The men in the room looked at Raven with mixed expressions, varying from pity to admiration, but Headmaster Swan seemed mostly determined.
“Very well, Junior Night, here is your curriculum for your first semester,” he lifted of a piece of paper from his desk and handed it to Raven, “it might be a bit tough for you, at first, but I think you have the strength for it.”
Raven looked down on the paper and rejoiced; at the top was her name next to the number 95-01, followed by:
Morning Class: Battle Strategy – 1st level
Afternoon Class: Spirit Control – 4th level
Evening Class: Advanced Classes – mixed
“You made it?” asked Hoatzin and flew back to Raven’s shoulder to look at the paper in her hand.
“I made it,” she said happily to her brother, but outwardly she looked up at the headmaster with a confused look.
“I guess you wouldn’t know about it,” Swan’s smile had grown a bit more relaxed now, “well, Elder Kagu can explain on the way to your dorms.”
The headmaster was about to send Raven off when he remembered something. “Oh, and if you feel up to it, the Emperor has invited you to attend a banquet this evening. It’s normally for children from the noble clans who have been accepted into the school, but he wanted to make an exception for you.”
“If you want to go, tell your roommate and he will bring you. He will also be attending.”
“Who is my roommate?” Raven wanted to ask, but it wasn’t something Raven Night would care about, so she said nothing as she once more followed Elder Kagu out.
Hog hesitated, “um, respectable Headmaster Swan, the school fee . . .”
“Raven’s studies will be paid for by the Academy, mister Hog,” answered the vice headmaster matter-of-factly before Hog could finish his question. Hog bowed deeply and quickly exited the room, drawing a deep breath of relief once outside; he might not have Raven’s sharp senses, but his instincts still warned him of how much strength had been gathered in that room.
Raven and Hog said goodbye and Raven promised to head over to the earlier mentioned tavern later that night, but Hog recommended a visit to the Emperor’s banquet first; “it’s not every day you have an opportunity to see the Indigo Cloud Palace up close,” he said.
The encouragement was unnecessary, though; Raven would certainly not give up the opportunity to snoop around at the Palace, even if it meant taking the risk of being recognized by one of the noble clans. At least, not considering the current situation where the Empress had been accused of treason.
“Well then,” said Elder Kagu as he and Raven walked away from the headmaster’s room, “I take it your schedule confused you, junior Raven.”
“Yes, Elder Kagu, it did.” This was of course a lie, but she would let him explain anyway.
“Normally, students have two classes per day – apart from the time spent in self-cultivation. The class in the morning consists of various lectures and practical activities endeavoring to teach you all you need to know once you graduate. Everything from how to lead an army or working as an official to how to effectively attack or defend as a group. These morning lectures will continue for the entire ten years you study at Sky Academy, and no skipping is allowed.”
Raven nodded as the elder spoke.
“The afternoon class is instead focused on increasing your understanding and control of your spirit essence. After your display this morning and the headmaster’s inspection earlier, it is clear that putting you with the first year students for this class would be a waste. Therefore, you have been moved to the level for the fourth year students instead,” Elder Kagu glanced down at Raven, “I’m not sure that you will manage to follow their pace, but give it a try and if it doesn’t work we can move you down a step.”
“I will try, Elder Kagu.”
There was much determination in Raven’s voice, and Kagu wondered if the kid had added the ‘try’ more out of courtesy then to indicate an actual possibility of failure.
He shook his head, smiling slightly, before he continued, “As for the advanced classes, well, you will find out the specifics later, but the students that have been picked for the advanced classes are the true elite potentials within our Academy. There can be at most twenty advanced students at any given time, two from each year, but there are rarely more that ten or fifteen that qualify. You are very fortunate to have been admitted, and so early on, too.”
Elder Kagu paused in front of a small door. “Wait here,” he said and disappeared into the room behind it, only to reappear seconds later, now holding a grey bundle.
“Here you go,” he handed it over to Raven, “your uniform. I slipped a Spirit Stone in there as well, since you don’t seem to have one.”
“Wouldn’t students have to take more tests before they are picked for the advanced class? Why was I admitted right away?” Raven asked as they started walking again.
“Do you really need to ask?” Elder Kagu raised an eyebrow in surprise, but when Raven gave no other response, he continued: “A six-year-old peak Spirit Novice is unheard of. If you work hard and get the right training from us, your potential is unlimited! Of course we would advance you right away.”
The elder smiled warmly at Raven, and she felt as if he had the sudden urge to lift a hand and ruffle her hair. He resisted it, however, and instead turned left, walking out through a small archway. When Raven followed him, her eyes widened with awe. They had stepped out into the beautiful garden that stretched between the main and the southern peak, and it was even more impressive up close than it had been from the air.
Despite the cold temperatures of a too late spring, a sweet rosy scent filled the air and crystalline butterflies fluttered over the gurgling river that ran down along the garden. Here and there, students sat meditating on smooth white rocks, indifferent to the chill in the air.
In the distance, the lone high tower, with white Starlight wood walls and cobalt-blue roof tiles, stood like a mythical monument or mirage – oddly there but not there at the same time – against the black background of the even more distant mountain range that surrounded Sky City.
“Impressive, no?” asked Elder Kagu as he took a deep breath and walked off down an alley of barren trees, “you see it at its least impressive time, though, I am afraid. It’s in a transition period right now.”
“He’s right, Sister,” confirmed Hoatzin, “wait until you see how it looks in the summer!”
Raven looked forward to it already.
Walking at a slower pace than before, Elder Kagu, with Raven in tow, made his way across the garden in silence until they reached a large gate at the far end of it. As they passed through it, the Elder Kagu nodded respectfully to a man seated leisurely by the gate, but the man barely took notice of them.
Judging by his clothes, the man was just another elder, but Raven could tell by his vibrantly orange presence that he was not so simple; apart from the headmaster and his second in command, this man was the strongest spiritualist Raven had come across on campus.
Noticing this, Raven stopped and bowed deeply to the man before she hurried after Elder Kagu. Behind her, the man raised his head and watched her go with curious eyes.
“As an advanced student,” Elder Kagu finally spoke again, “you will live here, in the southern dorms, together with the other advanced students.” He paused and pointed to an ornate building to the right. “See that house? Don’t go near it. It’s the Healing Division’s advanced dorm and they don’t approve of trespassers.”
“And don’t I know it. . . .” muttered Hoatzin.
Raven guessed there was an story behind this comment, but let it pass for now. The elder kept walking and pointing out various houses and their functions along the way, including the house where the elders lived.
At this point Raven asked, “How many elders are there at Sky Academy?”
“Forty-three at the moment, if you don’t count the headmasters, but not all of us teach students.” It was the first real question Raven had asked, so the elder was happy to answer.
“That many?” Raven sounded shocked. “Are all of them from Sky Empire?”
“Usually, but as of late we’ve made an exchange with the other empires, so we have two elders here from Earth and Sea Empire respectively.”
Raven nodded but said no more.
Finally, elder Kagu stopped in front of a two-story square garden house with a large sign over the front door that read ‘Southern Martial Dorms’ in golden letters.
“Here is where you will be living the next ten years. I would follow you in, but I have other business to attend to.” The elder held out his hand, revealing a smooth stone seemingly made of white jade. “This jade slip is your personal key in the Academy. Bind it with your blood and it will be able to unlock all rooms you have permission to enter, including your dorm room.”
Raven took the stone, and before she had the opportunity to bind it, Elder Kagu excused himself and, after a final “Welcome to Sky Academy”, strode off back the way they had come.
“That was sudden. . . .” Raven muttered as she looked at her surroundings. At the moment, not a single soul was in sight.
“They don’t tend to pamper students here. The fact that an elder escorted you this far is impressive enough,” explained Hoatzin. “Brand the key, your room number should appear on it when you do.”
Raven did as she was told and a grey number appeared on the smooth surface.
“That should be on the second floor, let’s go.” said Hoatzin and flew off through the open doors.
It didn’t take long to find the room in question, and once inside, Raven sank down on the right-hand bed, taking in her new home base. The room faced west and would eventually have a perfect view of the setting sun over the mountains. As far as furniture went, calling it spartan may be a bit of a stretch, but not by much.
“It will do, I suppose,” muttered Raven, “at least the view is spectacular.”
Her roommate seemed fairly well organized – apart from a hastily made bed – and few personal effect were out in the open. Hoatzin flew over to the other bed and landed on one of its bedposts.
“So who do you think your roommate is?” he asked.
“Hard to say . . . he has to be from one of the higher classes, and someone has drilled the importance of order into him; the son of a military man perhaps.”
“You just described nearly half the boys in the Academy. . . .”
“True,” Raven got of the bed and started changing into her school robes. “But how many of them are skilled enough to be in the advanced classes?” She paused for a minute before she gave Hoatzin a smirk, “I’m just glad it excludes cousin Dunlin; I bet he isn’t capable of keeping a straight line organized.”
Hoatzin laughed – something that sounded very melodious in his bird form. “Well said, sister!”
Raven hung her old clothes in her empty cupboard before examining herself in the mirror. The effects of the Fox’s Veil had no effect on her, so she clearly saw herself and the aura she gave off in the reflection. She let her muscles relax, reclaiming her natural appearance.
For a six-year-old, Raven had to admit she looked rather striking; her purple-black hair, although short, framed a pale face with soft yet prominent features, and her still blood-red eyes gave her a cold, overbearing air that demanded obedience. She was also tall for her age and even though the step into womanhood was still far away, the early signs were already there.
Raven sighed and resumed her male persona and tied up her hair before she tugged at her grey robe to cover her Fox’s Veil arm guard.
“It is fortunate that the school uniforms do so little to enhance body shapes, but still, I only have five years, at most, before hiding my gender will be near impossible.”
“Sister could always just tell everyone that you’re a girl. . . .” muttered Hoatzin, but seeing the look Raven shot him, he quickly added “or, we get our revenge before it comes to that. . . !”
Raven smiled at him warmly, but the underlying bloodlust in her eyes still made Hoatzin’s feathers stand on edge.
“On that note, we might as well get started. We have a lot of things we need to find out, but the most urgent is to learn what happened with the Empress.” Raven moved over to the room’s window. “When we arrive at the Palace later, I want you to see if you can find where Empress Nene is being held – most likely, the stone walls will obstruct my senses too strongly to find her, but you should be able to fly from window to window in search of her.”
“Window to window? Sister, there must be at least a thousand windows in that Palace!”
“True, but if Tringa’s information is correct, you only need to search the towers.” Hoatzin snorted but didn’t voice any further complaints, so Raven continued. “Once you’ve found her, I’d like for you to stay with her for a while, a few days even, to see what you can learn of her situation.”
“I got it, Sister. What will you do?”
“I’ll see what I can find out from the other end,” replied Raven with a mischievous smile, “and go to class, of course.”
“Class, huh? Never thought I’d say this, but I rather miss them,” Hoatzin reminisced.
“As it is a means to grow stronger, you should miss it,” replied Raven as she hung the Spirit Stone pendant the elder had given her around her neck, tucking it into her robes, “but don’t worry brother, I shall make sure you don’t fall behind.”
The bird shuddered, “Why does that scare me more than facing off against our unknown enemies?”
“Primal instinct?” Raven offered with an innocent face. She then looked towards the door, a surprised smile growing on her mouth.
“Blasted twins, dragging me around for nearly two hours,” muttered Javelin as he approached his room, “That Raven Night is indeed really impressive, but to hunt him down like some lovesick teenager is simply too much.”
Javelin placed his hand on the doorknob of his room, pausing for a moment to let the door unlock itself for him, before he opened it and walked in.
He glanced at the empty bed opposite his and froze. It wasn’t empty, She was sitting there; dressed in the same traditional gown She had worn three years ago, the soft sunlight from the window fell on her veiled face, slightly revealing the hidden features beneath. She had grown and the years had done her well – she was beautiful.
Moisture filled Javelin’s eyes and he had to blink to see clearly again, but when he did, She was gone. In her place was her namesake, the boy Raven Night that he and his friends had been searching for just moments ago.
As he stared at the ordinary-looking boy and his cold glare, Javelin’s confusion turned to anger and annoyance. Why did this kid bring up memories he was trying to put behind him?
“Junior Student Raven Night greets Senior.”
Javelin blinked again. He hadn’t noticed Raven getting up from the bed.
“What are you doing here?” he ignored courtesy and went straight to the point. “How did you get into my room?”
“This junior used the key Elder Kagu provided.” Was that a flash of amusement Javelin detected in the kid’s face? “I am under the impression that we are to be roommates.”
“That’s impossible, only advanced students can . . .” Javelin stopped mid-sentence. “Let me see your schedule.”
“Yes, senior.” Raven walked over and handed him a piece of paper. Javelin stared at it with amazement.
“I guess they would want a talent like yours to be nurtured right from the beginning.” Javelin spoke more to convince himself than Raven. “No wonder we couldn’t find you.”
Coming to terms with the situation, Javelin suppressed his annoyance and stretched out his right hand to the boy, “I guess that makes us roommates for the next seven years. My name is Javelin Hake. No need to be so polite though, just call me Javelin.”
Raven took his hand after a moments hesitation and then answered “then you should call me Raven.”
“If it’s all the same to you I think I’ll stick with Night.”
The boy looked a bit surprised at this but said nothing, so Javelin assumed it was fine.
Suddenly, a white little bird flew up between them and started flapping is wings violently in front of Javelin’s face. Taken by surprise, he took a few steps back and let go of Raven’s hand in the process.
The bird calmed down and landed on Raven’s shoulder.
“Javelin, meet Tzin. He’s a bit overprotective.” Raven seemed to give the bird a reproving look.
Javelin stared at the bird. “A tamed spirit beast?”
“Something like that,” Raven shrugged.