Raven had no clear memory how she got there, but, ten minutes later, she stormed into her and Javelin’s dorm room. There, collapsed on the floor between their two beds, lay Javelin, unconscious.
“Javelin!” she called as she rushed forward.
Hoatzin – who had been using his talons to shake Javelin’s shoulders – flew out of the way and Raven crouched down next to the unconscious boy. Javelin looked peaceful; if not for the fading light of his spirit presence, Raven would have only thought he was only sleeping. Carefully, she sent the most gentle spirit essence she could muster into his listless body.
Systematically Raven moved her spirit essence through Javelin, searching for what was wrong, but the second she reached his stomach, Raven felt the control over her spirit essence slipping. A strong suction force grabbed hold of it instead and stared pulling the essence out of her like a black hole.
Startled, Raven cut off the connection to her spirit essence in Javelin’s body.
“What the . . ?” Raven didn’t finish her sentence before realization flashed by her eyes. She had felt this sensation before.
Five years ago, when she found a suspicious flower in an exotic bouquet that was gifted to her family by Anhinga, Raven had used her spirit essence to probe it. The sensation she got back then was the exact same as the one she had felt just now.
Raven frowned and glanced up at Hoatzin. ‘If this is the work of a Phoenix Death Lotus, how come brother is fine?’
“It was in a pill.”
Snapping her head around, Raven saw Fenris leaning against the door frame. His eyes were a lot more serious than she was used to.
“The Phoenix Death Lotus. You’ve dealt with it before, right?” Fenris spoke calmly. “It can be ground into a powder and turned into a medical pill. When ingested, the powder dissolves harmlessly and even gives some complementing effects to essence-cultivation.”
“Then why . . ?” Raven felt like her head was moving in slow-motion.
“There exists a Divine Skill that allows spirit essence to be fused with medical pills. If activated, the ingredients are burned.”
Raven’s eyes widened. “Burned?” she mumbled as she stared down on Javelin, her mind blank. She knew all to well what a burned Phoenix Death Lotus meant.
“So he is dying!?” Hoaztin’s panicked voice rang out in Raven’s head.
“Yes,” answered Fenris matter-of-factually; “he has too few spirit connections.”
“But you can save him, right?” insisted Hoatzin. “Like I was, by one of your rings.”
“Those rings can’t help him now. The link must be in place before he loses control over his spirit essence.”
“But . . .” Hoatzin kept arguing with Fenris, but Raven was no longer listening. Looking down at the young man in front of her, Raven felt her heart breaking.
‘He’s so young,’ she thought, stretching out a hand to brush away a golden lock of hair from Javelin’s handsome face. She leaned in closer and suddenly a drop landed on her outstretched hand.
‘Huh?’ Confused, Raven touched her own cheek. ‘I’m crying?’
“Dammit, bastard! There must be something you can do!” The loud shout caused Raven to lift her head. Still slightly dazed, she looked over at Fenris, expecting him to be focused on Hoatzin, but he was instead staring intently at her.
“Do you want to save him?” he asked solemnly.
“Yes.” Raven’s voice sounded weak and distant even to her.
The question caught her of guard. Raven didn’t know what to answer.
“I . . .” she started but Hoatzin didn’t wait for her to gather her thoughts. “Because they are friends, of course!” he shouted, cutting her off.
There was a moment of silence before Fenris spoke again. “Is that so, she-human?” he asked, his gaze ever so attentive.
Raven could only nod.
Fenris’ eyes narrowed slightly, but at the moment no one was observant enough to notice it.
“There is a way,” he eventually said; “but it is not without risks.”
“What risks?” Hoatzin asked suspiciously.
“Normally, there is only a one in a million chance it will work.”
“Well, under the circumstances the odds are significantly better, fifty-fifty perhaps.” Fenris smiled nonchalantly, as if the difference was negligible.
“And if it doesn’t work?” Hoatzin pushed.
Hoatzin gasped in shock, but Raven only frowned and looked down on Javelin.
‘Death?’ she pondered. ‘He is a friend but . . .’
Raven didn’t fear death – she hadn’t for a long, long time – but to give it freely for someone else?
No. Especially not with her brother in need of support and a certain aunt in need of dying.
She sighed and shook her head. ‘I’m sorry Jav. . . .’
“You won’t do it?”
Fenris question brought her attention back to him and she noticed that his gaze had yet to leave her even once since he entered the room.
“Not even when he has given his life to save yours before?”
“What are you talking about?” Hoatzin asked, equally confused. “Javelin is alive right now – how could he have died to save my sister?”
“Think about it, young Raven. It should have happened less than four years before you . . . passed on.”
At first Raven didn’t understand, but it didn’t take long before she realized what Fenris was talking about. A shudder ran through her body.
“Eric,” she whispered, not daring to believe it. Her hands grabbed hold of Javelin’s robes, but her eyes never left Fenris; desperate for a confirmation, yet afraid of getting it at the same time.
Fenris shrugged. “How could I know what his name was? But you are soul-touched by that boy and I have already told you what that means.”
Indeed he had. The words which Fenris spoke, all those years ago, echoed through her mind; “Listen, she-human, being soul-touched by someone is very rare. It only has a chance at happening when someone – who cares very dearly for you – dies while trying to protect you.”
Like a crack in a dam, hundreds of memories flooded Raven. Her first meeting with the introverted man who cared for nothing but his research; his reaction when he accidentally saw her skinny-dipping in a hot spring; her unwelcome reactions to his clumpy courtship; his quickly cooling body in her arms, bleeding so profusely that he dyed the surrounding snow red.
Raven looked down at Javelin, her hands shaking. Now, just like then, she could feel his temperature dropping fast; he didn’t have much time left.
“I have to save him. . . .” she thought, but, either by design or mistake, the sentence was carried over to Hoatzin as well.
Raising her head again, Raven saw her brother’s brown eyes staring back at her with endless worry.
“Big brother, I’m sorry, but I must. . . .”
“Great!” Fenris called out before either of the siblings could say anything more. With big strides, Fenris finally entered the room completely and sat down, cross-legged, opposite Raven. Strong, yet extremely gentle, spirit essence flowed out from his hands, enveloping Javelin in a deep-blue cocoon.
“I can sustain this boy’s life force for seven days by feeding my own spirit essence to the Phoenix Death Lotus within him. I suggest you use that time to put your affairs in order, young Raven; if there are any regrets within your soul, then the chances of success will drastically decline.”
At this point Raven felt immense gratitude. If she died right now there would be too many strings left unattached: her aunt would still be at large; her brother wouldn’t have anyone to look after him. A week would give her some time to change that.
“I understand,” Raven said with a nod and got to her feet. “I’ll deal with aunt Anhinga first. Brother, you should stay here while I-. . .”
“I am coming with you,” Hoatzin curtailed her.
“Brother . . .”
“I will not stay behind this time, sister; it is my revenge too.”
Raven didn’t want to agree, but seeing the resolution in her brother’s eyes, she had no choice but to give in. “Fine,” she said with a sigh before turning her attention back to Fenris. “Do we need to prepare anything for Javelin?”
Fenris shook his head, an enigmatic smile on his lips. “You have everything he needs already.” Noticing that Raven was about to ask something more, he was quick to add; “Questions later, young Raven. Your mind is made nonetheless, no?”
Raven held Fenris’ gaze for a moment. Eventually she glanced down at Javelin.
“Let’s go, brother,” she said and left without looking back.
Hoatzin hesitated for a moment, his eyes no longer as resolute as they had been before, but in the next breath he too hurried out of the dorm room.
Unexpectedly, he found that Raven hadn’t disappeared down the hallway as he had first thought. Instead she was standing just outside the door, looking off into the distance. Looking at her small figure, her back slightly hunched, Hoatzin couldn’t push down the worry he felt for her.
“Sister?” he called tentatively. His voice caused her body to twitch slightly. “What are you looking at?”
Raven eyed him over her shoulder, flashing him a insincere smile. “Nothing, but it seems like Javelin isn’t the only Advanced Student affected by the Phoenix Death Lotus.” She indicated towards an open door not too far ahead – frantic pleas could be heard from within. It sounded like an Elder trying to wake a student. “Come on, I need to find the Headmaster before we can go after Anhinga.”
Hoatzin followed Raven as she ignored the open dorm room and started making her way out of the building. For a long time, neither of them spoke but in the end Hoatzin couldn’t resist anymore. “Who is Eric?” he asked his sister, half expecting her to lash out at him for invading her privacy. She never did like talking about her past life.
To his surprise, Raven only glanced at him briefly before continuing her journey. At first Hoatzin thought that she had chosen to ignore his question, but, yet again, things didn’t go as Hoatzin had expected.
“You are a smart boy, Hoatzin,” she said after a moment’s silence. “I know that you – since long – realized that I was lying when I said that I couldn’t remember my past life.” Hoatzin was so surprised by Raven’s comment that he stopped flapping his wings, nearly falling out of the sky. Raven just kept moving forward though, ignoring his reaction.
“Fact is, there are few things I don’t remember about my past life, only . . . those memories are not the type you share.”
A lot of questions surfaced in Hoatzin’s mind but he kept silent. He was afraid that if he asked Raven might stop speaking all together.
“By all accounts, it was a harsh and bloody life, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it; I was well-trained that way.” A lonely yet vicious smile crept across Raven’s face. “Five years before my death, I was sent to the arctic pole – a place of constant winter and snow. Eric was my client.” Raven paused. “In a way.”
After this, Raven fell silent.
The next time she spoke, the two of them were seated on a transporter bird, headed for the imperial palace. Hoatzin was perched on her shoulder. “There aren’t many things I regret with my past life, except, perhaps following orders too easily, and . . . Eric.”
“He was a very honest man, to the point of naivety even. We . . .” Raven’s voice trailed off before she shook her head. “I have no misconceptions; Eric and I could never have survived together. Ending it early was the right thing to do, but. . . .”
Once more Raven became silent. This time she didn’t speak again. Up ahead, the blue stones of the Indigo Cloud Palace marked the end of their current travels.
Deep in the mountain forests of Rock Wren Prefecture, Anhinga stood at a haphazardly constructed table covered with maps and documents. Also at the table were six rough-looking men. They were as riddled with scars as the table was hidden by the papers; it was doubtful if the six men together could add up to one unblemished body.
“Our spies at court confirm: none of the people who Lady Talon said were present in the audience hall three days ago survived.” One of the slightly less scarred men spoke.
“Good, good,” Anhinga nodded approvingly without looking up from the document in front of her. “Then we can go on with the plan. Two days from now Podic and Cico will ambush the Sky Empire garrison at the border. Falc, Kite and Hamerkop, you will head for the west side of Sky City while Pittas . . . your group is the largest so you’ll take the east side on your own. Do not forget the uniforms. Dismissed.”
The six men looked at each other, seemingly uncertain about what to do next.
“Why are you still standing here? I said you’re dismissed!”
The men squirmed. “Ah, well. . . .” started one but Anhinga cut him off. “What!?” she shouted, clearly impatient.
“T-the men are talking,” the man called Pittas finally mustered the courage to speak, nervously fiddling with his axe as he spoke. “They . . . eh, they say these mountain forests are haunted.”
Anhinga snorted, clearly dismissing the tale.
“It’s true, Lady Talon,” interjected Podic, “there is talk of a fanthom spirit, moving through the night and luring men away with her song.”
“Yes!” The others nodded vigorously to support Podic’s claim.
“In fact, some of my patrols have gone missing since yesterday night,” Pittas added. “Perhaps we should change our location a bit earlier?”
Anhinga started laughing and just as the six men joined in her laughter, Anhinga slammed her hand down on the makeshift table so hard that it shattered. “Idiots! How can fully grown men like yourselves spew nonsense about spirits this and haunted that!? If your men are going missing, then they are either too stupid to find their way back, or someone is killing them off! If it’s the former, then good riddance. If it’s the latter, stop standing here and go find the person responsible!”
“But. . .”
“No buts! If they are corporeal enough to kill, then they are corporeal enough to be killed! Why don’t you spend the night hunting down the person or persons responsible rather than telling ghost stories?”
“Yes, Lady Talon!” the six men called in unison and quickly departed.
Anhinga sighed in frustration and leaned against what remained of the table. She raised her head, looking up at the pale white moon hanging high in the sky; it wasn’t quite full yet, but it soon would be.
“Ghost stories, ha!” she snorted, but deep down Anhinga felt uneasy. She had heard nothing from Gadwall since she left the capital and while she had faith in her spies, something felt off. “Don’t worry,” she told herself; “just a bit little more, and this world will be mine.”
A cold breeze swept past her and Anhinga shuddered even though she shouldn’t have. “Everything will be fine,” she insisted, but even as she said the words a distant scream caught Anhinga’s attention. She spun around in the direction of the voice but it was too far off for her to be entirely sure of its origin.
Anhinga strained her ears.
No, not silence. Somewhere, far away, there was something; a sweet voice, singing a melancholic tune; “Oh, dearest mine, where are you roaming . . .”