Far west of Raven’s current location, a certain bird sat perched on a high beam within the so called Black Talon Manor. The former home of the main Nightingale family had once been furnished with abstemious luxury, with every installment contributing to a sense of elegance but never flaunting the family’s wealth. Now it was entirely different.
After the fire, the Nightingale Manor had been reduced to little more than cindered rubble so naturally the estate had to be rebuilt before the Talon family could move in. They had chosen to, supposedly, honor the previous residents of the palace-like manor by rebuilding it into an exact replica of what it had been before . . . only, a bit larger in scale, and with an extra room here and there.
Once completed, the family matriarch – that is to say Lady Anhinga – had put her own touch on the place by requesting large parts of the manor to be decorated with gold and copper inlays, quickly obscuring the original grace of the manor. Yet the changes hadn’t stopped there.
The bird looked out over the now clustered main hall, completely stuffed with things of extravagance, and an oddly human-like disdainful scorn shone in its eyes. It couldn’t help but burr up its feathers in annoyance as two servants walked in, hauling yet another addition the room’s so called splendor between the two of them – a tacky looking falcon made of gold and sparkling gems in different colors.
‘Is there no end to this . . . gluttony?’ wondered Hoatzin with distaste as the servants carefully lowered the falcon onto a small but sturdy podium next to his aunts throne in the center of the hall. This would not be the statue’s final position; it would only stay there for a few days, until Lady Anhinga grew tired of it and replaced it with a new one.
This wanton practice utterly enraged Hoatzin. He had been surveying the Black Talon Manor and the surrounding city for nearly six months now and it had grown clear to him that while his aunt and uncle practically bathed in wealth, the city around it was growing poorer with every passing week.
It couldn’t be seen on the surface – every house looked pristine and there wasn’t a shop that didn’t sell high end goods for exorbitant prices – but if you had insight in the lives of the people actually living in those houses and working in those stores, a shockingly large portion of them couldn’t afford to buy dinner most of the days.
Rage built up within Hoatzin as he thought of the unnecessarily high taxes that the Talon Clan demanded from the city inhabitants, which was nearly twice as high as it had been before.
Finally, the target of his anger strode in through the hall’s large double doors. As usual, Lady Anhinga wore a blue velvet dress while her pale grey-blonde hair was arranged in an intricate knot at the nape of her neck. New, however, was the golden circlet she wore over her brow like a crown. Next to her waddled her husband, the official head of the family but if there had ever been any doubts about who truly ruled the Talon Clan it was definitely gone by now. Uncle Gyps’ eyes were glazed with an odd sheen and his gaze was unfocused; while he previously had the mannerisms of a successful businessman at the pinnacle of his career, Hoatzin’s uncle now seemed almost hollow, only reacting to shiny gems and, of course, food.
Hoatzin had gotten the distinct impression that his aunt perhaps never really had loved her husband – she had been married to him for political reasons, arranged by her parents, but the man was too weak to match Anhinga’s ambitions. Once she took over her brother’s position, Anhinga had power in her own right and no longer needed to rely on the meeker Gyps.
Anhinga wasn’t alone in her low opinion of him though; when Dunlin used the midwinter break to come and visit his hometown, he had disregarded his father completely.
At the moment, Anhinga and her husband had just finished their breakfast and while Hoatzin was supposed to keep his eyes on his aunt at all times, he just couldn’t bear to watch them eat; a surplus of food would fill the dining table to the brim and Hoatzin’s uncle would turn almost savage as he gobbled down nearly half of it, all by himself. Of course, it was impossible for two people to eat all that food, so the majority was burned as trash. A stark contrast to the situation for the people living in the city.
Anhinga glided up to her large armchair and took a seat, barely glancing at the newest addition to the room. A servant rushed up to her and whispered in her ear; a guest had arrived. With a wave of her bejeweled hand, the servant urged Gyps away from the falcon statue that had immediately caught the man’s attention. Once he had left the room the wide doors swung open and an old man who Hoatzin recognized well walked in; the Talon Clan’s own council member, whose wrinkled face and equally rough voice made him seem absolutely ancient.
“Lady Anhinga,” he rasped and bowed respectfully. He kept his head lowered, waiting for the woman to greet him back, but no such greeting came.
“I trust you have come to explain yourself, Councilor.” Her voice was cold and filled with sarcasm as she used the man’s title.
The Councilor’s twitched. “My Lady, I don’t think . . . ”
“I know that already, old man. Your lack of thinking is the only reason I can percieve for why we are where we are.” Anhinga narrowed her eyes. “How hard can it be to instigate a war between three nations who don’t even trust each other?” The man opened his mouth to speak but was cut off yet again. “And what is this I hear about the assassination of those two brats failing? Surely you are not so incompetent that you can’t get rid off two teenagers practically living under your nose….”
“My Lady, we don’t know what happened…” the Councilor started carefully, but when he noticed the growing anger within Anhinga he was quick to continue; “but we believe the assassin Singer might have intervened. . . .”
A deafening bang rang out in grand hall as Anhinga slammed down her hand on the armrest of her chair. In her anger she had used spirit essence in her assault on the poor chair, causing the entire hall to vibrate; had not Hoatzin been used to these kinds of outburst by now, he might have been shaken from his seat up under the ceiling.
“Explain!” Anhinga roared.
“Well, according to the . . . two brats . . . it was Sky Academy’s headmaster who saved them from the assassination attempt, but Headmaster Swan was otherwise engaged at the time – we had made sure of that. Therefore someone else must have saved them, and gotten the headmaster’s aid to cover it up afterwards. The only person I can thi-. . . the only person who fits this would be Singer. We haven’t managed to gather any proof yet, but it seems like . . .”
“Proof? What do I care about proof? If this Singer is a threat then get rid of her!”
Up on his beam, Hoatzin’s small but sharp talons pushed down on the hard marble stone at the mention of his sister’s alter ego.
“That is easier said than done, my Lady. . . . The assassins protect their own and . . . ”
“Don’t you get it yet. you senile old oaf; I . . . don’t . . . care – get it done!” Anhinga got up from her chair, dense spirit essence storming out of her and pushing down on the old man. For a Councilor, the wrinkled man’s cultivation wasn’t half bad but compared to Hoatzin’s aunt, who somehow had advanced all the way to the border between mid and high Champion, there was little he could do to resist. “We only have seven more months before . . .” She cut herself short, calming her anger. “Anyway, just get rid of her and get that spark started – by whatever means necessary. I, and our friend, will take care of the rest.”
The Councilor stopped objecting at this point, simply nodding his head in agreement. Without further formalities, Lady Anhinga dismissed the poor old man, sending him off without any form of encouragement, besides fear of course. Aggravated, Anhinga sank back down in her seat, rubbing her temples. She muttered something about getting rid of unnecessary people once everything was over but Hoatzin wasn’t really paying attention anymore.
His body tensed, with both excitement and worry, as the very core of his being – the now substantially larger Soul Prism shard within him – informed him of an irrefutable truth; Raven was moving closer, and fast.
Without hesitating, Hoatzin took flight and left through an open window. As he took off, he could hear his aunt swearing; “Damn birds!” behind him before she violently slammed shut the high window he had left through, rattling the glass.
It was late evening when the large Everest Hawk carrying Javelin and the rest of the group finally landed in a small clearing, not far from the border between the Rock Wren Prefecture and the Black Talon Prefecture. They had been flying the poor bird hard – travelling distances that would usually take two weeks in one, only stopping when absolutely necessary.
Tired, Javelin stumbled out of the cabin and stretched his muscles. He took a deep breath of the lukewarm air and released it with a heavy sigh. There was no denying that this journey was . . . taxing for him; he couldn’t stop glancing over at Raven every chance he got, overwhelmed by the feelings for his long lost love. At the same time, he knew that he mustn’t be too obvious or she – and more importantly the twins – would realize something had changed. Judging by the twins’ awkward attempts at starting conversations, they might already know something was amiss.
As it was, Javelin wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep this up before he would let something slip.
Suddenly, Javelin felt a shift in the wind and before he knew it Aves was standing by his side. The man looked down at him with warm eyes, the setting sun reflecting in his white hair. “I suggest you and Junior Students Griffin gather some wild berries for us to enjoy this evening – it is so rare for us to stop for the night . Myself and Junior Student Night will arrange the rest of the food while you are away.”
At first, Javelin was confused – Aves barely spoke and when he did so, it definitely was not concerning what they would eat – but he didn’t really have a reason to oppose so, minutes later, the three boys where slowly searching through the dense bushes that grew in forest around the clearing.
They had been at it for perhaps half an hour when Javelin suddenly found his path blocked by none other than Lark. They boy stood, wide-legged and with his arms crossed, staring intently at Javelin.
“So,” he said, sounding very serious. “What is going on with you?”
Nearby Martin too had stopped searching for berries and instead sat down decisively, indicating that he wasn’t going anywhere until Javelin had answered the question.
“With me? Nothing really. . . .” Javelin couldn’t help but raise a hand to scratch the back of his neck.
“Aha! You’re lying!” Lark called his bluff, pointing at Javelin’s raised hand. “You have been acting weird ever since we left, no, perhaps ever since the Lunar Trials. Out with it – what is going on?”
“H- how have I been acting weird?” Javelin tired. “You two are the ones who . . .”
“Don’t try hiding it, Hake.” Martin’s calm voice cut him off. “We can tell that something has changed; you’re no fun anymore.”
“No fun?” Javelin didn’t understand.
“To talk to,” explained Lark, his arms still crossed. “We try to talk with you but all you do is give one-word replies before you lose interest.”
“Then what about Raven? Sh- uh, shouldn’t you be having this talk with him? He’s talking even less than me!”
Both Lark and Martin raised an eyebrow and glanced at each other.”Raven never talks, Javelin,” said Lark matter-of-factually. “Nothing strange with that,” Martin filled in.
Javelin stared blankly at his two friends. They had a point.
Back by the cabin Raven gave Aves a questioning look.
“They needed to stretch their legs,” he explained with a smile. Raven shook her head but said nothing, instead tossing some sticks in a heap and using her spirit essence to ignite it with a smoldering hand. Aves on the other hand didn’t seem to be done talking. “You like him, don’t you?” he asked and instantly the already lively flames seemed to freeze for a moment.
“Like whom?” she asked, feigning ignorance.
Aves initially only gave her a pointed stare but when Raven didn’t give in, he smiled crookedly. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know – liking someone.”
Aves was quiet for a while before he spoke again, pensively. “I can understand my Brothers fears concerning you….”
“Oh?” said Raven, finally giving Aves her full attention.
“You are too alone,” he replied solemnly. “Power and strength like yours corrupts, Raven. Especially if you’re on your own.”
Raven blinked a few times before she, to Aves bewilderment, started laughing loudly.
“I don’t think a friend or two can help me there, mister protector.” Raven looked out into the dark forest surrounding them, her eyes distant – suddenly revealing the age and wisdom she normally hid. Aves frowned, but before he could say anything Raven’s had eyes returned to normal. “Besides,” she said, smiling, “I’m not entirely alone.”
In the distance, faint wing beats told of a quickly approaching bird.