In the dark cave, hours had passed since I’iwi left Raven to her grieving; it might as well have been mere seconds ago. The only difference between then and now was that Raven’s clothes had become damper from her tears.
Raven herself no longer took any notice of her surroundings. Her mind was far, far away…
I lie in the arms of a young woman who looks on me with tender, loving eyes. I’ve never been looked at with eyes like those before… She is very tired – her long violet hair clings tightly to her damp face – but despite this she has a warm glow about her. To me she is a sun, expelling the night.
“Hello, little one.” With a pearly white hand, she lightly pokes my nose. “Welcome to the world. I am your mother, Besra.”
Raven’s small body quivered and she closed her eyes tight, but this did nothing to stay her gushing tears.
I look towards the big wooden door in my mother’s chamber and see a small boy peeping in from outside. He is perhaps five or six years old. His hazel brown eyes glow with confidence and resolution as he places his hand on his chest and looks straight at me. “I, Hoatzin Nightingale, will protect my little sister with my life!”
A silent whimper escaped Raven’s lips; the heartbreaking sound echoing sorrowfully within the cave.
Just as I step out into the courtyard, a small figure flies several meters backwards before tumbling to the ground.
“Again!” Hoatzin is already on his feet and running towards his father.
My guard chuckles softly next to me. “He has determination at least.”
I giggle and balance on the heels of my feet. “You have to catch me! You have to catch me!”
With a sigh Hoatzin starts to chase me. Just as he is about to grab me, I shift ever so slightly and move around him.
“Hihi, brother is so clumsy! You move like an elephant!” I sway lightly on the tip of my toes and once more twirl out of his reach.
Raven’s collapsed to the ground, devoid of all her strength.
We are leaving for Sky Academy. In the southern courtyard I watch my father and brother say goodbye. There is an awkwardness about it that is quite amusing. I notice father scratching the bridge of his nose, stealthily removing the moist that is gathering at the inner corner of his eye – I bite my lip to stop myself from giggling.
Father’s attempts to hide his affections are quite feeble, and yet so lovable.
Raven lifted her shaking hands to cover her face, grabbing at her tangled hair with paling fingers. Her previously beautiful braids were becoming undone.
My mother is walking towards the imperial palace. Hoatzin is next to me and he grabs my hand; keeping me close to him as we approach the building. I’m excited and I can tell that Hoatzin is too, but I notice a tinge of nervousness beneath his anticipating expression.
Love fills my heart. My dear brother… He hides his nervousness so well and strives to comfort me at the same time. He will grow into a fine man one day!
Like a fetus, Raven pulled her legs closer to her. She lay there, weeping endlessly on the cold cave floor.
“Two confirmed passes: Hoatzin Nightingale, 40 orbs cleared, and Javelin Hake, 38 orbs cleared.”
I hear the gathered crowd applauding vigorously, but I’m more focused on my brother. On the stage I can see how he finally turns around – he looks so proud. Hoatzin shakes hands with the blond boy and they say something I can’t hear.
They start following the attendant off stage, but as they reach the end of the stage my brother notices me. He stops and waves to me happily.
Raven’s back began to convulse as her desolate sobs grew louder and louder.
Outside the cabin I can sense my father approaching. My mother meets him at the door, their existences becoming one in my mind’s eye. I am sleeping but I am still partially aware of my surroundings.
“She fell asleep an hour ago,” my mother whispers softly. “I didn’t have the heart to wake her.”
My father gives off a tender air, filled with love, as I feel him coming closer and scooping me up. My mother moves to my side as well and together they carry me towards my room. Their warmth and security lull me to a deeper sleep.
Raven’s nails had turned red with blood from the claw marks in her scalp. A thin line of blood even seeped out through the corner of her mouth; in her agony she had bitten her tongue.
The cabin has a couple of meters left to reach the ground but I see the door swing open. My dark-haired brother jumps down in his grey robes. He runs to me with large steps and, once we are close enough, we embrace tightly. He lifts me from the ground and spins me around him.
“I’m home!” he laughs.
Raven opened her mouth wide and howled a soundless shriek. Every aching muscle in her body clenched as she writhed on the ground.
She wanted to scream. But no sound could be heard.
She wanted to forget. But amnesia would not come.
She wanted to die. But death refused to claim her.
Finally, after three days and three nights of crying, Raven ran out of tears. She lay motionless on the cave floor, staring absently into the distance. Her skin was pale, her nails broken. She hadn’t eaten or drunk anything during the past four days.
‘It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.’ The thought repeated itself in her head, over and over.
‘I knew something was going on between Father and Aunt – I should have been more stubborn in my inquiries. I should have…’
‘Oh, my dear family! I only had you for four years but I have never been happier…’
Raven was at her wits’ end; if she didn’t find something to cling to soon, she would be lost for good. She didn’t notice it, but within her, the light in her soul was flickering, as if dangling at the border of extinction.
‘…What is in this world for me if you are not here?’
Suddenly, something flashed across Raven’s lifeless eyes.
‘No, there is one thing I must do in this world…’
Her soul stopped flickering and her previously listless eyes now held a sense of purpose. Slowly, Raven sat up. A fathomless rage was starting to build in the very core of her being.
“There is indeed something I must do…” Her voice was shaky but it grew in strength as she spoke the words out loud. She lifted a pale hand and stared into its palm.
“Anyone and everyone involved in the death of my family will pay for their crimes – by this very hand! I swear it with all I am: they shall pay!” She clenched her fist and smacked it into the cave floor.
She had found something to on cling to.
Raven took a deep breath and steeled herself; forcing down the emotions that threatened to undo her. In that instant, the heart she had spent the last four years melting, in the warm embrace of her family, froze over once more – she had no other choice but to fall back on her old training. She made herself look upon her situation with the eyes of an assassin; it was no longer a matter of grieving the loss of the only people she ever truly loved, it was a matter of finding, and then eradicating, her targets.
And so, Raven started to eat. And drink.
It had been too long and if she had been left without nourishment much longer, death would have stop being so picky and claimed her too. Before she would be able to do anything about her new mission, she needed to regain her strength. Eating was the first step, but the food had no taste and the water didn’t feel refreshing as it flowed down her throat – Raven doubted that it ever would again.
As the tasteless food and water gradually filled her stomach, Raven felt the familiar prickle of a spirit connection being formed. This caused her to turn her attention inwards.
Raven inspected her soul and was relieved to find that in total four connections had been reestablished without her noticing it. It would seem as if whatever caused her to lose them in the first place hadn’t actually damaged her soul – in fact, her soul even seemed to have strengthened slightly and had shifted to a deeper, more sea green color. Consequently, once her soul came in contact with enough spirit essence the connections would naturally reform.
Raven then turned her attention to her spirit core. Just like with her soul, it had been almost completely drained of its content; the vortex of white light had shrunk considerably. Raven suspected that it had initially been fully drained, but that it too had started to recover over the past few days. Fortunately, her body strength had not been affected at all, so recovery should be rather quick.
Raven sighed. Even if the damage wasn’t permanent, at this rate it would take nearly a year for all of her spirit connections to be restored and as for her core, it would most likely be a couple of months before it was back to its previous level. If the culprits were who she thought they were, it meant that she would be facing spiritualists – in her current condition, killing them would be hard, or more likely impossible. . . .
But, she would be patient. No errors would be allowed; even if it took decades, she would accomplish her goal.
Raven forced a final piece of meat down her throat, before adopting a cross-legged position of meditation. A couple of days remained before she could expect I’iwi to return and Raven would use this time to try to speed up her recovery. She closed her eyes and started tugging at the seventeen strands of light that extended from her soul. Slowly, at least compared to before, spirit essence flooded her mind.
Two days passed. Within the cave Raven sat, as before, cross-legged on the ground. She had spent little to no time sleeping; her meditative state was close enough to sleeping for her to be able to forgo it for longer periods. She would, however, pause her cultivation once in a while to eat and move around a bit in the cave; since all spirit essence she absorbed went to stimulate her spirit core, none was left to strengthen her body. Thus, she had to stimulate her muscles in other ways.
She had noticed that, even though her soul continued to reestablish one connection a day, she could vastly increase the recovery rate of her core by this method. 29 days; that was her estimated time frame for her spirit core to make a full recovery. After that she planned to start practicing her Divine Skills again.
Raven felt her stomach growl; it was time for her to eat again. She broke her meditation, got up and started walking towards the few food parcels she had left, huddled in one corner of the cave. Just as Raven was about to bend down to pick up a bag that was filled with assorted berries, she heard a faint thud from the tunnel that led out towards the entrance of the cave.
Raven didn’t hesitate; she spun around and dashed towards the tunnel on silent feet. She grabbed the Nightingale’s Blessing as she passed it.
She had explored the tunnels during some of her earlier meditation breaks and she had realized that it was actually quite difficult to navigate. There were a myriad of tunnels and no sunlight penetrated this far in; if not for the strange specks of glowing ore intermingled with the stone walls, the system of caves and tunnels would be forever shrouded in darkness. The complexity of the tunnels meant that Raven was quite confident that she could elude detection if she wanted to.
As Raven approached the origin of the sound, she slowed down and drew her blade. By now she could hear labored breathing, sometimes accompanied by coughs and the sound of metal scraping against stone.
There was only a small bend in the tunnel left. Slowing to a halt, Raven sank to the floor before she peeked around the corner. Her eyes widened in shock.
“I’iwi!” Raven scrambled to her feet and rushed towards the maid – or rather bodyguard – who was slowly crawling her way deeper into the cave.
“Young mistress?” I’iwi’s voice was very weak. When she saw Raven running towards her, she stopped trying to move forward and collapsed to the ground. Within seconds, Raven had sunk to her knees next to the bodyguard.
As she rolled I’iwi unto her lap, Raven’s face darkened; from a gaping wound in I’iwi’s abdomen blood was gushing uncontrollably and an equally large laceration ran down her thighs. It was a miracle that I’iwi hadn’t bled to death already.
Raven knew it was hopeless but that didn’t stop her from tearing off one of the sleeves from her own robe. With practiced hands she tied it above the long wound in the leg, tightening it hard enough to temporarily stay the blood flow. She then turned her attention to the gut-wound, but as Raven started trying to wrap it in more fabrics from her own robes, I’iwi’s pale hand came to rest on Raven’s.
“It’s… no use…” I’iwi smiled weakly; “I’m…”
“Shh… Don’t speak.” Raven hushed and tried to continue her work, but I’iwi’s seemingly frail hand suddenly grew too strong for Raven to break free.
“No…*cough*…take this instead.” I’iwi lifted her other hand and opened it. In her bloody palm lay a small jade colored glass orb; “…my findings…are…stored inside.”
Raven hesitated for a moment before she took the orb.
“Thank you…” Raven looked at the dying bodyguard; her death was undoubtedly a result of trying to find out what had happened to Raven’s family.
I’iwi forced another smile, but there was an odd expression hidden beneath it that Raven couldn’t quite identify.
“Goodbye, little Raven. Make us proud….”
The last signs of life faded from I’iwi’s face and her outstretched hand fell, lifeless, to her chest. Raven had thought that all tears had left her, already spent, but when I’iwi called her ‘little Raven’ – just as her parents had – two lone tears escaped her eyes, dripping down on the blood-covered servant below.
‘This isn’t fair…’ her soul ached; ‘Why do you all have to be wrenched from me like this?’
Raven sat motionless on the ground with the dead I’iwi in her lap for quite some time. Eventually, she stirred; using much of her strength, she lifted I’iwi’s body into her arms and walked back into the depths of the tunnel system.
Once back in her cave, Raven lowered I’iwi onto the makeshift bed of blankets on the ground. She removed all of the woman’s pieces of armor and other equipment. Tearing more fabric from her gown, Raven used it to meticulously remove all blood stains from I’iwi’s face and hands. She then carefully wrapped the woman’s body in the blankets – I’iwi looked almost peaceful where she lay, yet again no more than a calm, sleeping maid.
Silently, Raven got to her feet and left the cave, only to return moments later carrying a small rock, no bigger than an orange. She placed it next to I’iwi and then left once more. This process repeated itself over and over. She worked in silence, her pace slow but steady, for almost five hours before she stopped and inspected her work. Before her, the bed of blankets had transformed into a large tomb of small, glistening rocks.
Finally, Raven pulled out the Spirit Stone I’iwi had carried around her neck when she died. It had by now faded back to a lifeless grey, awaiting its next owner, but no such owner would come, because Raven placed the Stone on top of the tomb.
Raven bowed to the tomb thrice before backing away. In the other end of the cave, she sat down and brought out the jade glass orb. The anger from before was once more growing within her. She closed her eyes, calmed herself down, and then extended her spirit essence to make contact with the orb.
The instant her essence entered the orb, a stream of memories flooded her mind. In that moment Raven learned everything I’iwi had found out during the past week. Raven’s eyes shot open, the anger within her turned to pure, fathomless rage – no training in the world could keep her feelings in check now.
“How. Dare. They!?” Raven spat the words through clenched teeth.
Suddenly, the forest-green color of her eyes darkened and became a deep blood-red. The air around her seemed to shake and quiver as if suddenly afraid. Within Raven’s soul, the previously golden strands of spirit connections were overflowed by a crimson light that flooded out of the crystal prism. The crimson light forced its way out into the world, where it started swirling violently around Raven.
It was immense killing intent.
Never before had Raven wished to kill anyone as much as she did now. Previously, killing had been a way of living for her, not something she ever made personal – in fact she was trained not to make it personal. But this time was different. Now she wished not only to kill her enemies, she wanted to make them suffer first.
The crimson strands of light grew continuously denser and as they did, they started to lash out at their surroundings, leaving faint grooves in the cave walls. Beneath her, the ground began to shake and crumble; above her, cracks appeared in the ceiling, causing pebbles to fall. Even though Raven didn’t understand what was going on, she didn’t care.
The light in her life had been torn from her by such horrifying means, and the world would burn for it!