Even before the cabin touched ground, the door swung open and a dark-haired youth in grey robes jumped down. With large steps the youth approached Raven and, once close enough, lifted her off the ground, twirling her around him.
“Welcome home, big brother!” Raven laughed.
“I’m home!” Hoatzin laughed as well, and he let his sister go.
“You’ve grown, big brother.”
Hoatzin had indeed grown. The soon ten-year-old boy had not only become a decimeter taller, his body build was a lot more firm. He now had an air of strength about him that wasn’t there before. The time at the academy was paying off.
“You bet I have.” Hoatzin smiled smugly and fished out his spirit stone pendant. “Look, am I not an impressive big brother?”
The previously grey stone had now almost completely shifted to an opaque white. Only a slim line of grey remained around the border. Raven’s eyebrows rose in pleasant surprise.
“Brother, you’re nearly a high Novice?”
Hoatzin smiled pridefully, and rightfully so – to go from a new low Spirit Novice to a high Novice was something that usually took two to four years, depending on your skills. To advance that far in one year was quite impressive.
“Big brother is truly a genius!” Raven praised.
She really meant every word, yet she couldn’t help but secretly marvel over her own progress at the same time. Despite not having focused on her cultivation the past year – rather, letting it progress naturally – she had still reached the peak of the Novice stage and could feel a slight change in her Spirit Core. She suspected that she would make the evolution to Adept in the near future.
“Haha, not so! Remember Javelin? The blonde boy from Sea Empire? He is two years younger than me but is keeping up with me – when he is my age he will be even more impressive.”
“Really. Oh, that reminds me, he has been eyeing the bracelet you gave me. Perhaps you should make him one? As a thank you for the Divine Skill.”
Raven blinked and then started laughing. “Sure, why not?”
“Where are Mother and Father? I want to tell them of my progress.” Hoatzin looked around the courtyard.
“They had intended to come meet you but then Aunt and Uncle showed up. Mother and Father are ‘entertaining’ them now.”
Hoatzin also frowned.
“Do you know what they are talking about?”
“Nope, but I’m guessing it’s about the ore.”
All three empires on the continent had different things they excelled in. Sea Empire for example was the only empire with a proper coastline and they therefore held dominion in all things sea-related, including everything from fishing to trading with the few smaller islands surrounding the Trinity continent. Sky Empire, on the other hand, had a vast amount of prosperous mines. There were mines of various metals, gems and, most importantly, the soul ore that is used to make most things related to spiritualists: Spirit halls, spirit stones, divine weapons and armor, all of it made with soul ore.
The different prefectures within Sky Empire all had their own mines that they tended to. Within Nightingale Prefecture were a bunch of smaller gem mines and one very large soul ore mine. As the ruling clan, the Nightingale Clan was charged with the duty of mining and protecting these resources. The Talon clan was the head clan of one of Nightingale prefecture’s largest merchant guilds and therefore worked with them closely whenever trading ore was involved.
“Makes sense I suppose…” Hoatzin seemed lost in thought.
“What’s wrong brother?” Concern spread across Raven’s face.
“Hm? No, I guess it’s nothing…. It’s just that cousin Dunlin has been acting a bit weird lately.”
“Weirder than usual?”
“Yeah, he’s become… friendly. Well, friendlier.”
Raven stared at her brother.
“Are we talking about the same Dunlin?”
“Haha, yes. Well, who knows? Perhaps he’s actually reformed?” Hoatzin winked at her, joking it off, but Raven couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy. People don’t change for no reason, especially someone as self-centered as Dunlin. Perhaps she should look into the matter.
“Never mind. Come, I bet you are dying to hear all about my year at the Academy, right?” As he spoke Hoatzin started to walk towards their common chambers.
Pushing her doubts aside for now, Raven raised an eyebrow as she glanced at her brother.
“Will big brother tell it to me like before? With the cape and all?” she teased.
Hoatzin immediately straightened and placed a closed fist over his chest, cleared his throat and trumpeted “Hear ye! Hear ye! It’s the tale of Hoatzin the Spirit Novice!”
Ravens happy laughter burst out and echoed down the hallways. Soon they were seated in big chairs, nibbling on fresh fruits and merrily talking about what Hoatzin had experienced over the past year.
After a couple of hours, the doors to the room they were seated in flew open and a corpulent man in his late thirties and a sharp-featured woman in matching velvet gowns stormed through the room. It was Aunt Anhinga and her husband, Uncle Gyps, head of the Talon Clan. As they passed through the room they didn’t as much as glance at the two children seated there before they disappeared through the next set of doors.
The siblings looked at each other and without saying a word they stood up and quietly walked into the room their aunt and uncle had come out from. Inside sat their parents at a round table. Both looked very tired.
“I know you love your sister and I can see the benefits, but what they are suggesting borders on treason…”
“Enough, I rejected it. That should be the end of it.” Maleo sighed and looked out the window.
Besra said no more. She lifted her head and caught sight of her children standing in the doorway. Her worried expression was quickly replaced by a joyful smile.
“My dear Hoatzin, you have returned!” She got to her feet and rushed over to give her son a warm embrace.
Maleo stopped staring out the window and walked over to the group at the door. He placed a big hand on his son’s shoulder. Next to them, Raven could feel her father activating his spirit essence, letting it flow out of his hand and into his son. Most likely it was to probe her brother’s current cultivation.
“Well done my boy!” A huge grin spread on his face. “Already nearly a high Novice and two new spirit connections – Sky Academy lives up to its fame.”
Hoatzin smiled back at his father. “Congratulations to you too, father! You’ve finally become a mid Champion!”
Using spirit essence to ascertain someone’s level of cultivation was a two-way road; both would find out the other’s level.
Both father and son had had a good year. Besra and Raven stood to the side, smiling happily at their boys’ achievements.
Raven remained quiet for a moment more before she looked up at she father.
“Father, what was it Aunt and Uncle wanted to talk about?” Raven guessed she wouldn’t get an answer from him directly but her curiosity finally got the better of her and she had to ask.
A flash of darkness crossed Maleo’s eyes before he sighed once more.
“Nothing of consequence” was the only reply he gave on the subject. “Instead, let us eat dinner and talk of my son’s time at the Academy. Have you found any good rivals?”
Raven sighed. She would have to find information elsewhere.
The family ate and talked late into the night. Hoatzin was particularly amused by his sister’s newfound love for her sword – his mother had mentioned it in and the rest of the family laughed merrily at the various mischiefs Hoatzin had pulled off with his new friends at the academy. Raven got the feeling that perhaps her brother’s academy life was not as rosy as he would want them to believe, but she did not push the matter. Her brother would talk about it if he felt he needed to.
Eventually the family broke up the evening’s pleasantries and returned to their own chambers for sleep. But before Raven had a chance to slip into her bed she felt the presence of her brother approaching her door. Moments later there was a light knock on the door.
“Come in, brother.”
The door opened and Hoatzin walked in.
“It’s eerie that you can do that. A couple of the elders at school can tell if someone is outside their room but not who.”
“Who else would visit me at this hour?” Raven winked.
Hoatzin snorted. “If you say so.”
Raven sat down in one of the chairs by her window. “So, why has brother come at this hour?”
“I forgot to give you something.” Hoatzin walked over to his sister and held out a small pouch. “I found this by chance on the way home and though it might suit you.”
Raven took the pouch and tilted it in her hand. A small, smooth ring rolled out into her palm. It was completely smooth with no engravings or blemishes, and its dark violet color was almost identical to her own hair color. It felt oddly cold in her hand.
“Here, let me help you.” Hoatzin took the ring and started wiggling it onto Raven’s right index finger.
“Ouch!” Just as the ring slipped into place, Hoatzin withdrew his hand and examined it. A small cut was visible on the tip on his finger.
“Hmm, odd. I must have pricked it without noticing.” He sucked on his finger to stop the bleeding.
Raven asked to see the wound before she, being convinced it was nothing serious, turned her attention to her new ring.
“Thank you, brother. It is beautiful.”
Hoatzin smiled and walked over to the door.
“Well then, sleep well, little sister. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Sleep well, big brother.”
With a grin on her face, Raven crept in under her covers and fell asleep. None of the siblings had noticed how a small drop of blood had dripped onto the purple ring nor the faint light it emitted before the stain faded into its depths.
Hoatzin had been given ten weeks leave, which meant he could spend two weeks with his family before he had to start his journey back to Sky City.
The boy was diligent in his training, so despite the limited time with his family he still practiced his cultivation, and the various new Divine Skills he had learnt, with his father every morning. Hoatzin had by now advanced very far in his Shadow Walk and had been rewarded with two fifth level skills for his prowess from the academy. One was for hand-to-hand combat, the other for the sword.
Like before, Raven stayed with her brother as he trained, but in her lap she now had a bunch of leather strips in various shades of blue and lilac. Intertwined with the strings of leather were golden strands of soul ore. The ore had been spun into thin wires that were thin enough to still be flexible.
As she wove the strings together, Raven discreetly let her spirit essence seep through her fingers and into the soul ore. She had to be careful not to let any essence escape her control – if it did, any present spiritualists would no doubt notice it. It was hard work but Raven figured it was worth it.
The reason was that Raven had presently read about how master craftsmen went about making Divine Equipment; the very foundation of making such equipment was to infuse it with spirit essence during its creation. This, in itself, would strengthen the ore considerably, but to produce additional benefits one usually needed to use special Divine Skills. However, there were some reports of random characteristics appearing anyway from time to time. No one knew why, though.
Raven doubted that any special effects would arise in her case, but the additional strength couldn’t hurt; she needed to start repaying Javelin somehow.
While the mornings were spent in training, the afternoons were mostly spent playing. The two children were truly enjoying themselves, and sometimes even their guards would join in a game or two.
Raven had tried to find out more about what her parents had discussed with her aunt and uncle, but Raven’s parents refused to talk about it and nobody else had been present to overhear the conversation. Raven considered visiting the Talon household to sniff around but could think of no way to do so without drawing unwanted attention to herself – everyone expected her to spend the brief weeks left of her brother’s vacation with him, not visiting relatives who would be around even after Hoatzin returned to school. She had no choice but to put off the investigation for now.
About halfway through Hoatzin’s vacation, the two children were enjoying a game of King Pin in the eastern courtyard. King Pin was a large-scale game, somewhat reminiscent of her old world’s chess with a few exceptions: instead of playing it on a board it required a large open area; rather than moving your pieces in set patterns you tossed your various “attackers” at your opponent’s pieces to knock them out; you were not allowed to hit either of the “kings” guarding the front line. Once all other pieces were out of play, the enemy king had to be taken out.
Raven was so far winning a landslide victory, but her face was suddenly stripped of all her triumph. At that moment a familiar, and always unwelcome, voice could be heard in the courtyard.
“If it isn’t my dear cousins.”
‘Dunlin…’ Raven didn’t need to turn to see who it was. Instead she pulled out a veil and fastened it over her face. She didn’t really need it for her cousin but Raven preferred to have a filter when dealing with him.
“Cousin Dunlin, I take it you are back for a vacation just as I am. Do you wish to join us for a game?” Hoatzin was, as always, very polite.
Dunlin glanced at the playing field.
“Thank you for the offer, but I fear I’m no match for your sister.”
Raven was stunned. Dunlin had spoken without any hint of sarcasm or disdain whatsoever.
‘He really is acting odd…’
“I was actually hoping to use my parent’s visit here today as an opportunity for sparring with you, cousin Hoatzin. I have been making some progress lately and I’m sure some pointers from our class’ most prominent student would stimulate my cultivation further.” Dunlin continued to speak in a polite tone and even clasped his hands in respect as he made his request.
The siblings exchanged glances. What was Hoatzin to do? To refuse would be very impolite, and even if Dunlin’s behavior was an act, the fact that Hoatzin was stronger than him could not be denied. At least, that had been the case six weeks ago; how much could have changed since then? Hoatzin should have nothing to worry about.
“Of course, I would gladly spar with you, cousin.” Hoatzin returned the gesture of respect by clasping his own hands.
Raven observed her cousin closely. Dunlin’s behavior was quite astonishing but naturally Raven’s senses were even more so, and she could clearly feel an air of smugness around him that grew even stronger when Hoatzin agreed.
‘What is he up to? Clearly he is trying to act polite, but surely there is more to it than that…’
As Hoatzin motioned for the present servants to clear the courtyard field of the previous game, Raven whispered her concerns to her brother before she strode off to stand next to her guards on the side of the courtyard.
“Good luck, cousin!” she yelled with perfectly faked enthusiasm.
At the center of the courtyard stood the two young men.
“What do you say, cousin, best of five?” Dunlin asked.
“Fine by me, cousin,” Hoatzin answered.
This was the way friendly sparring matches went at the Academy; the participants would agree to a fixed number of exchanges and the person with the most successful hits would be the victor.
Suppressing his apprehension, Hoatzin exchanged the customary bows with his cousin that marked the start of the exchange – he had to agree with his sister’s warning; something was fishy, but he had confidence in his own ability and would not be caught off guard easily.
The sparring match began.
At the exact same time, spirit essence surged to the two boys’ feet as they both activated their Shadow Walk and rushed towards each other at high speeds. Non-spiritualists that observed the sparring would only see two shadows sweeping over the field, but Raven and her guards could not only follow what was going on with their eyes but could also clearly sense the level of the spirit essence used. Hoatzin was a borderline high Novice, whereas Dunlin was a stable mid Novice.
As the pair drew closer, deep red flames burst out from Hoatzin’s palms, immediately covering his hands and lower arms. The moment he was within reach of Dunlin, Hoatzin slammed his right foot into the ground and used the momentum from his dash to lash out with a fiery fist towards Dunlin’s chest.
Dunlin clearly expected this move and shifted ever so slightly in the last instant to let the punch miss him. However, just as Hoatzin’s fist was flying by his shoulder, Hoatzin grunted while harshly releasing the breath he’d been holding. The fires covering his outstretched arm seemed to momentarily disappear, only to violently expand in the next instant.
Caught by surprise, Dunlin had no time to defend himself properly and was sent flying backwards several meters. When he got to his feet Raven noticed a brief moment of contempt on Dunlin’s face before it was replaced by well-faked awe.
“So you have learnt the second step of the Ember Palm, Exploding Fist? Impressive.” Dunlin brushed some dust off his clothing, but the fabric covering his chest had been permanently charred. “But, you are not the only one that has made a breakthrough.”
Dunlin had barely stopped speaking before he once more charged at Hoatzin, who stood in a defensive stance in the middle of the courtyard, arms still ablaze. Three strides away, Dunlin’s body began to turn, his body seemingly becoming transparent as he turned. Raven raised an eyebrow in surprise.
‘True Mirage Cyclone? That is a level six skill! Where did he get that?‘