As Raven was inspecting the movement technique more closely, the bandit’s body shuddered as the last breaths of life were about to leave him. Not lingering any further, Raven quickly transferred the inscription to her own soul prism. Just as the words Void Tracker filled her mind, the bandit’s originally orange soul prism faded in to a dull grey hue before shattering – the man had died.
‘That was close…’ Raven let go of the breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding. ‘I should have gone for the Void Tracker from the beginning. It would have been a pity to miss it!’
A satisfied smile filled Raven’s face. The Void Tracker Divine Skill fitted her quite well. It was a level five Skill with three stages of mastery. The first stage would let her nullify any noise made by the movement of anyone within her range – that range would depend on her cultivation, but right now her limit should be at roughly 10 meters.
The second stage would nullify the wind resistance for anyone within the same range, instantly giving a speed boost that would increase exponentially as the original speed rose. At low speeds it would at most make it harder to detect the movement, but at higher speeds this effect would be enormous.
Finally, in the third stage the Void Tracker would hide the activation of any agility-related Divine Skill, this was also applicable to others if completely mastered.
‘This is quite a refined Divine Skill, it is of little use in itself but combined with other Skills it will have great benefits! It seems to draw very little spirit essence, so once I’ve mastered the second stage, my Shadow Walk will become many times more deadly, perhaps comparable to a level four skill!’
Raven drew a deep breath and lay down on the ground between the two male bodies. She was just about to close her eyes to rest for a bit when she suddenly heard faint sounds of running in the distance and felt the presence of 10-15 people, perhaps four hundred meters away.
“The bandits are returning!” She spoke in a whisper and glanced over at the chest on the ground a few meters away, and then at the still unconscious Hog. ‘Sorry Heron.’
Ignoring both the chest and the dead bandit, Raven forced herself to stand and then hoisted Hog over her shoulders with a classical fireman’s lift.
‘I’m glad it wasn’t Twig who ran after the bandit…’
Her soul was frantically working on absorbing new spirit essence for her to use, but she was still a bit short if she wanted to activate any Divine Skills, so she had no other choice but to run away relying on her old skills.
She rushed downwards and into the forest, making sure to stay to the side of the approaching bandits. Once the bandits were less than a hundred meters away from Raven and her unconscious load, she crouched down behind a large tree and steadied her breath. With a free hand she covered Hog’s mouth, so as to lessen the noise of his breathing as well. Then she waited.
The bandits were not running at full speed so it took a couple of minutes for them to pass them by and run an additional one hundred meters up the mountain side. Raven stood once more and continued her descent; soon, the bandits would come across the body of their comrade and Raven wanted to put some distance between her and them before that happened.
Surely enough, before even three more minutes had passed, Raven could hear the shocked yelps of the bandits that had passed earlier. Raven had feared that they might start searching the area for the man’s killer, but the bandits were either too shocked to act at the moment or they figured that whoever was strong enough to kill that man also was strong enough to kill them. Either way, they stayed put for a moment and then continued further up the mountain.
It took Raven nearly two hours to carry Hog back to the campsite and by the time she reached it, her legs had gone numb from the pain. She didn’t bother hiding her strength as she walked out from the tree line and approached the stream by the camp.
The air was filled with smoke and the smell of burning flesh. Judging by the number of people she sensed within the camp and the bandits that had passed her in the forest, there had been sixteen casualties: twelve bandits and four mercenaries. Raven didn’t bother calling out to anyone and simply let Hog slip down from her back next to the stream before she waded out into the stream and let the cool water wash over her burnt calves.
The water made the burns hurt even more, but Raven made no outward sign of it. With I’iwi’s dagger, she tore through her pants right above the knees and carefully peeled off the burnt tatters that had merged with her wounds. The burns were the worst around her Limiters, which had been heated up by the flames, and she briefly considered taking them off but opted against it in the end.
“Oi! Shouldn’t you guys be a bit more vigilant? The bandits didn’t leave that long ago…” Raven called out as she washed her burns – the fact that no one had noticed her return yet was indeed quite disappointing.
Raven’s call did the trick, within seconds over ten men came running, with Twig and Heron in the lead.
“Raven!” Heron shouted with relief. “You are okay!”
Raven lifted an eyebrow and glanced down at her legs. ‘I wouldn’t class third degree burns on a kid as being okay…’ But before she could say anything, Twig noticed Hog on the ground.
“Hog!” He dove down next to the man. “What happened?”
“The bandit that fled was a low Champion.”
The entire group of ten gasped upon hearing Raven’s words.
“A low Champion? That is not possible!” Heron exclaimed. It was clear he didn’t believe Raven’s claim.
“Wait until Hog wakes up and he can tell you himself.” Raven got out of the stream, revealing her burnt lower legs in the process.
“Holy…! How can you even walk with those burns?” Just as last time, Twig was first to react to Raven’s injuries.
“Get Dove and Martial!” Twig ordered and one of the younger mercenaries ran off to the largest tent only to return seconds later, followed by two other mercenaries – one dressed in Hog’s white robes, one in Twig’s red.
Dove, the white one, imminently bent down and got to work on Hog’s wounds; a warm light engulfed them both as very pure spirit essence flowed from Dove to Hog. Slowly, the bleeding ceased and the burns lightened.
‘Healing Divine Skills,’ thought Raven.
At the same time, Martial motioned for Raven to sit down. Raven considered the offer for a second before she obediently sat down, but before Martial’s hand reached her, Raven activated her Limiters to bring down her cultivation to the low Novice level and shielded her soul prism with her spirit essence. If a healer cared to look, they would learn the cultivation level and soul strength of their patients. The fact that she was a spiritualist couldn’t be hidden much longer, but some secrets still had to be kept.
Martial’s hands started to glow with the same warm light as Dove’s and when his hand touched her legs, a pleasantly soothing feeling spread within her. Quickly Raven’s red and blistered skin started to pale and heal, and even the areas where her skin had been charred black lightened noticeably. It only took a couple of minutes for the heavily burnt legs go from red and charred to merely a couple of shades pinker than usual. By then, Martial’s forehead was damp and he stopped his treatment.
“Try flexing your feet,” he urged her.
‘So he didn’t check, huh?’ Raven thought to herself before she complied with his demand and moved her feet. A sudden flash of pleased surprise crossed her face. ‘There is barely any pain at all!’
Martial noticed her reaction. “Impressive, right? Healing burns is relatively easy – you should be back to normal by tomorrow.”
Raven smiled but then narrowed her eyes and glared at Martial. “Hey, if you guys had healers, why didn’t you heal my face or Ardea’s hand?”
Martial blinked in surprise and then started laughing. “Haha, well, healing is usually an expensive extra service – see it as a bonus for bringing Old Hog back.”
Hoatzin snorted. “Stingy people. Who lets a woman walk around injured for weeks when they could do something about it?”
“Bandits?” Raven suggested sarcastically in a soft voice.
“Huh?” Martial asked.
“Nothing.” Raven shrugged, but both she and Hoatzin laughed on the inside.
Martial paused a moment and then winked at Raven. “Besides, the woman deserved it.”
It was Raven’s turn to blink in surprise.
“How is Hog?” Martial didn’t wait for a reply and instead asked of Hog’s condition.
Dove’s forehead was a lot damper then Martial’s had been when he looked up from his work. “He will live, but it will take a while before he comes to.” He looked at Heron and Twig. “We shouldn’t move him until he wakes up.”
“How long should that take?” Heron asked.
“At most a day.”
Heron frowned. “What if the bandits come back?”
“They won’t be back,” Raven chipped in.
Everyone looked at her questioningly.
“Their strongest, and half of the rest, died today. They got the loot they were after – why come back?”
Only now did Heron realize that even though Hog was back, the chest the bandit had stolen was not. Heron’s knees went soft under him and he sank down to the ground with a defeated look on his face. Most of his earnings had been in that chest. It was a hard blow for his business.
“Raven, won’t you tell us what happened?” Twig asked.
“The low Champion bandit and Hog fought, but Hog managed to kill the bandit, and then I helped him back.”
There was a lot in Raven’s statement that the men around her found unreasonable. Ignoring the fact that the bandits had a low Spirit Champion among their ranks – who didn’t fight but did the hit-and-run – was a preposterous notion in itself. If it was true, there should be no way for Hog to win; the difference between the Adept realm and the Champion realm was just too big. Secondly, if Raven was telling the truth, then the little boy in front of them – who seemed no older than seven – had subsequently carried the wounded Hog back to the campsite, with third degree burns on his legs. Raven shouldn’t have the strength to lift Hog at all!
Seeing the men’s looks of disbelief, Raven sighed and held up her hand. The men gasped in shock as a globe of pure spirit essence flowed out of her hand and hovered in her palm.
“You… you’re a spiritualist!?” Twig staggered backwards.
Raven rolled her eyes and pointed to her Limiters. “How did you think I escaped in the first place? With these shackles on I would never have gotten away without being a spiritualist?”
“Ah…” Twig hesitated. It was indeed impressive for a bandit slave to have fled despite having Limiters on. Everyone had assumed that the Limiters were the kind that only functioned as weights and trackers, as they still did.
“So the bandits that you were sold to didn’t know that you were a spiritualist and gave you normal Limiters, and then you used tour spirit essence to block the tracking and ran away…” Heron was mumbling this absentmindedly to himself but everyone had heard him. Realizing his mistake, his face snapped up to Raven’s. “Ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
Raven shook her head. “I’m not an idiot. I guessed you had figured out my past…” She paused. “…but how did you know my parents had sold me?”
Heron smiled apologetically. “You seemed more wronged than depressed when I talked about your parents, so I figured they weren’t dead as you had said.”
“Oh.” Raven sat quietly for a while before she added. “By the way, I wasn’t a spiritualist when they sold me – I awakened just a few months ago.”
“Makes sense.” Twig nodded, but the furrowed his brows. “But that only explains how you could manage to carry Hog back here. I still can’t see how Hog could possibly defeat a low Spirit Champion…”
Raven smiled a half smile. “I’m good at distractions.”
The men blinked at her in surprise and wanted her to explain more in detail, but Raven refused. “Ask Hog when he wakes up” was all she would say. She wished to reveal as little about her abilities as possible, so she would wait until Hog’s version of the events were out; that way she wouldn’t tell anyone more than proved to be necessary.
Eventually they stopped asking and instead got to work at setting up a shelter around Hog, so he would be kept warm until he woke up. Raven walked around the campsite to assess the damage and at the same time she strained her ears to listen to the conversations around her.
“A spiritualist at seven! How is that even possible?”
“He must have been through hell with those bandits, or else how could he gain enough spirit connections?”
“Doesn’t this make him qualified to apply to Sky Academy?”
“Are you kidding? He would be called a genius among geniuses even there!”
Unsurprisingly, most talk centered around Raven and her being a spiritualist. Somehow, her revelation had caused the mood in camp to lighten slightly. Even those who were injured and currently being treated by Dove and Martial seemed a bit distracted from their pains.
Mayeri was currently sleeping – the shock of seeing so many people die had been a bit too much for her so Dove had sedated her – but Ardea looked at Raven in a new light. She walked over to stand next to Raven, who was currently observing the funeral pyre for the dead bandits – the dead mercenaries would get their own pyre later that night.
“I’m really sorry for hitting you before.” Her voice was soft but attentive. “I realize now that not only were you actually protecting Mayeri, you also didn’t strike back at me even though you could have done so easily… I’m sorry.”
Even if Ardea had protected her on the occasion of the second attack, she hadn’t actually apologized. As a mother, even though she felt she had overreacted in her actions, she still blamed Raven for not keeping Mayeri within line of sight from the campsite. She hadn’t truly forgiven Raven until now.
“It’s okay. You didn’t know.” Raven shrugged and walked away.
Later that night, the second funeral pyre had been built, and the four dead mercenaries were cleaned and placed on top. Amazingly, Hog had regained his consciousness just moment prior and was seated with the rest of the group around the pyre – he had yet to speak of the battle in the mountain woods, as he had awoken just in time to take part in the funeral. Only Mayeri was missing as her soul had not yet stabilized after the day’s events.
Twig stood next to the pyre holding a burning torch.
“We honor our fellow soldiers who have fallen in battle,” he bellowed.
“We honor them,” the mercenaries chanted back in low voices.
“May their next journey be victorious!” Twig continued.
“Be victorious,” the chant rang out once more.
“And embrace us when we join you!”
“We will join you.”
As the mercenaries chanted the last line, Twig lowered the torch to the pyre and used his own spirit essence to stimulate the fire; it only took seconds for the entire pyre to be ablaze with burning flames.
The group sat in silence as they watched the flames consume the dead. The flames stretched high into the night sky, as if licking the stars. No doubt this fire could be seen from kilometers away, but they didn’t care. Sending off their dead with respect was much more important to these mercenaries than avoiding further attacks.
Raven couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit foolish – why risk the living for the sake of the dead – but at the same time she understood that the people around her needed to vent their feelings. They had not had her training; they were still normal.
Staring into the flames, Raven all of a sudden thought back on that blonde little girl, with whom she had shared a bed for a while back at the Camp, in her old life. That girl’s life had ended unceremoniously, and her body had been treated just as unceremoniously after her death – it was simply tossed in the mass grave not far from the Camp. Years later, when Raven had become the queen of assassins and had gained more freedom in picking her missions, Raven had chosen a mission located in the blonde little girl’s homeland. She had, mostly on a whim, spent some time trying to locate the girl’s parents’ graves. Once she found it, she had stared at it for hours and then simply walked away without a word.
‘I should have done this then… but, I wasn’t strong enough to dare.’
Slowly, Raven opened her mouth and started singing. Her voice was soft and deep as she sang words in a language this world had never heard before – it was not Raven’s original language, but rather the native tongue of the blonde little girl. Raven let her spirit essence meld with her voice and as the foreign words echoed out into the night, their meanings were nonetheless clear to those who heard it; Raven’s song was not one for your ears, but rather one for your soul.
The people around the fire lifted their heads slightly to glance at the young boy who sat, singing, off to the side. The flames made the already red eyes of the youth seem like smoldering embers that stared distantly into the fire. His voice was like an angel’s but the melody was eerie, and it had a sad, mellow undertone. As they themselves looked back into the fire-pit, they seemed to see a story unfolding within the flames; it was a story about a young girl who had been transformed into a songbird by her evil stepmother, and torn away from her true love.
Raven had chosen to use her spirit essence mostly out of courtesy for her dead friend, but as she sang she could feel her soul linking with the words, binding them to it. When Raven reached the chorus, a bright white light suddenly surged from the deepest depths of Raven’s soul. This pure spirit essence, which Raven couldn’t control, merged with her own spirit essence and before she knew it, her deep alto voice was joined by a bright soprano, singing in tandem with her.