Raven lowered her hand and blinked a few times to adjust to the now dim firelight. Slowly the world returned to her eyes.
In front of her stood Fenris, the wolfish appearance gone – apart from the always visible ears and tail – with a slight, pleased smile on his face. His hand, which had previously held the glowing orb, was still outstretched, only now the orb was gone. In its place perched a small bird.
The bird’s feathers were as white as snow, as was its beak and claws. Only the eyes offered some color; they were deep brown and looked inquisitively at Raven. The eyes were filled with much emotion and they felt more human than anything else.
“Brother?” Raven stared at the bird in wonder.
The bird winked at her and Raven heard her brother’s voice once more. “It is me, Sister.” The bird seemed to smile. “So what do you think? I can’t really tell what I am by myself, more than that I am a bird and that I’m small.”
Tentatively Hoatzin spread his wings and hopped around on Fenris’ palm to let Raven view all of him. Fenris merely looked on with unconcealed amusement.
‘It’s actually a nightingale!’ she realized as she observed her brother, the bird, closer – the size was a bit larger than usual and its coloration was wrong, but even before being reborn as a Nightingale, Raven had possessed an interest in the bird, due to her assassin nickname. ‘An animal form my soul feels linked to, huh? I guess that is true.’
“It would seem that you’re a nightingale now, in more than just name.”
The albino nightingale’s beak popped open.
“A nightingale?” Hoatzin sounded a bit disappointed, “I feel fondly for the bird, being our ancestral symbol and all, but if I have to spend the rest of my life as a bird I’d prefer something a bit more… manly.”
“The animal is derived from your sister’s soul, not yours,” Fenris chipped in. “So what would you expect?”
Hoatzin snorted, which, coming from a famous songbird, no doubt sounded a lot more musical than he had intended.
“My sister is less feminine that you might think.”
Fenris looked at Raven and her boyish facade. “I had noticed.”
“Senior can still hear him, I take it.” Raven ignored both their comments and changed the subject.
“The ring is part of him, so I can hear him. As is your soul prism, so you can hear him as well. With a bit of practice you should be able to answer him.” Fenris was back to speaking in his matter-of-fact tone.
“Well, my task here is done so our agreement is complete. It is time for me to leave.” Without waiting for Hoatzin to attempt flying on his own, spirit essence surged out of Fenris’ palm and effortlessly coiled around Hoatzin’s body. It lifted and transferred the bird to Raven’s shoulder.
“As a last favor, what do you want me to do with these?” Fenris gestured to the entranced people around the fire. “Kill them? Alter their memories?”
Raven noted Fenris’ use of words; it didn’t seem like he put ordinary humans in very high regard, if any. This wasn’t surprising, though – Raven didn’t have very high regard for them herself – so instead of being offended she considered his offer.
They now knew that she was a spiritualist and considering the reason behind her travels and what her objectives were, the fewer people who could give insights to how she had arrived at Sky Academy the better.
Then again, she still had things she needed from them.
“Killing them would defeat the purpose of me saving one of them earlier, but having them remember everything would be bad as well,” she finally answered. “Senior, how precise is this memory alteration of yours?”
Fenris only smiled.
“Fine sirs, Fine sirs!” small and rat-like man shouted as he scurried along a mucky street. “If you are looking for a place to eat delicious food, then I know just the place.
The group of people whose attention the man was trying to get ignored him and continued to walk further into town.
“Fine sirs!” he called one last time but he didn’t dare follow them.
He had lived long enough to know whom he could pester, and for how long, without risking a beating. Kinglet Grove wasn’t a very large city, but it was one of the closest to the Imperial Sky City and therefore had a lot of different people passing through, some less patient than others.
The man sighed and looked into the grey sky. A cold wind blew down the street and the rat-like man pulled his coat tighter around him. The winter was being unusually persistent this year; it was already four months in, but heavy snow still fell at least once a week, only to melt away within minutes.
The man cursed the grey skies. The bad weather was bad for business too, since fewer people traveled, and if he wanted any pay at all he would have to get some customers for the restaurant he worked at today.
He looked back down the street and noticed a new group walking in his direction. Quickly he sized up the group: four adult men and one boy, probably about eight years old; the men, although dressed in fine white robes, gave of an air of blood, indicating that they were warriors or mercenaries. Their faces, hardened by battle, only softened when they looked on the youth among them – clearly the boy meant a lot to them. Apart from his companions’ care, the boy himself didn’t seem very special, so the observing man didn’t pay him any further notice.
“Fine sirs!” he shouted and rushed towards the group, stopping to bow when he was close enough. “May I guide you to a restaurant where you can rest your feet and have good meal?”
The eldest in the group only glanced at the man before he turned to the boy. “What do you say kid, are you hungry?”
Noticing that the child would have the final say, rat man added “We have many dishes fit for a growing man.”
The kid snorted at the man but gave his consent nonetheless. “Might as well get it over with.”
The three men who had yet to speak laughed at the child’s disinterest.
“I swear, I will see you passionate about something other than training before we reach Sky City or I’ll search the entire city.” One of them chuckled as he wrapped the kid’s neck with his arm.
“Don’t involve me in your Casanova plots,” the child retorted coldly. “I know you relish the thought of introducing Sky City to your family jewels.” After a brief pause, he continued: “Well, at least half of the city.”
This made the rest of the group laugh even harder, but they abruptly stopped as a small white bird came swooping down from the sky and pecked at the man who had his arm around the kid.
“Sorry, sorry!” The lewd man backed away. “No touching, I know!” The bird didn’t abandon its assault. “Raven, get your bird off me!” he pleaded at last.
The kid smirked slightly but said nothing and yet the bird immediately stopped and flew over to perch at the kid’s shoulder.
“Well?” The kid looked at the rat-like man. “Were you not going to take us to a restaurant?”
“Ah! Yes of course!” The man jumped to attention; he had been totally distracted by their conversation and the small bird. “This way.”
He led the group down a side alley and stopped outside one of the few wooden buildings in the area. “Here we are sirs, the Wooden Lodge,” he said as he motioned towards the entrance.
“How imaginative,” the kid muttered sarcastically as the group of five entered the building.
Once they were inside, the rat-like man started walking back towards the main street with a pleased look on his face.
“Four people pulled in is better than none.” He smiled a crooked smile, revealing a mouth lacking some of its teeth. “Or wait, there were five of them; how come I can’t remember how the kid looked…”
Within the restaurant, Raven and the four mercenaries had been shown to a table and ordered some ale – and a large glass of milk – while they waited for their food. They weren’t the only customers in the room but they weren’t far from it.
Raven observed the mercenaries as they drank their ale and spoke in not too loud voices. It had been over a year since they had left Rock Wren Gate and the merchant caravan behind them, and over that period of time Raven had started to grow quite fond of this little band of mercs.
Sitting in this half-rundown joint, Hog was just as calm and composed as always, while he sipped his ale as if it were sherry; he rarely got excited, except when it came to talking about Raven’s cultivation progress, then he would be like a kid on Christmas – always excited for what would come next.
Of the other three, two were actual brothers – they all referred to one another as brothers but only two were blood-related. Emu and Dove were both strong silent types that rarely spoke, but were happy to listen. Over the year they had grown very protective of Raven and had made her training their top priority.
Finally, there was Saltmarsh. His real name was Sparrow but due to various incidents in the past – of which none of the mercenaries would speak, no matter how they were prompted – the nickname had stuck. Saltmarsh was the undisputed goof in the group and Raven’s earlier comment about him wanting to show off his family jewels to half of Sky City was definitely not without grounds.
Raven looked at these four men and couldn’t help but sigh in admiration.
“To think Fenris was able to alter so much…” she directed the thought towards Hoatzin perched on her shoulder.
“It’s very impressive indeed, and it helped you with your cover story too,” Hoatzin replied as he swooped down to sit on the rim of the glass of milk on the table. He looked up at Raven before he bent down to dip his beak into the milk for a sip.
Raven thought back on that night, well over a year ago, and a small shudder ran down her spine. When Fenris had asked what she wanted him to do with the people in the caravan, who were still sitting in a trance around the funeral pyre, Raven had asked if he could change their memories of how they had met Raven. She had assumed it impossible but had asked out of curiosity nonetheless.
The result far outdid her hopes.
One of Raven’s biggest problems when enrolling into the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts was her cover story, even more so if she had to stand out enough to get into the advanced classes without a hitch. Sooner or later people would start looking into her background and the more solid her cover story was, the less likely it was that someone would find out the truth.
Fenris’ offer had given her the solid background she needed. As far as the four people around her were concerned, Raven had been saved by them from a vicious bandit crew three years ago – that is to say nearly a year before the Nightingales were killed. The bandits had supposedly been doing vile and very inhumane experiments on children in hope of causing their souls to mature faster. Only Raven had survived.
They realized that Raven, who – in line with her actual age – was barely three at the time, had already formed a Spirit Core. Due to this, Hog’s mercenary crew decided to take the boy under their wing and bring him to the Sky Academy for further schooling. The journey had taken them three years, but now they were nearly at their destination.
The rest of the caravan believed that Raven was an adopted son of Hog’s who was slightly unsocial perhaps but nothing more. They had no memories of how Heron hired Raven or how Raven had revealed her spirit essence to them. Hog and his crew believed that they did everything in their power to keep Raven’s skills hidden from the people of the caravan during the brief time they traveled together with them.
But Hog and his crew did remember how Raven had helped save Hog’s life in the passage between the Gate Towns and then other members of the crew on later occasions, so even if the base of their memories were false, the concern and gratitude they felt toward Raven now was very real. They even insisted she called them her ‘uncles’.
Over the past year, Raven had been training relentlessly as they journeyed towards Sky City and thanks to the newly acquired breathing technique Raven’s already alarming cultivation rate had shot to the skies. She had, in barely two years, already become a mid Spirit Adept and was close to its peak, soon to be classed as a high Adept. This was an achievement that even spiritualist enrolled at Sky Academy would require four to six years to pull off.
She had also made great progress with several of her Divine Skills. The Sonic Sword was already mastered to the fifth level, Whispered Blast, and the sixth level, Dance of Bells, was being fine-tuned. The Ode of Woe had been mastered by Raven the moment it was created, but to increase its strength, she had ceaselessly worked on merging her killing intent with her spirit essence to the point that separating the two was now nearly impossible.
Although she was doing exceedingly well with the more attack-oriented skills, advancement was a lot slower with Void Tracker and the Healing Divine Skill that Dove had taught her not too long ago, Blessed Hand. Contrary to her other Divine Skills, these two drew no real benefit from her previous life’s experiences, nor from her exceedingly strong soul. Instead they focused solely on manipulating spirit essence into intricate patterns within yourself.
Her progress was still faster than most people’s, but over the past year Raven had only managed to master the first stage of the Void Tracker – allowing her to nullify the sound of movement – and as for the Blessed Hand, the best she could do was heal minor cuts and bruises. Most likely she would have gotten further with the Blessed Hand if it wasn’t for the fact that the killing intent in her spirit essence seemed to counteract the effects of the Healing Skill.
Of course, the men she traveled with did not know the full extent of her strength, but they knew enough to be mightily impressed and sometimes even a little scared. However, the fact they knew the least about, and would have scared them the most, was Raven’s spirit connections.
Five months after they had left Rock Wren Gate, Raven’s soul prism had returned to the expected number of 239 connections – it would have been 249 if not for the ten she lost with the prism shard – but surprisingly enough, the number of connections continued to rise steadily for another five months. Eventually the amount of connections stopped at 373. Apparently, nearly being killed by a Phoenix Death Lotus and losing the only people you’ve ever loved, without going insane, was strengthening for the soul.
If she wished it, Raven could easily hear every sound, feel every movement, smell every scent around her, not only in the building but also outside on the street. Had it not been for all the houses and walls within the area, this would have been true for nearly a six hundred meter radius.
She had also experienced a large and sudden change in her senses that gave her a new understanding of the world.
Even prior to this point, Raven had regained the ability to differentiate between different people based on their auras. Previously it had been a vague concept that she couldn’t really explain; she only knew that it worked, not how. But when she reached 350 spirit connections she had started to see spirit essence within people, even when it wasn’t activated or dense enough to actually be visible.
Every person’s spirit essence looked different and she realized that these were the auras she had been feeling before – it was leaking spirit essence. The best part of this development was the realization that the color of people’s spirit essence corresponded to their cultivation level.
Thanks to this, Raven could clearly tell that out of the nine people in the building, only one more person was a spiritualist; a burly man seated on the floor above them gave off a purely white glow, indicating that he was a high Spirit Novice.
At this moment the petite serving girl was returning to the table Raven and her fellow travelers were seated at – her aura was completely colorless, indicating not only the lack of cultivation but also the lack of potential cultivation. Nonetheless, she was remarkably enough balancing five large plates covered with food and a bowl filled with nuts on her small arms, as she expertly weaved her way between chairs and tables without mishap.
“Here you go, sirs.” She placed the plates on the table with well-rehearsed movements. “And bird…” Her look was quizzical as she moved to set down the bowl next to Raven’s glass of milk.
“Tzin,” remarked Saltmarsh with a wink at the girl. “We call him Tzin.”
The girl smiled and nodded towards Hoatzin. “Well then, here you go, Tzin.”
Hoatzin only gave the girl a glance before he hopped over to the bowl and started pecking at the nuts. Saltmarsh, on the other hand, leaned closer to the girl and smiled his most seductive smile.
“And you can call me Saltm… Ouch!” Halfway through his introduction Raven had kicked him in the shins.
“Enjoy your meal, mister Salt.” The girl ignored his yelp of pain and walked away.
“What in the skies did you do that for!?” Saltmarsh grumbled at Raven.
“Keep it in your pants, Casanova; she’s married.”
“What is this cassa.. casanoa you keep referring to?” he asked, wagging a warm chicken wing at Raven. “And how could you possibly know she’s married? She wears no ring.”
“Casanova is a person, not a thing,” Raven replied flatly. “And the indentation on her left ring finger, combined with the small bulk in her apron pocket would indicate that she has taken it off. For work, most likely.”
The three others looked on with amused smiles on their faces as Raven started eating and Saltmarsh stared, disbelieving, at the eating youth. After a moment’s pause, Saltmarsh’s eyes brightened.
“Aha! She might not have taken it off for work, perhaps she has had a fight with her husband and wants to leave him now! I should offer my support by…”
“If that’s the case, then they must have made their peace quickly,” Raven interrupted him without looking up from her plate, “as they are kissing quite passionately by the counter.”
“What?” Saltmarsh’s mouth fell open as he looked over towards the counter.
Hog and the two brothers couldn’t hold it in anymore and started chuckling merrily.