"Please visit me again sometime," Lina called as Ava followed Signe towards the gate on the opposite side of the one we entered through. Ava waved back at her, glad to know someone so kind and generous.
"I really wish all the best for her," Ava said solemnly. When she looked up at Signe, he was smiling at her – that small smile that somehow lit up his whole face despite the size.
"Maybe this Swan can grant your wish," he whispered conspiratorially. Ava had never seen him like this before. The event on the outskirts of the town had brought drastic changes in the relationship between the two. Ava felt more at ease with the Wing Lord while the Swan was beginning to show more and more emotions, the best of which: happiness, delight and joy.
"How?" Ava asked, wide-eyed. The breeze shifted and changed direction towards where they came from. A tall man walked past them – not classically handsome with his pock-marked cheeks – but still comely. The Rainbow Firebird's feather, unseen by anyone else, glowed and Ava's senses were sharpened.
A gasp. Ava recognized it.
Ava quickly glanced back and saw the kind woman in the strong arms of her most treasured beloved. Ava's heart swelled at the scene. As she watched Lina's joyous tears, Ava felt true happiness for their new friend.
Signe was looking at the scene as well with soft eyes. He looked down at Ava's questioning expression and his smile widened slightly.
"How did you do that?" Ava asked. Should she even be surprised? Signe is a Wing Lord after all.
But the Swan shook his head. "I had nothing to do with it. I didn't know he would be back today. That was purely coincidence." At seeing the doubt on Ava's face, he gave a slight chuckle – the closest thing to a laugh Ava has ever heard from him. She smiled and thought that the day could not get any better. "But I did send a protection spell for him, as well as the whisper to come home as soon as he can."
"When did you do that?" Ava asked curiously as they continued on their way. Signe did not look at her when he answered.
"As soon as we met her."
He's sweet, Ava thought fondly. He was always thinking of those around him, she included. Ava fleetingly wondered why he did not have his own lover yet. Has there been no one to catch his eye?
Whoever that woman – or Pterine, rather – is, she is one lucky female. She did not fail to notice the adoring, awe-struck looks the females around town were sending her companion.
They walked past the gates and followed the path towards the next town or city. Ava just followed Signe quietly, completely trusting him. Could a Wing Lord even get lost?
An hour or so later of walking, Signe suddenly swerved and left the trail, disappearing behind the line of woods. Ava quickly followed, hoping he did not use his inhuman speed. But she knew that he wouldn't. After all, she was with him.
As she expected, he was only a few feet in front of her. Ava followed him for at least another kilometre. Then he stopped and gestured that she move closer to him.
"I am sorry if that long walk has made you tired," Signe said apologetically. Ava was not completely fit but they went at her pace so she had no complaints. Besides, walks were the only exercise she could convince herself to do.
"It is no trouble," she replied. "Why are we here and why did we suddenly stop?"
Signe raised his hand and a resounding caw answered before Ava saw a black bird – a crow – dive and perch itself on Signe's hand. Ava stared at it, uncomprehending, until a voice emerged.
"Dear brother," a smooth, clear voice spoke. Ava stared at the crow, which kept its beak open, in shock. "How are you?"
"I am well, Cor," Signe replied easily. "You sent me a message earlier, wanting to speak to me."
A tinkling laugh. It was the laugh that held mischief yet surprisingly, Ava could – would – trust it.
"You must already know that our dear first brother is searching for you," Cor said easily. "Do not allow the announcements to fool you."
Ava wondered at the statement until she saw Signe nod.
"The Eagle is many things but never a fool. Those announcements were a diversion."
The crow ruffled its feathers. "That is correct. Only Aquila is privy to Aquila's plans. Also, you know how he usually changes direction just so no one can find a pattern with what he does. He is the most unpredictable of us all – and this coming from I, the Raven, shows just how unpredictable he is. I was wondering why he suddenly decided to pursue you and now I think I know why."
The crow's head suddenly turned and the dark eyes stared straight at Ava. Ava held her breath. What did he want?
"We meet again little Feather-holder," Cor said happily. "Maybe next time we meet in person, you will stay with me for longer. I want you to meet Esolla."
Signe stiffened and from his reaction, Ava took a step back in anxiety. Who was Esolla?
"You are wrong Cor," Signe said as though there was something painful stuck in his throat. "You are just as unpredictable as the Eagle."
Cor chortled happily and the crow ruffled its feathers once more.
"Now listen carefully. You cannot contact Paella as of yet. She is being watched very closely by Saur and Falco. Falco is really there mostly due to his concern for Paella. But you know that Saur is there for Aquila."
Ava's heart sank. She wanted desperately to see Paella.
"I must go too," Cor said. "I am also being watched. Do not worry. No one will know of this conversation. Good-bye and good luck, Signe. Hmm... Maybe I should have asked Albana for that."
"Thank you, brother," Signe said. There was a pause and then the crow shook itself and looked around as though confused. It looked at Signe for a while before flying away.
"We must keep on moving," Signe said and began walking once more. "Please do not hesitate to tell me if you get tired." Ava nodded. There were many questions but there was one she was worried about.
"Signe, who is Esolla?" Ava asked tentatively. Signe glanced at her before looking away.
"All in good time," he answered, his voice going quiet and neutral again. "As of now, Esolla is of no importance. But soon, she may be."
"She". So Esolla was a female. Was she a Pterine? Was she Cor's mate? Why did Signe become so tense after hearing her name?
"Does this mean Cor is on our side?" Ava asked Signe as they began walking once more. The easy air between them a few moments ago had completely dissipated. Ava felt like that the ground they had gained for so long had been lost and the worst thing was...
...she did not know why.
Signe sighed wearily – something she had never heard from him before. It scared her.
"Cor the Raven is never on just one side. He never discriminates and he only does things that amuse him. If he was on the Pterines' side, he would allow the slavery of humans and free all slave Pterines. If he was on the humans' side, it would be the opposite. Instead, he allows both types of slaves. He is helping us at the moment but who knows what he whispers at the Eagle's ear? Now, he mentions Esolla-" Signe stopped once more and closed his eyes.
"It cannot be..." he whispered and there was disbelief, anguish and pain in those words. Ava, unable to stand it, grabbed his arm, shocking him into opening his eyes and focusing his attention on her.
"Signe, what is it?" she cried, trembling. "You're scaring me... Who is Esolla? Why are you more scared of her than you are scared of Aquila?"
It was only until she spoke it that she realized the truth in her words.
Signe had spoken anxiously about Aquila the Eagle. But there was also respect, admiration and a kind of envy whenever he spoke of the leader of the Ten Wing Lords. Their relationship reminded her of a younger brother hoping to be recognized and be like his admired older brother.
But there was total fear at the name of "Esolla".
Who could be more fearsome than the majestic Eagle, Aquila?
Signe was shaking his head. "No, no, I am not sure." He spoke to himself, as though Ava was not there. "There is no need to be alarmed. Ava is not the same..."
Ava is not the same...
Ava is not the same...
Ava is not the same...
Was Esolla human?
Then why would Signe fear her so much?!
Ava opened her mouth to ask – no, demand – for an answer when Signe suddenly fell on a crouch, his muscles tense and his eyes narrowed into one of a fighter's.
"Ava, stay down," Signe commanded with no room for argument. Ava fell on her knees and sat by Signe.
Something felt familiar... the cold, unfeeling, unforgiving air was familiar.
"Spirits of Excess and Deficiency!" Ava gasped.
Signe's eyes widened and his stance slackened. With a swift, graceful movement, he lifted Ava before slipping an arm behind her knees and the other around her shoulders before launching to the air.
Ava watched him, stunned. The Swan's expression reflected his tumultuous thoughts.
"Hopefully, this will not render me visible to Aquila," he was murmuring, again, to himself. "I mustn't fly for too long."
She felt so far away from him. She should. She – although chosen by the Rainbow Firebird – is still human. He, on the other hand...
I am such a burden to him. How much better it would have been if he did not have me to look after...
Signe's tight hold suddenly slackened and he dropped a few feet – Ava let out a frightened gasp – before recovering. He was grimacing and he descended before landing on a tall rock protruding from a small stream.
"Ava," he said, taking her shoulders and making her face him. "I am sorry for keeping you in the dark... and for being scared for no reason." He closed his eyes, struggling to go on, confusing Ava. When he opened them, his eyes were kind yet sad.
"Please remember that ever since you have started dreaming of me – and I of you – that we are somewhat connected. I am the Lord of the Soul. Whenever you are tormented, I feel that torment. Your fear becomes my fear, your sadness mine. You are affected in the same way by me." He gave her a weak smile. "Although it seems I am more affected."
Ava remembered the previous night – and what happened just moments before. She should have been sharp enough to figure it out. She should've known that her emotional pain became physical pain for him.
It was true. They were connected.
"So please," Signe continued. "Please remember that my thoughts are only of you. If I say nothing then it is not important enough to be said. I will tell you of Esolla but only until there is a need for me to do so."
His expression changing to that of extreme annoyance as he glared at nothing in particular, he added, "And in the future, don't listen to that idiot of a Raven, Cor... Always causing me problems..." Signe was mumbling irately and Ava could imagine him in his Swan form, his feathers ruffling.
She laughed. She could not help it. She laughed.
Signe stared at her in shock, then confusion, then worry. Ava laughed harder.
"Am I missing something?" he blinked. Ava clutched at her stomach, the pain of laughter making it hard to breathe.
Ava was shaking her head. "Just moments ago, while we were in the air, I was having another inferior session with myself, thinking I'm too human and you're... well, not. But just then..." She lost in her struggle and laughed harder, her high spirits from that morning returning.
Signe tilted his head to the side, his confusion obviously growing. "I do not understand..."
Ava was shaking her head, trying to clear the laughter.
"I'm sorry Signe... It's just... Just then, you were too human."
She half-thought he would be offended but to her great surprise, he smiled happily, albeit a bit shyly.
He took her hand gently in his own ones and all laughter disappeared from Ava. She stared at him, eyes wide like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. In this case, it was a human caught by the light in the eyes of the Swan.
She wanted to get away. She did not want to think of the reason why she wanted to get away. But she had to do something... Something...
"I wonder how Calvin's doing," she said quickly. The Swan's hands slipped from her own one and he stood up.
"We should be close to the next human town," Signe announced. Then, more quietly, "I shall try my best to reunite you with him." He then walked away.
Ava felt disappointment – at herself – before she followed him.
She had no right to feel disappointment... or no reason to.
The next town was similar to the previous one, albeit it was a bit smaller. This time, as Ava and Signe entered through the gates, a middle-aged man approached them.
"Are you Master Rauthaz?" the man questioned. Signe took a step in front of her, blocking most of her face from the man's view before answering.
"Yes," Signe answered calmly. "And you are?"
"I will provide accommodation for you during your stay here, young master," the man replied politely. "Courtesy of a mischievous Raven."
Ava realized that Signe blocked the man's view of her in order to prevent him from seeing her shocked face. The Swan was silent for a while before replying, "Yes, that is most generous."
The man bowed and led the way. Ava looked at Signe.
"Can we trust him?"
Signe nodded. "This has the flavour of the Raven's doing. At the present time, we can trust him."
Ava knew that "him" did not mean the man, but the Wing Lord.
The man's dwelling was less homier than Lina's, although it was slightly bigger. But it would have felt bigger if the house was neater. But beggars could not be choosers.
"Please be welcome and I will be happy to assist you in any way."
"Then your name, please, sir," Signe asked, no, demanded.
The man's eyes suddenly twinkled with mischief and a small smile appeared on his bearded face.
"The name's Black, young master."
Ava only had one thought...
Ava was in another dream. She looked down at the world of the Rainbow Firebird. She suddenly realized that she hadn't really looked at it closely enough yet. Her attention was always drawn to one thing or another. She hadn't even looked at the landscapes and how much land there was compared to water.
"Please always believe in me."
Ava quickly looked around her upon hearing the Rainbow Firebird's voice. Where was It?
"Please always believe in me," the voice whispered once more but it seemed further away. "Even if you do not see me anymore. Please continue to believe in me."
"Rainbow Firebird?" Ava called. "What do you mean 'even if you do not see me anymore'? Where are you going?"
"I love you, child."
Ava fell. She could not stop the scream from tearing itself away from her. Who was going to catch her if she was falling?
But the scenery faded and a golden palace stood gloriously at the peak of a tall mountain.
An eagle made of pure gold guarded the gates.
It was a palace of Aquila the Eagle.
She blinked and found herself inside what she could only assume as the palace. Ava stared around her in wonder. The dream palace was completely made out of the purest white marble and gold.
But her attention was quickly drawn away from the splendour of the place. Two long rows of disciplined and unmoving Pterines – soldiers by the look of things – lined the grand hall. On the dais at the far end of the hall from the heavy double doors sat the Eagle, splendid in his golden robes. As she had seen him in the dream before she and Signed fled, there was no emotion on the Eagle's face. He was sitting, his back straight and his entire attention focused on the figure kneeling in front of the dais.
The person's head was bowed low. From what Ava could see, the unknown person wore robes similar to Aquila's, although they were black and white, not gold. The person's hair was a rich reddish brown and cut short. Ava walked closer towards the dais where she could see the unknown's face.
She gasped when the person lifted her head.
She was human.
What was a human doing in the presence of the Eagle, who so hated them?
Ava took a closer look. It was not even a woman – only a girl. She could even be younger than Ava herself! Yes, she looked to be Lorne's age. Yet Ava did not think "child" when she looked at the mysterious girl. In fact, although she knelt, she was blanketed in pride and confidence. Yet although this was the case, she knelt humbly in front of the Eagle.
"Please grant me this selfish request," she said in a musical voice, pleasing to listen to.
There was silence and the air was heavy.
"Let this be clarified," the Eagle said slowly, hard intent coating each word. "You want to take an expedition along the Crane and the Swan's territories. For what purpose?"
The girl lowered her head once more. "My lord's precious sister and brother are currently unable to completely protect their territories and cities from the Spirits of Excess and Deficiency. So-"
"So you think you can take on this role," the Eagle finished for her, his gaze remaining emotionless and bored. "Are you so eager to die, Esolla?"
Ava's gaze sharply returned to the girl as she stared at her in shock and disbelief.
This was Esolla?!
Why did the Swan fear the girl?
Esolla, however, was not discouraged by Aquila's insensitive words.
"I have performed my duty for many years," Esolla replied firmly. "I-"
The Eagle stood and that act alone stopped the words coming out from the human's mouth. She looked up at him, craning her neck in order to do so.
"So you think you are... immune... to what has befallen the others?" the Eagle demanded sharply, the very first semblance to emotion Ava had ever seen on him. "Do you, Esolla, think that you are already invincible?"
The girl seemed to realize that what she had uttered was a mistake as she lowered her head submissively once more.
"I would never dare to act above my place-"
"You will not venture out of this palace," the Eagle commanded coldly. "You belittle my sister. She will soon be able to watch over her people once more. As for my youngest brother, he is my responsibility. Never assume you can take the role of the superior Wing Lords."
The Eagle swiftly left the great hall through a doorway by the side of the dais. Ava watched as Esolla clenched her fists.
"You didn't really expect him to allow you outside, did you?"
Ava and Esolla looked towards the voice together. Cor the Raven stood a few feet away, a lazy smirk on his face. He wore stark black robes, making him look like some kind of death god.
Esolla, not quite surprisingly, glared at the Raven before standing up. "I just wanted to be of some help."
"Of course, of course," the Raven replied, waving his hands about. "After all, I would easily get bored with a place like this too."
Esolla's eyes widened. "I would never dare turn my back against Lord Aquila's generosity! My request did not mean that I want to leave-"
Cor laughed and Esolla, realizing he was joking, glared at the Raven some more.
Ava watched curiously. The humble respect and reverence Esolla showed Aquila was nowhere to be found with Cor. In fact, Ava thought that their bantering was one between close friends.
Esolla began leaving the hall and the Raven followed. She eyed him warily, although there was a twinkle in her eyes, "I keep on noticing that you are coming here more and more often. Have you finally fallen in love with my lord?"
"Oh you've caught me!" Cor replied, throwing his hands over his heart before pressing his right wrist against his forehead. "Whatever shall I do now that my most guarded, most passionate, most darkly sinful and forbidden secret love has been discovered?"
The human tried to stop the smile from revealing her mirth but failed and playfully punched Cor on the arm.
"You're a joke," she giggled. "You really shouldn't make a poor old lady like me laugh."
"Old?" the Raven gasped. "Old?! I don't see any white hairs! Why, my dear, you are the perfect picture of joyful youth!"
To Ava's great surprise, Esolla stopped walking before leaning against Cor's chest, her small hands clutching his robes. She closed her eyes while all fun completely disappeared from the Raven's face.
"Please, my dear," the Raven said softly. "Don't come near me."
"I'm sorry," Esolla whispered and Ava had to strain her ears to hear her. "Everything's under control so you won't be hurt... I think the reason Lord Aquila is keeping me close is because he can already see the final threads of this existence beginning to snap."
Cor slowly encircled her in his arms. His robes were long enough that Esolla was covered, only her neck and head visible under the black shield.
"You are a cruel, cruel woman," Cor said with a laugh, although it was completely void of humour. "I understand why Aquila hates you."
Esolla looked up at him in fear. "My lord doesn't hate me!"
Cor did something that Ava would never have expected from the Raven Wing Lord. He smiled so sadly at Esolla that Ava completely felt that sorrow.
Cor bent down and pressed his lips to Esolla's. Despite this, Ava couldn't quite call it a kiss. It was controlled and polite – distant. Also, Esolla did not react any differently as she would to a handshake or a wave. In fact, she merely stood there and waited until he pulled away.
"Cruel, cruel woman," Cor repeated in a drawl before a flurry of black feathers filled the area and the Raven was gone.
Ava saw that Esolla was frowning and shaking her head.
"He's so confusing," she muttered, annoyed. She began walking off and the dream began to dissolve...
Ava awoke with a start.
The Swan sat by her, his eyes closed. Ava watched him for a moment before returning to her dream.
So that was Esolla... She looked like a normal girl to Ava, although there were some odd points about her, as well as some odd things she said. But the one aspect of the dream that stuck to Ava was the scene with Cor the Raven.
Was the Raven in love with Esolla? Ava had always thought Cor incapable of love. But in those few moments with Esolla, he showed a tenderness and a completely different side to him. But it did not seem that the human girl returned the Raven's feelings – it didn't even seem that she was aware of them.
Ava remembered her first meeting with the Raven and how he had daringly touched her chest.
Well I wouldn't be surprised if Esolla thought that the Raven kissed just anybody, Ava thought heatedly, her cheeks burning as she remembered that first meeting.
But Ava could be wrong and she could be looking too much into that "kiss".
"You really shouldn't make a poor old lady like me laugh."
Ava did not understand that sentence. Was Esolla being sarcastic? But her tone did not suggest it. Yet the sentence could not be true. Esolla looked to be even younger than Ava!
Fourteen years of age... No one could consider that old.
Then the Rainbow Firebird...
Its words were like a good-bye.