“You should leave.”
That’s what his sister had told him as she pulled the sword that their father had given her out of Dunlin and plunged it into the ground in front of Jack. The latter had stopped seizing for the moment, and had instead been staring absentmindedly at the Sky knows what.
Raven’s manner of speaking had been guarded and distant, and at first Hoatzin had wanted to stay, desperate to close the gap he could feel his sister putting up between them. He considered what he should say but as he started to voice his opinion, Raven cut him of.
“I know, brother. . . . Leave for now, okay?” she said as she looked up at him with an oddly warm smile which didn’t really reach her eyes.
Hoatzin was stumped. Raven’s voice was neither mad nor sad, or even pleading – she might as well have been asking him what time it was.
The two siblings stared at each other for a few moments before Hoatzin eventually did as he was told, his red wings shaking slightly as he took to the air and headed down into ravine Raven had come out from.
Left alone with the two boys, Raven’s mouth twitched slightly, an unreadable expression on her face.
‘I’ve scared you enough, brother mine,’ she thought to herself before turning her attention to Dunlin who lay, bleeding, behind her. She ignored Jack completely; even though Raven had reined in her killing intent, the boy was too far gone to be a threat to anyone any time soon. ‘I might as well vent some of it on this one, while I’m at it.’
A devilish grin adorned Raven’s beautiful face and, with a flash, a handful of different silvery tools appeared in her left hand. She crouched down in front of Dunlin and used her free right hand to grab a hold of the latter’s chin. Two terrified and pained eyes met hers, causing her grin to turn even more devilish.
“You know,” said Raven absentmindedly as she fiddled a long silver needle in one hand and moved Dunlin’s head left and right with the other, as if examining something. “I read this amazing article once upon a time about a taxidermist wh-. . .” Raven paused and tilted her head to the side. “Oh, that’s right, there is no such thing here. . . . Well, a taxidermist is a person who takes the fur and skin of dead animals and then props them up with wood, wool and wire to make a lifelike statue of the real thing. These stuffed creatures can then be used to decorate homes and the like – neat, huh?”
Raven didn’t bother to wait for an answer as she continued examining Dunlin’s paling face. “Anyway, there was this one taxidermist who made it his life work to make extremely life-like human dolls, using real human skin. Most importantly, he was really adamant about the fact that his victims had to see the finished product before they passed away. Now, simply flaying someone without killing them right away isn’t that complicated but if you want to use the skin for a doll. . . .”
With admiration in her eyes Raven let go of Dunlin’s face and leaned back – as if daydreaming of past times – but then suddenly she sighed, looking a bit dejected. “I’ve tried to replicate his methods a couple of times in the past but every single time the person ended up dying on me before I got the doll done!”
Had anybody, who still had their wits about them, heard Raven’s monologue they might have taken her words for an outright lie – how could a preteen girl possibly have experimented with such horrendous acts? – but Dunlin believed her; heart, body and soul, he believed her!
“P-Please. . . ,” he tried, pleading, but Raven ignored him. “Fortunately,” she chimed instead, smiling sweetly; “I’ve recently learned that a combination of torture and Divine Healing Skills produce quite favorable effects – I’m quite confident I’ll succeed this time.”
Perhaps the realization of what was to come managed to scare Dunlin more than Raven did because he managed to force his legs to push him back away from Raven, but he didn’t get far. “Oops, nearly forgot!” she chuckled as she, with a well practiced flick of her wrist, stabbed the silvery needle she had been fiddling with into the back of Dunlin’s neck. Immediately his body slumped helplessly to the ground.
“Wha-?” Dunlin didn’t understand what had happened but he could feel cold pulses of spirit essence flowing out from the needle and into his spinal cord, rendering him unable to move anything below his neck.
“I can’t have you thrashing about as I work on you, can I?” Raven kept smiling as she bent down and picked up a set of pliers and a sharp knife. “Well then, it’s a bit unconventional and it will require a few extra incisions, but I think I’ll start with the feet.”
“No! Please!” Dunlin begged, his eyes overflowing with tears, but no amount of begging could save him now.
Seconds later, the real screaming started.
Dawn had turned to mid-day but the clouds above the ravine had yet to disperse so no sunlight reached the bottom where Javelin sat, cross-legged and looking a bit pale. On a large boulder in front of him sat Raven’s red bird who kept glancing up towards the top of the ravine. Although Javelin had learned that this bird was capable of human communication, the two of them made no conversation beyond Javelin asking what was wrong and getting the word Dunlin as a reply.
It might have been hours since the screaming had started, but that did not mean it had stopped. Amplified by the cold stone walls around them, neither man nor bird had any problem hearing Dunlin’s pained wails that came and went like waves on an ocean.
Javelin sat there, on the sand, and felt sick to his stomach, yet oddly enough, it wasn’t the screaming that was the cause of it; after the first hour of screaming Javelin had felt that perhaps Dunlin had already got what he deserved, but, since he knew how personal it was for Raven, he didn’t really mind that it continued.
However, as time went on without the screaming coming to an end Javelin started to grow anxious. He felt anger, fear and sadness all at once – not because of what Raven was likely doing to Dunlin, but because she felt the need to do it and he wasn’t there to help her pick up the pieces!
On an intellectual level Javelin knew that this was an immoral standpoint to have – however nasty, over four hours of brutal torture was a bit uncalled for when dealing with a teenager – but in his heart, Javelin only cared about what Raven must be going through right now.
Suddenly the bracelet around Javelin’s wrist, which had been inactive ever since Raven stopped using the Ode of Woe, started to vibrate erratically. It wasn’t a strong vibration, but to Javelin it felt as if it was about to break.
“Raven. . . .” he breathed and got to his feet, but before he could take a step forward, his forehead heated up as the soul-oath blocked him from moving forward. “Argh!” Javelin screamed in frustration and kicked a nearby rock with all his might.
At the same time, Raven’s red bird shot of from his stone, flapping its wings anxiously in Javelin’s face.
“I know something has gone wrong!” he yelled and swatted at the bird; “but I can’t do anything about it!” Javelin jabbed a finger at his own forehead. “I’m oath bound to stay here!” Javelin kicked another stone, this one exploding the moment it got in contact with his foot.
Above, the screaming intensified and so did the red bird’s desperation. As Javelin watched it, it seemed torn between going to its master and staying with him.
“Go,” urged Javelin, but the bird seemed even more hesitant; “she needs one of us and I can’t follow her until I’m asked to. . .”
The bird’s brown eyes widened with sudden realization. Not hesitating anymore, it dove down to the ground and, under Javelin’s confused gaze, started scribbling something in the sand. It didn’t take long before Javelin’s eyes widened as well, while the burning pressure in his head lessened. At once he turned around and ran towards the ravine wall, copying Raven’s movements to make his way to the top.
On the ground below, one sentence was written with poor penmanship in the sand: I order you to follow her.
Although skilled at climbing, Javelin could not match Raven’s speed. It took him ten times as long to reach the top and by then the screaming had finally stopped. What met Javelin as he finally landed above the ravine was a truly gruesome scene.
There was blood everywhere.
Suspended in the air was the body Javelin could only assume to be Dunlin, his arms stretched out wide like a cross. It was hard to tell if it was him or not since every single scrap of skin was gone, but his lid-less eyes were somewhat familiar as he did nothing but stare, dazed, at the figure hunched over on the ground in front of him. Amazingly enough, Dunlin was still alive.
Not too far away, two Shadow Blood Raptors lay dead next to Jack, who also stared mindlessly at the figure in front of the flayed Dunlin. Constant muttering could be heard, as Jack endlessly repeated “Nightingale kills . . . Nightingale comes . . .” as if in a trance.
All this was indeed very gruesome, but Javelin barely took it in. His eyes were likewise focused on the figure on the ground, who was covered in almost as much blood as Dunlin. Only her long, midnight-purple hair seemed to have passed the ordeal without being tainted by the color of blood.
As he watched her, Raven slowly stood up, leaving what looked like a pile of flesh on the ground. She was still facing Dunlin but as soon as Javelin saw her straight back, another image flashed by in his mind. It was vague and diffuse – a woman, perhaps . . . covered in scars, both inside and out – and suddenly Javelin felt even more upset; why did someone so caring have to be forced to do something so cruel?
Without reflecting over the oddity of this sudden thought, Javelin dashed forward, determination burning in his eyes.
The second he moved, Raven’s body twitched and she slowly turned towards him, glaring viciously, but Javelin ignored the look of pure hate that radiated towards him from her now pitch-black eyes and kept moving forward.
When he was less than three meters away, Javelin felt as if his body had hit a brick wall; an incredibly oppressive aura blocked his path forward. It was overflowing with savage rage; unbridled and wild.
For a moment, Javelin’s progress was halted and no matter how much spirit essence he put in to it Javelin barely moved an inch. However, out of nowhere, the bracelet at Javelin’s wrist – which had been on the verge of breaking completely only moments before – suddenly became still. Seconds later, that same nurturing, soft light surged out of it, encasing Javelin in a protective halo. Instantly the resistance was gone.
There was a slight look of surprise in Raven’s pitch black eyes but her reaction was too slow, so before she could move out of the way, Javelin had already reached her, his arms spread wide.
The moment Javelin made contact with Raven, two vicious and beastly eyes flashed by in his mind, accompanied with a roaring pain, but Javelin ignored it all. He embraced Raven firmly, refusing to let go even as she struggled in his arms.
“It’s okay,” he whispered in her ear. “It’s okay now.”
Raven kept struggling but she didn’t manage to break loose. If she really used all her strength, there would be no chance that Javelin would be able to restrain her, but Raven seemed to be struggling more with herself than with Javelin.
“No matter what you do, I’ll be here, okay? You are not alone, Raven.”
A shudder ran through Raven’s body. With a sigh, the savage aura that had been surrounding her disappeared and Javelin watched as the darkness in her eyes withdrew – to his surprise, what met him was not the normal blood-red eyes he had come to know, but rather two forest-green emeralds, shining with unexpected warmth.
“Thanks. . . .” Javelin heard her whisper just before Raven’s legs buckled and she grew limp in his arms.
Far south, the two vicious eyes, located deep in Sky City’s reverse waterfall, were still unblinkingly trained north.
A heavy sigh rang out in the cave around the waterfall, causing loose stones to vibrate erratically, as if in a strong storm.
“Both paths have been revealed. . . .” said an archaic voice which no one was there to hear. The voice was neither happy nor sad, neither bored nor excited – it simply was.
For a while nothing more happened until, with a second sigh, those sinister eyes slowly started to close, returning the cave and the waterfall to their normal states.