An odd silence blanketed the small room. Raven felt her gut constrict; she had guessed what Lyka would offer Javelin and she could even more easily guess what he would answer.
“Sister. . . .” Hoatzin called out to her but Raven shook her head. She would not force Javelin’s decision, not this time.
“Well?” Lyka pressed. “I haven’t got all day, you know. And before you ask: no, I can’t just leave you here and only take Raven with me to the tournament; not all realms overlap.”
Lyka’s voice caused Javelin to snap out of his daze. He was about to answer Lyka when he glanced towards Raven, a complicated look flashed by on his face.
“I appreciate the offer,” Javelin said eventually. “But even if you could send me away, it’s too dangerous for us to be apart. After all, our lives still depend on each other. . . .”
“True . . . but haven’t you forgotten something?” Lyka flicked her wrist and two purple rings flew out towards Raven and Javelin. “Grandpa told me to give you these. Recognize them?”
Javelin frowned, but Raven didn’t need to inspect her ring to know what it was. “Life Links,” she said – her first words in a long while.
For a moment Lyka seemed confused but chuckled and shrugged. “Call it what you want, but these rings are the same like the one that saved Bird Boy here before.” She waved towards Hoatzin, a frosted berry still in her hand. “Drop some blood on it and even if your bodies are destroyed, your soul will survive. Of course, I still wouldn’t recommend dying – reconstructing one of you won’t be as easy as for the bird. . . .”
Raven watched Javelin, staring down at his ring, and could feel him wavering. She could feel how strongly he wanted to . . . run away.
‘Perhaps it would be for the best. . . .’
Javelin kept staring at the small purple ring in his hand. It was a funny feeling; moments earlier, he had wanted nothing more than to leave – to put as much distance between him and Raven as possible – but now that he had the option, Javelin hesitated.
Did he really want to leave?
Javelin raised his head to gaze once more at Raven. Man, he liked her! Even with all the hate he was feeling, Javelin had a hard time imagining life without her. And yet . . . he also couldn’t stand her! Images from that rainy night flashed by in Javelin’s mind and anger welled over him again.
It was too much. With a quick motion, Javelin pierced the skin on his thumb, letting a few drops of deep-red blood hit the surface of the purple ring he was holding.
Javelin finally agreed, his voice steely. ‘At least it will give me time to think. . . .’ he thought to himself. He had observed Raven carefully as he spoke but all the good it did was to cause him to feel a pang of disappointment; Raven was just watching him, her eyes cold. Even with their souls connected, he could feel nothing of her emotions.
“Very well,” Lyka practically chimed and bounced up from the bed. “Let’s go.”
Javelin watched the small girl head for the room’s door and open it. It wasn’t until she paused and gave him a beckoning look that he realized Lyka’s intention.
“Right now!?” he asked.
“Yes now,” Lyka said as she rolled her eyes. “I told you I didn’t have all day, didn’t I?”
“But . . .” Javelin started, but Lyka had already walked out onto the courtyard.
“No time like the present, Fish Boy,” she called over her shoulder. “Don’t worry about your family. Grandpa has taught me a few tricks – they will barely notice that you are gone.”
Javelin wanted to protest that there were other things he needed to deal with before leaving, but Lyka had clearly run out of patience. She whistled and, instantly, Azmer and a second man – who looked very similar to the him – appeared next to Javelin, forcefully leading him forward.
Seated on Raven’s shoulders, Hoatzin watched the girl named Lyka stand, arrogantly, in front of the huge fountain at the Water Dome’s center.
Due to the grand banquette held by the emperor – which would start in just a few hours – no other students where around to witness as Lyka puffed up her shoulders and placed her hands on her hips before shouting at the gushing water: “Oi! Ancestor! I, Lyka of the Valkyrie Wolves, have business with you. Let me in, will you?”
At first nothing happened – Hoatzin even privately snickered at the girl’s silly posture – but eventually the ground trembled slightly and the several meters high stream of water died down.
“Excellent,” Lyka smiled and stepped into the knee-high water, or rather, it would have only reached her knees if she had been average height. As it was, the water easily reached Lyka’s belly, but the girl didn’t seem to mind.
She swiftly moved to the center of the water fountain and gave a playful wink before diving down into the cavity in the middle.
Javelin only hesitated for a moment before he quickly followed behind.
“Wanna come?” Raven suddenly asked and Hoatzin could feel his sister gazing down on him. He really wanted to refuse – water wasn’t his thing – but, all things considered, he didn’t want to leave Raven alone either.
Swallowing, Hoatzin nodded. His talons grasped Raven’s shoulder more firmly and he used his spirit essence to form a protective bubble around himself. Moments later, Hoatzin found himself submerged in water, quickly moving deeper into the dark tunnel under the fountain.
Eventually, they reached a mid-sized cave from which the water was kept out by a spirit membrane. The first thing Hoatzin noticed when he and Raven arrived was the clear sphere of water that hovered in the center of the room. The sphere in itself was impressive but what drew his attention the most was the two vicious-looking eyes that were barely discernible in the water.
“Kid, you are more disrespectful than your grandfather!” An archaic voice rang out in Hoatzin’s mind, but it sounded like it came from someone standing right behind him.
“Nah, I’m just worse at hiding it,” Lyka replied with a wolfish smile. “We both know the end result will be the same.”
The two eyes narrowed slightly, but no discontent was voiced. “You have come to make another request of me,” he stated instead.
“Indeed I have! This one,” Lyka paused and flicked a thumb towards Javelin; “wishes to train at the Knot.”
The eyes widened slightly and their owner became silent. During the silence, Hoatzin noticed that his sister had stiffened slightly underneath him. “Is something wrong?” he asked, causing Raven to instantly relax her tensing muscles somewhat.
“Nothing is wrong,” she answered. “It’s just that this voice, it is very familiar to that of . . .” Raven paused; “of someone I’ve met before.”
“Yes, the Knot,” Lyka continued. “I’m thinking section five.”
There was silence for a moment and then: “Is it you or your master who is asking?” the voice questioned, sounding skeptical.
“Does it matter?” Lyka responded with a question of her own.
At once, the already vicious eyes narrowed into angered slits. None of that rage was directed at Hoatzin, but he still felt how his breathing grew labored from the pressure of it. Lyka on the other hand seemed oblivious. Fortunately, just as Hoatzin felt like his last breath was about to leave him, the pressure faded.
“Very well,” said the voice, the vicious eyes fading back into the water. “But this is the last favor I do without further compensation.”
As the last signs of the two eyes faded, the large sphere of water started to spin and compress. It took mere seconds for the water to form a clear disk, but, just as quickly, the transparent surface darkened, blocking the view to the other side.
“There we go.” Lyka smiled a lopsided grin and turned towards Javelin. “Are you ready?”
‘No I’m not. . . .’ Raven thought in her mind but quickly repressed the notion. ‘If Javelin wishes to leave, that’s his choice.’
As if hearing her thoughts, Javelin turned his head to look at her. Even without their bond, Raven could tell the myriad of emotions welling around within the young boy: uncertainty, anger, hate, apprehension.
“I-. . .” he started but clearly didn’t know what to say.
‘Don’t go,’ Raven found herself thinking but her tongue didn’t obey her heart. “Just go,” she said, her voice as flat and cold as usual.
What little light that had remained in Javelin’s eyes faded.
“Fine,” he said and turned to Lyka. “What do I do?”
A mischievous glint flashed by in the depths of the wolf-girl’s eyes but no one was attentive enough to catch it.
“Just step though the entrance,” she explained. “I’ll be right behind you, so I can show you where to live and stuff like that.”
Javelin nodded and glanced back at Raven and her brother one final time.
“Take care,” he grunted before pushing aside his hesitations and stepping through the floating disk of dark water.
Raven was pretty sure Lyka said something to her after that but she didn’t register what it was. Raven was too preoccupied by the sudden stabbing pain in her head and soul.
On the other side of the gate, Javelin was met by a clinging heat and the unpleasant smell of decaying leaves and flesh. Of course, it took a while for Javelin to notice any of this since the first few minutes of his arrival was dominated by pain. He felt it in his mind and in his soul and while it wasn’t the type of pain that threatened to destroy him, Javelin found himself feeling much like a fish on dry land: gasping for the lifeline he was so used to.
After a while, Javelin started to calm down – the pain didn’t pass, neither did the odd sense of being in two places at once nor the feeling of lacking what he needed to breathe, but he did adapt to it well enough for him take a brief look of his surroundings.
The first thing he noticed was Lyka, standing a few meters away from him in what looked like an oozing swamp. The second thing, was the cage bars that separated the two of them.
“What is going on here?” Javelin managed to ask and while Lyka didn’t really seem inclined to answer him, she still did so – eventually.
“Fish boy, I present to you the fifth section of Purgatory Knot, the Northern Realm’s central training ground.” Lyka spread her arms to indicate towards the desolate swamp that surrounded them. “Here, spiritualists who wish to temper themselves will fight countless of battles against remnant souls and can only leave once they improve their cultivation by an entire realm. You should be grateful; it is a really effective way to increase your cultivation – as long as you don’t die, of course.”
Lyka winked at Javelin, causing the latter’s face to turn red with anger. Javelin grabbed the bars in front of him and shook them violently but to no avail. “You tricked me!” he shouted.
“Tricked you?” Lyka gave Javelin an offended look. “I did no such thing; I said I would bring you to a training realm, and I did. It is you who failed to ask for the details.”
Javelin was about to protest when Lyka sighed and spoke again before he had the chance.
“I really don’t get you humans sometimes. . . . I mean, Raven risks her life to safe you – on numerous occasions too, I’m told – but you get one bad memory back and suddenly she’s the devil incarnate? I mean, I understand that you feel betrayed and all, but have you even tried to remember more?”
Javelin blinked, his anger instantly fading somewhat. He hadn’t wanted to know more about what happened between Raven and Eric so even though his gut was telling him that there must be more to the story, Javelin had chosen to ignore it.
“Grandpa told me to let things run their course, but I must admit that I have come to the conclusion that I don’t like you very much. . . .” Lyka looked at Javelin with disapproving eyes. “Since you are stuck here for an unforeseeable future, I think letting you know your errors should be a fitting punishment, don’t you agree?”
Lyka’s face contorted into a wolfish grin, her long fangs making her look all the more beastly. A scythe that was at least three times as long as Lyka was tall suddenly appeared in her hands and, without pause, she swung it towards Javelin. It all happened so fast that Javelin had no chance to react; all he could see was that long blade swishing towards him as he stood motionless, rooted to the spot.
Even with the bars in between them, Javelin instinctively closed his eyes. However, the expected sensation of a blade piercing his flesh never came. For a moment he thought that Lyka had perhaps missed him or changed her mind, but before he could open his eyes to check, a stabbing pain that was far worse than the one he had felt before ran through his very soul.
While the pain was unbearable, it was still nothing compared to the chaos brought by the virtual flood that came with it – a flood memories. Thousands of them rushed to the surface of his mind, flushing him with all the information he had forgotten or simmilarly repressed before. Even things people don’t generally remember – like his first breaths of life, both as Eric and Javelin – hit him like a full-frontal collision.
In the haze of all the memories and the pain, Javelin barely registered Lyka’s voice in the distance. “Time to face the choir, fish boy,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper; “Make the best of it, and perhaps . . .”
Bright light filled the small room where a young man was lying on a bed, his head and chest wrapped in bandages. By the window stood a dark figure, the black silhouette looking even darker in contrast to the general whiteness of the room.
Suddenly, they young man’s eyes flickered open. Confused, he glanced around the room but the light made it hard for him to see anything at all.
The figure, clearly a man, didn’t even turn to look at the bedridden man, but the latter was pretty sure he had never heard that voice before. At least he thought he hadn’t.
“What happened?” the young man asked, his throat sore.
“You died,” answered the man by the window. “At least as far as the world is concerned.”
Only now did the memories return. He was Eric Solarus, a world-famous scientist, and he had been shot by the first girl he ever loved.
Pain overwhelmed him, and not the physical sort. Eric wanted to scream and cry but before he had the chance to start, the door to the room he was in swung open and a blonde girl with pink-dyed hair tips walked in with all the confidence in the world.
“Oh, he’s awake!” the girl said as she noticed Eric’ condition right away. “Why didn’t you call me, Ash!?”
The dark figure shrugged slightly.
“Stop it with your non-committal gestures!” the girl ordered, stomping her feet in annoyance. “A human uses their god-given tongue to communicate.”
The figure took a step away from the window, revealing a dark and scarred face. He was just about to retort when Eric couldn’t take it anymore.
“Get out!” he shouted, wanting nothing more than to be alone. “Get out, get out, get out!”
The two people paused their budding argument and looked at Eric, blinking in surprise.
“Whatever for?” asked the girl, sincerely confused.
“What for!?” Eric hollered. “The woman I love betrayed me and tried to kill me – I think I deserve a moment alone!”
For a heartbeat, silence fell in the room. Eric was too preoccupied with being upset to notice the cold flash in the man’s eyes but he couldn’t miss when the girl suddenly started laughing uncontrollably.
“Raven? Try to kill you?” The girl had trouble speaking between her laughs. “Don’t flatter yourself! Trust me, if Raven wanted you dead, Death himself would simply ask when and where.”
“But . . .” Eric started, but was distracted by a light thud on his bed. Looking down, he saw a shattered picture frame, no larger than his palm. A thumb-sized dent, with a smaller hole in the middle, obscured the faces of some of the people in the picture. It was Eric’s key-chain.
Eric’s eyes widened. Normally he would keep the keys in his trouser pockets but Raven had criticized him for loosing them too many times and had bought him a chain so he could wear them around his neck instead. It looked ridiculous, so he only did as he was told when he had a jacket on to hide it.
“Raven, she . . .”
“Staged your death,” the man called Ash answered. From his tone it was clear that he was no fan of Eric’s. “You should feel honored; you are only the third person she’s been asked to kill who survived to tell the tale.”