Without even so much as a glance towards the two men who were discussing the supposedly unavoidable death of one of her family’s supporters, Raven resumed her departure from the Black Eagle. For her, being inside or outside the tavern didn’t make that much of a difference – she would hear what was said anyway if she stayed close enough.
Once outside, Raven made a quick right turn and walked around the corner of the building, melting into the darkness of the alleyway.
“Are there any other interesting fights I should know about?” The two men inside begrudgingly moved on from their expectations regarding the Nightingale versus Talon set-up. Neither of them were spiritualists and rather seemed to make, or at least attempt to make, a living by instead gambling on spiritualist’s fights.
“Not really; Limpkin is gonna be back, but the odds are too low with him for it to be really interesting.”
The conversation dragged on for a while longer before they wrapped it up. After agreeing to meet an hour before the battles started, the two of them got up from their table and left. Outside of the tavern they parted ways, one heading south, the other north.
Five minutes after they had departed, Raven’s figure emerged from the alleyway and calmly started making her way north. There were roughly 300 meters between her and her target but she didn’t need line of sight to track him and his dull-grey presence. After a while, the man stopped, looked around, to make sure he wasn’t followed, and ducked in between two rather rundown buildings. There was very little maneuver space in that passage, and most people would overlook it completely.
Raven, still 300 meters behind him, smirked. That narrow passage would normally have made following someone tricky for any tracker whom wished to not be seen; no doubt the intention of whoever chose to base their operations at the other end of it. Unfortunately for them, the passage was short so Raven had no problem listening in on their conversations without entering. Instead, she once more stepped to the side and hid in the shadows of a nearby crate.
“Your membership medallion,” said one of the people that greeted Raven’s target in the small hut located at the end of the passage. The voice belonged to a woman, a very voluptuous woman – if her manner of speaking was anything to go by. The man moved to pull something out of his pocket and the already alluring voice grew even more seductive; “Welcome to Combat Abyss’ betting service. How may I be of assistance tonight, sir?”
“I’d like to place ten gold on Fiscal in his slaying, five on the rat in the bout and ten on Limpkin in all his fights.”
“Naturally, sir,” a small pause, and then, “hmm . . . those are all low odds bets, sir. A rugged man like yourself surely wants to earn a bit more?” The woman practically purred as the spoke and leaned forward, most likely to accentuate a well-endowed bosom. “I so admire a man willing to take risks. . . .”
“Ah, well . . . ” the man swallowed and resisted for a moment but clearly the woman knew what she was doing for he quickly yielded; “of course I will – I’m not one who fears living on the edge! I’ll bet forty on the first newcomer who fights!”
“Most impressive, sir,” said the woman in well-faked awe, “that will be seventy five gold, sir.”
Raven couldn’t help but laugh silently. ‘Her employers made a wise choice in hiring this woman, she tipped the bets further in favor of the house with ease.’
After placing his bets, the now rosy-cheeked man came back out from the passageway and Raven continued her quiet stalking of him as the sun slowly disappeared below the mountain range. Eventually, the man made the mistake of walking down a deserted street and, noticing that not a soul was out and about within a 400 meter radius, Raven made her move.
Silent as the night, Raven picked up her pace and caught up to the man in the time it took for his heart to beat but once. Since the man was taller than her by a couple of decimeters, Raven kicked the back of his left knee to force him to the ground – she only used a fraction of her strength as the man was, after all, only a normal human; with her body strength alone she would have no problem snapping his leg in two if she used too much force. As the man sunk towards the ground, Raven used one hand to cover his mouth whilst pinning one of his arms arm behind his back with the other.
She used no Divine Skills but she let her spirit essence flow out around her anyway. The man, who had initially intended to struggle, instantly froze and started to cold sweat; he might not sense the spirit essence, but the killing intent that was merged with it spoke to his most primal instincts.
“Good boy,” whispered Raven in his ear with a sweet voice. It sounded almost as if she was talking to a puppy, and the extreme contrast it made to the heavy blood lust in the air sent shivers down his spine. “I have a few questions I was wondering if you could help me answer. Do you think you can do that?” The man nodded frantically. “And no shouting; I’m not too fond of loud noises, and it would be a shame if I accidentally broke your neck in shock, right?” He nodded even more frantically.
Raven lowered the hand that covered his mouth and lightly pinched down on the windpipe in his neck instead. “What is Combat Abyss?”
The man seemed confounded by her question, but mustered up the strength to answer it nonetheless; “a ba . . . battle arena run by the Mercenary’s and Assassin’s Guilds.”
‘An Assassin’s Guild that people know about?’ Raven was a bit surprised by this. Based on the other conversations and the mannerisms of the man in front of her, he did not hold a high position in neither normal society nor underworld; if he knew the guild existed then it was likely that most people were aware of it.
“They organize fights every night at midnight,” the man continued without needing extra urging, “ev . . . everyone knows this. . . .” There was an underling tone of doubt in his voice, but he squealed like a pig when Raven twisted his trapped hand into an unnatural position and stopped questioning her.
“sch, sch…” she cooed, and slowly lessened the pressure on his wrist. “Go on. Can anyone attend these arranged battles?”
“Anyone who shows up can pay a minor fee to watch or fight – either a bout, or a slaying – but if you want to bet, you have to be a member. I . . . I can give you my membership medallion – it’s in my breast pocket – you can have it, if you want! It’s not linked to me so they won’t know. . . . Ple . . . please don’t ki . . . kill me. . . .” By now the man was sweating even more profusely.
“Tell me about Fiscal and his opponent.”
“Fiscal of the Talon Clan? He is one of the top fifty fighters in the Abyss right now. Tonight he’s fighting a member of his own clan to the death, in a slaying.”
“His own clan?” Raven frowned.
“Bill – that’s the other guy’s name – he used to be a Nightingale but rumor has it that ever since the Talon’s took over, Bill’s been resisting the shift of power. I don’t know why he agreed to a slaying with Fiscal though, Bill’s only a low Adept whereas Fiscal is a high Adept; Fiscal is going to slaughter him.”
Raven was silent for a while as she tried to recall anyone by the name of Bill in the Nightingale Clan, but, as one of the three strongest clans of the empire, it had consisted of nearly a thousand people. Raven hadn’t even met all the Nightingales that had lived in the prefecture capital. She had been fascinated by how seemingly effortless the Talons gained control over the Nightingale Prefecture; perhaps this Bill could give her some insights.
The man in her clutches apparently took Raven’s silence as a sign of disapproval so he quickly added, “But Bill has it coming though. Who would deny his Lord Nightingale’s dying wish and refuse to accept the Talon’s just because Lady Anhinga is a woman?”
Raven grew cold.
“Lord Nightingales’s what?” the sweetness in her voice was gone without a trace and swirls of blood-lust infused spirit essence filled the air. At once, all living creatures in the area stilled; birds stopped singing, insects stopped moving and without knowing why or even realizing what they did, people indoors lowered their voices, opting to speak in hushed tones.
The man in her arms started shaking; “I . . . he . . . Lady Anhinga, she found a recording, in the ruins after the fire, where her dying brother begged . . . asked, the Lady to merge the Nightingale Clan with the Talon Clan and take care of the prefecture!” Mid-through the man had started sobbing uncontrollably, “She didn’t want to at first but then she graciously . . . I’m sorry, please don’t. . . .”
Even before he had the chance to finish his plea, the hand around his windpipe gleamed with a dark green light and contracted with unimaginable force. With an oddly undramatic *click*, the trachea and all the internal blood vessels between Raven’s fingers were crushed beyond recognition in an instant.
As the man’s life force was slowly draining away, Raven lifted the weakly struggling man by his neck and turned him around. It was with sheer horror that this dying man’s eyes locked with hers; the red in her eyes had now spread to fill even their whites and the more the man stared, the more he felt like he could see countless souls drowning in that endless sea of blood.
“My father made no such requests, that bitch lies!” As Raven spat out the last words, her spirit essence stirred once more and an invisible beam shot from her all-devouring eyes into the man’s. In the same instant, the struggles stopped; his soul had evaporated like smoke.
Tossing the man to the ground, Raven stood still, panting, for a moment. Her hands opened and closed repeatedly as she slowly collected herself. Eventually she closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Once she opened them again, the red color had retracted back into her iris and her breathing had stabilized.
‘The Crocodile Grapple was more effective then I had imagined.’ Raven had utilized one of her new Divine Skills in action for the first time, and she was quite pleased with it. ‘I’ve improved in the Ode of Woe as well. . . .’
Raven looked down on the lifeless body on the ground and sighed; she hadn’t really intended to kill the guy. Now he lay there – his previously dark hair as white as snow, his malformed jugular slowly turning purple from internal bleeding and his face locked in everlasting terror. She bent down to collect his medallion but suddenly swore, halfway through the action.
‘Damn. I forgot to ask him where the arena is located. . . .’
With the medallion in her possession, Raven ignored the corpse she left behind and started walking away. As she considered her options, Raven got an idea she figured worth trying. Sensing that he was still close enough, Raven focused on the connection between her and Hoatzin; “Big Brother?”
A sort pause and then, “Sister? What’s wrong?”
“Have you heard of a place called Combat Abyss?” she asked back.
“Of course I have! It’s a huge thing among the more fight crazy people in Sky City. We even visited it once during Battle Strategy Class with Academy; not that we were allowed to take part in the fighting, but it was considered a good experience to watch as well. Why do you ask?”
Raven considered telling her brother what she had learnt, but she neither wanted to bring his hopes up for nothing or distract him from his current assignment so instead she said, “I heard some people talking about it and found it interesting. Is it true it’s partly run by an Assassin’s Guild?”
“Haha, why am I not surprised that my dear little sister would find and arena of life or death battles interesting?” Hoatzin laughed. “And yes it is; both the mercenaries and the assassins use the Combat Abyss to help rank their members.”
“Isn’t a public assassins guild a bit . . . contradictory?”
“Not at all. As I understand it, the Assassin Guild is allowed to exist exactly because it’s public. Supposedly, it functions sort of like a balancing chip between spiritualists and non-spiritualists; by only allowing the latter to hire them to ‘take care’ of the former if they feel like they have been mistreated.” As Hoatzin explained, Raven noticed his voice getting a bit strained; it didn’t seem like he approved of the set up. “The sums required are, however, very high and the imperial family is naturally off limits.”
Raven considered this for a while. It was an interesting solution to the problem of spiritualists acting too arrogantly towards the common folk; if a spiritualist was too unreasonable, they risked getting assassinated for it, even without it being by orders of the Emperor. Of course, considering how valuable and relatively scarce spiritualist were, the fees ought to by so outrageous that several people, if not hundreds, would have to work together to pay for it.
“Am I right to assume that I will be on observation duty alone tonight?” asked Hoatzin even though he knew the answer.
A few hours later, the setting sun had been replaced by a bright half-moon high in the sky and thousands of stars decorated the heavens like rivers of diamonds. Under such brilliance, Sky City did its best to mirror the view above by lighting a multitude of street lanterns along the roads on every Tier.
Despite the late hour, the Business Tier was still bustling with activity, especially around the eastern peak, where a huge sign of flaming letters spelled out Combat Abyss above a man-made cave entrance which faced out over the city’s ground level below.
The entrance itself was wide enough for 800 people to walk through it, side by side, and two gigantic sculptures in bronze stood on ether side of it. One was an eagle – whose lifelike gaze stared off towards the horizon, daring the sun to rise – the other was a wolf – which instead bared its fangs as it snarled at the moon above.
Currently, groups of people were making their way towards this cave, stopping here and there to buy food, beverages and other trinkets along they way. There where people of all ages here, even a few children, and every single one had faces filled with excitement. For many of them, watching these fights at the Combat Abyss was as close as they would ever get to a spiritualist battle.
Suddenly, a large gong rang out from within and the crowd looked towards the cave entrance. Walking out of the cave, dressed in armor so revealing that it hardly could help protect their owners, came eight overwhelmingly beautiful women with silver hair. In one hand they held a spear, in the other a shield.
“Greetings,” they spoke in uncanny unison, with voices smoother than honey, “midnight is upon us and the Abyss welcomes you all.”
With loud cheers, the crowd flowed into the cavern. Surprisingly enough, although many people stopped and stared, no one walked within five meters of either one of the armor clad ladies.
One of those who paused for a moment to observe the eight women was a short figure wrapped in a black cloak. The well shrouded person snorted softly, muttering “brittle glass dolls. . . .” before continuing deeper into the cave.
The expression on the man who had been standing next to this figure darkened. Enraged, he was just about to call out a reprimand for insulting the Combat Abyss’s own angels, when the figure stopped and turned towards him. The lower half of the figure’s face was hidden behind by black fabric and the upper was shielded by the hood of the cloak, but the man could still sense two eyes locking unto him, daring him to speak. He shivered and said nothing.
After what felt like an aeon, the figure averted its gaze and moved on, disappearing into the crowd. Sighing a breath of relief, the man thought to himself, ‘that was close; I almost offended a contestant!’ He then frowned. ‘Odd, I don’t remember any fighters that short. . . .’