The days rolled on as Raven steadily made her way east through the Great Woodland Valley; it would take her a bit over a week to cross it and reach the mountain range that would take her to the borders of Nightingale Prefecture. Raven had not been in a rush as she moved through the forest and she often stopped to cultivate or hunt along the way.
As she went she had even fought against a couple of low-level spirit beasts, winning with ease. Of course, she had made sure to avoid those beasts who seemed beyond her abilities, relying heavily on her instincts and recovering spirit connections to judge the danger they possessed. As a result, Raven had since long mastered the Deafening Sweep and even gained some insights to the next level of her Sonic Sword, the Shrill Rift.
With only a day’s travel left before reaching the edge of the Woodlands, Raven sat cross-legged by a rather calm river. Next to her were a couple of newly caught fishes skewered over a small fire. It was still bright out but Raven had nonetheless checked that no dangerous beasts were close enough to be drawn by the fire.
“Aargh, those smell so nice!” Hoatzin sounded quite defeated.
“Sorry, big Brother. . . .” Raven glanced at the fish guiltily. “I can eat them raw if it helps.”
Raven couldn’t imagine how hard it must be to be confined within the Life Link all the time. Sure, Hoatzin might be grateful to be alive at all, but still. . . .
“Nah, don’t worry about me, Sister,” Hoatzin reassured her.
“. . .” She wasn’t convinced.
“Well, when you eat, I can nearly taste it too,” Hoatzin joked and Raven could almost feel him winking within the ring.
“If you say so. . . .”
She sat quietly for a while. Once the fishes were done Raven practically swallowed them whole.
“Hey, hey! I was supposed to taste the flavor through you; don’t gobble them down like a hungry hound the moment they’re done!” Hoatzin’s complaints echoed in Raven’s head.
Raven’s face became saint-like as she blinked innocently.
“Why, Big Brother, I noticed that the fishes had been slightly burnt over the fire. Fearing that I’d give you a bad experience, I figured that the best course of action was to eat them quickly, so as to not invade your tongue with the vile taste of ash.”
Silence, and then, after a while: “Well, did they taste bad?” Hoatzin asked disbelievingly.
“No, they were quite divine.” Raven answered without hesitation, still smiling like an angel.
“Why you. . . ! You were just hungry, right?” A cynical sneer was obvious in his voice.
Both were silent for a while, and then, simultaneously, broke out in laughter.
“Haha, Sister, your eating style alone would convince anyone that you’re a boy!” Hoatzin cried between laughs.
Coughing, Raven stilled her laughs.
“So, tell me, once we figure out how to restore your body, what will you, Hoatzin the boy, gobble down?”
The question caused Hoatzin’s laugh to die down as well. With an unwavering voice he answered: “Burnt fish.”
And the laughing started once more.
Later, as the sun slowly started to set, Raven still sat by the riverside, cross-legged. The laughing had ceased hours ago and Raven had chosen to cultivate for a bit before finding a good place to rest for the night. Usually she would do this for one, perhaps two, hours, but this time was different.
As Raven had entered her meditative state, she had realized that her spirit core, which had been fully restored soon after entering the Woodlands, seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Excited, Raven had focused wholeheartedly on absorbing more spirit essence and sending it to her core.
Hoatzin knew that Raven was getting close to an important juncture in her cultivation, so he stayed silent.
At this moment, the large white vortex of rapidly spinning spirit essence that was Raven’s core shook considerably and its center came to a sudden halt. The abrupt stop in the middle caused the surrounding pieces of essence to smash into each other with high force, forcibly combining them in the process. As the essence grew denser and smaller, its color grew brighter and stronger.
Raven had read about this and knew that she had reached a critical point. Unceasingly she absorbed more and more essence to feed her core with. Soon, the shrinking disk started to revolve again, once more becoming a twirling vortex, but now it was considerably smaller and instead of white, it glowed with a warm red.
While it was smaller, Raven clearly felt the qualitative difference between her old core and her new one – she didn’t doubt that her Divine Skills would become at least twice as deadly as before.
Slowly Raven opened her eyes with a content smile on her face, but before she had a chance to tell her brother of her successful breakthrough, he spoke first in a slightly nervous voice.
“Oh, good, you’re done. You’re about to get company.”
Startled, Raven realized that she could clearly hear two sets of heavy footsteps making their way towards her.
‘Shit. I was too focused on my cultivation!’ she cursed to herself.
She considered hiding, but it was too late – just as she was about to get up, two burly men stepped into view.
“Woah, there! No need to rush, boy.” The slightly larger of the two spoke first.
They had clearly already spotted her.
“Yeah, stay and play with us for a while.” The second man smiled viciously, revealing a row of blackened teeth.
Raven looked at the two men with frightened eyes, as if she was a deer caught in the headlights of a car, but behind those terrified eyes, she was as calm as ever. She observed the men and noted every last detail about them; everything from the enormous broadswords they carried over their backs and the beast hides they were wearing, down to their individual musculature. Within seconds, Raven had already found several weak-spots.
As she lifted her gaze to their foreheads however, Raven had a hard time not laughing out loud at their boastfulness. There, both of them had fashioned a sort of metallic headband or crown. Dead center in these head ornaments glowed two completely white stones. Raven at once recognized them as Spirit Stones; these two men were high Spirit Novices, and they obviously liked to flaunt it.
‘I guess reaching high Novice is quite okay for a rogue. . . ,’ she mused sarcastically to herself.
“Are you going to be okay?” Hoatzin then asked her with concern.
Outwardly, Raven started nodding frantically in confirmation.
“Good boy.” The black toothed man’s smile grew wider. Obviously, he had taken Raven’s nodding as a sign of submission.
“Now, let me take a look at you.” The larger man was now close enough to Raven to be able to stretched out a hand to touch her.
When faced with the approaching muscular hand, Raven scurried backwards, as if in an instinctive fright. Her retreat, however, caused her to “trip” into the river behind her. The river wasn’t very deep, perhaps only half a meter, but it was enough to soak her completely. As she struggled to her feet the two men on the shore laughed.
“Well, well. . . . Such a feminine little boy – what a treasure,” chuckled mister black-tooth.
“Come on out of there, boy, and we’ll treat you nicely,” cooed the larger one.
“Speak for yourself,” laughed black-tooth. “I haven’t had a woman in weeks, and this one is close enough.”
‘Despicable. . . .’
Raven kept calm as she, seemingly panic-stricken, tried to make her way to the other side of the River. Just as the river wasn’t very deep, it wasn’t very wide either – any of the two men could jump over it if they wanted to – so they just watched as Raven slowly moved closer to the other side. But as she reached the bank, it would seem as if she couldn’t make it up. Raven’s little body tried, over and over again, to heave itself out of the water, but to no avail.
Running out of patience, the black-toothed man started to move into the water as well.
“No need to be nice then. . . ,” he said with his nefarious smile turning to a sneer.
But just as he reached the middle of the river, barely a meter from Raven, Raven’s entire attitude changed; her green eyes turned red with cold killing intent and she dove down under the surface. The lack of sunlight had rendered the waters quite dark, so the two men instantly lost sight of her.
“Eh? Where did he go?” The man in the water hurriedly dashed the last meter to where Raven had disappeared from, but she was gone.
Looking up and down the calm river, neither of the two men saw any traces of the girlish boy they were hunting.
Suddenly the water beneath black-tooth shifted and Raven sprang up from underneath. She latched onto the man’s back and pulled the unsuspecting man with her back down under the water before he even had a chance to rally his spirit essence.
“Brewer!” The large man still on the shore rushed forward, but he paused before stepping down into the river.
The dark river had returned to its previous calm, with no sign of either Raven or the black-toothed man, named Brewer.
“Damn you, brat! Show yourself!” He drew his broad sword and shouted out over the river.
“If you don’t come out here, right now, I’m going to blow up the entire river – with you in it!” He grew angrier every second.
“Fine! Then take this: Wind Storm Claw!”
The man swung his huge broadsword towards the river. Powerful gusts of wind surged from the tip of the sword, crashing into the water surface. The wind forced large quantities of water to splash up into the air, accompanied by the body of the man’s dead companion, Brewer, which landed with a thud on the other side of the river.
Just as the large man was considering where the boy’s body had ended up, he heard a pleasant tune being whistled behind him. Captivated by the melody, his mind felt slightly sluggish as he turned to find its source. But before he could locate it, a shrill roar rang out in the forest. Confused, he noticed how the world around him grew taller before it all turned dark.
Next to the beheaded body stood Raven in her drenched clothes, clenching Nightingale’s Blessing in one hand and her dagger in the other. She looked over the two corpses with disdain.
“Wow, well done, Sister!” Hoatzin praised her. “You even had me fooled there for a while!”
Raven said nothing, instead she checked the two men’s clothing, seemingly searching for something. She really detested men like these two, and made no effort to calm her murderous feelings as she searched.
“The way you used the first guy . . . Brewer, was it? The way you used him as a cover to get out of the water – brilliant! And there at the end, that was the Shrill Rift rather than the Deafening Sweep, right?”
Hoatzin was laughing, but he soon noticed his sister’s mood was a bit off.
“Are you okay?” he asked tentatively.
Having just finished checking the two men’s possessions, Raven shuddered once before she started walking off into the forest with determination in her steps.
“I’m fine,” she spoke with a heavy voice. “It’s just that, when I consider what would have happened if they had met an ordinary child. . . . It pisses me off.” Her eyes still shone red with killing intent. “While it might be true that we live in a world where the strong rule the weak, there should be limits to how the strong abuse their power.”
Hoatzin grew solemn. He had been raised with the burning desire to protect his sister, something that was still engraved deep in him. Even if he, of late, had grown to realize that his sister didn’t really need his protection, the thought of her in the hands of those two men – had she not been a spiritualist – made his skin crawl. Figuratively, of course.
Suddenly he noticed a piece of paper in Raven’s hand.
“What’s that in your hand?”
“A map. I got it from the bigger fellow.”
“Yes. It would seem like there are more of them. . . . It’s time to go hunting for real.”
Silent as the night, Raven made her way north through the undergrowth, her blood-red eyes darkening to the point where they no longer stood out in the dark.
Further north, barely two hours’ walk away, a group of fifteen people were rowdily preparing for dinner. They were gathered in a clearing they’d made for themselves by chopping down the trees that had grown there. The logs and branches had then been used to construct tents and make-shift tables and stools for the group.
Everyone present wore rugged clothes, made of animal hides, and carried various vicious-looking weapons. Almost everyone had a spirit stone fastened as an ornament on their foreheads. Only two of the fifteen people present were female, although ‘feminine’ was not a word that could be used to describe them; both were built like fat oxen, and the earth almost shook beneath them as they walked. They were similar enough to be twins, but one seemed a little bit older than the other. Currently, they were busy stirring a big cauldron that was placed over an open fire as they shouted commands at the males around them; orders that were reluctantly followed by all but one man.
This middle-aged man was sitting, laughing and drinking, on one of the larger stools in the center of their encampment. He was far from the largest man present, but the aura around him was different from the rest and the stone on his forehead had a large red center, surrounded by only a slim ring of white – mid Spirit Adept. As he watched the two ladies boss the men around him, his laughs grew louder.
“Hahaha! Tundra! Magpie! You two ladies show no mercy when it comes to cooking!” He slapped his hand down on the stool next to him that instantly split in two. “I look forward to the result, as always.”
“What ladies. . . ?” a nearby man grumbled under his breath as he lifted a heavy sack filled with meat.
“Shut it!” the younger woman, Magpie, snapped at the disgruntled man, as she swung a heavy ladle at him. The man ducked, but the ladle left a deep impression in the tree it hit instead.
“Rifleman! It’s fine that you don’t help, but don’t go disturbing us instead.” Tundra glared at their leader, before she nudged Magpie to refocus her attention on the cooking.
“Yes, yes,” Rifleman agreed, but he kept laughing as he observed his men hard at work.
Behind him stood a cage, perhaps one cubic meter large, adorned with sharp spikes; only, the spikes were not turned outwards, they stretched inwards. The spikes were covered in layers of dried blood, clearly from whatever poor creatures had been trapped within the cage previously. At the moment, a low-level spirit beast lay whimpering inside. Its previously snow-white fur was damp with blood from the numerous wounds it had received as it tried to break free – but its strength was only comparable to a low Spirit Novice and it could do nothing about its restraints. Even if it could, its captors would easily catch it, or even slay it, if it actually escaped.
“Quiet!” A passing man shouted at the beast and kicked at the cage.
The sudden jolt caused the little animal to jump up in shock, piercing itself yet again on the spikes as it did. It squealed in pain, but quickly quieted down – it was smart enough to know what would happen to it if it was too loud.
“Careful, Diver – we’ll get less money for it dead,” Rifleman chided between his laughs. He didn’t really care about the creature’s well-being – but money was money.
“Yes, Boss.” Diver didn’t disagree, and simply moved on with his work.
Soon the food was ready and the preparations in camp were complete; they planned to stay here for a couple of days before heading to the closest town to sell their goods so fairly sturdy tents had been made.
“Food’s done,” grunted Tundra as she heaved the enormous cauldron off the fire and placed it on the ground with a loud thud.
“Petrel and Brewer are running late. . . ,” someone remarked.
“Who cares? They can eat whatever’s left!” someone else replied.
“Yeah! I’m starving!” encouraged a third.
“Come, crew, let’s eat!” Rifleman invited, and the group started to chow down sloppily on the food.
Nobody really cared that two of their members had yet to return and nobody seemed to notice the pair of deep-red eyes staring silently at them from within the dark forest.