2

By the time Aven and Zane finally reached the young boy's house, the sun was already shining down on the small town. Though ordinary it seemed, the city was anything but. The houses and buildings were clearly urban and orthodox, but they did not possess any useful facilities or luxuries such as electricity.

Aven glanced around, upset at what the town has become. "Was it...always like this?" the bounty hunter asked the boy.

The boy shrugged his shoulders. "I have no clue. Grandma says that before magic was discovered, everyone lived in peace and harmony and everyone was treated as equals to each other." Zane sighed, looking down while shoving his hands in his pockets. "Man...I wish I could have lived back then instead."

Aven didn't reply. She simply looked forward, examining the house in front of her. It wasn't too large, but it wasn't small either. The walls of the house were newly painted in white, making the home look surprisingly new compared to the houses beside it.

The bounty hunter knelt down and patted Zane on the head with a smile. "Well, I guess this is where we say goodbye, Zane," she spoke sincerely. "Take care of yourself...and please don't get in trouble with Goldhart again."

Zane nodded, but a thought suddenly struck him in the head. "Oh hey! Aven, I have a favor to ask from you."

"Hm? A favor?" Aven asked, puzzled. The boy had a strange, mischievous grin on his face that Aven was unsure about. "Don't...do anything creepy."

Zane slapped Aven across the face lightly. "Creepy?! What's with you adults and your perverted minds?!"

Aven stared blankly at the boy. "Then stop making that weird face...And what do you mean by us adults? Besides, I'm only 19," she quickly replied.

Zane's eyes expanded. "Oh hey, you're almost as old as my older brother. He's twent-"

"Oh my Lord! Zane! Is that you?!" a high, thrilled voice screamed from behind the door of the house. Immediately after, an elderly woman burst out of the door and picked Zane up with ease. She gave the boy a big smooch and the cheek. "Oh, Zane...Where have you been?! We've been so worried!"

Zane rolled his eyes, his cheeks glowing red in embarrassment. "Grandma...There's someone here..."

Soon, a second voice emerged from inside the house. This time the voice was more masculine and calm. "Zane? He's back?!" the man spoke, quickly rushing out the door. He was much younger than the old woman was, easily allowing Aven to assume that he wasn't her husband.

Zane frowned upon seeing the man. "...Hey, Dad," he simply replied.

The man's eyes lit up. "Woah! Dang, Zane. So you've been gone for three days, and you bring back this pretty, young lady? I say it's a three days well spent!" Zane's father quickly latched his hands onto Aven's and grinned, shaking them. "It's nice to meet you! Pretty women were so hard to find in my days."

Aven's eyes twitched as she slowly pulled her hands away. "So this is what Zane meant by 'us adults'..." When she was able to successfully escape the man's firm grasp, she smiled respectfully upon meeting Zane's father. "It's nice to meet you too!...My name is Aven Rostek."

Zane's dad, Mr. Salinger, noticed the emblem of the United Government on her neck and had suddenly became even more delighted. "Oh! You're an officer of the United Government!"

Zane's grandmother was surprised, but unlike her son, she was indifferent about this knowledge, maybe even upset. "An officer of the UG, huh..." she muttered, setting Zane back down.

Aven noticed the sudden glumness of the elderly woman and remembered Zane's comment on how she used to live in a world without magic. "Poor woman," she thought to herself.

The grim look on Zane's face revealed that he had probably thought the same thing.

Still, the father simply grinned and scratched his head. "Come in, come in! You must have been the one who found my lost son! Please, come in. You must be hungry from that long walk from Goldhart."

Unsure about what to do, Aven simply stood there, staring blankly at Mr. Salinger. It was until Zane elbowed her leg that she finally decided. "O-Of course! Thank you, Mr. Salinger."

The father raised his eyebrows. "Oh cool! So you know our surnames...Do you want to know my first name too, Aven?" he asked, bumping his eyebrows up and down.

Aven took a step back, horrified by the man's personality. "He's so...creepy..."

Zane set a hand on his own face and sighed. "Dad...Stop it. You're embarrassing everyone here."

His grandma agreed. She set a hand on Aven's shoulder and helped lead her into the house. "Zane's right, Michael...Besides...remember the promise you made to your wife..."

Mr. Salinger's expression suddenly turned dismal, not uttering another word. After Aven had been directed into the house by Grandma, Mr. Salinger gently walked in with Zane.

Inside the home was a neat living room filled with ordinary items any room would have. Wooden furniture, such as chairs and tables, were especially common in the room. But something was missing. This was the first time Aven had ever been inside a house in the Exile before and she was surprised at how different it was. There were no signs of modern technology whatsoever in the entire house. Everything was simply made of whatever was in supply, which was mostly wood.

Grandma offered a seat for Aven, which she gratefully accepted. "Thank you," she spoke with gentleness.

The grandmother simply smiled. "You're welcome," she responded. Despite her old age, she looked far from being feeble, still actively working around the house. Quickly after having Aven take a seat, she brought to her a small slice of soft chocolate cake, topped with white frosting. "Here you go, Aven."

Before Aven could thank her, she was interrupted by Mr. Salinger, who quickly took the seat opposite of her. "Oh come on, Mom. You never let me eat that stuff ever."

Zane sat beside Aven, surprising her because there was also an open seat next to his father. "Dad...She's a bounty hunter of the UG."

Mr. Salinger nodded. "Yeah...I know," he replied. The man simply stared at the small tattoo on Aven's neck, examining every feature of it. "The UG..."

Aven gulped, feeling as if the symbol was upsetting him. "Oh, um...I could cover this up if you really want me to..."

Mr. Salinger shook his head. "No, don't," he spoke. "In all seriousness now...I've been waiting for an officer like you to show up someday."

Grandma was confused as to what was happening. "What're you doing, Michael?" She clearly had no clue as of what was going on between her son and her grandson.

Aven was puzzled as well. She looked aside at Zane, who seemed as if he knew because of his confident face. "...How come, Mr. Salinger?"

"...I assume Zane hasn't told you about this, but..." Mr. Salinger gritted his teeth. "I'm sorry, Heather...my wife..." he whispered to himself, holding tears from rolling out of his eyes. A feeling of hate and regret began to well in his heart, but he knew he had to make this fateful decision. "Zane's appearance in Goldhart...was all a part of our sick and stupid plan..."

Aven's eyes widened. "Wait...what? So Zane risked his own life...on purpose?!"

Grandmother shared the same expression. "Michael...You what?!" She was furious. The elderly woman quickly grabbed the broom, which was leaning on the wall by the entrance door, and began to strike her son with it. "Why would you do such a thing?! What kind of father are you to your own son?! It's because of cowardly men like you that bring the deaths of loved ones like your own wife!"

Aven was shocked beyond disbelief at what had happened. "Umm...I better go now...I think it'd be best if I did..." She stood up from her chair and bowed down. "I'm very sorry if I caused any trouble here."

Zane's father remained sturdy despite the hard blows to the head he was receiving by his own mother. Red bruises began to form on the areas where he was struck. Signs of blood emerging began to show as well. Zane held his hands to his mouth as he watched in surprise.

Soon, as to be expected, Mr. Salinger's patience cracked. He jumped up and snatched the broom from Grandma. "Stop it, Mom!" he yelled. Devastated, Grandma approached the nearest chair with tears streaming down from her eyes. Bloodied and battered, the man tossed the broom aside and drop on both knees in front of Aven. "It was a plan to finally bring an officer to come to notice this family...But this isn't for any sort of greed at all...This is for my son and no one else. My wife loved him very much...and to see him as he is today...It's..." Suddenly, Zane too had appeared beside his father, and unexpectedly, he dropped to his knees as well.

"Aven...we beg of you," he spoke, bowing down until his head had touched the wooden floor.

Mr. Salinger gulped, knowing that he will ultimately regret this request. "I'm sorry, my wife," he muttered. Smashing his head on the ground, he cried desperately, "Bounty hunter Rostek! For the sake of our family, please...help my oldest son join your ranks...so he may not suffer as he does today! Please! I beg of you!"

Aven was shocked at this dramatic confession. It hadn't been a mere ten minutes since she had been introduced to Zane's family and already the father had unveiled a great secret to her. The bounty hunter didn't know what to say. Whether it be of shock or another feeling, she remained frozen with her mouth hanging and her eyes vibrating.

Grandma remained silent and left the room without a single murmur. The son and the father remained on their knees waiting for a response from Aven.

Despite the unexpectedness of the moment, Aven was touched by Zane's willing sacrifice and the pain Mr. Salinger must have had to experience. "...Let me meet him," she spoke. "...and I'll see what I can do."

vvvvvv

Before she knew it, Aven was willingly following Mr. Salinger through the house. Still, there were no signs of anything technologically advanced. Only simple wax candles which were held up by copper stands shed light in the dark corridors of the house.

Strangely, it felt as if the temperature had suddenly lowered the further they walked. Aven held her arms, shuddering in the winter-like environment. The candles had stopped making their regular appearances in the hallways, but even without the light of the only candle that Mr. Salinger was holding, Aven knew that she was surrounded by dripping icicles and frozen walls. "What is this place?...We've been walking for a bit..."

Zane continued to follow his father down a final flight of stairs. Without turning back to reply to the bounty hunter, he briefly explained, "Aven...This is the basement...where my brother lives..."

At first, Aven was confused. "Huh?...Downstairs? Is there not enough room in the house?"

Mr. Salinger shook his head as he continued down the stairs. "We're pretty down underground now...this isn't any regular basement. It was because my wife's...his mother's death that led him to this. My oldest son quit school and decided to live down here until he thought it the time to leave. It's been this way for three years." The father stopped in his tracks and turned his around, smiling at the bounty hunter. "You're a really good person...for an officer of the UG. It's hard to find people like you...honestly, haha."

Mr. Salinger did not continue his march downstairs. This is because he had already reached the final step. Only a single metal door stood in their way. Slowly and carefully, the father opened the metal door. Suddenly, once the door had been only half-way open, Aven felt an enormous wave of heat pass over her skin. She turned around immediately and saw that the dark pathway downwards had almost been completely lit up.

Zane watched in awe as he took steps into the room. "Big brother!" he yelled, running straight inside. Mr. Salinger followed the young boy, and noticed that Grandma had also been inside the room, supposedly speaking to the young man meditating in the dead center of the room.

Aven glanced inside, only to witness the most spectacular sight she had ever seen inside a room in her lifetime. Unlike the freezing temperatures in the tunnel downstairs, this strange room was blazing hot. A single path connected the door to the central platform where the family of four stayed. Every other area of flooring was simply liquid lava that majestically swirled around the raised platform. Up in the ceiling were interesting creatures created simply with fire. They danced around playfully, completely intriguing Aven. Instead of candles, large metal torches were used instead in this room.

Zane motioned for Aven to walk up the short set of stairs up to where his older brother resided at. "Come on, Aven!"

Aven shrugged and quickly ran towards them, avoiding any of the specks of bouncing lava that may have jumped out of the pool. She approached the young man, but found that his eyes remained closed. Aven's eyes expanded in wonder. "Is he...the one who did all this?"

Mr. Salinger nodded. "Yeah...Heather, my wife, was a skilled fire mage..." he revealed. "She loved him very much..."

Suddenly, the churning of the hot lava slowed to a stop and the strange creatures in the ceiling vanished. It seemed to cool down tremendously, but the room remained very warm. The young man, still sitting, opened his eyes. "Father..." he spoke. "Zane...Grandmother. What are you all doing here?" His voice, unlike his incredible talent for wielding flames, was cold and brutal.

Grandma didn't say a word. She simply looked at Aven and forged a smile. Zane spoke up, "Big brother! An officer of the United Government came to visit!"

The young man didn't react in any sort of surprise. He simply stood up and patted the ashes off of his black slacks. Despite the temperature of the room, he insisted on wearing black clothes, wearing a long black coat that he wore over a thick black shirt. He offered his hand to the young woman. "Damien Salinger," he plainly stated.

Almost immediately, the young bounty hunter felt a strange sense of attraction to the young man. He had black wolf-like hairstyle, which Aven assumed he hadn't cut in a while. His gray eyes fit well with his cold and dull voice, and he had a long cut on the side of his cheek that further intensified his bitter personality. But it wasn't these features that attracted Aven, it was Damien's skillful use of magic that completely compelled her. It was the first time she had seen it used in such harmony. Aven accepted his hand and smiled gleefully. "Nice to meet you. My name is Aven Rostek."

Damien noticed the logo of the United Government on Aven's neck, raising his eyebrows. "So you really are an officer of the United Government..."

Aven's eyes twitched. "Okay, really? Does everyone need to see this to know? I knew getting it tattooed on my neck was stupid." She crossed her arms and looked away.

The young man seemed interested. "Hmm...You're a strange one. I've heard rumors that officers of the UG in Goldhart were ruthless and brutal. You're anything but," Damien bluntly stated.

Aven thought back about the Elites in Goldhart like Baron and Vance. After hearing Damien's statement, she too agreed with this rumor to a point. "You have no idea until you've experienced it," Aven replied with a chuckle. She held her hand out again. "Damien Salinger, would you like to become an officer of Goldhart? We may need more skilled officers like you."

Damien was interested in this sudden request, but he did not believe that the United Government was the place for him, especially after the death of his mother. "I'm sorry, Officer Rostek, but I'm going to have to decline." Damien's short rejection shocked his father and younger brother.

Finally, Grandma decided to open her mouth. "Okay, you three...You heard Damien! It's time for us to return upstairs! Aven, it's really been nice having you! But you officers must be busy as well...and it's almost time for work for Mr. Salinger!" she spoke in a rush, carefully leading them towards the exit. Damien remained in the center of the room, concentrating on recreating the flow of the lava.

Zane was utterly upset at Damien's response to the bounty hunter's generous request. Before Grandma was able to successfully guide all three of them out of the heated room, Zane yelled loudly, "Big brother! How could you? We've tried so hard to finally help you! Remember what mother wanted? The last promise you and Dad made to her?!"

Damien's eyes widened, turning around instinctively. "Zane..." he muttered to himself. The lava decelerated to a simple pool. "Wait!"

Grandma froze at the sound of his voice. Zane was overjoyed at finally being able to hear Damien yell again, something he hasn't heard for years. Aven poked her head over Grandma's shoulders, taking another glance at Damien.

"...Aven Rostek, was it? I accept your offer. I'll become an officer of the United Government," he calmly stated.

vvvvvvv

"...So we're looking for a young boy?" a young woman asked. She glanced at the paper and then back at the man beside her. "You're kidding me, Lightland. He looks so innocent."

The two were standing beside a light pole in one of the streets of Goldhart. By now, the capital had become much more lively even though it was still early in the morning. The woman examined the paper and sighed, handing it back to Vance Lightland.

Vance simply laughed and stuffed the small poster back into his pocket. "You're an Elite, Van Heiden. Maybe Aven really is brushing her personality all over you."

The Elite smiled. "Maybe she is, but that's not a bad thing though." She shrugged and walked past Vance. "Well, I guess I better get going and find the boy."

Before she was able to walk past him, Vance grabbed her shoulder and snickered. "Hey, don't worry about it. Aven's got it covered already. He's on his way home. Keep it a secret though."

The woman's eyes twitched. "So you spent a whole five minutes giving me directions and then you turn your back and troll me? What an old bastard you are."

Vance shrugged his shoulder. "Get used to it, haha."

Suddenly an alarm rang from the sirens of several surrounding buildings that startled them both. "Attention, this is an important announcement! Elite Vance Lightland, Elite Katalina van Heiden, Elite Fabian Wilson, and any other nearby Elite please report to the front entrance gates of Goldhart! I repeat, this is an emergency! All citizens of Goldhart please remain in your homes until further notice!" And at that, the sirens stopped their screeching and fell silent.

Vance raised his eyebrows. "I wondered what happened?..Well, whatever it is, I guess we better head there anyways."

Katalina van Heiden, the young female Elite accompanying Vance, quickly tapped into her mobile headset. "Wait, I'm going to go find out what happened real quick." After a moment, she was connected to the announcement building. "Hey, this is Elite Katalina van Heiden. What happened at the front gates?...Uh huh...What?!...Oh no...Wait, only one man?!...Yes, I understand. I will head there now." The conversation had ended. Katalina was speechless for a moment until Vance had directly asked her about what had happened.

"...It must have been bad," Vance mentioned, reading Katalina's expression.

She looked up at Vance and then quickly headed towards the front gate, which was not too far away from where they were at. What was once a busy street now had suddenly became empty after the brief announcement.

Vance quickly caught up to her and repeated his question. "So what happened?"

Katalina gritted her teeth, her pace quickening almost into a run. "Disgraceful!" she roared. "A hundred soldiers slaughter by one man! This is the first time in three years that an Exile has ever reached Baron's front gates!"

Vance shrugged his shoulders, successfully keeping up with the young Elite. "Hey, then again, if you think about it, no one has ever gotten past Baron in all of Goldhart's history. Don't worry, they don't need all of us. The fact that they called every single Elite in this area was way too much."

The two stopped when they encountered an enormous troop of the Magus (the military force of the city as mentioned in the previous chapter), who watched in horror at the disgusting and sickening sight. Vance was speechless upon glancing at the horrifying view. Katalina's eyes were wavering with both fear and shock. Never had anyone seen the front gate be completely destroyed, especially by just one man. In the center of all the commotion, a strange man, armed with a pair of katanas in both hands stood cackling. Nearly all of his upper body was wrapped in white cloth bandages, only really revealing his arms, some of his black hair, and a small slit in his scarred face. He pierced one of his katanas straight into a helmet and held it up high. It was indeed the severed head of the Elite known as Baron.