As prefecture lords, the Nightingale clan had access to at most two level six skills. The Talon clan was a fairly large noble clan but a level six skill should still be beyond them.
Dunlin’s nearly invisible leg was raised and traveling towards Hoatzin at a very high speed.
As the leg approached him, Hoatzin shared his sister’s surprise; he could barely see the leg flying towards him – Dunlin had no such skill last time they sparred! Despite this, thanks to his great instincts and his higher cultivation, Hoatzin could clearly sense the leg coming.
Without knowing what he was defending against, Hoatzin poured most of his spirit essence into his arms and feet. The flames on his arms deepened in color as Hoatzin crossed them over his chest. Dunlin’s kick landed on him with considerable force, but the spirit essence in Hoatzin’s legs stirred and he was only pushed back a few centimeters before the two bodies stopped moving.
Shock spread over Dunlin’s face. Ember Palm was “only” a level five Divine Skill, so the difference in their cultivation shouldn’t be large enough for Hoatzin to prevail against his own level six skill so easily.
Using these two milliseconds of shock in his opponent, Hoatzin’s flame-covered arms grabbed the leg that had kicked him and twisted. The motion caused Dunlin to twist around and fall to the ground, face first.
Raven smiled; her brother was truly skilled. He controlled his spirit essence elegantly to make up for the difference in the two skills’ explosive powers and then used the moment of confusion to seal the deal.
‘His year at Sky Academy has definitely paid off – his fighting prowess and experience has improved immensely! He would not have even imagined that exchange of blows a year ago.’
In the courtyard Dunlin staggered to his feet. He had taken no serious damage but his nose was bleeding, clearly broken. Without a word Dunlin grabbed his nose and set the bone right with a subtle “Crack!”
His previously faked air of goodwill was gone.
“Sorry about the nose,” Hoatzin apologized. “But your understanding of the True Mirage Cyclone is impressive – if we were at the same cultivation level, it’s hard to say if I could have blocked it.”
Dunlin glared at Hoatzin venomously.
“Same cultivation you say? Humph!” Dunlin took a fighting stance. “Let me show you the quality of my cultivation.”
Suddenly Raven felt a surge of spirit essence spiraling around her cousin, but something was off. The essence was darker and less tangible than normal spirit essence. She glanced at the guards standing next to her but they didn’t seem to react at all.
‘What is going on? It’s as if he is having a cultivation breakthrough right here and now – he seems to be becoming a high Spirit Novice!’
Before Raven had a chance to think about it any further, Dunlin rushed forward once more.
‘Oh no!’ Raven panicked; her brother wouldn’t be able to block the True Mirage Cyclone one more time even if he knew about Dunlin’s sudden increase in power, but since he didn’t seem to notice it, Hoatzin would most likely get seriously injured!
Just as Dunlin was about to activate True Mirage Cyclone yet again, a sharp voice rang out across the courtyard.
Dunlin froze mid-action, the odd spirit essence dissipating instantly.
Aunt Anhinga shot her son a reproving look before she smiled towards Hoatzin.
“Most impressive, my young nephew. You show much promise.” Without taking her eyes of Hoatzin, she then motioned towards her sneering son. “We’re leaving, but I hope you will keep helping my Dunlin with his training in the future.”
“Of course, Aunt.” Hoatzin clasped his fist and bowed. “Thank you.”
Ignoring his cousins, Dunlin joined his mother’s side and the two Talons left together. As they walked away, Raven released the grip on her sword; pushing back the spirit essence she had gathered in every muscle of her body as she prepared to intervene. If Dunlin had launched his attack, Raven wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to reveal her own cultivation to protect her bother from injury. Fortunately she hadn’t needed to.
Hoatzin walked over to her.
“What do you think all that was about?”
“I don’t know.” Raven looked out the doors the Talons had left through before she fixed her eyes on her brother, locking their gazes. “But brother, you have to be careful with Dunlin. I think his cultivation is higher than he shows.”
“What makes you say that? I clearly felt that his spiritual pressure was that of a mid Novice, and besides, the spirit stone is an absolute and his showed ‘mid Novice’.” Hoatzin had trouble believing his sister.
“I don’t know…” How could Raven explain what she had sensed from her cousin without explaining the rest, and even if she did, she had no more insights as to how Dunlin had momentarily increased his cultivation than her brother would have. “Just be careful, okay?”
“I will be careful, little sister.” Hoatzin could tell his sister was worried about him so he quickly agreed. He would keep his guard up even more closely around his cousin in the future.
Later that day, Raven was sitting in her room, inspecting her newly finished creation; after working on it for a week, her gift to Javelin was finally complete. The result was more impressive than she had anticipated: The various leathers and strands of soul ore formed a slightly wider bracelet than the one her brother had received; its pattern was much more complex.
‘Now, let’s see what feeding it with spirit essence has done to it,’ Raven mused to herself.
She sent a probing string of spirit essence into the bracelet, trying to form a temporary spirit connection with it. Divine equipment, that is to say equipment which has been successfully crafted with spirit essence, would be able to form such connections with its bearer. In some cases, as with for example spacial rings, the connection could be made permanent by a contract of blood. Such contracts would limit the equipment to one user until the contract was willingly removed by the owner. Or until the owner died.
“Ha! It worked!” she spoke out loud, excited.
Raven’s spirit essence had latched on to the bracelet in her hand with ease. As it did, a safeguarding feeling was transmitted from the bracelet that was glowing slightly. The light faded rather quickly, but Raven was smiling widely.
‘It’s not very strong… but no doubt it will work to protect Javelin in times of need.’
The bracelet wasn’t made by a crafting master, and with no Divine Skills, so to state that it would always do this or that was not possible. Raven had simply managed to imprint the bracelet with her wish to thank Javelin for his kindness – how this would play out in the future was impossible to say.
“This will have to do for now.”
She pulled out the green cylinder Javelin had given her before, removed the empty scroll from within and replaced it with her gift. She placed a small note inside as well before she sealed the cylinder.
Finally, Raven altered the golden markings on the cylinder’s surface. Before it had read ‘Twilight Lullaby’, but now it read ‘Twilight Paladin’.
She walked out of her room and handed the cylinder to one of the servants who were always waiting outside.
“See that this is sent to Javelin Hake at the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts, by Stormbird.”
“Yes, young mistress Nightingale.” The servant bowed and hurried of with the green cylinder in hand.
Smiling, Raven made her way towards the dining hall. Javelin would get the gift in just a few days – whereas the Everest Hawk was known for its size and strength, the Stormbird was known for its immense speed. It wasn’t very large, so it could only carry smaller parcels, but it did so at extraordinary speeds.
Still smiling, Raven entered the dining hall. At once she noticed an extremely large flower arrangement of exotic flowers that stood at the center of the dining table. It gave of a pleasantly sweet scent that filled the entire room. Raven’s mother leaned over the table with a relaxed smile on her face as she breathed in the flowery scent.
“What beautiful flowers…!” Raven praised as she hurried into the room.
“Aren’t they lovely?” Besra agreed. “Your aunt brought them over.”
“Aunt Anhinga?” Raven immediately grew cautious.
“Yes, she came over to apologize to your father concerning their heated discussion a few days back; the matter is truly settled now.”
‘Apologize? How out of character…’ Raven’s wariness did not leave her.
“It’ll be time to eat, soon. I’ll go inform your father and brother.” Besra started to move towards the door.
“Where is I’iwi?” Raven asked – usually she would be the one perform such tasks.
“Oh, I’iwi is on an errand to the Imperial Outpost.” Besra spoke over her shoulder as she left the room.
Raven glanced back at the flowers.
‘Better safe than sorry…’
“Wait outside for a moment,” Raven ordered her guards.
Her two guards looked at Raven with surprise, but they only hesitated for a moment before they stepped outside the hall. Once alone, Raven moved closer to the flowers and examined them closely. She recognized most of the flowers from the books in the library – some even grew in their own garden – and all of those were famous for having regenerative effects; simply breathing in their fragrance made you feel uplifted and calm at the same time.
As for the few flowers she didn’t recognize, Raven spread out her spirit essence, carefully brushing against them. If they were poisonous, they should give of a hostile feeling when inspected.
‘Nothing. Guess I’m being paranoid…’ Raven started to pull back her spirit essence.
A small yellow plant – somewhat akin to a miniature lotus flower to the shape – caught her attention; when she tried to remove her spirit essence from within it, the flower resisted.
‘What is this?’ Raven could feel the flower tugging at her spirit essence, almost as if the flower wanted to consume it all. More and more spirit essence seeped out of Raven’s spirit core and into the flower. Startled, Raven cut of the connection between her and the captured spirit essence in the flower, relinquishing her control over it. Immediately the tugging stopped.
Raven studied the flower and the red markings on it yellow petals closely before picking it up with a table fork and burning it over a nearby candle. She would research it later; step one was to remove the immediate danger. Slowly the yellow plant withered and turned to embers over the flame.
‘So the flowers weren’t harmless after all… Even though it is possible that Aunt Anhinga didn’t know what the flower did, it feels unlikely.’ Frowning, Raven came to a conclusion: ‘Seems like I can’t put this investigation off any further…’
Just as the last specks of ash fell to the table, Raven sensed her family approaching the room. She didn’t bother hiding the evidence of her little bonfire; since the plant was already gone, she could tell her parents that it was a regular poisonous flower she recognized from a book and raise her suspicions about her aunt’s involvement. Hopefully that would make them more prone to discuss what was going on with the Talon Clan.
Seconds later, the dining hall’s doors opened and Raven’s parents and brother walked in.
“You sent out your guards? Little Raven, we have talked about this; they have to be with you at all times.” Her father was quick to reprimand her.
Raven rolled her eyes. “They aren’t with me when I’m alone in my room, I don’t see how this is any different.” She took a step to the side to reveal the small pile of ash on the table behind her. “More importantly, we need to… Hoatzin?”
As Raven spoke she noticed her brother’s eyes becoming distant, his breathing quieter.
Panicked, she tried to run over to her brother but as she took her first step, Raven’s legs gave way under her and she fell to the red marble floor.
“Darling!” Besra cried and ran over to Raven, collecting her daughter in her arms.
“Son, wake up!” Maleo shouted next to Hoatzin.
‘What is happening to me!?’
Raven tried to force her body into action but nothing happened. She tried to stir her spirit core but it was as if it no longer belonged to her.
“Little Raven!” Besra continued to cry next to her. “Maleo, what is go…” Just as Besra lifted her head to talk to her husband, she too lost control over her body, causing her to slump over little Raven, still in her arms.
“Besra!” Maleo lifted his son over to his wife and daughter. His face was distorted in worry. “Guards! Guards!”
Hearing their lord’s calls, hurried footsteps echoed through the hallways outside of the room, but even before the first guard set a foot inside, Maleo too fell powerless to the ground.
This was the last thing Raven saw before the world turned dark. Just as when sleeping, Raven could still feel the world around her through her numerous spirit connections. But, helpless and afraid for her family’s safety, she could do nothing as she felt how gradually even that sensation faded.
Slowly, Raven sank into oblivion.
Tens of thousands of miles away, in one of the dorm rooms at Sky Academy, Javelin Hake awakened with a jerk. His body was covered in cold sweat, his limbs shaking. Within him, his heart ached as if stabbed through by a knife, and his very soul trembled.
‘A dream?’ Javelin tried to slow down his breathing.
It took hours before he had calmed down enough to go back to sleep, but when he did Javelin was continuously tormented by nightmares of endless darkness and unimaginable loss.
Cold. It was the first thing Raven felt. Cold and stiff.
She tried to move, but her muscles were sore and slow to follow her commands. With much effort she opened her eyes and sat up. She had to blink several times before her eyes even began to adapt to her surroundings.
She was in a cave, a damp and dark cave that she hadn’t seen before. She was sitting on a tattered blanket, and she noticed that her sword, ‘Nightingale’s Blessing’, had been wrapped in another blanket so that it could function as a makeshift pillow. She strained her eyes to observe more of the cave, but her eyes were too slow to adapt to the low light. Instinctively, she wanted to rely on the spirit connections in her soul, but her senses were dulled; barely above what they had been in her old life. So, confounded, she turned her attention inwards.
“…what is this!?” She nearly jumped up in shock.
Within her, only thirteen connections remained linked with her soul!
“Something has removed most of my spirit connections. . . . How is that even possible?”
Raven started sifting through all the books she had read in her mind. She recalled books that wrote about souls being damaged beyond repair. These would indeed lose some of their spirit connections and be unable to form new ones, but that was usually accompanied by mental illness and Raven felt fine in that regard.
“Perhaps mother has heard of . . .” Her voice trailed off mid-sentence. Despite the pain, Raven shot to her feet and started to search her surroundings in a frenzy.
“Mother! Brother! Father!” she called out to her family but she could find no trace of them.
Suddenly she heard light footsteps behind her, coming from the only tunnel Raven had noticed so far.
“Brother?” Raven turned around, desperate hope shining in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, young mistress Raven; it’s only me.” The voice belonged to I’iwi, the maid.
I’iwi walked into the cave, carrying a torch in one hand and a dead hare in the other. Her clothes had been torn and showed signs of having been in a fire. Her face looked tired. So very tired. But despite all this she still gave of an air of calm that seemed slightly out of place with the rest of her.
“I’iwi,” Raven ran over, frantically grabbing the maids clothes; “where is my family?” She couldn’t have kept the fear from her voice even if she’d wanted to.
Immense sadness flooded I’iwi’s eyes.
Sometimes, being astute is a curse. Raven needed no more to know that the worst had happened. Tears started flowing, silently, down her face.
“You should sit.” I’iwi helped Raven to sit down before she spoke again.
“There is much I must tell you, and I’m not sure where I should start.” I’iwi paused for a moment as she watched the crying little four-year-old in front of her. ‘It’s so unfortunate. Poor girl…’
She took a deep breath and folded up the left arm of her robes, removing the arm guard that was hidden there.
“I guess I should start at the beginning.”
As the arm guard fell to the ground, I’iwi’s always present air of calm disappeared. It was replaced by an overbearing feeling of strength. Had Raven been paying attention, she would have noticed how I’iwi seemed to grow more muscular; her face seemed less round, her skin less frail. A spirit stone hung in a pendant around her neck that Raven had never noticed before. It was red with a large orange center; I’iwi was a peak mid Spirit Champion!
But, as the tears kept flowing down her face in silent sorrow, Raven barely noticed any of this.
“Actually, I was not really your mother’s maid… I was appointed to be her bodyguard by her good friend, the Empress Nene, who has cared dearly for your mother since they studied together. For nearly 15 years I have kept my Lady Besra, and her family, safe from harm.”
“As I think you’ve noticed, things have been a bit tense between your father and his sister lately. Especially the past couple of weeks. But the other day they seemed to reconcile their differences, and I was sent to the Imperial Outpost with a classified letter for instant transmission to the Emperor. Most likely it contained information of what had passed between them.”
“However, on the way to the outpost, I was attacked – they wanted to steal the letter. I burnt it before they had a chance. I hurried back to the mansion, because I knew something was wrong, but…” I’iwi fell silent.
“But, I was too late. When I returned, the mansion was ablaze and as I searched the house I found that most people within had already been consumed by the flames.”
“Finally, I found your family and a handful of servants in the private dining hall. The fire had not yet spread so far but, nonetheless, everyone there was already dead – or so I thought, until I noticed that you were still breathing. I had no other choice but to take you with me and leave. I feared my pursuers would learn that you had survived so, as I left, I helped the flames spread into the room…”
“I’m so sorry! It was my job to keep them safe but…” I’iwi’s voice trailed off. Over the years she had truly come to appreciate the Nightingale family; their deaths had hit her hard and she had even been forced to let them burn without a proper burial.
I’iwi sat silent for quite a while, pensive. Finally she made up her mind.
“Young mistress, I am pretty sure that the Talon’s are behind this but I don’t know how, or really even why… I wish to go investigate the matter more closely. I know it will be hard for you, but if I wait the trail might go cold. I have brought you some food and I will be back within the week. Okay?”
I’iwi didn’t wait for a reply. She could tell that Raven needed time. I’iwi simply wrapped Raven in another blanket before she slipped on her arm guard. As she did, her aura shifted yet again, making her seem… ignorable. And then, she left the way she’d came.
Through all of this Raven hadn’t said a word. Streams of tears flowed continuously down her cheeks as she sat like a statue on the cave floor.