The entire hall sat in silence as the seconds ticked by. It didn’t take long before the first student managed to expel an orb; Javelin recognized the other kid from the fight during sign-ups, Brolga Sarus. Soon afterwards, his achievement was mirrored by who Javelin assumed was his sister.
“Looks like we might get a tenth girl today,” remarked Lark, but Javelin couldn’t take his eyes off Raven Night.
No orbs moved out of the boy, and as the seconds grew to minutes, he started to grow nervous. He was aware that the kid was most likely ruined for life, and incapable of cultivation, because even if he combined his brother’s record for core formation with the earliest age a spirit connection has been formed – stable or not – this boy would still be too young. However, he really wanted the kid to pass; a kid with a past like that at least deserved to be . . . useful.
Four and a half minutes had passed and still no sign of activity from the orbs. At some point, the boy’s white bird had flown up and landed on the railing in front of Javelin and the twins, but none of them had really noticed. Amusement and expectation twinkled in its very human eyes as it alternately looked at the stage in front of him and the boys behind him.
With mere seconds to go, Brolga Sarus opened his eyes and risked a glance towards the little runt he had argued with earlier. He snorted disdainfully at the lack of orbs around the kid and was about to close his eyes again for a final attempt a removing a thirty-fourth orb, when a blinding light filled the auditorium.
Up on the student balcony, Javelin shot to his feet and stared in disbelief at the immense light radiating from within the purple-haired youth on stage. The light was so bright that the other students, who had their eyes closed in concentration, frowned and looked at its source.
The light slowly faded and revealed the calm youth standing at the center of a sea of twirling orbs.
“How . . . that’s . . .” Javelin stuttered as he stared at the boy; not a single orb could be seen within Raven Night.
Javelin wasn’t the only one shocked into speechlessness; even Elder Kagu missed the light *gong* that indicated that the time was up and instead stood, wide-eyed and pale-faced, muttering “a hundred . . .” over and over.
At first the Elder thought that some Divine Skill must have been used to accomplish the deed, but as he thought back on what had happened, it didn’t fit. The orbs of spirit essence he released were specially designed to pick up on the activation of Divine Skills, and the few skills it wouldn’t pick up on were too weak to have this effect.
No, the exam was put together so that the only way a spiritualist could expel the orbs was to use their own, pure, spirit essence to slowly push them out. With newly formed spirit cores, the children taking the exams could only hope to move one or maybe . . .
The Elder’s eyes widened, and he suddenly disappeared from his position on the side of the stage, only to reappear next to Raven. Without even asking, he reached out and placed his hand on the kid’s forehead. The kid stood there as calmly as before, and somewhere in the audience a muffled chuckle momentarily broke the silence.
With shaking hands, Elder Kagu backed away from the kid. He closed his eyes and turned to face the audience.
“Three confirmed passes: Kori Sarus, 31 orbs cleared; Brolga Sarus, 33 orbs cleared; Raven Night, 100 orbs cleared.”
“The three of you can follow the attendant out. The rest, may leave. The exams are over.” Elder Kagu instructed.
For a moment, nothing happened. It wasn’t until Raven turned toward the exit and started walking off the stage that the people present woke from their daze. Clamor broke out at once.
“A hundred? Isn’t that a one in a billion occurrence?”
“Cheated, he must have cheated!”
“How dare he!”
Various comments and accusations flew through the air, but Javelin and the twins only sat silently in their chairs; the elder had passed the kid, so they knew cheating was likely out of the question.
The noise level only rose in the hall, some parents and failed students were even trying to make their way on to the stage. What they intended to do once they got there, was hard to tell if even they themselves knew.
The sudden sound from the imperial balcony caused everyone to quiet down and look up at the Emperor; he did not seem pleased.
Slowly, he got up from his splendid chair and walked over to the balcony railing. His cold stare was like a bucket of water over the excited crowd.
“Elder Kagu, you have permission to explain the situation.” Emperor Mallard’s voice was surprisingly calm. Even though he didn’t have all the details, it seemed like he had an idea of what might have happened, and his words told the Elder that it wasn’t necessary to hide the facts from the public.
“As you wish, your Majesty.” Elder Kagu bowed respectfully to the Emperor and then turned to the audience.
“Raven Night has passed the exam on two grounds: firstly, he is well below the age of ten; secondly, his cultivation has already reached the peak of the Spirit Novice.” This caused another shock for the listeners. “As such, the spirit control exam is of no concern, since it is designed for a low Spirit Novice.”
The people in the audience seemed to come to terms with something at that point: It was not that this Child was a one in a billion or a cheater; he had simply advanced further in his cultivation and could therefore overpower the test. Slowly, they backed away and the tension in the hall dissipated.
The few spiritualists in the crowd, and the students on the floor above them, were not so easily calmed, though. While it was true that practically any one of them now could overpower the entrance exam with the sheer abundance of their spirit essence, was it truly less spectacular to be a peak Spirit Novice before the age of ten, than it was to have a one in a billion control over your spirit essence? Even the children attending Sky Academy, who were considered the most talented of spiritualists, usually required three years simply to go from a new low Spirit Novice to a peak high Spirit Novice.
“Well, what do you know,” smiled Martin, “I told you he wasn’t unstable.”
“Indeed.” Javelin couldn’t muster a longer reply.
“I bet you will get a new student in the advanced classes after this.” Lark nudged Javelin in the side.
“Come, let’s go meet him before someone finds out and tries to sink his claws into him.” Lark stood and pulled Javelin up with him.
“Good idea, Twin!” Martin was already standing. “See, I told you it was a good idea to turn Kagu’s cat pink.”
As the trio hurried off, the white bird on the railing almost seemed to smirk at them before it took flight, heading down towards the stage exit.
Raven had, by now, already left the stage and entered the small backstage room where all other students who had already passed the exam waited. While they had waited, they had not been given any updates on the ongoing tests, so none of them knew about Raven’s insane results.
Therefore, the twelve eight-year-old kids looked at Raven and the Sarus siblings with mostly childlike curiosity. They may have been young children, but Raven could tell from their glances that they had quickly figured out that the latter two did not like her. Perhaps some of them even noticed the fear that Raven could sense within the two. No doubt they wondered how Raven had grown disliked so fast.
Raven casually crossed the room and leaned against the opposite wall. She had barely looked at any of her fellow students, but she smiled slightly as her gaze fell upon the young girl who had managed to pass the test earlier on.
‘I’m glad to see that there are more girls this year. We can’t let the men keep hogging all the fun forever.’
The girl had noticed Raven’s stare and hesitantly smiled back. The boys in the room where too focused on Kori to notice this exchange, but Kori herself had been shocked by the fact that another girl had passed and was already glaring at the girl. Her eyes narrowed.
Kori was just about to step forward when the attendant from the stage entered the room, followed by Elder Kagu and, seconds later, the white little Hoatzin, who landed gracefully on Raven’s shoulder.
“Haha, that was awesome, Sister!” Hoatzin practically squealed in her mind. “You should have seen the faces of Javelin and the Griffin twins – it was priceless!”
“The look the Elder is giving me right now is rather priceless as well.” Raven replied as she lifted a finger to ruffle the feathers on her brother’s head.
“True, it’s as if he can’t decide if he’s looking at a monster or a genius.”
“Let’s hope he goes for the latter. . . .”
At this point, Elder Kagu, who had been looking at Raven with an odd expression ever since he entered the room, tore his eyes away and addressed all the students.
“Congratulations, you have all passed your entrance exams and have been accepted into our Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts. From tomorrow onward you will be living at the student dorms here on the Academy Tier and spend your days cultivating and perfecting your Divine Skills.”
“Your first lecture starts tomorrow at noon, you will then get a more thorough introduction to the Academy and your coming ten years. For now, I want you to follow this man; he will show you to your dorm rooms and give you your uniforms. After that, you are free to return to your families for the night,” his expression grew stern, “but don’t be late tomorrow.”
He motioned for the attendant to leave through the main doors and the new students stood up to follow him.
“Ah, Raven Night,” Elder Kagu’s gaze locked on Raven once more, “I’d like you to come with me.”
Brolga’s fists clenched until they turned white while the other students looked at Raven with confusion. Raven herself gave a disinterested shrug, as if it didn’t really concern her, and straightened up.
She followed the Elder out one of the side doors without looking back at the others, but once the door closed behind her she heard Brolga mutter “Commoner runt, I’ll show you!” in a voice so low that, most likely, only Raven could hear him.
She didn’t dignify that with even a mental response.
Raven followed Elder Kagu in silence through narrow corridors and a few staircases before Raven felt a familiar presence not far from her position. Moments later, the elder led her around a corner and stopped in front of a large wooden door. Next to the door stood a slightly, and uncharacteristically, nervous Hog.
“I see they have already brought your relative here,” smiled Elder Kagu. “Would you introduce me, Raven?”
“Elder Kagu, this is my adoptive uncle, Uncle Hog.” Hog bowed rather elegantly. “Uncle Hog, this is an Elder of the Academy whom you have already seen on stage, Elder Kagu.”
Elder Kagu also bowed, albeit not as deeply.
“Wait here a moment,” he then said and walked though the wooden doors.
The moment he passed the threshold, Raven raised an eyebrow in surprise; she could no longer sense the Elder’s presence.
“Hehe, you’ve impressed me yet again, Raven,” chuckled Hog. “You don’t know how to hold back, do you?”
“If you only knew . . .” puffed Hoatzin on her shoulder, but Raven just gave Hog a halfhearted smile.
“It’s not always good to be too impressive, Raven,” Hog continued, “you might attract unwanted attention.” He glanced at the wooden door.
“I will keep that in mind, Uncle Hog.”
After a few more minutes, the wooden door swung open once more and Elder Kagu called from within, “The two of you may enter now.”
Without hesitating, Hog and Raven entered the room, but Raven nearly froze at the doorstep; the presence of leaking spirit essences inside the room was too overbearing! There were only three people within, one of whom was of course Elder Kagu, whose warm, orange presence had revealed him as a mid Spirit Champion even before.
The second person had an even brighter orange presence, indicating the impressive cultivation of high Champion – not yet at the peak, but still solidly ‘high’. Amazingly enough, this man looked to be a lot younger than Elder Kagu, being perhaps roughly the same age as Hog. His golden eyes were bright and very curious as he observed Raven.
However, it was the third person, calmly seated behind a big desk, who was the largest reason for Raven’s reaction; his presence was a blinding yellow that easily eclipsed the other two’s.
‘A Spirit Master!’ Raven gasped. She had never met one before and could therefore not judge at what exact level the man was at, but there was no doubt about him being in the Master realm.
Both the unknown men wore the same type of robes as Elder Kagu, only theirs were whiter than snow – had Hog still been in his white robes then those would have looked dirty in comparison – and their nine-pointed Spirit Stars were black, rather than the silver one on Elder Kagu’s chest.
The seated Spirit Master smiled warmly at Raven. His hair was long and just as white as the robes he was wearing, but his face looked very young. By the face alone, Raven would have guessed him no older than thirty, but his grey eyes revealed a lot more age than that – much like she guessed her own would, were she not careful.
“You must be young Raven,” the man’s ancient eyes seemed to drill into Raven, “I am Headmaster Eider Swan, and this is Vice Headmaster Smew Gadwall.” He nodded towards the other man beside him.
“Would you do me the honor?” asked Headmaster Swan and stretched out a pale hand over his desk.
Raven couldn’t help but swallow; this was it. If a Spirit Master couldn’t see through her male disguise and hidden cultivation, no one else was likely to. Her thoughts went to the mysterious Fenris for a moment, but she dismissed them at once; she had no idea what level of cultivation Fenris had, but she felt sure that he was one-of-a-kind.
Almost holding her breath, Raven focused her attention on controlling her Limiters and circulating her spirit essence within her to hide her several secrets. Calmly, she walked up to the table and grabbed the outstretched hand of the headmaster.
The moment their hands touched, strong spirit essence surged in from the headmaster’s hand. A warm and gentle sensation filled Raven as the essence moved through her, first through the bones in her arm to ascertain her age, then to her spirit core to ascertain her cultivation.
At this point, Headmaster Swan’s eyes widened in pleased surprise, but he said nothing. His spirit essence then moved on towards her soul prism, but Raven put on a frown and used her own spirit essence to block him. Unlike with Fenris, she had no problem in stopping him.
Had the headmaster wanted to, he could have forced his way through, but not without risking hurting Raven in the process. Raven gambled on the fact that he would be more interested in keeping her as a healthy student than forcefully inspecting her soul. She was right.
“Apologies,” he smiled as he let go of Raven’s hand, “I did not intend to pry so deeply, but your age and cultivation aroused my curiosity.”
“So it’s true, then,” said Vice Headmaster Gadwall excitedly, more as a statement then a question.
“Yes,” he got a reply anyway. “Tell me . . . Uncle Hog, was it? How have you raised such an extraordinary boy?”
It was Hog’s turn to swallow. “Honorable Headmaster, although it is true that I, we, have raised and trained Raven these past three years, he was already a spiritualist when we found him.”
“What!?” Elder Kagu couldn’t hide his shock. “Wouldn’t he have been only three at the time?”
“Well,” Hog glanced at Raven. He didn’t really like to talk about Raven’s past in front of her, since she would ‘turn catatonic’ for days afterwords.
The elders in the room seemed to understand that he didn’t want to talk about it with Raven present, so they asked her to leave, which she did, but before she left, Hoatzin switched his resting place to Hog’s shoulder.
Once Raven was out of the room, Hog started telling them of that horrible day when he and his mercenary group had stumbled across giant caves located at the western mountain coast of the then called Nightingale Prefecture. They had originally been out on an other mission, but decided to explore them anyway.
He then painted a very vivid picture of what they had found inside: cave after cave filled with dead, mutilated children; smells that forced even veteran mercenaries to lose their dinner; torture chambers; and so on.
Hoatzin kept repeating what Hog told the men inside, his voice growing queasier by the second, and Raven had to yet again admit the wonder that was Fenris; even she would have a hard time imagining some of the atrocities Hog thought he’d witnessed. Then again, Hog’s story most likely had more truth to it than Fenris had realized, since Raven actually had lived through, or dealt out, most of the rest of them.
Once Hog had finished his story – ending with how they’d found Raven strapped to a chair with sharp spikes digging into her neck, surrounded by a dozen laughing bandits – the room remained silent for a long while.
After a while, Hog continued talking, but now about the three years since then and how he and his crew had slowly made Raven open up more and become the, all things considered, rather sociable kid he was today. He even brought up the times Raven helped save the lives of people in his crew. Perhaps he was afraid that they would think the kid unstable.
When the door opened and Raven was called in again, much of the Academy Elder’s previous excitement had been sedated, and Raven noticed that Hoatzin wasn’t the only one to have been sickened by the story.
“Junior Raven Night,” Headmaster Swan still smiled at her, but it was more strained now, “I wholeheartedly welcome you to our Sky Academy. I hope you will enjoy your time here and find a place to call home.”
Raven bowed respectfully, and Swan looked at his vice headmaster, who nodded in agreement.
“Junior, may we ask you something?” the headmaster spoke again.
“Ask anything, Headmaster Swan.”
“Why do you want to grow stronger?”
Both vice and head headmaster looked at Raven with profound eyes, waiting attentively for her response. She could tell they were putting a lot of weight in her answer.
Raven seemed to ponder it for a moment before she lifted her gaze to look out through the room’s only window. When she spoke, it was the first time in a long while she was so honest with her words, perhaps even more so than she realized.
“I don’t want to lose anyone. . . . Not ever again.”