From her armchair Raven watched as her brother resumed the exercises, rushing towards their father. This time however, the spirit essence that flowed to his feet was no longer spread over the entire soles of his feet but was instead concentrated to only the front halves. Maleo swiped out his arm as soon as Hoatzin was within range, but in that very instant Hoatzin had already appeared behind his father’s back.
“Yes!” Hoatzin raised a fist to the sky, pride filling his face.
Maleo blinked in surprise and then started laughing. “Hahaha! Son, well done! You still have some ways to go before your spirit core is strong enough for you to perform the full Shadow Walk but by focusing on half the area you can indeed pull off this version.” His big hands smacked his son on the back. “Good thinking!”
Maleo glanced over to the still pouting little Raven. “Make sure to thank your sister. You got some insight from playing with her, no?”
“Yes, father!” Hoatzin bowed and then also glanced at his sister. He would indeed have to think of a way to repay her; who would have guessed that her game of tag would give him such ideas? If nothing else, next time she wanted him to play with her, he would have no right to refuse, regardless of the situation.
“Good, good. This will do for now. Go and clean up for lunch.”
“Yes, father!” Hoatzin bowed once more and hurried of towards his chambers. Without her farther having to order it, guard Verdin followed his young master out. Hoatzin’s own guards had been dismissed before the training so Verdin would naturally take their place temporarily.
Seeing her brother leave, Raven jumped to her feet, her previous pout nowhere to be seen. “Lunch!” she chimed happily and ran off towards the dining hall, her remaining guard close behind her.
Maleo looked pensively at the small female figure leaving the courtyard. What an odd daughter he had.
A few minutes later, the family of four was seated around a smaller table in their private dining hall. I’iwi was standing to the side, instructing servants where to place the trays of food they were carrying. Once they were done, Besra motioned for them to leave.
A variety of dishes had been placed on the table and their lovely aromas quickly filled the room. Raven noticed that even her favorite dish, stewed Mountain Owl with Frost Berries, was present. She pointed happily at the dish and before she had the time to ask, her brother had stretched over to give her a hand. Afterwards he served himself the same dish.
“Hoatzin, your father told me that you have managed to activate the Shadow Walk.”
“Right now it’s more of a step rather than a walk, mother,” Hoatzin replied humbly. “It’s not complete yet.”
Raven hid her smile by drinking a large gulp of milk. Her father had often stressed the importance of not overestimating one’s strengths and Hoatzin seemed to have taken his preachings to heart.
Maleo simply nodded but Besra smiled happily. “Well done, my little Hoatzin!”
“I’m not little anymore, mother! I’ve already started learning my first Divine Skill. . . .” Hoatzin protested.
“Right you are, son! Well spoken.” Maleo laughed and smacked his son on his back so hard that Hoatzin dropped his fork. As it hit his plate, a red Frost Berry was flung across the room.
Raven started giggling uncontrollably and Besra shot her husband a reproving glare.
Maleo coughed slightly but placed his hand on Hoatzin’s shoulder, preventing the boy from rising to collect the wayward berry. “Never mind that. Late next month, the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts will have their entrance examinations in Sky City.”
At this Hoatzin stopped trying to get up, and Raven’s giggles quieted down as well. Both children looked at their father with excitement.
“I want you to go and take the exam, son.”
“Really?” Hoatzin asked enthusiastically.
“Yes. As my son you might get accepted on your lineage alone, but I want you to earn it on your own. If you can’t pass you will return home and attend our Nightingale Academy. But with your spirit control you should have no problems!”
“I will make father proud!” Hoatzin was still happy but now determination spread through every inch of him.
“You are a young man now so I will not accompany you. In two weeks you will leave with your guard detail. After that, if you get accepted, it will be a year until you can come home for a visit. This will continue for ten years. You are aware of this, right?”
“I know, Father. I still want to go.”
Next to Maleo, Besra was smiling a bittersweet smile. Of course she wanted the very best for her son, but to be separated from him for such long periods of time was still going to be painful for her.
Raven sat quietly for a while. She was really curious about the Sky Empire’s capital and also about this Sky Academy. She quickly made up her mind.
Gingerly, Raven jumped down from her chair and walked around the table to her father. She grabbed the sleeve of her father’s robe and looked up at him. Her green eyes were big and she looked so sweet that even the coldest of men would melt in front of her. She bit her pink lower lip lightly before she spoke in a pleading voice.
“Father, can I go too? I want to cheer big brother on!”
“This . . .” Maleo frowned slightly. Originally he had only intended to send a small Group of guards with his son but if both his heirs were going it would be a completely different matter. In addition, Raven was still so young. If she went it meant a governess or more had to go too.
“Pleeeease father!” Raven pulled off the remarkable feat of looking even sweeter as she pleaded yet again.
Besra chuckled lightly. “Let her go with him, Maleo. I will join them too, that way you can just focus on sending enough guards for us.”
Secretly, Besra was overjoyed with an excuse to follow Hoatzin on his journey; it would be overprotective for her to join her son, but staying by her three-year-old daughter was only to be expected.
Maleo sighed. He knew very well what his wife was thinking.
“If you insist.” At least this way there would be no need for the governesses.
“Yeay!” The little Raven jumped up and down. She had gotten quite accustomed to acting like the spoiled little child she was supposed to be during the past three years.
Raven twirled around and threw herself at her brother, laughing happily. Hoatzin gave her a big hug and patted her on the head.
“Isn’t this great? I get to show the capital my adorable little sister!” A bright smile was on Hoatzin’s face, too.
Preparations for the trip started the very next day. Travelling was quite an affair for the wife and heirs of one the Sky Empire’s three prefecture lords, especially for such a long trip as to Sky City. The best guards were chosen and safe travel routes were discussed – it was a time of relative peace on the continent in general, but there were still some bandits roaming around and you never knew when peace would turn to war; no risks were to be taken.
Sky Empire was one of the most wide-stretched countries on the continent and since it consisted of mostly mountain ranges, making the trip by road would take over a year, perhaps even two. Even between neighboring cities the journey would usually add up to a month or so, if done on horseback. Naturally a country would find it hard to stay united under such circumstances, but Sky Empire had a solution: the Everest Hawks.
The Everest Hawks were one of the aspects of the journey that Raven looked forward to the most. The Everest Hawks were a type of spirit beast hawks that were incomparably large. The smallest of them is still large enough to carry a full-grown man on its back several hundreds of kilometers without tiring. The largest can use their talons to carry heavy cabins, big enough to fit up to a dozen fully armored soldiers inside. With these huge birds the travel times are reduced a hundred times over, turning the trip from Nightingale Prefecture to the capital city from nearly two years to no more than a month.
Roughly five centuries ago the Sky Empire had started breeding these previously wild beasts and, by now, every city and larger village had a merchant guild responsible for tending to their appointed Everest Hawks. The hawk herd would live on nearby mountain tops and be called upon using special whistles. Richer families might even have their own Everest Hawks. Naturally the Nightingale clan was no exception. Raven had with watched with envy as her father tought Hoatzin how to fly a smaller one not too long ago.
Now two of the clan’s larger Hawks were being prepared for the journey. One would carry Besra, the children and maid I’iwi. The other one their ten guards. The Everest Hawks could fly day and night for nearly a week without landing, so both Hawks would be accompanied by a flying crew of three people taking turns guiding the birds. The hawks could be trusted to fly all the way to their destination without supervision but it was better to have someone keep track of their physical and mental state at all times so as to not tire them needlessly.
Apart from the actual travel arrangements, a large variety of goods had to be packed. If Hoatzin was accepted into the school he would move into the dorms immediately. This meant that all necessary personal effects had to be brought from the beginning. He would get a school uniform but he would need more than that if he were to live in a distant city for the next year. Two large trunks were filled with everything from copies of books from the clan library to high-level battle gear.
An additional trunk was filled to the brim with extravagant gifts that Besra would need during her visit. Since she was going, they were bound to be introduced to plenty of high-standing figures, including the Imperial family. There was no getting around that and gifts would be expected.
For the same reason two travel-cabinets, that basically looked like large trunks tilted over so as to stand on their end, were also prepared. Within them hung two beautifully tailored gowns in fine, sky blue, silks. Intricate cloud patterns were woven into the fabric with copper-like thread. At their feet lay complex head ornaments, shimmering with golden luster. These were the official gowns noble women would wear while officially visiting other prefectures. Every prefecture had the same gowns, but the thread used to weave the patterns would vary.
Raven might be young but she would still be expected to wear the formal gown, and since she obviously had yet to be married her head ornament also included a veil to cover her face with. Only core clan members and their personal servants were allowed to see her face before marriage, forcing her to wear a veil whenever leaving the Nightingale residence.
It was a notion extremely foreign to Raven from her former life, but she had very quickly learned to stick to the rule.
She had once accidentally walked in on a public forum her father had held in their main hall, and over fifty merchants and normal citizens had seen her face. As a result every non-clan member present had been given the prescribed punishment: one whiplash for every year since Raven was born! Fortunately Raven had only been two at the time so no one was severely injured, but she still felt extremely guilty about it all and had secretly vowed to make it up to them at a later time.
Two weeks went by quickly and on a crisp spring day Raven and her family gathered in the main courtyard. In the center stood the two cabins that would house them and their guards on the journey to Sky City. The ten guards that would accompany them were waiting patiently to the side. Raven’s personal guards, Verdin and Rook were among them. The crewmen appointed to the trip were making last-minute checks, calling short commands to each other as they worked.
Maleo glanced at the sky above them before he went down on one knee to be face-to-face with Hoatzin. He grabbed his son’s shoulders and gave him a firm look.
“Remember who you are; as a Nightingale you have a great heritage but you must never abuse this, nor let yourself be abused by others.”
Hoatzin swallowed. “Yes, father.”
“I know you will make me proud.” Maleo stood up and patted his son on his back.
Raven watched as her father and brother said their goodbyes. There was an awkwardness about it that Raven found quite amusing. She even had to bite her lip to stop herself from giggling when she caught her father scratching the bridge of his nose, stealthily removing the moist that had gathered in the inner corner of his eye.
It was obvious that her father was trying to be strict and resolute in front of her brother but at the same time she suspected that Maleo was even more unwilling to see Hoatzin go than her mother. Hoatzin was his first-born son after all. Maleo knew the importance of letting him spread his wings, but knowing and wholeheartedly approving were two different things.
A minute later, Maleo waved for the guards to enter their cabin. Verdin and Rook winked at Raven as they disappeared inside. Noticing the movements of the guards, two of the crewmen pulled out a small silver whistle each and placed them to their lips. No sound was heard, but instants later two distant figures appeared in the sky. Raven watched with awe as the figures grew larger and larger, and finally two huge hawks landed on the ground next to the crewmen that blew the whistles. The sight of the Everest Hawks – these two easily five meters tall – with their glacier white feathers, never seized to amaze her.
The hawks lowered their majestic blue-tinged heads so that the men on the ground could reach them. The crewmen in turn placed their hands on the birds’ beaks. Raven knew that this was done to initiate the spirit connection that would allow them to communicate efficiently with each other. Even if the Hawk’s intellect was far from being on par with humans, the spirit connection would allow bird and man to instinctively understand one another’s needs. However, to call it a bond between equals was incorrect. The crewmen could use the same connection to give orders that the hawks couldn’t refuse.
“Come children, it is time for us to leave.” Besra gave her husband a quick kiss before leading her two children into the passenger section of their cabin, followed closely by I’iwi.
Once inside, Raven rushed to the window that faced her father still in the courtyard. She waved enthusiastically and thought to herself ‘This being-a-kid thing is quite refreshing!’
“Bye, bye, father!” she shouted as the Everest Hawks spread their enormous wings.
With only one beat of the giant birds’ wings, wild gusts of wind spread throughout the courtyard. In the next moment Raven felt the cabin sway slightly, and within three breaths they were already nearly a hundred meters above the mansion.
Hoatzin joined her at the window and together they looked down on the city that spread out around the mansion. Most houses were built of wood, which had later been painted in a rusty-red copper paint that kept the harsh weather at bay. These houses were intermingled with the light green specks of spring trees. It might not be an awe-inspiring sight, but it was beautiful indeed, and it was home.
Raven looked up at her brother. He had a complicated expression on his face. Raven could guess at the conflicting emotions he must be experiencing; he was excited about what he was going to experience but reluctant to leave home behind. Hoatzin was after all only nine and this would be his first time away from home, away from his family.
“Brother! Brother! What will Sky City be like?” Raven twirled around and plopped down on the nearby couch.
Hoatzin joined her on the couch and started retelling the stories he had heard about the city. Raven had of course already heard, or read, all of these stories before but she wanted to distract her brother. As Hoatzin spoke the reluctance in him seemed to fade, leaving only anticipation.
And so, the journey flashed by. Most days were spent reading or telling stories, but every once in a while the hawks would lower the cabins to the ground to rest for a day while the travelers used the opportunity to stretch their legs. The cabins were fairly large, but for the ten guards that shared the same space as the four people riding in Raven’s cabin, it became quite cramped. On these day the company would arrange larger meals and even have sparring sessions for entertainment and for practice. Raven really enjoyed watching these.
All the guards were lower Spirit Champions and their battles were quite spectacular. As they fought, they used various Divine Martial Skills that would sometimes allow them to move at extreme speeds, sometimes combine blows with various elements such as fire or lightning. Of course, they couldn’t go all out in fear of attracting unwanted attention, but it was none the less amazing to watch. Both Raven’s and Hoatzin’s eyes twitched slightly every time a martial skill was activated; none of them could wait until the day they too would start to learn these martial skills. Raven realized that it would take some convincing of her parents to let her train in the martial skills rather than the healing ones, but she would deal with that problem when time came.
One set of skills in particular caught Raven’s interest. They were used by one of the smaller guards and went by the name Sonic Swords. They were a peculiar set of Divine Martial Skills in the sense that they evolved. When you first learned them, they would only be a level one skill, but if you practiced relentlessly you could gain additional insights and evolve the skill set. There seemed to be no limits how far you could go. The small guard who used it seemed to have evolved it to the rare fourth level; Silent Pierce.
The small guard would keep his sword sheathed as he moved around his opponent. Once he found an opening he would then silently withdraw his sword. It looked very unremarkable, and yet somehow his opponents never seemed to be able to tell where he would strike at and as a result almost always lost. He never even had to use any of the other Sonic Sword skills. As an ex-assassin, Raven was quite envious of this skill; she could tell the frightening potential of such attacks. But, as usual, there was no way for her to learn it so she had to settle for watching.
After sparring the company would return to their cabins and the Everest Hawks would take off yet again. Four weeks passed in this manner and on the 29th day since their departure from Nightingale City Hoatzin suddenly jumped to his feet and rushed over to the bay side window. His eyes were round in awe.
“Little sister, come look!”