When Raven and Hog, nearly an hour later, walked out from the line of trees by the road campsite, more than one stared at Raven with round eyes.
“Blimey! Quite the jewel you’ve got there, boy!” Twig was the first to speak, but he was soon followed by the other mercenaries who all seemed to wholeheartedly congratulate Raven for her ‘first battle wound’.
None of the women were present; they had most likely already gone to sleep, but Heron smiled as he walked up to Raven.
“I’m glad you came ba-. . .” His smile faltered when he saw the full extent of Raven’s injury. “Dear god. . . . No wonder Ardea’s hand was injured!”
Raven said nothing and just stared blankly at the nearby fire. Hog leaned over and whispered into Heron’s ear: “He’s been like this since I got him to follow me back. He hasn’t said a word.”
Heron glanced the tent where his wife was sleeping. He had feared Raven would close up even more because of this – seems he was right.
“Raven, my boy, don’t take what my wife said to heart. She was only afraid after the ambush and she took it out on you.” Heron moved so that he stood between Raven and the fire, forcing Raven to look at him. “You have every right to be mad about what happened, but I hope you can trust me when I say it won’t happen again.”
“Sure.” Raven’s voice sounded distant.
She didn’t look up at Heron’s face before she turned and went over to the tree that was closest to Hog’s tent. With almost no effort, she climbed to the lowest branch and settled down for the night.
Behind her, Heron couldn’t help but feel dispirited. He had finally managed to get the kid comfortable enough to sleep in his family’s tent the night before, but now everything was back to square one.
“Well, at least that ends it for this time.” With an understanding glance at Heron, Hog sat down next to Twig by the fire.
“The bandit crew was large but not very skilled,” Twig responded. “They only had a few spiritualists and they let their spirit essence slip early.”
Hog was silent for a while as he thought back on the fight. He seemed to ponder something but ultimately rejected the notion.
“True. Let us hope it stays that way all the way through.”
“Haha, I hope not! That would be too boring!” Twig bellowed.
Hog sighed. “Seriously, Twig, you never learn.”
The two mercenaries, and some of their fellow crew members, kept talking in hushed voices for a while, but Raven just smiled and let herself fall asleep. The mercenaries had not noticed the knives she threw before and only sensed the spirit essence, and because of this they had figured that the bandits had messed up. So, at least for now, Raven felt that her cover was safe.
The next day was awkward for nearly everybody. Well, for everyone except for Raven.
Ardea, with her fractured hand tightly wrapped in bandages, was clearly ashamed of her behavior the day before but had trouble getting around to apologizing. Mayeri, who had only learned of the ambush that morning, had shrieked loudly and nearly fainted the moment she saw Raven’s now nearly rainbow-colored face. She spent the rest of the day unnaturally quiet, casting glances at her mother – the notion that her mother could hurt anyone to that degree shocked her. The men in the caravan all made varying attempts at engaging Raven in conversations but to no avail, thus leaving the caravan in an odd silence.
Raven on the other hand reveled in that very silence. She quite enjoyed playing the apathetic child while watching everybody else squirm awkwardly at her disinterest. After all, pretending to be someone you’re not can be quite exhausting in the long run, so this change of pace for her was most welcome.
The situation remained unchanged until, two days later, another bandit crew attacked. This group attacked in broad daylight and their attempt was even more unsuccessful than the previous one, but this time Ardea reacted differently; she forcefully pulled Raven, who had “just happened” to stand fairly close at the time of the attack, into her embrace and protected the kid with her own body. Of course, there was never any danger to either of them – the mercenaries stopped the bandits with ease – but Raven thanked her nonetheless and the action drastically changed the mood in the caravan.
“How magnanimous of you…” Hoatzin sneered – he had of course realized that Raven planned to let Ardea “protect” her. “And here I felt pleased by the fact that I was no longer the only one being ignored by my sister,” he teased from within the Life Link.
Raven, on the other hand, felt a bit dejected. She had let it happen for “the good of the group” but as she looked at the, yet again, high-spirited Mayeri bouncing towards her, Raven couldn’t help but cringe.
‘I will never birth children…’
With Ardea’s gesture everything went back to normal – except for the fact that Ardea was no longer able to help with the cooking and Raven was reduced to eating only liquids for a while – and the caravan slowly made its way through the passage.
As they traveled , they came under quite a few bandit attacks. It was clear that some of the bandit groups had been hastily formed and were therefore quite sloppy, but others were more organized and put up more of a challenge for the mercenaries. By the time ten days had passed since the caravan entered the pass, the group had been attacked five times – already more than twice the normal amount, and they were then still quite far away from the next Gate Town.
Despite this, Hog and Twig had only needed to use their spirit essence on one occasion. This was due to a mid Adept bandit who surprisingly enough possessed a level three martial Divine Skill, thus forcing Hog and Twig to use the Divine Skill Golden Tortoise, which had formed their spirit essences into a protective barrier around the merchants and their goods. Other than during the very first ambush, Raven hadn’t needed to give a helping hand even once; whatever skill their spiritualist had used to help them all move forward quietly, the other bandit crews didn’t know it.
Since the last attack, which had occurred ten days after the caravan entered the passage, another two days had passed. If nothing unexpected happened, they would reach Rock Wren Gate in two to three more days. Over the past two days, the passage had been very calm; not only were there no attacks; no cheering bandits could be heard in distance, and no wild animals howled in the night. This calm made Raven feel extremely on edge.
She couldn’t help but think back on that same arctic landscape where she had spent nearly half a year protecting Eric, the solar scientist. There had been a huge forest a couple of kilometers from the research base. The trees in that forest were the largest Raven had ever seen, with trunks so thick that five people holding hands wouldn’t be able to encircle them. The thick layer of snow covering every inch of the forest already made it eerily quiet, but there was this one area that was even quieter… The hairs on the back on Raven’s neck stood up simply thinking of that place and what she had met there.
The sensation wasn’t nearly as strong here, the silence not as prominent. She didn’t feel directly threatened here, but clearly the inhabitants of this passage seemed to feel differently.
At that moment, it was dawn. The mercenaries who had kept watch during the later night shift were walking around and waking people up, but Raven didn’t need waking; even before, she had usually spent her nights cultivating while pretending to sleep, only sleeping for real every three days or so – she didn’t need more, no Spirit Adept really did. But since they entered the quiet area, Raven had remained extra vigilant.
Raven pushed through the tent flap just as a night shift mercenary was about to lean closer to the tent, ready to wake the people within.
“Oh! Morn’n!” The startled man backed up a bit, then nodded towards the tent. “Rest of ’em awake?”
“Nope.” No more reply was given by Raven as she strode off towards a nearby stream.
It was the only stream they had come across over the past two weeks, and it was well needed – not only had their water supply been running a bit low, the entire caravan stank! Raven wished she had enough standing in the group to be able to order a mandatory wash for everyone, but unfortunately she didn’t have such authority. Then again, if she had it would only make her jealous – it wasn’t like she could strip down and wash herself thoroughly… As it was, she had to settle for splashing water on her own face and limbs.
A presence approached from behind.
‘Oh, dear…’ Raven had hoped for a few more minutes of peace.
“Good morning, Raven!” The annoyingly perky Mayeri dashed the last few steps and halted right behind Raven, giving the latter a firm shove forward at the same time.
Had Raven not been, well, Raven, then Mayeri’s little stunt would have resulted in Raven tumbling head first into the water. Normally, Raven wouldn’t have bothered resisting – it was after all quite hot in this narrow valley with barely any wind, and childish play would be a good excuse for her to get wet without undressing – but not now. Not in this odd silence.
“Morning,” Raven forced out.
“Tche, how boring.” Mayeri pouted over her failed ambush, but soon got over it. “Oh, today it’s a more yellowish green!”
Mayeri was referring to Raven’s cheek. Mayeri had made it her mission to inform Raven of the state of the ever-changing shades of her bruise.
“Is it? Fascinating.” Raven didn’t sound very fascinated.
“It is! It is! Who would have thought that a face could go through so many colors?” Mayeri giggled.
“Then maybe you should become a nurse when you grow up. That way you’d…” Raven froze.
‘How is this possible? Only two hundred meters! And there’s nearly thirty of them!’
Raven had detected movement, but just like during the first attack, the crew moved towards them without making even the slightest sound. Only this time, they barely even displaced the wind as they slowly moved forward, as if it flowed right through them. It wasn’t until the crew entered into the range in which Raven can detect activated spirit essence that she reacted to their presence. At least they moved a bit slower than the first crew.
“Mayeri, wanna play hide and seek?” Raven asked quickly, and without waiting for a reply she continued, “Go crouch under one of the carriages and count to one hundred while I hide – no peeking!”
Mayeri’s eyes sparkled; Raven had never initiated a game before!
“Okay!” Happily she ran off towards the carriages.
With Mayeri out of the way, Raven quickly took in the state of the camp. Less than half of the men were out of their beds, and the few that were up were preoccupied getting either dressed for work or undressed for rest. Neither Hog nor Twig were up yet. Raven herself stood out in the open; if she threw knives like last time the risk was high that people in camp would see her, and worse still, so might the approaching bandits. The mercenaries would gain no advantage like that. The same went for simply shouting: “Ambush”. She needed to alert them in a way that gave the mercenaries the upper hand.
Raven looked at the nearest tent. It was barely fifty meters away and it belonged to Twig.
‘Twig seems to be in his thirties and has most likely lived a rather rich life, experience-wise, so his spirit connections should number around twenty or twenty five. That would put his essence detection range at roughly forty meters… It’s not impossible. The bandits haven’t come much closer yet, so unless they have a freak like me…’ Frantically Raven weighed her options in her mind.
“Sister?” Hoatzin had naturally noticed his sister’s sudden pensiveness but Raven ignored him.
‘But if I do this, they, or at least Twig, are likely to find out that I’m a spiritualist.’ Raven’s eyes suddenly lit up. ‘Oh, that might work…’
Focusing her attention on the movements within Twigs tent, Raven forcefully filled every cell in her body with spirit essence and then let it all burst free towards Twig’s tent. Raven was careful not to focus the spirit essence too harshly in one direction; if she did, it might take a visible form, which would defeat the purpose of alerting only the mercenaries.
For months now Raven had been working on merging her killing intent with her spirit essence, and although it wasn’t complete, an overbearing feeling of eminent death still flowed out with her spirit essence. Within the tent, Twig’s eyes shot open, and cold sweat covered his body. Never before had he feared so much for his life as he did in this instant.
‘I’m going to die!’ was his first thought. ‘No! I must fight!’ was his next.
He sprang to his feet and at the same time he let his spirit essence surge through is body, readying it for battle. He grabbed at his weapon and prepared to storm out of his tent.
Outside, Raven reacted the moment Twig opened his eyes – her spirit essence had achieved the desired effect, so she instantly cut of her spirit essence and shouted: “I’ll hide now, Mayeri.” Raven looked around, seemingly for a hiding place, and finally trotted over to a nearby tree. She climbed it with difficulty and settled on a branch, gazing of towards Mayeri.
Before Raven had even reached the tree, Twig’s reaction to her spirit essence had already set off a chain reaction within the camp; as soon as any spiritualists who had Twig within their detection range noticed his spirit essence, they activated their own, thereby causing the next set of spiritualists to react and so on. By that time, the bandits were less than one hundred meters away – not close enough to sense the spirit essence, but definitely close enough to hear and see the sudden activation in the campsite.
By the time Raven sat on her branch, the battle had already begun.
Contrary to the first time, there was no organized chaos this time; there was only chaos. Raven’s actions had merely given the mercenaries enough time to grab their weapons and ready their spirit essence. There had been no time to form any battle formations.
Raven quietly observed the battle. It would seem like the bandits were going all out from the start. Over half of them were fighting with Divine Skills, and even though most of their spiritualist were low or mid Novices, they still clearly outnumbered the mercenaries, who only had twelve spiritualists, albeit with higher cultivation. Hog and Twig went all out as well, but the bandits also had a high Adept so they could not assist their fellow mercenaries freely. It was by far the bloodiest confrontation yet, and it didn’t take long before the first casualties came.
While the mercenaries and bandits fought, Heron and Ardea had joined Mayeri by the carriage she had crouched under for the game of hide and seek. The other merchants were by another carriage and out of Raven’s line of sight, but as Raven glanced towards their direction, she noticed a small man moving rapidly towards the sturdiest carriage.
As the man moved, no sound was made and the air seemed to part willfully in front of him. As Raven focused on the man she realized that she amazingly couldn’t sense any spirit essence coming from him, even though he was clearly using a Divine Skill. If he had been a bit more skilled at hiding his own presence, even Raven would have had a hard time locating him with anything but sight.
“It must have been him that helped move everyone before…” Raven didn’t bother keeping her voice down; only someone right next to her, or someone with hundreds of spirit connections like her, would be able to hear her over all the fighting anyway. “I want that Skill.”
If it was only about hiding her own movement, Raven could do it with ease using her old skills, but to be able to hide others was something different. Additionally, there was the fact that the spirit essence of his skill wasn’t spreading – that too was worth looking into.
Raven kept observing the man. At the moment she could do nothing else, but she was a patient girl. The bandit had reached his destination and swiftly entered the carriage. Moments later he came back out carrying a large chest that Raven recognized as the one containing Heron’s most precious wares and much of his money.
“His companions fight the mercenaries while he snatches the goods – how despicable!” Hoatzin had noticed the small man as well.
“It’s quite a solid tactic, actually. The bandits don’t want to kill too excessively or the mercenary guilds might stop being lenient with them. Like this, the rest of the bandits will fight for a while, to let the man run away, and then they will withdraw. If all goes well, the merchant won’t realize anything is missing until much later.”
“Hmpf! It is dishonest nonetheless!”
Raven rolled her eyes. “They are bandits, what do you expect?”
Hoatzin fell silent and Raven kept watching the man as he was making his way out of the camp. If she was lucky, no one would notice him and Raven would be able to pursue him freely. Unfortunately, luck seemed to have taken a break, because just as the man was about to reach the forest line of trees, Heron looked up from his hiding place and incidentally stared straight at the fleeing man.
“My jewels! Hog, he’s getting away with my jewels!” Heron bellowed.
Even over all the fighting Hog had no problem hearing Heron’s loud voice. He looked up from his fight and spotted the man. Hog quickly shifted his body, thereby avoiding the sword sweep of the spiritualist he was fighting and then, using the forward momentum of his attacker and a well-placed push, he shoved the spiritualist away from himself. The spiritualist only needed a few steps to regain his balance but by then Hog was already racing after the man escaping with the chest.