On a high mountain top stood a small figure, barely one and a half meters tall, wrapped in multiple layers of dark cloaks. Despite the season being well into summer, the snow still lay thick at these altitudes and the hard wind caused snow to whirl around the figure, stabbing at the small patches of skin the layers didn’t manage to cover.
The area was desolate of any living creatures – except for the small figure, who was staring down the mountain pass. Further down, where the air was milder and the snow held no sway, a small town could be observed, nestled deep in the valley.
It was the border town, called Nightingale Gate, that efficiently blocked the entrance to the only safe land-crossing between the Nightingale Prefecture and Rock Wren Prefecture. It had a mirror town on the other side of the passage, called Rock Wren Gate, and if you were making your journey on foot, you had no other choice but to pass through both towns.
The small figure lifted its head and gazed out over the mountain ranges on either side of the town. Their steep mountain walls stretched implacably towards the sky – one range running north, the other south – and practically no vegetation managed to grow on them.
Suddenly, an unusually strong wind swept over the snow-covered mountain top, grabbing hold of the cloaks worn by the lone figure. As the fabric flapped violently in the wind, the pearly-white face of a youth was revealed.
The face was cold and stoic but nonetheless very beautiful. It was quite a feminine face, but the actual gender of the youth was hard to determine; by looks alone it would be female, but there was something about it that made you doubt your eyes. Perhaps it was a mirage brought on by the youth’s tender age, or perhaps, it was the two dark-red eyes that seemed too cold, too harsh, to belong to a girl. Or a child for that matter. Shivering, the youth collected the escaped fabric again.
“It would seem like we really have no choice but to pass through the two gate towns. . . .” The voice of Raven sounded slightly displeased as it disappeared into the heavy wind.
“Are you worried you’ll be recognized?” Within her head, Raven heard her brother’s question as clearly as if he had been standing right next to her.
“No, but I will have to pay the toll to pass through, and even if it isn’t a lot of money, it might be enough to draw attention – the border towns are rough places. . . .”
The border towns were located far from any other cities and even if they were officially run by the two prefectures, many bandits and mercenaries were drawn there to take advantage of those who were too poor to fly, but still rich enough to travel.
The two groups worked in an odd symbiosis – the bandits would rob people, who in turn would hire mercenaries to protect them. The mercenaries knew they wouldn’t be needed if not for the bandits so they usually went easy on the robbers and settled for scaring them off.
“I will have to find some cover if I’m to pass through inconspicuously. . . .”
With a last glance over the mountains, Raven turned and started to walk the winding descent down towards the valley; even though the first town was visible from where Raven stood, it would take nearly four days to get there.
Disbelieving, Raven stared up at the huge walls that surrounded the first border town. There, right above the entrance – carved into stone that was slightly lighter than the surrounding stone, clearly, due to a recent remodeling – were three words: Black Talon Gate.
Raven stood by the side of the road without moving, seemingly more deeply frozen than she had been up on the icy mountain top.
‘I knew they would change the name of the prefecture, but to do it so quickly and thoroughly. . . .’
It had barely been four months since Raven left White Water Town in the center of the prefecture. The mourning period for Raven and her family had only recently ended and yet, here she was, as far away from the prefecture capital as possible and the change had already come into effect.
“Aren’t they afraid that someone will find it suspicious that they’ve acted so quickly?” Hoatzin spoke, his bitter voice finally breaking Raven’s silent contemplation.
“Not necessarily. As far as they know, everyone involved in the incident, and who oppose them, are dead – even if they fear what I’iwi might have found out, she was mortally wounded, and who would believe a maid over them, anyway?” Raven covered her mouth and she spoke quietly, so as to not draw attention to her one-sided conversation.
“But they are being so disrespectful to our family and clan! Wouldn’t at least Empress Nene be upset?”
Raven’s eyes grew moist and she fanned herself with little hand before she spoke in a heartbroken voice. “Oh, most benevolent Empress, I am beside myself with grief over my brother’s death! I want nothing more than to take over his legacy, but to constantly be reminded of his demise. . . .” Raven’s voice broke. “I . . . I can’t . . .” A lone tear slid down her left cheek.
Hoatzin drew a shocked breath as Raven turned back to herself.
“Aunt has had plenty of practice; she will be able to convince them. . . .” Raven’s red eyes flashed. “But they will get what they deserve, in time.”
Within the ring Hoatzin shuddered. Ever since they had left the small cave by the lake two months ago, his sister had continuously been attempting to completely merge her killing intent with her spirit essence in hopes of gaining new insights as to whatever she had sensed that night. Slowly, she was succeeding with the merger, but as a consequence Raven’s eyes had become practically permanently red. Even though no killing intent escaped from her, it gave her a very cold glare that could send shivers down your spine. He almost felt pity for the Talons and their accomplices – she would no doubt make them suffer greatly – but only almost.
“But, the Empress would believe you, right?” Hoatzin asked after some consideration. “You can show her the orb left by I’iwi.”
“Hard to say. . . . I’m only four, remember, and would hardly count as a reliable witness. The orb might be enough to convince Empress Nene, or at least make her suspicious, but it will most likely not be enough for her to act against the Talons. After all, they could claim that the orb is fabricated.”
“It’s worth a try though, right?”
“Could be. . . .” Raven’s voice trailed off as she considered the Empress. Her aid would be most welcome, but Raven felt a bit apprehensive when she considered the letter I’iwi had found; clearly they had help seizing the power over the prefecture from another Empire and Raven found it hard to believe that they would do so only for the sake of the Talons becoming prefecture lords. There must be more to it than that.
However, there was nothing Raven could do about it right now so, not wishing to look at the huge carvings on the wall any further, Raven took a deep breath and entered the town. It was mid-day and a lot of people milling about on the streets. She disappeared into the crowds and followed the masses down the most populated streets, passing several inns and restaurants as she went. There were even quite a few shops and guild halls present on either side.
“This place really is a lot livelier than White Water Town,” Hoatzin remarked.
“And a lot rowdier,” Raven snickered and glanced off to the right.
Calmly, Raven walked over to the road leading right. Just as she rounded the corner, a loud crashing noise could be heard from within one of the buildings followed by several angry shouts. Nonchalantly, Raven leaned against a light post and started counting down. “3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .”
The wooden doors of the closest restaurant splintered into a thousand pieces as a huge figure blasted through them and slammed into the opposite stone wall. Raven raised an eyebrow and whistled approvingly as the huge figure brushed off the debris as it if were dust and stomped back towards the restaurant – on his feet, he was well over two meters and had the body-build of a smaller giant. By the looks of it, he was in his thirties.
“Hog, you old bastard! Stop it with your cheap shots!”
Out on the street most ignored the commotion as if it were a drop of water in a lake – clearly such fights were common here. Some people, like Raven, chuckled and moved a bit closer so that they could see into the building through the broken doors, hoping for a bit of entertainment.
Within, the brawl was in full swing. The giant had engaged with a tawny, probably fifty-year-old man in scholar’s robes, and all around them men were fighting with each other, using everything from their fists to tables and chairs to fight. Even if the two Gates were fairly lawless places, everyone knew better than to go for killing hits within the city walls – the prefecture guards allowed much, but not that – so they refrained from using any real weapons.
“Haha, few things are as entertaining as a good bar fight!” Raven laughed softly as she observed the chaos within with a devilish spark in her eyes.
“Sister? I thought you disapproved of the behaviors of bandits. . . .”
“Oh, I do, but a bar fight is fairly harmless – you wouldn’t find kids or other defenseless innocents in a bar, right? Sometimes, arguments are best settled with your fists.”
She could still remember the huge fight she had been part of in a high-end casino parlour back when she was an assassin. Part of it had been planned, and would function as a cover for the assassination of a local drug lord, but Raven had really enjoyed the absolute frenzy that it had caused. At one point, Raven had even been helped out by a small, shrivelled up, old lady who smacked a high-up mob member on the head with her coin-filled purse. Raven giggled as she remembered the youth’s vacant expression as he sank unconscious to the floor.
“Seriously Sister, I’m starting to doubt whether or not you aren’t a boy after all. . . . What lady would be roused to laughter by a brawl?”
Raven only rolled her eyes and kept watching the growing fight.
“Damn you, Hog! Stop dodging and take my fist like a man!” The giant roared and swung his huge fist towards the tawny man, who simply side-stepped with a calm impression on his face.
“Twig, don’t go defining what a man is when you don’t even have the skill to touch me.” Hog too extended his hand and easily slapped the giant’s buttocks as he passed him. “Children should be spanked to know their place.”
“I’m not a child!” snapped the giant named Twig, before he swung at his opponent once more.
“The big one is called ‘Twig’ and the scrawny guy ‘Hog’? It doesn’t match at all.” Raven chuckled a bit too loudly and her fellow observers overheard her.
“Kid, you’re new, right? How else could you not know of Big Boy Twig and Old Man Hog!” an elderly man, who looked like he might die of old age any minute, spoke out next to her. “You shouldn’t make fun of them, they are the leaders of two very strong mercenary groups that operate in town and even if they are not showing it now, they are also both high level spiritualists!”
“Oh, spiritualists, you say? I don’t see them wearing any spirit stones. . . .”
“Haha, kid, why would they? They are both rogue spiritualists and even if they could get a lot of advantages by wearing them, they are better off keeping their exact strengths hidden.”
Raven understood the man’s reasoning. She had always found it a bit odd that spiritualists chose to wear the spirit stones; sure it gave you a lot of benefits in the form of various discounts, access to otherwise restricted areas and so forth, but in Raven’s mind these weren’t enough for her to want to reveal her cultivation. Then again, spiritualist were fairly few in numbers and were generally very proud of their achievements – it was perhaps only natural that they would want to show off, even at the risk of there being bigger fish in the sea, so to speak.
“So, what level are they?” Raven inquired.
“Oi, kid, didn’t you hear me – they want to keep their cultivation hidden!”
Raven raised an eyebrow. “So all your age and wisdom has given you no insights? Pity.”
“Tche, this brat. . . .” The old man snorted disapprovingly, but continued; “don’t go underestimating your elders! Of course I know – they are peak Adepts!”
His voice might be frail but in his annoyance he had spoken a little too loudly, and the entire restaurant suddenly became silent.
“Eh?” The old man lifted his head to look into the restaurant only to see Twig and Hog staring at him with annoyed eyes. The rest of the fighters were instead looking at Twig and Hog.
“I-. . . it wasn’t me! This kid, he . . .” He looked down at where Raven had stood only seconds ago, but the kid was nowhere to be seen.
“What? Where did he go?” He looked back up at the two fighters with horror in his eyes. “This old one is terribly sorry, I didn’t mean to . . . to . . .” His old body was shaking like a leaf.
“Humph, I’ve lost interest in this fight. Let’s call it quits for today, old man.” Twig walked over to the corner of the room to pick an enormous axe that was resting against the wall. “Let’s go!”
As he motioned to the crowd, about thirty percent of the people present in the establishment straightened, shouted “Yes, boss!” and scurried after the departing giant.
“Aren’t you forgetting our bet?” the tawny Hog called out just as Twig passed through the broken doors.
Twig only glanced back before he stretched out his enormous hand and patted the terrified ancient man on his shoulder. The poor fellow seemed to break apart under the weight of the hand.
“Since this elder seems to know so much, he’ll cover it,” he said and with that, Twig and his men left.
“Youths these days. . . . So sensitive.” Hog glanced at the old man, who seemed to be about to faint any moment. “You may go.”
“Thank you!” The man looked as if he would die of relief as he hurried off, surprisingly fast for his old age.
Hog ignored the departing man and instead walked over to the owner, who stood pale-faced by a broken counter – it was the third time this month his restaurant had been totaled, and now he even had to replace the doors. . . .
“Pardon the mess.” Hog nodded to the owner and retrieved a small pouch from within his robes. “This is for your troubles.”
He placed the pouch on the only part of the counter that was still intact, and then turned to leave as well. As he did, four other middle-aged men followed respectfully behind him. When Old Man Hog walked out into the street he glanced up towards the roof before he walked off in the opposite direction of Big Boy Twig that had left earlier.
From behind a chimney on the roof, Raven emerged with a small smile on her face.
“He noticed me? Interesting.”
Without hesitating, Raven jumped down from the roof and once more merged with the moving crowds. She didn’t bother following Twig or Hog. Instead, she made her way towards the big marketplace that she had seen from the rooftop. She was too young to be able to gain any information at bars and restaurants, and besides, one should not underestimate the treasure trove that was merchant’s gossip.