it wasn’t for the ticking of the pocket watch that kept her sane.
She shut her eyes in annoyance when her stomach growled again. It was the sound signifying the need for survival that most unexpectedly got her between the claws of death. ‘Song Jaerim sunbae…’ She knew there was no way to put the man off as an imposter when he responded to the name with such familiarity. She stared dumbly at the back of her hand where he planted the kiss. She did not feel any butterflies dancing in her stomach like she imagined every once in a while – only lethal coldness pierced through her veins.
The thundering from the pit of her stomach made her want to beat herself up. “Oh come on, I’m trying to have a moment here,” she muttered sarcastically. She was beginning to wonder if she would end up dying because of starvation. Suddenly, she shot up her head. “Lily of the Ravens, Lily of the Ravens…Lily of the Ravens…”
She was alert of any change in the room. Just as she sighed after a few moments of looking at the unchanged scene in front of her, she began to see an outline of a shape materialized slowly from thin air.
“Mistress,” it was the young, sweet voice of Lily, “Lily at your service.”
“Wow..it worked.” She looked in amazement, although she was convinced that nothing should be able to faze her by now. She cleared her throat, assuming a pose of authority when she realized the raven maid was gawking at her like some creepy and brainless statues. “I’m…hungry.” She was flustered when the growling confirmed her words.
Her chocolate brown pupil enlarged as she gulped down her saliva at the scrumptious food buffet in front of her. An appetizing aroma of the juicy, medium-rare steak garnished with various spices and vegetables at the far end of the table was already tempting her nostrils. There were roasted chestnuts and mashed potatoes poured with hot gravy near the centre of the table. A plate of sizzling, crispy bacon wraps was placed at the centre. There was also a seafood platter next to the wraps, with citrus lemon juice sprinkled over the fresh pawns, oysters, and a variety of sashimi. Finally, at the other end of the table were sweets and baked goods of various sizes and shapes – a Napoleon cake with its seemingly thousand layers of puff pastries, buttery cream separating each layer, and garnished with savory nuts on top; soft and lightly warmed brownies that seemed to melt with just one touch; and a couple of Hong Kong style pineapple buns with a thick piece of sliced butter in the middle – a heavenly combination of sweetness and savoury.
She slurped back the water work that was dripping from the corner of her mouth and wiped off the residual with back of her hand.
Noticing that her mistress had not moved a step towards the dining table, Lily asked, “Is there something wrong with the food?”
“Huh?” Soeun turned to her maid. “N-no.”
Excitedly, she picked up the fork and stabbed at one of the bacon wraps. Suddenly she stopped when the wrap was just a couple of centimetres from her mouth. ‘Wait a minute…What if I can’t return home after I eat it?’ she recalled mythical legends about the food of the netherworld. She shook her head and popped the crispy meat into her mouth upon remembering about Jinyi, the girl she met in darkness earlier. “Mm…it’s delicious!”
She glanced at Lily and noticed the raven seemed content, if not ecstatic, of her comment. She ducked her head and continued to consume the rest of the food. She couldn’t remember when was the last time she had a proper meal, let alone an extravagant Western-style buffet such as this. As she let her inner glutton drown in, everything that had happened thus far became a distant dream.
Well, not exactly.
The rhythmical ticking of the antique watch was the indisputable evidence that the unbelievable, sadistic murder had taken place and it was far from being a mere nightmare.
Hell was not a paradise. However, looking around at all the things she was now lavished with, it was difficult to deny that this dimension was much better than her earthly life as a NEET, albeit the possibility of getting killed in an unimaginable way. Even with death on the horizon, she wondered why she was actually debating whether she should return to the earthly realm. She put down the glass firmly on the table after she gulped down the orange juice to ease her thirst.
“Jae—” she caught herself, “Damien, just who is he?”
“Lord Damien!” Lily gasped with excitement and had both of her hands covered over her gigantic beak. “Oh, Lord Damien! He’s the owner of this vast estate of land.”
“I know, you told me that before.” She smiled awkwardly. She thought she was interviewing a dangerously obsessed fan who was dressed in a creepy Halloween costume.
“Oh Mistress, not only that!” The maid came closer. Her tone was cheerful as if she was speaking to a dear friend. “He is Damien, the Demi-evil Prince of the Black Inferno. Our Lord has been appointed by the Great Lucifer to be the Seventy-third King as soon as the wedding takes place. Oh! It’s such a great honour!”
“Seventy-third King? Wedding?” She was confused by all this.
Lily suddenly took Soeun’s hand in her toy-like palms, imitating a gentle, friendly gesture.
Soeun tried to endure the abhorrent sensation, especially when the young maid seemed so excited and her beak so close.
“Oh yes! The wedding!” Lily exclaimed. “It would be perfect if Mistress is the bride of the wedding!”
“W-what?” Her jaw dropped. Bride of the wedding, to Lord Damien – also known by his earthly name as Song Jaerim. She wondered if that was why Jaerim had called her a ‘Cinderella-in-waiting’. She knew she must be crazy to blush at the thought of becoming Song Jaerim’s bride even when he seemed like a complete psychopath here, and not the sweet, gentle sunbae she once knew.
The conversation continued as Soeun tried to seek the information she needed to make sense of this world tactfully, while the raven happily chat away as if she was talking to a friend. She learned that Lily was apparently a special raven because there was this tiny silver glint in her left eye, signifying her above average aptitude to learn advanced magic. She also learned, much to her disappointment, that she, herself, did not possess any aptitude to learn magic nor any particular qualities like other ladies of the mansion who were apparently candidates to the Queen title. Though, the raven maid had tried to down play this fact. When it was about a quarter to eleven, she sent Lily away.
She thought that as there were other candidates, then there would be a good chance she could stay for a while without getting involved in any political mess and continued to indulge herself with the royalty-like luxuries. After all, it did not seem that Jaerim was particularly concerned about her, at least not yet anyways. ‘Gambler mindset…’ she noted the dangerous thought. She wondered just what kind of lowly scrum she had become since graduation. At the end of the day, she thought it was best to meet up with Jinyi first before arriving at any conclusion.
She covered herself tightly with a heavy, maroon cloak and leveled the candle lit lamp to the road in front of her. It was misty ahead, but it was not enough to cloud her vision entirely to get a sense of how the Lilith Garden looked. Even though she was secluded in her run-down apartment through most days, she knew the season was around mid-summer from the humidity of the air. However, apparently earthly seasons did not translate well in Hell, or at least the weathers here must be opposite of that in Seoul.
There were many tall trees around, but none with any leaves, just branches elongated ever upwards or downwards in a dysfunctional way. The branches that fell onto the foul soil resembled bony human arms crying for help from their graves. It was a garden filled with death. Though, it was not a lifeless one for it had an abundant of black and blue roses blooming beautifully under the bloody moon. It was a glorious sight of macabre suited to aristocrats with the utmost gothic taste.
She relaxed and quickened her steps when she saw an outline of a woman up ahead. The woman was around her height, with mid-shoulder length hair. Inconveniently, her back was to Soeun. Careful not to garner any unexpected attention that might be lurking from behind the woods, she called out Jinyi’s name quietly. When her new comrade did not respond, she called out louder for the second time.
When she was finally just a few feet from her new friend, the mist was no longer an obstruction for her to see that Jinyi was appreciating the full moon.
“Hey, Jinyi,” Soeun called out in annoyance. Just great, the only friend she made so far in this bizarre place was one of those inappropriate day dreamers who get distracted easily. She moved in closer, wanting to snap her fingers at the shorter hair girl. Very soon, she dismissed the idea.
“You’re right on time, Soeun,” her new friend turned and finally responded.
Suddenly, a surge of adrenaline pumped from her heart and drummed at her ears. She did not expect her new friend’s face could morph from a young woman into that of a wolf.
Perhaps she was finally getting used to such circumstances, but she knew better than screaming her head off all of a sudden, especially when her new friend was having bloodshot eyes. As if she was facing a bear in the wilderness, she took a step back slowly. She had encountered a bear before during a camping trip back in her first year of university. She was praying that this trick would work just fine with other animals. She tried to keep her nervousness at bay as she said, “When you told me to take a wild guess, I thought we were both of the homosapien species…”
“Guess you were wrong.” Jinyi grinned widely as the rest of her body continued the transformation.
She had kept backing away slowly, but the distance between her and the werewolf was not changing at all. Then, she realized Jinyi had been mimicking her every step. ‘Fucking hell,’ she cussed secretly.
“How about another ‘wild guess’?” Jinyi asked. She tilted her to the side in an eerie fashion.
Soeun clutched tightly onto the handle of the candle lamp. “Okay,” she thought that she must be crazy for responding.
“What’s a wolf’s favourite food?” The werewolf bared her wet, sharp fangs.
She knew it was now or never and threw the candle lamp at the werewolf. She shouted on the top of her lungs, “Lily of the Ravens!”
She called out the chant a couple more times as she made a run back to the mansion. From her earlier experience, she knew it would take some time before the raven would appear. She prayed that she could last until then.
“That was not a very nice thing to do,” Jinyi howled from afar.
However, Soeun soon learned that sound was an extremely unreliable way to measure distance when the opponent was a supernatural creature.
The werewolf pounced on her, trapping the petit girl between her claws. Teasing the girl beneath her, the werewolf let the girl exercise her strength in holding the fangs from digging into her pretty, white neck.
‘God damn it!’ She knew very well that the wolf girl was playing around, but she did not have any other choice. Then, she saw the werewolf was flung to the side. “About time!” In an instance, some of the heavy tensions disappeared at the sight of her raven maid.
“M-mistress! What are you doing outside at such hour?” Lily asked in frantic.
“Not a good time to explain! Come on, let’s zap us out of here.” She saw that the werewolf was struggling to get back on her feet, but it still did not mean they were safe from danger as of yet.
“I can’t do that.”
Her heart stopped. “What do you mean you can’t?”
“I don’t know how.”
“B-but didn’t you do it all the time?”
“Not for two people!”
“Well, isn’t that bri— Watch out!”
By the time Lily turned around, it was too late. The werewolf got a hold of the raven’s neck. Blood, as healthy and dense as human, splashed onto Soeun’s face. However, what made her sick to her stomach was that she began to understand the words that the bird was mouthing out without sound – her sweet, raven maid was urging her to leave: “Go, Mistress.”
Thanks to the distraction that Lily provided, she was able to get back to her room without too much of a scratch. She didn’t dare to close her eyes, afraid that the image of Lily would invade her mind. Now was not the time to dwell on the past. She needed to barricade herself somehow until the full moon disappeared, hoping that there were some truths to the myths and legends.
She turned around to see the owner of the low, steady breathing sound. There was the werewolf waiting at the doorway, her face and furs soaked in fresh blood – the blood of Lily.
She froze. There was nowhere to run now.
The werewolf widened her mouth, showing her perfectly sharp teeth and gums. A piece of flesh was stuck on her lower canine. Drools were dripping. Her blood thirsty eyes regarded Soeun as if the latter was a fascinating toy. Suddenly, she spat out a black ball. Satisfied that it rolled to Soeun’s feet, she turned and left.
Soeun dropped down immediately. Cold sweat started breaking out, but she could breathe again. She noticed a silver glint on the side of the ball and started sobbing.
She didn’t realize that she could manage to doze off after such eventful night until she felt a tap on her shoulder. Unable to really distinguish between raven facial features, she thought it was Lily at first. However, she quickly recognized it was Isabelle, the Head Housekeeper, by her demeanor.
“I’m sorry…” she uttered out the words, assuming that the Head Housekeeper must knew. If not, she shouldn’t be the one to wake her up.
“Don’t be,” Isabelle’s voice was strangely comforting. “That’s the life of a maid. Come on, let’s get you some breakfast at the dining hall.”
Meekly, she obeyed. As she left the room, she noticed how clean the room was, leaving no trace of the happening from the night before.
At the grand dining hall, she saw other human beings for the first time. She only assumed they were human because they looked the part and that there were raven maids standing behind them. There were eleven of them – all female, stunning and beautiful. Most were staring at her in curiosity as they whispered to each other, saved a few that did not even acknowledge her existence as they ate their breakfast calmly. Uncomfortable with the staring, she sat by herself at the far corner of the table. A hearty plate of egg and sausage appeared the moment she sat down. She was repulsed by the sight of the chicken noodle soup that was next to the plate.
“Hey newcomer, what’s your name?” One of the ladies at the table invited herself to sit next to Soeun. She extended her hand. “I’m Kim Hyuna.”
Soeun pretended to be mute and nodded politely towards the girl. She was beginning to think it was a jinx to introduce her own name.
The girl, named Hyuna, put down her hand coolly. She smiled and said, “You know, you’re very lucky that Gina is dead just when you’ve arrived.”
Several glances shot at Hyuna warningly across the table.
Hyuna was unfazed. Instead, she was more excited by the attention that she was suddenly receiving. She got up on her chair and spread out her arms widely. Her attention was to everybody else in the room. “Come on! We don’t want to start the game too early, do we?”
“That’s enough, Hyuna,” said one of the ladies who sat at the far opposite end of the table. She had a short, bob-cut. Her thick eyeliners made a stark contrast to her pale, white complexion. She looked as though she belonged to a punk rock band.
“You’re a killjoy, Ga-in.” Hyuna bored her eyes into the punk rocker who was now playing with a Swiss army knife. She stomped off her chair.
Soeun was never much of a sociable person, but even she could tell that the dynamic of the group was no different than some catty high school girl cliques. However, this one was much more dangerous and perhaps one wrong word could send draggers flying. She suddenly thought that she was smart for pretending to be mute.
The grand door opened shortly after the ladies settled to enjoy their morning meal in peace. Firm heel tapping was heard before the owner even appeared.
The majority at the table regarded the doorway with caution.
A young woman dressed in all leather and a big gray, fur overcoat walked in with her head held up high. She was accompanied with several soldiers with tin masks covered over their faces. They were also dressed in depressed gray.
Soeun noticed Isabelle went up quickly to the young woman and bowed respectfully. Strangely, the woman’s face looked familiar. She was making her way to the table. Even more surprisingly, she walked past all the others and stopped directly in front of Soeun.
“Looks like you don’t have much dark circles as I expected.” The young woman smirked and extended her hand forward. “I’m Yoon Jinyi, the Commander of the Northeast Wolf Clan. My apologies for my delayed formal introduction.”
Soeun frowned and glared at the wolf girl who attacked her and murdered Lily just the night before. She gritted her teeth through the handshake. How she wished to skin this woman alive.
Jinyi leaned forward and whispered, “Let’s play again sometimes.” Without waiting for a reply, she got up and turned to Isabelle. “Isabelle, isn’t Lily one of your top students?”
Soeun’s eyes widened at Jinyi’s words.
Isabelle seemed reluctant to answer.
“I’m sorry that she had to leave so soon.” The pretense in Jinyi’s voice was obvious. “But please know that her life was not wasted – her meat was rather delicious and very tender, just as expected from your favourite student.”
Suddenly, Soeun was guilty to even steal a glance at the Head Housekeeper’s face.
“By the way, where’s Jaerim oppa?” Jinyi asked Isabelle suddenly.
Soeun’s head turned up and saw Jinyi’s smirk directed at her as if the latter knew exactly what was going on.
As if the day could not get any worse, a muted crow was sent to her as Lily’s replacement. “I think she would be more suitable to your taste, Lady Soeun,” Isabelle had said. Despite the Head Housekeeper’s kind voice and mannerism, it seemed it was too early to pronounce that the raven did not hold any grudge towards Soeun for involving her favourite student’s life. Though, at least the raven had assured her that no one except for the assigned maids and herself could access the chamber. She reckoned that was the reason Jinyi did not finish her off last night. Isabelle left in a hurry after she sent out her last reminder about the time stone to Soeun.
“Cinnamon, you may go now,” she told her new maid. Then, she remembered some of the snacks that she had requested earlier. “Wait, have yourself some of these as well.”
The crow, Cinnamon, looked up to her Mistress, confused.
“We probably will be in each other’s company for a long while…So let’s…” she tried to smile,“be comfortable with each other.”
After the crow vanished, she realized just how much she missed her solitude. Compared to all the sickening horror she witnessed, loneliness seemed like a saintly sanctuary.
Though, even loneliness was now a luxury.
“Why are you here?”
She did not expect to hear his voice so soon.