The Great Woodland Valley. This was a vast forest – perhaps nearly ten thousand square kilometers large – of densely packed trees, located at the very center of the Nightingale Prefecture. Surrounding it on all sides were tall mountains, whose peaks were covered in a perpetual layer of snow.
The Great Woodland Valley was home to a wide variety of both normal and spirit beasts. It was not uncommon for these beasts to fight with each other, hoping to increase their areas of dominion; rarely, incredibly strong spirit beasts would fight each other and the shock waves of the battle would echo throughout the valley.
Today, however, no such sounds could be heard. All in all, it was a fairly calm day in the huge valley. But not everywhere. In the far western corner of the forest, a small child was running straight eastward at an uncharacteristically high pace. At a glance the child looked like your average preteen boy, with no features really worth mentioning, but if you managed to look closely he would suddenly seem . . . delicate; the midsummer sun that seeped through the leaves above him made his nearly black hair reveal its true, purple color and even though the child was tall and muscular for his age, he was lean rather than anything, giving him a slightly feminine appearance.
The child kept running, once in a while glancing back over its shoulder.
“I told you that saving that girl was a bad idea!” Raven hissed between labored breaths.
The young “boy” was indeed none other than Raven Nightingale, who ran as fast as she could deeper into the forest. Every now and then she would activate Shadow Walk to momentarily increase her speed, but she could not keep it active for long; it wasn’t a long distance skill to begin with and Raven’s current cultivation did not allow her to force the skill to become one.
“How was I to know that she was in fact a member of a cannibal tribe!?” Hoatzin retorted from within his ring.
“She reeked of blood!” Raven panted. “Even if she hadn’t been a cannibal she had clearly been consorting with death for a long time. . . .”
“. . . she could have been a victim!” was the only defense Hoatzin could give to that.
The reason why Raven was running for all she was worth at the moment, was that she was currently being pursued by a horde of hungry cannibals. Everything had started a few days ago. . . .
Raven had been making her way steadily through the wilderness for nearly a month without any mishaps; by relying on her assassin’s training, the Fox’s Veil and her slowly returning and sharpening senses she had managed to stay under the radar of most beasts she had come across. However, two days ago, Raven had heard the faint crying of a little child. Surprised by the presence of humans this deep in the wilderness, Raven had carefully approached the source of the crying. She had soon come across a small girl trapped in a patch of Blue Fire Mire.
The mire was perhaps no larger than a few square meters, but it was clear that the girl had fallen into the flame covered muck of the mire while trying to reach a branch of fruits growing above it, and now she was stuck. Although blue flames burned like lanterns here and there in the mire, the flames were cold to the touch and not dangerous by themselves. The danger of the Blue Fire Mire was getting stuck and then either starving to death or becoming fodder to some lucky beast that passed by.
The moment Raven came within a hundred meters of the girl, she sensed the prominent smell of blood filling the air as if a dense fog. The crying girl had noticed Raven’s approach at the same time and a relieved expression filled her teary face. However, reacting to the thick smell of blood, Raven had simply turned around and walked away.
“Don’t go. . . ,” the girl had pleaded. “Help me!”
“What are you doing?” Hoatzin had in turn responded. “You can’t just leave her there!”
Raven, who had felt the underlying danger, had still obediently turned around to help the girl. She knew very well that her brother wouldn’t let it go otherwise.
Once out of the mire, the girl had implored Raven to follow her to her home.
“Please, big brother, follow me to my home – daddy will want to thank you!” she had squealed.
“Just go with her. It’s too dangerous for a little girl out here anyway,” Hoatzin had coaxed her.
‘How about your sister? I’m also just a little girl!’ Raven had thought to herself, but in the end, she had just sighed and agreed to follow the rescuee home.
However, as they arrived at this “home”, even Hoatzin couldn’t deny that something was off. The home consisted of a cluster of huts built high in the tree tops with various cages hanging empty from them. But, most importantly, all the huts were made out of bones. Human bones.
“Can I abandon her now?” Raven had asked sarcastically under her breath.
Even before Hoatzin had given a reply, Raven had turned and fled. Unfortunately, the little girl had alerted her elders about Raven’s presence, leading to the ensuing hunt.
As she now dashed through the forest, sometimes hearing the whistling sound of an approaching arrow, she couldn’t help but feel a pang of deja vu – last time Raven had rescued a child it had also ended up in a life-or-death chase through a dark forest.
This time however she had a major benefit – she was a spiritualist, while her pursuers were not. Thus, despite her being only four years old the distance between Raven and her pursuers grew steadily larger. Half a day later, Raven started to slow down. By now she had shaken off the cannibals and even crossed a few rivers, diagonally, to prevent later tracking.
“Brother, next time I choose to not save someone – let me.”
With a loud ‘umpf’ Raven sank to the ground next to a tree, breathing heavily.
“Especially if it’s a child,” she added. “I have bad luck with those.”
“Yes, sister,” her brother replied with a glum voice.
On Raven’s tired face a slight smile appeared. Part of the reason she had let herself get ambushed by the girl’s family was to show her brother more of how the world worked. He had, after all, lived a fairly sheltered life. Even if he knew in his head that people weren’t always what they seemed – take the Talon Clan for instance – to be distrusting of random strangers was not in his nature. He would undoubtedly pick the option of “trust until proven untrustworthy” with innocent looking people like the young girl.
This was a nice view to have of the world, but it was also much too naive for an heir of nobility, not to mention a martially cultivating spiritualist, like Hoatzin.
“Well, no worries,” Raven said reassuringly. “The danger has passed now.”
With a wave of her hand, Raven retrieved a skin of water and some fruits from within her spacial ring. She drank deeply from the water skin before she started chomping down on the fruits.
‘Had that chase been a month ago, I would have had a harder time outrunning them. . . .’ she mused to herself as she ate. ‘Luckily they had no spiritualists with them.’
Raven sighed and looked inwards. Her spirit connections had increased to 47 and her spirit core was nearly back at peak high Novice level – in a couple of days, it should be back to where she started.
‘Once my core has recovered, I must hurry and break through to the Adept level. Only then will I start to be able to contend with rogue spiritualists.’
Not all spiritualists developed their skills at a divine school. If their soul was too weak or they for some other reason started cultivating after the age of 18, no schools would accept them. The reason was simple, once a person had stopped growing, advancing from a low Novice to a high Novice would no longer a matter of two to four years. . . .
The spiritualist’s cells already being in a state of rapid growth was very important for a speedy cultivation; if the essence absorption started later in life it would be extremely hard to achieve the same development even in ten years. Consequentially, the resources the school would have to spend to develop an older person wouldn’t be compensated by any achievements worth mentioning in the reasonable future, so why bother?
These later developed spiritualists would have to cultivate on their own and would rarely get a job as spiritualists. Instead, many became rogue spiritualists, turning to thievery and smuggling, where their limited skills still put them far ahead of normal people.
Raven had yet to run into such a crew of bandits, but she feared it would only be a matter of time. If she wanted to get through such an encounter unfazed, she needed to advance her cultivation level quickly.
Suddenly an idea struck her.
“Hey, Big Brother, you no doubt learned special Breathing Techniques at Sky Academy to help improve your cultivation rate. Am I right?” she asked excitedly.
“Yes, Sister, that is correct.” Hoatzin seemed a bit unsure what she was getting at.
“Could you teach them to me?”
“Ah!” Hoatzin understood right away; a first class breathing technique like the ones taught at the Academy would increase the cultivation rate of his sister’s already impressive cultivation vastly.
He hesitated for a moment; “. . . I’m sorry, Sister. Although I do remember how to perform the techniques, the soul imprint needed for me to teach them to you disappeared together with my soul prism – I . . . I can’t teach them to others anymore.”
“Oh well. It was worth asking at least.” Raven had tried learning Divine Skills by listening to people’s descriptions and copying the flows of spirit essence before – it never worked, and sometimes it even backfired and injured her.
Finished eating, Raven sat still, meditating, for a couple of hours. Within her, she carefully revolved the spirit essence her soul was absorbing three times around her body, before letting it be absorbed by her spirit core. This way she would strengthen her body and rebuild her core at the same time.
Eventually she opened her eyes and got up.
“At least, it would seem that the recovery of my spirit core isn’t slowed down by me activating Divine Skills.”
An almost savage smile spread across Raven’s face.
“Do you know what that means, big Brother?”
“I’d better be prepared for some singing lessons?” Hoatzin assumed his sister would start using the Twilight Lullaby to speed up their advance through the wilderness.
“Haha! Perhaps, but not quite; it means I can start hunting and finally get to eat some meat!”
Before being hunted by the cannibals, Raven had refrained from activating any Divine Skills in fear that it might slow down her recovery. When she realized that escaping without their aid would be tiresome, she chose to use Shadow Walk to speed up. She could, of course, have used the Twilight Lullaby and simply walked away from her pursuers but she didn’t, for two reasons: one, she wanted to get an idea of how fast she could escape if she wanted to; two, if using a Divine Skill would slow down her recovery, it was better to use the Shadow Walk, which had a lower energy consumption rate.
Since she had wanted to avoid using Divine Skills, Raven had simply kept as low a profile as possible while she made her way through the mountains and forests. Now, however, she knew better, and as long as she didn’t run into a higher level spirit beast or spiritualist, she was pretty confident in her abilities – if nothing else she should be able to run away. Also, she couldn’t cower away forever; only by pushing her limits would she be able to make advancements at a rapid pace.
“I better start evolving my Sonic Sword while I’m at it.”
With a twist of her wrist, Raven withdrew the Nightingale’s Blessing from within her spacial ring, twirling it effortlessly in her right hand.
Looking on from within the ring, Hoatzin grew excited; he hadn’t really seen his sister in action during the past month, but just from how she handled her slightly too long sword, he could tell he was in for a treat.
“Let’s see what we have around us. . . .” Raven silenced her breathing and strained her senses to the max, taking in everything within a couple hundred meters.
As luck would have it, Raven suddenly came across the presence of an approaching pack of wild game not too far away. Since there was no disturbance in the spirit essence around them, they were clearly not spirit beasts.
Without making a sound, Raven started to move towards the flock. Taking a slightly longer route, she even made sure to stay downwind of them, completely hiding her approach. Soon the group of eight elk-like creatures came into view; they stood in a small clearing were they were grazing peacefully at the lush greens around them, totally oblivious to the imminent threat to their lives.
A tense look of concentration was on Raven’s face. She stirred the spirit essence within her, preparing her attack.
Suddenly, Raven shifted her position; in the next instant, seven loud bangs shook the forest almost simultaneously. Shortly thereafter an eighth, and considerably softer, bang followed suit. As the silence fell, it was as if the world had been frozen in place; the “elks” stood motionlessly in their places and the soft grass that had surrounded Raven instants earlier still made a space for her, as if the already gone Raven still stood among them.
At the other side of the clearing, Raven routinely flicked her meter-long sword, splattering a thin ray of blood on the ground.
“Tsk, guess I can’t master the Deafening Sweep at the first try after all. . . .”
When Raven’s disappointed voice broke the silence, it also seemed to jog the flow of time in the clearing; at once, all eight creatures fell to the ground, decapitated.
Raven restored the Nightingale’s Blessing within her spacial ring and instead extracted the sharp dagger that had previously belonged to I’iwi. She walked over to the closest fallen animal, intending to get to work on its hide and meat.
“How did you do that!?” Hoatzin’s amazed voice suddenly blurted in Raven’s head.
Startled, Raven’s hands paused for a moment above the first animal before she smiled slightly and continued her movement.
“You should recognize both of the Divine Skills I used, right?” she asked as she got to work.
“This . . . well, yes, it seemed like Shadow Walk combined with the first level of the Sonic Swords skill, the Deafening Sweep, but. . . . No, they are both low-level skills – there is no way you could have pulled off what you just did with only those!”
Hoatzin had a point. Deafening Sweep was indeed only a level one skill and Shadow Walk was only barely a level three skill. While there was no doubt that by using these skills to slay a group of regular animals it would result in success, doing what Raven had done – massacre them all within a single heartbeat – was just a preposterous notion.
“Only when one can be extremely soft and pliable can one be extremely hard and strong,” Raven responded with a mischievous smile, after she giggled to herself: ‘Gosh, I sound like a fortune cookie!’
“Huh?” Her brother didn’t understand what she was getting at.
Sobering, Raven started explain in more detail.
“It’s a question of how you apply your strength.” As Raven talked, she effortlessly removed the skin from the animal she was working on, revealing the meaty carcass underneath. “If you go all out, all the time, the effects will be lower than if you pace yourself and adapt to your surroundings. What I used was indeed only a combination of Shadow Walk and Deafening Sweep, but interwoven so as to maximize their potentials.”
“Sadly . . .” Raven sighed while she, with a practiced hand, cut into the animal’s abdomen and stretched in to retrieve the nutritious liver. Unfortunately for Hoatzin, the Life Link ring was on the hand that retrieved said organ. Even though his existence was more abstract than feeling and seeing whatever the ring came in contact with, he couldn’t help but feel a bit nauseous at the notion of it.
“Sadly, I have never practiced the Deafening Sweep before, so the result wasn’t really up to standard. . . .”
As she spoke, Raven was about to move on to extracting the heart, but Hoatzin’s slightly queasy voice stopped her.
“Please, sis, not with your right hand. . . !”
“Oh?” Raven paused in surprise, glancing down at her bloodied right hand. “Sure.”
Without being hindered the least, Raven changed how she worked in order to minimize the Life Link’s contact with the animal’s intestines. Noticing the change, Hoatzin felt a bit steadier and could once more reflect over what his sister had said.
Although he could understand her reasoning in theory, it didn’t mean that he got a deeper understanding of how to actually pull it off. He didn’t see how the two skills could be combined to create such impressive results as his sister had shown.
“Wait, did you say that you’ve never practiced the Deafening Sweep before?” Hoatzin assumed he must have heard wrong.
“Yes, of course. You have been with me the entire time since our pare-. . . well, since we started journeying, and I’ve never used it, have I?”
“No, you haven’t, but before that . . .”
“Before?” Raven interrupted. “Where would I possibly be able to practice such a noisy technique at home without being noticed?”
“But you’ve practically mastered it!”
“Hmm. . . .” Raven paused for a second. “Well, I guess it’s close to something I learned earlier? In my previous life, that is.”
“I see. . . .” Hoatzin grew silent as he pondered this.
It was indeed. Usually, when someone was learning a new Divine Martial Skill, the imprint would teach your soul how to link your spirit essence with specific physical movements the very moment you completed the imprinting process. The hard part, however, was then not only to manage linking your essence with the movement, but also to master the actual movement. In her old world, Raven had mastered an extremely wide variation of martial art skills, for just as many variations of weapons; even if there could be smaller differences, she already had the basics movements down for almost every Divine Skill in existence.
This, combined with her extreme control over her spirit essence, made learning new Divine Martial Skills a walk in the park for Raven – especially low-level ones, like the Deafening Sweep.
Hoatzin was silent for a long time before he spoke again.
“Really now, I’m starting to wish I had lived your old life and kept my memories too,” Hoatzin finally said with envy.
Raven said nothing, but a bittersweet smile crossed her face.
‘No, big Brother, you don’t. . . .’