Lady Besra, with the infant Raven in her arms, reached the top of the stairs and entered a dimly lit chamber. The chamber had nine walls made of a semi-translucent stone that allowed the starlight outside to shine through slightly. In the center of the room father and son sat on either side of a large symbol that glimmered on the floor.
Maleo lifted his head and looked quizzically at Raven.
“She protested when I tried to leave her with I’iwi. Don’t worry – she is a quiet child, she won’t disturb her brother. Right little Raven?”
The infant blinked, an innocent smile on her face.
“Very well. She is too young to be affected anyway,” laughed Maleo. “Take your seat.”
Without hesitation, Besra elegantly sank to the floor next to the glimmering symbol. As Raven came closer she noticed that symbol consisted of three overlapped and interlocked triangles that created a complex star-like pattern. Each triangle-side had been made by different colored stones inserted into the floor. The segments were made of what looked like white jade, red jasper, orange amber, yellow serpentine, green jade, light blue amazonite, indigo lapis lazuli, violet charoite, and deep, black onyx. Raven’s thoughts immediately went to the rainbows of her old world, that embodied every aspect of light.
Once Besra, with Raven, had taken her place on the floor, Maleo turned his attention back to his very nervous son. Hoatzin tried his best to hide this nervousness, but his eyes darted from the symbol on the floor to his two parents, out through the translucent walls and then back again to the floor. His hands were tightly clenched in his lap.
“Hoatzin.” Maleo spoke with a steady and serious voice. “Son, this year you will turn six years old. With two spiritualist parents this means that your soul should be crystallized and strong enough to start walking the path of spirit cultivation.”
By now not only Hoatzin looked on his father with deep interest; Raven also stared at her father expectantly. ‘Finally some insight in this spirit-business!’
“As you know, leading Spiritualists throughout the ages have accomplished astonishing deeds. They are capable of defeating horrendous magical beasts and single-handedly defeating great armies. Fights between true masters can shake the entire world. But how can they do all this?” He gave Hoatzin a look, encouraging him to continue the explanation.
“By cultivating spirit essence!” answered Hoatzin eagerly.
“Indeed. But how?”
“Ah! By . . .” Hoatzin faltered.
Maleo hid a smile. “It is done by establishing spirit connections between your soul and the spirit energies that flow throughout the very fabric of the world” He explained. “Once a connection has been made, you can start cultivating your own spirit core. With your spirit core established you can use collected spirit essence to strengthen yourself, both passively and actively during battles.” He studied his son for a moment then asked. “So, what are the different levels of cultivation spiritualists are separated into?”
This time Hoatzin didn’t hesitate. “There are three levels of spiritualists. Spirit Novice, Spirit Adept and Spirit Champion.”
“Right. And beyond that are the true masters, Spirit Masters. Each level is divided into low, mid and high. As you advance the differences in these levels grow larger, with the biggest leaps between title changes. It might not be entirely impossible for a low level Spirit Novice to defeat a high level Novice, but a low level Adept will wipe out both without any problems. Then again a high level Champion will always crush a low level Champion despite them both being ‘champions’. So bear that in mind!”
Maleo paused and fished a grey pendant out from a pouch he carried at his hip and tossed it to his son. “This is a spirit stone. Every Spiritualist is required to carry one and its color reveals the level of its owner. Apart from intrusively examining others through physical contact or willingly releasing spirit essence this is the only way to tell the cultivation level of another spiritualist.”
“Once you managed to form a spirit core and thereby have entered the stage of a lower Spirit Novice, a speck of white will appear in the pendant’s center. This white will then spread until it fills the entire pendant. When it does it indicates that you’ve reached the peak Novice stage. When breaking through to the next level a red speck will be formed at its center and the process will start again.”
Maleo parted the fabric of his robe to reveal a deep red pendant with a large orange center. “Novices are white, Adepts red, Champions orange. Supposedly, true masters are yellow. Your own father is approaching the mid Champion stage, with a possibility of breaking through any day now.” He smiled proudly, and Hoatzin looked as his father with big, admiring eyes.
Mid Champion? What did this signify? Within the entire Sky Empire, consisting of perhaps four million inhabitants, there were probably no more than a couple hundred mid Champions! They were extremely valuable assets for the Empire. Even if Maleo hadn’t been born a noble, he would be held in very high regard.
Beside him Besra gave a small cough and glanced at her husband.
“Ah, yes. That is all quite far off for you, son, but train hard and you might get there.” Maleo stuffed the pendant back into his robes. “Today you will attempt to make your first spirit connection, once you have three you will be considered a lower Spirit Novice, capable of forming your spirit core.”
“The first connection is always the hardest and it is difficult to say when your soul is strong enough to make it. However! Today is the last day of the year, the Day of Light, and as midnight approaches spirit essence will pour into Spirit Halls all over the continent, marking the new beginning. This is the optimal time to attempt making your first connection.”
“It comes,” Besra urged.
In the center of the nine-pointed star, a dim light started to spread.
“Son, close your eyes and relax. Focus on the darkness in your mind and try not to resist when you feel a slight push in your mind.” As he spoke, both he and Besra closed their eyes and started to breathe in slow, rhythmic, breaths. Hoatzin only hesitated for a moment before he did the same. Raven on the other hand stared at the accumulating light in the center of the symbol with growing eagerness. This was the first time she had witnessed something so . . . magical! The light moved as if made of water as it stretched upwards pouring into a large sphere. After a while the flow stopped and the sphere floated in mid-air, swaying slightly.
Suddenly the spirit essence split into three smaller spheres and one very large sphere. Even the smaller ones varied in sizes – the smallest no bigger than a finger nail, the largest was the size of a thumb – but the fourth sphere was the size of a watermelon. Raven barely had time to notice how the smallest sphere shot at high speed towards her older brother before the biggest sphere slammed into her and her mind went blank with pain.
It felt as if thousands of tiny needles tried to drill their way into her head at once. Instinctively, she turned all her senses inwards and what she saw changed the way she viewed the world. In her head hovered a dim, light-green prism. The moment she saw it she knew that it was her crystallized soul. If the pain she felt at that moment hadn’t been so excruciating she would have found it amusing that something that had caused so much religious debates and even great wars in her old world not only existed but turned out to be something so . . . simple.
She was, however, distracted by the pain. The source was without a doubt the bright light that endlessly pressed at the prism, trying to force its way in. She wanted to push the light away but there was nothing she could do. In reality, even if she had known how to put up a fight, she wouldn’t have been strong enough for it to make any difference. Finally, the first ray of light managed to penetrate deep into the prism. As it did, it was as if the dam broke; countless rays of light forced their way into the depths of her soul, latching on to whatever they found in there.
Raven had lived through all kinds of torture methods imaginable to man in her old life – in most cases, it had been part of her training as a child – but none of it came close to what she was feeling now. She wanted to cry out, she wanted to get away, she wanted it to end any way possible. But none of that happened. Her body didn’t listen to her, and as more and more rays penetrated her soul her senses only became more heightened. She could feel everything; not only her own pain but the pressure the stone under her mother felt from being sat on, she could feel the air’s hopelessness as it was being breathed in and out by the people in the room, she could feel the excitement and hunger of the raw spirit essence pushing its way into her mind. Everything.
It was all just too much to bear. . . .
But, just as it started to feel as if her soul was going to shatter for good, the pressure stopped. The spirit essence stopped trying to force its way in and instead allowed itself to flow freely along the already established connections, filling her soul. The pain subsided and was replaced by a warm, fuzzy feeling. She was healing.
Her previously dim prism now shone brightly, around it floated a haze of excess spirit essence that didn’t seem to have fit inside. The extreme clearness Raven’s senses had during the connecting process had faded considerably but she could still tell that the spirit essence seemed to be waiting for something, but Raven didn’t know what it was.
As she was contemplating this she heard her father speaking. “Son, how did it go?”
Raven opened her eyes and saw her brother’s bewildered gaze.
“Father! That was amazing! It hurt at fist but once I stopped resisting everything changed. It was as if I could feel the very air I was breathing! It was absolutely amazing!” Hoatzin couldn’t have hid his excitement even if he wanted to.
“Good, son! Very good indeed!” Maleo looked at his son with overflowing pride. “New connections are always a bit painful but you get used to it. In the future they will come more naturally as your soul grows mature enough.”
Raven couldn’t help but snort coldly inside. ‘You call that a bit painful? They must have insane pain tolerance. . . .’
“Now then, tell me son, what do you see with your minds inner eye?” Maleo inquired.
Hoatzin closed his eyes and breathed calmly. “I see a clear prism with a string of light flowing out of it.”
“That would be your first connection to the spirit energy that is the very fabric of the very world. As you grow older and your soul matures, more connections will be formed. As they are formed, your perception and ability to cultivate will increase.”
Out of curiosity, Raven took a closer look at her own soul and it gave her a huge shock. ‘. . . 243!? 243 connections? Is that even possible?’ As she pondered over this another thought hit her. ‘. . . hehe, at least it explains the additional pain. ‘ If one connection hurt, what would over 200 times that feel like?’
Her father continued. “As your connections increase you will notice that your soul will follow the same color scheme as you spirit stone. White, or clear, being the weakest, followed by red and so on. However, your soul strength and your cultivation won’t necessarily be in phase. The strength of your soul merely indicates how fast you can absorb the spirit essence, your cultivation will depend on what you do with it.”
Yet again Raven was baffled. What about her own soul? It was green, and according to her father, shouldn’t it be either white, red, orange or yellow?
‘Perhaps it’s a consequence of being reborn with my mind intact. . . .’ Raven speculated.
“On average you will establish one new connection every year or so, but extreme events might cause your soul to develop faster than that. There is no other way to develop your soul, so you have to make sure to live your life to the fullest or you will get stuck,” Maleo continued.
“But remember, the strength of your soul is important since it will improve you cultivation speed, but when it comes down to it, the most important thing is to have a strong cultivation! A spiritualist with a weak soul can still make up for it by cultivating relentlessly and even if you have the strongest soul in the world you won’t be able to break a twig if you don’t cultivate properly. If you want to be able to protect your sister you have to work hard!” Maleo’s voice was stern as he reminded his son.
“Yes, father!” Hoatzin straightened up a bit and glanced at his smiling mother and the infant in her arms.
“With only one connection, forming a permanent spirit core will be impossible, but you can still start cultivating to increase your overall strength. Tell me, is there any spirit essence floating around your soul?”
Hoatzin looked a bit puzzled. “No, father.”
Maleo frowned slightly then glanced at his wife with an amused smile before he waved his hand in front of him.
“No matter.” He paused for a second, then started instructing his son.
“Focus on your existing connection and try tugging at it. As you do, the area around your soul will slowly fill up with spirit essence. You will notice that once the essence enters your mind you will able to control it and move it around your body. It will be a bit hard at first but you will get the hang of it. Once you can freely control it, move it towards the area right below your navel and let it circulate there until you feel you can’t hold it any more. At that time just let it go and it will naturally disperse through your body and return to the world around you.”
Hoatzin looked nervously at his father.
“Go ahead, try it. It will come to you more naturally than you think.” His mother spoke softly, coaxing her son into action.
Hoatzin nodded and once again closed his eyes. Both parents looked at their son with anticipation. His aptitude for controlling the spirit essence within him would be very important for his development over the next couple of years. It would be crucial for him when time came for him to join a spirit school. After all, since it would take roughly three years for him to get enough spirit connections to form a spirit core he would be young but not unusual among his peers, but if he could control the spirit essence efficiently then he could be taught several breathing techniques that would lift him above the rest.
What nobody noticed was that in Besra’s arms, little Raven copied her brother; she too closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. For her this state came very naturally since meditation had been a big part of her training as an assassin. Within her mind Raven observed the hazy essence swirling slowly around her soul and the 243 connections that extended from her green prism. With a thought she tried to extort pressure on the floating essence and to her surprise the cloud of light easily moved away. Raven quickly realized that even though she had no problems what so ever to move the essence, making it flow exactly where she wanted was a bit more tricky. However, she was persistent and within just a minute or so she had figured it out to the point where it almost became second nature.
Excitedly she led the essence down towards her navel, but as it approached its destination she was in for another surprise. The closer she got the faster the essence moved and before she had a chance to start rotating it herself, all spirit essence was sucked up in a small vortex, right below her navel. There it formed a small and slowly rotating disk of dense white light. Without her knowing how, Raven had already managed to form her spirit core! But how could she not? The minimum requirement was to have 3 spirit connections, she had over 200!
Raven studied the vortex and tried to move the spirit essence within in the same manner as before but nothing happened. Perplexed, Raven turned her attention back to her spirit connections. This time she ‘tugged’ at them as instructed and new spirit essence flowed into her soul. The prism flashed slightly and slowly a new haze started to seep into her mind. Once the haze was roughly the same size as before no more essence came to her no matter how hard she tried, so Raven instead tried once more to move the new haze towards her navel.
Yet again the spirit essence seemed drawn to the newly formed vortex but this time, as the new essence was absorbed and started rotating, almost all of the old essence was forced out and dispersed throughout her body. As it did Raven could feel how her cells welcomed the essence like it was rain in a desert. Her cells were already in a state of rapid growth due to her being an infant, but spurred on by the spirit essence the growth rate accelerated immensely. But now, rather than focusing solely on growing in size, her cells now also focused on growing in strength and flexibility.
The process only lasted for a couple of minutes but once it was done Raven was exhausted. Every muscle ached as after a hard work out, even her skin tingled, but it was a welcome ache because Raven knew what it meant – she was getting stronger, and fast! She yawned and opened her eyes to see how it was going for her brother.
Hoatzin was still sitting with his eyes closed. His brows were slightly furrowed in concentration, but it didn’t seem as he was going to give up any time soon. Raven wanted to stay awake in support of her brother but soon she had no choice but to give in; she was just too tired. She yawned once more, snuggled closer to her mother’s chest and fell asleep.
Besra noticed this and gave her daughter a light peck on the forehead before returning her attention to her son.
Barely one hour later husband and wife walked into their bedchamber with happy smiles on their faces. Their son had not only managed to form a spirit connection on the first try but also only required half an hour to grasp how to control the spirit essence within him. This was borderline genius! By the time spirit school drafting came around, with the right guiding, Hoatzin could perhaps be unrivaled within the Nightingale prefecture and among the best within the empire. Chances were high that he could get accepted into the Imperial Sky Academy of Spiritual Arts in Sky City on his own merits, rather than relying on his father’s name. Only 1 in 10,000 could do that!
They were still smiling when they crept into bed, but as Maleo glanced at his wife he remembered something.
“Congratulations on your breakthrough,” he whispered as he hugged his wife tightly. “Giving birth to little Raven must have helped your soul this time.”
“Hmm, what are you talking about?” Besra mumbled as she moved closer to her husband. It had been a long day and she was starting to feel it.
“Didn’t you establish multiple connections or even enter the ranks of lower champions?”
This caused Besra to snap out of her sleepy state. “How could I possibly?” As she stared at her husband in bewilderment she pulled out a pendant from under her sleeping gown, it was mostly red but it still had a thick border white. “I’m still a mid-level Adept!”
Maleo frowned. “But then were did all that spirit essence go? I sensed so much in the hall at the beginning. . . . I figured I would get enough to break through to mid-level Champion, but I barely got any. . . .”
Usually cultivators would slowly store more and more essence in their spirit cores, strengthening their bodies as they went along. As their bodies grew stronger, so would their spirit core, and once the spirit core was strong enough it would evolve to the next step and the cultivator would improve a level. However, during the Day of Light, the spirit essence that flows into Spirit Halls behaves differently from usual.
During these circumstances the spirit essence formed is hungry for change and works actively to improve its surroundings. Because of this, cultivators at a bottleneck can use a Spirit Hall to forcefully evolve their cores. Every one present in the Hall at midnight during the Day of Light would get a share of the gathered spirit essence; the share would be proportionate to the strength of their souls. This spirit essence would then willfully enter the spiritualist’s body and try to improve it as much as possible by increasing the strength of said body, sometimes to the point of a breakthrough.
“That makes no sense darling, you must have sensed wrong.” Besra sighed and settled back on her pillow. “Go to sleep. It’s been a long day.”
Maleo felt that his wife’s explanation didn’t completely hit the mark but what could he do about it? He had checked his son before he sent him to bed and his wife clearly hadn’t advanced beyond expectations either. He had no choice but to let it go and try to fall asleep.
Maleo didn’t even consider checking his daughter, and why would he? Historically, the earliest age someone had ever been able to form even one lone spirit connection was at the age of 4 and that child had been put through some extremely traumatizing events in order to strengthen the soul. How could he know that his cute little daughter sleeping soundly in the next room had lived through more than most people do in multiple lifetimes? If he had known, it is hard to tell if he would be happy for her potential or heartbroken by the hardships she must have experienced.