Raven declined the offer of applying ice to her swelling and instead used Healing Touch to lessen the reddening of her cheek. She didn’t go back to her dorm room after that, and instead made her way to the tavern were she had promised to meet her mercenary uncles. The four men were of course happy to see her and bragged to the entire room about their genius boy who had made history at the entrance exams.
However, as they laughed and celebrated, Raven kept thinking back on the conversation she had with Lark just before leaving.
“Sorry about that” he had said, “Javelin is usually a lot of fun, but I think you remind him of someone he lost a few years ago, so he overreacted.”
“Who do I remind him of?” Raven had asked in return.
Lark had paused for a second before answering, “his first love – her name was also Raven.”
This had surprised Raven greatly. She was of course aware that Javelin had taken taken a keen liking to her when they first met, but that was three years ago. He had barely been seven at the time and they had only met once; his feelings for her shouldn’t be so strong as to cause a trauma after her death.
‘Surely, he can’t still be in love with me?’ Raven pondered as Saltmarch waddled over to the bar and ordered another round of drinks, ‘no, it’s more likely something else behind his overreaction.’
The noise level in the tavern rose yet again when the very drunk Saltmarsh started retelling Hog’s story for the millionth time to the poor bloke next to him at the counter.
‘. . . Javelin was uncomfortable with my presence before,’ Raven continued her silent reflections, ‘I just figured he felt threatened by me – don’t tell me he actually suspects something?’
Raven discarded the idea almost immediately; if a Spirit Master couldn’t see through her disguise, how could a ten-year-old?
“Why are you looking so worried, Raven?” asked Dove as he leaned over a now empty cup.
For an instant she was taken aback by the man’s comment before Raven realized that she had let her normal expression of disinterest slip, letting her worry shine through. Raven did, however, not have to search long for an excuse.
“It’s because Uncle Saltmarsh is about to start a fight,” she replied and took a sip from her own cup, that contained a type of spiced milk often drunk by children in this area.
A large bang followed by the cracking noise of splintering wood filled the tavern mere seconds later.
“Who’s girl do ya think ya touchin, bastard!” bellowed an angry man in his late thirties; he was dressed in leather armor, similar to those of Raven’s mercenary uncles, and his right fist was lodged deep into the bar counter.
Opposite him, Saltmarsh had pulled a slinky woman into his arms – she didn’t seem to mind his attention.
“I don’t see your name on her,” replied Saltmarsh with a wolfish grin and lifted the woman’s long hair to examine the nape of her neck, causing the girl to giggle seductively, “but I’m happy to look for it.”
The angry man’s face turned blood-red as he watched Saltmarsh tug at the collar of the woman’s dress. In a fit of rage he picked up a bottle of the counter and lobbed it at Saltmarsh, but Saltmarsh had seen it coming and ducked at the last moment, pulling the woman with him. The bottle flew past the pair and smashed into the head of a burly man behind them. The impact caused the bottle to break and splash its wet content over not only the burly man but also his companions.
The room became deathly silent as the hit man, with blood trickling down the back of his head, slowly got up from his chair and turned around. The man was at least two meters tall and just as wide. Saltmarsh paled slightly and pointed at the leather armored man who had thrown the bottle.
‘Here we go again. . . .’ Raven rolled her eyes but continued to drink from her cup as the burly man grunted and sprung into action. Within seconds the entire tavern was a war zone; with every missed punch causing a chain reaction that involved more and more people in the brawl. No weapons or Divine Skills were used but since the tavern was a place for spiritualist mercenaries, spirit essence was nonetheless running high, amplifying every hit.
Dove and his brother were quick to join the fray and, sighing, Hog soon followed, leaving only Raven at their table. Donning an ill-concealed smile, Raven observed every movement in the room with closed eyes as she sipped her milk in silence.
At some point Raven unhurriedly tilted her head to the right, effortlessly avoiding a table knife that lodged itself in the wall next to her head. With a flick of her wrist, the knife was removed and tossed back whence it came, efficiently tripping a brawler whom was just about to hit Dove over the head with a broken bottle. A few breaths later, Raven’s own fork swiveled through the air and stopped the girl Saltmarsh had roped in from pulling a dagger at Hog.
Nobody noticed Raven’s silent participation but whenever one of her mercenary uncles was in any real danger of getting hurt, more table utensils would disappear from her table. Suddenly, Raven’s eyes flashed open and she slipped off her chair.
Like a fish moving through water, she made her way through the fighting tavern guests and informed all of her companions that is was time to leave; the tavern brawl had finally drawn the attention of the city guards, who would be arriving shortly.
In all the chaos the five of them had little problem slipping out a back door, only moments before six men in silvery armor stormed the tavern.
Laughing, the four uncles brought Raven back to their new home; apparently renting the house at the edge of the city had been a waste of time since the larger mercenary core that the uncles had chosen to join, the Dawn Brigade, owned their own lodgings on the Business Tier, with ample space for all their members.
At this point Raven could have headed back to her dorm room, but she opted to give Javelin some more space and instead stayed the night with the mercenaries. Early next morning she bid them farewell for now and headed back to the Academy for her first lessons.
Raven and the other twelve students who had passed this year’s entrance exams sat cross-legged in an open courtyard on the eastern side of the Academy Tier. When the lecture started the air was crisp with the morning chill and the sun had barely broken the mountain-hidden horizon.
For an hour, Raven listened absent-mindedly to an ancient Elder of mediocre cultivation – he was “only” a low Champion – explain how the Academy worked and what the new students should come to expect from their coming ten years here. Most of what he said Hoatzin had already told her about so Raven wasn’t very surprised, but some of her classmates gaped in shock as they realized how many cultivation resources would be used for their benefit.
She was, however, a bit impressed when she heard of the practically bimonthly examinations that would take place starting next month. At every other full moon, the Academy would send the students to an area densely inhabited by spirit beasts and leave them there for the three days when the moon was the fullest.
During that time the students would have to fend for themselves; staying and defending would safeguard your life, but venturing out and hunting spirit beasts would earn you merits. These merits could then be used to exchange for extra cultivation resources or, in extreme cases, applying to the advanced classes. This wasn’t without risk though and students losing their lives wasn’t unheard of, albeit very rare.
‘A trial by fire every eight weeks? Interesting!’ thought Raven and wondered why her brother hadn’t mentioned this before.
A lot less interesting, however, was the first subject the Battle Strategy class would study, the history of spiritualists; Raven almost fell asleep in protest when the ancient fellow made the switch. Everything the Elder mentioned Raven had, yet again, already learned – this time through books – and judging from the bored expressions of her classmates, they either didn’t care for the subject or had likewise already learnt it.
Finally, the two-hour mark came and the lesson ended. Most children headed off towards the dining hall for the mid-day meal. Oddly enough, all twelve of them kept their distance from Raven – the Sarus siblings included – and acted as if she wasn’t even there.
Just as Raven was considering whether this was a coincidence or an orchestrated scheme, the ancient Elder stopped her at the gate.
“Elder Stork,” Raven bowed politely.
“Junior Night, the vice headmaster has asked me to show you to the Divine Library. Follow me.” The Elder didn’t wait for Raven’s reply before he strolled off.
“Elder Stork, what is the Divine Library and why would Vice Headmaster Gadwall want you to take me there?” Raven asked as she followed behind the old man.
“Use your head, Junior Night,” chided Elder Stork, “naturally, the Divine Library is where we keep the Academy’s martial Divine Skills. You are to choose four Skills and practice them to perfection. You are not permitted a fifth skill until one of the first four is mastered. As for why I am showing you there, it is due to you skipping three grades of Spirit Control class, where you would have made your first visits to the Library,” he didn’t seem to approve of the decision to let her start at level four if his tone was anything to go by.
After that the Elder stopped talking and the two of them walked in silence through the Academy grounds. As they walked, many other students passed by them and practically all of them would bow politely to the Elder and then completely ignore Raven, barely glancing at her.
‘So it was not a coincidence then,’ she concluded. ‘For it to be this widespread . . . is it the work of the snobs, perhaps?’
It didn’t take long before the Elder halted in front of a large building not far from the Auditorium where the entrance exam had been held. The words “Divine Library” were etched into the white stone facade and painted with gold.
“Here we are. The identity stone will unlock the Skills you choose and automatically track your progress in mastering them. Don’t bother trying to cheat.” Raven noticed an underlying tone of contempt.
‘I take it he’s not my fan either. . . .’
“You have clearance of all Skills up to level five and may select one at level six, but remember that you will not get new skills until you’ve mastered your old ones,” he continued, his contempt growing clearer. “Your next lesson starts in three-quarters of an hour – don’t be late.”
Without further ado Elder Stork walked off. Raven followed his departure with her eyes briefly before entering the building. As she walked through the door she felt a veil of spirit essence slip over and past her. Raven guessed that veil would block anyone without authorization to enter.
The first floor of the Library was vast and practically every square meter of it was covered in rows upon rows of bookshelves filled to the brim with scrolls. Raven whistled softly in admiration. This was the first time she had seen so many Divine Scrolls in one place and her strengthened senses now gave her an entirely different view of each scroll.
Before Raven had only been able to sense the spirit essence within by touch but now every scroll shined with vibrant color, turning the entire first floor into a sea of kaleidoscopic light.
‘That’s odd, I would have thought that the color of the scrolls would follow the same rules as cultivators but every color of the rainbow is present here,’ Raven looked over at a plaque of instructions on the wall, ‘yet there are only Divine Skills of level one to three on this floor.’
She looked back out over the sea of scrolls. The red and orange spectra of the rainbow was undoubtedly more abundant but there were plenty of yellow and green scrolls as well as a couple of blue ones. Walking over to the closest shelf, Raven pulled out a red and a light blue scroll that shined dimly in her hands.
Both Skills were of level one and intended for fighting with a halberd. The martial arts depicted within them were very similar to each other, with only a few differences in their stances and spirit essence flow. Just judging from her own experiences with the halberd she would prefer the stance described in the blue one, simply because it was closer to the technique she’d learned in her previous life. Shrugging she put the two scrolls back.
A few shelves away the scrolls shined more brightly so Raven stopped and pulled out an even deeper blue scroll and examined it. It was a level two skill and inside a familiar dagger technique was depicted causing Raven’s eyes to lit up when she saw it.
‘Haha, I know this move – it’s one of my favorites!’ Although the Divine Skill itself was new to her, the underlying martial arts technique was not and it was perfect for disarming opponents who were using heavier weapons.
Without even thinking so much about it, Raven held up her identification stone to the scroll and with a light clicking noise the final part of the scroll was unlocked. On the white surface of the stone the text “Divine Skill Count 1/4” appeared. Excitedly Raven unrolled the scroll and completed the soul imprint. Immediately, information on how to apply spirit essence to her old martial arts technique flooded her mind and she impatiently pulled out a dagger from within her spacial ring.
With the dagger in hand she carefully activated her spirit essence according to the imprint as she stepped forward, ducking under the attack of an imaginary opponent and then jabbing with the dagger towards where their wrist would have been. Spirit essence surged to the small blade and sparks of lightning gathered at its point. It was perhaps not very strong but the added electrical shock would make the already numbing technique even more effective.
‘Paralizing Ligtning Srike, huh? What a straightforward name.’ Smiling Raven placed the scroll back on the shelf and headed to the second floor that would contain Divine Skills of levels four to six.
On the second floor there were a few more students than on the first but they, just like every other student Raven had met today, merely glanced at her before looking away.
Raven didn’t mind this though and only chuckled silently to herself; being ignored suited her just fine for now. Instead she focused her attention on this floor’s shelves. There were fewer of them here, perhaps not even half of the number on the floor below.
Up here the bluer end of the spectra was basically nonexistent, leaving only a few green ones. Although the colors of the scrolls didn’t reveal their level, the intensity of the light did. From this Raven deduced that the majority of the scrolls were level four, with perhaps only a hundred at level five and a lone ten scrolls at level six.
She approached the ten level six scrolls, noticing soft snickers from some of the students as she did – Raven acted as if she hadn’t heard them. Slowly Raven started reading through the descriptions of the ten Skills and her heart sank slightly as she did. Although all of the martial Divine Skills seemed to be very impressive none of them really caught her interest.
Something that Raven had come to realize as she traveled towards Sky City was that she missed her old martial arts. Even though she easily adapted to using her Divine Skills, she often found herself wanting to execute one of her old moves but not having a way to merge such martial arts with her spirit essence for optimal effect.
Raven had hoped to fill the gap here – after all, twenty years of habits are hard to break – but it would seem like the level six skills would not do the job. Finally Raven picked up the last level six scroll. It was the only whose light wasn’t red or orange, but rather green.
Opening it she read the words “Spacial Dash” at the top.