As the slim crescent moon rose over Sky City, Raven and Bill were still sitting in the kitchen of the little house located on the outskirts of the ground level. Hoatzin had long since been called back, and was now perched on the rim of a mug filled with the same broth Bill had been drinking.
It was nearing midnight and much had been discussed. For the most part, it had been Raven asking Bill for information about the Talon’s or the city in general. However, Bill had a few questions of his own for Raven, mainly concerning what actually happened on that dreadful day two years ago and how Raven managed to survived it. Raven choose to be mostly honest about it, but skimming over the details of her cultivation and completely leaving out the fact that her brother survived it too – albeit, not in the same form.
Oddly enough, Bill asked nothing about the memories he had received from Raven’s previous life; every once in a while he would grow deadly still, staring of into the distance in a daze, but he never said a word of what he was thinking about, or remembering, at those times. Perhaps he was afraid that talking about it would make him lose his mind again.
“So,” said Raven after Bill had snapped out of yet another trance, “as far as you know, the Talon clan has at least nine mid Champions, and close to a hundred low Champions?”
“Huh? Ah, yes, miss . . . um, ma’am.”
“But how is that even possible!? The Nightingale Clan only had one mid Champion – my father – and as far as I know, there was no one even close to breaking through in either the Nightingale or Talon Clan!”
“I don’t know how it happened, ma’am. I just know there are nine clan elders, who all follow your aunt’s commands very closely, and all of them are mid Champions.”
Raven couldn’t quite wrap her head around this part. It might not sound like a big step between a low Champion and a mid Champion, but the difference was enormous. The average spiritualist would need about 25 years of training to increase their cultivation to the bottleneck between the Adept and Champion realms. If they managed to make the breakthrough, an additional eleven years would likely be needed before they could even consider themselves being close to mid Champions. Additionally, if you were above thirty five and had yet to reach the mid Champion level, you were unlikely to ever make it there.
“There are rumors, though,” added Bill, “that they found some sort of treasure, that has helped them increase their cultivation. There are quite a few people in the clan who have been improving faster than normal, so it makes sense.”
Raven couldn’t help but think of Dunlin’s odd spirit essence. Was it linked somehow?
“Sister, how come the Imperial family hasn’t reacted to this?” asked Hoatzin.” If the Talons keep growing stronger like this, then their position as ruling clan would be in jeopardy.”
“Oh, they might have reacted to it, there’s just nothing they can do about it,” sighed Raven. “You know as well as I do how strong the traditions are in our empire; the strongest clan rules, and that’s that. If one of the prefecture clans, or even the imperial family itself, tries to move to restrict the development of the others, retaliation would be swift and absolute.”
Bill, who had heard nothing of the sibling’s conversation, took the silence as a cue to continue speaking, and said, “then again, there are also rumors that there are more experts hidden within the clan, who might be even stronger!”
Hoatzin’s little bird body shook violently as he choked on the broth he’d just sipped up in his beak.
“Is it true?” asked Raven with a concerned frown.
“It’s a rumor, ma’am; the whole point is that you don’t actually know,” Bill smiled meekly, “but, there have been a lot more letters being sent by instant transfer since the Talons took over. I know that for sure cause I’m . . . I was, in charge of keeping the equipment ready to use at any time.”
Raven’s eyes lit up. “Do you know who they sent it to?”
“Sorry, ma’am. All I know is that most of the letters weren’t sent very far away, judging by the materials spent.”
“Do you know any way for me to intercept those letters?”
Bill was silent for a moment and Raven almost feared he was about to sink into another trance before Bill spoke again. “If ma’am wants to see the letters, there’s nothing that can be done, ‘cept sneaking in, either at the mansion or wherever the letters get sent to.” Raven’s face fell, it was as she had anticipated. “However,” continued Bill, “if you want to find out about the hidden experts then the Assassin Guild might be able to help you with the information. . . .”
Bill gave Raven a quick glance before looking away, while her brother looked at Raven’s now grinning face quizzically. “Why would the assassins know that?” he asked.
“One of the most important things for an assassin is to know their target, especially if you’re in the business of hunting spiritualist. If nothing else, how would they otherwise be able to set appropriate fees?” Raven spoke out loud, as if confirming her suspicions with Bill. “They must have quite an extensive spy network.”
Both Bill and Hoatzin nodded, although for different reasons. “Right,” said Bill, “I don’t remember much about yesterday, but I’m sure that ma’am could . . .” Bill’s sentence trailed off before he could reach the end; his body stilled and his gaze grew distant.
Raven’s eyes had traces of pity in them as she looked at the momentarily apathetic man in front of her and sighed. When he was like this, Bill’s presence dimmed considerably, as if covered by a dull grey membrane.
“Will he be okay?” asked Hoatzin.
Raven shook her head. “I don’t know. . . . But I’m afraid that unless he can come to terms with this, Bill won’t be making any more advancements in his cultivation. . . .”
Raven got up from her chair and walked over to the kitchen window. Outside the sliver of the moon had almost reached its peak – midnight was nigh.
“Brother, I will be heading out.” Raven sent the message to her brother without looking away from the window.
“You’re going to the Abyss, right?” Raven nodded. “Let me come too; I don’t like the idea of you going there alone.”
“You can’t,” Raven turned around and gave her brother an apologetic look. “What if someone recognizes you later?”
“No one has to see me with you. I could follow someone else in.”
Raven’s face turned stern. “I said no, Hoatzin.” She pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled down a message for Bill – for whenever he resurfaced – and swiftly left the house.
Inside, Hoatzin flew over to the window sill next to the door and saw Raven’s dark figure disappear into the shadows. Even though his face was that of a bird’s, his eyes were filled with deep sorrow.
‘I’m no fool, dear sister,’ he thought as pain filled his heart. ‘Whatever memories you have left of your past life, they are enough to drive a grown man insane. . . . Oh, what horrors have you been forced to live through?’
Without being able to control it, spirit essence flowed within him, condensing at the corner of his eyes, where it gave birth to two sparkling tears. The two crystal tears drifted downwards like snowflakes, disappearing the moment they came in contact with the wooden surface beneath Hoatzin’s small claws.
Moving expertly from shadow to shadow, Raven quickly made her way through the Business Tier towards the eastern mountain peak and Combat Abyss. She had taken a hawk from the ground level to the western side of the Business Tier and then zig-zagged down various alleyways to make sure no one could tell where she had come from as she approached her destination.
She arrived perhaps an hour late, so most people had already made their way inside, but Raven clearly felt how a handful of people were quietly observing her from various positions that they’d considered hidden. Raven had to force herself not to stare at one man in particular, who practically stood in the middle of the road, seemingly waiting for her; although her eyes couldn’t see him, his deep red presence was like a beacon in a dark night for the rest of her senses. Whatever he did to stay invisible did nothing to hide his presence.
Ignoring her observers, Raven headed straight for the Abyss’s cave entrance, only briefly glancing up at the two huge stone statues she passed on the way. As she moved further in, the symphony of smells, sounds and leaking spirit essence, that was unavoidable when dealing with very large groups of people, pricked at her senses, to the point where it was almost painful.
‘I didn’t like being in large crowds before, and I like it even less now!’ Hadn’t most of Raven’s face been carefully hidden beneath layers of wrapped cloth, people would have assumed she’d just swallowed a lemon.
However, very few noticed her arriving at all, and the reason was that on the fighting stage a brutal battle was going on. It wasn’t a slaying, because the metal cage still hung from the ceiling, but the two men were evenly matched and seemed to hold a deep grudge against one another.
Doing her best to filter out all unnecessary noises and presences, Raven made her way over to the area restricted for the top assassin participants. She needed to find a way into the guild, and this was the fastest way she could think of.
‘Word seems to travel fast here too,’ she noted amused when nearly sixty sets of eyes turned towards her as she slid into her seat at the fifth bench from the front. There were a lot more ranked people here today – yesterday there had been barely thirty – and they all started whispering about yesterday’s events when they saw her.
“So you dared come back.”
Raven turned around on her bench to see the man she yesterday had identified as Limpkin come walking down the stands. She smiled an almost hungry smile, which she knew he couldn’t see through her fabrics – her senses had not been mistaken, he had been the invisible man standing in the middle of the road outside.
“I like a woman with balls,” he said mischievously.
“A personal reception from Limpkin, the famous wonder Adept. I’m honored,” said Raven with a overly graceful nod. “Do you meet with all new assassins the same way?”
Limpkin’s eyes flashed for a moment before a pleasantly surprised smile crept across his face. “Only the interesting ones, my dear. Only the interesting ones,” he answered with a wink before he continued down the steps.
‘Interesting indeed,’ thought Raven, still smiling, as she watched him depart. She hadn’t forgotten his battles from yesterday, and would very much want to fight him tonight, if the opportunity came.
A snort next to her drew Raven’s attention away from Limpkin. The sound came from her bench neighbor, who was a surprisingly regular looking guy with an appearance that made his age hard to guess. For an assassin, his looks were close to ideal.
“Typical,” he muttered. “Of course the girl has to start flirting the moment she gets here.”
Raven raised a bemused eyebrow. ‘Flirting? Oh, poor thing. . . .’ In Raven’s book, that had barely counted as a greeting – she could flirt her way into a puritans bedroom if she wanted to. Shaking her head, Raven had intended to focus on the ongoing fight instead, but the average man rolled his eyes and spoke again.
“I can’t believe I have to sit next to the girl. . .” He grunted and nudged his other neighbor. “What if her girly strength rubs off on me?” He laughed mockingly, and was too absorbed in himself to notice the temperature dropping slightly around him. “I mean, Fiscal was a dick. I bet she only won because he was to busy getting turned on by the thought of fighting a girl.” He started laughing again, but this time he noticed that none around him was laughing with him. In fact, the man sitting next to him rather seemed to look at him with pity. The average man frowned. “What?”
No one replied.
At that moment, the gong indicating at a winner had been decided rang out and the match in the center on the arena came to an end. The entire crowd started cheering as the victor howled to the skies. Well, almost the entire crowd cheered. The area around Raven was oddly still.
Through all the noise, a extremely girly voice rang out behind the average looking man’s ear. “Um, excuse me mister,” said Raven as she used a finger to poke him insistingly on the shoulder. Surprised by the sudden contact, the man twitched and tried to move out of the fingers way but to no avail. At first the man had only seen Raven’s pitch black hood and robe but now, finally, his eyes met hers. He shivered as his face lost all its color. “Would you please tell me how I make a challenge?”
“Wha! Did you see that finishing move?” exclaimed Martin with more enthusiasm than he felt.
This over dramatic amazement made Javelin chuckle slightly, although it quickly turned a bit bitter. The evening had not gone as he had hoped. Not only had they not been able to find Raven on their way to the Combat Abyss but they had run into Dunlin and his crew instead. Nothing truly worth mentioning had happened but the encounter left him and the two twins with a sour aftertaste.
To make matters worse, the first hour of bouts in the Abyss had been particularly boring. It was as if every spiritualist who actually knew anything about fighting only sat and watched as pure amateurs had it out in the center. They might as well have been poking each other with sticks as far as Javelin was concerned; there was no finess, only brute force and bloody noses.
“I’m getting tired,” sighed Lark, as the yet another bout ended, “isn’t it about time we leave?”
Javelin couldn’t agree more.
“Fine,” said Martin dejectedly. “I tried at least.”
“That you did!” Lark patted his brother on the shoulder and the two of them stood up to leave. As Javelin did the same commotion spread through the arena. An impromptu challenge had been made and would take place before the next bout. None of the three boys reacted to this, since it was nothing out of the ordinary here, but just as Javelin took his first steps up the exclusive stands where he and his friends had seats he nonchalantly looked over his shoulder to glance at the stage.
There, making her way out on the battle stage, was the very vision of a fairy, clothed in a dress of shimmering blues and copper. Her dark purple hair floated behind her as if suspended in water, her hands were pale as white jade and her face was covered by a sheer veil. The soft chiming of bells filled the air with every step she took as she moved with all the grace of heaven and earth.
Javelin’s heart stopped beating. He gasped, but no air entered his lungs as he stared at the woman in frozen shock.
“Raven Nightingale,” he breathed so silently that not even he himself heard it.