Chapter 16: Masquerade

For the past couple of hours, Raven had been sitting quietly in a leafy tree top close to the group’s encampment. The more she learned about the people she was observing, the more agitated she grew. They were clearly nothing more than a group of rogue spiritualists who abused their powers to track, torture and eventually kill whatever they could find that was weaker than themselves, be it beast or man.

“Truly despicable…. To think that bandits like these roam freely within our prefecture…” Hoatzin sighed deeply.

Not wishing to be detected, Raven simply nodded. But she also knew that the people in front of her weren’t that rare. Power is a tempting concept, even more so in a world like this one where your own physical strength was all important if you were to advance in society.

But just because she understood why they existed, didn’t mean she would ignore that existence when she came across it.

“So, how are you going to deal with them? They are quite numerous and the leader is even a mid Adept. . . . Wait until they fall asleep and then slit their throats?”

Raven raised an eyebrow in surprise. ‘What ever happened to my upfront brother? . . . Am I rubbing off on him?’

“What? No good?” her brother couldn’t read Raven’s mind and had therefore not heard her inner musings. He simply took her lack of response as a dismissal of his suggestion.

Raven relaxed her brow and tilted her head to the side, considering her options. She could indeed go for her brother’s version. It was quick and simple, but there was a high risk of being detected before the job was done, leading to an all-out battle with whomever remains.

She could use the Twilight Lullaby to help her, but since even normal singing would be out of place in the forest she wouldn’t be able to activate the Divine Skill without them noticing her surging spirit essence. Raven feared that, if he was prepared for it, then there was a risk that Rifleman, as a mid Adept, might be able to resist her enough for it to become dangerous for her. However, if she could make them expect her singing, but not her attack, then . . .

Raven’s mouth twisted into a slightly vicious sneer. The leaves around her fluttered ever so slightly as she disappeared from the branch she was sitting on.

“Where are you going?”

Raven glanced over her back towards the bandits – all busy eating to their heart’s content – before she replied.

“I’m going to make use of their greed and sense of superiority,” she whispered as she moved further and further away from the camp.

As she walked, she carefully scouted her surroundings. Suddenly, her eyes brightened and she came to a stop; she had found what she needed. A wolf. A perfectly normal, spirit-essence-free wolf, that was currently resting not far from her position.

Without hesitating, Raven removed the outer layers of her robes, leaving only the fine light blue undergarments that she had kept from home. She even removed her shoes. Swiftly, Raven released the fabric she had used to fasten her hair and instead wrapped it around her right hand and lower arm, efficiently hiding both her rings and the Fox’s Veil. Taking a deep breath, she finally started to alter the tension in her muscles, shifting back to her normal movement patterns.

“Going back to being my real sister?” Hoatzin was watching his sisters transformation with a mixture of fascination and confusion.

“I’m always your sister.” Raven teased as she made the final adjustments by altering what the Fox’s Veil portrayed of her aura.

There she stood, in the middle of a steadily darkening forest, in nothing but her silk undergarments that, along with her shoulder-long hair, swayed softly in the light breeze. Raven’s eyes remained dark red but no killing intent whatsoever could be detected from them. Instead, they gave her a very exotic appearance that, together with the mysterious and noble air brought out by the Fox’s Veil, made Raven seem even more fairy-like than she had done in her traditional dress, back in Sky City.

The gleam of steel flashed over her left arm and then her right leg, causing two small streams of blood to flow down her pearly white skin. In mere seconds, the nearby wolf lifted its furry head and sniffed, picking up her sent.

With a soft growl, it got to its feet and started to move towards Raven.

Raven just waited. Once the wolf was close enough, it only hesitated for a heartbeat before it pounced at the frail human it had found. With a panicked yelp, Raven dodged in the absolutely last moment, but one paw made contact with her garments, resulting in three long tears running from her right hip all the way down to the hem. Remarkably, no damage was done to Raven herself.

Scrambling to her feet, Raven let her panic grow as she frantically started running back towards the group of bandits. She paced herself to make sure the wolf kept up with her, and she made no attempts to avoid the low hanging branches that tore into her clothes as she ran. It didn’t take long before she saw the faint glow of the fireplace and heard the merry laughing of the eating crew.

“It looks like we’re about to get company.” Raven recognized the voice as Rifleman’s.

By now, Raven had worked up quite a heavy breath, and naturally the spiritualists in the group heard her coming from quite far off.

“Help!” Raven whimpered, sounding terrified, just before she broke into the clearing.

She threw herself to the ground in the middle of the encampment and turned just in time to see the hungry wolf spring towards her.

“Eii!” She squealed and closed her eyes tightly as if in fear of the coming impact but, just as she suspected, it never came.

Slowly, she opened her eyes again and looked around in apparent “shock”. At her feet lay the slayed wolf with a gashing wound across its abdomen, next to it stood its slayer, Rifleman himself.

Immense relief flooded her pale face and tears filled her eyes. With a loud sob she flung herself at the man, grabbing at his robes as she cried heavily.

“Thank you. . . . Thank you!” Her voice was soft and delicate. Even if it didn’t hold the allure of a full-grown woman, it had a beautiful ring to it that showed great potential for the future. To rough people such as these bandits, it was like honey to a bee.

Rifleman stared down at the frail little girl clinging to him in surprise – he hadn’t expected her reaction to be so strong. But, as he thought about it, it started to make sense to him; the girl hanging on to him was perhaps seven or eight years old and had no doubt just been through something very scary for her. Judging by her clothes she was perhaps a nobleman’s daughter that had been abducted, but that also managed to escape – of course she would cling to whatever hope she was given.

Pity it was false hope.

Yet, as he was about to order the girl captured and caged, another idea struck him. Wouldn’t this girl basically treat him as her god-given savior for all eternity if he handled this right? If he could make her feel safe now, then he could groom her into his personal pleasure slave in the future; the girl did show much promise for such a thing. . . .

Greed and lust filled his face. He didn’t hesitate much longer. With strong arms, he scooped up the little girl and carried her closer to the fire.

“Get me a blanket and a bowl of food!” Rifleman barked before he sat down and focused on the shivering girl in his arms.

In the dancing light from the fire, he inspected the crying Raven more closely. Her skin was pearly white without any blemishes, apart from the two shallow cut along her arms and legs, and her hair was silky soft and looked like the night sky – deep black, but with a hint of something more.

“There, there . . .” he cooed as he rocked the child gently in his arms; “everything is fine now. . . .”

His crewmen stared at the seemingly softhearted man by the fire – this was not the captain they knew at all! Tundra was the first to catch on to what he was up too; she snorted as she went to get a bowl of her stew. She winked an evil sneer towards her sister that immediately caught on and in turn collected a blanket.

Together, they walked over to the fire with as close to tender looks on their faces as they could muster.

“Here child, eat a bit and you’ll feel better.” Tundra handed the bowl to the now sobbing Raven.

“Poor little thing, you’re freezing!” Magpie quickly wrapped both Raven and Rifleman in the blanket, effectively pushing Raven’s young body even closer to the man still holding her.

“Are they serious? What idiot of a child would fall for their lousy acting!?” remarked Hoatzin, who grew more disgusted with these people every minute.

At that moment a wave of understanding swept over the group of bandits. Lust filled their eyes and some even winked at each other before making vulgar gestures towards Raven; she couldn’t see them directly from within Rifleman’s embrace, but at this range her senses were once again excellent so she could easily tell what they were doing anyway.

‘How original. . . .’ she thought sarcastically to herself.

Outwardly, however, she held her bowl with shaking hands as she looked up at Rifleman with big, nearly worshiping, eyes.

“You’re . . . being so kind to me. . . . No one has been so kind to me since . . . since . . . my family d-. . . die-. . .” Her voice broke and new tears started falling down her face and into the bowl of food.

When Raven looked up at Rifleman with her exotic red eyes, a shiver ran through his body and stirred his groin. Those eyes! There was an unfathomable depth to them that seemed to pull him in. He felt as if she was begging him to devour her. . . .

Little did he know that this feeling actually was born from Raven’s insane but well controlled killing intent – the red color came from linking her eyes with the killing intent in her very soul, giving them the feeling of immense depth, and as for the devouring part, well, there was definitely going to be some of that going on, just not the type Rifleman envisioned.

Rifleman coughed and regained his composure slightly; “No need to cry! No matter where you came from, you can have a new home with us.”

Raven stayed her crying and hesitantly looked up at the man holding her.

“Really?” Her voice was soft like summer rain.

Rifleman shivered once more and a hint of his lust seeped into his face.

“Of course you can! Right everyone?”

“Sure.” The men around him all laughed, but they sounded more like a pack of wolves than a welcoming family.

‘Time for the coup de grâce. . . .’ Raven smirked inwardly.

“Oh, thank you!” Dropping the half-finished bowl to the ground, she returned Rifleman’s embrace with new vigour, pressing her tiny body tightly against his. Raven could clearly feel his excited member poking at her side, but she hid her revulsion masterfully.

“Ah…” Riffleman’s eyes widened and his pupils dilated. He started to feel like waiting until she grew up a bit would be hard, and perhaps unnecessary.

“Girl, what is your name?” He asked, his voice growing a bit husky.

“Raven!” she replied happily. It was a common enough name in Sky Empire – used by both girls and boys – so Raven felt no need to change it.

“Well, little Raven, you are most welcome to stay with us! …but in our family everyone has to contribute. We live in the wild so we can’t have people weighing us down for nothing. You understand that, right?” He pushed her away from him slightly and stared up and down her body.

A brief flash of anger had flickered across Raven’s face when Rifleman called her ‘little Raven’ but she covered it up before anyone had a chance to notice it. Instead, she tilted her head to the side as she looked worriedly at her “saviour”.

“I’m not very strong. . . .” she said in a low voice. She seemed afraid that they would go back on their agreement to let her stay.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Rifleman lifted Raven out of his lap and placed her in front of him; “I’m sure there are other things you can contribute with. . . .”

He reached out a hand and stroked her check.

“Get your hand of my sister, you lecherous creep!” Hoatzin practically bellowed within the ring, but only Raven could hear him.

Raven pretended to be unfazed by Rifleman’s touch and instead looked as if she continued to ponder over what she could do for the group. Suddenly, she lit up like a sun.

“I know, I can sing! Mother always told me that I had a voice worth gold!” Raven smiled brilliantly.

Everyone in the encampment blinked as they stared at the little girl by the fire. Such pure naivety! Almost at once they all started laughing hysterically.

“Hey! It’s true!” Raven pouted and stamped a bare foot into the ground in protest.

“Hahaha, very well! Let us hear this golden voice and see if it will be contribution enough.” Rifleman laughed and slapped his lap, before he motioned to his crew to quiet down. He smiled and nodded at Raven to let her know she should begin. Inwardly, he figured that he would listen to one song, then simply tell her that it wasn’t good enough and move on to the more interesting labors the girl could perform for him.

Raven on the other hand had other plans.

She stood in front of the fire and swayed slowly from side to side as she started humming the melody of the Twilight Lullaby, but it was just the melody, with no Divine Skill activated. Carefully she started to intertwine her spirit essence into the tune. As she did, the group around her seemed to calm down a bit and some even sat down around the fire to listen more closely to her – to them it felt as if Raven really might possess a golden voice.

Once her spirit essence had completely melded with her voice, Raven glanced around the clearing to make sure no one had noticed before she opened her mouth and started singing the first line of the Twilight Lullaby.

Oh, dearest mine, where are you roaming…

As the first words left her, she let the full force of the Twilight Lullaby free; her voice instantly carried an air of allure and grace to it as the melancholy love song spread throughout the proximate forest.

The forest around them fell deathly silent; every creature that heard Raven’s singing paused whatever they were doing to listen and even the few song birds that had been singing in the distance stopped, as if to not offend a superior voice. Within the clearing, the bandits – men and women alike – sat on the ground with stupefied expressions on their faces. In front of their eyes, the world became hazy and it felt as if nothing else was of importance; as long as they could hear one more second of singing they would be overjoyed.

Within its spiked cage, the little white spirit beast lifted its weary head, seemingly in a better mental state then just before.

Oh come and hear your true love calling . . .

Raven observed the bandits around her as she sang. Once she was sure the lullaby had taken effect, she flicked her wrist and the sharp dagger appeared in her hand. Without hesitation she ignored the three non-spiritualist and swiftly walked over to the lowest level spiritualist in the group and pulled the dagger across his throat.

Even as his life was draining from him, the man did not stir from his stupor. Noting this, Raven nodded approvingly and continued her swift walk through the camp.

. . . That can sing both high and low . . .

Throat after throat was pierced by Raven’s dagger, and before she’d even finished the first verse of the lullaby every Spirit Novice had lost their life.

. . . Every wise man’s son doth know . . .

As Raven sang the last line in the first verse, she glanced around the encampment. Only five people remained alive; three were non-spiritualist – whom Raven felt little fear for – while the other two were the groups only Adepts. One was Tundra that was a low Adept, just as Raven, the other was the mid Adept, Rifleman. Raven knew that as long as they had a lower cultivation than herself, the Twilight Lullaby would keep them completely sedated even as they died, as long as she didn’t run out of spirit essence to control her Divine Skill. However, if they were at the same level or higher than her, Raven wasn’t as sure.

. . .What is love, ’tis not here after . . .

She did nonetheless not hesitate for long. She moved over to stand in front of the fat Tundra who swayed slightly with the rhythm of the song. With movements so quick that Hoatzin barely registered them, Raven sliced the woman’s throat and then stabbed the dagger deep into her gut, effectively piercing the spirit core located within.

. . . Present mirth has present laughter . . .

The sudden pain caused Tundra to snap out of her daze, but as she looked at the little girl standing over her, terror filled her instead; she tried to stir her spirit essence but nothing happened. She opened her mouth to speak, but Raven lifted a bloody finger to her lips, shaking her head.

. . . What’s to come is still unsure . . .

Halfway through the final verse, Tundra’s life left her. Raven observed her as it did and then steadily walked over to her final target with a satisfied smile on her face. She could have killed Tundra instantly, by stabbing at her head instead, but Raven needed to know the boundaries of her skill and wouldn’t let this opportunity go to waste. Besides, if bandits like these all died peacefully, it would be too good for them.

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