The moment the two remaining Shadow Blood Raptors released even more of their mysterious red mist, Raven felt her own blood act as if frozen; she couldn’t move an inch.
Raven frantically circled spirit essence through her body to dispel the effects but the process was too slow so she could do nothing as the hard tail of the closest raptor whammed into Raven’s side and sent her flying through the air. Searing pain shot through her practically undefended body but Raven forced herself to ignore it; she could tell right away that the raptor’s attack would send her off the cliff and since she couldn’t sense the ground below it was bound to be a long fall.
As she flew through the air Raven caught site of Javelin, who stared at her with terrified eyes. ‘Run to Aves, you nitwit!’ she thought, but since Raven’s body still wasn’t responding, the words never left her mouth.
Her line of sight to Javelin was broken but that didn’t stop her from suddenly widening her eyes in surprise; he had actually jumped after her.
“Raven!” she heard him calling as he dove towards her.
At this point Raven didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. On one hand, jumping after her was pure insanity – while Raven had fairly good chances of surviving most free falls as long as she was conscious, Javelin was not the same, any fall beyond two hundred meters would definitely kill him. On the other hand, the likelihood of Javelin managing to outrun the Shadow Blood Raptors, even only to the cabin – was perhaps even smaller.
‘At least this way, I should be able to help him. . . .’
Movement was returning to Raven’s body so she spread herself out let Javelin catch up quicker. It took barely a second before he reached her, his strong arms wrapping themselves around Raven tightly. She forced down a wince at the sudden pain as he inadvertently put pressure on her injury from the tail.
“Raven!” he shouted again, “are you okay?” Javelin’s own spirit essence poured into her as he activated a healing skill – right away his grip loosened a bit as he realized where Raven was hurt.
“Shut up,” muttered Raven and shifted her body so she was holding Javelin with one arm and her staff in the other – by the time Javelin had caught up with her, Raven’s ability to move was almost completely restored and with the aid of Javelin’s healing she was pretty much back to normal, in that aspect at least.
Raven looked downwards. She could still not sense the bottom of the ravine, but her eyes told her what she wanted to know: roughly 600 meters remained before they would slam into the river that was flowing rapidly beneath them.
“Shut up, and stay still.”
There was no time to hesitate. Using the wind resistance Raven moved herself and Javelin closer to the flat mountain wall while spirit essence flowed from Raven’s spirit core out into the arm holding the staff. A copper-like glow spread over the weapon before she thrust it diagonally downwards and into the mountain. One would expect the shrieking sound of metal on stone, but no noise was made as the staff penetrated a few centimeters into the stone and started grinding its way downwards.
Raven winced as the sudden friction slowed their decent considerably, at a high cost; inside her, Raven’s injuries were put under immense pressure as seemingly boundless spirit essence poured through her in order to keep the right pressure and angle on the staff.
‘Just a bit further. . . .’ Raven gritted her teeth and persevered.
However, just over two hundred meters from the ground, the mountain wall changed, growing more ragged and inconsistent, so Raven had no choice but to push away from it or risk hitting some protruding rock. Instead Raven held the staff beneath her and Javelin, spinning it at a steady pace. A thin membrane of spirit essence formed in front of the spinning staff, substantially increasing their wind resistance and preventing the speed from picking up as much as it should have. Nonetheless, they still plummeted towards the wild surface of the river too fast for comfort.
‘It’s not enough,’ thought Raven and, just as the two of them passed the five meter mark from the surface, Raven wrenched Javelin away from her and used the last remaining spirit essence in her body to throw the unsuspecting boy straight up in the air. Instantly Javelin’s fall slowed considerably, putting him well within the speeds his body could handle, but consequentially Raven smacked into to river even faster.
She had little to no spirit essence left to defend herself with so Raven only felt like her body hit a concrete wall before the world around her turned black.
A burning hot sensation filled Raven’s entire body, forcing her back to consciousness. She moaned slightly as her eyes opened to take in what her other senses had already told her; she was lying by the side of the river with Javelin leaning over her, treating her injuries. Raven was unsure how much time had passed, judging by the dim sky it was a few hours at most, but something she was certain of was that the river had taken them quite far from where they had landed.
Noticing that Raven was awake, Javelin’s face overflowed with relief as he embraced her tightly. “I was afraid I’d lost you . . . again,” he whispered if Raven realized what he had just implied, she didn’t react to it. Instead she shoved him off her angrily.
“You idiot!” she yelled, grabbing Javelin by his still damp collar. “Why did you come? Why did you leave the cabin?”
“I . . .” started Javelin, but Raven cut him off before he could say anything else. “You should know my strength better than most – if I couldn’t handle it, what could you possibly contribute with!?”
“I know!” Javelin shouted back, his fists slamming against the sandy bank beneath them. “I know that I’m too weak, but I can’t help it. . . .”
“Ha! Can’t help it?” Raven laughed sarcastically. “For fucks sake, all you had to do was to stay put – for less than five minutes, by the way – how bloody hard can it be?” She practically spat the words and was about to say more when it instead was Javelin who cut her off.
“Damn it!” he cursed and, to Raven’s surprise, Javelin’s hands grabbed her wet robes, pulling her in for a kiss. It was a clumsy kiss; forceful and short-lived, but Raven immediately felt her rage subsiding, her wild emotions stilling. Javelin broke off the kiss. “I love you, Raven! How can I stand by and just watch as you fight for your life?”
Raven stared blankly at the boy. In his galaxy-like eyes Javelin’s passion was clear as day.
‘He loves me?’ she thought absentmindedly, nearly forgetting the matter at hand; “but he’s so . . . young.’ While she had to admit that she enjoyed Javelin’s company – it seemed to have an oddly calming effect on her – she couldn’t love him. Not like his eyes told her he wanted her to. He was after all barely a teenager, a child.
As Raven was considering how to answer Javelin’s sudden confession the boy spoke again. “I know I can’t be of much help to you, but at least . . . at least let me be your shield when you need it!”
Raven’s body twitched. In her mind the image of a young man, who desperately threw himself in front of her just as a loud gunshot rang out in her ears, flashed by. Instantly, Raven’s rage erupted like a volcano; putting way more strength into her fist than advisable, Raven’s free hand punched Javelin in the stomach, sending him flying several meters before he collapsed on the ground in a miserable heap, sand flying everywhere.
Clutching his abdomen, Javelin coughed up several mouthfuls of blood but Raven ignored his pain. “I don’t need a fucking shield!” she roared, her voice reverberating between the steep mountain walls like thunder. “And even if I did, it sure as hell wouldn’t be you!”
With that, Raven turned and stormed off.
Pale-faced Javelin tried to get to his feet so he could follow her, but he barely got to his knees before once more collapsing to the ground, new blood filling his mouth.
“Shit,” he groaned between coughs. Javelin tried activating his spirit essence to heal the damage Raven had done but her punch had landed right on top of his spirit core and for some reason his spirit essence seemed momentarily sealed within.
All he could do was wait, wait and think.
Out of nowhere Javelin heard the faint sound of a small bird landing not far from him. He glanced up from the ground and noticed a mostly red bird perched on a large stone only a meter away.
“Tzin?” Javelin’s voice was rough as he spoke to the bird, who seemed to tilt his head in confirmation. “I really wish your namesake was here,” Javelin laughed hoarsely, causing him to cough again. “At least Hoatzin could have given me some advice about his sister. . . .”
Had Javelin been paying attention to the bird at this point, he would have seen its eyes go from confusion to apparent surprise, but Javelin had rolled over to lie on his back, staring up at the distant sky instead.
He lay there in silence for a long while.
“I really screwed up this time,” Javelin said eventually, his voice filled with self-scorn. “I’ve done some stupid things before this. . . . I could have gotten her killed.”
“Ever since I realized who she was . . .” Javelin paused. “No, perhaps even before then, the mere thought of her getting hurt makes my heart stop.” His fists clenched.
“I want to protect her!” he said with burning passion, but he quickly cooled down, his fists relaxing. “I want to, but I know I can’t. . . .”
Javelin couldn’t help but feel depressed. He knew that he was unlikely to ever catch up to Raven’s insane cultivation speed, leaving him permanently weaker than her, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to protect her.
“I should probably just keep my distance, as she asked me to. . . .”
While lost in his thoughts, Javelin didn’t notice his feathered company taking flight so the stabbing pain in his arm came as a complete surprise. He yelped in pain and glared angrily at the bird.
“What was that for?” he grunted, rubbing his arm, but it didn’t take long before he smiled warily at his assailant; it had been ages since Raven’s bird had attacked him. “I thought you didn’t like me hanging around your master – why get mad now when I’m admitting that I should stay away?”
Javelin reached out a hand to rub the head of the bird, expecting it to move aside like it always did, but this time the creature didn’t even flinch. Instead it stared at Javelin, its deep brown eyes piercing into him.
That stare caused Javelin to pull back his hand, meeting the birds gaze pensively. “What’s with you?” he asked again, more to himself than to the bird but to his surprise the bird reacted. It extended a small talon and amazingly enough started writing in the sand. Once done, the bird glared at Javelin once more before it flew off, leaving the boy staring at the word in the sand.
Further down the river, Raven had stopped and made up a small fire. She was still angry but that didn’t mean she would actually run off and leave Javelin behind.
“Took you long enough,” she muttered as Hoatzin’s red body landed on her shoulder.
“I know when it’s best to give you some space,” answered her brother calmly. “Are you sure you don’t want me to lead Aves and the twins here? They were awfully worried about you two.”
Hoatzin had seen the entire fight with the raptors and had, on Raven’s insistence, stayed with the twins until Raven called for him. Therefore, he had seen Aves defeat the raptor that attacked the cabin and also observed them take flight with the Everest Hawk, thereby avoiding the remaining raptors that hadn’t been killed when Raven and Javelin fell off the cliff. When Hoatzin left them, Aves and the twins were circling the area above the ravine, looking for them.
Raven looked up. The river had indeed taken them quite far down stream, well over a kilometer at least, and here the mountain walls were too close together for the Everest Hawk to be able to descend.
“Yeah, they would have a hard time getting here anyway.” With but a thought from Raven, a piece of paper appeared in her hand together with a charcoal pen. She scribbled down a message and handed it to her brother. “Might as well give them this though, to calm them down.”
Hoatzin, who had been looking as she wrote, gave her a sidelong glance. “You really think Aves will accept just waiting for you?”
“He doesn’t have much choice, now does he?”
If Hoatzin would have had eyebrows they would have been raised at Raven’s short comment – clearly, she was still not in a good mood. Hoatzin was just about to take flight when his ears caught the sound of approaching footsteps.
“Be kind,” he urged his sister; “he meant well.”
“Such intentions will only get him killed faster,” Raven snapped back mentally and Hoatzin said no more. Shaking his head, he instead flew off towards where he had last spotted Aves and the twins.
At that point, Javelin walked around the last bend in the river, giving him a direct view of Raven and the fire she had started. He moved slowly, clearly still a bit bothered by Raven’s punch, but there was determination in every step he took.
Raven chose to ignore him as she poked at the embers in the fire with a long stick.
Finally, Javelin reached her side. He stopped almost exactly a meter away from her, where he simply waited until Raven looked up at him. She couldn’t help but feel apprehensive of what he was about to say.
In her heart she knew that if Javelin couldn’t get to terms with the fact that she was not someone he could, or even should, hope to protect, Raven would be forced to distance herself from him completely. Her adult mind told her to do so regardless – on account of his feelings for her – but the notion unsettled Raven more than she cared to admit.
“I won’t bring it up again,” the boy said with cold determination in his eyes. Raven looked carefully at Javelin as he spoke – something within him seemed to have changed, but it was hard to say exactly what. “You are stronger than me – I accept that,” he continued; “I swear that from now on I’ll do exactly as you tell me to, no matter how I feel about it.”
He took a deep breath.
“I can’t protect you, I can’t even fight alongside you, but I can keep you company when the fighting is over.” Unexpectedly, Javelin suddenly bowed deeply. “So please, don’t push me away, Raven.”