“Javelin!” two nearly identical voices chimed in unison outside of room 207 on the second floor of the southern student dorms at Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts.
“Come on, Javelin, the exam students . . .” called the slightly lighter voice.
“. . . will be arriving soon,” continued the the slightly darker voice, “and you, mister Hake . . .”
“. . . promised to help us out!” they finished in unison.
The door swung open and a well built youth, dressed only in a pair of grey pants, appeared in the doorway. A white Spirit Stone with a red center hung around his neck.
“Don’t. Do. That.” Javelin pointed decidedly at his two friends waiting for him outside. “It creeps me out.”
Javelin’s golden hair, that was long enough to cover his ears but not long enough to reach his shoulders, was in a ruffled mess and the thin braid extending down his back had tied a knot on itself. Beneath his clear, mixed-blue eyes, his slightly tanned skin was a bit darker than elsewhere; clearly he had just woken up, and most likely he didn’t have a very long nights sleep before that either.
“That’s why we do it. Isn’t it, Twin Lark?” Said the twin with slightly darker voice without looking away from Javelin.
“Indeed it is, Twin Martin.” answered the other one immediately, also without looking away from Javelin.
“How else would we get you out of bed?” they once more spoke as one, still looking at Javelin.
“I’m out of bed now, so stop it!” He turned around and re-entered his room.
Inside was a mirrored world; almost everything – desks, beds, cupboards, and so on – existed in pairs, each placed at opposite sides of the room. However, only the left side showed any signs of being lived in.
Under constant, and annoyingly synchronized, remarks about hurrying up, Javelin put on the rest of his grey school robes. He paused in front of the room’s only mirror to make a swift attempt at straightening out his hair, something he quickly gave up, before he left and followed the Griffin twins down the corridor outside.
As they walked past one of the large windows, the early morning sun stung Javelin’s eyes and he cringed before quickly looking away. Continuing on, he sighed heavily and used his thumb and index finger to massage away the pressure below his brows. Today was going to be a long day and, for some reason, Javelin hadn’t been able to sleep or cultivate properly the last couple of days; an ever growing sense of anticipation seemed to keep pulling him awake.
Meanwhile, on Sky City’s ground level, Raven was being dragged along by her four mercenary uncles. Raven stifled a yawn.
“Is it really necessary to go there so early? There are still a couple of hours left before the exam starts.”
“True,” answered Hog, “but in order to take the test you have to sign up first and that alone takes about an hour.”
“That long?” the small white body of Hoatzin landed and Raven’s shoulder, “It didn’t even take five minutes last time. . . .”
“The noble clans most likely don’t have to go through with the full procedure.” Raven thought back to her brother.
At that moment the group rounded a corner and walked out on of the larger streets that headed directly towards the center of the city. Raven looked up and couldn’t help but draw a deep breath. The four peaks of Sky City were even more impressive from the ground and the blue imperial palace, situated thousands of meters above them, was only barely discernible through the misty clouds that covered the top of the central peak.
“And there might be widows among the nervous parents,” winked Saltmarsh.
Emu smacked Saltmarsh over the back of his head while Hog and Dove rolled their eyes.
“While you sign up for the exam, Raven, we,” Hog said and focused his stare on Saltmarsh, “will visit the mercenary guild – we have yet to register here.”
Before Saltmarsh could cut in again Dove continued, “and if there is any time left over it will be spent on finding someone to remove those Limiters.”
“I told you, there is no need for that. . . .” muttered Raven loud enough so the others could hear her.
They had only arrived in Sky City two nights ago and had focused their attention on finding a fitting place to call home for the four mercenaries, who intended to make Sky City their home base for the duration of Raven’s studies. Finally they had purchased a five room house on the outskirts of Sky City’s ground level.
Due to the distance from the central peaks, it was quite affordable. The same could not be said about the houses closest to the peaks – those would cost a small fortune to buy and even the substantial amount of money I’iwi had saved after years of servitude, not only to the Nightingale’s but also to the Empress, wouldn’t be enough. As for the houses located on the peaks themselves, well, they could not be bought with money alone.
“Ah, here we are.”
Hog motioned to a building that reminded Raven very much of the alpine lift houses of her old world, only, instead of ski cabins gliding in and out of the openings just under the roof, Everest Hawks came and went. These Everest Hawks were young and therefore a great deal smaller than the ones Raven’s family had used last time they arrived in Sky City.
“Welcome,” muttered a sleepy attendant as the group walked through the door, “where to?”
“Business Tier, near the Academy enrollments.”
The attendant glanced down on Raven. “Under nine, are ya?” he asked but Raven only stared at him in response. He snorted and looked back at Hog, “That’s two silvers for each of ya, fifty coppers for the kid.”
Hog paid the man who then directed them to the nearest available bird. Moments later, the left the building strapped down on the back of an Everest Hawk.
Apart from the Indigo Cloud Palace – located on its own, high above all the others – the settlements on the peaks were divided into four major tiers. The lowest and largest tier was the so called Business Tier. This enormous layer stretched around all four peaks and was the center of all important businesses in Sky City.
Above the Business Tier were the Mansion Tier, the Military Tier and finally the Academy Tier. The Military and Academy Tiers’ names speak for themselves – one is the base of the Imperial Army and the other houses the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts – but the Mansion Tier is were the noble clans live, even the prefecture clans would have dwellings there, though they rarely used them.
Although the distance between the outskirts of the ground level and the four peaks was rather vast, it only took roughly five minutes for the Everest Hawk to reach its destination, the northern side of the Business Tier.
Even before the bird landed, Raven had figured out where she was supposed to go to sign up for the exams; thousands of young people were gathered in a large square fairly close to the landing area. Along the left and right side of the square were at least ten different banners, each representing a separate school trying to lure applicants – with varying success.
At the far end was a large, dark blue, banner with the golden text: Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts, printed on it. Beneath it were five smaller banners that divided up interested participants based on their initials. No other school needed to make such a separation; clearly most youths present were aiming for the Sky Academy. Perhaps the other schools would have better luck in the afternoon, after the Academy’s exams.
“We’ll be back here in two hours at most. Good luck Raven,” Hog patted Raven on the shoulder, and was about to walk off when he added “and don’t cause any trouble.”
“I will do nothing that my dear uncles wouldn’t do.” said Raven sarcastically.
“That’s what worries us,” answered Dove and Emu almost in unison as they glanced at Saltmarsh.
“What?” Saltmarsh pulled back from the sudden stares.
“Never mind,” sighed Hog, and started to leave, “let us go.”
“Yes, brother boss!”
The four white-robed mercenaries walked off, leaving Raven alone by the square. Well, as alone as one can be surrounded by thousands of people and with your bird-shaped brother on your shoulder. Raven turned around and took in the crowd. All these people and their presences almost made Raven light headed; practically everyone present were, or at least had the potential to become, spiritualists and all gave of varying tones of grey.
“Be careful not to fall of my shoulder, big Brother, or you might get trampled.” warned Raven.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” he answered but he didn’t sound very thankful for the advice.
Raven gritted her teeth and moved into the crowd, placing herself last in what seemed to be the N-S line for Sky Academy – she might have practiced patience to perfection but that didn’t mean she liked waiting.
One and a half hour later, Raven had still not reached her goal, although now only a handful of people were left in front of her. During the wait, Raven and her brother had tried to amuse themselves with guessing, or rather inventing, the backgrounds of the other youths waiting in the square, but, by now the exercise had grown tedious.
Suddenly, light flashed in Raven’s eyes.
“Don’t look now brother, but we’re about to get some entertainment.”
“Huh? What . . . ,” before Hoatzin had time to finish his sentence, a large white and purple crane, followed by a even larger Everest hawk, swooped in over the square and landed at the far end, close to where Raven had first arrived. The white and purple bird was a rare spirit beast called the Viola Crane, famous for its loyalty and devotion, and this specimen wore lavish ornaments over its head and claws.
Off from the Viola Crane’s back slipped a boy and a girl, both dressed in very exquisite clothes and the girl wore the customary veil of an unmarried noble girl. Soon they were joined by four more people, although in less fancy clothes, who had jumped off from the Hawk. Without hesitation, the group started to move through the crowd of people in the square.
“Make way for Lord and Lady Sarus!” The four groupies took turns at ordering the youths in the square to move and they met little to no resistance.
“So the Sarus clan needs to register like everyone else. . . . What are you going to do, Sister?”
They were headed straight in Raven’s direction.
“Keep waiting patiently in line,” answered Raven with a slight smirk, “I wouldn’t want to lose my place.”
It didn’t take long before the group had made it’s way to Raven’s position.
“Move, runt!” shouted groupie number one.
Raven only glanced over her shoulder, before facing forward again. Another person was just done so Raven moved to fill the created gap.
“There, I moved,” she said with a flat tone, ” no need to rush.”
“Are you stupid?” asked groupie number two as number one’s face started to grow red with anger.
“Not particularly,” answered Raven, without looking back.
Now groupie number two started to grow red as well but before they could act, the boy lifted a hand to stop them. The boy, or Lord Sarus as the groupies called him, inspected Raven’s clean but somewhat tattered clothes from top till toe before he spoke in a condescending tone: “No point in getting mad a the, what did you call him, runt?” he paused, “yes, very fitting. . . . This runt is clearly a poor little creature that has lived all his life away from civilized people. You can’t expect him to know proper manners.”
It was meant as an insult but Raven didn’t even flinch, or turn around for that matter.
“You have a good eye, sir,” her voice was still flat, “here I thought that it was the civilized thing to do, to stand in line without cutting ahead.”
“How dare you!” All four groupies became upset at once and the young lord got a murderous look in his eyes.
The closest groupie, groupie number two, swung out a fist towards Raven’s head, but just as the fist was about to make contact, Raven bent down to the ground with a pleased, “Look at that, a copper!” The lack of a target caused the boy to lose his balance and topple over, just as Raven stood back up again, seemingly oblivious to everything.
“Why is the line not moving?” said Raven in a pensive voice and jumped up to see over the crowd, just as groupie number one’s leg swept past under her legs and instead kicked the already fallen groupie number one.
The groan of the boy on the ground finally got Raven’s attention and she looked at groupie number one with disdain, “you shouldn’t kick a man that’s down, that’s uncivilized.”
Suddenly, spirit essence surged within the young Lord and he gesticulated towards Raven, “You bastard! I, Brolga Sarus, will teach you a lesson in manners even your parents will remember!”
Raven’s eyes narrowed.
‘Now you’ve done it.’ thought Hoatzin and flew of from Raven’s shoulder.
Slowly, Raven turned to look at Brolga. Her eyes met his at once. No spirit essence was used and her killing intent was kept in check, but the moment he stared into her deep, dark red eyes a shiver ran down Brolga’s spine. He had never seen such a cold and heartless glare before and all of his instincts were telling him, yelling at him, to run away.
“What is going on here?” A loud voice rang out in the square and, calming down, Raven broke eye contact with Brolga to look for the source. As she did, Brolga let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
When Raven looked at the boy who had spoken she almost smiled; she knew him. It was Javelin, the young boy that had gifted her the Twilight Lullaby almost exactly four years ago. He had grown a lot since then.
Although he was only ten, his constant cultivation and training had made him mature quicker, to the point were he now seemed no younger than fifteen. He was nearly a head taller than Raven and very well built. His blonde hair shone like gold in the sunlight, just as she had guessed it would, and his striking galaxy-like eyes seemed to draw her in.
‘Very dangerous, indeed.’
As Raven looked at Javelin, he too looked at her, or him, as he saw it. Javelin had run over from his position beneath banner A-F when he sensed the spirit essence within Brolga Sarus activating. He had intended to quickly put an end to whatever ruckus was going on, but now found himself staring at a scrawny boy with midnight purple hair and blood red eyes. Apart from the cold glare of those red eyes, the boy seemed remarkably… unremarkable, and yet, the moment Javelin had laid eyes on him his heart a stopped beating for a second, only to start beating even faster afterwards.
‘What the heck . . . ,’ he couldn’t understand his own reaction and, quite frankly, that made him annoyed.
A light cough near by drew the attention of both Javelin and Raven.
“My brother and I were on our way to register for the exams when we had a slight misunderstanding with this boy here,” it was the young Lady Sarus that spoke, “it will not happen again.”
“Sister?” Brolga hissed under his breath.
“Don’t go breaking rules when you can shame him during the exams, Brother,” she whispered back.
“Ah,” Javelin looked back at Raven, “is that so?”
“Very well then, back in line everyone.” By now, the argument had drawn quite a lot of attention and the queues were largely disrupted, but on Javelin’s command they started to reform.
Javelin glanced a final time at Raven before he started walking back to his post, but he stopped and turned as he noticed he was followed.
“Yes?” he asked the two Sarus siblings behind him.
They blinked at him in surprise. “We are going to register for the exams,” said Brolga eventually.
Javelin pointed at the back of the queue, “Then I suggest you wait in line.” he said and walked of.
“He hasn’t lost his straightforwardness over the last two years at least,” commented Hoatzin happily as he settled back down on Raven’s shoulder, “nor his fascination for you, it would seem.”
“Don’t be silly, he thinks I’m a boy.”
“According to mistress Tinga, gender has nothing to do with it.” he sounded very proud of his new insights.
Raven just snorted and, since it was finally her turn, walked up to the desk under the N-S banner. Behind it sat another known face, one of the Griffin twins, though she didn’t know which one. The twin had also grown considerably, although he was less sturdy and more lean than Javelin.
“Hello,” the twin spoke with the dispirited voice of someone who has done the same thing for far too long, “name?”
He twitched a bit at her name but after a quick glance at her, he returned to his previous state. “And your family name?” he continued.
Raven only paused for a second.
He scribbled the full name down in a log book.
That caused him too look up again.
“There is no point in lying, I will test you once I’ve written down your answers.”
“I’m not lying.” Raven had known this was going to happen.
“And you have formed a spirit core?”
“Then show me your Spirit Stone.”
“I don’t have one.”
The twin sighed and stopped taking notes.
“Hold this,” he held out a clear disk and motioned for Raven to take it – which she did – and then said, “pour spirit essence into it.”
Which she also did. Within seconds the disk flared up with extremely bright light and then dimmed just as quickly, revealing the text ‘6 years and 7 months, spirit core confirmed’ at its center.