A slight breeze ruffled the dry, knee-high grass; in the distance a spirit beast howled eerily; soft chirps from some cricket-like bug filled the still warm night air. All in all, a fairly scenic moment in the Earth Empire grasslands. However, around the small grove of trees where a caravan headed for Sea Empire had been ambushed, the scene was anything but idyllic.
A wide area of grass had been flattened to the ground, leaving only a dark-red muck of leaves, mud and blood. More than a hundred corpses lay slain in small piles all over the place; the distinct tang of blood overpowering the scent of summer grass. It had taken just over an hour to reduce this once green area to its current state.
Raven bent down to pick up a dagger she had thrown moments earlier – wiping it clean on the dead man’s trousers before storing it in her dress’ right sleeve.
“What’s the meaning of this?” the sharp voice of Javelin’s mother turned Raven’s attention from the corpse to the blond woman. She was standing by her wagon with her arms crossed – her gaze firm and slightly disapproving.
“I’m sorry, mother,” Javelin replied, without asking how he had disappointed her.
“I asked you to kill thirty of them together, not fifteen each! Your teamwork is practically non-existent. . . .”
Raven couldn’t help but roll her eyes slightly; Javelin’s mother hadn’t been exactly clear when she gave the instructions. Still, Raven agreed that she and Javelin weren’t displaying any high-level cooperation, but why would they?
When battling the bandits, Javelin had been fighting all out, doing his best to utilize his high Adept cultivation to face off against numerous spiritualist, at similar cultivation levels, without dying. Meanwhile, Raven split her attention between toying with the bandits and subtly intervening whenever Javelin was close to getting injured. How was that the basis for any kind of teamwork?
Nonetheless, Raven bowed her head in apology. “I acknowledge my mistake, madam.”
The woman’s pale-blue eyes narrowed slightly, clearly unconvinced, but she let the matter go. “As long as you know. Your connection should give you an advantage – use it,” she reprimanded and then turned her attention to the oldest guard. Raven had come to know him as Colonel Shiner; a commander of over 2,000 troupes and one of madam Hake’s closest subordinates. From what Javelin had told her, Colonel Shiner’s track-record in the Sea Empire’s army was extraordinary; it was only due to his personal wish to serve madam Hake that the man hadn’t been made general by now.
“This campsite is no longer appropriate – continue to the next waterhole.” Madam Hake’s instructions were short and to the point.
“Yes, ma’am,” answered the middle-aged man, giving a quick salute.
“Javelin,” the woman continued.
“You may return to your wagon.”
Raven noticed Javelin’s body tensing slightly and then he looked over at her. Javelin hesitated and Raven could feel his conflicted emotions seeping into her via the bond that connected their souls.
“Don’t fret, Jav, I can handle your mother,” Raven reassured the boy through their mental bond.
“I know, it’s just . . .” Javelin paused and glanced down at the bandits on the ground. “Sorry.”
Without waiting for a reply, Javelin bowed to his mother and headed back to his wagon, quickly disappearing inside. The corner of Raven’s mouth twitched slightly. She knew that Javelin didn’t like holding her back and was desperate to catch up to her in strength. It was one thing he didn’t have in common with Eric.
Eric had also been significantly weaker than her, physically at least, but he had accepted that. However, thinking back on it, that was perhaps only because Eric already had another strong weapon to rely on; his intellect.
Roughly two months had passed since Javelin woke up. By now, not only his cultivation but also his spirit connections had been restored, increased even, making him a peak Adept with 48 connections – an impressive feat in itself for a thirteen-year-old. The only thing that still hadn’t progressed by much was Javelin regaining his past life’s memories.
Bits and pieces had returned to him – like some of the physics formulas Eric had used and the fact that Eric had once owned a dog called Peppers – but nothing truly substantial. Regardless, Raven couldn’t help but feel a bit anxious about what he might remember next.
‘Will he regret his decision when he remembers it all?’
Madam Hake’s voice called Raven back to the present. She looked up at the tall woman’s face, her eyes meeting those clear, ice-blue irises whose cold color was still unable to hide the warmth within. Raven smiled secretly to herself. This woman might be a well-drilled military woman, but her care and devotion still shone through.
Others might not be able to see it, but Raven could. She had seen it the moment they met.
Ten weeks earlier, at Sky Academy.
The news of madam Hake’s sudden arrival, and subsequent demand to take Javelin back to his home nation, had come as a huge shock. Especially so for Raven, who had spent quite a lot of resources on building up an extensive information network in the capital; how could she not have heard that Javelin’s mother – also known as Saint Major Tetra Hake, the legendary healer warrior – had come to Sky Capital?
Despite how strange that was, reality had to be dealt with, and by the time Raven and Javelin had made their way to the headmaster’s office, the poor Spirit Master had practically been shouted pale.
“How could I possibly leave my son in a school where his own teachers try to kill him!?”
Just as the youths had opened the door, madam Hake’s irate voice slammed into them. It wasn’t necessarily loud, but there was a force behind it that impressed even Raven.
No sooner had the angry words left the woman’s mouth than she suddenly spun around, her face stern. The second she saw Javelin though, her expression turned surprisingly blissful. Within a hearbeat she was by Javelin’s side, wrapping her arms tightly around him. “My sweet boy,” she whispered so softly only Javelin and Raven could hear it.
“Mom. . . .” There was a slight quiver in Javelin’s voice as he answered his mother’s embrace.
Normally, Raven would have secretly chided him for acting like the boy he was, but the overwhelming feelings of joy that Javelin transmitteded at that point had caught Raven off guard. In the end, she simply smiled, genuinely happy for their mutual affection.
However, the hug had turned out to be only a short reprieve from the storm. Suddenly, madam Hake’s body froze. She pulled back from Javelin and held him at arm’s length, a mix of confusion and horror on her face.
“My son . . . your cultivation . . . your soul prism . . !?”
Javelin habitually raised a hand to scratch the back of his neck nervously. There had been several messages sent back home about his conditions, both about his coma and his survival, but for various reasons, most details had been kept back. Headmaster Swan might know all the details, but what had he already told Javelin’s mother?
“Mother, I . . . um, Raven, she . . .” Javelin had faltered, unsure of where to start, but as soon as she was mentioned, his mother’s attention snapped to Raven.
“You are Raven Nightingale?” she demanded more than asked.
“Raven Nightingale greets madam Tetra Hake,” Raven responded with a respectful curtsy.
“Headmaster Swan tells me you saved my boy, but these changes. . . . Explain.”
Madam Hake’s demeanor had been overbearing, but Raven saw the underlying worry in her eyes.
“What is there to explain beyond what the letters and your probing hasn’t already revealed?” Raven replied calmly, completely unfazed by the woman’s attempts to make her feel cornered. “Your son was infected by the Phoenix Death Lotus, causing him to lose his cultivation and all his spirit connections, I saved him by sharing mine with him. Don’t worry about Javelin’s cultivation level, it will be restored, in-full, shortly.”
“Sharing? You are referring to the Soul Bound business. The headmaster told me a great deal about that too. . . .” Madam Hake’s eyes narrowed harshly. “You have chained my son to you for life, how can you call that saving him!?” She was shouting now, seemingly enraged, but Raven still noticed an underlying calm in the woman’s eyes. Madam Hake wasn’t as angry as she wanted them to believe.
‘Interesting,’ thought Raven. Outwardly, she smiled and said, “the boy still has a life, no?”
“Raven!” Headmaster Swan reproved, shocked by her disrespectful attitude, but Raven noticed madam Hake’s eyes twitching with something completely opposite of disapproval.
Javelin, on the other hand, missed it; he hurried to step between Raven and his mother. “She saved my life, mother. I do not mind staying close to her as payment. . . .”
For an instant, the same tinge of amusement flashed by in both Raven and madam Hake’s eyes. Javelin’s mother had carefully looked over her son, glancing between him and Raven. “You don’t mind, eh?” she finally said, not hiding the suspicion from her voice.
Instantly, Javelin’s cheeks had flushed red, but he stood his ground as he faced off against his mother’s scrutiny. At this point, Headmaster Swan had used the moment’s silence to return the discussion to the issue at hand.
“Madam Hake, you have now confirmed it. Surely you understand why Student Hake can’t leave Sky Empire – until their Soul Bond is stable, these two cannot be apart.”
Tetra Hake had only paused for a moment before she declared her solution; “then Lady Nightingale will return with us. She can finish her studies at our imperial academy just as well as here.”
Headmaster Swan’s jaw had dropped to the ground at madam Hake’s words. She had said it with so much determination that it left no room for argument, but how could the headmaster let his genius disciple go just like that?
Raven had been sure that a fierce argument would ensue after that, but, just as the headmaster had been about to speak his mind, there was a subtle knock on the door. Before any response could be made, the wooden door swung open.
The new arrival was none other than Empress Nene. As it turned out, Tetra Hake was, much like Raven’s own mother, a childhood friend of the Empress and she had hurried over to the Academy the moment she heard the news. Supposedly, the Empress had been eager to meet an old schoolmate, but Raven suspected that Nene had come with ulterior motives. She was right.
“Well then,” the Empress said once the pleasantries were out of the way, “what is this about you taking your son and our little Raven back with you to Sea Empire?”
“You knew?” madam Hake asked, looking genuinely surprised. She had after all come to that decision herself just moments earlier.
“Bringing an injured son back home is what every concerned mother would do, and considering how young Javelin’s recovery is tightly linked to his proximity to Raven, what else could you want to do?”
“Then you agree with me?”
“She didn’t say that . . .” Headmaster Swan had started but was cut off when the Empress surprised everyone by saying, “I do.”
Swan’s jaw dropped. “What!? Nene, Raven is invaluable to us! She is the cho-. . .” Swan coughed, “she is my disciple and also a future Prefecture Lord – how can you agree to this? She is barely ten!”
The Empress had only sweetly smiled, causing Raven’s eyes to narrow slightly; she had grown to recognize that look – Nene was up to something.
“It is precisely because of this that I want her to see more of this world. Besides, my son is currently in the Sea Empire, improving his military tactics. With him there, who would dare bully our little Raven?”
The Empress had turned her smile at Raven and the latter suddenly realized what the woman’s plans were. She had already tried to get Raven to agree to marrying her son on several occasions, clearly she hoped putting them closer together would do the trick.
After that, it hadn’t really mattered what arguments were put forth, the decision was final. Javelin was returning to Sea Empire and Raven was, at least temporarily, going with him.
Back inside her and madam Hake’s wagon, Raven thought back on the moment leading up to her departure from Sky City and couldn’t help but smile. The Griffin Twins had been really upset that she and Javelin were leaving, but it had been nothing compared to Headmaster Swan. One could almost see the storm-cloud hanging over him as he waved good-bye.
In fact, Raven was sure Swan would never have let her go if it hadn’t been for her pointing out that, unless either the Soul Bond or Javelin himself grew a lot stronger, it wouldn’t really matter how soon she became a peak Champion. She wouldn’t be able to leave for the realm tournament anyway. Besides, there were supposedly similar closed off areas like the reverse waterfall at all the academies founded by the three brothers who saved the Novum visitor; it would be interesting to explore the Sea Academy’s chamber.
Raven glanced up at the fierce yet alluring woman sitting across from her in the wagon. She had to admit that she kind of liked Javelin’s mother. The woman had a very pragmatic approach to life and while her temper might at times seem short, the underlying calm could not be hidden from Raven’s discerning eyes. In many ways, Tetra Hake used her quick temper much to the same end as Raven used her cold calm; to control the people around her.
To the rest of the world madam Hake was a strong-willed woman, famous for her unparalleled healing skills combined with her impressive mind for military strategies. Her husband was the highest ranking officer in the Sea Empire’s extensive navy, but Tetra Hake’s title – Saint Major – was certainly not just for show. The ‘Saint’ was appointed to her due to her healing skills, but the ‘Major’ meant just that – she was a major, commanding over fifteen thousand ground troops.
Just judging by the eight high Champion guards that had been sent to escort her, Saint Major Hake’s importance to the Sea Empire was clear.
“Satisfied?” madam Hake suddenly asked, drawing Raven’s attention back to the present.
“Are you satisfied, Lady Nightingale? My son tells me your senses are excellent, and that little stunt of yours earlier – leaving the wagon early to stretch – that was to entice the bandits into attacking, am I wrong?”
“I’m not sure I know what madam is talking about,” Raven replied, smiling wryly, “. . . but I’ve heard that Backridge Earthworm is one of Earth Empire’s delicacies; it would have been a shame to miss it now that we’re passing through.”
Tetra’s eyes twitched slightly. “You didn’t even collect the meat,” she pointed out, but Raven only shrugged.
She pulled out a white handkerchief and started wiping her slightly bloodstained hands, finding a small strip of flesh stuck under one of her fingernails.
“Up close, they were less appetizing than I expected,” Raven said as she loosened the bloody strip and nonchalantly flicked it out of the wagon.
Normally, Raven’s fighting style wouldn’t allow even a drop of blood to reach her, but she had been too bored lately and had wanted to let loose a bit. Besides, she wanted to get to know madam Hake’s temperament better so pushing the boundaries a bit was necessary.
Not surprisingly, Raven’s actions didn’t cause madam Hake to as much as flinch. She did, however, catch the latter slightly raising her blonde eyebrows at Raven’s “less appetizing” comment. Clearly, the irony in the statement hadn’t been missed.
The wagon started moving and Raven, who was done with her grooming, leaned back and pulled up her legs under her so she sat cross-legged on the padded bench.
“If madam Hake excuses me, I would like to meditate over the previous battle now.”
Tetra Hake gave her approval with a silent nod.
Several hours later, the caravan finally came to a halt once more. They had arrived at the next waterhole.
“We will set up the tents, ma’am,” Tetra Hake heard her driver calling from outside the wagon before he disembarked.
Sitting across from her, the still meditating Raven Nightingale made no signs of stopping her training and Tetra wouldn’t have been surprised if the girl hadn’t even heard the driver’s call.
Madam Hake extended her slightly sun-tanned hand to lift up the flap of fabric covering the wagon’s interior so she could glance outside. Her eyes immediately landed on the wagon that her son was riding in – together with the guardian that Headmaster Swan had insisted must join Raven on her journeys. If Tetra remembered correctly, the man was the headmaster’s younger brother, called Aves.
A soft smile spread across the mother’s face as she thought of the son she was bringing back home with her. The past five years and ten months had been hard on madam Hake; she might be used to sending her children away to train, but never had one of them been away for so long from home. It would be nice to have him back.
Sighing, Tetra turned her gaze back to the young girl sitting in front of her and a complicated expression filled her face. Raven Nightingale was a beautiful girl and, judging by what she had been told, there was a lot more to her than just good looks. At first, madam Hake hadn’t believed everything she had heard. How could a nine-year-old play such a vital role in liberating Sky Empire from a hidden foe, who few even knew existed? Even with her rumored, heaven-defying, peak Adept cultivation, she was still only a child!
No, Tetra had assumed that the reports were exaggerated; it was more likely that Headmaster Swan was giving the girl credit for his work. Perhaps so she would get a stronger standing as the new Prefecture Lord in-training. However, that assumption had quickly changed when she met the girl.
It wasn’t so much the fact that Raven Nightingale had kept her calm, even as she was being berated, neither was it the girl’s words nor actions that changed madam Hake’s opinion. It was something more abstract than that, and it was hard to pin-point.
Perhaps it was Javelin’s unyielding glare as he, for the first time, defied his mother’s wishes. Perhaps it was the way Headmaster Swan, the Spirit Master, treated Raven like some priceless treasure, despite her immature age. Or perhaps it was the girl’s eyes – those forest green eyes that looked steadily at everything yet sometimes seemed to flash with a blood-red tint, so vicious it sent shivers down Terta Hake’s spine.
Regardless of the reason, madam Hake held no doubts that there was more to this young girl than met the eye. However, only time could tell if it would be a good or a bad thing for her son.
Tetra sighed once more and smiled meekly; one thing was sure and that was that her son was smitten beyond rescue. Things would become complicated once they returned.