What followed was a form of organized chaos; without breaking formation, the seventeen mercenaries faced off against the twenty-two bandits, causing the ringing sound of steel on steel, and rough grunts of fighting men to fill the quiet night. If not for the dense forest within the valley, the sound of the battle would no doubt have echoed throughout the entire passage. From her tree, Raven had a very good view of the campsite and she silently observed the unfolding battle.
“Interesting…” Raven muttered.
“Huh?” Hoatzin snapped up on her quiet comment.
“Well, Hog and Twig’s groups both have surprisingly solid fighting styles. Usually, mercenary crews are put together randomly, with little to no consideration of how they would work as a group. Contrary to an army, which works hard to unify its troops, mercenaries tend to focus more on individual strengths. After all, people tend to come and go as they please from mercenary groups,” Raven explained. “But look, Hog’s people all move in similar patterns and their auras are very calm and collected as they fight. Twig’s people, on the other hand, have their own set of patterns and fight more aggressively. These two groups have not been formed overnight.”
“I see what you mean… Perhaps they’ve been together long enough that it affects their fighting style,” Hoatzin suggested as explanation. “The bandits seem to be at a disadvantage.”
Hoatzin was right about the bandits having a hard time; they might have the advantage in numbers but the mercenaries were well-trained and more organized. At the moment, the bandits were not making any progress, but rather being pushed back.
“True, but either side has yet to reveal any Divine Skills. That might shift the balance,” Raven pointed out.
As if the fighting men had heard her, spirit essence began to stir within first one, and then several more of the bandits, while the other bandits fell back a bit. Raven immediately sensed the change and could gauge the opponents’ strengths.
“One low Adept and four Novices of varying strength. If these are all the spiritualists they have, then they are not as picky as Rifleman was with his crew,” Raven concluded.
By the time Raven had finished her sentence, the mercenaries had already regrouped with the intention of handling the enemy spiritualists more efficiently. Surprisingly enough, both Hog and Twig were at the back of this formation, no longer engaging in direct battle at all. Despite this, spirit essence began to stir within the foremost mercenaries and in the next instant numerous Divine Skills were activated, from mercenaries and bandits alike.
“Barbarian Serpent Stroke!”
“Thrust of the Five Warriors!”
The active spiritualists shouted the names of the Divine Skills they were using as they rushed towards their enemies and Raven couldn’t help but snort.
“Seriously, why do all the spiritualist we’ve come across have the tendency to announce their attacks when they execute them?” she muttered disapprovingly.
In Raven’s training stealth and always getting the upper hand had been paramount. For her, making any unnecessary noise at all while attacking was not only silly, it was an error that might give her opponents the information they need to safeguard themselves!
In the campsite, the fight had gained a new level of frenzy as spirit essence and various elemental traits boosted the spiritualists’ fighting power. However, the outcome was still the same as before, the bandits were at a clear disadvantage. Be it in cultivation or Skill level, the spiritualists the mercenaries had sent forward were all a notch above their opponents.
Finally realizing that they had picked the wrong target, one of the bandits shouted the command and all twenty-two assailants turned and fled. By now, the sun had already set, and the silhouettes of the bandits quickly disappeared into the darkness.
“That was it?” Hoatzin sounded somewhat disappointed.
“So it would seem…” Raven agreed with her brother.
The bandits had posed less of a threat to the caravan than Raven had expected, considering their silent approach, and when they withdrew, neither side had suffered any casualties. The fact that Hog and Twig hadn’t even joined the spiritualists in the later stage of the fray clearly indicated that they had been going easy on the bandits. Raven and Hoatzin had now seen the odd symbiosis between those who were outlaws and those who worked as guardians first-hand.
“Mayeri! Mayeri!” Finally free from her husband’s embrace, Ardea shouted frantically for her child.
Raven had already scooped up the still sleeping girl into her arms and now silently jumped down from the branch they had been sitting on. Even though the campsite had been visible from the tree branch, the base of the tree was hidden behind tall bushes and, fortunately, no one turned to look in her direction. If they had, they would no doubt had been shocked to see the roughly one meter tall boy jump down from a branch over two meters up, while carrying a child of similar size.
Raven walked out from behind the bushes with Mayeri in her arms.
“Here, ma’am.” She answered Ardea’s call and, to calm the worrying mother, quickly added: “She fell asleep before the bandits came.”
“Mayeri!” Ardea rushed over and pulled the girl from Raven’s arms.
Sitting on the ground, she carefully inspected her daughter, and when no wounds were found, she sighed in relief. Hugging Mayeri close, Ardea looked up at Raven.
‘Oh, great…’ Raven cringed inwardly; Ardea’s face was warped with immense anger.
*Whap!* The crisp sound of a hand slamming into a face filled the now quiet campsite. Everyone froze. Raven absentmindedly lifted a hand to cover the cheek that Ardea had just hit while pumped up on adrenaline.
“You! How dare you lead my child out of the safety of our camp!?” Ardea shouted and prepared to slap Raven once more. “You could have gotten her killed!”
Just as Ardea was about to hit Raven a second time, Twig’s large body appeared next to her and grabbed the descending hand.
“Don’t,” he spoke in a calm voice.
“Let me go!” Ardea shouted. “What’s the point of protecting a bandit slave like him? He might even be in on it!”
The men in camp inhaled sharply and stared disbelievingly as Ardea. By now, everyone had become aware of the shackles Raven was wearing and had also noticed how the small boy would sometimes grow distant, as if he were watching something very far away. That the kid was a former slave was obvious, and so was the fact that he must have been quite severely abused. They all pitied the kid, Ardea perhaps most so, which made her behavior now so hard to take in.
“Ardea…” Heron walked up to his wife and put his arms around her shaking body. “Calm down. You don’t really mean that.”
“Yes I do!” Ardea’s voice faltered and she slumped, crying, into her husband’s arms.
Heron patted her hair. “There, there, darling. We are all safe now.”
He knew that Ardea was overreacting due to her fears and that she was actually very concerned about Raven’s safety as well. Heron looked at Raven, who stood rooted to the spot in front of them.
Before he could finish the sentence, Raven turned around and fled into the forest. Heron sighed.
“…and we had made so much progress these past days,” Heron mumbled. In his eyes, Raven had become a lot more comfortable around people since they left Black Talon Gate. Now he feared that the situation would revert. “Twig, or Hog, would one of you go after him? He won’t survive for long on his own out here.”
“Sure, I’ll go.” Hog was the first to respond and he calmly walked of in the direction Raven had left; the trail of broken branches and disturbed soil that Raven left behind her was easy to follow so Hog felt no need to run. The child would stop eventually.
Raven kept running at a moderate pace up the forest-covered mountain side.
“Why are you running away? Don’t you need them to pass through the next Gate?” Hoatzin asked.
“I do,” Raven replied in a steady voice. “But the mother hit me with all her might, foolish woman.”
“Do you need to ask? If a normal non-spiritualist person hit you with full force, what would happen to their hand?”
Hoatzin drew a deep breath. The fundamentals of cultivation were to absorb spirit essence into your spirit core and then use the refined energy to strengthen your body. However, this strengthening process was not limited to the body’s muscles alone; every single cell would grow stronger. When Hoatzin had his body, he was already more than twice as strong as regular children, which also meant that his bones were more than twice as hard, and his skin twice as tough.
“I have been cultivating since I was an infant – since my cells are already in a state of rapid growth, they are and have been very susceptible to change. Although my cultivation is only that of a low Adept, I suspect that the state of my physical body is closer to that of a peak Adept, or possibly even a low Champion.”
Raven sped up a bit; she had noticed that somebody had been sent after her, but she wasn’t ready to return just yet.
“For an ordinary person, hitting me is like hitting a rock… Even though I tried to lessen the damage to her hand by moving my head away, I clearly heard the woman’s hand fracturing slightly on impact – tomorrow it will be the size of a balloon.”
“Well, that is problematic. They will figure out something is wrong then, especially since Sister’s face won’t be injured at all,” Hoatzin remarked, sounding almost pleased. “I guess Sister has no choice but to travel on your own again, huh?”
Raven smiled mischievously.
“Who said I wouldn’t be injured?”
“Sister, you wouldn’t!” Hoatzin was flabbergasted; he knew his sister well enough to know what she was planning.
“Sorry, big Brother, you will have to live through the silent treatment a little bit longer.”
Confident that the distance between her and her follower was large enough, Raven slowed to a stop. Gathering spirit essence into her already wrapped right hand, Raven unflinchingly slapped herself across the same cheek that Ardea had hit earlier.
The slam from the impact was deafening, but the dense forest prevented the noise from travelling very far. Sharp pain filled Raven’s face and the vibrations from the impact made her a bit dizzy, but despite this she showed no outward signs of pain.
“Damn it, Raven! Don’t hit yourself so hard!”
“I’m fine, Brother.”
“Like hell you are – you face is already turning purple!”
“My injury has to match hers.”
“So you cause internal bleeding on yourself!?” Hoatzin was close to enraged. “And how can you look so unfazed? You must be in extreme pain!”
Raven only smiled at this, even though the gesture caused the pain to intensify. Raven was indeed in quite a lot of pain but, for her, it was nothing. If need be, Raven could withstand days of torture without revealing even an ounce of the pain she felt. In fact, then pain would be treated as a welcome friend; as long as she could feel the pain, she knew she was alive.
Hoatzin kept bombarding her with reprimands but Raven sensed that she would not be alone for very much longer – Hog was soon to catch up – so she sat down by one of the larger trees and started crying. At first, Hoatzin thought his sister had finally given in to the pain she felt, and started to comfort her. However, just a few minutes later, Hoatzin heard Hog approaching and realized that he had once again fallen for his sister’s charades.
“Figures…” He murmured and stopped talking.
When Hog came close enough to hear Raven’s sobs, he increased his pace and quickly arrived at the tree she was sitting by. Looking at the small, sobbing figure on the ground, his weathered heart felt a pang of emotion; despite being a thick-skinned warrior, Hog couldn’t help but want to protect the child in front of him. Suddenly he hesitated. Contrary to Heron, Hog had no experience when it came to handling children. He hadn’t really cared before, but now he was at a loss as to what to do.
Slowly, Hog crouched down a meter away from Raven; he at least knew not to touch the kid recklessly.
“Um… hey, kid…” He started carefully but Raven’s body still shuddered. “Um… You know, a man shouldn’t cry when a woman hits him.”
“I’m not crying!” retorted Raven, sniveling, without looking up. She couldn’t help but roll her eyes though. ‘What kind of advice is that to give a young child – are you grooming a soldier? Besides, if all of this wasn’t an act, it would hardly be the actual slap that was the problem, would it?’
Nonetheless, Raven’s crying was reduced to silent sniveling; there was no point in being hard on the man.
“Good.” Hog’s voice was more confident this time around. “Now let me take a look at your face, I have an ointment that will help with the pain.”
Hog looked away from Raven for a second to find the jar with the ointment within his purse, but once he looked up again and saw how basically half of Raven’s face was swollen beyond recognition and the trademark signs of internal bleeding were already visible underneath the pale skin, he couldn’t help but gasp and drop the jar he had fished out.
He stared at Raven’s face in shock. Suddenly he felt that his previous remark about not crying was a bit insensitive. Heck, he was impressed that the kid hadn’t passed out the moment Ardea’s hand slapped him.
Eventually his senses returned to him. With newfound resolution, Hog grabbed on to Raven’s shoulders – ignoring the fear it brought in the child’s eyes – and said firmly: “You actually tried to protect Mayeri, didn’t you? Kid, listen to me, anyone that can take a hit like that and still stand true to his convictions and not retaliate is a true man! Don’t bother with people that look down on you for your past – you have the potential to become a great man in the future.”
Hog’s face was now very close to Raven’s and despite the darkness Raven could clearly see how his eyes practically sparkled with enthusiasm. It was as if he were encouraging his most favored disciple. Within the Life Link, Hoatzin was roaring with laughter.
“Haha, Sister, he called you a true man! Hahaha, this is hilarious!”
Before Raven had a chance to respond, Hog had risen to his feet and pulled Raven up with him – at first he had intended to carry the kid back to camp but now he thought differently.
“Come, young man, let us go back to camp with our heads held high!” Hog put extra emphasis on the ‘young man’ part as he spoke. “I bet you will have the most impressive battle wound of us all.”
Hog winked and strode off down the mountain side while pulling Raven along. As they walked, Hog talked about various adventures he had gone through when he was younger and seemingly tried to convince Raven to do the same. Raven had to admit that the total one-eighty turn in Hog’s personality was outside of her calculations; she had wanted him to feel sorry for her and get more attached to her, yes, but this? Hog’s increased interest in her might backfire on her later on.