Inside the cave, Raven and her brother had been talking about their past four years together, for hours. Sometimes they were sad as they thought about the people they’d lost, but sometimes they would laugh as they retold their experiences of an event from their different perspectives. At the moment, they were talking about exactly such an event.
“So your little game of tag was all an act?” Hoatzin accused. “You knew all along what I was doing wrong!”
“Hehe, well, not exactly, but I did think I could help Brother make some advancements.” Raven was smiling.
“I was so annoyed with you at first. . .” Hoatzin sighed. “Really Sister, you are too calculating!”
Both of them laughed.
“Speaking of calculating, what do you intend to do now?” Hoatzin asked her.
He had already come to terms with his sister’s vast experience; even if Raven would always be his little sister in his heart, it felt natural to let her make their future plans. Besides, it was not like he could do anything about what she decided anyway – he was after all stuck in the ring, which they by now had named ‘Life Link’.
Raven, who had been absentmindedly re-braiding her hair, only pondered the question for a second.
“Well, the Talons must be taken care of, and the first step will be for me to enroll at Sky Academy . . .”
“Great! There you can grow stronger at a fast pace, take care of Dunlin and learn the identity of the mystery elder. It’s good to not be too impatient.” Hoatzin’s response was quick; he naturally also knew that Raven, as she was now, was likely no match for their enemies. She had to grow stronger.
“. . . as a man,” she finished.
“Of course you will . . . wait, what did you say!?”
“I will be enrolling as a man, or, well, as a boy,” Raven repeated calmly.
“Think about it; it is true that most people haven’t seen my face since I have always been veiled in public, but if a female were to enter the Sky Academy’s martial division, with a cultivation like mine, it would cause too big of an uproar. Even if I can use the Fox’s Veil to alter my aura, it doesn’t actually change how I look. Sooner or later someone would recognize me.”
“But would you be capable of disguising yourself as a boy!? Have you seen yourself lately – you are as far from a boy as a four-year-old toddler could possibly be, and it will only get worse as you grow older!”
Raven laughed. What her brother pointed out was indeed true, but even in her old world Raven had been forced to hide her sex many times. Raven knew that there was a lot more to “being male” than the physical features of her body. It was rather a question of mannerisms: body language, how one chose to speak, how one chose to act and a lot more. Of course, once Raven entered full puberty, her body would complicate things, but firstly, that was at least six years in the future, and secondly, even if the Fox’s Veil couldn’t actually change her appearance, it could alter what people paid attention to.
This combined with her previous experiences made her fairly confident in her abilities to be able to pass as a boy for the ten years she would attend the Academy. Not that she had any intentions of waiting ten years before extracting her revenge – once that was done she would have no issues with reveling her identity.
Instead of explaining all of this to her brother, she figured it would be more efficient to show him. She shifted her sitting position ever so slightly; relaxing some muscles, while tensing others. Her facial expression changed, enhancing her more masculine features.
“You . . .” Hoatzin was stunned.
The changes were, on their own, extremely small, but the Raven sitting in the cave now was not the same Raven he had seen mere moments before. She was still Raven, but even Hoatzin would have labeled her a boy at a first glance. A feminine one, but still a boy.
A faint smile tugged at the corner of Raven’s mouth, giving her the expression of a mischievous little boy, preparing to steal an egg from under a hen. Before her brother had time to react, Raven drew her sword and with a swift, but almost robust move, chopped off her floor-long hair right above her shoulders. She caught the falling braid in her other hand.
“It had to go – I might be good at deception but this hair is more than I can handle. . . .” Raven’s voice was calm and almost imperceptibly deeper than before – she could lower it further but she was only four; what four-year-old boy had already had his voice mature?
“. . . ,” Hoatzin said nothing. He knew how much Raven valued her hair – how could he not when she had refused to let anyone cut it since the day she was born – but now she had cut it off without hesitation.
Raven tied up her remaining hair at the back of her head, using the typical hair knot of commoners.
“Well brother, your verdict?” Raven asked.
“It will do.” If not for Raven chopping off her hair, Hoatzin had prepared a joke for her about finally revealing her true gender, but now he let it pass. His sister was clearly serious about this.
“There is more to it.” Raven got to her feet and walked over to I’iwi’s tomb. Once next to it, she clasped her hands in respect before placing her own dark purple braid by the tomb’s base and backing away. Next she moved to the small pile of equipment she had removed from I’iwi before she lay her to rest.
To call it a pile was perhaps a stretch, though, since it only consisted of three items: the arm guard Fox’s Veil, a small but surprisingly sharp dagger and a copper-colored spacial ring. Raven had yet to inspect the ring so she didn’t know what she would find inside, but right now, her attention was more focused on the Fox’s Veil.
Raven lifted the arm guard and pulled it onto her right arm. It was way too big for her, but she wasn’t concerned. Instead she reached for the small dagger and, with a well-trained motion, flicked it across her left palm. She then pressed her bleeding hand against the Fox’s Veil. The moment the arm guard came in contact with her blood, it started to glow and vibrate slightly. Slowly, it started to shrink, adapting itself to the arm wearing it. Soon, it was wrapped around Raven’s arm like a second layer of skin.
Raven flexed her right hand, and nodded approvingly; it wouldn’t hinder her movements at all. Through the blood connection Raven instinctively knew how to use it. With but a thought, she felt the air around her change according to her will.
“Now it’s complete!”
In the old mining town of White Water, a small, nondescript boy was making his way through deserted alleys. This town had once been a bustling hub of activity, but once the nearby mines ran out of useful soul ore its largest income was gone; only five years had passed since then but the town grew more desolate with each passing month.
The little boy kept to the shadows as he seemed to be searching for something. Suddenly, his eyes lit up. In the alley he’d just peeked into hung a clothing line, filled with damp children’s clothes, a few meters above ground. After pausing for a moment to inspect his surroundings more closely, the boy increased his pace and dashed down the ally in question. Just as it looked as if he was going to pass underneath the clothing line, the boy jumped into the air, extending a foot towards the nearby wall. With the additional boost from the wall, the tiny figure reached his target and snatched a set of child robes with ease.
Before anyone had a chance to notice what had happened, the boy had already changed into the damp robes and disappeared. Tucked into a nearby burning garbage bin was a tattered dress in fine silks.
The ‘boy’ was none other than young Raven. Earlier that night she had stored her sword within the spacial ring and then made her way out of the complex system of tunnels, emerging in this White Water Town – the cave she had hidden in had been a part of those very soul ore mines that had been depleted five years ago.
Now that she had changed into more fitting clothing, she pondered her next step.
“So, we won’t be flying, but rather go to Sky City by foot?” Hoatzin couldn’t help but ask again.
“Yes, by foot. How would I possibly explain having the funds to pay for the transport when I’m supposed to be an orphaned commoner?” Raven explained patiently.
Even though flight was the main form of transportation in Sky Empire, it was still quite expensive, so poorer citizens would normally have to travel either by foot and horseback or stay put. After inspecting I’iwi’s spacial ring, Raven had found a rather substantial amount of money inside – nothing compared to the wealth Raven’s own family had been in possession of, but definitely enough to pay for the trip to Sky City many times over.
“Why not pretend to be a rich orphan?” Hoatzin suggested after some pondering.
“And risk being robbed, or even killed for my money? Too much is at stake for that – I’d rather play it safe.”
“I wouldn’t call passing through the mountain ranges and living in the wild with spirit beasts for two years ‘playing it safe’. . . .” Hoatzin muttered, mostly to himself.
Raven only smiled. She knew her brother’s concerns but in her opinion, being poor in the wilderness was a lot better than being rich in civilization. At least if you were weak. While greedy humans would be attracted to money no matter how uninteresting the person carrying it might seem, beasts were another matter; as long as you didn’t fall under either of the categories ‘threat’ or ‘food’, most beasts would leave you alone. With Raven’s training and the Fox’s Veil aiding her, she was confident that she could avoid them both.
So, Raven continued to move quietly through town. She stopped sticking to the smaller alleys and instead used the bigger streets that were lined with the handful of shops that had managed to stay open, despite the state of the town – none were open right now, though, since it was still in the middle of the night. Raven walked slowly with her head down, as if to not accidentally offend any of the few townspeople that were moving around on the streets even at this hour. Once in a while though, she would pause and disappear into the shadows, only to reappear moments later. Nobody noticed her weird behavior. In fact, few even looked at her, even when she was in plain sight.
Just as dawn broke, Raven reached the end of the town. Standing beneath the huge stone gate in grey marble, Raven looked out over the landscape in front of her. White Water Town was located fairly high up, altitude-wise, and as far as Raven could see, it was surrounded by an ocean of dark green trees that covered the numerous mountains that constituted the Nightingale Prefecture. A wide river, with water so rapid that the water seemed white, ran next to the town, making its way to a huge lake at the foot of the mountain.
White Water Town was fairly close to the prefecture’s capital and Raven knew the area well from the various books she had studied. In her mind she reviewed the geography of the entire Sky Empire and quickly decided on a route. To get to Sky City from White Water Town, Raven would have to travel to the other side of Nightingale Prefecture and then the entire length of Rock Wren Prefecture. This was a distance of nearly 12 000 kilometers, through rough terrain.
Despite having her route figured out, Raven didn’t set off immediately, but rather observed the rising sun’s slow arrival in the morning sky.
“What? Having second thoughts now that you’ve pilfered your way through town?” Hoatzin mocked.
Raven had indeed stolen quite a lot on her way out – there was much equipment she would enjoy having once in the wilderness and whenever Raven had passed a store with such supplies she had . . . liberated some of it. This didn’t sit very well with Hoatzin’s upfront nature, so he was currently sulking a bit.
“Haha, no Brother. I’m simply enjoying the scenery. Once this journey truly starts, we won’t have the luxury of doing so very often.”
“Hmm, even though I can see the beauty of it from within this ring, it’s still not quite the same as experiencing it first-hand. . . .” Her brother sighed.
“Hopefully, we will find a way to change that as well, once we reach the Academy.”
Hoatzin didn’t reply.
As Raven stood there, also in silence, an elderly man came walking up the mountain side road. Every morning he would make this climb up to town from his little cabin further down the mountain. In his younger days, he had worked in the mines and even earned enough money to build himself a home for himself, his wife and his child. Now, however, he was all alone and could feel how the town he frequented was slowly fading, just like himself.
While he passed the town gate he almost failed to notice the small child standing by it, but since he walked that road every morning and usually never met anyone until he was much further into town, he eventually reacted to the unexpected presence.
He turned to look at the boy once more, but when he did, the child was already gone. He leaned out through the gates to see if the boy was further down the road, but the road was just as empty as it always was this time of day.
“Huh? Must have imagined it. . . .” The man sighed wearily and continued his journey into town.