Javelin kept his eyes firmly fixed on Singer’s black figure.
‘Turn,’ he found himself thinking, as his stare became increasingly intense. ‘Turn and look at me. . . .’
As if Singer had heard him, her head snapped around and locked onto Javelin. For a brief moment, an intense feeling of danger washed over him, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. Singer indifferently turned away and once again began talking to the first-row assassin standing in front of her.
“Are you coming, Javelin?” called the twins from half-way up the stands.
Javelin sighed and finally turned to leave. Oddly enough, he had felt less bothered by Singer’s bloodthirsty stare, than by her subsequent disregard.
With Martin’s arm around his shoulders, Javelin and the twins left the Combat Abyss arena.
The journey back to Sky Academy was a silent one; despite the twin’s attempts to keep up some form of conversation, no subject lasted more than a few sentences. Javelin didn’t feel like sharing what he had experienced at the Abyss with his friends – too little of it made any sense – and he had little space for other thoughts.
Why did Singer make him think of Raven Nightingale? And, as she couldn’t possibly be Raven Nightingale, why did the woman feel so familiar? In his brief life, Javelin had only met a handful of female martial spiritualists and even fewer fit Singer’s cultivation level and build.
Once back in his dorm room, Javelin was still so confounded by what he had experienced that he barely registered the fact that his roommate had yet to return. With a loud *thump*, Javelin collapsed face down on his bed. In his mind, hundreds of questions floated around in circles, but no reasonable answers were found. Eventually, Javelin fell asleep.
It was winter. It had to be, cause the snow almost reached my knees and the sun’s light was too weak to give any real warmth. The sound of crunching snow caught my attention and I looked up. A woman with a wild beauty was walking towards me, wearing way too little clothes for the winter day – she always wore too little. . . .
Usually she would be so cold towards me – colder than the snow now surrounding me – but at that moment she was smiling. I liked her smile; it made the thin scar running down her cheek seem less vicious.
But the smile didn’t last long. The sky darkened above her and she suddenly looked sad, so very sad. I tried to embrace her, but she effortlessly slipped out of my reach. Did she always have to be so elusive? Before I know it, she’s turned her back to me and left.
In my heart I just knew that . . . that was it; it was over before it ever really began.
In his bed, Javelin groaned and for a brief moment his eyes flickered open. He knew he’d been dreaming, but before he could try to remember what he dreamed about, his consciousness faded and he fell asleep yet again. This time, he slumbered too deeply to dream anything at all.
Meanwhile, as Javelin and the twins had returned to the Academy and their waiting beds, Raven had instead accompanied the ninth ranked assassin, the oddly charming Limpkin, to the renowned Assassin Guild.
She had approached him after her first bout at the Abyss, asking about where she might find employment for their . . . peculiar line of work, and he had merrily agreed to bring her to his guild. “If you prove yourself worthy,” he had added jokingly, as if being placed 45th in the assassin’s ranking wasn’t enough.
However, Raven didn’t mind fighting a bit more – it was after all a splendid opportunity for her to train with her entire cultivation unlocked. As it turned out, she had been quite pleasantly surprised by her own stamina. Although Raven’s spirit core was smaller and a bit weaker than her opponents’, her 373 spirit connections more than made up for it, tenacity wise. It was like a river supplying a small basin; as long as you don’t empty it all in one go, there would always plenty of water available.
Needless to say, the bouts had been easily won. Thanks to the information gathered during the imperial banquet, Raven even took the initiative to rid the world of a few Talon supporters in the process.
She had been startled by Javelin’s intense stare at the end though. At first, his presence had been drowned in the sea of people present, and it wasn’t until the others started leaving that Raven had sensed that someone was still observing her intently. When she turned to face her observer, Raven had for a split second worried that Javelin might recognize her, but why would he? Even if he found something about her familiar, the difference in cultivation level should be more than enough to push him off track with his deductions.
Raven figured that her best course of action would be to ignore Javelin and his friends completely – anything else would only cause more suspicion. Pushing her worries aside, Raven had instead asked Limpkin to take her to the Assassin Guild, something he readily agreed to.
Now, as she stood outside the Assassin Guild Hall, Raven was rendered speechless; the building was way too extravagant! The entire thing was carved out of a smooth, deep blue stone that was by no means local to the region, and every little nook and cranny was decorated with intricate golden reliefs. No one could pass the building without stopping to gawk at its over-the-top grandeur for a moment.
“It’s a tad old-fashioned, if you ask me,” Limpkin joked with a wink when he noticed Raven’s pause.
“Ever heard of discretion?” muttered Raven in response.
“Why would we ever bother with something so boring?” Limpkin winked yet again before entering the building without further ado.
‘Something is seriously wrong with the assassins in this world. . . ,’ thought Raven to herself as she followed the man in through the grand doors of the building.
The inside of the guild hall was just as grand as the outside, with crystal chandeliers hanging from the gold-decorated ceiling and a faint whiff of acacia flowers lingering in the air. Several pearly-white counters were placed around the hall, each manned by gorgeous silver-haired women, who looked very similar to the Abyss Angels, only not in armour. Most clients wore masks to cover their faces – some used simple cloth fabrics, others donned creations fitting for a masquerade ball – and diffuse membranes enveloped every seller-client pair, efficiently sealing the sound of what was being said within.
“You have got to be kidding me. . . ,” breathed Raven; she was completely flabbergasted. The few attendants who weren’t currently preoccupied with any customers, looked up and smiled sweetly at Limpkin and Raven as the duo entered the hall.
Limpkin looked at her with an amused smile. “You really aren’t from around here. Listen, assassination is a business, like any other, and our clients are wealthy people; we have to make sure they feel comfortable.” He walked off towards a side door. “Follow me,” he said, and Raven did.
The next room was significantly more ordinary and basically only contained a single counter, a couple of additional doors and a large board with long lists of names on it.
“This is where we guild members come to pick our targets.” Limpkin stopped in front of the board. “Here you can find every available target, their rewards and difficulty level. There are six levels, A-F, ranging from hardest to easiest. The Combat Abyss ranking of 31st, that you achieved tonight, gives you clearance for levels C and below, but once you reach the top 25 you will be able to take on level B targets as well.”
Raven looked over the list of names on the board and noted there were a lot more names present than she had expected. ‘A lot of people have been offended by spiritualists, it would seem. . . .’ Many of them also had additional requests like “make sure he’s found naked.”
Suddenly a familiar name caught her attention. “Someone has put in a hit on the Headmaster of Sky Academy?” she asked.
“Hmm?” Limpkin looked up in a daze. He had been trying to inspect Raven’s cloak-hidden body – in the hope to gain more insights to this mystery assassin, no doubt – but now sheepishly followed her gaze to the board. “Ah, yes. There are a few anti-spiritualist groups out there who would like to see the spiritualist’s place of learning ruined. The request has been up there for ages though; none of the assassins are willing to accept it,” he explained.
“Really?” Raven didn’t sound convinced. “The reward is astronomical. . . .”
“True, but we’re all spiritualists here; killing off the man who raises the next generation doesn’t feel right.” Raven tilted her head and looked at Limpkin, who then quickly added, “besides, see that star where the level should be? That means that he’s an S-level target. You have to be at least a high Champion before the guild would even consider giving you the job.”
Raven nodded to show that she understood. “Is there any more information on the targets besides their names?” she asked. “I prefer not going in blind.”
“Of course there is information,” laughed Limpkin. “The Assassin Guild has the most extensive records in the country, covering nearly every spiritualist in Sky Empire!” Limpkin sounded very proud as he spoke. “Naturally, this type of information cannot be given willy-nilly to anyone who asks. The rules are that you are only allowed access to information on targets at your own level or below. The records are kept through there,” he said and pointed at one of the other doors in the room.
Limpkin then returned his attention to Raven, giving her a slightly lopsided grin. “Are you gonna pick a target right now, or do you want to join me for a pre-dawn drink?”
Raven smiled, despite herself; had it been in her old life, she wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to take Limpkin up on his offer. As it was, however, Raven shook her cloth-covered face.
“Another time, Limpkin – I have business to attend to.”
“Very well,” he sighed melodramatically, “another time.” Without waiting for any response, Limpkin turned and ambled out of the room. “I’ll see you around,” he called over his shoulder as the door closed behind him.
‘I bet he’ll be waiting for me outside, in his invisible mode,’ thought Raven, without being too worried about it.
She glanced over the name lists once more before she picked three seemingly random C-level targets. None of names belonged to Talons, in fact, they weren’t even members of the so called servant clans. Something that the three of them had in common, however, was their reputation of being exceedingly generous in their interactions with the Talon Clan.
Based on the nobles’ gossip that she had overheard not even a week earlier, Raven had come to the conclusion that these three individuals had most likely been bribed – or otherwise convinced – to treat the Talon Clan very favorably when doing business with them. These three made sure that what ever goods the Talons were exporting would pass through customs quicker, and sell at higher prices, than their competitors. Getting rid of these three wouldn’t be a huge blow for the Talon Clan, but it would be an annoyance, which would have to do for now.
After registering her choice of targets with the girl at the counter, and receiving a token stating her clearance level, Raven headed into the records room. The records room was actually quite similar to the first floor of Sky Academy’s Divine Library, only this one was a bit more well populated. Robed figures stood looming over various scrolls, reading up on their intended targets.
‘This will take a while. . . ,’ sighed Raven and headed over to the C-section. She spent the remaining hours before daybreak looking through as many scrolls she could find on the Talon Clan, as well as her three current targets, and was actually quite impressed by the level of detail in the recorded information. Not only were current cultivation levels stated but there were also lists of confirmed Divine Skills, weapons of choice as well as confirmed allies and repetitive habits.
By the time the first rays of dawn had filtered in through the windows located in the ceiling, Raven’s head was reeling with information. If the records were correct, then she had managed to skim through the information on pretty much every C-level spiritualist related to the Talon Clan that the guild had. Of course, there was no information on the more important assets of the clan – they would be in higher levels.
As she read, Raven had noticed a few discrepancies in the records that would indicate that some people were missing, but overall the information seemed solid. Nevertheless, she would have to return for a closer look if she wished to find their hidden assets. That would, however, have to wait until another day. Classes would start soon, and if Raven had guessed right, then she would have a few tails she needed to shake off on her way back to the academy.
Hardly surprising, Raven had guessed right. This time, eight presences – ‘invisible’ Limpkin included – started following her the moment she left the Assassin Guild Hall. But, just like the time before, she easily gave them the slip – mostly thanks to the Divine Skill that Javelin had given her years prior, the Twilight Lullaby.
Most of the day passed without incident. Raven cultivated through yet another war strategy lecture in the morning, spent the midday break in the library, and yet again completed all tasks given to her by Elder Willow during afternoon Spirit Control. The twins didn’t ask why or where Raven had gone the night before. Instead Martin went on and on about the new, rising star of Combat Abyss, Singer.
“You should have been there Raven!” he whispered excitedly for the hundredth time. “She was extraordinary! Lark and I had a hard time just keeping track of her movements, even though she’s only a mid Adept. . .”
Raven rolled her eyes and gave him a cold smile. Martin didn’t take the hint.
“Oh, you should have seen her techniques! She basically only used level three skills or lower but she beat the shit out of everyone anyway. Oh, but she did use . . .”
“Martin Griffin,” shouted Elder Willow out of nowhere. “One more word out of you about this nighttime singer of yours and I will kick you out!”
Martin’s eyes widened. “Oh! That’s great, Elder! She’s our Nighttime Singer . . . um, Night Singer? . . . no! Our Midnight Singer! That’s it!”
*BANG!* Elder Willow produced a gust of spirit essence that slammed open the courtyard gates. “Out!” he bellowed.
Still brimming with pleased joy, Martin left the courtyard. Raven shook her head and looked over at Lark sitting next to her. “Latrine cleaning duty for . . . a week or a month?” she asked jokingly but Lark only shrugged, causing Raven to instantly narrow her eyes. Something still seemed to be wrong with him.
However, mid-lesson was not the time to dig deeper into the issue, and when the class was over, Elder Willow called out to Raven, informing her of a change in her lesson schedule. Frustrated, Raven had no choice but to rush off to the Advanced Class. Apparently, Elder Wrymouth had made an impromptu decision to start today’s lesson earlier – on account of the missing students the day before.
By the time Raven arrived, she barely had the chance to nod hello to Javelin before they were shuffled into their respective training rooms and the grueling training commenced.