Martin stared at the disk with round eyes. Subconsciously he glanced over at Javelin’s desk two steps away; had Martin stumbled across a freak even more impressive than his foreign friend? He shook his head.
“The disk must be broken. . . .” he grumbled and fished out a new one from a box below his table.
The disks could only test a hundred people or so before needing to be replaced, but what Martin forgot, or perhaps chose to forget, was that he had just changed the disk for the previous person.
“Here, do it again.”
Inwardly Raven rolled her eyes with annoyance but she showed no sign of it to Martin as she grabbed the second disk. Hoatzin’s eyes shone with amusement, watching silently from Raven’s shoulder.
The disk flared up and ‘6 years 7 months, spirit core confirmed’ was displayed once again.
“How is that even . . . ,” Martin started to blurt out but then he chuckled and said, mostly to himself, “well, I though Javelin was impossible, so why not. . . .”
As far as Martin was concerned, already forming a spirit core at the age of seven was unimaginable, Raven had simply beat that by six months. What Martin was too young to take into consideration was that Javelin was from a famous military family with close to unlimited resources, he would for example have had no problem getting access to a Spirit Hall on the Day of Light. Night, however, was not a name of any big or wealthy clan in Sky Empire. . . .
As it was Martin just smiled happily at Raven and handed over two small wooden tablets. “The red one is for you, use it to get on the shuttles to Sky Academy for the exams. The blue one can be given to a family member that you want to bring with you.”
Raven accepted the tables with a curt bow, it was closer to a nod actually, and turned to walk of.
“Good luck, little brother Night,” Martin called out after Raven, “I hope you pass!”
“Hmpf,” snorted Hoatzin, “that Martin fellow, always too easy going. I hoped for a better reaction. . . .”
“You know him well then? I couldn’t have told the two twins apart before.” Raven asked while she made her way through the crowd – there was still over a thousand people on the square and it was very cramped, but Raven didn’t touch even a single person as she moved.
“Well, the four of us – me, the twins and Javelin – were all in the same dorm room that year and they are fun guys to be with.” he explained, but then added with another snort, “most of the time.”
Raven kept making her way across the square, careful not to get too close to the Sarus siblings – she had no wish to cause another scene, yet – and soon got a clear view of her target, her waiting mercenary uncles. They had switched out of their white robes and instead wore brown leather armor with a red sun on their chests.
‘It would seem like they’ve joined a larger corps.’ Raven thought to herself but just as she was about to step out of the square to join them, Hoatzin’s panicked voice rang in her head, “Wait!” and her brother flew up in front of her face.
Raven stopped immediately, sharpening her senses in case of danger, and asked solemnly, “What is wrong, bother?”
“The dorms! I had forgotten, but you will have to share a room with three guys at the Academy!”
Raven blinked at her brother and then burst out laughing, with quite a few heads turning her way.
“Oh, Brother . . . ,” her body had already relaxed, “have I not been traveling alone with four men for over a year now?”
“That’s different! They are too old for you!”
‘Hog is, certainly, but the other three are not that far from to my actual age. It’s more like my classmates will be way too young . . . ,’ she mused to herself but said nothing.
Stifling her laughter, and ignoring her fretting brother, Raven rejoined the waiting mercenaries. She held up her two tablets and gave a small smile. After a heated discussion between the four men it was decided that Hog would be the one to join Raven, while the others would wait at a tavern, ready to celebrate the good news.
Opting not to tarry any longer, Hog and Raven located the shuttle bird that flew anticipating students and their family members up to the second top most Tier that belonged to Sky Academy. The flight was fairly short, but the bird took an extra tour around the Academy Tier allowing the ten or so passengers to have a closer look.
Most people had never seen it this up close before, since you required clearance from the military if you wished to fly above their Tier. Raven had seen it before but it was still very beautiful to watch.
The Academy Tier was relatively small; most of it was centered around the main peak, with a smaller portion located to the south, at the very top of the second highest peak of Sky City – the other two peaks were not high enough to reach the Academy Tier. The two areas were interlinked by a wondrous garden that stretched between the two peaks.
The garden had everything from exotic flowers and trees to rivers and ponds; a part of the huge waterfall running down the main peak had been diverted into this garden and flowed gently towards the outer peak. It was an optimal place for meditation and contemplating the natural spirit essences in the world.
There were even a few open areas that allowed two student to spar with each other. Special force fields surrounded these areas so the fighting wouldn’t disrupt the rest of the garden.
Hoatzin nodded towards the smaller settlement on the outer peak, “That is where the elders and advanced students live. The spirit essence is a lot denser there.”
Raven looked closer at the cluster of buildings. Apart from a larger tower in the middle, most houses were fairly low, two stories at most. The tiles on the roofs were a deep blue and, surprisingly enough, all of these houses seemed to be made of wood as white as snow.
“Starlight Birch!” Raven exclaimed in shock.
“You know of it?” Hoatzin first sounded surprised but it quickly faded, “of course you do. The elders will tell you all about how the Academy got hold of the wood if you ask them – for hours. To make a long story short, the founder was gifted the wood from a mysterious friend whose Life he once saved.”
Raven just stared at the houses, even as the bird took them out of her sight. Starlight Birch was a long extinct tree that looked almost exactly like a normal birch, except for the snow white bark and wood and the dazzling silver leaves that would shine softly in the dark. The reason for this phenomenon was that the starlight birch was capable of absorbing spirit essence, much like a spirit beast, and purified itself in the process.
The result would be unimaginably strong wood that was at one with natures spirit essence. This had many positive consequences for a spiritualist. Starlight wood would for example not restrict a spiritualist’s senses, as normal stone would, but the biggest benefit was that even though the wood absorbed spirit essence, it didn’t keep it indefinitely. It simply absorbed it, refined it and then let it go again.
“No wonder the spirit essence is denser there. . . . I wonder who this friend was that casually gave away so much Starlight wood.”
“Nobody knows for sure.” answered Hoatzin just as the cabin they were in was lowered down to the ground.
They had arrived in front of the huge auditorium where the exam would take place. Also here the buildings were white with deep blue roofs, but made out of stone. The roaring sound of the waterfall could be heard in the distance.
As she and the other people in the cabin disembarked they were met by none other than Lark, the other Griffin twin. Raven was astonished by how similar the two twins were, even on a spirit essence level; very few differences existed between the two that she could use to tell them apart.
“Welcome to the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts,” said Lark without acknowledging any of the adults, “I will show you to the waiting rooms were you will be divided into groups for the exam.” He turned and walked away, knocking on a sign that said ‘Families this way’ as he passed it.
Hog and Raven glanced at each other once before Raven followed Lark and the five other students that had arrived with her. Hoatzin hesitated for a moment but in the end decided to remain on Raven’s shoulder.
“I know the Academy is supposed to treat all students equally, regardless of background but I didn’t think they’d go as far as to have prefecture heirs and important exchange students working as assistants. . . .”
There wasn’t really a question in there, but Hoatzin answered it anyway. “Ha! Sky Academy is anything but equal towards its students, but, if our year together was an indicator, then I bet the Griffin Twins did something they shouldn’t have and then got Javelin involved in the clean up.”
He tried to sound displeased with this behavior, but Raven could tell that his heart wasn’t in it.
“How improper!” she teased sarcastically as they followed Lark through a set of heavy doors.
Javelin sat in the second floor viewing area of the Academy’s auditorium together with the other few students who were either bored enough to come watch the entrance exams or had relatives entering. Across from him, above the stage, all three prefecture booths were empty and the emperor was not to arrive for a while longer – if he’d arrive at all this time, considering the troubles the imperial family were having at the moment.
Fairly few people were aware of the accusations against the Empress, but Javelin had been present at the palace to meet with an ambassador from his home country when the Empress had been detained. Javelin himself had been sworn to secrecy, of course.
Loud *thumps* on either side of him drew his attention to his two friends.
“Unshackled for now?” he asked the twins – Hoatzin’s guess had been spot on.
“Yeah, we are released until after the exam,,” smiled the one on the left, Lark. “How many do you think will pass?”
“I don’t know,” Javelin looked down on the stage, “it felt like fewer than usual even met the criteria this time.”
“Then you had bad luck in your line, according to Elder Kagu, we have a new record,” Lark paused for effect, “1097 applicants.”
“I wouldn’t call it bad luck,” sighed Martin, “I had to go get an extra box of age disks. . . .”
“At least you didn’t have to break up any fights,” Javelin pushed down on his temples, ever since he broke up that fight earlier, he had been feeling . . . odd.
Martin, however, disregarded Javelin’s comment and tired state as his eyes lit up and he leaned over so he could look at both his brother and friend.
“Speaking of age disks, I came across a boy even freakier than our own mister Hake here.” He jabbed Javelin with a closed fist on his shoulder.
“Oh? Do tell.” Lark seemed only mildly interested on the surface but light shone in his eyes and Javelin knew no man appreciated gossip more than Lark, apart from Martin of course.
“Six years, seven months, spirit core confirmed.”
That jerked Javelin out of his odd mood.
“The disk must have been broken,” said Lark disbelievingly.
“I thought so, too, but I had changed it right before and even gave him a new one to test him again. Same result.”
“Impossible,” breathed Javelin.
As someone who had managed to form his first spirit connection at the very young age of five years and one month, Javelin knew just how hard it was to make a child form a connection ahead of time. His empire had done countless studies on the subject, and no mentally sane child had ever managed to form a connection before the age of four years and nine months. Even then, the child had basically been tortured its entire life and was of little use after that.
Similarly, once the first connection was made, the all time record of forming a spirit core was currently held by his own big brother, who had only needed a couple of months under two years.
Javelin’s own childhood had been very though and still his success hadn’t been certain.
Javelin drew a deep breath. “Poor kid; most likely he has life has been a living hell only to now have a useless and unstable soul prism and spirit core. . . .”
“Hmm, he didn’t seem so unstable to me,” pondered Martin. “A bit cold, though.”
At that moment a loud voice echoed through the now filled hall.
“All rise for his Imperial Majesty, Sky Emperor Mallard Bateleur!”
The hall was filled with shuffling noises as everyone got to their feet. Moments later the large golden clad figure of the emperor appeared on the highest balcony over the stage. He smiled and waved once to the crowd before sitting down. No one would have known that anything was wrong just by looking at him, perhaps not even Raven would be able to tell.
The fact that the Empress wasn’t with him caused some whispers among the crowd but the Empress didn’t always attend the Academy exam so it was mostly whispers of disappointment, rather than suspicion.
Elder Kagu walked out on stage in the light grey robes of a regular elder. He bowed to the Emperor and then started repeating the same speech he held every year.
“Welcome to the annual entrance exams for the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts!” his strong voice echoed out into the hall. “I am Elder Kagu, and I will administer today’s exam.” He paused and gazed out over the audience.
“All applicants have been checked and they have all passed the first requirement; establishing their spirit cores before the age of nine. But, as you know, Sky Academy has even higher requirements before accepting new students.”
“1097 children have applied for the exam this year, most likely only about ten will pass.” Elder Kagu continued, and just like every year the hissing noise of sharp intakes of air spread throughout the hall at his words.
He continued to explain how the exam would work and the probabilities of passing, but Javelin and his friends didn’t pay much attention.
“So, you don’t think the six-year-old . . .” Lark looked questioningly at Martin.
“Um, Night. Raven Night.” Martin filled in and glanced at Javelin as he said the first name, but Javelin didn’t seem to react.
That in itself caused the twins to exchange glances before Lark continued, “then . . . you don’t think that this Night kid will pass?”
“It’s just a name. . . ,” sighed Javelin quietly – causing a second silent interaction between the twins – while he himself fiddled with something under his sleeve, “but, no, I don’t think he will pass.”
The twins didn’t seem to register his last comment as they stared at their friend. For two years now, Javelin had reacted negatively any time the name Raven came up, but now he seemed almost fine.
The first group of possible students shuffled out on stage and went through the procedure of expelling glowing orbs of spirit essence that Kagu planted in them. Eleven groups would come and go, and by the time the tenth group left the stage twelve children had already passed.
None of them showed any stellar potential, like that of Hoatzin and Javelin, with the highest amount of expelled orbs numbering at 32. Surprisingly enough, that 32 had been achieved by a girl, meaning that she became the ninth girl currently attending the martial division at Sky Academy.
“I bet Elder Kagu is quite pleased with this year’s results,” commented Lark as the last group was lining up on stage, “it has been years since more than ten students were accepted.”
“If you’re lucky, he will forgive you for turning his cat pink last week, on account of his good mood.” Javelin winked at Lark.
“Ah, that’s him!” shouted Martin, way too loudly, as he pointed into the rows of students on stage.
Elder Kagu twirled around on stage and shot the trio reproving glares.
“Or not,” cringed Lark.
“Never mind the cat,” urged Martin, though in a lower voice, “look, it’s the kid with the white bird on his shoulder.”
Javelin and Lark scanned the group for the white bird and when Javelin found its owner his heart involuntarily skipped a beat. He frowned and suddenly felt quite annoyed. He recognized the boy from before and although he couldn’t put his finger on why, something about him made Javelin feel perturbed.
“Are you sure that’s him, Twin, he doesn’t look like he is any younger than the rest. . . .” questioned Lark.
He did have a point; Raven might be leaner than the boys around her, but she wasn’t much shorter, already being nearly one and a half meters tall.
“Of course I’m sure! How could I forget a little freak like that?”
With the children in place, neatly ordered in ten rows, nearly ten thousand spirit orbs surged out of Elder Kagu and moved towards the 97 children on stage. The white bird on Raven Night’s shoulder took flight just as a hundred light globes poured into the kid.
“You have five minutes, starting . . . now!” bellowed Elder Kagu.