A slight breeze caused the sheer white curtains to sway and stretch, like delicate wings, into a faintly lit chamber. Just out off the curtains reach stood a wooden bed, whose life-like flower carvings almost seemed to sway in the shifting sunlight.
The thick covers on the bed started to move and a small child made its way out from underneath. As the child moved away from the bed long, dark hair flowed behind her, its tips slightly grazing the floor. At first glance the hair seemed black, but as she stepped into the sunlight at the foot of her bed, its color shifted to a dark violet shade.
The child absentmindedly grabbed a thick velvet robe hanging over a bed post and walked over to the window, draping the robe around her as she went. She paused and looked out at the mint green mountain range that stretched out beneath her window; spring had arrived and the trees were bursting with new life. A fond smile spread on her face.
If an adult had seen her now, her expression would have puzzled them. Her smile was one only those who realized the value of, and truly cherished spring would reveal, and yet here it was on a child that couldn’t possibly have lived through more than a couple of winters.
She glanced towards the chamber doors before smoothly sitting down at a chair in front of the window. Her face now looked more fitting for her age as she smiled happily. She tapped her fingers three times against her chair and in the same instant the third *tap* echoed through the chamber, a light knock came at the door. Shortly after, the door opened and a middle-aged woman walked in with a tray held high in one hand.
When she saw the child waiting happily in front of the window, she sighed lightly.
“Young Mistress Raven, will I never catch you sleeping in?”
Raven just smiled. “Good morning, I’iwi.”
It had become something of a game for her to always be awake before any of the servants came to wake her. So far she was winning easily. And how could she not? Her spirit connections made it practically impossible to sneak up on her. If not using some Divine Martial Skill, such as her father’s Shadow Walk, of course.
I’iwi shook her head and placed the tray she was carrying on a small table by the window. She picked up a mug from the tray and handed it to the smiling child, who clasped it with both hands. Steam rose from the mug and a sweet scent, reminiscent of honey, filled Raven’s nose. As Raven sipped the warm liquid while looking out the window, I’iwi pulled out a comb from within her robes and started to brush the long violet hair of the child.
As she worked, I’iwi pondered the odd fixation of the child waiting patiently while I’iwi fixed her hair. For a child of her age to agree to sit still for nearly an hour every morning so that I’iwi could tend to her long locks was very unusual. Normally, the hair of such young children would be kept short out of convenience, but from the day the first hairs had grown on Raven’s head until today, three years later, she had adamantly refused to let anyone cut her hair. Even as an infant she would thrash around so much that the servants had no choice but to let it grow. This behavior stood out for this otherwise complacent child that rarely made a fuss and seemed to enjoy reading more than old scholars do.
How could she know that, for Raven, the long hair had become somewhat of a symbol for her new life? She relished having it long, to the point that she even let her Spirit Essence stimulate its growth. In her old life her training had begun the same year she turned three, in other words when Raven was as old as she was now. As an assassin she had been forced to keep her hair short out of necessity; long hair was not only easy for an enemy to grab, it also served as an identifying characteristic that potential eye-witnesses could remember her by. Not that she ever left any witnesses. . . .
Barely an hour later, I’iwi took a step back and inspected her creation. Raven’s hair had been braided and pinned to her head in complex patterns, efficiently keeping it off the ground. A lone, thin braid hung lightly over her shoulder, extending down to her waist. It was quite an adult hair style but surprisingly it fit this child very well. Three years of spirit cultivation, during a period of already rapid growth, had resulted in giving Raven a relatively strong but lithe body that showed none of the typical chubbiness of normal three-year-old toddlers. Her face was cute but not overly round and she was a bit taller than your average three-year-old as well, measuring just over a meter. If someone were to guess her age they would put her at perhaps six, at the youngest, but even then her appearance didn’t quite fit. Raven looked more like a miniature adult than a well developed child, apart from not having passed through puberty of course.
I’iwi handed Raven a light blue dress, and once she had slipped into it, I’iwi draped a soft gray fur coat over Raven’s shoulders.
“Young master Hoatzin is training in the northern courtyard as usual.” I’iwi said smiling and opened the chamber door with a slight bow. I’iwi knew very well that Raven enjoyed watching her brother train.
Raven answered with a smile of her own and passed through the doorway, heading towards the northern area of the mansion. The two guards that had been standing on either side of the door immediately fell in behind her. The mansion was well guarded but the two younger members of the Nightingale family had their own guards with them wherever they went.
Just as Raven stepped out into the courtyard, a large bang vibrated through the open area and a small figure flew several meters backwards before tumbling to the ground. As soon as the figure hit the ground it curled up in a ball, instantly regaining some control over the falling motion. It was her brother.
“Haha! Good, son! You are improving.”
In the other end of the courtyard stood her father, beaming with satisfaction.
“Again!” Hoatzin was already on his feet and had started running towards his father. Determination filled his eyes.
Raven quietly slipped into a fur-covered armchair that had been placed by to the side of the courtyard, looking out over the training area. As she settled down, she wrapped herself in the coat she was wearing – it might be spring, but spring in the Nightingale mountain range was still quite a cold affair. Flanking her were her two guards. Together the trio observed father and son training in the center of the courtyard.
Amusement twinkled in Raven’s eyes. She really liked this part of the day. Hoatzin was very dedicated to his training and would train relentlessly. Thanks to his advanced spirit control, Hoatzin had spent every day cultivating spirit essence with various breathing techniques. Even without a complete spirit core he had improved a great deal over the past three years. Raven couldn’t help but think of her old world; here her brother might be considered close to a genius but there his progress would be simply impossible, even within the Assassins Union. Hoatzin might still lack the skill to win in a battle, but his strength was already comparable to that of someone five years his senior. It really showed the potential of spiritualists.
Raven observed her brother approaching her father at a high speed.
Ever since her brother had managed to establish his third spirit connection a few months ago, her father had taken it upon himself to start his training in basic Divine Martial Skills.
Even though Raven had instinctively understood the spoken language of this world it had taken her roughly a year to learn how to read it, and since then she had spent a great deal of time reading about many things concerning her new world. Divine Martial Skills had been one of them. From what Raven had read she knew that even though increasing your cultivation was the most important pillar stone for a spiritualist, in order to use your cultivated spirit essence efficiently you had to practice the Divine Skills.
There were two major types of Divine Skills; Divine Healing Skills and Divine Martial Skills. Divine Healing Skills were mainly practiced by women since it didn’t require hours of physical training and gave the added effect of safer childbirth. For example, the slight glow Raven had noticed around her mother at her birth had been Besra’s Divine Healing Skill Nourishing Light that continuously replenishes your body, countering exhaustion. Divine Martial Skills, on the other hand, forced you to train relentlessly in order to master them. But once you did, you would be able to crush mountains with pebbles.
Both sets of skills had two things in common. The first was that both contained a nine-level categorization system that divided different skills into power levels – level one skills were the weakest, level nine skills the strongest. Although there were nine levels in theory, in practice most people never came into contact with skills beyond level three. As prefecture lords, the Nightingale clan most likely had access to a handful of level five skills and perhaps one or two level six skills. Beyond that was the realm of legend.
The second thing they had in common was that the Divine Skills could not be taught simply by observing, you had to get them imprinted on your very soul before you could even start practicing them. This had been a great source of irritation for Raven the past two years; the moment she had read about the Divine Skills she became so excited that she nearly fell out of the chair she had been sitting in. However, her excitement had soon died because there was no way she could possibly learn them.
There were essentially two ways to get a skill imprinted on your soul. The first was to learn it from a Divine Scroll written with spirit essence. Once read, the spirit essence in the scroll would flow into the reader to complete the imprint. These scrolls were however very precious and the three-year-old Raven had no way of getting hold of one. Of course, if she had asked her parents she might have been given one but she would have a hard time explaining why she wanted it without revealing that she’d already formed her spirit core.
Unfortunately the second option was even worse since it meant that someone who already had a skill imprint would form a temporary spirit connection with the person who wished to learn the skill, thus copying the imprint to the next soul. This option would instantly reveal not only how far your cultivation had come but also how many spirit connections you had.
Raven had clearly understood from all her reading that someone like her, with 243 spirit connections and a spirit core formed right after birth, was completely unprecedented. According to the books in the mansions library, the highest recorded amount of spirit connections in Sky Empire had been a legendary Spirit Master some hundred years ago, but he had been an 80-year-old man and his connections had still been considerably fewer than 200.
Raven had, by now, reached 245 connections and she could feel the next one connecting soon. All things considered, she would be seen as a monster. Or perhaps a miracle. Either way, it would change her life drastically if someone found out. This was something Raven feared more than anything – she had never lived a peaceful life before and now she was determined to keep it.
Of course, in theory, it should be possible to develop new Divine Skills on your own but very few had ever succeeded. The existing skills had usually been developed over countless generations.
Thus, Raven had chosen to quietly cultivate her spirit essence, without the aid of breathing techniques or Divine Skills; judging by the increased size of her spirit core she suspected that her cultivation had reached the mid-level Spirit Novice realm by now, but couldn’t say for sure without a spirit stone. Also, without any Divine Skills to use it with, her core was of little practical use for Raven.
But Raven wasn’t too disappointed. Even without any breathing techniques, her numerous spirit connections more than made up for it, keeping her cultivation at an alarming rate. Her brother’s six-year head-start and aided cultivation still put him slightly ahead in terms of physical strength but Raven was catching up. Quickly.
She had also kept training her old world’s martial arts to ensure a level of control over her body that she was comfortable with. In fact, this was perhaps the area she was most pleased with – practically since birth, Raven had nourished her cells with nearly boundless spirit essence. As a result, her body was extraordinarily flexible and resilient. She could train for hours on end without getting tired and some techniques she had trouble with in her past life, she could now execute flawlessly.
Hoatzin once again flew across the courtyard, but he regained his footing a bit faster than last time. By now his previously green robes where covered in layers of dust.
“Again!” he shouted and once more rushed towards his father.
As he came closer Maleo swung out a big arm that first seemed to miss Hoatzin but . . . *BOOM!* Hoatzin was sent flying.
The guard on Raven’s right chuckled softly. “He has determination at least.”
“Verdin, don’t tease. It took you a year to come this close to learning the Shadow Walk.” The left guard, Rook, teased back.
Raven simply smiled. These two guards were in their late-twenties and had quite recently graduated from a spirit school in the Nightingale prefecture. They had been the top of their class, both renowned for their fast learning skills. How else could they be guarding their lord’s only daughter so soon after graduation? They were both lower Spirit Champions and Raven was very fond of the two; they were very loyal to her family and proud to be guarding one of them personally, but they never put on airs or treated those with lower status ill.
Raven focused her attention on her brother as he yet again tried to move past his father. Hoatzin’s task was actually quite straightforward. He was to run straight at his father and then use the second level Divine Martial Skill Shadow Walk to swiftly sidestep around Maleo, at the same time as he avoided his father’s heavy arm sweeping towards him.
Raven could sense spirit essence collecting at the soles of Hoatzin’s feet as he tried to perform the Divine Skill, but it was not stable enough this time either so she felt that failure was eminent. Seconds later Hoatzin was tossed into the air.
‘He is so close. . . .‘ Raven mused to herself. She might not be able to learn the skill on her own but with her heightened senses she could clearly tell where the differences between her brother’s faulty activation and her father’s perfected version lay.
As Hoatzin sprang to his feet and repeated the process once more, Raven’s eyes flashed with insight.
‘Hmm, it might work!’
In the same instant the loud bang rang out from the collision between father and son, Raven sprung to her feet and rushed towards her brother before her guards had a chance to stop her.
“Brother! Brother! Play with me!” a radiant smile spread across Raven’s face as she bounced up and down around her brother at the center of the courtyard.
The soon to be nine-year-old Hoatzin was a head taller than Raven so he bent down until he was face to face with her.
“Sorry little sister, I need to train with father. I can play with you after lunch.” He placed a hand on her shoulder to push her off to the side but Raven easily sidestepped him.
“But I wanna play now!” Raven pouted.
Hoatzin sighed. “Later,” he repeated and made a second attempt to push his sister back to her armchair. However, Raven once more slipped out of his hand, now moving further away, giggling loudly.
“Hihi, you have to catch me first!” A small pink tongue popped out of her mouth as she teased her brother.
By the armchair, guards Verdin and Rook started to move forward to collect their young charge, but Lord Maleo raised a hand to stop them. He quite enjoyed seeing his children play and his son had reached a bottleneck anyway – some distraction might do him good.
Hoatzin gave his father a pleading look but Maleo only chuckled.
“You heard her, son. A woman’s requests must be fulfilled, even a miniature one’s.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the courtyard wall. “Hurry up and catch her so we can continue.”
Raven giggled and balanced on the heels of her feet. “You have to catch me! You have to catch me!”
With yet another sigh Hoatzin finally gave in and started to chase after his taunting little sister. To his surprise Raven didn’t run, but rather waited for him to grab her. Just as he thought the ordeal would be over quicker than expected, Raven shifted her body slightly and moved around him, her loose braid flowing behind her.
“Hihi, almost! Almost!” She laughed brightly as she moved away.
Hoatzin blinked. How had his sister moved away so quickly? He spun around and tried again, but once more she moved away in the last instant, like water slipping through his hands.
How could a barely trained 9-year-old possibly compare to the experience of a master assassin? Raven easily made up for their differences in strength by her perfectly executed footwork. What’s more, from a distance it simply looked as if she was happily dancing around her brother. Unless you paid extreme attention to what was going on you wouldn’t notice anything odd.
The “dance” continued for nearly 5 minutes and Hoatzin was growing more and more frustrated. He had even started to use his incomplete Shadow Walk to assist him but he couldn’t get the concentration of spirit essence at his feet high enough for it to make any difference.
The jubilant laughter of the young girl filled the courtyard.
“Hihi, brother is so clumsy! You move like an elephant!” Raven swayed lightly on the tip of her toes and once again twirled out of reach.
“Hmpf! What elephant? You’re the one who moves like a Shadow Fairy, tipping around on your toes. . . .” Suddenly Hoatzin’s eyes widened and he stopped dead in his tracks. Next to him a mischievous smile crossed Raven’s face only to be swiftly replaced with the earlier pout.
“Tche. Brother is so boring. You can’t catch me no matter what!” Raven stopped her dodging and stomped back to her armchair and sank down with a loud *humph*.
The three older men in the courtyard stared at the young girl with astonishment and confusion. Five minutes! This three-year-old had danced around with her six years older brother for five minutes without him being able to catch her. Sure, it had looked more like a dance than a game of catch but when Hoatzin in desperation had tried to rely the Shadow Walk it became apparent that the kid was actually trying his best.
“Father.” Hoatzin ignored his sister’s comments and looked over at his father with new determination. His call roused Maleo from his thoughts of Raven’s performance. “Can we continue?”
Maleo smiled and pushed away from the wall he was leaning against. He was really proud of his son’s tenacity.