Raven and Javelin toiled on against the wild flames for nearly half a day before ten fire-officials from Earth City arrived to take over the situation. By then, even Raven was drenched in sweat and she in-elegantly sank down on one of the few stones in the vicinity the very second she and Javelin were relieved. Javelin himself was even worse off and didn’t bother finding a stone before directly collapsing on the ground.
“Much better,” Tetra Hake commended as she walked over from the campsite that had been put up while the two youths were dealing with the fire. “You actually worked together this time.”
Raven glanced over at the woman and gave her a nod as she secretly suppressed a chuckle. Madam Hake’s idea of effective training was very much in line with her own – if it wasn’t grueling, it wasn’t good. Then again, it was one thing putting yourself through that kind of training; forcing it on your child. . . .
“She scares me a bit,” Hoatzin muttered to Raven as he flew up and landed on her shoulder. “Why make such harsh training sessions out of every little misfortune we come across?”
“It’s not a bad approach, big brother; I would do the same” Raven answered, secretly adding, ‘or worse,’ to herself. “Besides, she has a point; our teamwork has improved quite a bit tonight.”
“With you still repressing your true strength,” Javelin, who Raven had included in the conversation for the last sentence, retorted unsatisfied. Raven noticed him clenching his fists in frustrated determination.
“True, but the effects of our shared spirit connections are showing; your stamina has improved greatly. You also did well in following the instructions I gave you.”
“. . .” Javelin wasn’t convinced.
“Oh, come on,” Hoatzin snorted, “even at the same level, how many spiritualists would be able to keep up with my sister? Just accept that you are improving, Javelin.”
A resigned smile crossed Javelin’s lips, and while quite a few sentences had been exchanged between the three of them, mental communication was instantaneous so Javelin’s mother took the smile as a response to her statement.
“Not satisfied yet?” she asked, sounding falsely impressed. “I can always ask the fire-officials to let you two manage extinguishing the fire as well. . . .”
“No!” Javelin jumped up from the ground, instantly bending into a bow. “I-. . . I mean, no need, dear mother! We have already learned a great deal and need to digest our insights.”
Seated on her stone, Raven made no attempt to hide her giggle as she watched the suddenly very submissive Javelin doing his best to appease his mother.
Tetra didn’t seem too convinced, but just as she was about to reprimand her son’s attitude, one of the ten officials from Earth City walked over. As was characteristic for most natives of Earth Empire, the official’s hair was pitch black, his skin pale and his eyes a mix of greens and browns. Raven’s eyes narrowed slightly. This man’s spirit presence was awfully familiar.
“Well, well, what an honor! To think I would run into Saint Major Hake herself,” said the man, bowing a bit too shallowly. “What an amazing coincidence.”
“Councilor Tanuki,” greeted Tetra with better faked respect. “Are the fires across Earth Empire so bad that even the council-members have to act now? It must be taxing for you.”
When he heard the man’s name, Javelin stiffened slightly, before taking a few steps back toward Raven and giving space for the Councilor. Subconsciously, he shot the former a quick glance, anxious to see her reaction to the man’s name, but Raven just remained seated on the same stone. Even her emotions were unmoved.
“It is not that bad,” Councilor Tanuki assured, smiling a slippery smile. “I had several reports of heightened bandit activity in the area and was already headed here when I heard of the fire.” He then looked over at Javelin and Raven, pausing slightly over the latter before returning his attention to Tetra. “I take it you are escorting your son back for home, for his engagement no doubt. Congratulations, by the way – it is a fine match.”
Next to Raven, Javelin clenched his fists until they were white. Raven had expected him to vehemently oppose the Councilor’s statement – at least to her – but no such outbursts came.
“Thank you,” replied Tetra, her tone civil.
“May I offer to escort Madam Hake’s group to the border? It might be close, but you never know what dangers lurk in the wilderness.”
Considering the fact that, in his group of ten officials, all but one were simply low Champions, Councilor Tanuki’s proposal couldn’t have been less called for; what could they possibly defend against that Tetra’s guards couldn’t? Yet, despite the ridiculousness in the suggestion, Tetra showed no signs of being offended. Madam Hake simply gave a blunt bow, her face deadpan.
“I think we can manage.”
Raven raised her eyebrows, somewhat impressed by Tetra’s behavior, and couldn’t help but add another layer of complexity to the woman; Javelin’s mother clearly knew when her temper would help her and when it wouldn’t.
“Naturally,” the Councilor replied, his slick expression slipping slightly. “Just be careful, Madam Hake; my oldest son nearly lost his life in the wilderness a while back and is still not fully restored. I would hate for you to experience the same thing. . . .”
A flash of cold killing intent surged in Raven’s eyes, causing Javelin to clench his fists even harder, but if Tetra Hake picked up on the underlying threat in his words, she didn’t show it.
“Thank you for the reminder, Councilor Tanuki. Carelessness and arrogance are indeed the most dangerous traps in the wilderness,” Tetra replied, still straight-faced and serious. “Well, I am afraid we have a schedule to follow so we must take our leave. I hope your son recovers from his . . . injuries. Until next time, Councilor.”
With that, Tetra Hake gave a slight bow and then turned to leave, waving for Javelin and Raven to follow her. The two youths were quick to do as instructed, but Raven didn’t miss the look of absolute rage on the Councilor’s face. She smiled slyly; madam Hake’s off-hand comment had really sailed home.
“Was that . . .” Hoatzin started but Raven filled in the rest of the question before he was finished; “Jack Tanuki’s father? Yes, it was and I don’t believe it was a coincidence he showed up here. It would seem he has suspicions about what happened to Jack.”
“I thought Emperor Mallard and Headmaster Swan had convinced Earth Empire’s Emperor to drop the matter. . . .” Javelin said, frowning.
“Just because the Emperor has decided to let the whole thing slide, doesn’t mean Jack’s father would approve,” said Raven with a shrug.
Hoatzin nodded in agreement. “Think of your own parents,” he added, “would they let it go if your brother was driven mad under suspicious circumstances, just because the emperor said so?”
“If it was an order, yes,” replied Javelin, without hesitation.
Raven thought back on the stiff admiral she had seen during Javelin and Hoatzin’s entrance exams and couldn’t help but agree; that man was not one to disobey orders of any kind. Javelin’s mother though . . . Raven wasn’t as sure about her.
On her shoulder, Hoatzin blinked a few times before finally grunting: “that’s just harsh, man.”
Both Javelin and Raven looked at her brother and started laughing, amused by Hoatzin’s sudden informal tone. “That’s the army,” the two answered almost in unison, causing them to momentarily stop laughing and look at each other. After the initial surprise however, the amusement won out again – growing stronger even – and they were still chuckling as they entered their separate wagons.
The remaining distance to the Earth Empire’s border was indeed not long. A little less than a day later, Raven could clearly smell the scent of a salty ocean, carried by a warm Southern wind. One more day and she started hearing both the waves and the distinct calls of the Trigull – a very peculiar animal that had both wings to fly with, gills to breath with under water, and four legs to run with on land. It was one of the few birds – if one could call it that – that lived outside of Sky Empire and, due to its need for water to breed, you rarely saw it anywhere else.
Eventually, barely three days after the incident with the fire, the four-wagon caravan finally came to a halt. Eager to see the new landscape with her own eyes, Raven was just about to push aside the flap of fabric that doubled as the wagon’s window and door when Tetra’s lightly sun-tanned hand stopped her.
“Lady Nightingale,” she said, her voice serious, “you are bound to my son – and therefore you are bound to my family. I know you do not care for him like he cares for you. . . .” Tetra paused, but raised her free hand to stop Raven from interrupting. “Don’t speak. I’m telling you this because I have come to realize that you are a lot more mature than your age would indicate: I don’t care how you feel about my son, but if you hurt him in any way, I will kill you.”
There wasn’t a trace of killing intent in Tetra’s demeanor, but there was an oddly pure savageness about her gaze that left Raven with no doubts that the woman meant what she had said.
For a few heartbeats Raven met Tetra’s gaze – her own eyes tranquil – when eventually Tetra took the initiative to leave without getting a response.
Still in the wagon, Raven revealed a crooked smile. ‘I wonder . . . was that the moment to explain that ‘Soul Bound for life’ doesn’t mean ‘until death’ but rather ‘into death’?’
Raven and Javelin had told Headmaster Swan about most aspects of being Soul Bound, but not all. They had both figured that it was best to leave out the more detrimental aspects of it all, so the you-die-I-die issue had sort of been glossed over.
Raven shook her head. Regardless of his mother’s sentiments, little could be done about it now. A sly smile crept across Raven’s face. One way or another, she and Javelin were bound together for good and, apart from him and his hidden memories, Raven felt little attachment to the people of Sea Empire – she might as well make the best of her likely limited stay here.
Relaxing her face, Raven pushed aside the fabric flap and stepped out of the wagon. As soon as she lifted her gaze, her green eyes widened in amazement. It didn’t matter how many pictures she had seen of it, nor how much her other senses had told her about it, seeing the endless shore and vast ocean that made up the Sea Empire was still breathtaking.
The four wagons had stopped at the very edge of the famous whitestone cliffs that put an abrupt end to the previously endless green fields by shifting into a plummeting mountain wall. The white of the mountain rock was a stark contrast to the lush grasslands above. Far below, pearly-white sand dunes linked the steep cliff with the ocean, providing a kilometer wide embankment that continued along the cliff-side as far as the eye could see.
There were a couple of huts and smaller settlement on the shore, centered around long pontoons that stretched far into the ocean, but that was not where the majority of the people of Sea Empire resided. No, the Sea Empire really lived up to its name; a few kilometers out in the water several islands of closely packed whitestone houses spurted out of the ocean like pyramids in the desert. The largest island even rivaled Sky City in size, although it didn’t really seem like it from this far away.
White specks of varying sizes moved at high speeds from one city island to the other and Raven knew they were the sailing ships that the Sea Empire was so proud of. Some would be smaller family boats, while others were large enough to carry hundreds of people.
It was early morning, but already hundreds, if not thousands, of ships were on the move, and they were joined both by the grey-feathered Trigulls and other creatures who used the Sea as their hunting ground. Their movements and the rising early morning sun caused the entire ocean to glisten like diamonds.
“Welcome to Sea Empire,” Javelin called merrily as he walked over from his wagon. “Impressive, isn’t it?”
“It is,” agreed Raven. According to the books, the architectural design of the Sea Empire’s islands was one of the most complicated on the continent and there was even more going on below the surface.
Javelin smiled, his mixed blue eyes sparkling like the sea itself. “See that,” he suggested more than asked as he pointed to a mid-sized vessel that was docked at the closest pontoon. “That is actually my ship. We will use it to travel to the admiral estate.”
Raven nodded in understanding. “So . . . how do we get down there?”
“There are several ways,” he said, the smile on his face growing a bit mischievous, “but I think I know which one you’d prefer.”
“Jumping?” teased Raven, thinking back on her stunt at the Spirit Hall Tower when she was newly enrolled at Sky Academy.
“Close,” Javelin answered as the mischief in his eyes grew stronger. “Really close.”