Chapter 44: The Soul Stirs

Leaving the deeply sleeping Bill to be watched over by her brother, a thoroughly exhausted Raven presented herself for the Battle Strategy morning class. It wasn’t so much the lack of sleep, but rather the utter depletion of her spirit essence that had brought her to this dreary state – though she hid it well. Despite her condition, she walked in as if nothing had happened the night before. She would need some quiet meditation to get her vigor back, and had it not been for the severe punishments carried out against students who skipped class, Raven would instead have headed straight for her dorm room.

Completely ignoring the stares of her classmates, Raven walked to the very back of the room and sank down behind one of the vacant desks. She looked around the classroom with a bored expression before closing her eyes indifferently. This was the first time since entering Sky Academy that a lesson was held in a furnished room – raising much curiosity among the other students – but Raven couldn’t care less at the moment.

As it was, the grumpy Elder Stork, who had held the first history lessons and shown Raven to the Divine Library, walked in moments later and started his lecture. Apparently today’s subject was a first introduction to military strategy and warfare – the students were expected to pay extreme attention and take notes. Raven did neither.

“Junior Student Night,” Elder Stork suddenly barked, “since you are not taking any notes I assume you are already an expert on the subject of strategic warfare!”

Raven opened her eyes and stared at the man. She was not in the mood for this.

“As such, I’m sure you can enlighten the class and tell us if there is anything more crucial to the outcome of a war than the armies’ size?” The elder had a small snicker on his face; he was annoyed by Raven’s rocket launch entry into the Academy and had been looking for a way to push this student down a notch. Considering Raven’s . . . meager background, military strategics shouldn’t be a strong point.

Raven closed her eyes again, but just as Elder Stork was about to yell at her for insubordination, she opened her mouth instead.

“Whilst it is true that most armies tend to focus strongly on increasing their numbers, due to the over-all power this provides, it is equally true that no war is won by numbers alone. It cannot be denied that, under the right circumstances, an army of 500 could defeat one of 5 000. Therefore, the most important aspect of any warfare strategy is your ability to know, and understand, your enemies and their current situation.”

She opened her blood-red eyes and drilled them into the Elder’s at the last word, causing him to swallow nervously before laughing off Raven’s insights as “having done her homework in advance”. Raven closed her eyes again and the lesson continued as if the exchange never happened.

The elder didn’t bother her again.

By noon, Raven was once more on the first floor of the Divine Library, sifting through various scrolls. She still felt a bit tired, but it was no longer at the point where she felt an immanent collapse skulking around the corner. Just as Raven unrolled yet another scroll to scan its content, she lifted her head and frowned slightly. At that moment, Dunlin’s familiar presence had passed through the library doors, accompanied by Jack Tanuki and the presence which Raven had come to know belonged to the prefecture heir Auk Wren.

Shifting her body slightly, Raven moved out of their line of sight but it would seem someone had told them where she was because they ignored the stairway that lead to the upper levels and instead headed straight towards the back of the first floor. For a moment Raven considered escaping by climbing over the shelves – if she timed it right, she would be able to leave without them ever even laying eyes on her.

‘I don’t know what’s the bigger hassle here, avoiding them or talking to them. . . .’ she thought but, in the end, decided to stay.

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the slave boy! Digging through the garbage, are we?” snickered Jack.

“Me?” asked Raven with eyes of pure innocence. “I thought that was more of a tanuki-thing, young master Racoon.”

The irony in his remark had been too obvious for Raven not to take advantage of, but she almost regretted it even before all the words were out of her mouth. Auk Wren couldn’t resist letting out a muffled laugh, while Jack’s face turned black with anger in an instant. Dunlin glared harshly at Auk before stepping in between Raven and the now seething Jack Tanuki.

“What point is there having a quick tongue if you can’t back it up?” snorted her cousin.

‘Better a snake of mine, than a troll of yours,’ thought Raven, but this time she kept the remark to herself.

“I dare you to be witty again and I’ll pummel you for it,” continued Dunlin as he took a threatening step forward. “Your little twin-friends aren’t here to save you this time, slave boy,” he hissed.

“Are you sure about that?”

Two nearly identical voices suddenly spoke up behind the Dunlin trio; Javelin and the Griffin twins had arrived and from what Raven could tell, they had been running to get here. Especially Javelin had a faint string of moist drops on his forehead.

Dunlin swore under his breath, but backed away a few steps from Raven. “Soldier boy to the rescue once again,” he muttered disdainfully without looking away from her. “Perhaps we should start calling you slave girl instead! It seems more fitting as you’re doing such a good job at being a damsel in distress.”

Raven showed no reaction to Dunlin’s comment but Javelin shuddered slightly, as if he had suddenly realized something. Now it was his turn to have his face change color – but to pink rather then black. Just as Javelin was about to reject the statement, Martin started laughing.

“Haha, Night, that’s not such a bad thing to be called by a Talon. I heard one of the Talon clansmen got utterly massacred by a mere girl at Combat Abyss yesterday. She was practically a midget too. Apparently, calling their opponent a girl is something a Talon does before defeat.” Martin winked at Raven who answered with a rare smile.

Dunlin’s eyes narrowed in vicious anger for a split second before he tried to hide it by shrugging nonchalantly.”The man was basically only a guard, besides, he wasn’t even a real Talon. A spiritualists early years are the most important and he started as a Nightingale. . . .”

Raven’s fists turned white as she pressed down on the scroll she was still holding and her mouth filled with the metal tang of blood. ‘Patience . . . ,’ she repeated like a mantra in her mind, as she once again found herself forced to push back the impulse to end her cousin’s hateful life.

But Raven wasn’t the only one infuriated by Dunlin’s comments. Without a warning, Javelin suddenly took a swing at Dunlin with full force. As his arm moved toward its target the distinct sound of gashing water filled the first floor accompanied by a light sea breeze in the air. The attack was truly profound and held great potential to do serious damage, but unfortunately, it would seem like Dunlin had expected this all along. He took a step to the side while Jack made a low kick towards Javelin’s feet with lightning speed.

Javelin was a fairly skilled fighter for his age and under normal circumstances he would have no problem with both hitting Dunlin and parrying Jack’s advances. As it was, Javelin had let himself get blinded by his emotions so his reactions were a bit slow. In the last minute he narrowly dodged the approaching leg, but lost his balance instead, causing him to slam into Raven who had been standing on the opposite side of Dunlin. Since Raven had sealed her strength with her Limiters – and was concentrating most of her efforts on not starting a killing spree – the sudden impact was enough for Raven to lose her balance and tumble backwards together with Javelin.

The two of them hit the stone floor with a loud bang and the scroll Raven had been holding hit the floor next to them, rolling away. Impressively enough, Javelin had managed to get his arm around Raven, efficiently protecting her head from hitting the ground. His other arm suspended him only inched above Raven’s face.

Their eyes met and in that moment something extraordinary happened. Their rage evaporated like dew in the morning sun, and the world around them seemed to fade away. For Raven, there was only the boundless depths of Javelin’s wondrous eyes. She felt them enveloping her in a galaxy meant solely for her, as if she had finally found her place. Her soul quivered and all the pain and horrors in her two lifetimes suddenly seemed so far away, so . . . insignificant.

For Javelin, the cold, red light of Raven’s eyes mesmerized him. He wouldn’t look away, he couldn’t, not for anything. The more he stared, the more he wondered how he ever could have considered these red eyes as cold. They were not cold, they were like infernos; burning with more passion than he had ever experienced. Suddenly the red in them flashed, and for a split second he could have sworn that Raven’s eyes shifted color to a luscious green – a green so familiar and full of life that he couldn’t help but shiver.

Instinctively, Javelin lowered himself closer to Raven, who made no attempts of stopping him. It wasn’t until their noses touched that the sudden jolt of the sensation snapped them back into the real world. Red as a lobster, Javelin jumped up from the floor and took a few steps back, scratching the back of his head nervously. Raven remained still on the floor for a few more seconds while she collected herself. Surprisingly enough, her heartbeat was calm and steady – she felt more at peace with herself than she had in ages.

However, not so surprisingly, it didn’t take long before the silence in the room was broken by three people’s hysterical laughter; “haha, who would have guessed? The admiral son is a pansy! The army will tear him apart!” Jake served the first stab, quickly followed by Dunlin; “perhaps the slave boy actually wants to be a slave girl, how pathetic!” Auk said nothing but laughed wholeheartedly with the other two.

Two people who weren’t laughing was Martin and Lark. “Hey!” shouted Martin with a glance towards his brother, “People can love whomever they want!” He then looked at Javelin’s now paling face and quickly added, “not that Javelin is in love with Ra . . . I mean, with Night! They were just . . . surprised, that’s all!”

“Yeah, yeah,” dismissed Dunlin, “say whatever you want to justify being friends with a pair of poofters.” As if the four youths were no longer of any concern to them, Dunlin and his gang turned around and started walking away, still laughing uncontrollably.

“No wonder the little slave stays on the first floor, I bet he checks out the boys as they climb the stairs to the next floor, drooling all over the place,” suggested Jack mockingly.

“Naw, I just don’t think his poofter brain is good enough to be able to learn the more complicated Divine Skills,” countered Dunlin as Auk continued laughing, “I bet he’ll spend his entire ten years here on the same four skills.”

“If he stays that long,” ended Jack and all three laughed even harder.

Behind them Raven looked at her dispirited friends and sighed. Javelin looked like he’d seen a ghost, Martin had a worried frown on his face as he looked from Raven and Javelin to his brother, who in turn almost seemed frail all of a sudden. ‘This won’t do,’ she thought and decided to call out to the departing trio.

“Oy,” she called as she pulled out one of the few scrolls that shined with a truly dark blue luster in Raven’s eyes. She tossed the scroll towards Dunlin even before the latter had turned around. Nonetheless, he caught it with ease.

“What do you want with this?” he asked distastefully.

“It is a challenge,” replied Raven calmly. “I assume you have at least a spare slot left, in case a truly amazing skill would come your way. This is a simple level three skill, surely you can master it in a jiffy. . . . ”

“Of course I can,” Dunlin spat before Raven had a chance to finish, “so what?”

“You may pick any skill on this floor for me to learn, and then we’ll see who masters their skill first,” continued Raven, unfazed by his interruption. “What do you say? Are you man enough for the challenge?”

Dunlin snorted, “this is rediculous! Why would I bother with such a silly thing?”

“If you don’t dare, just say so.”

“Who said I don’t dare!” Dunlin practically shouted back. “Fine! Then you learn this one!” He stormed over to the closest shelf with level three skills on it and pulled one at random.

Raven tilted her head to the side, “sorry, I’ve already learnt that one.”

Dunlin clicked his tung angrily and pulled out another scroll, “this one then!”

“Nope, I know that one too.”

Dunlin narrowed his eyes but pulled out a third scroll, however, Raven just shook her head at it.

“Bullshit!” bellowed Dunlin, “You’ve only been here for a week, how could you possibly have mastered three Skills already?”

“I already knew them when I arrived,” lied Raven with a meek shoulder shrug.

“Are you trying too fool me, slave? Where would you get your hands on three level three Divine Skills?”

“I was raised by mercenaries,” answered Raven patiently, as if it explained everything. “I can demonstrate them for you if you want. . . .”

Dunlin was about to call her bluff when a small murmur broke out in the room. All the commotion had drawn quite the crowd by now and they were eagerly commenting on the unfolding events. Not wishing to make a fool out of himself if, by chance, Raven was actually telling the truth, Dunlin chose to grit his teeth and instead asked sarcastically, “well, where can I find skills you haven’t learnt then, little genius?”

Raven pointed to one of the shelves she hadn’t looked through yet. With a grunt, Dunlin walked over and pulled a forth skill that he tossed to Raven without waiting for an okay. In Raven’s eyes the scroll she caught shined with a bright green hue. She unrolled it and almost smiled when she saw the skill described inside; Dunlin couldn’t have picked a more perfect match for her. It was a thunder based attack whose physical movements were stunningly close to what Raven had learnt during medieval fencing lessons – yes, medieval; she had been in a odd period in her life at the moment.

She pulled out her identification stone and unlocked the scroll, holding up the 2/4 text for everyone to see. Many gasped when they realized that this was only the second skill she had unlocked for imprint so far. Everybody already knew, through gossip, that she had picked the Spacial Dash on the second floor, and then spent the rest of her time sifting through scrolls on the first floor. They had all assumed that she would have imprinted with at least a few of them by now.

To the side, the still pale faced Javelin furrowed his brows slightly in confusion. A few days ago, he had felt the sudden urge to see how Raven was doing and had sneaked up on her while she was reading in the library. While he observed her, he had clearly seen her imprinting with two different skills. He thought it reckless at the time and almost stopped her from wasting her slots on such low level skills. Little did he know, that Raven had noticed his presence and was instead being restrictive with her imprints that day.

Dunlin, on the other hand, smirked as he too unrolled his skill. In his mind, the fact that Raven was only now imprinting with her second skill at the academy ment that she had most likely lied about the other skills and was only hoping to impress the crowds. Without even reading the description, Dunlin unlocked the imprint on his scroll with his own identification stone. Contrary to Raven’s, Dunlin’s stone warned him that he had now filled all four of his slots.

“Let’s make our imprints at the same time,” said Dunlin still smirking, “and if I haven’t mastered this skill within a month I will declare it your win!” His words echoed through the hall and many of the students drew in surprised gasps. Mastering a Divine Skill in one month would, even for a level two skill, be quite an accomplishment.

“That’s a true Advanced Student for you!” called someone.

“So confident!” exclaimed someone else.

Raven looked at her cousin calmly. “And if I learn my skill before you . . . ,” her question trailed off.

“Ha! Then I’ll stop calling you a slave, slave,” answered Dunlin with a snort, “in fact, I’ll even start calling you Senior Night! How about that?”

A brief flash of mocking triumph crossed Raven’s face before it was replaced by a cold smile.

“Sounds good to me,” she said.

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