After the greetings, Raven was shown to a small chamber where a tub of hot water had been prepared in the middle of the room. Various fragrant oils lined the tub’s rim and a soft towel lay folded on a stool nearby.
“Change into these once you’re done.” Heron handed her a parcel of clean clothes and then left Raven alone.
Finally alone, Raven relaxed her muscles and walked over to the tub. She dipped her had into it to test the water. Its temperature was perfect; warm but not scorching.
“Four months. . . .” she sighed and started getting undressed.
“Umm, Sister. . . .” Hoatzin’s voice echoed a bit nervously in her head.
“Yes Brother?” Raven was down to her undergarments and paused to sniff an orange bottle by the tub – it smelled of sandalwood.
“You are aware of that I don’t really have any eyes to close in here, right?”
Raven raised a surprised eyebrow; she understood his concerns right away. She had of course been made aware of the fact that her brother wasn’t able to stop seeing what was going on around him, but he hadn’t really bothered to bring it up like this before. Then again, until now, Raven had only washed herself sporadically by wiping her arms and legs with a damp cloth.
“So? You are my brother – it’s not like you’ve never seen me naked before?” Raven chuckled. “Besides I’m only four, there is not that much to see.”
“I know and you are right,” he replied, and the nervousness in his voice lessened. “I just figured it was best to remind you before, rather than to have you be mad at me afterwards.”
“Thank you for your concern, big Brother.”
Raven tilted the orange bottle and let the oil pour into the tub. Taking off her last piece of tattered clothing, she slipped into the bath with a content smile on her face.
‘Ah, I have missed this!’ she thought to herself as she closed her eyes. ‘Hehe, Brother is still too polite and innocent . . . it kind of reminds me of Eric.’
Raven thought back to the odd scientist she had been assigned to protect as he studied the effects of solar flares up in the arctic pole – apparently his research had quite a few military applications and his sponsors wanted to keep their investment safe. Eric had once walked in on her while she was bathing in a natural hot spring close to the science station and had nearly fainted when he saw her. Of course, it might have been more due to the shock of seeing all her scars, than seeing the naked Raven herself. Perhaps it was the combination of the two.
Raven’s face grew solemn as she thought back on that mission – her employers might have been satisfied with the results, but for her it was one of her few failures. . . . She sighed heavily and sank deeper into the tub, nearly disappearing completely beneath the surface.
After soaking in the tub for fifteen minutes, Raven reluctantly got out and dressed in her new clothes – a blue, two-piece cotton set, perfect for working in – and made her way to the room Heron had indicated before. Outside the room she paused to listen at the discussion going on inside. Normally, the thick doors would make eavesdropping rather hard, but Raven had no trouble hearing the conversation going on inside – to her, they might as well have been screaming right next to her, it made no difference.
Within the room Raven could clearly feel the presence of two people – she had yet to recover enough to be able to tell who they were by their auras alone, but their conversation revealed that they were Heron and his wife.
“Husband, I heard the other wives talking – is it true that the amount of bandits between the Gates has increased?” The wife’s voice sounded quite concerned.
“It is true, according to the leader of our hired mercenaries, something has scared the bandits shitless and they have been flooding into the area during the last couple of weeks. Rumor has it, an ancient spirit beast has re-appeared in the Great Woodlands and it slaughters any bandits who enter.”
“I don’t know if it’s true or not but the bandits seem to believe it, and many have opted to take the ‘safer’ option of preying on people passing between the Gates.”
‘Hmm, could they be talking about me, perhaps? I didn’t think the tales of those three men would be so effective. . . .’ Raven frowned slightly. ‘After all, it was only a one-time thing. . . .’
As Raven pondered this, the conversation continued inside.
“But don’t worry, my wife, I have sent word to the mercenary’s guild about hiring an additional group for the passing, so we will be safe either way.”
The wife clicked her tongue.
“And what of our profits? If you hire any more people, we won’t have earned anything this trip.”
The sound of chairs scuffing across the floor could be heard as Heron pulled his wife into his arms.
“Oh, come now, don’t be so stingy – or safety is more important. Besides, the kid saved us from a large loss today, you could say that it almost evens out.”
“Hmpf, you compare a hair pin, worth a couple of gold, with the cost of adding another mercenary crew? Honestly, how you managed to make a profit out of your merchandise before I married you is beyond me.”
“Ha! You mistrust my mind for business that much? I’ll have you know that I offered to pay no more than one gold a head for the extra group – there must be some group heading over to Wren Prefecture, for some other mission, that wouldn’t mind earning just a little bit extra on the way. “
The wife snorted but didn’t lecture Heron further. Heron on the other hand seemed amused by his wife’s retort and started to snuggle her closely, whispering something in her ear that Raven couldn’t work out.
As Raven noticed the change in atmosphere in the room, she briefly considered if she should walk away and leave the pair to their pleasures. However, a presence approaching from downstairs, which was accompanied by the scent of smoked meats, made the decision for her.
She lifted her hand and knocked politely on the door.
“Mister Heron? I am done.” She spoke in a steady voice with her mouth close to the door, so that they would hear her inside despite their unfolding activities.
The snuggling came to an abrupt halt and a few coughs could be heard before an answer came.
“Come in, Raven.” Heron called.
With a light push, Raven opened the door and walked in to a rather spacious room.
At a table by the fireplace sat Heron and his wife, a plump little woman with flushed cheeks. It was apparent that both husband and wife enjoyed to eat.
“Thank you for the clothes, sir.” Raven bowed stiffly.
“Don’t mention it, don’t mention it.” Heron laughed and looked over at his wife. “Ardea, this is . . .”
Mid-sentence, Heron was interrupted by a loud knock on the door.
“Room service!” shouted a nasal voice on the other side and before Heron had a chance to answer, the door swung open and a woman dressed for working in the kitchen walked in with a large tray filled to the brim with meat and bread held high in one hand and a sizable tankard of ale in the other – how she hand managed to open the door was hard to say.
Without waiting for instructions, the woman – whose appearance was about as crude as her temperament – placed her cargo at the table, wheezed “Enjoy” in her nasal voice, and left.
Raven raised an eyebrow as she looked at the closed door. ‘Charming. . . .’
Apparently, Heron and his wife were used to this behavior by now and simply glanced at each other; if they had expected higher standards from the staff in the beginning, they had clearly accepted it now.
“You must be Raven,” Ardea said, breaking the silence. “I am Ardea, Heron’s wife.”
“Hello, ma’am.” Raven gave another stiff bow.
Ardea stood and walked over to Raven, who had remained by the door.
“Heron told me you helped stop a thief today – very well done!” Ardea smiled a warm smile as she spoke.
When she reached Raven she paused for a moment to glance down at the metal shackles barely visible below Raven’s new pants and then at the cloth that was meticulously wrapped around Raven’s right hand and arm as a bandage. Pity filled her face, momentarily drowning out the warm smile, before Ardea gently placed a hand on Raven’s shoulder. Raven flinched slightly from the contact but didn’t move away, and Ardea’s smile warmed once more.
“Come, you must be hungry.” She guided Raven to the table and pulled out a chair for her.
“Mayeri! Food’s here!” Heron called as Ardea motioned to the food. “Eat.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Raven reached for a piece of bread, just as Mayeri rushed into the room all smiles – clearly she too liked to eat.
“Dinner!” In a flash the little girl had taken her place at the table and started filling her plate. She only paused for a second to smile at Raven and get out a “Hi, Raven.” before her focus turned back to the food.
“I take back my statement from before about girls and eating,” chuckled Hoatzin. “This girl’s appetite is worse than yours – by far.”
Raven had to force herself not to chuckle at her brother’s comment.
There was a lot of food present and after some coaxing, Raven too started to eat with more enthusiasm. As the family ate, they listened to Mayeri talk about what she had done during the day and both parents engaged in various discussions with her. They tried to involve Raven as well, but she rarely contributed with more than a few words at a time, seemingly unsure of what to say regarding a seven-year-old girl’s daily life.
Once the subject moved on to the coming journey, relief flooded Raven’s face and the surprised family was suddenly bombarded with questions: What route will we take? Have you been to Wren Prefecture before? Is it different from this prefecture? Will we see bandits?
Eventually both the food and the questions ran out and the dinner came to an end. The table was cleared and a mattress was placed on it for Raven to sleep on. Everyone said their good-nights and went to bed imminently because, as Heron pointed out: “It will be a long day tomorrow.”
Raven climbed up in her bed and lay down, but instead of sleeping she started meditating – the position was not as efficient as when sitting cross-legged, but she wouldn’t have to interrupt her meditation if any of the family members moved around during the night. Spirit essence flowed in through her 146 spirit connections, into her core, where some of it was sucked up by the vortex and the rest passed through only to be dispersed throughout her body and absorbed by her various cells.
She repeated the process over and over. Her progress was astounding; with every breath she grew a bit stronger as her cells improved and her core’s capacity expanded with it. Every time essence passed through her core, it managed to absorb a little bit more. It had only been two months since Raven broke through and became a low Adept; statistically speaking it should take her five years to become a mid Adept, if she cultivated outside of an academy, but Raven had a hard time believing it would take anywhere near that long for her.
While Raven quietly meditated in her make-shift bead in front of the fire, Mayeri lay awake in her bed. Her parents had talked to her about the black-haired boy, Raven, as they’d tucked her in.
“You’ll have to help us take care of the boy, Mayeri,” her father had told her. “He’s been through a lot and needs a friend.”
Her mother had then laughingly joked about it being good to have a cute brother, but the laugh hadn’t reached her eyes. Her eyes had instead been sad. As Mayeri thought back on it she couldn’t help but wonder what it was the boy “had been through” that made her parents feel so sad for him. She grew more and more curious about it with every passing minute. She decided that she would try to find out more on their journey.
‘He is cute, though. . . .’ she thought and hid her blushing face under the covers.
Dawn broke and the moment Raven sensed movement from within the room where Heron and his wife slept, she halted her cultivation and got out of bed. She moved over to the darkest corner in the room, where she huddled up in a ball with her back against the wall.
“A good morning to you too, Sister.” Hoatzin’s sarcastic voice filled Raven’s head.
“Good morning, big Brother.” she whispered so softly that barely even Hoatzin heard her.
“I preferred it when you were travelling alone, at least then you could speak to me a bit. . . .”
Hoatzin sighed and Raven would have answered him that he would need to get used to it, but at that moment she felt how Heron, who had been busy getting dressed, walked towards his bedroom door. Seconds later he gently opened the door and walked into the room on quiet feet.
When he noticed that the table bed was empty he looked around the room, as his eyes fell upon the huddled figure of the young boy pressed up against the dark corner, he sighed heavily. ‘Poor kid. . . .’
Heron walked over to Raven with heavy steps, hoping not to surprise the boy too much, and placed his hand on the kids shoulder to wake him. Raven jumped up at the touch, pressed her body hard against the wall behind her and looked around her with scared eyes.
“Easy, boy, you are safe here.” Heron’s voice was calm and soothing, and Raven was secretly impressed with this fat merchant’s way of handling scared kids; if she had been the slightly traumatized boy she was pretending to be, she would most likely be pacified by this man.
As it was, her eyes slowly focused on Heron and, with a flash of recognition, she calmed down.
“Good morning, Raven,” Heron responded, still calm and soothing. “It is time to get to work.”
Together they left the inn to prepare for the journey that would start in only a couple of hours. Before they left, Heron had checked at the counter to see if the Mercenary Guild had accepted the escort mission – which they had – and also grabbed a couple of fruits from the kitchen as breakfast.
Heron worked quickly and with the help of his guards, the other two merchants who would join his caravan and of course Raven, the preparations for the journey were quickly taken care of. Three hours later, Heron and Raven were standing next to three wagons close to the passage gate that gave the town its name. They were waiting for Heron’s family and the mercenaries that were going to protect them on their journey.
The mercenaries were the first to arrive. Raven raised a surprised eyebrow when she recognized the two groups arriving. The first group, consisting of five people all dressed in white, was led by the middle-aged man known as ‘Old Man Hog’. The other group was twice as large Hog’s, everyone completely dressed in red, and was led by ‘Big Boy Twig’. Oddly enough, the two groups seemed to be on quite good terms, laughing and telling jokes to each other as they approached.
“I guess you were right about the whole talk-things-out-with-fists thing. . . .” Hoatzin muttered.
Heron greeted the two groups respectfully. It was clear from the conversation that Hog was the original group and Twig was the extras.
“Haha, all this crazy talk of monstrous spirit beasts in the Woodlands is most beneficial to us. Who would have thought that we could add ten extra gold to our original mission earnings without doing anything extra,” Twig laughed.
“You still have to protect your charges, Twig.” Hog gave Heron a small bow. When he looked up again he noticed Raven leaning against the wagon behind Heron. His eyebrows lifted ever so slightly.
“A servant of yours?” Hog asked and indicated towards Raven.
Heron followed his gaze.
“Ah, yes. That is Raven, he is my new assistant. Come and greet our guards, kid.”
Raven stalled for a moment before she walked over to the group.