Another week passed by, rather uneventfully, as the nondescript caravan made its way south at a steady pace. No other bandits had tried their luck, and since the group only stopped to rest in tents once a week, the sixteen horses had basically just kept up a steady canter day in and day out – and it was by no means slow. Normal horses wouldn’t have made it from sunrise to sunset under such treatment, but these sixteen mares were different; they had been bred by mixing the best horse lineages possible with various spirit beasts, resulting in incredibly sturdy, yet fiercely loyal mounts.
These horses were ideal for the long journey across the Earth Empire’s vast grasslands, but at the moment Javelin was cursing their existence.
“Bloody, runaholic beasts. . . .” he grunted, almost loud enough to wake Aves Swan whom he shared his wagon with. Javelin glared angrily at the horses he could see through an opening in the wagon’s canvas.
To be fair, Javelin knew that his anger was a tad misguided. It wasn’t so much the horses that were annoying him, but rather the travel schedule they enabled. Most days were spent almost entirely in the wagons, which was not only boring, but also frustrating since it meant he had very few moments that he could spend with Raven.
Yet again, the horses were not the largest contributing factor for this. Javelin could have blamed his mother for insisting that Raven and him could in no way share the same wagon, but what good son would curse his own mother?
Likewise, he could be upset at the centuries old laws prohibiting tamed Everest Hawks from crossing the continent, but it had been his nation who wrote that law in the first place. . . .
Javelin even briefly considered blaming whoever formed Trinity into a tilted disk that only gave the Sea Empire proper water access, but cursing a god – what idiot would do something like that?
No, the only things Javelin felt comfortable blaming were the horses and their unnatural stamina.
Still, just because he rarely saw her, it didn’t mean that they had no contact – they were Soul Bound after all. They could feel each other – almost like you can feel when someone touches your hair – and they could talk to each other.
They actually talked quite a lot, or rather, Javelin asked questions about their past life and Raven sidestepped answering.
“I’ll only answer questions about details of the things you’ve already remembered,” she had said when Javelin, for the hundredth time, asked how Raven had become a high-profile bodyguard at such a young age.
Javelin didn’t really understand why Raven didn’t want to talk about it more though. He could tell that part of her really wished that Javelin would remember his past as Eric, so why keep quiet about it?
At that moment, a familiar sound outside the wagon caught Javelin’s attention, which quickly dragged him out of his grumpy mood.
“Welcome back, Hoatzin,” Javelin called out mentally as he pulled back the wagon’s fabric to make the opening a bit larger.
Glancing outside, Javelin noticed a spread of pitch black clouds in the distance – whether they would bring any much-needed rain was still unclear though. Seconds later, a blazing red and slightly over-sized nightingale swooped inside, silently landing on a fluffy pillow that was prepared precisely for the bird in question. “How was the capital?”
“Thank you,” Hoatzin replied, nestling into place on the pillow. “It was smaller than I had expected, but highly organized. Very interesting.”
Javelin raised an eyebrow quizzically. He had never really seen the ‘interesting’ part of city planning.
“What!?” Hoatzin retorted defensively when he noticed Javelin’s reaction. “Do you have any idea how many hours I have spent, spying on the inner workings of Sky City? There is a lot of unnecessary ‘work’ going on. . . .”
Javelin only shrugged, and instead pulled the cork from his water-bottle, preparing to drink.
Hoatzin snorted. “Well, what are you interested in then, Javelin? Seducing my sister?”
A mouthful of water spurted out over the wagon’s interior, followed by Javelin’s heavy coughing. Outside, one of the horses neighed, perturbed by the sudden noise, yet inside, Aves oddly enough showed no signs of waking from his sleep.
“I . . . I don’t want to seduce her . . .” Javelin managed to send between coughs.
“Court, then?” Hoatzin offered, managing the feat of looking both smug and mockingly unconvinced at once.
“No, I . . .” Javelin started, but stopped himself, sighing. “How can I hope for anything when I’m not even her equal? I’m just a kid in her eyes. . . . A kid with a soul she felt responsible for.”
Hoatzin didn’t refute him. “You have still not remembered anything more?” he asked instead.
Javelin turned his head to look out through the small opening in the wagon’s canvas, barely registering the quickly darkening sky. “Only vague flashes, nothing concrete. . . .”
“Have you fi-. . .” Hoatzin started but before he could finish his question, a deafening explosion cut off any other sounds. The ground shook slightly and the otherwise hard-to-scare horses reared in sudden fear.
Even Aves woke up.
Just as all the adults were shocked into a confused frenzy, Javelin sat like a statue, staring distantly into space; his mind was elsewhere.
The explosive sound shattered the otherwise quiet night and Eric felt his entire body jerk backwards, his palms numbing.
He looked down and saw the black metal object he was holding with both hands.
“Look, professor,” the familiar and yet unfamiliar voice of Raven Night cut through the ringing that had yet to subside from Eric’s ears. “If you wish to learn how to use a gun, I suggest you keep your eyes open – how can you ever hit something if you don’t even look where you’re aiming?”
“Right,” Eric found himself saying in a voice he didn’t quite recognize. “Excuse me, I was just a bit shocked. Let me try again.”
“I’m the bodyguard with guns, not you,” Raven replied seriously, but eventually she sighed in defeat and handed Eric the reloaded gun.
Carefully aiming, Eric fired another couple of shots but the results were the same as before. He glanced at his bodyguard and instructor, but instead of the bored, or perhaps frustrated, look he was expecting, Eric saw something else flashing back at him from within those obsidian black eyes.
“You are letting the loud sound and the recoil rule you, rather than the other way around. Here, let me show you.”
Eric’s heart skipped both one and two beats as Raven’s lithe body moved up behind his. Taking Eric’s hands in her own, Raven leaned in closer, her warm breath brushing against his right ear.
“You hold it like this,” she murmured softly as she altered Eric’s grip.
“Feel your breathing,” she instructed, her chest pressing against Eric’s back as she took deep, steady breaths.
“Be soft, yet unyielding in your grip, and when you are ready . . .” Raven’s free hand slowly slid down Eric’s side before pausing by on his thigh. ” . . . just hug the trigger.”
Another gunshot went off, but this time it hit the target plaque dead center.
“Well, there you go,” said Raven, pulling away. “You hit the target, at last.” Still flustered, Eric watched as Raven turned to leave. Just as she was about to disappear out of sight, she paused. “You know, professor, when I say I’d do anything, I mean it. Don’t waste your next won bet on something like firing a gun.” She glanced over her shoulder, an alluring smile on her lips. “If you manage to win again, that is.”
Raven winked, and Eric could have sworn that yet another gunshot went off.
The strong scent of smoke was the first thing that Javelin noticed as his mind snapped back to the present, just as distant thunder echoed through the air. Blinking, Javelin tried to focus his eyes and it didn’t take long before he was met by two intently staring, ice-blue irises – filled with worry.
“Javelin!” his mother’s called to him. “How are you feeling?”
“Huh?” With his mind still a bit unclear on what had happened, it took a while for Javelin to register his mother’s question. Before he could answer it, Tetra had spoken again.
“Are you alright, son? When the lightning hit the ground not far from us and I found you so . . . dazed, I . . .”
“I’m alright, mother; I just had a small breakthrough, ” Javelin assured her, purposefully leaving out the regaining-memories part.
As soon as Javelin confirmed it, Tetra relaxed greatly. However, that did not stop her from insisting on giving her son a thorough check before finally sighing a breath of relief. “So Lady Nightingale was right. . . .”
At the mention of her name, Javelin’s mind instantly sought out the other half of his soul, giving him the answer he was looking for way before his mother coul¨d.
“She is fine, Javelin,” Tetra said with a knowing smile. “Lady Nightingale is assisting with containing the fire that was caused by the sudden thunderstorm we found ourselves in.”
Watching her son’s reaction, Tetra’s smile widened, but there was also a bit of melancholy in her eyes.
“You really like her, don’t you?”
Surprised by the sudden question, Javelin momentarily blanked before smiling sheepishly. Tetra chuckled but then turned serious.
“You are already engaged, Javelin.”
“I am, but can’t you . . .”
“No.” Tetra shook her head decisively. “The marriage was arranged by the emperor, only he can undo it – you know that.”
“I know, but I have to try.”
“Even though your feelings aren’t mutual?”
“. . .”
Tetra didn’t need a verbal reply to know her son’s sentiment.
“Alright, I’ll help you consider your options. After all, it would hardly be fair for Lady Arowana to be wed to someone whose soul already belongs elsewhere. . . .” Tetra paused slightly, amplifying the gravity in the situation, “but listen carefully, Javelin: as long as you are engaged to Lady Arowana, you must act accordingly. We do not want her father to get upset, understand?”
“. . . I understand.” Javelin didn’t like it, but he knew his mother’s words were true. Some people just shouldn’t be offended.
“Good. Then go help Lady Nightingale with containing the fire until the Earth Empire’s officials arrive. Take it as your new assignment, so make sure to work on the teamwork between the two of you. The eight guards will only intervene if the fire threatens lives.”
Javelin bowed before he quickly got up and left the wagon. As soon as he stepped outside, the already overwhelming billows of smoke grew even stronger, accompanied by an intense heat. Despite the ominous thunder clouds above, there was no rain in the air and, not too far from the caravan, a savage fire raged, burning almost everything in sight. It was far closer to a scene from Hell than the idyllic, green plains it had been before the lightning ignited the dry grass.
The sight was awe-inspiring yet horrendous, but Javelin’s eyes were instead instantly caught by the dark silhouette standing between him and the fire. With as much contrast as the moon against a clear night sky, the young girl moved like water, dancing almost, between the flames. Bursts of precisely directed streams of chilled spirit essence flowed from her hands every now and then, keeping the all-engulfing flames somewhat at bay.
Moving with her, the surrounding flames seemed to dance too, turning the girl into a fire nymph of legend.
“Weren’t you supposed to help?” Raven called, her tone of voice sounding very much like it had in his recalled memory from Eric.
Blinking, Javelin woke from his daze and dashed forward to Raven’s side. As he ran Javelin withdrew his staff and moments later the sound of waves, crashing against a shore, joined the already thunderous clashes of lightning and fire. Streams of water materialized like snakes around the nearly two meter long staff and as Javelin struck the ground at the edge of the fire, the snakes charged at the flames, hissing violently.
Instantly, the fire retreated a few meters, but almost just as fast, the flames returned with renewed vigor.