Pushing down the urge to pull her sword out and sink it deep into her cousins chest, Raven instead looked over at Javelin, who also had stopped talking to his friend at the sound of the door opening. Their gazes met and Javelin smiled meekly at her; he looked a bit tired, but also regretful, no doubt it was concerning yesterday’s events.
Raven nodded at him, silently agreeing to put it all behind them, and was about to walk over to him when Jack Tanuki nudged Dunlin’s side. Together the two both bowed excessively low and shouted in a respectful tone, “Advanced Class greets Vice Headmaster Gadwall!”
The rest of the students quickly followed suit. However Raven noticed that, even though they hid it well, not all of them were pleased by the perceived leadership of Dunlin and this Jack.
“Greetings students,” the youths straitened at Gadwall’s response, ” I found your newest addition on my way here, whom I’m sure you have all heard of by now.” Gadwall smiled warmly and Raven wondered if he grasped the double meaning of his worlds. “Do you wish to introduce yourself, Junior Night?”he asked.
‘Not really,’ thought Raven but she shrugged and answered anyway; “Raven Night. First Year. High Spirit Novice.”
Gadwall waited a moment before he realized that was all Raven intended to say. “Ah . . . well, yes, straight to the point. Good. Why don’t the rest of you repeat the courtesy?”
From the Vice Headmaster no more prompting was needed; one by one they introduced themselves with name, grade and spiritualist rank. From what Raven had learnt about expected cultivation levels of students at Sky Academy, these thirteen youths really were a step above their peers. The oldest student, an eighteen-year-old boy who looked like a bear, had even stepped into the Spirit Champion realm and was approaching mid Champion, something that even the talented students of Sky Academy would find hard to pull off before the age of twenty five.
As the introductions moved along, from oldest to youngest, it was eventually time for the forth graders, but before Javelin or Dunlin had a chance, the black eyed exchange student spoke out.
“Jack Tanuki, third year, peak mid Adept.” His endlessly black eyes bore into Raven, as if daring her to oppose him or rebuff his prowess. Raven however showed no reaction at all; although his cultivation was impressive for someone not yet eleven years old, Javelin had almost the same cultivation and was even younger.
Besides, she already found out about Jack’s cultivation level at the banquet yesterday, so what was there to be surprised about? The next introduction however did surprise her.
“Dunlin Talon, forth year, mid Adept.”
‘What?’ Raven’s brow twitched slightly as she quelled her frown. She risked a glance around the room but no one reacted at Dunlin’s statement. ‘How come no one is refuting him? He’s clearly only a low Adept!’
She focused her senses on his presence but no matter how hard she concentrated, Dunlin’s leaking spirit essence was so light pink, it almost seemed white.
“As for Junior Hake, I assume you’ve already been introduced to him, since you two are roommates,” Gadwall suddenly put an end to the introductions, disrupting Raven’s pondering. “Your ordinary teacher is otherwise engaged at the moment so I will be over-seeing you today. I have nothing special planned so please proceed to your allocated rooms and I will be with you shortly. Junior Hake, your room is closest to Junior Night’s. Show him the way, won’t you?”
“Yes Vice Headmaster,” replied Javelin but Gadwall had already disappeared down a corridor.
The advanced students studied Raven for a moment before they headed towards a nearby staircase. Raven had no doubts that these people had heard all the rumors about her but they were all considered geniuses among geniuses. She assumed that for them, regardless of whether the rumors were true or not, the only ting they cared about was personal strength. Right now, Raven was the weakest in the class – as the only person, presumably, below Spirit Adept level – and was therefore of Little or no concern for them.
Well, almost all of them only cared about strength. On their way to the staircase, Raven and Javelin were passing by Dunlin and Jack when the latter snickered; “a slave and a soldier, roommates . . . how fitting; both are born to take orders!”
While the pair laughed, Raven noticed Javelin’s hand clenching as he stopped dead in his tracks and turned to face them.
“What, soldier boy, you want permission to speak?” retorted Dunlin and the two started laughing again.
Javelin took a large step towards the duo, and for a moment Raven thought he might hit one of them. Instead he passed between the two and slammed his fist into the wall behind them.
“Firstly,” he said with an steady voice, “even as a soldier I wouldn’t have to ask the two of you permission for anything, since you’re not my officers. Secondly,” Javelin’s voice grew more agitated, “no one is born to be a slave!”
With that he returned to Raven’s side and pulled her up the stairs before Dunlin and Jack had a chance to answer. Once they reached the second floor and had veered off into a side corridor Javelin finally realized he was still holding Raven’s arm and quickly let go.
“Sorry,” he said and looked away from her.
“Why are you apologizing? They were the jerks. . . .” Raven sounded indifferent but inside she felt weirdly happy; this was the second time Javelin had stood up for her – not that it was needed, but it was sweet nonetheless.
“Ah, no,” Javelin’s ears turned slightly red and he lifted his hand to scratch the back of his neck, “not that. . . . They will retaliate against both of us for me speaking up. Usually it’s best to just let them be pricks in their own little world and then get better scores during the Lunar Trials, but I . . .”
As he spoke, a smile too small for Javelin to notice spread on Raven’s lips. ‘He keeps scratching his head whenever he’s embarrassed,’ she noted, amused, before she interrupted him by asking, “Retaliate? How?”
“Well, the Talon Clan is the ruler clan of Nighting . . . I mean Black Talon Prefecture. As such Dunlin has sway over many of the students here; nearly a third are from clans that, by law, are lower ranked. As for Jack, he might be an exchange student but at home his clan is noble too and his father is one of the three High Councillors of Earth Empire so many want to get on his good side. Going against them too openly is not a good idea.”
“Then what about the anti-snob group? That’s pretty out in the open.”
“That’s when the Griffin twins are around – as heirs to a Prefecture Lord themselves, and friendly ones at that, they hold almost equal sway over the student body. Only . . . their personal strength is lacking in comparison.”
Raven understood right away; as long as there was a crowd and the twins were present they could use their own status as a countermeasure, but they weren’t outstanding enough in their own right to gather devoted followers.
Raven shrugged indifferently. ‘Let them come! If they start a fight, I have no reason to hold back – even as a high Novice I should be able to handle them – and if they use some other subterfuge . . . well, they’re not the only ones that can play at that game.’
Javelin then proceeded to show Raven to her cultivation room before he left for his own room. As Raven entered hers, she could feel her Limiters suddenly weighing down heavily at her ankles, making it hard for her to walk. It turned out that one of the beneficial circumstances Gadwall had mentioned earlier was something akin to an increased gravity field. Every cell in Raven’s body strained against the extra pressure, and the normally ten kilo Limiters now weighed perhaps three times as much.
Apart from the higher gravity there was also an abundance of spirit essence gathered in the room, just waiting to be absorbed. That high concentration would increase the training endurance of the rooms occupant significantly – not that it would be noticeable from the outside, since the extra strain of the stronger gravitational pull would counter it.
‘Training in here will definitely be advantageous!’ Raven didn’t bother hiding the wide grin on her face. ‘Should I release the block on my cultivation? It would improve the results . . .’
Just as she was about to go through with it, a merry voice spoke behind her; “What do you think, Junior Night?”
Startled, Raven spun around as she, purely on instinct, withdrew a blade from her spacial ring and let her spirit essence surge to it.
“Haha, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I assumed Junior Hake warned you about how these rooms work.”
Raven started at Vice Headmaster Gadwall’s hazy figure in surprise. His body seemed almost transparent as he hovered over by the door; no spirit essence at all could be sensed from him – at least not any spirit essence that belonged to a living person.
‘It’s almost like the holograms of my old world,’ she mused as she withdrew her blade and with more effort than she wished to admit walked a few steps to the side to study Gadwall’s apparition from another angle.
Gadwall, however, noticed her struggle and smiled, that inquisitive flare was back in his eyes. “It’s not easy to move around, is it? Welcome to the Pressure Room; as you grow stronger, so will the pressure you experience. Here you will train for two hours everyday as long as you’re in the Advanced Class. It might not sound like much, but anymore and your body wouldn’t be able to take it. While you train in here you will receive guidance from an Elder at all times, if necessary.”
‘So much for training at full strength. . . .’
“Usually we will just quietly observe and only intervene when we think it will be beneficial,” continued Vice Gadwall. “I recommend that you start training with something simple, until you get the feel of the room. Call out when you wish to start practicing your new Divine Skills and I will walk you through it.” Gadwall’s image faded, but Raven assumed he was still paying attention.
‘Well, I guess, it’s better than nothing,’ thought Raven and did as she was told; she kept it “simple”.
After two hours of switching between vigorous training with Shadow Walk and quiet contemplation regarding the Spacial Dash Raven walked out of her Pressure Room. Every cell in her body ached. As she reached the staircase she paused for a moment, considering if she should go down on her own or wait for Javelin. She opted for the former and, forcing the muscles in her body to move more fluidly, she walked down the stairs.
The moment she stepped out on the ground floor, the two people who had been “hiding” at either side of the staircase stepped forward to block her path. Their combined spirit essence pushed down on her, making it feel much like she was still in the Pressure Room.
“Can I help you, Seniors?” she asked, as her cold blood red eyes moved from her cousin to his accomplice.
Jack frowned slightly at how she seemed unaffected by the pressure they put on her but Dunlin didn’t seem to notice. “At least the slave knows that we are his superiors,” he laughed and tapped Jack on his shoulder. “Use that limited intellect of yours to follow our orders in the future and we might let you off for disrespecting us earlier.”
“I said seniors,” corrected Raven blankly.
“Huh?” blinked Dunlin while Jack narrowed his eyes.
“I called you my seniors, as in people older than me, not as in someone superior to me.”
Dunlin’s face turned bright red in rage. Raven noticed his pink spirit essence gathering at his fists, but now that he controlled it directly, Raven could sense something else, darker, mingling with it. Suddenly she remembered the duel Dunlin had held against her brother. ‘Is this linked to the dark essence I sensed then? But it wasn’t so tangible then. . . .’
While Raven was contemplating this, Dunlin was about to use his spirit essence to hit her when Jack stopped him. Boring his deep black eyes into Raven and leaned in closer. “Wits won’t save you here, little slave. What will you do if every student here despises you and wants to harm you? Do as we say, or we will make it happen.”
Raven stared blankly at the pair. In front of their threats she wasn’t sure if what she wanted most was to beat them up or laugh at how foolishly childish they sounded. She glanced at Dunlin. ‘Oh, I definitely want to beat them up! But . . .’
“Seniors, I am sure you have heard the rumors about me, and as they say: where there is smoke, there is fire.” The two youths looked a bit confused. Raven sighed and rolled her eyes, “if you want to intimidate me, you have to try a lot harder than petty threats concerning my reputation. Besides, are you not afraid that you will be ridiculed for bullying someone almost half your age?”
Raven almost chuckled as she saw the anger growing within Dunlin and Jack, but before they had a chance to move against her, she bowed her head and said, “thank you for your guidance, Vice Headmaster.”
Surprised, the boys turned towards the corridor Gadwall had walked off into before only to find it empty. Confused, they looked down the corridor for a moment more before they angrily turned back towards Raven, but she was already gone, the front door standing ajar. “Come back here, brat!” they shouted and rushed outside.
Once they were gone, a small figure emerged from a shadow at the other end of the room.
“Amateurs,” Raven muttered.
So the days passed; during the day she would attend her classes and spend the noon break imprinting skills in the Divine Library – to her great amusement, the staff had put up a big sign after her first few visits, ordering students to put back the scrolls where they belonged after reading them. To everyone’s joy, the Battle Strategy class had moved on from their brief history lessons to actual battle strategy, and had started teaching the first years how to efficiently attack and defend in a group. Needless to say, Raven shone brightly here as well. However, since she was supposedly raised by mercenaries, people weren’t to surprised.
Outside of her classes, Raven used her exquisite senses to constantly avoid the snobbish troop of nobles, whom grew increasingly annoyed at how seemingly impossible it was to get Raven, or Javelin, on their own, without either the twins or an elder present to thwart their plans. It was almost uncanny how they might think they had succeeded, only to have an Elder walk around the corner a second later. As for her new friends, they had quickly grown accustomed to Raven’s sudden prompts to switch locations, and even found some amusement in it.
As for the further rumors that Dunlin and Jack had threatened with, Raven had to admit that she was slightly impressed by the insanity of it all. By now they had graduated from the tales Hog had talked about and moved on to sheer imagination. There were even those who accused Raven for cannibalism – that she ate babies for breakfast.
“Little Baby Night, steals babies in the night! But put up a fight, and you’ll give him a fright!” some would chime when Raven walked past them.
However, despite the pair’s best efforts, the rumors had failed to take a strong hold in the groups Raven actually came in close contact with. This was partially due to Javelin and the twins helping out, but mostly it was because Raven’s prowess in both group fighting and Spirit Control continued to impress her fellow classmates. Additionally, while Raven definitely acted cold and distant, she was never mean, and would even give helpful pointers every once in a while, causing those same classmates to start liking her. Eventually, even the Sarus siblings and Robin’s crew refrained from taking part in further spreading of nasty gossip concerning Raven.
While Raven waited for Hoatzin to return with information about the Empress’ supposed treason, she spent whatever extra time she had sneaking around the Headmaster’s office to see if she could find anything odd that might explain how her background came out. Unfortunately, short from attempting to break in, Raven had run into a dead end. None of the people whom had been present seemed inclined to spread the information, and all Elders she had met seemed to have heard the rumors from the students first.
On the eighth day since she entered Sky Academy, Raven had yet to gain any more insights in source of the rumor. However, she had learnt that there were, in total, four elders whose names started with a W, and three of them were not from Sky Empire. She was currently sitting in her dorm room, looming over a piece of paper with background information on these three when she looked up towards the window with a smile on her face.
She stood up and walked over to the window. Opening it, she extended her pale hand outside. Seconds later a small bird landed on it.